Awestruck over Atitlan
08 December 2012 | Panajachel, Lago Atitlan
Beth / 70's and 80's
We have seen yet another stunningly beautiful place in this great land of contrasts - moving from the low lying Rio Dulce up through the mountains to Guatemala City to La Antigua nestled between 3 volcanoes, to Lago Atitlan which is itself a crater 1500 metres above sea level.
After a 5:30 am departure from Antigua (booked through Rainbow Travel Centre) and a rocking and rolling ride up and down mountains, our little bus came to a halt at a lookoff in Solerna - just before the road corkscrewed down to Panajachel on the lakeshore. Although it was hazy, we could see the blue and violet outlines of mountains and the waters of Lago Atitlan. We dropped our bags at Hotel Dos Mundos, grabbed a bite of breakfast and met our guide, Alejandro, who then escorted us from pueblo to pueblo (village) across the lake.
First stop was San Juan and a women's textile collective. Oh - I wish I could have bought one of everything in the place! These women still weave on backstrap looms -a standard piece of equipment in every home. The exciting thing about the women of San Juan is that they use natural dyes, and we looked at avocado wood and coconut and campeche and a jar of precious indigo. We watched a woman weave intricate strands on her loom, making sure that threads didn't overlap and get out of order, thus marring the image she planned. The maximum width of fabric from these looms is about half a metre, lending them to use for scarves, table runners, pillow covers and the like. Lengths of fabric are stitched together for wider uses - tablecloths, bedspreads, and blankets, and of course most of the women stitch them into skirts and blouses. Some of the textiles are left unadorned other than the colours of the woven threads, while others are heavily embroidered, and the textile connoisseur can tell from what part of the country a woman comes by the colours, patterns and embroidery of her clothing. I say woman because it is mostly the women who wear their national dress on a daily basis. We saw some men in wide colourful pants cut just above the ankle, with embroidered jackets and wide brimmed hats, but they were more often in long pants and t-shirts.
Also in San Juan were art galleries with the local specialty - "ant's eye view and bird's eye view" paintings. We loved these brightly coloured paintings that look up or down and will try to go back before the end of the season to buy one for our Halifax home. We examined coffee plants and learned about the process of collecting the berries, drying and exporting them, and gazed at colourful murals on the walls as we walked through the town.
Because we lingered on the streets of San Juan, the lancha continued on without us but no worries - we simply hired a tuk-tuk to carry us to the next town, San Pedro. These tuk-tuks are built in India and cost about $4,000 each, according to Alejandro. One company might own 4 or 5 of them and hire local men to drive them. Remembering the electric golf carts of the Bahamas and how we frequently had to get out to push them uphill, I was always amazed when these vehicles crawled their way, inch by inch, up an incline.
In San Pedro, we visited a home where the women stirred pots of cornmeal over open fires, and rolled tomatoes to a pulp with a stone "rolling pin" on a stone slab, just as they have been doing for generation after generation. We bought little carvings of jaguars from an 85 year old man who collects the lava rock and carves the images to supplement his family's income. He way mayor of San Pedro in the late 70's and I'm sure he has stories to tell. These folks - the matriarch and patriarch of 3 generations living in one little compound - were so gracious, allowing us to take pictures and welcoming us sincerely to their home.
In Santiago, we visited the "shrine" to Maximon (aka San Simon, aka the Grandfather, aka Judas Iscariot in the Samana Santa (Easter) parades) - the cowboy boot wearing, cigar smoking and rum drinking effigy who inhabits a different house each year. He was draped in a multitude of ties and guarded by an unsmiling local man, and a bowl for offerings of money lay on the floor in front of him. I found this place a little weird, but enjoyed seeing the carvings at Iglesia Parroquial Santiago Apostol. Here, we found corn (the beginnings of human life according to Mayan legend) carved into the pulpit, the quetzal replacing an eagle, and good old Maximon depicted in intricately carved altarpieces. Also in this church is a portrait of Father Stanley Francis Rother, a missionary priest who was beloved by the local people but not so much by the death squads of 1981. He was murdered here for his work with the people. As in so many areas of this country, we can see shadows of power and corruption and violence and poverty amidst the beauty and history and colour and culture. It is fascinating to see where Mayan and Spanish and Latino cultures overlap and intersect.
On the lancha, we met a young couple who had travelled on one motorbike from California and were headed all the way to the tip of South America. Impressive story on its own, but it gets better. He was from Vietnam and as they passed a Vietnamese-Guatemalan restaurant in Panajachel, they just had to go in .... and the person greeting him was a classmate from Hanoi, last seen 12 years ago. How cool is that?
Back in Panajachel, we took a short rest at Hotel Dos Mundos (which we highly recommend - on the main street not far from the lakeshore and set back from the street amid gardens, a pool and shady porches) and joined the crowds watching the strangest parade we've ever seen. It was Dec 8th the day of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception that comes the day after Quema del Diablo - or burning of the Devil - Dec 7th - a festival we watched in Antigua the night before. Costumed people in full face masks paraded up the street; the truck ahead of them stopped and dance music blasted out; people took pictures for a few minutes and then the dozen or so people danced inside a cordoned off area for 15 minutes; the music stopped and the crowd scattered - and there wasn't the least bit of it that seemed to be religious in any way!
We ate a nice meal at El Bistro, had to say very firm no's to the vendors who came right inside the restaurant (only time we've seen that) and fell into bed so we'd be ready for the next day trip to Chichicastenango.