Sunday 12 March 2017

A Postcard from Guatemala - 3 - Chichicastenango and Lake Atitlan

The journey from Antigua, Guatemala's former capital, to Lake Atitlan in the north, takes about three hours by road. My journey took a little longer as I made three stops along the way. Two of these were scheduled in order to visit markets. The other stop, to which we will return, was due to one of those chance encounters that can make travel such a rich experience.

A smile at Chichicastenango
Shamans on the road to Chichi
Perhaps one hour outside of Antigua, we came to Chupol, a small town with a weekly market. Chupol receives few visitors and as the only non-local I attracted a fair amount of attention, mostly surprised looks, a number of greetings and one or two questions about where I had come from. The market is geared exclusively towards local people, selling just about everything including fruit and vegetables, meat, fish, flowers, electrical goods and second hand clothes. The stalls are arranged on each side of an extremely busy dual carriageway with people crossing backwards and forwards, dodging the heavy traffic to shop, bargain and swap news with friends and relatives. I spent a little money here. A small boy noticed my scuffed footwear and gave me the best shoe shine I have ever had whilst I attempted to use my few words of Spanish with an elderly lady whose husband was waiting his turn for a shine. I also allowed myself to be tempted by a peanut seller carrying his produce in a wheelbarrow and weighing them in one of two plastic basins suspended on a pole before succumbing to the charms of a persistent orange seller who provided me with healthy citrus sustenance for the rest of the journey.

Back on the road and my guide noticed a colourful gathering of local people as we passed through another village. It was a small group of shamans, gathered around their leader who was about to perform a ceremony before setting off for their church. The vast majority of Guatemalans are at least nominally Catholics and church attendance rates are very high. However, as in Mexico, many of the indigenous people continue to keep the old religions and beliefs, combining them with aspects of Christianity. This includes belief in Maximon, a "bad saint" and enemy of the church whose origins are unsure. He is associated with a number of vices including drinking and smoking and one story places him as a Franciscan friar who chased local women. Representations of him are used during rituals including at a special Maximon house in Santiago Atitlan.

Back to our group of shamans. After a short prayer, the group of about 10 men dressed in brightly coloured shirts and jackets together began their march to the church, accompanied by the villagers  as they carried a statue of Maximon and waved to us as they went on their way.

Peanut seller at Chupol
Shaman on the road to Chichi
Little drummer girl at Chichi
A couple of hours later we arrived in Chichicastanago, known locally as Chichi, to find the famous twice weekly market in full swing. It attracts vendors and shoppers from a wide area, some of whom walk for as much as four hours to bring their goods here. In recent years the market has also begun to attract many tourists but despite this it is still an authentic Guatemalan experience. Outsiders come to see the avalanche of colour made up of the local's clothing, the brightly coloured produce and the spectacular textiles being sold almost everywhere in the town. The market is a photographer's paradise but be warned, some traders may ask for payment before having their picture taken. My preference is to buy something from them rather than paying to take a picture. Making conversation with people also helps to ease the way.

I have already mentioned the combination of Catholicism with traditional beliefs and further evidence of this can be seen in Chichi in the church of Santo Tomas in the main plaza. Francisco Ximenez, the parish priest from 1701 to 1703 was particularly sympathetic to the Maya, even reading their holy book the Popol Vuh and allowing the installation of Mayan altars in the church. Visitors can still see representations of both Catholic and Mayan saints inside the building. Please note, it is strictly forbidden to take photographs inside the church.

Before entering, locals make offerings in a fire on the church steps. This is followed by performing a ritual inside. I saw several people lighting candles, sprinkling petals and alcohol on the floor and chanting in one of the Mayan languages, appealing for help with some family issue, business or other matter. Special respect is paid to the souls of the dead, both in Santo Tomas and in the town's amazingly colourful cemetery. The tombs are painted in bright colours and are set out in an arrangement resembling a small town. The more affluent the deceased, the larger and more ornate the tomb is. As I left the cemetery I noticed a hint of humour as the shop nearest to the cemetery is called Tienda El Ultimo Adios, which in English means the shop of the last goodbye. Mmm.

On the steps of Santo Tomas
Fruit seller, Chichi
Making tortillas, Chichi
Colourful tombs, Chichi cemetery
In the late afternoon we arrived at Panajachel. The town sits on the banks of Lake Atitlan, which is itself surrounded by mountains and volcanoes. Unfortunately, the mountains are often obscured by mists and this was the case at the time of my visit. Panajachel has a busy main street, Santanader which is lined with cafes, restaurants and tourist oriented shops, all offering pretty much the same craft items. There is an excellent book shop, Libros del Lago which stocks a good range of books about Guatemala as well as Latin American fiction in both English and Spanish. I spent just one night in the town and chose to eat at Deli Llama de Fuego, a great little place that offers a range of tasty local dishes, many of them vegetarian and although it may sound strange my curried banana soup was delicious as was my side dish of fried plantain. Ok, so I like bananas. There is also a great coffee shop - Cafe Loco, a Korean owned business where they make the coffee according to your taste. It was a bit crowded with backpackers early in the evening but I managed to find a space at the bar later on. Great coffee.

Ritual with Maximon, Santiago Atitlan
Traditional headdress, Santiago Atitlan 
There are several villages around the lake. Santiago Atitlan is the largest and has a strong Maya identity with many of the people still wearing traditional clothing. The women's clothes include purple striped skirts and blouses embroidered with brightly coloured birds and flowers whilst many of the men wear striped and embroidered trousers. 

The church of Sant Iago Apostle is the focus of religious life here, again combining Catholicism with traditional Mayan beliefs and practices. As well as figures of the Catholic saints, there are carvings of figures from Mayan traditions, albeit hidden behind the main altar. This includes a representation of Maximon, although it was obscured by a large flower display when I visited. I was to come across him again in Santiago Atitlan - at a ceremony in a small house on the hillside. A family had come to consult a shaman and received advice in the presence of a lifelike Maximon model.

The town also has a colourful market, many crafts people and is home to several good artists who paint in the naive style. I was lucky enough to be shown how the local women put on their head dresses which consist of a bright red, belt-like piece of cloth wrapped round and round the head to give the appearance of a hat. The material is at least 7 metres in length and often longer.

The small villages of San Antonio Palopo and Santa Caterina Palopo are also worth a visit. Traditional crafts are important to both villages and in San Antonio Palopo I was invited into the house of a family of weavers. The house consisted of two rooms, the first of which was completely taken up by two large manually operated looms where a married couple worked producing exquisite scarves, blouses, skirts and other items. The second room was for living in and was shared with two of their three children, the third one having left the village to study. In neighbouring Santa Caterina I enjoyed bargaining with two elderly ladies who may well have been sisters and who drove a very hard bargain before breaking into big smiles once the scale was agreed. And then it was back to Antigua for one more night.

Weaver, San Antonio Palopo
Sisters, Santa Caterina Palopo

You can see more pictures of Guatemala here.

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