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In Search of the Maya in a Land of Contrasts: Guatemala

By Lydia Rodríguez and Francisco Alarcón

Join two IUP professors as they journey to the pyramids of Tikal, Guatemala, heartland of the ancient Maya.

In Search of the Maya in a Land of Contrasts: Guatemala

Two IUP professors visit the Mayan pyramids at Tikal, Guatemala 508:29, 22.4 MB

“We were amazed and dazzled by and enjoyed the beauty of Guatemala, heartland of the Mayan world…”

Our journey in search of the Maya took us in May 2009 from Indiana, Pennsylvania, to Mexico City, to Guatemala City, to Antigua Guatemala, and then to the highlands and lowlands of Guatemala.

In Mexico City we visited the famous National Museum of Anthropology. Since the museum contains several exhibits of Mesoamerican cultures, we went straight to the Mayan exhibition areas. In the Mayan rooms, an amazing amount of artifacts were on display: sculpture, pottery, textiles, and even sections of enormous reconstructions of temples and stelae. The sophistication of the ancient Mayan culture up close bedazzled us, taking us back in time as our heads exploded with old and new knowledge. Our excitement incited us to travel to the heartland of the Mayan world, Guatemala.

Guatemala is a country built on contrasts: ancient to modern; unbelievably wealthy to vastly poor; downpours of rain to warm sunshine; an Indian majority and a Spanish ruling minority; a large German population to astonishing numbers of European tourists; and diverse languages, with Spanish as the official language. However, in this complex and contrasting country is a land where the lives of men, nature, and time have coincided and where they have dwelled together. Over three thousand years ago, the Mayas were endowed with extraordinary skills and formed one of the most well known and most respected civilizations in history. Our mission in Guatemala was to uncover and experience up front and close La Ruta Maya, the Mayan route.

The heartland of the Mayan world has many cultures, rich customs, traditions, and its archaeological heritage; these are just a few of the salient features that gave us the opportunity to share, discover, and learn. The heartland of the Mayan world is not only a visit to a museum or to an archaeological site: it is a land where we experienced a multicultural country, an impressive colonial legacy, and its privileged natural world with clouds and rain forests, magnificent volcanoes and lakes, and flora and fauna unique to the region. Guatemala is a country where the modern Maya people live their traditions fully. They express their history and customs through their beautiful pottery, jade figures, and multicolor textiles, which are a true testimony of their ancient culture. It is an unbelievable beautiful, complex, and diverse country.

The sophistication of the ancient Mayan culture up close bedazzled us.

“The sophistication of the ancient Mayan culture up close bedazzled us.” (Click on any image for a larger version.)

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From Mexico City we flew into Guatemala City, a city where past and present unite. Its downtown, modern architecture captured our attention because of the striking contrasts of the very modern present and very conservative colonial past. The city is divided into twenty-one zones; each zone is divided into streets, calles, and avenues or avenidas. The streets run east to west, and the avenues run north to south, so it looks like one massive grid, making it impossible to get lost. In zona 9, zone 9, in the center is La Fuente Plazuela España, a circular mini plaza. Its fountain was built in honor of King Carlos III of Spain in 1789. This mini plaza is a clear example of the fusion between modernity and the colonial past that characterizes the city as it marks the beginning of the modern city.

Zones that have lower numbers are considered the older part of the city. El Palacio Nacional (National Palace) is located near the city’s main plaza. This architectural jewel was built between 1939 and 1943 and displays strong French influences with its extravagant architecture and stained-glass windows on the inside. The grandiose palace that once housed presidents now serves as a museum. The National Palace’s gritty green exterior fools the eye with its elaborate and ornate interior.

El Palacio Nacional (National Palace) is located near the city's main plaza.

El Palacio Nacional (National Palace) is located near the city’s main plaza.” (Click on any image for a larger version.)

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Our next colonial motif stop was the impressive Antigua Guatemala. The colonial city of Antigua is forty minutes and about twenty-seven miles from Guatemala City. Noteworthy of mention is this colonial beauty, which was once the capital of the country. After the 1773 earthquake, the capital was moved to its modern-day location, Guatemala City. The beautiful colonial city of Antigua charms visitors with its splendid architecture, rich cultural diversity, and natural resources that make the town one of humanity’s most valuable treasures. Thanks to the restoration and maintenance efforts carried out by its citizens, no matter how many times you visit, this city will never cease to amaze you. Small and cozy cafes, typical and international restaurants, colorful handcrafts and markets are hidden away just waiting to be discovered in every street and alley. In every corner there is a convent, monastery, or church.

Ancient, rock-carved water fountains are very common in the central gardens of Antigua’s convents, monasteries, and governmental buildings. Most were built during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Among the century-old buildings, Antigua transported us to the majestic colonial times when this city was the capital of the entire Central American region, known as El Reino de la Nueva Guatemala. In the evening, Antigua’s calmness of little houses, private mansions, and historic monuments became a very romantic atmosphere. A carriage ride through the stone-cobbled streets or an evening walk through the main plaza to the Fountain of the Sirens turned time in Antigua into an unforgettable memory. Antigua is the entrance to Guatemala’s colonial past: an oasis of peace and tranquility in the midst of the region’s chaotic urban life.

Ancient, rock-carved water fountains are very common in the central gardens of Antigua’s convents, monasteries, and governmental buildings.

“Ancient, rock-carved water fountains are very common in the central gardens of Antigua’s convents, monasteries, and governmental buildings.” (Click on any image for a larger version.)

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Our next stop was in the mountainous areas, the highlands in the east. The cold climate, exuberant nature, and land fertility are trademarks of the highlands, the home of Guatemala’s Mayan descendants. Located in the highlands is Lake Atitlán, which sits at about 5,000 feet above sea level and is surrounded by three majestic volcanoes—Tolimán, Atitlán, and San Pedro. The cities of Chichicastenango, Panajachel, and Santiago Atitlán gather the liveliest manifesto of Mayan culture in the highlands. In this region, the lifestyle of the indigenous population still consists of the rituals, traditions, and teachings passed on by Mayan ancestors.

The Guatemalan highlands are filled with peculiar beauty, sprinkled with the traditions and unmistakable presence of important Mayan communities. Located in the northeastern region, the highlands boast unique attractions such as Lake Atitlán, which is captivatingly gorgeous. Its waters shimmer in the afternoon, and tranquility brings peace to mind and soul. It is amazing how an 85,000-year-old lake can still calm anyone who comes in contact with its picturesque scenery.

Along the shorelines of the lake is the town of Panajachel, Cakchiquel territory. Panajachel is a laid-back, sleepy town with incredible views across the lake. Since Panajachel is small, we walked all over the town and enjoyed the open Mayan markets, the restaurants, and the town itself. The town is a quaint little Kodak moment. Then, we jumped on a speedy boat and after a twenty-minute taxi boat ride across the lake with the water splashing on our faces, we arrived at the other side.

We made our way to the small village of Santiago de Atitlán. This quaint setting offered an upfront, eyewitness view of an odd ceremony that centered on one of the Mayan-Catholic idols. The deity’s name is Maximóm; on this day, he was in a local house of a cofradía, a Catholic brotherhood. As it was explained to us, Maximóm stays in a different member’s house each year. It was quite unusual for a westerner to witness the true mixture of the two religions that was being practiced that day with a shaman in action. Maximóm is a wooden figure clothed in western clothing and colorful scarves and wearing a cowboy hat. Moreover, he was smoking a real cigarette, and the members were giving him rum to drink. This all sounds weird and it looked weird, too, but this cofradía, or brotherhood, believes strongly in its deity’s powers. We were fortune that the owner of the home allowed us to take live video footage of this ceremony.

After visiting Maximóm, we wandered over to the Iglesia Parroquial Santiago Apóstol, the church of Santiago Apostle. This structure dates back to 1572 and 1581 and is located in the central plaza of the village. The outside is not much to look at, but the inside is an impressive Catholic syncretism with Mayan images and idols. This little holy site hid a mouth-dropping moment inside it: We were able to witness Mayan descendants praying. It was an eerie feeling as we watched from the background in silence. In this small village, indigenous life is very much the norm, with women in their colorful clothing and men in their striped embroidered pants walking up and down the narrow streets.

Located in the highlands is Lake Atitlán, which sits at about 5,000 feet above sea level and is surrounded by three majestic volcanoes.

“Located in the highlands is Lake Atitlán, which sits at about 5,000 feet above sea level and is surrounded by three majestic volcanoes.” (Click on any image for a larger version.)

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Another heavily indigenous town we visited was Chichicastenango. An hour’s drive from Panajachel through the winding mountain side is the Quiché territory. Chichicastenango is a typical native highland town; we arrived on a Sunday when the colorful market was in full blast. In the plaza, row after row of stalls were filled with a dizzying array of handmade items, from wood masks, wool blankets, and woven baskets to textiles and so much more. At the center of the plaza is the Iglesia de Santo Tomás, church of Saint Tomas, where we had the opportunity to attend mass. The mass was a mixture between Catholic ceremonies and Mayan mysticism. Part of the mass was in Spanish, but the other part was in the Maya Quiché language. Just to see this mass was worth the visit.

In the plaza, row after row of stalls were filled with a dizzying array of handmade items.

“In the plaza, row after row of stalls were filled with a dizzying array of handmade items.” (Click on any image for a larger version.)

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To the lowlands in the north, about 200 miles from Guatemala City, is the Petén jungle. The classic Mayan civilization flourished in the Petén jungle. The tropical virgin rain forest was the home of this ancient culture, the legacy of which lives on in Guatemala’s identity. Discovering the ruins of the most important ancient civilization in Central America continues to impress modern-day explorers. In the deepest part of the Petén tropical jungle, mystical Mayan temples rise above the treetops. The fusion of historic heritage and overwhelming nature makes this one of the world’s most important archaeological sites and a UNESCO world heritage site: Tikal.

Tikal, Uaxactún, Ceibal, Aguateca, Yaxhá, Piedras Negras, El Mirador, Río Azúl, the caves of Naj Tunich, Topoxté, and Nakum are only a few of the many unique archaeological and natural treasures hidden in the jungle of El Petén. The great plaza of Tikal and its surroundings are the heart of this ancient Mayan city. Tikal’s tallest pyramid is Temple IV; it rises approximately 236 feet and offers an incredible, panoramic view of all the ruins. Tikal’s national park, approximately 220 square miles, safeguards the largest number of mammals in Guatemala. While hiking through Tikal’s jungle, we had the distinct opportunity to see howler and spider monkeys, jaguars, raccoons, coatimundi, tapirs, and white-tailed deer, thanks to the visitor-friendly set-up of the Mayan biosphere.

The archaeological site protects Tikal, one of the most important cities of the Mayan classical period. In spite of the passing years, Tikal remains a sacred place. Mayan priests from different tribes still meet there to celebrate their rituals and honor the heart of the sky and the heart of the earth. Just walking and visiting this location, one feels the spirit of the Mayan people. At its height, the center of this city covered an area of around six square miles and housed over four thousand structures.

In the deepest part of the Petén tropical jungle, mystical Mayan temples rise above the treetops.

“In the deepest part of the Petén tropical jungle, mystical Mayan temples rise above the treetops.” (Click on any image for a larger version.)

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Our last visit in the Petén region was to Ixpanpajul, a natural reserve park. This was the ideal complement of maximum adventure and just plain fun in the jungle. At Ixpanpajul we took a jungle expedition full of twisting paths and overgrown, giant, exuberant vegetation that swished in our faces that were full of beads of sweat from the day’s high humidity and heat. Then, in order to continue our expedition through the jungle, we were challenged with crossing over scary suspension bridges that moved with the wind. This was definitely a memorable experience to come into contact with nature, take in the beauty of the forest, and be mesmerized by Lake Petén Itzá from a high, dangling bridge.

After our expedition and a short rest, our adventure continued with the canopy or zip-lining excitement. This adrenal-rush activity challenged our valor to fly over the jungle and to get a bird’s-eye view of nature in a way we had never experienced. We can now surely appreciate Tarzan’s finesse of swinging through the jungle from vine to vine.

We were amazed and dazzled by and enjoyed the beauty of Guatemala, heartland of the Mayan world, where we found yesteryear’s Mayan remnants and present-day Mayas. The country is the ultimate Mayan experience, where books, articles, and documentaries come to life, transporting you to a timeless world where modernity and antiquity collide to create Guatemala’s complex society.

We were challenged with crossing over scary suspension bridges that moved with the wind.

“We were challenged with crossing over scary suspension bridges that moved with the wind.” (Click on any image for a larger version.)

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Lydia Rodríguez is a faculty member in the IUP Spanish Department, and Francisco Alarcón is chairperson of the Mathematics Department.