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Published: September 12th 2015
The flight into Guatemala City was pretty spectacular because the plane had to skirt around two lofty towers of cumulonimbus
clouds with the sun setting behind them. The greater intensity of Guatemala City was immediately obvious at the airport. More pushy taxi touts, and more serious frowns on the crowd. Bill's friend David met us at the exit and took us across town to his family's lovely home in a gated community within GC.
They generously provided a lovely meal of beef, wild mushrooms and asparagus souffle, and more alcohol than one could respectfully accept. We drank a lot, and really enjoyed the Guatemalan rum "Zacapa" as well as a Spanish sherry in the solero style called "Cardinal Mendoza". Later when I visited Dan Murphys
on the web, I was only able to find Romate Cardinel, a sherry. Obviously rare stuff. We enjoyed wonderful conversation with David's wife and two daughters, and he dropped us back into the Radisson in GC's "live zone" later on. We chose to stay at the Radisson as GC is a bit of a wild place - and they had their own security staff with machine guns.
Picked up by Eduardo at 0730 and
headed out of town. Eduardo had had a career in travel and was recommended to us by David: turns out they are cousins in law. He had hired a minibus for us all, and was to drive and guide us across Guatemala, finishing at Tikal.
Once out of the live zone
the streets and favelas of GC are relatively rough. We made our way through town to the Pan-American highway being passed by motorbikes of all shapes and sizes - mostly big. The town itself sits at about 1000m above sea level and the highway snakes up the mountains from there. Turns out because it was a Sunday many bikers were heading out for a spin up the range, and presumably even more so down the range. They absolutely roared past our private minibus and no coppers
to be seen.
We climbed steadily higher on the concrete-slab highway. Once out of the urban sprawl the scenery became spectacular again. Like Costa Rica but dirtier. Breakfast was down the track by two hours and at a Mayan community restaurant. Apparently put together by the community for the families of those who lost husbands and sons during the troubles of
the 80s. Hearty fare with great juices and black corn tortillas. On through the countryside and over a pass of some 2700m. At various spots political rallies spilled out onto the roads. We passed through one market area that was not for tourists - locals only. Got to Chichicastenango which is a Mayan trading and religious centre, and thus a tourist centre. Walked through narrow lanes with shop after shop of woven fabrics, household items and touristic artefacts. We were careful for pick pockets. The women and girls were dressed in traditional woven and embroidered cloth. A blouse and piece of cloth wrapped around the waist and tied with a woven band. Beautiful cloth and both Wendell and Catherine bought some pieces. Some of the Mayan women were very persistent, but not as aggressive as other places: most notably India.
The Franciscan church in the middle of it dated back to the 16th century. Christian artefacts and icons as well as places for the Mayans to make sacrifices to their own. Around the square itself there was plenty of public drunkeness - the men of course.
Onwards to the PanAmerican and past long lines of political fans. Baldizone's
party's name "Lider" was pasted or painted onto almost every visible space including rocks embedded in the edges of road cuttings and electricity poles! Eventually we started to drop down towards the Lake Atitlan. Very steep switch backs and occasional glimpses of the lake. Buses and heavy trucks were climbing up. Eventually we got to a non-descript gate about 100m above the lake near San Pedro la Laguna. We were met by Eduardo's wife Olga and checked into the rustic cottages which were nice but unfortunately right on the road. We enjoyed simple sandwiches for dinner on their verandah. Watched for and identified many birds using the Peter Johnson field guide. Nice hosts who had developed this B&B in order to retire from teaching and real estate development. Many stories about the impact of the troubles on ordinary people and the widespread fear of simply disappearing.
Bill and Wendell were first up the next day, photographing birds and butterflies. Olga and Eduardo, plus maid Rosita joined us. Rosita tried to teach us some of the local Mayan language. Deeply guttural and subtly tonal. Beautiful breakfast of local produce: yoghurt, honey, fruits, fresh bread and great coffee. Eduardo took us
around two villages to San Juan la Leguna and we walked around the backpacker streets among little bars and massage joints until the ferry to Santiago was scheduled to leave. The shoreline was interesting because the water level has risen inexplicably over the last few years and inundated many houses. The trip across to Santiago took about 20 minutes across calm waters. The jetty was incredibly rickety supported by thin wooden pillows, and it swayed as we walked into the village. A working market here, with vegetables and other food, as well as textiles - nonetheless some tourist trash and touts. Up to a Franciscan church dating back to 1547. Again mixtures of Christian and Mayan iconography.
The next attraction was Maximon:
a religious icon of some notoriety. We took an Asian-style Tuk-tuk to a non-descript house outside of the village. Bill had obtained the directions because Maximon
moves every year. To the side of a corridor between little houses, an enclosed presentation area had been created. Maximon
or at least a statue of him had been mounted in the Centre of the room. Candles to the front, Christian icons to his side, disciples around and to the back.
The disciples were providing him with cigarettes and cigars, and then lighting them. Also they would lean the statue back so as to pour strong alcohol down his throat. This was done with great care so as not to spill any alcohol or treat him with disrespect. The disciples themselves were very drunk and probably not for the first time. When a worshipper came to visit, he would speak to Maximon
, offer something, perhaps wash themselves in alcohol and then make the signs of the cross across their chests before departing. Completely confusing and a remarkable fusion of two religious systems.
We headed back to our B&B by boat and by foot. People were friendly and helpful as we wandered slowly back around the bays and over coastal hills between villages. Mist rolled down from the mountains and onto the lake as it started to drizzle. Surprisingly chilly, surprisingly quickly: it was above 1500m after all. Our hosts had offered to fire up the house's Mayan sauna (a Temescal
) so we took them up. Took an hour to heat up. Then the dousing water was flavoured with eucalyptus. Deeply relaxing and kinda quant, but not hallucinogenic. Ordered pizza from
San Marco which was delivered by tuk-tuk. This took an amazing amount of negotiation and logistical input. Olga stayed with us for a chat as we shared an Argentinian Sauvignon Blanc. Still relaxed by bed time.
The next morning we relaxed in the courtyard. Breakfast with discussions and attempts to create a TripAdvisor listing for La Buganvilias but the Internet connection was slow. At least gave Olga some pointers. We headed back toward Guatemala City at about 1000. The climb out took us at least an hour Up the same switch backs. Up through San Marco. I had time to do some photography this trip; trying to capture the steepness and the expanse of the lake. Up to the plateau and into San Christo which was hosting at fiesta at the time. Eduardo had to circle through the streets a few times to find a path through. As we came back down the PanAmerican I tried to capture pictures of the local buses (the chicken buses) as they sped around the banked corners. These secondhand American school buses probably haven't been fitted with functional shock absorbers for a while and with gear and people loaded on the roof, they
tend to lurch alarmingly around the tight bends.
The trip was broken by a very pleasant meal of BBQ pork on the roadside. The villages themselves are not much to look at. Hundreds of concrete houses with the reinforcement rods poking up into the air: common sights in developing countries around the world.
Finally down into Antigua which is a conserved Spanish colonial town. Bill's friend David had lent us his condo (read mansion
) in a gated community on the outskirts of the town. We spent the first hour or so marvelling at the place. Spanish hacienda style decorated tastefully with family photos and an extensive library. Looked like antique furniture in every nook and cranny.
We gathered ourselves and wandered down into the main grid of old Antigua. Popped into a courtyard called the Fuente and found a bar. Several drinks later and after a great conversation we were ready to move on. The bar was playing great 60's and 70's American rock and blues. I had forgotten about the Credence Clearwater Revival music. Dinner was only as exotic as toasted ham and cheese sandwiches but the olives and Guatemalan red added colour.
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