Thursday, February 16th: Up at 5 am to prepare to leave for the airport for a 9 am flight to Mexico City. A four-hour lay over so Deborah, Liz, Michael and I have lunch at Chili’s in the airport – chicken frajitas and a split of Santa Rita Sauvignon Blanc 2015. Security went through my toiletry bag and took out a small nail file and nail clippers. The also took out a gum massager with a rubber tip wondering what it was and passed it around. I mimed that it was an instrument for cleaning out the ears. They let me through.
Adrienne was waiting at Tapachula Airport, the most westerly point of Mexico. We drove in truck and an SUV to the Guatemala border to pass through immigration. A tiny office up some stairs. Then a 40-minute drive over a road corrugated with speed bumps (tumulos) to arrive at our hotel – Hotel Virginia in Coatepeque.
A late dinner at La Rueda restaurant, where Deborah and I had dined the last time we were in Guatemala. I ordered California Steak rare (it came medium on a sizzling metal platter that cooked it even more) and salad. The highlight was the delicious grilled scallions. The wines: Chandon Extra Brut from Argentina, Montes Sauvignon Blanc 2015, Luis Felipe Edwards Sauvignon Blanc Reserva 2015 and Concho y Toro Sauvignon Blanc (N/V).
Grilled scallions at La Rueda
Our bedroom is right by the road (the Pan-American Highway) and the sound of traffic is loud, but, exhausted from travel, we slept very soundly.
Friday, February 17th: Breakfasted on a ham omelet, then our group drove to the first school that Grapes for Humanity funded in Coatepeque. Some 400 kids were assembled to greet us and we went amongst them. Much hugging. Then visited a couple of houses, shacks really with mud floors and no running water. A quick lunch back at the hotel (a tuna sandwich) and then changed before driving to the official opening of the high school in La Union.
Adrienne Rosen addressing the students at the school in Coatepeque
Deborah and I were here two years ago when only the ground floor had been built. Now the second storey was completed and today is the official opening – handing over the keys. The flags of Guatemala and Canada were paraded and Pastor Elverado Reyes blessed the school. There followed a lengthy list of speakers, Alfonso Juncko, the Mayor of Coatepeque, Manfil Castoñon de Leon, a Supervisor from the Ministry of Education, Adrienne Rosen (founder of Access Education Guatemala), Veronica Alvarez, the director of the school, Edna Barragán de Peña, President of Access Education in Guatemala (Acceso a la Educación para los niños), and her husband, Cesar, who donated the land. When Cesar came to say his thank-you for the Canadian contribution, the heavens suddenly opened and rain came crashing down on the roo,f which sounded like thunderous applause. Deborah and I were surprised when we were asked to unveil a plaque on the gymnasium wall that honoured Grapes for Humanity and us.
Window in Coatepeque
Returned to the hotel and at the pool Rabbi Elyse Goldstein lit the Shabbat candles and blessed the wine – Errazuriz Sauvignon Blanc 2015 and Misiones d Renzo Chardonnay Gran Reserva 2010. Dinner at Real Steak restaurant again. I ordered grilled chicken. The wines on the table: Lagar de Cervera Albarino 2013, Misiones de Rengo Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, Santa Carolina Chardonnay Reservado 2016, Trivento Tabu Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 and Dona Paula Pinot Noir 2014.
Saturday, February 18th: After breakfast we left for Xela (also known as Quetzaltenango) in the mountains, the second-largest city in Guatemala. Stopped for lunch at Xelapan bakery on the main square. Ordered a pizza though the pastries looked very inviting.
Then to Pana, a drive through dense fog at times. We’re booked into the Hotel Atitlán , where Deborah and I stayed last time we were in Guatemala. There was a big fancy wedding going on with a dinner tent in the garden below the pool and the hot tub. I caught up on this blog while the group drank prosecco and Chardonnay in the hot tub.
Calla lilies at Hotel Atitlán
Sunset over the volcano at Lake Atitlán
For dinner, black bean soup and breaded shrimp with French fries. The wines: Santa Rita Chardonnay Reserva 2015 and Canepa Carmenère Finisimo 2013. Then into the bar for a nightcap of Zacapa Sistema 23 Solera Gran Reserva Rum.
Sunday, February 19th: After breakfast we drove into Chichicastenango (named after the nettle plant that grows in abundance here) with our guide, the very knowledgeable Dina. Chichi, for short, is the spiritual capital of Guatemala where the Mayan bible, Popol Vuh, was written. The church of Santo Tomás has an altar that dates back to 1550. It stands at one end of the market – which, incidentally, is the largest open-air market in Central America; at the other end is the Calvary church.
Santo Tomás church
Market in Chichicastenango
Mask shop in Chichicastenango
We bought white and yellow chrysanthemums and white and yellow candles. In the Mayan culture white is the colour of protection of children and yellow, personal protection. Then we walked up to the cemetery for a “healing” by Shaman Don Juan. The ceremony involves the shaman first drawing on a cement platform a circle in sugar with a cross in the middle, each quadrant representing the spirits of earth, wind, water and fire. Around the circumference and the arms of the cross he placed a row of oak bark pressed with pine resin. He then placed the heads of the flowers around the circumference and sprinkled myrrh, wood splints, cinnamon, chocolate (originally the Mayan currency) and hypericum (St. John’s wort) inside. Then 13 fistfuls of oak chips as 13 in Mayan culture represents the 13 movements of the body.
Shaman Don Juan preparing the circle
He then set light to the wood and touched our heads and arms with the candles each of us had been given. He told us to kiss the candles which he then threw onto the fire, calling each of us by our names and telling us that we must concentrate on the fire and tell the spirits what we want. He then sprinkled flower water on a bunch of herbs and sprinkling our bodies he blessed each of us in turn. We all had to throw a bunch of wood chips that looked like raisins onto the fire.
Meanwhile at a neighbouring cement platform, two women were practicing some black magic, obviously putting a curse on someone by preparing exploding pepper cans and cutting the head off a dead cat which they threw on the fire, much to our horror.
Walked up a very steep hill to the Mayan Inn, where we had lunch (churrasco beef with avocado and tomato salad and flan for dessert) and a Gallo beer.
After lunch, visited the two churches. Dina explained that corn is sacred in the Mayan culture; the ancients believed that humans were created from corn after two unsuccessful attempts to create people out of mud or wood. Walked around the market before driving back to the hotel. I wrote up the blog while the group luxuriated in the hot tub with Mapu Sauvignon Blanc 2015 and double shots of Zacapa Sistema 23 Solera Gran Reserva Rum. For dinner we drove into Panajachel to dine at Hana Sushi, where I was introduced to Cabro Extra Beer.
Monday, February 20th: After breakfast, while the rest of the group took the boat to the artists’ village San Juan, Adrienne took Deborah and me zip-lining within walking distance of our hotel in the Reserva Naturel Atitlán. The walk up to the top of the mountain was worse than the Grouse Grind in Vancouver – because of the altitude. The elevation of the lake is 1562 meters above sea level and our guide Oscar says we climbed 300 meters from the lake level – although it felt much higher than that. We were joined by a mother and daughter from Portland, Oregon. There were seven lines all together, the longest ride being 70 seconds. Very exhilarating and scary at first. Magnificent views of the lake, the mountain and the town of Atitlán. Another thing off my bucket list.
Then we took a tuk-tuk (a three-wheeler, three-seater open vehicle) to the dock for the boat to Jaibalito to have lunch at Ven Acá.
While we waited for the rest of the party to join us, we consumed a bottle of Concho y Toro Casillero del Diablo Sauvignon Blanc 2016 with Adrienne’s friend Bill, an expat American who has built himself a magnificent house on the lake front.
The house that Bill built on Lake Atitlán
More of the same when the gang arrived. Lunched on fish tacos and ceviche. Took the boat back to Hotel Atitlán’s dock and Adrienne drove us to Antigua, where we checked in to Hotel Casa Santo Domingo, a former monastery with a wonderful art museum and Baroque furniture. The site, as big as a village, is owned by the family who own Gallo beer. A bath to ease aching muscles and no food tonight. Looking forward to a massage in the morning.
Found in the grounds of Santo Domingo
Tuesday, February 21st: We walked into the main square of Antigua to have breakfast at Café Barista – a fruit smoothie and a bun with avocado, tomato, cheese and ham. At 10 am Deborah and I went to the hotel’s spa. I had a four-hands massage for an hour. Then walked back into town to shop for gifts before sitting at the pool with a bottle of Undurraga Aliwen Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2015.
Cobbled street in Antigua
Dined in the hotel’s restaurant, a 7-course tasting menu. We began with a salad with nectarines, grilled red onions, mozarello bocconcini, cilantro, etc., etc. Then in quick succession, spicy tuna tataki; pumpkin cream and red bean soup; sautéed salmon; lemon sorbet; beef short rib; tenderloin medallion; and a mini pastry delicatessen. The wines: Cecchi La Mora Vermentino 2014 and Torres Gran Sangre de Toro Reserva 2012. (The first bottle was unfortunately corked, which caused great confusion among the wait staff as if wine had never been sent back before.)
Mini pastry delicatessen
Wednesday, February 22nd: Had breakfast in a small restaurant next to the hotel, 7 Caldos – fruit plate and coffee and orange juice. Then went into the market for last-minute purchases.
Breakfast at 7 Caldos
Everywhere we see images and carvings of San Simón with a cigar in his mouth, sometimes in a cowboy hat wearing dark glasses. An article in the Independent Travel Guide by Ted Campbell explained: “San Simón was a Spanish priest who lived in Zunil around 200 or 300 years ago. Despite being a womanizer and heavy drinker and smoker, he was beloved by the community, one reason being that he let anyone sleep in the church when they needed to. The Catholic Church excommunicated him for his bad behavior and he built his own church in the town. It became more popular than the other church, as was evident by the overflowing gifts of candles and flowers made to him every day.”
On the way back to the hotel to finish packing we dropped into the chocolate museum, which shows how chocolate is made. Lunched at Michos, where each dish on the menu is listed as coming with a glass of wine or a beer. The menu reads: “We encourage your daytime buzz. Non-alcoholic deduct Q5.” I ordered a prosciutto and Brie sandwich with a glass of Maipu Sauvignon Blanc 2015.
Back to the hotel to finish packing and then into the bus for the drive into Guatemala City. Checked in to the Radisson Hotel and walked over to the best wine store in the city – Vinoteca, 6ta Avenida, 12-73 Zona 10.
Best wine store in Guatemala City
Dinner at Flights, a wine and tapas restaurant operated by Vinoteca (4ta Avenida, 12-59 | Plaza Fontabella), where we sampled virtually everything on the menu with Montes Sauvignon Blanc 2015 and Montes Syrah 2013. For me, it was the best meal we had in Guatemala.
Carpaccio at Flights
Thursday, February 23rd: Packed up and took the hotel shuttle bus to the airport for our flight to Mexico City before boarding our flight to Toronto. An excellent adventure altogether.