Route of the Maya: Part Four

Antigua, Tikal and Yaxha

By: - May 25, 2016

Continuing the overland journey from Panajachel along the Pan-American Highway, we arrived in Antigua around midday. Lunch at the Café Condesa (Countess Café) in the town center was a treat. In the garden of a colonial royal house occupied by successive aristocratic counts in the country’s first capital, Santiago de Guatemala, we enjoyed a variety of fresh salads.

Founded in 1543, “La Antigua” known as the Old City, served as the seat of Spain’s colonial government until suffering major damage by earthquakes in 1776, after which Guatemala City became the capital. Declared a UNESCO World heritage Site in 1979, the city has retained its charm, with its narrow cobblestone streets lined with single-story stucco houses and its views of the Volcán de Agua. The city is infused by the rich heritage of Hispanic colonial art and architecture with baroque-influenced facades, while at the same time incorporating Mayan mysticism and traditions, which have attracted natives to the Catholic Church.

Our walking tour began in the city center at Central Park featuring an ornate Mermaid Fountain built in 1737. To its north is the Town Hall, which we visited briefly, learning about free vocational classes offered by the municipality such as hair styling, jewelry making, and traditional embroidery. To the east of the park is the Metropolitan Cathedral, with its colonial whitewashed facade and vaulted niches housing images of saints. The building was finished in the year 1680. Ruined by earthquakes, part of the Cathedral has been rebuilt and is used as St. James Church. However, most of it still remains in ruins; a walk about reveals how magnificent this building once was.

Other noteworthy historic structures are San Carlos de Borromeo University, founded in 1678, which was Central America’s first university and now serves as the Colonial Art Museum; the Government Palace on the Main Square; and the former El Carmen Church with its magnificent colonnaded facade, dating back to 1728 and now in ruins.

Walking to the Merced Church and Convent gave us a close-up view of life along the cobbled streets of town. Much of the activity seemed to be related to the upcoming Holy Week, when Guatemala solemnly commemorates the Passion and Death of Christ. Large purple and white bows adorned the window railings of the devout. In preparation for the ritual processions through town, replicas of Christ on the cross or with the cross on his shoulder were being mounted on floats. We stopped at the Mercado de Artesanías (Handicrafts Market), which stocks an amazing array of products ranging from textiles and paintings to woodcraft, ceramics, and jade. I made a mental note to return.

Established in 1767, the Merced Church and Convent is a Spanish baroque monument, which pays tribute to Guatemalan artisans with its exquisite facade and stucco work. In the sanctuary, a colorful carpet of flowers made from sawdust and bordered with fruits and vegetables heralded Holy Week. Parallel to the church, the convent has only one wall standing; the 1773 earthquake destroyed its entire second-floor residences. The convent’s patio boasts the country’s largest fountain in which Mercedarians used to raise fish for food. Four bridges lead to its central island, where a decorative vessel on a pedestal attracts birds to bathe. Following a spectacular viewing of the surrounding mountains from the second-floor ruins, we headed to yet another historic treasure – the Hotel Camino Real Antigua, our home for the next three nights.

Next morning we visited Don Carlos and his family, who produce all of Antigua’s carpets, made from colored sawdust, for Holy Week. Don Carlos demonstrated the steps for producing a carpet, first sifting monochrome pinewood sawdust as a background within a frame placed on the ground, over which he positioned a cardboard stencil of a stylized pot with flowers. After spreading sawdust of different colors over the flowers and pot by hand, he finished the design with a touch of gold and silver glitter. Donning his purple hooded cucurucho costume, worn by ritual participants, he provided details on the choice of patterns for carpets during Holy Week – flowers on Thursday, birds on Friday, hearts on Saturday, and flowers again on Sunday.

The following journey was to Jocotenango, northwest of Antigua, to experience a day in the life of a Guatemalan village and visit a school attended mostly by students from poor mountainside communities. When we arrived at Escuela Proyecto La Esperanza (School of Hope), the children were at recess. They had already finished the first of two meals they ate at school at 10 am, and again at 2:30 pm before going home. I visited the 4th grade, where the children were learning about all the Central American countries, in both Spanish and English. Nutrition, health, and cleanliness are important aspects of the curriculum in each class of 25 children; teachers are from Australia, Belgium, Canada, Scotland, the UK and the US. During our visit we participated in an earthquake drill, where we had to file out with our hands locked over our heads – a clever solution to keep children from pushing each other. A meeting with the school cook ended our delightful visit.

On our way to a home-hosted lunch, we stopped at a market, picking up ingredients to help prepare the meal. Our shopping list included avocados, chili peppers, garlic, onions, tomatoes, lemons, and hibiscus for drinks. When we arrived at the home of our host’s extended family, I was totally taken by surprise as a little boy met us, asking whose birthday it was. I stepped forward to acknowledge the special preparations that were visible all around. Bouquets of colorful balloons hung from tree branches in the garden; an orange piñata of a dog with floppy ears waited on a wire post, waiting to trick anyone who dared try to break it.

The lunch menu consisted of a variety of tacos with black bean and avocado spread, followed by a stew of green beans, squash, potatoes, and rice, served with chicken or pork in soup bowls. Then a big chocolate cake with two candles arrived; I was able to snuff them out with one blow. The entertainment was my unsuccessful attempts at breaking the piñata blindfolded, as it was pulled higher and higher each time. To the cheers of children and adults, the piñata finally broke, spilling piles of candy out of its belly – a first-time experience for me! Then the family shared the hardships of their lives and the difficulty of making a living in the village. It was comforting to know that the family was paid for the meal they had prepared for us.

Back in Antigua, we visited a woodcarver’s workshop called the Apple Factory. At 64, the woodcarver had spent a lifetime shaping wood into fruit and bowls. Some in the group happily bought painted shiny apples to help support his family of six children, the youngest 11 months old. Afterwards, free time on our own gave me an opportunity to return to the Handicrafts Market, where I bought a multicolored bead necklace with embroidered strap.

In the evening we viewed Ixcanul, a beautiful film written and directed by Jayro Bustamante, a Kaqchikel Maya. Working closely with a farming community from the Guatemalan highlands, the filmmaker reveals the lives of his people, defined by ancestral beliefs and traditions. As the story unfolds at the foot of the active Ixcanul volcano, we are introduced to 17-year-old Maria and her parents, who eke out a living by working on a coffee plantation. Maria’s parents have promised to marry her to the widowed plantation foreman, whereas Maria wants a life in the city. Her boyfriend of the same age is determined to make it to the US, where “people live in big houses with gardens” and “even the streets have lights.” Awarded the Alfred Bauer Prize for a film that “opens new perspectives on cinematic art” at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2015, this film deserves to be seen widely.

Our second full day in Antigua began north of the city at Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross), a park with a panoramic view of the city against the backdrop of the Volcán de Agua. Unfortunately, our view of the towering volcano was under a shroud of clouds. From here we embarked on a new tour of historic treasures, such as the Church of San Francisco and the Convent of Santo Domingo. The former was built by Franciscans in 1702; it has been reconstructed in some parts, but others remain in ruins. The ornate facade, with its twisted columns and vaulted niches, each surrounding a saint or friar, puts this currently active church high on a list of Spanish baroque treasures.

The Church and Convent of Santo Domingo and Saint Thomas Aquinas College, which constituted a single unit during Spanish rule, have been restored to incorporate several museums and workshops and a five-star hotel, the Casa Santo Domingo. A cultural route called Museums Promenade features display cases with colonial art such as crowns and chalices; carved figures of archangels, saints, virgins, and cherubs; and religious paintings. The Archaeology Museum exhibits Mayan ceramic and stone objects. A unique exhibit compares contemporary ceramic, stone, and glass pieces to Pre-Columbian art of similar design. Outdoors, vestiges of colonial architecture in a spacious garden provide the setting for contemporary site-specific installations.

The developer and owner of the Casa Santo Domingo, who restored the architecture of the above complex, has also built a conference center on a hill with sweeping views of the Volcán de Agua towering over Antigua in the valley. Our trip leader, Ivania, offered to take me up there. Following a winding path uphill, the van dropped us off in front of a contemporary building surrounded by contemporary art. Carved, painted horses romped in the front while two very tall sculpted chairs invited visitors to sit and enjoy the scenery. Indoors, a chapel with large picture windows behind an altar offered a view of the surrounding woods. In addition to art galleries, several rooms were dedicated to memorabilia of Miguel Ángel Asturias (1899-1974), who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1967. The Guatemalan author often took inspiration from Central America’s indigenous people.

Visits to three countryside villages the next day widened our window onto Mayan culture. In San Juan del Obispo, a town famed for its homegrown chocolate industry, we visited a family whose members continued the tradition of making chocolate De Taza following ancestral recipes. A young man demonstrated the steps, first roasting cacao beans over an open fire; then rubbing them with his fingers and peeling off the skins into a wooden bowl. He smashed the skinned beans into a paste on a granite surface, cutting off small pieces for each of us to make into a patty for a cup of hot chocolate. The chocolate needs to be stirred with a wooden whisk to create a foam, which rises as it cooks – delicious.

Santa María de Jesús, another village of Mayans scattered to the hills by the Spanish, featured a sprawling market under a cloud-covered sky. Women in sweaters or wrapped in shawls spread their goods, ranging from produce and fish to heaps of clothing, on the ground. Shoppers with babies on their backs or carrying bundled goods on their heads enhanced the busy spectacle. In the cathedral, the villagers exhibited their faith on a grand scale for the Holy Week celebrations, as evidenced by an elaborate altar and images of Christ. The municipal washing area was a further insight into Mayan life. Women wrapped in plastic to protect their clothing gathered around communal basins to do laundry.

The third highland village on our itinerary was San Felipe, where we visited the House of Popular Arts, including a ceramics workshop. Against a backdrop of many framed awards, we watched the grand master shape clay into a little bird, while his son painted finished pieces. The display shelves featured an array of owls, as they are the messengers of the underworld and bring good luck to the home. Besides ceramics, items on sale included a variety of toys.

Following lunch in Antigua, we departed for Guatemala City airport for our flight to Flores to reach Tikal, the next archaeological site on our Mayan itinerary. On arrival, we journeyed about 40 km. overland to La Casona del Lago, a hotel on the bank of Lake Petén Itza, for our final two nights in Guatemala.

Tikal National Park is a reserve area within a vast tropical jungle, which we first viewed by climbing up a railed stairway to see the leafy canopy with high temples rising above it. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979, the park includes an archeological site, where extensive work has been done by the University of Pennsylvania since 1956. Over an area of roughly 6 square miles, the site contains more than 3000 structures, including temples, pyramids, tombs, palaces, and ball courts, built over a period of 1500 years from 800 BC.

Among the significant ruins are the Grand Square, bordered by the ceremonial North Acropolis and the Temples of the Grand Jaguar and of Masks, the latter built as a mortuary in 700 AD. The Plaza of the Seven Temples, a large rectangular area, is framed by three ball courts and seven temples aligned north to south, with the largest at the center. Located to the south of the Central Acropolis, Temple V, built around 650 AD, is the highest, at 57 meters. It has a pyramidal base, seven stepped bodies with rounded corners, and a facade with a wide staircase and balustrade. The park is also home to many birds.

Following our grand tour and lunch on site, we returned to the hotel for a rest. In the late afternoon we had a boat ride around Lake Petén Itza, Guatemala’s second largest at 40 square miles, formed by a depression in the low limestone plateau. The enjoyable ride in the laid-back atmosphere of the lake took us by towns scattered around the shoreline and birds in the marshes. We watched the sun’s shimmering rays disappear as it set, reminding us it was time to return.

Our final exploration before leaving Guatemala was to Yaxha, only 20 miles from Tikal on the way to Belize. We visited the ancient site overlooking Lake Yaxha, which derives its name from the Mayan for “blue-green water”. The site was hit upon accidentally by Austrian explorer Teoberto Maier in 1904 and mapped by the Carnegie Institute of Washington in the 1930s. Excavations by Guatemalan archeologists are ongoing, with funding from the Inter-American Development Bank. The former ceremonial city, going back to the Early Classic period (AD 250-600), was the thriving home of about 20,000 people in the 8th century.

The site is arranged in archeological groups – such as the Plaza of Columns, the East Acropolis, the Complex of Twin Pyramids, the Residential Zone, and the Ball Courts – linked by causeways. A small stele bearing the image of a warrior with the attributes of Tialoc, the Central Mexican rain god, is an image one sees early on, showing the influence of outside forces on the Mayans. Temple 216 in the East Acropolis towers above all the others at 100 feet; its summit can be reached by a stairway placed for visitors. I chose to climb another temple, which was accessible via ancient narrow steps. Ascending sideways one foot at a time, I made it to the summit, which afforded magnificent views in every direction. Exhilarated by the panoramas of the jungle in shades of green, the lake, and the surrounding pyramids, I descended slowly with a great sense of accomplishment, ready to cross the border into Belize.

(To be continued)