Sensory Guatemala: Colour, Sound & Scent

bright textiles at market display the colours of Guatemala

Guatemala is such a treat for the senses. Pastel colonial buildings line the streets in Flores and Antigua. Vibrant textiles, brightly patterned traditional clothing and decorated buses present a swirl of colour. Markets and jungles are a cacophony of sounds and smells, and festivals bring even more sensory delights to the streets.

Ancient civilization meets jungle

I sat atop one of the Mayan pyramids at Tikal. I could see the grassy main plaza of the site, which had been cleared for visitors to access the ancient temples. I was awed by the scale of the pyramids and the vast area they populated as I noticed other temples peeking through the top of the jungle for miles around.  The tallest temples had massive stone steps leading to platforms or alcoves. The monuments were 1500 years old and had mystical names like “Temple of the Jaguar” and “El Mundo Perdido” (The Lost World).

I was intrigued by the human civilization that had once thrived there. The ancient people who designed and constructed such massive structures without modern machinery. The artists who adorned the temples with decorative carvings and the astronomers who created a complex calendar system based on precise monitoring of the sun and stars. The farmers who mastered the art of growing crops in inhospitable places so that their communities could grow and thrive.

Mayan temples and an anteater perched on the ruinsBut now, the lush green foliage of the rainforest was squeezing the formerly glorious city from all sides, fighting to reclaim its territory. The pyramids had been taken over by long-snouted anteaters roaming the ruins in search of tasty insects and screeching monkeys swinging brazenly up in the treetops. Brilliantly plumed birds surveyed their territories from above while snakes slithered and rattled unseen through the forest undergrowth. A new-old wild civilization was making a comeback.

Vivid markets

We visited two very different market towns during our trip, each fascinating in its own way. The first on in Chichicastenango was large and more geared towards tourists than locals. The colours of Guatemala converged in a brilliant swirl. Sellers called out to us in a mix of Spanish and English, enticing us to browse their selection of gorgeous weavings and pottery.
woman and child in traditional colourful costume in Guatemala

Deeper into the highlands in Solola, we witnessed a traditional market day. There was definitely some serious buying and selling going on. Vendors were offering everything from tomatoes, mangoes, and beans to brooms, tin pots, baskets, and second hand clothing. We found a spot to perch and take it all in.

Merchandise was spread out on tarps or tables, and transactions were negotiated politely and efficiently. A tiny woman dressed in traditional bright colours walked by carrying a massive cloth bundle on her head and a plump white clucking chicken under each arm.

A slight grey-haired man strained under the weight of a full-sized china cabinet roped to his back as he turned to trudge up a long, steep hill. He seemed impossibly strong for his size. Other men leaned on hay bales smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, presumably waiting for their wives to finish their shopping.

clay pots and colourful yarn at Chichicastenengo market in Guatemala

Antigua celebrations

We made a point of arriving in Antigua in time for the Palm Sunday procession, which included elaborate colourful decorations on the streets made from flower petals and dyed sawdust. On every corner, women sold lovely arrangements of dried palms and flowers out of baskets – so much prettier than the plain palms we use at home.

The parade itself was full of purple-robed men carrying crosses and statues, accompanied by brass bands playing slowly swaying music. Crowds lined the streets, and the more exuberant onlookers were sometimes inspired to join in the procession for a time. It was a stirring site against the backdrop of rainbow-washed buildings.

parade route and iron door handles

Trippy transport

We got pretty good at negotiating the system of brightly painted old school buses, which provide affordable and vibrant transportation. I love the way they’re decorated up front with everything from ribbons and beads to stuffed animals, crucifixes and DVDs hanging from chains,  glinting in the sun.

There is an assistant or porter on each bus who deftly tosses luggage, crates and bundles onto the roof rack and jams passengers through the doors. All as the bus continues moving. It’s an efficient procedure, with the bus rarely ever coming to a complete stop. Todos abordo!

line of colourful buses in Antigua, Guatemala

Even better than the buses themselves were the interesting characters we traveled with. There were adorable leathery-faced old men with straw cowboy hats and pleasantly plump women in floral skirts selling chiles, tortillas, papaya or plantain chips from baskets cradled on their hips. We saw brown-skinned young men in jeans and t-shirts, chatty schoolgirls in uniforms, and beautiful little children smiling shyly at us.

And yes, at times we were accompanied by passengers toting baskets of clucking chickens. When I recall my time in Guatemala, the gurgles and clucks of the hens will always be part of the soundtrack.

Have a colourful journey,

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