Thursday, 31 January 2008


Sunday 31st January

After Chichi market I wanted to visit two nearby places which were – are – central in the Spanish conquest of this part of the Americas, the subjugation of the Mayas and the preservation of the Mayan creation myth.

In 1524, Pedro de Alvarado was sent by Hernán Cortés to conquer the southern highlands of what would become Guatemala. This area was home to a number of different Mayan tribes, dominant among them being the K'ichee' who had themselves conquered neighbouring tribes and had their capital on a ridge. The capital was a medium-sized Mayan city called K'umarcaaj and now known by the Nahuatl name of Utatlan. Not as grand as Tikal or Copan but still comprising stone stepped pyramids, open plazas, a ball court and elite residences. It was a flourishing city at the time of the Spanish conquest. It had only been settled about 1400 on a ridge surrounded on three sides by steep, pine-clad ravines. The Spanish knew they would have to bring the K'ichee' under their domination if the conquest of this area was to be successful.

The Spanish enlisted the help of a neighbouring tribe and attacked the K'ichee' who they defeated in battle. The K'ichee' kings then invited them to the capital under truce. The Spanish arrived, kidnapped the two K'ichee' kings and burnt them alive at the stake in the central plaza, beneath the three temples dedicated to the gods credited with creating the world and the Mayan people - Tohil, Avilix and K'ucumatz.

Utatlan today with the remains of ceremonial fires

I wanted to see K'umarcaaj. Today it is a small, unrestored archaeological site open to the public. My reaction was one of deep sadness. Much of this the result of the barbarous killings enacted here. Part was also to do with the feel of the site today. It has little money to fund its care and it appears as a cross between a neglected park and a neglected recreation ground. Stubby grass, a bare concrete or limestone stucco floor to the central plaza, electricity poles and burning fires reek of desolation. Mayan people coming to the site to hold ceremonies in a place still sacred to them, and perhaps to commemorate the acts that happened here, make the fires along with burning incense and candles.

Utatlan Shrine
Shrine carved into the crumbling remains of the temple dedicated to Tohil

Another reason for the bare appearance of the city is that the Spaniards robbed most of the stone from Utatlan to build the Catholic church in the nearby ‘new town’ of Santa Cruz de Quiche. The white-painted church towers over the town.

Santa Cruz de Quiche
The church of Santa Cruz de Quiche, built of stone robbed from Utatlan

Back to Chichi where a significant event occurred in 1702 that was to help preserve a significant aspect of K'ichee', and Mayan, culture. A group of K'ichee' bravely showed Friar Francisco Ximénez of the convent at Chichi a copy of the K'ichee' Popol Vuh, or tribal council book, in 1702. I say bravely because the Catholic priests burnt nearly all Mayan books or codexes as anti-Christian. Instead of following the inquisitional orthodoxy, Ximénez copied the original he was shown from the Mayan hieroglyphs to Latin script. The Popol Vuh recorded the K'ichee' creation myth featuring hero twins and a history of the K'ichee' tribe. Without the friar’s act of academic interest all of this would have been lost to the flames. The Popol Vuh is now the key document for understanding Mayan cosmology, creation mythology and the immediately pre-Colombian history of the Guatemalan highlands.

Chichi Convent
Mayans and tourists mingle in the cloisters of the convent in Chichi

Getting There
From Chichicastenango get a chicken bus to Santa Cruz. It is only about 30 minutes. The bus arrives at the Santa Cruz bus terminal. Minibuses to Utatlan - signed Las Ruinas on their front - leave from the central park. Either take a tuk tuk and the driver will drop-you off at the correct spot or walk north for four blocks and west for two. It is about 10 minutes by minibus to Utatlan. They take you right to the entrance. To return to Santa Cruz go down to the main road, about a five minute walk, and wait. The minibuses are frequent and it is easy to visit Utatlan and return to Chichi in an afternoon.

Wednesday, 30 January 2008


Sunday 26th January

The place with the unpronounceable name. Well almost, it has taken me nearly 4 months and a visit to the place itself to learn to pronounce it correctly. It was always that 'cas' in the middle that threw me each time. Now I'm fluent and ready to take on saying town names such as Chimaltenango and Quetzeltenango - no problem!

Chichi Flower Seller
Chichi market

Thousands of Mayans from the surrounding area and dozens of tourists shipped in from Antigua and Pana come to Chichi every Thursday and Sunday for the massive market. It is a riot of colour as most of the women and some of the men still wear traditional handwoven clothes, with designs differing from one village to the next. The market fills the main square and church steps and comes in four parts - the covered fruit and vegetable market, the main part of the square and surrounding streets selling everything from ceremonial incense to cheap clothes via hardware and live turkeys, the flower market on the church steps and finally the market for the tourists selling textiles, masks and woodcarvings. The first three are almost solely for Mayans and the core of the square are a group of cheap eating places.

Chichi Textiles
Chichi Textiles

We tourists really only drift around the edges of this temporary village even though it is one of the main tourist destinations in Guate. It never felt like a zoo when I was there as there are just so many Mayan people doing what they are there to do. And with the place being so packed they don't hold much quarter trying to get around static tourists looking confused or taking photos.

The whole market is extremely exciting and dynamic and if you can find a spot to one side to watch it, it is mesmerising.

Chichi Fruit and Veg
Better than Tesco anyday.

One of the main events of Sunday is morning mass in the Catholic church. Except this church integrates traditional Mayan rituals with Catholicism. Elders from the town and surrounding area attend on mass, the priest reminds them all that whatever way they worship it is Christ they come for, then after he finishes people light candles and murmur on 12 square altars laid along the aisle from the front to the back of the church. Many people also burn incense before entering the church to bless the spirit of the church itself.

Getting There
I went to Chichi by chicken bus from Antigua. You get the buses from behind the market. You first take a bus to Chimeltenango, then a bus to Los Encuentros and then the final bus to Chichi. There was no wait at any of the changes and the buses are quick! The final stretch is a half-hour ride up and down steep roads with tight zig-zag bends that the drivers take at speeds Michael Schumacher would find difficult to match while the conductors lean out of the door shouting at every other vehicle to get out of their way. The bus ride is an experience in itself.

I stayed in the basic and cheap Posada Belen on one side of town. The balconies overlook a wooded ravine on one side and the town on the other. It is nothing fancy but rooms are large. The shared shower had hot water two days out of three.

Chichicastengo Elders
Mayan elders attending mass

Incense Spirit
Blessing the spirit of the church. Note the Harley Davidson jacket!

Chichicastengo Elders 2

Tuesday, 29 January 2008


Antigua Arch
View through the Arch to Volcano Agua

Antigua is a fantastic old historic Spanish colonial city. Low buildings, flat, bright colours, cobbled streets, big doors, looming cathedrals, grid lay-out. Plus plenty of abandoned churches and buildings left unrepaired from the earthquake in the 1770s.

Antigua Door
A typically impressive Antiguan door

Plus a plethora of cafes, restaurants and bars - many set in delightful courtyards fringed with arched cloisters and brimming with flowering plants. It is a food and drink delight set in stylish surroundings. I made the most of the great numbers of delicious cakes on offer. It is a place to wander from old building to old building, a tea, coffee or hot chocolate in a cafe and to drop in to a gallery or museum. We stopped by one art exhibition opening, found a great open air courtyard restaurant/bar with a great band, and explored the ruined cathedral which is Escher like in the way its surviving arches and their shadows intersect. It is like Barcelona without the modern bits.

Antigua Street
A typical Antiguan street

Add to this three volcanoes looming overhead, one still active and periodically emitting smoke, for a very special town indeed.

Antigua Potluck

We stayed in a beautiful room in a casa which was way over our budget but we can save a bit later. It was worth it for the rooftop terrace - great views and yoga space - nice rooms and quiet. No drunken backpackers talking rubbish in an adjacent courtyard until late into the night. My we're getting old!

La Merced
La Merced

We were very close to the awesomely ornate La Merced church who's bells rang out for mass at 6 - both in the morning and at night. Outside was a great place to buy pupusas at the weekend - cheese filled maize tortillas with salad, refried beans, guacamole and chilli.

Bicycle to Church
Taking your bicycle to mass

The other main standing church is the cathedral by the park.

Antigua Cathedral
Cathedral Traffic Lights

Antigua Sentinel
Cathedral Saint and Door

There are also well-used public pilas in the city. These are washing stations for clothes. Most villages and towns have, or had them, though more and more people have their own at home. Even the Antigua pilas are stylish!

Antigua Pilas

I would happily return to Antigua to live for a few months and spend plenty of time walking around the streets taking photographs, going to see live bands and putting on weight from eating too many cakes.

One Way Antigua

Saturday, 19 January 2008

Copan Ancient Mayan City

Two Stelae, One King, Eighteen Rabbit

I visited the ruins of Copan on 8 days during our stay at Copan Ruinas. Somewhat confusingly the modern town is known as Copan Ruinas, though its real name is San Jose de Copan, rather than the archaeological site which is known as Las Ruinas. I’ll just use Copan for the archaeological site and ‘the Town’ for, well, the town from now on.

Stella H
Stella H

Copan is the municipal park of Mayan cities compared to Tikal’s jungle fastness. The site is compact and the main area comprises a beautifully kept level lawn surrounded by trees that are reached by low yet very, very long flights of stone steps. This is the Gran Plaza that stretches north of the Acropolis. Perhaps the biggest comparison with anything in Britain is with the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

Stella N
Stella N

For it is across this lawn that Copan’s biggest contribution to world culture or tourist attraction, depending on how you view these monuments, are arranged. These are ten massive stone sculptures of the Kings of Copan. Such sculptures, known as stelae, are a feature of Mayan religious and socio-political art. A stela depicts a king or major city event and is inscribed with Mayan hieroglyphs that convey the important person or event the stela was made and erected for. There is always an altar in front.

Stella H
Stella H

The stelae of Copan are one of the biggest and best-surviving Mayan groups anywhere. Their real importance is that deep relief carving was not taken to such a high artform anywhere else in the Mayan world. This is in part due to the volcanic stone that is hard when first quarried then hardens on exposure to air to create a very long-lasting rock. Nearly all other Mayan cities are on limestone and the carving never reached the same depth of relief or survived the elements for long.

Glyphs 2
Is that a rabbit?

There are stelae throughout the whole of Copan but it is in the Gran Plaza that they are closely arranged. Seven of the ten were erected and so depict one king – known as 18 Rabbit because of the lupine resemblance of one hieroglyph. Over a number of years he created a procession route for public ceremonies that is now the de facto ancient sculpture park. Each is about twice the height of a person and bare the king dressed in religious costumes tailored full of cosmological meanings. It looks like he is tweaking his nipples while blessed out on a Class A drug. In fact he is holding a staff across his chest from the ends of which exit the sun deity in various anthropomorphic forms. His face is below a mask, which on each stelae represents a different god, and is surrounded by other deities. One has two stylised macaw beaks, which some earlier ‘scholar’s took for elephant trunks and evidence for cross-Pacific communication.

Ball Court
Ball Court

The other two main features of the plaza are the ball court and Hieroglyphic Stairway. The ball game was played throughout ancient MesoAmerica and involved teams using their hips, chests and shoulders to throw a solid rubber ball onto sloping stone sides with the aim of scoring through a hoop while watched from above by the nobility. The game re-enacted Mayan cosmology such as the passage of the sun through the Underworld and winning or losing teams either forfeited jewellery or their lives in sacrifice to the gods. The Stairway comprises glyphs written on the individual blocks of the steps and is the longest piece of ancient Mayan text.

South of the Plaza des Estella rises the stone Acropolis, an artificial mountain aligned on the cardinal points. Here is the heart of kingship and government in Copan. Two raised plazas hosted more private ceremonies for nobility and the nine governors of the regions commanded by the city. All nine governors and the king would meet regularly in the Popol Nah, or Mat House, Copan’s town hall. It is called a Mat House because it was were leaders brought their mats to sit on in front of the person who had the right to sit on the very front mat. This form of council was the basic elder-led administration in any community and was replicated in Copan’s Popol Nah at the city-state level.

Macaw Monument
Macaws on a King

One of the delights of Copan is the group of ten or more semi-tame macaws that hang out near the ticker office and occasionally erupt into the plaza in a riot of colour and calls. They did this twice while I was there, once sitting on top of a stelae to search around and preen each other.

My week of photography at Copan was greatly enabled by Rene Viel, a French archaeologist who lives in Copan, and Oscar Cruz, the manager of the archaeological park. Oscar granted me a week's free access to the site and two museums as a result of Rene requesting access for me. Thank you to you both.

All-in-all, it was a very enjoyable week during which I got to know the personalities of Copan and hopefully have brought them out in the photographs.

Thursday, 17 January 2008


We are now in Antigua Guatemala, the third colonial Spanish capital of Guatemala before yet another earthquake forced a move to the capital´s present geologically stable location in the 1700s. The town is all single storey Hispanic colonial buildings and cobbled streets with views of two volcanoes.

We´re looking forward to exploring the historic buildings, cafe culture and volunteering for the PROBIGUA literacy project by taking photographs and doing interviews of people who have benefitted from their support for promotional use.

We´re also hiking up a live volcano on Saturday!