San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

My Big Fat Guatemalan Wedding, and Other Mayan Adventures

I’ve seen a whole lot of weddings lately. I’m at that age, I’m told, when all your friends seem to be racing to get hitched. But the latest in my packed matrimonial datebook, August in Guatemala, was unlike any wedding I’ve been to.

It was a marriage of cultures: Gringos and guatemaltecos, salsa music and MC Hammer. It was also a mix of rain and hot Guatemalan sun, rum and tequila and … the memory seems to trail off a bit there. Moreover, there was this intense feeling of spirituality, and nature.

Outside the old colonial capital of Antigua, there lives a massive tree. It was underneath this tree – a towering ahuehuete fit for a brontosaurus to snack on – that Guatemalan Lissy González and U.S. expat Tobin Nelson got married. Dozens of family members and friends from both sides sat on folding chairs under the tree, the only entrance to which was an arched “doorway” trimmed out from the branches reaching all the way down to the ground.

Embracing a multicultural motif, the couple was to be married by Nelson’s Christian pastor alongside González’s Mayan aj’quij (spiritual guide or shaman). Rumors began to circulate, however, that the shaman would not be allowed to conduct his portion of the service inside the tree. The Maya man’s ceremony needed fire, and the tree’s owners feared he’d burn down their ahuehuete. The aj’quij would have to perform his ritual outside the sacred tree.

The Gods were not amused.

Very early into the lively pastor’s sermon, it thundered, and rain began to pour. The pastor raised his voice to overcome the sound of drops pounding on the old tree. Then a miracle happened: Despite the downpour, not a single droplet penetrated through the tree’s lush leaves to dampen the ceremony.

Coming to the close of the Christian portion, we became encouraged by a sense that the marriage would be long-lasting. The couple kissed, and we threw fistfuls of rice at them as they exited the tree temple.

“Faith,” by U.K. pop star George Michael, unexpectedly blared out from speakers over the dance floor as the guests filed out of the tree opening. As much as it seemed like an invitation to get the party started, this was a mere interlude leading from the tree period to the out-of-tree world of Maya: fire and flowers.

The guests gathered around the seated couple and the vividly clad shaman who stood  by them, uttering prayers and waving a handat the smoke rising from a small fire ring in the grass. Guests approached the flames and lit small candles from them, then lined up to greet and congratulate the newlyweds. We dropped the candles into the fire, which made a delightful crackle. The sound grew louder and was punctuated by a light drizzle.

Just when it seemed the enthralling Mayan ceremony was finished, it quickly became clear it was now flower time. We lined up once more, this time to pour white and yellow chrysanthemum petals, symbols of happiness and blessings, onto the newlyweds’ heads and shoulders.

Still outdoors but under tarps, the event went on into the evening with food and fun, drinking, dancing and schmoozing with seemingly well-to-do Guatemalans. It rained some more and the dance floor became slick, facilitating moonwalks when Michael Jackson tunes came on, as well as that sideways MC Hammer dance; Guatemalans and Gringos alike attempted the moves when “U Can’t Touch This” came on. They also jampacked the dance floor for the salsa hits.

The handsome goateed groom towered over his fine bride almost like the tree as they danced the night away.

Where to Now?

The most wonderful thing about a wedding in Guatemala is, well, that you get to go to Guatemala. It’s gushing with history and culture in all its Mayan glory, ready to be explored.

The main event was just outside one of Guatemala’s crown jewels, Antigua, a town whose charming colonial architecture and cobblestone streets transport you back to a medieval Spanish village. Antigua is lively, hopping with tourists and locals, and offers an unexpectedly wide array of international eateries.

There’s something awfully French about Antigua. Everywhere I turned there seemed to be bistros serving French fare, with Alliançe Française-sponsored events advertised on the walls. At times it was easier to find crepes and steak au poivre than a decent plate of local Guatemalan jocón (chicken in a green tomatillo-cilantro sauce).

Many of Antigua’s restaurants fuse different cuisines on their menus, with varying success. But Héctor Castro’s tiny unnamed restaurant on Calle Poniente, across from La Merced Church, is a cut above the rest. Call ahead (502-7832-9867), because the half dozen tables fill up fast at lunch and dinner in this hopping little establishment.

Between great meals, crafts market hopping is always fun. Get all your Christmas, Hanukkah, wedding and baby shower presents in Guatemala, and your family and friends will not be disappointed. The colorful tapestries, vibrant paintings of harvesting scenes and bright primary-color-painted masks are sure to go over well. Antigua has its own mercado, but the must-see shopping destination is Chichicastenango, in the El Quiché region. Be ready to bargain.

“Chichi” is nothing like its name suggests. It’s a humble village teeming with tourists and indigenous merchants selling their wares, crafts, jewelry and live chickens. After wending my way from stall to stall and buying a mask of a Maya warrior – for more money, I later learned, than I would have paid if I’d shopped around and bargained better – it was finally time to do the inevitable: go to church.

The SantoTomásChurch stands atop a hill overlooking the market. Incense burning at the doorway lends the site a mystical feel.

Once inside, a friendly tour guide wearing an official INGUAT (Guatemala’s tourism authority) badge approached my group of friends and offered us a tour, asking that we  pay at the end, and only the price we saw fit.

Intrigued by the church and relieved to find there was no bargaining necessary, I jumped at the opportunity.

Santo Tomás is a living vestige of a centuries-old, bicultural marriage of another sort.

While devout Catholics sit in the church’s pews to pray, Maya spiritual believers and shamans sit on the floor in the central aisle, setting up candles, flowers and liquor offerings, sometimes invoking a combination of ancient indigenous spirits and Catholic saints, the tour guide said. Many people pray to a corn god, he added; corn is the source of all humanity.

As interesting as the tour was, it left as many new questions as it had answered.

We paid the guide what we thought was a decent wage, but, in proper Chichi fashion, he bargained for more. In retrospect, he deserved it. His insights filled our thoughts throughout the trip and still do even in the holiday afterlife – perhaps the measure of a true guide.

On to Atitlán

Moving on from the world’s greatest bazaar, my clan and I put our trip into high gear, holiday style. Our bus wound down impeccably well-kept highways toward LakeAtitlán, considered the deepest lake in Central America and arguably the most beautiful.

We got in the first lancha (motorboat) we could find and waited eagerly to set out and ride across the deep blue lake to our hotel, Lomas de Tzununá ( A middle-aged couple of U.S. attorneys joined us and commenced to complain about many things, including having to pay higher “Gringo” prices for every volcano tour and boat they’d taken so far. Although charmed by Guatemala, apparently they had imagined something a little different for their vacation. This was a last-minute, improvised itinerary, they said, after initially having purchased a full package for Honduras. But that was just days before June 28, the day soldiers in that country raided the president’s home, forced him onto a plane in his pajamas and exiled him, sparking the region’s worst political crisis in years.

Though tensions remain high in the country across the Guatemalan border, violence has been limited and has not targeted tourists. Nevertheless, this couple refused to take any chances. They aren’t the only ones; tourism in Honduras has plummeted since the coup.

Ironically for that couple, however, it’s Guatemala that gets a lot of the travel warnings. The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala posts news on its Web site (guatemala.usembassy. gov) of attacks on tourists, two of which occurred a month before our trip, while hikers were visiting the Acatenango Volcano in Chimaltenango.

Crime or any other societal problem was far from my mind, however, as the lancha sped along clear LakeAtitlán, a vast body of blue water surrounded by three looming volcanoes in the Guatemalan highlands.

The boat pulled up to a few small docks before reaching ours. At first, all we saw was a sheer cliff and asked, “Where’s the hotel?” Somebody pointed a finger straight up.

There was our wood cabin, jutting out from the mountain wall above, its front deck and  windows overlooking what couldn’t be toofar from Heaven on Earth. There were only about 425 stairs for us to climb before we got there. After a few trips up and down the steep stairway, our calves and thighs ached through much of the remainder of our trip, but the view was well worth the climb.

However, there was only so much soaking up the view, kayaking and poolside chats we could take. Yearning for more of that magical Mayan stuff, we hopped on a lancha and headed to a tiny lakeside town, Santiago, home of the folk saint Maximón.

A young villager elected himself our tour guide and led us right to him. Tucked inside what appeared to be somebody’s living room was the famous icon – clad in colorful scarves, a tie and a cowboy hat, sometimes with a cigarette in its mouth – that honors the venerable Saint Simon. Some believe Maximón was a Catholic priest who looked after indigenous people in the 1600s. Guatemalans come from all around the lake to show their appreciation for this holiest of men, bringing offerings of liquor and cigarettes in exchange for a helping hand with marriage, money or health. It is said Maximón delivers.

Feeling content with our holy pilgrimage and slow stroll around Santiago, we returned to the lancha to head back to our cliff dwelling. The afternoon sun’s thick, orange-juice rays pierced through the white cloud puffs that invariably topped the volcanoes and spilled across the valley, their reflections glinting on the lake. It was one of the many moments that reminded me: Guatemala is bliss.


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