SEMANA SANTA EN GUATEMALA 2004!
Like a scene from a Cecil B. DeMille Biblical spectacular,
Christ returns to La Merced Church, ending the Easter procession.
Rutahsa Adventures is pleased to offer an exciting exploration of Guatemala's
unique blend of Maya and European customs, including, for the first time on a
Rutahsa Adventure, Holy Week in Antigua Guatemala.
Guatemala is one of the most remarkable places on earth. Slightly smaller than
the state of Tennessee, its varied physiography ranges from coastal plains 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 plateaus. In addition to its natural diversity, Guatemala is home to an
amazing cultural diversity including Maya, European, Mestizo and Caribbean
traditions. The Highland Maya comprise about half Guatemala's population of
12 million and have maintained a rich and colorful culture-- including over 20
native languages-- in spite of 500 years of domination by European influences.
It is this blend of Maya culture with the European that gives Guatemala its
essential character. Guatemala features so much to see, so much to experience,
and so much to leave you marvelling...you will want to return to Guatemala
again and again. We have been exploring Guatemala since 1969-- and each year
we learn new secrets.
Here's the trip itinerary:
Weds., Mar. 31: Fly from the U.S. to Guatemala City; you will be
picked up at the airport and driven through the bustling capital city to the
colonial town of Antigua Guatemala to settle in at the Posada de don Rodrigo,
a colonial home converted into a delightful
hotel with flowery patios, a good restaurant, wonderful views of volcanoes from
its rooftop deck, and a daily marimba concert.
For a preview, take a look at the PDR's website, then use your "back" button to
return to this trip itinerary: Posada de Don
Thurs., Apr. 1: After breakfast we will go on a walking tour of
Antigua, guided by Liz Bell, author of several guidebooks on Antigua.
In its heyday (before the United States of America existed), Antigua was the
third largest city in the new world. Its population reached 60,000, exceeded
only by Lima and Mexico City. Antigua served from its founding in 1541 until
1775 as the capital of Spain's colonial territory known as the Kingdom of
Goathemala. As the capital it was adorned with splendid public buildings, such
as the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales
. But in 1773 a series of powerful earthquakes turned many of the great
colonial churches, convents, colleges and government palaces and private
mansions into rubble. Two years later the King of Spain commanded the
capital's removal to what is now modern Guatemala City, leaving Antigua or
"Old Guatemala" to rusticate into flower- and vine-covered ruins.
After lunch we will board our chartered bus and motor down past the soaring
volcanic cones of Agua, Acatenango and Fuego on the road to the Pacific coastal
plain. Here we will experience-- for just a short while-- the tropical heat
that characterizes this important zone where agriculture is king, as we pass
through vast sugar cane fields, citronella tree plantations, and cattle
ranches. Soon, however, we will turn north and climb back up into the cool
volcanic highlands, passing through huge coffee fincas to crest out on
the rim of beautiful Lake Atitlán.
A bit of narrow, winding road brings us to Santiago Atitlán, a Tz'utujiil
Maya town on the south side of the lake. This town is a favorite destination
for day-trippers who cross the lake by boat from Panajachel, arrive
mid-morning, spend a couple of hours buying souvenirs from the many artisans'
shops on the main street, then recross the lake without ever really getting to
know Santiago. By arriving via the back door and after the day-trippers are
gone we will find a Tz'utujiil town little changed from its traditional ways.
We will stay at the Posada Santiago, a charming hotel of unusual stone
architecture, bungalows and lovely gardens. The owners, David and Susie, serve
great food! Here's a peep at this lovely lodge: Posada Santiago.
Fri., Apr. 2: Getting to know Santiago Atitlán. In the morning
we will be shown around the town by Dolores, an English-speaking Tz'utujiil
woman, who will take us to the ancient church
where she will show us native influences and customs preserved within the
Catholic church. Then she will take us to visit an indigenous house of worship,
a shrine to Maximón. We will wind up with a visit to her home where we
can see how the backstrap loom is used to
produce beautiful textiles. As we walk about the town we may see women wearing
the famous "halo" headwrap found only in
Santiago, and featured on the 25 centavo coin.
After lunch a stroll down to the Peace Park is recommended, to learn of the
suffering that took place in Santiago during La Violencia of the 1980s,
when guerrilla fighting and governmental repression led to a tragic massacre of
local people. Learn also how the native people resisted and eventually forced
the army to leave Santiago.
Other afternoon activities could include swimming in the lake from Posada
Santiago's private dock, or relaxing in the sun with a book about Santiago or
Maya culture from the Posada's library, and nursing one of David's killer
Sat., Apr. 3: Today we go by boat across Lake Atitlán, enjoying
dramatic vistas en route, to visit two lakeside villages of Kaqchikel Maya: San
Antonio Palopó and Santa Catarina Palopó. In Santa Catarina we
will see the stunning rich blue huipil (native blouse) worn by the women
there. Traje, or native Maya costume, is of pre-Columbian origin and
contains many very traditional elements. However, this should not be taken to
mean it is static. On the contrary it is constantly evolving; thirty years
ago the Santa Catarina huipil was predominantly red, and the basic
cloth is still red today, but largely covered in deep blue embroidered
designs. This photo of two young Santa Catarina
girls was taken during the transition period.
Our bus will come around the lake to pick us up at Santa Catarina and we will
drive into Panajachel for lunch. Here we can see how tourism in excess can
radically alter a town; "Pana", also called "Gringotenango" is the "Mall of
America" of Guatemala with endless steet markets and foreigners outnumbering
locals. Interesting, but not a pretty sight to those who are seeking true
In the afternoon we will continue on about 35 kilometers to the regional market
town of Chichicastenango ("Place of the Stinging Nettles"). Here we will stay
in Guatemala's most famous hostelry, the Mayan
Inn, serving travelers for over 70 years. Staying at the Mayan is a
cultural experience in itself. No two rooms are alike, and all are furnished
with antiques, some of museum quality. To see more of what the Mayan is like,
visit their webpage at
Mayan Inn, but don't forget to use your "back" key to return to this
Tonight you can roam the streets of the little town and see the preparations
for tomorrow's big market. Vendors will sell to you tonight, too, assuring you
that the best bargains are tonight. Tomorrow the same vendors may tell you the
best bargains are to be had as the market begins, and then later they will tell
you the market is ending so they will give you their best bargains now! The
truth is the best bargains depend on your bargaining skills-- And don't buy
anything without bargaining!
Sun., Apr. 4: Be prepared to have your senses assaulted today--
Chichi market is a blaze of colors, smoke
and smells, loud bombas (homemade rockets that go up and explode with a
thundering report!), clucking hens and squealing pigs, and the chatter of
vendors and buyers speaking in K'iché Maya, Spanish, English and other
The market features beautiful textiles (huipiles, blankets, tapestries,
sashes, shirts, and more), carved wooden masks, relics, pottery and painted
wooden chests, and many other items for visitors to purchase, plus flowers,
fruit and vegetables, poultry and pigs,
herbal medicines, copal incense, hardware, backstrap loom parts, and
many other items for local consumption. It is truly mind-boggling!
In addition to the market, there is the church of Santo Tomás,
where Maya worship their own gods in addition to the Christian god (note:
foreign visitors to this church should not enter by the front door, but instead
use the entry on the right side of the nave). And there is the Padre Rossbach
Museum, and, not far outside town on a hilltop, the Pascual Abaj idol still in use for costumbre (native
rituals). Costumbre is also commonly performed in the colorful cemetery
just outside town.
There's so much to see it can wear you out! So around 2:30 PM we'll load our
bus and squeeze through the market stalls to head out on a three-hour drive
along the Pan American Highway to Quetzaltenango, Guatemala's second most
important city, and once the would-be capital of the break-away Republic of Los
Altos. Traditionally known as "Xelajú" (pronounced "Shay-lah-HOO"), or
just "Xela" for short, this departmental capital lies at an elevation of over
7700 ft, and is quite cool in the evenings. Our lodgings will be the
Pensión Bonifaz, an elegant old hotel with a European flavor, but plenty
of modern amenities. The Bonifaz has an excellent dining room, and features an
indoor swimming pool (but you have to be hearty to swim in this one...indoors
or not, at 7700 ft, it's chilly!). For more about the Bonifaz, visit their
website Pensión Bonifaz, then return to this itinerary.
Quetzaltenango was severely damaged in 1902 by earthquakes. When the city was
rebuilt it acquired a neoclassical architecture that makes it highly
distinctive among Guatemalan towns. Our hotel is located just on the corner of
the central plaza, and within easy walking distance of the central market, an
internet cafe, several restaurants, the once elegant opera-house-style civic
theatre, and a couple of museums. Xela is a pleasant town for a stroll.
Mon., Apr. 5: AM: We drive just a few kilometers out of Quetzaltenango
this morning, passing through Alotenango with its hot springs spas (note at
least two styles of huipiles worn here), to the truck farming center of
Zunil. Here we can get a horticultural education by visiting the huge
vegetable market where fruits and vegetables of myriad types and vast
quantities are sold for consumption all over Guatemala and even exported to
Mexico. The land around Zunil is some of the most fertile in the republic, and
the Mayan farms form a gorgeous checkerboard filling the valley bottoms and
continuing up impossible slopes with multiple hues of green.
While in Zunil we can visit a women's co-op, where every purchase we make helps
the native weavers more than when we buy through marketplace middlemen.
Like Santiago Atitlán, Zunil is a center of worship of Maximón.
And there are several caves near the town where costumbre is performed
frequently. In fact, it is no rarity to see ceremonies in action in one cave
entrance, while standing in the central plaza of the town.
PM: After lunch we will drive a short distance out from Xela again, this time
to the weaving town of Salcajá, especially famed for its cloth featuring
the ikat technique of patterning with tie-dyed threads. Here we hope to visit
with some weavers and learn about their craft.
Tues., Apr. 6: Today we'll roam a bit further afield, with an all day
excursion out to San Francisco El Alto and Momostenango. San Francisco, as
suggested by the rest of its name, sits high on a mountainside, overlooking the
Quetzaltenango valley. This town is a well-known market town, and an excellent
place to buy blankets on market day; the official market day is Friday, but
there could be a few vendors out today,too. We'll see!
After a short visit to San Francisco we will continue on to Momostenango, a
wool processing center, where most of the blankets sold at San Francisco (and
at Chichi and elsewhere) are actually made. "Momo" also has a certain fame as
a shamanic center. There are various altars in the vicinity of Momo, and it is
said that there are at least 300 practicing shamans here. The traditional
Mayan calendar, still used by indigenous people in various parts of Guatemala,
is strongly observed here. We will try to arrange a visit with a local shaman.
A scenic surprise on the outskirts of Momo are Los Riscos, weird eroded
spires similar to those seen in Bryce Canyon, Utah, but on a smaller scale.
Momo, Quetzal, Chichi...all "tenangos". And there is also Huehuetenango way
way over in the western part of the country. "Tenango" is said to mean "the
place of". As already mentioned, Chichi is "the place of the stinging nettle".
Quetzaltenango would be the "place of the quetzal bird". But what is Momo the
place of? We don't know...perhaps we can find out during this visit.
After visiting Momo we will return to Xela for our final night at the Bonifaz.
Weds., Apr. 7: Our goal today is to get back to Antigua, where Holy Week
is in full swing. But we also have lots to see along the way, starting with
the famous "yellow church" at San
Andrés Xecul. This church, with its gaily painted front is more than
just colorful. Be sure to examine the various decorative motifs in molded
plaster which include designs distinctly unorthodox from the Catholic point of
Back on the Pan American highway headed east, we cross through a barren, cold
area known as "Alaska", where the road climbs above 10,000 ft elevation, before
descending into the valley of Nahualá. We'll make a brief visit into
this interesting indigenous town. Many of the men here still wear
traje, and theirs is one of the most
unusual in the country, consisting of a shirt with large ornate collar and
cuffs (seemingly of obvious European influence, and therefore presumably
post-conquest in origin), and a woolen kilt instead of pants. The outfit is
commonly completed with a woolen morral, i.e., all-purpose shoulder bag.
And of course the women of Nahualá retain their traje like this
shrewd vendor Manuela who happily posed for a
photo knowing it would increase the likelihood of a sale.
Throughout the indigenous communities of Guatemala the women continue to wear
traje, but in many towns Maya men have abandoned traditional costume in
favor of western dress because it is less expensive and much less labor
intensive than the elaborate homewoven traje, and for work western
clothing is probably more practical. For example, the Maya men of
Quetzaltenango no longer wear native costume, though the indigenous women still
wear it. In some towns Maya men wear traje in their home village, but
put on western clothes when going in to the departmental capital or Guatemala
City. The reason for this change is to avoid the racial discrimination that
the indigenous people may encounter in Ladino dominated cities. Happily,
respect for the indigenous people is on the rise, and a Maya rennaissance
movement is also making strides.
Our last stop en route to Antigua will be in San Andrés Itzapa, to visit
the San Simón temple. San Simón (another name for
Maximón) is worshipped here by Mayan and Ladinos alike, with
costumbre performed by shamans in the courtyard in front of the church.
By making a "donation" we are granted the privilege of entering the church to
observe the worship, which seems to be an
individualistic matter as supplicants approach the idol of San Simón,
murmur a prayer and leave an offering. We will enter the church in small
groups, quietly and respectfully.
A few more kilometers down the road and we are back at the Posada de Don
Rodrigo in Antigua. But we may find Antigua all a-boil, crowded with Easter
pilgrims and tourists. Our hotel reservations were made more than a year in
advance, and come Good Friday it will be evident why. Even vacant lots in
Antigua get rented out this week!
Thurs., Fri., Sat. and Sun., April 8-11: This is the climax of the year
in Antigua. Religious processions abound, especially on Good Friday and Easter
Sunday. The main procession on Good Friday,
features thousands of participants, faux Roman soldiers on horseback,
numerous andas (hand-carried religious floats), brass bands blaring
funeral dirges, and church dignitaries preceded by censer swingers, winding
through the streets of Antigua for many hours.
On the night before this procession elaborate alfombras or "carpets" of flowers and dyed sawdust poured in
stenciled designs are prepared in the streets, for the procession to pass over.
We hope, through special arrangement, to be involved in the preparation of one
of these alfombras.
There will be much to see and do in Antigua these days of religious fervor,
some of which will be planned, and some of which will be serendipitous.
Mon., Apr. 12: Today we mount our bus once again to travel eastward down
into the Motagua Valley, passing through an area of rain-shadow desert, before
turning south towards El Salvador, to reach the town of Esquipulas. In spite
of having just come from Holy Week in Antigua, we are now going to visit the
most important Catholic shrine in all of Guatemala (perhaps in all Central
America), the Basilica of Esquipulas. The Black Christ of Esquipulas is a
statue of Christ that is housed in the very impressive church here. This image
is believed by the faithful to have special powers. Throughout the year
thousands of pilgrims come to Esquipulas to pray to the Black Christ for
From Esquipulas we will backtrack about 45 kilometers to the turnoff to
Copán Ruinas in neighboring Honduras (you can carve one more notch in
your passport as we cross the border!), where we'll end the day cooling off in
the pool at the Hotel Marina in Copán Ruinas, Honduras. To see more of
the Hotel Marina Copán, click here:
Copán; then hit your "back" button to return to this trip
Tues., Apr. 13: All day at Copán Ruins National Park, a
1000-year-old Classic Maya site 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
Copan'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
and also the old Copán Museum which houses a cache of amazing flint
eccentrics discovered recently in a buried temple, plus many other wonderful
objects. 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 Hotel
Weds., Apr. 14: Today we return to Guatemala City, with archeological
and geological stops en route as time permits, but we have to get to the airport
in time to make our afternoon flight out to Santa Elena, gateway to Tikal
From Santa Elena we will take the Jungle Lodge's private bus for an hour's
drive to our lodgings inside the park. Here's a glimpse of the Jungle Lodge.
Thurs., Apr. 15: Tikal is a vast, sprawling complex of 1000-year-old
ruins, now covered in tropical jungle except where the archeologists have
cleared and restored. The site is centered on the the great Plaza
Mayor, flanked by the soaring pyramids of Temple I and Temple II. We'll have a guided introductory tour of
the site, which you shouldn't miss, but if you get up early enough you may be
able to get into the ruins ahead to watch sunrise from Temple IV, then return
to the Jungle Lodge for breakfast and the guided tour.
After lunch you can return to the archeological complex for a short while on
your own to prowl amid crumbling, jungle-encrusted temples, palaces, causeways,
pyramids, and numerous ruined edifices of unknown purpose.
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. You can
expect to see parrots, toucans, toucanettes, hummingbirds, oropendolas, the
beautiful ocellated turkey, and many other
avian inhabitants of the jungle. Rarer sightings include trogons, currasows,
and crested guans.
As for animal life, if you keep your eyes open you are very likely to see
foxes, guatuza (agouti), pisotes
(coatimundi), and spider monkeys. You
could also see some of the following: howler monkeys, deer, peccary, small
alligators in the water hole near the hotel, or other jungle beasts. If you
are indeed *very* lucky you might see a jaguar...one of our travelers did in
There are also two museums near the Jungle Lodge, both of which are worth
seeing. The Lithic Museum in the visitor's center contains many of the
original stelae found at Tikal, and is free of admission. The Modesto
Méndez Museum houses more delicate archeological pieces found at Tikal,
including pottery, carved bones, stucco work, flint and obsidian pieces, and
a spectacular burial replete with masses of jade offerings, displayed in a
reconstruction of the tomb in which it was found.
Clearly there is more to see and do and learn here than we have time for, so
you need to use your time wisely.
Around 2 PM we will return to Santa Elena to catch our flight back to Guatemala
City, where we will spend our last night in Guatemala (for this trip, anyway--
plan on returning!) in the Hotel Pan
Fri., Apr. 16: This morning we say "Adios, Guatemala", or
better, "Hasta la próxima!" ("Until next time!") as we head out
to the airport to catch our flight back to the U.S. We'll return home with
lots of photos, some Guatemalan textiles and other handicrafts, a million
memories, and better human beings, having had our minds expanded a bit by
sampling Guatemala's rainbow of cultural, historical and natural treasures.
Three little girls from Santiago Atitlán, with a friend from
To ask for an application blank (sent by e-mail) or make other enquiry about
this Rutahsa Adventures Semana Santa 2004 Excursion, contact Dr. Ric
Finch at Ric Finch.
This trip is currently booked full. However, we will be pleased to have you
send us your name and address and we will add you to the wait-list, and also to
a list for notification if we decide to run this trip in 2005.
Trip costs (Guatemala package; air fare to and from Guatemala not included):
If 10-11 participants: $1978; if 12-13 participants: $1867; if 14-16
Thanks for visiting!
Images on this website by Janie and Ric Finch,@copyrighted.