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Friday, January 19, 2018

Mountain-side Terraced Fields

Santa Catarina Palopó

Yesterday we visited the Mayan town of Santa Catarina Palopó. Many buildings are newly daubed in elaborately-patterned sky blue reflecting the traditional huipil colour worn by the women. This is an initiative begun last October to make the town more attractive to visitors and it certainly does the trick.

The mountain-side terraced fields perched high above the town are spectacular. The climb up steep steps past the upper residential area rewards with breath-taking views as one enters the expanse of vegetable and flower fields situated in a gentle valley bowl. Up there, on a fine, sunny, breezy day, I felt on top of the world, blown away by the beauty and ingenuity of the landscape. There are probably around 20 acres of meticulously-designed fields constructed into terraces and separated by channels for water to flow. Even now, in dry-season, water gurgles down the mountain-side in a meandering flow. Sluice gates control the side-flow into fields. One friendly field-worker (OK, all the locals are friendly) was controlling the flow of water with his foot as he prepared his field for bean planting by turning it over with a spade-like hoe. You cannot tell me that turning over the soil after winter dormancy is not good practise. These Mayans have been cultivating this land constantly for centuries, achieving prolific production always, rotating crops from field to field. The Mayan empire is long gone, of course, but these descendants continue the fine engineering and farming methodologies their forebears introduced. Their fine-tuned tweaking of nature is an inspiration.

On this day, on cursory glance, we witnessed corn, squash, tons of onions, beans, avocados, lettuce, almonds, yucca, oranges, papaya, chrysanthemums, lilies. Apparently, most produce is destined for the local big town market of Sololá. I was told that crops are organically grown, but they do use a small amount of pesticides against troublesome bugs. I noted about twenty farmers tending the fields, men and women. They use only hand tools and every harvested item is carried down the mountain on their backs. We watched as full sacks of corn and firewood were being carried down, empty as they come back up.

A huge swathe of mountain-side that is tinder-dry grass (denuded of greenery) was just left burned off by a fast-moving fire above the town a couple of weeks ago. Deforestation of these steep slopes creates such problems; thankfully, there is a lot of intact forest remaining around Lake Atitlán, especially on the iconic volcano sides.

Our twenty-minute ride back to Panajachel was in the back of a pickup track colectivo. The bench seats held mostly local townfolk, the women shy and reserved in their Santa Catarina-blue huipils, the men in their traditional textile shorts and sandals, the children gazing at us with curiosity. They are such sweet folk, always ready with a smile and warm greeting. The ride cost 3 quetzals, less than 50 cents, each.