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GUATEMALA


We climb the stone steps of Santo Tomás Church


for a better view; all around us is the hullaballoo of families swinging incense barrels, lighting small pyres of tobacco and kindling, and praying urgently in Maya languages. “Do you notice anything funny about these steps?” Raphael asks. “It was an ancient Maya temple — see, there are 18 levels, one for each month of the Maya calendar. The Spanish razed the building in 1540 and built on top of the platform, so it’s now a holy site twice over.” Rambo chimes in: “There was some damage done by the church in the early days. But we learned to accept each other, to weave the traditions together. What matters, ultimately, is belief, trust, faith. And that’s what these people have: faith.” Back at the morería, we catch up with Juanita, who’s


made time to offer us a blessing. We follow her up a hill to a sacred forest clearing. Fire pits mark the cardinal points. Aſter sinking to her knees in prayer in front of a stone idol, Juanita gets to work constructing our offering. First, she sketches out an ornate cross in sugar, then piles on kindling, copal (tree resin), tobacco, chocolate and multicoloured candles. “Each colour signifies a different petition: for money, protection from envy, love, warding off evil,” Rambo whispers. “And see how she ties her tzute (shawl) around her head; this helps contain your essence and harness your wisdom.” The flames rise. Behind the smoke, Juanita chants in


Maya Ki’che’. “Look how the fire behaves. If you know how, you can visualise messages in the flames,” says Rambo. “She’s talking to the spirit of the mountain.” We’ve each been given a candle to cast into the fire.


Juanita waves us forward. “She says we’re to say a prayer for those we’ve lost,” Rambo translates. He lingers for a few moments, looking searchingly into the fire, before dropping in his candle and turning away.


CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: A fisherman in a traditional canoe, Lake Atitlán; a tortilla cart in the colonial city of Antigua; kites are flown in the main cemetery of Santiago Sacatepéquez on 1 November


Up in the air Tourism in Guatemala is far from booming, although its star is rising. For many years, the headline-grabbing crime statistics coming from the capital city deterred many; its jungle-swathed Maya ruins on the Mexican border and the cultural riches of the Highlands were the preserve of only the intrepid. “It’s safer than you think,” Monica, a manager at the chichi Lake Atitlán boutique hotel Casa Prana, tells me, laughing. “I moved here from the city — that’s where the crime is. Now I don’t have to lock my door. Guatemalans are well known for being


friendly and welcoming, and around this lake people are especially kind.” In front of the hotel’s breakfast terrace, Lake Atitlán


is pearlescent in the morning light, the shadow of two volcanoes etched on its surface. Not far from the hotel’s jetty, a few fishermen are at work in wooden canoes. Around the lake’s edges sit villages: San Antonio Palopó,


famous for its pottery; Santiago Atitlán, the birthplace of the colourful cult of Maximón; and Santa Cruz, renowned for its backpacker vibes. I paddle over to the latter in a kayak, past a shore dotted with the summer houses of wealthy politicians, and then whizz uphill in one of the village’s signature red tuk-tuks to Café Sabor Cruceño. The views are spectacular — behind us is a thickly-


forested zigzag of hills, gorges and waterfalls, and below, falling away to the glittering shore, is a chaotic jumble of roofs, washing lines and lanes. Turning away from the scenery, attention is fixed on the menu: “These are all really local dishes. Look, tayuyos,” Rambo exclaims. “They’re corn dough wrapped around black bean paste. Guatemalan food like this is cooked in homes. But restaurants usually go for international dishes. This is quite a special place,” he says, waving the waitress over. The same is true of Antigua, the elegant colonial


capital of the Spanish from the early 16th century until the earthquake of 1773. Today, it’s the centrepiece of Highlands tourism. “We have more ingredients than Mexico — so many ethnic groups, so much richness,” Rebeca de León, founder of the local Guatemalan gastronomy tour operator Kukul Tales, tells me. “Why aren’t we showcasing this in our restaurants?” We’ve met in the restored, colonial-era kitchens of Antigua’s Casa Popenoe museum to sample some real Guatemalan cuisine. She’s got me grinding black salt and white chiltepe peppers into roast tomatoes with a pestle and mortar. “If you want to imagine how the original Mayans ate, look to chirimol,” says Rebeca. “The sauce you’re making has been the basis of our cuisine for centuries.” We move on to taste stuffed corn dough tamales, and


a spicy, shredded-beef stew called hilachas, washing them down with tiste, a drink made of ground cocoa and toasted corn. “Our food is seasonal and historic; some of these dishes are even ceremonial,” Rebeca explains. “People learn about culture through what they eat. I’m proud to show this to travellers. But it’s a real problem that new generations of Guatemalans would rather buy sushi than cook. Our cuisine is at risk of being forgotten in our


Some of the kites are so tall they’ve been propped up with house-height bamboo struts and moored to the earth by thick ropes. In the rising wind, they strain against these shackles like caged animals


May/Jun 2020 79


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