Guatemala

November 2017

EL CORAZÓN DEL MUNDO MAYA

I brought two notebooks with me to Central America in fall of 2017. The first was for meetings and interviews, and the second was for personal observations — the messy, margarita-stained musings that eventually end up somewhere on this blog.

Guatemala, Antigua, Chichicastenango, Lake Atitlán, travel Guatemala, Guatemala itinerary, tourism Guatemala, Elizabeth Around the World
Thirteen days, six shuttles, four cab rides, three boats, and two buses in beautiful Guatemala.

But after a week in Honduras, I had gathered so much story material, my work filled up my steno pad, and spilled into the retro Winnie The Pooh notebook I had been gifted with by relatives like, 10 years ago, and never wanted to whip out in public. I had hoped I would have time to buy something more sensible in Guatemala City, but the schedule was so packed, I ended up taking notes from Guatemala’s human rights ombudsman in a pastel blue Disney scribble pad that said, ‘Thoughts’ on the cover. I kissed my tough reporter reputation goodbye that day, but thankfully (hopefully) earned it back over three weeks of backpacking through Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

 Portal de las Panaderas, Antigua, Guatemala, Elizabeth McSheffrey, Elizabeth Around the World, Elizabeth McSheffrey journalist, Antigua itinerary, Guatemala itinerary
Standing in the Portal de las Panaderas in Old Antigua.

The adventure began in Guatemala City toward the end of October, with a cohort of exceptional international women peacekeepers, philanthropists and activists. They were there to act as witnesses to human rights abuses, and I was there to investigate Canada’s ties to a controversial mine in the highlands that had a sparked social conflict so intense, it has led to beatings, incarcerations, lawsuits, a court suspension of the mine’s activities, and a powerful Indigenous leadership movement that is ongoing today.

Read this post for reflections on that reporting experience, and a truly dynamite, travel itinerary that stretches from the top of the smouldering Pacaya Volcano to the centre of Maya worship in Chichicastenango. Guatemala is a beautiful country of cloud forests and astonishing colours, and — as the title of this post suggests — the beating heart of the Maya world. I encourage you to visit if you can, and spread the word that Guatemala is so much more than horrifying news headlines: it’s about a deep love for land, water and culture, and a lifestyle in harmony with all three. For an extended Central American backpacking route, click on to El Salvador and Nicaragua after this page.

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K’iche women sell flowers from the steps of the Iglesia Santo Tomás in Chichicastenango.

Day One: Greetings from a Guatemalan star

With all of our delegation safely arrived in Guatemala City from Honduras, we checked into the swanky Hilton Garden Inn, which would become home base throughout the week. Guatemala City is laid out in 21 zones, numbered sequentially in a spiral pattern, each with its own distinct character based on the age of the neighbourhood and the intensity of its gentrification. Zone 9, where our delegation was staying, contained mostly embassies, boutiques and restaurants.

DINNER AT THE CASA TECPAN

Rigoberta Menchu Túm, Guatemala City, Elizabeth McSheffrey, National Observer, Xinka mine, Tahoe Resources
Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchu Túm greets fans in Guatemala City on Oct. 25, 2017.

We were met in the lobby of our hotel by a Guatemalan star: Rigoberta Menchú Tum, a Maya K’iche’ human rights activist who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for taking a controversial stand against Guatemala’s government-led massacre of Indigenous peoples between 1960 and 1996. She shook our hands warmly, and walked arm in arm with fellow laureate Tawakkol Karman of Yemen to the Casa Tecpan down the street, where we met our support team of women human rights defenders from across the country. 

We sat at two long tables, conversing animatedly in Spanish and English over hibiscus juice and micheladas (a local favourite made with beer, lime, seasoning and tomato juice) in anticipation of the week ahead. Our packed schedule included meetings with high-ranking human rights officials, a documentary screening, and a field trip to communities affected by the mine, among various other engagements. In some ways, it was a more intensive itinerary than Honduras, reflective — in my opinion — of the greater resources available to activists in Guatemala, a country that has generated a little more wealth, and a little more of the international spotlight than its eastern neighbour in recent years.

Day Two: The Faces of the Disappeared

Emotions were running high by 10 a.m. on our first full day. Dabbing wet eyelashes with hotel napkins, Indigenous and feminist leaders described the state of human rights in their country to prepare us for the week ahead. Esteemed academics and activists all, they told us that if every mining project proposed in Guatemala goes forward, there will be one mine for every 100 kilometres in a country the size of Ohio state. That’s not a likely scenario, but was shocking nevertheless.

Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Dr. Irma Velasquez, Claudia Samayoa, Hilton Garden Inn, Nobel Women's Initiative, Elizabeth McSheffrey, genocide, Guatemala
Maya human rights defenders discuss the state of corruption in Guatemala on Oct. 24, 2017.

A BLACK EYE FOR CANADA

At last count, Canadian mining companies held a major stake in that extraction, with five corporations claiming more than $289 million in assets. Over the years, allegations of human rights abuses at Canadian mines abroad have resulted in condemnation from at least five United Nations organizations, a series of lawsuits, and a black eye staining the country’s international reputation. Read my story on that legacy here: Raids, incarceration and decimated Indigenous land stains Canada’s reputation in Guatemala.

“The Government of Canada has not taken responsibility,” said Amalia Lemus of the Diocesan Commission for Environmental Defense in Guatemala. “Internationally, it’s like we don’t exist. We are all at risk and our water is at risk… the violation of human rights is enormous.”

As of the date of this posting, the Government of Guatemala — led by two successive presidents charged with corruption — continues to grant mining concessions on Indigenous lands, often without the permission of their occupants. This has allowed mining companies and their subsidiaries flourish in a state “designed for corruption and impunity,” explained Claudia Samayoa, founder of country’s Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. We heard many of the same complaints in Honduras: systemic state corruption, widespread persecution of women and girls, organized crime, and politicians who value power more than human life.

Jordán Rodas Andrade, Guatemala, human rights, Nobel Women's Initiative, Rigoberta Menchu Tum, corruption, journalism, Guatemala, Elizabeth McSheffrey
Ombudsman Jordán Rodas Andrade takes questions from Rachel Vincent of the Nobel Women’s Initiative.

I didn’t envy Sr. Jordán Rodas Andrade, the human rights ombudsman with whom we met next. He was charged with cracking down on these issues against the government grain, and pulled no punches in his description of a political system “of paying for favours,” and an “institutional crisis” caused by the state. I worried about his safety in a country notorious for making troublemakers disappear — he and his family had already fled Guatemala once as a result of state violence during the civil war. That very day, Andrade predicted the government would “probably use the public budget as a way to silence (my office).”

RESTAURANTE LA MEZQUITA

We had a quick lunch at La Mezquita, a beautiful old heritage building on 6 Avenida A in Zone 1, whose tapas were quite pleasant and full of fresh, local ingredients. For more than a century, La Mezquita was a Spanish colonial social club, as evidenced by the grandeur of its tiled columns, chandeliers, and red and white arches —  designed in the style of the Great Mosque of Córdoba in Spain.

La Mezquita, restaurants, Guatemala City, where to eat, Guatemala City itinerary,
La Mezquita was once a colonial social club, built to mirror the Great Mosque of Córdoba.

Sadly, the club was only opened to Guatemalan members in the 1960s, and to Indigenous peoples and non-members in 1991. If you ask at the bar for Nolo Dominguez, one of the owners, he’ll be happy to show you around and tell you about the restaurant’s history. If you’re nearby, I recommended stopping in for a drink at least — La Mezquita’s rich history and brightly-coloured interior are worth the inflated cost of a beer there.

THE NATIONAL POLICE ARCHIVES

As we entered Guatemala’s National Police Archives in Zone 6 that afternoon, it became clear our day would contain little emotional respite. Discovered accidentally, mouldy and water-damaged in 2005, the archives contain more than 80 million files (eight kilometres’ worth of documents), spanning over 116 years of Guatemalan history.

The abandoned building that housed them was once a clandestine jail and torture chamber during the murderous rule of ex-dictator Efraín Ríos Montt (whose genocide conviction was eventually overturned), and has since been reclaimed as a historical centre for the restoration and digitization of the records. But the Guatemalan government, our guide told us, has not provided any resources to continue exploring the archives’ contents — an undertaking that is now financed primarily through aid from Canada, Switzerland, the United States, Sweden and Catalonia.

National Police Archives, Guatemala City, Guatemala civil war, genocide, human rights, Elizabeth McSheffrey, Elizabeth Around the World

The halls of the National Archives building are dark, ghostly and concrete, with boxes of files stacked from the floor to the ceiling, kept safe behind bars. Their contents are equally disturbing, and many hold the black and white mug shots of men, women and children who were charged for murder, terrorism, fraud and homosexuality — a range of of accusations whose basis in fact will never be uncovered.

“What happened to these women?” asked the guide, pointing out a haunting book full of photos of female prisoners. “Were they tried? Tortured? Disappeared?”

Tens of thousands of Guatemalans were disappeared during the civil war and genocide in the late 20th century, and today, many of their relatives have turned to the archives in search of answers. Twenty-one million files have already been digitized and made publicly available, and more than 30,000 public requests for information have been answered. When a request comes in, researchers usually begin looking for files between 1975 and 1985, said the guide, which is when the greatest human rights violations took place. The archives have been used in 14 criminal trials over a decade, and have played a critical role in handing out severe prison sentence for human rights abusers. The National Police Archives, in my view, are a must-see in Guatemala City. Arrive early for the 8 a.m. tour in order to avoid gridlock commuter traffic and click here for more information on arranging a visit.

500 YEARS: LIFE IN RESISTANCE

We were in desperate need of the wine and pizza offered to us towards the end of the day, as we chatted with human rights lawyers at the Hilton Garden Inn. We were lucky to be part of an advanced, exclusive screening of 500 Years: Life in Resistance — a phenomenal documentary about the genocide trial of Ríos Montt, and the powerful Indigenous women who fought for justice in the face of great corruption and crimes against humanity.

Dr. Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj, Guatemala, human rights, Indigenous women, Elizabeth McSheffrey
Dr. Irma Velásquez is one of Guatemala’s leading Indigenous rights activists.

One of its stars, Dr. Irma Alicia Velásquez Nimatuj, a Maya K’iche’ journalist, social anthropologist and activist, was in the room with us as footage from the courthouse, the rural grassroots resistance movement, and protests in the city streets flashed before our teary eyes. Irma initiated the court case that made racial discrimination illegal in Guatemala, has won several journalism awards, and been tapped by the United Nations for a number of roles in support of Indigenous rights and women. At the end of the film, I shook her hand, hugged her and thanked her for her courage. In Spanish, I told her I am also journalist, and that hearing her story had left me, quite uncharacteristically, without words.

Day Three: Meeting the Resistance

We were on the bus by 6 a.m. on Oct. 26, making our way to the small town of Casillas, roughly three hours southeast of the capital in the Department of Santa Rosa. It took a while to get out of Guatemala City, and it was a breath of fresh air when we did: up and down we drove over seas of green snuggled between mountains, whose tips were just starting to glow with sunrise. We passed rural communities, whose tiendas by the roadside sold floral arrangements in anticipation for Mexico’s Day of the Dead — an early November holiday of prayer and remembrance that is widely celebrated in Guatemala. That’s when we hit the Casillas blockade.

THE CASILLAS BLOCKADE

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Men and women of the resistance guard the Casillas blockade around the clock.

The land, water and human rights defenders were ready and waiting when we got there, and cameras followed our Nobel Prize winners — now joined by fellow laureate Jody Wilson — from the moment they stepped off the bus. We were at the infamous Casillas blockade, which has been interrupting the flow of all goods and services to the Escobal silver mine for months. From the activists, we heard disturbing tales of midnight raids, beatings, forced evictions and incarceration, all because of their anti-mining activities. Some even pulled back hair or rolled up sleeves to show scars, while others lodged environmental complaints: increased seismic activity in the region since the mining started, failed crops and toxins in the water.

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Members of the resistance march on the streets of Casillas on Oct. 26, 2017.

A demonstration began on the streets and led right up to the Casillas community hall, where each of our laureates made a short speech, along with local mayors and leading resistance members. The event drew hundreds into seats and bleachers, while other Casillas residents watched from the windows and balconies of nearby homes. Together, they called on the Guatemalan government to respect the will of the communities, and the land and water rights of Indigenous peoples, who have given a firm ‘no’ to the silver mine on their territory.

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National Civil Police Chief Jerez Audon and his officers monitor the demonstration in Casillas on Oct. 26, 2017.

I slipped away to ask a few Guatemalan police officers overseeing the demonstration about allegations of violence against the activists. Jerez Audon, a National Civil Police chief stationed in Casillas, confirmed that while conflicts do occur between resistance members and police officers, the police don’t take orders from mining companies and support the right to peaceful protest. He said his officers never use tear gas or other weapons while demonstrators remain peaceful, and only intervene when the blockade interferes with legally permitted mining activities.

“The policemen here do not support the mine,” Audon insisted, a handgun and several cartridges holstered at his side. “People here misunderstand our job.”

THE MOTHERS OF MATAQUESCUINTLA

There are eight municipalities in the impact zone of the Escobal silver mine, seven of which have formally opposed it in local polls. Since 2015, at least five of their mayors have refused royalty payments from Minera San Rafael, the Guatemalan subsidiary that operates the mine, but ultimately reports to Canada’s Tahoe Resources. We met the mayors during lunch that day at the Hotel San Pablo in Mataquescuintla, in the Department of Jalapa. Over reyanita, a sugared Guatemalan dessert stuffed with beans and plantain, the mayors thanked the Nobel laureates for lending their voices to the cause. Bellies full, we made our way into town, where the mothers of Mataquescuintla were waiting.

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The mothers of Mataquescuintla begin their sharing circle in prayer.

Our meeting began with a Maya ceremony. At the centre of the room, six coloured candles sat on a beautiful wreath of grass and flowers — one for each of the colours that guide the vision and life of the Indigenous Xinka people: blue for water, white for air and voices, green for plants and mountains, red for humanity, blood and animals, yellow for life and sun, and black for night, sundown and the jet black hair of the people. We prayed together as the candles were lit, and sat down to hear testimony from the women.

Mataquescuintla, Minera San Rafael, resistance, Casillas, blockade, Elizabeth McSheffrey
Women comfort each other while speaking about abuse they have endured in Mataquescuintla.

It takes extraordinary courage to bare one’s soul before strangers, and these women spared us no details. Choking back tears, young Olinda García told us that she was raped at the age of 22 — allegedly by two Guatemalan police officers — on Feb. 9, 2014 near her home in Jalapa, and left on the roadside, alone and battered. She believes she was targeted because she was driving with a member of the mining resistance at the time. He was arrested and taken away, and she is still waiting for her day in court.

“It’s been very difficult for me, but I thank God because it made be stronger, braver. We’ve been discriminated against in our communities. We were pointed out, threatened, ostracized, but here we are.”

Her story, tragically, was not unique, and my heart was broken for these brave women who put their safety on the line for a cause they believed in. As a journalist, however, I had run into an obstacle: paper evidence is seldom available to link such grievances to mines or their corporate masters — how I could I honour these survivors while upholding my responsibility to deal in verifiable facts? I knew I had to tread carefully in my writing. After all, in a few short days, I would interview employees of Minera San Rafael. Like the police officers in Casillas, I had no doubt they would tell a different story.

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Nobel Peace Prize laureates (centre) Tawakkol Karman, Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi and Rigoberta Menchú Tum lend their voices to the cause of the resistance.

Day Four: Bureaucracy and Human Rights

We had another full day of meetings scheduled upon our return to Guatemala City. But only a few of us — Nobel laureates, lead organizers and journalists — were granted access to Iván Velásquez Gómez, head of the International Commission Against Impunity for Corruption in Guatemala (CICIG), who met us at our hotel for tea in the morning.

CRACKDOWN ON ANTI-CORRUPTION EFFORTS

Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Women's Initiative, Tawakkol Karman, Iván Velásquez Gómez, CICIG, Guatemala, Corruption
Iván Velásquez Gómez, head CICIG, poses for a photo with Nobel Peace Prize winners Tawakkol Karman, Shirin Ebadi and Jody Williams.

Velásquez, an esteemed Columbian lawyer with an impressive resume of investigating state corruption and white collar crime, was visibly exhausted. The international community has placed much of its hope for Guatemala on his organization, which also inspired the model for MACCIH, the Mission to Support Corruption and Impunity in Honduras. In the months prior to our visit, we learned, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales tried to expel Velásquez for trying to investigate him for corruption tied to illicit electoral financing. The president was unsuccessful, but has since fired 11 police investigators from Velásquez’s commission, and sent a letter warning the commissioner to “abstain from interfering in internal affairs while in Guatemalan territory.” Despite this explosive working environment, Velásquez remained resolute. I asked him how the international community could contribute to his cause:

“We are not saviours, we are just additional players,” he said. “When we are able to (make visible) these problems and communities, their human rights struggle, I think we are able to raise the political consequences of those who would act against them.”

SURVIVORS WILL NOT BE SILENCED

I will never forget the interview that followed. Later that morning, I sat down with 15-year-old Estefani Sotoj Hernández, one of few young girls who survived a deadly fire at a government-run children’s shelter in San José Pinula, about 24 kilometres from Guatemala City. On March 8, 2017, the 56 teenaged girls had been locked in a small room as punishment for protesting the home’s abusive conditions earlier in the week. They had been beaten and teargassed by police for their efforts, and returned to the shelter, which the Guatemalan human rights commission had attempted to shut down just one month prior.

It’s unclear how the fire started in the room that night, but Estefani said the girls, all between the ages of 13 and 17, didn’t do it. She spoke quietly at the hotel beneath a grey hoodie, which hid the scars on her face, and kept her hands — missing five fingers between them — clenched inside her sleeves.

“You couldn’t tell what was happening to your body, there was so much smoke,” she told us. “Everyone was screaming. Many lost consciousness, others were burning.”

Nobel Women's Initiative, JASS, Just Associates, Guatemala City, shelter fire, Estefani Sotoj Hernández, Elizabeth McSheffrey, journalism
Local human rights defenders and international delegates meet in Guatemala City to brainstorm on advancing the rights of women and girls, and support Estefani, who shared her story publicly.

Forty-one girls died in that room, screaming to be let out as they burned alive. Estefani was in a coma for 15 days, and placed back into government care before eventually being returned to her family. Her father sat next to her during our interview, and said he was proud of his little girl for sharing her story.

According to reporting by The Guardian, eight people, including police and government officials, have been charged in connection with the fire. Lawyers are now trying to remove the president’s immunity from prosecution while in office, so  that he, too, may be held accountable. Read this article by Liz Ford, who travelled in Guatemala and Honduras with us, for more information:

READ: ‘Screaming in terror’: teen survivor relives ordeal of Guatemala children’s shelter fire

BALANCING BUSINESS AND HUMAN RIGHTS

The Canadian embassy in Guatemala was nervous about having journalists attend a luncheon with the Nobel laureates that afternoon, and swiftly enacted the Chatham House Rule, which means the identity and affiliation of anyone quoted must be kept a secret. It was a beautiful embassy, with a well-lit reception room and courtyard overlooking lush green mountains.

Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Elizabeth McSheffrey, Elizabeth Around the World, Elizabeth McSheffrey journalist, Guatemala City, Canadian embassy, Guatemala
Rigoberta and I take a break from bureaucracy on the balcony of the Canadian embassy in Guatemala City.

I chatted with many of the luncheon’s guests about their work experience in Guatemala, and how they managed to do business amidst such corruption and human rights abuse. Choosing words carefully, one person told me there was a balance to be struck between economic interests and human rights, and admitted to having had an easier time doing human rights work in the Middle East. Shocked by the comments, wondering what economic interests could possibly supersede human rights, I continued to exchange pleasantries with the other guests, until our next engagement. Estefani was still very much on my mind.

PARTY CRASHED BY PAGEANT QUEEN

It seemed impossible that our evening could end on a light note, but comedic relief arrived in the form of Señora Guatemala, who crashed a ceremony at the University of San Carlos de Guatemala commemorating the 25th anniversary of Rigoberta’s Nobel Peace Prize. Halfway through the proceedings, a beautiful young woman in a skintight purple suit with matching gloves and six-inch stilettos marched into the auditorium with her assistant, and sat down near the front row. We didn’t know who she was or what to make of her, so we ignored the intrusion as the university announced the start of a new course in Indigenous studies in Rigoberta’s honour. But when the faculty lined up for photos with Rigoberta and her fellow laureates, Señora Guatemala made her move. She walked onto the stage and placed herself at the centre of the photo, much to the bewilderment of its other subjects. Local press started laughing, and the beauty queen — selected to uphold integrity and family values — was quickly shuffled out of frame. She left quietly after the ceremony, and only afterward did we learn who she was.

A few of us went out for dinner that evening at L’Aperó, a delicious artisanal pizzeria in Zone 4. We enjoyed a few bottles of wine, pizza topped with pear and potato, and a visit from the restaurant’s French co-owner, who told us he had started a Rigoberta Menchú Tum association in France, and fundraises for Maya students to go on exchange there every year. Coincidentally, he also manages the singers who performed the final track in 500 years, the documentary screened at our hotel earlier in the week. It was a lovely dinner, brought to life by street performers who perched themselves on the patio and played beautiful trumpet-guitar duets. If you’re in Guatemala City and in the mood for pizza, I highly recommend a stop here.

Day Five: Women, Land and Peace

The last day of our delegation was just as packed as those that preceded it. We made our way straight to the Centro Mariápolis in Zone 3 in the morning, where we met land and water defenders from across the country — brave Indigenous women who were up against not only mines, but oil, gas and African palm oil megaprojects as well.

REMOVED FROM THEIR LANDS

We begun, once again, by lighting coloured candles placed on a circle of grass, flowers, food offerings, and the names of the first four male and female couples in the Maya worldview.

Maya, Mayan, Guatemala, Mayan religion, nawales, Mayan calendar, Elizabeth McSheffrey, Guatemala City
Maya women pray for the land and water at a meeting in Guatemala City on Oct. 28, 2017.

Around the circle were cards bearing the symbols for the 20 nawales, or days of the sacred Cholq‘ij calendar, and the names of women we wanted to pray for. We linked hands to connect the network of life. We prayed, and danced in a circle around the wreath to music from the UkÚx BéC School children’s marimba group, which travelled more than two days by road just to open and our close our ceremony. On the Maya calendar, it was the day of Waqxaqi’E, a historical day that allows men and women to combine their dreams, energies and struggles, and strengthen them in favour of the web of life.

The women’s stories were deeply troubling: many had been forced off their lands to make way for foreign corporate interests, which claimed the most fertile and resource-rich areas for their projects, while leaving families to fend for themselves on dry, contaminated soils. They spoke of polluted rivers from oil wells, of increases in skin disease and miscarriage, and how climate change — which has brought drought and unpredictable rainy seasons — exacerbates their vulnerable situation. Many of their husbands had been forced to leave home in search of work, they explained, exposing them to various forms of abuse. Some had even pulled their children out of school to help provide for the household, or to keep them safe from attackers who target anyone in opposition to the megaprojects.

“We are the ones affected in this modern world. There are mines in our lands and communities,” said Maria Magdalena Cuc Choc. “I call for my rights. As a Q’eqchi’ woman why do I say this? Our public authorities don’t care about who is most affected.”

We split into groups to take a more in-depth look at how the land struggle is impacted by other systemic issues: corruption, climate change, women’s rights, education and nutrition. We shared lunch, and after another round of music and dance, parted ways with new connections and a gift: the women had sewn each of us a handbag with bearing the nawal Ix, which signifies the heart of the planet, female reproduction, and the protection and intelligence of Mother Earth. Ix is a day for feminine energy and thankfulness, of women bonding together to change what is negative.

Maya, Mayan, Guatemala, Mayan religion, nawales, Mayan calendar, Elizabeth McSheffrey, Guatemala City

FOND FAREWELLS AT KACAO

We said our delegation goodbyes at Kacao, an upscale Maya restaurant in Zone 10, beautifully decorated with traditional fabrics, a glass floor and thatched rooftop. We drank, ate pepia and chuchitos, and danced to the music of an exceptionally-enthusiastic recorder player and his band. Many of us had been together through thick and thin since the first day in Honduras, and had become quite close over 5 a.m. wakeup calls, cheap wine and hours spent squished in the back of a bus. We remain in contact today, and parted with promises to look each other up should we ever find ourselves in the same city or country again. The following morning, our delegates flew to homes across the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Mexico, Nicaragua, Catalonia and Yemen. You could certainly say we were a diverse crowd of women.

Kacao, Guatemal City, where to eat in Guatemala City, Guatemalan food, Mayan food, Guatemala City restaurants  Kacao, Guatemal City, where to eat in Guatemala City, Guatemalan food, Mayan food, Guatemala City restaurants

The name of our delegation was Women, Land & Peace 2017: mujeres, tierra y paz. In 2018, as a global community, we are only beginning to acknowledge the sex-specific impacts of traditional systems of power like capitalism, colonialism and white supremacy — the ways women are the first to be impacted, and the last to be considered in the decisions that govern their access to the same resources and opportunities enjoyed by men.

Tawakkol Karman, Elizabeth McSheffrey, Elizabeth Around the World, Nobel Women's Initiative, Mohamed Al-Nehmi, Elizabeth McSheffrey journalist
Proud to call Yemeni Nobel laureate Tawakkol Karman and her husband Mohamed Al-Nehmi friends.

The delegation had ended, but my work had just begun — I now had dozens of hours of interview recordings, 200 pages of handwritten notes, and more than a thousand photos to comb through in writing stories that would do justice to all I had seen and heard. And I still had more interviews to go — in two days, I would speak with employees of Minera San Rafael, and hear their side of the conflict that has captured southeastern Guatemala since 2013.

Day Six: Guatemala City

I had one day to explore Guatemala City in between the delegation’s conclusion and my trip to the Escobal silver mine in San Rafael las Flores. So I packed up my bags and checked into the Las Torres Guest House, just a short walk away from the Hilton Garden Inn, which offers simple and clean accommodations with WiFi for about 290 Quetzals (CAD 50) per night. The staff there didn’t speak English, but I spoke enough Spanish to understand their instructions only to take yellow and green cabs in the city. I asked them to call me one, and was promptly en route to the Mercado Central, a cost of about Q 40.

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Bienvenido a Zona 1.

EL MERCADO CENTRAL

To find the Mercado Central, look down. Located at the heart of the downtown core in Zone 1, the underground market is just a short walk from the Parque Central, next to the Catedral Metropolitana on 8A Calle. Its entrance is crowded with vendors selling wonderfully arranged fruit kebabs and bouquets, along with keychains, crosses, coin purses and handmade jewellery.

The wares inside are similar, with dozens upon dozens of small tiendas crammed into alleyways selling silverware, woodwork, t-shirts, shot glasses, bags of Guatemala’s famous coffee, and Maya fabric woven into handbags, shoes and wallets, among other souvenirs. The prices — all negotiable — were not unreasonable, and similar to what I might pay for equivalent items at home in Canada. The exception of course, was the coffee, which was on average, Q 70 per bag. Friendly calls of “Pase aldelante!” (come in!) followed me up and down the aisles as I moved from the souvenir section into the section for local shoppers. The latter had an impressive fruit, veggie and meat selection, along with cheap cookware imported from China and knockoff clothing from brands like Disney and Chanel. The market is open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day of the week but Sunday, when it closes at 1 p.m.

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PLAZA DE LA CONSTITUCIÓN

It was a warm Sunday in the city — perfect for an afternoon in the hubbub of the Plaza de la Constitución, also known as Constitution Square or the Parque Central. Seven days a week, this beautiful public space is filled with street food vendors, shoe shiners, buskers, toy sellers and pedestrians, who take selfies on the ledge of its large fountain, canoodle on every public bench, and feed the pigeons from seed bags for a few quetzals. It’s especially busy on Sundays, as the snack sellers compete for customers at their corn, tortilla, pupusa and bread tents; teens run around selling ear buds, soap bubble guns and balloons; and families pose in front of the National Palace for a Polaroid from the onsite photographer. I even recall one enthusiastic street performer — a palm reader — capturing his audience with a fake snake in a bag, while another performed a magic act with an artificial brain and some cups. I bought two tortillas with a little queso and tomato sauce for Q 5, and watched the commotion until a group of grinning young gentlemen clad in black and white asked me if I was Catholic and wanted to learn more about the church. After that, I sought cover in the fabric tents, which displayed the most beautiful Maya textiles and clothing I had seen in Guatemala to date.

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But the plaza is more than just a weekend hotspot — it’s the site of some of the most important political events in Guatemalan history, including Independence Day celebrations, the October revolution, the student protests of the 1970s, a bombing, and in June 2015, an unprecedented anti-corruption demonstration that drew tens of thousands of people into the streets. Built in the late 1970s, the plaza is bordered to the east by the Metropolitan Cathedral, to the west by the Centennial Park and National Library, and the Portal del Comercio shopping centre to the south. The latter is an excellent place to sit, observe and eat away from the crowds, and sells an interesting variety of 15th birthday rings and tiaras. Not unlike a Sweet 16, I learned, the 15th birthday is a rite of passage and lavish affair for many Guatemalan girls.

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El Palacio National de Guatemala.

PALACIO NACIONAL

To the north of the plaza is the impressive National Palace, built in the 1930s after an earthquake destroyed the jail and town hall that once stood there. It served as the headquarters for Guatemala’s government until the 1980s, and after the end of the civil war, was converted into a cultural centre for ceremonial activities and art exhibitions. Its only political offices today are for presidential communications and the Directorate of Culture and Arts, and its care falls under the Ministry of Culture and Sports. The building is nicknamed Palacio Verde and El Guacamolon for the greenish tinge brought about by its concrete and oxidized copper coat. Its steps also mark ‘kilometre 0’ for all roads that extend from Guatemala City to the country’s departmental capitals. Take a peek inside — its ballroom is spectacular, and the museum and art gallery are open for public viewing.

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Nos Duelen 56.

At the time of my visit, at the footsteps of the palace (just beyond the textile tents) stood a large red monument — the number 56 — surrounded by crosses, plants and spray-painted messages. It was a tribute to the 56 girls impacted by the tragic shelter fire, 41 of whom were killed while the rest were seriously injured. It was the disaster that Estefani, who spoke with me earlier in the week, survived, and the disaster that brought Guatemala’s femicide crisis back to the forefront of political discussion through a campaign called Nos Duelen 56According to Guatemala’s Public Ministry, 415,514 criminal cases of violence against women were registered between January 2009 and April 2017, and in 2016, 67,073 legal complaints were registered — an increase of 236 per cent from 2009. Between April 2014 and April 2017, the ministry reports, at least 897 women were murdered.

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The names of those who died in Guatemala’s genocide are carved into the white pillars.

CATEDRAL METROPOLITANA

Just to the right of the palace, bells ringing loudly on the hour, is the Metropolitan Cathedral, built in the late 1700s and repaired many times as a result of earthquakes. It’s the main church of the Archdiocese of Guatemala, and its grounds appear to be home base for those folks in black and white who peruse the plaza in search of new recruits to the church. Etched into the 12 columns behind its gates are the names of those who died in the genocide — el masacre — and I noticed that many Guatemalans would walk the cathedral perimeter and pray. I was pleasantly surprised by the beauty of both its architecture and the ecclesiastical artwork and relics within.

CROSSING ZONES

I spent the rest of my afternoon wandering around Zone 1 in no particular direction, strolling through strip malls, parks and sidewalks whose carts sold pirated DVDs, pornography and pets crammed into cages the size of shoeboxes. I inquired about a pair of irritated ducks, which were on sale for less than the price of a bag of coffee. The Sunday ado carried on into the evening with jugglers, acrobats, clowns and squeegee boys crowding intersections at every red light, hoping for a spot of change. I called for a ride back to Las Torres, and went for a walk around Zone 10.

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Snapshots of the streets of Zone 1 in Guatemala City.

One of my favourite parts of being in Guatemala City was crossing the different zones, which not only vary in wealth, architecture, age, colour and commercialization, but geography as well. Some zones are practically in the highlands, have houses built into the sides of cliffs, and streets draped with vines and greenery, while others — like Zone 10,— are characterized by swanky hotels, fast food chains, souvenir shops and corner stores. I went for dinner at Casa Chapina around the corner from my hotel, and overpaid for a subpar salad. In fairness, Cesar salad is probably not the specialty of a restaurant serving Guatemalan cuisine, and Chapina was otherwise a warm, colourful and pleasant place to enjoy a meal.

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Day Seven: The Escobal Silver Mine

Tahoe Resources, whose Canadian headquarters are in Vancouver, B.C., placed strict conditions on my visit to the Escobal silver mine operated by its subsidiary, Minera San Rafael, on Oct. 30, 2017. The company forbade me from taking photos that identified employees or revealing the names of any sources to protect them from discrimination in their communities, many of which have opposed the mine overwhelmingly in local polls. Once again, I found myself on the dusty dirt road to Casillas, Santa Rosa, where I passed through the blockade without trouble in a cab.

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The Escobal silver mine has been inactive since summer of 2017.

AN UNDERGROUND ROLLER COASTER

The Escobal mine — the third-largest silver mine in the world — is located roughly three hours southeast of Guatemala City, nestled in a bed of lush green mountains and neighbouring bean and coffee crops. It was inactive at the time of my visit, its permits having been suspended by a Guatemalan court over questions of Indigenous consultation. Nevertheless, it was guarded by heavily-armed security personnel, and it took a passport and a couple of phone calls to convince them I should be let in.

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The entrance to the Escobal Silver Mine in San Rafael las Flores.

The day began with a safety briefing — mandatory for all who venture into the cool, dark tunnels of the underground mine. I geared up, and with my translator Alejandro, drove into its silent, slumbering depths in the back of a pickup truck. It was actually pretty cool — like a pitch black, spiralling subterranean rollercoaster. Very quickly, I lost track of time, how far we were from the surface and which direction was the way out. Mining is clearly not a profession for the faint of heart, or in my case, the navigationally-challenged.

WHO ARE THE XINKA PEOPLE?

By mid-morning, Minera San Rafael had recruited a number of labourers and local stakeholders for me to speak with. All attested to the mine’s economic benefits and community generosity, and denied that any human rights violations were associated with the project. At the time of this publishing, it’s important to note that Tahoe Resources was being sued for damages in a British Columbian court by resistance members who were shot with rubber bullets in April 2013, allegedly by the mine’s security personnel. Tahoe Resources has vigorously denied that it perpetrated the act in any way, shape or form, and has settled out of court with three of the seven plaintiffs.

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Employees of Minera San Rafael grant me an interview on condition of anonymity on Oct. 30, 2017.

Sitting in a break room near the mine, Minera San Rafael’s staff told me they faced harassment at home for working there, and thanked me for taking the time to record their version of events. Given the opportunity to speak freely and anonymously, they hurled as many accusations at resistance members as resistance members hurled at Minera San Rafael. They said activists were paid to oppose the project, invented environmental damage, and made up stories of police brutality to advance their cause. The staffers also said the Xinka, whose consultation court case suspended the mine’s permits, do not exist within the project’s impact zone.

“I think people are easy to manipulate,” said a production worker who lives in San Rafael las Flores, the municipality where the mine is located. “As workers of the mine, we know the facts. This is not Xinka land… it is territorio normal. There are Xinka people, but not here.”

Last summer, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court suspended the Escobal mine’s activities over concerns that the government had not adequately consulted the Xinka people. It recently commissioned further study on whether the Xinka occupy the lands around the mine — a decision that sent more than 2,000 Xinka people marching through the streets of Guatemala City in April, demanding its permanent closure.

“It is not up to the Constitutional Court to decide if we, the Xinka people, exist or not. This is not a disputed fact,” said Kelvin Jiménez, attorney for the Xinka Parliament, in a statement at the time. “…We exist and we have the right to free, prior and informed consent.”

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Children play in the crop fields adjacent to the Escobal Silver Mine in San Rafael las Flores.

‘WE DON’T HAVE A POSITION ON THAT’

After speaking with staffers — about 20 of them altogether — I had lunch with members of several women’s co-operatives supported by Minera San Rafael. We ate at Don Pepe’s restaurant in the commercial part of San Rafael las Flores, the only municipality to openly support the mine. Admittedly, this community had better infrastructure and more business development than those that opposed it, including Casillas and Mataquescuintla. A few weeks later, in a telephone interview from Nevada, Tahoe Resources’ executive vice-president of corporate affairs Edie Hofmeister would tell me that the Escobal project is a:

“Great success story of how you can take a rural area with very little employment and a number of the population fleeing to the United States for jobs — no banks, no restaurants, no hotels — and really transform it into a zone of prosperity by infusing development dollars into that mine.”

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A rare and exclusive tour of the Escobal Silver Mine, sanctioned by Canada’s Tahoe Resources.

She acknowledged that the Escobal mine has encountered challenges and resistance, but said Tahoe has addressed those challenges, and retains a high commitment to human rights standards. But she also admitted that over multiple trips to Guatemala, she had never met with members of the resistance personally to hear their version of events. That was not Tahoe Resource’s responsibility, Ms. Hofmeister explained, but the responsibility of Minera San Rafael. I asked her whether parent companies be held responsible for the actions of their subsidiaries. 

“We don’t have a position on that,” she said quickly. She then revised her answer to, “Generally, I would say the subsidiary should be held responsible for their own acts.”

NAVIGATING THE NARRATIVES

I returned to Guatemala City with the challenge of reporting, in detail and colour, a high-stakes story whose two narratives were in complete opposition. Each relied heavily on anecdotal evidence, leaving me with a he-said-she-said script, and no ability to definitively link any of the resistance members’ claims directly to the mine. It’s difficult to verify the facts in a country where corruption runs rampant, violence against activists is common, and prosecutions for such crimes are rare. This story also contained a clear power imbalance between the land and water defenders, Minera San Rafael, and its corporate masters at Tahoe Resources. So instead of drawing any conclusions, I let the quotes and pictures do the talking in the story that followed:

Indigenous Xinka march in Guatemala to banish Canadian mine

A SMOKY DEN IN ZONE 10

Brains swimming with all we had seen and heard, Alejandro the translator, Carlos the driver, and I decided it was time for a beer. Back in Guatemala City, we sat down at Bar Esperanto — a smoky den in Zone 10 full of character, graffiti, bumper stickers and modern art. The place often hosts live music, but that evening, we settled for a bit of standup poetry. We ordered a round of Monte Carlo Premiums and talked politics, art and urban living in Guatemala until late in the evening.

We parted ways fondly, and thanked each other for what had ultimately, been a long, illuminating and enjoyable day together. I picked up a pack of instant noodles from a corner store on my way back to the hotel, and ate them quietly in my room as I organized more than 10 days of notes and recordings from Guatemala and Honduras. I folded them neatly into the bottom of my 50-litre backpack — with my vacation officially starting tomorrow, I wouldn’t be needing them for a while.

Know Before You Go: Guatemala City

Where to Stay

  • Las Torres Guest House in Zone 10 offers perfectly acceptable accommodations, free coffee, parking and good WiFi for about 290 Quetzals (CAD 50) per night — a bargain price for the safety of its location. Be advised, its staff don’t speak English, so have a few keywords in Spanish ready.

Travel Tips

  • Come to Guatemala ready with a good chunk of American cash. Some shuttles operators, hotels and tours companies prefer to deal in USD, and it comes in handy, especially if you’ve run out of Quetzals and are far from an ATM.
  • Only take the metered green and yellow taxis in Guatemala City. These are safe and certified drivers who can be booked in advance by phone (it’s not possible to hail them on the street). I was advised not to take the bus, or to use Uber in the capital for safety reasons.
  • Don’t take the white taxis, unless they’re marked as Zone 10 hotel taxis. There are hundreds of unlicensed, stolen or uncertified white taxis in Guatemala City, and while you’re guaranteed a cheaper, negotiable rate in these vehicles, I wouldn’t risk your safety or belongings.
  • If you don’t want to take yellow and green taxis for cost reasons, ask your friends in the city, or your hotel receptionist for the name of a reliable driver who offers reasonable rates to foreigners.
  • Zona 1 has a reputation for being a risky place to walk alone as a foreigner. I felt perfectly safe, but also carried nothing with me — not even a hand bag that looked like it might hold a wallet.
  • The Guatemalan Tourism Intitute, INGUAT, has a tourist assistance program with services in English and Spanish that can be reached at +502 2421 2810.
  • Save USD 3 for the end of your trip to pay the cash-only departure tax at La Aurora International Airport.

Day Eight: Guatemala City to Antigua

I caught the 9 a.m. shuttle to Antigua on Oct. 31 from the Hilton in Zone 9, which offers daily transportation to the old colonial capital for USD 15 per person. I booked the trip while I was still a guest there, but there are so many shuttle services available Atitrans, Antigua Tours, Viator, Shuttle Guatemala, Adrelina Tours, Transport Guatemala you’ll have no trouble finding a ride from wherever you’re staying. The drive was about an hour-and-a-half southwest through the central highlands, and the small cities of San Lucas Sacatepéquez and Santa Lucía Milpas Altas. The busy highway, surrounded on either side by bright green forest, smelled of burning rubber and diesel fuel, and housed what felt at the time, like as many billboards as New York City. It even had some of the same ones — Taco Bell, McDonald’s and Little Caesars were among the most common.

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The colourful courtyard of Bigfoot Antigua.

Upon arrival, I checked into Bigfoot Hostel Antigua, one of the best-known hostels in the city. The bright and sunny courtyard, complete with couches, patio tables, foosball and a bar, was decked out in Halloween decorations. It seemed all of Antigua was gearing up for a party that night — artists crouched on the sidewalks outside painting faces with skulls, flowers and butterflies, and the doors of bars and hostels were draped in paper lanterns and spider webs. I picked up a map of the city at reception and started wandering the cobblestone streets. 

OLD ANTIGUA

Antigua is one of Guatemala’s most beloved destinations  bright, colourful and built in the heart of a glorious mountain valley surrounded by three volcanoes. The old part of town was developed in the mid 1500s by Spanish settlers in an easily navigable square, and was the third capital of Guatemala until earthquake damage in the 1700s saw the title transferred to what is now Guatemala City. Today, Antigua is the departmental capital of Sacatepéquez, and has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its well-preserved Spanish Baroque architecture, and the crumbling remains of churches and convents built before the natural disasters.

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It doesn’t really matter where you start your tour, Antigua is so small, you’re bound to see everything just by walking around. While the city is proud of its religious heritage and traditions (it’s world famous for its Lenten and Holy Week celebrations), it has also embraced its modern identity as a tourism hotspot. Its cobblestone streets, alive with purple, red and yellow houses, are lined with smoothie bars, vegan restaurants, Irish pubs, language schools and jewellery shops, catering to all manner of tastes and budgets. A few turns off the map however, and you’ll soon find yourself in residential Antigua, which has a very different flavour.

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Antigüeños shop for fruits and veggies at the local market.

THE STREET MARKET

West of the Parque Central, behind the bus terminal, lies the city’s local street market — a hectic assemblage of hawkers, fruit and veggie vendors, butchers, chefs, metal workers, seamstresses, and more. Its maze of tents and hallways bear little resemblance to the colourful cobblestone of old Antigua, nor does its smell, which ranges from rotting fish to wood lacquer, depending on the section.

Here, you’ll find everything from soccer balls to secondhand clothing, from herbal medicine to plastic cookware. If you’re on a budget, it’s a great place to pick up groceries or have a cheap meal from one of the food vendors  the further into the stalls you go, the lower the prices and the more authentic the dining. The market also has a great selection of souvenirs at negotiable prices, including intricate wooden masks, bags and ponchos sewn by hand, and other artisan crafts. Keep an eye on which direction you came from, as its easy to get turned around inside.

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Having inhaled enough smoke from the food stands, I continued my walk through central Antigua, crossing churches off my mental checklist as I went. I passed through the landmark 17th century Arco de Santa Catalina (regrettably, under construction at the time), and peered into the chained courtyards nearby for a glimpse of the beautifully-painted collection of Biblical statues. In the streets, preparation continued for Halloween and the Day of the Dead, as construction workers roped off entrances and exits to accommodate the night’s foot traffic.

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CHURCHES, CONVENTS AND CATHEDRALS

Eventually, I wound up at the Iglesia de la Merced, which is arguably Antigua’s most beautiful Baroque church. Distinguishable for its yellow paint and white stucco, it was built in the 18th century as an iteration of prior Mercedarian churches that were destroyed by earthquakes. Entrance is free daily, but there’s a fee of Q15 to see the convent ruins just next door. They’re worth a visit for that price, and on a clear day, you’ll catch spectacular views of the volcanoes surrounding the city.

Shortly afterward, I passed the remains of what was once the Iglesia de San Sebastián, founded as a chapel in 1565 and struck off Antigua’s list of buildings to restore after an earthquake in 1773 completely destroyed it. Instead, the city built a fountain and benches in its atrium, which now serves as public green space, and is a lovely alternative to the Parque Central if you’re looking for a quiet place to read.

Just a few blocks west of the square, and right next to one another, are the Iglesia y Convento de San Agustín and the Monasterio de la Compañía de Jesús. The first religious complex, inaugurated in 1657, once housed some of Antigua’s most valuable paintings, despite being built among the city’s lesser known neighbourhoods. The second, built in the 1690s, once had three wings and a church, which housed Jesuit priests, brothers and students until the Jesuits were expelled from Spanish colonies in 1767. Like San Sebastián, however, both suffered heavy damage in the 1773 Santa Marta earthquake, and today, are crumbling, hollow shells roped off from the public.

HALLOWEEN IN THE HIGHLANDS

Running low on battery power while the party was just starting to pick up on Halloween night, I walked back to Bigfoot to grab some dinner. It wasn’t long before the beer taps turned on, and costumed guests started pouring in from all kinds of hostels to take part in the evening’s events. Before I could finish my veggie wrap, I was not only enrolled in the evening’s salsa dance class, but the beer pong tournament as well. Shots of a mysterious, pungent liquor mix called Mayan Spirit were served to me at the bar, and after tossing one back, I refused the second round being poured from a skull-shaped bottle full of something pink and chunky. These are Bigfoot’s signature (and free) drinks — try them at your own risk. 

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Halloween night in Antigua, Guatemala.

My teammate and I — a spritely Israeli gentleman on a worldwide tour after completing his military conscription — put on a truly embarrassing performance at the beer pong tournament, and were knocked out in the second round. Mercifully, I should add, given the ambitious hike I had scheduled the next day, and the opportunity it gave me to chat up some of the bar patrons who had travelled from Guatemala City to be part of the party. I even met a Guatemalan political staffer, who was happy to chat about the corruption charges against the president, having had a few beers. It’s too bad everything was off the record. 

Day Nine: Pacaya Volcano

By morning, the streets of Antigua were littered with confetti, beer bottles, plastic cups, and bits and pieces of broken Halloween costumes. Those who were awake nursed hangovers on the sidewalks, and swapped stories of how the cops had broken up the after party outside our hostel. I rose early to see as much of the city as possible before my volcano hike at 2 p.m., which I had booked at Bigfoot’s reception desk the previous afternoon for just USD 12, plus Q50 for entrance to Pacaya National Park.

PARQUE CENTRAL

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The busty mermaids of the Parque Central fountain in Antigua.

My first stop of the day was the Parque Central, which is the best place to sit and observe the commotion of everyday Antigua. Not wanting to spend much on breakfast, I bought a bag of orange slices from a woman on the street for Q 3, then scouted the square for a cup of that famous Guatemalan coffee. I was disappointed to discover that cafés in Antigua charge prices on par with a Canadian Starbucks, so I got my fix from Wendy’s for a cool Q 10. Laughing in spite of myself, I sat down on a bench by the busty mermaids of the central Fuente de las Sirenas (fountain).

Pigeons, it seems, are the most universal, natural entertainment system. Children and dogs alike chased them around the gardens, while Antigüeños hawked sunglasses, peanuts, home décor, fabrics and other wares to weary parents. Expatriates and retirees gathered for breakfast on the benches, while tourists filled the posh coffee shops around the park. The sun peeked through the clouds, and I basked in this delightful ambiance for about an hour before turning my attention to the remarkable colonial infrastructure bordering the square.

  

CITY HALL

The Parque Central is flanked to the north by the grand Palacio del Ayuntamiento, which houses the offices of the Municipality of Antigua and a museum of early Guatemalan printing. Built in 1740, the city hall — notable for its beautiful double Tuscan archways — has withstood all of Antigua’s earthquakes, thanks to a strong structure and walls more than one metre thick.

PALACIO DE LOS CAPITANES GENERALES

Opposite the hall to the south is the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, which was once the colonial headquarters for all of Central America. 

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El Palacio del los Capitanes Generales in Antigua.

Built in 1549, it may very well have been the region’s first 16th century palace, complete with a jail, an armoury, a ‘Battalion of Dragons,’ and rooms for presidential and administrative purposes. Unlike its neighbour opposite however, this palace was severely damaged during the 1773 earthquake. Major restoration and renovation work didn’t begin until 2009, and today, the building serves as a tourism office. You can pick up a map of Antigua here if you didn’t get one from your hostel.

CATEDRAL SAN JOSÉ

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El Catedral San José in Antigua, Guatemala.

The magnificent Catedral San José is east of the park, built in 1680 by a surprisingly illiterate architect named Joseph de Porres. It was once the most important cathedral in Central America, and today, holds the tombs of the 16th century Conquistador Pedro de Alvarado and his wife, Beatriz de la Cueva, who was the first female governor in the continent. The cathedral lost its roof to the Santa Marta earthquake, and in the 1800s, the Antiguan government built a parish inside the ruins, choosing only to restore the cathedral’s main entrance. Those ruins are accessible for Q 8, and if you’re keen on photography, I recommend returning to the cathedral at night, when it’s entrance is beautifully lit.

THE PORTAL

To the west is my personal favourite, the Portal de las Panaderas, Antigua’s original commercial district. Its Spanish terrace was once the territory of bread sellers, peddlers and muleteers, who would sleep on its stone floors in the absence of having their own shelter, and sell their wares there first thing in the morning. It’s a stark contrast from the portal’s current occupants — tourists and the Antiguan elite, who frequent the terrace’s overpriced cafés, bakeries, book stores and souvenir market, which specializes in textiles and silver jewellery. It’s a colourful corridor indeed, but if you’re looking for a cheaper option that gets you the same vantage point of the Parque Central, there are usually a few Maya women wandering its steps selling fruit, ecclesiastical souvenirs and bead work over outstretched arms.

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Years ago, bread sellers would have slept on the floor of the Portal de las Panaderas in Antigua.

THE WORLD’S MOST BEAUTIFUL MCDONALD’S

After triple-checking that I hadn’t missed any of the attractions on my list, I went out in search of — believe it or not — a McDonald’s. I had heard at the hostel that Antigua was home to one of the coolest McDonald’s’ on the planet, and while I’m not a fan of the franchise’s food, I wanted to see this legendary Mickie D’s in person.

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The world’s most beautiful McDonald’s.

I walked east of the Parque Central to Poniente 21 and wasn’t disappointed. Inside its bland, brick red exterior is a massive garden with shaded patio furniture, picnic tables, benches and a balcony, complimented by a lovely a central fountain and view of the Agua Volcano. If you’ve got nothing left on your list of things to do in Antigua, you might as well stop by here, just to say you did. 

LAVA, MARSHMALLOWS, AND A VOLCANIC SLIDE

I wandered back to Bigfoot around lunch to confirm all was in order for my Pacaya hike that afternoon. It’s a good thing I checked, since the hostel had bungled the reservation, which meant no one was coming to pick me up at 2 p.m. as planned. Bigfoot’s staff apologized half-heartedly, returned my money, and sent me across the street to the Atitrans office, whose helpful associates were happy to add me to one of their tours last-minute. I joined 10 other hikers from around the world on this uphill adventure, which lasted from mid-afternoon to about 9:30 p.m. by the time we returned to Antigua.

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Nery and Nery Jr. explain how the heat from lava rises through the rocks on the Pacaya Volcano.

We drove less than two hours southeast of the city — a beautiful winding route through forests and towns, whose hustle and bustle offered a much more representative picture of urban Guatemalan living than Antigua. Our volcano guide, Nery, and his 10-year-old son Nery Jr., were waiting for us at the entrance of Pacaya National Park. They spoke little English, but we all understood each other using Spanish and hand signals. We started our hike accompanied by a group of young boys and their horses, the latter of which were available for rent anytime, should a hiker require assistance. 

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Standing outside the lava store in a volcanic valley on Pacaya.

The Pacaya Volcano is about 2,550 metres high, and one of three active volcanoes in Guatemala. It first erupted roughly 23,000 years ago, but has been erupting regularly since 1961 — most recently, spraying ash over Guatemala City, Antigua and its department of Escuintla in March 2014. It didn’t have any running lava at the time of our visit, although we were able to see some at the tip of Fuego, another active volcano in Chimaltenango that is visible from halfway up Pacaya.

Tragically, eight months after my visit, Fuego erupted, killing 110 people and injuring hundreds more. The relief and rescue efforts — hampered heavily by lack of political initiative and interference in population counts — was ongoing at the time of this posting. 

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One of our lava dogs warms up on the rocks of Pacaya.

The first hour of the hike was uneventful. We marched uphill through dirt and shrubbery, until the dirt became volcanic rock, the climb became level, and the foul smell of sulphur filled our lungs. Nery pointed through the fog to something red glowing in the distance: Volcán Fuego, he explained, and the spewing lava at its tip. Our escort of boys and horses left us there, and were replaced by two pooches, who had been napping on the warmth of the volcanic rocks and decided to follow us.

It was chilly in the high-altitude air, and soon the fog was so thick, it had blotted out not only the sun, but what I’m sure would have otherwise been a magnificent view of the valley. We reached our final destination about two hours in: an ashy volcanic crater, whose cracks emitted ominous steam to the delight of our shivering, sleepy dogs. Nery whipped out a bag of marshmallows, and we toasted them in between the rocks. A lava dog stole mine right off the stick, revealing the real reason they had followed us, and we juggled a few of the rocks in our hands just to feel how hot they were. Nery asked whether we were interested in the “optional” bonus hike, which was quite steep, but worth it for reasons he said were a surprise. We agreed unanimously, and after a cardio-heavy, 20-minute trek, found ourselves standing above the fog, and in the pink and orange glow of the Guatemalan sunset. Then came the fun part: getting down.

As of that moment, all of our hike had been within reach of most ages and fitness levels. It was clear very quickly why this part was optional — the only way down was to sprint through a knee-deep layer of volcanic ash. This was the surprise, said Nery, who flung himself forward at top speed, moving his feet quickly so they didn’t sink. Bewildered, some of the hikers scooched down on their bums, but the best way to approach this, truly, is with reckless abandon. I hurled myself forward, praying I wouldn’t trip as the fog started to thicken and obscure the path ahead. When I got to the bottom, I had socks full of ash, veins full of adrenaline, and an ear-to-ear grin.

SALSA UNDER STARLIGHT

We made it back to Antigua just in time for a quick shower, and a free evening salsa lesson at the hostel just down the street from Bigfoot. I accompanied Marcellos, whom I had partnered with at Bigfoot the previous evening, during the lesson before the beer pong tournament. He was a kind Argentinian in his late 30s who had lived in Guatemala for years, and frequented Antigua for its superior latin dance scene.

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Gearing up for a party in Old Antigua.

Travellers from all the world attended the class at a small, dimly-lit studio on 6a Avenida Norte, whose walls were covered in mirrors, stickers and national flags. There was a bar at the back as well, and those who required a little liquid courage to get going certainly made good use of it. We learned the basic steps, swapped partners regularly, and were all pretty terrible with the exception of Marcel, who had years of experience not just with salsa, but meringue, rumba and bachata as well.

After the one-hour introduction, the floor opened up for recreational dancing. Marcellos and I ducked out to try something else — the strobe lights, heavy bass and red velour stanchions of Las Vibras de la Casbah, a bumping, two-floor bar that styles itself as the “Best Club in Antigua.” Loud and electronic, it was certainly the best-decorated, best-staffed and best-dressed establishment I had seen so far. Smoke machines added to the ambiance of the dance floor, which was packed with a younger crowd, gyrating under the watchful eyes of many bouncers. We walked straight into the VIP section thanks to Marcellos, who was clearly well-connected. We sipped on a few beers — Brahva Extras and Cabros — before making our way to our next destination, unable to have a conversation over the loud music. 

Las Palmas was my favourite bar of the night. A live band played salsa music to applause from crowded tables, while couples with varying skill levels spun around the dance floor. The drinks here were a little overpriced, but everything else about it felt warm and welcome, from the wooden upholstery to the disco lights and the smell of beer on sticky tables.

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The Antigua bus station near the street market.

Rounds of shots were making their way across the bar thanks to a local bachelorette party, and it was in the midst of this din that we ran into friends from the salsa lesson earlier that evening. We spent much of the night on the dance floor, and Marcellos and I were even able to whip out of a few dance lifts — Las Palmas has a lovely rooftop terrace, where practiced our tricks under the stars.

The evening ended on the rooftop of Marcellos’ hotel, which had a small jungle gym, a trampoline and a marvellous view of Antigua. We chatted into the morning hours about business, politics and life in Guatemala. I told Marcellos I would pay him a visit when I returned to the capital in two weeks to catch my flight back to Canada. It’s a promise, I’m thrilled to say, I was able to keep.

Scroll to the very bottom of this page to read about my reunification with Marcellos in Guatemala City, along with tips for visiting the capital. 

Know Before You Go: Antigua

Where to Stay

  • Bigfoot Hostel Antigua offers clean and simple dorm rooms with shared bathrooms, well-priced food and drink, and spotty WiFi access for Q 75 or USD 10. It’s within walking distance to all of Antigua’s attractions, is conveniently located across from the Atitrans tour office, and has nightly events and entertainment for guests. It’s a good place to meet other backpackers, but not a great place if you’re looking for a good night’s sleep. Make a reservation on WhatsApp at +502 7832 2494 or by email: manager@bigfoothostelantigua.com.

Travel Tips

  • Antigua is so small, if you wander around for the better part of an afternoon, you’ll find the bulk of its sites without any trouble. For that reason, I didn’t worry about the efficiency of my walking route — although that may be something you want to consider if you’re on a tight schedule. 
  • Keep you passport handy in Antigua, as you won’t be able to exchange any money at the banks without it. The banks surrounding the Parque Central are the most reliable and offer the most reasonable rates. Be advised: they take lengthy lunch breaks.
  • For cheap eats, just keep walking until you’ve reached the end of the cobblestone in any direction. This is where you’ll street food at local prices.
  • If I could redo this trip, I would have done the two-day overnight Acatenango hike instead of the one-day Pacaya hike, which ultimately, was not too impressive by way of scenery. Acatenango, Bigfoot’s flagship tour, offers up-close, explosive views of the active Fuego and Agua volcanoes, inclusive of meals, guide and sleeping gear.
  • If you do choose to hike Pacaya opt for the evening option so you can watch the sunset. Bring a sweater, a flashlight and good sneakers — it gets cold, dark, and slippery on the volcano. Bring cash to tip the guide and use the washroom.

Day 10: Antigua to Chichicastenango & Panajachel

I arose, once again to the sight of beer bottles and plastic cups scattered on the cobblestone streets. I smiled, not because I like to see litter, but because memories from the previous evening came swirling back like a happy hangover. I waited impatiently for the coffee shop across the street to open — I had a 7 a.m. shuttle booked with Atitrans to take me to Chichicastenango, home to one of the largest Indigenous markets in all of Latin America, open only on Thursdays and Sundays. I paid USD 15 for the ticket, and an additional USD 10 for afternoon ride to Panajachel, my final destination — all of which I had coordinated at the Atitrans desk the morning prior. 

The drive to Chichicastenango is roughly three hours northwest through the highlands in the Department of Chimaltenango. Built in between ravines and mountains of pine and oak, its name literally means “town among the nettles,” stemming from the word ‘chichicaste,‘ a kind of poison ivy that grows there and was used by Mayans long ago as a kind of corporal punishment. It’s K’iche territory, and its people live relatively traditional lifestyles that incorporate both Roman Catholic and Maya world views. It was a beautiful drive of course, only slightly spoiled by the fact that the bus from Antigua arrived quite late. We still made it to Chichi in time for the market — the town of Santo Tomás, where the market is located, isn’t very big. As long as you’re not caught up in lengthy negotiations with its shopkeepers, just a few hours is enough to get a sense of the place. 

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The colour and clamour of the Chichicastenango Market.

THE CHICHICASTENANGO MARKET

The Chichicastenango Market, open twice a week, brings in artists and vendors from all over the western highlands, who sell fruits, vegetables, flowers, handicrafts and farm animals. To wander its streets is to get lost in a sea of colour: scarves, pillow cases, blankets, jewellery, silverware, dishes, dolls, wood — the splendour and brilliance of Maya fabric has been woven into almost everything.

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The Chichicastenango Market bustles on a Thursday afternoon.

Women dressed in traditional guipils carried baskets of the stuff for sale on their heads, and many pounds more in the form of textiles draped over their arms and shoulders. They must have incredible upper body strength, I thought, in addition to tolerance for blistering heat — I was sweating in a tank top, as they carried layers of blankets up to 12 inches thick on each arm. Be warned, however: to walk through the market’s streets is also to expose yourself to the potential for tremendous pestering. At least, that was my experience as a tourist who presumably, is the target audience for scarves, handbags and blankets. Some of the women followed me for up to 10 minutes at a time, aggressively trying to close a deal. 

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IGLESIA SANTO TOMÁS

Towards the back of the market on 5a Avenida is the Saint Thomas Church, built around 1540 on a mound that predates colonization. Its 18 steps, built of white stone, represent the 18 months of the Maya calendar, and once led to an ancient Maya temple.

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K’iche Maya holy men observe as a cross is raised inside Iglesia Santo Tomás in Chichicastenango.

Today, they play host to women and children weaving flower bundles, selling knick knacks, having lunch or lighting prayer candles for loved ones lost or in honour of patron saints. Many K’iche priests still use the church for rituals, and I was fortunate to be there at the exact moment that one took place: a group of holy men dressed in brightly-coloured robes carried a massive cross on their shoulders through the market and into the church, amid fumes from swinging incense. A procession of men carrying staffs of wood and brass followed, praying as the clerics marched. The group raised the crucifix inside the church with ropes, lit candles and prayed at its base as tourists looked on. Photos aren’t allowed inside, but I didn’t know that at the time, and managed to take few snapshots.

The church doubles as Chichi’s regional museum and has a wonderful display of classic colonial Guatemalan imagery and altar pieces dating back to the 17th century. Ideally, one would visit Chichicastenango between Dec. 14 and 21, when the town celebrates its patron saint, St. Thomas, with feasts, live music, the dance of the “Flying Pole,” and other traditions and processions.

A VERY LOCAL LUNCH

Just a few steps to the left of the church, in the old Municipality of Pop-Wuj building, is a busy indoor market for local shoppers that sells produce, meat and dairy products, along with cheaply-made shoes, jewellery, backpacks, toys, plastics and other imported goods for the home. I thought this was a little more off the beaten track for tourists until I found a whole walking tour of them gawking from the top floor. I didn’t linger for too long  I was much more interested in the outdoor food court behind the market, where there was not another visitor in sight. 

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A sea of red at the Indoor Market in Chichicastenango.

There, I bought a steaming plate of beans, rice, potatoes and beef for Q 10 from some girls working the frying pans under a bright blue tarp, and sat down with the rest of Chichi’s workers taking their lunch break. One by one, a number of them my table to ask cautiously, and curiously, in Spanish where I was from, why I was travelling alone, where I was going, and what brought me to Chichicastenango. I happily answered and shook their hands as they wished me well on my journey. Many asked how I enjoyed my lunch, what I thought of Guatemala so far, and whether I would come back to visit Chichi again.

I wish I could have stayed longer in Chichi to see the town cemetery, mask museum, and ceremonial Pascual Abaj hill, but the hour approached to catch my bus to Panajachel. I walked up and down the streets outside the main outdoor market, bought a beautifully-stitched table cloth for about Q 150, and grabbed a strawberry banana smoothie for the road as I caught the afternoon shuttle at the Santo Tomas Hotel. I was a little disappointed I had missed some of the city’s cultural sites due to a tardy arrival from Antigua, but quickly forgot about it as the bus pulled into the lakeside town of Panajachel about an hour later. 

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THE GATEWAY TO LAKE ATITLÁN 

The road to Panajachel is winding, leading down from the mountains into the small highland town on the north shore of Lake Atitlán. It practically sparkled in the reflection of sunset on the water on Nov. 2, 2017 — an unforgettable sight that regrettably, I couldn’t capture from the moving bus. I was now in the Department of Sololá, about 145 kilometres west of Guatemala City.

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Tuk tuks rip through the colourful streets of central Panajachel.

Panajachel, or Pana, has about 15,000 permanent residents, most of them Tz’utujil and Kaqchikel Maya. It’s the gateway to Lake Atitlán, one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, and has an astounding volcano panorama view, along with excellent access to each of the Indigenous villages around the lake. The bus dropped me off at Adrelina Tours on Calle Santander, Pana’s main drag, which is a hotspot for street food, bars, coffee shops, restaurants and travel agencies. I had a reservation at the Hotel Playa Linda, which was about a 20-minute walk from the bus stop toward the water and down the shoreline. It was a simple, clean hotel with an outdoor pool, lakeside access, and lovely decorations that combined both traditional Maya and Roman Catholic themes. After trying, and failing, to light the rustic fireplace in the corner of my room, I walked back to Calle Santander to be in the thick of things and get a sense of why Panajachel is such an internationally beloved destination for tourists, immigrants, expats and well-to-do Guatemalans alike.

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The shop owner begrudgingly allowed me to take a photo of this spectacular hat on Calle Santander.

It wasn’t as colourful as Chichicastenango, but it didn’t matter much — Pana had it’s own thing going on. Red and yellow tuk tuks (the first I had seen in Guatemala) whizzed haphazardly through cobblestone streets lined with souvenir shops, tour schedules, food carts (comedores) and graffitied bars and restaurants whose billboards advertised happy hours with truly tempting prices. The smell of roasting corn, tortillas and pollo picante wafted through the air, but I stopped upon smelling something sweet: chocolate.

CHOCO MUSEO

ChocoMuseo is a franchised chocolate producer and museum with shops across Central and South America that offers chocolate-making workshops, tours of local cacao farms, and a free museum for guests on a walk-in basis. I popped in the location right off Calle Santander, where its friendly staff told me all about the history and importance of cacao in Maya culture — a ritual bean that was once so valuable, just 30 of them were worth the price of a rabbit.

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Sampling the wonderful wares of ChocoMuseo on Calle Santander.

I tried samples of chocolate tea, chocolate chili liqueur, and chocolate made from 90 per cent, 80 per cent and 70 per cent cacao. There was no pressure to buy anything, and the young man showing me around seemed to genuinely enjoy his job. We had quite a bit of fun communicating in Spanglish, and choking on some of the more bitter and spicy samples available.  ChocoMuseo is open from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily, and can also be found in Antigua and Guatemala City. It’s free and definitely worth stopping in, even if it’s just for the tasters.

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Café Loco in Panajachel is a favourite of locals and tourists alike.

I continued on Calle Santander until a coffee shop caught my eye. It was relatively unremarkable from the outside (with the exception of a rather large dream catcher), yet it was so brimming with tourists, I had to squeeze in between sweaty shoulders just to get a peak at what the fuss was about. It turns out that Cafe Loco, which styles itself as a “creative coffee lab,” is just really, really popular. Run by Koreans, it seems like a nice place to have lunch and people-watch, if you’re lucky enough to get a table.

LA PALAPA

My walk took me off the main road and onto Calle Principal, another busy strip of bars, restaurants, hotels and tiendas. I followed the sound of clinking glasses and laughter into La Palapa, which is considered one of the best party bars and hotels in Pana, although I didn’t know it at the time.

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Drinks deals and dim lights at La Palapa on Calle Principal.

It was happy hour, and the Brava beers were flowing for Q 8, and the tequila shots, for Q 5. Here, beneath a thatched rooftop adorned in foreign flags and license plates, I met a rowdy crowd of tourists and North American retirees who had made Pana their permanent home. We drank together, and to my surprise, discussed the complicated intersection of mining, state corruption and human rights in Guatemala. One of the older gentleman, a Canadian named ‘Dave from Winnipeg,’ had spent years in the mining industry both in Central America and Canada, and spent so much time at La Palapa, he had his very own flag on the wall and a whoopee cushion behind the bar. I watched a little bit of the Premier League match on the screen above the taps, before making my way back toward the water.

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NIGHTLIFE BY THE WATER

When the sun goes down in Pana, the tourists may party on Calle Santander, but the locals flock to Calle de la Playa. It’s the cobblestone road that runs parallel to Lake Atitlán, has the cheapest comedores, and pop-up bars that sell beer, shots and whatever drinks can be blended from a mobile cart. I went for a stroll in the direction of Hotel Playa Linda, and discovered a lively Thursday evening scene.

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The lively corner where Calle Santander meets Calle de la Playa.

Music played from inside small restaurants, dogs howled in the bushes, and a busker twirled batons on fire by the docks. Women hawked jewellery, t-shirts and handbags from the roadside, while youth cracked open beers on blankets by the shore. I stopped for dinner at the Comedor Vista al Lago, sat outside to enjoy this exuberant soundtrack, and had three delicious tortillas with beans, cheese and chicken for Q 15. I topped it off with a massive michelada at Granizadas y Micheladas Ashley, a drink cart by the lake that sold the frosty beverages for Q 10. When I couldn’t finish, Ashley kindly made me a ‘to-go’ cup, telling me in Spanish that it would be sinful to waste the beer and tequila. I moseyed happily back to my hotel and finished my drink by the outdoor pool before heading to bed.

Day 11: Exploring Lake Atitlán

I rose early to sound of howling dogs, whose relentless chorus had lasted all night, much to my displeasure. Despite my fatigue, the sun was shining and the water was calling, and I made my way down to the docks to catch a ferry to one of the Panajachel’s neighbouring towns.

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A ferry tied in Lake Atitlán anchored to Panajachel early in the morning.

Lake Atitlán is the deepest lake in Central America, revered around the world for its sparkling aquamarine waters, its three majestic volcanoes — San Pedro, Atitlán and Tolimán — and the 11 Indigenous villages that form a ring around its banks. Many of them are famous for their painters, weavers, markets and churches, and for lakeside hostels that offer quiet, meditative retreats for the soul-searching hippie in all of us. The 11 villages are Santiago, Santa Catarina Palopo, San Pedro, San Marcos, Santa Cruz, Jaibalito, San Juan, San Lucas Tolimán, San Antonio Palopo, Tzununá, and Pana. More information on the most popular ones for visitors is available here.

I wouldn’t recommend forking out cash for a guided tour of Lake Atitlán, only because it’s so easy to use public transit. Boats leave from Pana’s docks about every half hour, and for Q 25 (Q 10 for locals), you simply hop in the one whose conductor is calling the name of the place you’re headed. From there, it’s a cool and beautiful cruise to wherever you’d like to go.

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A panorama view of Lake Atitlán from the docks of Panajachel.

SANTIAGO ATITLÁN

I started with Santiago, the largest of Lake Atitlán’s towns with a population of about 48,000. The village is famous for its vibrant Tz’utujil culture, its church, and for being the historical home of Saint Maximón the mysterious liquor-drinking and chain-smoking Maya deity (I’ll let National Geographic do the explaining on that one). Its colourful homes are built into the rich green hills between the Atitlán and Toliman volcanoes, and its proud Tz’utujil people are known for their fierce political resistance during the civil war, and for the purple, lavender, maroon and bird designs woven into their traditional clothing.

Boat-builders hammered away by the docks on a busy Friday morning, while tuk tuks, trucks and ferry passengers raced uphill to sell goods at the market. Canvas paintings, carvings, jewellery and clothing spilled into Santiago’s streets, competing for space with locals selling boat tickets and trips to the Cofradía Maximón. With a friendly, “No, gracias,” I made my way up to where most of the crowd was heading, taking note of the Stars of David on some of the houses along the way a surprise in a country of predominantly Maya and Roman Catholic beliefs. Most homes in Santiago have been consciously beautified one way or another, be it carved wooden doorways, pastel paint jobs, plants, flags or graffiti.

EL MERCADO Y EL PARQUE

I stopped first at the local market, which is about a 15-minute walk from the water up Calle Real toward the Parque Central. It was a tight squeeze — all of the stalls selling fruit, vegetables, cookware, clothing, and furniture were crammed into a single street, and I found myself shuffling, ducking, and sucking in just to pass without knocking anything over. The smell of seafood, smoke and livestock filled my nose as I walked by large piles of dried fish and crabs wrapped in banana leaf, and cages upon cages of chicks, roosters, puppies and more. I was either very early to the market, or in a section not often visited by tourists, I figured, as I seemed to attract quite a few blank stares. Maybe I just had food in my teeth.

My wandering eventually led me to the central park, whose highlights include a beautiful terrace with a basin containing a relief of Lake Atitlán, and a large, brick-mounted model of the 25-centavos coin — also known as a choca — bearing the face of Concepción Ramírez. Ramírez was chosen to represent Guatemalan women on the back of the choca at the age of 17, in a government contest in 1959 that sought out the most beautiful Indigenous women in the municipality of Santiago Atitlán.

IGLESIA PARROQUIAL SANTIAGO APÓSTOL

Just a stone’s throw from the park is the mid-16th century Iglesia Parroquial Santiago Apóstol, marked by bright red columns and a large crucifix in front of the entrance.

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The Iglesia Parroquial Santiago Apóstol is just a stone’s throw from the market in Santiago.

It’s one of the main attractions in Santiago, containing a memorial to an Oklahoman missionary named Father Stanley Francis Rother, who was murdered by “ultrarightists,” Lonely Planet writes, in the rectory next door in 1981. The bedroom where he slept is open to visitors. What I loved most about the church, however, were the little wooden statues of saints along its walls inside, each of which is made new, handmade clothes by the women of Santiago annually.

COJOLYA MAYA WOMEN WEAVERS

I walked back toward Calle Real to take a better look at the artwork I had overlooked on my way to the market. When it comes to Maya handicrafts, the Cojolya Association of Maya Women Weavers has some of the best — the fair trade, non-profit organization empowers local women through backstrap loom weaving, a traditional Maya art form that has existed in Santiago for thousands of years. I dropped a few quetzals into the donation box, and walked into the small exhibition room where women sat weaving wonderfully patterned textiles at large wooden looms, that would eventually be sewn into bags, wallets, pillows and other accessories. I would have been tempted by a lesson if I had more time — it’s Q 30 for a one-hour class, with the option of purchasing a weaving kit for an additional Q 150 (USD 20). You can make a reservation here, and take comfort in the fact that 50 per cent of proceeds from all purchases go directly to the artisans, and another 25 per cent is invested in social programming for the community.  

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Beautiful paintings for sale on the streets of Santiago Atitlán.

After popping my head into a few small art galleries on the main drag, I made my way back to the docks and bought a ticket to San Pedro La Laguna on a boat leaving in 20 minutes. I decided to skip a visit to the Cofradía Maximón, the religious brotherhood charged with caring for the large model of Saint Maximón in a house whose location changes every year — partly because of my own lack of preparation, and partly because of the crowds. I had not purchased offerings of rum or cigarettes for the saint, and I wasn’t keen on paying for photos, which is standard procedure at Maximón’s house.

If you’d like to visit the cofradía, brush up on the cultural protocol in advance, and hail a tuk tuk to take you there for Q 15 — Q 25.

Sitting with our feet dipped in the water, I had a lovely chat with a young local fisherman while I waited for the ferry to San Pedro. He told me about the distinct languages of Lake Atitlán’s towns, most of which are not mutually intelligible. Each village prides itself on keeping its culture and traditions intact, he explained in Spanish — utterly fascinated by my questions and career as a journalist. He told me he wanted to study linguistics one day. I let him take a few photos with my camera, which he also seemed interested in, before we shook hands and I hopped on the boat. 

SAN PEDRO LA LAGUNA

On the way to San Pedro, cool lake breeze whipping through my hair, I met Yaki, a nomadic Israeli filmmaker shooting projects at his leisure as he travelled South and Central America. He had stayed in Lake Atitlán several weeks already, and offered to show me around San Pedro, the most hipster and party-oriented of the lake’s 11 villages.

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A crowded intersection in San Pedro La Laguna.

Upon arrival, it was immediately clear how San Pedro had earned that reputation — its streets were crawling with tanned, barefooted foreigners (mostly caucasian) who had obviously made it their long-term home, and seemed to support their stay by selling their own handmade jewellery, or playing instruments on the street for change. In between tuk tuk traffic, fresh juice stands and tiendas, I saw many Israeli restaurant names and signs in Hebrew, reminding me of the Stars of David I had seen in Santiago. I asked Yaki about this as we walked, and he explained that many Israelis have settled in Lake Atitlán and started businesses there. It seemed as though he knew most of them. 

As a side note, Guatemalans — the residents of Lake Atitlán in particular — have had some tense relationships with Israeli immigrants. Find out why here

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San Pedro La Laguna as seen from the ferry on Lake Atitlán.

POLLO AL COMEDOR

Much like Panajachel, San Pedro has piles of bars, restaurants, hostels, and travel agencies to choose from, depending on the purpose of your stay. I wished I could have spent a few days there reading, writing and hiking, and I was told it had the best WiFi of all Lake Atitlán’s towns, due to the number of visitors who stay to do just that.

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Pollo y frijoles con Yaki al comedor.

Yaki and I walked around the main market before settling on a small out-of-the-way comedor to grab a cheap lunch. Located right next to the public washrooms (and perhaps because it was right next to the washrooms), it sold a full plate of chicken, rice and beans for a total of Q 12. He told me about some of his films projects, and I told him about the reporting work I had done to date in Guatemala and Honduras. The conversation turned toward Guatemalan coffee, and we both decided to get a cup before the caffeine craving got out of control.

COFFEE AT SABABA

It wasn’t Guatemalan, but I have to say, no visit to San Pedro is complete without a rich cup of Israeli coffee at Sababa, a beautiful restaurant and café by the water on the town’s main street.

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Sipping on Israeli coffee at Sababa in San Pedro.

With two completely open-concept floors, Sababa is the best possible cross between a garden, a treehouse and a cozy attic, complete with indoor swings, a small library, cushions, and green crawling plants. It was built above the water facing the lake, and I couldn’t have imagined a better view as I sipped my coffee and chatted with the friendly Israeli brothers who had recently taken over the business. Our drinks were on the house, since Yaki was a regular, and I was invited back for a free coffee anytime I wanted.

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KICKING BACK AT ZOOLA

I decided at this point to abandon my plans to catch a tuk tuk to a fourth lake town, neighbouring San Juan La Laguna, in favour of more time in San Pedro with Yaki. I was enjoying his insider’s perspective on San Pedro culture and learning about his social advocacy film work.

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Living the dream at Zoola in San Pedro La Laguna.

This next spot, he promised, was one of the “best places to smoke weed” in San Pedro, and while that particular activity didn’t appeal to me, I was intrigued by his enthusiasm and wondered what kind of establishment we might be wandering into as we passed shisha bars, hostels and lakeside patios. We walked through colourful graffitied alleyways to Zoola — a tranquil bar and restaurant whose grounds are crowded with guests snoozing on cushions, enjoying a drink, juggling, smoking or doing yoga. We bought Gallo beers, sat down by the outdoor pool overlooking the lake, and people-watched. I might have even taken a nap, had an orange kite not fallen from the sky out of nowhere onto my head, and slipped into the spool, splashing orange dye all over my clothes. 

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At that point, I decided it was time to catch the ferry back to Panajachel, grab a few delicious street tacos for dinner, and head back to the Hotel Playa Linda for a quiet night in. I had an early morning shuttle booked with Adrelina Tours (USD 25) to a small surfing town in El Salvador, beginning the next chapter of my Central American backpacking adventure. I took some comfort in the fact that I would be seeing Guatemala again soon before flying back to the winter cold of Canada.

Click here to follow my itinerary to El Salvador, and don’t forget to scroll down to the bottom of this page for my return to Guatemala City on Nov. 18, 2017.

Know Before You Go: Lake Atitlán

Where to Stay

  • Hotel Playa Linda, while a little out of the way on 7a Calle 0-70 Zona 2, is among Pana’s cheaper hotels at around USD 39 per night. It’s well-decorated, and has a beautiful garden and pool, even though the WiFi is spotty and the private bathrooms leave something to be desired. If your priority is ferry access on Lake Atitlán, this is the hotel for you. Make a reservation at +502 7762 0096 or online. 
  • La Palapa on Calle Principal is a fun, safe and cheap alternative at Q 61 per person, per night in a shared dorm with shared bathrooms. It may not be the best place to catch a good night’s sleep however, as it prides itself on being a party hostel. Make a reservation online, or by calling +502 5851-9926

Travel Tips

  • If I could redo this trip, I would have skipped Chichicastenango in favour of another day to explore Lake Atitlán. The main draw of Chichi is the souvenir market and exposure to Maya culture, but you’ll find plenty of both in Antigua and the villages around the lake. If either of these two are in your itinerary, don’t feel bad about giving Chichi a miss — especially given how tricky it is to plan around the market’s restrictive hours. 
  • Don’t get sucked into booking an expensive day tour of Lake Atitlán, or into feeling like you need to visit all 11 villages. Public transit between them is cheap and easy ask fellow travellers which towns were their favourite and prioritize. Personally, I loved San Pedro and Panajachel, but I also hear San Marcos is a blast.
  • If you’re hopping between towns, plan your time well. The ferries stop running before sunset, and you don’t want to have to charter a boat back to your hostel.
  • I had no trouble booking hotels, hostels and shuttle transport (via Atitrans and Adrelina tours) last-minute, meaning one day in advance or on the way there. But I travelled during low-season — if you’re visiting Guatemala between May and August, consider reserving some of the more popular tours and hostels ahead of time.
  • Bring ear plugs if you stay in Panajachel — the dogs bark loudly, all night.
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