Just before dawn, a solitary fisherman slips into his hand-hewn wood kayak and paddles across Guatemala's Lake Atitlan. Setting out from his home in the lakeside village of Santa Catarina Palopo, he readies his line and plunges it into the water. Soon he has caught more than two dozen glistening silvery fish. • As the sun climbs above the terraced hillsides it illuminates the slopes of three monumental volcanoes. It slowly rises high enough to drape the lake's western villages with golden light. The fisherman is alone on the lake and the only sound is his paddle slapping the water. • I call out from the shore and ask his name. "Lucas" he shouts back with enthusiasm. He comes to shore, shows me his haul and tells me he's from the Caqchiquel tribe. • I ask to take a picture. • "Cinco quetzales" (about 70 cents), he replies. I snap a shot and he holds out his hand. • "One more, please," I ask. • "Cinco quetzales mas," he says. • "No deal," I tell him, and he warns me the spirits will be angry with me. In the end, I give him Q10, he allows another photo and says I'm "buena gente" (good people). • Lucas turns and paddles for home as shorebirds chatter to greet the day. Soon this idyllic tranquility will give way to motorized lanchas that ferry residents and visitors between lakeside towns. But for the moment, this scene could be from a century ago.
Inside Antigua's walls
At a time when overseas travel has become astronomically expensive, Guatemala is an alluring alternative. It's an exotic place where the majority of the population remains Mayan, where raucous festivals and religious processions take over village streets, where one can truly get away from it all without spending a fortune on transportation, food or lodging.
Double rooms at comfortable courtyard hotels start at $30 a night and luxury lodgings cost about $100. A sumptuous dinner for two is $15 (add a pair of mojitos for $5), and flights from U.S. gateways, including Tampa, are as low as $399.
Most travelers' first destination is Antigua, about a 45-minute drive from Guatemala City's airport. A walled colonial village with cobblestone streets, crumbling colonial churches, and courtyard homes painted in earthy tones of terra cotta, yellow and ocher, Antigua could be mistaken for the set of a Latin American Truman Show.
Looming over Antigua is the almost perfectly conical Agua Volcano. To the west are the volcanoes of Acatenango and the simmering Fuego, which spews plumes of smoke into the air and sometimes propels tendrils of lava down its flanks, creating a luminous nighttime display.
During Holy Week and each Sunday during Lent, emotional processions of local inhabitants hoisting andas (wood platforms, some as long as 40 feet, with saints on top) move slowly through Antigua's streets.
The phenomenally heavy andas, some weighing well over a ton, are carried for hours by volunteers, sometimes men dressed in purple robes, and sometimes women, whose pain and strain is often palpable.
Ahead of the procession a man swings a vessel with burning incense, typically a metal coffee can with holes poked in it, perfuming the air with a pungent smoky-pine scent, while a small band of horn and flute players creates a mournful yet somehow uplifting soundtrack to match the earnestness and fervent passion of the moment.
Jesus and Mary aren't the only figures who take to Antigua's streets. On Dec. 7 each year, the Quema del Diablo (Burning of the Devil) is held in Antigua, right in front of an Esso gas station with a no-smoking sign. It's quintessential Guatemala where rules seem contradictory: You can't smoke but you can douse a 12-foot-tall satanic effigy with gasoline and set it ablaze.
As a marimba-and-brass band plays, thousands of people encircle the devil. At precisely 6 p.m., the crowd counts down as if it's New Year's Eve and the devil is torched. Flames shoot 30 feet skyward as nervous firefighters stand by with hoses at the ready.
In the nearby village of Ciudad Vieja, a week of festivities begins with a parade of local Maya dressed as devils, angels and animals on the afternoon of Dec. 7.
The following day, firecrackers and bombas shatter the morning's tranquility as fireworks launch like javelins into the sky — and sometimes shoot sideways scattering onlookers — while bombas explode with deafening reports.
Going to market
About an hour north of Lake Atitlan, the market town of Chichicastenango erupts in revelry for the annual Santo Tomas festival (Dec. 16-22). From morning until late at night, dozens of indigenous Maya in conquistador masks dance to a thumping beat in the colonial plaza as a marimba band plays at full tilt.
"Chichi," as travelers call it, is a highland town, some 6,660 feet above sea level. It has served as a crossroads and trade center since before the Spanish conquest in the early 1500s.
Though the December festival is a highlight there, the weekly Thursday and Sunday outdoor bazaars provide lively entertainment for travelers. Vendors come from miles around to sell brilliantly hued tapestries, fearsome wood masks, thick wool blankets, woven bedspreads and finely patterned embroidered blouses.
Before dawn, sellers trek down Chichi's narrow alleyways with long poles strapped to their backs and construct their stalls for the weekly bazaars. Many offer bargain prices early in the day, eager to make their first sale; prices plummet at the end of the day when artisans want to reduce their inventory.
But most goods are so affordable that they're a bargain any time of day. A set of six place mats with matching cloth napkins costs about $6; a handmade blanket is $20. Bargaining is expected, but do it gently.
Throughout Chichi's market you'll hear the constant clapping of hands, the sound of women patting cornmeal into tortillas, the Guatemalan staff of life. The Maya consider themselves the people of the corn, and visitors can watch white, yellow and blue cornmeal transformed into thick rounds on a circular wood-fired grill that looks like a steel drum.
What's most fascinating about Chichicastenango is the way the local Maya have adopted Christian rituals without giving up their heritage and tradition. In the Church of Santo Tomas, built in 1540, Mayan altars rest on the floor.
Incense fills the cavernous space as sunlight slants in through the southern windows, mystically illuminating shafts of smoke. Showing the Maya's love of color, the Christ figure in the church is draped with strings of flashing red, blue and yellow lights.
When a Mayan child is a year old, a shaman stands with him at an altar near the back of the church and determines his destiny.
"For us, destiny is very important," says guide Tomas Chitic Guarcas. "If it's determined that a child's destiny is agriculture, then he will cultivate the earth."
Asked why so many Maya readily adopted Catholicism, Tomas says: "It's a mystery." After a reflective pause he adds: "But this place was a Mayan temple before it ever was a church."
California freelance writer Michael Shapiro is the author of "A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk about Their Craft, Lives and Inspiration" (Traveler Tales, 2004).