THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JAMES A. BONDOUX

GUATEMALA – A REALLY DIFFERENT AND COLORFUL PLACE
OUR 2004 LAND TRIP

Chichicastenango Mercado

The Mercado in Chichicastenango.

Ladies Gossiping

Villagers from the mountains taking a break during a visit to Antigua.

San Antonio Palopo

Lake Atitlan shoreside at San Antonio Palopo. Access is by boat from across the lake.

Discovering the ancient back alleys of Tikal

Discovering the back alleys of the ancient Mayan city of Tikal.

Howlers

Howler monkeys relaxing in the heat of the jungle that has completely overgrown the ancient city.

Mayan Woman

Mayan woman pushing her way through the crowd of Chichicastenango Sunday Market.

Village patterns

Display of the weaving patterns of the various villages in the Sierra Madre.

Tikal overgrown

The top of one of the temples of Tikal poking above the jungle canopy.

Mayan Temple

Temple at Tikal. Wooden staircase is easier to climb than the limestone tiers of the temple.

I loved our exploration of Guatemala.

The place is an extraordinary blend of Mayan mystery, imperial Spanish colonization, and natural beauty. Perhaps also the slower pace and simplicty of things add to the enchantment.

We zeroed in on four targets during our visit: Chichicastenango ("Chichi"), a mountain market town; Antigua, the ancient Spanish Capital; Lake Atitlan, a focal point for folkloric culture; and Tikal, one of the major cities of the vanished Mayans which is still buried in a primeval jungle.

Chichicastenango is known for its twice-weekly markets, when the central square is taken over by outdoor merchants selling weavings, pottery, hats and all kinds of housewares. The weavers in each village in the surrounding mountains and valleys stick to one single signature pattern that identifies their village or tribe. So the locals can tell from a glance at your skirt, or serape, or poncho, where you "belong".

We hit the market on a Sunday – the town dominated by the acrid scent of burning mesquite, the central square crowded with impassive Mayan locals bustling about on their business, and a strange ritual taking place on the steps of the church involving people wearing dark tunics dancing around a fire pit while gesturing with clumps of flowered boughs. It seems that the Jesuit padres intentionally built their church on an ancient worship site as a strategy to ease conversion to Christianity, and so today, centuries later, Sunday services still include some of the old pagan rituals.

Lake Atitlan is at a high altitude and reminded us of our “home” lake, Tahoe. The lake, like Chichi, exudes an aura of mystery, due to the three volcanic peaks that surround its shoreline. One accesses the place through a town named Panajachel, but often jokingly referred to as “gringotenango” (“tenango” translates from the Nahuatl language as “place of”), because so many hippies came to visit in the 1960s or 1970s and never left. One sees numerous graying ponytails on gringos in sandals circulating with guitars slung over their shoulders, and we are told they hold periodic "harmonic convergence" meditation events to usher in the New Age.

Travel around the lake is by boat, the roads being non-existent. One lakeshore community is Santiago Atitlan, where we climbed to view the shrine to San Simon, a venerated patron saint who drinks and smokes and accepts offerings of tobacco and spirits. Also, Kathryn improved her Spanish by conversing at length with a talkative Mynah bird who lives caged on the grounds of Hotel Atitlan!

Antigua is the former capital of Guatemala – former because repeated catastrophic earthquakes underlined the advisability of a move. We stayed at the most extraordinary hotel – Casa Santo Domingo – a former convent whose stone ruins have been partly rehabilitated for upscale tourist comfort and where the nightly illumination was provided by hundreds of votive candles lined up throughout the grounds. Antigua is another superb example of a colonial Spanish City, which we have found to be so worth exploring throughout Latin America.

We left the temperate Sierra Madre for the hot and muggy jungle lowlands, finding our way to remote Tikal. This huge isolated Mayan city is still mostly covered by thick tropical vegetation. The disappearance of the Mayan civilization remains a subject of speculation (I subscribe to the theory of an extremely prolonged drought) and we found Tikal to be the most mysterious of all the Mayan sites we have visited (which include Uxmal, Tulum, and Chichen Itza).

Someday, perhaps, we'll make a return visit. I'd like that, a lot.