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Santiago Atitlan

Guatemala Journal


 lake weekend

13 deciembre
I have visited Santiago Atitlan several times before, but only had a few short hours to wander each time, rushing back to the lake for the afternoon ferry back to Panajachel. On Thanksgiving weekend it was the destination for a few days of relaxation and exploration. We took the coast highway north, then turned west to the lake, a more direct route. Our hotel, Posada de Santiago Atitlan, was in a quiet inlet along the lake shore. The posada is owned by American expats so we were treated to a classic Thanksgiving dinner, a welcome feast. We dined with Delores, a Mayan woman of the village who lived in the US for many years, and her friend, a long haired American artist. We were later to discover that Delores was the first wife of Martin Prechtel, author of Secrets of the Talking Jaguar and several other books about this fascinating area and its customs.

My traveling partners missed the best part of the day - early morning on Lake Atitlan. Like the narrow valley where I lived in the Colorado mountains, a line of sunlight slowly slides down the mountain side to the lake. A volcanic peak with a perpetual white tuft of cloud covering its summit watches over Santiago Atitlan. Fisherman standing in narrow wooden boats, one per boat, arrange their nets while floating slowly or row by quickly to the shore close to the town market, an occasional motor breaking the peaceful sound of birdsong and gentle waves. Women pounding their laundry against rocks on the riverside keep their children nearby to help or bathe. Intricately woven and embroidered huipiles and cortes (blouses and skirts) are surprisingly long-lived after such a beating.

Later in the day we hopped on the back of a passing truck, standing with locals for a short ride into town, handing the driver a few quetzales as we step off. On my last trip here, I found the vendors would not take credit cards and there was nowhere to get cash for a larger purchase. I came prepared this time to buy a light blue huipil covered with pajaros (birds) in the style of this village and a painting by a portrait artist whose work I admired, and was not disappointed. Santiago is also a center for beaded work, metallic and colored beads in jewelry and purses shine in the sun from vendors' stalls along the steep narrow cobbled streets. We visited a bead "museum" where many women worked - several small whitewashed rooms with little furnishings, jars of beads on shelves, weaving loom. In the old white church at the top of the hill saints are displayed dressed in Guatemalan cloth.

The clipped sounds of Tz'utujil can be heard and is still the primary language of the residents although most speak Spanish now as well. A strong and resilient people who endured horrible murders and repression at the hands of the military during the recent war, I found them friendly and open to talking about their families, their history, if you express an interest. Artisans were happy to explain their crafts and materials. I walked past homes small and stark, children playing in the dirt.

A mist hung on the lake the second morning. Boats mysteriously emerged and disappeared in their hunt for fish. By mid morning, the sun arrived and sparkled on the surface of the water. Before heading back, we sat at a little table facing the street and watched for men going by with woven short pants adorned with pajaros, carrying wood piles balanced by head straps.

The Messiah performances were held at the National Theatre in Guatemala City on December 1st and in Antigua on the 2nd. Each was a very special event in its own way, but the more intimate historic setting at Casa Santo Domingo in Antigua was magical. A local youth orchestra and soloists from the US and Mexico filled out the program.


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