A first for Rutahsa Adventures! Despite our many many years of traveling throughout Guatemala, we have never before witnessed the fascinating Day of the Dead Festivals held in Santiago Sacatepéquez on All Saints Day (Nov. 1). So our annual Guatemala excursion for 2005 will be timed to feature this colorful folkloric celebration.
But the Day of the Dead ceremonies will only be the tip of the iceberg! Guatemala without a doubt is one of the most remarkable places on earth, full of marvelous places and people. While only about the size of Tennessee, Guatemala's varied topography ranges from sea level to soaring volcanic peaks over 13,000 feet high; its climate zones include steamy tropical jungles, rain-shadow desert valleys, cool cloud forests, and chilly alpine plateaux; and it is home to an amazing diversity of Maya, Mestizo, European and Caribbean traditions. The Highland Maya, comprising roughly half of Guatemala's population and speaking over 20 different languages, have maintained a rich and colorful culture that gives Guatemala its special flavor. There is so much to see, so much to leave you marveling, so much to make you want to return to Guatemala again and again. And this is why we have been exploring Guatemala since 1969-- and each year learning new secrets.
Every year since 1987 we have led a very special trip to Guatemala, and 2005 is no exception! Rutahsa's Guatemala-2005 Adventure will take place October 30 - Nov. 15. The especially unusual highlights of this excursion will be the Day of the Dead Festival, an overnight stay at a picturesque hacienda in the mountains, and a trip by boat to the little-visited classic Maya ruins of Aguateca (including a stay in a lodge on an artificial island created by the Maya over a thousand years ago). Of course, we will also visit colonial Antigua, dazzling Lake Atitlán, the Chichi market, Tikal, and even include a cross-border hop into Honduras for Copán Ruins.
November, by the way, is one of the best months to visit Guatemala, weatherwise. The rainy season has ended, the country is gloriously green, and skies are generally smiling.
Here's our itinerary:
Sun., Oct. 30: Fly from home to Guatemala City; you will be met at the airport and taken 45 km to the Hotel El Patio in lovely Antigua Guatemala. This evening you'll enjoy the refreshing climate of Antigua and start to get to know your way around this romantic town. We'll plan to have supper as a group, so introductions can be made all around.
Mon., Oct. 31: AM: We'll go on a half-day walking tour of Antigua, guided by Liz Bell, author of one of the best Antigua guidebooks, who will take us to some of the more important colonial monuments, giving us a cook's tour of places not normally accessible to visitors. PM: Free time to explore more ruined churches, convents and monasteries.
In its heyday, Antigua was the capital of the Kingdom of Goathemala, and the third largest city in the New World (surpassed only by Mexico City and Lima). Then it was destroyed in a series of earthquakes in 1773. Today it is a great tourist attraction for its colonial architecture and ambience. For more details on Antigua's history and architecture, see our website Monumental Antigua. A visit to the "Casa Popenoe", a lovingly restored colonial home is a must for lovers of Spanish architecture and period furnishings. Anyone really seriously interested in the architecture of Antigua should ask bibliophile Mike Shawcross for a copy of Verle Annis' scholarly tome The Architecture of Antigua Guatemala, 1543-1773. This long-out-of-print work has recently been reprinted and Mike has copies for sale (we can introduce you to Mike).
Alternatively, you can spend the afternoon boosting the local economy shopping for beautiful handwoven Maya textiles, jade jewelry and other types of artesanía for which Guatemala is justly famous. Second night at Hotel El Patio.
Tues., Nov. 1: Today is Día de Todos Los Santos, that is, All Saints Day on the Christian calendar. After breakfast, we will board our private bus to leave Antigua and begin our Guatemala circuit with a visit to the small highland Maya town of Santiago Sacatepéquez where the celebration of the Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) has become a noteworthy event. Families gather in the cemetery to commune with the spirits of their ancestors, sharing a meal --including fiambre, a special food made only for this ceremony-- with the dead. And colorful barriletes (kites), some of which are huge, are flown to the heavens for better communication between the living and the dead.
Because this is a first for Rutahsa, we are short on images, so to get a better idea of what the Day of the Dead celebration is all about, we recommend you take a look at the following websites, then just use your back button to return to this itinerary: Rosenfeld journal.
In the afternoon we will continue on to the town of Panajachel and glorious Lake Atitlán, a sapphire jewel set in a deep volcanic basin. Our lodging tonight will be the well-known Rancho Grande Inn, established here in the 1940s. Here's their website, for a preview: Rancho Grande.
Panajachel, or "Pana" for short, is sometimes derisively called "Gringotenango", for it is the least Guatemalan of towns we will visit. A colony of gringo ex-pats, including some hippies, settled in Pana in the 1960s and '70s (and who could blame them!); in more recent years it has become a tourist mecca for national and international visitors, with more hotels, restaurants, shops and street vendors than you would think possible to cram into such a small town. In some ways it is an example of the worst influences of tourism. In other ways it is a lot of fun. You will find all kinds of crafts and other souvenirs from all over Guatemala for sale here. It's a great place for shoppers. But it isn't the "real" Guatemala...which we will see later in the trip.
Weds., Nov. 2: This morning we will board a launch and cross the lake to a decidedly more native town on the opposite side, Santiago Atitlán, in pre-conquest days the capital of the Tz'utujil Maya nation. Here Dolores, a Tz'utujil woman and native of Santiago, formerly married to an American author, will guide us through the town with an insider's knowledge. We will visit the ancient church of Santiago, see the "navel of the earth", the town market, pay a visit to the shrine of the native deity Maximón, and also learn about Santiago's tragic recent history during "La Violencia" (1980s)-- from which the town has recovered remarkably.
Santiago women still weave on the backstrap loom, and still wear their distinctive traje, which features a halo-like headwrap. To see more photos of Santiago traje, as well as native costume from all over Guatemala, take a look at our website on traje of the Highland Maya.
In the afternoon we board our bus and drive back to Panajachel, around the rim of the great caldera, with many a breath-taking view of the shimmering lake below. From Pana we continue on another hour and a half to the famous market town of Chichicastenango, where we will settle in to the equally famous old hostelry, the Mayan Inn.
The Mayan Inn has been receiving guests for over 70 years. Each room is unique, and all are furnished with antiques, including some colonial pieces of museum quality. The food is excellent, and service is provided by turbaned Maxeños, i.e., K'iche' Maya men of Chichicastenango, in full traje. To learn more about the Mayan Inn, visit their website: Mayan Inn, but don't forget to return to this trip description by clicking your "back" button. A night in the Mayan Inn is a memorable experience. Of course, we've come to Chichi for its world-famous native market, and you can start your shopping tonight as vendors begin setting up for tomorrow's big market day.
Thurs., Nov. 3: You may be startled awake by explosions around 6 AM, thinking a revolution is in progress, but it is only a typical market day in Chichi, and the people do love their bombas along with all the other noises, smells and color. This is without question the most colorful native market in all the Americas, with native vendors coming from long distances to sell their wares. See Rutahsa's website on Chichi's market by clicking here: Market day at Chichi.
After taking pictures and haggling for blankets, wall hangings, native blouses, men's shirts, ceramics, carved wooden masks, and all kinds of other crafts, antiques, and souvenirs, you'll be ready for lunch and then to just sit a while and watch the scenery roll by as we head north across the central highlands and then ascend into the high mountains to reach the remote Ixil Maya town of Nebaj. Our route will be mostly paved, but will switch to gravel --but good, all-weather gravel-- when we cross a major fault zone (part of the plate tectonic boundary separating the North American plate from the Caribbean plate) and start our steep climb into the Altos Cuchumatanes mountains. After passing the crest at something over 8000 ft, we'll descend into a hidden valley in which nestles the town of Nebaj, at about 6300 ft.
Nebaj and the two towns of Cotzal and Chajul form the "Ixil Triangle", an area of Ixil-speaking Maya, and an area that was very hard-hit by both the Guatemalan army and the guerrilleros during La Violencia (early 1980s). We will learn some of this sad history while we are here; a visit to the church of Nebaj will move you as you gaze on the memorial of many miniature crosses, one for each of those who were "murdered", "tortured", "assassinated", or simply "disappeared". Happily, the bad times are past and life here is improving.
All three of the Ixil Triangle towns have distinctive traje, and that of Nebaj is particularly spectacular. A bright red corte (skirt), an elaborately embroidered huipil (traditional blouse), an all-purpose shawl over the shoulder, and a marvelous turban-like head wrap comprise the dress of the Nebaj woman.
In Nebaj we will stay at the Hotel Ilebal Tenam, on the outskirts of town.
Fri., Nov. 4: Eat a hearty breakfast today, for a hike is planned! We will hike up a centuries-old trail, out of the Nebaj valley and over a mountain ridge, to descend into an adjacent valley to the hacienda where we'll overnight. The hike should take about four hours; glorious views and good exercise! (Anyone not wishing to hike may spend a couple of extra hours in Nebaj shopping for textiles or just observing life in an Indian town, then come around to the hacienda on our bus.)
On the opposite side of the ridge we will walk through the village of Acul, which became one of the Guatemalan Army's "model villages"-- in reality, more like a form of concentration camp into which local Maya were forced to move when their villages were razed during the brutal campaign to suppress the rebels in the 1980s. Some of the original Army-built buildings can still be picked out, but Acul has become a real Maya village in its own right.
A short walk down the road from Acul is the picturesque Hacienda San Antonio, where we will spend the night. This is a working hacienda, famed throughout Guatemala for its excellent cheese. Idyllic in its setting, and easily reached by road today, one can hardly imagine the difficulties to be overcome by its Italian founder who started the hacienda in 1938! In recent years some of the hacienda buildings have been renovated for overnight guests. Do not expect luxury, but do expect good food and an interesting experience. Lunch, supper, and breakfast are included with the price of our stay at the hacienda. (L, D)
Sat., Nov. 5: (B) Today is largely a "getting there" day. We have a long drive from the hacienda to the major town of Cobán, capital of the Department of Alta Verapaz, Guatemala's most important coffee-growing region. The coffee industry here was developed in the late 19th century by German immigrants.
Our route today takes us back over the range we crossed coming into Nebaj, then east over a series of ridges and valleys, along and across the dramatic Chixoy river gorge, and back up into high country to eventually reconnect with pavement and reach Cobán. It's a marvelous drive through rugged scenery. But it's definitely the back road, with few amenities, so you'll want to buy some snacks to carry with with you for lunch. We'll take a couple of short breaks in Indian towns along the way.
Our lodgings tonight will be at the lovely old La Posada, which features an extensive menu and some of the best cooked food in all Guatemala.
Sun., Nov. 6: Today we have a drive of 3 or 4 hours, first through limestone mountains and interesting haystack karst terrane, then across the flat lowlands of the Petén, to reach the town of Sayaxché on the banks of the Río de la Pasión.
After lunch at the Hotel Guayacán, we'll board a long, motorized dugout canoe for a trip of about three hours to Chiminos Island Lodge. Our bus will stay in Sayaxché, parked in a safe place, with most of our luggage on board. So you need to pack lightly for this trip: bring only what you need for two days in hot country.
Chiminos Island Lodge is located on what was originally a natural peninsula jutting into Lake Petexbatún, but in Classic Maya time, more than 1000 years ago, the site was converted into a manmade island for defensive purposes when Maya people dug three artificial canals across the low neck of the peninsula to separate it from the mainland. As we will learn tomorrow at Aguateca, this region experienced intense and vicious warfare in Late Classic time, and archeological studies at Aguateca have provided insights into possible reasons for the sudden collapse of Classic Maya civilization in the 9th century AD. All participants in this trip should make a point to read the National Geographic article on Aguateca ("Violent Saga of a Maya Kingdom", Feb. 1993 issue).
Chiminos Island Lodge is an expression of faith in the future-- far off the beaten track, difficult of access, the owners have made a significant investment in the future of Guatemalan tourism on La Ruta Maya. The lodge consists of six charming bungalows (three two-person bungalows and three four-person bungalows-- we will occupy them all, which means some sharing). All meals are included during our stay at the lodge. (And you might wind up sharing part of your meals too...with their beautiful tame young ocelot who had the run of the place when we visited the lodge in 2003.) Here's a link to the lodge website Chiminos Island Lodge. (D)
Mon., Nov. 7: After an early breakfast, we will hike along a jungle trail to the archeological site of Aguateca (about an hour to hour-and-a-half of hiking). Here the Maya built a small but well-fortified city on a cliff overlooking the lake. In addition to the cliff and constructed defensive walls, the Maya took advantage of a great natural rift in the limestone as part of the city's defenses. The rift is a fault zone opened up by solution of the limestone bedrock, and is said to average 40 - 50 m deep and 4 - 5 m wide, running for several kilometers. We will see this impressive natural feature and even get down inside it. It formed a nearly uncrossable barrier throughout much its length. The inhabitants of Aguateca bridged it in two places, and our trail will cross one of these bridges.
In the main site we will see the ruins of important buildings, with stelae (carved stone monuments) depicting the kings of Aguateca. And we will see last-ditch defensive walls built across portions of the town during its final and ultimately futile defense against the besiegers who eventually overcame its defenses and sacked the town.
We will return to Chiminos Island Lodge by a shorter trail, and have lunch there. In the afternoon you can walk the trails of Chiminos Island and visit the smaller archeological site on the island, visit one of defensive canals, go for a swim in the lake, or just hang out and relax.
Tues., Nov. 8: Eat a hearty breakfast today, as this will be a long day and there is not a lot in the way of restaurants between Chiminos Island and the town of Flores. We return to Sayaxché by boat today. Depending on the hour of arrival, we might eat lunch at the Hotel Guayacán, but it would be preferable to move on down the road to Flores, which is worth a short visit, before breaking for lunch.
Flores is situated on an island in Lake Petén Itzá and was the capital of the fierce Itzá Mayas. Although Cortés passed through here on his epic march from Mexico to Honduras in 1524, the Spaniards did not manage to conquer the Itzás by force of arms, and only in 1697, almost two centuries after the Conquest began, did the Itzás submit peacefully to missionaries. According to legend, Cortés left one of his horses in the care of the Maya ruler of the island, and when the Spanish missionaries arrived here at the end of the 17th century they found the Maya worshiping the skeleton of the horse.
Upon arrival in Tikal National Park (just a little over an hour's drive from Flores) we will check into our cabañas at the Jungle Lodge, then-- depending on the hour-- go for an orientation walk into the huge archeological complex, passing through the great plaza, flanked by the soaring pyramids of Temple I and Temple II to reach the "Lost World" where the giant pyramid makes a great place to watch the jungle birds come in to roost for the evening and to await the sunset. (The ruins are officially closed at 6 PM, so a park guard may shoo us on back towards the Jungle Lodge before dark. But just in case he can be talked into letting us stay late, as sometimes happens, be sure to bring a flashlight for the walk back in the dark.)
Weds., Nov. 9: (B) All day long at Tikal! Get up early-- You can watch sunrise from high atop Temple IV. And by getting into the ruins early you both improve your chances of seeing wildlife as well as beat the heat.
If you are one of the early risers, you may want to come back to the Jungle Lodge for breakfast (which is included) then hit the ruins again to prowl and marvel amid crumbling, jungle-encrusted temples, palaces, causeways, pyramids, and numerous ruined edifices of unknown purpose.
In addition to the amazing ruins of a once populous Classic Maya city, Tikal is also a wonderful site for its lowland tropical jungle, its brilliant birds and other wildlife. You'll see parrots, toucans, toucanettes, hummingbirds, oropendolas, the beautiful ocellated turkey, and many other avian inhabitants of the jungle. And you'll almost certainly see foxes, guatuzas (agoutis), pisotes (coatimundi), and spider monkeys. You might see howler monkeys, deer, peccary, small alligators in the water hole near the hotel, or other jungle beasts. On our June 2001 trip one lucky Rutahsa Adventurer had a wonderful close-up view of a jaguar napping in a trail in mid-afternoon!
Tikal is really a wonderful site, but it is hot! Fortunately, November is cooler than most of the year, and the Jungle Lodge has a pool. Second night at the Jungle Lodge.
Thurs., Nov. 10: (B) In the mid-late morning we board our bus to head south to the town of Río Dulce where we will overnight at the Hacienda Tijax, which you can get a preview of by visiting their website Hacienda Tijax.
Fri., Nov. 11: Today we are headed to Copán Ruins, which means crossing the border into Honduras (you can carve one more notch on your passport-- but take a good look at the stamp when your passport is returned to you!). However, long before reaching Copán, there is the small, but very important Maya ruins of Quiriguá. Here, exquisitely carved stelae are the tallest in the Maya realm, exceptionally well-preserved. Quiriguá is also famous for its bizarre zoomorphic boulders not found at other Maya sites. And in spite of its small size, Quiriguá is quite important historically, for its king, Cauac Sky, defeated 18-Rabbit, the king of the larger and more powerful Maya city-state of Copán. This defeat was likely a factor in the subsequent political decline of Copán.
Upon arrival at the small rural city of Copán we will take up our lodgings at the Hotel Plaza Copán, which, as the name implies, is right on the central square. You will find the town charming, and full of friendly people. If we arrive in time, we will visit the small Copán Museum on the square. Though somewhat overshadowed now by the larger new museum out at the archeological site, this little museum displays some must-see treasures, most notably the large, exquisitely carved flint eccentrics, truly mind-boggling examples of fine art by master flint-knappers.
Sat., Nov. 12: All day at Copán Ruins National Park, starting with a guided tour of the 1000-year-old Classic Maya site. Copán is famed for its marvelous carvings, which are better preserved here than in most Maya sites due to the use of volcanic rock that resists weathering. In addition to the numerous stelae depicting Copán's kings, there are pyramids and temples, and a fine ceremonial ballcourt, where the ritual game was played for keeps. In 1999, a series of archeological exploration tunnels underneath the ancient pyramids was opened to the public, revealing the completely intact buried temple known as Rosalila. In addition to the pyramids and temples, there is the new Museum of Sculpture, which houses many of the finest Copán scultures (some of the stelae that you will have seen in the ruins are well-done replicas, with the originals moved into this museum for their preservation). Finally, the town of Copán itself is such a pleasant, friendly country town, a really nice place to spend a day. Second night at the Hotel Plaza Copán.
Sun., Nov. 13: Today we reluctantly leave endearing Copán, and yet with a certain degree of eagerness in the knowledge that we are returning to wonderful Antigua Guatemala. The trip takes about five driving hours, but we'll have stops at the border, at a noteworthy geologic site or two, and for lunch, so we've got things to see and do en route! Once back in Antigua, we'll settle into our familiar digs at the Hotel El Patio.
Mon., Nov. 14: A hard choice today: There is so much to see and do in Antigua, that it's hard to leave it; some will choose to spend another full day here, and who can blame them? But for the hearty, today is the day we climb active Volcán Pacaya. This is a completely non-technical climb, but it is a real huffer-puffer. We hike for about 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours to reach the peak at about 8550 ft (it changes from year to year because of the constant activity which alternately builds it up and blows it away!). A stupendous view along the Pacific volcanic chain is just one of the rewards for those who make the climb.
Over the years, we have seen Pacaya in quiet steam eruptions, explosively blasting bombs and ash skyward, and with glowing red streams of lava oozing down its flanks. We may get to peer into the fuming crater, or, if the volcano is in a strombolian phase, we will time our trip to see the fireworks at night. To see Pacaya in many different states of activity, visit our Pacaya webpage. Whatever it is doing, Pacaya is always exciting, and getting there is certainly breathtaking (both figuratively and literally!). This is an all-day trip, and a hot shower at the end of the day to remove the ash that's worked its way into your clothing and your pores will sure feel fine.
Those who don't fancy a volcano climb can have an easy day in and about Antigua. We highly recommend a mid-morning trip to nearby La Azotea Cultural Center (Azotea provides a shuttle service for under a dollar) where you can tour a working coffee processing plant, experience Casa K'ojom museum of native music, and enjoy textile displays, a video and other cultural exhibits. Or you can head out on your own to explore more ruins or visit any of several museums. Visit the jade shops, or an indigenous women's co-op selling fine weavings, or shop in the city marketplace (a wondrously bewildering complex) or the new artesans' market. Try to figure out where and what kind of food to eat: plato típico, Italian, Chinese, vegetarian, or other... Or just relax in the central park and get your shoes shined. Certainly lots to do here.
When the volcano climbers return and shower off the volcanic dust and grit, we can all go to supper together to compare experiences, and enjoy a last group meal. Second night in Hotel El Patio.
Tues., Nov. 15: Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. Today is the day to fly out to the U.S. (or to wherever home is), carrying tons of photos, souvenirs and memories of a remarkable country and even more remarkable people, indigenous and Europeanized, historic and present. Along with these memories of a great trip, you will carry with you a determination to return, for Guatemala is just too fantastic to visit only once!
ESTIMATED COST OF THE EXCURSION:
NOTE: Trip prices DO NOT include US-Guatemala-US air fare. Travelers are responsible for arranging their own air travel to and from Guatemala. We do provide airport transfers in at the beginning and out at the end of the excursion. For excellent prices on air fares to Guatemala, Rutahsa Adventures gladly and highly recommends Patricia Guamuchi of Solar Tours at 1-800-388-7652 ext. 558. Tell Patricia you are going on Rutahsa Adventures Oct./Nov. trip to her homeland and she will treat you right!
To make an enquiry about Rutahsa's Guatemala-2005 Excursion, e-mail Dr. Ric Finch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To make a reservation, request a trip application blank now; when you receive it, fill it out and send it, along with a deposit check for $450 made out to Rutahsa Adventures, Inc., to 299 Allen Hollow Rd., Cookeville, TN 38501. Once your trip application blank has been received and your deposit accepted by Rutahsa Adventures, Inc., you will be guaranteed a space on this excursion. Your deposit will be fully refunded if for any reason the trip is canceled.
Just about every year since 1998 Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel has highly recommended Rutahsa Adventures' Guatemala excursions. For example, take a look at what Frommer's had to say about our 2002 Guatemala excursion: Frommer's review.
To see the varied services Rutahsa Adventures offers, click here: Rutahsa Adventures homepage.
Thanks for visiting!