The Labyrinthine Markets of Mexico and Central America

There is nothing quite like visiting the weekly markets of Mexico and Central America. Although supermarkets and department stores do exist, the average indigenous Mexican or Guatemalan would prefer dealing with vendors at a market. The experience, for one thing, is personal. One can bargain and—if one does not have the wherewithal—get something that’s not quite so good, but will do in a pinch.

The above photo was taken at the market by the second class bus station of Antigua. Below is a scene from the Thursday market at Chichicastenango, where the women shown prepared a great breakfast of beans, eggs, fried plantains, and atole (a hot corn beverage) for just a few quetzales.

These Women Prepared a Great Breakfast for Me in Chichicastenango

Many of these markets are great places to have a meal. I remember having venado (venison) with rice and fresh corn tortillas at the main market in Mérida, Yucatán years ago. The food is usually good and inexpensive, probably your best best for cheap food anywhere in Latin America. Of course, not all markets are good; but I have fond memories of many simple, tasty meals. There is never any pretense: It is quite simply the food of he people.

At Chichicastenango, I also bought a beautiful straw hat for the latter part of my trip in the jungle. I expected heat and sun, but I found that I had created something of a bugbear about visiting the jungle. Although I didn’t need the hat, it sits right next to my computer as I write this. I always admire the multicolor woven hatband that came with it.


Chicken Buses

“Chicken Bus” with Conductor Hanging Out the Door

Old American school buses have a second life in Guatemala. They are imported, gussied up according to local taste, and converted into what are lovingly called chicken buses, because presumably the local Maya could transport pigs and chickens as well as themselves. They come with a driver and a conductor, who hangs out the front door as in the photo above, calling out the destination. Anyone could stop one of these second class buses by simply hailing it and climbing aboard. The conductor collects the fare and makes change, sometimes making the passenger wait until more fares are collected.

I did not take any chicken buses in Guatemala because of the potential for hold-ups and assorted violence. The guidebooks say to take tourist shuttles instead, even though they cost considerably more. Also, I do believe the language used by the driver and conductor is usually the local dialect of Mayan.

A Chicken Bus to Magdalena and Santa Lucia

There tend to be two, sometimes three, public transit options in the intercity market: chicken buses, tourist shuttles, and the (rare) first class bus that goes from point to point without picking up or discharging passengers on the way. (In a later post, I will tell you about my adventures careening through the jungle in a somewhat ratty first class bus.) The first class buses are usually for Ladinos; the chicken buses, for the locals; and tourist shuttles for Gringos.

Chicken Buses Lined up at Antigua’s Bus Terminal

I noticed that the numbers on the front or rear windows of buses (and some cars) merely repeat the license plate in larger letters (for the convenience of witnesses and the police?),

All the buses shown on this page were taken in Antigua near the second class bus terminal. The buses in Eastern Guatemala are different. But more about that later.

Time and Chance

Statue Beheaded by the Santa Marta Earthquake of 1773

At 3:45 PM on July 29, 1773, a Richter 7.5 temblor struck the third capital of Guatemala, then called the Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemalan. The city was filled with churches, monasteries, and convents. Half of the city’s religious were killed by the quake, and within a couple of years, the capital moved to its present-day location in the Valle de la Ermita, where it is known as Guatemala City.

Nowhere was the devastation more apparent than the churches in the western half of the city now known as Antigua, especially the Church of the Recollects on 1a Calle Poniente. During my five-day stay in the city, I visited approximately a dozen ruined churches. None, however, made quite the impression on me as La Recolección.

Ruins of La Recolección in Antigua

The roof of the church had completely caved in, sending huge multi-ton masses of brick and concrete crashing to the floor. If any services were being held at the time, I find it hard to believe that there were any survivors. For all I know, there may still be skeletons under the masses of rubble.

While in Antigua, I called my brother in Palm Desert, California and described the chaos to him. Dan Paris, who has spent years building in earthquake country, told me that much of the disaster could have been avoided if only the Spanish had mixed straw with the concrete. The Maya, whose own houses were built based on a racial memory of thousands of years of shaking earth, did not suffer quite so much.

Not all the churches in Antigua were flattened by the Santa Marta quake of 1773. La Merced and San Francisco were two of the churches that managed to survive more or less intact, though the convent attached to La Merced was heavily damaged.

Ruins of La Recolección with Volcan Fuego in Background

It felt odd for me—who had traveled to Guatemala to see the ruins of ancient Maya cities—should have started my trip visiting the more recent ruins of Christianity. It made me feel as if the Christian ruins were, in their own way, equivalent to the Maya ruins, and that we are all subject to the vagaries of time and chance.



Vacation Time

Where I Spend My First Five Nights

Tomorrow morning, I leave for Guatemala. I have a late morning flight which gets me to Guatemala City at 5:10 PM Central. At the La Aurora International Airport, I will try to convert dollars to quetzales (probably at felonious rates) and use some of the quetzales to get to me Antigua via shuttle bus. I will be spending my first five nights. My hotel is just past the Arco de Santa Catalina in the photo above, taking the first left. The volcano (Agua) is one of three surrounding the city.

For about 200 years, Santiago served as the third capital of Spanish Guatemala, moving to the present capital after a devastating earthquake in the 18th century. To this day, many of the old Spanish churches exist only as façades backed up by ruins. Even some of the church ruins are spectacular (see below).

La Merced Church in Antigua

If this trip turns out to be like my South America vacations, I will enjoy looking at the old Spanish churches almost as much as the ancient ruins. I was surprised, especially in Peru, where the churches were actually more interesting than the Inca ruins. It was not unusual for me to attend Mass, sometimes twice in one day, just so I could spend more time gaping at the religious artwork.

I may post once or twice during my trip—minus photographs, because I will be using computers that will not allow me to load data—though my next regular post will be at the end of the month. Wish me luck!


Antigua Guatemala

Arco de Santa Catalina and Agua Volcano in Background

If asked what is the capital of Guatemala, it is best to turn your answer into another question: At what point in history? Today, Guatemala City is the capital of Guatemala. In 1524, Pedro de Alvarado founded the Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemalon [sic], near the present town of Iximche. After a Kaqchikel Maya uprising in 1527, the capital was moved to Ciudad Vieja and retained the same name as the original. In 1541, that city was destroyed by a gigantic mudflow from the Volcano de Agua (illustrated above). Two years later, the capital was moved five miles to the Panchoy Valley to the present city of Antigua Guatemala.

In the 18th century, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions caused one final move, to the capital’s present location. That does not mean that the city of Antigua Guatemala, despite all the ruined churches, is not one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. In fact, when I go to Guatemala for my vacation, I will take a shuttle directly from the airport to Antigua, about 45 minutes away.

Guatemala City has a reputation of being a big, ugly city with a couple of good museums, but otherwise devoid of major tourist attractions. So, I will base myself in Antigua.

Intact Façade of Nuestra Señora de Merced, Otherwise in Ruins

With Antigua serving as a kind of tourist ghetto, there are a multitude of private shuttles to major tourist destinations—all originating in Antigua. One can treat the town as if it were the capital except for one thing: The airport is in Guatemala City. As Guate, as it is called, is the largest city in Central America, I think it would be more restful to base myself in a well-connected town with a population of only about 50,000.