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From Tikal to the Altiplano: Ancient and Modern Mayan Cultures in Guatemala

11/12/2000 by Jean-Philippe Soule


Due to its natural and cultural diversity Central America is experiencing a surge in eco-tourism. Belize with its barrier reef and Honduras with its Bay Islands attract divers from around the world. Birdwatchers and sea turtles lovers flock to Costa Rica and Panama. Guatemala, although as rich in natural diversity as its neighbors, is best known as the heart of the Mayan culture and history.

During my first visit to Guatemala I was lured by the fame of Tikal, one of the world’s most beautiful archeological sites, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979. I had studied very little of the history and was not prepared for what met my eyes upon my visit. I stood in awe and contemplation in front of steep pyramids standing hundreds of feet above the tree canopy. I ran up the steep steps of each pyramid. I sat on top of them looking in admiration at the endless jungle horizon and the tops of the surrounding stone monuments, built hundreds of years ago, that still reigned above it. Colorful tropical birds including the Quetzal, considered the most beautiful in the Americas and symbol of peace found on the National Flag and currency bills, paraded in front of my eyes. The lion-like roar of howler monkeys dominated all other sounds coming from the forest. There are still many unexcavated monuments in and around Tikal and I was staggered by the thought that the modern day explorer can stumble across jungle-covered temples just as pioneers did more than a century ago. Tikal, even as the nation’s most visited ruins, gives you the feeling that you are communing with nature, culture and history, especially if you enter the park as the rising sun slowly chases the morning mist from the trees and monuments. The early riser sees the rainforest come to life much before the first groups of tourists invade the Central Plaza with their cameras.

Tikal aroused my curiosity, which led me from one book or magazine to another and into numerous conversations with local scholars I met during my subsequent travels. My main interest became the Indigenous cultures. Over fifty percent of the population is comprised of Indigenous groups, descendents of the Mayans. Yet I realized that, apart from the attention brought by Nobel Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu about human rights violations, the modern Indigenous communities of Guatemala remain isolated in remote valleys of the Altiplano. Few have become tourist destinations and the rest are seldom visited and talked about.

A brief introduction to their history will reveal the magnitude of their cultural heritage. A look at the recent past will show the hardships these people have overcome.

The New World, as the conquistadors called it, was in fact the birthplace of one of the world’s greatest civilizations. It was in the thick northern jungle of Peten that the Mayan gentry and academics developed an astounding culture; and erected the great cities. Some remain unexplored. In disarray, waiting to be excavated, lie even more sacrificial altars, astronomical observatories, strange ball courts where heroes fought to the death and soaring stone temples, accurately aligned and reaching to the sun.

The first signs of human activity in this area were determined to be 11500 years ago. Around 9000BC at the end of the Neolithic era lived a nomadic hunting tribe known as the Clovis. Some 6000 years ago, a matriarchal culture called Monte Alto prevailed. The transformation of nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers into settled, village-based farming societies took place slowly over the centuries with the domestication of squash, peppers, beans and maize. It was around this time that the ancestors of the Maya appear to have arrived in the Peten jungle from the North. This was the start of the Pre-classical period that lasted until 250AD.

Isolated in the middle of the jungle, they created a unique style of architecture, sculpture, writing and science. Their knowledge of astronomy was such that they could predict eclipses and the movement of the solar system. Perhaps the most important evidence of their advanced society was their extensive network of trade. For example, green jade and black obsidian rocks mined in Guatemala and Mexico, were found in a burial chamber in Copan, Honduras. As the Mayan civilization reached its peak, Europe was still in the dark ages. During this pre-classical period, in Spain, European emperor Charlemagne was leading a Christian army against the Muslim moors and European cities were in a shambles. Many of the renowned “Lost Cities of the Maya” date from this period.

The two most important sites in Guatemala are Tikal and Quirigua featuring a giant 35 foot statue, the tallest carved stone stellae in the Mayan world. In the eighth century, political destabilization brought war between the Mayan groups of the Peten jungle. Later, the growing Toltec tribe from Mexico is believed to have tried to conquer the Mayan empire. The Mayan people disappeared from the jungle into the remote mountains of the Altiplano. Scholars are still uncertain if they fled from the advancing Toltec army, or if the Mayan lower classes revolted against slavery, or if the agriculture due to climate change could not sustain a growing population of more than 16 million people.

The Post-classic period ended with the invasion by the Spaniards. The conquistadors imposed the Spanish language, the catholic religion and enslaved the Mayans. The Colonial period is best represented in Antigua Guatemala, the third most important city in the Spanish colonies of America and the capitol for a period of 233 years. Colonies under the auspices of Guatemala at that time included its current territory as well as the provinces of Chiapas and Soconusco (today part of Mexico), El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The military dictatorship lasted long after Guatemala’s independence from Spain until the end of the 20th century. From the late 1950’s for more than three decades, the country was marked with a bloody war between the government controlled by the wealthy old-family descendents of the original Dons and groups of guerillas hiding in the mountains. Both parties used indigenous Mayan villagers as pawns and massacred them if they refused to take a side. Hundred of thousands of Indigenous people were forced to flee into Mexico and Belize.

The Guatemalan economy has traditionally been based on agriculture and wealthy landowners have always relied on cheap labor from indigenous groups. Forced labor continued until the peace treaty was signed ten years ago. Today, for lack of other opportunities, indigenous people still work in the same harsh conditions in cotton, tobacco, coffee, and sugarcane plantations for insignificant wages as more than 60 percent of the national land is owned by less than 2 percent of the population.

Language is perhaps the most significant aspect of Mayan culture that still survives. Of the 29 Mayan languages still alive today, 20 can be heard in Guatemala spoken by an indigenous population of six million. A few Mayan languages are also spoken in Mexico, Belize and Honduras. The modern Mayan have abandoned their pictographic symbol in favor of the European alphabet and have incorporated many words from Spanish but most remain largely the same. Scholars have been able to study the roots of the written languages by examining inscriptions of Mayan glyphs in many ruins, dating from as far back as 200BC.

Today, Guatemala ‘s culture reflects two distinct heritages, one associated with western cultures and one rooted firmly in pre-Columbian traditions. The former is found primarily in Guatemala City, a modern, cosmopolitan and growing hub, and the latter, mainly in the highlands, where the customs and traditions of each village stand out. Particularly striking are their colorful dress, their handicrafts and the celebration of different religious, cultural, social and sports events, where the musical accompaniment of the marimba, the national instrument, is never far.

Each village and region is identifiable for its own weaving design and colors. Techniques and designs are passed from mother to daughter and traditional clothes are still preferred by most. A visit to the Ixchel Museum in Guatemala City features some old and modern weavings from various villages with photos and information about the history, origin and European influence. Some believe that the different patterns existed before the Spaniards arrived. Others believe they were brought from Europe. It is known that the conquistadors used the clothing to label people and control the populations. The Spaniards introduced wool and the spinning wheel in the 16th century when Mayans were spinning cotton by hand. The traditional technique was to warp the threads on a warping board, and then mount them on back-strap loom where a panel was woven. Panels were decorated with brocade designs depending on the textile tradition of the weaver’s community as well as her personal taste and skills. Finally, the woven panels were sewn together to make a garment. Today the designs of each village have evolved with the use of modern textiles and even contain gold or silver threads. Men in most villages have adopted jeans as a cheaper dress, but most women still proudly exhibit their art and skills by wearing their colorful, woven jackets called huipiles. A visit to villages, especially during market days is a cultural experience unique to Guatemala and should not be missed.

A typical visit to Guatemala starts in Antigua, the ancient capital and most beautiful colonial city of Central America. It is a 40-minute drive from the international airport or from the current capital, Guatemala City. From there tourists often continue to Chichicastenango, abbreviated to “Chichi” by locals, to attend the Thursday or Sunday market where Indigenous people from surrounding villages sell their goods as well as colorful crafts and weavings. Lake Atitlan, surrounded by three volcanoes, is dotted with hidden, picturesque villages accessible from the tourist town of Panajachel. The tours finish or sometimes start with a short flight and mini-van ride to the national park of Tikal. Such tours, offered by most travel agencies, can be done in less than a week and offer you a taste of Mayan ruins, colonial monuments, lush jungles, volcanoes and lake of the Altiplano, and a glimpse into some of the most colorful indigenous communities of the continent. If you can spare more than a week, you might choose to start by learning some Spanish in one of the numerous language schools of Antigua or Quetzaltenango that have received international recognition. There are many other places well worth a visit, some are prominent in every guidebook and others, if they appear at all, may be an unremarkable small dot on a map with no road access evident. The choice depends on your time and interest.

I do not like cities, but I understand why Antigua is the most visited place in the country. It was one of the most important Spanish cities in the New World until the capitol was moved to present day Guatemala City after the destructive earthquake of 1773. During the mid-1800’s, with the introduction of the coffee industry, a few of the colonial structures were restored. The city, however, remained isolated until recently. La Antigua was declared a National Monument in 1944 and a Monumental City of the Americas in 1965. In 1979, it was included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. Today cultural activities take place inside magnificent monuments and houses. Old Europe can be felt while walking among the cobblestone streets and colonial architecture and tourists from around the world mix with Indigenous people in traditional clothing from surrounding villages.

From Antigua, an AC mini-van will take you to Chichicastenango and its marquee attraction, the market. It is colorful and lively and a perfect place to buy local hand-woven textiles, or wood masks, as well as crafts custom made to tourist tastes. Don’t miss the picturesque church that San Tomas built in 1540. In front you will see believers burn copal incense as an offering to the souls of loved one while others sit on the surrounding stairs to sell their flowers and produce. From Chichi, the Lago de Atitlan isn’t far. Panajachel, also dubbed Gringotenango as half of its population is made of expatriates or tourists, is the portal town to the lake. You can escape the discos and western restaurants by taking a ferry across the lake to Santiago de Atitlan, which hosts its main market on Sundays. Its people, called Tzutuhil, have strongly preserved their traditional huipiles and headwear that they make by rolling a woven belt around their heads numerous times. Their clothing is interesting and you might certainly be tempted to take photos, but be aware that little girls here are aggressive toward camera holders. As I stepped out of the boat, two girls came to beg me to take their photos. The light wasn’t good but because of their insistence, I decided to please them and take a photo. They then tenaciously asked me to pay them 2 quetzals each. Five minutes later they were still following me everywhere around town gripping my shirt. As I walked through the steep, narrow streets making my way through the market, I saw other visitors become the prey of young photo and money beggars.

My favorite village around the lake is San Antonio de Palopo. You can access it by boat, pick-up truck, or if you have strong legs and lungs, you can hire a bike and pedal the 5 miles from Panajachel on steep curvy roads lined with bougainvillea flowers. You will be rewarded with stunning views on the lake. In San Antonio, you can see people spinning threads and weaving huipiles. On a tight schedule, you could visit both villages in a day from Panajachel and make it back to Antigua or Guatemala the same evening, but you ought not miss the sunset on the lake with the volcanoes in the background.

During my second trip, I decided to study Spanish for a couple of weeks in Quetzaltenago, the second largest city also known as Xela (pronounced “shayla”). Most schools have a good reputation. The one I picked was called ICA. It was a very professional operation with excellent teachers and cultural activities in the afternoons and on weekends. In the evening I took meringue and salsa lessons from one of the teachers and found myself trying to move my hips to the rhythm of Latin music in the popular Casa Verde bar. Xela is a hub for half-day or day visits to surrounding villages or natural attractions. One of my favorite villages, less than three miles away, was Almolonga. It hosts a large flower and produce market on Wednesdays and Saturdays. It is one of the few places in Guatemala where people although shy, do not mind photos. Women wrap their heads with colorful hand-woven belts they call cintas. Another three miles further is the village of Zunil. Sleepy during the week it wakes up on market day with an explosion of colors. Most tourists just come here to hire a pick-up truck to take them to the outdoor hot springs of Fuentes Georginas, a beautiful place to soak outside in hot water pools while sipping a beer or fresh-squeezed juice. Cabinas with fireplaces can be rented and short hikes are rewarded with stunning views on the lush valley.

A favorite tour offered by most language schools is the market of Totonicapan. This village is also known for its ceramic crafts. You can’t mistake the bus to get there; they are the brightest red or green buses with a big sign saying TOTO. For those with poor eyesight, the driver’s assistant will scream the destination name to every passerby hoping people might change their mind and decide to take that bus on a last-second whim.

Another place close to Xela, and well worth a visit, is the small village of Nahuala. You won’t find it in any guidebook, and it is just a small dot on the map. In spite of its easy access from the main road, tourists never go there. The only reason I discovered it is because a friend who worked in a school had helped a local woman sell her weavings to students. She was invited to the village and took me along. We met Maria, a Mayan woman in her forties who took us from one house to another to photograph all her family and friends. She taught us her weaving technique and explained the difference between the old symmetrical patterns and the new animal designs. At the market place, both men and women were wearing traditional clothes. Men wore an orange-striped jacket and a brown skirt held with a thick leather belt. We returned to Xela after promising Maria to send her some photos and return to visit again.

Another place I recommend for its truly elaborate men’s dress is the Solola market, perhaps the largest in the country. Although it is on the way to Panajachel and an easy day trip from Guatemala, Antigua or Xela, it is seldom visited as tourists hurry by on their way out to the lake. As you walk the market streets, you will see many men wearing a pair of striped pants topped by a square-pattern skirt and a colorful, woven jacket with gold embroidery. Each design represents their status and social class. Yet even in Solola, traditional clothing is slowly giving way to jeans, T-Shirts and baseball caps. Thursday is the big market day and it gets very crowded. In the crowd, female pickpockets are experts. I had planned my third visit during the annual festival, which attracted even more people. As people pushed and shoved from all sides and I was holding my camera up out of the way, two young women came to my sides and at the exact same time lifted the Velcro of my pockets. To their surprise, the Velcro held, and the noise warned me. They scurried away after I gave them a bad look and grumbled at them in Spanish. Being squeezed by the crowd and unable to put my arms down, I was nearly a victim.

A day trip from Xela is all you might be able to do while you study, but after you finish your classes, there are more remote villages that I highly recommend. Before going any further, be aware that unless you rent your own car, there will be no more tourist buses serving these places. You will have no choice but to ride the crowded and uncomfortable chicken bus. That is an experience in its own right, and a real part of today’s Guatemalan life.

I spent days riding and standing packed in these old school buses. I might have been bored if not for the way the bus drivers like to pass large trucks in the middle of mountain turns with no visibility. In a country where the civil war just recently ended, this kind of danger may seem tame, but drivers beware, buses are large and always have the right of way. As a passenger you should know that the front seats have the most leg room but might not be the most comfortable or safest places to sit. It is on these roads that one understands the true meaning of machismo. It’s a cultural phenomenon I would avoid if possible. The chicken bus with the crazy driver is one aspect of Guatemala and the only affordable way to visit remote villages so I accept it. This discomfort shouldn’t deter you as you will meet wonderful people and you may even end up like me, a habitual Guatemalan traveler.

One of the most distant and remote places that can be visited in Guatemala is the rugged Cuchumatanes mountain range in the department of Huehuetenango. A winding dirt road climbs steeply from the city of Huehue into the mountains. It passes by isolated houses and fields of cactus the size of palm trees to reach in three hours the village of Todos Santos. The village is hidden in a valley well above 2500m and surrounded by mountains covered with pine trees. During its famed market, Todos Santeros come from all surrounding settlements. Its inhabitants, of Mam-mayan origins, still use the 260 day Mayan calendar and all wear their traditional clothes. Women dress in red or blue huipiles while most men still prefer their beautiful red and white-striped trousers and white or multicolored shirts with a broad, embroidered red collar. It is a place that I keep coming back to not only for its beautiful and quiet setting and brisk, clean air, but also for its kind and candid people. The weeklong annual festival of Todos Santos draws crowds of tourists. It ends on November first with the “skack koyl” which means wild horse race. The men mount horses and race back and forth along a track outside of town, pausing to take a drink of rum between laps. Eventually riders become so drunk they cannot stay on their horses. Another member of the family replaces them. Frequent injuries and occasional death occur, but riders who finish the day, their face covered with a thick layer of dry blood, dirt and sweat, receive the omen of young women. Although the race attract people from around the world, everyday in Todos offers a new cultural experience. I have met travelers in Todos who had come for a day and were still there two weeks later. It is easy to be charmed and if you have the time, why not choose Todos Santos to study some Spanish and Mam-Maya in one of the two language schools, or learn weaving or medicinal plants with the friendly villagers.

Further away from Huehue and the tourist masses, you can follow the road out to the rustic and scenic mountain town of San Mateo de Ixtatan. On the way, you pass through the village of Soloma, distinguished by its women wearing pristine, long, white huipiles and necklaces made of gold-painted beads. San Mateo, at 2600 meters, is cold and often masked with mountain mist and is set on a point of land overlooking a long, rugged valley. This Chuj-maya speaking town is as isolated linguistically as it is geographically, for most of its neighbors speak the more pervasive Kanjobal Mayan language. The inhabitants still worship nature and consider the sun as their father and the moon as their mother, thus explaining the red sun patterns found on many huipiles worn by women. Collectors prize the multi-colored star shaped designs also woven in San Mateo. Adjacent to the village is an old mine still producing a black salt highly praised throughout the Cuchumatanes and Huehue for its medicinal properties. San Mateo is as far as the chicken bus will take you in the Cuchumatan Mountains, but on the other side, closer to Guatemala City, you can access other remote villages.

Huehue is an excellent hub for launching excursions to another of my favorite routes, the long dirt road to the village of Nebaj via Aguacatan and Sacapulas. You may also reach Nebaj from Chichi. A short bus ride will take you to Quiche, a notable town where women wear embroidered shirts instead of the common woven huipiles. From Quiche, you can ride a direct bus to Nebaj. There, women wear huipiles that are unique throughout the entire Altiplano. The base color of the weave is white and like those of other villages features blues, blacks and reds, but the dominant highlight is a stunning green. They wrap their long hair into green cintas, which they then tie around their heads. On cold days they cover their shoulders with a green shawl. Their huipiles can cost up to $80 and represent a month of daily work. Although Nebaj offers few other points of special interest, the beauty of its huipiles alone is worth the visit. In Nebaj most men now wear jeans and T-shirts and when I asked the elder son of an old lady who had showed me her weaving technique why he preferred modern clothes, I thought he would reply that they were more convenient to wear. Instead I learned that most men prefer their traditional costume, but men’s costumes are very elaborate and cost a lot in time and money for all the threads needed. So people have adopted jeans and T-shirts to economize.

From Nebaj you can catch a bus to the end of the dirt road to the enchanting town of Chajul. The trail is very rough and during the rainy season, the bus doesn’t always make it. For this ride, more than any other in the country, you need to have a strong stomach and it will help if you close your eyes and pray until the bus stops. There you will feel what it must have felt like to visit the villages around lake Atitlan decades ago. There is a striking contrast between the earth tone of adobe houses, the bright red and blue huipiles and the green vegetation surrounding the village. In front of each house are set weaving lines where women sit every day constructing their tapestries by mixing bright yellow, green, orange, purple and pink threads into the base of red or blue. In the evening, men and teenage boys can be seen walking back from the forest with loads of firewood lashed to horses or carried on their backs with a strap over their forehead. Throughout the Altiplano firewood remains the principal means for cooking and heating.

There is one catch to visiting this charming place; you must not have a tight schedule. You never know if the bus will come from one day to the next, and it only goes as far as Nebaj. When you arrive in Nebaj, there will be no continuing bus for Quiche. In a hurry to attend a festival in another village, I had to ride from Nebaj to Sacapulas on the rear of a Pepsi delivery truck, standing on top of empty soda bottles for three hours while winding down sharp mountain turns on a slippery, muddy road. That was in addition to a three-hour ordeal hitchhiking out of town in the rain. From Sacapulas, I was lucky to get a ride with an NGO worker and thus was able to make it in one long day from Chajul to Quiche.

The further you go into Guatemala, the more you will love this country and the better you will understand that the Mayan culture is still alive. People still live much the same way they did when the Europeans came, weaving, cultivating corn, and beans and collecting firewood to cook and heat their adobe houses. Electricity and road access have not changed the local traditions. Corn, which was cultivated by the ancient Mayans, remains the main crop and it is directly roasted over a fire, or made into tortillas, tamales, a hot sweet drink called atol de elote, and a cold sweet drink called horchata that you can order from small restaurants throughout the country.

For travelers the main attraction of these towns is the market and your intent will surely be to take photos but you should be prepared for mixed reactions. Depending on the village you are visiting, people may be more or less accepting of photographers. If you see people hiding or showing strong disapproval, do not insist. In places kids might ask you for a couple of quetzals to take their photo. If you want their photo it is a small price to pay. Do not however pay more than 5 quetzals for photos or you risk devaluing the salary that workers can make, thus inciting people to beg for photos or directly for cash. You also may notice that alcoholism is a real problem among the men on the Altiplano. I prefer to buy little things or services from children or women than give any cash to men. Even if you don’t need them, some of the little dolls or other handicrafts make great presents at a bargain price.

If you really want to help people from indigenous villages, what they need most is a means to preserve their culture while receiving an education. Only educated people understand the political, social and economical situation of their country. Non-educated people do not vote or do it without understanding who they really elect. Today the best way indigenous people can fight for their human rights is to understand the laws of the country they live in. I visited numerous schools and took a great pleasure in motivating children by stressing the importance of their studies and by complimenting them on their clothes, one of the main symbols of their culture. My visits to classes were always popular. I hope that in 10 or 20 years, these children will be instilled with the belief that they can obtain their human rights and a better standard of living and remain proud of who they are.

Don't miss the photos:


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San Antonio Palopo

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San Francisco el Alto

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Santa Cruz del Quiche

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Santiago de Atitlan

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Todos Santos 1

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Todos Santos 2

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Huipiles 1

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Huipiles 2

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