Saturday, April 22, 2006


High up in the Cuchumatán Mountains of Guatemala is the small Mayan indigenous town of Todos Santos. (Spanish for "All Saints") Located at about 2500m elevation (more than 8200 feet), the climate is quite chilly, and we needed lots of extra blankets at night!

We arrived in Todos Santos during the middle of Semana Santa (Holy Week), and the locals were celebrating in full force. Dozens of men were staggering around the main street in blind drunkenness, and we were a little worried that the town might be too crazy for us to stay. Fortunately, it was all in good fun, and only a bit annoying after we got settled in our hotel, as impromptu marimba concerts sprang up on the street outside at various hours of the night, complete with fireworks, singing and cheering.

We stayed at the Casa Familiar, a cheap friendly hostel that featured an outdoor cafe with a beautiful view of the town. (note: this photo used without permission from Guate360)

This was the view as we ate dinner outside our room during the sunset.

One of the interesting attractions of Todos Santos is the devoutly traditional customs still followed by the locals. The local language is Mam, one of the more than 2 dozen Mayan dialects in use throughout the country; in Todos Santos, Mam seems to be much more common than Spanish.

While traditional dress is still common among women all over Guatemala, Todos Santos is one of the few places in Guatemala where the men still wear the traditional style of dress. Here, the customary dress for the men includes red-striped pants and a hat with a blue band.

Even teenage and young boys wear the traditional dress here.

While in Todos Santos, we decided to take advantage of the surrounding mountains and do some hiking. Unfortunately, cloud cover was the norm, and we had to go about 20 miles from town to get above the clouds, in one of the highest parts of the whole country.
From here above some of the clouds, we started our hike up to "La Torre" (The Tower), the highest non-volcanic peak in Central America, more than 11,000 feet in elevation.

The trail took us through a variety of juniper and agave, set amongst fields of boulders.

Near the top of the mountain, the terrain became distinctly alpine.

After 1-1/2 hours of hiking, we reached the summit, where we found (surprise!) a radio tower with dirt road leading to it from the other side of the mountain. It turns out we probably could have driven to the top! Oh well, the hike was beautiful.

There was even a flimsly wooden "table" at the summit where we could sit and take in the view. (mostly clouds) During a clear day, we're told that you can see up to 5 of Guatemala's volcanic peaks in the distance.

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Up in the mountains along the border between Mexico and Guatemala lies a national park called Lagos de Montebello (Lakes of Montebello). Consisting of more than 50 small lakes in a beautiful forest setting, the park was a nice place to visit during the recent Semana Santa (Holy Week), when Rob had the week off from work.

Each lake seems to feature a different, distinctive color, and in most of the ones we saw, the water was surprisingly clear. In the photo above, you can see a submerged tree several meters below the lake's surface.

During our 2-day stay, we enjoyed plenty of hiking and cool, refreshing mountain air. We were hoping to do some swimming, but unfortunately the weather was too cloudy and cool for that.

Some of the lakes offer rides on primitive rafts ("balsas") made from local trees.

Despite the crude construction, these rafts are much less likely to tip over than a canoe. Of course the trade-off is that they're much slower and less maneuverable.

Our raft trip took us to the base of this towering cliff...

...where we got a look through the beautifully clear water at this underwater cave. According to our guide, the cave connects to another lake on the other side of the cliff, less than a half a mile away. With the right equipment, you could SCUBA dive from this lake to the other lake.

During one of our hikes, we came across this impressive natural bridge, with a small stream running through it.

Nearby we found the entrance to a series of caves.

The caves are used by various local Mayans as shrines. When we entered this cave, we found one chamber full of lit candles!

Just outside the national park, we visited a set of ancient Mayan ruins called Chinkultic.

The site is dominated by a large temple or acropolis set at the top of a large hill, with beautiful views over the surrounding lakes.

From the temple, you could look down into the cenote below. Cenotes (pronounced "say-NO-tays") are freshwater-filled limestone sinkholes. They were often considered sacred by ancient Mayans, and this one was no exception. During the 6th to 9th centuries AD, when Chinkultic was in its prime, many offerings to the Gods were pitched from the top of the temple into the cenote below.

On the other side of the temple is yet another lake. What a strategic and beautiful location!

Almost all ancient Mayan cities contained "ball courts", where sporting events involving a large rubber ball were played. Here, Kina and Carley play "ball" with a rock in the remains of this ancient ball court, a relatively small one compared to the ball courts at some of the other bigger ruins. Incidentally, this was Kina's first visit to a Mayan ruin, since the sites at Palenque, Tikal and Copán did not allow dogs.

After a couple of days at the lakes, we headed back to Guatemala to visit the Cuchumatán mountains and the isolated indigenous town of Todos Santos.


Semana Santa (Holy Week) is probably the biggest, most festive holiday week in almost any Latin American country. Spectacles throughout the week include a deluge of parades featuring Jesus on his way to crucifixion, the burning of effigies of Judas, and large numbers of shockingly drunk people staggering through the streets and occasionally sleeping there. Although based in Catholic tradition, the festivities here in Guatemala also occasionally include elements of ancient Mayan customs from before the Spanish conquest. They do not, however, include painted eggs, rabbits or chocolate.

Throughout the week, various “alfombras” (carpets) made of carefully arranged brightly dyed sawdust appear on the streets in nearly any Guatemalan city. Depicting various Christian scenes, they are subsequently trampled by a variety of religious processions throughout the week.

The high point of the week is generally Good Friday, when Lent is finally over and major processions and parades take over most of the cities and towns in the country.

Jesus is at center stage, riding on various floats carried on peoples’ shoulders, sometimes on his way to the cross, sometimes on the cross with a crown of bloody thorns, sometimes in a coffin...lots of pleasant stuff like that. His face decorates lots of banners, while purple- and blue-colored streamers and pine needles decorate many city streets.

A few towns in Guatemala go as far as to stage a re-enactment of the crucifixion on Viernes Santo (Good Friday). In Chiantla, a mostly Ladino (descended from Spanish and indigenous mixed) town a couple of hours from our home in Xela, we joined at least 5000 others in the central plaza to watch such a dramatic performance.

One of Jesus' companions lugs a heavy wooden cross through the street while a "Roman" whips him.

Carley insists that the blood dripping from Jesus’ abdomen is fake, but Rob still thinks it’s real.

Everybody has the week off from school and work, so it’s probably the biggest week of the year for tourism throughout Latin America. Predictably, the beaches are staggeringly crowded during this time.

This unbelievable beach scene was pictured on the front page of the Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libra on Easter Sunday.

With this in mind, we stayed away from the beaches and headed for the mountains. Our first destination was the Lagos de Montebellos, a national park just over the border in Mexico.