Ben Davi, a solo traveler from Oregon, asked himself some tough questions about possible perils lurking for tourists before exploring Guatemala — as my roommate Marilyn Vogel, a resident of Costa Rica, and I did. Finding online an inclusive and reasonably priced package tour to Guatemala and Copan, Honduras, convinced us to fulfill our dreams to visit the countries. Especially appealing was the fact anyone could join the group because a van driver met participants as they arrived separately at the airport. He transported them to the Tikal Futura Hotel, part of the Futura four-storey complex featuring offices and a mall that has become the new center of the Guatemala City. At the end of the trip, a shuttle van chauffeured groups from Antigua to the airport.
The first day of the tour began slowly like a train pulling out of a station with barely a hint of the pace to come. Before exploring the Ixchel Museum in Guatemala City, located across from the Popol Vuh museum that houses Mayan artifacts, we viewed two DVDs. One was about textile weaving and embroidery, the main focus of the museum, and the other about brotherhoods that were formed to take care of saints. When the only religion was Catholicism, one brotherhood took care of one saint. Currently, with many religious sects in Guatemala, the remaining brotherhoods might each have to care for at least a dozen saints.
Following the presentation we looked at a permanent exhibit of outstanding water-colours by Carmen L. Pettersen who captured the essence of indigenous tribes to preserve the information for posterity. Her illustrations included headdresses the women wear that are similar to the type the Mayans wore to reflect their class system. Mayans no longer are a pure race but nearly every indigenous tribe claims they are Mayan descendants. Amazingly, Pettersen, despite having only one eye, began painting at 70 years old and continued for the last 20 years of her life.
One of the highlights of the museum visit was learning about the intricate process of tie dying, far more sophisticated than the T-shirts we have come to associate with the process. It becomes a simple task after the thin threads that may be any colour have been tied extremely tightly and dyed another colour. However, it took men with vision to figure out how to tie the threads so that after they were woven into cloth, the expected designs, with their specific meanings for a particular village, would appear. They call the foot loom brought by the Spanish a machine because it accommodates wider fabrics. They also weave on back-strap looms which the Mayan used that can only be as wide as the weaver’s hips.
One of the tour’s benefits was our informed guide Virginia. As we gawked at a small church incorporating every type of architecture imaginable that a plantation owner built next to his exquisite home, she told us that the man was in a warehouse with his employees when the roof began to cave in as a volcano continued to drop ashes after it exploded around 1900. The only thing the family had brought from Spain was a painting of the Virgin of Sorrow. They all prayed to her promising that if they survived the owner would build the Virgin a chapel. Legend says if you get married in it, your union will not last more than seven years.
When we stopped by a large square, Virginia pointed to the ugly, but earthquake-safe, apartment house where she lives. With divorce now acceptable, stores, restaurants and services were put on the lower floors and offices above to accommodate single tenants. Growing like topsy, other apartments were added above the bachelor pads.
Today, shanty towns dot Guatemala City, where newly arrived immigrants build houses from cardboard and corrugated iron in barrancos (valleys, gorges, or ravines), causing natural flora and fauna to disappear and most rivers to turn black due to open sewage. The area eventually becomes a neighbourhood as the first arrivals upgrade to concrete block houses and the new folk create homes lower on the hill. Finally the community gets water and electricity and, after ten years, the squatters become land owners. In contrast, cemeteries with brightly coloured miniature houses among white ones where Christians are buried brighten the country’s landscape.
As we criss-crossed Guatemala City several times during the trip, we saw several of its approximate 20 zones through bus windows, a disappointing aspect of the tour in the interest of safety. It was fortunate the windows were clean because they couldn’t be opened to take photos.
The historic center of Guatemala City, a cultural crossroads with 23 ethnic and linguistic groups, is Plaza Mayor de la Constitución, in Zone One, where most of the important government and church buildings are located. Zone 2 was founded as a home for indigenous people transferred from Antigua. Later many wealthy families built private residences on the Avenida del Hippodromo. Zone 4 was formed in 1890 with the Pavilion of the Paris World Fair in its center. Today city municipal offices, governmental buildings, and theaters are found there.
Zones 9 and 10 (the latter called Zona Vida due to its many hotels, restaurants, night clubs and shopping centers) border the Avenida La Reforma that contains gardens and many figurines. Zones 13 and 14 are separated by the Avenida Las Americas. Dedicated to the countries of the American continent, beautiful gardens, squares and statues line it.
City streets originally were given proper names. When Guatemala City grew too large for this method by 1877, an ingenious numbering system was devised. Each address determined by the Municipality of Guatemala has three numbers. For example, “Avenida 8-25" indicates the street number and the approximate distance in meters from the nearest cross street. The distance is odd for houses on the north side and even for those on the south of a street. So you can 'stride' your way to an unknown destination.
Regarding food, Virginia warned us not to eat salads, fruits that had been peeled by someone else or that grew on the ground, items sold on the street, and sauces that weren’t boiled, and to only drink bottled water without ice. We mostly ate good native fare — chicken, fish, pasta, and rice — especially outside Guatemala City.
Chichicastenango in the Altiplano or highlands, ranging from 4,500 to 8,000 feet, is home of the largest indigenous clothing and craft market in Central America. It has operated for over a thousand years and was the first destination outside Guatemala City. Before lunch, Virginia talked about the Yucatan peninsula filled with limestone and many Mayan ruins, volcanoes, earthquakes and lakes. She pointed out on a relief map how the southern part of the country is mountainous, the north part flat, and lamented that Belize used to be part of Guatemala.
She showed us seismic faults, including the San Andreas Fault, which spreads to California, and the largest one, resembling a smile across the country's face. She pointed out three active of 27 volcanoes. She joked that one baby hasn’t decided what it will be when it grows up because sometimes it spews ash, other times lava, or acts up in some other way. She explained that the difficult-to-sing national anthem relates a long historical story; over the years, the flag evolved to what it is now, and the historical Quetzal bird remains very important.
Before leisurely hunting for treasures in stalls that crowded Chichicastenango streets, we visited the Santo Tomas Church built in 1540, where Indians practice their faith, a blend of Mayan and Catholic rituals. While the interior was unimpressive, incense filled the air and rose petals and candles covered the floor. We walked down the side aisles in deference to the natives who pay homage to their beliefs using the centre one.
The bus could only take us to Panajachel because it couldn’t turn around in Santa Catarina where the Villa of the same name was located on Lake Atitlan at 5,000 feet. We climbed up a rickety wharf to board a metal boat that had seen better days. Vendors in native dress continually accosted us, all seeming to know a few English words. They could handle dollars better than we could Quetzals, the local currency. If you told them you would buy later, they magically returned. “You buy now?”
The next day we “sailed” to the village of Santiago Atitlan to visit the church where statues of saints are dressed in the same clothing as the Brotherhood that cares for them. After we disembarked, three women demonstrated for a dollar per tourist how in two minutes they turn a belt-like fabric about 45’ long into a headdress that symbolizes an umbilical cord. First they wove one end into their hair and twisted it to make a kind of saucer hat.
After descending the steep steps from the church, several participants meandered to the Restaurant El Pescador to have a drink and use the clean facilities, free to customers. As we sat on the patio, chicken buses sped pass. Painted with garish decorations, these old US school buses travel rapidly so the driver can collect as many fares as possible. People are crammed inside, their belongings stowed on the roof.
Instead of a free afternoon, Marilyn and I journeyed back to Panajachel and walked down the main street to a bank. A few souvenir shops lined the path but the frenzy of vendors was missing. When we finally had cash an hour-and-a-half later, we took a 'tuk tuk' — a taxi for two that reminded me of those in Bangkok — in order to return to the boat on time.
Following a 5AM wakeup call, we drove to Copan, Honduras, passing again through Guatemala City and running into traffic jams. Being delayed was unnerving because we had been warned how important it was to travel this route in daylight.
Even though we arrived before 9 AM the next morning at Copan’s ruins, it was already hot. The local guide took us through the Acropolis, Great Plaza and Ballcourt (sic), featuring impressive stone structures some of which were copies in order to protect the originals from the elements. The Hieroglyphic Stairway with its Mayan text was most impressive. Oscar explained a ball game the ancients played where the winner might be sacrificed to the gods, apparently considered an honour. While Oscar took the hearty further up, I spent the time in the museum where original items were displayed.
After lunch at the Posada Real I ventured into the village of Copan. The small church on the square was very simple inside. In the narrow, attractive duty-free shop with limited stock located around the corner from it, I sought the famed 23 year-old award winning smooth rum called Ron Tacapa Centenario (check airport duty-free shops). After browsing stores selling crafts, I found an internet café and delighted in plugging my thumb drive where I had stored portable apps into a computer. It was most comforting to use because no footprints were left on the host machine.
Honduras has long been inhabited by a mixture of indigenous Indian peoples, the Maya being the most progressive. Volcanoes are dormant — in contrast to the political system which may erupt at any time. Other points of interest include the Bay Islands and beaches at Roatan, fifteen national parks, ten biological reserves, plus the colonial monuments and churches in the capital city of Tegucigalpa.
From Copan we drove north to Petenchel in the flatlands. The Villa Maya located on Lake Peten featured cabins that reminded me of those on a reserve I visited in Kenya. Mosquitoes and “playful” monkeys made it necessary to keep doors and windows shut at night.
Because it was overcast, it was cooler than anticipated in Tikal, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Among the excavations we still sweated to see were the Great Plaza, Temple of the Grand Jaguar and Temple II. Some of the group climbed to the Plaza of the Seven Temples and El Mundo Perdido (The Lost World). Lunch was at one of the open air restaurants on the grounds.
Once again we were on the road by 6:15 AM because it would be a 600 kilometer bus ride and include a stop at Quiriguá, a lovely park with zoomorphic figures and the world’s largest stelae protected by thatch-roof coverings. It was dark when we arrived at the lovely Villa Coloniales in Antigua that nestles at 3,000’ feet in the Panchoy Valley. Also a UNESCO World Heritage site, it dates to the seventeenth century and is considered the best preserved colonial city in Central America.
Since morning is the best time of the day to tour Antiqua, we went to La Azotea Estate where the three surrounding volcanoes, Acatenano and Agual, both extinct, and Fuego that we heard rumble, provide a stable microclimate and a rich volcanic soil ideal for growing coffee. We learned how coffee is grown under a canopy of shade trees and processed, drank small cups of the brew, and bought souvenirs in the plantation’s shop and that of the adjacent museum with mannequins of indigenous people in their habitats.
We meandered carefully on cobblestone streets and viewed the ornate façade of La Merced Church, one of over 50 active and historically preserved churches in the city, and toured the ruins of Las Capuchinas Convent destroyed by an earthquake in 1773. A 15 year-old girl was having photos made there in anticipation of a fiesta celebrating her coming of age. She and the convent’s architecture with many levels, nooks and crannies, aqueduct that provided 'running' water, cloisters and garden accounted for a major portion of the nearly 500 photos I snapped during the journey.
I also visit the Museum of Colonial Arts, with its permanent exhibit of 17 and 18th century paintings and sculptures, the ruins of Santa Clara, and La Inglesia de Cristo. Off Calle de los Pasos the ruins of San Francisco are famous for housing the remains of Santo Hermano Pedro de San Jose De Betancur canonized a Roman Catholic Saint.
We ate at the steak restaurant Philippe Rambert that features a great décor. Many of the participants were disappointed by the meat’s quality. For me, it was actually better than some I’ve eaten in Costa Rica, where beef can be chewy except in expensive restaurants or an occasional local eatery.
In addition to candy and trinkets Virginia provided during the trip, she gave us a map of Antigua to which she added a few shops to check out. Eschewing those, I joined some people who had found a craft market offering a wide choice next to a farmer’s market on Calzado Sainte Lucia Norte on the west side of town.
Ben caught the essence of the trip when he wrote me, “Designed
thoughtfully with safety of utmost importance... (the company) offered
a balanced, and interesting, if somewhat strenuous trip.”