Guatemala 6/28/2018 - 7/8/2018

Thursday, 7/5/2018 - Postclassic Mayan ruins of Iximche, Colonial Antigua

Today was our chance to finally visit Iximche, a Postclassic Mayan city which is not far from Panajachel.

We had attempted to go there when Mukul visited with us in 2010, but traffic had prevented us from getting there before closing time. And somehow in the intervening eight years, we had still never visited. Tyson really wanted to see some Mayan ruins, so we thought this was the perfect opportunity.

We would also visit the Spanish colonial city of Antigua. It is a beautifully preserved historic city, having been abandoned as the capital in the 1700's. The capital moved to present day Guatemela City, and Antigua remains largely unchanged. It is a long drive that is often jammed with traffic, but it would be a shame for Tyson to not get a chance to experience the charm of Antigua. We absolutely love it, and haven't been there in ten years.

This was one of the days that Craig had been saving his strength for. It started out promising, as he was feeling more energetic. We hoped that our excursion would go to plan today, unlike two days ago.

We left the house at around 7:30 a.m.: Humberto, Paulina, Eddy, Ian Ivan, Tyson, Craig, and myself. Aracely wasn't able to join us because she had typing class in the afternoon.

We stopped at Cafe Vista Real for a "tipico" breakfast of scrambled eggs, black beans, meat, fried plantains, and coffee while enjoying a stunning view. Getting such an early start, we were thankful for the carraffe of coffee, and we helped ourselves to several refills.

We drove through the community of Tecpan and arrived at Iximche shortly after 10 a.m. Iximche was the capital of the Kaqchiqel Maya from 1470-1524. "Ixem" means corn in Kaqchiqel, and "Che" means tree.

The Kaqchiqel Maya had come from their ancestral homelands in the west, allying themselves with the Kiche Maya. They eventually arrived at Lake Atitlan where the Tzutujil Maya live. Legend has it that Kaqchiqel leader Q'aq'awitz dove into the lake and tranformed into a feathered serpent (Tyson's fabled serpent!), which intimidated the Tzutujil into handing over half of the lake and its surroundings to the Kaqchiqel.

When a Kiche soldier demanded that a Kaqchiqel woman selling bread in the market give her bread to him for no payment, the Kaqchiqel rebelled against the Kiche. When they were tipped off that the Kiche were planning to execute the their kings, the Kaqchiqel fled Lake Atitlan and established their own capital at Iximche.

When the Spanish conquered the Aztecs in Mexico, the Aztecs sent a warning to the Kaqchiqel. Far from being intimidated, the Kaqchiqel boldly offered to ally with the Spanish against their common enemy, the Kiche.

When Spanish Conquistador Pedro de Alvarado arrived in Guatemala in 1524, the Kaqchiqel welcomed him and his troops into Iximche in April of the same year. The Kaqchiqel provided troops to help the Spanish in their conquest. However, the alliance was short-lived, as the Spanish soon began demanding gold as tribute. A mere four months after joining forces with the Spanish, the Kaqchiqel abandoned Iximche, moving to the surrounding forests. They warred with the Spanish until 1530, at which point they surrendered.

The Spanish had established the colonial city of Tecpan near Iximche. Some Kaqchiqel survivors settled there, and others migrated to Solola and Lake Atitlan.

We entered the small museum to gain some context before exploring the site. The first exhibit was a scale model of the site. There were four main clans in the original Iximche settlement: the Xahil, the Sotz'il, the Tukuche and the Akajal. The city is built as four separate courtyards, one belonging to each clan. Natural fortifications include deep, steep ravines on three sides of the 1500 meter long plateau. In the 54 years of Kaqchiqel settlement, access to Iximche was only possible via a bridge over a 25 foot deep man-made trench.

The four courtyards are designated as Plazas A, B, C, and D. One hundred seventy buildings have been discovered at the site so far, built of volcanic stone and pumice stone blocks.

Various artifacts unearthed during the excavation were on display in the museum, including clay pots, clay incense censers, anthropomorphic carved stone statues, and obsidian tools. One stone was carved to resemble a god emerging from a serpent's mouth (there's your serpent again, Tyson!)

One of the most interesting exhibits consisted of the skeletons from a burial known as Burial E-27-A. This burial, found in a tomb behind Temple 2 in Plaza A, was of a nobleman and his three attendants. The nobleman had been killed by a blow to the forehead, and he was buried with a gold headband and a gold jaguar necklace. The headband and necklace are replicas, with the originals being housed at the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Guatemala City. The three attendants had been sacrificed. In fact, 25 skulls that have been found here were the victims of human sacrifice via decapitation.

After enjoying the museum, we entered the Postclassic cty of Iximche. We passed a stela which commemorated the end of the 13th Baktun (a 5,126-year-long cycle in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar) on December 21, 2012.

We entered the site through Plaza A. There was signage to clearly indicate which structures should not be climbed. If a structure was not marked, then visitors were welcome to climb. We were careful to be cognizant of these signs. It always drives us crazy when people don't follow the rules. The rules exist for the protection of the site as well as the patrons.

Our first stop was a ball court. It was shaped like a capital "I" and was bounded by thick earthen walls retained by neatly aligned stone walls. We climbed up a steep set of steps and stood on the earthen walls to see inside. Eddy and Ian Ivan climbed down inside, and played soccer with a large pine cone that they had found on the ground.

The ball game, popular throughout Mesoamerica through history, has spiritual significance due to its connection to the Popol Wuh, the K'iche Maya "Bible":

Popol Wuh:
Ancient Srories of the Quiche Indians of Guatemala

by Albertina Saravia E.

The book recounts the Mayan cosmogenesis: after trying and failing to create man from mud and wood, the deities were finally successful at creating man from corn.

The book also recounts the story of the Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, and their exploits in Xibalba, the Mayan underworld. Xibalba, literally "Place of Fear," was the realm of the lords of death as well as the demons which are responsible for plagues upon mankind. Mayans performed human sacrifices to placate the lords of Xibalba.

The twins' father and uncle had been very gifted at playing the Mesoamerican ball game. Their loud playing had disturbed the lords of Xibalba. They were summoned to Xibalba to play against the lords. Along the way, they were put through a series of tests, which they failed. They lost the ball game and were sacrificed.

The Hero Twins, conceived after their father's death, were talented ball players, just like their father and uncle. But they were also successful tricksters. After honing their skills by punishing their older siblings, the twins used their cleverness to pass the various trials and tests on their way to Xibalba. They ultimately defeated the lords of Xibalba and retrieved their father's body.

In its defeat, Xibalba ceased to be a place to be feared. Man was no longer required to perform human sacrifice to placate the lords of death.

The Hero Twins were transformed into the sun and the moon.

Ballcourts existed as surrogate caves, representing entrances to the underworld. The game was played with a heavy rubber ball which weighed between 7 and 18 pounds. Players could not use their hands or feet, and needed to move the ball using hips, thighs, or arms. There were no stone hoops present in this court, though they started to make an appearance in ball courts around 1200 A.D. It was really powerful to see Eddy and Ian Ivan, modern day Kaqchiqel Maya, naturally and spontaneously playing ball in the ballcourt of their ancestors.

We climbed back down the steep steps and explored more of Plaza A. Two temples sat opposite one another. Temple 2 faces the direction of the rising sun during the summer solstice. A square platform known as Itzompam (Skull Place) sits to its left. This was a place where sacrifial skulls were displayed.

Across the plaza was Temple 3. In between the two was a Mayan cross outlined in rocks. This was the same motif we have encountered in South America, known there as the chakana or Andean cross.

The site was gorgeous, with well manicured green grass and trees along the perimeter. The site was also vast; we couldn't believe that in 14 years of coming to Guatemala, we had never visited this historic place so close to Panajachel! Its sister ruins in Tikal get all of the press, and ared known as the archetypal Mayan ruins of Guatemala. Iximche is a very underrated site; it should be on the must-do list for anyone visiting the highlands.

Next, we explored Plaza B, consisting of a palace and audience court. The palace area is huge, with lots of long stone walls which are straight as an arrow. There is a small round platform in the plaza, and Ian Ivan climbed on top of it like a mountain goat.

Looking back toward Plaza A, there is a a structure with a huge beautiful tree growing on the top of it. It looks quite surreal.

We enjoyed wandering around. Craig was feeling good, too good at times. We had to remind him to take it slow when walking up the steep uneven steps. He does have MS after all! Paulina kept an eye on him and took his arm to stabilize him as he climbed. It was an overcast day, for which we were grateful. Craig felt unusually overheated for the conditions, so it would have been a nightmare if the tropical sun had been shining on us full force.

In Plaza C, there were landscapers mowing the grass. The noise wasn't even an annoyance; it was somehow meditative. It was great to see them taking such care of the site. It really was a magical place, and we almost had the place to ourselves.

Ian Ivan and Eddy continued to play using a large pine cone as a ball. Eddy threw the pinecone like a quarterback. He and Ian chased after it, collapsing onto the ground when they got there. Where do kids get so much energy? Ian had also brought his little wooden garbage truck, and he occasionally ran it along the stonework.

Temple 41 was mostly still obscured by the jungle. Stones protruded from the bright green moss which covered the mound, and trees were growing along the back side. The restored structures looked amazing, but there was definitely something romantic about this one which had not yet been reclaimed from the jungle after nearly 500 years of abandonment. It really drives home the fact that there could be so many other "undiscovered" Mayan ruins anywhere in Mesoamerica. Once the jungle overtakes them, you can't discern them with the naked eye. This is what makes technologies like LIDAR and drones so can visually strip away the vegetation to see what lies beneath.

Sometimes archaeologists will leave certain buildings unexcavated, waiting for the time when excavation technology is less invasive ane preservation techniques for artifacts are less damaging.

A ceremonial area sits at the eastern end of the plateau. There was an old stone structure which looked similar to some of the temples in Plaza A, except that it had not been restored. The stones were blackened from years of soot from ceremonial fires.

A fire similar to the one we had experienced last night was burning on a round stone platform. Candles were arranged in front of the stone structure, and slices of watermelon and other fruit were balanced on the rocks as offerings. A family was performing a ceremony, tending the fire and splashing it with alcohol. It is not polite to take photos of ceremonies without the participants' consent. We obviously didn't want to interrupt, so we refrained from taking photos.

We walked past the ceremonial site to the eastern edge of the plateau. We found ourselves looking out over a deep natural ravine. The jungle vegetation was so dense that we didn't have very good visibility, but Tyson enjoyed looking at all of the plants and trees surrounding us.

Some ceremonial ashes had apparently been disposed of at the edge of the ravine, and they were still smouldering. That seemed like a bad idea, with all of this vegetation around.

As we walked back, the ceremony was wrapping up. We spoke to one of the women, who had very long gray braids tied with pretty shiny ribbons. I got a photo of the ceremonial area once the ritual had concluded.

It started to sprinkle rain, and we wondered if we would have decent weather by the time we reached Antigua. We wandered around the site a bit more. Humberto was once again in search of fresh cherries, and threw small stones up into the trees to try to dislodge some. We saw another ballcourt in Plaza C, though this one was not as thoroughly restored as the one in Plaza A.

We had spent a little over two and a half hours at the site. Visiting Mayan sites like this is very powerful and spiritual. We were very glad to experience this with Tyson.

Humberto mentioned that George W. Bush had visited the site in 2007. Apparently locals were not pleased and performed weeks of cleansing ceremonies afterwards. D'oh!

We got back into the car and drove to our next destination: the colonial capital of La Antigua. It took just under two hours to get there, and of course we encountered the usual traffic at Chimaltenango. Craig started to not feel so well. All of a sudden he had no energy and his legs felt weak. He was still really overheated, despite the fact that the air conditioning was on, and there was no direct sun.

When we arrived in Antigua, Humberto wasn't sure where he could park the van. So he dropped Craig, Tyson, and me on 5th Avenue North, the most picturesque part of the city, so that we could take some photos and visit the historic La Merced church. We planned to meet the rest of the family at the Plaza Mayor (Parque Central) after they had found parking.

Antigua was founded by Spanish Conquistadors on March 10, 1543 as the third capital of Spanish colony of Guatemala. (Guatemala got its name from Mexican Nahuatl settlers, who called it Quauhtemallan meaning "forested land." This name was corrupted by the conquering Spaniards as "Guatemala.") La Antigua was the seat of Spanish rule for over 200 years. Earthquakes in 1773 and fears of volcanic eruptions prompted the capital to be moved from Antigua to Guatemala City.

The architecture is absolutely beautiful. The buildings are painted cheerful colors, and often have wrought iron balconies bedecked with flowers. Churches have ornate facades. Cobblestone roads are laid out as a grid.

We passed under the gorgeous Arco de Santa Catalina. This is a butter yellow arch dating back to the 1700's which connected Santa Catalina convent to a school across the street so that the nuns would not have to walk on the road with the masses. It is topped with an ornate clock tower which was added in the 1830's. The arch has come to be a symbol of Antigua. The bright colored buildings lining the street on either side of the arch add to the colonial charm of the area.

We kept our eyes out for Nim Pot, one of my favorite stores on the planet. This place is a treasure trove of Guatemalan handicrafts and souvenirs. Everything is available in different styles and colors, and the prices are quite reasonable. It is a fixed price store, and everything is clearly marked with a price. No bargaining, no stress. And the plentiful employees are truly there to help you. There is absolutely no sales pitch. It is a better place to do bulk souvenir shopping than in Panajachel, where prices tend to be marked up.

Craig thought he remembered where Nim Pot was, and he was right. On our way into the store, there were several of those boards where you stick your head through a hole for a photo op. I posed as the Quetzalteca aguardiente liquor girl, and Tyson posed as Rambo in an ad for fireworks and machine guns. Craig posed with a life-sized green, guitar-playing wooden skeleton.

The store is an enormous warehouse, with sections for woven textiles, wooden masks, religious statuary, ceramics from San Antonio Palopo, ceremonial costumes, etc. There was an entire section devoted to effigies of San Simon. We had purchased one here back in 2004, and Tyson bought one today. They also now sold a San Simon Shrine starter kit...a small drawstring bag containing a bottle of Quetzalteca aguardiente liquor, thin prayer candles, and a cigar. I bought this to bring home to our San Simon.

There were large kites hanging from the ceiling. These are used in Guatemalan Day of the Dead rituals. We had never seen one in real life before, so they were quite interesting to see.

Craig was having a difficult time. He was tired and his legs were weak. There was nowhere to sit, and you couldn't even lean against a wall lest you knock something down. Every square inch was packed with merchandise. We tried to finish up our shopping so that we could get him someplace more comfortable.

Nim Pot accepts U.S. dollars, but only in denominations of $10 or less. Looks like we would be using quetzales! We paid for our purchases and then continued down the street to La Merced. I had texted Humberto to tell him where we were. He told us to take our time; Eddy and Ian Ivan enjoying chasing the pigeons.

We continued further down 5th Avenue North to La Merced. This church has a distinctive elaborate yellow and white baroque facade. The church was originally built in 1546. It was damaged in earthquakes in 1717 and 1773, but has been restored and is still used to this day.

The interior architecture of the church is actually surprisingly simple when compared to the delicate decorations on the facade. However, the altar and the shrines tucked into various niches are gilded and really stand out among the white columns and dark wooden pews. The choir loft featured a small pipe organ in a dark wood cabinet. Craig and I joked that Rick Wakeman should do a concert here.

After touring the church, we headed toward the Plaza Mayor to meet up with the family. We passed underneath Arco de Santa Catalina again and were delighted to see a black Volkswagen Beetle painted in a Day of the Dead motif parked picturesquely in front of the arch. This car is owned by nearby restaurant Frida's, where Craig and I had actually eaten back in 2004.

As we walked, we passed by the ruins of the Santa Catalina convent. Behind chicken wire and metal bars, we saw floats depicting the stations of the cross which are used during Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions. We saw these in 2004 as well. This seems to be where they are kept in storage off-season.

We continued on to the Plaza Mayor, the central park of the city. There were many people here, but we quickly found the family sitting on a bench. There are many tourists here, and as gringos we are inevitably targets for everyone trying to sell souvenirs. We had bought everything we need at Nim Pot, so we just went on autopilot saying no to everyone who approached us. We showed Tyson the Fountain of the Mermaids. Four mermaids spout water from their nipples. The fountain dates back to 1739. It is supposedly inspired by the fountain of Neptune in Bologna, Italy, which contains similar imagery.

The sun was now out, and although that made for nice photos, it also meant that the weather was hot. There was also residual humidity in the air. We decided to take a rest. Craig was feeling very weak and overheated. Humberto led us to the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, across the street from the park. It dates back to 1558, and it was from here that the General Captaincy of Guatemala was governed in colonial times.

Today, the building serves as the headquarters of the Guatemala Institute of Tourism, the Antigua Tourism Association, National Police and the Sacatepquez Department government. We climbed a set of stairs and then sat on benches in a gorgeous arcade. It had a nice view of the park as well as the cathedral of San Jose.

While we cooled down and rested, Humberto asked if we had ever been inside the cathedral. Though we had seen its exterior many times, we had never been inside. He directed our attention to it and pointed out the ruins of large brick archways visible behind the present-day church. The cathedral was originally constructed in 1541. It suffered severe damage in the earthquake of 1773. A small part of the church was rebuilt and restored, but the ruins of its older incarnation stand behind it.

Humberto asked if we would like to see it. Despite Craig being tired, overheated, and weak, this was something new for us and we wanted to see as much as we could.

Recharged a bit, we left the arcade and headed to the cathedral. As we cut through the park, we noticed a hummingbird feeding on the flowering trees.

We entered the cathedral. It had very high vaulted ceilings, but its footprint was relatively small. The interior was white and consisted of columns and domes reminiscent of La Merced on a smaller scale. There was a gilded altar as well as a shrine to the sacred heart of Jesus. People were praying in a small chapel with a stained glass window depicting the Last Supper. There was a small pipe organ in the same style as the one in La Merced.

But the real attraction here was the ruins. We stepped out the rear doors of the church and entered a courtyard to our left. We found ourselves dwarfed by tall brick columns and archways. Some were intact, and others had parts which had broken off in the earthquake tremors. The domes which had once provided the ceiling were no longer there, which left large circular holes through which we could see the blue sky and white clouds. Stone carvings of angels are still visible at the tops of the columns. The late afternoon sunshine was gorgeous and the whole place was so picturesque.

In addition to what was still standing, there were also large pieces of columns, some still bearing their original paint and stone carvings, haphazardly laying on top of one another, presumably where the earthquake had toppled them nearly 250 years ago. Near such a debris pile, Tyson saw a hummigbird. He photographed it (captioning it "A jewel amongst the wreckage" on Facebook).

We wandered from one area of the ruined church to the next. Pigeons hid in various niches. Seeing just the skeleton of the original cathedral it became quite obvious that the original church was a labyrinth of small chapels and possibly courtyards. Vegetation was starting to reclaim some of the ruins. This reminded us of the Iximche ruins from this morning. But here, instead of trees and moss, it was flowering plants, shrubs, and grasses. Urban ruins can be reclaimed by nature as readily as rural ones. I was delighted to see some beautiful lantana (one of my favorite flowers, which we have encountered in many different countries).

A corrugated metal roof covered some of the earthquake rubble, to protect its painted detail from the elements. Aside from the smell of garlic and the sound of bar patrons emanating from an adjacent restaurant, we could have been at a rural archaeological site. We felt a million miles away from a bustling tourist city.

Conquistador Pedro de Alvarado (who had allied with the Kaqchiqel for a brief time during Iximche's heyday) had been interred at this church in 1568, but his remains disappeared after the earthquake.

When we had finished our exploration, Humberto went to get the van. The rest of us went down a set of stairs to reach the musty, spooky south crypt. There were several large empty dirt-floored chambers. The ceilings were arched. In one crypt chamber, light filtered into the gloom from a small rectangular hole. This hole led to the outside, on the staircase. We joked how spooky it would be if Craig reached his cane out the opening. People on the steps would think that something was grabbing them from the crypt below. We were getting punchy...we hadn't eaten since breakfast.

Top: Craig and Tyson in the South Crypt
Bottom: Staircase on the other side of the South Crypt's exterior wall

We really enjoyed getting to see this unique, historic site. We met up with Humberto at the van. Before heading back to Panajachel, we ate dinner at La Cuevita de los Urquizu, a restaurant famous for its local dishes. At the entrance, there are terra cotta pots filled with various meats, stews, and side dishes. We could pick one meat and two sides. Craig, Tyson, and I opted for subanik, a Kaqchiqel Mayan stew featuring chicken, pork, and beef in a slightly spicy red sauce.

After we ordered, they showed us to our table. The dining room was very cool. Originally a courtyard it had been covered with a roof made of translucent panels. There were brightly painted carved wooden masks on the wall, and there were many potted plants. It felt like an oasis. They delivered our food, served with our chosen two sides (I got double pasta salad) and a tamalito. Craig had a Moza beer, and I had an Orange Crush.

I couldn't pass up dessert when I saw flan was on the menu. Tyson, Paulina, and I each ordered one. The waiter came back and apologetically told us that there was only one portion left. We insisted that Tyson take it; he was the guest, after all! Paulina and I each ordered a dulce de leche. And we all enjoyed a cup of had been an exhausting but extremely satisfying day!

When dessert was served, we were a bit perplexed. Tyson's "flan" seemed kind of like a ladyfinger cake with some fruit inside as opposed to the custardy creme caramel I had been expecting. My "dulce de leche" was more like the latter. Sorry, Tyson! As we mentioned, things can get lost in translation. [It turns out that there are two types of flan, though I'm surprised that this restaurant uses the British nomenclature rather than the Larin American one!]

As we drove out of Antigua, we could see Volcan Fuego, which suffered a devastating eruption a month prior (June 3). At this time of night, there was no traffic. It got dark as we made good time getting back home to Panajachel. It was a wonderful day...Craig and I got to do two things we have never done in our 14 years of visiting Guatemala: exploring the Iximche ruins and exploring the San Jose ruins. It seemed to have taken everything out of Craig. He slept for most of the ride home. But this was the end of the planned excursions, and he had made it through!



Remains of a Kaqchiqel nobleman, found in a tomb behind Temple 2 in Plaza A, Iximche

Remains of a Kaqchiqel nobleman, found in a tomb behind Temple 2 in Plaza A, Iximche

Ballcourt in Plaza A, Iximche

Ballcourt in Plaza A, Iximche

Temple 2, Plaza A Iximche

Temple 2, Plaza A Iximche

Palace, Plaza B, Iximche

Palace, Plaza B, Iximche

Tyson at Temple 41, Iximche

Tyson at Temple 41, Iximche

Ceremonial area at the eastern end of the plateau, Iximche

Ceremonial area at the eastern end of the plateau, Iximche

La Merced, Antigua

La Merced, Antigua

Arco Santa Catalina

Arco Santa Catalina

VW Bug owned by Frida's restaurant in front of Arco Santa Catalina

VW Bug owned by Frida's restaurant in front of Arco Santa Catalina

5th Avenue North, Antigua

5th Avenue North, Antigua

San Jose Cathedral, with the ruins of the original cathedral visible in the background

San Jose Cathedral, with the ruins of the original cathedral visible in the background

San Jose Cathedral

San Jose Cathedral

Ruins of the San Jose Cathedral

Ruins of the San Jose Cathedral

Ruins of the San Jose Cathedral

Ruins of the San Jose Cathedral

Ruins of the San Jose Cathedral

Ruins of the San Jose Cathedral

Ruins of the San Jose Cathedral

Ruins of the San Jose Cathedral

Dinner at La Cuevita de los Urquizu: Paulina, Ian Ivan, Eddy, Tyson, Craig, and Humberto

Dinner at La Cuevita de los Urquizu: Paulina, Ian Ivan, Eddy, Tyson, Craig, and Humberto

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