The Region which physically lies from the western outskirts of Guatemala City to the Mexican border and from Huehuetenango to the south to a parallel with the Pacific Ocean some 50 kilometers wide through the Departments of Retalhuleu and Escuintla is called ” EL ALTIPLANO” (The Highlands).
Its rich tradition and high mountains characterize it. It is the region of highest concentration of native Mayas and perhaps the richest in traditions; it holds numerous archeological sites, urban and colonial architecture. There are many different regional dresses and languages that exist in this region.
Small parcels of land where vegetables for almost the entire country are grown, as well as the basic grains due to the abundant rain and fertile soils, are also found in this region. Some of the most intensive agriculture of the world is cultivated here and the agriculture is based in night condensation irrigation.
The terrain consists of volcanoes and mountains, formed gullies, canyons and plateaus, which produce a very diverse landscape. Here communications between communities has been difficult and has helped to diversify the ethnic groups which can be appreciated in a relatively small territory.
This department is located on the highlands of the Sierra Madre and is characterized by steep mountains, deep ravines, beautiful valleys and wide plains. When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in 1526, it was a Cackchiquel city, today it is a very intense comercial spot that is visible on the journey to Chichicastenango or Lake Atitlan. The highway passes right through it and many buses and trucks will slow your transportation noticably. This is also the back entrance to pastores (a small town dedicated to tailor hand made cowboy style boots) which is on the way to Antigua.
Places to visit:
This Cackchiquel archeological site is located three kilometers south of the city of Tecpan.
In 1524, it was the setting of important historical events. Iximché (tree of corn) is a land with creeks and ravines. Here many ancient architectural structures and actual Mayan rites can still be appreciated. It was the very first capital of Central America, founded by Pedro de Alvarado, who made an alliance with the Cackchikel king to fight the dominant Quiche groups of Gumarcaaj. The ruins are located near Santa Cruz del Quiche (near Chichicastenango). Those who have the opportunity to visit this town and its ruins will love the experience.
This is Cackchiquel area, and is one of the main centers of the production of popular ceramic products of the pre-Hispanic origin. It is important to note that this ceramic is made using a primitive way of rotation, the maker goes around their work instead of making the clay go around using a wheel. This area is located 24 miles from the state capital.
San Andres Itzapa
This village, located 4.5 miles from Chimaltenango, has a temperate climate. Its inhabitants worship “Maximon,” a miraculous character made of a sacred piece of wood that boasts both Indian and Spanish traits, whose origin is lost in the past. One will also find followers of Maximon in Santiago Atitlan, which exemplifies crossbreeding between both races. It is also interesting to note that this deity likes women, smoking and can be an antagonist to one’s enemies if the proper ceremonies are held. The custom of using candles of various colors to invoke different protections and favors probably started with the Maximon cult and is more related to Mayan ceremonies than Catholic traditions.
San Juna Comalapa
This village is noted for its primitive-style paintings which make it an important indigenous popular art center. Paintings depict customs and daily life activities and are sold at family-owned galleries that are all over the town. This makes this town a gigantic art gallery featuring many fantastic merchants whose paintings can be seen all over Guatemala. This village is located 15 miles from the state capital and is a must-see for artists.
Patzun is located 18 miles from Chimaltenango. It is famous for its religious celebration of the Corpus Christi, which takes place in June and where several religious ceremonies and rituals are celebrated. It is also a center of the manufacturing of colorful arches and carpets. It is halfway to Lake Atitlan and is a beautiful short cut, a return to the way life was years ago. Unfortunately there is no traffic on this road because the police and authorities do not patrol it and assaults are frequent there (mostly in Kilometro 154). A shame for us…
Take this path only if you like adrenaline rushes and steep inclines and declines.
The Municipal state capital is located 19 miles from Quetzaltenano and 130 miles from Guatemala City. It is interesting to see the theater house and the Casa de la Cultura (Cultural House) which houses a small collection of pre-Hispanic, republican and ethnic art.
The Central Park hosts the main church with an adjacent convent, both of which were constructed in 1545 and destroyed by fire in 1878. Their cornerstones were placed by Francisco Marroquin, the first Bishop of Guatemala who was very rich and had many slaves. He also founded the first school in the area.
On the outskirts of the city lies the Tanque de los Dragones, (Tank of the Dragons), which served as a fountain and washing pool during the XIX century and is still being used by its inhabitants who lack potable water in their homes or just like to talk about everyday events while they do laundry…
There are many handicraft workshops that produce a wide range of artistic objects, among which one can find glazed and painted ceramic pieces, textiles made by men with spanish style “standing looms,” wax Christmas figures, wooden boxes and toys, furniture, leather and tin goods. Craftsmen use ancient tools which revert to the time of the Mayas and Spaniards.
Also notable are the parties and the “morerias” which are rental shops of all kinds of paraphernalia used in all the traditional dances held in Guatemala. These are truly museums that house ancient ceremonial textiles worth millions of dollars.
Traditional dances are also a main part of the festivities in Totonicapan. Among the most important are La Conquista, Moors and Christians, Mexicans, The Deer and the Monkeys.
It is worthwhile visiting this village during its main celebration days, which include San Miguel Arcangel (observed September 24th – 30th) and during Easter week when the passion of Christ is celebrated. The main market day is on Saturday, full of colors and very animated, this is an unforgettable experience.
San Cristobal Totonicapan
Is located 9 miles from Totonicapán and is an important textile center (wool, silk and cotton). One can also find handicraft workshops where masks, musical instruments, wooden toys, pottery and lead-glazed objects are made. The Tistoj furniture shop is a must-see. The Franciscan temple and convent are richly ornamented with valuable XVII and XVIII century paintings. It has been declared a national monument by the government.
San Andres Xecul
Located 22 miles from Quetzaltenango and 21 miles from Totonicapán at the base of Mount Chuicul. An important XVI century temple with a fabulous bright yellow façade can be found here, its color is representative of the local huipil (indigenous blouse). There are Saints and Angels sitting next to corncobs and Quetzal birds decorating the façade.
Located 22 miles from Quetzaltenango and 21 miles from Totonicapan, this area is famous for its wide variety and quality of blankets and Momostecan “ponchos.” The inhabitants still use the ancient Mayan agricultural calendar of 260 days which was the most popular calendar for the non-iniciated ancient Mayas. Momostenango means “City of Altars.” Quiche priests pray over the burning smoke which retain the prayers and they are lifted up to the presence of the Gods. In addition, the way the incensce burns lets the shaman know information and allows the shaman to predict events or can inform their desicions. Altars are located both in the village and its natural surroundings.
They also predict the future using seeds, crystals, beans and corn. Nearby are the famous Riscos de Momostenagno (cliffs), playful sand formations created by erosion. The main market day is on Sunday.
San Francisco El Alto
Located on top of a 8600 ft. high mount, 11 miles from Totonicapán and 10 miles from Quetzaltenango. It is virtually a dead town most of the week, except on Fridays when it comes to life as a vibrant market area. This is the largest market in the Guatemalan highlands and mesoamerica.
This market is not a traditional handcraft market but a typical daily life market, where one can find anything used by the local inhabitants. Among the goods traded are animals, crops, seeds, food products, tools, thread and ceremonial products. Be aware of pickpockets in crowded places.
It has a XVI century temple which was severely damaged by the 1976 earthquake and was later restored and declared a national monument. During restoration works, several colonial murals were uncovered beneath multiple layers of calcium-hydroxide plaster. Among the most interesting objects are the beautiful altarpieces and carvings.
Located 5.5 miles from Quetzaltenango city, this is a very ancient village where the San Jacinto Church was built. This church was the first religious building of the Kingdom’s Captaincy General and it is a beautiful example of colonial architecture. It is also famous for its jaspe textiles, its liquor called “Caldo de Frutas” or fruit soup, and its delicious “Rompope.” Market days are Tuesdays, and its celebration day is on August 23rd.
San Juan Ostuncalco
Located 7.5 miles from the City of Quetzaltenango, this area is situated on a beautiful valley and within a prosperous region that is rich in crops and fruit orchards. The Lacandon and Siete Orejas volcanoes surround the town. Its inhabitants build woven cane and wicker furniture which use the plant fibers as thread. Musical instruments and beautiful regional textiles can also be found here. Market days are on Sundays.
Located 3 miles from Quetzaltenango, this a fertile land valley is known for its vegetables and fruits which are cultivated in small parcels. This is a town that has organized its life around the Godspell; almost everyone is a born again Christian or Evangelico as they are called. It is interesting to observe the results of the protestant Christian doctrine put into place- crime is very low and business is good. Believers should come and take a look, non-believers should also come and take a look, as anyone will benefit from observing the cultural traditions here.
El Rosario is an area where you’ll be able to dive into sulphurous waters. Market days are on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and the local fair runs from June 27th – 29th.
Located 8 miles from Quetzaltenango, Cantel has the oldest and one of the largest textile factories in the country. There is also a blown glass products factory that can be visited. Market day is on Sunday and its local fair is celebrated on August 15th.
Located 3.5 miles from Xelaju, Zunil lies next to the river banks and the Salama River. Its features include adobe houses, broken slate roofs whose sizes contrast the surrounding mountains and the Santa Maria Volcano. Its inhabitants wear colorful textiles embroidered with designs that portray objects from the surrounding area. Their manufacturing is done using pre-Hispanic methods.
Vegetables, corn, beans and wheat are cultivated on the river banks. The whole valley is covered with huge volcanic stones from ancient and modern eruptions. Geothermic experiments for electricity generation have being going on here for years, but unfortunately due to the high cost of electricity, no investors have committed to this urgently needed project…Shame on us again.
At the Central Park is the colonial church which is famous for the carving on its façade and the silver cross on the altar. This is one of the few villages where Maximon or San Simon (represented as a figure with doll-like head) is worshipped with Pom and ceremonies. Market day is on Sunday and its main fair is celebrated on November 25th.
San Martin Sacatepequez (San Martin Chile Verde)
Of Mam origin, it is located north of the Chicabal volcano. During the Santa Maria volcano eruption in 1902, its inhabitants abandoned the village. Later on people migrated back to this area and nowadays this is one of the western highlands’ most interesting communities.
The women here are excellent weavers who can embroider geometric figures depicting pre-Hispanic and modern designs that decorate their huipiles (typical blouses).
FUENTES GEORGINAS (GEORGIAN FOUNTAINS)
These thermal-water baths with healing properties are located near Almolonga. The waters flow from the furnaces of the Cerro Quemado volcano. These baths were built during the presidential period of General Jorge Ubico, for whom they were named. There is a small basic hotel with fireplaces that is surrounded by a lush and tropical cloud forest. The weather here is somewhat cold so it is very nice to be in the hot pool, frequented by locals on weekends but during the weekdays it is practicall deserted. This is a nice place to meditate and maybe even cure some back pain. A tour or transport to this and other highland areas can be arranged.
Other thermal fountains to be visited include Los Vahos and Aguas Amargas.
Located on the San Martin Sacatepequez area, this area is 2900 meters (9560ft) above sea level.
One of the main highlights of this volcano is a lagoon that the locals consider sacred. Throughout the month of May, locals go up to the lagoon and perform Mayan rituals. The lake crater is marked by 7 small altar stuctures which are mainly composed of the volcano’s stones. The mist falls over the lake early on and the ambience is reminiscent of a mystical movie scene. During ceremonies, a shamans voice carries through the mist and envelops onlookers in the profundity of the spiritual mood. This is really a fantastic sensation and a unique experience for the spiritually-oriented. However it is not a show, it is a real spiritual happening.
Camping or swimming is not recommended given the religious importance the lagoon has for the local indigenous people and visitors shouls only come with a organized tour because one can easily lose themself in another dimension.
It is an active volcano and the crater can be reached by car or by bus up to the El Pinal plans. The remainder of the journey up has to be done on foot. Visitors may also wish to see the ghost town which was recently destroyed by an eruption, although in a few thousand years it may become the Pompey of Guatemala. A trip can be arranged to the lagoon, Fuentes Georginas, Zunil and the ghost town.
There are four other volcanoes: Santa Maria, Cerro Quemado, Lacandon and Siete Orejas.