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The Highlands of Guatamala

Story and photos by Vicki Andersen  October 15, 2009

  As I weave my way through the crowded market, it is difficult to remain focused on my destination. With every step my senses are bombarded with a rainbow of bright colors in the textiles draped from every stall; with the aroma of sizzling tortillas and freshly cut tropical fruits dripping in sweet juices; with a cacophony of voices in numerous dialects and languages that span the country and the globe.
I am roaming the Highlands of one of Central America’s largest countries, and my journey includes four unique and distinct locations, each of which played an important part in the history of the indigenous Maya.
  GUATAMALA VOLCANO   Guatamala chicken bus  
  Guatemala is home to the tallest volcanoes in Central America, with 37 in the Highlands reaching as high as 12,464 feet.   The ubiquitous Chicken Buses, highly stylized by their owners, transport people and their produce, wares and livestock (including chickens).  
Once my plane landed and I had escaped the confines of Guatemala City, I headed east 27 miles to what was one of the most important Spanish cities in the New World. Beginning in 1543, this was the religious, political, economic and cultural center of Central America: the nucleus of activity that subjugated the indigenous culture. This city of 60,000, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was originally known as “The Very Loyal and Very Noble City of Santiago de los Caballeros of Guatemala”. Fortunately it was shortened to “La Antigua”.    
  Volcan Agua, Guatamala   Arch of Santa Catalina  
  Volcan Agua, named for the 1541 mudflow which destroyed La Antigua, is a popular hiking destination, passing through coffee and maize farms enroute to the summit.  

The Arch of Santa Catalina was part of an early 17th-century monastery of the same name.



Three magnificent volcanoes - Agua, Fuego and Acatenango - loom over La Antigua's cobblestone streets and colonial buildings. Guatemala’s volcanoes are among the most active in the Western Hemisphere, with many rumbling, bellowing smoke and decorating the night with glowing lava streaming down their flanks. 

With volcanoes often come earthquakes, and a devastating ground-shaker in 1773 finally forced the capital to relocate to Guatemala City, leaving La Antigua with more than 50 structures which still bear witness to its Colonial heyday. 

  Church and convent in Antigua, Guatemalagemala  
Street scene in Antigua, Guatemala
  One of Antigua’s most striking examples of colonial architecture, the Inglesia y Convento de Nuestra Senora de La Merced features an 88-foot diameter fountain reputed to be the largest in Central America.   Cobblestone streets and secreted alleys are packed with great places to eat and an assortment of colorful stores in which to bargain.   
  La Antigua is particularly renowned for its multitude of Spanish language schools and its Semana Santa celebration. The Holy week preceding Easter, Guatemala’s biggest festival, is celebrated by carpeting the streets in elaborate displays made of flowers and colored sawdust. These ephemeral works of art, taking days to produce, are scattered to the elements as the religious processions take place.  
  Long corridors at Casa Santo Domingo are filled with fountains, sculptures and fresh-cut flowers. Casa Santo Domingo   Casa Santo Domingo Casa Santo Domingo’s grounds are studded with intimate courtyards, archaeological areas and an inviting swimming pool.  

To get a feel of Colonial times, visit, or even better, stay - at the Hotel Casa Santo Domingo for a wonderful historical experience. Situated among the ruins of a 16th century monastery, once one of the grandest in the Americas, its sprawling acreage is brilliant with bougainvillea and jacaranda. Fireplace-heated rooms open onto small tiled terraces and meals in its candlelit dining room are a culinary treat. 

Candelabras affixed to stone walls light the way to the restaurant and open air lobby. Museums of Spanish colonial art and Classic Maya art feature important collections of religious figures. Services are held in the open-air Chapel of our Lady of the Rosary. 

  Fountain of the Sirens   La Antigua’s Main Plaza   La Antigua  

Focal point of the Main Plaza, the Fountain of the Sirens was constructed in 1739.



La Antigua’s Main Plaza is a meeting place for informal business meetings, where locals catch up on gossip, and relish romantic rendezvous.



  The old Colonial buildings have withstood 16 earthquakes and several floods and fires, some more gracefully than others.  

Besides its abundance of religious colonial structures, including some 30 churches, 18 convents and monasteries, 15 abbeys and 10 chapels, the visitor to La Antigua can enjoy the Casa K’ojom, a museum of Maya music, rituals and associated artifacts. The Museo de Arte Colonial spotlights the art and architecture of the 16th and 17th centuries. 

La Antigua is notable for its jade workshops, a stone venerated by the Maya as a symbol of eternity. Browsing La Casa del Jade’s museum reveals why jade was so important to the ancient Maya and offers an opportunity to shop for beautiful jewelry and artwork featuring this precious commodity. Maya nobles inlaid jade in their teeth, crafted jade into death masks for their kings, and placed a piece of jade in the mouth of their deceased. It was believed the spirit exited through the mouth and would take the jade as a passport into heaven.

  Mixco Viejo offering   San Andres Itzapa   parishioners await blessing  

At Mixco Viejo and many other ancient Maya cities, modern-day descendants still bring offerings to burn on an Altar.



Outside the church at San Andres Itzapa, tobacco, copal incense and maize are set ablaze in smoky offerings to traditional Maya deities.


Inside the church, after their courtyard offerings, parishioners await blessing by their Catholic priest.



Almost half of Guatemala’s population is Maya or of predominantly Mayan descent, the largest of any country, with nearly 20 distinct ethnic groups. Most of them live in the Highlands and produce beautiful textiles, pottery and baskets. By 250 CE, their ancestors began building great ceremonial and trading centers in this area. 

One of the World’s last indigenous people who continue to wear native, hand-woven clothing, identify by particular details in design the group and village to which the wearer belongs. All are beautifully woven in eye-popping colors. The clothing of each village generally features a unique pattern with subtle differences in design and color signifying social status. Maya women don’t refer to themselves as “Mayan”, rather they are “de corte” or “of the skirt”. 

  Lake Atitlan   Solola  
  Lago Atitlan, a water-filled caldera 1,049 feet deep, is one of the world’s deepest lakes.   The lakeside market town of Solola has drawn traders for centuries. On market days the town's main plaza is a bustle of activity.   

Situated 5,000 feet above sea level,  Lake Atitlan was described as “the most beautiful lake in the world” by British writer Aldous Huxley. It formed about 85,000 years ago when an eruption discharged 90 times the rock and hot ash spewed by Mt. St. Helens. Water flowing from huge fissures in the lake currently produce nearly the entire spectrum of blues. 

The southwestern shore is dominated by three perfect cone-shaped stratovolcanoes: San Pedro, Toliman and Atitlan. The latter is the tallest at 10,326 feet. Its most recent eruption was in the mid-1800s. Thirteen small, traditional indigenous villages dot the shoreline. 

Once a popular destination with Hippies, Panajachel is the departure point for boat excursions to these communities. It doesn’t boast of colonial architecture or a huge market, but hundreds of small shops and stalls around town carry most of the handicrafts found elsewhere in Guatemala. One of the most popular day trips is to colorful, picturesque and historically significant Santiago Atitlan, situated in an inlet on the southern shore between the volcanoes Toliman and San Pedro. 

  Volcan San Pedro   Santiago Atitlan laundry day  
Volcan San Pedro dominates the view from Panajachel.
The women of Santiago Atitlan combine laundry chores with a chance to catch up on news of their neighbors.

When the Spanish arrived, Santiago Atitlan was capital of the Tzutuhil Maya, who were at war with the Kaqchikel Maya who lived in most of the villages around the lake. The Spaniards used this conflict to exploit the native population, eliminate the ruling classes and seize control of both groups. Once they had stripped the area of gold and planted the Catholic church in power, there was no cause for the town to be further disrupted. 

The priests didn’t speak the native language and the natives didn’t speak Spanish, so as long as the people went through the motions of Catholicism, they were mostly left alone. This evolved into a strange blend of traditional Maya and Catholic beliefs and practices which can still be experienced today, particularly in the Inglesia Parroquial Santiago Apostal. 

Santiago Church priest's chair
Santiago Church saint statues
The priest’s chair in the ç is dominated by a carving of the Maya Maize God.
Church walls are lined with wooden statues of the saints, including the town’s patron, Saint Santiago.
  When built in the late 16th century, the pulpit included carvings of corn and quetzal birds, both sacred to the Maya. The three-piece altar symbolizes the three surrounding volcanoes, which are believed to protect the town. Lago de Atitlan is sacred to the local Maya, whose creation myth believe it to have been the primordial sea which existed before the first world materialized. This was the first dry land to rise out of those waters. The three volcanoes represent the three stones the Maize God placed on the cosmic hearth at creation time. The people of Santiago Atitlan consider their village to be the “navel of the earth”, the nucleus of creation.  
  Santiago Church statues   Honoring the Martyrs of Santiago Atitlan  
Every year the women of Santiago Atitlan sew new clothing for the statues.
Taking a few moments to honor the Martyrs of Santiago Atitlan.

The Inglesia Santiago also memorializes the Martyrs of Santiago Atitlan. During Guatemala’s thirty-year civil war, ten men from this town were massacred while working in their fields. Many families sought nightly refuge in the church, but even that didn’t prevent the assassination of the priest in his rectory, as well as other church members. When they protested a kidnapping, thirteen more villagers were killed in front of the local military camp. The heart and blood of the murdered priest are buried in the Martyr’s Monument in the church, which also bears crosses with the names and dates of some of the locals who disappeared or were killed during this violent period. 

Whether paragliding off the cliffs surrounding Lago de Atitlan, hiking or mountain biking the volcanoes, windsurfing its azure waters, or sampling village life around the lakeshore, visitors find a rich and lively manifesto of modern Maya culture. Some Highland towns have become a center of the New Age movement philosophy because of the strong spiritual connection the Maya have with nature and with their ancestors.

  Chichicastenago market   Church of Santo Tomas  
The Thursday and Sunday markets in Chichicastenago, the most energetic in the country, overflow with a profusion of quality handcrafted goods.
One of the best places to observe the local blend of Catholic belief and traditional Maya spiritual rites is the Church of Santo Tomas.

Known as “Chichi” to locals, the bustling and colorful town of Chichicastenago is steeped in a magical atmosphere. Surrounded by mountains and valleys, it has been an important Mayan market town for many hundreds of years and today is home to the biggest market in the Highlands. This market distracts with the bright textiles, delicately carved wooden objects, multi-hued piles of candles, and food… so many temptations.

Chichi boasts a couple of churches; the most renown - the church of Santo Tomas, built around 1540. The Quiche Maya wrote the story of their creation in a sacred text called the Popol Vuh. In the mid-16th century a local priest translated the Maya hieroglyphics into Spanish and hid it in the church. In the early 18th century, long after the Spanish priests destroyed most all written records of this amazing culture, the Popol Vuh was discovered and has provided a wealth of information about their ancient religious beliefs.

People from throughout the western Highlands sell and trade their products on Chichi’s market day.
Chichi’s market day   produce stands dot the roadsides in the GuatemalaHighlands
Small produce stands dot the roadsides in the Highlands, the most densely populated region of Guatemala.
Forty miles northwest of Guatemala City is located one of the country’s most completely restored archaeological sites, Mixco Viejo (MEESH-koh vee-EA-hoh) or “Place of Clouds”. As the road scrambles its way upward, it reveals an ancient city built in a stunning setting on a ridge with vast vistas of the surrounding mountains valleys.    
  Road to Mixco Viejo   scale relief map of Mixco Viejo  
The road to Mixco Viejo climbs and winds its way through pine-forested mountains up onto a rocky plateau.
A massive scale relief map of this major ceremonial center illustrates how the city made use of the challenging terrain.
  Established about 1200 CE, Mixco Viejo was capital of the Pokomam Maya and eventually grew into a fair-sized city. It served as a trading center and an extremely important military fortress, as evidenced by its location. It took Don Pedro de Alvarado and his Spanish army more than three months of siege before they finally conquered the city in 1525.  
Natural fortification above the Motagua River Valley
Mixco Viego
An almost impenetrable natural fortification above the Motagua River Valley serves up a striking panorama.
Buildings are clustered in several groups atop leveled section of the steep hills.
  It is amazing to wander about the various sections of Mixco Viejo, clustered according to the terrain with some groups separated by deep ravines. Ingenious drainage systems are evidence of the Maya’s concern with diverting water to alleviate erosion of their city.   
Pyramidal platform bases
Mixco Viejo
Pyramidal platform bases with divided stairways served as a foundation for a variety of structures.
Many buildings were constructed with slate-thin layers of stone whose composition glistens under the tropical sun.
  With more than 120 major structures, the site is well-cleared and little-visited. Much of the city featured frescoes and paintings; artists seemed to have spent little time sculpting. A stone ball court marker, depicting a human head in the open jaws of a serpent, is the only known carved relic from the site. A small museum sheds light on Mixco Viejo’s history and archaeological work and displays a few artifacts found at the site.  
Maya weaving
Maya weaving
Maya girls and women of all ages take pride in their brilliantly colorful, hand-woven textiles and clothing.
The Highland’s largest handicraft markets can be found in Chichicastenago and Panajachel, although every little town offers wonderful creations.


I confess that another passion which draws me to Guatemala is the shopping, partly because bargaining for items is standard practice but mostly because even the small items are generally of high quality.
I am always stunned by the wide variety of woven textiles. Guidebooks often refer to them as embroidered, although in fact the pattern is added as the cloth is woven, in a much more difficult and time-consuming technique known as “supplemental weft”. Women in Santiago Atitlan often add embroidery to their pieces, but only after the cloth with its basic pattern is woven. 

Jewelry and ceramics, particularly in La Antigua, are noteworthy. I’ve already raptured about the jade work. My collection of carved wooden ceremonial masks grows larger every time I visit La Antigua, Panajachel and especially Chichicastenago. 

I don’t know the source of my fascination with the Maya, their ancient cities and present-day towns, their brilliant comprehension of astronomy and mathematics, their amazing sculptures and murals, their intriguing beliefs and ceremonies. There is certainly no clue nor connection in my family tree; perhaps it stems from a past life I lived in their world. All I know is that somewhere along the line, this civilization has imprinted itself on my soul and psyche. And every time I visit Guatemala, I am amazed at the beauty of the country, the wealth of the culture and the  stunning adventure waiting to be experienced.



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