Rutahsa Adventures is pleased to be organizing and leading its second major excursion in conjunction with the Appalachian Mountain Club. As in the 2002 AMC - Rutahsa Peru trip, this Guatemala excursion is especially designed for AMC members, but is open to participation by non-AMC members too.
Guatemala is surely one of the most remarkable places on earth. Slightly smaller than the state of Tennessee, its diverse 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 plateaus; 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 more than 20 different dialects, have maintained a rich and colorful culture that gives Guatemala its distinctive character. So much to see, so much to leave you marvelling, so much to make you want to return to Guatemala again and again. We have been exploring Guatemala since 1969-- and each year we learn new secrets.
Every year since 1987 we have led a very special trip to Guatemala, and 2003 is no exception! The AMC - Rutahsa Land of the Maya 2003 Adventure will take place July 19 - Aug. 3 (Aug. 5, including the 2-day Tikal extension). The trip will be timed so that we can witness the wonderful Rabín Ajau ceremony in Cobán, which is usually held on the last Saturday in July.
Here's our itinerary:
Sat., July 19: Fly from the U.S. to Guatemala City; you will be met at the Guatemala City airport and taken to the charming, old-fashioned, Hotel Pan American in the heart of the capital city. After check-in and a delicious lunch served by waiters and waitresses in georgeous Mayan costume we will take a walking tour of the Plaza Mayor area: the old Palacio Nacional (now a museum), the Catedral Nacional, and the central market-- a great place to begin to get acquainted with all the colorful textiles and other crafts of Guatemala.
Sun., July 20: After breakfast we board our private bus and head out of Guatemala City, stopping at Parque Minerva to get an overview of the country and our route by visiting an amazing relief map of Guatemala so big that it must be viewed from observation towers. Traveling on eastward from the city, down into the Motagua Valley, we pass through a surprising area of rain-shadow desert, stopping at archeological and geological sites of interest along the way. In the afternoon we cross the border into neighboring Honduras (one more notch on your passport!), ending the day cooling off in the pool at the Hotel Marina Copán in Copán Ruinas, Honduras. To see more of the Hotel Marina Copán, click here: Marina Copán; hit your "back" button to return to this trip description.
Mon., July 21: All day at Copán Ruins, starting off with a guided introductory tour of the main ruins cluster, a 1000-year-old Classic Maya site famed for its marvelous carvings, which are better preserved here than in most Maya sites due to the use of volcanic rock that resists weathering. In addition to the numerous stelae depicting Copan's kings, there are pyramids and temples, and a fine ceremonial ballcourt, where the ritual game was played for keeps. In 1999, a series of archeological exploration tunnels underneath the ancient pyramids was opened to the public, revealing the completely intact buried temple known as Rosalila. In addition to the pyramids and temples, there is the new Museum of Sculpture and also the old Copán Museum which houses a cache of amazing flint eccentrics discovered recently in a buried temple, plus many other wonderful objects. 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 Marina.
Tues., July 22: Return to Guatemala, and head further east down the Motagua Valley. Visit the small, but important Maya ruins of Quiriguá; monuments here include the tallest stelae in the Maya realm, and some of the most exquisitely carved, featuring Quiriguá's most famous king, Cauac Sky. This site is also noted for its grotesquely carved zoomorphic boulders, found at no other Maya site. From Quiriguá we turn back up the Motagua Valley until we come to the turn off for Cobán where we head north up into the coolness of the Chuacús Mountains. Overnight at the Posada del Quetzal, in delightful bungalows, and enjoy the change of climate: instead of being thankful for the Marina's air conditioning, here you may want to light the fire in your cabin's fireplace!
Weds., July 23: Up very early, well before dawn today, if you want to see the Resplendent Quetzal, perhaps the most beautiful bird on earth. The quetzal is simply indescribable, but I'll try: the male has a head and shoulders of shimmering metallic emerald feathers, a scarlet red breast, and black wings and tail. Add to this emerald plumes that droop down over the shoulders like some pompous 19th-century general's epaulettes, plus four long tail plumes that flow like a horse's tail when he flies, and you have a truly extravagant bird. In Classic Maya times only the nobility were allowed to wear quetzal plumes in their dress. The female of the species is more subdued of color, but also very beautiful. Today this gorgeous bird, which is the national symbol of Guatemala, suffers from habitat loss as cloud forest is cut for timber and cleared for agriculture. We will go to a biosphere reserve to see the birds-- and we have been successful in sighting them three out of our last four visits here. After coffee and a snack we'll go for a hike in the cloud forest to see lush tropical plants in abundance.
Next, on to the major coffee town of Cobán and to our delightfully 19th-century-style lodgings at La Posada. It's totally charming, and not so 19th-century as to not have hot water and other amenities. And La Posada's kitchen crew turn out food that is high quality and truly scrumptious! After lunch we will visit the nearby coffee plantation Finca Santa Margarita, to see how the brew so many of us cannot face the day without gets from the coffee tree to our breakfast cups. There's also a big city market in Cobán that is worth visiting if time permits.
Thurs., July 24: Today we drive north from Cobán into scenic karst mountains and prime coffee country, following a bumpy, but all-weather gravel road to the town of Lanquín. After checking into the Hotel El Recreo and picking up some picnic snacks in town, we'll continue on to the fabulous Semuc Champey for an afternoon of picnicking, swimming and relaxing...and being awed by another of Mother Nature's wonders.
The Semuc is indeed a natural wonder: the Río Cahabón has cut a narrow canyon through a limestone ridge, intersecting a water-bearing stratum. Springs issuing from this stratum have deposited such enormous quantities of travertine that the entire river has been bridged over for several hundred meters. Atop the travertine bridge are a series of clear green pools, each cascading over a travertine dam, down into the next, forming the most idyllic series of tropical paradise swimming holes imaginable. Yet just at the upstream end of these serene pools one encounters the startling sight of a raging whitewater stream disappearing into the open maw of the gaping tunnel under the travertine bridge. Watch your step here-- there is no saving anyone who slips into this roaring maelstrom!
At dusk, a short hike from our hotel brings us to Grutas de Lanquín where we can watch the evening bat flight pour out of the cave entrance over the huge nacimiento ("birthplace") of the Río Lanquín. And we may visit the impressive cave, so bring your flashlights on this outing.
Fri., July 25: After breakfast and a morning tour of the impressive Grutas de Lanquín (if we didn't do that last night), we return to Cobán, arriving there around 2 PM for a late lunch. After eating we can visit an orchid "farm". The orchid "farm" is not a commercial producer of orchids, but rather it is a major orchid species rescue operation. Tens of thousands of orchids have been saved from trees felled by the Maya clearing land for agriculture. Hundreds of species, many new to science, have been collected. This valuable salvage and botany program has become the life's work of a remarkable German-Guatemalan family. A delightful place to visit!
Later, again depending on time, we may visit the Museo del Principe Maya, a fine private collection of Mayan artifacts. In the meantime, Cobán should be abustle with the varied activities of the annual Rabin Ajau folkloric festival. Based on past Rabin Ajau visits we have made, we expect lots of street venders, crafts, displays, etc. Plenty to do in this little town, including just relaxing and soaking up the ambience at our hotel, La Posada.
Sat., July 26: Today should be the end of the Rabin Ajau festival, which climaxes in the evening with the ceremonial selection of the reina (queen). In this pageant, young Maya women from all over Guatemala-- selected to represent their native villages-- demonstrate their finest traje (traditional costume) while an announcer describes their varied accomplishments. Nowhere else in Guatemala, and at no other time, can so many different forms of traje be witnessed. To get an idea of the glorious variety of traditional Mayan dress still worn in Guatemala, visit our Highland Maya traje website. Second night at La Posada-- be prepared to dream in technicolor!
Sun., July 27: Today we drive another all-weather gravel road through some of the most rugged mountains in Guatemala, up and over ranges, and plunging down into deep valleys, following along a major fault zone (part of the plate tectonic boundary separating the North American plate from the Caribbean plate). We'll lunch along the way-- nothing fancy, that's for sure, so you might want to buy some snacks in Cobán and bring them along with you. And by mid-afternoon we end up in the Ixil town of Nebaj.
Nebaj is famous for the striking traje of the Nebaj women. This town and two others 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 guerilleros during La Violencia (early 1980s). We will learn some of this sad history while we are here, and we will see that, happily, the bad times are past and life here is improving.
Our lodging in Nebaj is the simple, but relatively new and quite clean Hotel Ixil Anexo. We'll take our meals at the Maya-Inca, a surprising restaurant run by a Peruvian who first came here on an aid program, but stayed on to marry an Ixil Maya woman.
Mon., July 28: Hikers will get up early and, led by British ex-pat Mike Shawcross, hike up and over a small mountain ridge to descend to the village of Acul, which originated as one of the infamous "Model Villages" set up by the Guatemalan Army during the '80s. Our bus will come around to meet us here, and after a visit to the local cheese factory in an old hacienda, we'll head out for Lake Atitlán. From Nebaj we recross a major mountain massif, descend again into the valley of the Río Chixoy, and then climb up on the central volcanic plateau as we head for the city of Santa Cruz del Quiché, which we should reach in midafternoon. From here it is another two hours to the town of Panajachel on the north shore of shimmering Lago Atitlán, which Aldous Huxley described as the most beautiful lake in the world. For all we know Huxley might have had his perceptions peyote- or mushroom-enhanced, but it isn't needed: this dramatic lake, sunk down in a great volcanic caldera, and flanked by three huge soaring cones is incredibly beautiful!
In "Pana" we'll stay at the Hotel Tzanjuyú, a sort of faded queen of hotels in the town of Panajachel. Definitely past her prime, but with a location that none of the johnny-come-lately hotels can match, with some of the balconies actually hanging over the lake. Panajachel has lots of places to eat, lots of places to shop, and lots of other things to do in the evening. This town has a large foreign population and is sometimes called "Gringotenango" for its thorough gringo-ization. It is interesting, and you will enjoy your stay here, but it is the extreme of what tourism can do to a town.
Tues., July 29: We'll board the 9 AM ferry to cross the stunning lake to the T'zutujiil Maya town of Santiago Atitlán. After docking we'll take an orientation stroll through the pueblo to our hotel on the far side of town. Not to worry about the luggage-- it will come around the lake in the bus to meet us at the Posada Santiago, an improbable, but lovely hotel built and run by a gringo ex-pat, who is quite a character. Afternoon: Free time to explore Santiago. Visit the ancient Catholic church and note the Mayan religious symbology carved into its unique altar; visit the shrine of the local Maximón cult; visit the peace park memorial to victims of a 1991 massacre here; shop for native textiles and other crafts (nice woodworking can be found here). Santiago women still weave on the backstrap loom, and wear their distinctive traje which features a halo-like headwrap.
Weds., July 30: A chartered launch will carry those who want to hike to the village of San Pablo on the opposite side of the lake to begin a hike of 3 or 4 hours along the rim of the caldera lake, passing through another of the twelve lakeside villages, and winding up at a third, Santa Cruz. Here the launch will pick us up and take us to meet the bus back at Panajachel. Anyone preferring not to hike can spend more time in Santiago and then come around with the bus and shop-till-you-drop in Pana.
After a late lunch in Pana we board up and drive about an hour to the famous market town of Chichicastenango. In "Chichi" we will lodge in the Mayan Inn, a famous hostelry for over sixty 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 hitting your "back" button. A night in the Mayan Inn is a memorable experience! Of course we've come to Chichi for its famous market, and you can start your shopping tonight as vendors begin setting up for tomorrow's big day.
Thurs., July 31: You may be startled awake by explosions around 6 AM, thinking a revolution is in progress, but it is only a typical market day in Chichi, and the people do love their bombas along with all the other noises, smells and color. This is without question the most colorful native market in all the Americas, with native vendors coming from long distances to sell their wares. See Rutahsa's website on Chichi's market by clicking here: Market day at Chichi.
After taking pictures and haggling for blankets, wall hangings, native blouses, men's shirts, ceramics, carved wooden masks, and all kinds of other crafts, antiques, and souvenirs, you'll be ready for lunch and then to just sit a while and watch the scenery roll by, as we head along the Pan American highway for a couple of hours to Antigua Guatemala. Our home in Antigua is the Posada de don Rodrigo, consisting of several colonial homes joined together, and featuring several patios, gardens, and a daily marimba serenade.
Fri., Aug. 1: All day getting to know the charming city of Antigua and its massive earthquake-shattered colonial churches, convents, monasteries, and public buildings. In its heyday, Antigua was the capital of the Kingdom of Goathemala, and the third largest city in the New World (after 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 Antigua website. We will take a walking introductory tour guided by Elizabeth Bell, an expert on Antigua's history, and author of one of the best Antigua guidebooks.
In the afternoon you can explore more ruins. 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 or the new artesan's 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. Lots to do here...the only problem is not enough time to do it all.
Second night in the Posada de don Rodrigo.
Sat., Aug. 2: 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. Third night at the Posada de don Rodrigo.
Sun., Aug. 3: Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end... Today we go into Guatemala City to the airport. Those who end their Guatemala odyssey today will fly out to the U.S., carrying beaucoup photos, souvenirs and memories of a remarkable country and even more remarkable people, indigenous and Europeanized.
Those who choose the 2-day Tikal extension will take an in-country flight across the Chuacús Mtns. (crossed earlier in the trip by road) and on north across the Petén lowlands to the town of Flores. From here the Jungle Lodge will provide bus transporation and an introductory lecture on the countryside and Tikal Ruins as you motor an hour to the park. Once in Tikal National Park, you'll have a guided tour to the great plaza mayor, flanked by the soaring pyramids of Temple I and Temple II, then return to the Jungle Lodge for lunch. After lunch you can return to the sprawling archeological complex on your own to prowl amid crumbling, jungle-encrusted temples, palaces, causeways, pyramids, and numerous ruined edifices of unknown purpose.
In addition to the amazing ruins of a once populous Classic Maya city, Tikal is also a wonderful site for its lowland tropical jungle, its brilliant birds and other wildlife. You'll see parrots, toucans, toucanettes, hummingbirds, oropendulas, the beautiful ocellated turkey, and many other avian inhabitants of the jungle. And you'll almost certainly see foxes, guatuza (agouti), pisotes (coatimundi), and spider monkeys. You might also see howler monkeys, deer, peccary, small alligators in the water hole near the hotel, or other jungle beasts. A lucky traveler on Rutahsa's 2001 Guatemala trip saw a jaguar! Tikal is really a wonderful site, but it is hot! Fortunately, the Jungle Lodge has a pool!
Mon., Aug. 4: Get up early today and enter the ruins before breakfast to take advantage of the cool morning air; maybe you can watch sunrise from Temple IV, an awesome experience. You've got the morning to explore the ruins further and to visit the archeological museum. Then, after lunch, board the bus and return to Flores to fly back to Guatemala City. Here you'll shuttle back to Antigua, less than an hour's drive, to spend a final quiet evening in Antigua at the Quinta de las Flores, a bit more removed from the center of town than the Posada de don Rodrigo. You can still easily walk to your favorite restaurant, and the peace of this location will help you gather your thoughts about packing to leave on the morrow, and what you want to visit when next you return to Guatemala.
Tue., Aug. 5: Well, it's finally goodbye Guatemala for all of us. Shuttle in to the airport and fly away home...but plan on coming back...you'll want to for sure!
To enquire about trip costs or to register for this trip, contact AMC's Kathy Didier. Kathy can give you cost information, sign you on, put you on a mailing list for further information and up-dates, etc.
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