Guatamala – And Now for Something Completely Different… by Dorothy Howson
I never imagined that I would ever find myself in a place like Guatemala, but life is full of surprises. After having looked at the map to check I knew where it was (in Central America !), I set off on my adventure feeling a little like Michael Palin.
There are no direct flights to Guatemala so we had to change planes at Houston and, after 11¼ hours flying and a 45 minute drive we finally arrived in the old city of Antigua.
Antigua has a unique colonial charm. It was Guatemala’s capital until it was damaged by a large earthquake in 1773. Since then time seems to have passed it by leaving an assortment of partly restored churches, cathedrals, convents and walls that hide the beautiful courtyards filled with flowers, fountains and magnificent archways.
Its 4½ square miles of cobbled streets contain 38 churches built in between earthquakes over many centuries. Unlike a number of countries where the local people have become westernised many locals, particularly women, still wear their traditional and very colourful costumes as they continue about their daily business.
A 2½ hour drive brings you to the Highland Region and Lake Atitlan which lies in the crater formed by a volcanic explosion that blew the top off a mountain. This magnificent lake is surrounded by small villages and spectacular volcanoes. From our hideaway hotel we travelled by boat to the small village of Santiago Atitlan, which is one of 12 small but lively villages that surround the lake where the women still bring their laundry to the lake’s edge to wash.
On arrival at the landing we were immediately surrounded by a group of children selling hand made bead necklaces, bracelets and key rings. Tell them your name and they will quickly craft you a penwith your name neatly embroidered down the side – how can you not buy it!
These children need no courses in salesmanship!! While here we were able to visit a traditional house where the owner made her living weaving cloth. Each one takes about 8 days to make and sells for around £7.00, a very small return for a weeks work. The village is also home to the Mayan god Maximon. The Mayan people travel from the surrounding villages to visit this wooden image which has the face of a man and is adorned with a felt hat, cowboy boots and a multitude of coloured scarves.
They offer gifts of cigarettes, which are lit and placed in its mouth, and fire water (the local hooch). In return they hope for good luck, rain and healthy crops. Next to Maximon was a glass case containing the image of Jesus Christ covered with lights that flash to the tune of Jingle Bells and Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer! It was a most bizarre experience. Interestingly, it is common for the Mayans to conduct their own rituals within the Catholic churches.
The next day we left for the market at Chichicastenango which is held twice a week.
It is a very large market and well worth a visit as the locals come from miles around to sell here. You can buy anything from masks, rugs and bed linen to tomatoes. It is very colourful with the people wearing their traditional dress, and many a bargain can be struck especially if you can speak a little Spanish (the official language of Guatemala.)
On our way back to Antigua we stopped at a coffee plantation to learn about the coffee making process from the plant to the cup. Guatemala is the 5th largest exporter of coffee and produces the best quality coffee after Ethiopia and Kenya.
Each coffee plant produces only 1 lb of coffee each year which probably explains why it is so expensive.
The next morning we flew the 500km to the Peten area in the North of Guatemala. It is here, deep in the lowland jungles, where the lost worlds of Mayan cities and pyramids can be found. We visited the third largest known Mayan site of Yaxha.
Much smaller than the16 square kilometre site at Tikal, it still has over 500 structures and also the opportunity to see the spider and howler monkeys and all manner of birds including toucans. From the top of the temples you can hear the monkeys as they make their way through the trees below, and as you sit watching the sunset looking down onto the trees the sound is strangely prehistoric.
The larger site at Tikal was the most important business centre during Mayan times because of its geographical location. It is thought that 100,000 people lived in the community. Construction began in 600BC and it was inhabited for one millennium.
There are over 3,000 structures in Tikal to explore.
Guatemala is a country of contrasts and surprises. It offers an unparalleled variety of landscapes and weather. There are mountains, lakes, tropical rainforests, volcanoes, world class archaeological sites, colourful markets and friendly people. If you’re looking for something different, Guatemala should be on your list of places to visit.