Travelers to Guatemala hit the tourist hot spots – the Caribbean coast, Antigua, Lake Atitlan. But there are reasons to consider a visit to Tecpan. The city is about halfway between Lake Atitlan and Antigua. One of my favorite things about Tecpan: I think we were the only Americans there. You won’t find western chain stores here like you see in Antigua. And it compared to Lake Atitlan, it’s a bustling, vibrant place with extremely kind people.
We stayed with a Maya family so I’ll start with recounting that excellent experience, and then move on to other attractions in Tecpan.
An authentic Maya experience
We stayed with a friend’s family. We met our friend Marvin last year in Peten in the northeast corner of the country. This year, we are on in the highlands, and our friend invited us to stay at his mom’s home. Our friend works in Guatemala City, so he wasn’t there most of the time.
His family is beautiful – intelligent, kind, selfless. Communication was sometimes slow, and our heads hurt from trying to speak only Spanish, but it was so worth the effort. We felt welcome, and I learned a lot about how Kaqchiquel Maya people live. His mom is Dona Pancha, a well-known, strong, amazing woman. She let me try to make tortillas – Guatemalan style. These are different from Mexican tortillas – they are thicker and with more dough.
Slapping the dough back and forth between my hands was tricky, and sticky. Then the tortillas are laid on a large plate over a wood fire for the best results. That same wood fire also cooks special beans spiced with chile, garlic and other spices. Dona Pancha knows I don’t eat meat, so she made us a delicious meal of beans and plantains. I watched her grind the spices and some beans by hand on a large stone table with a pumice-like roller. The water from cooking the plantains was used as a sweet tea to accompany the meal. And, of course, tortillas! This was the tastiest meal I’ve had in Guatemala – my favorite so far. The flavors were delicious.
Dona Pancha has a tienda (small store) in front of her house. She sells snacks to children attending a school right across the street. My husband Tedly loved to go out into the store and greet the children in English. They would giggle and whisper, then announce, “Hello!” Many families want their children to learn English because that could enable them to get better paying jobs when they grow up.
Pictured below is Tedly, Dona Pancha’s granddaughter Veymel and Dona Pancha in her store. Veymel is a beautiful girl with a golden heart. She drew us a picture and gave it to us as we left. Right now it’s hanging on our refrigerator at our rental in Antigua.
Helping women (and men) achieve success
Dona Pancha, also took us to a school for women named Ixoqi’ – which literally means “women” in the Kaqchiquel language. The school’s mission is to empower women with skills to help support their families in an effort to lift them out of poverty. The school focuses on helping Maya women from several villages around Tecpan.
Women learn to sew, bake, make baskets, create flower arrangements, and more. They can use these skills to make things to sell their creations. Dona Pancha is herself a graduate of the school and she positively beamed as we took a tour to see the women learning in classes.
We noticed a sign that declared Belgium provides monetary support for the school. Other funding comes from the government and private donations, which of course, we made – because I think it’s incredibly important to support women in whatever way we can. Education is not free in Guatemala beyond primary school, and boys are usually a familys first choice to send to school – if the family can even afford that.
We bought things at the school’s gift shop: delicious and spicy chile spead, milk candy with nuts, and a cloth bookmark for my Spanish book. Purses, bags, scarves, jewelry, baskets, and more also are for sale.
Next door to Ixoqi’ is an agriculture school for men – Utz Samaj. Guys are taught everything there is to know about farming and crops so they can grow food and support their families in a sustainable lifestyle. The big block to the men’s success is capital. Guatemala’s highlands can get too chilly for proper growth during winter months, so it is best to have a greenhouse. A teacher who gave us a tour said it costs a minimum of 80,000 quetzales to buy the plastic sheeting and other building materials for a greenhouse. That’s about $11,400 USD, and it may as well be a million. Guatemalans cannot afford that start up cost.
There also is a medical clinic near the schools for families to get medical assistance, the cost of which is often beyond the means of average Guatemalans.
It was a lovely visit and I’m grateful Dona Pancha took us to the schools. We never would have known about them or thought to see them on our own.
To get to Ixoqi’, take a colectivo (shared taxi van) a block from the church. Make sure you ask the conductor if the ride goes by Ixoqi’. There is no admission. The website is here, but note, it’s in Spanish.
In the city: church, market, cafes, ruins
The Catholic church in the city’s center is beautiful. It’s one of only three churches in Guatemala with an elaborately carved wooden ceiling that dates back to the Spanish infusion. It also features ornate religious carvings.
Right next to the church is the market. Dona Pancha, gave us a tour. While there, we had snacks of tamales and arroz con leche – which is a sweet drink almost like a watered-down rice pudding. It was delicious!
There are a two cafes in Tecpan we used for Wifi that also had delightful good food and coffee. Cafe Forte on 1 Calle just south of the square, and Cafe de Aqui on 1 Avenida between 2 Calle and 3 Calle – but it’s not open until 1:00 p.m.
There are plenty of hotels for visitors, and visitors seem to be mostly Guatemalan. As I said earlier: we were practically the only gringos there. Over three days, I saw only one Caucasian walking around town. We loved that!
We did see a couple of tourists at the nearby Mayan ruins at Iximche. I previously wrote about that amazing site -another incredible, authentic experience because of the Maya people praying at a ceremony at the back of the site.
You get to Tecpan by tuk tuk once you get off the bus on the Pan-American highway at the turnoff for the small city. It’s a short ride that costs less than a dollar.
Go. Just go to Tecpan. You will find kindness and warmth in this city – and some of the best people in the country.