photos by Victoria Stone
Santa Catarina and San Andrés
Late November brings us the opportunity to celebrate and observe another round of distinctly Guatemalan festivities, the ferias or town fairs of towns whose patron saints are St. Catherine (Santa Catarina), St. Martin (San Martín) and St. Andrew (San Andrés). In keeping with the colonial Catholic system of assigning patron saints to all sizable towns, Catholic-saint days are still celebrated all over Guatemala.
Every feria has its own distinct flavor, depending on a number of factors, chief among them is how devout the town is. This determines to what degree the feria is a religious occasion focusing on ceremonial processions or whether it is chiefly a fun fair. Most ferias are a combination, featuring processions of the statues or imágenes of the town’s patron saint and—often in a separate area—rides such as Ferris wheels and food vendors, plentiful games of chance and other forms of entertainment and diversion.
Santa Catarina Palopó and San Andrés Semetebaj
The feria of Santa Catarina Palopó, just down the road from Panajachel, can make a wonderful excursion on a visit to Lake Atitlán. Santa Catarina can be reached by pickup truck leaving from Panajachel— traveling in the back with the locals—or by private car or taxi, a short 20-minute ride along a country road that affords some of the most spectacular views of the lake and volcanoes. This is a one-day feria, occurring on November 25. The procession of the statue of Santa Catarina follows the one main street parallel to the lake and ends at the recently renovated churchyard, where women attendants sit with the statue while ceremonial shots of Quetzalteca are offered to the saint and to those involved in the ceremony, including her cofradía.
In previous years ceremonial dances, such as the dance of the conquistadores, have taken place in the same churchyard and at the sports field down by the lake. Being as small and hilly as it is, Santa Catarina accommodates just a few fun fair games and a single small Ferris wheel. Everyone in town is in a celebratory mood and takes time to stroll and sit down by the lakeshore.
These relaxing activities are also highly recommended to visitors, as Santa Catarina has one of the most beautiful lakeshore areas, as well as one of the most magnificent views of Lake Atitlán’s volcanoes. The lakeshore also has several restaurants with lake views. Visitors familiar with Panajachel will recognize the elaborate blue, green and purple huipiles of the women of Santa Catarina, many of whom sell their weavings in Panajachel and La Antigua. A visit to Santa Catarina also offers the opportunity to shop for textiles right where they are made, and perhaps to see the traditional backstrap-loom weaving in process.
Santa Catarina offers two lodging options, both luxury hotels. There are also a few lodging options on the road between Panajachel and Santa Catarina, as well as numerous hotels for every budget in Panajachel. Visitors should check on the departure time of the last pickup truck for Panajachel before nightfall.
While in the Panajachel area, visitors can also make it an easy visit up the hill from Pana to San Andrés Semetebaj, whose feria occurs between November 28 and December 1. Also reached by local pickup or taxi, a mere 30 minutes from Pana, San Andrés is a small town which sees very little tourism. But during the feria the community thrives with activity in its large central plaza and at the church farther up the hill. The procession of the statue of San Andrés in his red shrine—bedecked in mirrors and peacock feathers—to the hilltop yellow church is a colorful and purely Guatemalan sight. And upon arrival one finds a breathtaking view of the lake.
Zunil and San Andrés Xecul
For those living in or planning to visit Quetzaltenango (more commonly known by its Mayan name of Xela), Santa Catarina’s feast day can best be celebrated in Zunil, which has a very impressive colonial church, whose patron is also Santa Catarina. In Zunil the main day of the feria is also November 25, but the feria lasts from November 22-26. Here the procession of Santa Catarina is far more elaborate as many women and girls—all dressed in their finest — carry the statue throughout the town to the candle-filled church.
A trip to Zunil would not be complete without a visit to one of the balnearios where guests can enjoy the natural hot springs waters and steam baths. Two of these, Las Cumbres and Fuentes Georginas, offer lodging, but at only 30 minutes from Xela, Zunil can also make a fine daytrip. Located in a fertile agricultural valley, Zunil is also the site of a bustling wholesale vegetable market. Buses leave the Minerva Bus Terminal in Xela for Zunil every 30 minutes. Returning buses depart Zunil at the main road at the entrance to town by the bridge.
San Andrés Xecul, about 40 minutes northwest of Xela, holds its feria from November 20-30, with the main day on the 30th. San Andrés Xecul is known for its shocking-yellow church decorated with colorful vines, angels and beasts of many varieties, and even sporting a neon-framed altar inside. The people of San Andrés really know how to celebrate and include everyone, and the two plazas between the municipalidad and the church offer plenty of space for festivities, as well as marvelous views of the surrounding hills.
Buses for San Andrés Xecul leave from Minerva Bus Terminal and The Rotunda in Xela, or one can take a bus bound for San Francisco del Alto, and ask the driver to let you off at the road to San Andrés Xecul at the Esso station. Pickups leave from there to climb the three-kilometer hill up to town. Once again, visitors should check on the departure time of the last pickup truck for the Esso station junction before nightfall.
Programs of feria activities are often available, and visitors should feel free to ask for one at the municipalidad or church.