Guatemala: Chichicastenango

Spent the 30th Sept and the first day of October recovering from the climb up the volcano; my bloody legs were killing me from gripping on to the horse! We bumbled around Antigua in the still pouring rain, made forward travelling plans to try and escape the rain for a while, were reunited for one evening with Michal and Amit who came back from San Pedro and said goodbye to all of our gang the following day who went off on separate journeys.
Hadley went off to Los Angeles for a bit of US road tripping before he heads for Asia, Amit and Michal to Cancun in Mexico to lounge away their last couple of days of their honeymoon, Christopher and Julia to San Pedro near Lake Atitlan before heading to Costa Rica…..leaving Dave and I with tickets for the Yellow House long day trip to the market in Chichicastenago the following day which Hadley found hilarious. Hah! In case you are checking in Hadley – the day trip from Antigua to the market was bloody excellent and even Dave enjoyed it AND it was sunny all day for a change. Dave actually cracked a smile and looked happy.

We had a 6.30am start for our market day trip as it was a 3 hour drive away trough the highland mountains. We had to take the slower road as the main Interamerican highway had been blocked by rockslides, the rain loosening chunks of mountain which had slid down on to the road. The scenery was stunning as we rattled along winding roads, rolling precariously close to the edge and climbing high in to the mountains towards the stunning views of Lago Atitlan. The driver stopped to give us time to get off the bus and marvel at this huge lake, shimmering in a searing sun, surrounded by small villages and massive volcanoes. The vast size of this body of water is an impressive sight. Back on the bus we descended through the forests losing over 500 metres in elevation as we headed to the town of Panajachel. This is a dramatic region of Guatemala.

These highlands stretch from Antigua to the Mexican border northwest of Huehuetenango and traditional values and customs of Guatemala’s indigenous people are strongly adhered to here. The first language is the Maya dialect with Spanish their second. There is a lot of successful agriculture in the area including their staple crop of Maize from which Mayans’ believe humans were created in the third cycles of life…the first 2 being from wood and mud. We watched as men, women and children walked the sides of the road carrying huge bundles of firewood for heating and cooking strapped to their heads with leather straps.

After a short stop at the town of Panajachel we headed on for Chichicastenango arriving around 11am. It is a beautiful town surrounded by valleys and looming mountain ranges. Narrow cobble stone streets, red tiled roofs and a colourful cemetery set high on a hill. The locals are know as Mashenos and have pre-Christian religious beliefs and ceremonies…and shamanism is still strongly followed here.

Thursdays and Sundays are market days and the centre of town heaves with indigenous people in colourful traditional clothing carrying poles with heavy bundles wrapped in brilliantly coloured woven cloths. Some people lay out their goods and sell straight off the cloth rolled out on the ground whilst others use their accumulated poles to set up temporary stalls draped with an array of local crafts and goods. The outskirts of the market sells the most tourist orientated goods; blankets, bed covers, table pieces, carvings and wooden masks, silver jewellery and pottery.

It was hard not to be seduced by the riot of colour but the bombardment of stall after stall of bright colours and quality goods meant most of the people from our bus loaded up with souvenirs. Dave bought a Marco Zapatista t-shirt (actually Mexican) and I bought 2 small decoratively woven purses, easy to stow in our travelling bag.

I really wanted a pair of hand tooled leather horse stirrups but didn’t find any, not being something most tourists would buy; and also some antique keys which unfortunately were being sold at too high a price for me between £10 and £20 for each key. There will be plenty of opportunities to buy further along in our travels rather than load ourselves down now. The centre of the market is dedicated to food stalls and local needs such as vegetables, soaps, candles, embroidery and sewing stalls, plastic toys, local clothing etc.

A beautiful white church called Inglesia de Santo Tomas has steps leading directly down in to the throngs of market goers. Burning copal incense smoulders on the steps and wafts around the local women selling flowers shaded from the sun under large umbrellas. Apparently local prayer leaders called Chuchkajaues (mothers-fathers) swing burning balsam incense on these steps in silver censers whilst chanting magic words in honour of the ancient Maya calendar and their ancestors.

Many of these ancestors are buried under the church floor much as the Maya kings were buried beneath their pyramids.

It’s hard to take photographs of these fiercely independent local people but I managed to get plenty of images of a lot of the local traders and their wares and their beautiful traditional clothing whilst they bartered in Maya, Spanish, basic English and even in Hebrew, there being so many Israeli travellers in this country.

Thank god he didn’t buy it!

I would have bought this though!

Dave and our Isreali travelling companions for the day.
Uri’s favourite purchase of the day.

We ate lunch in the courtyard of a beautiful old colonial hotel; parrots perched near tables squawking and grooming each other amongst vivid tropical flowers surrounding local musicians playing large wooden xylophones. We got back on the bus just as the first rain clouds rolled in and started to break. The market was already packing up as local traders prepared for their long walk home carrying their bundles on heads, sticks and backs.

We were the only non-Israeli travellers on our bus other than a Spanish girl who had bought so much stuff she almost needed her own bus back to Antigua. We got chatting with Idan, Uri and Gali the latter two whom we’d actually met briefly in Flores over a week before at our hotel Casa Amelia. They are great people with a dry sense of humour. Uri at 6 feet 5 inches tall being the joker of the group. If we hadn’t been so knackered we would have loved to have spent the evening in their company back in Antigua but instead we limped our way to eat immediate fast food, pay up the balance of our flights (we are off to South America this Saturday!) and headed back to the hotel for an early night after spending over 7 hours on the road in a single day trip sliding and bumping through the last 3 in pouring rain and mud slides on the re-opened highway.

So our next stop will be Lima in Peru as we head to South America by plane on Saturday morning to travel onwards to Cuzco. We aim to climb up to see the ancient mountain top Inca city of Machu Pichu, spend around a week or so in Peru before flying on to Argentina. We are both really excited as we never originally planned to get to South America.

Uri and Idan. If you are reading guys – get in touch! I emailed the photos to Gali.

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