See Gu­atemala in tech­ni­colour.

Gu­atemala’s charms go beyond the an­cient Mayan ru­ins.

Elle (Canada) - - News - By Liz Gu­ber

the clap clap clap of women mak­ing tor­tillas with their hands res­onates through the air, but it doesn’t tempt my ap­petite—I’m on a shop­ping quest. It’s mar­ket day in Santa María de Jesús, a town tucked into the slopes of the Agua vol­cano, a 15-minute drive out­side of Antigua, Gu­atemala’s colo­nial cap­i­tal. In the blur of green—the spiky tops of pineap­ples, pyra­mids of limes and leafy bun­dles of cilantro—I’m on the hunt for huip­ils. Th­ese are the loose-fit­ting, brightly coloured em­broi­dered blouses that I’ve been spot­ting on most of the Mayan women here and vir­tu­ally ev­ery­where I’ve been in this Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­try. I’m not go­ing home with­out one of my own.

I make my way to the heart of the mar­ket and fi­nally spot an el­derly woman sit­ting be­side tall rainbow-hued stacks of the blouses. It doesn’t take me long to find “the one,” a pump­kin-coloured top with em­broi­dered green and hazel birds. I hold it up to my body to show the woman my in­ter­est as I pull out a crum­pled stack of quet­zals (the lo­cal cur­rency) and start say­ing num­bers— “Cien? Do­scien­tos?”— in my ter­ri­ble Span­ish. This proves fu­tile, as the woman’s first lan­guage is the re­gional Kaqchikel. Sud­denly, she snatches the blouse back from me, pro­tec­tively clutch­ing it to her chest while shak­ing her head. I stand there, con­fused—and the cynic in me be­gins to won­der if this is just her method of bar­gain­ing—un­til a neigh­bour­ing ven­dor gives her a nudge, and she even­tu­ally con­cedes to sell me the blouse.

As I walk away, I am de­lighted to no­tice that the town’s cen­tral church is painted the same cheer­ful orange as my new huipil— and I de­cide that what I’m go­ing to choose to re­mem­ber is that the orig­i­nal owner of my blouse cher­ished it. While I won’t wear it tucked into a striped wo­ven skirt, as the Mayan women do, and its de­sign won’t tell the story of which re­gion I come from, as it does for the lo­cal res­i­dents, it will be a re­minder of this quaint town perched on the shoul­ders of one of the coun­try’s 33 vol­ca­noes.

Ear­lier in the day, I ac­tu­ally got to climb one of th­ese vol­ca­noes, the nearby Pa­caya, which was ac­tive last March. (Yikes!) But after care­ful checks by my guide, we were cleared to climb—and even roast some marsh­mal­lows over a steam­ing nat­u­ral vent. As he handed me a twig to spear them with, I knew this would be­come another sweet mem­ory of a coun­try that never stopped sur­pris­ing me.

Antigua—a UNESCO World Her­itage site lo­cated in the coun­try’s high­lands—has many rules in place to main­tain its ex­quis­ite Span­ish colo­nial vibe. Num­ber one: no traf­fic lights—in a city of 30,000 res­i­dents. I must be ex­tra-care­ful when cross­ing the street or I might en­cour­age mo­torists in speed­ing tuk-tuks to break rule num­ber two: no honk­ing. (This doesn’t keep things com­pletely quiet or stuck in a time warp, how­ever; at one point, I was sur­rounded by the chat­ter of tar­tan-clad school­girls talk­ing on their cell­phones.) Rule num­ber three is my favourite: The facades of the city’s sim­ple two-storey houses must be painted one of 10 ap­proved colours, which date back to the 1600s. I turn this rule into a game and try to spot all 10 of the bright hues. I find a favourite, a cheer­ful for­get-me-not blue called “ce­leste colo­nial,” but I lose my colour count some­where around num­ber eight when I for­get to look both ways be­fore cross­ing the street—I’m too en­chanted by the hid­den court­yard foun­tains and smil­ing lo­cals. Here’s how I spent my day: MORN­ING After I grab a frothy latte at the Refuge, a café and mi­cro-roaster that makes its cof­fee from beans grown in Gu­atemala’s high­lands, I head to Catedral de San José, the city’s grand­est baroque church. Its in­te­ri­ors were re­duced to ru­ins by an earth­quake that dev­as­tated the city in 1773—but be­cause it is still be­ing painstak­ingly re­stored, I can stand inside and look up to see patches of blue sky in place of domes. AF­TER­NOON The city’s tree-lined cen­tral park is eye candy. I eaves­drop as Span­ish tu­tors con­verse with their pupils on a nearby bench. And I crave ice cream when a seller strolls by. For lunch, I head up a steep hill to eat mint-pesto chicken, heart-of-palm salad and nutty tor­tillas at chef Mario Cam­pollo’s El Tene­dor del Cerro restau­rant (which trans­lates to “the fork on the hill”). From here, the city be­low looks small enough to fit on my plate. EVENING I stop in for a glass of Chilean Mer­lot at Cafe Con­desa, a royal res­i­dence built in 1549 that has been turned into a popular café over­look­ing the city’s cen­tral square. The café is oddly proud of its spooky past, which in­volves a jeal­ous count bury­ing his wife’s lover alive in the walls of the house in the 18th cen­tury. (They found and re­moved the skele­ton in the 1970s.) I’m hop­ing to bring back tales of ghost sight­ings, but ap­par­ently an ex­or­cism per­formed in the 1990s seems to have elim­i­nated my chances of a su­per­nat­u­ral en­counter. Done for the day, I head to the Ho­tel Man­sión de la Luz, a colo­nial man­sion turned seven-room bou­tique ho­tel. I put my heavy brass key in the lock (no mag­netic cards here!) and let the sounds of the prop­erty’s in­door foun­tain lull me to sleep. h

A 45-minute flight from Antigua brings me to the prov­ince of Petén, home to Tikal Na­tional Park and the ru­ins of one of the most im­por­tant ci­ties of the pre-Columbian Maya, some of which date back to the 4th cen­tury BC. The jun­gle has re­claimed most of this once-great set­tle­ment—many of the lime­stone pyra­mids are over­grown with vines and cov­ered in cen­turies of soil—and as I walk through the crum­bling tem­ples and palaces, spi­der mon­keys look down at me with in­dif­fer­ence from their homes in the im­pos­si­bly tall ceiba trees above. After a 70-me­tre climb up a creaky scaffold stair­case, I reach the top of Tem­ple IV, the tallest re­main­ing pyra­mid in the Mayan world, and I’m re­warded with a view of end­less green canopy (I’m con­vinced I can see as far as Belize), pierced by the tops of other sur­round­ing pyra­mids. On my way out of the park, I look twice at ev­ery dried log and fallen tree, hop­ing to spot an anteater or a jaguar, but I have to set­tle for the farewell call of a tou­can. STAY After ex­plor­ing Tikal, I es­cape civ­i­liza­tion (Mayan or other­wise) at the nearby Las La­gu­nas bou­tique ho­tel. This se­cluded re­treat has 12 cowhide­clad cab­ins that are can­tilevered over the Quexil La­goon, and each one has a pri­vate hot tub. I re­lax on my deck while keep­ing a close eye on the la­goon’s res­i­dent croc­o­diles in the wa­ter be­low. n

From top: The city of Antigua, with the Agua vol­cano in the back­ground; the main church in the town of Santa María de Jesús; the em­broi­dered top the writer pur­chased; a stack of tra­di­tional wo­ven blan­kets

From top: The view from inside Catedral de San José; Antigua’s 17th-cen­tury Santa Catalina Arch; El Tene­dor del Cerro’s pa­tio

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