On our third day in Guatemala we drove from Panajachel to a popular Mayan market at Chichicastenango. But before we left, Dad and I explored the lakeshore at sunrise, watching the predawn light transition to bright blue sky shrouded with smoky haze from nearby “fire forests,” as Tony liked to call them.
Local farmers burn the corn husks from their last harvest and use the ashes as fertilizer. The smoke lends a sort of ethereal glow to the horizon. But if the wind kicks up, the fires become unmanageable and nearby vegetation will also burn. These forest fires are actually quite common in the dry season, and there are so many of them across the region that the haze is almost constant. You can see smoke coming off the mountainside in my photos below. Tony said it usually only lasts for March and April, and by summer time the skies are clear again.
The waterfront at Lake Atitlan is beautiful. There are plenty of docks to walk out on, though some of them are a bit rickety and precarious. There’s also a cute waterside restaurant district of sorts, with several local eateries to chose from, each of which are situated on stilts above the water. Unfortunately we didn’t get to try any of them.
After a quick breakfast we boarded the bus and headed to Chichicastenango. We toured two churches in the town where Catholic and Mayan traditions collide and manage to coexist harmoniously. Inside the churches, Mayan altars line the aisles and smoke from the burning offerings fill the nave. Out of respect for those worshipping, I didn’t take any photos inside.
I was most excited to explore the vibrant market, but first we toured the local cemetery, a solemn but extraordinary burial ground set on a sprawling hillside overlooking the town. More Mayan rituals were being held here, and several altar fires were burning, but it was already so hot outside I avoided getting too close. We enjoyed an ice cream for $1 before walking back down to the market.
Back in the market I bought a brightly embroidered purse and a woven belt. The market at Chichicastenango was crawling with tourists and Mayans alike and it did feel somewhat claustrophobic. It was hard to shop because because many of the locals were following us around, trying to bargain with us and hawk their wares despite our weary protests. It does help to be tall in Guatemala. Most of the locals are barely more than five feet tall, so I towered over them and could easily plot an escape route. Even though exploring the market was a lot of fun, after a while it got a little overwhelming and we decided to head back to our group meeting point and enjoy a cold beer before it was time to head back to Panajachel.
Panajachel and Chichicastenango are both in the highlands at more than 6,000 ft above sea level. It’s still very warm when the sun is out, but there was a breeze to help keep us cool. If you plan on entering any of the churches, don’t wear shorts. I wore capris and a tank with an optional sweater and was generally comfortable all day.