As we prepared for our first journey to Guatemala in 18 years, we learned that violent crime had become an issue as drug cartels have moved in. The major trouble spots are Peten, a province north of the Mayan highlands, and Guatemala City. A well-traveled friend also warned us that he had lost $1,000 to a pickpocket in the Chichicastenango market in the spring.
So, in addition to investing $10 in a money pouch, which I wore under my jeans, we swore off using public buses (which backpackers have affectionately dubbed “chicken buses”), opting for shared minibuses on short trips and private drivers and tourist shuttles on longer hauls. We booked the latter — with excellent results — through a Guatemala-based operator named Adrenalina Tours.
Our first destination on the two-week trip was Lake Atitlán, a picturesque region with volcanic mountains (long inactive) and Mayan villages, less than three hours northwest of the Guatemala City airport.
We unpacked our bags in touristy Panajachel, which has more hotels, shops and restaurants than any other town on the lake but little in the way of serious folk art. (Think lots of Guatemala-made T-shirts emblazoned with slogans such as “Guat’s Up” and “Guatever.”)
We would return to the lake. But after a night in Panajachel, we grabbed the 1 1/2-hour shuttle to Chichicastenango, arriving on a Saturday afternoon so we could get an early start at the sprawling Sunday market.
“Chichi” was every bit as frenetic as we remembered, with vendors vying for the attention of prospective buyers and a shaman — though almost invisible in the plumes of incense — presiding on the steps of Santo Toms Church. We were delighted that in spite of its entrenched status as a tourist town, Chichi still offers some surprises, such as the pig sale we discovered on a side street ($45 was the going rate for a plump one).
The twice-weekly market (Sundays are better than Thursdays, when there are fewer vendors) is easily one of the largest in Latin America. We picked up a multi-colored bedspread for Gabriela’s college dorm room ($20) but thought that the masks and carved religious figures, known as santos, looked mass produced. Some of the huipiles were tempting, but we decided to save our suitcase space for more traditional towns, where we expected the quality to be better.
Back at the lake, we headed by boat to Santiago Atitlán, a bustling Tz’utujil Maya community known for its folk paintings (many depicting local customs), woodcarvings (a popular subject is Maximón, a folk deity with a cult following) and, of course, huipiles (vividly colored flowers and birds are the favored motifs). For shoppers, Santiago is an ideal base from which to explore other lake towns, all easily accessible by public or private boats.
On the main drag, we revisited the gallery of Nicolas Reanda Quiej, a self-trained painter whose work has been exhibited in Europe and the United States. During our previous visit in 1993, we’d purchased a striking primitive-style painting that shows Tz’utujil musicians at a candlelit ceremony. The three-by four-foot canvas, which cost just a few hundred dollars, hangs above the fireplace in our living room.
We were eager to see more Reanda paintings with Mayan themes. But as we poked around his gallery, we mostly found colorful abstracts with prices as high as $2,500.