Fly into Guatemala City where you will be met and transferred to your hotel in Antigua.
This morning we'll get acquainted with the city of Antigua, where the most impressive festivities will take place later this week. Once the capital of Guatemala and all of Central America, Antigua resembles a living ruin. Mammoth ruins of churches and palaces tell the story of Antigua's past glory, and restored fascades speak of a bright future for this wonderful city. After lunch we head to Chichicastenango and wander through the main square, watching traders from far and near prepare for tomorrow's market.
Today we rise early to visit the famous market of Chichicastenango. This beautiful town, surrounded by valleys and shadowed by mountains, has many spiritual and ceremonial overtones. Its large market brings villagers from throughout the region, who often arrive the night before and sleep on blankets in the market square. Rising early, they set out their colorful fruits, vegetables and handicrafts. Today is Palm Sunday, so we'll see the procession of the religious brotherhood, or cofradias, as well. The market disperses in the early afternoon and we travel to Lago Atitlan, often referred to as the most beautiful lake in the world. Our home for the next few days is a charming lodge in the village of Santiago Atitlan.
This is a free day, and you're welcome to explore as you wish. Go canoeing on the lake, horseback riding to a nearby cloudforest, or rent a mountain bike. Meet up with our local guide and learn about the mystical undercurrents of the area, or visit Maya Saints in the brotherhood houses and watch some of the day's rituals. Scholars tell us that the Ancient Maya disappeared mysteriously a thousand years ago, but anyone who has intimately explored this fascinating region knows that the Maya continue to thrive in the highlands of Guatemala. Villagers in Santiago Atitlan still adhere to the traditional lifestyle of the Tz'utuhil Maya and we'll see many people cloaked in brightly-colored, hand-woven clothing. Along Santiago's main street are art galleries filled with oil paintings depicting busy market scenes and typical life in the highlands.
We cross the lake this morning on one of the frequent boats and board a public "chicken bus" for our short journey. A few miles down the curvy mountain road known as the Interamericana, we reach the town of Solola. The main plaza is home to one of the most authentic markets in the highlands, and we'll spend some time wandering through the stalls, admiring the palette of colors created by mounds of fruits, vegetables, meats, housewares and clothing. Solola's Tuesday market is known throughout the country for the quality of its textiles and the weaving of the traditional huipiles - handmade white blouses embroidered with bright motifs. After our sensory feast we return to our lakeside lodge.
One of the more unique aspects of Santiago Atitlan is its reverence for Maximon, a curious Maya deity whose preferred offerings include beer and rum. As part of the Semana Santa celebrations, Maximon's effigy, cigar protruding from his wooden mask, is proudly paraded around town. We'll enjoy the processions before transferring back to Antigua in the afternoon.
The spectacular Easter celebrations in the former colonial capital are beyond comparison to anything in the northern hemisphere. Along cobblestone streets, intricate carpets of colored sawdust are painstakingly laid down. Later, a solemn procession of Roman centurions march over the carpets, carrying an image of Christ on the cross. Music and swinging incense burners accompany the robed cofradia. During these lively days leading up to Easter Sunday, we'll witness elaborate ceremonies re-enacting the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Trips can also be arranged to climb the nearby volcanoes of Pacaya and Acatenango, or you might rent mountain bikes to explore the foothills of the Antigua Valley, go horseback riding, or visit a nearby coffee plantation.
This morning the city is remarkably quiet as families gather to celebrate and worship together. We turn our attention northward, and after breakfast depart for the magnificent Tikal ruins in the steamy jungles of the El Peten region. Tikal's towering pyramids rise above the thick jungle canopy like stoic sentinels of ancient mysteries. The ancient Maya began building this city around 600 B.C., and for the next 1500 years the area was an important religious, scientific, and political center. Pyramids to honor dead kings were built, administrative buildings rose, storage houses appeared and houses for royalty were carved out of the jungle. Tikal became one of the greatest centers of Maya culture and sprawled over 46 square miles with more than 4000 structures in the core city center alone. Today, the pristine forest engulfing the ruined city is home to howler and spider monkeys, white lipped peccary, brocket deer, coatimundis, toucans, scarlet macaws, parrots, ocelots and the seldom seen jaguar. We'll explore the ruins with an experienced private guide before returning to the shores of Lake Peten Itza and our hotel for the night.
For those interested, wake early to return to Tikal to enjoy the atmosphere before the crowds arrive. This morning is free to relax in your lakeside hotel, wander the ruins, or take a taxi into the town of Flores to enjoy some local culture. Later on we head to the airport to complete our Guatemala travel. We spend our last night in Guatemala City, the modern-day capital of Guatemala. If you are interested we can arrange for your trip to continue on from Tikal into Belize, to explore the rainforest and reef.