Rutahsa Adventures is pleased to offer an exciting exploration of Guatemala's unique blend of Maya and European customs, including, for the first time on a Rutahsa Adventure, Holy Week in Antigua Guatemala.
Guatemala is one of the most remarkable places on earth. Slightly smaller than the state of Tennessee, its varied physiography ranges from coastal plains to soaring volcanic peaks over 13,000 feet high; its climate zones include steamy tropical jungles, rain-shadow desert valleys, cool cloud forests, and chilly alpine plateaus. In addition to its natural diversity, Guatemala is home to an amazing cultural diversity including Maya, European, Mestizo and Caribbean traditions. The Highland Maya comprise about half Guatemala's population of 12 million and have maintained a rich and colorful culture-- including over 20 native languages-- in spite of 500 years of domination by European influences. It is this blend of Maya culture with the European that gives Guatemala its essential character. Guatemala features so much to see, so much to experience, and so much to leave you marvelling...you will want to return to Guatemala again and again. We have been exploring Guatemala since 1969-- and each year we learn new secrets.
Here's the trip itinerary:
Weds., Mar. 31: Fly from the U.S. to Guatemala City; you will be picked up at the airport and driven through the bustling capital city to the colonial town of Antigua Guatemala to settle in at the Posada de don Rodrigo, a colonial home converted into a delightful hotel with flowery patios, a good restaurant, wonderful views of volcanoes from its rooftop deck, and a daily marimba concert. For a preview, take a look at the PDR's website, then use your "back" button to return to this trip itinerary: Posada de Don Rodrigo.
Thurs., Apr. 1: After breakfast we will go on a walking tour of Antigua, guided by Liz Bell, author of several guidebooks on Antigua.
In its heyday (before the United States of America existed), Antigua was the third largest city in the new world. Its population reached 60,000, exceeded only by Lima and Mexico City. Antigua served from its founding in 1541 until 1775 as the capital of Spain's colonial territory known as the Kingdom of Goathemala. As the capital it was adorned with splendid public buildings, such as the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales . But in 1773 a series of powerful earthquakes turned many of the great colonial churches, convents, colleges and government palaces and private mansions into rubble. Two years later the King of Spain commanded the capital's removal to what is now modern Guatemala City, leaving Antigua or "Old Guatemala" to rusticate into flower- and vine-covered ruins.
After lunch we will board our chartered bus and motor down past the soaring volcanic cones of Agua, Acatenango and Fuego on the road to the Pacific coastal plain. Here we will experience-- for just a short while-- the tropical heat that characterizes this important zone where agriculture is king, as we pass through vast sugar cane fields, citronella tree plantations, and cattle ranches. Soon, however, we will turn north and climb back up into the cool volcanic highlands, passing through huge coffee fincas to crest out on the rim of beautiful Lake Atitlán.
A bit of narrow, winding road brings us to Santiago Atitlán, a Tz'utujiil Maya town on the south side of the lake. This town is a favorite destination for day-trippers who cross the lake by boat from Panajachel, arrive mid-morning, spend a couple of hours buying souvenirs from the many artisans' shops on the main street, then recross the lake without ever really getting to know Santiago. By arriving via the back door and after the day-trippers are gone we will find a Tz'utujiil town little changed from its traditional ways. We will stay at the Posada Santiago, a charming hotel of unusual stone architecture, bungalows and lovely gardens. The owners, David and Susie, serve great food! Here's a peep at this lovely lodge: Posada Santiago.
Fri., Apr. 2: Getting to know Santiago Atitlán. In the morning we will be shown around the town by Dolores, an English-speaking Tz'utujiil woman, who will take us to the ancient church where she will show us native influences and customs preserved within the Catholic church. Then she will take us to visit an indigenous house of worship, a shrine to Maximón. We will wind up with a visit to her home where we can see how the backstrap loom is used to produce beautiful textiles. As we walk about the town we may see women wearing the famous "halo" headwrap found only in Santiago, and featured on the 25 centavo coin.
After lunch a stroll down to the Peace Park is recommended, to learn of the suffering that took place in Santiago during La Violencia of the 1980s, when guerrilla fighting and governmental repression led to a tragic massacre of local people. Learn also how the native people resisted and eventually forced the army to leave Santiago.
Other afternoon activities could include swimming in the lake from Posada Santiago's private dock, or relaxing in the sun with a book about Santiago or Maya culture from the Posada's library, and nursing one of David's killer margaritas!
Sat., Apr. 3: Today we go by boat across Lake Atitlán, enjoying dramatic vistas en route, to visit two lakeside villages of Kaqchikel Maya: San Antonio Palopó and Santa Catarina Palopó. In Santa Catarina we will see the stunning rich blue huipil (native blouse) worn by the women there. Traje, or native Maya costume, is of pre-Columbian origin and contains many very traditional elements. However, this should not be taken to mean it is static. On the contrary it is constantly evolving; thirty years ago the Santa Catarina huipil was predominantly red, and the basic cloth is still red today, but largely covered in deep blue embroidered designs. This photo of two young Santa Catarina girls was taken during the transition period.
Our bus will come around the lake to pick us up at Santa Catarina and we will drive into Panajachel for lunch. Here we can see how tourism in excess can radically alter a town; "Pana", also called "Gringotenango" is the "Mall of America" of Guatemala with endless steet markets and foreigners outnumbering locals. Interesting, but not a pretty sight to those who are seeking true Guatemalan culture.
In the afternoon we will continue on about 35 kilometers to the regional market town of Chichicastenango ("Place of the Stinging Nettles"). Here we will stay in Guatemala's most famous hostelry, the Mayan Inn, serving travelers for over 70 years. Staying at the Mayan is a cultural experience in itself. No two rooms are alike, and all are furnished with antiques, some of museum quality. To see more of what the Mayan is like, visit their webpage at Mayan Inn, but don't forget to use your "back" key to return to this itinerary.
Tonight you can roam the streets of the little town and see the preparations for tomorrow's big market. Vendors will sell to you tonight, too, assuring you that the best bargains are tonight. Tomorrow the same vendors may tell you the best bargains are to be had as the market begins, and then later they will tell you the market is ending so they will give you their best bargains now! The truth is the best bargains depend on your bargaining skills-- And don't buy anything without bargaining!
Sun., Apr. 4: Be prepared to have your senses assaulted today-- Chichi market is a blaze of colors, smoke and smells, loud bombas (homemade rockets that go up and explode with a thundering report!), clucking hens and squealing pigs, and the chatter of vendors and buyers speaking in K'iché Maya, Spanish, English and other idioms.
The market features beautiful textiles (huipiles, blankets, tapestries, sashes, shirts, and more), carved wooden masks, relics, pottery and painted wooden chests, and many other items for visitors to purchase, plus flowers, fruit and vegetables, poultry and pigs, herbal medicines, copal incense, hardware, backstrap loom parts, and many other items for local consumption. It is truly mind-boggling!
In addition to the market, there is the church of Santo Tomás, where Maya worship their own gods in addition to the Christian god (note: foreign visitors to this church should not enter by the front door, but instead use the entry on the right side of the nave). And there is the Padre Rossbach Museum, and, not far outside town on a hilltop, the Pascual Abaj idol still in use for costumbre (native rituals). Costumbre is also commonly performed in the colorful cemetery just outside town.
There's so much to see it can wear you out! So around 2:30 PM we'll load our bus and squeeze through the market stalls to head out on a three-hour drive along the Pan American Highway to Quetzaltenango, Guatemala's second most important city, and once the would-be capital of the break-away Republic of Los Altos. Traditionally known as "Xelajú" (pronounced "Shay-lah-HOO"), or just "Xela" for short, this departmental capital lies at an elevation of over 7700 ft, and is quite cool in the evenings. Our lodgings will be the Pensión Bonifaz, an elegant old hotel with a European flavor, but plenty of modern amenities. The Bonifaz has an excellent dining room, and features an indoor swimming pool (but you have to be hearty to swim in this one...indoors or not, at 7700 ft, it's chilly!). For more about the Bonifaz, visit their website Pensión Bonifaz, then return to this itinerary.
Quetzaltenango was severely damaged in 1902 by earthquakes. When the city was rebuilt it acquired a neoclassical architecture that makes it highly distinctive among Guatemalan towns. Our hotel is located just on the corner of the central plaza, and within easy walking distance of the central market, an internet cafe, several restaurants, the once elegant opera-house-style civic theatre, and a couple of museums. Xela is a pleasant town for a stroll.
Mon., Apr. 5: AM: We drive just a few kilometers out of Quetzaltenango this morning, passing through Alotenango with its hot springs spas (note at least two styles of huipiles worn here), to the truck farming center of Zunil. Here we can get a horticultural education by visiting the huge vegetable market where fruits and vegetables of myriad types and vast quantities are sold for consumption all over Guatemala and even exported to Mexico. The land around Zunil is some of the most fertile in the republic, and the Mayan farms form a gorgeous checkerboard filling the valley bottoms and continuing up impossible slopes with multiple hues of green.
While in Zunil we can visit a women's co-op, where every purchase we make helps the native weavers more than when we buy through marketplace middlemen.
Like Santiago Atitlán, Zunil is a center of worship of Maximón. And there are several caves near the town where costumbre is performed frequently. In fact, it is no rarity to see ceremonies in action in one cave entrance, while standing in the central plaza of the town.
PM: After lunch we will drive a short distance out from Xela again, this time to the weaving town of Salcajá, especially famed for its cloth featuring the ikat technique of patterning with tie-dyed threads. Here we hope to visit with some weavers and learn about their craft.
Tues., Apr. 6: Today we'll roam a bit further afield, with an all day excursion out to San Francisco El Alto and Momostenango. San Francisco, as suggested by the rest of its name, sits high on a mountainside, overlooking the Quetzaltenango valley. This town is a well-known market town, and an excellent place to buy blankets on market day; the official market day is Friday, but there could be a few vendors out today,too. We'll see!
After a short visit to San Francisco we will continue on to Momostenango, a wool processing center, where most of the blankets sold at San Francisco (and at Chichi and elsewhere) are actually made. "Momo" also has a certain fame as a shamanic center. There are various altars in the vicinity of Momo, and it is said that there are at least 300 practicing shamans here. The traditional Mayan calendar, still used by indigenous people in various parts of Guatemala, is strongly observed here. We will try to arrange a visit with a local shaman.
A scenic surprise on the outskirts of Momo are Los Riscos, weird eroded spires similar to those seen in Bryce Canyon, Utah, but on a smaller scale.
Momo, Quetzal, Chichi...all "tenangos". And there is also Huehuetenango way way over in the western part of the country. "Tenango" is said to mean "the place of". As already mentioned, Chichi is "the place of the stinging nettle". Quetzaltenango would be the "place of the quetzal bird". But what is Momo the place of? We don't know...perhaps we can find out during this visit.
After visiting Momo we will return to Xela for our final night at the Bonifaz.
Weds., Apr. 7: Our goal today is to get back to Antigua, where Holy Week is in full swing. But we also have lots to see along the way, starting with the famous "yellow church" at San Andrés Xecul. This church, with its gaily painted front is more than just colorful. Be sure to examine the various decorative motifs in molded plaster which include designs distinctly unorthodox from the Catholic point of view.
Back on the Pan American highway headed east, we cross through a barren, cold area known as "Alaska", where the road climbs above 10,000 ft elevation, before descending into the valley of Nahualá. We'll make a brief visit into this interesting indigenous town. Many of the men here still wear traje, and theirs is one of the most unusual in the country, consisting of a shirt with large ornate collar and cuffs (seemingly of obvious European influence, and therefore presumably post-conquest in origin), and a woolen kilt instead of pants. The outfit is commonly completed with a woolen morral, i.e., all-purpose shoulder bag. And of course the women of Nahualá retain their traje like this shrewd vendor Manuela who happily posed for a photo knowing it would increase the likelihood of a sale.
Throughout the indigenous communities of Guatemala the women continue to wear traje, but in many towns Maya men have abandoned traditional costume in favor of western dress because it is less expensive and much less labor intensive than the elaborate homewoven traje, and for work western clothing is probably more practical. For example, the Maya men of Quetzaltenango no longer wear native costume, though the indigenous women still wear it. In some towns Maya men wear traje in their home village, but put on western clothes when going in to the departmental capital or Guatemala City. The reason for this change is to avoid the racial discrimination that the indigenous people may encounter in Ladino dominated cities. Happily, respect for the indigenous people is on the rise, and a Maya rennaissance movement is also making strides.
Our last stop en route to Antigua will be in San Andrés Itzapa, to visit the San Simón temple. San Simón (another name for Maximón) is worshipped here by Mayan and Ladinos alike, with costumbre performed by shamans in the courtyard in front of the church. By making a "donation" we are granted the privilege of entering the church to observe the worship, which seems to be an individualistic matter as supplicants approach the idol of San Simón, murmur a prayer and leave an offering. We will enter the church in small groups, quietly and respectfully.
A few more kilometers down the road and we are back at the Posada de Don Rodrigo in Antigua. But we may find Antigua all a-boil, crowded with Easter pilgrims and tourists. Our hotel reservations were made more than a year in advance, and come Good Friday it will be evident why. Even vacant lots in Antigua get rented out this week!
Thurs., Fri., Sat. and Sun., April 8-11: This is the climax of the year in Antigua. Religious processions abound, especially on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The main procession on Good Friday, features thousands of participants, faux Roman soldiers on horseback, numerous andas (hand-carried religious floats), brass bands blaring funeral dirges, and church dignitaries preceded by censer swingers, winding through the streets of Antigua for many hours.
On the night before this procession elaborate alfombras or "carpets" of flowers and dyed sawdust poured in stenciled designs are prepared in the streets, for the procession to pass over. We hope, through special arrangement, to be involved in the preparation of one of these alfombras.
There will be much to see and do in Antigua these days of religious fervor, some of which will be planned, and some of which will be serendipitous.
Mon., Apr. 12: Today we mount our bus once again to travel eastward down into the Motagua Valley, passing through an area of rain-shadow desert, before turning south towards El Salvador, to reach the town of Esquipulas. In spite of having just come from Holy Week in Antigua, we are now going to visit the most important Catholic shrine in all of Guatemala (perhaps in all Central America), the Basilica of Esquipulas. The Black Christ of Esquipulas is a statue of Christ that is housed in the very impressive church here. This image is believed by the faithful to have special powers. Throughout the year thousands of pilgrims come to Esquipulas to pray to the Black Christ for blessings.
From Esquipulas we will backtrack about 45 kilometers to the turnoff to Copán Ruinas in neighboring Honduras (you can carve one more notch in your passport as we cross the border!), where we'll end the day cooling off in the pool at the Hotel Marina in Copán Ruinas, Honduras. To see more of the Hotel Marina Copán, click here: Marina Copán; then hit your "back" button to return to this trip description.
Tues., Apr. 13: All day at Copán Ruins National Park, a 1000-year-old Classic Maya site famed for its marvelous carvings, which are better preserved here than in most Maya sites due to the use of volcanic rock that resists weathering. In addition to the numerous stelae depicting Copan's kings, there are pyramids and temples, and a fine ceremonial ballcourt, where the ritual game was played for keeps. In 1999, a series of archeological exploration tunnels underneath the ancient pyramids was opened to the public, revealing the completely intact buried temple known as Rosalila.
In addition to the pyramids and temples, there is the new Museum of Sculpture and also the old Copán Museum which houses a cache of amazing flint eccentrics discovered recently in a buried temple, plus many other wonderful objects. Finally, the town of Copán itself is such a pleasant, friendly country town, a really nice place to spend a day. Second night at the Hotel Marina.
Weds., Apr. 14: Today we return to Guatemala City, with archeological and geological stops en route as time permits, but we have to get to the airport in time to make our afternoon flight out to Santa Elena, gateway to Tikal National Park.
From Santa Elena we will take the Jungle Lodge's private bus for an hour's drive to our lodgings inside the park. Here's a glimpse of the Jungle Lodge.
Thurs., Apr. 15: Tikal is a vast, sprawling complex of 1000-year-old ruins, now covered in tropical jungle except where the archeologists have cleared and restored. The site is centered on the the great Plaza Mayor, flanked by the soaring pyramids of Temple I and Temple II. We'll have a guided introductory tour of the site, which you shouldn't miss, but if you get up early enough you may be able to get into the ruins ahead to watch sunrise from Temple IV, then return to the Jungle Lodge for breakfast and the guided tour.
After lunch you can return to the archeological complex for a short while on your own to prowl amid crumbling, jungle-encrusted temples, palaces, causeways, pyramids, and numerous ruined edifices of unknown purpose.
In addition to the amazing ruins of a once populous Classic Maya city, Tikal is also a wonderful site for its lowland tropical jungle, its brilliant birds and other wildlife. You can expect to see parrots, toucans, toucanettes, hummingbirds, oropendolas, the beautiful ocellated turkey, and many other avian inhabitants of the jungle. Rarer sightings include trogons, currasows, and crested guans.
As for animal life, if you keep your eyes open you are very likely to see foxes, guatuza (agouti), pisotes (coatimundi), and spider monkeys. You could also see some of the following: howler monkeys, deer, peccary, small alligators in the water hole near the hotel, or other jungle beasts. If you are indeed *very* lucky you might see a jaguar...one of our travelers did in 2001.
There are also two museums near the Jungle Lodge, both of which are worth seeing. The Lithic Museum in the visitor's center contains many of the original stelae found at Tikal, and is free of admission. The Modesto Méndez Museum houses more delicate archeological pieces found at Tikal, including pottery, carved bones, stucco work, flint and obsidian pieces, and a spectacular burial replete with masses of jade offerings, displayed in a reconstruction of the tomb in which it was found.
Clearly there is more to see and do and learn here than we have time for, so you need to use your time wisely.
Around 2 PM we will return to Santa Elena to catch our flight back to Guatemala City, where we will spend our last night in Guatemala (for this trip, anyway-- plan on returning!) in the Hotel Pan American.
Fri., Apr. 16: This morning we say "Adios, Guatemala", or better, "Hasta la próxima!" ("Until next time!") as we head out to the airport to catch our flight back to the U.S. We'll return home with lots of photos, some Guatemalan textiles and other handicrafts, a million memories, and better human beings, having had our minds expanded a bit by sampling Guatemala's rainbow of cultural, historical and natural treasures.
To ask for an application blank (sent by e-mail) or make other enquiry about this Rutahsa Adventures Semana Santa 2004 Excursion, contact Dr. Ric Finch at Ric Finch.
This trip is currently booked full. However, we will be pleased to have you send us your name and address and we will add you to the wait-list, and also to a list for notification if we decide to run this trip in 2005.
Trip costs (Guatemala package; air fare to and from Guatemala not included): If 10-11 participants: $1978; if 12-13 participants: $1867; if 14-16 participants: $1780.
Thanks for visiting!