Another bustling Saturday at the Mercado in Antigua, Guatemala. Colorful umbrellas work hard to shield mothers and babies from the hot mid-day sun. Everything imaginable is for sale from four-inch thick zanahorias (carrots), to fresh in-season mangos, to freshly made black-corn tortillas, fish and shrimp, chicken, meat of all kinds, dried iguanas, and all types of clothing, shoes, CD’s and more. The million-photo sights along with the pungent smells and the loud voices of the vendedores (sellers) make this an E-ticket ride.
Everyone is focused on either selling or buying something so I seem to be the only one that has noticed that Volcán Fuego (Volcano of Fire) has just started violently erupting spewing lava and smoke high into the air. It settled down after a few minutes only to roar again within the next half hour as it seems to do. Just another day at the Mercado.
Two smartly dressed little niños with perfectly gelled and styled hair (at the left) have decided that this wedding procession is way too somber and boring for them so they are secretly scheming to pop a few balloons to liven things up. The bride in her beautiful traditional clothing certainly doesn’t look happy and she is keeping her distance from the groom who is gazing down at the ground. The seemingly sad guests look as if they’ve just attended a funeral. So here they go… POP! POP! POP! (which happened just moments after I took this photo).
This article includes the very romantic legend of Vanushka. The legend is a wonderful story to share with your loved one on Valentine’s Day. You may want to keep the tradition going by reading it to the one you love! (This article is dedicated to my wonderful partner on Valentine’s Day!)
As you walk into the many tomb filled cemeteries in Guatemala, you can almost feel the air thicken and cool slightly as you walk in. I have visited a number of graveyards in Guatemala – some are nicer than others- but they all leave a similar other-worldly impression filled with tombs with above and below the ground graves. And they all seem to have a slight creepiness to them, notwithstanding the fact that I’ve been repeatedly
warned never to go to a Guatemalan cemetery alone, especially in the larger cites like Quetzaltenango (“Xela”) or even Antigua since they tend to be stomping grounds for robbers and muggers. Of course, that adds a little adrenaline and more creepiness to the experience of going there.
Nonetheless, the cemeteries here are still very interesting to visit because they are filled with local and national history and of course, lots of local stories and legends. I visited the somewhat delapidated cemetery in Xela and it was no exception. It was more worn down than other cemeteries here
that I’ve seen. Like many cemeteries in Guatemala, Xela’s cemetery has its wealthy private section filled with very large and often extravagant tombs. Some are made of marble or granite, although it is not unusual to find pieces of marble statutes or other items to be missing from tombs from robbers who steal the semi-precious materials and sell it elsewhere.
Then there is the public area that is more modest, sometimes with as little as a mound of dirt with a few dying flowers and marked with a homemade
wooden cross showing the grave of a loved one. The family has to pay a fee every year to keep their family member in the cemetery – but this is only for seven years. Cemetery space is in short supply in Xela so after seven years – you guessed it – the human remains need to be removed and taken somewhere else or discarded. And if the family fails to pay the yearly fee, the government comes along and removes the remains even sooner. Then, it’s anyone’s guess where the remains end up after that. Some families cover the grave with large slabs of concrete in hopes that the government will leave them alone since it’s such a hassle to remove the concrete to get to the remains. But many families are unable to pay for the slab so they are faced with the awful decision of what to do with whatever is left of whoever it was.
Xela’s cemetery is very unique since it features the very popular tomb of their beloved Vanushka- which brings me to the main point of this
romantic blog in honor of Valentine’s Day. Truth be told, just like most guys, I am not a big fan of Valentine’s Day. But I have a romantic side to me and somehow I found myself enamored with the lovely legend of Vanushka, Guatemala’s version of Romeo y Julieta. There are apparently several versions of the story, but they are all a variation of the same theme. And the following is the one I like the best.
Vanushka Cárdenas Baraja was the daughter of a Gypsy family who migrated from Hungary to Guatemala in the early twentieth century. Vanushka and her family performed in a traveling circus that moved around Guatemala for a while before settling in Xela for several months to perform its daring feats. The shows were very popular and attracted lots of people from miles around, and as such, it also got the attention of a number of high profile guests. One of those guests was the son of a very wealthy family from Spain, possibly the son of the Spanish Ambassador at that time. The son saw one of the shows and was completely taken and enamored by Vanushka’s dazzling performance. After the show was over, the young dashingly handsome Spanish man caught a glimpse of the breathtakingly beautiful Vanushka and rushed to where she was to meet her. They were both extremely attracted to each other and the two spent the rest of the evening together and fell head over tails deeply in love.
Knowing that the Spanish son’s family would never approve of him being with Vanushka given her Gypsy background, the young couple embarked on a secret steamy relationship which was unknown to their families, during which time their love for each other deepened and intensified. But of course, their relationship didn’t stay a secret for very long. Somehow, the son’s father found out and was infuriated that his son, who was from such a wealthy and noble family could end up in a loving relationship with a young Gypsy woman from a traveling circus!
Their parents forbade their continued relationship, and separated them by forcing the son to return to Spain, against his wishes, to attend the university there. Of course, Vanushka was devastated, distraught and inconsolable. Sadly, she fell into a deep depression, failed to eat, slowly wasted away and died of a broken heart at such a tender young age.
Vanushka’s Spanish lover did not know what had become of her until he returned to Xela a few years later looking for her. Searching all over, he was eventually told about his beloved’s untimely death. He ran to the cemetery and found her simple tomb. He stayed there for a while, weeping, and he put a single flower on her grave. Each year thereafter, the handsome Spaniard returned to Xela solely to visit his lover’s tomb and to place a single flower on her tomb. He lived well into his eighties but never married since he could never imagine being with anyone other than his cherished Vanushka.
As sad as this story is, this is not how it ends. Soon after Vanushka’s tragic death, a woman who had suffered a similar separation from her own love heard of Vanushka’s story and went to the cemetery to weep at her grave in empathy. Soon thereafter, this women ended up being reunited with her lover which gave rise to the legend of Vanushka. Now, Vanushka’s tomb is
believed to have the power to bring love to those who ask for it of her. As a result, the tomb has been embellished with a statue of the lovesick Vanushka grasping a photo of her treasured lover. The heavily cream painted statue is always covered head to toe with notes and flowers from lovelorn visitors asking Vanushka for help in finding true love, or to be reunited with
estranged partners. Her tomb is the most visited in the entire cemetery. In fact, it receives so many notes, it is regularly painted over and the statue even had to be replaced in 2011.
When we were there, a police car was parked nearby. I suspected there might have been a problem or the officer was there trying to keep the area safe. But sure enough, the police officer was paying Vanushka a visit in hopes of finding true love.
This article is a continuation of my previous article entitled “Quetzaltenango-Rough Around the Edges; And Some Personal Reflections on Coming Back to Guatemala.”
I can’t remember exactly what I was doing when I heard the gunshot. I had been dreaming. My brain was foggy. I opened my eyes. The room was pitch black except for a tiny bit of light peeking under my door. It was cold. The clock on my cell phone showed 4:32 a.m. It took a minute or two for me to remember where I was. I was at the family’s house in Quetzaltanango (or more commonly called “Xela” (shayla) which is the most abrieviated version of its Mayan name, Xelajú noj (sheyla-who-noh), which was shortened to Xelajú (sheyla-who) and then to Xela). It was my first morning here in Xela.
I suddenly remembered that there were supposed to be firecrackers at the neighboring church at 4:30 a.m. to signify the beginning of the celebration of Cristo Negro or Black Christ. Of course. It then occurred to me that the “gunshot” in my dream had actually been the sound of the firecracker from the church. I pushed my earplugs deeper into my ear canals in hopes that any further thundering booms would be muffled. However, anticipating that there would be more, I had difficulty falling back to sleep. I hate firecrackers.
Then, at 5:30 AM, the church bells started ringing. Many of them, in different tones. Why in the world were they doing this so early on Sunday morning?! And mariachi music was blasting from the church’s loud speakers which had been placed just outside the church. More ringing. Ear plugs can only muffle so much. I put the pillow over my head. It helped slightly. The room was freezing. I pulled the covers up higher almost covering my head. After what seemed like a long time, the ringing started to slow down, softened a bit and then finally stopped. But the music continued. I tried to fall asleep but that simply was not going to happen. Maybe I dozed a bit.
By around 6:00 a.m., my ears were assaulted by the sudden loud snapping of hundreds of firecrackers going off at the same time like haphazard machine guns. They popped and cracked incessantly with the music still blaring. This went on for quite a while as well. The firecrackers finally stopped. I tried to doze but I’m not sure if I succeeded. I tossed a little. I still didn’t feel well from the bug I’d been fighting. And I was tired.
I layed in bed for a while until breakfast was almost ready. I had trouble getting out of bed because it was so damn cold. I put on my jeans, the cold denim chilling my legs like bags of ice. I continued to get dressed with more cold refrigerated clothes. Even my shoes seemed frosty as was my sweatshirt. I considered putting on my down jacket but then decided against it since I was only going across the house’s courtyard to get to the kitchen for breakfast. The rectangular colonial house surrounds the courtyard so there are no internal hallways connecting my bedroom to the other part of the house. I eventually made it to breakfast and chatted with the mom in Spanish. We both commiserated about the cold (“hay mucho frio“)and how early it was when the firecrackers went off, the bells started ringing and the loco mariachi music. The pancakes she made me were tasty, thin and light. She offered me instant coffee which I politely declined and asked for tea instead. We continued talking although my fatigue made it a struggle for me to find the correct Spanish words to converse with her. Somehow I managed okay. And fortunately my suitcases were still partially packed.
After breakfast, I was still feeling like crap but I decided to take a walk in the city to explore as I love to do. Maybe that would help me feel better. I was still disenchanted by yesterday’s initial meeting with Xela, an unfriendly stranger. The cliché kept playing in my head: don’t judge a book by its cover. I walked past the church next door to our house, Iglesia San Bartolomé, and watched people creating alfombras or street carpets made of colored sawdust with pretty stenciled designs in preparation for the procession later that afternoon in celebration of Cristo Negro.
Next, I wanted to find my way to the Spanish school, Celas Maya, since I would be walking there the following day, Monday, for my first day. The lessons are five hours a day, one-on-one instruction in which we sit at small tables in a lovely open garden area of a converted old colonial house. I made it there in about 15 minutes, about a mile. Then I proceeded to explore the immediate area of Xela but my negative impressions didn’t change. At least not yet.
I walked around the Parque Centro América (the central park) that was fairly nice, somewhat pretty and it was fun to people watch. Lots of people were milling about, kids were playing as hundreds of pigeons were being fed, and vendors were selling colorful toys, junk food snacks, souvenirs and of course, bird food. I then went across the street to the remains of the Iglesia del Espíritu Santo, the beautifully detailed facade of the original
cathedral that was built in 1532, but was later destroyed by earthquakes in 1853 and 1902. Xela’s newer Metropolitan Cathedral which sits next to the Iglesia was completed in the 1990s and is impressive and actually beautiful. Mass was underway and the huge cathedral was packed inside with parishioners with more people overflowing outside. I watched for a little while and then decided to continue with my walk.
I came to a large stately building with columns which peaked my interest. There were statues of poets outside and someone told me it was a municipal building. I later found out it was actually a theater for live performances. Unfortunately, nothing is playing this time of year. I continued my walk but found lots of shops closed. I happened to notice a makeshift train traveling through the streets filled with kids and probably their parents. The locomotive had been created by covering a tractor with painted metal panels to make it look like a locomotive along with a passenger car that was actually a converted bus to make it look like a train. The weak horn sounded hoarse and fatigued and the whole contraption was spewing heavy smoke from the smokestack as it drove around the area.
My impression of Xela was beginning to improve slightly but I still found it dirty, in disrepair and it seemed to lack charm. Apparently, once the Spaniards moved out of the city, the Germans moved in which explains why some of the architecture in the central historic district has a somber feel, with the buildings looking dreary, gray, worn and old. My Lonely Planet travel book said that Xela is the “perfect Guatemalan town, not too big not too small.“ The book also promised that “by Guatemala standards, it is an orderly, clean and safe city.” Actually, it’s not. Sadly, there is lots of trash around, tons of roaming street dogs and their droppings, pollution from the vehicles, volcanic ash in the air, and drivers speed dangerously through the streets with little regard to pedestrians making it very risky to try and cross the streets. And even the family I’m staying with and the school warned me not to be out at night, to be extra careful in crowded areas, not to hike alone in the Cerro El Baul, a forested lava dome near the house and to never take a chicken bus alone.
As it was after lunchtime, I wasn’t really hungry but I felt I needed to eat something so I ended up at Pollo Campero where at least I could get a piece of chicken. Since many restaurants seemed to be closed on Sunday, the other options seemed to be McDonald’s or Taco Bell which I quickly ruled out. After lunch, I walked around through different streets in the direction of the house since I wanted to get back for the Cristo Negro church festivities including a procession that was supposed to begin around 3 p.m. along with a carnival of kiddie rides and lots of food vendors selling lots of fried everything.
Mass had already begun at neighboring church, Iglesia San Bartolomé which seemed fairly full. The mass was being amplified through loudspeakers outside of the church that could be heard throughout the neighborhood. Deafening firecrackers went off periodically throughout the service. Eventually, the procession started with a group of people exiting the church carrying a small platform or anda bearing an imagin or
religious statue of the Cristo Negro with a small band following behind playing somber music. Hundreds of people lined the nearby streets as the
procession left the church and entered the city’s streets with thousands of firecrackers going off. It was an impressive site. I ran into the family that I’m living with at the church. The mom was nicely dressed and the dad looked handsome and disguished in his gray suit.
I learned that this was the celebration of the Black Christ of Esquipulas which is a wooden image of Christ now housed in the Cathedral Basilica of Esquipulas in Esquipulas, Guatemala. It is one of the Cristos Negros of
Central America and Mexico. According to tradition, the imagin of Cristo Negro was apparently found in a cave and had healing power. The image had been sculpted by a Portuguese artist in 1594. It blackened over the
years due to soot from the candles and incense. There are many legends concerning the CristoNegro involving answered prayers and miraculous cures of illnesses that have enhanced its reputation. Many people come and pray, and ask for help in front of this religious icon which has been credited with miraculous healing powers.
I continued to follow the procession for a while but then I decided to explore some more streets. After a while as I was heading back to the house, I intercepted the procession once again since it was still going so I had a chance to experience it a second time and of course, take some additional photos.
I got back to the house in time for cena (dinner) and we had a nice discussion about the festivities and the procession. By that time, I was feeling a little better. I realized that I was now living in the heart of Guatemala, in a hard-core intense non-English speaking city which was actually the type of immersive experience that I had been hoping for. Presented with this challenge, I committed to staying the month and then proceeded to completely unpack my suitcases. It was getting very cold in my bedroom, probably down into the lower 40s since the house has no heat. I got my things ready for school and went to bed on the early side under four blankets and fell asleep wondering what this new experience was going to be like.
Strong pangs of doubt began to nag at me during my three week hiatus in Los Angeles and New York in December before I was due to return to Guatemala in January. Why was I going back? Why was I learning Spanish? What was I trying to prove? What was this really all about? I struggled to search for answers but none were easy. My friends, family and partner were scratching their heads. I tried to fight off these feelings but they persisted. Should I change my mind and not go? Somehow, I kept pushing forward towards returning. It was literally a tug of war.
I guess I didn’t want to admit that although the last three and a half months in Guatemala had been enriching, interesting and filled with great experiences, it had also been stressful, difficult and challenging. I was trying to adjust to living here at which I thought I was doing pretty well. But there were conveniences at home that I took for granted that certainly didn’t exist in Guatemala. And the chaotic environment, the need to be very careful while walking on the uneven sidewalks and streets, the danger of living in Guatemala and making sure I was not out late a night, not understanding the language and at times, the culture, the frequent firecrakers that kept me jumping and other things were a constant source of concern and stress. Of course, this was the experience that I signed up for. I’m not complaining, just reporting. Also, my Spanish lessons were very difficult and frustrating. There were times I just wanted to throw up my hands and say “I’ve had it,” but somehow I kept going. Fortunately, my teacher was very pleasant, thankfully patient and reassuring. It didn’t help that I put a lot of pressure on myself to excel at Spanish when things were not coming quickly enough for me. I literally had to tell myself to “lighten up!” which I did but sometimes it’s not easy being me. Again, I’m not complaining, just reporting.
Despite my resistance to come back to Guatemala, I felt compelled to return because I knew there were still lessons to be learned about why I had chosen this adventure to live in another country, experience a different culture for a prolonged period of time and to try to learn another language. Something apparently was going on and I felt that I needed to try and find out what it was. Also, I felt that I had gained some momentum in learning and speaking Spanish and three and a half months of being in Guatemala was simply not enough time. So I pushed myself to come back and somehow I found a way within me to do so.
Unfortunately, two days before returning, I began to feel sick as if I was coming down with some kind of bug. We had just returned from a whirlwind trip to New York City and I was exhausted. Either I had an actual virus or my body was rebelling because of all the junk I ate in New York along with our nonstop activities. I was wondering whether I should delay my trip briefly until I felt better, fearful that I would get worse and be In a country with questionable healthcare. But typical of my personality, I pushed myself anyway to get on that overnight flight as scheduled. Which is what I did. And if I got worse, I would figure it out.
I had a fitful sleep on the plane and woke up around sunrise about a half hour before landing in Guatemala City. The scenery coming into Guatemala is spectacular. Guatemala is full of volcanoes and their peaks rise high into the sky, sometimes through the clouds which is amazing to see. And usually, one or two are erupting. The site of all this as the sun was rising was clearly breathtaking. By now, I know to sit by the window seat on the right side of the plane, preferably in first class, to see the rows of volcanoes as we fly into Guatemala’s La Aurora airport.
While I was busy photographing the gorgeous scenery, feelings of dread crept over me as the plane neared the airport. I was still feeling rundown and I was not sure if I was up for the challenge of living in Guatemala once again. I had no idea what Quezaltenango (it is more commonly called Xela- pronounced “shayla”) was like. And I would be living with a new family that I knew nothing about. The school had arranged the logistics of getting me to Xela which is not an easy trek and involves a four-hour bus ride from Guatemala City. Thoughts of turning around and coming home flooded my head. But then we landed and it was time to get off the plane so my thoughts turned to other things.
I hadn’t eaten much in the previous two days so I was a bit shaky getting off the plane. I was managing two heavy suitcases, a stuffed backpack and a travel guitar which all seemed a bit overwhelming at the time. I don’t know why I wrestled with the idea of having a porter help me with my luggage but I ultimately did and fortunately, we breezed through customs.
As I was exiting the airport, I was eagerly searching for the hand-held sign that was supposed to have my name on it being carried by the taxi driver who would be taking me to the bus station. I walked all around the airport’s exit looking for my name but found nothing. Fortunately, I had a contact phone number so we were able to find each other. We met and just about hugged. The driver only spoke Spanish and I thought he told me that the early bus to Xela was full and had already left so the next bus wouldn’t be until 10:30 a.m which meant a three and a half hour wait at the bus station which I dreaded.
As luck would have it, when we arrived at the bus station, the bus was still there and it was not yet full. I had just enough time to buy my ticket, go to the bathroom and find a seat. The bus was a Greyhound style bus and I seemed to be the only one on the bus that was not from Guatemala or Central America. I sat next to a woman from Xela who seemed annoyed that I chose the seat next to hers, especially when I confirmed with her that this was the correct bus going to Xela. She certainly did not seem annoyed however, when I helped her get her things down from the overhead rack when she needed it. I do not recall her thanking me not that I needed to be thanked. When another woman noticed I had helped the first woman, the second woman also asked me to take down her things as well for which she seemed appreciative.
We had a rest stop about half way to Xela. Fortunately I had some food with me since there was not enough time to eat at the restaurant. It was in a mountainous location with nice views of the farmland nearby. I spoke to some friendly people from the bus after one saw me standing alone and called me over. He was from Xela and another couple was from Costa Rica. We had a fun and friendly conversation – all in Spanish. After that, the bus sped along the very windy mountain roads as we all slid back and forth in our seats from the force of the turns. I’m sure that also annoyed the woman sitting next to me.
We arrived in Xela around 11:30 a.m. The guy from Xela that I met at the rest stop asked me if I wanted to meet for a beer later that day but I politely declined. I was still feeling lousy. The bus station was run down and in a sketchy area. I had arranged to be picked up. There were several taxi drivers there, one of whom was calling out the name of someone but it did not sound like mine. Nonetheless, I asked the taxi driver to see the name on the paper he was holding and fortunately it was me. He drove me in his dented and rusted taxi along the bumpy roads to the Spanish school that I would be attending, and someone there was supposed to take me to the home of the family that I would be living with. Unfortunately, the school was locked. I rang the bell and knocked a few times but there was no answer. The taxi driver and I then walked around the side of the building and found an entrance but no one seem to know what was going on. A woman inside the school made some calls and I was told that the mom of the family would be picking me up shortly. In the meantime, I was given a tour of the school which seemed a little worn but I thought it would work out fine.
Roughly 20 minutes later, the mom showed up and she seemed guardedly friendly. She is a heavyset woman and looked a bit disheveled. She drove me to their home where I was greeted by a couple of young women, a younger 11 year old boy and the dad, a friendly pleasant looking gray-haired gentleman who promptly introduced himself. Everyone seemed to rush to the car to help move me in. I was shown to my room which is fairly large, rustic looking and fortunately has its own bathroom (one of the few amenities I requested) which is also fairly large. The bedroom has an old but beautiful tile floor and an unpainted wood beam ceiling. There is some writing on the walls so it looks like kids or teens had used the room at some point. And fortunately, it has two windows that look into the garden.
The dad then wanted to show me around the house. The house itself is an old colonial style house, rustic, yet has great character and features, and a lovely garden which seems to be the passion of the dad. The dad told me that the house and property has been in his family for over 100 years! The house is built around a central pretty courtyard that has a traditional tiered fountain in the middle. I’m not sure if the fountain still works but it looks nice. The garden area is lovely with some mature trees and other plants and flowers that seem well taken care of. There is another huge rear yard that is also a beautiful garden which used to be the area where they kept horses and cattle. The stone troughs are still there and the dad uses them for planters as part of his garden. Also, he took an old metal bed and converted it into an interesting planter. The garden is adorned with some antique tools including an old hoe that would have been pulled by horses, and some old saddles which give the garden a lot of character and seemingly brings it back to an earlier time. It was obvious that the dad takes a lot of pride in his home and his garden areas and he works hard to maintain it.
Unfortunately, I still was not feeling well so I found all of this fairly taxing. I went to unpack and I was told that lunch would be ready shortly. I still wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay as my hesitation started to creep back. Soon, it was lunchtime. Lunch was mostly vegetables. We ate at a large dining table inside the kitchen which is rustic with overflowing shelves and cabinets. There is a stove hooked up to a propane tank which sits next to the stove, a refrigerator and a toaster. Apparently, Xela does not have gas lines under the streets (neither did Antigua) thus the propane tank.
After lunch, the mom wanted to show me how my shower worked. The house does not have electric water heating showerheads as they have in many parts of Guatemala. Instead, there is a small corroding tankless water heater around the side of the house in the laundry area. In order to take a shower, I need go outside to light the pilot and then turn the lever all the way up to “maximo.” Apparently, when the water is running, the small heater kicks in and warms the water. However, the water needs to be running fairly slowly to get heated so there is very little water pressure when I take a shower. And if someone else is watering the lawn or using water, my shower becomes an unusable trickle. But I do get a fairly hot shower! When I’m done, after I get dressed, I need to remember to go outside to turn off the pilot so it does not waste gas. Again, the water heater is connected to another propane tank sitting nearby in the laundry area.
The nights and mornings here in Xela are very cold usually in the low 40s or high 30s. The house has no heating so my bedroom usually gets down into the low 40s at night. That means that I spend the evenings usually layered with a flannel shirt, a sweatshirt with the hood over my head, along with a down jacket. I sleep with four blankets. Since it is so cold in the mornings, I wait until the afternoons when it’s warmer to take a shower. Otherwise, I would need to get dressed, go outside in the cold to the side of the house, light the pilot, turn the lever to “maximo,” wait a few minutes, take my shower in the ice cold bathroom, dry off, get dressed and go back outside to shut off the pilot. Given the logistics involved in just trying to take a shower, in reality, I only manage to shower every other day. Yes, being here feels a bit like I’m camping.
After lunch, I unpacked a little more but I felt so unsettled, I was still questioning whether I was going to stay. I was still feeling poorly. I had no energy and very little appetite. And lunch was a bit disappointing making me wonder whether this was how the food was going to be. I decided to take a walk to find the Spanish school that I would be attending the following Monday. I went through el parque central (the central park) and walked in the central historic district of the city, about a 10 minute walk from the house. I saw the main cathedral which was very large, beautiful, imposing and impressive. But overall, I found the city fairly uninteresting and it seemed dirty. Lots of things were closed on the weekend. I couldn’t even find a nice bakery or restaurant to check out. I did have an ice cream at a local chain.
There were very few, if any tourists, walking around which I actually liked as I had wanted to feel immersed in the Guatemalan culture. I felt like I had finally reached hardcore Guatemala. Nonetheless, my first impression was not a good one. The city seemed harsh and unfriendly, certainly rough around the edges. There seemed to be no charm. In short, I just didn’t like it and I wondered how long I could actually last here. I was also out of breath a lot since Xela is over 7,600 feet in altitude but I figured I would get used to it.
But then I thought that maybe being here was actually a good challenge for me and maybe this was more of the type of experience that I was looking for. I was here for a reason. And I knew it was too early to decide what I was going to do and I figured my early perceptions were probably being tainted by how poorly I was feeling and how tired I was from my red-eye flight. I came back to the house and took it easy the rest of the day trying to settle in and figure out my routines. But I still didn’t completely unpack just in case.
Dinner was a tasty vegetable soup which went down easily. I had a nice friendly conversation with the mom and dad, both of whom speak no English. It was getting very chilly as everyone had warned me. The house is next door to a church and the parents told me that the following day, Sunday, January 15th, was going to be a huge celebration and fiesta of the Cristo Negro (the Black Christ). I had no idea what that was. That explained the rusted dilapidated kiddie rides literally right outside the front door of the house. The parents then warned me that there would be firecrackers at 4:30 a.m. and church bells ringing by around 5:30 a.m.! This didn’t make me very happy not to mention my dislike of firecrackers. With earplugs deep in my ears, I went to bed on the early side with my suitcases still partially packed.
This story continues in my article entitled “Xela Who?”
When I heard that there was a sea turtle reserve in Monterrico, which is on the Pacific coast of Guatemala, and that I would probably have a chance to see the newly hatched turtles up close and maybe even hold one, I was already on my way. I was one of the last people to be picked up just after 8 a.m. that Saturday morning in the already packed-like-sardines van that was headed to the coast, about a 2 1/2 hour drive from Antigua. Seat belts weren’t even an option which seems to be true of many vehicles here in Guatemala. I took a deep breath and off we went.
I sat in one of the folding aisle seats (they fill all available space) and immediately noticed that a few different languages were being spoken inside the van. I recognized Spanish (of course!), Italian and something else that sounded European but I couldn’t quite place it. The chatter was lively as we traveled along the bumpy and windy road. The typical stench of car exhaust from nearby vehicles tainted the cool morning air since most of the van’s windows were wide open.
I noticed that we were heading in the direction of the hyperactive Volcán de
Fuego or Volcano of Fire which was responsible for killing an estimated 4,000 local people last June when it violently erupted. Since Fuego erupts numerous times each day, many people simply thought it was just doing its usual thing and didn’t realize that this time, it was having an extremely dangerous and life-threatening eruption. The authorities didn’t help matters either by failing to warn the residents nearby even though the instruments were apparently picking up lots of warning indicators. I wondered how close we might get. Even on our way to Monterrico, Fuego was erupting fairly frequently that morning as I watched several impressive and eerie eruptions spew gray billowy smoke high into the almost cloudless blue morning sky.
We continued along the road adjacent to Fuego and eventually went by it. We then came upon an area of road construction and I realized that this was the road that had been closed because much of it had been destroyed or buried by the eruption in June. I realized we were entering Escuintla, one the hardest hit areas. The road was still under construction with lots of heavy equipment parked nearby. However, it was finally passable even though parts of it were
not yet paved. As we drove along the bumpy road, I began to notice the enormous area of destruction with huge mounds of lava and ash, uprooted and burned trees and lots of debris from destroyed buildings and houses. My body tensed as I saw houses that were partially or completely destroyed or gutted by the huge amount of lava and ash.
As we passed this tragic site, I spotted a partially buried neighborhood with just the upper half of the houses sticking though the heavy gray ash. I realized that behind it were probably those areas that were completely buried as I had
heard and read about. My stomach clenched tightly as a deep sense of sadness came over me. Some people have referred to the area as the “cemetery” since thousands of bodies have not been and may never be recovered. I was also told that the area is still very hot and dangerous some 6 months later, and that no one is allowed to go in the area even as part of the recovery effort. The thing that also struck me was how far the volcano seemed to be from this area of destruction. I read that the lava and ash came down so fast that people were unable to escape it. I had previously imagined that the destruction was only to those villages just beneath the volcano but this was simply not the case. Making things worse, the rain that fell shortly after the huge onslaught of ash made the ash very hard, heavy and almost impenetrable.
I felt some relief as we left the area as we continued on our journey to the ocean. At the halfway point, we stopped at a small strip shopping center with a market where I purchased some water for the trip. The coastal area seemed very tropical and rural as the houses were far apart, very modest, and often had people watering or gardening, or children playing in front of the house, often with dogs and chickens running around.
As we entered Monterrico, the style of the buildings began to change and it looked like a run down version of a tropical Caribbean village with rustic
thatch-roof houses and buildings. We made our way down a street that seemed more like an alley and suddenly we were told that we had arrived. It was about 11:30 a.m. I got out of the van and was hit hard by the heat and heavy sopping humidity. At that point I wasn’t sure where the ocean was but I quickly realized it was just about a block away. The driver pointed out the Hotel el Dolfin, our meeting place for later that afternoon to return to Antigua. The modest small run down hotel had a bohemian feel with dark lacquered woods and done in an early tiki Caribbean Mayan motif.
I found my way to the beach through what was clearly an alley, dirty and sandy. When I got to the beach, the “black sand” (according to the guide books) was
actually a speckled charcoal gray (although it was darker when wet), so I felt a tinge of disappointment as I had hoped it would be as black as some of the beaches in Hawaii. Of course, the black sand was the result of eons of pounding waves eroding the black lava spewed from ancient volcanic eruptions nearby.
The beach itself was adorned by fairly large waves, turbulent and powerful, crashing noisily with tons of white foam and spray onto the blackish shore at criss-crossed angles. This probably explained why the people in the water were not venturing out too far. I seemed to be the only non-Guatemalan around. A colorful Monterrico sign flanked by playful cartoon turtles welcomed visitors to the nearby main street. There
were lots of threadbare souvenir shops selling inflatable toys and sea shells made into animals and wind chimes, small dimly lit grocery stores and numerous open air restaurants that were mostly empty while displaying their menu items in faded photos.
As I reached the sand, there happened to be a large lifeguard station nearby with two or three lifeguards in attendance. My first priority was to see the sea turtles so they pointed me in the direction of the reserve, telling me it was not very far. It seemed longer than a 15 minute walk, especially since I couldn’t wait to get off the hot sand and away from the oppressive heat and stifling humidity.
I walked along the beach and passed some old shabby hotels and eventually found El Tortugario, the sea turtle hatchery and animal reserve. I began speaking with one of the rangers there who told me about a self-guided tour of the facility and about boat rides through the nearby canals. The area is known as the Monterrico Hawaii Biotope which is comprised of 10,000 acres of mangrove swamps. This is actually a network of 25 lagoons connected by mangrove canals.
The reserve turned out to be an interesting place. It protects many animals in addition to sea turtles including several other types of turtles such as red ear
sliders along with caimans and iguanas. The reserve has several large enclosures containing these types of animals so I was able to see them up close. They are kept in a protected space until they are able to be released into the wild. The reserve also has a breeding program for the caimans which are also released when they are ready.
After I explored the animal preserve, the ranger explained to me about the turtle program. During the months of June through November, and especially in August and September, numerous sea turtles, including the endangered giant leatherbacks and the smaller olive ridleys make her way onto the adjacent
beach where they lay their eggs in the sand. Shortly after that, workers from the reserve go out and gather the eggs and re-bury them in a safe incubation area of the reserve specifically walled off for that purpose. This keeps predators and locals away from the eggs.
After about 50 days, the young baby turtles hatch and find their way up to the surface of the sand where they are carefully captured by the workers, put in a large black plastic box, and placed in a darkened room for the rest of the day. Then, around sunset when these babies are less vulnerable, the baby sea turtles are released onto the sand where they then crawl into the sea. Unfortunately, the best estimates are that only about 10 percent of these young turtles will survive.
The ranger then took me into the darkened room that had two or three large
plastic containers, their bottoms filled with several hundred very active tiny sea turtles that had just hatched that morning. They would be held there until late in the afternoon when they would be released. They were really adorable and the ranger gave me one to hold. Of course, I wanted to take it home! It remained very still in my hand, but once we placed it back in the box, it quickly scurried along the plastic bottom with the rest of the turtles. Sadly, I was not there long enough to witness the release of these baby turtles since the van back to Antigua was leaving by
about 3:30. Nonetheless, it was still great to experience seeing and handling them, especially since I have always had a fondness for sea turtles.
I then decided to go on a boat ride through the mangrove canals. The ranger introduced me to the man who would be guiding the boat. First, we had to find a local ATM since he only accepted cash. I waited in line for a few minutes to use the ATM which was located in a small enclosed room at the local bank. We then walked about 10 minutes to a very secluded area where
there were several long and thin heavily worn wooden rowboats in need of a paint job. One of them nearby was in an especially bad state of disrepair and filled with debris. He lead me to his boat and held it as I stepped in. It was just him and me. He only spoke Spanish but I managed to follow most of what he was saying even though I didn’t understand every word. He clearly tried hard to help make this an enjoyable and educational experience.
The water in the beautiful swamp-like area was fairly shallow so instead of rowing, he used a long stick to push us along. We glided along the glass-smooth water into an overgrown tunnel of mangroves. Many
of the surrounding areas were also overgrown. There were lots of large round lily pads floating in the water along with lovely white, pink and purple flowers poking through the water as well. This area seemed like a Guatemalan version of the Everglades and it was stunningly beautiful. It reminded me a little of the jungle ride at Disneyland. This amazing boat ride, together with the turtle reserve made the trip worth the price of admission.
As we continued to glide along, we saw many types of birds and could hear frogs croaking nearby but we didn’t actually see any. Of course, there were lots of insects, butterflies and an occasional fish rising to the surface of the
very still water. There were very few other boats around. However, interestingly, on the main canal, there were a couple of small ferry boats carrying one or two vehicles across the canal to the opposite side. We also saw huge brown termite nests. Apparently, these are edible and also, pieces of the nests are broken off and used as bait for fishing.
The guide purposely steered the boat to areas of beautiful flowers and the overgrown trees formed tunnels over the canals as we silently passed through them hearing nothing but the birds and the buzz of lots of busy insects nearby. Is one area, numbeous small birds
were swooping around bat-like catching flying insects. It was fun watching them tart around like kamikaze pilots almost touching the surface of the water and quickly climbing upward to catch their next morsel. We also went into a heavily wooded area enclosed by thick overgrowth looking for a young bear that the boat guy had seen earlier that morning but it was no longer there.
After the ride, I walked back to the main street, looking in the tired and overly-stocked souvenir shops and enjoyed a cold orange Gatorade. As I walked along, I saw many thatched roof buildings and I visited a small quaint church that had an amazing bamboo
ceiling inside. I walked along the water and watched the boat launching area. The restaurants on the main street were mostly empty but I ended up going to one run by a young family who had approached me at the beach and encouraged me to give it a try. I was the only person in the restaurant and I begin to feel a little frustrated when my lunch of chicken and rice took over 35 minutes to get. While I was waiting, I walked to find the Hotel de Dolfin to make sure knew where it was.
After lunch, I sat at the beach for a while and watched the rough surf and the people playing in the water. There wasn’t much more to do so I hung out at the motel-like Hotel de Dolfin desperately trying to find a shady place to sit. I regretted that I hadn’t brought a book to read. The van left at 3:30, again packed with
people. The ride was a bit nerve wracking as the driver repeatedly passed slower vehicles by going into the opposite lane even though he couldn’t see very far ahead of him. I tried to let it go as this is the way things are done in Guatemala. And so it goes. We arrived after 6 p.m. It was already dark and chilly. It was nice to be back.
I have always had a thing for sea turtles and I think there are lots of metaphors that can be drawn between them and people. For example, just like sea turtles, some people metaphorically or in reality hide their head in their shell for protection or for other reasons, isolated and alone. Like sea turtles, some people have a tough exterior but a soft interior. Some people carry the weight of their world on their backs. Also, sea turtles amazingly transform themselves from being slow, clumsy and vulnerable on land, to being able to glide quickly, weightlessly, effortlessly, beautifully and gracefully in the water. I’m sure there are other comparisons but overall, they are simply wonderful creatures and I was glad to visit a place that tries to protect them.
It was a bit chilly early in the morning as I got ready for my day trip to visit Iximche (pronounced “ee sheem chay”), a small Mayan archaeological site that
is located in the western highlands of Guatemala about two hours from Antigua, roughly halfway to Lake Atitlán. As we left Antigua, the beautiful sparkling clear blue sky was speckled with just a few clouds including one produced by the Fuego Volcano that had just recently erupted. It was just a small eruption as if Fuego had not yet had its morning cup of coffee.
The drive was interesting as we passed through some small cities and villages, experiencing the bustle of traffic as people got an early start to their Saturday activities which often includes a trip to the local mercado (market). Our van climbed high into the mountains and wound its way through the curvy roads, eventually traveling through a small town, Tecpán, just off the Interamericana highway. Shortly after we left the town, we ended up at the parking area to visit the Mayan ruins of Iximche and to visit a small museum at the site. There were only a few people around as it was still early and not quite opening time. As we exited the van, I was quickly chilled by the very crisp breeze that I hadn’t expected. I suddenly realized we up over 5,000 feet. Unfortunately, I wasn’t prepared for the brisk temperature but at least my thin jacket was somewhat of a windbreaker.
We were greeted by Alexis, a very pleasant, personable and obviously intelligent multi-lingual 20-something Mayan young man who led us to a small
museum to give us an overview of what we would be seeing. There was a power failure in the museum but we were still able to see what we needed to using the dim ambient light and the flashlights on our cellphones. We saw maps of the site while Alexis gave us a detailed explanation of the history. We also saw some human remains since approximately 100 individuals were found, a few with gold headbands (which was simulated in the museum.
Iximche was the capital of the Kaqchikel Mayan kingdom from 1470 until 1524. The site includes a number of pyramid-temples, palaces, and even some
sunken ball courts, all of which are modest in scale. These structures seemed fairly well preserved despite the fact that a times, the site was looted for its building blocks and stones which have been used to construct buildings in some of the local Guatemalan villages. While the site is fairly small, it is located in a beautiful park-like setting high up in the mountains, very green with lots of mature majestic trees. There were 4 ceremonial plazas that had palaces, temples and the ball courts. On a few structures, the original plaster coating could still be seen.
The ball court was interesting but the game played was disturbing. The soccer-ish game used a “ball” which was actually a large stone that could be struck only with the hips and knees. The object was to get the stone though a
ring mounted at head height or higher on the sides of the court. (If you are having difficulty imagining how this game could possibly be played, so am I.) The game was watched only by royalty so it was a great honor to be chosen to play. However, unfortunately the kicker was (pun intended) that the winner was actually put to death as a sacrifice, which was also supposedly an honor (also difficult to imagine).
Interestingly, the area is high up on a ridge surrounded by deep and very steep (90 degrees in some places) ravines which provided safety for the Mayan capital. The rear area of the site is still used today by deeply religious Mayan people who come there to perform fire ceremonies, magic rituals, burning
copal resin, wood, liquor, candles and other items in the presence of the pyramids to ward off illness or other things. We were able to witness a fire ceremony but no photos were allowed in this very sacred area of the site.
After visiting the site, we went back into the small museum to see the rest of the exhibits that explained more about the site including how people lived, dressed, ate and other interesting aspects of the site.
We then headed to the pueblo of Santa Apolonia which is not far away. This village is well known for its handicrafts and earthenware pottery. We were able to visit the home of a poor Mayan indigenous family who was very nice and gracious to us. They talked a little about their life and showed us how they make pottery and beautiful woven items. Some of the yarn materials are hand-dyed using local plants and other materials which they showed us as well.
Interestingly, the pottery is made from very raw materials. Clay soil is purchased locally in clumps which then has to be beaten to break the clumps
into smaller pieces. It is then rolled with a rolling pin against a flat stone until it becomes clay sand. The sand is then mixed with water until it forms into malleable moist red clay. In making large round clay pots, instead of using a potter’s wheel, the woman making the pottery initially forms the clay on the ground into the beginnings of bowl and then keeping her hands on the clay, she runs in tight circles around the clay while forming it into a perfectly round pot. It was actually amazing to see how perfectly round it was! She then put the pottery in a big pile, buried it with pine needles and other dry plant materials and made a large open fire to work as a kiln to harden
the clay which takes several hours. It seems to work very well and it gives the pottery a distinct appearance of a dark reddish brown color with streaks of black.
There were several small houses on the property and there were a few chickens and dogs running around. One or more of the structures was made of mud and sticks. Of course we had a chance to purchase some items so I came home with a small but pretty vase.
We then had lunch at touristy thatched roof restaurant that was decorated in early tiki-Mayan where I had a chicken sandwich with french fries which was more than adequate. We then headed back to Antigua and got back in the late afternoon just as it was getting dark. I hope you enjoy taking a tour through the remaining photos that capture more of my interesting day trip.
Close your eyes and imagine a volcano so huge that it’s crater is 11.2 miles long, 5.5 miles wide and up to 1,120 feet deep. And imagine that this monster volcano is surrounded by 3 smaller yet sizable volcanos, classically cone-shaped, rising high into the blue sky. Then imagine that after a massive earth-splitting eruption some 84,000 years ago, this horrific giant eventually calms down, cools and over time, its enormous crater fills with sparkling clear blue rainwater that also feeds two nearby rivers. Now open your eyes. Welcome to Lake Atitlán, which some have said is one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. It certainly has to be!
Leaving Antigua around 8 a.m., our 3 hour van ride traveled though highways and mountainous roads that wound through a colorful assortment of villages, towns and small cities quite different from Antigua. These places were interesting but many of the buildings were run down and seemingly falling apart. There were lots of tiendas with traditional signs for Coca Cola and Orange Crush, and we even passed the “Alta Seltzer” pharmacy which was using the familiar logo in its sign. One of the small cities called Chimaltenango is apparently known for, among other things, its prostitution (which happens to be legal in Guatemala). The city was heavily traffic jammed because it is located where a number of major roads and highways converge. We passed several motels where scantily clad and heavily made up “ladies” stood outside the doorways eagerly waiting for their next “john” to arrive.
Half way through the trip, we had a 20 minute rest stop at an unexpectedly nice upscale rustic wooded lodge. The air outside was chilly since we were up well above 5,000 feet. The inside of the building was predictablyfilled with a
few taxidermied animals, and the room was smoky from the open wood fireplaces scattered throughout the restaurant (without chimneys) heating the inside. And of course, in the small gift shop and bakery, we managed to find small chocolate chip cookies that tasted just like those wonderful crunchy cookies found at traditional Jewish bakeries. We regretted not buying an extra package.
After the short break, we continued our ride as we made our way into the the Guatemalan Highlands of the Sierra Madre mountain range in southwestern Guatemala. As we rose higher into the mountains, we caught glimpses below of the beautiful green-blue water of Lake Atitlán surrounded by its three renowned volcanic cones casting impressive shadows on the sparkling water. Our view of the lake played peek-a-boo with the hills and trees as we traversed the many curves and slopes of the windy mountainous roads. We eventually made our way down the mountain on some very steep roads. I could smell the musty stench of the heated brakes as they strained to keep the van at a reasonable speed. We continued down the mountain on what seemed like 45 degree angle roads, quickly declining towards the water-filled crater of the lake and finally entering the small city of Panajachel (called “Pana” by the locals) which borders on Lake Atitlán.
When the van dropped us off at our hotel, the Hotel Playa Linda, the
aggressive driver hustled us for a tip which we had planned to give him anyway. The Hotel Playa Linda is a funky, fun and colorful thatched-roof rustic buidling that was decorated in early tiki meets the Mayans in the Caribbean with some Bahamas and Central American thrown in. We loved it! At $50 a night, it was perfect. We were immediately greeted in the lobby by a rambunctious adolescent golden retriever puppy that must have been born with springs in its legs the way it was bouncing off us and the furniture.
We were also greeted by a couple of wonderfully friendly cats, a young tiger-stripped tabby and an older black cat who were both purring loud enough to compete with the motorcycles outside. There were nautical items and all sorts of tchotchkies all over the walls of the lobby and adjoining areas. This place had character plus! There was a lovely small flower-filled garden just outside the lobby with papaya trees heavily burdened with large ripening fruit. There was
also a large aviary and a parrot speaking Spanish on a stand next to the other bird cages. The cats were lurking nearby and carefully eyeing the many birds while urging us incessantly to never stop petting them.
The owner was a very friendly middle-aged guy whose look and demeanor fit in nicely to the nautical-ish tiki theme of his small eclectic hotel. Upon first seeing us, he unexpectedly greeted me by my first name- he obviously was expecting us- maybe we were only two of just a few guests checking in that day since we had arrived during the very slow season at the lake. In his very deep resonant voice, he tried his best to use what little English he knew to tell us about his favorite local restaurants that we needed to try. He gave us the key to our room (a real key, not a key card) and we made our way up the bright orange flight of concrete stairs to our room accompanied by the young affectionate tabby practically under our feet and of course, the exuberant bouncing golden puppy who seemed to fly effortlessly up the many stairs.
Our huge room contained three queen size beds covered in bright turquoise Guatemalan bed spreads and a charming red brick fireplace. A great view of
the lake was visible through the wall of windows that opened onto a very large patio with a couple of aged wood benches. After settling in for a few minutes, we went out to explore the city of Panajachel. We were told that it was off-season so there were not too many tourists although the streets seemed fairly busy. The quaint main street, Calle Santander, was lined with lots of open
shops selling many of the usual items that we’ve seen everywhere in Guatemala including blankets, table runners, clothing, shoes, artwork and all sorts of Guatemalan knickknacks, toys, worry dolls, hats, religious items and even Guatemalan Barbie dolls! The street was filled with people trying to make their way among the bustle of cars, tuk tuks, bicycles and lots of noisy motorcycles.
We enjoyed exploring the area, finding a local bakery and chocolate shop. We walked into a small bookstore and spoke to the gringo-owner, trying hard to avoid talking about the United States politics even though he seemed eager to do so.
We then found Guajimbo’s Parrilada Uruguaya Restaurant (Uruguayan barbeque), a nice gringo-owned restaurant for lunch where we enjoyed chicken filet and ham
and cheese sandwiches along with french fries and Diet Coke. After lunch we explored the central part of Pana finding the municipal area. We stumbled on a typical yet interesting open air market selling all types of fruits and vegetables, and different kinds of meat and chicken that were hanging unrefrigerated and seemingly enjoyed by lots of flies. Nearby,
we discovered a small carnival adjacent to the main church complete with two rickety, rusty and crudely painted multi-colored Ferris wheels that looked like a hazard waiting to happen along with a few other carnival games. We were surprised that these rides actually worked and we had to cringe when the ferris wheel seemed to be going way too fast for the way it was constructed. There were a few other rides as well, most of which looked equally unsafe and put together with spit and chewing gum.
That evening for dinner, we ended up at Guajimbo’s again since besides having
good food, we were lured by the beautiful live acoustic guitar Latin music being played by a couple of local guitarists. We shared a traditional dinner of chicken, rice and vegetables. After dinner, we stopped outside a couple of other restaurants to listen to more live music. One of the groups was a terrific and entertaining Guatemalan “girl band” dancing in unison like the “Temptations.” After a while, we were tired from the days travel so we splurged on a Tuk tuk (15Q or just under $2) and headed back to our hotel.
The following morning, we were up early since we had booked a boat tour to three pueblos or villages located across the lake. We were picked up by a driver in a tuk tuk who sped us to a nearby open-air makeshift restaurant for
breakfast. A young man was the only server, and a woman who appeared to be his mother was the cook. They were busy scurrying around to feed the many people who showed up for an early breakfast prior to the tour of the pueblos. We had a traditional Guatemalan breakfast of eggs, tortillas, frijoles (black beans) and platanos (fried plantains) along with the no so traditional panqueques (pancakes or humorously translated as “bread what what”- people who know Spanish will understand this) and café (coffee).
After breakfast, we took a small bus to the nearby dock. We boarded the relatively small fiberglass skiff that probably sat about 20 people and didn’t look quite suitable for the very choppy waters of Lake Atitlán. Shortly after leaving the dock, the boat’s driver threw the boat into full throttle and we began zipping and skipping across the water, with a strong head-wind blowing our hair and splashing drops of cold water in our faces. The water was so choppy that the boat felt like it was bouncing off blocks of solid concrete rather than water. Nonetheless, we were distracted by the breathtaking view of the lovely blue-green white capped water together with three immense cone-shaped volcanos that were all around us.
It took about 20 minutes to cross the enormous lake when we finally arrived at the village of San Juan La Laguna on the southern shore of the lake. This is a
aquaint, charming and colorful village with very steep streets giving us plenty of exercise. Upon arriving, our tour guide, a pleasant local guy, pointed out that the top of the nearby mountain formed the silhouetted profile of a Mayan man lying down. It took us a while to make it out but there it was — we think. We then visited an artist’s
gallery and also a place where they made cloth items woven with naturally dyed cotton yarn of various thicknesses. They gave us an infomercial demonstration of the plants and related materials that are used to make the dyes. We were also shown how the raw cotton is dyed, spun into yarn, and then woven to make the beautiful cotton items that they were selling. Of course I had to buy something – a small embroidered table runner.
We then walked around for a little while exploring the village and seeing a number of beautiful and interesting murals and several nice shops. I managed to buy a woven multi-colored book bag for school. We then came across a shop which to our surprise had a large
selection of beautiful woven multi-colored yarmulkes which we certainly didn’t expect to find. So of course I had to buy two even though it was so hard to chose which ones since they were all wonderful. And I even learned the Spanish word for yarmulke — “yamaka.”
From there, it was a fairly short but still bumpy boat ride to our second village, San Pedro La Laguna on the southwestern shore. As we approached this picturesque little village with its houses and buildings nestled up the hillside, we noticed a fairly large hotel with an Israeli flag flying high above it. Apparently there is a sizable Israeli population there. The village seemed to cater to the hippie-ish earthy types. There were natural juice shops, yoga studios and restaurants offering organic, gluten-free, sustainable,
locally sourced and non-GMO food. And apparently marijuana is plentiful as well although it is not legal in Guatemala. Again, there were lots of shops selling the usual Guatemalan items. We didn’t stay all that long.
From there, we headed to our third village, Santiago, the largest town on the lake, which is across the lake and southwest of Panajachel. Our tour guide pointed out an older man wearing traditional embroidered lavender stripped pants. Apparently the women wear purple stripped skirts as well. Our group decided to have lunch at a small quaint restaurant that quickly became obviously overwhelmed by our group of maybe 12 to 15 people. We enjoyed a lunch of pepián de pollo (“comida típica”– a traditional Guatemalan chicken dish in a tasty dark sauce with carrots and quisquil (a local green squash-like vegetable tasting a bit like an artichoke heart) together with tortillas, rice and Coke Zero. Lunch unfortunately took a very long time because the restaurant was not equipped to handle the crowd.
After lunch, we took a quick walk to the center of town to visit Colonial Church
which was worth the effort. It was built in 1547 and is one of the oldest Catholic churches in Central America. It was simple but very nice with lots of ornate imágines (religious statutes) around the walls of the church. A memorial plaque along with posted information just inside the entrance commemorates Father Stanley Francis Rother, a missionary priest from Oklahoma who was apparently loved by the local people and considered to be somewhat of a local hero. Sadly, Rother was murdered by ultrarightists in the parish rectory next door to the church in 1981 during the political struggles in Guatemala.
On our way back, a lovely Mayan women demonstrated how to create a traditional Mayan Tocoyal “Hat” or head wrap from a single thick flat piece of woven
colored cotton . She seemed to have fun showing us and there were smiles all around. After our visit, we then headed back to the boat which took us to Panajachel. The water was so choppy by that point that the boat continually smacked the water so hard that we couldn’t wait to get off the boat.
That night, we walked around Panajachel again and then ended up at the Circus Bar restaurant, a really upbeat pizza and pasta place complete with great live music and filled with vintage circus items and posters. It was a very unique and fun-filled three-ring dining experience. Afterwards we walked along the main drag and caught a few more live bands playing in the local restaurants.
The next day, which took another 2-3 hour van ride to Chichicastenango which
is known for its gigantic Sunday open air mercado (market). When we got there, we were greeted by numerous “tour guides” offering to take us around since it was supposedly so easy to get lost in the enormous maze-like market. We took our chances. It was pretty amazing to experience such a huge mercado and no, we didn’t get lost except on purpose. The sights, sounds and smells enhanced the overwhelmingly great experience, especially in the areas where all types of food was being prepared and sold. It seemed like everything imaginable was being sold at the mercado from beautiful fruits and vegetables, to household items, woven products, toys, candles, clothing and more. There was even a woman selling some Guatemalan version of “snail oil.” Her passion was astounding! We bought several dozen sets of worry dolls (you never know when you’ll need them) from a wonderful young family that allowed us to take their photo. We
found a nice restaurant for lunch which was a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of the phrenetic chaotic mercado. We also visited the central cathedral, which was dark inside where we witnessed Mayan fire ceremonies of different indigenous people on the floor of the church burning candles, leaves and other items as they solemnly prayed on their knees.
After spending a few hours there, we eventually made our way back to the small van which was overly packed with passengers. Additional seats had clearly been added. It was a bit nerve wracking to be squished in but fortunately we made it back safely after the almost 3 hour trip to Antigua.
Aldous Huxley, the famous author of “Brave New World” (and who ironically lived on our street in Los Angeles) in his 1934 travel book, “Beyond the Mexique Bay” stated: “Lake Como [in Italy], it seems to me, touches the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanos. It really is too much of a good thing.” I am so glad that Lake Atitlán is too much of good thing since it absolutely must be one of the most beautiful places in the world. (Don’t miss all the photos that follow).
The celebration of Diá de la Independencia (the Guatemalan Independence Day) was great, however I never could have imagined the magnitude of the enormous religious procession coming up just 9 days later on September 24, 2018! El Jubileo De La Merced, an unbelievably impressive procession, was to commemorate the 800th (800th!!) anniversary of the founding of the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy (Orden de La Merced or Order of Merced) on August 10, 1218 in Barcelona, Spain, some 558 years before the founding of the United States!
This Order, known as the Mercedarians, established a church here in Guatemala back in 1548. The original church was destroyed by earthquakes and re-built a couple of times until the current structure dating back to the 1800s was built here in Antigua. The Iglesia de La Merced (Church of the Merced), where the procession began, is probably Antigua’s most ornate church and is quite beautiful. It is located just up the street from the Spanish school that I attend. This “jubilee” was a one-time celebration, not something that has happened ever before! And I was lucky enough to be here!
I learned that this was the procession of Jesús Nazareno de La Merced together with Nuestra Señora de La Merced (Virgin Mary). I had seen a map of the route and I noticed that it was actually coming down our street (where I live with the family) the day of the procession by early in the afternoon. On actual the day, I was eager to see the procession so walked up the route in reverse to try to find it. As I did, I came across beautiful alfombras (street carpets) that people had made or were in the process of putting the finishing touches on. Some were amazingly stunning!
In preparation for the procession, many neighborhoods and families had
created these beautiful alfombras which are made of sand, colored sawdust or plant materials such as pine needles, and decorated with plants, flowers, fruits and vegetables. (Alfombras are also made during the week before Easter so these are well-known in Antigua). Many people had begun very early in the morning to create them, constructing them directly on the cobblestone streets of Antigua.
In order to prepare the area for the alfombras, the cobbestones are covered with a layer of leveled sand to create a good base. Then plant materials such as flowers, leaves, flower petals and pine needles, or natural and colored sawdust is then used to create the carpets. The sawdust is prepared by sifting it through a screen to keep any rough pieces from ruining the intricate patterns that are soon to be created. Richly colored dyes are then added to the sawdust. Once the colored sawdust is ready, the beautiful carpets are created by spreading the prepared sawdust over the layer of sand. Then various designs inspired by Mayan tradition,
religious beliefs or nature are created using carefully hand-carved wooden stencils. Some of the stencils have been passed down from generation to generation but new ones are also created every year so the designs of the alfombras are always unique. People spend hours creating these amazingly intricate patterns. To keep wind from blowing the alfombras away, people use watering cans to keep the sawdust and plant materials wet and compacted.
As I continued to walk the alfombra-lined route in reverse, I passed a small
group of men dressed in dark suits preparing incensarios (thuribles, or religious incense burners), for the procession that would soon be arriving in the area. I eventually found the street where the procession was approaching very slowly about a block away. Powerful firecrackers split the air and rattled my eardrums periodically as part of the procession. Lots of people had gathered on the route and were eagerly awaiting the procession to arrive. There were lots of street vendors selling the usual toys, inflatables, candy, cotton candy and other food treats and balloons.
As the procession got closer, it was lead by people in religious clothing and
robes, some holding masts with banners and other related items. Some people, children included, were were swinging thuribles or religious incense burners producing dense clouds of grayish brown musty-smelling smoke. In the distance, I could hear the band playing sad dismal funereal music. Also in the distance, I could see what I thought was a float bearing statues of Jesus, Virgin Mary and a couple of other people, maybe saints, coming down the street. While I thought it was a float, I couldn’t figure out why it seemed to be swaying back and forth from side to side. It was huge and tall so ahead of it, men holding special long poles were lifting the overhead electric power lines up even higher to make sure the “float” could get through the narrow street.
However, as it got closer, to my disbelief, I was astounded to see that this
“float” was actually being carried by a huge number of people! There were no wheels! No wonder it was swaying! Essentially, they were carrying an enormous beautifully carved dark wooden platform or “anda” upon which were several giant, deeply dramatic and intricately detailed religious statute-like figures called imágenes católicas (Catholic images). They included an antique Baroque piece of Jesús Nazareno de La Merced bearing the weight of the cross he is carrying, dressed in a cardinal red velvet tunic with gold threads. There was another imágen of Nuestra Señora de La Merced wearing a beautiful gown in white and gold, and several others that were also very impressive. Each of the imágenes was magnificent.
It took at least 80 cargadores ( people who carry the anda), more than 40 on each side and one or more in the middle of the front and several in the back to carry the huge anda through the streets and avenues of Antigua! It actually is an honor to be able to carry it and people apparently pay money to be able to carry it for about a block and then another cargador rotates in. More than 4000 cargadores, both men and women wearing dark suits were lining the path in front of me as the procession slowly went by. These cargadores walked along waiting patiently for their turns which seemed to be organized very methodically and systematically. I could clearly see the pain in the cargadores‘ faces as they
strained to hold the immense weight of the massive imágenes-bearing anda. The procession route was also lined with thousands of parishioners and visitors who came, some from great distances, to witness the once-in-a-lifetime procession. The anda was followed by a large brass band playing very solumn funeral-like music that I read was written by Frederick Chopin and Guatemalan composers.
I literally stood in awe as this amazing procession passed me, the likes of which I had never seen. I waited for it to pass and then in my further disbelief, I realized that the beautiful alfombras that people had worked so hard to create were trampled and destroyed by the procession! I quickly learned that this is
actually part of the tradition. Apparently, the making of the alfombras in Antigua is sacrificial in nature. The people here believe that just like Jesus Christ sacrificed himself for mankind, the people of Antigua dedicate themselves to making these beautiful street carpets only to have them destroyed by the procession. Therefore, as soon as the procession passes, the cleaning team of men with shovels and brooms, along with a bulldozer and dumptruck are right behind it cleaning the sand, flowers, plant
materials and sawdust. A few sprinkles of colored sawdust of what had been unique beautiful works of art were all that remained.
Once the procession passed, I quickly made my way back to the house where I am living to meet up with the family. They were on the sidewalk outside the house waiting for the procession to arrive and they were excited to see me.
The family had actually made their own beautiful yet simple alfombra. A few days earlier, they told me about the procession and that they would be making an alfomfra. They said I was welcome to help them but by the time I arrived back to the house, they had already finished it. Nonetheless, it was a great time experiencing the procession a second time, especially this time with the family. Because the procession moved so slowly, it actually lasted 11 hours until it returned to the Church of the Merced! The next day, on my way to school, I saw additional crews working to clean up any materials that remained from the procession. As it turns out, my maestra at the Spanish school is a congregant at the Merced church. During class, she explained more about the procession and we actually walked up to the church which is just a couple of blocks up the street.
The giant anda was still inside the church being held up on giant sawhorses waiting for it to be moved to its storage area. It was so enormous, it had to be divided into 3 parts. Up close, I could see the intricate detail of the beautifully carved antique wood and the slightly-padded indentations where the people stood when carrying the anda on their shoulders during the procession. Each of the indentations were numbered to help organize the rotation of cargadores as it moves along. It was amazing to see this gigantic masterpiece close enough to touch it. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed inside the church.
The following additional photos were some of my favorites that helped capture this increíble (en-cray-eeb-lay – incredible) day that I will never forget.
It looked like a walking flock of blue and white flags of every size fluttering on the nearby street corner. I had just arrived in Antigua, had breakfast and I was off to explore the city. There must be a person in there somewhere. Eventually I saw a head pop up as he turned around. I actually wasn’t sure if these were Guatemalan flags that he was selling since I couldn’t recall ever seeing one. Or I wondered whether these could be flags for some other purpose. Was an anti-government protest in the making? Was soccer fever in the air? Maybe it was just Guatemalan patriotism so I kept walking and exploring, and I didn’t think much more about it.
As the days went by, I continued seeing these flag vendors occasionally in the streets. So I asked the next vendor that I saw about it but I coudn’t understand exactly what he was trying so say. “Diá de Independencia, diá de independencia.” I struggled to understand. I knew he wasn’t saying “oil can.” I heard “Independencia?” Oh, independence. Was this about seeking independence from what many people here believe to be a corrupt govenment? Could the Guatemalan Independence Day be coming up or was he talking about something else? I really wasn’t sure. So of course, I googled it. And I asked the family that I was living with about it too. Sure enough, I soon realized that the Guatemalan Diá de la Independencia (Independence Day) would be celebrated the upcoming Friday and Saturday, September 14 and 15th. What luck! I couldn’t have timed my arrival in Antigua any better. I had no idea.
There was going to be a two day celebration beginning on Friday and continuing all day on Saturday and into the evening. I then started to hear something about the torch runners but I wasn’t sure what they were talking about. However, during the days leading up to the holiday, I started seeing groups of mostly youngish guys running through the city streets making lots of noise.
I stood and watched one of the groups run by and it seemed to be good-natured fun and a chance to be a little rowdy. Guatemalans seem to like noise. I also found it hard to believe that they were actually running on the cobblestone streets since it can be so difficult to just try and walk on them! The family that I’m living with told me that the running of the torches is part of the celebration but they didn’t seem to like the idea and thought it was somewhat dangerous. They were probably right.
Doing a little Goggle research, as I tend to do when I’m curious, I learned that the torch represents the “the flame of liberty.” “La Antorcha” commemorates the independence from Spain on September 15, 1821 of Guatemala, and several other Central American countries including Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Carrying the torch through the streets represents the night before the historic day when riders at full gallop went through all of these Central American countries carrying the news of independence, proclaimed in Guatemala with the signing of an act by civil and religious authorities. Also on that night, independence hero, Maria Delores Bedoya, ran through the streets of Guatemala caring a lantern as a symbol of hope for the nations liberated. Now, the running of the torch preserves the tradition, and modern day participants seem to have lots of fun carrying the torch, making noise and trying not to set things on fire or sprain their ankles on the cobblestone streets of Antigua.
During the days leading up to the holiday, there were lots of firecrackers going off (more than usual) and there seemed to be a buzz of excitement and anticipation in the air. I noticed flags being hung all over the city’s buildings and they were flown in other places as well. I heard that there would be more torch runners and that there would be parades on Friday night and Saturday during the day and evening.
I had just started the Spanish immersion program a few days earlier on Monday just after I arrived in Antigua. The school invited everyone to a fiesta at the school that upcoming Friday to celebrate Diá de la Independencia. The fiesta was actually very nice. There was a large marimba band playing while local foods and drinks were served. Watching the marimba players was fascinating and the music was great. Marimba bands are extremely popular here in Guatemala.
And once you’ve had a chance to watch and hear one of these bands, you can easily see why. They’re wonderful. There’s something about marimba music that just makes you feel good. The coordination among the many musicians is really impressive to watch and even more impressive was the fact that the songs they play are fairly long yet none of the musicians were reading music-it was all memorized. As part of the celebration, they sang the national anthem which is actually quite long and has numerous stanzas. I enjoyed hearing the many voices as the local students and teachers sang with pride for their country. The speakers talked about the inaccurate reputation of their country and how it actually has many good qualities along with its vast beauty.
The food was interesting and tasty, mostly finger foods with the sauces made from tomatoes, tomatillos, cheese and avocado. They had chicharrónes (fried pork skin) which seems to be a Latin favorite. I passed- I’ve had them before. With some of the foods, I wasn’t completely sure what I was eating but it was all really flavorful. They also served the rice-based cold drink, horchata, that is sweet and tastes of cinnamon or other spices which I found quite refreshing. I ate with one of the teachers and a pleasant middle aged couple who were learning Spanish to help with their missionary work. They apparently go to many countries especially in Latin American and carry the word of Jesús to the indigenous people living there. They uniquely use puppets and costumes to do their work which creates lots of attention and attracts lots of people.
Walking home after school, I continued to feel the energy and mounting excitement all around me. After dinner, I walked to the central park square. The evening parade had already begun and seemed fairly short, comprised mostly of musical bands of school age kids.
There was a big marimba band playing in the corner of the park with colorful spotlights making the area very festive. The music was great but the thumping bass was so loud, I could feel my insides vibrating. I saw a couple of torch runners run by in small groups attracting lots of attention and some cheers. I also saw some motorcycle riders getting ready to carry there torches on their motorcycles through the city’s streets.
I found myself somewhat on edge as I anticipated the loud deafening boom of the next firecracker that I was sure would go off any second. It did and I jumped-of course! And then there was another. And then another.
The following morning, I got up early to make sure that I had a good spot on the parade route. The parade started at the central park punctually at 8 AM. It was an amazing assortment of marching bands, a firetruck, dancers, people in masks and on stilts, people wearing traditional Guatemalan clothing and of course baton twirlers.
I loved watching the parade but I also enjoyed watching the crowd along with the colorful street vendors selling everything from parasols-it was sunny that day-multi-colored cotton candy, inflatable and other types of toys, balloons, bubble blowers and many types of sweet and savory food treats.
The parade lasted for four hours. Yep, four hours! I stayed the entire time since I didn’t want to miss anything. As things seemed to wind down, I decided to walk to Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the cross), where a large oversized 1930’s cross sits on a hill directly north and right in the middle of Antigua. On the way, I ended up walking through an interesting neighborhood that reminded me of some of the hilly neighborhoods around Silver Lake or Los Feliz in Los Angeles. I climbed the many steps to get up the hill marveling at the work that must have gone into making them. It was a pretty walk through a very green and heavy wooded area which took roughly 15 minutes.
The climb was well-worth it as the view was incredible! The entire city of Antigua was visible along with dramatic backdrop of the inactive Volcán de Agua in the distance directly south. There were numerous street vendors there as well (of course). While I was up there, I met a nice couple from the U.S. and their Guatemalan daughter. The mom and daughter ended up being students at my school.
By then, it was already getting late in the afternoon and the sky of dark clouds was threatening rain. As I came back down through the city streets, to my surprise, I intercepted the bands again from the parade and some of the dancers.
Apparently, all of the participants in the parade had marched up to the local stadium. And evidently, they were now doing the parade in reverse back to the central park! I found myself direcly on the route of the parade as it was returning. While I watched for a while, I decided to head back down to the park which was packed with people by the time I arrived. Some of the bands were surrounding the park and all of these bands were playing their different songs at the same time.
It was a cacophony of unrecognizable loud musical mush of brass instruments, xylophones and drums. This went on for quite some time. And it was loud.
Eventually, the bands got quieter as some politicians who had gathered on a prefab stage in the park started to speak. The whole crowd sang the national anthem which went on for several minutes given its length. I enjoyed hearing the many voices in surround sound singing the pleasant sounding anthem in unison.
I felt a little self-conscious not joining them but of course I didn’t know the tune or the words. When a female politician began speaking at the podium, the people in attendance started to boo but I had no idea why. In fact, I wasn’t initially sure that they were actually booing.
Nonetheless, it had been a long day and it was starting to lightly rain so I decided to leave. As I was walking away, I asked a couple of local Guatemalan guys why the people were making noise. Apparently, it was booing. The woman was the mayor of Antigua and she evidently had done some things regarding water rights impacting Antigua that had angered a lot of people. (Sounds a bit like California.) As I got further away, I continued to hear the booing of the crowd intercepted by an occasional smack of a firecracker that split the air. And of course, I jumped. The following photos capture more of my amazing day. It was such a great unexpected surprise to have arrived in Antigua just in time to experience the wonderful celebration of the Guatemala’s Diá de la Independencia.