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Cloud Nine Tango over the Altiplano – Northern El Altiplano, Guatemela

Cloud Nine Tango Over The Altiplano: Meandering Up the Bucolic El Altiplano of Western Guatemala And Taking a Peek at Destinations Rhythmically Surnamed Tenango
Western Guatemala

Along western Guatemala, the Pan-American Highway slithers like a meek roller coaster track through the highlands collectively termed El Altiplano. Three main destinations lay ahead, all ending in “tenango”, a Mayan word suggesting a place abundant with something.

Strung together in my itinerary for having the same rhythmical last name may be a silly but acceptable reason. However, Huehuetenango is a main pit stop for road travelers to Mexico and the jumping-off point to the pilgrim-town of Chiantla. Personally, I’m making a pilgrimage to the home of Huehuetenango’s famous son, Guatemala’s greatest master painter Carlos Merida. Folksy Momostenango offers capsule-size essence of Guatemalan culture and farther down south is Quetzaltenango, the country’s second largest city.

The two-hour trip up Huehuetenango from Panajachel is a pleasure in itself, the winding road, half the stretch of which is the Pan-American Highway, offering breathtaking views of valleys dotted with semiarid and alpine vegetation, increasingly spoiled by bald brown blotches, and rudely interrupted by human settlements. Steep, cone-shaped volcanoes, partly covered by mist generate excitement.


View from El Mirador
View from El Mirador
Visibly a city not dedicated to tourism, its downtown has tight two-lane jammed streets with peddlers and hole-in-the-wall eateries. Shops sell mundane things, if my guess is right, imported from China. Sprightly delivery boys and peddlers take over the crowded scene as frenzied and vibrant as any Chinatown could be, minus the Chinese characters and savory smell. Rustic Spanish casas – with their signature terra cotta short-eave roofs, long narrow windows, thick walls spiced up by super lurid color combination, and old-fashioned naïve signages – make a poignant difference and hold a firm grip in defiance with the visual assault of modern mediocre buildings.

Rather it’s a feel-safe cozy provincial town.

The downtown plaza, more like a park for its tree clutter and garden setting is centrally furnished with an Andalusian fountain, a standard Spanish heritage feature. It’s an assembly point of giant cakes in playful pastels – the Cathedral, town hall, and Casa de Cultura. Pastel is incidentally Spanish for cake.

The neo-classical cathedral is just under a hundred years old after the earlier was toppled by an earthquake. Dignified and finished in pastel peach, it rubbed-off its color to the neighboring town hall.


Meandering 6,000 feet, the road pierces through green and tidy Chiantla with a leafy central plaza, Huehuetenango’s well-developed satellite pilgrim-town. Much the same way as eye-catching Huehuetenango with its pastel town hall, Chiantla’s has added a twist with its seaweed brown and green trimmings, in contrast to the nearby white colonial church.

The object of pilgrimage is the life-size Madonna-and-Child icon of Virgin of Candelaria carrying infant Jesus in their imperial embellishment of glittering silver repoussé, a legacy of the town’s silver mining enterprise.

One can view the images displayed from the altar’s retablo either distantly from the nave through the glass-covered center niche or up close and personal, within. Approaching the object of veneration is through an ascending gallery that skirts the sides of the apse. The gallery cuts through the side mid-section of the retablo into a tiny chamber where the images hold court. It is venerated in passing, if the line is long.

The ceiling is typical in the region, exposed trusses and roof underside planks in artisonado style.

El Mirador

The all-day tourist taxi driver I hired, increasingly becoming my tour guide was too gracious enough to inform me of a not-to-be-missed attraction. He insisted that we go up the viewing deck called El Mirador, a few more stretches of winding climb 9,500 feet up, offering a panoramic view from the Guatemalan range called Los Cuchumatanes over the southwestern highlands of Guatemala. It proved to be well worth the trip.

It would’ve been more satisfying if a pictograph directory were installed to help identify the volcanoes and peaks. The feisty Santa Maria and a gang of other volcanoes can be seen. The deck is marked by a sculpture of a 15-foot white Mayan pyramid with bronze peace doves in flight hovering over its top commemorating the recently concluded protracted civil war.

San Francisco Alto

On my way down, I dropped by San Francisco Alto, a steep busy native town, homogeneously Mayan with a lively market scene smacked at the very heart of the Plaza and engulfing practically all sides of the adjacent church.

San Francisco’s Town church is a predictable rustic Baroque. In modest Retablo style, the façade has column-pilasters flanking the niches containing saintly sculptures. An affinity with the austere and slender Yucatan churches is especially visible in its espadaña style belfry defining its frontispiece skyline. An overall squat profile and its heavy moldings give away its Guatemalan flavor. A mildly grimy white finish pleasantly enhances its antique appeal.

Probably too hungry for lunch, the caretaker-on-duty couldn’t spare a minute from shutting the doors at closing time. A quick peep didn’t register in my mind, failing to save the descriptions of the dark cavernous interior.

Altoans go for sorbet colors together with white, a combination of two or three should be enough as reflected in their town hall and the Plaza Kiosk. The town hall is a one-storey yummy mango and grapefruit sorbet structure with a wide arcade where peddlers are stationed. They use the hall’s walls as display stand for their merchandizes. The Kiosk is used for two functions – a laundry area complete with a concrete vat and spindled center fountain and a bandstand-balcony above.

Sorry Decision

Determined to abide by my itinerary, I was faced with the reality of a dwindling timeframe. My do-it-yourself exploration schedule was tight. Staring at the map, I realized the way to Momostenango was a wiggly third class road jeopardizing my travel time. I made the bitter decision to drop it off my list and headed southwards.


Along the way, Salcaja, famous for its homemade textiles, is relatively near to my target destination. I pulled over the cozy little busy town plaza.

Huehuetenango Cathedral
Huehuetenango Cathedral
Its town church is Central America’s oldest, established in 1524. Adjacent to the town hall is a church perfectly matching the size and color description given in a guide book as “small and white” but I couldn’t locate the “two beasts, two bunches of bananas, and bunches of grapes” gracing the façade as described. Further on, the book indicated that it’s being renovated. What’s shown is a relatively newly painted off-white, plain, bantam sized church closed on my arrival.


Quetzaltenango a.k.a. Xela is five minutes drive from the main highway if not for the heavily jammed road. A humongous marimba eye-opening sculpture, the musical instrument distinguishably Guatemalan original of western African progeny, welcomes visitors.

The intimidating success of this city rests on these 19th-century German settlers who established coffee plantations or fincas, which led to its prosperity.

It was once a capital of a rebellious nipped-in-the-bud breakaway region and locked in a fierce competition with Guatemala City as the seat of government.

This city displays unrecognizable hints of Andalusian architecture. Blossoming after the colonial period, the city’s showcase buildings can be classified as “Tropical 19th century Eclectic European”. Surrounding the main park is an array of financial institutions and museums.

The most important feature here is the restored centuries-old cathedral façade wall, the only remaining part of the original that didn’t succumb to the devastating earthquake of 1910. Profile wise, the retablo style façade is not comfortably pleasing, but detail wise, the intricate ataurique technique producing a one-inch high embossed plaster lacework on the surface is worth a quiet moment to reflect on. The new lackluster cathedral is offset a few meters behind.

There’s a market fair at the southeast corner waking up nightly, although some stalls are on full operation in the afternoon. Aisle after aisle of concessions stands offering all sorts of comfort food and snacks seek customers.

Overall, Quetzaltenango is a feel safe and less stressful city.

Its interesting aspect is its vivacious cemetery, with colorful ornately encrusted tombs. A collection of graves, rows and rows of them, some palatial and some stacked condominium style line-up in four directions as far as the eye can see. In neo classical style with a choice of Greek, Roman, or Egyptian while others are in neo-gothic. Some are finished with marble and stone, give testimony to the affluent inhabitants of this city in a bygone era. Although archaic pieces of real estate, they’re freshly painted and maintained, taken over by new occupants meriting a loving visit from their relatives who rehabilitate their abodes with vivid coats of paint and bedecking them with fresh bright flowers. Examining the more interesting designs of each tomb is enough to be preoccupied with than locating the local dignitaries entombed here.

A trip to the suburbs on the southeast is worth pursuing where my aim is the town of Almolonga with an interesting church and another in Zunil with a seriously magnificent one.


Almolonga is reached publicly through an open flatbed pickup offering an optimum 360-degree view of the trip, of which standing while holding to an armpit level rail is an only option.

This shantytown is unpretentiously humdrum, no incentives for a tourist to linger and gaze, nothing of those colors and styles. The alley leading to the church reeks of strong slaughterhouse stench where minute traces of blood are feasted by flies that it could have been used as an open-air butcher house and fish market earlier. At the end from where I got off five-minutes ago, the church is readily visible.

Worthy of a second look is its colonial church. The Baroque Retablo style façade with espadaña topping and absent belfry towers shows similarity in profile to Yucatan churches. Distinguishably Guatemalan, its thick profile is very much adaptable to an earthquake-prone location. The pilasters are unusually shaped like cookie cutouts or molded jellies. Its color scheme naughtily plays with white base and neon turquoise green trim and highlights.

Inside are predictably white stucco walls with somehow unusually covered ceiling, the only one of its kind. The nave has a series of super willowy wooden columns on each side. Its altar has gilded ornate retablo, but frugal in niche allotment.


At the farther end of a densely ramshackle settled winding road coming from Almolonga is Zunil, popular for its thermal baths.

The visible church dome juts out afar visibly situated on an elevated spot, surrounded by a forest of jerry-built houses that access to it can be challenging to find. True to the adage that sweeter things are harder to get, this is the highlight of my journey.

Accidentally or not, I might have in mind to save the best for last.

By luck, Zunil requires more than one visit for its unpredictable weather, its best strategy to engage visitors to return. After crossing the bridge from the bus stop, suddenly the weather took a turn for the worse. A wisp of cold current swooped down; swiftly the whole area was enmeshed in a thick mysterious mist that visibility was just a step away. It lingered on for about 30 minutes. My mood wasn’t upbeat after. It works! I might have to come back another time.

Zunil’s church is the finest that I’ve seen so far.

Chiantla's Object of Pilgrimage
Chiantla’s Object of Pilgrimage
It’s a highly embellished baroque expressing a rustic but sophisticated appeal. Possibly the quintessential classic Guatemalan church, its heavyset white façade was done in retablo style containing floral and vegetal ornamentation, done in ataurique technique, and interrupted by niches, solomonic column-pilasters, and a central clerestory window.

The top profile is flanked by belfry towers and an espadaña style centerpiece where the bells are housed. The towers show a hint of high Churiguerresque Mexican style of bluntly cornered clean-and-plain-surfaced base trunks, clearly deprived of growth hormones as compared to its towering northern Mexican cousins. Spires and finials complete the rich top outline.

The interior is typically stucco-white thick walls pierced by limited openings. Above are somber exposed trusses with roof planks underside.

Its most awesome feature is the highly ornate and gilded retablo style altar protected like a jewelry shop by ironwork on the line demarcating the apse from the nave. Niches alternated with portrait paintings make up the composition. Images on carvings and canvasses seemingly emit a sooty aura of antiquity.

Within the altar zone, an ornate silver cross stands in front of a dizzily carved hardwood ceremonial table and throne exploding with intricacies. Capping the apse is a wide cupola ceiling plainly painted with squiggles along the segmented seams and around its windows, nothing much to distract the attention from the centerpiece.

Complementary rainbow arched topped retablos finished in filthy gold leaf reeking with centuries-old grimy charm and elegance flank the nave.

Other curios are the forecourt fountain, the courtyard, and the convent.

The parish priest generously allowed the interior to be photographed especially when he realized I traveled thousands of miles away.

If Santiago Atitlan church’s statuary defines a new meaning to Christian iconography, here the images bring it to a different dimension. The bewitching garb of the saints is something to take note. One female idol with chinky eyes, probably a major player in the pantheon of Christian-Mayadom deities, sports glittering headband, cape, and big seductive glitzy earrings no modest saint would ever wear.
lcony above.

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