Featuring the DAY of the DEAD CELEBRATION

Giant kites are constructed and flown in the Santiago Sacatepéquez cemetery to celebrate the Day of the Dead

LAND of the MAYA 2010!

Rutahsa Adventures and Kathy Didier are collaborating to present a remarkable Guatemala excursion to be held Oct. 23 - Nov. 6, 2010, and featuring the colorful and fascinating Day of the Dead Festival held in Santiago Sacatepéquez on All Saints Day (Nov. 1). Rutahsa's annual Guatemala excursions for 2005 & 2008 featured this folkloric celebration and all our travelers were enchanted...and you will be, too!

But the Day of the Dead ceremonies are only the tip of the iceberg! Guatemala without a doubt is one of the most remarkable countries on earth, full of marvelous places and people. While only about the size of Tennessee, Guatemala's varied topography ranges from sea level to soaring volcanic peaks over 13,000 feet high; its climate zones include steamy tropical jungles, rain-shadow desert valleys, cool cloud forests, and chilly alpine plateaux; and it is home to an amazing diversity of Maya, Mestizo, European and Caribbean traditions. The Highland Maya, comprising roughly half of Guatemala's population and speaking over 20 different languages, have maintained a rich and colorful culture that gives Guatemala its special flavor. There is so much to see, so much to leave you marveling, so much to make you want to return to Guatemala again and again. And this is why we have been exploring Guatemala since 1969-- and each year learning new secrets.

Every year since 1987 we have organized a very special trip to Guatemala, and 2010 is no exception! The especially unusual highlights of this year's excursion will be the Day of the Dead Festival, a visit to two Mam Maya communities far off the beaten track where traditional Maya costume is still preserved in all its glorious color, and several beautiful hikes, including climbing an active volcano! Of course, we will also visit colonial Antigua, dazzling Lake Atitlán and the Chichi market. We'll also make a cross-border foray into Honduras to visit the Classic Maya site of Copán. A two-day extension to magnificent Tikal National Park will also be offered.

Day 1, Sa. Oct. 23: Fly from home to Guatemala City; you will be met at the GUA airport and taken 45 km to lovely Antigua Guatemala to settle in to the Posada de Don Rodrigo, originally the sumptuous home of a colonial aristocrat, now tastefully remodeled into an attractive hotel. The "PDR" is very conveniently located just a block and a half from the main plaza of Antigua and is a great place to headquarter while you are getting to know Antigua. For a preview, visit the PDR's webpage: Posada de Don Rodrigo.

This evening you'll enjoy the refreshing climate of Antigua (altitude around 5020 ft) and start to get to know your way around this romantic town. We'll have supper as a group, so that introductions can be made all around.

Day 2, Su. Oct. 24: AM: We'll go on a half-day walking tour of Antigua, guided by Liz Bell, author of one of the best Antigua guidebooks, who will take us to some of the more important colonial monuments, giving us a cook's tour of places not normally accessible to visitors. PM: Free time to explore more ruined churches, convents and monasteries. Two sites not to miss: Capuchinas Convent and Santa Clara Convent.

In its heyday, Antigua was the capital of the Kingdom of Goathemala, and the third largest city in the New World (surpassed only by Mexico City and Lima). Then it was destroyed in a series of earthquakes in 1773. Today it is a great tourist attraction for its colonial architecture and ambience. For more details on Antigua's history and architecture, see our website Monumental Antigua. A visit to the "Casa Popenoe", a lovingly restored colonial home is a must for lovers of Spanish architecture and period furnishings. (Note: This historic home was closed in 2008, but we hope it will be open again in 2010.) Anyone really interested in the architecture of Antigua should ask bibliophile Mike Shawcross for a copy of Verle Annis' scholarly tome The Architecture of Antigua Guatemala, 1543-1773. This long-out-of-print work has recently been reprinted and Mike has copies for sale (we can introduce you to Mike).

Alternatively, you can spend the afternoon boosting the local economy shopping for beautiful handwoven Maya textiles, jade jewelry and other types of artesanía for which Guatemala is justly famous. A great place for textiles and other native crafts is Nim Po't, on the same street as our hotel, just a block away walking toward and through the landmark arch that bridges the street. Second night at the PDR.

Day 3, Mo. Oct. 25: AM: We'll board our private bus and head out of Antigua, passing between the soaring cones of the volcanoes Agua, Fuego and Acatenango, following a paved road that drops down to the Pacific coastal plain. Near Escuintla we'll turn and head north through the hot country of sugar cane fields and cattle ranches. After a brief refreshment stop at Los Cocales, we turn eastward and head back up into the cool volcanic highlands, passing through vast coffee fincas (plantations) that blanket the fertile slopes of Volcán Atitlán. As we approach the town of San Lucas Tolimán you'll get your first thrilling glimpses of shimmering Lake Atitlán.

From San Lucas to the T'zutujil Maya town of Santiago Atitlán is just a short drive, but a very interesting one as we will be passing through small plots of land tilled in traditional manner by Maya families. The contrast between these small family fields and the great mechanized sugar cane fields of the coastal plain or the sprawling coffee fincas that we passed through earlier is striking.

PM: We should arrive at the Posada Santiago, our home for the next two nights, in time for a late lunch. Food at the Posada is great; for a snack we highly recommend the guacamol and homemade tortilla chips. The Posada is run by an American ex-pat, David Glanville, and you will find him an interesting person to get to know; the Posada has an unusual history and you should be sure to take a look at the humorous pamphlet in their library "The 24 Questions Dave Just Won't Answer Anymore". For more information, visit the Posada's homepage and take their virtual sure to click on "Activities" to see the tree dogs (David's sense of humor showing through!): Posada de Santiago.

The afternoon will be free time to relax, enjoy the Posada's lovely grounds, pool and hot tub, or go for a swim in the lake (chilly) off the Posada's private dock. David makes killer margaritas, and this would be a good time to indulge, if you are so inclined.

The more ambitious and restless might consider a 15-minute hike from the Posada to the Peace Park memorializing the victims of a massacre committed here by the Guatemalan Army in 1990 during La Violencia, part of the Mayan people's tragic history, but an instance in which a community stood up against oppressive authority and eventually won: negative international publicity forced the Army to withdraw from Santiago.

Just beyond the Peace Park is yet another tragic scene, this one geological rather than socio-political: the small community of Panabaj was partially buried by a mudslide that descended from the steep volcanic slopes one night following torrential rains from Hurricane Stan in 2005. Many of the victims were never recovered. Today you can walk out over the surface of the dried mudflow, presently being reclaimed by vegetation; it is only a few feet thick in most places, but it was deadly in its speed and overpowering force.

Day 4, Tu. Oct. 26: This morning we will take a walking tour of the town of Santiago Atitlán, which in pre-conquest days was the capital of the Tz'utujil Maya nation. Our guide will be Dolores Ratzan, a Tz'utujil woman and native of Santiago, formerly married to an American author. Dolores will show us through the town with an insider's knowledge. We will visit the ancient church of Santiago, see its altar carved by native artisans and replete with Maya symbology, see the "navel of the earth", the town market, pay a visit to the shrine of the native deity Maximón, and also learn about Santiago's tragic recent history during La Violencia-- from which the town has recovered remarkably.

Santiago women still weave on the backstrap loom, and still wear their distinctive traje (i.e., traditional clothing), which features a halo-like headwrap. To see more photos of Santiago traje, as well as native costume from all over Guatemala, take a look at our website on Traje of the Highland Maya.

After Dolores' guided introduction to Santiago you will have free time to visit the many crafts shops that line the main street leading down to the town dock. Just be sure to remember your way back to the Posada de Santiago; should you forget, you can always ask a local...and keep asking from time to time as you wend your way back through the town. Or, if you speak some Spanish, you can hire a "tuk tuk" (a three-wheeled motorcycle cab) for Q5 to take you back to the hotel.

Second night at the Posada Santiago.

Day 5, We. Oct. 27: After breakfast we will board a motor launch and cross beautiful Lake Atitlán to the small town of San Marcos to begin a 3 - 4 hour hike around the margins of the lake, passing through small communities and replete with dramatic views of the sapphire jewel that is Atitlán. The launch will meet us at points along the way allowing anyone who tires of hiking to finish the trip by boat. The hike ends in the town of Santa Cruz where we all reboard our chartered launch and cross over to bustling Panajachel, largest of the lake towns, and home to a seven-day-a-week street market of all kinds of textiles and crafts from all over Guatemala.

Upon arrival at "Pana" we will go to our lodging for the night, the Posada de Don Rodrigo (sister hotel to our Antigua home).

Day 6, Th. Oct. 28: This morning we will reboard our private bus and climb up and out of the dramatic, cliff-ringed Lake Atitlán caldera to go a few kilometers north to the Panamerican Highway. Upon joining the Panamericana, we will turn northwestward towards Huehuetenango, the most important city in western Guatemala and capital of the department ("state") of that name. "Huehue" (pronounced "Way-Way") is about a five hour drive from Pana, with lots of remarkable scenery en route: the towering cone of Volcán Santa María, the rugged central highlands, and the picturesque patchwork quilt of Maya agricultural plots blanketing improbable slopes.

Upon arrival at Huehue, we will visit the post-classic Maya site of Zaculeu.

Zaculeu was the capital of the Mam Maya nation at the time of the Spanish conquest, and was taken by the conquistadores in 1525 only after a protracted siege and fierce resistance by the Mam. Archeological restoration of Zaculeu was funded by United Fruit in 1948.

At Zaculeu we can see plastered pyramids and remains of temples with Mexicanized architecture. There is a restored ballcocurt where the sacred (and deadly) Mesoamerican ball game was played. There is also a special feature not seen by anyone except those who know where to look: a pre-Columbian handprint preserved in original plaster remaining on one of the ruined buldings.

In Huehue our lodgings will be the Hotel Casa Blanca, not luxurious, but one of the better hotels in Huehue and centrally located.

Day 7, Fr. Oct. 29: Eat a hearty breakfast today, for a hike is planned! We will visit the Mam Maya town of San Juan Atitán, then hike across the mountains for several hours to reach another Mam town, Todos Santos Cuchumatán.

San Juan Atitán is seldom visited by outsiders, and you'll find out why. The road to San Juan is steep in places and not suitable for our bus, so we will ride standing up in the back of pick-up trucks. The pickups are provided with rails to hold on to and so you cannot fall out; this is the native system of transportation. But we won't go completely native--to be completely authentic we would have to be all crammed into just one truck!

San Juan is a completely Mam Maya town. When we were last there (2008) almost everyone was in traditional native dress, not just the women, but the men, too, and the children were miniatures of the father, like son. The elaborate San Juan elaborate costume is described in some detail on our traje website.

From San Juan, at around 7500-8000 ft elevation, we will hike about four hours, accompanied by a local guide, along ancient trails, crossing mountain ridges and valleys between San Juan and Todos Santos. Hiking boots are a must, and you should have a daypack in which to carry your water, snacks, rain poncho (just in case), sunblock, and camera. You should be aware that this is a moderately strenuous (some will consider it genuinely strenuous) hike passing through elevations from 8000 up to 10,000 feet.

Anyone not wishing to hike can return downhill to the bus and then ride over to Todos Santos, arriving there well ahead of the hikers and having plenty of time to look around the town, visit the market, admire the distinctive costume, etc. This is the week of Todos Santos' annual fair, so the town will be bustling with activity.

Note: Both hikers and non-hikers need to carry some snacks for lunch, as there are no suitable eateries along the trail or in Todos Santos.

After crossing the last ridge (at around 10,170 ft) the hikers will descend to the town of Todos Santos Cuchumatán at 8140 ft. Shortly before reaching the town, the trail passes through Cumanchúm, an archeological site consisting of an ancient pyramid cluster. Some of the mounds now topped by the weathered crosses made famous by anthropologist Maud Oakes in her book "The Two Crosses of Todos Santos".

Like San Juan, Todos Santos is a Mam Maya town. Nonetheless, the native dress here is totally different. Distinctive features of the Todos Santos men's traje include the red and white striped pants, the split-legged dark wool overpant (use of which seems to be dying out) and the finely striped shirt featuring huge, intricately decorated collar. The Todos Santos women's huipil features a distinctive collar decorated with rick-rack. And as in San Juan, the children of Todos Santos are dressed just like their parents. Again, for more information on the native dress, visit our traje website.

Our lodging tonight will be the recently rebuilt, remodeled and enlarged Casa Familiar.

Day 8, Sa. Oct. 30: After breakfast we will once again mount up and head out in our trusty bus, climbing up and out of the Todos Santos valley, crossing a beautiful high (over 10,000 ft) plateau, then descend the dramatic front of the Altos Cuchumatanes range. If the weather is clear we'll stop at a mirador for an expansive view towards the Pacific with volcanic cones rising like exclamation marks from the central highlands. Our drive continues across the highlands to the major town of Santa Cruz del Quiché and then on to Chichicastenango.

Time permitting, we'll make a short visit just outside Quiché to the ruins of Utatlán, former capital of the Quiché Maya, another native kingdom conquered by the Spaniards.

Upon arrival at Chichi we will go directly to the Mayan Inn, a famous old hostelry. The Mayan Inn has been receiving guests for three quarters of a century. Each room is unique, and all are furnished with antiques, including some colonial pieces of museum quality. The food is excellent, and service is provided by turbaned Maxeños, i.e., K'iche' Maya men of Chichicastenango, in full traje. To learn more about the Mayan Inn, check out this website: Mayan Inn. A night in the Mayan Inn is a memorable experience. Of course, we've come to Chichi for its world-famous native market, and you can start your shopping tonight as vendors begin setting up for tomorrow's big market day.

Day 9, Su. Oct. 31: You may be startled awake by explosions around 6 AM, thinking a revolution is in progress, but it is only a typical market day in Chichi, and the people do love their bombas along with all the other noises, smells and color. This is without question the most colorful native market in all the Americas, with native vendors coming from long distances to sell their wares. See Rutahsa's website on Chichi's market by clicking here: Market day at Chichi.

After taking pictures and haggling for blankets, wall hangings, native blouses, men's shirts, ceramics, carved wooden masks, and all kinds of other crafts, antiques, and souvenirs, you'll be ready for lunch and perhaps to show off your newly acquired treasures to your fellow travelers. After lunch you might have time for another short visit to the market, but by 3 PM we need to be rolling down the road across the central highlands back to Antigua.

Back in Antigua we will take up our familiar lodgings at the Posada de Don Rodrigo.

Day 10, Mo. Nov. 1: Today is Día de Todos Los Santos, that is, All Saints Day on the Christian calendar. However, in parts of Mexico and Guatemala it is celebrated as the Day of the Dead. After breakfast, we will board our bus for a short ride to the small highland Maya town of Santiago Sacatepéquez where the celebration of the Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) has become a noteworthy event. Families gather in the cemetery to commune with the spirits of their ancestors, decorating graves with flowers and sharing a meal --including fiambre, a special food made only for this ceremony-- with the dead. And colorful barriletes (kites), some of which are huge, are flown to the heavens as a means of communication between the living and the dead.

Although families gather to remember deceased loved ones, the spirit of the occasion is one of a joyful community fair: vendors sell refreshments in the cemetery (beer, even!), many indigenous women are there dressed in their finest traje, there is a queen and her court, and there is a judged competition for best kites, some of which are decorated with religious themes, others with patriotic or environmental themes (global warming was a popular subject in 2008!). Local people picnic amongst the graves, and visitors are welcome. You should be prepared for crowds, and it may require a real effort on the part of our driver to extricate us from the jam of vehicles, but that's all part of the fascinating experience.

For additional images and to get a better idea of what the Day of the Dead celebration is all about, we recommend you take a look at the following website, but be sure to use your back button to return to our trip itinerary: Rosenfeld journal.

Second night at the PDR.

Day 11, Tu. Nov. 2: Today we are headed to Copán Ruins, which means crossing the border into neighboring Honduras. This means passing through Guatemala City, then descending down into the great fault-controlled valley of the Motagua River, driving through a surprising area of semi-desert, and twisting over a couple of mountain ranges to reach the border.

Upon arrival at the small rural city of Copán we will take up our lodgings at the Hotel Marina Copán. You will find the town charming, and full of friendly people. If we arrive in time, we will visit the small Copán Museum on the square. Though somewhat overshadowed now by the larger new museum out at the archeological site, this little museum displays some must-see treasures, most notably the large, exquisitely carved flint eccentrics, truly mind-boggling examples of fine art by master flint-knappers.

Day 12, We. Nov. 3: All day at Copán Ruins National Park, starting with a guided tour of the 1000-year-old Classic Maya site. Copán is famed for its marvelous carvings, which are better preserved here than in most Maya sites due to the use of volcanic rock that resists weathering. In addition to the numerous stelae depicting Copán's kings, there are pyramids and temples, and a fine ceremonial ballcourt, where the ritual game was played for keeps. In 1999, a series of archeological exploration tunnels underneath the ancient pyramids was opened to the public, revealing the completely intact buried temple known as Rosalila. In addition to the pyramids and temples, there is the new Museum of Sculpture, which houses many of the finest Copán sculptures (some of the stelae that you will have seen in the ruins are well-done replicas, with the originals moved into this museum for their preservation). Finally, the town of Copán itself is such a pleasant, friendly country town, a really nice place to spend a day. Second night at the Marina Copán.

Day 13, Th. Nov. 4: Today we reluctantly leave endearing Copán, and yet with a certain degree of eagerness in the knowledge that we are returning to wonderful Antigua Guatemala. The trip takes about five driving hours, but we'll have stops at the border, at a noteworthy geologic site or two, and for lunch, so we've got things to see and do en route! Once back in Antigua, we'll settle into our comfortable digs at the PDR.

This evening we'll go to the Casa de Artes for a lecture on Mayan textiles by a local expert.

Day 14, Fr. Nov. 5: A full free day in Antigua! By now you know your way around this charming city and have an idea which colonial ruins, museums, shops, and fine restaurants you still need to visit. We highly recommend a mid-morning trip to nearby La Azotea Cultural Center (Azotea provides a shuttle service for under a dollar) where you can tour a working coffee processing plant, experience Casa K'ojom museum of native music, and enjoy textile displays, a video and other cultural exhibits. Or you can head out on your own to explore more ruins or visit any of several museums in Antigua. Visit the jade shops, or an indigenous women's co-op selling fine weavings, or shop in the city marketplace (a wondrously bewildering complex) or the nearby artesans' market. Try to figure out where and what kind of food to eat: plato típico, Italian, Chinese, vegetarian, or other... Or just relax in the central park and get your shoes shined. Use your guidebook and enjoy the day-- there is so much to see and enjoy in Antigua.

As usual, for the energetic, we have another option: a half-day trip to Volcán Pacaya National Park. This involves an hour and a half bus ride from Antigua to the park, leaving around noon (exact time to be announced on the trip), followed by an uphill hike of about an hour and a half to the crest of an ancient volcanic rim. From this rim you can get great views of the highly active cinder cone of Pacaya. It is also possible to hike on another 15 minutes to approach within a few feet of an active lava flow, something that is quite exciting! [N.B.: Due to a 2005 lava flow it is no longer practical to ascend the main peak, although some visitors still do-- but this means they miss seeing the currently active flows up close.]

The return hike down is likely to be in the dark, returning to Antigua around 8 PM. The trail is easy, but you do need a flashlight. If the cone is in an explosive mode, you will appreciate the timing of this excursion: the night views from the old crater rim can be quite spectacular with volcanic fireworks!

For more on Volcán Pacaya, visit our website Pacaya Volcano.

Second night at the PDR.

Day 15, Sa. Nov. 6: Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. Today is the day to fly out to the U.S. (or wherever home is), carrying tons of photos, souvenirs, and memories of a remarkable country and even more remarkable people, indigenous and Europeanized, historic and present. Along with these memories of a great trip, you will carry with you a determination to return, for Guatemala is just too fantastic to visit only once!


For those with a little more time, the adventure is not over yet! We offer this two-day extension to the main trip so that you can visit the world-famous Classic Maya ruins of Tikal, its dense tropical jungle, and wonderful wildlife.

Day 15, Sa., Nov. 6: Instead of flying back home, you will be picked up at the PDR early in the morning and taken to the Guatemala City airport for the flight out to Flores, the airport serving Tikal. At the Flores airport you will be met by a representative of the Jungle Lodge and board their bus for the hour-long ride to Tikal National Park.

Upon arrival at the Jungle Lodge you will leave your luggage at the reception desk and go on a guided introductory tour of the sprawling archeological complex, passing through the great plaza, flanked by the soaring pyramids of Temple I and Temple II, then on to Temple IV or elsewhere. Depending on the interest and stamina of the group, this orientation tour can last two to four hours, so wear comfortable walking shoes, and bring water, snacks and sunblock.

In addition to the amazing ruins of a once populous Classic Maya city, Tikal is also a wonderful site for its lowland tropical jungle, its brilliant birds and other wildlife. Keep alert and you'll see parrots, toucans, toucanets, hummingbirds, oropendulas, the beautiful ocellated turkey, and many other avian inhabitants of the jungle. And you'll almost certainly see foxes, guatuzas (agoutis), pisotes (coatamundis), and spider monkeys. You might also see howler monkeys, deer, peccaries, and small alligators in the water hole behind the visitors' center, or other jungle beasts. On our June 2001 trip one lucky Rutahsa Adventurer had a wonderful close-up view of a jaguar napping on a trail in the mid-afternoon.

The guided visit will end back at the Jungle Lodge where you can have lunch (included), and then check into your cabaña.

For the afternoon you may want to return to the ruins. Birdwatching and wildlife viewing improves in the late afternoon and early evening. Recommended: an evening visit to the "Lost World" where the giant pyramid makes a great place to await the sunset and to watch the jungle birds come in to roost for the evening. (The ruins are officially closed at 6 PM, so a park guard may shoo you towards the entrance before dark. But just in case he can be talked into letting you stay late, be sure to bring a flashlight for the walk back in the dark.)

Alternatively, you may want to visit the two Tikal museums, or enjoy the Jungle Lodge's small but refreshing swimming pool. Tikal is really a wonderfuls site, but it is hot! Fortunately, November is cooler than most of the year.

Su., Nov. 7: Get up early-- You can watch the sun rise from high atop Temple IV. (Note: You will probably have to hire a guide to get you into the ruins before the official opening time of 6 AM.) And by getting into the ruins early you both improve your chances of seeing wildlife as well as beating the heat.

If you are one of the early risers, you may want to come back to the Jungle Lodge for breakfast (which is included), and then hit the ruins again to prowl and marvel amid crumbling jungle-encrusted temples, palaces, causeways, pyramids, and numerous ruined edifices of unknown purpose.

Wherever you wander, you are sure to enjoy...however, do not fail to be back at the Jungle Lodge in time for the afternoon bus (generally at 2 PM, but check with your Tikal guide to be sure) back to Flores for the return flight to Guate City, where you will be picked up and returned to the PDR in Antigua for your last night in Guatemala.

Mo., Nov. 8: An airport shuttle will pick you up at the PDR and take you to the Guatemala City airport for your international flight out. But we repeat-- we think you'll come back-- Guatemala is unforgettable, and it's impossible to see all its wonders in a single visit, not even with Rutahsa Adventures!

Three little girls from Santiago Atitlán with a friend from another village.


To make an enquiry about our Guatemala 2010 Excursion, or to request an application blank, e-mail Kathy Didier at

About Kathy Didier: Kathy is an excursion leader of tremendous experience, having led numerous major excursions for the Appalachian Mountain Club, and even more trips of her own all over the world. Rutahsa Adventures has collaborated with Kathy on earlier trips to Peru, Guatemala, Ecuador and Bolivia, and is pleased to be organizing a return trip to Guatemala for Kathy.

Starting in 1998, Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel began recommending Rutahsa Adventures' Guatemala excursions. For example, take a look at what Frommer's had to say about our 2002 Guatemala excursion: Frommer's 2002 review. And again, Frommer's recommends our Day of the Dead trip.

To see the varied services Rutahsa Adventures offers, click here: Rutahsa Adventures homepage.

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Images on this website by Janie and Ric Finch, @copyrighted.