Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Holy Week in Guatemala in Living Color

These long, extraordinary colorful carpets so traditional in the Guatemalan popular culture, are deeply rooted from times no one can remember. They are probably the most notorious example to describe the magic religious and cultural syncretism prevalent throughout the country in our days.
The origin of these ephemeral works of art is related to two different sources: 
Carpets in San Lucas Toliman, Solola and San Cristobal, Sacatepequez
1. The Meso America ancient civilizations used to make carpets for ceremonial purposes with pine needles, flowers, seeds, and feathers of birds considered precious, like quetzales, scarlet macaws, and hummingbirds.
Carpets in San Pedro La Laguna and Santiago Atitlan, Solola
2. The Spanish influence, specifically from the Canary Islands, homeland of Pedro de Betancur who was part of the Franciscan Order, the main evangelists during the colonial times.
Carpet made with coffee beans in different stages
That mixed origin combined with the Guatemalan historical development, around the Centuries XVII and XVIII brought to life a new tendency, full of symbolism and different elements. That is why the Guatemalan carpets, made mostly of dyed sawdust, flowers, seeds, fruits, and bread, have become the symbol par excellence to define the Guatemalan syncretism. 
Carpet made with pine needles and fresh mangoes
The carpets are made by residents, friends, and families along processional routes. They are offered up as a sacrifice in anticipation of the procession that will destroy them by marching through the painstaking and fantastic creations. 
Carpet made with a combination of flowers, fresh fruits, and bread
Size and complexity depends largely on the size of your workforce and the amount of money raised to buy materials. Also carpets made by children are usually smaller and not as elaborate - but just as beautiful! 
Carpet made with dyed sawdust, and border details with corozo  and purple estaticia flowers
I cannot tell you how many cities, towns, and villages participate in this ritual but I know it is quite widespread all over Guatemala.
Carpet and procession in Villa Nueva, Guatemala
When one procession has gone by, a clean-up crew follows removing the remains. Almost immediately, residents may begin to build yet another carpet in anticipation of the next procession later that day or the next. 

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Holy Week in Guatemala: Cucuruchos

Historically, a Cucurucho, also known as Capirote (without translation into English), is a pointy hat of conical form.
Photos in this page by, posted with the authorization.
In the popular culture in Guatemala, however, Cucurucho has become the name for the male penitents that carry over their shoulders the processional floats, regardless whether they wear or not  such pointy hats.
The origin of its incorporation to the Holy Week tradition in several countries of Latin America is uncertain; however, I have read from several sources that it is in representation of the clothes worn by the medieval pilgrims who started visiting the so called Saint Places  or Holy Land in the XI Century, particularly during the Crusades, following the route where Jesus lived and preached. Officially, the pilgrim costume was instituted by the Franciscan Order in the XII Century.
There are records indicating that in Guatemala, the Cucurucho costume was introduced in the Convents around 1550, when the processions were held only within their walls, following the strict rules about colors and symbols according to the Council of Trent.
The first news about a procession held outside a convent in Guatemala are from 1596 and published by the Santiago City Council Chronic (in Spanish, Cronica del Ayuntamiento de Santiago).
The story relates the procession of Jesus of Candelaria, mentioning the route, the float carried on the penitents' shoulders, all of them wearing Cucuruchos, a purple tunic and a short cape-like over the shoulders, followed by a music band.

The Cucurucho costume as can be appreciated today in Guatemala continues to be quite similar to the costume used in the colonial times. 
During the whole Lent until the Holy Wednesday, this Cucurucho costume is entirely of purple color.
On Maundy Thursday (also known as Holy Thursday) the short cape on the shoulders is white to commemorate the Last Supper and the institution of the Communion.
For the Good Friday processions the Cucuruchos suits are black, as a symbol of mourning.
In the Catholic history of Guatemala, the use of the white short cape, mainly for the Jesus of Candelaria Cofradia / Brotherhood, is very important because it was a special privilege granted by the Pope Benedict XIV in 1597.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Palm Sunday: The Beginning of The Holly Week

I am going to make a stop in our journey through Guatemala because we are at the beginning of the Holy Week and, just as I have mentioned before, Guatemala is notorious around the world for the celebration of this time of the year.
Whether it is celebrated according to the most traditional catholic rituals or within the magic syncretism that characterize the indigenous communities, the Holy Week throughout Guatemala is much more than a worthy experience.
If the symbols used along the Lent season, as we appreciate in Guatemala, are right or wrong, that is something  that won't be analyzed in this space.
What I intend to share with you, is all the paraphernalia and the meaning of every ritual, from blessed palm bunches, to "cucuruchos", colorful flowers and sawdust carpets, processions, and even food the Holy Week involves, which culturally speaking, is the voice of the people.
The Palm Sunday is the recreation of the day when Jesus entered into Jerusalem and in Guatemala, it is a colorful celebration where the making of the palm arrangements follows certain specific steps:
The palm leaves (palma real or manaca -Orbygnia cohune) are collected in Escuintla, Suchitepequez, and Quetzaltenango and delivered to the vendors, generally women from San Juan Sacatepequez.
These industrious women make the arrangements bunches-like adding some purple estaticias (Limonium sp.), red carnations, corozo (Corozo oleifera) flowers, and some other elements like the wheat spikelets carried by the beautiful girl in the photo above and to the left.
During the night of the previous Saturday or very early that Sunday, these women arrive to the churches with their precious cargo and before they start selling the bunches, these are blessed by a priest.
The blessed bunches are kept in the houses for almost a whole year, until the next Ash Wednesday, when they are returned to the churches to be incinerated and used to draw a cross on the parishioners' forehead, a ritual that marks the beginning of a new Lent period.
Since processions are one of the most important popular expressions during the Holy Week, the Palm Sunday is not an exception. As we can appreciate in the photo above and to the left, it is a representation of the entrance of Jesus to Jerusalem, and as in every procession, beautiful sawdust and flower carpets are made along the route for the procession to pass over.
All of the photos in this page are posted with the authorization of

Friday, March 26, 2010

El Quiche: A Culinary Celebration

Along this week we have been traveling through El Quiche department, and last Friday I mentioned Pulique, a typical dish in the Guatemala Highlands, of which natives from Chinique, one of Quiche's municipalities, claim to be the creators. I am not sure about that; however, I am sure that Pulique is a delicious meal!
As a Friday treat I decided to include two more traditional recipes from El Quiche and to set the mood, please let me share with you this musical slide show with all the photos we enjoyed this week and some others I didn't have the chance to post.

Chicken Pulique
You already know that recado is the shared name for any thick sauce used in the traditional cuisine. There is a wide variety of recados, and depending on the main ingredients and preparation methods, some can be brownish –like the pepian’s, others are green or red, and the pulique recado is of an intense yellow.
The unique flavor of this dish is provided by the apazote (Chenopodium ambrosioides), also known as epazote, vomiqueira herb, pazoli, huacatay, among others. In case you don’t find fresh apazote, you may try looking for dried apazote and using only 3-4 tablespoons. If dried apazote is neither an option, you may try substituting it by 1 part of sage and 3 parts of culantro.

Recado Ingredients
1 lb of fresh Roma tomatoes
½ lb of fresh miltomatoes (also known as tomatillos)
1 large onion (about 1 cup)
2 dried “guaque” chili (also known as guajillo), seedless
2 garlic cloves
1 cinnamon stick (about 1 inch)
1 teaspoon achiote (annato) powder (you may substitute it with paprika)
½ teaspoon black pepercorns
½ teaspoon cummin seeds
¼ teaspoon cloves
1 cup of fresh apazote
Salt to taste
¼ cup of corn flour (corn tortillas-purpose flour) to be added at the end of the cooking process
Other Ingredients
6-8 chicken thighs, skinless (or 1 large chicken cut in pieces)
Big chunks of güicoyitos (zuccini), potatoes, and carrots
Place the chicken thighs (and vegetables if you are using some), with about 3 cups of water, salt, and pepper into a large pot. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until the chicken is no longer pink and the vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes.
In a separate pot with about 2 cups of water, cook all the recado ingredients (except the corn flour) for about 10 minutes, discard the cinnamon stick, and blend the rest of the ingredients incorporating the corn flour until everything is smooth and well integrated.
The next traditional step, calls to fry the recado in about 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil (your preference of canola, corn, or olive oil), bring it to a boil and let it simmer until it thickens, about 3-5 minutes. To avoid extra fat, I only bring the recado to a boil and let it simmer to thicken.
Once the recado is thickened, add it to the pot with the chicken (and vegetables), verify the seasoning (salt and pepper) and consistency (if too thick, you may need to add water or chicken stock; if too thin, you may need to add a teaspoon at a time of corn flour and mix well), and let simmer altogether for another couple of minutes to let all the flavors mingle.
You can serve Pulique with Boxboles (recipe below) or rice pilaf on the side and garnish it with some apazote (or culantro) fresh leaves.

To give you an idea about this delicacy, I would say that Boxboles are the Mayan version of the Greek Dolmades because just like these, Boxboles are stuffed leaves.

Ingredients and Preparation
20 güisquil (also known as chayote or pataste) or pumpkin leaves. I know, right now you are thinking, where am I going to find those “güisquil” or even the pumpkin leaves? Don’t worry, I live in The Woodlands, so I am thinking exactly the same... Try with any greens (collards, spinach, etc.) you can find in your city, removing the woody stems, if any. Wash and dry them very well. Set aside.
Mix together the following ingredients, until everything is well combined and the dough-like mixture is soft but firm
2 cups of corn flour (corn tortillas-purpose flour), mixed with water as per the instructions in the package
2 tablespoons of butter
½ cup of sour cream
½ cup of dried cheese (Zacapa, parmesan, cotija)
1 pinch of ground thyme
1 pinch of ground bay leaves
Salt and pepper to season
Make small thick sticks (thumbs-like) with the dough and wrap each one in a leaf.
To cook the Boxboles you may use the bain-marie (double boiler) technique or a steamer for about 30 minutes.
Tip to serve the Boxboles
You can use them on the side of a dish like Pulique, or as apetizers covered with this simple sauce: blend together with a very small amount of water, 2 roma tomatoes, 2 green onions, 2 tablespoons of roasted pumpkin seeds, and depending on your taste, hot pepper flakes or powder, until the mixture is very smooth. Season with salt and ground black pepper. Bring it to a boil and let it simmer for about 2 minutes.

Chilacayote Beverage
Don’t make that funny face! I am not making any of these names. They are real, edible, glorious ingredients to satisfy even the most sophisticated taste.
The chilacayote (also known as fig-leaf gourd, alcayota, chiverre, cidra, among others) is a Cucurbita ficifolia that according to Wikipedia is cultivated around the world and it happens that is one of the specialties in El Quiche.

All you need is one small and clean chilacayote, cut in pieces and cooked at medium heat for about 20-30 minutes with water, 1 large cinnamon stick, about 10 each all spice and cloves, and panela or sugar. Let it cool and serve with ice. Before serving, you can add freshly squeezed lime or lemon juice and rectify the sweetness. Personally, I like to garnish my glass with some of the chilacayote strings. Buen Provecho!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Syncretism at its Finest: Chichicastenango

Photo by, used with authorization. 
Thursdays and Sundays. These are the days to visit Chichicastenango, or as we Guatemalans like to call it, Chichi, our country's most colorful open air market!
In pre-Columbian times it was known with its original K'iche' name Chaviar, and it was an important ceremonial place.
The Santo Tomas (Saint Thomas) catholic church -one of the main attractions, was built atop of the platform of one of the Maya temples in the area, and the 18 steps -one for each month of the Maya calendar, are still venerated.
This is one of the places where the fusion between religions has resulted in  amazing, breath-taking, beyond this world expressions of faith, so visiting Chichicastenango may need -probably more than in other places within Guatemala, an open heart and an open mind. Trying to understand a little bit more about their culture, I have learned that in general their conception of the Almighty is quite similar to ours, even deeper.
In addition to the traditional market days, there are several festivities in Chichicastenango, all of them presided by an specific Cofradia (brotherhood-like religious organization). 
Most of these festivities are so vibrant and colorful that in comparison, the market days look pale. Keep in mind the following dates, as you might be interested in planning your visit to Chichi around one of them:
Eternal Father, January 01; Saint Sebastian, January 20; Jesus of Nazareth, First Lent Friday; Saint Joseph, March 19; Our Lady of Sorrows, Friday of Sorrows (last Friday before the Holly Week); Saint Cross, May 03; The Sacrament, June 09; Saint Peter the Martyr, June 29; Encarnation, July 14; Saint Michael, September 29; Saint Jeronimo Doctor, September 30; Our Lady of the Rosary, October 07; Our Lady of Conception, second Sunday in October; Saint Thomas, -Chichicastenango Saint Patron, December 21.
I could write a longer text for this post but then I'd miss the opportunity to share the beautiful images I included. Chichicastenango is world-famous and I am sure you will find plenty of information about it, so, the last thing for me to say is quote my husband's favorite phrase, while in Chichi:
Explore - Enrich - Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

From Ancient Civilizations: The Popol Vuh Legacy

Many versions of the creation must have circulated among the Mayas, but the only one that survives in a written form is the Classical K'iche' version in the Popol Vuh, title that literally means "book of the mat." Throughout Mesoamerica mats, or petates, were symbols of the kings' authority and power and were used to sit on by governors, high-ranking courtiers and heads of lineages. For this reason, the title of the book has been interpreted  as the Council Book.
The names of its authors are unknown, but evidence indicates it was written by prominent members of the K'iche' nobility from Q'umarkaaj, which ruled a vast region of the Guatemalan highlands during the time of the Spanish conquest. Written in a brilliant poetic style, it is also a masterpiece in literary terms.
The Popol Vuh presents a mythological version of the creation of the world, followed by the adventures of the twin gods, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, that take place in a primordial age before the creation of the first human beings. The triumphs of the heroes over primeval forces and the gods of death give way to the creation of man from maize. The second part of the text concentrates on the origins of the governing lineages of the K'iche' kingdom, their migration to Guatemala's highlands, their territorial conquests, the founding of their principal city, and the history of their kings up until the time of the Spanish conquest.
The Popol Vuh is a corpus of myth-historical narratives and encompasses a range of subjects that includes creation, ancestry, history, and cosmology. In Spanish, the major reference continues to be the translation made by Adrian Recinos
Despite the technological advancements and foreign culture influences, the Maya descendants are still in contact with their roots and maintain their traditions and rituals, which are admired by contemporary people, myself included.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Window to the Cloud Forest: Chicaman and Uspantan

I am going to start today's post by confessing that while living in Costa Rica, where I lived for a bit more than six years, I realized how much I liked and enjoyed nature in general and specifically, I fell in love with the cloud forest and everything this amazing ecosystem represents.
Peña Flor Laumar, Uspantan, El Quiche (including the main photo). 
I am not saying that I didn't appreciate before what had been mine by birth. It is just like I always took my Guatemala as a whole, for granted, just as I said a few weeks ago when I introduced you to Antigua Guatemala: it was there, it was mine... and that is why I have been looking for the appropriate time to share with you some wonderful places that I no longer take for granted.
El Porvenir River Spring, Chicaman, El Quiche.
Chicaman and Uspantan are not officially in the cloud forest because these Municipalities are right at the end of the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes, in front of Sierra de las Minas, which (officially speaking) is Guatemala's cloud forest.
El Amay National Park, Chicaman, El Quiche.
Actually, the area comprised of the Chicaman and Uspantan municipalities is probably more diverse than the cloud forest itself, because it has five different ecosystems,including the subtropical wet forest in the National Park El Amay in Chicaman, and the wet forest in Las Guacamayas Reserve in Uspantan.
Las Guacamayas Reserve, Uspantan, El Quiche.
Thanks to the rich diversity and fertile soils, people in this area produce a wide variety of agricultural products, including cardamom -an exotic spice, of which Guatemala is the top world producer.
Cuatro Chorros Waterfall, Chicaman, El Quiche.
In addition to the different ecosystems, the diversity in this region is also related with the predominant ethnic groups who speak 5 different languages: Poqomchi', Poqomam, Q'eqchi', Uspanteko, and Spanish.
Danta Lagoon, Uspantan, El Quiche.
I couldn't finish this post without mentioning that Rigoberta Menchu, laureate with the Peace Nobel Prize in 1992, was born in the Laj Chimel township, Uspantan, place that is also home to the Laj Chimel Nature Reserve and a community deeply rooted to its Mayan beliefs and rituals.
Maya Ritual at the Xoconeb Hill, Uspantan, El Quiche.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Biodiversity in the Ixil Triangle

This region in the northern area of El Quiche, right on the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes -the highest non-volcanic mountain range in Central America, there is this area called the Ixil Triangle because it is formed by the only three Ixil Maya descendants communities: San Gaspar Chajul, San Juan Cotzal, and Santa Maria Nebaj, where the Ixil languaje is spoken.
Commonly, the word biodiversity is associated mostly with other than human nature aspects; however, in the Ixil Triangle, the human side of biodiversity is what keeps this region alive, looking into the future.
Because the Cuchumatanes mountain range is associated mainly with the Huehuetenango department, in general I would say that even Guatemalans often forget the importance of the Ixil Triangle and its people in the conservation of the amazing biodiversity in the biosphere reserve B'isis K'ab'a (or Visis Caba, its name in Spanish), which has an extension of 45,000 square meters and was declared protected area in 1997.
Most of this reserve is covered with pine-oak humid forest and receives over 6,000 mm of rainfall annually, reason why streams, ponds, rivers and waterfalls are abundant.
Among other species, this area is house for six endemic amphibians including the endangered Plectrohyla tecunumani, locally known as "ranita Ixil".
Additionally, the area is also important for the protection and conservation of the drainage river basin of the rivers Ixcan and Xacibal.
With the signage of the Peace Accords on December 1996 and several organizations working in the area, conditions have been changing in positive ways, encouraging these communities to rebuild not just their towns, but their lives and what we can appreciate today, are flourishing, industrious communities in a very spiritual atmosphere deeply rooted in their Maya Ixil tradition.