Day 1 - Arrive Guatemala
After 26 hours of being rerouted, and then flown all over the United States due to a mechanical failure in the plane, we finally made it to Guatemala at 1PM the day after we were due to arrive. We were picked up at the airport directly by our guide, Hugo, who was holding a sign with our last name on it, waiting patiently in the crowd at the airport.
Right away we hopped into the Kia minibus and drove off on the 3 hour ride to Lake Atitlan. Since we had not eaten a decent meal all day, we stopped at a roadside restaurant for a quick bite and some coffee, and then set off again. Hugo explained to us all the way different things we were seeing, such as many painted rocks and trees bearing political party logos – everywhere! It was fascinating to me that they have enough paint for it all! The winding road took us up through mountains and past farms and villages. We quickly adjusted to the style of driving – with only 2 lanes, passing slower vehicles along the way occurs almost every 10 minutes.
Soon we fell asleep since we had not slept for nearly 30 hours (I cannot sleep on planes to save my life) and awoke upon arrival to Panajachel - the “hippy” city as Hugo calls it. He told us the history and development of the population of hippies from the US in the 70’’s and how it affected the growth of the lakeside town. Here we saw the first colorful textile markets, with elderly Maya women holding out colorful embroidered blankets and shirts.
We drove to the boat launch and boarded a covered water taxi that took us the 25 minutes across the lake to the dock of Posada de Santiago, our home for the next 2 nights. The views of the lake and volcano were cloudy, but beautiful nonetheless. As we walked up the hillside to the reception area, we saw the pool and Jacuzzi along the hillside looking out over fishermen on the lake and women washing their cloths along the shoreline. What a spectacular view! We checked in and made our way to a quaint stone cottage. It was very charming and cozy, with a fireplace ready to be lit (although we never used it)! After dinner in the hotel restaurant, we settled in and slept a good night’s rest.
Day 2 - Walking tour of Santiago
This morning Hugo met us bright and early in the dining room for breakfast, then we set out on a walking tour of Santiago. While the town itself was much larger than I expected, the areas just outside the town were smaller. We met some families and saw their homes along the side of the road, and were able to watch a young gal use the wooden loom to create fabric for selling items at the market. It was a treat, and I appreciated them letting us into their home.
From there we walked further to see the area that the mudslide in Oct of 2005 destroyed. Some homes had been rebuilt and restored, but others were still buried half way deep in the dirt. Also, along the side of the road, we saw coffee plants and Hugo showed us the beans and explained the process to us for producing coffee as well as planting new plants. I just wish we could have roasted and brewed a cup right there!
We then walked into town and saw the main food market, and then walked through the textile market towards the shoreline. Jens and I took about a year deciding on which painting of Lake Atitlan we wanted to buy at a gentleman’s shop (poor man – he probably thought we would never decide) since Hugo told us paintings here would be much less expensive than ones we would find in Chichi or Antigua.
Something to make mention of about Santiago, and really most of the highlands town, has mostly to do with the people encountered there. The majority of the people living there still wear their traditional Maya clothing. The clothing actually is used as a way to identify what city or region they are from, as different colored shirts for the girls indicate different geographic regions, as well as the men in each city varied the style of pants or accessories worn. The villages are for the most part a slower way of life compared to the US, yet still you occasionally would see a Maya gal chatting on a cell phone in her typical attire, which made me have to laugh, as I guess technology knows no geographic limits. It is similar when you see a bunch of people dressed in Maya clothing carrying a bundle on their head, and then see them put the load down and climb into the back of a Toyota pickup truck, almost as though the culture has been preserved, and yet not. The people were for the most part very friendly, and while we did have some kids approach us asking for a Quetzal (the equivalent of about .15 in US), we were not approached as much as I remembered from my last visit to Guatemala 10 years ago. I enjoyed being able to offer some money in exchange for some photos, as that seemed to be more of value to me than even the textiles being sold.
After shopping a little, we rested for lunch at a restaurant and then parted ways with Hugo of the afternoon and made our way back to the hotel. We spent the rest of our afternoon relaxing in the pool. We could have gone out on the lake in canoes, or hiked around the area, but we were both hot and tired and a few hours of playing in the pool became a great way to finish the day
Day 3 - Chichi Market and Beautiful Antigua
Today we came back across the lake to Panajachel and from there took off to visit Chichi market. One of the largest in the area (particularly on Sundays) there were so many vendors. We spent some time wandering through here and then headed to see the cemetery where many brightly painted tombs cover the hillside. We had the treat of seeing some Maya women burning incense and making offerings on one particular grave site. We saw this happen as well on the steps to the entrance of the Catholic Church there. It was interesting to learn from Hugo how the 2 religions have become so mixed over ht years, and how many claim to pray to Maya gods and Catholic saints and believe in both.
After lunch at Hotel Santo Tomas in Chichi, we took off to head to Antigua. Along the way, we stopped to visit a privately owned coffee plantation just outside the city. We were not there during the harvest time, so we were only able to see a video discussing the process, but it was fascinating still to learn about the many steps that go into making a small bean such a highly demanded commodity.
We came in then to Antigua and checked into our hotel, La Aurora. You would not know it, but from the outside it looks like just another building, but on the inside is the most beautiful courtyard with babbling fountain and beautiful flowers, a very peaceful retreat in the middle of the bustling city.
In the evening, we met first with Luis, from the in-country office we work with. We grabbed a cup of coffee together, and then sat around the central plaza chatting. I very much appreciated getting the chance to meet face to face a person I work with on a daily basis! After parting ways, my husband and I went off in search of a good restaurant. We settled on Fonda de la Calle Real, which is now probably my favorite option. After dinner, we headed back for the evening.
Day 4 - Ruins and Cathedrals of Antigua
This morning there again was Hugo at 9 AM ready to pick us up and take us on a tour of the main cathedrals and ruins in Antigua. In just a few hours we were able to see Casa Santo Domingo (also a hotel), La Merced, San Francisco church, Santa Clara, and San Jose. It is amazing to think first of the sheer number of churches in the 10 x 10 block sized city, but then to see some of them still in ruins (mostly due to earthquakes), whereas others have been restored is such a fascinating contrast. Combined with the colors of the buildings, the cobblestone streets and the churches on every few blocks – one really does get a good sense of the colonial feel to the 15 and 1600s when it all began. We toured many ruin sites, and were able to climb around in the catacombs of some as well.
After lunch at a quaint café, La Condesa, we said good-bye to Hugo and thanked him for everything (and tipped him well)! Then again, we parted ways. We then went back to rest a bit before having Luis, join us to take us to meet his family. We were able to meet his girl and boy, and some others of his extended family. His kids were so terribly cute, and I was very grateful for the chance to meet them. Later on, we returned to Antigua and went out again in search of dinner. The interesting thing about Antigua is that the city is almost busier at night than it is during the day. One of the main draws to the city is its abundant nightlife – which is available all over the city! Being the boring folks we are, we returned to our hotel and turned in for the evening, our last night in Guatemala.