Rutahsa Adventures is pleased to offer an exciting exploration of Guatemala's unique blend of Maya and European customs, including the pageantry of 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. 28: 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., Mar. 29: 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.
Liz will introduce you to Antigua's history and principal visitors' sites, plus give you an idea of its present-day politics and problems. You couldn't ask for a better introduction to the city.
Lunch will be on your own, in any of the innumerable dining choices in Antigua. One option is the restaurant of the Hotel Santo Domingo, where Liz' walking tour concludes. This impressive hotel-museum-restaurant complex is located in the ruins of a convent, and is an elegant and delightful place. Or you may wish to return to the Posada de Don Rodrigo, which also has excellent dining. And you will likely have spotted other possibilities during your tour with Liz.
Your afternoon is free time to explore other intriguing ruins and museums, shop in Antigua's plethora of stores and street markets, people watch in the central park, admiring and photographing colorful Maya traje (as the traditional native costumes are called).
Towards sunset be sure to climb the spiral steps to the rooftop of the Posada de Don Rodrigo for stunning views of the three volcanoes Agua, Acatenango and smoking Fuego.
Fri., Mar. 30: For breakfast we find the Posada de Don Rodrigo's open air cafe with its great view of Volcán Agua delightful. We also highly recommend Doña Luisa's restaurant for breakfast, especially their hearty homemade granola with yogurt and fruit-- that will keep you going!
After breakfast, 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 staying 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 de 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 de Santiago.
We should arrive not too long after noon, and have scheduled a walking tour of Santiago led by Dolores Ratzun, 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 returning to the Posada de Santiago, if you still have energy for walking, 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. In the same area you can see evidence of the devastating, hurricane-spawned mudflow of 2005, that buried half the village of Panabaj, bringing yet more death to this long-suffering Maya community.
Alternatively, you may choose to just relax at the Posada, perhaps enjoying their pool and sauna overlooking the beautiful lake. Or swim off their private dock if you fancy the invigoration of chilly waters. David makes killer margaritas that should definitely be sampled by anyone in the mood for a libation! The Posada also provides a library for the use of guests, and you will find in it fascinating reading on the local culture.
Sat., Mar.31: Today we go by boat across Lake Atitlán, enjoying dramatic vistas en route. Actually, we may go in more than one boat, depending on the interests and abilities of our travelers: Those in the mood for a hike of 3 to 4 hours along a trail that passes through small native villages and climbs steep hillsides above the sparking blue lake will board a charter launch that will take us across the lake to a landing near the pueblo of San Marcos, where we'll start our hike to Santa Cruz, another town perched above the lake. The hike is along a well-established trail, and the views are great! Our charter launch will be awaiting us at the end of the hike.
In the meantime, power shoppers and anyone else not wishing to hike will travel across the lake on the public ferry to Panajachel where shopping opportunities for native crafts and arts abound in a seven-day-a-week market that lines (and sometimes fills) the main streets of "Pana". The two groups will meet up at the Posada de Don Rodrigo, sister hotel to our home in Antigua.
While roaming around Pana, note the variety of native costume-- Maya vendors from all over Guatemala come to Pana to sell to the many foreign travelers here. The outstanding traje of the Kaqchikel Maya women of the lakeside town of Santa Catarina Palopó is particularly prominent: the vibrant blue huipil (native blouse) cannot be overlooked. You may also see some men from Santa Catarina in their three-quarter length pants (a length you will have seen earlier in Santiago, and which is typical for men who live near the lake and are often boating or fishing), also heavily embroidered in rich blue geometric designs. 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.
A word about Panajachel (also called "Gringotenango" from the excess of gringo-expats living there and the high number of foreign visitors)....it is undeniably a shoppers bonanza, and as Guatemala's "Mall of America" it certainly contributes to the Guatemalan economy. Nonetheless, it is considered by many who love Guatemala and its native culture to be a prime example of how tourism in excess can radically alter a town for the worse. You may judge for yourself.
Our bus will come around the lake to pick us up at the Posada de Don Rodrigo, and at 3 PM we will leave Pana to 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.
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. 1: 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 we will offer an optional excursion this afternoon, for those who are "marketed out". We will go in our bus to the ruins of Utatlán, about an hour's drive north of Chichi. While the crumbling stone remains to not comprise an impressive archeological compared to Tikal and other Classic Maya sites, Utatlán is of great importance in the history of the Conquest. Here the Spaniards, led by Cortés' henchman Pedro de Alvarado, entered and destroyed the capital of the most powerful of the Maya kingdoms resisting them, the K'iché.
Even in ruins Utatlán is still believed to have power, and the site is frequently used for shamanistic rituals held in a tunnel underneath the ruins. We can visit this tunnel, and possibly encounter still flaming candles and/or smoking incense from recent ceremonies. (Should we find that a ceremony is underway, we will not enter, but remain respectfully outside until the worshippers have completed their rituals.) Be sure to bring your flashlight if you plan to enter this tunnel.
Second night at the Mayan Inn.
Mon., Apr. 2: This morning we will be in no hurry, but after a leisurely breakfast we will load up and head out. How different Chichi will look today, with the market dismantled and the vendors gone.
We'll drive along the Pan American Highway to Quetzaltenango, about a two and a half hour drive without stops. But we'll be making stops!
We'll make a brief visit into the indigenous town of Nahualá, where many of the men 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 perhaps because 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.
Back on the Pan American highway headed west, 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 Quetzaltenango.
Shortly before reaching Quetzaltenango we'll take another brief break at San Andrés Xecul to marvel at its famous yellow church. 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.
Quetzaltenango is Guatemala's second most important city, 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.
After settling into our quarters, we can meet in the lobby to go on a short walking tour of the main plaza area. We can visit a really excellent little museum dedicated to the star-crossed Railroad of Los Altos, or...there is a market at the corner of the plaza!
Tues., Apr. 3: Early (pre-dawn departure) AM: This is an outing for early birds, nature lovers, and hikers. We will drive out through the suburbs of Xela, then up a steep dirt road into the mountains, towards the towering cone of Volcán Santa María. If the gate to the forestry project is not locked we can get close to our goal. If it is locked, we may have to walk an additional 45 minutes (it will be light by this time). In any case, we will, one way or another, arrive at Hacienda Santiago, where a trail, steep in places, leads us down (10 minutes down; double that for coming back up) through amazing tropical vegetation to a small flat area where once, long ago, a small hotel stood (though you will doubt this, consdering how difficult the access is today, it is true, there was a little hotel here just for volcano watchers, back in the 1920s!). This is the overlook for Volcán Santiaguito and the viewpoint from which we hope to witness a real live volcanic eruption!
In 1902, not only was there an earthquake, but Volcán Santa María blew up violently creating an great open blast crater (much like Mt. St. Helens in Washington State did in 1980). Fortunately for Xela, this occurred on the Pacific side of the cone. Twenty years later a dome of dacite lava began to push up into the giant crater. Today the Santiaguito volcanic dome, with a volume of about two cubic kilometers, is said to be the largest dacite dome in the world. It is highly active, not infrequently producing landslides of incandescent ash (small nuées ardentes) when the steep walls of the dome collapse. But its more common activity, and that which we hope to see and hear, are sporadic upward spouts of steam and ash, accompanied by a roaring noise like a jet plane passing close overhead. Depending on the wind direction, we may get a little bit of ash drifting down on us. Or Santiaguito could be completely quiet today. You never know...volcanoes are moody. In any case, this should be a very worthwhile morning outing, invigorating and scenic.
We should be back at the Pensión Bonifaz between 9 and 10 AM for a late breakfast. The chilaquiles are our favorite breakfast dish.
Around noon we will drive just a few kilometers out of Quetzaltenango passing through Alotenango with its hot springs spas (note at least two styles of huipiles worn here), to the truck farming center of Zunil. 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.
We will turn off the main road and drive another eight kilometers through truly beautiful farm fields, stopping for photos along the way. The landscape changes as we enter cloud forest, pass by sulfurous-smelling fumaroles to arrive at the picturesque hot springs spa of Fuentes Georginas.
Here we can relax in thermal spring waters surrounded by cool, luxuriant tropical growth. Be sure to bring your swimsuit. Changing rooms are by the pool.
Any non-Santiaguito hikers who didn't eat an early lunch in town can quell hunger pangs now at the small poolside restaurant. Hikers who had a late breakfast may wish to enjoy the pool first and snack later.
After a stay at the springs-- the group can decide how long-- we return by the route we came back to the town of Zunil. 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.
Just a block downhill from the co-op 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. This is a real eye-opener!
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.
Overnight again at the Pensión Bonifaz.
Weds., Apr. 4: Our goal today is to get back to Antigua, where Holy Week is in full swing. But we also have things to see and do along the way, so it will be well into the afternoon before we complete the four-hour drive.
Today's planned highlight is a visit to a PAVA (Programa de Ayuda a los Vecinos del Altiplano) project. PAVA -- Aid Program for the Highland Communities -- is a highly effective organization founded by a number of residents of Antigua, including gringo ex-pats, former Peace Corps volunteers, and other good-hearted souls, that works to provide schools and potable water systems, build bridges and other aid projects in highland Maya communities where the people themselves have shown a desire to improve their lives and those of their children. PAVA raises funds and brings in the needed expertise; the Maya of the communities put in the necessary "sweat equity" to get the projects done. PAVA works in small villages that are normally under-serviced or even completely ignored by the national government.
We have visited a variety of PAVA projects on past Guatemala excursions and have always found this a truly inspirational outing.
Twenty five dollars of your trip fee for this excursion will be contributed to PAVA, for which you will receive a notice of a tax deductible donation. To find out more about PAVA, and other ways in which you can help, visit their website PAVA Foundation.
A few more kilometers down the road and we are back at the Posada de Don Rodrigo in Antigua. But we may find Antigua a very different scene from when we left it just six days ago...Antigua will be all a-boil, crowded with Easter pilgrims and tourists. Our hotel reservations were made almost a year in advance, and come Good Friday it will be evident why. Even vacant lots in Antigua get rented out this week!
Thurs. and Fri., Apr. 5-6: Thursday-Friday-Saturday and Easter Sunday are the climax of the year in Antigua. However, as multiple religious processions eventually begin to blur one into the other, and you can only stand just so much incense, we will be observing the festivities for only two days, Thursday and Good Friday.
Religious processions abound, day and night, especially on Good Friday. 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 the Good Friday 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. Although we have no formal program scheduled for Thursday, one of the things you will not want to miss is the preparation of these alfombras.
There will be much to see and do in Antigua these days of religious fervor, some of which will be serendipitous events and sights you'll stumble across as you explore the town in small groups or on your own.
Sat., Apr. 7: Today you must arise early to go into Guatemala City airport for a 7AM flight out to Santa Elena, gateway to Tikal National Park. Since this is just an overnight excursion, you should travel light, leaving most of your luggage and belongings in the security of the Posada de Don Rodrigo's storeroom. You should be able to pack all you need for this trip in one small bag, plus a day pack for use while in the archeological ruins.
From Santa Elena the Jungle Lodge's private bus will carry our group for an hour's drive to the lodge inside the park. Here's a glimpse of the Jungle Lodge. At the Jungle Lodge you will leave your bag in the reception room, then go with your guide for a walking introductory tour (two to three hours) of the famous archeological site.
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.
After this tour, you return to the Jungle Lodge for a late lunch (included in the package). And after lunch you can walk back into 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. One of the fun things to do is to climb up to the top of the big pyramid in the Mundo Perdido (Lost World) to watch the parrots and toucans come in to roost in the trees below as sundown approaches. Be sure to carry a flashlight with you for the walk out, as after 6:00 PM it can get quite dark quite rapidly.
Sun., Apr. 8: You have a half day of free time in Tikal today. If you choose to return to the ruins-- which you certainly should-- the second day entry ticket costs an additional Q50 (approx. $6.50 dollars).
If you are an early riser, we recommend going into the ruins to see sunrise from atop Temple IV. Officially the ruins do not open until 6 AM, a bit too late for sunrise, but often visitors find that if they get up to the entry post between 5 and 5:30 AM, no one is present to say no, so you go in, hike to Temple IV, enjoy sunrise, and purchase your entry ticket for today on the way out.
Another reason for an early morning visit is to see wildlife. Tikal is 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, guatuzas (agoutis), 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 (we're still jealous over this sighting!).
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. 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 there is time for, so you need to use your time wisely.
Around 1 PM you need to be checked out and ready to bus back to Santa Elena to catch your flight back to Guatemala City, where you will again be met at the airport and taken back to Antigua for one final night at the Posada de Don Rodrigo.
Mon., Apr. 9: Today you can sleep in, get up and shop, or whatever you choose, according to your flight schedule out of Guatemala. But in any case, it's "Adios, Guatemala", or better, "Hasta la próxima!" ("Until next time!"). Shuttles will pick you up at the Posada according to your individual return flight schedules and take you to the Guatemala City airport. You'll return home with lots of photos, some Guatemalan textiles and other handicrafts, a million memories, and minds expanded a bit by sampling Guatemala's rainbow of cultural, historical and natural treasures.
Cost of the excursion (Guatemala in-country package only; air fare to and from Guatemala not included): with 10-13 participants: $1705; with 14-16 participants: $1625. N.B.: A minimum of 10 participants is required to make this trip go.
To request and application blank for this excursion, contact Dr. Ric Finch at Ric Finch specifying that you are interested in the 2007 Semana Santa trip.
Thanks for visiting!