© 2012; 2005 Connecting: Solo Travel Network & Diane Redfern. Information
Note: This article is meant for inspirational value alone and will not normally be updated.
Therefore, all facts, figures, and author's opinions are subject to change as time goes on.

Wonderful Guatemala
On Your Own – Yes, or No

Text & Photos by Diane Redfern

This is one of those do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do situations: Give yourself and Guatemala a break. Take the time needed to appreciate
this wonder-filled country.

"Welcome to the land of eternal spring," said Jaime Cabrera, leading me to a car waiting outside the airport.

Feeling a briskness in the air, I shivered and wondered if I'd brought enough warm clothes. A November morning in Guatemala City can be chilly, especially if you arrive, as I did, feeling groggy after 24 hours of travel by taxi, ferry, bus, and an overnight flight from Los Angeles.

Jaime introduced Reginaldo (Reggie) Aju Polo who smiled warmly but made no comment, as he speaks little English. In a moment off we went down the highway away from the sprawl of Guatemala City toward La Antigua, the first of the must-see towns in Guatemala's western highlands. Reggie drove. Jaime talked. I listened.

"Guatemala," Jaime began, "has everything for the tourist: scenery, Mayan ruins, colonial history, adventure sports, good hotels."

Guatemala's public transport - 'chicken bus' Concentrating on absorbing Jaime's commentary, I glimpsed the passing landscape in snippets: bright, blue sky, the road winding upward past barely noticed towns and hamlets, volcanic peaks rising in the distance, snatches of green and yellow corn fields, someone dressed in red carrying a bundle of sticks, a Burger King sign and people boarding a gaily decorated "chicken bus" – the local form of public transit.

For six days these two were my guides and constant companions, a pleasant, worry-free arrangement for me but lacking in the "solitary" part of solo travel that I normally advocate. The solo part would come with a week on my own following this whirlwind tour arranged by INGUAT (Instituto Guatemalteco de Turismo).

Indeed, some would argue that independent solo travel in Guatemala is not advisable due to increasing crime. I would argue otherwise, with caution. See Guatemala Notes.

> La Antigua Guatemala

About 50 km southwest of Guatemala City, Antigua is only minutes away from the capital in distance but an era away in style.

Founded in 1543 to replace an earlier capital city (Ciudad Vieja), Antigua attracted all the symbols and trappings of Spanish power. Grand churches, convents, and government buildings rose in the shadows of Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango, the three volcanos that overlook the city.

Entering town along a narrow, cobbled street, we found the Porta Hotel Antigua residing out of view behind a nondescript wall typical of Spanish design. Within, was a peaceful sanctuary of columned corridors surrounded by gardens. My standard room, cozily equipped with a functional fireplace and a big bed plump with pillows and duvet, invited a lie-down, but Jaime and Reggie waited.

I had only time enough for a quick shower and a buffet breakfast enjoyed on the sun-dappled terrace by the outdoor pool. By 10am we were back in the car and off to nearby Jocotenango, a five-minute drive or shuttle-bus (hourly/Q5) ride from Parque Central, Antigua's main meeting place.

Jaime pointed out local landmarks in passing: Look up and see St Catherine's Arch, (Arco de Santa Catalina) built in 1693 to allow nuns a crosswalk between neighboring convents without being seen in the street below. This quaint yellow structure was restored sometime after the earthquake of Santa Marta hit in 1773, one of several to devastate the city over the years.

In Jocotenango we spent a couple of hours at the Centro Cultural La Azotea. This complex of attractions could easily fill a whole day for anyone inclined to combine a horseback ride and lunch with a stroll through a working coffee plantation cum museum, followed by learning about Guatemalan music in the adjoining Casa Kójom.

We, however, returned to Antigua where I had the rest of the afternoon for a walkabout of the town's many colonial buildings. Interestingly, some ruins have been left to show the ravages of several devastating earthquakes while other sites were restored to a functional state.

Convento de las Capucinas, Del Retiro TowerEvocative of its era and most memorable for me was the Convento de las Capucinas (circa 1736) and its Del Retiro Tower, a circle of 18 tiny brick cells reserved for nuns who wanted space for contemplation – and others less eager who were sent there to reflect on some misbehavior.

Volcano climbing, shopping for local crafts and textiles, dining around in dozens of trendy restaurants and cafes – these diversions occupy not only short-term tourists but also retirees and language students who linger in Antigua to enjoy its perpetually springlike climate, favorable cost of living, abundance of quality facilities, and easy access to all of the other main tourist spots along the so-called "gringo trail" – to which we were shortly to be headed.

Dinner at the hotel and then, finally, I fell into bed for the first time since leaving home 36 hours earlier. Home? Already that felt faraway and long ago.

Next day, as we drove away before breakfast, I thought to myself that I'd come back to this charming place, maybe take a Spanish language course, or volunteer to help out a worthy cause. For I had read that the majority of Guatemalans live in extreme poverty, though I had yet to see any evidence of it. That was a notion to consider another day; a busy schedule lay ahead. Westward we went, stopping here and there, sampling a little of this and that along the way.

At Tecpán we stopped at Katok ("come in" in the Cackchíquel language), a roadside restaurant that combined elements of Swiss chalet, German delicatessen, and western pioneer. Sitting at hewn-log tables and warmed by an overhead heater, I had my first authentic Guatemalan breakfast: beans, fried plantain, a thick, black-corn tortilla, and coffee.

> Iximché

Set on a promontory edged by steep cliffs, Iximché was a defensive site built by the Cackchíquel Maya who were at war with the Quiché Maya when the Spaniards, under Pedro de Alvador, arrived in 1524.

The remains are little more than a few grassy hillocks now, but the setting was quite magical on a pretty day as this was, with the surrounding view, delicate breezes ruffling the pines, the quiet, and Jaime conjuring up a 16th century vision of the past: The Cackchíquels had aligned themselves with the Spaniards who then set up headquarters just down the road at Tecpán.

But the Maya soon got fed up with Spanish demands for gold and ended the alliance, a move that proved fatal for the Cackchíquel who met defeat in subsequent battles.

> Lago Atitlán

Lake Atitlan From the hilltop town of Sololá, about 90 km from Antigua, the road descends sidewinder fashion more than 500 meters to Lake Atitlán, probably the most photographed spot in Central America. On the edge of Lake Atitlán, Panajachel, or "Pana," or "Gringotenango" (place of the foreigners) was noted as a hippy haven before the place became pretty dangerous during the 80s and 90s at the height of a 40-year civil war, which finally came to a halt in 1996.

Judging from the number of souvenir stands lining Calle Santander, tourism has returned as a mainstay of Pana's economy.

We took a minute to check in at the attractive Posada de Don Rodrigo then went straight to the boat dock where launches serve as public transport around the lake.

It's about a half-hour ride across the lake to Santiago Atitlán, headquarters of the Tzutujil Maya Nation, and the most visited of a dozen or so Mayan villages that creep up the mountainsides surrounding the lake.

> Santiago Atitlán

A steep, zigzag walk from the boat dock brought us to the local church, which Franciscan Friars first established in Santiago in the 16th century. Their mission to save souls by replacing Mayan beliefs with Christian gospel masked the ulterior motive of colonialism – a systematic land and resource grab that relegated indigenous people to a servile rank below "pure" blood Europeans and mixed-blood "ladinos."

As a way of controlling the movements of the Maya, the Spanish had imposed a color scheme on each group, which was reflected in their homespun clothing. Ironically, this repressive tactic has evolved, perhaps defiantly, into a weaving tradition that is proudly maintained by village women all over Guatemala, who continue to wear their own distinctive huipils (blouses) and whose hand-woven textiles are a main source of tourism revenue.

> Maximón

In order to convert the Maya, the Catholic clergy had more or less tolerated certain Mayan rituals. Catholic on the surface these people may be, but at heart the old Mayan ways hold sway, as was clearly demonstrated with a visit to the shrine of Maximón (pronounced mah shee mohn).

In an unimposing dwelling somewhere in the twisty lanes of Santiago Atitlán resides an effigy of Maximón, a sort of roguish deity who likes cigars and hard liquor and supposedly takes an occasional fling with unwary ladies if he gets a chance.

Shrine of MaximonDressed up in layers of colorful scarves, head topped with a snappy Stetson, the idol sat between two somber members of the cofradía (brotherhood) responsible for its upkeep. Scents of flowers, candle-wax, and incense filled the air as devotees and visitors gathered in his presence. Picture taking was allowed with an offering of Q10.

Being a mere greenhorn in these parts I naively assumed this was a fun thing concocted as a way to generate a little income for the village, gringo payback time, a little joke on the tourist.

Not at all, claimed Jaime. Maximón, he explained, has long been revered in this town and in a few others around Guatemala – so much so that among the initiated, hosting the effigy is a great honor, which is passed from one cofradía to another on a yearly rotation. And, during Santa Semana (holy week), Maximón features prominently in the celebrations when he, with his procession, meets the figure of Christ and his followers outside the church.

Intrigued, I made a mental note to learn more about this enigmatic character. Then it was time to boat back to Panajachel for a brief rest before dinner. Shortly after, the sun began its daily descent over the lake behind Volcán San Pedro. Viewed from my room at the Posada de Don Rodrigo, that spectacular sunset will not soon be forgotten.

> Chichicastenango

Guatemalans are big on market days, and Chichicastenango's Thursday and Sunday markets are noted among the best. We arrived on Thursday but Jaime said Sunday would have been better because you also get to see the weekly procession of cofradías marching to Santo Tomás church.

A trading center since the 13th century, Chichi, tucked away in rugged mountain terrain at an altitude of 2,030 meters (6,660 ft), has an old-world feel. After lunch at a local restaurant, Jaime and I jostled among throngs of shoppers who had come from remote mountain villages along with many day-trip tourists from Antigua or Panajachel (US$20-US$25), and the more adventurous "chicken bus" crowd.

The scene was a festive jumble of wares strung, hung, or spread about the streets and up onto the semi-circular staircase leading to the front door of the church: woven textiles, traje (traditional costume), bags, hats, masks, fruit, vegetables, flowers – everywhere you looked.

Ceremony Pascual Abaj, INGUAT photoLater on Jaime and I took a 30-minute walk out of town and up a mountainside trail to Pascual Abaj (sacrifice stone) to visit a well-known Mayan shrine. As it happened we came upon a ceremony in progress. A woman (possibly a shaman, I'm not sure) stood chanting before a well worn stone altar. A brown-feathered chicken lay dead on the altar alongside several lit candles. Two helpers stood back attending to scattered small fires. A pack of hungry dogs stood patiently around the periphery waiting for an unguarded moment to approach the fires and paw gingerly about the hot coals for the remains of edible offerings, heedless of burnt toes and singed lips.

Jaime asked one attendant if I might take a picture if I paid. The woman waved away the request, hiding her face in her headdress.

Feeling abashed, I said to Jaime, "I don't blame her, maybe I'd feel the same way."

"Maybe," he replied. "But if 10 or 20 quetzals would help buy food or shoes for my children, I'd take it."

We pursued that thought later during dinner at the charming, quintessential Spanish colonial style Hotel Santo Tomás with a marimba group playing traditional music in the background. Was it foolish pride? Or was it Mayan strength of character that endured and sustained these people over 500 years of colonial subjugation? I wonder.

> San Francisco El Alto

Away, once again, before breakfast, we stopped at some forgettable dive at the major highway junction of Cuatros Caminos (Four Roads). From there it was only about a 10-km side trip to San Francisco El Alto (2,610 meters; 8,500 ft) where the huge Friday market was in full, colorful swing when we arrived.

Market Day San Francisco El AltoStreets and lanes were chock-a-block with vendors and buyers. Unfortunately, my memory of this event is dominated by a few scary minutes when I nearly had the shirt ripped off my back in a jam of pushing and shoving bodies trying to make way at a junction. I felt a strong pull on my day-pack and the right side of my shirt, under which I wore a cloth pouch containing my day's cash and passport along with a protruding notebook, and reading glasses.

It took a few seconds to wrestle a frontal hold on my day-pack and use it to barge my way. No harm done, except my notepad had disappeared. Losing notes hits a travel writer hard, but thankfully, my passport was safe. One Austrian tourist lost his the same day: the person who found it stopped and asked if it was mine. Poor fellow traveler, losing one's passport is more than a minor nuisance.

> Quetzaltenango

San Andres Xecul Church, TotonicapanThe rest of the day's journey (94 km) passed through pleasant rural highland scenery, with a short detour to Totonicapán for a quick look at the uniquely decorated San Andrés Xecul church, a dramatic orange dab against the blue sky.

At one point Jaime remarked that we had just passed "Alaska," the highest highway point in Guatemala at 2,950 meters (9,678 ft). We now overlooked a broad valley of tawny wheat fields, a significant change from the ubiquitous corn patches that had etched the landscape so far in our journey.

Across the valley rose Quetzaltenango (2,335 meters; 7,600 ft) edged with the conical peaks of neighboring volcanoes. They looked peaceful, but Santa Maria wreaked havoc in 1902, and its sidekick Santiaguito regularly belches up smoke and steam.

> Xelajú

Xelajú or simply Xela (pronounced shee lah) has a long history. Its predominantly Quiché Maya citizens wrested control of the surrounding territory from the Mam Maya around the 1300s. And it was here that a powerful Quiché Maya chief named Tecún Umán was killed in battle by Pedro de Alvarado, thus opening up all of Guatemala to the Spaniards.

Now, the city is a prosperous commercial, educational, and cultural center with a population of 250,000. In the heart of the city, Pension Bonifaz is handy to all tourist services, banks, shopping, Internet access, and Parque Centroamérica.

Adventure tourists make Xela a base for volcano climbing in the area, as do visitors interested in either short or long-term stays while taking language courses or participating in regional volunteer programs.

We had just time enough for a pleasant stroll and an outside view of the imposing buildings near the square, the neoclassical Municipalidad (Town Hall), the interestingly restored old cathedral, Iglesia del Espíritu Santo, and the Casa de la Cultura and Museo de Historia Natural.

> Fuentes Georginas

Fuentes GeorginasWhether by car, cycle, or standing in the back of a pick-up truck, every visitor to Quetzaltenango must arrange a ride up to Fuentes Georginas, a hot spring set high in a misty, emerald green grove. Even those who find the spa facilities a bit spartan should agree that the enchanting setting is a definite highlight. After many photo stops we retraced the way back to the main highway and Reginaldo and Diane on the road to Fuentes Georginasbegan a descent from the highlands to the tropical lowlands of Guatemala's Pacific Slope. Vast sugar cane and corn fields soon replaced mountainside vegetable patches and coffee plantations, and our route began the loop back towards Ciudad de Guatemala. The final 160 km passed over farmlands and commercial centers along the foothills of the central highlands, and the lights of the big city grew stronger as twilight dwindled to darkness.

I was luxuriously ensconced in the Grand Tikal Futura Hotel, an impressive glass tower located near the airport in uptown Zona 11. But I had little time to sample its 5-star facilities, except for a quick pizza and a comforting bath. Then it was early to bed early to rise for another busy day.

> Tikal, El Petén

A day-trip from Guatemala City to Tikal National Park requires taking a 6:30am flight (Tikal Jets) to Flores, the base for eco-tourism activities within El Petén, Guatemala's largest department.

The scene at Flores airport was a hubbub of tourists arranging visits to various parks and protected areas within Maya Biosfera Reserve, a 2.1 million hectare zone created in 1990 to manage sustainable development.

Jaime and I joined other Tikal bound tourists boarding minivans for the 70-km drive over lowland jungle terrain. These forests swallowed up a civilization that began building stone structures here about 200BC then mysteriously died out about 900AD.

Tikal Temple I, Grand PlazaIf local Mayans knew of Tikal they kept the secret to themselves until the mid 1800s. Since then explorers and scientists have been uncovering wondrous archaeological treasures. Some 320 sites are known in El Petén, most unexplored. Tikal is the largest site that is easily accessible and open to the public.

At the park's edge, we stopped for breakfast at the Jungle Lodge before commencing walking. Jaime descending 150 steps from Temple IV, TikalAlthough monkeys, foxes, and over 380 bird species inhabit the park, it was the mosquito meet-and-greet committee that accompanied us for the better part of our four-hour walk. Thankfully, the temperature was said to be cooler than normal – but it was still muggy enough to induce dripping, red faces when climbing the 150 steps up Temple IV. After that, we had to start back, allowing time on the way for a late lunch of barbecued chicken, rice, beans – and a reviving cold beer. I've never tasted better.

Without having had time to visit the park museum, we hurried to catch the minivan (about 3pm) for the return trip to Flores airport and then the flight back to Guatemala City, arriving there about 7pm. Exhausted!

It is a tough job, but I do it all for you, dear reader. You however, should give yourself a break. Take all the time needed to appreciate this wonder-filled country.

>> DR