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The Highlands of Guatemala

March 1, 2006 By: Luisa Esquiroz Arellano Home-Based Travel Agent
 

Travel to another world with this Central American gem


In the highlands of Guatemala the Maya people dress according to ancient traditions, each region wearing different patterns. You will find a kaleidoscope of forms and colors along this mountain route, one of the most popular in Guatemala.

Antigua, the old capital of Guatemala, is one of the most visited destinations in the country. Mostly built between the 17th and 18th centuries, after earthquakes destroyed two previous capitals, Antigua showcases different colonial periods, which have been carefully maintained and enhanced over the years. The people of Guatemala's highland regions dress in colorful patterns that vary according to tradition.

About 45 minutes from Guatemala City, Antigua sits in a cool highland valley surrounded by three volcanoes. Some of its old churches, convents, monasteries and homes now stand as museums, while many serve as boutique hotels and larger properties.

Wear comfortable shoes and light clothing, and take a sweater to wear after the temperature drops after sunset. Start your tour from the Central Plaza, which is surrounded by lovely old buildings including the Cathedral and the Palace of the Captains General. Other important sights are the churches of Santa Clara and La Merced, the convent of the Capuchinas and Popanoe House, a colonial home built around a central patio that now serves as a museum displaying daily life in Antigua. Casa Santo Domingo, a former 17th century monastery, is now converted into a luxury hotel and restaurant. After a meal, you can stroll around town. You may find one of Antigua's famous candy stores or a jewelry shop specializing in jade stone, where you can watch artisans at work. To admire the ancient Maya technique of weaving, visit San Antonio Aguascalientes nearby. Here, the cooperative's artisans weave complex designs using original looms created by their ancestors.

Santo Tomas de Chichicastenango

This picturesque mountain town, less than three hours by road from Antigua, is famous for its Sunday and Thursday markets, among the most colorful in Central America. Walk the main plaza where hundreds of stalls are set up in rows early in the morning. Handicrafts, textiles, jewelry, housewares, Maya dolls and more are on display. Bargaining here is expected, so don't be shy about haggling.

On one side of the square the church of Santo Tomas—built over a Maya temple in 1540—is a living museum that blends Christian prayers with supplications to Maya gods. Inside the church the Maya Quiche burn copal and candles, and put flowers and food on small platforms on the floor. While praying, they sprinkle liquor over offerings placed on the altar to win favor with the gods. Visitors may enter the church through a side door but must avoid the front steps when the Mayas are performing rites.

The Road to Atitlan

Solola is a highland market town near Chichicastenango on the road to Lake Atitlan. You can stop here and browse on the way to Panajachel, a popular tourist town on the shores of Lake Atitlan. Ringed by three volcanoes, the lake changes color constantly. Motor launches ferry visitors across the lake to visit the 12 towns on its shores. Santiago de Atitlan is the second largest village, after Panajachel. The town is an artisan's center selling wood crafted articles and naïve paintings. The traditional dress of this region favors white-and-purple-striped short pants for men and intricately embroidered huipiles (blouses) for women, who also wear red headdresses that form a halo around their faces.

Note the shrine to Maximom, which features a puppet-like image of this pagan saint holding a cigar in one hand and a glass of liquor in the other. Rentals for parasailing, water-skiing, kayaking and more are available around the lake.

For lunch, try the Hotel Atitlan, a hacienda-style facility overlooking the lake. The menu includes local and international dishes and a wonderful Guatemalan aged rum for after the meal.

To extend your Guatemala trip to visit the ruins of Tikal, you can take a helicopter tour from Atitlan, fly out from the Aurora International Airport or take the long way by road. Tikal National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site, distinguished for its combination of ancient ruins, lush vegetation and wildlife, including many bird species.

Spectacular pyramids loom out of the jungle, which shelters hundreds of ancient structures, including temples and palaces. Park guides escort visitors around the park. For lunch, try barbecue Maya-style chicken or meat roasted over an open wood fire. The site also has a museum, a cafeteria and books for sale. Two lodges inside the park offer basic accommodations. More upscale facilities such as La Lancha and the Westin Camino Real are about 30 minutes away.


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