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Guatemala Highlands and Copan Honduras

Author: lynncarol (More Trip Reviews by lynncarol)
Date of Trip: January 2010

Disappointed, we headed for the Museum of Maya Sculpture, a large modern building near the entrance. Unlike the original museum in town yesterday, this one housed larger sculptures relocated from the ruins for protection from environmental fluctuations. Cleverly compartmentalized, first floor exhibits featured death and the underworld while a ramp led to stelae and statues of kings and gods on an upper level. The centerpiece of the museum: A full-sized brightly painted replica of Rosalila, the temple discovered (with original colors preserved) buried beneath a later structure. Obviously Copan had been quite flamboyant in its heyday.

Down the road was another site: La Sepulcros, dwellings and tombs of the Mayan elite. Interesting structures, but certainly less impressive than those seen earlier today. However, nobody else was there...these were our own private ruins! Sergio, an avid birder, pointed out several unusual species in the surrounding jungle, including a Mot- Mot. This bright turquoise bird, with its unique tail, is indigenous to the area.

One last stop: The town hall, which just acquired from Harvard's Peabody Museum an exhibit featuring photos of the early excavations. The room was locked but, thanks to Sergio's persuasive powers, we gained admittance. Fascinating! Exhausted, we finally returned to Hacienda San Lucas. But wait! Why were all these guards with assault rifles milling about, glaring with suspicion as we pulled into the parking lot? Nervously, Sergio announced, "I think the president is here". Unbelievably, he and his entourage (including a young grandson sporting a holstered Colt 45) were finishing a late lunch at the outdoor dining area. While we hesitated, gawking, Flavia detached herself from the group and rushed to our side. Of course, we needn't leave, we were her guests. "Stay, have a beer. Later, I know the president will want to personally thank you for visiting Honduras".

Although Sergio beat a quick retreat, Lynn and I settled in at a nearby table. With tourism at an all-time low, maybe the president really would stop by. (Just in case, we had one of the staff teach us the phrase, "This is such an honor" in Spanish). Sure enough, eventually President Micheletti approached our table. After I stammered out my greeting, he switched to English, welcoming us to Honduras. I blurted, "We have never met a president before!" His response... "Then how would you like your picture taken with one"? Of course! (Note: Three days later, President Micheletti proved to be an honorable man, stepping down as promised when the new democratically elected president, Porfino Lobo took office).

Checking out Monday morning, it was time to return to Guatemala and again, no problem with the border crossing. After grabbing lunch we stopped to see a cathedral in the village of San Cristobal Acasaguastlan. This beautifully renovated Spanish-style cathedral boasted a large carving of the sun-god, imprinted above the church entrance by Mayan builders in 1654. Such a fusion of Mayan and Catholic religions was something we had not seen before.

I wanted Sergio to show us some of the attractions of Guatemala City, since my primary impression of it so far was smog and traffic. For over an hour we drove past various points of interest, culminating at the Plaza Mayor. Designed in 1778 (after Antigua's destruction by earthquake) the plaza had a central fountain and was surrounded by impressive edifices including a huge cathedral, an immense palace, and the massive National Library. However, this was Zone 1, epicenter of the city's crime gangs and Sergio & Lynn became uneasy when I wandered too far from the car. Maybe it was time to move on.

Overnight accommodations are limited outside of the main cities or tourist attractions, but at least in Antigua, we had options. Based on guidebook and internet recommendations, I had selected Casa Madeleine, a bed and breakfast/spa only several blocks from our timeshare at the Soleil. After a quick stop in town to cash traveler-checks and pick up some take-out chicken for dinner, Sergio dropped us off at the B&B. Nice, but compared to Hacienda San Lucas, anticlimactic. Of more concern were all the aromatic candles in our room, plus a scented air-freshener. Gasp! Instant headache! Flinging open both doors, we got rid of the air-freshener and banished all candles to our outdoor balcony. Finally the scents dissipated enough to get to sleep.

Tuesday, after a delicious breakfast, Sergio picked us up. Today we would be concentrating on the Mayan villages of the Western Highlands. Thanks to fertile volcanic soil, agriculture plays an important role in this part of the country. I couldn't believe these vegetables! Beets were the size of baseballs, carrots looked liked giant orange zucchini and the squash I mistook for watermelons. As all the women in Sergio's family are weavers, he appreciated Mayan textiles and could enlighten us about the distinctive garments of the villages we visited. While most men and boys favored blue jeans and T-shirts, there were some exceptions, particularly amongst older males. In Solola, men wore colorful tops and a type of skirt over their trousers, while in Nahuala, only the skirts...no pants. Meanwhile, women's apparel remained traditional: The huipil (a short-sleeved, over-head blouse embroidered about the neck) that is worn over a skirt and tied with a cloth sash.

Sergio pointed out distinguishing characteristics in the villages we visited: Horizontal and/or vertical stripes, addition of an apron, certain colors or designs, etc. One of the most interesting places was Nuhuala where, in contrast to the typical colorful Mayan outfits, women here favored black or purple. Sergio informed us Nuhuala is known as the 'witch village.' I thought he was joking and teasingly asked, "Good or bad witches?" But in a dead serious tone, Sergio replied, "Bad witches" and didn't elaborate. (Hmm... on the off-chance he was right, I didn't even try to bargain when purchasing a purse in their tiny local market).

Zunil may have been our favorite and it was here we saw our first Mayan cemetery, perched atop a hill overlooking the village. Although 'persons of importance' were interred in mausoleums, the majority of graves were demarcated by individualized creations of tile or cement, some very colorful. Sadly, many of the gravesites were those of children or infants, an indication of Guatemala's high infant mortality rate. (Forty-five of every thousand children do not live until their fifth birthday).

In the town below lots of activity was going on. "Today is market day for the local farmers" exclaimed Sergio, "Want to go?" Down we went and dove into the melee. Professional buyers roamed the open marketplace where sellers (mostly women, often accompanied by small children) displayed their produce, cleaned and artistically arranged for maximum impact. After careful inspection, money was exchanged and "runners" summoned to carry the food to waiting trucks. Vendors were cooking tortillas and beans for hungry customers. Women with huge baskets of leafy greens on their heads passed by and everyone sported their colorful native garb. What a vibrant spectacle!

Moving on, we had a quick tour of the second largest city in Guatemala, Quetzaltenango (Xela), including a lunch-stop downtown. From there it was a short drive to San Andres in Xecul. The exterior of this bright-yellow ornate church is adorned with twisted columns and colorful folk-art carvings ranging from sacred jaguars to a pregnant Mary accompanied by numerous angels. The church, dedicated to St. Andrew the fisherman, contained an altar rimmed in neon lights! As in the other villages, Lynn and I were the only 'gringos' in sight.

It had been a fascinating day, but we needed to get to Panajachel on Lake Atitlan before the bank closed at 5:00. (To our dismay, we had discovered banks refused to cash more than $200.00 of traveler checks within any 24-hour period, which significantly complicated our efforts to pay Sergio). After a forty-five minute wait, Lynn emerged, money in hand.

Our dinner and overnight reservations were at Casa del Mundo, located on Lake Atitlan in the tiny village of Jaibalito, and accessible only by water. Sergio had hired a power-boat that whisked us off to the hotel which perched on a rocky outcropping jutting into the lake. Hotel staff at the dock led us up a long flight of steps to the reception area. There we learned our cabana was located at the very top of the complex involving another arduous climb...but well worth the effort: Our beautifully appointed room had a tiny balcony and the most fabulous view!! Lake Atitlan has been described as one of the world's most beautiful and it spread out below us in full glory. More than ten miles across at its widest point, the entire body of water is rimmed by dormant volcanoes while villages perch on its steep hillsides. We loved it!

Dinner was back down the hill near the reception area and our meal, served at a communal table for twelve, was enhanced by lively conversations with the other guests. Unfortunately, around one o'clock in the morning, I became violently sick. Since Lynn ate the same dinner and was fine, the culprit had to be that lunch in Xela. Fortunately, I had some Cipro with me and first thing in the morning, phoned Sergio to bring over more immodium. Not until almost noon did I feel confident leaving the bathroom. We would definitely have to cancel plans to hike between the villages of Lake Atitlan today.

Still a little shaky, with Lynn's help I slowly descended to the waiting boat. If we couldn't hike, I wanted to at least check-out the coastline from the water. No problem. Our skilled captain kept the vessel on a steady course (in deference to my residual queasiness) allowing ample time to view and photograph attractions along the shore. Perhaps it was the fresh breezes or the gorgeous scenery, but I began to feel better.

Tourism at Lake Atitlan has suffered recently from reports of toxic algae in the water, but there no sign of it until we docked at Panajachel. Just down the beach, a number of people congregated. According to Sergio, this was a Mayan religious ceremony. Their faith is a polytheistic one, focusing on the gods of nature. Leaders are recognized at an early age to have special gifts, and these children are then tutored by the Mayan priests for future succession. I was surprised to learn that sometimes these 'chosen' children are girls.

With flights back to Miami the next day, we needed to return to Guatemala City. En route was a village that seemed to be almost entirely composed of shops for auto-repair/parts. Apparently, Guatemala is the 'last stop' for seriously damaged vehicles from the United States. The talented mechanics here can repair anything and their cheap labor breathes new life into these wrecks...many of them re-emerging as local transportation. I was struck once again by the industrious nature of the local population. In fact, this whole trip had been a revelation. Before coming to Guatemala, we heard our share of scary stories about its criminal activities. Although a little uneasy in parts of Guatemala City, nowhere else did we feel unsafe. This country is gorgeous and filled with history. The Mayan people display a quiet dignity that contrasted with some other third-world countries we've visited. Nobody was begging or aggressive in their sales attempts. The children (and there are many of them) are adorable with a stoic nature. In two weeks I had not heard a Mayan child cry or display a temper tantrum.

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