Monday, May 31, 2010

Making a Pause...

Most of the time, particularly in times of sorrow or misfortune, I would be the first person stating that the show must go on... 
Today, knowing that the unfortunate events occurred in Guatemala during the past days have caused so much destruction and have taken several lives, I propose a minute of silence and ask you to join us in our prayers for better days.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Guatemalan Mountains: Beautiful and Unpredictable

Once again, we interrupt our journey because of the mountains... The first time, to  share with all of you the wonderful news about Andrea Cardona and her conquest of the Mt. Everest summit. Today, because of the tremendous explosion of the Pacaya Volcano last night.
A few days ago, Maynor Mijangos from Galas de Guatemala, the most valuable collaborator of this blog, climbed this colossus, which has been active since I can remember and took amazing photos that I was saving for the appropriate time in our itinerary. I won't wait, today is the appropriate day!
This event has been in the news since it started yesterday afternoon and the coverage continues with live reports all over the world. This media coverage came with a  high price, since last night a journalist lost his life while covering the event. May the family of Anibal Archila find peace and consolation and know how many people share their sorrow and stand with them in this time of need. My prayers for the disappeared boys: for them to be found safe, and for their families to keep the faith.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Colors, Textures, and Aromas of San Pedro Sacatepequez San Marcos

I have to start by saying that across Guatemala, we are going to find towns sharing the same name, just as this case, where in order to state the geographical difference, everybody calls this municipality “San Pedro Sacatepequez San Marcos”.
Using a combination of silk and cotton threads, the loomers in San Pedro Sacatepequez San Marcos create some of the most vibrant Guatemalan textiles, for instance, the women’s corte (skirt) is made using the jaspe (ikat) technique and yellow silk threads.
I found a good video that explains the weaving process, unfortunately, the producer restricted the access; so, if you want to watch it, please click this link.
I don’t know and I couldn’t find the appropriate information to tell you where the silk comes from and why they use it. All I can tell is that they say that the yellow silk has been brought to San Pedro Sacatepequez San Marcos since the colonial times.
What I can tell you with certainty is that the textile industry in this town and in some of the surrounding villages is a vital component of their economy. Almost every family has at least one loomer.
In the original post, I included a video showing the shecas making process; however, it didn't work as expected, so I removed it. If you want to watch it, please click this link.
The "just off the oven" aromas  in San Pedro Sacatepequez San Marcos come from the many bakeries where traditional shecas are baked daily (a variety of sweet bread). This bread is so distinctive of this town, that locals call themselves “shecanos”.
San Pedro Sacatepequez San Marcos, populated by Maya Mam descendants, was part of the ancient Camino Real (royal road), an important commercial route for the ancient civilizations that connected the communities settled between San Juan Ostuncalco and Chiapas.
Even though today is not our last day in San Marcos, it actually is our last day in the highlands, so starting tomorrow, we need to wear lighter clothes since we are heading to the Pacific Ocean region, or as we Guatemalans call it, la costa.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Northern Region in San Marcos

I have seen that every town, regardless its size or location, has its own enchantment and for what we all have learned through our journey, every town in Guatemala seems to have its own culture. That is something simply extraordinary that continues to amaze me and I hope, to you too!
Nevertheless, and because the department of San Marcos is divided into 29 municipalities, I selected only some of them, which I believe will give you a good perspective of the region.
Comitancillo, or Tzol ja, as it is called by its Maya Mam descendant population, was visited by my good friend Norma Monroy several months ago and once again she is sharing some of her photos with all of us.
As I have mentioned before, Maya descendants honor and respect their dead ones as much as they do with their living ones and Comitancillo couldn't be the exception. The cemetery is a focal point and it is so picturesque, that Norma didn't resist taking this lovely photo.
I would like to say that everything in Comitancillo and in most of the surrounding towns  and villages is as beautiful as we appreciate in the images, but honestly, I cannot, yet... What I could say for what I have been reading is that people in these towns, despite the day-by-day struggles, are now getting the attention they deserve and their communities are on their way to become flourished and developed.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

From the Mountains in Guatemala to the Everest!

In our today's journey we should be traveling through San Marcos; however, this Sunday at 8:23 in the morning (Nepal time), Andrea Cardona crowned the Everest summit with a Guatemalan flag and honestly, it is an event that makes me feel proud. Congratulations Andrea!
Andrea is now the first Central American woman to conquest the summit of the Mt. Everest, and the third Guatemalan to achieve this ambitious goal.
Now that we know a little bit about the beautiful and abundant Guatemalan mountains, is easy to imagine where Andrea's inspiration comes from. 
In 2001, Jaime Vinals, was the third Latin American and the first Central American who reached the summit, coincidentally on May 23. Until now, Jaime is the only one in Central America who has climbed all the peaks in the Seven Summits challenge.
Two years ago, on May 21, 2008, Francisco Arredondo also reached the Mt. Everest summit. Shortly after this accomplishment, Francisco rode his motorcycle for more than 10,000 kilometers, across the Urals, Kazakhstan and the Gobi Desert, from the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg to the Great Wall of China in Beijing.
Thanks Andrea, Jaime, and Francisco for putting Guatemala's name in the top of the world!

Monday, May 24, 2010

From the Mountains to the Sea: San Marcos

Last week, one of our travel companions told me that she was happy because through this journey, I was showing the beautiful side of Guatemala; let me tell you, showing the beauty of Guatemala is not a hard task since Guatemala is truly beautiful! In the photo above, behind the golden rocks, the Tacana Volcano (4,092m) and further, like a shadow, the Tajumulco Volcano (4,200m), the two highest volcanoes in Central America.
 Tacana River Basin
Wherever you go, wherever you see, from mountains to valleys, from rivers to the sea, from big cities to tiny villages, the natural richness is breathtaking, the local culture and traditions are amazing, the people kindness has no parallel.
 Santo Tomas Volcano
As for San Marcos, our new and also our last destination in the Guatemala's Highlands, I can tell you that it is a place full of contrasts that will make this trip a transitional expedition, taking us from Central America's highest volcano, to the Pacific Ocean shoreline. From one extreme to another, San Marcos territory varies a lot and therefore, we will find many different attractions.
 Tacana Volcano in December
San Marcos is also one of the main borders between Guatemala and Mexico, with 3 different customs and immigration points -Ayutla, Tecun Uman, and El Carmen, which makes the area one of the most commercially active in the country.
 Biological Reserve Manchon Guamuchal
From San Marcos we will admire to the northern side, Los Cuchumatanes mountain range; to the west, the Chiapas valleys and the amazing depression of the Grijalva river (the Mexican side of the Selegua River that comes down from Huehuetenango); to the east, Quetzaltenango's mountains; and to the south, the Tumbador valley, the Costa Cuca coastal line, and the impetuous Pacific Ocean.
Tilapa Beach

Friday, May 21, 2010

Huehueteco's Laborious Hands

At the beginning of our journey through Huehuetenango I mentioned that through my readings about it, I was very impressed. Now that  during these past two weeks , you and I have learned about its geography, geology, water resources, sustainable and responsible coffee plantations, traditions, culture, poetry, people, just like the couple from Colotenango in the photo above... Let me tell you,  I am truly amazed of how much more Huehuetenango has for us to explore, and how much more it has to show us, including a paleontological site. We definitely have to come back!
The diversity of Huehuetenango is reflected not just in the landscape, or the weather conditions, or the agricultural activities; the diversity of Huehuetenango is reflected as well in the handcrafts produced by the Huehuetecos' laborious hands.
Being a place populated by deep-rooted Maya descendants, the articles they produce are mainly utilitarian and unlike so many other places throughout Guatemala where handcrafts are massively produced, the handcrafts production in Huehuetenango, although diverse, is limited and maybe because of that, the quality is extraordinary and the designs are unique and beautiful.
Huehuetecos are specialists in glazed pottery, saddlery, stone carving, basketry, candle making. They also produce fine acoustic guitars and beautiful imagery. There are some silver and copper mines, which provide the raw material to produce jewelry and embossed, among others.
As for the textiles, a subject of my particular interest, the production of some pieces is even more limited because they make them almost exclusively for their personal use and some pieces are truly works of art.
Well my friends, I think this is it for Huehuetenango. Before starting this trip, my biggest concern was that I wasn't going to be able to guide you through this stunning territory but, we survived! Until next week, when we are going to visit San Marcos, which will be our last Department in Guatemala's Highlands and the end of the second chapter of our journey.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

In the Land of High Mountains: Cenote El Cimarron

A "cenote" is a natural well and El Cimarron is simply beyond any description! To start, it is a natural formation that unlike the surrounding mountainous landscape that makes you look up, it makes you look down. And when I say down, is because of its depth, tantamount to a 40 stories building, or maybe more...
In the photo above we can appreciate that at the very bottom of El Cimarron, there is a small yet exuberant forest where the trees reach around 30 meters in height. Actually, El Cimarron has a diameter of 170 meters and a depth between 150 and 160 meters.
Naturally enigmatic, a cenote is a fresh water well created by erosion in limestone terrains, with underground, convergent rivers, and open caves from where the sunlight is captured into the interior. The name "cenote" comes from the Maya word "dzonot", which translates as abyss.
There are others natural wells known as "siguan", which are created because of a combination of rain and an underground river, by dissolution of the limestone combined with carbonates and sulfates. The "siguanes" that I know, are located in Las Verapaces, a region that we will visit further.
As far as I know, there are not such things as programmed explorations to El Cimarron, and according to expert mountaineers, an excellent physical condition and training is required to descend and then ascend back. What I can tell you, paraphrasing those who have explored El Cimarron, after the physical effort, the sweating, and the adrenalin pumping, the emotion of being down there and the overwhelming and profound quietness that surrounds this wonder of nature, one can truly state that an almost spiritual and surreal  feeling takes over, if only for a few minutes, man communes with nature. All and all, this is an indescribable one in a lifetime experience!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A Visit to Santa Ana Huista's Heart: El Resumidero

The sweet traditional marimba sounds, the church bells tolling, the aromas of home cooking recados and corn tortillas, will be our welcome present when arriving to Santa Ana Huista, a place that was highly recommended yesterday, while enjoying our coffee tour.
This municipality is located a bit more than 350 kilometers from Guatemala City and about 100 kilometers from the capital of the department, Huehuetenango.
Santa Ana Huista is surrounded by exuberant nature and amazingly, there is no need to travel far away to explore the very heart of this peaceful town: El Resumidero. 
I don't know how to translate this name; however, what I can tell you, at least to give you an idea of the meaning is that "sumidero" translates as a place where something is pushed down, the prefix "re" translates as repetitive or more than once; thus, in this case, "resumidero" is the place where the Huista River is pushed down, again, and again through a huge cave where the river literally disappears underground to reappears 4 kilometers further.
The reappearance of the river, as impressive as the disappearance, can be observed close to the cave El Limon (The Lime), located shortly after the village Cuatro Caminos. 
Not far from there, the Huista River converges with the fast-flowing Selegua River, the largest water source in Huehuetenango whose whole basin occupies almost 21% of this department territory and has played an important role in the development of the coffee industry in the region.
This border town is surrounded by extensive forests, where despite of certain degree of deforestation which has threatened several species, many Hormigo trees still can be found there. These are the trees whose wood is used for making the finest marimbas.
These forests are also home to a great fauna variety, among others, ocelots, foxes, skunks, coyotes, coati-mundi, raccoons, deers, serpents, and dozens of birds.
Recommended Book:
Lista Comentada De Las Aves De Guatemala / Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Guatemala (English and Spanish Edition)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Coffee Tour in The Highlands

I just love coffee! I like it medium roasted, freshly ground and freshly brewed or pressed, and absolutely black. What can I say? It is my first thing every morning and it has been that way probably forever. So, how could I resist to take us through a coffee tour in Huehuetenango? From the information I compiled about this region, I learned that Huehuetenango produces some of the finest coffees in Guatemala and that is what today's trip is going to be about.
On our way, at an altitude around 11,000 feet, which is too high for coffee cultivation, we are going to see some of the most typical scenes in The Highlands, sheeps and shepherds.
As you may have already noticed, Guatemala is as diverse in its landscape as it is in its culture and people. In this case, what captured my attention was this enormous rock on one side of the road from Huehue to Barillas, where we are going to make a stop at one of the Asobagri Co-op member-farms, Nueva Esperanza (new hope). The farms are organized around the small towns-villages, and each small group of farmers has his own plot of land but aids the others in cultivation and processing.
At this time of the year the coffee cherry is still green, but fairly well-developed in size. There are still blossoms on the branch, and as you can see this healthy cluster indicates good things for the next crop. But the cherry is on the branch so long (4-6 months) and so many things can go wrong! Drought, frost, hail... 
Here is a healthy tree of the traditional Arabica Bourbon Typica. It is not as handsome as newer varietals in terms of leaf color, etcetera, and is less productive in terms of coffee cherries per tree.
But you can see that a healthy tree in healthy organic soil can be very productive nonetheless!
The entire village of Nueva Esperanza is based around several generations of the same family, all coffee farmers and members of the fair trade co-op. With the outside aid of co-op representatives and the help of others in the village, they share organic farming information, improve their process, and they collectively mill the ripe cherry into parchment and dry it on their own patios.
Because coffee prices have been so poor (even though the co-op is organic and fair trade) some farmers also raise Cardamom, mostly for export to the middle east where it fetches high and stable prices. Cardamom is ground with coffee in making Ibrik or Turkish coffee.
The next farm that we are going to visit is El Injerto, a beautiful, large, traditional coffee farm in the town La Libertad. It is a third generation Finca, managed by the grandson of the original settler, who is a trained agronomist and makes every decision about the coffee farming and milling based on methodical testing, and with the benefit of newer coffee technology.
He uses his own wet-milling process that separates ferments and aqua-pulps (the mucilage) from the parchment coffee, patio dries and/or mechanically dries based on weather conditions, and has a complete dry-mill and bagging operation. The farm demands a lot from workers, but pays 50% more during harvest for each Quintal (Imperial hundredweight) of cherry picked!
For what I read, the multiple awards winner El Injerto is the most pristine and orderly coffee farm one can ever see. Every step of the process is perfected and in addition to that, they are serious about the use of vermiculture (worms) to improve composting of the coffee cherry fruit layer (skin and mucilage) after the coffee seed is removed.
Today's last stop will be at the farm Huixoc, which is an old family farm with an Hacienda, founded in 1911, some 20 years after El Injerto but still quite early for this region of Huehuetenango.
Huixoc, along with El Injerto, El Injertal, and other Asobagri coffees, has received awards for having one of the best Guatemalan coffees. Huixoc is located on a west-facing hillside adjacent to El Injertal, and like El Injerto has all its own milling and drying facilities on the premises.
It's hard to look at images of such a lush and diverse farmland and not to think that this is also a great bird and animal habitat. These farms are surrounded by pristine and uncultivated forests and the farmers who cultivate them, are more than ecologically sensitive because after all, they have been farming the same soil for 120 years, and want to continue to do so for many more generations to come. I think these farmers offer all of us  an ecological lesson, and inspire us to take better care of our Motherland!

Historia del Cafe en Guatemala (Spanish Edition) Coffee Bean Direct Guatemala Huehuetenango, Organic Fair Trade Whole Bean Coffee, 16-Ounce Bags (Pack of 3)
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