Through the Land of the Mayas

An altar in the museum of Copan.story and photos by Heinz Jaeger

Our trip to Guatemala with Caravan Tours in January last year was inspired by a short note in the April 2009 issue of The Travel Society Magazine, in which Georgette Jones praised Caravan Tours for trips to Central America.  We found her praise well deserved.

Who would not like to stay in the luxurious Futura Tikal Hotel in Guatemala City?  It is absolutely gorgeous.   Our tour director, Jorge, greeted us in the lobby and after dinner comprehensively outlined our programme.

This city of some three million inhabitants suffered severe damage in the earthquake of 1973, and most of the damaged colonial buildings were replaced by modern apartments and office towers.  Between the overcrowded slums along the sides of the ravines are some beautiful, gated communities for the well-off residents, while the ‘middle class’ live in new, multi-story apartment buildings.  We couldn’t help wondering how these will withstand the next earthquake.

Noteworthy in this city is the Museo Ixchel, dedicated to Maya culture. There are stunning examples of hand-woven fabrics in brilliant colours, and displays of various fibres used by the Mayas, their dyes and weaving techniques as well as exquisite examples of embroidery.

Soon we were off on our tour.  Chichicastenango can only be reached along a secondary road off the main Highway, and it takes steady nerves to negotiate the many hairpin curves in and out of a steep ravine, knowing that the many “Chicken bus” drivers love to pass on blind corners. Chicken buses are retired North American school buses, painted in gaudy colors, which are the main public transportation in the country.  They pick up passenger along the road and usually carry mountains of bags on their roofs.

The market in Chichicastenango can best be described as fascinating chaos.  One can buy anything and everything here, and the persistent vendors follow you wherever you go.  In the centre of all this confusion is the Church of Santo Tomás, where the local people, primarily pure-blooded Mayas, pray to their ancient or Christian gods, as the occasion demands, assisted by either the shaman or the priest, sometimes by both.

The hotel Villa Catarina, in the village of the same name on the shore of Lake Atitlan, is a charming place with excellent food and comfortable rooms, all with balconies overlooking the lake, which is fringed on the far side by three volcanoes: Atitlan, Toleman and San Pedro. The lake is considered to be one of the most beautiful in the world.  (For a photo essay showing this hotel visit the website listed below – Ed.)

We reached the town of Santiago de Atitlan, with 80,000 inhabitants and located between two of the volcanoes, after a one-hour boat ride across the lake. Here we find an abundance of handicraft stores and art galleries, a lovely place to enjoy strolling along the cobblestone streets.  This area used to be almost completely Catholic, but for unknown reasons many people have abandoned that faith and joined the Evangelical movement; one result being that the stores do not sell alcohol any more.

One of Tikal’s pyramids.This town is the home of ‘Maximón’ or San Simón, a saint of unknown origin, whose effigy is located in one of the houses near the church, dressed in western attire with a cowboy hat and smoking a big cigar.  He is the “evil saint”, seen as an enemy of the church.  Some say he represents a Franciscan friar who chased after young indigenous girls, and to stop him the villagers cut off his legs.  In front of the house burns a fire and local people ask favours of him and throw an egg into the fire; if it cracks, it signifies he will grant their wish.

Leaving the western highlands on our way to Copan the landscape changes drastically from steep mountains and lush valleys to the flat and dry Chaparral east of Guatemala City.  However, on both sides of the road we still see high mountain ranges that are covered with cloud forests, which shield the area from the moist winds from both the Pacific and the Caribbean.

The Maya ruins of Copan are just across the border in Honduras; it is worth making the small effort to cross the border, because this is probably the best-preserved of all such sites, with beautifully carved stelae and altars surrounding the Great Acropolis.  The Maya writing has been about 80% deciphered, and knowledgeable people can read the events recorded on the stelae like a book.  Here the genealogy of 17 kings that ruled Copan between 426 and 822 CE is described, as well as battles, victories and other evidence attesting to the warlike nature of the Mayas.   At the end of the Great Plaza is the Hieroglyphic Stairway, where the events of 400 years of history were recorded.  When it was first discovered, tree roots had pried apart the stones and most of the stairway had collapsed.  Archeologists reconstructing this magnificent structure did not realize that the carving on the face of the steps told a continuous story and they did not replace the stones in their original order.  Thus this story has not yet been completely deciphered.