Getting to Guatemala
Having read several interesting articles about Guatemala, including the architectural masterpieces and active volcanoes found in the country, I decided to embark on a tour of the home of ancient Mayan civilization. As an avid traveller, I chose to book my flight and hotel using the site www.travelocity.com. The site is a convenient way to book flights and hotel rooms. Furthermore, it provides numerous choices of airlines and hotels, which makes it easier to compare prices for such commodities.
I proceeded to book a flight from New York City to Nueva Guatemala de la Asuncion, the capital city of Guatemala. My departure date was 26 October 2015 and the trip would last for approximately seven days. My preferred airline has always been Turkish Airlines. I also chose to stay at the Barcelo Hotel in Guatemala City. The hotel has scheduled pick-ups and drop-offs from and to the airport, which made my trip to the hotel from the airport much easier.
On my first day in Guatemala City, I ate breakfast in the hotel lobby then proceeded to ask for a guide who could take me around the city and its environs. I was a bit nervous about the price the guide would charge me, as well as whether we could understand each other. I can only communicate in English and I had not thought of bringing a translation book along. However, my fears quickly dissipated once I realized my assigned guide was able to communicate in fluent English. Furthermore, his prices were not too high so I didn’t feel like I was being extorted in a foreign country. Another thing that made me happy was the fact that he had a group of other tourists, who too wanted to be shown around the Guatemalan city.
The guide drove us to the Church of San Francisco ruins in his shuttle bus. The journey to the ruins was simply delightful and everyone enjoyed how comfortable the drive was. One thing that caught my eye while staring out the window was the multitude of buses that were spewing thick black smoke from their exhausts. I asked our guide about these curious buses and he explained to me that they were referred to as camionetas or chicken buses. Inside, they seemed very chaotic and the drivers were most often over speeding but the passengers did not seem to mind.
We wandered around the ruins for more than an hour as our guide gave intricate details about the ruins. There were so many locals there and the guide attributed this to the shrine of Santo Hermano Pedro. The guide then proceeded to give us details as to the history of the ruins and the many times that the chapel was almost ruined completely due to natural disasters such as earthquakes.
After returning from the ruins, we had lunch in a small Spanish restaurant in the outskirts of Antigua referred to as the Santa Clara Panaderia. Here, I ate tortillas filled with cheese and drank the Moza Dark Beer, which was surprisingly really good.
I had breakfast in the hotel lobby but this time a couple of tourists from the previous day’s journey accompanied me. I make friends quickly it seems even in a foreign nation. Our guide came to inform us that he was driving us to Lake Atitlan, a lakeside paradise with several towns and villages at its shores. We were extremely excited about the opportunity and soon we were on our way there.
There is a very good reason that the lake is Guatemala’s best tourist attraction. It is simply beautiful, so much so that some tourists from the 1960s decided to actually live here for the rest of their lives. The lake has several unique characteristics including a vast number of volcanoes surrounding it. The minute you see the lake, you are engrossed by its beauty and perplexed by its people.
Our bus arrived in the morning, and the water in the lake appeared steely grey. By mid-afternoon, the watercolor had changed to more different shades of green than I ever knew existed. We took a boat ride in the afternoon and the ride was pleasantly rocky. The guide explained that it was due to the xocomil wind blowing across the water. Boat rides during the mornings are usually calmer.
We were so taken by the scenery that we chose as a group to stay in the area for a couple of more days so that we could explore some more. The guide helped us find accommodation in Panajachel, one of the main resorts and villages at the lake. A couple of the tourists and I went shopping for souvenirs, and ate Etoles and Tostadas for lunch. In the evening, we all gathered at Hotel Atitlan, where we enjoyed a couple of drinks as we watched the sun set behind the volcanoes. It was truly magical!
On the third day of my holiday, we decided to leave the bus and catch one of the chicken buses we had seen the previous two days. We wanted the entire experience to be authentic, but we were a bit apprehensive about what we were getting ourselves into. There was not much legroom in the vehicle but the ride was noisy and hilarious. There were many chickens on top of the vehicle, mothers carrying crying babies, and a drunken conductor who kept giving the wrong change. It was surprising how many people were in the bus despite the fact that it was about quarter to four in the morning.
We were heading to Solola, one of the least visited tourist destinations in Guatemala. The city is located on a mountainside that overlooks Lake Atitlan. The lake sits 600 meters below the city. The market city is famous for its residents, who have remained traditional despite the rapid modernization taking place in the country. Most of the residents are Kaqchikel Maya who wears traditional Mayan attire every day.
The chicken bus dropped us off at the trail entrance to Volcan San Pedro and we embarked on one of the most magnificent hikes of my life. For two hours, we climbed the mountain trail relentlessly hoping to catch the sunrise while at the top of the volcano. We were successful albeit sore from the climbing and the previous evening’s alcoholic indulgences. It was simply breathtaking watching the sunrise over the horizon from that altitude.
After our descent, we walked around the city until we arrived at the Cementerio Municipal. The place was too colorful, and we could not imagine this is where the dead come to rest. It turns out that the people of Solola honor the dead by burying their loved ones amid their favorite colors. Different colors can be seen here including all shades of green, cobalt blues, and turquoise. The flower arrangements on the tomb also add to the colors present.
The next day we headed out to Chichicastenango, part of the Western Highlands of Guatemala. The road dropped down through a seemingly endless forest of pine trees, which culminates in a deep ravine. From there we had the arduous task of ascending several switchbacks before we arrived at Chichicastenango.
True to its historic roots, the town has remained one of the largest trading centers in Guatemala. The main item being sold here was handicrafts, which made the entire town look so colorful. Our guide told us that on normal days, the population of the town was approximately 42000 people. However, during the market days, which are Sundays and Thursdays, the population in the town almost doubles.
He also informed us that the people who come selling their different wares during the market days were from different tribes. For instance, on this day, he showed Kiche Maya traders, as well as traders from other linguistic groups including Ixil, Kaqchikel, and Mam. All these traders had their own distinct handicrafts, dialects, costumes, and smells based on their tribal affiliations.
After purchasing several blouses, woodcarvings, and other handicrafts, we set out for another destination that has made Chichicastenango one of the most famous tourist attractions in Guatemala. The Santa Thomas is right next to the market so it did not take long for us to get there. The church is over 400 years old, and seems to be in good condition even after all these years. When we arrived, we found Shamans inside the church holding their daily rituals. Observing them made me feel so peaceful, and I was extremely fascinated at how they could hold on to their traditions even after the bloody civil war the country had faced in the 20th century.
In special occasions, the Shamans will sacrifice a chicken to the gods for posterity and good health. We were also informed that each of the 18 stairs that go up to the church represent the 18 months in the Mayan calendar. The calendar, which is still observed today in many rural areas in Guatemala, has 18 months with each month having twenty days.
The next day, we were on our way to Quetzaltenango, also referred to as Xela by the locals. We all chose to use the chicken buses hoping to see something hilarious in the bus. On our way there, the guide explained that Guatemala’s second city, Quetzaltenango, is the hub for the western highlands.
It is not a typical tourist destination as the city is ordinary with a provincial feel to it. Everyone we met was extremely formal and polite. Their demeanor made us feel like we had travelled back in time to the industrial era in northern England where politeness and formality were the norm.
The city is one of the most important educational centers in the country, with its institutions of higher learning attracting students from all over the country. In addition, its Spanish schools have received international acclaim on several occasions. Several development projects are based here, meaning more foreigners are settling down in the town. This has given the city a more cosmopolitan feel as evidenced by its contemporary restaurants and bars.
After being given a small tour of the educational facilities as well as the city center, we headed to Fuentes Georginas. This picturesque natural spa is 8km from Zunil if one is using a vehicle. According to our guide, the spa was named after the wife of former dictator Jorge Ubico, who commandeered the spa on weekends for personal use.
The spa contains four pools of varying temperatures that are fed by extremely hot sulfur springs. A high wall of flowers, ferns, and vines enclose the spa giving the scene a tropical feel. However, the mountain air currents help keep the temperatures cool throughout the day. We basked in the spa the entire afternoon while enjoying cold beers from the resort, which were surprisingly cheap considering the pristine environment in which we were in.
The following day, we were headed to The Cuchumatanes, the largest non-volcanic peaks in the whole of Central America. The guide informed us that the mountain peaks stretch from the highlands of Alta Verapaz all the way to the Mexican border. When we arrived, we were welcomed by expansive scenery that stretched beyond our wildest imaginations.
There are many things to see here but what stuck with us the most was the contrast that the landscape offered. On the one hand, we saw wild, exposed outcrops that are normally found in harsh and rugged terrain. On the other hand, the scenery also contains numerous river valleys that spread across the rugged terrain. Furthermore, hundreds of tiny villages can be seen in between the peaks.
The guide informed us that we were heading to Todos Santos Cuchumatan, one of the more accessible villages within the deep-cut valleys. We expected a boring little town with only a handful of farmers but what we got instead was unimaginable. We had arrived just in time for the annual horse-race fiesta, one of the wildest and most amusing fiestas I have ever had the pleasure of attending. The inhabitants’ dressing was also very fascinating especially how the men were dressed. The men were wearing straw hats that had blue ribbons, red and white shirts, and multi-colored stripped jackets.
We also had a pleasure of visiting San Mateo Ixtatan, which is only a few kilometers north of Todos Santos Cuchumatan. The remote village is deeply traditional with the women strictly adhering to traditional Mayan culture and the place of women in the civilization.
As we headed out of the mountainous peaks back to Guatemala City, we revisited everything that had intrigued us during our tours around the country. We reminisced on how authentic the people of Guatemala are and how refreshing it was that they had not allowed modernization wipe away their cultures and traditions. We also discussed how the trip gave us an excellent sneak peek into authentic Mayan traditions and civilization. This was perhaps the most enlightening trip I had ever embarked upon. The next day, I checked out of my hotel room and boarded a plane back to New York City. I promised myself that I would return to Guatemala the following year for more exploring