These past two weeks, Eduardo and I have visited some parts of Guatemala. We met in the capital, Guatemala City, and headed out the next day to Antigua, a beautiful colonial city with cobble stone streets and well kept buildings. There are some old churches that have been destroyed by earthquakes; they are not restored, but fortified so they do not deteriorate further and are lovely as ruins. Many foreign and local tourists come to Antigua. It is a favourite getaway for folks from the capital, just a curvy downhill ride of about one hour.
While here, we enjoyed staying in a rather luxurious suite (or master bedroom) in a newer condo built like the old colonial houses. It is large with 2 or 3 other rooms, a huge kitchen, dining room, living room and central patio all located within a gated and guarded precinct. Every day, we walked the streets, visited local sites, museums, stores, cafes, and restaurants. It was a lovely way to start our holidays.”
Then we took a local bus to Panajachel on Lake Atitlan, a rather large lake with 12 towns and villages on its shores. From this rather dreary looking town we took a ferry across to San Pedro. This town caters to tourists. Although we did not see any first class places, there are many economical hotels and hostels. The town is filled with young people, many looking like hippies from the 70’s. Some have set up businesses of their own, offering food, accommodation, massage and all other kinds of alternative remedies, restaurants, and bars.
Over the next few days we visited five of the villages, each with their own charm. Every town has its own traditional dress. The men, in most villages, do not wear traditional clothing, whereas the women do, although most seem to mix and match quite freely, no longer adhering to the colours imposed upon them by the Spanish colonizers in order to know what village each person came from. Maybe a more astute eye can still identify some tell-tale style or colour, but it seemed like a mishmash to me (except in Santa Catarina).
Finally we went back to Panajachel where we stayed with a loving Guatemalan family in a separate little apartment they rent through Airbnb. Cirilo picked us up in his tuktuk (pronounced touque-touque) and drove us across town away from centre into a very modest residential area. The apartment located at the back of his property, was nicely built, furnished, and decorated. Apparently he was able to build this apartment because a little old American woman befriended him and had it built there where she planned to live out the rest of her days. She then returned to the States for health reasons, and he rents it out in order to buy it back from her. Sunday, we hopped on the local chicken bus (That is what they call the local milk-run buses that stop anywhere to pick up or drop off people and their chickens, presumably.) to the famous market in Chichicastenango. The many stalls of brightly coloured woven materials was overwhelming. We wandered until we found a young woman selling delicious, piping hot tamales. We sat at their booth and ate them messily right from the banana leaves they were wrapped in. On our last day, Cirilo took us in his tuktuk to the prettiest village of them all, Santa Catarina Polopo, stopping along the way to take pictures. We had breakfast at a restaurant overlooking Lake Atitlan and its surrounding mountains and three volcanos.
Our next stop was Quetzaltenango or Xela (pronouced Chela) which is the original Mayan name for the place. Xela is the second biggest city in Guatemala and I found it to be dusty and very polluted. It was bitterly cold in the mornings and evenings going down to minus 2 but warm, even hot during the day. This combination brought on some serious allergies and cold-like symptoms in both Eduardo and me. We stayed at another Airbnb with a lovely young couple who seem to have inherited a semi-hotel come boarding house. We had a small, cold room with a tiny bathroom, but the couple made up for it by kindly suggesting many interesting places we could visit and telling us the best way to get there.
Therefore, everyday, we would escape from Xela on a chicken bus out to different places of interest.
Day one we explored the city a bit then went to the hots springs called Fuentes Georgina in the afternoon as the clouds were descending over the mountains. Sitting in the hot waters of the springs was magical as the vapours rose out of the water and mixed with the descending mist of the clouds swirling around the almost tropical greenery hanging from the surrounding mountains. Fortunately we got talking with a local woman who was entertaining guests from her church in the United States. They kindly offered to drive us almost all the way back to Xela. We did not realize how quickly night descended and how early the buses stop. They usually don’t run after 5 or 6 in the evening as many buses and other vehicles have been stopped and robbed by local thugs.
Day two we climbed up to a sacred lake located in the crater of an ancient volcano. It is called Chicabal. It was a fairly long, arduous walk up to the look out, then we went farther up to another look out before descending to the edge of the lake. From there we could see local indigenous people resting of the other side of the lake. As we walked around the south end of the lake there were various places where altars had been built for Mayan religious ceremonies. We chatted with some locals who had come up to the lake just for the pleasure. I asked one man what this place meant to him, and he seemed to be pleased to explain that it is a sacred place where they don’t swim or fish out of respect. He recounted a story about some people who did try to take a small boat out into the middle of the lake which isn’t even a kilometre across, and who got caught up in some kind of a vortex and were never seen again. He did however, eat a fish from the lake once. It had jumped out of the water practically at his feet and was still breathing, so he cooked and ate it. Before leaving, we saw a few young men with fishing lines who were going to try their luck, so I am not too sure about the taboo on fishing.
Day three, we slept late under heavy blankets. In the afternoon, we visited the neighbouring towns of Totonicapan and San Andres Xecul where the church has a gaudy bright yellow façade covered with various colourful statues.
It was a restful day to recuperate from the walk up the mountain and to rest up before visiting the Olmec and Mayan ruins called Takalik Abaj where the oldest ruins have been found (predating Tikal by a 1000 years). This is a national park, with very few tourists; although it is very well kept, and the guide was well informed about the history of the ruins, the fauna and flora of the park. Again, although it was not late, no bus or public transport came by while we waited for over an hour. When we finally decided to walk four kilometres to the village, a little half-ton truck came by and collected us; along with many locals, we stood in the back holding on to the frame. I was surprised how tired I felt when about thirty minutes later we descended into the village of Retalhuleu (Reu for short). The people in the truck got the driver to stop in front of a popular eatery. (I overheard them discussing where we should eat.) Anyway, it was delicious. I had a sizzling hot plate of barbecued pork ribs accompanied by a baked potato filled with melted cheese and a salad, and Eduardo had a huge filet of fish with all the trimmings. We then bussed back to Xela.
Eduardo’s last day before returning to Ottawa was spent travelling in a first class bus to Guatemala City where we stayed in another modest room in the home of some rather interesting people. The man and his wife have spent many years of their professional lives exhuming the bodies of victims of war, not only in their home country where people are still discovering human remains from the recent civil war, but also in many other countries around the world.