The Log of Moira


Western Caribbean: Antigua Guatemala, and the Mayan ruins at Tikal and Yaxhá (December 2008)


These are mostly Susan’s remarks. Larry’s notes are indicated thus <Larry: blah blah blah.>.


El Arco (the arch), Antigua, GuatemalaLa Antigua Ciudad de Guatemala (Antigua)


We spent the period from the 10th of December to the 3rd of January in Antigua, broken in the middle by a 3-day visit to Tikal.


Antigua was the original colonial capital of Guatemala <Larry: which at the time included a chunk of Yucatán and all of Central America>, founded in 1543, and originally called La Muy Noble y Muy Leal Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemala (“The very noble and loyal city of Santiago of the knights of Guatemala”) whose patron saint was the Apostle St. James. <Larry: Elizabeth Bell (the tour guide, see below) told us that the Spanish copied the architecture of Seville for the buildings in Antigua, and that the buildings of Seville were copies of Roman architecture.> The location was chosen for its supply of fresh water and climate, but the proximity of several volcanoes and crustal faults gave rise to frequent earthquakes which repeatedly leveled the city. The Spanish finally gave up on the location and moved the capital to the current Guatemala City. The move of the capital from Antigua in 1770 was a blessing in disguise for the old city. Santiago de los Caballeros was stripped of everything of value and abandoned, being left to the very poor, and became known as La Antigua Ciudad de Guatemala (“the old Guatemala City”) or “Antigua” for short. The colonial city’s structures, including the ruins of the residences and churches, were left alone, and occupied by squatters. In the 1960’s the government realized the value of the old city and set up a process for historical preservation and restoration that works today.


For the first stay in Antigua, we made reservations for a week in Antigua at the Posada del Angel. Once again the internet made the process possible. Then, to cover the later period in Antigua, we found a website called Vacation Rentals by Owners, a division of the site that we had used with success in the past in the States. There were several listings for houses in Antigua. One possibility was very interesting, but larger (more bedrooms) than we would have normally rented. The owner was accommodating, solving our problem by opening one bedroom for us and locking up the other bedrooms. So a three-bedroom house became a one-bedroom house with kitchen, living room, dinning room and two bathrooms around a central, well-landscaped garden. And at the price for a one-bedroom house! The owner lived in the States, in Antigua, GuatemalaElmhurst, Illinois, Larry’s home town. Wow, what a small world we have found! So off we went to Antigua for a week at our Posada del Angel, then on to Tikal, and back to Antigua for a stay in our spacious one-bedroom house.


Antigua is a city of walls. The key is get behind the walls where all the life of this lovely city resides. The walls and fascinating doors are colored in ochre, yellow, white, and other colors. The usual building materials are adobe, stone rubble, brick, and (in modern construction) concrete block, often mixed together haphazardly, stucco’d over, and painted. <Larry: This is not the high-precision stonework of the Inca!> If not plastered over, brick is sometimes intermixed with stone in decorative patterns. The walls historically kept the upper-class residents of this Spanish-colonial town safe from the violence and dirt of the streets, protecting them from robbers and plague. Today, the walls provide privacy and protection, as well as enchantment and a sense of mystery, as visitors wonder what is behind the walls. Without the walls this could be just another pretty city. <Larry: With the walls—if one doesn’t get behind them—the architecture of Antigua is mostly boring and grimy. As Susan says, the key is to find the mystery hidden by the walls.>


Doors within Doors: Through the Keyhole to Posada del Angel


Posada del Angel carriage door, pedestrian door, and Judas holeThe carriage doors that provide access from the street to the interiors and atria of these spaces have three openings in one space: a heavy, wide, solid wooden door large enough to admit a horse-drawn carriage or a modern automobile; within which is set a heavy, narrow, solid wooden door for the passage of a visitor on foot; within which (or to the side of which) is set a small, barred, solid wooden aperture commonly called a Judas hole in English, used for inspecting a visitor before deciding to open either of the larger doors.


Our B&B, the Posada del Angel, was a good example of the plain face that this city presents to the pedestrian, and the beauties hidden within. When we arrived at the front gate, I thought it could use a coat of paint. For a moment I wondered if we were at the right place!


At the Posada del Angel, the Judas hole opened to our knock, and then the pedestrian door, and a gracious Señora greeted me by name. As the door opened I got a good look inside at a lovely, elegant garden filled with flowers and greenery. A few steps further inside revealed a colonnade leading to the interior. The structure was made to look hundreds of years old, but was actually built as new construction in 1990. The posada was built as a combination private home and a B&B. The original owner kept an upstairs suite for herself and turned the remaining 6 bedrooms downstairs into a B&B, along with a dining room for breakfast, and an open air living room with fireplace. Most rooms had a fireplace for warmth in the cool winter nights. No other heat or AC was available, nor was any needed.. The living room was adjacent to a long swimming pool and was itself protected from the rain by a roof that stopped at the edge of the pool. If the wind were to come  from the south when it was raining hard I am not sure what protection was available for the living room.


A major advantage of the highland area of Guatemala, including Antigua, is the ever-present, almost perfect “spring” weather. The highlands have a year-round Mediterranean climate with an average temperature of 75 degrees. Really very pleasant. The Posada had every convenience including WiFi, but it looked and felt like a 18th century building.


<Larry: We were there for the Christmas season, which officially kicked off on December 15th. One evening, as we were walking home from dinner at one of the restaurants, we encountered a posada in process. A posada, in this usage, is a religious procession, a stylized recreation of Joseph and Mary going through Bethlehem in search of a place to stay. The procession stops at a house, and the leader recites a request to be allowed to enter for the night. The householder recites his refusal, Christmas carols are sung, a few bites of treats are exchanged, and the procession wends its way to the next house on the route.>


<Larry: Another remarkable event of the Christmas season occurred on Christmas Eve. All through the day there had been sporadic explosions of firecrackers. Susan and I had been struggling with colds and had retired early. About 11:30 PM the most terrific barrage of fireworks began, which lasted for at least an hour. At least some of it was very close to us, as there was no perceptible delay between the “flash” and the “bang.” Some of the explosions reached the level of small artillery. I half expected to go out in the morning and find the city in smoking ruins! Perhaps the display was another example of Mayan-Catholic crossover, such as we found in Chichicastenango. There was an encore performance at noon on Christmas Day.>




Backstrap loom, Casa del Tejido, Antigua, Guatemala<Larry: We owe a lot of what we know about traditional textiles to a visit to the Casa de Telas (House of Textiles), located in the northwest corner of Antigua, at one side of the great mercado. The museum is poorly funded, dim, and dusty, but if you find yourself in Antigua, do not miss this experience!>


Textiles were part of the Mayan culture prior to the coming of the Spanish. The backstrap loom was given to the Mayans by the goddess, Ixchel, and is still used widely in the Mayan highlands. The backstrap loom gives Mayan weaving its tight, strong weave, producing a length of fabric usually under 18 inches wide. The narrow pieces produced by the backstrap loom are hand-sewn together to form a wider textile suitable for a particular use. The foot loom was introduced by the Spaniards. The backstrap loom is for women, and the foot loom is generally used by men. The foot loom can produce much wider pieces of cloth, more quickly, and much of the fabric produced by the foot looms was sent back to Spain to fund the Spanish treasury.


Men in traditional dress, Santiago AtitlanThe Spaniards introduced differences in the woven textile products that became characteristic of each village. This was not a creative effort by the Spaniards, but a mechanism to enable them to associate a villager with a particular village for taxation and regimentation. Today, a knowledge of textiles still lets one recognize and identify the home village of a campesino (country-dweller). For example, in the Atitlán area, the women wear blouses with designs with butterflies, birds and many different flowers of the region. The blouses, called huipiles (“we-PEAL-ays”), are made of two or three pieces of fabric for the front and back, produced on the backstrap loom and sewn together. The huipil has a color and pattern that distinguishes the woman’s home village. The fabric may be beautifully embroidered around the neck opening and on the front and back. The women wear a simple, ankle-length wrap-around skirt called a corte. The corte is formed from a long piece of material from a foot-loom, tightly woven with a complex woven-in pattern, with more reserved coloring than the huipil.


Men also have a traditional dress, more frequently seen in the smaller, more remote, and more traditional villages that see fewer tourists, like Santiago Atitlán. During the day in more touristy areas like Panajachel, men wore jeans or more “American Western” clothing. The traditional dress consists of midcalf-length white slacks with brown or other color narrow stripes vertically on the legs, calzoncillos (sandals), and a camisa (a shirt, usually light-colored). A woven belt or sash accents the trousers. When a couple becomes engaged to be married, the woman will sometimes embroider or weave her intended’s belt or the collar of his camisa to resemble the decoration of her own huipil.


<Larry: Another fine source of knowledge about Mayan textiles is the “Village Tour” operated by Elizabeth Bell’s Antigua Tours. We learned a lot on the tour about how to tell the markers of wealth and social status displayed in the textiles during a visit to Carolina’s cooperative in the town of San Antonio Aguas Calientes, outside of Antigua.>


Walls within Walls


As we started to explore Antigua we began to understand its charm.


Few buildings had descriptive or informative signs. There are almost no street signs. Those that are present are often painted over when the wall on which the sign is mounted is painted. The expat community of Antigua works with the mayor's office on things like signs and cleanliness of the area with some effect. But money is short, and signs seem to be of secondary interest. After all, if you live in Antigua why would you need signs? You and all your friends know where that store is, so what’s the problem? <Larry: Most streets have both a name and a number: so First Street East is also Alameda Santa Rosa. Where street signs are present, they’re more likely to bear the name (which nobody uses) than the number, which almost nobody uses. We were told that the concierge at one of the biggest and classiest hotels in Antigua couldn’t come up with the address of the hotel—nor could anyone else on the staff.>


Private residences may have an address number and sometimes a small handsome sign signifying that this casa belongs to such-and-such family. Those doors one does not knock on! The doors to hotels are usually open and often the nicer ones have a well-dressed male outside willing to greet you in Spanish, and often saying you are welcome to look around after a cursory glance at you. Many of the hotels have lovely interior gardens that are one of the beautiful secrets of the town.


<Larry: Here’s a set of cues to help the first-timer get around. They’ll be easier to remember once you’ve seen them in action.

·        In Antigua, the North-South streets are Avenidas (cue: the capital “A” looks like an arrowhead pointing North), numbered North to South, and the East-West streets are Calles (cue: the capital “C” looks like a blunt arrowhead pointing West), numbered East to West.

·        The Northeast corner of the central square is the corner of 4th Avenida and 4th Calle (cue: the square has four sides>.

·        Addresses on an Avenida or Calle are composed of a block number, a dash, and a property number within the block.

·        Addresses on the Avenidas are Norte (North) or Sur (South) from the central square, and addresses on the Calles are Oriente (East) or Poniente (West) from the central square.

·        Finally, streets in the core area are interleaved one-way, with 4th Avenida being Southbound and 4th Calle being Eastbound (Northeast corner of the square, remember?); so if you have lost count and can’t remember whether you’re on 2nd or 3rd Calle, for example, look at which way the traffic is going: if Eastbound, it’s 2nd Calle, not 3rd (which would be Westbound).>


Hotel and Museums Santo Domingo


One example of hidden beauty is the Hotel Santo Domingo, a five star hotel, owned and run by a family from Guatemala City. The hotel is on the grounds of a 17th century ancient Monasterio Santo Domingo that was left in ruins until the 1980’s. The family restored portions of the monastery, and bought more property and added rooms and more facilities. Today, behind a ochre-colored, unimpressive wall, the hotel has done a remarkable job of historical preservation and modern reuse of the ruins. The hotel has added three private museums which are just stunning. One memorable space is a large meeting area, once the nave of the large cathedral from 17th century: several pillars and a partial ceiling of the cathedral survive and form the basis for an auditorium. The space is used for religious services, weddings, and large meetings.


The three museums form what they call the Paseo de los Museos (“the walkway of museums”). One museum displays “colonial religious art” made by Guatemalans to Spanish designs. The art includes some astonishing sculptures made from wood and decorated with silver, gold leaf, and intricate designs done by skilled Mayan artists. Another area has workshops where you can watch wax and ceramic objects being created. The most amazing museum includes pre-Columbian art—in itself a fine collection—greatly enhanced by the juxtaposition of modern glass pieces bought by the museum to contrast with the pre-Columbian art. <Larry: So you might have two or three pre-Colombian pieces representing turtles, together in the same case with modern Scandinavian or French pieces representing the same subject. It was a very effective contrast of the ancient and the modern art. Together each collection enhances the other. Elizabeth Bell told us that the collection’s owner had considered closing the museum, because “nobody wants to look at” pre-Columbian art, which the upper class here apparently thinks is junk.>


Shopping, Eating, and Learning


We explored many retail shops (tiendas). The interesting element here is that often the retail store appears be closed. Often one needs to press a buzzer before finding oneself behind the door or gate in an entirely different environment. The stores are often expansive, and often include several shops around the sides of a green atrium to be found in the center of most buildings. Exploring is fun and interesting and we are never sure just what we may find. <Larry: Continuing a theme that is consistent throughout Central America, one thing you can be pretty sure of finding, except in the smallest tiendas, is an armed guard. Here the weapon of choice seems to be the stockless shotgun, rather than the automatic weapon of El Salvador or Nicaragua. After a while they just become part of the landscape.>


Restaurants of every type and price abound. During our stay at Posada del Angel, we especially enjoyed Welten, La Casserole, Café Mediterraneo, Tartin, La Fonda de la Calle Real and Mesón Panza Verde. <Larry: Susan had no kitchen in which to cook at the Posada. Once we moved into our rental house in Antigua, this nonsense of going out to dinner came to an abrupt halt.>


A highlight of visiting Antigua for me was the Antigua Cooking School, where I took two four-hour cooking classes. In the first, we made a typical Guatemalan meal, including the fine art of making Guatemalan-style tortillas. In the second, we made tamales and stuffed zucchini. At least three students are need to sign up to assure the class goes forward so sign up early and keep letting them know your schedule and interests. For my cooking pleasure, there is a large and vibrant public mercado that sells everything from fresh cilantro to electronics and baby clothes. It is crowded with tiny aisles and merchants in stalls or sitting in the aisles. Its colorful, tiring, full of options, and never the same thing twice. Definitely not to be missed. We have had the largest and freshest shrimp since Mazatlán, and a large choice of fresh vegetables and excellent pineapple and grapes. Guatemala is one of the largest exporters of strawberries and grapes, and both are found in this mercado. There is a large grocery store called La Bodegona just around the corner from the mercado. It is filled to the rafters with everything imaginable, and nothing seems to be in same place as the last time you came. But with some diligence shopping is possible and usually productive. It is best not to plan rigid menus. It is much better to be flexible, buy what you like and can find, and build a menu based on the day's foraging.


While we were in Antigua I wanted to take advantage of their wealth of language schools. After visiting several I settled on San José El Viejo Spanish School, which styles itself “the garden school,” not far from Posada del Angel. The grounds of the school and hotel facilities were lovely. <Larry: Many Spanish-language schools here provide some sort of residence option, either a hotel-style building or living with a local family.> I decided mostly on the recommendation we received from a group of Americans we met while having dinner at the Mesón Panza Verde restaurant close to Posada del Angel. Their group had attended the school several times and found it excellent. So far, my experience has borne out that recommendation. For four hours a day, I speak and hear Spanish… not very well, but I am getting better. As they say in Spanish "Vamos a ver!," or, “We shall see!”


City Government of Antigua


The city is built around a large Parque Central, nicely landscaped with large trees, colorful plants and flowers, and a large fountain which is washed down every Friday. Around the Parque are the Catredral (cathedral, still in use); the Palacio de Capitanes Generales (Governor’s palace, still in use) just starting a twenty year renovation program of the large ruined interior; and the city hall (still in use) with the offices of the Mayor, city council, and treasury, and a very limited staff to assist them. Again, this a land of limited government.


One of the mayor’s pet projects is collecting used cooking oil from restaurants and converting it to biodiesel fuel for city vehicles. Conservation is just beginning in Guatemala but this effort seems like a good beginning. The expat community works well with the mayor’s office and is very involved with the day-to day-issues surrounding the restoration process. One of the most active expats, Elizabeth Bell, is a trained archeologist and restoration expert. She runs a successful tour agency and provides a very fine tour of the city twice daily. This city has a large group of buildings in need of restoration, or maintaining and preserving the ruins to avoid any more deterioration. Limited funds do come from the Guatemalan government, and also from countries around the world such as Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. There is much work to be done. After all, the colonial city of Antigua included 32 churches, 18 convents and monasteries, 7 colleges, 5 hospitals, and a university. While earthquakes did knock down many structures from 1500’s and 1600’s, much of the architecture from about the 1700’s and 1800’s remains. The national government and the city government are paying close attention to this lovely city, and as a result this is one of Guatemala’s favorite tourist destinations. It is also a city of many second homes for the well-off residents of Guatemala City, which is only 45 minutes away. The population of the city noticeably increases in size and activity as Friday comes around each week.


Additional photos from this trip can be found in our Photo Gallery and Moira’s Ship’s Store.




Temple V, Tikal, GuatemalaWhile it’s possible to take a bus ride (ten hours) from Antigua to Flores, near Tikal, neither of us felt that our bottoms <Larry: or kneecaps!> would stand for this treatment. So we took a shuttle from Antigua back to the Guatemala City airport and flew on TACA, the Salvadorian airline, to Flores. The flight lasted less than 50 minutes, and delivered us to a remote plain, an area warm year-round, mostly jungle, an environment which hid the Mayan ruins for centuries. Flores (the airport) is about two hours by bad road from Tikal and Yaxhá, and close to the two towns of any size in the area, Flores and Santa Elena. Flores (the town) is on an island in Lake Petén Itza, and is joined to Santa Elena on the mainland by a causeway. <Larry: Just to keep everyone confused, the Flores Airport is not on the island, but on the mainland adjacent.>

We stayed at the Ni’tun ecolodge, located on Lake Petén Itza. Ni’tun appealed to me because the owners were forthcoming with ideas and information as we planned for this trip. It didn’t hurt that the small lodge (maximum guests about 12) believed in good food and hot water. The casitas were built from wood and stone, arranged around the property on terraces surrounding a communal living room, dining room, reading area, bar, and kitchen. Ni’tun was very pleasant and welcoming after a day of touring the ruins.

Ni’tun arranged a one-day tour of Tikal including a tour guide, transportation, and picnic lunch. We had read much about Tikal but nothing really prepares one for the experience. I had thought that the area would be much more completely excavated and restored. While the central plaza has undergone much excavation and restoration, the remaining ruins are mostly hidden by jungle. <Larry: Precisely because the jungle is so invasive, any ruin that is excavated immediately begins to deteriorate. There may be funds for excavating a ruin, but not for its maintenance once exposed, so things are better left undisturbed.> Much like the ruins of Machu Picchu in Perú, Tikal was known to the local Mayans. Ambrosio Tut, a gum-sapper, was the first outsider to see Tikal, in the 1840’s, from the top of a sapodilla tree, observing the temples' roof combs in the distance.Archaeologists and explorers, acting on his report and other rumors, came to the area. In 1877 Dr. Gustav Bernoulli commissioned locals to explore the area and sent lintels from the doorways of two temples to Switzerland.

Tikal is now a national park of 222 square miles with over 3,000 structures thought to be in the area. Only a few hundred have been excavated or restored. The initial, major archaeological work was done by the University of Pennsylvania, who had archeologists on the scene for almost thirteen years. <Larry: There is no evidence that either of the Dr. Henry Walton Jones’s, Sr. or Jr., were part of the team.>

The city of Tikal at its height and glory was home to almost 150,000 people. At least half of these were elite religious leaders or scholars of astronomy. It appears that the Mayan empire thrived from about 800 BC to almost 600 AD. Tikal was a religious and governmental center from about 200 BC to about 600 AD, and remains an active site of religious importance to the modern Mayans. The population disappeared about 600 AD. Archeologists now believe that the disappearance was due to climate change that caused drought and the dispersal of these people to the Yucatan peninsula. Mostly an agricultural society, they had learned the power of controlling trade through their strategic area. The trade between the Pacific and Atlantic areas of Central America had to pass through the vicinity of Tikal, and traders paid taxes to the empire. But weather patterns on the ocean improved, removing the need for the overland haul through Tikal. Drought conditions caught the area unprepared and overpopulated, and the area declined. <Larry: Part of the decline may have been due to a “second-order effect” of the drought. If the ruling class claims to be able to control the seasons through their demonstrated ability to predict astronomical events, and yet the rains do not come, the whole belief-system can collapse.>


<Larry: We were told that the ancient Mayans founded Tikal where they did because the location was free from two of the great liabilities of Central America: hurricanes and earthquakes. One of the great triumphs, and at the same time, the great vulnerability, of Tikal, was that the city was built in an area where the only source of fresh water was rainwater. The ancient Mayans depended upon an impressive system of cisterns (constructed from the quarries where they had cut the limestone to make their monuments). But the cisterns could not keep the city going through a prolonged drought.>


The culture had no iron, nor wheels to transport blocks of stone. <Larry: We have seen small sculptures, perhaps religious objects, representing horses with a wheel at the end of each leg. So they knew of the wheel. We’ve been told that they considered the wheel (circle) to be sacred, and that it would have been sacrilege to use a wheel to move a working load.> They had jade, stone, woven fabrics, silver, an accurate astronomical system, and a very accurate calendar. They had writing in the form of hieroglyphics, but not much of this writing survives, and the translation of the hieroglyphs is vexed. Today archaeologists rely mostly on excavation of the temples and the surrounding areas to understand the people of the area through their ceramics, tools, and food.


It is not hard to see how the jungles covered these monuments for almost a 1,000 years. We were shown areas that had been cleared only a couple of decades in the past, that were now overgrown again. The jungle comes right up to the ruins. Bird such as the toucan and parrots and hummingbirds are abundant. Howler and spider monkeys and jaguars are common in these thick forests.


It took about five hours of walking to see Tikal. No cars, motor scooters, or vans come into the park. Just outside of the main site, we left our van in a parking lot. From there we walked a counterclockwise circuit, starting with the least impressive temples <Larry: “Complex Q”> and arriving in early afternoon to the large and distinctive and very impressive Central Plaza. We were able to have lunch in the park, close to the Central Plaza. The park was not crowded, with fewer than a hundred tourists in the park that day. The high season is the Easter weeks and the North American summer season.


There are several small museums and several simple hotels in the park. I think we benefited by staying outside of the park. The hotels in the park appeared to be fairly basic. The hotels are also some distance from the major ruins: I could not see myself going back to the ruins in the evening. I enjoyed the ride between Tikal and Ni’tun. While the roads are atrocious, I did see a lot of countryside, all of which I would have missed Yaxha, Guatemalahad I gone straight from the airport to Tikal and back.


One day at Tikal was sufficient for me. <Larry: Some people take the morning flight from Guat City to Flores, do the park, and fly back the same evening. That program struck us as a little more accelerated than we would like.>


Additional photos from this trip can be found in our Photo Gallery and Moira’s Ship’s Store.




The next day, we went on a tour of Yaxhá (pronounced “yash-HA”), a nearby Mayan center, in the Yaxhá-Nakum-Naranjo triangle, which is part of the Mayan Biosphere. Archaeologists have not found the tombs or burial grounds here that are typical of other Mayan ruins <Larry: and most of the stelae (vertical limestone slabs which carried hieroglyphs commemorating important events) that have been discovered are blank>. As a result, two of the most important sources of information for archaeologists are missing. It appears that Yaxhá was an area for the study of astronomy, with support staff around the temples for services to the Mayan scholars.


<Larry: Where Tikal was grand, and grandiose, Yaxhá was almost intimate. It is remarkable that modern Mayans have built multiple altars (concrete disks about 8’ in diameter, with a slight depression in the center) at each site, and the altars at both sites are in use today. Our tour guide, Bernie Mittelstaedt from Ni’tun, really highlighted the significance of the structures and the surviving architectural decoration, and the modern disagreements on their interpretation.>


Additional photos from this trip can be found in our Photo Gallery and Moira’s Ship’s Store.






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