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Mayan majesty in Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Tikal, Guatemala

Our little group drove from Antiqua to Chichicastenango and then to Guatemala City, spending several days touring, visiting historic sites, and walking. It was cooler in the mountains and the air was more refreshing. In the valleys between the volcanoes, we passed large fields that were bountiful with crops.

Mango, pineapple, cantaloupes, and bananas are grown for export. Sugar and coffee are exported too, in large quantities, to the United States.  We passed sugar fields being burned before the workers go in to chop down the cane with machetes. I would see the workers walking from the villages to the fields with a stick in one hand and a machete in the other.

From December until May, the air is polluted in smog caused by the vast amount of burning fields of sugar cane. Workers refuse to go into the fields until burned for fear of the poisonous snakes that live there.

There are orange groves and cocoa trees with beans for chocolate. There are rubber trees and zarzapawilla trees for medicine.  In the high hills are coffee trees, where coffee is all handpicked and carried down on narrow trails, in big sacks on the back of workers.

The roads are good for traveling and there are a few cafes along the way. We stopped for lunch at a café and bought cheeseburgers. Mine was delicious but so large I had to cut it into quarters. I ate one fourth, I gave one fourth to my driver, George, and I neatly bagged the other half along with some great homemade French fries and a bottle of water. Not much farther along the highway, George stopped and my guide, Rafael, left a snack for a couple of workers.

We reached Guatemala City in the early evening, and at my hotel, we said goodbye to my driver George. Rafael was staying there, and early the next morning, we would meet Edwardo, owner of the Honduras Travel Company, at the airport.

Guatemala City is the second largest city in Central America with a population of 4 million. We didn’t take time to tour the city the next day.

Ever since Moises (my original guide) had gone to court, it had caused a chain reaction. A few days ago, Rafael had driven 13 hours from Honduras to meet me. He now had to leave me, as he had a contract to be a guide for a Chinese group meeting in Belize and touring to Panama. At the airport, Rafael was flying to Belize, and Edwardo had flown from Honduras to Guatemala City to be with me.  We would fly to Flores, where a driver and guide would take us to Tikal, the capital of a Mayan empire in the jungle.

That morning began at 3:30 am with a hurried trip to the airport. There was a pleasant goodbye to Rafael, who was a good, qualified guide. Edwardo and I boarded a small domestic plane to Flores, where our local guide and driver took us to Tikal.

Mayan temples and pyramids rise above the jungle canopy in Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Mayan temples and pyramids rise above the jungle canopy in Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Madelyn Given.

The vast ruins are only partly excavated, but the temples and pyramids rise above the jungle canopy. There were spider monkeys in the trees and we had the site to ourselves for most of the day.

We walked all day though the jungle, where in 700 AD, thousands of Mayans lived here in great living conditions. Every 20 years, a great central plaza was built upon the older existing dynasty. There was elaborate housing for the royal families, astronomers, and priests, along with temples, plazas, cemeteries, and many villages around the area. We climbed many steps to the top of several pyramids, and all the while, I learned so much about the Mayan people.

Later that day, we returned to Flores and had a light lunch. Edwardo also wanted to stop at a new resort to meet with the owner, as part of his business. We caught a late flight back to Guatemala City, where my new guide was to meet us. He had driven his large van from Honduras to meet us, and for the rest of my trip, Patricio was my guide.

(posted June 20, 2017)

Flowers at the church in Chichicastenango, Guatemala. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Chichicastenango Mayan Market

Chichicastenango is an interesting place to visit, because it was in the center of ancient Mayan civilization, and it is still an active, traditional, native town. It has the largest outdoor market in Central America. Actively in existence since 1,200 BC, it is still selling some of the same things: vegetables, flowers, limestone for tortillas, leather goods, beadwork, hand woven textiles, live chickens, ducks, and turkeys, and so much more. It is situated in a hilly valley void of forests from years of civilization, and the market is on dirt between Santo Tomas church and the large community cemetery that includes a number of acres. The market is held every Thursday and Sunday and people come from miles to buy or sell. We found people carrying goods on their backs, or on their heads, coming from all over Guatemala by car, truck, and buses.

Chichicastenango, Guatemala. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Chichicastenango, Guatemala. Photo by Madelyn Given.

The Mayan descendants in this area have kept to traditional ways. They are very small in size: men and women are less than 5 feet tall and small framed. Their way of life ages them. They have not easily adapted to modern technology. They dress in wipile Mayan traditional clothing. The mother carries her baby in a brightly-colored, hand-woven shawl knotted and placed on her back.

The market was filled with local people walking the narrow aisles and children running around, while venders were asking you to buy their wares. Young toddlers sat on the ground all day while their mothers were selling crafts or food at the market.

On the church steps were people selling fresh flowers. There was also a pagan alter on the bottom step, lit with firewood, and there special herbs giving off smoke in all directions. A shaman was walking up and down the steps while chanting. He stepped slowly and cautiously between the women and their many buckets of flowers, which covered almost every space on the narrow steps leading to the front doors of the church.

Rafael and I walked carefully up the steps, trying not to step on the women or the flowers, and went into Santo Tomas Roman Catholic Church. The outside steps, front wall, and wooded doors of the white church were blackened from the soot and smoke of this ongoing pagan ritual. Inside was just as bleak: the walls and ceiling were darkened from years and years of candles being burned. There were pagan alters in the center aisle where people would come and sit or kneel and chant or pray. On the ceiling above the high altar is a painted sun, as the Mayans who were Christianized when the Spanish Conquistadors came worshiped their sun god and God at the same time when attending church. Rafael and I went to the church while Mass was being held the previous evening. It was quite an interesting scene.

Nearby and within walking distance is the large Christian cemetery. Family lots are varied with creatively designed vaults. The ancient Mayans buried their dead as they still do today, with bodies in caskets. Today they are encased in cement above the ground, placing one on top of another when space is limited.

We kept walking. I was learning so much about the culture of the people. This cemetery was so large it just seemed to go on and on, like a miniature city, up and down little hills until we came to a pagan altar covered with a simple tin roof. There was a family of about 20 people gathered there while a shaman was performing a ritual by the burning fire. Some people were standing, others were sitting on the graves, and some were drinking some sort of brew. One young man who appeared to represent the family was smoking a cigar, deeply inhaling then exhaling over the altar, then passing the cigar around to each person. No one was talking except the shaman. It was very solemn. I asked Rafael what he was saying. He said he couldn’t understand him as there are 19 different dialects spoken by people in Guatemala. It was a very interesting, simple ceremony, so ancient, still being carried on in the same place after thousands of years.

Rafael and I walked back to the market where I could buy a few items and several little tag-a-long kids caught up with us to ask us to buy what they were selling. Begging is not seen and bartering is not very common. People are friendly, with venders accepting US currency or the Guatemalan quetzals.

It was fascinating to be in this country setting dating back to pre-Columbian people and have a taste of Guatemalan culture.

(posted June 6, 2017)

Vegetable stand in Guatemala. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Antigua, Guatemala

The Camino Real Antigua in Antigua, Guatemala is a lovely resort and a relaxing place to stay, but I hardly had that on my mind early the morning I was to meet my new guide, Rafael, and say good bye to Manual, the driver/substitute who was still hoping to guide me though three more countries. I was having breakfast in the inner courtyard and enjoying the lush setting, the friendly staff, and my Guatemalan coffee when Manual peeked his head around the corner. I invited him to join me for coffee and something to eat. On time, Rafael arrived, professional and full of apologies for the disaster in El Salvador. He had to drop everything, fly to Guatemala city, hire a driver with a car, and spend many hours on the road to meet me at 8 am today.

I said good bye to Manual, who had to drive back alone to El Salvador. I had no idea if Moises, my original guide, paid him or not, but I gave him enough money for gas to get home and for his efforts during a long day of travel. After all, he had gotten me safely across the border in the middle of the night. In all my travels I had never encountered such a problem with a guide, but this would become a chain reaction (more on this later).

Volcano over Antigua, Guatemala. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Volcano over Antigua, Guatemala. Photo by Madelyn Given.

I was ready to focus on Antigua, a city founded in the early 16th century by the Spanish. Antigua is surrounded by three volcanos and was destroyed by an eruption in 1773. Today it is a restored tourist town. It is clean and safe to visit, with shopping and restaurants.

Rafael and I left my resort on the outskirts of the old city and walked the cobblestone streets to a café in the central plaza to meet my local guide. As we were sitting with our cappuccinos, I was facing the plaza and Manual walked by—it was like a ghost had appeared! My mind raced back to yesterday. The next minute I was being introduced to the local guide from Antigua. We left the café and began our walking tour and I focused on learning the history of what had once been the most important city in Central America.

The plaza square is surrounded on four sides by Spanish-style buildings, former colonial government buildings, the San Francisco Cathedral, and the palace. As I walked up the steps of the Cathedral, I turned and looked at the three volcanos not far away, and then one began erupting, with the smoke and ash bellowing out. It was a good sign for me to get back on track for hiking and the good adventure that would lay ahead.

We walked from the plaza though several other cobblestone streets to La Merced Church and the ruins of Capuchinas Convent. There were a few visitors here, but not many; still, the locals were waiting in hopes of selling their wares and textiles. The Mayans, dating back to several thousand years ago, were not interested in gold, but the green jade stone was the most valued to them and still is considered special. It is common in this area to see men and women with a jade tooth. To them, this makes for a beautiful smile.

Rafael, along with our Guatemalan driver, Horia (he liked to be called George), and I left Antigua and spent the day driving though the country. We stopped on the way for a lunch of Guatemalan tortillas, made that morning from ground corn, ground up limestone and water, black and yellow with our choice of fillings.

As we were driving along, we were making good progress until we had a flat tire. George pulled over by the side of the road in a good place with open fields next to a vegetable stand. A young girl was tending the stand, sitting busily doing bead work. It was a usual very hot day and Rafael and I stood waiting and walking back and forth in front of the stand.  Most of the fruits and vegetables were familiar to me, and I mentioned that the watermelon were beautiful. Rafael said, “No, those are not watermelon; that is squash.” George quickly replaced the tire and we were soon on the road again.

We arrived at Hotel Santo Tomas in the center of old Chichicastenango late in the day. Rafael and I walked around the hilly Mayan town for a while until dark. We found a restaurant in the central plaza for a light dinner. I had a day of adjusting to a new guide, practicing Spanish and learning about the people, the culture, and the country of Guatemala.

(posted May 23, 2017)