Fortnight in Guatemala

Most visitors to Guatemala settle for brisk three-day canned tours from the capital, scarcely enough to sample this country’s surprising variety. A fortnight is more like it for a circuit of Guatemala’s rollercoaster central highlands, Italianate lakes, colonial towns, Indian villages — not to mention the lowland jungles of Tikal, where the greatest city of the Maya lies in strangled grandeur. Even at that, one is likely to miss a few of the 265 different styles of Indian blouses or a carved Maya stela or two, though the whole country is no larger than Tennessee.

Central America’s northernmost republic, just below Mexico, Guatemala is two and a half hours from Miami, three hours from New Orleans, four hours from Houston, and four and a half hours from Los Angeles by jet. Early last winter when we skimmed in at night over the mountains ringing Guatemala City, the stars crackled above an offstage volcano, and the air was dry and crisp. Guatemala knows only two seasons: dry, from October to April, called summer; rainy, from April to October, called, by the same logic, winter. During our Northern winters, Guatemala provides a pleasant getaway, for the days are warm and sunny in the highlands, not too hot in the lowlands.

After an overnight stay at the Palace, an old but comfortable hotel in the heart of Guatemala City, we made off for a swing around the mountain country, arranged by Hayter Travel, one of two principal local tour bureaus. Our driver-guide was a tall, grave man in his forties, son of an American engineer and, he said, a Guatemalan of pure Spanish descent. His features showed a strong Indian cast. The car was a big 1958 Chrysler — “one of the best years,” according to its driver, who, after more than two decades in the business, had developed a proprietary attitude toward his mechanical and human charges.

Less than twenty miles southwest of the city lies Lake Amatitlan, a small blue jewel tucked between peaks covered with jacaranda and pine, and a popular weekend resort for well-heeled Guatemalans. Just beyond is the Indian village of Palin, whose inhabitants are reputed to cat lizards as a cancer cure. Our driver explained soothingly that they eat only the legs, deep-fried, like frog’s legs, and that besides, the dish is actually a specific for high blood pressure. Over Palin’s market square a giant kapok tree spreads 180 feet. In its shade the Indian women sit on the bare earth arranging and rearranging vegetables and grains in neat patterns, while a tax collector ambles around collecting a penny or two from each vendor.

On the flank of a volcano called Agua, we paused in the curious village of Santa Maria de Jesus, in which the fences and houses are built of cornstalks, renewed every four years. The village church is more durable; its baroque plaster facade is some three hundred years old; over the door stand carved wood saints in niches, one in the garb of a Spanish soldier of the seventeenth century.

We made our first overnight stop at colonial Antigua, which rests, if that’s the word, in the shadow of three volcanoes. Once called “The Very Noble and Very Loyal City of St. James of the Knights of Guatemala,” Antigua was the capital of all Spain’s Central American provinces until a series of eruptions and earthquakes, the decisive one in 1773, drove out the rulers. Now the town is a national monument of flowering ruins and restored colonial buildings. The Hotel Antigua, a group of bungalows in the California-Spanish style, serves as a good base for exploring. In its tropical gardens a team of Indian women work at handlooms, turning out serapes in brilliant geometric designs. When visitors become hypnotized by their motions, they can revive in an oval swimming pool.

Antigua claims more than ninety ruins, easy to cover on a walking tour, among them the vast shell of the church and monastery of San Francisco, open to the sky. In a vault beneath the altar is a wooden Christ, spared by the earthquakes; Indians still come here from the volcano slopes to burn candles, and they leave red hand prints on the wall, as in the ancient Maya tombs. The old University of San Carlos Borromeo, founded in 1678, is now a museum of colonial art. One case displays an unusual seated Ecce Homo, squat, gaunt, the bearded head, too big for the body, sunk between the shoulders, and the face composed in Indian sadness.

Like other picturesque towns south of the border, Antigua has a small permanent American colony, dean of which is Dr. Wilson Popenoe, a specialist in tropical horticulture who first came here in 1916. He lives in a restored seventeenthcentury Spanish villa, authentic even to uny lazed windows, and opens the house for an hour twice a day so tourists can troop through. He has also had long-term visitors; Louis Adamic wrote A House in Antigua there. “He worked in a high antique bed,” says Dr. Popenoe, “and threw his discarded manuscript on the floor.”

Mrs. Mildred Powers, an imposing white-haired lady with strongly marked black eyebrows, owns another colonial house, La Casa de las Campanas. “When 1 restored this place I decided Mildred Powers was going to live here — not the old Spaniards,” she says. And indeed, the master bathroom and closets are models of sophisticated engineering. Mrs. Powers’ salon serves as a shop for textiles, pottery, and the like. She sails around it with the majesty of a Saks Fifth Avenue department head. “This would look very well on you,” she told my wife, fetching out a matching jacket, bag, and hat made to her own design of hand woven Guatemalan cotton. “And every piece of fabric is laundered before 1 use it.”

At the evening paseo in the plaza, one sees the mixture of Spanish Colonial and Indian that gives Antigua its special flavor: on one side the eighteenth-century arcaded Palace of the Captains General; here a stroller with a hawk profile borrowed from a Maya carving; there a solemn marimba band playing ‟Kitten on the Keys”; and over all, the royal palms and feathery pepper trees lit by the moon.

The road northwest from Antigua to Chichicastenango picks up the excellent Pan American Highway and climbs over the 10,000-foot Chichoy Pass. Indian names arc simple and specific: chichoy means top. The peaks reach above the clouds, which themselves pile up like cotton mountains. We turned straight north on a dusty road, winding up and up, and passed Indians loaded with bundles of wood, rope nets of charcoal, stacks of pottery — all heading for Chichi, as Chichicastenango is familiarly called.

The latest census population, says a sign on the outskirts, is 36,084, but that includes some 20,000 Indians who live up in the surrounding hills. Chichi is somnolent except on Thursdays and Sundays, when 3000 to 4000 Indians come in to trade, worship, shoot off skyrockets, and be goggled at by tourists, an ordeal they withstand with considerable dignity. About a hundred yards off the main plaza stands the Mayan Inn, handy to the fireworks. A tourist goal since 1932, the hotel is gussied up with antique colonial furniture, dark Spanish portraits, and baroque wooden saints, acquired when such treasures were easier to come by. In all these years the management has lost only two saints, lifted by souvenir-prone luncheon guests.

In the bedroom, where a fire was laid against the cool night air, the house rules explained in Spanish that the camarero who takes care of the room also serves in the dining room. On an antique desk a small card in English read, “Your Number One Boy is Manuel Ventura. He is your Waiter and Room Boy.” Presently, there was a knock on the door, and a Quiche Indian appeared in black Sancho Panza knee breeches over bare calves, a black wool doublet embroidered with red roses and scrolls, and a red Moorish turban — the regular dress of Chichicastenango men. “I am Manuel,” he said, “your room boy and waiter.”

When we went in to dinner, Manuel appeared again, identified himself clearly, and presented a menu, saying, “Right side American, left side typical dishes.” We opted for the left and fared very well with such items as Zacocho (vegetable soup) instead of cream of celery; Chiles Rollenos (stuffed sweet peppers) instead of roast leg of lamb with mint sauce; and Guacamole (spiced avocado) instead of watercress salad. For dessert, Platanos Frijoles Refritos (fried plantains and black beans) was a shoo-in over gelatin.

Sunday morning before dawn the Indians, many of whom have marched all night up the mountains, gather in the long plaza and mill around the high, white, semicircular steps of the parish church, occasionally setting off rockets. Describing the Chichicastenango Indians, Aldous Huxley wrote, “there are no better Catholics and scarcely any better heathens in the whole of Guatemala.”

At the foot of the church steps they burn pom and copal incense to the old Maya gods; ascending the steps they swing censers in some ambivalent ceremony; and inside the church they celebrate the Mass. Men and women sit separately for the service. The men remove their Moorish turbans and wear them as shawls, exposing stiff, spiral black hair, like a sealskin cap. Women wear their own Chichi garb of long blue skirts circled with white cluster stripes, and blouses heavily embroidered with bright flowers. The officiating priest was a thin El Greco Spaniard with a Castilian lisp; his sermon dwelt at length on the poor, the hungry, and the afflicted. A sign outside the church requests visitors not to stand in the middle of the church and stare at the Indians praying.

All day the Chichi marketplace seethes with trade in foodstuffs, flowers, rough, unpainted furniture, pottery, blankets, and shawls. On the church roof two Indians made a kind of elementary music: three notes up, three notes down on a flute; boom boom, pause, boom on a drum. If the whole performance is for tourists, the Indians show no awareness of it; they simply ignore the alien presence. By late afternoon the market had thinned out, but the church steps were still jammed with worshipers ascending in clouds of incense. Half a dozen quiet drunks staggered about the plaza. When we left, we passed files of Indians trudging down the long mountain road bent under huge shoulder loads — their unsold wares.

Mile-high Lake Atitlan, said the American explorer John Lloyd Stephens, who wrote of his Guatemalan travels 125 years ago, is more beautiful than Como. It is at least as blue, and in addition, includes three volcanoes around its rim. On the shore is the Hotel Tzanjuyu, a pink and green stucco confection where one can relax and view sunsets in the same Latin colors. There are no motor roads circling the lake — perhaps another advantage over Como — but launches make excursions to several small Indian communities.

One of the most decorative of these communities, San Antonio Palopo, rises steeply from the east shore, all whitewashed walls and red tile roofs. The women of the village appear to keep busy scrubbing their hair, themselves, and their handsome blue and red skirts and blouses in the waters of the lake. One mother pulled a red wool cap over her baby’s face as we passed by; our travelers’ eyes, explained our guide, had seen too many strange sights that might harm so young an infant.

On the other hand, in Santiago Atitlan, a larger, more touristic village, mothers with babies, sisters with babies, grandmothers with babies all chanted “take-a-pitch” as we mounted the main street. The picture bait is the woman’s headdress — twelve yards of red cotton ribbon wound around the hair in a wide halo. No one dares to photograph the wooden-faced men, despite their uniform of baggy Bermuda shorts in purple and white striped cotton, embroidered with a band of red, blue, orange, and yellow flowers and the quetzal bird of Guatemala.

Aside from comparative costume study, Lake Atitlan offers swimming, water-skiing, and at a flower-bedecked hotel called the Casa Contenta, excellent regional cooking. There, one evening, we sampled chuchitos, a kind of tamale made from corn grown on the volcanoes, said to have a unique flavor from the lava soil, and line charcoal-broiled steak with chismal, a sauce of tomatoes, onions, and mild spices.

Two thousand feet up a spiral road from Lake Atitlan, the town of Solola, capital of the department, furnished two items of interest. On one side of the plaza, a dozen or so baby pigs snuffled about in the dust — not at all an unusual sight, except that each pig wore sandals, some of classic leather, others of modern inner tube, to protect their feet from the cobbles. Solola was also celebrating the Fiesta of the Immaculate Conception, one of sixtytwo fiestas that keep Guatemala hopping all year round. A troupe of dancers shuffled and swayed through the streets in elaborate costumes: a Japanese lady, a nurse, a French sailor, a Harvey-size rabbit, a gorilla. The costumes and papier-mache masks seemed remarkably un-Indian. We later learned that they had been ordered from the catalogue of a New Orleans costume house.

Continuing west on the Pan American Highway, we turned off for Nahuala, where local law forbids a white person to remain overnight. It is a brown village nestled in a brown earth bowl; the tile roofs are brown; the men wear brown checked kilts, brown wool jackets, and their faces arc brown. Nahualá law forbids alcohol, too, and if a villager comes back from another town after drinking, he is supposed to get twenty lashes. Perhaps because it was a feast day, we observed at least four candidates for the lash. One wrinkled old brownie approached the car and asked in alcoholic Spanish how soon we were going to leave town. We left without delay.

After crossing a 12,000-foot pass called the Disconsolate One and skirting a patchwork of deep valleys, we came to Huehuetenango. Although the town is ladino, which means that Western dress and Spanish customs have been adopted, the hinterland is pure Indian. A simple but spotless hotel, the Zacaleu, provides hospitality, and its bartender, whose English goes as far as “OK,” serves outsize martinis.

This is missionary territory covered by the Maryknoll order, whose members get around by Jeep and horseback—one priest to 10,000 parishioners. The curate of the Huehuetenango church, a cheerful young priest from Long Island, said that the Indians in this region live at a bare subsistence level because the mountain soil is worked out. “They’re good people,” he said. “They’ll lie, steal, get drunk, but they’re basically good, and they trust us after our twenty years of work here.”

The priest told the story of one of his Indian parishioners whose wife had died in childbirth. “I went out to his hut and found the newborn baby lying there on the hearth. The Indian said, T will bury them both tomorrow.’ ‘But the child is alive,’ I said. The Indian replied, ‘Who will take care of it? I have to work in the fields.’ ”

The priest sent out some powdered milk, and the child was later adopted through the efforts of the Maryknollers. “Now she is two years old,” said the priest with a smile. “A lively little one.”

Just outside Huehuetenango stand the ruins of the temple of Zacaleu, built by the Mam, a Maya branch which flourished from about 500 A.D. to the Spanish Conquest. The United Fruit Company has restored the pyramids, ball court, king’s throne, and sacrificial altar, with a liberal use of white cement plastered over the ancient stones. Although the mountain setting is impressive, the general effect of the restoration is rather like a California drive-in restaurant, and some archaeologists call Zacaleu the Monument to the Unknown United Fruit Man.

At the western limit of the highland tour, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second largest city, is notable chiefly as a center for excursions to nearby market villages. The place to stay is the Pension Bonifaz, a modern hotel that rambles around a patio, then climbs up a hill to a tropical roof garden. The most colorful of the neighboring villages is San Francisco el Alto, celebrated for its Friday market of blankets, textiles, pottery, and assorted livestock, all displayed in lively confusion atop an 8600-foot mesa. Depending on one’s bargaining skill, vivid woven cotton skirt lengths go for $5 to $6, ample handwoven wool stoles for $4 to $6; or if one buys nothing at all, the Indians seem to like the game nonetheless.

Back in the capital at the Guatemala Biltmore there’s a swimming pool as well as the urban amenities, in a quiet residential neighborhood. In December, the great central market behind the cathedral was sparkling with Christmas decorations. One whole aisle was devoted to a form of folk art — tiny painted clay figures for elaborate Nativity scenes, called nacimientos. They included the three wise men, madonnas, angels, lambs, Indians weaving, making tortillas, and so on. There were baskets of paper chopped as fine as sawdust, in hot primary colors; crosses woven of wheat stalks; enormous paper flowers. By contrast, the conventional Christmas balls and tinsel looked drearily Anglo-Saxon.

Before we left the country, we flew north to the lowland jungles to see the Maya ruins at Tikal. Here the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, digging for the past ten years, has uncovered the largest Maya site in Central America. The ruins fascinate archaeologists because no one knows why the Maya abandoned the region 700 years before the Spanish Conquest, or, for that matter, why they picked this inhospitable jungle in the first place. The excavators have done a good deal to make the jungle more hospitable for visitors, building a small hotel called the Jungle Lodge, which offers screened bungalows with running water, electric light (until 9:30 P.M.), and a large central bar — all in a ferociously green Somerset Maugham setting.

Climbing around one newly excavated complex with the Tikal field director, a tall, gaunt Swiss named Georges Guillemin, we came upon several small rooms, each about the size of a bath in a modern apartment. “This was probably a palace,” said Guillemin, rapping the thick limestone walls. “Nice little rooms, cool in summer. And in winter they used curtains.” He pointed to a pierced lintel made of chicle wood. “See, they bored holes to hang them up.” The Maya had another cozy domestic habit; when an important man died they buried his servants right along with him.

About 350 buildings have been excavated out of an estimated 3000 at Tikal. The Jungle Lodge supplies a Jeep to run guests around the six square miles of ruins under the guidance of a good-natured British Honduran Negro named Clarence, who doubles as a barman and general factotum at the lodge. He pushes indomitable lady tourists up 190-foot pyramids, at the same time shouldering their miniature cameras and enormous handbags.

At Temple V, an overgrown pyramid deep in the rain forest, one blond, rosy girl from New York City heaved herself up the almost vertical face, clutching at roots and stumps as she sought thin footholds. At the top we looked out over a hundred miles of writhing jungle, pierced by the white temples of the Great Plaza of Tikal. She had been all around Guatemala, so I asked her what she thought of it.

She mopped her brow. “I was born and brought up in Manhattan, in the East Fifties,” she said. “This country is certainly different.” It is, at that.