CHICHICASTENANGO - “What happened to the Mayans? Why did they disappear?” asks a tourist, while the minivan enters the winding streets of Chichicastenango, in Guatemala. The guide, Haroldo, smiles, just as every guide should when asked that question, and answers: “Disappear? Look around you, these are the Mayans, they are here.”
This is the first news we want to give to first-time visitors to Guatemala: They find out that they will not only see the breathtaking ancient Mayan cities, but that they will see Mayans, whose culture is still alive in many of the 23 ethnic groups that are present in Guatemala.
Before this, we had other, more urgent news to tell them, but its already old news –we were going to tell you that on Dec. 21 the world did not end, but at this point we suppose everyone knows.
The third piece of news we want to give first-time visitors is more interesting: It turns out that Guatemala is a beautiful and surprising country, where everything is concentrated into a few square kilometers – beaches on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, volcanoes, valleys, lakes, mountains and cultures with ancient traditions. Guatemala, like the rest of the world, is still here after Dec. 21, and more than ever invites people to discover its colors, tastes and history.
We found out that the world would not end from a Mayan priest. Days before the fated December date, he told us “it is not the end of the world, only a change of an era.” Luiz Ricardo Ignacio V., apart from being a Mayan priest, is also the creator of the Museum of Ceremonial Masks, on the outskirts of Chichicastenango. When we asked him what “change of an era” meant, his response was: “Maybe everything will change for the better or worse, but also maybe everything will stay the same, it depends on us.” Ok then. But it is true that the museum is very interesting, with dozens of Moreria ceremonial masks that tell the story of how this long carving tradition evolved over time and the kinds of ceremonies held in the region. There are masks that are more than 300 years old, carved in cedar wood; and more recent ones, made of white pine and painted in vivid colors.
You can’t go to Guatemala and not visit Chichicastenango, a town whose name means “The City of Nettles.” About two hours from Guatemala City through a new highway that winds up and down mountains, volcanoes and deep ravines. Everyone comes to “Chichi,” as it is called by locals, because of its impressive market – probably the most colorful and animated of all Latin-America. It is open on Thursdays and Sundays, and more than for its products - which are not bad at all – it is known for its unique ambiance.
Some say it has lost some its essence, now it is more “global” and chaotic – next to the textiles and ceremonial masks, you will find Chinese merchandise. But getting lost in the market’s alleys is a fantastic experience – they are more colorful and busy than ever – while being followed by sellers of all ages who are intent on selling you something. Haggling here is not just a necessity, but also a cultural custom without which, nothing would be sold.
Soledad, measuring less than 150 centimeters, attends her clientele with great friendliness. She requests 250 Quetzal ($32) for a beautiful flower-embroidered tapestry. I counter-offer 130 Quetzal ($17) and the negotiation begins. Ten minutes later –I resisted as much as I could – I left with my tapestry, for 160 Quetzal ($20). For those who are not used to it, this negotiation may seem very tiring.
In one corner of the market you can see the 400-year old church of Santo Tomas, built on top of a Pre-Columbian temple platform. This is where the Popol Vuh manuscript was found, “The Book of the Community,” which talks about the creation of the world according to the Mayans.
In the distance you can see the local cemetery, where the fathers are buried below white headstones meaning purity, mothers under turquoise headstones meaning protection for women, boys in light blue, girls in pink, and elders in yellow, which symbolizes the sun’s protection over humanity.
The most beautiful lake in the world
We are in the land of corn, not only because it is omnipresent in local cuisine, but because, according to the Popol Vuh, after trying – and failing – with terracotta, wood and the red beans of the Tzite tree, the Gods decided to make man out of corn. The number nine is sacred for Mayans, because it is the time corn takes to germinate, like humans in the womb.
Haroldo tells this story through the windows of the car, as he looks down at Lake Atitlan, the one that Aldous Huxley supposedly called the “most beautiful lake in the world.” A huge body of water surrounded by volcanoes and green hills. On the shores of the lake, there are a dozen of indigenous villages, each one with its own characteristics.
The best way to reach these villages is by boat. After a 25-minute ride, we disembark on the pier of Santiago Atitlan, which is considered the “capital of the Tz’utujil Mayan nation.” We see the traditional clothes; women are wearing “huipiles,” white shirts with colorful embroideries showing flowers, animals and geometric figures; men are wearing white pants with embroidery on the bottom.
In the past, this village was the scene of terrible massacres and horrors of the repression of the Guatemalan civil war, during which indigenous people were victims of state-sponsored violence. At least 300 people from Santiago Atitlan “disappeared” during the war. Today it is one of the most touristic villages around the lake and a strong cultural haven. Religious brotherhoods known as the “Cofradias” are the guardians of ancient Mayan rituals, ensuring that the sun, the moon, the stars and the planets continue their ways. Because in the grand cosmic scheme, man has a hand in everything and must help grease the axis of the universe. Although originally these religious brotherhoods were organized by Spanish priests to promote Christianity, they soon directed their efforts to local beliefs, and each one is named after the saint or deity that it is dedicated to.
On the boat that is taking us back to the other side of the lake, we pass by the beautiful town of Santa Catarina Palopo. Here the Mayan Kakchikel people wear intensely turquoise clothing, including turbans and sombreros. Here there are thermal springs, panoramic trails and beaches. At night it is lively with restaurants and discos.
We arrive to the town of Panajachel. Here there are cobbled streets, baroque facades, and colonial streetlights. When it was founded in 1543, it was considered one of the three most beautiful cities of the Spanish Indies. If an earthquake hadn’t stumped its development, what was once the capital of the Kingdom of Guatemala – which also included the present countries of Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, as well as the Mexican state of Chiapas – would have turned into one of the greatest cities in Latin America. After visiting the city’s impressive archeological museum, we stop by the Doña Maria Gordillo’s candy shop and buy some “canillitas de leche” (condensed milk candy) and some “chilacayotes en dulce” (candied chilacayote – a sort of local melon) and continue on our trip.
We then fly to Flores, an island on Lake Peten Itza. Here the heat and humidity are unbelievably high, different to the rest of the country– we are at sea level and very close to Mexico and Belize. People mostly come here to visit the marvelous Tikal National Park, the largest known pre-Columbian Mayan city. It remained hidden in the forest until its discovery in 1848. In 1979, UNESCO declared a World Heritage Site.
In the tropical rainforest, next to the temples, pyramids and palaces, you can also see large mounds of earth where pyramids and monuments that remain uncovered which let us imagine how this place looked when it was first discovered.