Exploring Guatemala – Part 1

The northernmost of the Central American nations, Guatemala is slightly smaller than England. Its neighbours are Mexico on the north and west, and Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador on the east. The country consists of three main regions—the cool highlands with the heaviest population where we visited last week; the tropical area along the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, and the tropical jungle in the northern lowlands (known as the Petén where we will be exploring further in a few weeks’ time). The population is around 12.7m most of whom are Roman Catholic and of Spanish or Mayan origin. For centuries the Mayans ruled this whole region until the Spanish arrived in the 16th century and governed the region until 1881 when Guatemala, which means “Land of trees”, was given independence. Various dictators and military juntas ran the country for many years and in 1960 civil war broke out and around 200,000 people lost their lives; it’s only since 1996 that law and order has been re-established but still with a very heavy and obvious military presence.

When Gill came back from the UK I went up to Guatemala City in the highlands from Rio Dulce to meet her with the plan that we would spend a week or so exploring the nearby town of Antigua which used to be the capitol of Guatemala until it was badly damaged by earthquakes in the 18th Century and Lake Atitlan reputed to be the most beautiful lake in the world.

In Guatemala City (population 1m) it was Independence weekend when we visited and the main plaza was filled with marching bands and cheering school children.

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Girl marching band

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Fruit seller preparing for the crowds to come

The next place we visited was the Cultural Palace, a huge building dominating the central plaza which was built in 1939 to celebrate the culture of Guatemala. Its an impressive building built with marble from Italy, chandeliers from Spain, stain glass windows made locally, gold leaf decorating the pillars and huge murals on the walls.

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The magnificent main hall of the Palace where the President entertains

Fortunately we were given an English speaking guide who gave us the grand tour. The sculpture below was created as a symbol to end of a long period of violence during their 36 year civil war and as reminder not to go back. The rose is white and replaced every day as a renewal of their determination.

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Our guide explaining the Peace sculpture

Afterwards we discovered a large underground market selling everything from food to clothes, leather goods and tourist toot! I bought some T shirts and baskets to keep loose items on the boat and then we had lunch at a market stall. We had no idea what we ate but it tasted OK, as usual, the old lady grossly overcharged us in their terms but it was still only £5 equivalent –they think we’re rich gringos!

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Just one of the many alleys in the underground market

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Being fitted up

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Lunch in the market

So, after a day exploring Guatemala City, we headed off on an hour’s drive to Antigua by taxi. We had intended using the famous “Chicken Buses” used by the locals but for two reasons we were advised against it and to use a taxi instead; firstly, this was the rainy season and the buses carried passenger’s luggage on the roof and secondly over one hundred bus drivers had been murder by local mobsters, in the last few years, who tried to extort protection money. If the drivers didn’t pay the gangs the bus was attacked and the driver killed and the passengers robbed – it wasn’t a hard decision to pay the extra for a taxi.

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Chicken buses are the main form of transport

Antigua is the lovely old capitol of Guatemala, nestling amongst three volcanoes which dominate the views from the town, but they moved it to Guatemala City after several earthquakes devastated the town, in consequence all the buildings are only one or two storeys high.

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The picturesque main street of Antigua with volcano in the background

Our first task on arriving was to find the Posada where we were staying and after many attempts by the taxi driver we eventually found it by asking an electricity meter reader. Our welcome at Casa Alina, which was unprepossessing from the outside, was wonderful, we were ushered in to a beautiful courtyard home and on to to the spacious lounge where Alina and her sister made tea for us, almost unheard of in Guatemala which is coffee growing country and gave us their life history over a couple of hours. We were then, to our surprise, invited to dine with the family at a local restaurant which was a converted monastery that had been beautifully restored, serving traditional food from the locality and all you could eat. So here we were 3 hours in Antigua and being accepted as friends of Alina’s family.

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The lovely converted monastery

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Alina far right and Lucy far left with son and daughter-in-law behind – dinner en famille

Her sister Lucy had been a much valued housekeeper to Lachlan Reed, a Scot living in America who had married into the Honeywell family and gone on to make his own fortune, Lucy was lovely but boy could she talk. They had had a brother but he was captured by the rebels in the civil war and held for ransom but before they could come up with the money he was killed. This was told to us in a very matter of fact way as though it was an everyday occurrence.

We then spent a couple of days exploring the town using Casa Alina as our base,

The photo below shows The Convent of Mercy which unusually only contained monks, around 100 of them, unfortunately its now in a state of disrepair but must have been a wonderful place when in good order.

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The Convent of Mercy with priest giving a guided tour

it happened to be “Independence Day” when we were there so we were treated to bands and drumming displays and fireworks, however after the first couple of hours the endless chain of marching bands and noise became a little wearing so we found another local restaurant to hide away.

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A piece of street theater

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Gill as one of the dancing girls – who forgot her boots?

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A couple out enjoying themselves on Independence day

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You want to take my picture you pay me or buy something

On the second day in Antigua we visited a 750 acre coffee plantation close to the town; coffee is one of Guatemala’s main exports and is now much sought after in the UK. Our guide took us through the whole process, from the plant nursery, to growing the beans, the harvest, and the drying and roasting process. It was a great day and fascinating to see the complete thing from ground to cup and of course we had a little tasting afterwards and then back to Antigua in an army truck.

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The army trucks which took us round the plantation

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Coffee in flower

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The beans are harvested by hand when red

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Once dried and husked they are either exported or roasted for local consumption

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Modelling the racy head gear we had to wear in the roasting room – is that Ena Sharples?

We found a little restaurant which had all the dishes of local food displayed in big pots at the entrance with offers of tasters so you could choose which to have. After the meal we left to cross town through a myriad of cobbled streets back to our Posada. Fortunately our combined navigation skills worked and we found home about half an hour later.

The following day we took our farewell from Alina and Lucy and set off by minibus with a young Chilean couple on a 150kmjourney to Lake Atitlan a further 1000 feet up in the mountains. The lake which sits at an altitude of 5100ft is also surrounded by three huge volcanoes one of which is live and these make a spectacular backdrop, especially when the lake is still and gives back the reflection of the mountains, it certainly deserves its reputation for beauty.

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Lake Atitlan

Our Posada – Los Encuentros, was in a town on the edge of the lake, called Panajachel and was unusual for its gardens which consisted almost entirely of edible or medicinal herbs and plants. The owner had written a book on their various medicinal properties, unfortunately his herbology skills weren’t matched by his people skills.

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The herb garden at the medicinal  compound

The following morning we set off on a launch/ferry across the lake to see the villages of San Pedro and San Juan. We took a tuc-tuc ( a three wheeled motor bike with a canopy) from San Pedro to San Juan where we had been told about a women’s co-operative which made textile products by the old and natural methods. The co-operative was started by a woman whose husband died and she had to find a means to support her six children so she and a few others set up a business which flourishes today and now employs 22 local women. The taxi driver said the men don’t do any work! The process starts by growing cotton, picking the balls by hand, removing seeds and spinning these into a thread on a bobbin held by their feet. The dying process uses only natural plant dyes to produce rich vibrant colours which are collected by the women from the mountainside in order to preserve the delicate local ecology. To give an idea they use such plants as, avocado, carrot, ocre, indigo, lobelia, beetroot and many others handed down from their Indian ancestors. The colours are then fixed using banana stalk extract. The result is stunning colours in the skirts, aprons, blouses and bags they then make from the dyed cotton as you can see from the photos. Just to make the collar on one cotton blouse takes one woman 1 month and the blouse sells for around £60.00 equivalent!

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Spinning the cotton thread – the bobin is in the bowl

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Dying the thread with carrot juice – it looked like tomato soup!

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Weaving on a hand loom

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The girls showing some of the fabrics

Still in San Juan we visited a business where they grew herbs for medicinal use and processed the products in-house. We bought some natural mosquito repellent (very necessary in this area) and some specialist teas.

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Buying some herbal medicine

Then it was back to San Pedro by tuc-tuc for a spot of lunch. The driver took us to a place which was probably his sister’s but we had a nice lunch of local food overlooking the lake.

After lunch we took a launch to a village called San Marcos and walked into the town to explore a little. Apart from the school, some shops, a sports ground and a church there wasn’t much to see. The rain came on as we were waiting for our next boat connection so we huddled under the trees at the end of the pier with the locals until the local policeman came to tell us it was arriving. It took us down the lake in pouring rain with a tarpaulin over the passengers; the poor driver had to sit out in a sou’wester but wore the biggest of grins as though he didn’t have a care in the world.

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Silvie who befriended us on the launcha

We went to eat in the main street after partaking of happy hour in the local bar which was offering two drinks for the price of one; well you couldn’t refuse could you! When we got back to the Posada we couldn’t get the key to work and no amount of hammering and ringing the bell for ten minutes raised anyone until I tried putting the key in upside down and hey presto we were in!

The following day we decided as a bit of an adventure to take a local “collectivo” which is the bus service there, so called because it stops anywhere for anyone and they really pack them in. It’s basically a pickup truck with two benches in the open back but they loaded 22 passengers in ours. It is after all is said and done, a car, albeit a Toyota made for eight at a push. Our load also included  cases, mail, boxes, baskets of fruit and kids but fortunately no animals or chickens. The luggage that doesn’t fit on the roof is piled on your lap if you’re lucky enough to have a seat.

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A collectivo waiting for passengers

So off we went bumping our way over twisty mountain roads to Santa Caterina, a small village on the south side of the lake which has a few shops where Gill expertly haggled for a handbag which cost her less than £4.00 at the end and the village had a pretty quay side where interconnecting launches came in.

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The sobbing shop keeper

We moved on to San Antonio, the next town around the lake in another collectivo. Here we were “picked up” as we got off the pickup by a young women who showed us around the town and with her we visited the local pottery business, had to buy a dish of course and then on to a lovely restaurant overlooking the bay where the owner (probably her Dad) persuaded me to try one of his litre bottles of beer, it’s very hard to resist offers like that, well for me anyway!

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Look at my little glass and Gill’s pint of gin

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A view to die for from the restaurant balcony

We then took the collectivo back to Panajachel and for dinner and bed. In the morning we headed back to Guatemala city via Antigua, about a 3 hour drive in a minibus with a young Israeli couple. At Antigua we had to switch to a taxi because there were riots in Guatemala City and we needed a local driver to find the way around the problem areas.

Before we left Guatemala City to travel up to Antigua  the 1* hotel we were staying wanted 5$ a day to store Gills suitcase so we booked into the 4* Radisson for less overall cost as there was no charge for leaving the case, so we were delighted to come back to a luxurious suite and still for only $60. The bed was the comfiest we have had for months and we shopped and bought our own breakfast feast for another $5.00 all in all a good result!

We came back to the Rio Dulce by coach on a 6 hour trip and got off the air-conditioned bus to be met by a blast of heat after the cool highlands. You can understand why most of the population live up there in the cool. After 2 minutes we were drenched with sweat – aahh its good to be back!

So now we are installed back on the boat and sanding and varnishing and getting equipment added which we will need next year’s trip across the Pacific. Once the pressure of this work is off we intend to visit other parts of this beautiful, friendly and interesting country. This will be covered in Part 2 of Exploring Guatemala.

2 thoughts on “Exploring Guatemala – Part 1

  1. My goodness, what an amazing time you are having! Haven’t managed to read all as yet but good to know that you are well. You have met some amazing people and no doubt will meet many more. Would have been nice to have met up when you came home but guess you had lots to catch up on. Maybe next time. Take care Michael, stay safe and well. See you next time maybe. Love Lyn and Keith

    • Hi Lyn and Keith
      Thanks for the message, yes we are having a truly amazing experience, better than I could have hoped for. We will be leaving Guatemala but for the San Blas Islands in Panama next week. We will probably post a blog on our last few days in this beautiful spot before we go.
      I won’t be back home now for two years, until we reach Thailand but will come to see you then. I was a bit pushed for time this trip home.
      Lots of love
      Mike

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