When? April 2006, going overland to Belize
How? Car, boat
It claims to be one of the most picturesque colonial towns in Central America- I won’t dispute that. It’s set in a beautiful valley between three volcanoes: Agua, Fuego and Acatenango. There are churches, colonial buildings and museums as well as markets, shops and street hawkers galore Antigua has been repeatedly destroyed by earthquakes, but it has a shabby chic beauty and its one of those places where there’s a surprise round every corner. Another church tower, a carving, a glimpse of one of the three volcanoes.
It’s the week before Santa Semana and Passion Sunday processions are taking place. The gaudy, bewigged saints, Jesus and Mary, have been removed from their dusty niches in the cathedral and are out parading the streets, hauled by struggling youths in purple Ku Klux Klan style hooded robes. The strain shows on their faces and the air is heavy with incense wafted by those who drew the easier jobs. The girls’ role is to fill the many churches with the most intricate of floral arrangements and produce the most gorgeous elaborate carpets of flowers in the streets. These are trampled and left in total disarray as the processions pass. I am more distraught at the destruction than the carpet makers seem to be. It’s all utterly fascinating.
Set within pine forests the ruined city, once the capital of the Cakchiquel Maya, (founded in the 15th century), was once believed to be home to some 10,000 people at its height, until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors resulted in its eventual destruction
Panajachel sits on the shores of spectacular Lago de Atitlan and there are excellent views of the volcanoes on the boat trip across the lake, itself is an old caldera. Panajachel is an old Spanish settlement, but one of its most important tourist sites is the wooden effigy of Maximon, a god/saint (no-one is quite sure) of the Mayan religion.. He has a large cigar in his mouth (one of many donations or bribes) and numerous ties round his neck (also donations). Maximon is interesting. A sign says that petitions should be accompanied by gifts of alcohol, cigarettes, and cigars. Legend has it that one day while the village men were off working in the fields, Maximón slept with all of their wives. When they returned, they became so enraged they cut off his arms and legs. He is also known, more peacefully, as St Simon.
Chichicastenanga is an obligatory visit from Antigua. It has a world famous open-air craft market and an indoor food market, both bustling and infinitely colourful. It’s also a hotchpotch of indigenous Maya culture and Catholicism. The 16th-century Santo Tomás Apostol Church are used for both Catholic worship and Maya rituals. Herbs, petals, wool and wood arranged in careful symbolic patterns emit plenty of smoke as I clamber up the steps. There’s also the Maya shrine of Pascual Abaj picturesquely situated on a hilltop to the south. There’s a lot more smoke there.
I’m warned not to go there!
This is the iconic Mayan site. It is huge and impressive and well worth the effort, though it’s tiring (and dangerous) climbing up the many stairs for the (worthwhile) views. The roads are terrible and there’s plenty of earthquake damage evident- huge rents in the tarmac. Over the border and into Belize.
When? August 2010, Central America trip, coming from Honduras, last leg
How? Bus, boat
Who? Group Tour
Over yet another border today, into Guatemala this morning, returning to the colonial splendour of Antigua. It’s much as it was on the last visit, except there are more tourists and more shops. And no Santa Semana. Chichicastenstango and Panajachel are almost the same too. More people, less Mayan culture. Maximon is still collecting cigar bribes. Guatemala City remains off limits, unless you’re feeling really intrepid. I preferred the serenity (and pageantry) of my last visit. Sometimes it’s a bad idea to go back. Though it was part of the tour, which I’ve left two days early anyway, as I’ve been to Tikkal before, and work calls. And it’s still a lovely place.