Category Archives: Guatemala

Lent and Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala: Alfombras, Christ Floats and Processions

 

We say this often, but so much of travel is about serendipity, where timing and seasonal events can play a big part in the travel experience. Since we don’t usually pay much attention to religious holidays, we recently missed seeing one of Portugal’s best Carnival celebrations in a nearby town for the second year in a row. And Lent, the weeks that come after the just-for-family daytime parades and the not-so-family night-time, raucous revelry of Carnival, is a time that usually passes by us completely ignored. Followed by many western churches, these six weeks are a solemn religious observance of penitence and self-denial (pastimes that we avoid) beginning on Ash Wednesday and culminating with Easter Sunday.  And no one in the world celebrates Lent and Holy Week (Semana Santa) quite like Antigua, Guatemala, where we arrived, quite by chance, during the Lenten period in March of 2013.

 

San Jeronimo Ruins, Antigua, Guatemala

We could sing out-of-tune odes to Antigua, a beautiful little city flanked by three volcanoes of approximately 46,000 people in the mountains of southern Guatemala.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Antigua was founded in 1524 by the Spanish conquistadors who arrived in Guatemala from nearby Mexico. The Dominican priests who followed brought along their Lenten and Easter traditions from Seville, Spain, including the Alfombras, the “Christ Floats” and the processions.  Some 500 years from their introduction to the Guatemalan faithful, Antiqua’s Holy Week celebrations have become the largest in the world, with a unique fervor and devotion. Each Sunday during Lent found us waking up to our alarm clocks and setting out to walk Antigua’s streets well before daybreak in search of that day’s Alfombras and procession.

 

 

 

 

Antigua is famous for its Alfombras (Spanish for carpets) and it was easy to see the route the day’s procession would take as the Alfombras mapped the way, laid out on the cobblestone streets in front of the family homes or businesses.  Made from dyed sawdust in a variety of sizes and shapes, stenciled patterns and free-form designs, most were decorated with an assortment of flowers including bougainvillea, bird-of-paradise, chrysanthemums, carnations and roses.

 

Making Alfombras

Here and there we’d see fruits and vegetables in a carefully designed pattern as well as glossy, green, pine needles added as further embellishments.

 

 

Many families save all year to create their Alfombras using one-of-a-kind stencils and designs passed down from year to year, many through generations.  The creation of the Alfombras begins the day before the parade and combines hours of tedious work along with a family celebration.  Often, the carpets are completed only shortly before the procession arrives.

 

 

 

The parades are organized by different brotherhoods affiliated with neighborhood churches and each procession begins at that church. In colonial times, the “Christ Floats,” featuring figures of Jesus Christ arranged in biblical tableaus on a wooden platform called an andas, were quite small and were carried on the shoulders of twelve devotees.  Now, as the tradition has gradually evolved into lengthy pageantries of religious fervor, many of the andases are massive. The combined weight of both the elaborately carved wooden platform and religious statues can weigh several tons with the largest requiring up to 100 carriers. It’s an honor for penitents, who come from all over Latin America and pay for the privilege, to carry the andas. The carriers rotate their turns in and out often at the end of each block as the effort to carry the massive andas demands both endurance and strength as they journey through Antigua’s narrow streets for hours.

 

 

The streets are crowded with men wearing robes of Lenten purple (Cucuruchos) and black-clad women (Cargadoras) awaiting their turns to carry the load.  It’s wasn’t hard for us to imagine a beaten Jesus Christ staggering along the streets with his cross as we watched the faithful voluntarily carrying the andas.

 

 

We’d hear the mournful music from the bands playing traditional Guatemalan compositions well before the procession would appear, which gave us time to stake out a place on the sidewalk corner where we’d get a good view of the participants.

 

 

A purple-robed man would appear, amid a cloud of fragrant (and choking) incense, swinging a metal censer suspended from chains.  The carriers of the first float would step upon the alfombra to walk its length, followed by the rest of the solemn marchers in the procession. The bands with tubas, French horns, clarinets and drums, would follow and, at the end, the trampled Alfombras would emerge as mounds of sawdust and debris.

 

 

The street sweepers were the sad finale of each procession and half an hour after the procession passed, there’d be nothing remaining of the glorious Alfombras.

 

 

Holy week (Semana Santa) takes Antigua’s Lenten celebrations to a whole new level as people from all over the world crowd into the city.  (The estimate for 2016’s crowds during Semana Santa was 1.2 million people.)  Beginning on Palm Sunday, the Alfombras become even larger and more elaborate as their creators work through the night to complete them. The parades are each more spectacular than the last, with costumed Romans and Centurions astride horses. Hundreds of purple-robed men and black-clad women mingle with the crowds of spectators. A Passion Play on Friday culminates with a huge procession and the massive andas bearing Christ carrying his crucifix moves slowly about Antigua’s streets throughout the morning.  And then a lull for a few hours.

 

 

The bands begin to play slow and mournful dirges and the funeral processions appear carrying the body of Christ encased in glass upon a platform.  The Virgin Mary, splendidly attired but mournful, appears amid the Stations of the Cross and commemorations of all her moments of sorrow at the death of her son.  Everyone is clad in a somber black with the women wearing veils or mantillas.  The censers spew out choking clouds of sweet incense that hangs in the streets and the mood is as solemn as though the crucifixion had just occurred rather than happening over 2,000 years ago.

 

 

For us, Easter was almost a let-down with hastily assembled Alfombras, a small procession with the resurrected Christ and firecrackers that went off throughout the day. As non-believers and non-Catholics, we’d spent several weeks immersing ourselves in the Easter traditions of La Antigua and the artistry of her Alfombras, Christ Floats and centuries-old Lenten processions.  We fell in love with the city during the Lenten processions and stayed several months longer in Guatemala than we’d originally planned, exploring the country from coast to coast but Antigua’s Lenten and Semana Santa celebrations and traditions remain among our favorite memories of this country. Firmly rooted in the twenty-first century, cynical and lacking any vestiges of religious ideology ourselves, it was never-the-less tremendously moving to see faith and devotion so openly portrayed in La Antigua.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash 

By Boat And By Bus to Belize and Back

Boats on the waterfront at Livingston

Boats on the waterfront at Livingston

Who knew they liked Americans so much in Central America? They even set up a special travel status just for us: the CA-4. Now that’s a bit of southern hospitality.

Dock at La Casa Rosada

La Casa Rosada Hostel, Livingston

Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua participate in an agreement called the CA-4 (Central America – 4) that allows U.S. citizens to travel freely between the four countries for ninety days.  We entered Guatemala at the end of February, extended our visas in mid-May for an additional ninety days by going to Guatemala City, filling out a short application form and paying a fee, and finally, had to leave the country for seventy-two hours in August to renew our visas and continue our travels into Honduras and Nicaragua.  We decided to exit Guatemala via Livingston, a funky little town on the Caribbean coast accessible only by boat.

Great Food - A bit messy but GOOD

Great Food – A bit messy but GOOD

Livingston is a small port city, with a population of roughly 17,000 souls, inhabited by
the Garifuna (descendants of 17th century shipwrecked African slaves and indigenous Carib),  Q’cqchi’ Mayan and Guatemaltecans. Spanish is still the predominant language but Garifuna, English and Mayan are heard regularly.  The cuisine is distinctly different from the rest of Guatemala with a tasty selection of seafood and coconut based dishes.  We walked up the short main street, Calle Principal, which included a very steep hill from the little marina, wandered about a few side streets where we encountered a sow and piglet, chickens and goats and …that was it.  We’d seen the town.

Entering and exiting Punta Gorda, Belize

Entering and exiting Punta Gorda, Belize

We took our passports to the immigration office, received our exit stamps and, early Tuesday morning we boarded a launch for a ride across deep blue water sparkling in the sunlight to the port city of Punta Gorda, Belize.  After receiving our visa entry stamps, we caught a local bus for a two-hour ride to Independence, also called Mango Creek by the locals, and finally boarded a water taxi for the fifteen minute ride to Placencia.  It was a long day waiting and riding upon various forms of transport, hauling our backpacks and suitcases around and about, but it went surprisingly smooth and people were smiling, friendly and very helpful.

Main Street - Getting around in Placencia

Main Street – Getting around in Placencia

Placencia peninsula is sixteen miles long and very narrow with the Placencia lagoon on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other; as we walked about  Placencia Village we could catch glimpses of both the lagoon and the sea.   The village was founded by pirates and is a mixture of expats, creoles, Garifuna and Mayan Belizeans all speaking several variations of English, the official language of Belize, a former British colony.  The spoken English varied from a very proper British accent to a thick, melodic Caribbean patois that we had to strain hard to understand.  Added into this mix was the background talk from the tourists we met (German, Israeli, French, Canadian, etc.).

Main pedestrian walkway in Placencia

Main pedestrian walkway in Placencia

Because it was low season, we found a charming room with a kitchenette and porch complete with a hammock on the beach and a view of the Caribbean for a discounted price.  There we spent our three-day exile gazing out at the Caribbean, occasionally swimming, laying in the sun, swinging in the hammock and reading (and did I mention sweating buckets in the thick humidity?).  This was a pleasant and leisurely respite before we had to reverse our trip back to Livingston and then begin the next leg of our journey to the Bay Islands of Honduras.

Quiet  time at dawn-

Quiet time at dawn-

By Richard and Anita, August, 2013

The Manatee Whisperer At Lago Izabel

Lago IzabelWe caught the 6:00 AM collectivo to El Estor from Rio Dulce and met Don Benjamin at his boat at 6:45. He liked to be on the lake early in the morning. It was just the two of us this morning so there was no disagreement when he asked us why we had come to the lake; we had come to see the fresh water sea manatee that live in Lago Izabal. We agreed that the monkeys, water birds and any other critters would be great but we were there for the manatee.

A happy man -Capitan Benjamin at Lago Izabel near El Estor

A happy man -Capitan Benjamin at Lago Izabel near El Estor

El Estor is a quiet village that sits at the northwest end of Lago Izabal, the largest lake in Guatemala. And Don Benjamin had come recommended as a sort of “Whisperer” to the manatee. He had lived on the lake all his life and was reputed to be knowledgeable about their habits. He explained where we would go in the search for the manatee and where, in his judgment, we would be most likely to see them.Still Waters

The Boca de Pilochic Bio-reserve was established at the western end of the lake where the largest river, the Rio Pilochic feeds in from the highlands. In this warm, shallow end, with marshy fingers extending into the jungles, the fresh water sea manatee make their home. In this protected area, along with a handful of other sites, this endangered species breeds and preserves the population in the wild.

We slowly motored along the perimeter of the bays, among water lilies and aquatic plants that are the manatee’s food. We were the only craft on the lake as far I as could see.On the south shore of a bay we drifted into an inlet and tied off for coffee and a light snack. “Paciencia” was not a problem for us we told Don Benjamin – we would be patient. We had anticipated this trip for some time.

Cormorants

Cormorants

While looking for the manatee we saw and heard the deep growl of the howler monkeys; several families were in the trees adjacent to the lake. Some were feeding, some at rest. There were the water birds as well: egrets, herons, cormorants, perhaps kingfisher, all feeding in the shallows of the lake.

Manatees in a line at Lago Izabel

Manatees in a line at Lago Izabel

As the morning wore on and the sun rose in the sky Don Benjamin was smiling, saying the manatee liked the sun. Shortly after that we began to encounter the manatee in groups of a dozen or more. We would follow them as they swam in a line, just below the surface. It was not the cresting of the whales, but it was amazing to be within a few feet of this massive, timid and endangered species. As one group dove to deeper water we would swing around and pick up another group in short order.

Manatee below the lake surface

Manatee below the lake surface

The morning had been very tranquil, followed by a flourish of joy and activity with sightings of the manatee. It was close to noon when we returned to the dock and time to catch the bus back to Rio Dulce for the next leg of our trip to the Caribbean coast.Water front at Lago Izabel

By Richard and Anita, August, 2013

Up A Creek…

The Rio Dulce  (Sweet River)

The Rio Dulce (Sweet River)

Antigua was somewhere behind us. At 4:00 AM on a Friday morning we’d hoisted the suitcases to the roof of the crowded shuttle van and headed for Guatemala City and the waiting bus which labored on our behalf during the uneventful six hour drive to Rio Dulce, the river route to the Caribbean coast of Guatemala.

Water lilies in a quiet spot on the river

Water lilies in a quiet spot on the river

Rio Dulce is a haphazard town that has grown up on the banks of the river for which it is named. It possesses a muggy humidity much different than the rarified air of the Guatemalan highlands. It continues to grow thanks to the influx of wealthy Guatemaltecans who build trendy vacation homes with large boat houses.

Castillo de San Felipe

Castillo de San Felipe

The only concession to historic importance is the old military fort, Castillo San Filipe de Golfo built in 1657 to keep the safe sanctuary of the lake, Lago Izabal, out of the hands of foreign pirates. In Rio Dulce we engaged a pushcart driver for our bags and backpacks and headed for the river. The launch from the Kangaroo Hotel, which had come highly recommended by a friend in Antigua, arrived shortly. As the name implies, it is an Aussie operation. Gary opened shop about five years previous and is one of a handful of foreigners on the river.The Kangaroo Hotel The Kangaroo, more a hostel than a hotel, is a rambling, comfortable and welcoming place to visit and our stay there was an enjoyable experience. Nestled in a dead-end branch of the river it was quiet, isolated and inhabited by polyglot travelers from around the world. With our sight-seeing itinerary and Gary’s knowledge of available resources we found ourselves up a creek, so to speak. The following morning we boarded the Kangaroo launch and headed for the collectivos (shuttle vans) in Rio Dulce. Forty minutes later we were dropped at the trail head for the Cascada Agua Caliente, the only reported hot water falls in the world. Approaching the waterfallA national park, it retains all its natural beauty, the trail being the only concession to progress. Here you can swim in a natural pool, stand or sit in the hot waters of the falls or climb a short distance and take a mud bath. Afterwards, depending on both bravery and adrenalin, you can either jump from the ledge or climb back down to the pool. With the canopy overhead the creek is nearly protected from the direct glare of the sun.Cascade of hot water When we felt sufficiently sated with the agua caliente we headed back to the highway and flagged down the next bus headed for Valle Boquerón. Boquerón is a deep canyon cut through lime stone hills creating a sun dappled creek bottom with towering cliffs, fissures and shallow caves.Valle Boqueron We set off up the creek in a long canoe, manned by our guide, and tied off on a gravel beach above a small set of rapids at the terminus of the trip. Here in a quiet pool of water, sparkling in the sunlight, reflecting the deep greens of the trees and limestone cliffs in the steeply cut canyon we spent our time exploring, swimming and relaxing. For the second time that day we found ourselves up a creek, fortunately with a paddle.Valle Boqueron By Richard and Anita, August, 2013

Adios La Antigua

La MercedWe’ll be leaving Antigua this week and heading to Rio Dulce and Livingston, Guatemala on the Caribbean coast and then into Belize again to renew visas. We’ve been here for over five months, much longer than the two month stay we had originally planned when we arrived to volunteer. Our lifestyle of slow travel came to a temporary stop when a chance meeting, our own flexible itinerary and a bit of serendipity landed us our first official housesitting gig for an additional three months.

La Catedral Ruins

La Catedral Ruins

What is it about Antigua that so captivates us?  Surrounded by three volcanos in the central highlands of Guatemala, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most popular tourist destinations in Guatemala.Santa Rosa ruins Founded in 1543 by Spanish Conquistadors the city was “the capital of the Spanish Empire in America” from the 16th to 18th centuries until, after a devastating series of earthquakes earlier in the 18th century, a major earthquake in 1773 destroyed most of the city and the Spanish moved their capital to Guatemala City.There are impressive and melancholy ruins of ancient churches everywhere one walks throughout the city as well as a multitude of beautiful Spanish colonial and baroque edifices still in use.

Fountain in Parque Central

Fountain in Parque Central

Antigua is a very compact city and it’s wonderful to be able to walk anywhere we want within thirty to forty minutes. However, the sidewalks can be uneven with little steps going up or down and very narrow in places forcing us to walk single file or even on the street. Traffic right of way and trying to cross a street can be a guessing game called “Pedestrian Beware!” since you can’t assume that the cars will actually stop for you. There are few street signs on the corners so, for those of us who are directionally dyslexic, finding and orienting yourself can be a bit of a challenge too. The streets are paved with cobblestones and, while picturesque, can be treacherous if you’re not paying attention.

Marimbas - Guatemalan traditional music

Marimbas – Guatemalan traditional music

And it’s hard sometimes to watch your feet when there are so many things to see. Most weeks have a celebration or procession and there’s always the live traditional band with trombones, tubas and huge drums playing in the late afternoon on Fridays at the Parque Central. Just sitting in a café or a bench in the park watching the people (tourists and locals) can provide colorful sights of interest and entertainment.

A couple in the park

A couple in the park

The Antiguans are quite indulgent so long as you are respectful. They realize that tourists are the life-blood of the city and work to accommodate their desires. In return, we maintain the attitude of guests in their country, educate ourselves as to their customs and remain appreciative of their patience. This is rather simple when they routinely, and with great tact, help us with our struggling Spanish.

We have been fortunate to have been in other colonial cities; but it may be a time before we encounter another with the charming mix that brings La Antigua prominence.beautiful smile

By Richard and Anita, August, 2013

Lago de Atitlan-Beyond Beautiful

Lago de AtitlanThe first view of Lake Atitlan is from just under the ridge where the winding road begins its descent into the valley. We are at 6000 feet in the highlands of western Guatemala, and the contrast of the various shades of green on the mountainsides and the deep, sapphire blue of the lake is quite startling. The lake fills a caldera, a volcanic depression, of enormous proportions which was formed 84,000 years ago.

Volcanos Toliman (left) and San Pedro (right)

Volcanos Toliman (left) and San Pedro (right)

On the southern rim of the lake, three volcanos, Toliman, Atitlan and San Pedro tower over the landscape. It shreds the boundary of picturesque. Aldous Huxley tersely noted, “It really is too much of a good thing.” In this, he was correct.Volcan San Pedro Panajachel, the town where we are staying, is similar to the other seven or eight villages spread around the lake; a few thousand people engaged in traditional crafts and tourism with the remainder in ancillary businesses or farming and fishing. However, Panajachel is unique. It is built on the ancient flood plain of the Rio Panajachel, which still feeds Lake Atitlan, and as a consequence it is built on the level. Santiago AtitlanThe remaining villages are built on the sides of the caldera and they are a vertical maze of streets, homes and shops. While people have lived around the lake since the pre-Classic era, the lake has flooded five times in recorded history. The latest iterations of Panajachel, San Marcos La Laguna, Santiago Atitlan and most of the towns date from the 1930’s.

WeavingWe set out one morning to visit some of the lake towns by boat, the easiest means of transport. San Juan La Laguna, a very small village on the eastern shore of Atitlan, is an artisan’s town with over 40 cooperatives, primarily women’ s “asociaciones”, devoted to the production and marketing of traditional native crafts. While the focus is primarily on weaving, other co-ops engage in wood working, pottery and painting.

Textiles and handicraftsThe quality and beauty of some of the woven pieces produced was truly phenomenal. The gradation of colors in the thread was enormous and all the dyes were produced by hand from organic materials: plants, minerals and insects.( At times the tyranny of a single suitcase seems unjust. That day was one of those times as we both were so tempted to make a purchase).

Maximon - sans arms and legs

Maximon – sans arms and legs

The highlight of Santiago Atitlan was the shrine of Maximón, a folk saint venerated in various forms by the Mayan people of several towns in the highlands. One of the legends holds that one day, while the men were away working, Maximón came to the village and slept with all the wives. When the men returned they were sorely aggrieved and cut off his arms and legs. And that is why the effigies you see of Maximón at the shrines are of short men often without arms. The worship of Maximón treats him not so much as a benevolent deity but rather as a bully whom one does not want to anger. His expensive tastes in alcohol and cigarettes indicate that he is a sinful human character, very different from the ascetic ideals of Christian sainthood. Devotees believe that prayers for revenge, or success at the expense of others, are likely to be granted. The veneration of Maximón is not approved by the Roman Catholic Church – geez, go figure…Hauling firewood By Richard and Anita, July, 2013

Where Can I Buy Chicken Feet?

El MercadoWe lived in the land that invented the supermarket and the one-stop shopping concept and we’re slowly beginning to realize what we’ve missed: the one-to-one human interaction of asking if a certain item is available and for how much, occasional bargaining and the adventure of the quest. Here, in Latin America, the options for shopping vary. The larger cities usually have some version of the western style supermarket.  TiendaEvery neighborhood, town and city has its tiendas: little shops similar to small and crowded convenience stores. There are also the family businesses; bakeries and tortilla shops, stationery stores, pharmacies , fruit and vegetable stands, etc. Many of these shops are actually “storefronts” with the business in the front and the family home in the rear behind a privacy barrier.El Mercado

And then there are the mercados, huge farmers type markets that are usually in a permanent location, sometimes covered and several square blocks in size. We enter into the narrow lanes of the mercado and are instantly assaulted by the calls from the vendors seeking our attention, entreating us to buy their goods, declaring absolutely the best quality and price.

??????????This competes with the blaring music and noisy discussions all around from the crowds of people in a riotous cacophony. Stalls are jammed side by side into every available space and goods hang from the tent type walls, corrugated tin ceilings and shelves packed with colorful goods.

MannequinsMannequins decked out in skinny jeans and t-shirts strut their stuff next to pirated cd’s and dvd’s and hardware tools. Piles of underwear and padded bras are sold next to stacks of eggs and handcrafted items such as traditional weavings, leather goods, jewelry, and pottery.El Mercado

Plastic ware and household goods share space with fruits, vegetables and flowers all in a tower of abundance. There are of course the usual mangos, bananas, tomatoes, avocados and more strange and exotic things that we’ve never seen and have to ask in our Spanglish “what is this?” and “how do I eat it?”.

An artful display of chicken feet and other parts

An artful display of chicken feet and other parts

The meat, poultry and fish stalls are areas that we prefer to visit earlier in the morning (especially before the fish smell begins to permeate the area). Hanging from the ceiling are strange-looking cuts of meat, paper covered counters with stacks of fish and large bowls of chicken feet and other parts all arrayed with careful attention like a flower arrangement. We’ve seen live chickens near the stalls a few times but are unsure if they’re sold live or butchered later. One early morning, before the Mercado opened, we saw a merchant with several piglets leashed together on ropes. Better not to guess…Piglets

And this is before we get to the biggest used clothing thrift store we’ve ever seen.Aisles and aisles of clothing, sold by different venders, arrayed on hangers, piled onto tables, spilling to the floor. Huge wobbling stacks of shirts, trousers and skirts, dresses , underwear and shoes .

La Paca, an enormous bargain extravaganza!

La Paca, an enormous bargain extravaganza!

We’ve dug through the piles of clothing a couple of times out of curiosity but it requires patience, perseverance , stamina and maybe even some desperation. Easy, convenient and one stop shopping it ain’t!

By Richard and Anita, July, 2013

Housesitting: The Right Place at the Right Time

Volcan Agua -view from house

Volcan Agua -view from house

We met Mike in March, a few days after we arrived in Antigua, at a local restaurant. After meeting him a second time a couple of days later he invited us to his house in Santa Ana, a little community contiguous to Antigua, the following Sunday to see the Lenten procession which the church in Santa Ana was sponsoring. Since we were anxious to learn about these processions and the whole Lenten experience, we gladly accepted.

La Iglesia (church) in Santa Ana

La Iglesia (church) in Santa Ana

The following Sunday we followed the Alfombra carpets laid out on the cobblestone roads and walked to his home. Sure enough we had an unobstructed view of the event. Centurians Mike’s is a beautifully renovated colonial house at the end of Calle Real, the route of the procession, so all of the marchers, the bands, the andus (the elaborate wooden platform holding the religious statues that the marchers carried) , the hawkers, everything and everybody trooped by his front door.

Mike and Dawn's Alfombra

Mike and Dawn’s Alfombra

Mike and his wife, Dawn, and friends had spent the early morning hours creating their own alfombra in front of their home, using a custom-made plywood stencil and colored sawdust. Their participation in this annual religious ritual endeared he and his wife to their neighbors and further tied them to the community.

During our visit we found out that Mike and Dawn split their time between two homes, one in Santa Ana and one in Canada. We discovered that they would soon be departing for their home in Canada and that they were looking for a “house-sitter” for the Santa Ana casa. After some discussions they extended an offer for us to care for their home after we finished our volunteer work commitment teaching English at the end of April. We decided to prolong our time in Antigua for an additional three months, accepted their offer and the deal was sealed.

La Casa CourtyardThe house-sitting has been a fantastic opportunity to further acquaint ourselves with the city of Antiqua, learn about the pulse of the small community of Santa Ana and spend more time exploring Guatemala. After living in fairly basic accommodations, we are thoroughly appreciating a pampered lifestyle. We have 1) a coffee pot ! 2) a hot water heater which provides a hot shower with full water pressure ! 3) good Wi-Fi ! 4) a washing machine ! 5) a kitchen where we can cook both comfort foods and experiment with some local cuisine 6) a home to spread out in!

2nd floor terrace

2nd floor terrace

Our contribution is to provide a visible, lived-in presence at the house, pay the monthly salary for a lovely lady who comes in and cleans daily (far less than what we would be paying for rent) and make sure that things operate in good order.

This experience has led us to enroll in an on-line international house-sitting website. So if the planets are aligned favorably, we may be able to care for another home, in another country, at another time. It sounds good in theory; don’t plan too concretely or too distant and be available to respond to opportunities when they present themselves. We shall see…Santa Ana-Antigua street

By Richard and Anita, June, 2013

Necessities, Conveniences and Luxuries

Woman going to the marketWe’ve discovered in our travels that there are few true necessities; however there are preferences. High on our list of things we desire are a clean living area, a private bath, internet access and a reasonable walking distance to stores, restaurants, transportation and the city center. Lower tier desires include a comfortable bed, a good shower and access to a refrigerator and kitchen.

suicide shower

An electric water heater aka a “suicide shower”

Showering has been both a source of frustration and a familiar comfort. In Mexico the water trickled out at a maddeningly slow rate and, finally, turned warm. While travelling through Villahermosa in the Mexican state of Tabasco, we were first introduced to the electric water heater wired directly to the shower head, [a.k.a. the “suicide shower”]. We’ve encountered these elsewhere in our travels as well. Evidently common throughout Central and South America, this device operates on water pressure: the slower the water pressure the hotter the water. Even this rudimentary gadget is not a standard feature in many homes due to the high cost of consumer electricity.Community laundry We’ve not seen a dishwasher or vacuum cleaner since we left the US but washing machines, a staple in most American homes, are a rarity even in middle class homes both because of the initial cost and the operating cost. Hand washing is a daily reality in many homes. TanquePilas, large, double-sink wash basins with a ridged bottom for scrubbing clothing, are found in many homes including several where we have stayed. Many cities and towns have common outdoor laundry wash basins called tanques which serve dual purposes: the local women do the laundry and socialize, too.  During our travels we’ve hauled our dirty clothing to nearby lavenderias [cost: about $5.50 a week] while hand washing the “fine dainties” in the sink at home.

La Botella

Purified Water for drinking & cooking

Stoves are usually powered by propane tanks and it is not uncommon to see only the countertop stoves which we had in our Mexico apartment and no oven. The oven at our homestay in Guatemala was filled with pots and pans and never used during our two month stay. South of the border purified water is available in large 5 gallon botellas which are delivered upon request for a very reasonable price, about $1.35 each here in Antiqua. However, even this may be out of reach for many of the local people who drink water from the city supply which is said to be “potable”: safe drinking water is a critical problem here in Guatemala especially in rural areas.Perfect Balance Getting around by shank’s mare introduced the concept of humans [namely us] as beasts of burden. A lot of timesVender hauling goods our purchases every day or two are decided by the amount that can be carried back to our home [canned goods, vegetables and fruits, 6 packs of toilet paper, cleaning supplies, 2 liter bottles of coke lite, etc.]. Often on heavy shopping days we’ve relented and taken a tuc-tuc back home. But for many of the local citizens, that is not a viable option.

A backpack, bananas and a ladder

A backpack, bananas and a ladder

By Anita and Richard, June, 2013

The Black Sand Beaches of Montericco

Black Sand and Blue WaterAt the beginning of June we headed out with our friend, Mario, for the coast of Guatemala. We made the three-hour trip from Antigua by chicken bus and shuttle van and even passed the active volcano Pacaya puffing out smoke on the way. We had been away from the sea for over four months and when we crested a slight rise on the sidewalk and saw the surf of the Pacific ocean we felt like we were back where we belonged.

Mangroves and the river to Monterico

Mangroves and the river to Monterico

Monterico is a small, sleepy, resort community that until Our captain2007 was not connected by road to the rest of the country. A ferry ride or water taxi was required to transport residents and visitors to the picturesque beach town and many locals still use it as an alternative to the more costly buses and shuttles. On our return trip to Antigua, we opted for the water option for the first leg of the journey (fee: 5 quetzales or $0.65 each).Passing a barge

The black sand beaches are still primarily the haunt of the citizens of Guatemala City who use it as a weekend get-away, although highway access has increased the expat tourist trade from Antigua, too. Even with this increase, the beaches are still are not crowdedBlack sand beach by western standards and, at times, appeared deserted. Beautiful as the beaches are they do have their drawbacks.  The black, volcanic sand absorbs heat making barefoot beach-combing after midmorning all but impossible. At all points the beach slopes downward at awkward angles indicating strong rip currents. While the water is warm most visitors spend their time at the fringe of the surf; only strong swimmers venture out beyond the breaking surf.

seafoodBut all of that belies the point. The main purpose of a visit to Monterrico is to relax, eat some fresh sea in the local restaurants, and enjoy the sights and sounds of the surf and the laid-back atmosphere of the town.

An embryonic sea turtle recovery program has increased the foreign tourist trade. A preserve, Tortuga Monterico, is located just a short walk from the town center. Here visitors are allowed to release young leatherback and ridley sea turtles into the Pacific; a practice unimaginable in the states whose approach is much more scientific. But the reality remains; the majority of the eggs laid by the sea turtles that nest on the miles of shoreline are still harvested and eaten by predators both human and animal. Eco-tourism has yet to make itself felt on these remote shores.

Abode on the river to Monterico

Abode on the river to Monterico

By Richard and Anita, June, 2013

Volunteering in La Antigua

school assemblyThere are many opportunities to volunteer in Guatemala and we spent some time researching the multitudes of volunteer agencies, deciding which effort we wanted to support and what exactly we wanted to contribute. We chose IVHQ, an international New Zealand based agency which was recommended on several websites and had volunteer opportunities all over the world.Antonio Castro y Escobar Best friendsIVHQ in turn put us in touch with their affiliate in Antigua, Maximo Nivel, who arranged a homestay, Spanish lessons and a volunteer experience teaching English at a public school. Volunteer opportunities at Maximo Nivel in Antigua and nearby communities range from working in various orphanages, daycare centers, residences for the physically and mentally disabled to medical clinics, construction projects, after school tutoring programs and teaching at public and private schools.public school for girls The sign on the front of the all-girls public school building Earth Day assembly(well over one-hundred years old) reads “La Esquela National Para Ninas No.2, Antonio Castro y Escobar”. We volunteered for two months, March and April, teaching English to four classes Monday through Thursday (grades 3-6) from 7:45 – 12:30 and on Friday 7:45-10:30 for grades 1 & 2. In Guatemala, school is free through the sixth grade after which tuition is often required and it was sad to know that, for some of these girls, their educational opportunities would end and they’d be following the traditional life of early marriage with large families.class The task of teaching English for the first time to large classes was demanding but the girls made our meager efforts hugely rewarding. It was a pleasure to walk into the school, and each classroom, and be greeted by girls who were genuinely pleased that we were there to teach.Recess in the courtyard pretty little girlPassing by students in the hallway we’d be greeted with waves, occasional hugs and, “Good morning, teacher” or “Nice to meechoo”. In retrospect, volunteering was about a cross cultural exchange in which we may have learned much more than we taught. At the end of our volunteer assignment, the school Director invited us to go on a field trip with the girls to an amusement park, IRTRA, in the capital, Guatemala City. We gladly accepted and spent a memorable last day with “our “students.Amusement park at Guatemala City By Richard and Anita, June 2013

Antigua: Lent, Alfombras and Semana Santa

We arrived in La Antigua, Guatemala, a UNESCO world heritage site, after a nine hour overnight ride on a double decker bus.

The ruins of Templo San Francisco

The ruins of Templo San Francisco

The city is absolutely, stunningly quaint and picturesque filled with well-preserved Spanish Baroque architecture and the ruins of Spanish colonial churches (destroyed by both time and recurrent earthquakes), many dating back to the sixteenth century.

Ruins of Santa Clara

Ruins of Santa Clara

On the horizon, surrounding the city, loom three large volcanoes: Volcan de Agua, Acatenango (last erupted in 1972) and Volcan de Fuego, which is constantly active at a low level with steam visibly venting many days.

Volcan Agua

Volcan Agua

We were incredibly lucky to have timed our stay here during Lent as Antigua has the biggest Lenten and Semana Santa celebration in the world and the weeks leading up to Easter were filled with music, religious processions and alfombras.

Procession on Good Friday

Procession on Good Friday

Alfombras are sawdust “carpets” which are laid out on the cobbled streets in front of the family home or shop and have a variety of stenciled patterns, geometric and free form designs, made with colorfully dyed sawdust, flowers, fruits, vegetables and pine needles.Alfombra - San BertoloAlfombra They were absolutely amazing and involved hours of tedious work to make.After th These acts of devotion cost participants dearly in terms of time, money and effort: many people work all night to create their unique alfombra.Alfombra Each area of the city, and some of the surrounding villages, had its own procession over the weeks leading up to Easter with the faithful celebrants carrying enormous and incredibly heavy wooden platforms with the parish statues.Lenten ProcessionWomen's procession We spent the month of March waking up before dawn on the weekends, walking the streets, admiring alfombras and waiting with the early morning crowds in anticipation of the marchers.Incense and Procession The procession would be preceded by music as the streets filled with the fragrant incense smoke from men swinging burners. The men, wearing robes of Lenten purple, and the women wearing dresses of black or white, would slowly pass by carrying the religious statues.

After the Crucifixion

Good Friday – After the Crucifixion

They would make their way over the  cobblestone streets carpeted with the alfombras, trampling them to mounds of sawdust and debris. The bands with drums and horns would follow, signaling the end of the event and then the street sweepers would descend immediately to clean up the debris. Half an hour after the procession passed there’d be nothing remaining of the glorious alfombras. Street Sweepers after the Procession By Anita and Richard, May, 2013

To Tikal And Into The Peten

We set off from Chetumal, Mexico, for Guatemala via Belize on a bus that was a typical turistico affair: cramped seating for twenty-two (thin) passengers with the luggage roped on top and valuables in your lap. Belize river by roadsideWe started with twenty-one, lost four at the Mexican border due to an exit fee dispute, and thirteen departed in Belize City. The last leg of the journey was completed with a Dutch couple. The bus had flow through ventilation, sagging, tired seats and a top speed of about 50 mph. Drifting through the countryside we saw small towns and isolated homes, countless chickens, goats, pigs, a few cattle and fewer horses. It was enjoyable simply watching the world go by. After about four hours of watching the foothills draw closer and then climbing into them we came to El Remate – a small village at the east end of Lago Petén Itza’. It is a quiet place with a few hotels/hostels and some excellent artisans working with the native woods creating items for the tourist and export markets. This niche market provides a viable alternative to the destructive and uneconomical slash and burn agriculture.

Temples in the midst above the forest canopy

Temples in the midst above the forest canopy

The following morning we were waiting in the dark at 5:30 AM for the collectivo; we would be in Tikal for sunrise. But the dawn did not break that morning; the clouds were low and there was mist in the air; the light simply slipped in upon us.The Grand Plaza

After a lengthy walk from the entrance we approached the Gran Plaza from the back side and glimpsed the King’s Pyramid though the trees.Pyramid The mists gave the ruins a surreal quality which fitted well with the thick, damp, verdant surroundings. By mid-morning the sun had burned through and the day turned hot and humid.Residences at the Gran PlazaTikal is one of the largest Mayan sites; it was the military, religious and artistic center of a vast region of the Mayan world with extensive alliances and commercial interests.

Complex Q

Complex Q

It is located in the foothills of northern Guatemala in what is now a national park replete with native wildlife. There are an estimated 3,000 structures in the Tikal complex, although only a fraction of them have been excavated. Not surprisingly, Tikal is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

The Queen's pyramid

The Queen’s pyramid

While in the Petén we visited the island city of Flores, a flourishing town given over to the delight of the tourist. It’s as quaint as quaint gets; a small colonial town connected by a short causeway to the surrounding mainland around Lagos Petén–Itza’.Flores It was well worth an afternoon’s outing to wander about the narrow streets and the embarcadero checking the shops and restaurants.Flores By Anita and Richard, June, 2013

By Bus to Merida, Chichen-Itza, Uxmal and “The Yellow City”

Here in Antigua, Guatemala, the buses have names; Esmeralda, Carolina, Johanna, Camelia, Dulce.  They are the old, reliable Blue Bird school buses given a second, and this time glamorous, life. Painted by fanciful artists, arrayed with chrome, pampered and shined these queens are… the Chicken Buses: the crowded but cheap system for local travel. There are other ways to get around (rental cars, taxis and private shuttles) but, for our money, the chicken buses win hands down as some of the most entertaining transportation.

A tricked-out chicken bus

A tricked-out chicken bus

In Mexico, the bus system, while not as colorful, is reliable, convenient and very affordable and ranges from luxury and 1st class buses to the more local 2nd class buses and collectivos or combi-vans. The 1st class buses have assigned seats, restrooms at the back and televisions which tend to play movies at full volume. The 2nd class buses lack restrooms and seats aren’t assigned but they are clean and very orderly. However, if the people are there, the drivers just keep filling the bus long after all the seats are gone so that to get on or off a rider kind of “surfs” their way through the crowd, fitting themselves (very politely) around the various bodies. We’ve been using a combination of combi-vans, (12-15 person vans), buses (1st and 2nd class) and a few times taxis. Everywhere else we walk.Paseo de Montejo intersection

We arrived in Merida, in the state of Yucatan, Mexico, on December 30th, after a 4 hour bus trip from Playa del Carmen.  This was our first time staying at a B & B and it was such a great experience that we’ll continue to use other B & B’s and hostels as we travel.

El Ave Blanca B and B

El Ave Blanca B and B

Originally we had thought that we’d be sacrificing some of our treasured privacy but instead we met many new people, made several friends, and exchanged stories and travel information. Far from feeling isolated and disconnected from home, we’ve felt our world expand as we meet and make new friends.

East side of the Grand PlazaMerida, Mexico is a beautiful colonial city that was founded in the 1540’s and has an historic central area filled with museums, art exhibits and markets.

Casa Montejo and a graphic illustration of the Spaniards conquering the Maya

Casa Montejo and a graphic illustration of the Spaniards conquering the Maya

There are numerous plazas for people-watching and an enormous mercado that assaults you with smells, noise, the frantic hustle and pushing of crowds of people plus restaurants with awesome, traditional Yucatecan food.Street Scene One of our favorite things about Merida was the glimpse behind plain, unassuming facades into the colonial homes. Some interiors are original but many houses have been bought and renovated by expats into one of-a-kind gems. After a tour of several of these homes we were even entertaining the idea of making one of these our own (this after a year of getting rid of all our stuff!).

Uxmal

Uxmal

Uxmal

Uxmal

Uxmal

Uxmal

We could have kept ourselves entertained for months in Merida but the area around Merida is also filled with fascinating ruins  including two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Uxmal and Chichen-Itza.

The iconic El Castillo at Chichen-Itza

The iconic El Castillo at Chichen-Itza

Temple of the Pillars - Chichen-Itza

Temple of the Pillars – Chichen-Itza

The "Nunnery" at Chichen-itza

The “Nunnery” at Chichen-itza

Also near Merida is the colonial city of Izamal, called “the Yellow City”. Izamal, which dates from the mid-1500’s, has the distinction of having its main plazas surrounded by buildings painted a cheerful, bright yellow and was designated by Mexico in 2002, a “Pueblo Magico” because of its great charm.

Izamel - The Convent of St Antonio de Pauda

Izamel – The Convent of St Antonio de Pauda

??????????????? And last, but not least, there is the fast-growing “Progresso coast”, an ex-pat haven radiating from the port city of Progresso thirty miles north of Merida on the Gulf of Mexico.

By Richard and Anita, May, 2013