Chichicaste: Plants of Guatemala to Avoid

Chichicaste plant Guatemala

Some say there’s a price to pay for ignorance. And sometimes the price is pain.

I’ve yet to write much about plant or animal life in Guatemala on this site, save for some passing mentions on our Facebook page. Not because I don’t care about plants – I do – but because I’ve never devoted any significant time to learning about them. Until recently, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you which flower was a lily or which one was a daisy if you held them up to my face, side by side. While I’m trying to change that, I’ve got a long way to go in that department.

Well, I got acquainted with one particular plant real fast this week. Meet the “Chichicaste”, of the plant family Loasa, known by its Latin name Loasa grandis Standl and more commonly by the name Chichicaste Grandis. Once thought to be in the same family as the “Stinging Nettle.”

Chichicaste

The chichicaste – and yes, the town near Antigua named Chichicastenango literally means “land of chichicaste” – is a plant indigenous to Costa Rica and Colombia, though it has spread all over Central America, Mexico, and South America.

Chichicaste plant Guatemala

Chichicaste plant

While chichicaste is heavily used for medicinal purposes – especially its roots, it’s a very prickly plant. Chichicaste leaves and stems have prickly, brittle hairs that will immediately attach and break off in your skin at the slightest of contacts. These hairs release chemicals that will cause a burning sensation right away, which I’m told is similar to that of Poison Ivy – that’s another plant that I have no idea what it looks like, or have an interest in doing the obligatory 10-second Google search at this moment.

Chichicaste plant Guatemala

Closeup of chichicaste leaves

So, how did I get acquainted with Chichicaste? Well, I tend to walk our dog every day on a side road near the house. This road is quiet, save for the occasional motorcyclist passing through, and also scenic. It borders a coffee plantation and on clear days, I can see both Agua and Fuego Volcano on the horizon. A very pleasant walk.

Chichicaste hedgerow

Chichicaste hedgerow

Little did I know I was walking inches away from nature’s version of an electrified fence. Turns out farmers often plant Chichicaste as a hedgerow to protect their properties.

Normally, there isn’t any reason for me to get near the fence. But that morning, I’d spotted some beautiful bougainvillea flowers growing along the fence and had decided to take a few to decorate the home office.

Bougainvilleas Antigua Guatemala

Pretty bougainvillea flowers

As I reached for the flowers, my wrist very lightly touched a nearby leaf. And I mean so lightly I didn’t know I’d touched it for about 0.3 milliseconds. My wrist started burning up almost immediately. So much so that I knew right away I’d touched something poisonous.

Chichicaste poison

What a Chichicaste rash looks like

I briskly walked back to the house as I noticed welts beginning to form in the itchy area. I immediately suspected it was the famous Chichicaste plant I’d heard about so much. Sure enough, a Google Image Search revealed it was so.

The reason I knew about Chichicaste before is that I’d heard it mentioned by my wife before as a method of corporal punishment for children among Maya communities. Having experienced it, I’d say it’s flat-out child abuse. Chichicaste was also used by the ancient Maya to punish rapists, which they accomplished by rubbing the plant along the aggressor’s genital area (yikes!).

So what do you do if you have a personal encounter with Chichicaste? Well, I found a useful article that explains your options here. Unless you develop a strong allergic reaction, the stinging sensation will not last more than a day.

If you do start breaking out in hives, then you might need to ingest antihistamine medication promptly. If that doesn’t work, then it’s probably best you head to the hospital quickly, though that last scenario isn’t one I’ve heard of happening, but something you might want to be aware of.

And that concludes my first “Plants of Guatemala” post. Stay safe!

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Hey, I need your help. I noticed that every so often (usually on Sunday afternoons), a lot of people in the US start searching online for the word “chichicaste” and land on this page. I suspect it may be related to a TV program people are watching because it happens at the same hour. It’s driving me crazy trying to figure it out!

If you don’t mind, please let me know what made your search for chichicaste by sending me an email to richpolanco (at) okantigua.com. Thanks!!!

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Thinking about moving to Antigua Guatemala? Read this!

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Have you had a run-in with poisonous plants in Guatemala?

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Visit to Santa Ana, Antigua Guatemala

Velacion Santa Ana Guatemala

Right off the bat, I want to apologize for not keeping up with the latest images from Antigua’s Lent season vigils and processions. Events are now coming up fast and furious as we get closer to Holy Week. I hope to catch up sometime this week.

For the 24th day of Lent, I visited Santa Ana, one of the oldest villages surrounding Antigua and a popular option for foreigners quieter, more affordable option to Antigua’s high-priced real estate. Located southeast of Antigua, the entrance to this suburb is easily accessible via public transportation. However, something you should know is that the town’s popularity has kept it expanding further from the main road, which means that some houses in Santa Ana can be quite a long walk uphill from the main road. There are buses that do go into Santa Ana but only during market days (Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays).

Santa Ana’s plaza is fairly lively every night, and you can often find teens playing soccer on the square across the church and families eating dinner bought at street stalls on the north side of the plaza. More on that near the end of the post.

Santa Ana Vigil

This vigil was fairly well attended. Tons of vendors outside, as they were expecting thousands of people to visit well into the night. In the morning, the church was full of schoolchildren – vigils are a popular school outing, and many school groups can be seen making the trek from nearby schools.

Velacion Santa Ana Guatemala

Plaza in front of Santa Ana Church

The display itself was great, though I’ve found I’m not a fan of “deep” ones. When the display is so far back, it makes it hard for visitors to pay close attention to details. This display was way too front-loaded with fruits and other items, which made it hard to admire the unique gray sawdust carpet. Exhibit creators may not have had a choice – fruits, vegetables, and bread are usually donated by the faithful and sometimes there’s no other place to put them than in front of the display.

Santa Ana Antigua Guatemala - 3

Vigil display at Santa Ana

Santa Ana Antigua Guatemala - 4

Sawdust carpet close-up

Santa Ana Antigua Guatemala - 5

Small display near entrance

Santa Ana Antigua Guatemala

Another display near entrance to church

Food Outside Church

As I mentioned earlier, there were many foods and handicrafts vendors outside the church. These vendors move from vigil to vigil, often paying a fee to the brotherhood that set up the church’s display.

Santa Ana Antigua Guatemala - 7

Fresh churros

I chose to eat at one of the “local” food stands – one of the permanent vendors that can be found in Santa Ana. The smell of grilled meats will pull me in every time.

Santa Ana Antigua Guatemala

Grilled Meats

A traditional dish you’ll find at most street fairs is meat plates. For Q15 you get a reasonable, filling meal that includes your choice of meats, pickled cabbage, refried black beans and two or three tortillas. Tasty AND filling!

Santa Ana Antigua Guatemala - 9

 This filling meal will cost Q15 ($2USD)

There was another vigil that day, a much smaller one at Escuela de Cristo church. I’ll cover that in my next post.

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Open Windows Foundation

Open Windows Antigua Guatemala

It’s no secret that Guatemala is among the poorest countries in the world, with 40% of its city-dwelling population living in poverty – subsisting on about $1.50USD a day. Rural communities have it even worse, with about two-thirds of all children in Guatemala living in poverty. There are many reasons for this, which I won’t get into for the sake of brevity.

Antigua is surrounded by rural communities, all which have varying degrees of poverty. While there are urgent, short-term needs that need to be addressed, namely food and medicine shortages, one of the surest ways to improve the long-term well-being of its children is through education. Unfortunately, the government doesn’t devote nearly enough resources – schools are woefully underfunded, which leads to high illiteracy rates. It’s an uphill battle to even see that children in Guatemala finish 6th grade – the rate of completion of at least six years of elementary education is less than 60%, lowest in Latin America.

Open Windows – Ventanas Abiertas

One organization that is attempting – and succeeding – at providing the necessary help in the area of education in Guatemala is Ventanas Abiertas (Open Windows Foundation). They have built up, in my opinion, one of the best learning centers for disadvantaged children in the area.

Open Windows Antigua Guatemala

Open Windows building, San Miguel Dueñas

Open Windows Foundation

The children of Open Windows

Last month, I had the pleasure of visiting Open Windows, located in nearby San Miguel Dueñas. There’s a free guided tour every month, so you can learn more about the foundation and get a glimpse of the living conditions of coffee pickers in nearby coffee plantations. The under-2-hour tour, run by David Dean, a Board of Directors member, is well worth taking.

Open Windows Antigua Guatemala

David Dean, Board Member, and Tour Guide

Open Windows’ mission is to provide educational help to disadvantaged children in the area. To accomplish this, the center runs various programs:

 Open Windows Library and After School Program

  • After-school Program: They provide tutoring and homework help to children. An interesting fact is that Open Windows has a strong relationship with the schools in the community. Often, schools plan their homework assignments counting on specific resources provided by Open Windows. Their library has grown to house more than 11,000 books.

Group activities at Open Windows

  •  Activities Program: Students are encouraged to participate in group reading and other related activities designed to develop their thinking skills. An afternoon snack is also provided.

Open Windows Antigua Guatemala

Computer Lab – Computers donated by Rotary International

  • Computer Program: Open Windows has the only public computer lab in the area. This 4:40 pm. center is used to teach not only computer skills and homework research (Internet access is available), but much-needed job skills to teens either about to enter the workforce or pursue higher education.

Open Windows Foundation

Space for health checkups behind the school

  • Medical Program: Volunteer doctors perform routine health checkups on the children every month, also free of charge.

To learn more about Open Windows, please visit their website at http://openwindowsfoundation.com. Open Windows runs entirely on donations. Contact them if you’d like to volunteer as well.

A free, guided tour of Open Windows is available once a month, on Wednesdays. The free shuttle leaves at 3:00 pm from Cafe Condesa, across from Parque Central, and is usually scheduled to return by 4:40 pm.

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Iglesia De La Merced Antigua Guatemala: Visitors Guide

La Merced Convent Antigua Guatemala

La Merced Church is one of my favorite buildings in Antigua Guatemala and arguably the prettiest Baroque church in the city. Part of its appeal is that it’s also one of the few churches that have remained standing relatively unscathed since colonial times.

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Construction of Iglesia de La Merced

Impressive Iglesia de La Merced in Antigua Guatemala

La Merced Church, Antigua Guatemala

Mercedarians were the first religious order to establish a men’s convent in Guatemala, seeking and obtaining land and a permit to build a convent in present-day Ciudad Vieja. Their church was almost finished when a lahar came rushing down from Agua Volcano and wiped out the city.

Eventually, the city leaders that survived decided to relocate the city to the Panchoy Valley, where present-day Antigua Guatemala is located. When the city was finally moved, Mercedarians fought hard to be granted the second permit to build a new church and convent – and permission was granted in 1541. Mercedarians completed their second church in Guatemalan territory in 1583. Subsequent earthquakes destroyed this second temple.

Earthquake Baroque

In 1749, Architect Juan de Dios Estrada (also known as Juan de Chaves) was commissioned to build a much bigger temple and an adjacent convent. After studying the design failures of previous architects, de Dios chose to adapt traditional baroque designs to suit the city better. He lowered typical baroque, airy ceilings down – up to two-thirds lower. De Dios also added thick walls that were up to a meter wide and thicker buttresses. The Philippines is the only other location in the world that features this type of baroque architecture.

This type of massive construction made the third structure far more earthquake-resistant than previous structures. This is easy to notice when looking at the walls and columns that can be seen at the church and at the convent ruins next door.

La Merced Convent in Antigua Guatemala

Lower ceilings, thicker walls at La Merced convent

The church and convent were finished in 1767. The church featured priceless works of art. Unfortunately, major earthquakes hit the city in 1773. While the structure resisted the earthquakes, the convent’s walls were weakened, later falling during subsequent earthquakes that year.

La Merced Church Is Abandoned

Once Captain-General Martin de Mayorga made the order to relocate the city to present-day Guatemala City official, Mercedarians did not hesitate. They packed up their works of art and abandoned the convent to get a headstart in rebuilding their church in the new capital.

And so it was that La Merced lay abandoned, for the most part. The convent’s ruins were further destroyed, and as with most abandoned ruins in the city, its interior used as a stone quarry by the locals. It wasn’t until 1853 that Mayor Jose Maria Palomo y Montufar approved restoration work.

La Merced Church Today

The church is very popular with locals and tourists alike. Its stucco work is admired for its arabesque patterns, known as ataurique – from the Arabic word al-Tariq, meaning “vegetable.” This type of relief detail is a sign of Moorish influence, which was popular at the time.

Ataurique (relief detail) at La Merced church

Ataurique stucco work at La Merced

The facade features an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy, along with some of the more prominent Mercedarians in history, such as St. Pedro Armengol, St. Maria de Cervello, and St. Raymundo Nonnatus – each saint has quite the interesting history.

Atrium, La Merced Church

Atrium at Iglesia La Merced

Among the art of note inside La Merced is the image of Jesus Nazareno, an antique baroque piece that’s paraded reverentially throughout Antigua during Palm Sunday and Good Friday processions. The image of Virgen de Dolores, by sculptor Pedro de Mendoza, is worth checking out as is the gold-leaf retablo.

Keep an eye out for the Mercedarian shield. Once you learn to recognize it, you’ll spot it not only inside the church but in a lot more places throughout the city.

Jesus Nazareno sculpture at iglesia de La Merced

Jesus Nazareno, La Merced

Retablo at Iglesia de La Merced

Retablo La Merced Antigua Guatemala

La Merced Convent Tour

La Merced is open to the public daily, as are the ruins of the convent next door. However, unlike the church, there is an entrance fee to visit convent’s ruins (Q7 for locals, Q15 for foreigners). Open daily from 9 am to 6 pm, the convent is well worth a visit, as the views of the surrounding volcanoes are excellent on bright days.

The convent also featured what is believed to be the largest fountain in Central America. Mercedarian monks used it to raise fish to supplement their diet.

Fountain, Iglesia de La Merced, Antigua Guatemala

La Merced fountain

The convent’s installation offers a self-guided tour via strategically placed Spanish/English signage.

I highly recommend you take the time to visit La Merced, especially the convent’s ruins next door.

Lenten Season Displays

This church is famous for its beautiful Lenten and Holy Week alfombras (sawdust carpets) that are displayed in the sanctuary – check them out if you’re ever in town during this religious festival. See some of the images below:

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More attractions here: https://www.okantigua.com/things-to-do-in-antigua-guatemala/

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Santa Ana Children’s Procession In Antigua Guatemala

children's procession antigua guatemala

There were two children’s procession in Antigua today. Unfortunately, I could only make it to one. A children’s procession is always a crowd favorite – almost everything is done on a miniature scale, by children, from the music to anda bearers.

Children’s processions are a relatively recent development, spiking in popularity in the latter half of last century. It’s a way for parents to instill their traditions into their children from an early age.

And now, I leave you with the pictures of tiny Santa Ana’s procession, with its tiny anda, tiny anda bearers, and tiny roman soldiers.

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More Semana Santa photos here!