Lake Atitlán, Guatemala

Buying Trip April and May 2018

Thursday, April 26 – Xalapa

We said goodbye to Sandra, Edu, Aurora, Chris, and all five dogs and drove away at 10:00, headed for Xalapa. The time flew by as we listened to a most remarkable book: The Lost City of the Monkey God. It is a true story of an archeological expedition in Honduras, super well written by an National Geographic and New Yorker writer, a total page-turner of a story, gripping, fascinating, and filled with interesting and new information. Entertaining and educational!

We arrived at Gustavo’s studio about 3:00. His assistants, Artimeo and Constantino, unloaded the van and then we headed for his house. Gustavo lives in a little village called Zoncuantla, an area of narrow dirt roads through dense jungle foliage and a motley array of homes, from hippie-looking to larger homes with lawns or goats grazing in the front yard. The whole neighborhood has a homey feel, unpretentious, country, a jungle village. Gustavo’s home has a small, gorgeous, dense jungle in the front yard around a small yard, a large deck in front, then a big great room with rooms going off to the left (kitchen), the back (guest room and library), and the right (his large bedroom.) Overflowing bookshelves cover many walls, and art casually sits around, not “placed” exactly, just put there for a while, it seems, lots of it, interesting ceramics by him or others, a few paintings. The house is welcoming and interesting, not at all fancy. It feels like a big cottage.

In the neighborhood, about a year ago, a couple turned a former lumber treatment warehouse into a micro-brewery and restaurant, so we headed over. It’s a wonderful place, big, with art on the walls, super friendly couple. We enjoyed a home brewed stout, which I enjoyed, mild and flavorful. We love talking with Gustavo, sharing stories, hearing and sharing news of mutual friends.

Back home, Gustavo fixed us a yummy dinner of flavored rice and shrimp and salad.

Friday, April 27 – Xalapa

Gustavo fixed us an abundant breakfast of a scramble with trimmings. I stayed at his house to work, while he and Mayer went to the studio to make plans for the Gustavo show Mayer is curating at the Museum of Craft and Design in San Francisco in November.

For dinner, we all agreed to go back to the brewery. I was fantasizing all day about another stout. It was as good as I remembered, and our sandwiches and nachos were unusually delicious. We met several of Gustavo’s neighbors. Everyone loves that this wonderful place has opened in their little ‘hood!

Saturday, April 28 – Xalapa to Minatitlan

Gustavo went over to his studio early. Mayer and I had a leisurely morning and drove to our favorite little breakfast place on the road into this village for an amazing breakfast with about six courses for $6 usd each! Then we went to the studio and picked out about 40 “taller” pieces, designed by Gustavo but crated by his assistants. We are almost out of them at the gallery. – Gustavo will ship them to us so that his assistants can pack them later and we can get on our way.

We drove to Minatitlan, had dinner at VIPs, and stayed in the City Express Hotel there. You can live your whole life and never go to Minatitlan and never miss a thing. On Trip Advisor, when you click on “Things to Do” in Minatitlan, the category disappears. – But for us, it’s half way to San Cirstóbal and has a perfectly adequate City Express hotel.

Sunday, April 29 – San Cristóbal

The drive south from Minatitlan to Tuxtla is gorgeous with many rolling hills and small mountains, verdant with jungle foliage and many distant vistas. We saw a lot of replanting of trees, thousands of small trees – reforesting. 

This leg of the trip, we listened to Survivor Café by Liz Rosner, read by her too. It is extremely moving and keeps bringing tears to our eyes. It’s part history, part memoir, part personal stories, part essays – all beautifully blended, not only about the Holocaust in Germany, but the bomb in Japan, the genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda, and more.

We stopped for lunch at our customary stop, a seafood restaurant in an open palapa overlooking a huge wide place in the river, like a lake. My breaded fish filet was thick and moist, tender with the lightest crispy breading on the outside, really good! Our waiter was a fun kid, about twelve maybe, greatly enjoying his responsibility!

We arrived at Hacienda Don Juan on the outskirts of San Cris about 3:00. It is a genuinely old hacienda and feels old and historic. Our taxi driver into town informed us that the streets in Centro would be closed because Andrés Manuel López Obrador was speaking in town! Sure enough, there was a massive crowd in the jardin, mostly all indigenous with their beautiful round Maya faces, and we arrived as Obrador was speaking. Way back in the crowd, we joined everyone with the loud shouts of Viva! Viva! at the end of the talk. We bought an Obrador mug. We plan to vote for him on July 1. It was exciting to see him in person, if from afar.

Strolling along the Andador (one of three long and wide pedestrian streets with lots of crowds and lively happening action), we loved a father and two young boys, maybe 8 and 10, playing guitars and singing. The young boy can’t have been more than 8 and had an amazing, strong voice singing ranchero songs. Delightful. But someone needs to teach him to smile. We ate at a new food court, a yummy sandwich, and finished with my customary and obligatory coffee éclair from the OH LA LA bakery. We also bought almond croissants for breakfast. (I had been anticipating for days my perfect either coffee or rum éclair. It’s the perfect dessert: not too big. The pastry is slightly crispy, and you get a light, not too sweet frosting and the creamy, not too rich filling. It has everything. I love these éclairs!!!)

Monday, April 30 – San Cristóbal

The included breakfast is in the old hacienda dining room, rustic and old feeling, unpretentious. We always seem to get the table right next to the large old hearth with a beautiful little fire, which Mayer periodically stokes up. We decided on huevos moteleña, an oh! were they delicious, by far the best we’ve even had.

I got in an excellent day of work, finishing up myriad details for the Conference, while Mayer went to Amatenango to arrange everything with Esperanza Pérez, who makes our jaguars, and Albertina Pérez (not related), who makes the wonderful chickens, for later pick up.

We met Susan and Richard Neulist for dinner and lively conversation. We ate at COCOLICHE (Av. Cristobal Colon #3) where I ordered a curry dish that was sooo delicious but way too much. Mayer and I should have split one. We had no use for the leftovers, so we put them in plastic containers and gave them to the first begging couple we found. (There’s not too much of that in San Cristóbal.) They were very grateful.

Susan and Richard are spending about three months here. They mostly do yoga and meditate, read, and keep quiet. After dinner, we strolled and ended up at (guess where) OH LA LA, this time their larger place on the other Andador. We landed a table with loungy couches. I enjoyed another éclair while Richard regaled us with another story about his astonishing youth, that really should be written up! His uncle totally cheated him out of his share of a huge coffee plantation in Guatemala. His father was accused (and later acquitted) of murdering his step-mother.) The story, with all its details, is a page turner, and he’s a great story teller.

Tuesday, May 1 – San Cristobal

I had another long, very productive work day while Mayer visited the iron crosses guy, Guadalupe Hermosillo, to pick out more iron crosses and trees of life.

In town, we chose the Italian restaurant PACHAMAMA, near Casa de Pan on the Andador, on the recommendation of Clint, with whom we’ve been in close contact by e-mail. We’ll connect with him when we return from Guatemala. Right now, he’s still in the States.

Wednesday, May 2 – Santo Domingo Market

Mayer now knows very well the route to dive our big van to the Santo Domingo market so we can park super near the market. The amazing thing is that when we arrive at the block right next to the market, there is always a nice big parking spot just waiting for him. This time was no exception. There was our parking spot! It’s a miracle (or Mayer’s amazing parking karma). We buy big piles of stuff and then walk it back to the van and go back for more. We could not do this market without that parking spot!

It’s a dazzling market, no matter how many times we return. Now, we buy regularly from some of the same merchants. We buy our beaded bracelets from MICHELA. They are made in Guatemala, but for reasons no one can explain, they are less expensive here than if we buy them in Guatemala. Michela does not go to Guatemala; the vendors come and sell to her. She said people tell her they are less expensive here, but she cannot explain this. We bought more striped totes, table runners, and were pleased to find the embroidered panels with animals again. We had not seen them in recent years. I bought a spectacular cape-like piece from a sweet woman from Zinacatan. I can wear it to Pro Musica! Their work is so beautiful, and they wear these sumptuous pieces for their everyday wear. It’s heartwarming to see them all over the place in their native dress.

We are dismayed to see a huge amount of Guatemalan-looking purses and wallets and back packs, clearly made in China. In one, we found a label that actually said China. Of course they all tell you they are made in Zinacatan. So when we found that label, we asked the guy, and he said they buy the blanks in China and the women embroider them here. This is extremely unlikely. How could you embroider a hard surface like that? And there is no evidence of embroidery on the inside. – We later learned from our van driver that, since they built the huge, prison-looking customs facility that you have to drive through when returning from Guatemala, it is harder for Guatemalan artists to bring their items up to Mexico, and many fewer Guatemalan artists are doing this. Of course, a lot of the merchandise in the Santo Domingo market is made in Guatemala. Not all of it by any means, because the villages all around San Cristóbal do beautiful embroidery and weaving. Still, that may explain why the booth sellers have has to turn to a new source. SAD!!!

Near the market is a little store called SNA JOBI (a Tzozil word.) It is a collective of women who do extremely fine work, from many different villages, and the items in there are breathtakingly beautifully crafted. The difference in quality is obvious. A meticulously embroidered or woven blouse can cost from $65 to  $125 to $800 usd! A similar and still beautiful and well-made blouse in the market could sell for the equivalent of about $15 usd. It’s wonderful to see that this high quality is still being made. And they do a brisk business out of that collective.

After all our shopping, we walked to HOTEL BO, about which we had heard much! Wow, it is gorgeous. It’s about six years old, ultra modern with beautiful furnishings. Woven throughout are quiet, flat ponds with little bridges over them. (BO is the Tzozil word for water! And the restaurant there is called LUM, which means earth.) In the back is a huge garden filled with all the same flower, a red begonia. One huge garden of all the same plant, this red begonia, makes a stunning impression. It’s eye dazzling.

Our dinner there was super delicious: shrimp in peanut sauce and a salad of heirloom tomatoes and burned peach (!) with the perfect dressing.

We strolled the other Andador to the theater. There used to be an excellent play there about the history of Chiapas and Palenque. For years I’ve wanted to see it. But it is no more. Boo hoo.

Thursday, May 3 – Van to Antigua

The van was an hour late arriving, but they did phone to tell us. When it arrived, there are only three people in the van, including us! Always before, it has been crowded. The driver told us the reason they delayed is that they are timing our connection to the Guatemalan van that we switch to at the border, and they don’t want us to have to wait in the hot sun there.

The van stops in Comitan at a big, spacious, sunny breakfast place. Usually buffets are way too much to eat, but this one had novel items and was only $110 pesos, so we chose it.

At the border, where we have to show our passports and where we switch vans to a Guatemalan one, Mayer asked to ride in the front seat. The driver said, “I drive really fast, so are you going to be OK with that?” Well, he wasn’t just whistling Dixie! He was completely fearless, passing on curves, driving like a mad man, super fast. AND, we can’t believe how bad this highway is. It’s super rough and with big potholes everywhere, bumpy, with places where the pavement gives out altogether and we are on dirt or gravel. The combination of fast and bumpy made it a real adventure. But we could see that the driver was competent and sensible and secure with what he was doing. – At the end of the drive, he told Mayer, “You are an excellent copilot. You were totally calm the whole way, not the way some people freak out all the time.”

We arrived at our beautiful B&B, CHEZ DANIEL unpacked, and just an hour later, Erica arrived, having flown from Brussels to Guatemala City (30 minutes away), where the B&B had arranged a driver to pick her up.

We spent the evening talking a mile a minute catching up on stories, events, news, family members. Both her kids are doing so well. Eloise is 17, now living with a boyfriend whom Erica likes a lot. Both of them have good jobs at separate restaurants, but both are casting about for what they really want to do. Lou, who is ten, super charming, bright, loves school. He sent a painting and love letter for us with Erica.

Friday, May 4 – Antigua

Breakfast at the B&B is highest quality croissants and French baggets (Daniel is French), delicious fruit salad, and lively conversation with Daniel, who has now become a friend since this is the third time we’ve stayed here. He recalled a lot about us. Impressive.

Our ten-minute walk to Centro reminded me how much I love being in this beautiful town, with its wide streets and one-story buildings, big trees, cobblestone streets (rougher than the ones in San Miguel because they are not rounded; they have sharp edges), and majestic volcanoes surrounding it.

Our first destination was the bank to obtain Quetzals. The bureaucracy and waiting was insane, and more than an hour later, we emerged, but it was OK because it gave us a chance to talk, talk, talk. Erica’s boyfriend, Vincent, is an Assistant Director in the French film industry, has worked on impressive films, and knows everything and everyone in the industry there. He and Erica wrote a screenplay based on her mother’s book (which I ghost wrote) about assisting her husband’s elective death from Voluntarily Stopping Eating and Drinking (VSED). It’s getting very exciting because they have a producer who has agreed to produce the film, and they have just gotten word that the producer has found a serious backer. It’s looking really good!

We strolled and dipped into many stores. In the Chocolate Factory, a large open space built around a courtyard, there were several women with huipiles spread out on the ground. We stared combing through some of them with one of the woman, Marta, and were excited by what we were finding. We ended up spending a long time with her, probably more than an hour. We knew that we would see thousands more huipiles – they are everywhere, great mountains of them. But we reasoned that Marta had an excellent selection of historic ones from many different villages, was very knowledgeable, and that this was a calm, lovely environment to shop calmly (as opposed to markets where people are pestering you and won’t leave you alone.) Erica was buying some to wear and some to hang on her wall, Mayer, for the gallery. I also found a couple more for my wardrobe. Erica was sooo excited and amazed and thrilled. She’s a delight! – Marta was extremely grateful for the big sale, gave us each a gift. We took her information for the future. It was a warm wonderful time.

We wandered some more, to “the big store” where we sorted through more huipiles and “cortes” (huge long pieces of gorgeous, hand woven fabric that the women wrap around and wear as skirts.)

For dinner we headed to Monoloco for their legendary nachos, huge and filled with everything, one order plenty for three of us.

Back home, I had several hours of work to catch up on, all Conference details that are coming together well.

Saturday May 5 – Antigua

After a long, leisurely breakfast talking with Daniel, our host, we headed directly for the huge artist market where Mayer found wonderful antique slingshots (beautiful small sculptures) last time we were here. He headed directly for that booth and was not disappointed. Erica, too, loved sorting through them and selecting some for herself. She has the collecting bug big time, and it’s a thrill for Mayer. They are like kids in Disneyland together! I love the time to read my book! In the rest of the market, we found two small pieces of the old Guatemalan folk ceramics that we felt we could hand carry home. We’d so love to buy more of this beautiful old ceramics, but it’s just too hard to pack and carry.

A tuk tuk took us back to our B&B to drop off our purchases and waited to take us to our favorite restaurant on the square: CAFÉ CONDESSA, where both the quiche and the cheesecake sent us into orbit. It’s by far the best quiche I’ve ever had, and I head straight for it when I hit Antigua. We lounged for a time in the bookstore there. I never buy beautiful blank books, because they are so lovely, I never want to spoil them by using them for anything. But I lingered over one in which every page was beautiful handmade paper with flowers imbedded. I bought it, whether or not I ever find some special use for it. (One of my favorite quotes or passage from a novel on every page, beautifully handwritten? Nice idea, I’m sure will never make it to the top of my to do list.)

Sunday, May 6 – Antigua

Our cousin Richard is quite low key and hard to impress, but he was so moved by the chocolate babka at CANELA BAKERY that he actually wrote a five-star review about it on Trip Advisor, so we simply had to go there. We Ubered over there and did indeed enjoy both the babka and the owner, who opened the bakery about ten months ago after switching careers to being a bakery chef. Every meal with Erica is leisurely because of all the stories we all have to share. This time we got into Mayer’s and Erica’s relatives from the last several generations, where they are now, old family memories, and the person, Dale, who walked into our gallery and turned out to be related to Mayer, after they put the pieces of the stories together! (When Mayer’s grandmother was 70, she married Dale’s great grandfather, the happiest years of their lives for both of them. He was the only grandpa that Mayer knew. Later, when Dale and Sue came over for dinner, we found photos of Mayer’s (step) grandfather in Dale’s family photo album. Quite a thrill.)

Walking through a different section of town, we keep running into boutique hotels that we enter to see them, and they are all breathtaking, each with a distinctive look and beautiful décor. There must be dozens of them.

We had heard about the Convent of the Capuchinas nuns, so headed over there, and we were so happy we did. It is a huge complex that remains just the ruins with no furniture, but we could walk all over. One section had the tiny little rooms for each nun. There is a huge sanctuary, of course the requisite enormous courtyard. It was built in 1736, ordered by the King of Spain because there was a need for a convent that did not require a dowry for entrance, so that women from good but poor families could adopt the religious life. But the earthquake of 1773 damaged it so severely that the nuns abandoned it after only 37 years. It is so vast and monumental that this is hard to believe. Conservation and restoration work began in 1943.

With more wandering, Mayer found the two antique stores he’d been seeking. The main one is ARTE Y ESTILO, at Calle 4 Oriente #26, just down from the gas station (that looks so out of place among these beautiful low buildings.) He considered a stunning ceremonial dress embroidered in silk but in the end decided against it.

We wandered into yet another beautiful, tranquil boutique hotel and this time decided to sit down for a lemonade beside the fountain/pool covered with bougainvillea blossoms. It is the WELTON Hotel. The waiter started by bringing us a small complimentary daiquiri (mmmm was it good) and warm towels to wipe our hands. I had a tamarind drink. How leisurely and elegant!

In the jade museum, I love to take the mallet and hit the rock (thud, thud) and then hit the “rock” that is jade (ping, ping). The last imperial jade necklace sold at auction for 7+ million dollars. I did not see a single necklace in the show room that I could not live without.

After more strolling and shopping, we made our way to SANTO DOMINGO convent.

From previous journal:

Santo Domingo was built on eight city blocks given to the Dominicans by Spain in the early 1500s. It was destroyed in the 1776 earthquake and totally abandoned when Spain ordered the city to move in 1776. By the 1990s, it lay under 16 feet of dirt. The excavation and restoration is almost complete, and it is now a large complex of manicured gardens, huge old trees, cobbled walkways and plazas, containing elegant dining, hotel rooms, and museums. It’s a parrot preserve, so bright red macaws sit among the trees around the plazas, preening and observing life around them. The feel is more elegant and manicured than the town itself, but still retains the quiet beauty of history.

We had arranged to meet Gloria there. She is a dear friend of our cousin Richard Packard, who comes to Antiqua regularly to learn Spanish. Gloria was his first Spanish teacher, and they have remained friends. Richard wanted us to meet and generously treated us all to dinner! Gloria is super nice, is now studying to teach English. Her husband died seven years ago in a home accident when he touched a hot wire. So sad. Her daughter wants to be a doctor.

Our B&B host Daniel practically begged us to get massages from “the best masseuse I’ve ever had,” so back at CHEZ DANIEL, at 9:00, I had one of the best massages I’ve ever had. She was extraordinary, and a lovely person. Then she did Mayer!

Monday, May 7

Erica had arranged to receive her massage in the morning and Mayer and I needed the time to inventory and pack. Then we headed back to the market where we bought the slingshots to see the rest of it, and we discovered these super neat shoes we had not seen before, made of the colorful weavings. Erica and I each found two cool pairs.

We passed the ANTIGUA BREWING COMPANY with a sign that said, “Best Terrace in Antigua.” Erica and I had been seeking a rooftop experience, so we headed up there. It was a small funky rooftop, but the view did not disappoint at all. They had stout! I was able to order another one. It was good, but not at all as good as the one in Xalapa. And we ordered nachos and again, were not disappointed.

We were close to “the big store” (called Nim Pot), and Mayer and Erica couldn’t resist and started in again. It is vast piles of beautiful huipiles and cortes for stunningly low prices, and they went into a frenzy of picking out pieces. They were giggling and laughing and thrilled at what they were finding. I could not believe the size of the piles they were making, but they never intended to buy all that. They then went through their piles again to make a final selection. I got a kick out of watching their excitement while enjoying listening to my book!

Now we were really hungry. We got a tuk tuk to take us to the restaurant Mayer had researched, but it was closed so the nearest place was the Texas Bar B Que where we enjoyed barbequed ribs.

Tuesday, May 8 – Van to Panajachel

Erica moved our breakfast set up to the table outdoors, a much nicer setting indeed than the plain inside room. After a leisurely breakfast with more conversation with Daniel and Marie Elena, we boarded our van to Panajachel on Lake Atitlan. The other passengers were the requisite 20-somethings with their backpacks traveling all over, staying in hostels. One of them was a fire fighter for California and had stories to tell about fighting the recent Santa Rosa and Santa Barbara fires!

The first view of Lake Atitlan is always a thrill, it is so gorgeous. But today was a disappointment since it was very fogged in. We settled into our hotel, PLAYA LINDA, and then strolled the length of the main street, Santander, with its many stores with their fronts open to the street, more like booths. Our destination was the Circus Bar, a lively scene with a fabulous “Roland” salad and superb pizza. Two years ago when we ate there, we loved the music group playing there, and we were totally thrilled that they were playing there again that night. Hooray! Two acoustic guitar-playing singers with amazing guitar playing and a fabulous conga drummer played wonderful romantic ranchero-style music. I was in heaven, so happy we blundered into them again. The group is called Trove del Lago.

Wednesday, May 9 – Panajachel

Wow, big shopping day today. Mayer and Erica are indefatigable, and I hung in there with them the whole day, not even breaking out my book once!

After breakfast right on the waterfront at CAYUCA Restaurant, we headed directly for Pedro’s store. Pedro is this lovely Maya man from whom we buy custom made shirts, mantas, and fabrics. Erica was beside herself with excitement, trying on this and that and telling me what to try on. We each found some good items. Mayer picked out more shirts. Then, we went around the corner to his workshop where we picked out more fabrics and ordered more items. Pedro is a dear who seems to get a kick out of all our excitement. He has an excellent business designing clothes and making items for catalogues in Japan and I don’t know what all. He showed us an extraordinary coat he is making for a shop in Ireland.

We stopped for ice tea and a delicious piece of apple pie at DOS MUNDOS, and then headed for our next destination: the shop of Juana and Luis. We first met Juana in the little village of San Juan de la Laguna on the other side of the lake several years ago, where she introduced us to the collective of thirty-five women who make gorgeous weavings. Now, she runs their store on the main drag in Panajachel. We spent a couple hours or more in there, selecting scarves, garments, table runners, etc. for the gallery. Erica excitedly picked out items for herself and for gifts.

Of the thirty-five women in the collective, each enjoys a different aspect of the work. Some spin the cotton and silk into threads. Some wrap the threads for ikat, some do the dying, some do the weaving. The most beautiful fabric is half cotton, half silk. It is so soft and drapes beautifully. Some of the silk is domestic, some imported, but all the cotton is grown in Guatemala along the coast. The fabric they call “bamboo,” is not bamboo. That’s their code for fabric that is 60% silk and 40% cotton. All the dyes are natural. They use beets, jamaica, carrots, a variety of seeds, indigo, some bright yellow plant, on and on. They make all their own dyes. Luis told us that originally the medicine women wore white shirts. When they administered the various herbs for healing, they were bitter and sometimes the children would spit them out onto the white garments. They noticed that the color would not wash out. That is how they discovered the dyes. This is probably a legend, but a fun story.

After packing everything up and figuring out the bill, Mayer was not at all tired but still eager for his next adventure. We turned into a little side cul-de-sac, also lined with shops with their fronts open, like a big market, and Mayer took off with great deliberation for a certain shop. Two years ago, he met a woman in one shop who was wearing a spectacular huipile, woven extremely finely and with all silk embroidery. He had photographed it, and for two years has been showing it to people as an example of superb work, always slightly sorry that he did not buy it. The woman was in her shop and lo and behold, she still owned the huipile! She was delighted when Mayer showed her the picture. She said it was at home and she could return with it in ten minutes. Mayer was so thrilled to see it again, and this time, he bought it! Great thrill.

We spent some time bargaining with another woman for a few more pieces. We would so love to buy some of her old Guatemalan pottery, but it would be too hard for us to get it home. We already bought a couple small pieces and decided that’s all we could manage.

Dinner was at our beloved Japanese restaurant on a lovely garden with classical music playing and charming Japanese cook/host. We were surprised when she greeted us by saying, “Welcome back!” Impressed that she recognized and remembered us!


Galería Atotonilco
An unforgettable experience of México


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