Saturday, May 28, 2011

Guatemala Part 6b: Santiago Atitlan's plaza and street markets

Tz'utujil Maya woman carries a heavy load through Santiago Atitlán's market. She is dressed traditionally, wearing the blue striped huipil design originally imposed by the Spanish colonial authorities as a method of indigenous identification. The Maya then embroidered the huipils in their own style, in this case with with birds. Behind her sit other women with pans full of various fruits and vegetables they hope to sell to passersby. Tuk-tuks, the 3-wheeled local taxis, regularly whiz by just inches away from their wares. The markets where the Tz'utujil sell to each other were particularly interesting to me. There are lots of other tourist-oriented goods to be found elsewhere, but--except for the plastic pans--this market area seemed unchanged from pre-hispanic times. Today's Maya are very industrious and entrepreneurial. However, some people still remember the old system under which every Maya owed up to 1/3 of his/her labor to the government or to a non-Maya hacienda owner in order to get the necessary papers stamped. The Spanish imposed this system throughout their New World colonial empire, and it continued to relatively recent times. Through such free (actually slave) labor, many of the great cathedrals and public buildings were raised, along with beautiful residences for the privileged.

Life around the plaza

City Hall, Maya-style. In most Spanish colonial era towns, a central plaza is bordered by a government building, usually with a long  colonnaded porch, and the local church. This public building seemed to be the gathering place for a large number of men in traditional dress. Some of these men may have been Cofradia members. Cofradias, or Brotherhoods, are a pattern of organization imported by the Franciscan friars who evangelized in the wake of the Conquest. Cofradias had existed in the European Middle Ages as guilds, before they evolved into religious organizations with the responsibility of caring for the image of a particular saint (in this case Santiago, or St. James). The Cofradia members ensure that the celebration of the saint's day is properly carried out.

Statue of a man in traditional dress. I found this statue in the central plaza. The figure wears a woven set of culottes, with a sash around his waist and an embroidered cloth around his neck. By celebrating such clothing styles, the Maya hope to keep their traditions alive.

The real thing. This man patiently waited on a street corner for a picop (pickup truck bus). He exuded great dignity, and might well be a member of the local cofradia. His striped culottes are decorated with embroidered designs which probably carry significance in the old Maya religion. By 1585, cofradias had become well established all over Guatemala. However, as the centuries wore on, the Church neglected the outlying areas. Gradually, ancient Maya beliefs and practices re-emerged and melded with local Catholic rituals, until only a thin veneer of Catholicism remained over deep layers of traditional beliefs. An example of this is the cult of Maximon, a saint/devil figure which emerged during the early colonial period and is still worshiped and respected. The Spanish priests first tried to coopt the cult, and then to eradicate it, but without success. The age-old Catholic practice of coopting pagan festivals and symbols in order to speed the evangelization process actually made reverse-cooptation easier.

A local woman is portrayed on a Guatemalan coin. I was puzzled when I saw this sculpture in the plaza. Why would anyone make such a sculpture of a 25 centavo coin? Once again, Caravan Tour Director Jorge had the answer. A local woman named Maria, now deceased, modeled for the artist who created the coin design. Her profile, wearing the unique Tz'utujil hat called toyocal, has become a symbol of Guatemala's Maya people, much like the Mexican charro, wearing his broad sombrero, has become a symbol of that country. According to Jorge, this coin may soon be replaced, so I hung onto one just in case.

Again, the real thing. I encountered this local vendor on the street near the plaza. Here you have the full-face view of the toyocal. It is comprised of a long strip of embroidered cloth, rolled up with a hollow center, kind of like a large roll of duct tape (but, of course, much more attractive).

Sword and cross, the dual nature of Spanish colonialism. Another statue I found in the plaza seemed especially symbolic. Indigenous people often find ways of ridiculing their oppressors and this may be one of them. The Spaniard grandly waves a sword in one hand and a cross in the other as he rides upon a horse much to small for his size. The conquistadors were, in the end, nothing more than free-booters and mercenaries out to seize their fortunes. They thought nothing of massacring or enslaving the indigenous people they encountered. An empire might be conquered, but it could hardly be held and administered on this basis. The conquistadors needed an ideology to justify for their actions, and to indoctrinate the conquered people into a new religion that required obedience to the new masters. Austere, rigidly hierarchical, and full of evangelical zeal, Spanish Catholicism fit the bill perfectly. The Church, in turn, needed the sword of the conquistadors to suppress the native religions, to enforce mass conversions, and to provide forced labor to build the great Catholic edifices.

Getting a kick out of life. Give a group of kids a ball, and they'll quickly find a use for it. The kids above engage in a pick-up game of soccer, or fútbol as it is called in Spanish, while on recess from the school in the background . These Maya youths are growing up in a very different world from that experienced by their parents, or for that matter, any of their ancestors back to pre-hispanic times. There is a genuine, if fragile, democracy. The Maya now have more economic opportunity. Their lives are no longer ruled by soldiers and hacienda owners who can demand uncompensated labor. Still, their traditions are under increasing threat from the incursions of globalism. Jorge's opinion is that much of the rich texture of Maya life may disappear in a generation or two. The future may entail the replacement of huipils, cortes, and toyocals by t-shirts, blue jeans, and NY Yankees baseball caps, with Big Macs replacing the age-old menu of beans, squash, and corn. These changes would be of dubious value in my opinion. The Tz'utujil and other Maya will have to decide.

Buying and selling at the street markets

Making a sale. A tourist puts aside her camera to reach for her wallet as a local vendor makes her pitch. She is buying embroidered strips of cloth that could easily be made into a belt. Notice the carved, wooden, animal masks behind the customer. Clearly Santiago Atitlán has come to depend upon the tourist trade for a good part of its economy. The upside is that local crafts, and craftspeople, are supported and the residents can therefore afford modern conveniences such as cell phones and electricity (as well as blue jeans and Yankee caps). The possible downside is that the tourist trade can fluctuate dramatically, influenced by political instability and reports of local crime. Perhaps a more subtle downside is the possible corruption of the local art's original religious and social purposes by the commercial impetus of what sells.

Colorful coffee beans dry in the sun. As we walked up the hill toward the plaza, we passed by a woman sitting on her concrete porch, with a bushel of coffee beans spread out to dry in the warm sun. Coffee is one of the cash crops of the area. The altitude and climate are almost ideal for its cultivation. In a later post, we will visit a coffee finca near the old colonial capital of Antigua. We tried some of the coffee in a local café and it was wonderfully rich. Most Americans have no idea what really good coffee tastes like, even though they must pay extravagant prices for the mediocre grade they get at the supermarket.

Local wares at one of many street stalls. Woven hammock-seats, bags and purses, and embroidered cloth formed a colorful array in this shop. Much of this is still handmade through the ancient mechanism of back-strap looms, or  the more "modern" foot-pedal looms introduced by the Spanish in the 16th Century.

An enticing alley. While wandering the town, opportunistically photographing everything that caught my attention, I noticed this narrow alley. It is barely wide enough for the passage of one tuk-tuk, and seems mostly for pedestrian traffic. I started up it, following the path of a small boy carrying out some errand.

Foot-pedal loom in operation. As I moved up the alley, I peeped into open doorways and was surprised to find foot pedal looms behind most of them. I stepped into this little shop, filled with 4 such looms. The young man above nodded his assent when I asked to take a photo.  In the foreground are small wooden trays containing spindles with different colors of thread. Notice the mechanism just in front of the weaver. The moving parts are held together by string, and there is little metal in the whole loom. A Spanish weaver of the 16th Century would instantly recognize the loom and be able to take over its operation without a second thought.

Carved and vividly painted wooden toys. The Maya were gifted craftspeople thousands of years before the Spanish arrived. While the Spanish are credited with the construction of the many beautiful colonial-era churches and public buildings, and the wonderful sculpture contained within, we should always remember that Maya craftspeople did most of the actual work.

Local vendors compare notes. These three paused on the steps of the church to chat and I was able to catch an unguarded moment. The woman in the toyocal is the same as in photo #6 in this posting. The Tz'utujil and other Maya we encountered were not only talented craftspeople, but strong on the sales end of the game too. They were some of the most entrepreneurial people I have ever met. Jorge told our group that, although they might live simply and with few of the conveniences that city-dwelling, middle-class, non-Maya Guatemalans might enjoy, very often the Maya's cash flow is greater than the city people's. Perhaps this will be the salvation of the Maya, if their culture can resist the onslaught of globalism's tedious uniformity.

This completes my 2 postings on Santiago Atitlán. Next we will visit a coffee finca and find out everything you ever wanted to know about Guatemala's great coffee, as well as witnessing a wonderful concert of traditional music by a young Maya trio. I welcome all feedback. If you would like to leave a comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Guatemala Part 6a: The lakeside town of Santiago Atitlán

Tz'utujil woman at the lakeside town Santiago Atitlán. She wears not only a beautifully embroidered huipil (blouse), but also an unusual hat, called a toyocal for which the Tz'utujil are famous in Guatemala. It is shaped like a thick frisbee with a hole in the center, and is made from a long, coiled, embroidered strip of cloth. While at Lake Atitlán, Caravan Tours took us across the lake to visit the small Maya town of Santiago Atitlán. The town is located along the largest of the two inlets on the south side of Lake Atitlán. Towering over the community are Volcan San Pedro, across the inlet to the west, and Volcan Toliman, immediately behind the town. In pre-hispanic times, the town, then called Chuitinamit, was the capital of the Tz'utujil people. For a map of Santiago Atitlán and the area around it, click here. The best way to view the map is in the Hybrid setting (upper right corner of the map) that includes not only a satellite view, but the road network.

The Malecon

Santiago's malecon is rustic. Palapas, rickety piers, and a palm-shaded, dirt plaza greet visitors as they clamber off one of the many boats that dock here each day. I felt I was stepping into another world, another age. Like they did throughout their Western Hemisphere empire, the Spanish renamed local indigenous towns. Usually, they kept the original name, but added on the name of a saint, with each town in an area getting a different saint. In Spanish, Santiago means St. James. One of the original Apostles, he was revered in Spain as a warrior-saint who aided the Spanish in their re-conquest of their European Peninsula from the Muslim Moors, as well as in their subsequent conquest of the New World. The second part of the name, Atitlán, is a Nahuatl word, imported by the Aztec mercenary soldiers brought down to Guatemala by conquistador Pedro Alvarado after the destruction of their empire. The word means: "place where the rainbow gets its colors." The original Maya name was dropped.

Lake Atitlán has risen recently. Some residents had built homes and tiendas (shops) along the malecon, but now many of these are now flooded. In the foreground are several of the oddly shaped boats the fishermen use. In most similar craft with which I am familiar, the sides, or gunwales, are curved outward from bow to stern. In the boats above, the sides are all flat and the boats are full of angles instead of curves. They seem quite small to venture out on such a large lake. Until fairly recently, Santiago and most of the other towns around the lake were very isolated from the outside world. There were few roads and many bandits. A journey that can be accomplished in a few hours today took as much as a week, traveling on foot with line of packed burros. To travel from one part of the lake to another, people nearly always used boats. In spite of the new roads, this is still largely true.

Street scenes

On parade: Santiago's lovely young girls in traditional clothing. This quartet carried on a lively conversation as they strolled down a side street. Their embroidered huipils are tucked into ankle-length cortes (sarong-like skirts). Two of them wear wide embroidered belts around their waists. The designs of the huipils are a mixture of Maya and Spanish. The Spanish required Maya to wear clothing that identified their specific town, in Santiago's case the stripes you see above. The Maya acquiesced but then decorated their "prison stripe" huipils with gorgeous embroidery. They have maintained the stripes into modern times, even though the Spanish colonial overlords are long gone.

Busy intersection near Santiago's main plaza. The cop in the middle of the street rather casually waved to traffic, while the tuk-tuks darted around obstacles such as tourists like myself. As you can see, vendors lay out their goods right on the sidewalks and into the street. Pedestrians wander about or nonchalantly stand in the street. All this was a bit hair-raising to me, given all the tuk-tuks whizzing about.

Tuk-tuks are not the only form of local public transportation. Above, a pickup truck (locally called a "picop") hauls its load of standing passengers, including one on the bumper. These trucks are usually Toyotas, an extremely popular model in Guatemala. I can vouch for them, as a former Toyota picop owner myself. Transportation by picop is cheaper than by tuk-tuks, taxis, or bus. The picops not only operate locally, but also travel considerable distances, for example between municipalities (counties).

The Divine Providence Bar. Jorge, our Caravan Tour director (red shirt on left) gives us instructions for how to meet up again. A young boy, in the foreground, decided to mimic his gestures as a prank. I was amused by the name of the Cantina La Divina Providencia. Perhaps, after a long night consuming the local cerveza, a little "divine providence" would help get the imbiber home safely.

Maya mom walks her young daughter to school. Traditionally dressed in her cortes, she has a tzute thrown as a shawl over her shoulders, and her long hair is in a traditional braid. A tzute is an all-purpose garment, essentially a large rectangle of woven cloth that can function as a shawl, a hat, a baby wrap, or a container for packages. In Mexico, such garments are called rebozos. Interestingly, the daughter is dressed in modern exercise pants and a sweatshirt. If such dress is adopted by young people as their preferred style in out-of-the-way places such as Santiago, the lovely traditional clothing may become much more rare. Rather than daily wear, it may be brought out just for the tourists. At that point a living culture becomes a sham.

Parroquia Santiago Apostol

Parroquia Santiago Apostal. The Parroquia, or parish church, stands in front of a broad plaza at the top of a hill overlooking the town. The present church was completed in 1947. The steps leading into the Parroquia are almost identical in design to those we saw in Chichicastenango's church. This leads me to believe they may have been part of an ancient Maya temple as was the case with Chichicastenago. Typically, the Spanish destroyed such temples and built churches on top of their ruins. Therefore, there may also have once been a colonial-era church where the modern church now stands.

Local girls gossiping. The steps of the church form an ideal gathering spot for those who want to catch up on the latest gossip. Of course, I had no idea what they were saying, but, given their ages, I speculated that it was probably about boys. The girl on the right is providing a juicy detail that the one on the left finds humorous. The girl on the middle seems a bit skeptical of the whole thing, but can't resist a slight "Mona Lisa" kind of smile. All three wear the Spanish stripes with embroidered flowers. The middle girl wears a beautifully woven tzute.

A painted wooden retablo stands behind the main altar of Parroquia Santiago. A retablo is the backdrop behind the altar of a colonial church. In colonial times they were made of wood, painted with various scenes, and usually contained niches for Christ and various saints. When we entered the Parroquia, the interior was largely unadorned, except for two rebablos and some statues. The retablos appeared to be quite old and possibly came from the previous colonial church, or maybe some other ancient church.

Tableau of statues in front of the main altar retablo. These were full-sized (or at least Maya-sized) statues, beautifully carved and painted and finely clothed. Behind the cross-carrying Christ are two saints. The one in the center may be the Virgin Mary. The figure on the left wears a bishop's mitre made of palm-fronds. I asked Jorge to explain the palm frond mitre, but--for once--he was at a loss. Notice the multiple scarves on this figure. More, later, on the meaning of these.

Another retablo, centered on Mary and the Baby Jesus. Again, Mary and the saints around her are finely robed. This rebablo, set off in a corner, was more richly carved than the one behind the main altar. Like the altar retablo, this one appeared to be much older than the current church.

The faithful at prayer. The gender separation in clothing is very apparent here. Most Maya women maintain the traditional garb, while the men dress in modern styles, often looking like American cowboys with boots and stetsons. In many colonial churches I have visited, representations of Jesus seem oddly absent, or at least tucked away in a side chapel somewhere, and God is almost nowhere to be found. The central focus is generally on the Virgin Mary (in Mexico almost always the Virgin of Guadalupe) or one or more of the saints. Parroquia Santiago Apostal gave a much more central place to Jesus, portraying him both at the main altar and in this side chapel.

The line-up. Paul, one of our fellow Caravan Tour participants, takes a break while a long line of saints looks on. Paul is a psychologist from the US who was fascinated that Carole and I live full-time in Mexico. He was eager to check out the possibility of living in Mexico, but his partner, John, was a bit dubious of the whole prospect. The saints in the background are taken out during fiestas, especially Semana Santa (literally "Saints' Week", otherwise known as Easter Week). They are paraded around town, along with many of the other statues we have seen. The fiestas and parades contain the same fascinating mixture of Catholicism and ancient Maya beliefs that you will find throughout Guatemala.

A saint with a cravat. This statue of a saint was adorned not only with fine robes, but also a very colorful scarf. The faithful present such scarves to the saints as a gesture of devotion, or thanks. Quite often, they include very expensive name-brand scarves such as Gucci, Ives St. Laurent, Givenchy, etc. According to Jorge, the cloth will sometimes be decorated with the US flag, or the flag of Texas, or some other state where the person has lived in the United States.

A modern martyr. Father Stanley Rother, a Roman Catholic priest from Oklahoma, was shot to death in his Parroquia rectory by a right-wing death squad on July 28, 1981. This occurred during the height of the US-backed repression by the Guatemala government. The words above were a quote from Rother: "For myself, I am a Christian. No, for the others I am a priest." The Lake Atitlán area did not escape the savage killing that followed the CIA-organized-and-financed overthrow of the democratically-elected government of  Jacobo Arbenz Guzman in 1954. The overthrow set in motion a 30-year Civil War in which as many as 200,000 people died, most of them innocent civilians killed by government security forces. For access to the CIA's own records detailing its actions, click here.

Santiago's ordeal occurred primarily between the years 1980 and 1990. On January 6, 1980, 10 local men were massacred as they worked in their fields just outside Santiago by Guatemalan military forces. This was followed by countless death threats, disappearances, and assassinations. These were so common that people often sought refuge in the Parroquia at night rather than stay in their own homes. This drew the attention of the authorities to Father Rother, who was then assassinated. People in town were so grateful for Rother's brave actions that they asked that his heart and blood remain in the parish where they are buried in a martyrs' monument. The killing went on until December 1990 when 13 people were shot to death just outside a local military base where they went as part of a peaceful protest against the abuses. This time, the press coverage finally caused international attention to focus on the atrocities. The military was forced to withdraw from the area, and several years later the Civil War reached a negotiated end. Not long after the military withdrawal, local people discovered a nearby mass grave, but the military threatened to return if the digging continued. The local people stopped, but left the open hole as a further monument and reminder of this dark time. To this day, military establishments are forbidden in the Lake Atitlán area.

This concludes the first part of my posting on Santiago Atitlán. Next week we will take a look at the main plaza and the markets of the town. I always appreciate hearing from my viewers. If you would like to leave a comment, please either use the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Guatemala Part 5: Lake Atitlan, deep, blue, & gorgeous

Lake Atitlan with Volcan Toliman looming in the background. In the previous post, I showed you a little of Lake Atitlan, but mostly focused on the stunning Hotel Atitlan where we stayed. This time you will get a much better look at the lake. I took this photo during our journey from Chichicastenango to the lake. It was late afternoon, so the Volcan Toliman, and the larger Volcan Atitlan behind it, were wreathed with clouds. In front of me was a steep drop-off and I could glimpse the pale blue of Lake Atitlan at the base of the Toliman volcano, still many miles away. To locate Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, click here. As the crow flies, the lake is about 70 kilometers (40 mi.) west of Guatemala City. Although that seems like a short distance, the actual road distance is more than 161 kilometers (100 mi.) because the terrain is very mountainous with winding roads and hair-raising curves. The drive takes at least 3-4 hours. Buses and shuttles run regularly between Lake Atitlan and both Guatemala City and Antigua.

Scale model of Lake Atitlan area. I found this scale model in the middle of the plaza of the little lakeside town of Santiago Atitlan. We will visit Santiago in my next posting. The top of the model above is on the west. In the middle of the north (right) side is a small indentation that forms the inlet where Hotel Atitlan is located. To the south (left) side there are two long inlets. The upper inlet leads to Santiago Atitlan. Between the two inlets are Volcan Toliman (3,158m/10,361ft), closest to the lake, and Volcan Atitlan (3,557m/11,670ft) behind it. Above the top inlet (toward the west) are Volcan San Pedro (3,020m/9,908ft) and Volcan Santa Clara (2,282m/7,487ft).

Lake Atitlan at sunset. Even with a cloud cover, the view was gorgeous from the balcony of our room at Hotel Atitlan. At the base of Volcan Toliman, just above the waterline, you can make out Cerro de Oro, a small cinder cone (sort of a baby volcano). The lake surface above was ruffled by the rising xocomil, or "wind that carries away sin." At this time of day, travel on the lake can be treacherous. Lake Atitlan, a World Heritage Site, has a surface area of about 125 square kilometers (78 sq. mi.), and a depth of approximately 400 meters (1312 ft.). The lake fills a basin that is actually the mouth of a gigantic volcano that exploded 85,000 years ago. In a tremendous blast, called Los Chocoyos eruption, the volcano hurled 180 cubic kilometers of ash and rock into the air. By contrast, Mount St. Helens in the US' Washington State threw out only 2 cubic kilometers and Italy's volcano at Pompeii blew up 6 cubic kilometers. Traces of ash from Los Chocoyos eruption have been found from Florida to Ecuador. Around the edges of the caldera, or volcano mouth, are more volcanos, some of which have been active as recently as 1853, a blink of the eye in geologic time. To view a topographical map of the area where you see find all these features in detail, click here. If you click your cursor on the map, it will enlarge further.

Looking southeast at dawn from Hotel Atitlan. Behind the point of land on the left is the town of Panajachel, seen at the end of this posting. The surface elevation of the lake is 1,562 meters (5,125 ft.). This gives the area a spring-like climate year-round because the lake stabilizes the temperature, much like Lake Chapala where I live in Mexico.  Mornings, during March when we visited, are generally cool, clear, sunny, and beautiful. In the afternoon, clouds roll in to provide dramatic sunsets.

A roomy catamaran took us across the calm lake one morning. Even with nearly 50 tour participants and staff on board, there was plenty of room. Although the lake is choppy in the afternoon, the morning we went it was almost glassy. The broad catamaran design of the boat helped provide a smooth ride, even in the afternoon when we returned. The boat dock juts out from the base of the Hotel Atitlan gardens.

Waterfall cascades down the cliffs behind the hotel. As we pulled away from the dock, I looked back over the top of the hotel toward the cliffs that form the caldera rim. A beautiful waterfall drops almost vertically down. The walls of the caldera glow with the golden warmth of the morning sunshine. Atitlán means "place where the rainbow gets its colors."

Clouds over Volcan Toliman create the illusion of an eruption. In the lake below the volcano, you can see two of the many water taxis--tiny in comparison to the massive volcano--that ply the lake from village to village. Many of these communities can be reached only by water. As I took this picture, we were heading directly south toward the volcano. Just above the boat in the center, you can see the small Cerro de Oro cinder cone. Famous writer Aldous Huxley wrote of Lake Atitlan: "Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing."

Looking west, the towering walls of the caldera rim are lined with small villages. The green ravine containing Santa Cruz la Laguna can be seen in the center of the photo. There is no road to the village, only foot trails leading up from the lake and down from the highway that follows the rim of the caldera. Jorge, our Caravan Tour director, told me that there are several small B&B-type hotels in the village with stunning views and the kind of isolation treasured by people like honeymooners.

A closer look at Santa Cruz la Laguna. The steep-sided ravine containing Santa Cruz is typical of many inhabited areas around the lake. People have lived in these communities for thousands of years. The Maya build terraces up the mountain walls to grow crops, gather pitahaya (a cactus fruit), and catch fish in the lake.  A number of archaeological sites have been discovered around the lake, including two, Sambaj and Chiutinamit, that are under water. Sambaj, with several groups of buildings and a city center, is 16.76 meters down (55 ft.) and appears to be from the Preclassic period. Chiutinamit was discovered by local fishermen who were amazed to find "a city under water." Divers have found pottery shards dating from 600 BC-250 AD (also Preclassic).

Heading into the Santiago inlet. Above, you can see Volcan Toliman. Volcan Atitlan, partially obscured by clouds is behind it to the right. The sides of the volcanos are heavily forested right down to the water. The Maya in Guatemala are separated into 22 distinct language groups, often at odds with one another. At Lake Atitlan, the three major Maya groups are the Tz'utujil, the Kaqchikel, and the Quiché. The habitual divisions among the Maya made them easy prey for a the "divide and conquer" strategy. The Spanish under Hernán Cortéz first employed this strategy when they used some of the Aztecs' subject peoples to help overthrow that empire. The Kaqchikel thought they could get a leg up on their ancient rivals by allying themselves with the conquistadors. They helped defeat the Tz'utujil and the Quiché, but when the Spanish demanded tribute from their erstwhile allies, the Kaqchikel learned a bitter lesson. In the end, the Spanish didn't want allies, they wanted subjects.

Volcan San Pedro and a water taxi. Across the inlet (to the west) from Santiago Atitlan rises Volcan San Pedro. The steep sides of the volcanos, and of the caldera rim, have produced massive landslides in recent times. In October 2005, Hurricane Stan caused a landslide at Lake Atitlan that killed as many as 1,400 residents of Panajachel and left another 5,000 homeless. In 2010, Tropical Storm Agatha resulted in more landslides with dozens more deaths. We could still see the paths of some of these landslides even a year later.

Terraces follow the steep ridges up the sides of the caldera. As in many areas of Guatemala's southern highlands, Maya farmers here take advantage of every square inch of arable land. Around Lake Atitlan they grow crops like onions, beans, squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, garlic, chile verde, strawberries, and avacados. The area around Hotel Atitlan was once a coffee finca. The terraces above are all hand-tilled. We sometimes saw Maya women hoeing their crops on a hillside, dressed in their beautifully hand-embroidered huipils (blouses).

Lucas takes in the view. I joined Lucas, seen above on the bow of our catamaran, to enjoy the stunning views ahead. Between photos, I learned a little about him. Lucas was born in Guatemala and his adoptive parents took him to live in the US where He is a high school student. They brought him to Guatemala on this trip so that he could learn first-hand about his native country. He is a very handsome and personable young man, and I suspect that he probably has girls swooning in both the US and Guatemala.

The back side of Toliman volcano. At this point, we were heading into the inlet leading to Santiago. Notice the smoke rising from the hillside just above the lake in the bottom center of the photo. Field burning is an ancient technique for getting rid of crop stubble, and killing weeds and insects. The ash from the stubble also serves as fertilizer. Unfortunately, the practice tends to pollute the air, if done on a wide scale. A good deal of the mountainside above has been deforested. Such deforestation also contributes to the landslide problem.

Water taxi races by a hillside vacation home on the outskirts of Santiago. This home is undoubtedly owned by a wealthy Guatemalan, or perhaps a foreigner. Local Maya generally live much more modestly than this.

Palapa on the point. As we rounded the point of land leading to the tiny harbor of Santiago, I spotted this lakeside palapa. The roof is thatched and held up by wooden pillars, the base is stone and cement. This palapa is not a dwelling, but a mirador (lookout point) for a home on the hillside above. The steps to the right of the palapa lead down to the water and are probably where the owner docks his boat.

Fisherman plies his ancient trade, in the ancient manner. From his tiny, oddly-shaped boat, he cast a circular net out over the water as we cruised by. Each time he cast, he would haul the net in, hand-over-hand, hoping to catch something to sell, or perhaps just for supper. In 1958, at the instigation of Pan Am airline, local officials introduced the Black Bass into Lake Atitlan, with disastrous consequences. Pan Am, of course, was looking to increase its profits by promoting tourism. Two thirds of the native fish species went extinct, taking with them the Giant Grebe bird, found only at Lake Atitlan.

More palapas in a lakeside palm grove. Nestled in the glade were several large palapas that are apparently part of a hotel complex. It has been very tastefully designed so that the property blends in with the forest around it.


Tuk-tuk driver in lakeside town of San Francisco Panajachel. This friendly guy took us from our hotel to Panajchel after we returned from our trip across the lake to Santiago. Tuk-tuks originated in Thailand and since their adoption in Guatemala have become wildly popular all over the country. They are 3-wheeled vehicles with enough room of 2 passengers, 3 with a squeeze. They get their name from the sound of their engines, and are an inexpensive alternative to taxis. Tuk-tuk drivers are, shall we say, highly creative in finding ways through heavy vehicle and foot traffic.

The Avenida Santander in Panajachel is lined with shops like these. In addition, there were innumerable small restaurants, bars, coffee houses, internet cafes, and inexpensive hotels and hostels. In spite of its tourist orientation, we enjoyed San Francisco Panajachel, usually called simply "Pana." The population is a bit more than 11,000, overwhelmingly Maya, but with some foreigners. It seems to be a haven for hippies and young foreign backpacker types, usually from Europe. Pana was the site of an ancient Kakchiquel village where the final battle was fought between the Spaniards and their Kakchiquel allies on one side, and the Tzutujiles on the other. After the battle, Franciscan friars founded a convent here. The San Francisco Church, also founded by the Franciscans, was the site of mass conversions forced on the Maya by their Spanish conquerors. In addition to shopping, tourists can catch a boat from the waterfront near here to visit other sites around the lake. For a map of Panajachel showing many shops, hotels, and restaurants, click here.

Taking a siesta, Guatemala style. This little girl and her baby brother nestled together at the foot of the shop run by their mother. I was enjoying some excellent Guatemala coffee in a sidewalk cafe across the street when I spotted them. Above them hang some of Guatemala's wonderful, hand-woven Maya textiles. If we return to Guatemala--and we will--we want to visit Lake Atitlan again, and possibly stay at one of the small comfortable hotels that abound in Panajachel.

This competes my posting on Lake Atitlan. Next week, I'll take you to the lakeside town of Santiago Atitlan, with beautiful textiles, and friendly people, but a dark history. I always welcome response from my viewers. If you'd like to comment, please use the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim