Volcano-flanked Lake Atitlan, the colonial charms of Antigua, exuberant Maya markets... welcome to quintessential Central America
Maximón reminded me of Father Christmas.
I had paid a few quetzales to enter the idol’s grotto, which was ablaze with flashing fairground lights and sputtering candles. The room was lined with glass coffins containing pained statues of the reclining crucified Christ, and the air jangled with the sound of jingle bells, provoking a shuffling of the maize cobs rammed into the rafters.
All around, kneeling devotees appealed to this cigar-smoking, rum-drinking idol for goodness and success in their lives. Then, with an untimely kerfuffle, we were asked to withdraw from his guardian’s house in the town of Santiago Atitlán. I, along with all the other pilgrims, was directed to the nearby lake to watch the washing of Maximón’s clothes – an annual public soaking in Easter Week, carried out before he moves house and guardian.
Today, the mystical rituals of the Maya infuse any experience in the Western Highlands.
Amid the conical volcanoes and market towns, descendants of the ancient Maya, dressed in colourful, exquisitely embroidered clothes, till the high-slung maize fields, live their lives according to time-honoured calendars, and pray at the home of idol Maximón.
At the heart of the Western Highlands is Lake Atitlán, created by a super tectonic blast. This ancient high-altitude crater lake now sits surrounded by three younger volcanoes and shelters Maya communities, backpacker hangouts and therapeutic retreats.
The Spaniards were no less immune to the charms of a fertile region where chocolate beans were used as payment. They built the first and finest planned city in Central America – Antigua – where squat houses lined cobbled streets, baroque churches towered over columned convent courtyards, and handsome civic architecture bestowed grandeur on a city standing under the gaze of several volcanoes.
An 18th-century earthquake wrecked this maiden colonial city, but its skeletal elegance was trapped in time – and its 20th-century renaissance has drawn tourists to the city, and its surrounding region, in their thousands. Here’s where to experience Guatemala at its best.
1. Around Antigua’s Plaza Mayor the conquistadors built an embellished, honey-hued cathedral, a colonnaded Captain General’s palace – mirrored in the smaller town hall opposite – and the giant Casa del Conde, with attractive interior patios. Nearby is the handsome Casa Santo Domingo, a 16th-18th century former Dominican monastery. For the insider’s take on Antigua’s colonial realm, walk with connoisseur Elizabeth Bell.
2. Rest your head at the gorgeous, artfully decorated petite boutique Casa Encantada. Breakfast on the roof terrace is a treat.
3. With delightful dishes (try duck fillet in dark-chocolate sauce accompanied by red port wine and prunes) and the ambience of elegant candelit dining under the Spanish colonial arches, Mesón Panza Verde offers an unmissable dining experience.
4. Several blocks south of the centre, escape to a verdant corner flourishing with flowering tumbergia: at the Vivero y Café de La Escalonia, sip herbal teas on the garden furniture, then potter about the old coffee plantation.
5. Save your quetzales for the Casa de los Gigantes, an artisan emporium selling everything from kitchenware to textiles, masks and decorative ornaments.
1. Guatemala is a geological hotspot; one of the country’s most active volcanoes is Pacaya, south-east of Antigua. Climb the volcanic slopes early in the morning to avoid the crowds with Old Town Outfitters before scree surfing down the crunchy flanks on the homeward stretch.
2. Trek around the small highland towns of Nebaj, Chajul and Cotzal – the Ixil Triangle – with community group Red Laval Iq’ (firstname.lastname@example.org). Guided by locals along paths where you’ll see Ixil women carrying wood and crops on their backs, and learn about the history (the area was devastated during the 36-year civil war) and environment before bedding down at a homestay and taking part in daily tasks in the kitchen, at the loom or in the fields.
3. Walk the high-slung, narrow lake trails around Lake Atitlán – the perfect antidote to stressful living. For stunning views, blooming flowers and locals at work, wander between the towns and villages of Santa Cruz La Laguna, Jaibalito and Tzununá, ending with
a cold beer at Lomas de Tzununá overlooking the lake.
4. Horseride with Unicornio Azul across the Cuchumatanes Mountains, north of gateway town Huehuetenango, passing remote mountain villages untouched by tourism.
5. Feeling the volcanic hot spots at the bottom of Lake Atitlán – considered the womb of the world by the local Tz’utujil Maya – is an exciting high-altitude dive experience. Contact ATI Divers at La Iguana Perdida.
1. Want to burn calories, watch live volcanic eruptions and help street kids? Walk through the highlands from hub town Quetzaltenango (known as Xela) to Lake Atitlán over three days with charity Quetzaltrekkers or hike to base jungle camp at Santiaguito volcano to watch this spitting, sputtering and smoking youngster. All profits support a school for street children and other similar projects.
2. The insightful cultural tour of the lakeshore town of San Juan La Laguna is run by community organisation Rupalaj Kistalin (+502 5964 0040, rupalajkistalin@ gmail.com) which aims to improve living conditions for the town’s Tz’utujil Maya. Visit natural-dye weavers, a medicinal plant project, artists and, if you need help, the local idol Pedro Simón.
3. Climb the slopes of Agua volcano with farmers from San Miguel Escobar village to inspect the coffee bushes before learning how to roast and grind. As Green as it Gets Coffee supports independent local farmers.
4. Visit off-the-tourist-trail Totonicapán, a Maya K’iche’ town, with the active Aventura Maya K’iche’ organisation (+502 5630 0554, email@example.com). These community tours include homestays and unique chances to see traditional music and dance, with the exuberant steps and elaborate costumes explained, plus a trip to a dance mask factory.
5. Budding entrepreneurs, tour guides, artists, builders and vegetable gardeners would do well to hook up with the volunteer programme run by CasaSito, whose aim is poverty alleviation in Maya communities.
1. The biggest market blowout in Guatemala is the Thursday and Sunday assembly of artesanía stalls at Chichicastenango, a large Maya K’iche’ town. Arrive early to avoid the tourist crowds – and stay the night to get the end-of-day deals on textiles and wooden items galore.
2. At the Friday market in highland town San Francisco El Alto buy a signature woollen blanket, then climb above town to see the animal market, where dozens of pigs and poultry, pups and kittens await sale.
3. The Mam people of Todos Santos Cuchumatán gather on Saturdays for their weekly market. The locals wear one of the most beautiful traje in Guatemala – not least the men’s intensely coloured, embroidered wide collars, scarfed hats and red-and-white striped trousers, the height of sartorial elegance. Stunning patterned textile bags can be bought in town.
4. Bus up the hill from gringo town Panajachel to the untouristy Kaqchikel town of Sololá. On Tuesdays and Fridays thousands descend on the market from the surrounding area; the colourful, varied traje is a visual delight.
5. San Juan Comalapa’s Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday markets are visited by locals in full traje. This small town is also famous for its naíf art; there are several galleries, including the Casa de Don Andrés Curruchich (+502 5766 3874, firstname.lastname@example.org).
1. Las Pirámides del Ka, a meditation centre on the lakeshore at San Marcos – a peaceful village with other centres of therapy and beautiful views. The centre offers spiritual renewal programmes from one day to three months.
2. Nourish your creative spirit with carpet-making, altar creation, botanical art, photography and painting lessons. The inventive Art Workshops in Antigua offers eight-day courses.
3. The marimba, similar to a xylophone with large wooden keys, has a wonderful timbre; you’ll hear it at fiestas. Aspiring percussionists should head to classes at Xela’s Minerva School to learn with a local who makes and plays the instrument.
4. Xela is a less touristy town than Antigua, and actually a better language-learning centre. INEPAS is an excellent Spanish-language school with top principles: 15% of its income is devoted to local development projects. Classes can be accompanied by cultural programmes or a volunteer position, arranged through this non-profit.
5. Support a sustainable weaving company that employs local Maya women, while threading your own fancy fabric. Weekly one-to-one classes at the women’s weaving
co-op Trama Textiles in Xela teach you to create your own textiles or clothes.
2. A cultural tour of colourful and fascinating Santiago Atitlán with Tz’utujil Maya guide Dolores Ratzan reveals the intricacies of a world that’s difficult for outsiders to probe. Dolores speaks English.
3. Learn about Maya cosmovision and have your Maya horoscope read by Maya priest Don Rigoberto at Takilibén Maya Wajshakib Batz in the highland town of Momostenango.
4. In Guatemala City, explore the Museo Ixchel del Traje Indígena (+502 2331 3622), the outstanding museum of Maya clothing, and the insightful and stuffed-full-of-Maya-artefacts Popul Vuh Archaeology Museum.
5. The church of Santo Tomás in Chichicastenango bristles with Maya K’iche’ worshippers, candles and incense; outside, flower sellers with their baskets of vibrant blooms crowd the steps – one of the most beautiful sights in Guatemala. Just outside town, on a pine-clad hill, locals come to the shrine of Pascual Abaj, a fertility god, for prayer and intercession.