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Trip Report GUATEMALA: Semana Santa and Beyond

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GUATEMALA: Semana Santa and Beyond

My husband and I (67/66) decided a short trip was in order since we are planning to take our granddaughter on safari next year. So Guatemala it was--for Semana Santa and beyond. I had seen some photos of the celebrations in Antigua and was ready for a different cultural experience from Southeast Asia. Color invited and we responded.

“Color is born in Guatemala,” we were told--and that could be true.

We started our sandals-on-the-ground time in Antigua for three nights, rode to Chichicastenanga for one night, on to Panajachel for three nights and another three nights back in Antigua.

Our inexpensive flights from Los Angeles were routed the long way--through Panama City--and went well. But next time, I’ll pay a little more for a direct flight. We did have extra leg room in the exit rows, though.

We arrived in Guatemala City, the Wednesday night before Easter, at 5 PM, were picked up by a private driver (Adrenalina Tours recommended by hopefulist) and loved that. They whisked us off to Antigua. (BTW, we did not exchange dollars at the airport due to their terrible exchange rate of 6.6.) Once there, we were not whisked to our hotel! It took about two hours of driving, stopping, parking, walking, driving again, walking again to first locate the hotel--with probably the last-booked hotel room in the city--and then find a way to arrive at their front door.

Processions and blocked-off streets outnumbered the few open avenues. But we did finally arrive and set down our two roll-a-boards inside the tiny, clean room located right beside the somewhat noisy front desk. There it was an easy walk to Central Park opposite the Cathedral--in the dark of course--just in time to see the hundreds-years-old statue of Jesus carrying the huge cross (on a “float”) proceeding slowly down the street in a swaying motion. Behind the procession, on the steps of the Santiago Cathedral, stood four singers with lovely opera voices. Just as Jesus moved in front of us, one woman broke into a haunting rendition of the Via Dolorosa. Wow!

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    Thursday morning we took forever getting ready--something about being in a tiny room--but hey! we had a room! And there were only two processions with pounding drums that walked past our room during the night. (We ran into people later on who had tried and couldn’t find one anywhere in the city.) We walked to Adrenalina to pay for our ground transportation arrangements and get info. Then on to Central Park for breakfast at Cafe Barista. Good omelets and coffee. Then the fun began as we walked to the Casa Santo Domingo area to see the alfombras (carpets) before the processions came through and destroyed them. People were creating them out of sawdust they dyed, using stencil templates in gorgeous patterns. Some were made of shaved wood, fruits, needles, grasses. etc. As we wandered the back streets there, we met “Harry”, an expat from the Bronx, who invited us in to see his home. “In Guatemala,” he said, “you have to go beyond the doors.” Past an ordinary door, he led us into a courtyard with beautiful plants and his car parked there, through rooms, out to an open yard, upstairs to other rooms. What a surprise! Outside, back by the brilliant alfombras, we met Carlos, a finance guy from Mexico City, who had learned English at a SMU in the States. He and Harry were only the first of many lovely people we met during our travels there

    Two years ago, our adult son had taken his girlfriend to Antigua for New Year’s Eve, so he gave us a list of restaurants to try. This Thursday, we tried Epicure for a lunch of pizza and beer: Moza Bock and Gallo Cerveza. Lovely garden restaurant. One of his favorites. Outside, nearby, was street theater going on--with Roman chariots, a decree being read, Jesus claiming to be the Son of God, a demoniac, and so on.

    Back to photographing the alfombras in other locations. One lady said, “They’re beautiful, but I just don’t understand the religious fervor.” In one location, two families sat, leaning against the wall, and as the creators of the street art, allowed me to photograph them.

    Back to the Central Park and wandered around, waiting for the next procession, when a Guatemalan guy yelled, “Go! Go! Go!” We scurried as the procession came our way, camera in hand. Both men and boys walked ahead and behind, wearing purple robes and hoods, carrying staffs.

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    Later, back at our hotel, I Facebook messaged a woman I had met through Facebook (although we had known her parents) and who now lived in Antigua with her family. She recommended that we get up at 3 AM the next day to see the alfombras being made during the night. We did get up by 3:30! Threw our clothes on and we were out the door. And yes, it was worth it. People stay up all night, creating art in the streets. Big lights illumined the area.

    Good Friday: We found a gorgeous alfombra, some average ones, and another one even more gorgeous where the artist invited me to climb up his stepladder to get a better angle on the art. Here, we met David, who lived 10 years in China and now is into his second year of full time traveling the world--literally. He said in all his years, he had felt safe everywhere except once in Guatemala City when he had wandered into a slum area and a man there cautioned him to get out immediately. He also had a Canon 5D Mark 2, like mine.

    Back to our tiny room to try to take a morning nap before breakfast. One of us did. I never can. Back to Cafe Barista. On to the Artesanias place to shop (bought a small nativity scene for my collection) and found the Saberico Restaurant along the way, that Kris had mentioned, We returned there for lunch. They had a great menu, that included “street food.” Since we never actually eat real street food but always want to, this seemed a safe way to try it in this lovely garden restaurant that also had fabulous chocolate! My husband had “enchiladas” that looked like tostadas I had tostadas that were three tostada shells-flat-with a thin spread of guacamole on one, refried beans on one, and a tomato sauce on one. The hand-made pistachio encrusted creamy chocolate piece was fabulous.

    Now the crowds were thickening-like dense sardines, barely able to move through them. We made our way back to Casa Santo Domingo, had coffee in the bar and walked outdoors to photograph again and shop a bit. Had a beer at Cafe Contessa and saw where to buy the tickets for the Elizabeth Bell tour later on.

    Dinner that night at La Fonda de la Calle Real. Bill had their specialty: Caldo soup, which he said was a delicious chicken tortilla soup. I had pepian-chicken, potato and squash simmered in a tomato-pumpkin-chili sauce with green beans, served with a side of rice, tamale and corn tortillas.

    This Friday was a delight, with colors and music that touched the soul.

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    Saturday morning, we were up early and walked 8 + blocks to meet up with our ride to Chichi, since the streets were all cordoned off. Grabbed a coffee to go and made our way over the cobblestones and waited. Finally a shuttlebus arrived and a man had my name on his list. We boarded but the driver said he was going to Pana. Hmmm. What to do? I began to wish I had booked a private driver but while we were figuring out what to do, we talked the young couple in front of us, her a fourth year medical student. An older man up front asked us if we were going to Chichi and we gave him Jose Andre’s card (Adrenalina), so the driver called him and found out that we were to be let off at Los Encuentros where a private taxi would take us the rest of the way. Problem solved.

    Chichicastenanga. We climbed into the Cheeto-laden back seat and rode over the continual speed bumps to arrive at the lovely Mayan Inn--where we had surprising news. Our confirmed room was an overbook and they had been unable to reach us, so had booked us at their “brother” hotel Hotel San Tomas. I have to add that the lovely ladies at the Mayan Inn bent over backwards to make us comfortable and explained that the mistake had been made by a reservations clerk at an outlying place. They spoke excellent English and were so nice and informative, that we returned several times to eat there and talk with them. The room, which not the Mayan Inn, was very nice and our fireplace worked, which was fun. It seemed to be a few times the size of our Antigua hotel, so we were happy.

    After lunch at the Mayan Inn, we walked out their walkway to photograph the colorful cemetery and then walked over and around and through it. A fabulous place to photograph--I would have thought people would have been talking about the Chichi cemetery for that very reason. We could have stayed for a very long time, until a very disheveled ragged man with extremely long dreadlocks sauntered towards us, mumbling and laughing. He probably was just schizophrenic, but we had just seen the processions with the demoniac in Antigua we left.

    We wandered around the marketplace as families set up their booths. We talked to 12 year-old “Lisa” and promised to later buy bookmarks from her. We mistakenly later bought them from “Elisa” so had to also find Lisa and buy a few more. I saw a great photograph in the making with five Mayan women sitting on a wall, but when I asked, they didn’t want me to take it. Then we meandered over to the building where the vegetable market takes place and found the stairs to the second floor where I could go the following day to photograph.

    Dinner--after shopping some--back at the Hotel San Tomas. $ 20.00 prix fixe included a glass of Argentinian wine, tomato soup with croutons and cheese, beet salad, beef for hubby and shrimp for me, vegies, rolls, tortillas, and Guatemalan chocolate cake for him and creme brulee for me. And coffee! Had a fire in the fireplace that evening.

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    Sunday-Market day in Chichi.
    7 AM breakfast at the Hotel (included-by the Mayan Inn girls) of beautiful fruit, pineapple, watermelon, papaya, banana, cantelope, with a squeeze of lime juice with dark, dark, dark coffee that stayed dark even with lots of hot milk.

    We walked over to the Santo Tomas Church and positioned ourselves on the steps above the flower-selling ladies to photograph with a long lens. Later--to the second floor of the market. I bought another very large wood nativity set, a bright blue shawl, and took my favorite photo of the whole trip of two men in cowboy hats leaning against a wall.

    We checked out of our hotel before noon, pulled our luggage over to and had lunch at the Mayan Inn where we were originally to be picked up. Marimbas were playing in the garden near our table. We waited and finally a man strode up on foot to say that we needed to walk back to the other hotel with our luggage. We squeezed onto the collectivo, the last two people. Hubby sat on a bench next to a couple from Spain who spoke some French (we do also) and I ended up in the back row bench with a young couple from Slovenia.Our 30-45 minute ride took over 1 1/2 hours and was fatiguing, but had a delightful ongoing conversation with the young couple who pretty much convinced me to visit Slovenia next. Their description: “It’s small, easy to cover, friendly people, great food and wine, and some countryside in small pockets like Tuscany, the Alps, and an island in a lake!” They also told me about a local Guatemalan rum that cost $ 13 there but cost $ 100 in Slovenia and we should try it. He hoped to ship himself a box. I gave them the facebook contact for our son’s spirits business, the 86 Company. The ride ended at our Hotel Regis in Panajachel and I started to tell my husband about our interesting conversation when he stopped me. “ I heard it all!” he said. Guess we were louder than I imagined.

    Our Hotel Regis room was large and clean. $ 201 for three nights. We walked to the docks to Santiago and got prices for lanchas. Back at the hotel, our desk clerk told us about a boat driver that they recommend as a trusted source, so he came to meet us and discuss what we wanted. He recommended going to San Juan after Santiago, instead of San Pedro, so we decided to do that. I had previously set up a 2 hour tour with the lovely Mayan tour guide Delores Ratzun for the following day in Santiago Atitlan. Since we were to meet her the next day at 10 AM, we took off at 9 AM. Our two hour tour ended up being more like 2 1/2 as Delores sat with us and had a coke at the end.

    Lake Atitlan really is beautiful with the surrounding volcanos and we felt safe and secure with the hotel’s recommendation of a boat driver--perhaps a bit naively. Santiago is a “village” of 50,00 people and Delores met us on the plank boardwalk, with a beautiful purple, black, blue headress folded on her head.

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    The tour began with her story of a life growing up in the village of Santiago--aided by help with school and food from the local revered priest. She talked about her move to the US when she was threatened-with her husband-by the Army threatening indigenous Indians and the artists. She later moved back to the land she loved. She helped us understand the syncretism of Catholicism and Mayan religion.

    Her tour was educational and I ended up buying the corn necklace (of beads) that she wore around her neck. I grew up on an Indiana hybrid seed farm and it just seemed so apropos and it was for sale. Her “headdress” was actually a shawl that she had woven herself--gorgeous-and finely done with tiny figures--but was too expensive for me. However, when I slipped into the restroom later on, my husband bought it for me--for “our 45th wedding anniversary,” he said, which we were celebrating on this trip.

    We did see Maximon, the weird saint that lives in one house for a year then is moved--very colorful and worth seeing. There were other 500 year-old wood figures also in that house on display. He is covered with scarves and ties and you can take on for healing, but you must return with two new ones. We also visited her mother’s home and saw her doing backstrap weaving and bought one shawl from her.

    BTW, Delores explained to us that she had learned the Mayan history by oral tradition and she worried that today the children don’t set at the feet of the grandmothers to hear the old stories.

    After Delores left, we continue to shop awhile in Santiago and we ended up buying a painting by a Mayan artist--a very cool market scene. The gallery owner removed the canvas from the frame and then took the slat apart so we could reassemble it once we got home.

    We got back in the boat and Jose stopped by San Pedro to get gasoline, which was siphoned into his can on the boat. Then off to San Juan. We took a tuk tuk for 1-2 hours and visited a coffee coop, a women’s coop, a medicinal herbal place, the church, cemetery, and then back to the boat. To our surprise, Jose was nowhere around. Someone found us and said he was eating dinner and would be there in minutes. 30 minutes later he appeared, quieter than before and we were off.

    10 minutes into the ride, my hubby said, “I think he’s showing us more of the lake,” instead of heading back to Pana. “Maybe he’s looking for an easier path,” I added, as the boat began to zigzag, the really slowed down. “Is he alright?” I asked. “No,” hubby responded. He’s falling asleep. So hubby called back to him and he revived--only to fall asleep again--and so it went--as he nodded off over and over again--never quite coherent. I began to wonder if it would be better to have my sandals on or off if the boat capsized in the now rougher waters. Prayed. Splashes of water from the lake woke him up. Right, left, slow, fast, prayers, practiced the techniques we try to get our patients to use! Calm down inside! Keep yelling at him to wake him up. Guess he had more than just food back there for his early dinner.

    I have no idea how but we made it back to the right dock--after frequently heading in the opposite direction. And then, could a drunk captain dock the boat? Surprisingly, he did and staggered out, miraculously. We were so grateful to be on that walkway to shore. When I paid him, he seemed dazed and wondered why? But a deal is a deal and I was so grateful to be back!

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    I knew if he were totally incapacitated, my husband could handle the boat, but I worried drunk Jose would fall overboard and then how could we possibly get him back in the boat? And no one would have known we were out there!

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    Walked back to the hotel and then to the Lanterna, I think it was called, an Italian Restaurant that we were to visit three times in all. They served a lovely glass of wine as their house wine and their pasta was great as was their steak. So relaxing after our ordeal.

    Tuesday, we walked to Posada Don Rodrigo for breakfast with a view. I had read that it was a good place for breakfast and actually it was just a good place for everything! A volcano was our view across the lake as we ate. A ham and cheese omelet with ranchero sauce, black beans, queso and a beautiful plate of papaya, watermelon, papaya, banana, cantelope and great coffee. We lingered, then took a tuk tuk 20 minutes to the village of Santa Catarina- a lovely hillside village with lots of blues.

    Santa Caterina: Bought a blue hand-embroidered poncho with flowers for our granddaughter, just like the ones we saw on young girls who talked with us. They even offered to go home and take theirs off and sell them to us when I expressed interest. We loved Santa Caterina with its few shops but lovely people. Quaint--low key--even if we didn’t buy.

    A tuk tuk came along with an older man riding inside with a hat on. He agreed for us to share the ride and when he got off, let me photograph him! The tuk tuk returned us to our hotel and we shopped a bit longer in Pana. Had lunch at Jebel’s, across the street from our hotel--a 2nd floor restaurant with great views of the street. Had a vegetable soup with a beer, when all of our other choices were not available--no chicken sandwich, no chicken soup,...... and everyone knows that bacteria can’t live in beer!

    Napped, out to shop again. Later returned to the Lanterna. Such a relaxing place. I had delicious ravioli and hubby had lasagna.

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    Breakfast at Hotel Posada Don Rodrigo again. Split an omelet this time. Shopped, bought 0. Packed and repacked. We were picked up at noon and this time we were the first ones on the collectivo, so we sat together for the ride back to Antigua. Hubby talked all the way with a retired sheet metal business owner--here to build a house with Habitat for Humanity. Dropped off at a door--the lovely La Cathedral! Kris’s recommendation and I knew if he stayed here, it would be nice. Our best hotel yet. Told the manager Marco that K had stayed there two years ago, showed him a photo and he remembered K.

    La Cathedral has a lovely garden area with antique furniture outdoors and art. The room was small but absolutely lovely. We left it and walked around and found Welton’s, a restaurant Kristopher had recommended so wemade reservations. Walking around we found an interesting courtyard shopping area with a store that had very arty jewelry and purses--expensive but unique. Bought a very cool necklace designed by the artist/father of Nicolas who was manning the shop and learning the craft.

    Dinner at Weltons and loved it!!I had chicken marinated in honey over rice with a glass of Spanish wine and Bill had chicken medallions in a plum sauce. Gracious service and lovely lovely place. BTW, Antigua was a totally different experience now that the intensity and crowds of Semana Santa had dispersed. A lovely city that I would enjoy as a destination for even a few days.

    Back to the hotel and the bar where we had our “welcome” drink--all alone there. Back to our room to think, to dream, to buy the purse or not???? Expensive, but true art. (at the same shop where I bought the necklace)

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    Thursday, 4/14.

    Breakfast was included at this hotel so we had a lovely omelet with plantains and coffee in the garden area outside our room. Then shopped and bought little.

    2:00 Arrived at the Central Park fountain to meet our Elizabeth Bell tour guide, whom we knew would not be her. Manuel arrived at 2. Our three hour tour could have been a group of 25 people, but was only the two of us! yay! The three hour tour was a great historical and cultural tour of the cathedral Santiago, also La Merced, the palace, Jade Museum, Santo Domingo, and the lovely lovely museum there. One museum held wonderful ancient artifacts and contemporary renditions of a similar design idea including Kosta Boda crystal next to clay treasures.

    After the tour, we walked to the nearby iron foundry where the workers had completed a commissioned task for us. We had seen a wrought iron outline of cathedrals in our first simple hotel that we loved and were unable to find it anywhere. Marco, at Hotel La Cathedral, had suggested this foundry as a place that might be able to make it for us and they did. I took the photo on my iphone to them and they photographed my photo and in 24 hours had made it for us for 150 Q! We love it.

    So by now, I had decided to return to the La Fuerte entrance to buy the purse. This time, the artist father was there himself.

    Then walked to Bistro Cinq where K had told us to have a pre dinner drink, but we ended up splitting an entree of the most incredible macaroni and cheese ever!!! (4 cheeses). Provolone, Parmesan, Gruyere, Blue cheese in a bechamel sauce and bacon. What’s not to love?

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    Walked as usual between 3-8 miles. Stumbled accidentally across the Colibri (hummingbird) store and fell in love with the colors and quality of their finely woven textiles, but not their prices. We returned also to the Jade Shop for the black jade necklace I had seen earlier, but it was gone.

    Met Terri and Jeff, the couple I mentioned earlier, for lunch. My husband had met Terri years ago and we knew her parents. They picked us up at the park and took us up the hill to the lovely area from Santo Tomas for lunch. Terri and Jeff are missionaries there who work towards helping educate and improve living conditions for poor Guatemalans and do it beautifully as they also bring the message of hope through Jesus to them. They with their two teenage daughters have lived in Antigua for years. Their second daughter, adopted from Guatemala, just received her US citizenship. We talked for over two hours. Terri told me that she and her mother also loved the store Colibri and didn’t know how expensive it had become. She encouraged me to have no regrets, so you can see where this is going. She also told me where to buy very cheap jade!

    So we returned to Colibri and I bought the lovely finely woven placemats and napkins and cords and felt some relief when I read their story that the money went directly to the widows (whose husbands were killed during that terrible time) who made these lovely items. While in the store, I also encouraged a hesitating woman into buying the bedspread she so badly wanted. She was there for cancer treatment.

    We walked in the briefest of sprinkles of rain. Went inside at the smaller of the Calle Reals and had the Caldo soup. So yummy! So the soup is like this: It has chicken, rice, and goodies to sprinkle on it: tiny chopped onions, cilantro, oregano, hot pepper, lime wedges, hot sauce, and it has big chunks of avocado in it! Served with hot hot small corn tortillas. The huge drops of rain subsided for our walk back.

    We talked to Marco again and he offered to have a box breakfast for us when we were to leave at 4 AM the next morning.

    We showered and packed and hoped we could take it all onboard.

    Surprise, we could!

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