Out and About in the Mayan Highlands

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
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Sunday, March 21, 2004

We must first reassure everyone who e-mailed us after we last wrote about our van breaking down, concerned that we were totally stranded and offering all manner of help. We are pleased to report that we now have a new ignition coil fitted, and in fact the van seems to be running better than ever. We really do expect to encounter a variety of problems on our trip, and so we are prepared to deal with them as best we can. In fact, we view them as an opportunity to meet new people and have different and interesting experiences. After all, if we didn't want any "adventures" we could have stayed at home and watched TV, or taken a series of package tours and stayed in five star hotels!!

Now that we are fully mobile again, we have been taking the opportunity to visit more of the interesting towns and villages around the highlands, and we will attempt to give you a brief glimpse of this beautiful and fascinating area of the world. Although it is still dry season and the patchwork of small fields is still generally brown and dusty (when the rains arrive in May they will all be hand-planted with the staple crops of maize, beans and squash), there are areas of small-scale irrigation which provide welcome patches of green - tomatoes, onions, broccoli and cabbage for the local markets. In every direction the views are breathtaking and you never know what stunning vista is around the next bend in the road, whether volcano, lake or mountain range.

A couple of hours drive from Lago de Atitlán, the beautiful colonial city of Antigua is nestled at the base of Volcán Agua. It was previously known by the impressive title of La Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala, and was the capital city of Spanish Central America for nearly 250 years until it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1773. The capital was then moved further east to the current site of Guatemala City (unfortunately also very prone to earthquake damage), while Antigua was left to the slow process of reconstruction. Today its handsome colonial architecture and crumbling ruins of ornate baroque churches and convents of another era, are complemented by a busy central park and the bustling energy of a large market and bus station. However, Antigua has been very successful in preserving its distinguished and quietly charming atmosphere, maybe partly because the city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

It was a treat for us to wander the grid system of cobblestoned streets and enjoy the craftsmanship of carved wooden doorways and wrought iron window bays, clay-tiled roofs and half-hidden inner courtyards bursting with bougainvillea, bird-of-paradise, orchids and other brilliantly coloured tropical flowers and shrubs. It took us back to our first visit in 1978, when we stayed for three months to learn Spanish before going off to work in the altiplano of Perú for three years. At that time we lived with a Guatemalan family and immersed ourselves in the joys and trials of discovering a new language and culture. This time it was a serendipitous opportunity for us to meet up with Sharon's sister Bonnie and her husband Bob who were here visiting friends who run an international program for young people from North America (doubly serendipitous as it was these young people that were such a great help with the van breakdown).

An hours drive from the hacienda in the opposite direction is the small town of Chichicastenango, famed for its colourful markets and traditional Mayan way of life. The Sunday market is reputedly one of the largest indigenous markets in Guatemala, and although it initially served local needs it now largely caters to the busloads of tourists laden down with their cameras, shopping for souvenirs to take home. The whole square in front of the church of Santo Tomás is set up with stalls jam-packed with lengths of brilliantly coloured embroidered cloth, bright shirts and skirts, handicrafts and carved wooden masks. Almost hidden within the centre of the market is a large area of food stalls serving tortillas, frijoles con arroz, bistec, pollo asado, enchiladas and tamales. A separate covered central market is devoted to a dazzling array of vegetables, fruit and basic staples for the everyday needs of the local people. Our impression was that the market has tripled in size since we visited 25 years ago, and it is still a fascinating experience to watch the bustling interaction of vendors, local buyers and tourists. A visit to Chichi is a must if you are in Guatemala, and it's a good chance to see ancient Mayan ceremonies intertwined with catholic incense-burning rites practised on the stone steps in front of Santo Tomás.

Back on the shores of Lago de Atitlán in the little village of Panjachel, the atmosphere is definitely more secular, and the nickname of Gringotenango is well earned. Back in the 60's and 70's Pana became a haven for hippies and other young travellers seeking a more laid-back lifestyle in an equitable climate, and it continues today, albeit with a more cosmopolitan flavour. The main street is lined with stalls selling weavings and embroidered textiles - most notably the beautiful traje and guipils - set up in front of a bewildering selection of small restaurants and bars. Down at the water's edge there is a steady stream of small boats arriving and departing for the many other villages around the lake, all taking place under the stern and constant supervision of Volcánes San Pedro, Tóliman and Atitlán. We visited destinations such as San Marcos, Jaibilito and Santa Cruz which mainly seemed to attract young people seeking more tofu recipes or alternative therapies, as well as Santiago Atitlán and San Antonio which appealed more to us for their glimpses of traditional Mayan ways of life.

Travelling through the highlands as observers we could not help but be impressed again with the gentle friendly people and the feeling of peace and tranquillity of their simple lifestyle. However, gentle and friendly as the people may be, in reality their life is harsh and difficult, as they eke out a living from subsistence agriculture. Since the days of the Spanish conquistadores the Mayan people have been oppressed and disenfranchised, and their history has been marked by violence as they have tried to maintain their rights and traditions. Their struggle for equality during the 18th and 19th centuries was played out against the power struggles of the liberal and conservative factions, first of the colonial forces and subsequently of the governments after independence from Spain. Time and again the indigenous Mayan people suffered at the expense of the economic elite, and were often the worst affected by natural disasters such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. In more recent days, the civil war from 1960 to 1996 pitted guerrilla groups against military governments and claimed 200,000 lives, countless more "desaparacidos" and left an estimated million people homeless. Since then, there have been some small gains in human rights and improved indigenous social services, but abuses continue despite the promises of successive governments. National elections in January this year have again resulted in promises to improve the political, economic and social situation for the indigenous people in Guatemala. Only time will tell whether they will be fulfilled. As we all know, newly formed governments and recently elected political leaders are often long on promises and short on performance....in any country in the world!
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