I love the way the air smells in different countries. I don’t quite know what causes it – maybe it’s the humidity, or the dust, or the foliage – but I love stepping off an aeroplane and feeling that first connection with a new country.
Landing in Guatemala was no different, albeit after one of the worst long haul flights I have ever done (without wishing to sound too precious, who knew that Iberia does not have on demand films and such awful food). But as my nostrils fill with sweet, moist air, I feel my body relax…my holiday has officially begun. It is going to be a whirlwind of a holiday, 5 countries in 3 weeks. As I start writing this post, it’s day 2 and I already know that I will be coming back to Guatemala soon. I simply don’t have enough time to truly experience this beautiful country but I’m going to give it my best shot.
I decided to skip Guatemala City and head straight Antigua, a small, well-organised town with multi-coloured low-rise buildings laid out in a perfect grid, with streets so straight you can see all the way down to the volcanoes that surround the town. My first day is a baptism of fire – almost literally, or liturgically at least! Easter week doesn’t mean much back home anymore but, boy, it does here! My first day is Palm Sunday and the city is heaving. The cobbled streets are decorated with carpets of flowers, to signify Jesus’s return to Jerusalem (had to look that up – Sunday school is a distant memory!). Many of the men are dressed in purple and white and the women are monochrome, their hair covered in black lace veils. The day started early with church bells and singing from about 4am – not all that helpful with jet lag after a 25 hour travelling day, to be honest – and the noise does not stop until late into the night.
The day is dominated by a huge procession that seems to go round and round the town all day. I feel so sorry for the people carrying the huge floats that seem to depict Jesus’s walk to the cross and his return to Jerusalem at the same time – slightly bizarre with Centrions falling off chariots – and the musicians who play throughout the heat of the day. Everytime I try to walk anywhere, I seem to run into the procession again – they were still going strong at 9pm after a 9am start. But the whole town has an amazing energy – a true fiesta – with families enjoying the festivities and sunshine and food in the central square all day. There are street sellers everywhere: men pushing ice-cream carts with jangling bells, children’s toys that you whip around in the air and sound like flocks of ducks (or whatever the correct plural of ducks is), whistles that sit in your mouth and sound just like a cat meowing.
In my usual style, I seemed to walk and walk and walk, not easy on the uneven cobbled streets (even worse in the taxi on the way in – I felt like I had been in a cocktail shaker!), wandering the streets past ruined churches (thanks to a couple of major earthquakes) and the brightly painted buildings. I got (inevitably) lost in the local market, in a warren of stalls piled high with fresh produce, or shoes, or Tupperware, or every conceivable item a person might want to buy. I sat on terraces with stunning vistas, and read my book, and ate everything from guacamole to crepes (to borrow from Gretchen Rubin, a serious secret of adulthood is that one can eat a Nutella crepe instead of dinner if one so chooses, especially when accompanied by a gorgeous sunset and a book on the history of humanity).
I’ve actually been deliberately taking it easy for the first couple of days. Normally I would be out and about doing as much as I possibly could. But I’ve realised how much the first 5 months of my new job have taken out of me. This holiday needs to be about adventure and recooperation. So I’ve been listening to my body, taking long lazy afternoon siestas in the hammocks on the terrace of my hostel, and just enjoying the warmth of the sun on my skin after the long, dark English winter.
I also spent a day on Lake Atitlan – nowhere near enough time – but enjoyed a lovely day on a boat trip visiting a few of the different villages and towns around the huge lake. Described by Aldous Huxley (the author of Brave New World) as “the most beautiful lake in the world”, Lake Atitlan is the deepest in Central America, ringed by three volcanoes and sitting around 5,0000ft above sea level. And it is beautiful. It’s really easy to get around the lake with boats leaving each of the docks at regular intervals. However, I opted for a tour, which proved to be a great move as Eduardo was full of really interesting facts about a country and culture I really don’t know enough about – normally I would do quite a bit of research before visiting a country but work has been so busy, I just haven’t had the time – from Mayan culture to the civil war. The smallest village we went to, San Juan, is a concentration of artists and textile communes. In one gallery, we met a couple of the artists who described their work and styles. I end buying a huge canvas oil painting of corn – bear with me – that instantly caught my eye. Corn has a particular sacred significance for the Mayan people, not least because it’s been their staple diet for centuries. Mayan mythology describes three gods who create life. The first time, they used mud to make a man but it doesn’t [sic] work. Then they tried with wood but it still doesn’t [sic] work. Finally they tried with corn and “it was good”. Corn comes in four different colours here, and you can also get cobs with multicoloured grains. The white corn represents the north, men and the colour of bones and teeth. Yellow represents the south, women, fertility and maturity. Red (the colour of my painting) represents the east, the sunrise, and the colour of the sun and of blood. Finally, black represents the west, the night, the darkness and the world of the dead.
Over in Santiago Atitlan, the largest town on the lake, I visited the second oldest church in Central America, built by the Spanish in 1541. It also houses the tomb of Father Stanley Rother, a Catholic priest from Oaklahoma, who was murdered by the Guatemalan army during the thirty year civil war that raged here until 1996. Rother opened up the church to house some of the people who had lost their homes in the war; in the army’s eyes, this meant he was collaborating with the guerillas and so they executed him. When his family repatriated his body, the villagers, so grateful for the kindness he had shown them, requested that his heart and blood remain in the village, and so they are kept in a tomb in the church. Eduardo tells me that there has been little improvement in Guatemala since the end of the war, with the military continuing to dominate politics from behind the scenes. He forebodingly tells me that all the signs are ripe for the coming of the end of days. It’s a poignant reminder for me that there can be a dark underbelly to the beauty and friendliness I have experienced in Guatemala.
My last stop before heading to Honduras is the infamous market in Chichicastenango. It seems like you can buy everything here, from tourist souvenirs to local food to Tupperware. And it is crazy. There are people everywhere; the streets are packed with locals and tourists (it’s really easy for me to tell the difference – the locals generally come up no higher than my shoulder and I am not tall!). To be honest, I managed about an hour of wandering around but the heat and the craziness ‘force’ me to seek refuge on a cafe balcony, drinking the most amazing Guatemalan hot chocolate, updating the blog and watching the world bustle below.
And so tomorrow, it’s another early start and off to Honduras. I have had a wonderful few days in Guatemala and am already planning the next trip here but I am really excited about what’s to come over the next couple of weeks.
Stayed: Yellow House Hostel (a great little hostel with very friendly and helpful staff; private rooms available with huge and very comfy beds; very clean; filling, tasty and free breakfast daily; only has 2 showers for the whole hostel but they are hot, which apparently is a big selling point in Guatemala!)
Ate: Luna De Miel (amazing crepes and homemade lemonade on a terrace with beautiful views). Angie Angie (lovely outdoor restaurant with a fire pit serving really good Italian food). A great local place serving huge portions of delicious Guatemalan food on 2 Calle Poniente – sorry didn’t catch the name! The Rainbow Cafe (a cafe popular with travellers and locals, huge glasses of iced tea, diverse menu with good vegetarian options, live music, open mic and lectures on various evenings)
Drank: Cafe No Se (a dark little warren of a bar, lit by candles, my kind of place and the only time I have sat at a bar as a woman on my own and actually been chatted up)
Stayed: Hotel El Sol (a bargain hostel with huge immaculate rooms. Run by a Japense family who also run a Japanese restaurant in town that delivers food to the hostel. Only drawback is that is about 1km off the main drag through town but it’s an easy walk or a Q5 tuk-tuk)
Ate: Restaurante Hana (the Japanese restaurant mentioned above – Guatemala isn’t really renowned for it’s cuisine so why have some authentic Japanese food!)
I only came in for the day so no hotel recommendations; there are cafes scattered all over the market.