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Like arepas in South America and gorditas in Mexico, pupusas are made of corn dough. In Central America, the dry corn for pupusa dough is soaked in an alkaline solution to remove the tough outer skin and preserve the nutrients in the kernels. In the US, we call this resultant corn process "hominy." Pupusas don't have to have a filling but almost everything's better with cheese!
Few cities in Central America can rival Antigua Guatemala for its setting: a mile high, surrounded by volcanoes, with a spring-like climate all year round. The first time we visited Antigua, we spent a week here, taking intensive Spanish classes in the mornings, wandering the city in the afternoons, sipping the best coffee we'd ever tasted. The inhabitants are nicknamed 'panza verde'--'green belly,' due to all of the avocados that grow on the hills surrounding the colonial city. Antigua was the capital of Spanish Central America for over two centuries, until earthquakes in the 1770's flattened much of the city, causing the Spanish to relocate their capital to what is now Guatemala City. The patina of time has settled over this place; half-ruined sites still languish amidst the throngs of language students and visitors. Early mornings are still calm here, almost impossibly picturesque. The three volcanoes, Agua (3760m/12336ft, seen here), Fuego (3763m/12345ft) and Acatenango (3976m/13045ft), loom over the bougainvillea and tiled-roofs...And in this streetscape, you can see the Arco de Santa Catalina, one of the icons of the city, originally built so that cloistered nuns could cross over the street without being seen...
I was visiting the town of Santiago de Atitalan in Guatemala and went to the town market as part of this visit. It is a large and bustling market, as most markets tend to be, with portions that are both covered and un-covered and above-ground and below-ground. The market sells all sorts of goods and has a highly interesting atmosphere.
Just hours away from the United States and yet worlds apart, Lake Atitlan is truly one of the most beautiful and interesting places I've ever visited... and by far a magical and inspiring backdrop for any yoga practice. Nature puts on a glorious show each day, from the first morning light to the crystal- clear, star-filled night skies- the views are so breathtaking, the air is so clear, the sun is so brilliant- no one ever wanted to miss a practice, although I imagine a few of them would have been fine with a few less chaturangas! And best of all, Lake Atitlan provides you with just the silence and just the inspiration to further your solo yoga practice. Find a deck, a patch of grass, or as I did, a helicopter pad, and let it flow...
Imagine being able to sip flavorful Guatemalan coffee while taking in the view of Volcán Agua, which changes color from dark green in the morning to an almost purple at dusk. Rent the Grand Suite at Meson Panza Verde and you can. Established in 1986 as Antigua's first boutique hotel, Meson Panza Verde's "Grand Suite" is huge and beautiful and only $250 during low season (Summer), which is still an amazing time to be here. A room like this in other countries could garner anywhere from $1000-$5,000 a night. www.panzaverde.com
From one temple-top to another: on top of the world in Tikal National Park in northeastern Guatemala. These Maya pyramids (8th century) were the tallest structures built in the Americas until twentieth century skyscrapers arose in New York City. Howler monkeys and flocks of toucans add to the lost world feel of these ruins. From the top of Temple IV, this vista of the 'Jaguar Temple' and the 'Mask Temple' was the high point of our jungle-trekking.
It will give you a jolt to see these crumbling Mayan temples in the middle of the Guatemalan jungle. The limestone rocks have been scraped smooth by archeologists desperate to stave off the jungle vines and mossy dampness and the green undergrowth is all mown smooth like a city park. It's all so civilized and restrained. You have to climb to the top of the tallest tower and see the temples thrusting up through the tree line to get a sense of what the ancients must have seen and how they were kings of all they surveyed.
These ladies pull hot fresh corn tortillas off their grill, scrape avocado out of the shell, smear it across the warm tortilla, sprinkle on some salt and queso fresco and it's all yours for about 1 Quetzal. Buen Provecho!
These two brothers were the life of the party at La Casa del Mundo. One minute they were lying with each other sweetly, the next they were clawing at each other and rolling around meowing. A true sibling relationship! There was a great swinging chair on the porch overlooking the lake, and you couldn't sit on it without one of these guys jumping up on your lap or pawing at the woven seat. It made the stay at Casa del Mundo that much more like home.
Antigua is chalk-a-block full of beautiful and intimate posadas. We stayed at Posada del Angel. The staff is so friendly and willing to take care of your every need. The bathrooms are large and well done. The best part about our stay was breakfast on the rooftop terrace overlooking two volcanoes--Fuego y Agua. Definitely the highlight of our stay. Gotta love the lap pool as well and kept at 22 Celsius.
We stumbled upon this place on an evening stroll in Antigua. I vote this bar run by an energetic couple, Carlos and Carolina, the most AFARish place in the city. You feel like you are in their living room because you basically are. You can dine upstairs, which requires climbing a ladder. Try the lomito. You won't regret coming here. Opens at 4pm.
On a hillside, just north of Antigua, stands this stone cross. From the top of Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross), you have sweeping views south over the city of Antigua with the magnificent Volcán de Agua, towering over the landscape. I would recommend going up to Cerro de la Cruz only after you have already spent time in Antigua. That way, when you get up to the hill and look over the city, you can try and find all the landmarks that you visited. That is what we did when were there – trying to spot the Arco de Santa Catalina, Iglesia La Merced, Parque Central, Fernando’s (our favorite place for coffee) etc.
Getting up in the pre-dawn is not usually on my agenda, but wanting to see the Gran Plaza in Tikal at sunrise was sufficient motivation. I expected at least a handful of others would be similarly motivated, but my expectation was fantastically wrong. Alone in the misty morning, the pyramids dissolving into the gray sky, while the oropendolas and scores of other birds pierced the thick air with their song, I felt almost as if I were a ghost, floating serenely through the royal complex. I didn’t get to see the sun rise as a ball of flame over the pyramids; instead, the city of Tikal emerged slowly out of the mist, as though materializing out of the past from a dream into reality. And I the lone witness.
When U.S. school buses are decommissioned, they are reincarnated in Central America and given new life. Repainted and rechristened, they become tropical intercity transport worth taking. For travelers, a journey on one of these is an immersive Guatemalan experience as well as a nostalgic ride. For crossing international borders on land, many Centroamericanos ride on double-decker buses, from which you can look down on all the Panamerican Highway action; traveling from Guatemala through El Salvador and Honduras to Nicaragua, this was a typical scene, as we wondered, "are we there yet?"
After traveling to many places all these years, I come to conclude that Lake Atitlán in Guatemala is one of the most amazing places in the planet. This pool at Casa Palopó, is by far, the most beautiful place to see the sun rise every morning. Can't wait to come back!
If you're traveling in the Lake Atitlán region, consider a visit to the hillside cemetery in Sololá. The dead are honored here by being buried amid their favorite colors, and the vibrance and beauty of this place belies the fact that it is a cemetery. It is a visual delight of turquoise and cobalt blues, vivid orange hues and all varieties of green. Gorgeous flower arrangements decorating the tombs add further bursts of color. I felt honored and lucky to be there, admiring another facet of the colorful culture of Guatemala. Chichicastenango and Xela (Quetzaltenango) are other options for colorful cemeteries in the region.
Near the town of Tecpán in the western highlands of Guatemala are the ruins of Iximché. Perched on a hill some 7000 feet above sea level, this was the cool capital of the Kaqchikel Maya in the 15th and 16th centuries, at the time of the Spanish Conquest. This was our first visit to Central America, and although we didn't have time to visit the more famous ruins in the jungle of Tikal, we were excited to come to this less-well-known complex. Iximché is off the beaten path for most non-Guatemalan tourists; and among the Guatemalans who visit here, most are indigenous Maya. Built at the end of the pre-Columbian period, this city was used for only a few decades before the Conquistadors would establish their rule. But these ruins are hardly 'dead;' Maya families regularly come here for recreation and religion. The afternoon we were here, we saw a ceremony taking place. We didn't want to intrude on others' beliefs, so we stayed back--but I was close enough to see that bottles of rum were being used as offerings, and that one of the 'priests' took a break from his duties to answer his cell-phone. Syncretism at work. And then there were some kids playing inside the recessed ball-court. In the mythology of the Kaqchikels, a ceremonial ball-court was also the gateway to the Underworld. Five hundred years later, their descendants spend weekend afternoons kicking soccer balls around in those same courts...
This is my friends' Bob & Megan's Super Natural Jugo Cafe in Antigua, Guatemala. They go to the Mayan market everyday to buy the freshest mango, papaya, coconut, zanoria, fresa, banano, mora, and more. I lived off the panqueques de banano - and their coffee is a rich dark wake-up call! Find them here: http://whereisantiguaguatemala.com/2012/03/20/antigua-guatemala-in-the-form-of-super-natural-jugo-cafe or: 6a Calle Poniente #19, Antigua, Guatemala
Sunrise tours aren't normally my thing but rising at 4:00am taking a chicken bus to the trail entrance and beginning a hike in the darkness up the side of a volcano has to be rewarding. For 2 hours in the darkness you climb relentlessly upwards towards the heavens, and then you wait, wait for that first glimpse of light streaking over the horizon, the start of a new day, and you know that's why you travel, that's why you're here.
Aldous Huxley said this about Lake Atitlan when he visited and I agree. This is the lake that I am looking at right now from my living room window. I swear the bewitching beauty sparks new cells in your eyeballs. It melts your heart to look at this lake every day. Swimming, taxi-boating, and walking along the lake hearing the birds in the morning are my favorite things to do. When I jump in the lake in the early mornings and look back over my shoulder I am thrilled at the lush green mountains after all the rain and of course the volcanoes rising out of the horizon with clouds floating over them. They look so close that I can almost touch them with my fingertips. I'm renting a house here for 3 months and am happily teaching photography, writing my next book and hearing the lake lap against the shore all night long. http://www.bartnikowski.com
Aside from the religious events, what makes the Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebration in Antigua, Guatemala so unique are the flower and sawdust “alfombras” (carpets) created on the cobblestone streets of the town. These huge works of art are created by anyone who wants to and exist for the sole purpose of the Semana Santa processional floats to parade over. The making of the sawdust carpets starts with sand being spread over the cobblestone streets to level the ground. Next, dyed sawdust in hues of all colors are gently sprinkled through intricately designed cardboard stencils. Flowers, seeds, plants, vegetables, and pine needles are often added as final touches. There are numerous processional floats parading through town for several days leading up to Easter so new alfombras are constantly being created over the course of the week. Every alfombra is truly a labor of love and special in its own way.
Sizzling, juicy steak will keep you coming back to Hacienda Real in Guatemala City. A favorite of tourists and locals alike, this steak house is famous for its tenderloin called "lomito." Giant shrimp or flaky fish grilled and smothered in garlic and butter are great options if you are a seafood enthusiast. Whatever your tastes, Hacienda Real will keep you coming back for more! Photo by josewolff /Flickr.
In the marketplace of Antigua, colorful sawdust piles hint at the beginning of Semana Santa. Starting at midnight on Holy Saturday, artists all over Guatemala labor through the night designing giant sawdust carpets to blanket the cobblestone roads. These alfombra artists combine Mayan and Catholic iconography into beautiful artistic creations and when the sun rises, the carpets are destroyed as priests and acolytes process over them carrying statues of Christ and the saints. Beautiful and impermanent, just like life.
A woman walks past a door on the streets of downtown Antigua in Guatemala. Antigua is a picturesque colonial town, like many other colonial towns one might see in Central and South America. Old colonial buildings abound, as expected, but the city is also quite modern and has numerous modern amenities making it easy for tourists (as evidenced by the Wi-Fi sign in this photo!).
One of the best ways to connect with a culture is to connect with it's people, and hiking from village to village in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala provides you just this opportunity. The majestic lake is overlooked by three equally majestic volcanoes, and is surrounded by 12 remote villages. Each village boosts their own unique customs, culture, cuisine and dialect- and while often times similar to their neighbor, no two are exactly the same. From the colors of their huipil to their religious or shaman rituals, each village is an anthropological study in and of itself. I recommend choosing a home base hotel on the lake and set out to experience 2 or 3 villages per day, allowing yourself time to shop the markets, visit the churches, eat tamales and enjoy village life on the lake in each location. To best experience villages across the lake, pick a starting village, take a boat across and set out from there, hiking the road to the next village. A local boat 'taxi' can then pick you up at the next village. If possible, try not to have too much of a plan, leaving plenty of time open for spontaneous stumblings- music in the street, tortilla making by the side of the road, shaman ceremonies, surprises. Despite war, political strife, and poverty, the villagers that call Lake Atitlan home have remained resilient and vibrant and managed to protect their rich culture, making the inspiring natural beauty of the region only surpassed by the inspiring people that call it their home.
The "Volcán de Agua," just west of Guatemala City, at sunset... Going 'up north' to visit Guatemala, where an old family friend has lived for years, was our vacation during the year we lived in Nicaragua. Her neighborhood is in the hills above Amatitlán. I'd just bought my first digital camera a few days before and I was still learning to use it. (We had moved to Central America with a film-camera, but getting film developed in Nicaragua was more expensive than back in the U.S., even though Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America! The disparities between wealth and poverty are shocking...and some of the malls in Guatemala City are nicer than what you find in most 'Gringo' cities...and so I finally came into the digital-camera era in, of all places, "Guate.") So, while dinner was cooking, a quick stroll...there weren't many clouds, so I wasn't expecting a very interesting sunset, and then--and then the sun went down and the volcano cast its 3,760 m (12,336 ft) shadow into the sky--time to learn to use the camera!!!
My friend Joan and I were staying at Ni'tun Private Reserve on Lake Petén Itzá near Flores, and planned to visit several Maya sites in the Petén region, but were most excited about visiting Aguateca. What an adventure it was! Our guide Bernie of Monkey Eco Tours drove us to the town of Sayaxché on Río de la Pasión, where we embarked on a 90-minute boat ride on a gloriously sunny day. About halfway there, the river opened into Petexbatún Lagoon, a protected wildlife refuge where we spotted a variety of birds including cormorants, herons, osprey and vultures. When the boat docked at Aguateca, we had an uphill hike and soon were within viewing distance of the site's most extraordinary feature - La Grieta (translation: fissure or rift). At Aguateca it signifies the geological chasm that divides the site and provided its occupants with a natural defensive wall. As we craned our necks to look up, it was easy to imagine being pelted by rocks or other weapons from above. As we continued toward the ruins, our hike took us through a narrow portion of the chasm. The sun's rays combined with fog from the humidity to create somewhat ethereal lighting when I took this photo of Joan. Although you won't find imposing temples like Tikal’s here, the ruins at Aguateca are significant, and among the best preserved of the Mayan sites in Guatemala. Because of the travel time, you'll need a full day to visit and if Bernie is your guide, you'll be an expert in Mayan culture by the end of the day.
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