Sensuous Guatemala: Red

Red Flowers (photo: Smith and Riegel)

Red Flowers (photo: Smith and Riegel)

Just a little dab of red will do you, if you’re trying to put the colors of Guatemala on canvas. You’d need lots of variations of blues, greens, and browns to capture the subtle shades of this country’s glorious Highlands, jungles and coastlines. Your pallet needs only a bit of red. But don’t forget the red, as it’s essential. 

Red can be frustrating, such as a red curb at the only parking spot on the block, or a red light stopping your hurry along a boulevard. Red can hurt, especially red from the tropical sun on light-skinned visitors.  Red skies in the morning are supposed to give sailors warning, though Guatemalan storms come whenever they feel like it anyway. Red flames are fine, so long as they stay in a fireplace. But it’s a touch of red that delights the eye in blossoms spilling over white walls, or ripe red tomatoes pyramid-stacked in the market, or red chili pieces in a good salsa, or the flash of a red skirt when the salsa becomes a dance.

Red attracts attention in advertisements or on fire trucks, but also in some traditional weaving of Maya ladies such as the dazzling reds from the town of Patzún, or more subtle deep-red brocades in San Antonio Aguas Calientes. Red dye from the bodies of cochineal insects was used in ancient times and was a major product of the La Antigua area until synthetic dyes arrived over a century ago. Now cochineal is beginning to return as a natural coloring for foods, textiles and cosmetics, just as in the Classic Maya courts.

A few dots of red poppies along green roadsides please the eye more than big red signs for cell-phone service or soft drinks. Nature in Guatemala uses red as a subtle touch, an iridescent flash on a hummingbird hovering to sip nectar, a cardinal’s feathers as the birds cluster up and down the Americas, a streak of red on a trout jumping in the sunlight. Sometimes red isn’t quite as subtle, such as the reds of guacamayas, the scarlet macaws of the jungle, endangered due to relentless capture and display in courtyard cages. More usually, Guatemalan red is restricted to points of color, to coffee berries during their short weeks of being ready for picking, to bright-red shorts on kids kicking a ball on a dirt field, to liturgical red in churches at some seasons.

And of course red is the color of love, red hearts pasted on preschoolers’ Valentines, red boxes of sweets, red lips waiting to brush cheeks of lovers. Thousands of boxes of long-stemmed red roses are shipped from Guatemala each February to the markets of Europe and North America, symbolic tokens for homes and offices. Each rose is a reminder of love, and of the lovely touches of red to be found around Guatemala.

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