I saw this expression on a bumper sticker in Guatemala and just couldn’t resist using it.
As Miles and I left Huehuetanango and began heading toward the central highlands, we stopped at the type of restaurant that has become our favourite – located on the side of the road and made up of a few small tables, plastic lawn chairs and a huge wood-fired stove, all covered by a giant blue tarp. The meal turned out to be one of our best yet. For Miles, a “Plato Tipico” consisting of heavily salted steak, plantains, cheese, a quesadilla and longaniza sausage freshly made by the chef with wonderful green herbs. For me, Chicken soup loaded with vegetables. The experience was made even better by the soft and cuddly cat who was sheltering under our table and nestled into our feet.
Our journey continued with a climb into heavy fog. As we were now approaching the most populated area of the country, we began to see more signs of Maya life and crafts, particularly weaving and embroidery which were obvious in the traditional dress of both women and men. The beautiful traditional clothing is made by the women in a riot of colours. Almost all of the women were in traditional dress but many men dressed similarly. Two of the most prevalent types of clothing are a corte, a piece of material 7 – 10m long that is used as a wraparound skirt by both women and men and the faja, a long woven waist sash that can be folded to hold whatever needs to be carried.
Our plan was to drive to Panajachel on volcano-ringed Lake Atitlán, considered one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. However, the road to the town had been closed for a few days so we weren’t sure we would get there. Our uncertainty grew as we approached. The fog thickened, the rain became heavier and darkness arrived earlier than expected. But the road was open so we struggled through and made it to our destination.
We spent the evening exploring the main street of the village and were followed by a couple of young peddlers who would not take “Non Gracias” for an answer. One young boy just kept asking for “one chicken” indicating that he’d be happy for us to buy him a meal if we weren’t interested in buying what he was selling. After he had walked along side us for some time, talking non-stop, Miles finally gave him some money and sent him on his way. Even during dinner, the peddling continued with three different street vendors coming right up to our table in the restaurant. Fortunately they disappeared quickly. However, the five dogs who joined us at the table were not quite as quick to respond. They came and went throughout the meal.
The next morning we woke to find Luca, the hotel guard dog, keeping a close eye on our bike as he was laid out directly behind the bike soaking up the sun.
Our morning stroll took us to some spectacular views of the lake and its surrounding volcanoes and into the Catholic church. Hidden behind its almost whitewashed exterior, the church’s interior was filled with so many flowers that the smell was intoxicating Long lengths of pink and gold fabric were draped from the ceiling creating a warm and celebratory atmosphere.
When we spotted a small chocolate shop that looked like it was straight from my favourite Johnny Depp film, I couldn’t resist a visit. I enjoyed a yummy hot chocolate and indulged in a bar of chocolate infused with cloves to be tucked away for an afternoon snack – it didn’t last until afternoon. Shunning the movie set atmosphere, Miles headed to the local grocery store for some pure Guatemalan chocolate made in San Pedro La Laguna across the lake. This was not quite as enjoyable. As Miles said, “it is a cross between chocolate, fudge, and matchbooks”. That sums it up quite well.
Travelling out of this area, we saw many examples of the typical Guatemalan home – a one-room house of brick, concrete blocks or traditional bajerequ (a construction of stones, wooden poles and mud), with roofs of tin, tiles or thatch. In the countryside, in villages, and in towns, most of the country’s Maya majority live in this type of house, grouped close to several others who make up an extended family.
We made our next home in Antigua, nestled between three volcanoes which are clearly visible over the red tile roofs and church bell towers that dominate the small city’s skyline.
Antigua is an enchanting blend of colonial-era architecture and rugged cobblestone streets. The town was founded in 1543 and served as the colonial capital for 233 years. Most of the town’s buildings were constructed during the 17th and 18th centuries when the city was a rich Spanish outpost. Although not all of the buildings from this era have survived, several impressive ruins have been preserved.
Each day of our stay in Antigua, we spent time at Plaza Mayor, a popular gathering place like most central squares in Latin America. The plaza is filled with villagers selling handicrafts and shoe shining services and was a great place to grab a shady seat and watch the parade of life pass before us.
The plaza’s famous fountain has been the centre of the city since 1738. We got a kick out of the voluptuous ladies carved around the sides of the fountain and providing a steady stream of water shooting out of their breasts.
On one side of the park is the city’s cathedral with its’ ornate white façade. Only a small part of the church is currently in use and the remainder lies in ruin.
We toured the ruins one morning with a personal guide, Armondo, who is a mason participating in the restoration of the cathedral for 6 months each year and conducting tours of the cathedral during the remaining 6 months of the year to raise funds for the restoration.
On our first evening we enjoyed a dinner of typical Guatemalan dishes including kack ik, a turkey soup which seemed particularly appropriate for Thanksgiving weekend. When you order this dish, it sounds like you are gagging – “I’ll have the kack…ik” – but it’s actually delicious.
We spent the next morning wandering through the Mercado Municipal where local residents come to do their shopping among the numerous stalls connected by narrow passageways.
Basic household goods, flowers, vegetables, grains, spices and many live chickens are sold here along with some crafts and textiles. It was a great place to just soak in the sights and sounds.
We were once again staying in a lovely but extremely inexpensive hotel, Casa Rustica, and enjoyed meeting the hotel owner, Daryl, as well as a regular guest, Harvey Brewer, both natives of Kentucky.
Harvey is very involved with a medical mission based in Antigua and spends about half of each year in the city. We thoroughly enjoyed spending a rainy day with him learning about his missionary work, wandering through a craft market, enjoying the hotel’s garden courtyard, and weathering the ongoing power failures that hit the city throughout the day. This was a sign of things to come as we prepared to head into El Salvador and some severe weather.