Discover some of the world’s most inspiring settings… the many layered textures and colors of Guatemala, Panama and Ecuador are an artist’s heaven and a traveler’s dream. The people and the culture will weave their way into your heart as you explore the ruins of the early Maya and Inca civilizations and the small villages where the indigenous population live, speak, dress and practice their religion as they did hundreds of years ago. The markets, the feel of Spanish Colonial, and the colorful countryside will all make you want to return again and again.
We stay at the most unique, luxurious hotels and haciendas in Guatemala, Panama and Ecuador; and dine on the finest cuisine (including the “typical” indigenous fare); travel the country in first class motor coaches with the best drivers and guides (all connected by cell phone and radios); comfortable seats, lots of room and viewing windows are the order of the day. Visit the “must see” as well as private venues that are not seen or experienced by others.
A sampling of the highlights of our workshops and tours …
Colonial Antigua Guatemala
Antigua is among the world’s best-conserved colonial cities. From its colonial architecture to its beautiful surroundings, this town is considered one of the most beautiful in Central America. It is like stepping back into time over 300 years. Founded in 1543, Antigua was once the third most important Spanish colonies in the Americas, ruling over what are now Southern Mexico and all of Central America. More than 30 Monastic orders called Antigua home and built stunning monasteries, convents and cathedrals. Strolling the cobblestone streets, you will experience the local markets, quiet courtyards with ornate gardens and the sights and sounds of colonial Spain that permeate the atmosphere and recall splendors of ancient times.
Antigua offers something for all travel tastes. Colonial history that is always present combined with an array of cultural activities which include art galleries and exhibits, performing arts, birding, volcano climbing, Spanish classes, shopping, and fine dining are only a few things Antigua has to offer.
Antigua hosts the largest celebrations for Lent and Easter in the Western Hemisphere. The history of the processions dates back to the early 1500s and began with the arrival of Don Pedro de Alvarado from Spain. While many are attracted to the solemn religious fervor, others enjoy the hundreds of beautiful “alfombras” (sawdust carpets) that are made along the processional routes.
Antigua setting is majestic, nestled between three dramatic volcanoes: Agua, Fuego and Acatenango and offers the finest accommodations in Guatemala. Especially worth mentioning are the Palacio de Doña Leonor just a half block from the main square and the Casa Santo Domingo, a restored 15th century monastery.
Travel through the Guatemalan Highlands with its great mountain peaks, plateaus and valleys to Lake Atitlan, famous for its astounding natural beauty and colorful Maya villages. Simply arriving at Lake Atitlán is a 20-minute experience. We begin our decent of some 2000 feet with the lake in view. The three volcanoes that surround Lake Atitlán stand out like majestic guards over what Aldous Huxley called the “most beautiful lake in the world”. The word “atitĺán” is a Maya word that translates as “the place where the rainbow gets its colors”.
Arrival at Hotel Atitlán is magic. From the moment you walk into the lobby and see the indigenous artwork and colonial antiques you will feel the ambiance of the hotel and what is yet to come. Your room will have a spectacular view of the botanical gardens and the lake surrounded by mountains and volcanoes. Once you check in, you will never want to leave. The New York Times said, “There is only one truly sumptuous place to stay, the Hotel Atitlán, a fantasia of ornately maintained gardens, caged parrots, hand-carved furniture and gorgeous tile work”.
Hotel Atitlán is “home” for the Explore Guatemala Creative Workshops. With workshop facilities, “the Ranchito”, nestled in the lower gardens, on the water’s edge with magnificent views of the volcanoes, lake and Indian villages it is absolutely awe inspiring.
Boats will transport you to the surrounding Indian villages where artists abound; painters, potters, and women weavers famous for their intricate weaving and embroideries.
The Maya Ruins of Copán
The Maya Ruins of Copán, remnants of a great Maya city, are amongst the most beautiful, famous and best-preserved ruins in Central America. Dominated by impressive pre-Columbian art and prized for the carved stelae of ancient rulers, the unique sculptural monuments and the well-preserved hieroglyphics make Copán shine among the ruin sites of the Maya and are invaluable to the understanding of this lost civilization.
Located in the Rio Copan Valley of western Honduras, the ancient city of Copán was part of the once great civilization of the Maya. The city, known for its advancements in arts and astronomy, flourished during the 7th century and is representative today of what Athens was to the old world, the cradle of its civilization. Copán, a world heritage site, was the special place of the Maya world where art and astronomy flourished.
Couple the Maya Ruins of Copán with the renowned Hacienda San Lucas (video), high on a lush green mountain, overlooking the ruins, and you have an experience you will not soon forget.
Tikal is Guatemala’s most famous cultural and natural preserve and the largest excavated site in the American continent. This majestic archaeological gem comprises 222 square miles of jungle all around the ceremonial center.
Tikal remained a mystery for centuries, after being abruptly abandoned by the Maya over 1000 years ago and overgrown by a relentless jungle. Only a legend survived among the Indians of a lost city, where their ancestors had achieved a high cultural development. In 1848, the legend faded, giving way to an exciting era of discovery. The Maya created one of the most refined civilizations in the history of the world and Tikal is the legacy to this civilization, now declared by UNESCO as a Natural and Cultural Heritage of Humanity. When visiting Tikal, we stay at the beautiful Hotel Petén Esplendido.
Coffee Plantation, Tropical Plant and Flowers, Birding
A natural private reserve climbing the backside of Volcano Atitlan, Finca Los Tarrales is many thousands of acres of virgin forest. It is a working farm that produces coffee and tropical ornamental plants, which are harvested, packaged and shipped off to Guatemalan and European markets.
Los Tarrales Reserve is also an important area for conservation in Guatemala. It is home to several globally threatened and regional endemic bird species like Horned and Highland Guan, Azure-rumped Tanager, and Pink-headed Warbler.
The reserve is auto sustainable; costs for its conservation are covered from the income of its coffee and ornamental plant production and more recently, by providing tourism services. Over two hundred Maya Kaqchikel live, work, go to primary school, attend one of three churches, and eventually, are buried on the Finca premises.
Chichicastenango’s Maya Market
Chichicastenango lies on the crest of a mountaintop at an altitude of 6,500 feet and is home to what is surely the most colorful native market in Central America. The famous handicraft market of Chichicastenango draws not only the K’iche’ Maya of the surrounding region, but vendors from all over Guatemala, each hawking his or her products in a riotous cacophony of color, dialects and costumes. This town in the mountains of Quiche has been, since pre-Hispanic times, one of the largest trading centers in the Maya area.
Vendors begin setting up portable booths in the main plaza and adjacent streets of “Chichi” the night before and set-up continues in the early daylight hours. Outstanding among the items offered are textiles, particularly the women’s blouses. The manufacture of masks, used by dancers in traditional dances has also made this city famous for woodcarving.
Another major attraction in Chichicastenango is the 400-year old church of Santo Tomas, situated next to the market and built atop a Pre-Columbian temple platform. The steps originally leading to a temple of the pre-Hispanic Maya civilization remain venerated and shamans still use it for their rituals, burning incense and candles and, in special cases, a chicken for the gods. Each of the 18 stairs that lead up to the church stands for one month of the Mayan calendar year, which has 18 months of 20 days each.
Guatemala is a country known for its cultural and linguistic diversity. The culture, language and traditions still play an active and important role in the daily and ceremonial life of the indigenous people. One of its most obvious and important features is the art of weaving and the wearing of traditional clothing, especially among women. These textiles convey their history, their worldview and, most of all, their communal and regional identity. In recent decades, globalization, fashion and a more widespread use of pan-Maya styles are reflected in the new meanings that modern attire has taken on, transcending localities and regions. In Antigua, the greatest selection of textiles can be seen and purchased at Nim Pot.
Detailed studies of these textiles and their cultural context reveal incomparable riches. The Ixchel Museum of Indigenous Dress (Museo Ixchel del Traje Indígena), in Guatemala City, was founded to address the need to rescue indigenous culture within a society that was rapidly modernizing, often losing its traditions and identity. The museum’s work encompasses the acquisition, conservation and exhibition of indigenous clothing as well as extensive research and publication of findings. Few museums work with a subject as vital and changing, as well as a conservator of the indigenous culture of Guatemala. Textiles not only transmit their meaning through iconography, but often reflect a community’s economy, social organization, language, religion and customs. The Ixchel Museum of Indigenous Dress is a permanent tribute to a tradition that is more than 25 centuries old and that endures despite the rapid changes it has undergone in recent decades.
Otavalo Inca Market
The men and woman of Otavalo Valley are some of the most successful indigenous groups in Latin America. Known for their handicraft work, Otavalaños have found a way to blend their cultural heritage with the modern business world. Men are identified by their long ponytails, white calf-length pants, blue ponchos and, a felt hat. Women wear long layered skirts, white cotton blouses adorned with ornate embroidery, a hat, rows of beaded necklaces and bracelets, and a woven cloth tied over the shoulders to carry babies, or other items.
On Saturday mornings, the market begins early as local villagers arrive in town with fresh produce and animals to trade and sell. Early risers can see the trading of cattle, pigs, chickens, and guinea pigs between 6am-8am.
The produce market is in the center of town with an awe-inspiring collection of fresh fruits and vegetables that supply the villagers with their “groceries” for the week. There is the typical produce one might see in a supermarket but upon a closer look, you will see a variety of tropical fruits, corns and more than 50 types of potatoes from tiny ones the size of grapes to large ones, the size of a loaf of bread.
The handicraft market is known as being the largest handicraft market in South America. Visitors are able to bargain for carpets, blouses, vests, jackets, hammocks, ceramics, paintings, jewelry, hats, musical instruments as well as a variety of other locally made goods. Haggling is expected, and part of the fun, so never accept the original price offered.
Ecuadorian Textiles are world famous for their quality and history. The history of Ecuador’s textiles goes back to Spanish colonial days when land around Quito was granted to various people, including one Rodrigo de Salazar who had the grant at Otavalo. He set up a weaving workshop, using the Otavaleño Indians, already skilled weavers, as the workforce. Over the years, with imported new techniques and tools from Spain, the weavers at Otavalo supplied most of the textiles used throughout South America. The downside of this economic success was that the Otavaleños were sometimes forced to labor at the looms in a system called Obraje. Today the Otavaleños have diversified their techniques with techniques from Scotland, created the Otavaleño cashmere, and created a world-wide market for their textile products. You can see some of the techniques in the demonstrations at the Obraje Weaving Museum.
Otavaleños wear clothing distinctive to their area. Embroidered blouses, beaded necklaces and skirts for women, while men wear their long hair in braids and wear white trousers, ponchos and sandals.
Excavations in Ecuador have revealed pieces of pottery with the imprint of woven textile on them. It is apparent that yarn was spun on spindles and spun into cloth even during the time of the Incas. Textiles obviously were of great importance in Ecuador and have been since then.
During the colonial years, the Spanish established a Hacienda system throughout the Northern Sierras. The Spaniards would make land deals with local chieftains securing large land grants for themselves and requiring local residents to work as indentured servants. In exchange, the Hacienda owner would baptize the local people and provide them with shelter and protection.
Over the years, these pureblooded Spanish Hacienda owners were able to gain great wealth and power. As their wealth grew so did the Haciendas, many becoming elaborately decorated, furnished with incredible artwork, and adorned with elaborate gardens in order to provide the family with a private oasis.
Though the large land grants have now been broken up and much of the surrounding lands returned to the local people, many of the Haciendas themselves remain in the hands of the pureblooded Spanish descendants of the original owners. Many are still working farms however and in the last decades have enlarged their scope by opening their doors as inns. Offering a taste of Ecuadorian rural life, from simple to vastly wealthy, the haciendas have become a popular place to stay for many visitors to Ecuador’s Sierra. Brimming with hospitality, class, warmth and charm their colonial architecture, antique furnishings and history create a wonderfully unique atmosphere that will capture your imagination and offer a tranquil haven to relax in while enjoying the magnificent countryside. While in Ecuador we stay at the most impressive of these haciendas, Hacienda Cusin, Hacienda San Agustin de Callo, TermasPapallacta, and the Hacienda Alegria.
The crown jewel of the natural world, the Galapagos Islands are set along the equator, 600 miles off the west coast of South America in the crystal clear turquoise seas consisting of 13 major islands, 17 smaller islands and some 40 rocks that make up the archipelago all born from a fiery volcano deep in the Pacific Ocean. These islands have never been part of a continent and have only relatively recently been discovered by man and more recently had human inhabitants. In 1835, the English naturalist Charles Darwin visited the islands and discovered this “living laboratory” which inspired his writings on the Theory of Evolution. Many of the animals on the Galapagos Islands have developed into different species from their continental relatives, and because they have never experienced man as a predator, they show no fear of humans. We visit the islands on the magnificent cruise ship M/V Santa Cruz.