The Western Highlands of Guatemala

Trip Start Jan 12, 2007
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Trip End Nov 19, 2007


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Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Before leaving on our trip we had envisioned Mexico and Central America to be full of markets where we could buy exquisite handicrafts at dirt cheap prices. Not so. Or at least not in the places we had been so far. Most of the markets we had visited were stocked with cheap imported goods from Asia.

But Guatemala's Western Highlands were different, as they are populated by various Mayan groups that have lived there for over 2000 years and managed to hold on to their ancient languages, dress and traditions. And it was the Mayan presence and their bedazzling markets that made our 9 days here the most interesting leg of the entire trip from a "we are experiencing another culture" perspective.

We had left La Libertad, El Salvador early in the morning on September 29 which allowed us to arrive in Antigua, Guatemala's former capital, by mid afternoon. With cobblestone streets, beautifully restored colonial-era buildings and towering volcanoes flanking it on 3 sides, Antigua was easy to like and we immediately placed it on our "top 3" of cities we had been to on the trip. The area around El Arco (The Arch) de Santa Catalina in particular had enough charm to rival Europe's finest neighborhoods, and is no doubt one of the reasons why Antigua was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

The number of tourists in Antigua also rivals that found in Europe's great cities, with the year-round spring climate (we wore sweaters at night-a first in 8 months of travel) and abundance of Spanish schools (Guatemalans are known for speaking Spanish with a particularly clear accent) also adding to its appeal.

Although the influx of foreigners has led to the opening of things that cater to them - upscale hotels, restaurants and stores - Antigua is still home to a large Mayan population, as is most evident on market days (Mondays and Thursdays) when the vendors come armed with big baskets full of fruits, vegetables and other goods to sell. The mixing of these two worlds - Mayan and foreign - provided us with some wonderfully incongruent images: like standing in line at a McDonalds behind a Mayan family that was in its traditional dress and speaking an unrecognizable tongue.

Although Antigua was largely spared from the horrific violence that rocked Guatemala in recent decades (leaving 100,000 dead and creating, by some estimates, about 1 million refugees), and although the peace agreement that ended Guatemala's civil war was signed over 10 years ago, there was a more vigilant approach to security in western Guatemala than in any of the other countries we had visited. For example, there was a strong military/police presence on the streets, no one left their car on the streets at night, and many businesses, including our hotel, kept their front door locked at all times. Because of this, we followed our guide book's advice and opted for the escorted (2 police officers) 20-minute walk that took us from the centre of town up to Cerro de la Cruz, a small hill with a cross that overlooks the city.

After 4 nights in Antigua we made our way northwest to Panajachel, a small but growing town on the north side of Lago Atitlan, Guatemala's largest lake. Panajachel is one of the few towns on the lake that can be accessed by vehicle, albeit by way of a windy and very steep road that hugs the side of a cliff and that probably tests the brakes on the best of cars, much less a tired 1987 VW van.

With shimmering water and surrounded by volcanoes (Guatemala, which is about the size of Tennessee, has 33 volcanoes, 3 of which are currently active), Lago Atitlan is touted as one of the most beautiful areas in Central America. We didn't experience it at its best - the volcanoes were socked in by the clouds for much of our 5 days there - but there were enough breaks that we got a taste of the landscape.

Prior to Panajachel we had camped in the van only 1 night in the last month and a half, as we had stayed in Meghan and Davis' spare cabin at Chilamate for a month and then in hotels and guesthouses as we worked our way north through Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador. (Truth be told, we prefer staying in the van over most of the hotels and hostels that our budget allows for; we know the van is clean and relatively bug-free!). But the campsite here - Hotel Vision Azul - made the transition back to camping easy, as we were the only ones in a large grassy field that was just a stone's toss from the lake.

Hotel Vision Azul is about a 15 minute walk from the centre of town, and as it happened we had arrived at Panajachel in the midst of its annual blowout festival that celebrates San Francisco de Asis. This meant that the town was full of people and alive with religious processions, fireworks, amusement park rides and dancing (organized dance groups during the day, with the dancers wearing white masks that represented the Spanish conquistadors; drunk men in a mosh pit at night).

We used Panajachel as the jumping off point to access nearby towns on their various market days, including the Saturday market at Solola (see below) and the Sunday market at Chichicastenango (also below). On another day, we took a boat tour of the entire lake ($10 each), visiting some of the towns that were not accessible by car (and where we spent time haggling over masks, prints, blankets, and other assorted handicrafts). Although the markets and stores in Panajachel itself cater heavily to the tourist crowd, the prices were low and the quality high, and so we also spent a lot of time there haggling with the vendors over various odds and ends.

We also liked Lago Atitlan for another reason: during one of those rare late afternoon breaks in the clouds that allowed us to see the full lake and the surrounding volcanoes, and while drinking cheap wine out of cheap orange plastic wine glasses, I put a plastic ring on Ades' finger and she agreed to be my wife.

From Panajachel we followed the Interamerican Highway north 4 hours or so to Huehuetenango, where we spent our last night (October 8) in Central America, feeling a sense of relief that we had escaped unscathed and excited to be returning to Mexico. Fittingly, we were surrounded by grazing cows as we ate our last dinner in the van.

Highlights:

-Volcano Pacaya, near Antigua: Although the tour bus left Antigua at 6 a.m., and though we had to drive for an hour and then hike straight up a mountain for 45 minutes, the view at the top was worth it: we were left within a few feet of a 2,000 C degree crackling molten riverbed, which gave off an incredible amount of heat (so much so that the sole on one of Adrienne's shoes melted).

-Saturday market, Solola: Solola is only a 20-minute bus ride up the hill from Panajachel and so we headed there for their Saturday market. Unlike some of the markets in Guatemala this one was clearly for the locals as it had aisle after aisle of tightly packed stalls selling fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and other foods, as well as clothes and furniture. After navigating the impossibly tight corridors of the market, we spent a couple of hours sitting in the town plaza watching Mayan families socializing and enjoying time with their families. It was one of our "pinch-me" moments of the trip, as it was easy to imagine the market being pretty much the same 100, 500 or 1000 years ago.

-Sunday market, Chichicastenango: The "Chichi" market is generally considered to be one of the best, if not the best, market in Guatemala for handicrafts. Although it was overrun with idling tour buses, it was still well worth the visit, as it was massive and packed with high-quality stuff. The best part though is that the market stalls are laid out around a church - Iglesia de Santo Tomas - that practices a religion that blends ancient Mayan practices with Catholicism. The action centered on the stairs of the church and with incense burning, drums beating, candles flickering, and colour bursting out everywhere, it provided us with the most amazing sensory overload of the entire trip.

Lowlights:

-the InterAmerican Highway: At least 2/3rds of the highway in Guatemala is currently dug up and under construction, making for grueling driving with long delays, terrible dust, lots of confusion and near misses because of unclear or non-existent road signs. While we were stopped on one section a massive boulder fell from a cliff and onto the side of the road, maybe 5 metres from the van. On the bright side, the heavy traffic allowed my navigator to relax a little, as the chances of being car-jacked seemed pretty slim (part of the navigator's job involved diligently/neurotically checking the Canada & US government travel advisory websites on Guatemala to get the latest info on attacks against foreigners).
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