I usually pride myself on my independence, especially during travel, but my time in Guatemala has made me the most fearful, boring and unadventurous traveler I’ve ever been. All the obvious drawbacks aside, my sheepish ways on this trip have actually resulted some more fruitful travel experiences. Typically, I never spend money on tour guides if I can do it myself. However, what I gain in free exploration, I lose in well-researched information. My Spanish school offered this trip to the neighboring volcanic valleys of Zunil and Almolonga as a group excursion, and hired a government-approved tour guide to fill our experience with lively facts and insider history.
The town center of Zunil was our first stop, just a 20 minute drive outside Xela. The village lays comfortably inside a steep valley. Lush patch gardens lead the way toward the town center. We arrived here for three attractions, two of which were as normal as could be expected in this seemingly typical small town in Guatemala. The third was a whole different story.
Because the indigenous Mayans were accustomed to worshiping outside their temples, Spanish conquistadors had troublebringing the new and potential converts indoors for mass. The conquistadors resorted then to creating elaborate decorations on the face of the cathedrals throughout Guatemala. This particular cathedral was built in the 16th century.
Indigenous Women’s Weaving Cooperative, Zunil
Just a minute from the cathedral, we visited a women’s weaving cooperative. Centers like these host products crafted by various local women, giving indigenous women a simplified forum for making traditional weaving viable.
Altar of San Simon, also “Maximon,“ Zunil
Maximon, once a rebellious Mayan leader, evolved into sainthood after suffering defeat at the hand of the Spanish. He now takes the form of a life-size manequin dressed as a cowboy ganster. Bandana, cowboy hat, shades, alligator boots–the works. Locals come to share a smoke and a drink (poured down the doll’s throat) with the idol. There is a small altar of flowers and prayer candles in the center of the room, and a place out back for frying chicken–in a more sacrificial than KFC manner.
Just 10 minutes outside Zunil, the village of Almolonga sits on land thriving with natural “cumbras” (saunas) and “aguas calientes” (hot springs.) We found a privately owned bath house offering private rooms. Beside privacy, the benefit of one of these houses is the ability to personalize your bath temperature.
More about Zunil: