Published April 24, 2009
Tags: Lago de Atitlan, Maximón
The volcano-ringed Lago de Atitlan has been attracting tourists to its shores for decades. The lake is beautiful, though as it turns out, the real attractions are the several small villages surrounding the lake. Somehow, despite the influx of tourists in recent years, the traditions of the indigenous communities that surround the lake and stretch across the highlands remain strong. It’s not uncommon to see people washing clothes, swimming and even bathing along the shores of Lake Atitlan. Nor is it uncommon to see people in traditional dress carrying impossible loads of firewood and other supplies on their heads. In fact, for many in these communities, Spanish is a second language and a surprising number of people speak little or no Spanish at all.
Traveling from Quetzaltenango, better known as Xela, we arrived in the village of San Pedro la Laguna. San Pedro is located across the lake from Panajachel, the largest of the lakeside villages and easiest to reach from both Antigua and Guatemala City. San Pedro’s location is slightly more remote and more difficult to access. Instead of a large tourist population, this small village is home to a colorful group of expats and attracts a steady stream of backpackers and wanderers. Narrow paved alleyways snake through the center of town connecting the town’s two docks. San Pedro offers a wide array of basic budget rooms and we had no problem finding a nice room with a shared bath and kitchen access for only 40 Q/night, or about $5.
Two days turned into three and then four and before we knew it we had been hanging around for almost a week. And then there’s Maximón…
From San Pedro it’s an easy and inexpensive lancha ride to the other lakeside villages including Santiago Atitlan which is home to Maximón the Maya god of drinking and smoking. A wooden figure, draped in silk scarves and smoking a cigar, Maximón resides in the home of a member of the town’s cofradia (Maya Catholic brotherhood). Maximón moves from home to home each year, a custom that local anthropologists believe were established to maintain the local balance of power. Even so, he’s not too difficult to locate and just about anyone in the town will point you in the right direction.
We found Maximón in a small home at the top of a hill behind the town’s church. Surrounded by candles, guarded by locals and worshipped frequently, visiting Maximón requires an offering of a few quetzales (a few extra if you want a photo). And if you’re so inclined, he also enjoys Payaso cigarettes and Venado rum. Interestingly, Maximón also makes an appearance alongside the figures of Jesus in Santiago Atitlan’s Semana Santa processions. It has been suggested that the confrontation between the two on Good Friday symbolizes the battle between Christianity and pagan religions.
Published April 14, 2009
Tags: Antigua, Semana Santa
Easter came and went for us this year without pink bunnies, egg hunts or baskets of candy. Instead, we spent the holiday taking in the stunning Semana Santa, or Holy Week, celebrations in Antigua, Guatemala. Made up of a series of candle light vigils and processions through the streets of town, Antigua’s celebration of Semana Santa is one of the largest in all of Central America and draws thousands of visitors from all over the world.
Beginning during the weekends leading up to Holy Week, elaborate processions make their way around town led by young boys swinging incense burners as clouds of the thick smoke fill the air. Groups of as many as 80 or 100 men adorned in purple robes carry platforms with the images of Jesus on their shoulders as they walk over beautiful alfombras that carpet the cobblestone streets. Women carry slightly smaller platforms with the image of Mary. Marching bands playing funeral music follow behind.
The platforms or loads carried by the men can weigh as much as 5000 or 6000 pounds and the women’s slightly less. Though they switch groups of carriers every block, you can still see the strained looks on their faces and imagine the challenge of carrying so much weight. Though for many, if not all, it’s an honor to be part of the processions and even more so to carry the images. This is especially apparent when you see the parents who take their turn carrying the platforms while holding their young child in the other arm.
The longest and most elaborate day of celebrations takes place on Good Friday. It’s a long day with the first procession departing La Merced church around 3 a.m. and the final procession coming to an end around 4:30 a.m. the following morning. People from outlying towns as well as tourists from neighboring El Salvador, Honduras and many other international locations crowd the streets camping out in the Central Park and sleeping outside churches. For many it’s a night without sleep as people stay up creating colorful alfombras from dyed sawdust or simply wandering the streets marveling at the creations of others before the processions come through and the works of art are destroyed. We were up along with everyone else at 3 a.m. and we made it until about 1 a.m the following morning when we finally decided to call it a night.
That same day at noon a re-enactment of the crucifixion is staged in the Parque Central. Then at 3 p.m. the thousands of people taking part in the processions change from purple to black robes and the processions become even more like funeral processions. At any given time throughout the day these processions, which typically last for 12 hours, could be seen weaving up and down the narrow streets, strategically navigating corners while crowds of people follow behind carrying flowers and praying. The festivities come to an end on Easter Sunday when one final procession makes it’s way through the streets accompanied by firecrackers.
Semana Santa in Antigua definitely makes it to the top of our list of best festivals and events. It’s a must see!
And most importantly, everyone has a great time!
Published April 8, 2009
Framed by three volcanoes, one of which can be seen puffing out clouds of smoke above the colored rooftops, La Antigua Guatemala is a picturesque town located about an hour’s drive from the country’s capital. With beautiful vistas at every turn, it’s one of the most visited towns in Guatemala as well as one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of Central America. Like Cuernavaca in Mexico, Antigua is nicknamed the City of Eternal Spring for it’s near perfect climate. The town is a mix of amazing architecture, ancient ruins, stunning churches, countless language schools and a cosmopolitan array of restaurants, cafés and shops.
Despite all of it’s modernity, Antigua, like San Cristóbal de las Casas, is deeply embedded in the world of the modern Maya. People in colorful traditional dress crowd the streets carrying baskets on the tops of their heads, babies strapped to their backs with pieces of cloth. Indigenous artisan’s markets can be found next door to high end clothing stores. Outdoor tortilla stands crowd the streets in front of fancy restaurants and five star hotels. And repainted schoolbuses commonly referred to as chicken buses belch out thick clouds of black smoke as they bounce up and down the cobblestone streets. Not surprisingly, they always manage to fit another person in alongside the others already crowded into the aisles, hanging from the doorways and occasionally lounging on the rooftop luggage racks.
It’s been just over six months since we left the U.S. and slightly less since we packed our bags and began traveling. Here in Antigua we’ve rented a room in a guesthouse with a communal kitchen that doubles as an dining and entertainment space. Several times throughout the week bus-loads of tourists arrive, the people running the guesthouse prepare meals and mariachi bands show up to provide the entertainment. We’ve spent several evenings enjoying the music from our room on the second floor while waiting for our turn to use the kitchen. I’ve taken advantage of the fact that we’re hanging around here for a few weeks leading up to the incredible Semana Santa celebrations and enrolled in language classes at Cooperación Spanish School. And in addition to becoming more accustomed to the differences in culture and lifestyle, it appears that my Spanish is finally beginning to improve, finally!
Published April 2, 2009
Consisting of nothing more than an electric heating device attached to a cold water shower, Guatemala’s electric shower provides hot water while offering an alternative to the high cost of gas. The water temperature is controlled by the amount of water released through the shower head. So far everywhere we’ve stayed in Guatemala has had this type of shower. For the most part they work well, assuming of course that you don’t mind the smell of something burning while in the shower and that you remember to avoid contact with the shower head or risk an electric shock.
Ironically, just a few days after originally posting this, the electric heating device on our shower stopped working. We spent the next week waiting for the maintenance guy to show up (he never did) and sneaking into the empty room next door to use the shower there, that is until it caught on fire and we had to resort back to cold showers. Although, as of this morning the shower in our room has been repaired and we’re hoping to get through the rest of the week without any surprises. I guess these electric showers don’t work quite as well as we had originally thought…
Revised 4/7 /09
Published March 28, 2009
Tags: Antigua, Chichicastenango
Chichicastenango is famous for it’s indigenous market which is one of Guatemala’s largest. Every Thursday and Sunday people from all over the Guatemalan highlands stream into Chichi to buy and sell an array of goods including colorful textiles, artisans, fruits, vegtables, flowers and farm animals.
On Sundays people in traditional clothing crowd the steps of the church as firecrackers explode just a few feet away and elaborate processions make their way inside. The red tube on the steps is used to launch the firecrackers, so you can see how close to the crowd they really are.
Rising 2552 meters, Volcán Pacaya is the nearest active volcano to Antigua and makes for a challenging and exciting climb. Once at the top it’s possible to get within feet of glowing rivers of lava. Not to mention, the view of the three other volcanoes in the distance is outstanding.
These guys brought their baby along for the climb.
And here’s Carlos roasting marshmallows over the lava.
Be sure to check out the rest of our Volcán Pacaya photos on flickr!
Published March 18, 2009
Tags: Antigua, El Remate, Tikal
We made El Remate our base for exploring the ruins at Tikal. An enchanting village on the lakes of Lago de Petén Itzá, El Remate is a small town, little more than a few posadas and comedores, located along the main road linking Flores and Tikal. It’s a quiet, mellow place where farm animals roam wild and goats outnumber cars.
After a couple very pleasant, relaxing days in El Remate we bused to Guatemala City with plans to continue on to Quetzaltenango. What was supposed to be a six hour ride turned into eight and we decided to stop over in Antigua instead. It was getting late so we ended up splitting a taxi the remainder of the way with a nice Antigua resident, Edward, originally from Chicago and on his way back from renewing his paperwork at the border between Guatemala and Honduras.
Almost a year to the date of my last visit to Antigua, this town was my first introduction to Latin America and remains one of my favorites. Carlos took an immediate liking to it as well and within a few hours we decided to put our trip to Quetzaltenango on hold and hang around for a while. The next morning we were out apartment hunting and by late afternoon we had secured a place through Semana Santa.