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Spirit of the Latin Sun

It was winter solstice, and we were watching the lunar eclipse at Lake Atitlan. The moon turned sherbet orange and little villages twinkled on the dark face of the lake, and everybody knew it was a moment you never forget and nobody had to say anything.

As Earth's shadow gobbled up the moon we turned binoculars on the Orion Nebula. He's high in the sky here. The Maya associated his neighborhood with Xibalba, the underworld. Another portal is a dark rift in the Milky Way. The earthly entrance is said to be a cave at Cobán to the northeast.

On a recent trip to the central highlands of Guatemala we focused on La Antigua Guatemala, with a side trip to Lake Atitlan, which means "the place where the rainbow gets its colors." La Antigua is famous for its Spanish colonial architecture, churches, Spanish-language schools and cobblestone streets. Atitlan is reputedly the most beautiful lake in the world.

La Antigua looks like a Sergio Leone set. We visited American friends living in the central part of the quaint, dusty town. When people ask what they are doing here, Richard and Joanne often smile and say, "Just living."

Time is different here. Sip strong, shade-grown coffee in open-air cafes on an 80-degree winter's day, stroll to the funky, sprawling mercado (market), stop for a parade or religious procession. Maybe listen to a band in the square, or watch the tourists watching the street performers on Calle Del Arco near the city's famous arch, and there goes the day.

The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a designation aimed at preserving it. The Spanish founded it — they called it Santiago de los Caballeros then — in 1543. A 1717 earthquake destroyed 3,000 buildings. Quakes in 1773 led to the removal of the capital, to what is today Guatemala City, in 1776. By then Antigua was home to 60,000. From then on it was called la Antigua Guatemala, the Old Guatemala.

With a population today of about 35,000, it's a center for ecotourism, Maya culture, volcano climbing, birdwatching, coffee tours, jade, Spanish study. It's estimated there are 70 escuelas de Español, or Spanish schools, catering to expats and tourists.

There is a smorgasbord of hotels (from under $20 to hundreds per night), restaurants, bars, museums and little travel agencies that specialize in Maya ruins such as those at Tikal to the north. Avoid the dreaded "chicken buses" and use modern shuttle vans for safety. If you have no Spanish you can get by pointing at a map and grunting enthusiastically with an occasional por favor.

But first spend a few days just walking around Antigua. The 12,000-foot Volcán de Agua looms to the south, and Volcán de Fuego emits burps of smoke more or less constantly. Our friends live two blocks north of La Merced, a knockout church and convent with a lemon-drop yellow, Baroque facade where Maya women sell roasted ears of corn.

You might assume La Merced is THE cathedral. Wrong. That's St. Joseph's, the circa-1680 church three blocks south, which is even grander. It's been partially rebuilt, and you can tour the ruins where many arches and ceilings remain standing. Somewhere in its belly, St. Joseph's is said to contain the remains of the bloody Spanish conqueror Don Pedro de Alvarado.

Maya women in traditional clothing hawk lovely hand-made textiles in the square, and men and boys scramble to shine your shoes for a couple quetzales (a quetzale is worth about 12 cents). On weekends bands play free concerts in the square.

There are some two dozen churches, convents and cathedrals here, making Antigua maybe the church-per-capita champion of the world. One of the most resonant is the huge San Francisco Church and Convent on Calle de los Pasos in the southeast part of town.

Hermano Pedro (Brother Peter), Antigua's beloved saint, is buried here. A Spaniard who spent his life helping indigenous people here in the 16th century, he's portrayed as a short, homely man who loved dancing. There's a museum with one of those shrines where people have cast off crutches and leg braces and credited Hermano Pedro with miracles.

There's little need for a dining guide, with vibrant restaurants of all price ranges on every block serving indigenous, Italian, Mexican, Thai, even fast food. Our favorite was La Peña de Sol Latino (the spirit of the Latin sun), where a gregarious owner, Bill Harris, sits in on percussion with the progressive Andean house band, Sol Latino.

One of the best things in town might not even show up in some of the tourist guides. That's the warmth and unflagging friendliness of the people. Guatemala has a troubled history, but despite a legacy of violence and oppression and, more recently, crime, 99 percent of the people you meet, both Latino and Maya, are remarkably kind and gentle.

Our friends' Guatemalan friend Hugo has a theory about the proliferation of shops selling sugary candy and confections on the street: "Life is bitter, so they try to make it sweet."

We took a shuttle van to Lake Atitlan (about $10), forded the river where the road was washed out in the rainy season (May to November) and landed in Panajachel, or Pana. It's a bit like a giant version of Crater Lake on steroids, guarded by three volcanoes nearly as lofty as Mount Shasta. The Maya villages here have sprouted bars and restaurants and schools for Spanish, yoga, art, astrology. You catch little boats on the new floating dock at Pana ($3 direct to San Pedro, less for the village-hopper), because no road goes around the lake.

Pana been called Gringotenanga, and there are happy hours and Wi-Fi at villages around the lake now, and some crime, and the lake is too polluted to swim in. But it's one of the planet's outrageous places, and cheap. Our rooms on the lake were $18 to $32 a night, great breakfasts $2 or $3. We birded, climbed a volcano, met colorful denizens, ate our way around the lake and saw the eclipse of a lifetime.

Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at varble.bill@gmail.com.

This local band plays Indian music in the town square.