The Cuchumatanes, rising to a frosty 3837m just to the north of Huehuetenango, are the largest non-volcanic peaks in Central America, stretching from the Mexican border to the highlands of Alta Verapaz.
The mountain scenery is magnificent, ranging from wild, exposed craggy outcrops to lush, tranquil river valleys. The upper parts of the slopes are barren, scattered with boulders and shrivelled cypress trees, while the lower levels, by contrast, are richly fertile, cultivated with corn, coffee and some sugar. Between the peaks, in the deep-cut valleys, are hundreds of tiny villages, isolated by the enormity of the landscape.
It’s an immensely rewarding area, offering a rare glimpse of Maya life and some of the country’s finest fiestas and markets. The mountains are also ideal for hiking, particularly if you’ve had enough of struggling up volcanoes.
The most accessible of the villages is Todos Santos Cuchumatán, which is also one of the most fascinating – its horse-race fiesta on November 1 has to be the most outrageous in Guatemala. North of here a remote road leads to Barillas through some of the most compelling Maya settlements in Guatemala; deeply traditional San Mateo Ixtatán is probably the most interesting place on the way. A trip into this mountainous area reveals an exceptional wealth of Maya culture. In this world of jagged peaks and deep-cut valleys Spanish is definitely the second language, and women rigidly adhere to traditional costume, offering you an ideal opportunity to witness Maya life at close quarters, and perhaps undertake a hike or two.
This area had little to entice the Spanish, and they only exercised vague control, occasionally disrupting things with bouts of religious persecution. The people were, for the most part, left to maintain their old ways, and their traditions are still very much evident in the fiestas, costumes and folk Catholicism.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the violence and terror of the civil war sent thousands fleeing across the border to Mexico. Most families returned from exile in the 1990s, settling back to life in their old communities, but the cycle of emigration has repeated itself again in recent years, as thousands of young villagers have sought work in the US.Read More
Todos Santos Cuchumatán
Todos Santos Cuchumatán
West of La Ventosa, the road steadily descends and you’ll soon start to see the explosively coloured traditional costume of the Todosanteros.
Spectacularly sited in its own deep-cut river valley, the small town of TODOS SANTOS CUCHUMATÁN is strung out along an elongated main street plotted with some venerable old wooden houses. It’s a pretty settlement, with a small plaza and a colonial-style whitewashed church, but the village is totally overwhelmed by the looming presence of the Cuchumatanes mountains which insulate Todos Santos from the rest of the world.
The depth of tradition evident here is startling. Men fill the streets with colour in their red-and-white-striped trousers, black woollen breeches, brilliantly embroidered shirt collars and natty straw hats; women wear dark blue cortes and superbly intricate purple huipiles. Todos Santos is one of the few places where people still use the 260-day Tzolkin calendar which dates back to ancient times. Highland traditions and the epic surroundings have long captivated visitors, and photographers in particular, though you should be wary of taking pictures of people – particularly children. In this isolated community rumours persist that some foreigners steal babies.
Todos Santos is a great place to simply hang out but it would be a shame not to try a traditional sauna (chuc) while you’re here – most guesthouses will prepare one for you. Note that Todos Santos has declared itself a dry town, so no alcohol is sold (except during the fiesta); Casa Familiar guests are exempt.
All Saints fiesta
All Saints fiesta
One spectacular annual event, which brings emigrants home from as far away as Canada, is the famous November 1 fiesta for All Saints (todos santos). For three days the village is taken over by unrestrained drinking, dance and marimba music. The festival starts with an all-day horse race, which begins as a massive stampede, as riders tear up the course, thrashing their horses, capes flowing behind them. At either end of the run they take a drink before burning back again. As the day wears on some riders retire, collapse, or tie themselves on their mounts, leaving only the toughest to continue.
On the second day, The Day of the Dead, the action moves to the cemetery, with marimba bands and drink stalls setting up amongst the graves for a day of intense ritual that combines grief and celebration. By the end of the fiesta, the streets are littered with collapsed villagers and the jail packed with brawlers
Organized trips to the Todos Santos fiesta are offered by tour agencies in Quetzaltenango and Lago de Atitlán.
The Maya priests of the Cuchumatanes
The Maya priests of the Cuchumatanes
Ethnographer Krystyna Deuss, author of Shamans, Witches, and Maya Priests: Native Religion and Ritual in Highland Guatemala, has been studying traditions in remote Cuchumatanes communities for decades, focusing her attention on the prayersayers, who occupy a position parallel to that of local priests. Here she explains their role and the key rituals.
Some of the purest Maya rituals remaining are found among the Q’anjob’al Maya of northwestern Cuchumatanes. The office of alcalde resador (chief prayersayer) still exists here and the 365-day Haab calendar is used in conjunction with the 260-day Tzolkin. The former ends with the five days of Oyeb’ ku’, when adult souls leave the body; the return of the souls on the fifth day brings in the new year. As this always falls on a day of Watan, Lambat, Ben or Chinax, these four-day lords are known as the “Year Bearers” or “Chiefs”. The Haab year begins either at the end of February or the beginning of March, coinciding with the corn-planting season.
Prayersayer duties and traditions
The duty of the prayersayer is to protect his village from evil and ensure a good harvest by praying for rain at planting time and for protection against wind, pests and disease while the corn is maturing. He’s usually a man in his 60s or 70s, and his year of office – during which he and his wife must remain celibate – begins on January 1.
In Santa Eulalia, Soloma and San Miguel Acatán, where traditions are particularly strong, he lives in a purpose-built prayermakers’ house. Here he’s visited by traditionalists and left gifts of corn, beans, candles and money.
On the altar of the house stands the ordenanza, a chest that contains religious icons and ancient village documents. This chest serves as a symbol of authority and as a sacred object, and can only be opened by the alcalde resador, in private, once a year.
The resador’s whole day is spent in prayer: at his home altar before the ordenanza, in church and at sacred sites marked by crosses. Prayers for rain are often accompanied by the ritual sacrifice of turkeys, whose blood is poured over candles and incense, which is then burned at the sacred places the following day. These ceremonies are not open to the public.
New Year rituals
Festivals more in the public domain happen on January 1 when the incumbent alcalde resador hands over his responsibilities to his successor. In Soloma, after an all-night vigil, the ordenanza is carried in procession to the middle of the market square and put on a makeshift altar under a pine arch. When the incoming group arrives there are prayers and ritual drinking, and they receive their wooden staffs of office; after this, the outgoing alcalde resador is free to leave for his own home. The new prayersayer’s group stays in the marketplace, collecting alms and drinking until 3pm, when they carry the ordenanza back to the official residence in a somewhat erratic procession. Notwithstanding a further night of vigil and ceremonial drinking, at 7am the following morning the alcalde resador sets out on his first prayer-round to the sacred mountains overlooking the town.
In San Juan Ixcoy the year-end ceremonies differ in that the new resador is not appointed in advance. Here the outgoing group carries the ordenanza to a small chapel on the night of the 31st and leaves it in the care of a committee of traditionalists. The usual all-night vigil with prayers, ritual drinking and collecting alms continues throughout the following day while everyone waits anxiously for a candidate to turn up. As the office of resador is not only arduous but also expensive, the post is not always filled. The ordenanza sometimes stays locked in the chapel for several days before a volunteer takes on the office again rather than let the ordenanza and the tradition be abandoned.
– Krystyna Deuss, the Guatemalan Maya Centre, London (w maya.org.uk)