Story and photos by Michele Peterson
A luxury Guatemala journey of cuisine, culture and tradition in the memorable world of the Maya, with time in Antigua, the colonial capital
I pick up a tiny piece of smooth dark chocolate, place it in my mouth and wait for it to gently melt on my tongue. After the first burst of cocoa rush, other flavor notes such as tobacco, spice, and ripe fruit begin to emerge.
"Is that the taste of papaya?" I ask.
"Chocolate made from high quality cacao beans can be incredibly complex," says my tutor Fernando Arias, an artisanal chocolatier and coffee roaster based in Antigua, Guatemala. "The flavors for single origin chocolate like this reflect the terroir of the volcanic slopes where the beans were grown."
A tutored chocolate tasting was just one stop during my 3–day journey with Culture Xplorers, a US–based luxury tour company that creates exclusive experiences focused on fostering connections with local people, deepening understanding of cultural traditions and making a positive impact on communities. Although their tours in Guatemala are usually wrapped around Easter Holy Week or Day of the Dead, I was interested in La Quema del Diablo (Burning of the Devil), a unique festival that ushers in the Christmas season on the feast day of the Virgen de Concepción.
Although delving deep into a culture can sometimes mean roughing it, my days of backpacking and indulging in questionable street food are long over, so I was interested to see if Culture Xplorers could deliver a luxury experience while traveling so far off the beaten path.
We began our journey in Panajachel on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala's mountainous highlands, a region that stretches west of the capital city to the border of Mexico. Our first stop was Concepción, a picturesque Maya village set in a fertile valley 20 minutes from Sololá. There the rich soil of the terraced hillsides yields an exceptional bounty of produce such as maize, chayote, and squash.
The heart of Concepción is a Catholic church constructed in 1621. This solid building is one of Guatemala's few churches to have survived centuries of earthquakes and features a still–intact wooden roof carved with angels, saints and apostles.
We arrived just in time to witness the cofradía, a Maya brotherhood who are guardians of ancient religious practices, prepare for the December 7th Feast Day honoring the Conception of the Virgin Mary. They had laid wooden platforms through the center aisle of the church to serve as pagan altars for offerings of food, candles and other tribute and were busy installing a ceremonial silver candelabra. They stopped to explain, however, how they would lead a statue of the Virgin in procession through the village and celebrate with fireworks, music, and special dishes such as pulique, a chicken stew.
My Culture Xplorers trip leader, Adolfo Cruz, engaged one of the local elders in conversation, translating from Kaqchikel Maya into Spanish then English so I could understand the significance of the man's traditional clothing.
"If you look carefully you can see a bat motif on his shirt," Adolfo explained.
"This shirt cost $800 Quetzales," responded the man with pride, as he posed for a photo. The distinctive embroidered bat — a symbol for the last Kaqchikel dynasty — topped rainbow–hued trousers, a tunic wrap, and sandals.
"The minimum daily wage in Guatemala is less than $10 USD so an investment of $100 USD shows the quality of this workmanship," said Adolfo.
We then meandered through town where, inside one humble adobe home, we were invited to sample guaro de barranca, a distilled beverage of maize with an intense herby flavor somewhat akin to mezcal.
"It's got an alcohol content between 45 and 60%," said Adolfo.
The potent hooch made a perfect offering for the nearby shrine to Maximon, a Maya deity. While most travellers stop at touristy shrines in Santiago Atitlan or Zunil, this sanctuary sees few foreign visitors. It is tended by a local Kaqchikel Maya family and our invitation was a rare opportunity in a community known to be suspicious of outsiders.
Engulfed in smoky copal incense, I stepped into the chapel to pay my respects and take a closer look. The cult of Maximon is a mix of colonial–era Catholicism and the beliefs of the pre–Hispanic Maya people. This effigy was a dapper–looking fellow, dressed in a spiffy suit and accompanied by Catholic saints dressed in traditional local clothing. Five bottles of white rum, a bouquet of fragrant freesia, cigars, and a fistful of cash were just a few of the other offerings.
Colonial Heritage in Guatamala
After our tour of the indigenous pueblos in the highlands, it was time to head to La Antigua, the atmospheric former capital that's a must on any cultural visit to Guatemala. The 2–hour road trip was a slideshow of ever–evolving scenery, from pine–clad forests to bustling towns such as Pastores, a village known for its boot–making artisans.
Our first objective was Mama Lita's, a comedor (eatery) located in San Bartolo, an upscale suburb of Antigua best known for its elaborate Easter processions. Open only on weekends, the experience at this pop–up restaurant is much like dining with family. Tables are set around a graceful mango tree and are popular among fans who come to sample enduring favorites such as piloyada (an elaborate white bean salad), caldo de gallina (chicken soup) or in my case, chiles rellenos. These stuffed peppers, a cousin to their heavier cheese–filled Mexican counterpart, came delicately filled with diced vegetables and meat, lightly battered and topped with a gazpacho–inspired fresh tomato salsa.