ANTIGUA, Guatemala—A carpet here, I learned, is made of flowers, vegetables, fruits and dyed sawdust, to cover the cobblestoned streets. Brilliantly colorful, ornately and meticulously patterned, from a distance it looks like a, well, carpet. But it’s transient, a thing of beauty crafted daily during Easter Week in Latin America’s most famous Easter celebration, crushed on by the faithful carrying floats weighing several tons of religious statues while bands play somber funeral dirges
I admired my favorites, made of everything from lilies, bougainvillea, bird of paradise, pineapples to squash. One showed fish made from flowers, plus an adorable blue sea where a shark carved from a watermelon threatened a ship made of another watermelon. Others had geometric designs, or birds, or religious symbols. I watched as locals lay or sat on the ground, using stencils to make the patterns just so. Some streets had one carpet after another. Some were finished moments before their destruction.
“It’s unity, community. The entire family participates, from the grandmother to small children. It’s like a party, and there’s food and drink friends who stop by and join in,” said the guide on my tour with Bella Guatemala Travel, a California tour operator. A family often makes the same design year after year.
Filled with small houses in peach, blue, yellow, pink and rust, flashes of magenta bougainvillea and purple jacaranda, fountain-filled interior courtyards and three volcanoes behind it, Antigua was a gem. This wasn’t a city with an Old Town: the whole city of 35,000 was the Old Town. A devastating earthquake in 1773 destroyed Antigua, it was mostly abandoned, and the capital was moved from here to Guatemala City, today an hour’s drive. People moved back in the mid-19th century, claiming houses as their own.
The vivid colors and craftsmanship of the flower carpets were mirrored in the textiles I saw everywhere, where Mayan women turned weaving and embroidery into high art. Stylized animals, flowers, humans and traditional symbols adorned floral-patterned blouses, and were often worn with striped rainbow-colored skirts, or vice-versa. A single color, or neutral like beige, was avoided at all costs.
Guatemala is over two-thirds Mayan: in fact, the country’s tagline is “the heart of the Maya world,” a slogan I spotted often. “Maya culture is alive in Guatemala. In Mexico, it’s very touristic,” a woman on my United flight told me, who lived in Guatemala until she was 15.
But Mayan kingdoms competed for centuries. “Over 20 Mayan groups have different languages, different textiles – I can recognize them by looking,” said my guide, Jose Antonio Gonzales, noting some villages had distinct patterns or color combos.
In a weaving co-operative of Mayan women in San Juan La Laguna, I watched the process in action. Here at Casa Flor Ixcaco, a young woman removed seeds from cotton fresh from a tree, beat the fluffy mass with coffee tree sticks until the fibers merged, pulled threads from the fibers, then deftly wove them on a backstrap loom. The loom is so-called because threads stretched from a strap attached to a horizontal bar across her lower back, to a second bar in front. Dyes came from natural materials, boiled for 12 hours—like dark green from the cinnamon plant, pink from ground avocado pit seeds and banana bark, red from the cochineal insect.
The highland village was one of 17 Mayan villages that ring Lake Atitlan, a giant blue crater lake formed after a volcano erupted 85,000 years ago. In the lake village of Santiago, we saw striking proof of how Mayan beliefs fused with Catholicism: Jesus on the cross had foliage growing from his head, and wore a flowered Mayan textile instead of a loincloth. The Maya were familiar with the cross – their sacred ceiba tree stood for the cross-shaped world tree, which unified the heavens, earth and underworld – and merged Jesus into their Corn God.
The view of three volcanoes across the lake from the botanic gardens at my hotel was so beautiful, it reminded me of Italy’s Amalfi Coast, one of my favorite spots on earth. Instead of Mt. Vesuvius, San Pedro, Toliman and Atitlan loomed, each about 10,000 feet high, often topped by clouds. Instead of the Villa Rufolo’s geometric-shaped garden in Ravello, the Hotel Atitlan had rambling paths lined by passion flowers, orchids, cup of gold, hibiscus, bougainvillea and many varieties of roses, fragrant jasmine arches, and thoughtfully-placed seating to drink in the sublime view.
A volcano and lake view, plus a topiary bird, were right outside my patio and floor-to-ceiling windows. But I wasn’t the only lucky one—every room at this hotel outside Panachel, plus the outdoor pool, rimmed with potted plants, had a mesmerizing volcano-facing view.
Jade was another example of superb Mayan craftsmanship. “Green jade was a sacred, creational material for the Maya. Of the five colors of jade in the world, we have all – from white to black to orange – but the Maya loved green, the color of water and so of life,” said Gonzalez, noting the jade trade was already flourishing several centuries BC. A funeral mask from the Late Classic period (600-900 AD), a necklace buried with the Maya king who made Tikal a major city in the third century, and a fish and monkey from the fifth century – all green jade—were splendid examples we admired at the Museo Nacional de Arqueologia y Etnologia in Guatemala City, when our tour began.
Modern jade jewelry shops abounded in Antigua. At a fascinating jade museum, we learned its history and where it’s found worldwide, and saw replicas of jade statues made by peoples in Mesoamerica. The museum and jade factory, where the stone is cut and polished, were at the main location of Jade Maya, a chain of shops founded by two American archeologists who found a jade quarry back in 1974.
Sharon McDonnell is a San Francisco travel writer who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.