Guatemala: Land Of The Maya And Eternal Spring

Monday, August 17, 2015 - by Scott S. Smith

You’ve probably never thought about going to Guatemala, so it will come as a surprise to be told that in a few years it is going to one of the world’s hot destinations (that is, for anyone bored by lying on beaches, eating at restaurants, and shopping at malls that can just as easily be found at home). 

Why?

*It’s known as “the land of eternal spring” because the temperature is relatively mild most of the year in much of the country (I was there in April and it was never very cold nor hot—in the rainy season May-October the thundershowers are brief).

*Guatemala is a lush paradise, with terrain that runs from mangrove swamps to 7000-foot mountains, and has such vibrant flowers that they are a major export.

*There are 800 species of mammals and it’s an up-and-coming destination for bird-watchers.

*It’s a foodie’s dream--I don’t do restaurant reviews because of dietary restrictions, but managed to stuff myself three times a day on a nine-day visit (it’s also a contender for the world’s best coffee).

*The water is safe, Internet connections are good, and there are plenty of first class hotels (or eco-lodges, if you prefer).

*Despite a violent past, it’s safer to be there than stay at home.

*Guatemala is only about five hours away from anywhere in the U.S., yet can transport you something wholly exotic: the fascinating culture of the Maya Indians.

Maya civilization started there 4,000 years ago and because its hieroglyphics couldn’t be deciphered until the 19870s (20% are still a mystery), our understanding of them is changing almost daily. The world’s most exciting archaeological work is being done there, so you can exercise your inner Indiana Jones and help out or just visit the sites and museums to admire their astonishing artifacts. Scholars’ initial theory was that the Maya were mystical and scientific, but not warlike. As we eventually learned, they were actually all three, in spades.

Before the trip, I listened to the brand new CD program of The Great Courses’ Maya to Aztec: Ancient America Revealed by Edwin Barnhart to find out how much had changed since I had read about them a decade ago. Some of what I learned:

*Their wars were not only for territory and power—they wanted access to enemies’ supernatural realms (aided by the sacrifice of prisoners).

*Math wizardry helped them create the world’s most accurate calendar.

*They made sophisticated and beautiful pottery, despite having no potter’s wheel.

*They played a strange ball game--hitting a small ball with hips and elbows into an impossibly high ring-- which was not simply a sport, but a religious ritual.

*Their central cities were built as sacred spaces that reminded everyone of the creation myth and the divine power exercised by rulers.

*Each ruler wanted to absorb the power of predecessors by building temples over the old ones, which were painted red and covered with brilliant murals.

*New research helps explain why Mayan cities were mysteriously abandoned by 900 A.D.: among the newly realized factors were that it was the end of a calendar age that required change and the living were crowded out because burials were required within the city.

The last Maya kingdom near Tikal fell to the Spaniards in 1697, but the people stayed in the area. Today’s Maya (over half the country’s population) have kept many of their ancient ways, merging their Catholicism with native beliefs, consulting with shamans as often as they go to church. They maintain a way of life governed by seasons, clans, and folk memory, while their bright, handmade clothes are not costumes put on to attract tourists, but an expression of the way they see the world.

Having endured the frustration of trying to be my own guide, I’m a believer in using bilingual specialist tour operators wherever I go, so I joined Elsie of Bella Guatemala Travel http://www.BellaGuatemalaTravel.net a few days late in the itinerary, at the beautiful colonial town of Antigua. Over 100,000 people participate on what is said to be the world’s largest Good Friday procession: think of it as part spectacle and part penance, as elaborate floats depicting scenes from the life of Jesus are carried through the narrow streets, which have been covered by festive designs made of flowers and colored sawdust. You can get a good overview of this in Insight Guides: Guatemala, Belize & Yucatan.

Elsie was flexible about the schedule and we decided to visit a traditional Mayan village on the shores of magnificent Lake Atitlan, surrounded by volcanoes. We were joined by Jose Antonio Gonzalez, who is not only passionate about his work as an archaeologist, knows how to get anyone excited about what looks an ordinary mound of grass. On the way, we stopped at the site of Iximche, where the Maya still leave offerings on altars to the spirits.

We visited a women’s collective which makes its own cotton thread and hand-weaves clothes dyed in vivid colors using botanicals, a process that produces such high quality products that they are always backlogged with orders. On the way back to Antigua we got stuck in a holiday traffic jam for hours, which led to one of the delights of small group tours: you get to talk with people of very different backgrounds about everything under the sun (favorite novels, alternative medicine, psychology, the stupidity of reality TV).

On Sunday, we hiked to the top of Mount Pacaya, a volcano that devastated the area in 2010. Rather than peering into the smoking cone, we found the rocks near the top hot enough to roast marshmallows, next to the Lava Store featuring native crafts of volcanic glass.

For the next three days we stayed at Hotel Villa Maya, located on an idyllic lake (if you didn’t mind the crocodiles). On the first day we explored the newly-opened site of Yaxha (700 B.C.-700 A.D.), the third largest known Mayan city, after the biggest, El Mirador in the northern wilderness, and runner-up, Tikal.

Tikal was often one of the greatest powers in the Mayan world for six centuries from 250 A.D. Of its 2,800 known structures, only 5% have been excavated, which is why the surprises keep coming.  The most spectacular is the Temple of the Great Jaguar, 144 feet high, where Lord Chocolate was buried (chocolate was a sacred drink). The best view is from the top of Temple IV, towering over the forest at 180 feet (a scene from “Star Wars” was shot from there).

Guatemala City is an underrated capital and overlooked as an archaeological site. We spent the last two days with Jose visiting some of the 25 mounds that are still being excavated, out of the 350 that constituted the ancient city of Kaminaljuyu, now largely under the modern capital. Several of the museums have world-class treasures, especially Archaeology and Ethnology, Miraflores, and Popol Vuh. Any history buff will be wowed by the craftsmanship.

It’s no wonder that Guatemala is one of those places that keeps people coming back.


ScaleTrains To Visit Tennessee Valley RR Museum For 60th Anniversary Oct. 16-17, 23-24

Halloween And Fall Festivities In The Smokies This Year

Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum Celebrates 60 Years Of Preserving Railroad History


ScaleTrains, a manufacturer of HO, N, and S Scale model trains, will be visiting the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum to celebrate the organization’s 60th Anniversary on two weekends: Oct. 16 ... (click for more)

This fall, there are many ways to take advantage of the ability to attend in-person events again. These events in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains are perfect opportunities to celebrate the ... (click for more)

The Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum has been preserving railroad history since 1961, and this month, it is kicking off a year long celebration that will highlight the museum's 60-year heritage ... (click for more)



Travel

ScaleTrains To Visit Tennessee Valley RR Museum For 60th Anniversary Oct. 16-17, 23-24

ScaleTrains, a manufacturer of HO, N, and S Scale model trains, will be visiting the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum to celebrate the organization’s 60th Anniversary on two weekends: Oct. 16 & 17, 23 & 24. The event will take place at Grand Junction, 4540 Turntable Road in Chattanooga, and is open to everyone. Founded in 1961 by Paul H. Merriman and Robert M. Soule ... (click for more)

Halloween And Fall Festivities In The Smokies This Year

This fall, there are many ways to take advantage of the ability to attend in-person events again. These events in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains are perfect opportunities to celebrate the fall season and Halloween. Maple Lane Maze – The corn maze and pumpkin patch returns for its 23rd year on weekends in October, with a haunted maze nightly from Oct. 22-31. At the farm ... (click for more)

Breaking News

Man Killed On Highway 153 Had Just Been Involved In Drug Deal With The Shooter, Police Say; Genesis Vaughn Charged With Killing Stewart Luttrell

A man who was killed while driving along Highway 153 on Tuesday night had just carried out a drug deal with the shooter, police said. Stewart Brodie Luttrell, 35, was killed in the incident that resulted in traffic being clogged for hours. Luttrell's wife, 27, was also shot. Their two-year-old son was not injured. Police said Wednesday night that h omicide investigators had ... (click for more)

County Commission Makes Last-Minute Redistricting Changes Before Vote Next Wednesday On 11-Member Plan; Sparks Fly Between Sharpe, Smedley

The County Commission made last-minute redistricting changes to its 11-member plan at a lengthy meeting on Wednesday. The commission is expected to pass the plan next Wednesday and send it on to state officials for their approval. Officials said the completed plan is within deviation standards (not having one or more districts too much larger or smaller than others) and keeps ... (click for more)

Opinion

Pretending Is Dangerous - And Response

I’ve ‘seen some stuff’ in my time. I have followed politics for many years. I’m retired, I’m a realist and a Vietnam veteran, pretty much in that order. I’m not an alarmist or a conspiracy theorist. That said, I have never in my life been so concerned about the future of this Republic. Politics was once a legitimate contest of ideas, put forth by political figures who were sincere, ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: The Mandates Argument

I have taken the position that mandates of any kind that limit personal freedoms are awful. And I have watched with sorrow what has happened at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee and is now happening at CHI Memorial Hospital in Chattanooga. Good people are losing jobs all across America rather than surrender their personal beliefs. I also mourn the COVID vaccine has been divided ... (click for more)