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Huehuetenango is located within region 7 or Northwest, along the ridges of the Sierra de Los Cuchamatanes, the highest mountain chain of Central America, with altitudes that reach up to 4000 m.
Huehuetenango is one of the country’s largest departments of Guatemala, and has the largest amount of municipal districts in the country, 32. It´s capital, Huehuetenango City, is 269 kilometer from Guatemala City.
Due to its size and varying altitudes, it has a varying climate that ranges from deep cold to hot and humid. Several rivers originate here like the rivers Selegua, Cuilco, Chixoy and Salinas.
A large number of its inhabitants are of Mayan descent, mainly Mam, although they share the territory with Chuje, Kanjobal and Jacalteca, which is why many dialects are spoken along the territory: mam, q’anjob’al, chuj, popti’, chalchiteko, awakateko, akateko, tektiteko, k’iche’ and Spanish.
The main difference among the people of the 32 municipal lies in how they dress. People are generally farmers, shepherds or artisans who manufacture textiles, guitars, fireworks, pottery and baskets, and sugar cane. Their main religion is the ancient Mayan religion and with some Christian elements.
During the Classic period (250-900 A.D.), Huehuetenango was part of the Mam Kingdom, which ruled most of the western highlands until the Quichés forced them out in 1525. This region has a background of liberalism and rebellion. It proclaimed its independence before it became an official matter, took part in the 1870 uprisings and contributed to the dictatorship of then president Manuel Estrada Cabrera.
Huehuetenango was first created as a department of “The Heights State” and it remained like that from 1839 to 1877 when it became an independent department as it is now days. Huehuetenango means city of old people or city of the trees, but before the Spanish conquest it went by the name Xinabajul that in mam means city among ravines. The name was changed by the Tlaxcaltecas, Mexican natives that accompanied the Spanish during the conquest.
Places to visit in Huehuetenango:
City of Huehuetenango
The city is situated at the base of the Cuchumatanes Mountains, at 1902 m altitude and 90 km (2 h) from Quetzaltenango and 266 km (5 h) from Guatemala City. It is the closest town to La Mesilla - borderline checkpoint between Mexico and Guatemala. Huehuetenango’s population is primarily a crossbreed or mestizo. The most important place is the central park, which is surrounded by the City Hall buildings, the colonial church and several neo-classical buildings. At the plaza one can find a relief map of the whole department, which measures almost 30 sq. m.
It´s beautiful market opens daily, and it is filled by traders from the surrounding towns from the Cuchumatanes villages. It is the one place where you will get to admire the colorful traditional costumes. On other places, the town inhabitants wear modern clothing.
This archaeological site is located 5 min away from Huehuetenango city. Zaculeu means White Land, and it used to be the capital city of the Mam Kingdom. It consists of a series of plazas, stepped pyramids, temples and the ballgame court. Today we know that this once flourishing Maya town kept close commercial contact with Nebaj and Kaminal Juyú. Its artisans used to carve small Jade figurines.
Zaculeu was a religious center during the Late Post Classic period. It occupies a strategic location since it is surrounded on three of its sides by natural barriers, such as rivers and ravines.
After the downfall of Tecún Umán in Quetzaltenango, Pedro de Alvarado sent his brother Gonzalo to calm the war wishes. He laid siege to the posts for 4 months, until which time they surrendered due to famine.
Here you can easily see the Mexican influence in the buildings. Unlike other Mayan sites, like those on Petén, buildings here are low, flat, without any relieves or decorations. This is due to the recovery work done at the site. The method for recovery was not accurate according to its original building procedures. But unlike other sites, where you will find ruddy bare stone buildings, you will find perfectly tidy rebuild temples, covered with plaster; so one can have a better idea of how things worked during its glory days, when this now bare white buildings were most likely covered with colorful Mayan frescos. It is permitted to climb the restored buildings, but not the grassy mounds that have not been worked with.
There is a small museum where pottery pieces and skeletal remains are shown. It is open from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
This pilgrimage center is located about 8 km (10 min) from Huehuetenango. A beautiful silver statue of the Candelaria Virgin dressed in fine filigree can be found in its church. This virgin effigy was made between 1560 and 1580. The church itself dates back to the beginning of the 17th century. People also visit the town to witness it´s live presentations of the passion of Christ during Passover.
You can find several handicraft shops selling and manufacturing copper objects. It is one of the few places in Guatemala where bronze handicraft is made
Juan Diéguez Olaverri Mirador
12 km from Chiantla, taking the 9N highway, you will find this beautiful spot and understand why the poet Juan Diéguez Olaverri got his inspiration here. His verses are actually carved into stones in the surroundings.
On a clear and sunny day one can see the farthest peaks of the mountain range as well as the Tacaná, Tajumulco, Santa María, Atitlán and other volcanoes.
Origin of the San Juan River
The river is born in Aguacatán, 24 km from Huehuetenango, at the base of the Cuchumatanes Mounts and goes through several other municipal districts. It has extremely cold water and has several facilities for recreational activities.
San Mateo Ixtatán
Since the pre-Hispanic period, this Chuj village is an important commercial center due to its salt mines. Locals worship nature and consider the sun as their father and the Moon as their mother. This is why the huipiles worn by women have red solar figures embroidered on the fabric.
Todos Santos Cuchumatan
This Maya-Mam village sits on top of the Cuchumatanes range, 50 km from Huehuetenango. Its inhabitants still use the 260-day Mayan calendar.
The local fair is held from October 23 to November 3rd. This is a very special celebration and among the main events are the horse races where the participants wear colorful ribbons.
The celebration begins with a ceremony at the cemetery, where the elders and the cofrades or brotherhood leaders invoke the souls of the dead. On October 31st, they serenade their loved ones who have passed away, offering them food and flowers. That same evening, horsemen prepare for the “Skack Koyl” (wild horse race), dancing and drinking alcoholic beverages. The competition takes place on November 1st, when some of the horsemen literally fall from their horses. The feast is followed by the music and the staging of the Danza de la Conquista dance. On November 2, day of the dead, they say farewell to their ancestors.
Here the visitor can acquire fabrics woven by the town’s women.
Capital of the municipal district of San Pedro Soloma. It is 60 km from Huehuetenango and 330 km from the city of Guatemala. According to historians, Soloma was founded around 1559 by order of Alonso Zurita, then Judge of the Royal Court (Oidor de la Real Audiencia). Four Mayan settlements were united into a bigger one.
The town’s name comes from the Q’anjobal word TZ’ULUMA’ which means “Tree that grows abundantly at the edge of the water”. Soloma used to be a swampy area where a lot of lagoons were found. The Chuj settled here on an ancient lake. This is the reason why some experts say that Soloma means “Water Head”, derived from the expressions Solom = Head and a = water, also from the Q’anjobal language.
Women wear pristine-white huipiles with colorful circular motifs embroidered on the fabric. The headpiece is a white cloth with the same embroidery that according to their beliefs keeps them from evil.
At the Huehuetenango department, you can also find other touristic attractions, such as The Blue River (Río Azul) located at the Huista region, the Magdalena and Yolnabaj lagoons at Nentón; as well as the Cuchumatanes mountain range.
Just as it has as a linguistic wealth, Huehuetenango also has a variety of regional costumes, where the ones from Colotenengo, Ixtahuacán and Santiago Chimaltenango are considered to be among the prettier, for the women, and those from Todos Santos Cuchumatán and San Juan Atitán, for the men.
At the market place of these towns people can acquire huipiles, wraps (fajas), skirts (cortes), shirts, haversacks (morrales) and napkins.
On 2008, on collaboration with Rainforest Alliance, a Non-Government Organization, eleven private land owners registered 1,247.6 acres of forest as voluntary reserves, where trees and local fauna is preserved. This proved to be a very important step towards preserving biodiversity, since Huehuetenango has 7 “life zones” closely related to the altitude and weather zones of the territory.
Folkloric Dances of Huehuetenango
Around the XVI century, Spanish Catholic missionaries introduced the Moors and Christian dances that depicted the war, in Spain, against the Moors (Muslims) occupation of the territory. Dances that are still popular in some Spanish regions but differ from those in Guatemala in folklore and the attractiveness of color. The dance is performed only by men, who wear colorful costumes adorned with golden lace and tiny mirrors sewed to the fabric. Mask depicting characters, and animals; and hats with feathers of other paraphernalia.
As with many other Catholic teachings, locals gave the custom its own twist, introducing local animals, in addition to bulls and horses that were of European origin; and mask of the Conqueror such as Don Pedro de Alvarado and others.
The following is a list of the dances according to the places where they are or were performed:
Dance of The Monkeys “Los Monos” or “Los Micos”. In this dance the characters are only the Monkeys and they mingle among the people and act mischievous, just as monkeys do.
Dance of The Bull. “El Torito” Is a dance that depicts the time during the Conquest, it represents a land owner, a woman called Catarina, an Indian slave dressed as a black person, a dog, and of course, a bull that appears at the end of the dance with fireworks coming out of its back. This is perhaps the most know dance, and the one that is performed in most towns and places where folkloric dances are presented.
Santa Ana Huista:
Dance of Cortez. It tells the story of the Conqueror Hernán Cortéz, its allies, like the Totonacas and others. Other characters could be Montezuma, Pedro de Alvarado, his brother Gonzalo de Alvarado and others.
Dance of the deer “baile del venado”. The characters are an old man, deer and hunting dogs.
Dance of Jur. The story of black men and a way for asking for rain. Men would not wear mask, or the colorful costumes, instead they would paint their faces black, and wear animal furs like those of deer and rabbits.
The Conquest. Similar to the Dance of Cortez.
The Bull. As described before.
Moors and Christians. According to the original dance taught by the missionary men.
The Snake. Also known by the name of Saint George and the dragon. It depicts the eternal fight between good and evil.
El Paach. This is not a Moors and Christians dance. It is part of a Mayan Mam rite of corn. The name means Spirit of the Corn. It is a mixture of Catholic and Mayan rites and it is meant to be a way of thanking the plant for its produce, center of the food chain of Mesoamericans.
During centuries it was kept secret, since it was forbidden by the Catholic church to pay homage to their native gods and spirits. It was a privilege of few to witness the rite, until recently that people became more open about their beliefs.
Dance of Moors and Christians. As described before.
The 32 municipal districts are:
- La Democracia
- La Libertad
- San Mateo Ixtatan
- San Pedro Necta
- Todos Santos Cuchumatan
- Santa Eulalia
- San Sebastian Huehuetenango
- San Miguel Acatan
- Santa Barbara
- San Sebastian Coatan
- San Juan Atitan
- San Juan Ixcoy
- Concepcion Huista
- San Rafael La Independencia
- San Antonio Huista
- Union Cantinil
- Santiago Chimaltenango
- San Rafael Petzal
- Santa Ana Huista
- San Gaspar Ixchil
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