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CASKE 2000 Expedition Journals
GUATEMALA: May 99, March 2000 and October 2000

March 2000 - Guatemala: A Mixture of Ethnic Groups, Latin Music and Colors

Guatemala is one of the most fascinating countries I have visited in Central America. My first visit was a short overland trip from Belize to the famous Mayan ruins of Tikal. The pyramids breaking through the tree canopy of a majestic tropical jungle could have been the stage for an epic movie. The numerous exotic birds and the noisy howler monkeys added to the picture. This first discovery, this mixture of culture and color, I would later understand, is the trademark of the country.

When my expedition partner Luke and I paddled from Punta Gorda, Belize to Livingston on the Atlantic coast of Guatemala, we discovered a small town inhabited by local Indians, black Garifunas, Latinos, and a few gringos. The town moved to the Caribbean rhythm, sleepy during the day and waking up at night with the sound of African drums competing with the local salsa. We continued our paddle by crossing through a remote peninsula via a beautiful canal and touched land in Honduras.

From there, I left Luke and our expedition gear, and went overland to the city of Quetzaltenango to take two weeks of Spanish Classes. Second largest city of Guatemala, Quetzaltenango often called Xela (Shayla), contrasts greatly with the capital. At 2335m (7400ft.), the air is pure and brisk; the days donít get hot and humid like on the coast. The nights can be chilly. It is not its location on the Altiplano with the surrounding volcanoes that marked me in Xela. It is the energy, the people, the colors, the mixture of ethnic groups, the music and the dances. I usually dislike large cities, but Xela in spite of its hundred thousand people didnít feel like a large city. In contrast to other places in the country, one feels safe walking alone at night in the streets. This is important because the nightlife in Xela is not to be missed. Discos compete with dance clubs to attract locals and the gringos who have immersed themselves in the Latin culture to move their hips to the tunes of salsa and merengue. During the day local markets are filled with all types of fruits, vegetables, spices, colorful clothing and other daily necessities.

The countryís population is eighty percent indigenous and dozens of groups can be recognized in the markets. Most wear their traditional clothing revealing their place of origin. During weekends, I went to explore markets in surrounding villages. Each village had its trademark, its costume, and its language dominating over Spanish. I was so touched by the beauty and energy of these villages, that I felt two weeks could not do justice to such a place. I decided to return during the dry season and spend more time visiting and documenting some of these special places.

On the top of my list was a small village called Todos Santos de Cuchumatan. The village is hidden at 2450m in the mist of remote mountains only accessible by 3 hours of uncomfortable bus ride on a dirt road from Huehuetenango in the north of the country. The ride takes you back in time through beautiful scenery and isolated patches of adobe houses where you can see people hauling loads of firewood on their head, or working their fields of corn, potatoes, wheat, barley, and sugar cane. It is easy to recognize the Todos Santeros as all men wear long red pants striped with white. Their traditional white shirts striped with red have a large colorfully embroidered collar. The traditional hat is made of straw around which a blue fabric band with woven patterns is set. Recently red or blue striped shirts have appeared and some of the traditional hats have been replaced by cowboy style hats, but all men keep wearing their red pants with pride.

Women wear the colorful wippil blouse they spend most of their day weaving. The bright colors, usually red but sometimes blue, donít fit foreigners well, but they look gorgeous on the local people.

Todos Santos is one of the hold-overs of Mayan-Mam culture. Spanish here remains a second language and the traditional Mayan calendar with 8 days for each week is still used. As there is no translation for the Mamís eighth day in Spanish, Todos Santeros have two Sundays in each week. The life in the village is very low-key, people like to gather in the central plaza to chat and relax. I was surprised to learn that Todos Santos and all its aldeades (patches of houses spread over the mountains which are dependent on Todos Santos) counted a population of approximately twenty thousand people. This is on Saturday mornings that the sleepy village comes alive when people come down from the mountains to sell their products in the market. After a week in Todos Santos, it was hard to resign myself to leave, but there is much more to see in Guatemala.

Around Quetzaltenango, people in the village of Zunil wear very colorful woven clothes. The village is seldom visited as people only stop here to hitch a ride to the gorgeous hot spring of Fuentes Georginas. Another village I like in the vicinity of Xela is Totonicopan with its large and crowded market. There it is possible to visit artisanís workshops full of various crafts. Momostenango is famous for itís thick wool woven blankets and jackets. One night in the chilly mountain climate of the town is enough to understand why people focus their weaving efforts on thick blankets and jackets instead of bright colorful clothes. The neighboring village of San Francisco del Alto hosts the largest animal market I have seen. People unload their pick-ups full of cows, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens, turkeys and even dogs.

As you keep moving south, you arrive in one of the most visited places in Guatemala, the Lake Atitlan. It is best viewed from the town of Panajachel, which used to be a hippie hideout during the heydays of the 1960ís and 70ís. Now it is home to a diverse crowd of indigenous people who come from all surrounding villages to sell their crafts, Latinos who set up hotels, restaurants and banks for the growing number of visitors, and tourists of all kinds coming from all over the world. The town deserves it nickname of Gringotenango. Pseudo hippies exhibit their tattoos while crafting necklaces, bracelets and hearings. Rich middle-age westerners come by busloads for day trips from Antigua and backpacker escape to the surrounding villages which have managed to preserve some of their languages and culture in spite of the tourist invasion.

You might sense through these lines that Panajachel didnít impress me. When Pizza and pancakes dominate the culture I go look somewhere else, but before leaving, one is forced to admire the scenery from the town. The lake is surrounded by mountains from which the two volcanoes Toliman and San Pedro stand out majestically. In an hour, a ferry can take you across the lake to the touristy but colorful village of Santiago, which is worth visiting during its Sunday market. Another popular destination is San Pedro; it is my choice for spending a quiet night on the lakeshore while sitting in a hot bath. Iíve heard good things about other surrounding villages I havenít had the time to visit, but the largest and least-visited market around is back on top of the hill. Every Thursday evening, people from all the surrounding areas come to set up their stalls for the Friday market of Solola. It is the most colorful I have seen and the one I recommend most in Guatemala for it hosts people wearing various costumes and is packed with so many things to catch your eye. Among the crowd my eyes have crossed the paths of less than a dozen tourists. Most of them prefer to chill out in front of a large American breakfast in Panajachel or visit the more touristy market of Chichicastenango.

I have not stayed long enough in Antigua to be able to describe it much. The ancient capital exhibits a few colonial buildings, which are nice but far from spectacular, as well as a few that are up to European standards. The city feels like a small town and receives numerous visitors as well as many Spanish students. Although more beautiful than Quetzaltenango, I prefer the latter for its special atmosphere. The only drawback to visiting Guatemala is that you have to pass through the terrible capital of Guatemala City where crime is rampant and the pollution is at its peak.

On my return to Honduras, I spent days riding and standing in packed old school buses known fondly as ďchicken buses.Ē It would have been boring if it wasnít for the way the bus drivers like to pass large trucks in the middle of mountain turns with no visibility. In a country where the civil war just recently ended, danger might not have the same meaning, but drivers beware, buses are large and always have the right of way. Passengers beware; the front seats have the most legroom but might not be the most comfortable or safest places to sit. It is on these roads that one understands the true meaning of machismo. Itís a cultural phenomenon I would rather avoid, but as it is one aspect of Guatemala, I accept it and will return to Quetzaltenango and the small villages of the Altiplano during my next break from the Central American Sea Kayak and Jungle Expedition. After all, if I wasnít riding the chicken buses, I probably wouldnít be in Guatemala.

Guatemala is all about people and colors, so don't miss the photos

Around the World in a Viewfinder

by Jean-Philippe Soule (view profile)


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CASKE 2000 Expedition Journals by Jean-Philippe Soule and Luke Shullenberger