In my quest for the extraordinary, in my third visit to Guatemala I explored its off the beaten –track Western Highlands, four hours from Antigua, the most beautiful colonial city in the Americas. Using the medium size city of Quetzaltenango (locally called Xela: shell-ah), as a base I took the “chicken bus” north and hiked down to Laguna Chicabal, a supreme little lake sitting in the crater of the Chicabal volcano, It is nestled in a cloud forest so I started early in the morning for best viewing. Its color is a main attraction, mineral deposits prevent limited water clarity and it looks like someone has spilled a can of aqua paint at the bottom of this sweet little volcano.
The surprise in Zunil(10 kms south of Xela) is an effigy known as San Simon or Maximon in Guatemala. This effigy sits in a chair and is exalted by all and offerings of cigarettes, candles, rum etc. The seeming alter ego of a conventional Catholic saint, this one is a drinking, smoking, carousing saint! He is considered to be a combination of the Mayan gods, a Spanish conquistador and the biblical Judas, So worshippers can eitherembrace the pious tenents ofthe church or have a rip-roaring toot in the manner of this “saint”. His caretaker lives with him year around and is the blissful and constant recipient of all the alcoholic offerings to San Simon. At the end of his year’s tenure as guardian he staggers home to his wife and another guardian takes his place at this holy barroom.
San Francisco del Alto is considered as the most authentic market in the country. Keep small denominations of Quetzals in your pocket for the jammed Friday market there to bargain for weavings. Even though this market’s choices are massive, I found the weaving designs and colors were much more appealing in villages dotting the shores of nearby Lago de Atitlan, one of the most beautiful lakes in the world.
About 8 kms north of Xela, San Andres Xeecul houses one of the most bizarre churches in the world (and I’ve seen many surreal holy places). The four story electric yellow façade bursts with bas reliefs of saints, monkeys, flowers, and tigers all painted hot, glossy circus-like colors. There is no information available as to why this Technicolor explosion was created!