Guatemala is a mostly mountainous country and is located on the southern border of Mexico.
The advanced Mayan civilization flourished there from about 750 BC until it’s sudden and still mysterious demise in the 10th century AD. The Mayan were famous for their knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, their calendar, and logographic writing system.The Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century and dominated the remaining Mayan population up until the modern era. The mix of Colonial and Mayan history make a visit to this country a fantastic experience. Todays colorful markets and villages, as well as the art, architecture and crafts of the Mayan, are a great attraction.
The capital, with about one million inhabitants, is worth a short stopover to visit the Palacio Nacional, the Museo Popol Vuh with its excellent collection of Mayan artifacts, and the National Museum of Archeology and Ethnography.
Otherwise you may wish to go directly to beautiful ANTIGUA, which was the colonial capital from its founding in 1542 until 1773, when a catastrophic earthquake resulted in the capital being moved to Guatemala City. Today, Antigua is a charming small city of about 50,000 inhabitants, surrounded by dramatic mountains and volcanoes. Many of its colonial churches, convents, monasteries, and nunneries are still evident, such as the Arco de la Cruz, Iglesia de La Merced with its 18th c. yellow facade, the Convent and Church de Las Capuchinas, Iglesia San Francisco El Grande, and the Cathedral, which was partially rebuilt after the earthquake. For a panoramic view over the city, go up the Cerro de la Cruz.
MARKETS OF GUATEMALA
The largest and most famous market in Guatemala is by far Chichicastenango: 67 miles (2h drive) from Antigua, and 89 miles (2h ¾ drive) from Guatemala City. Vendors are there daily, but the busiest and most interesting days are Thursday and Saturday, when people come down from the highland villages to sell or exchange their goods. Chichicastenango is an open air market at nearly 6500 ft in the mountains. The red tile rooftops, the cobbled streets, and the maze of vendors in their small shops create a mix of noise and colors where tourists mingle with villagers, and a few agile pickpockets. But this apparent chaos is quite organized since the vendors stalls are grouped according to the products they sell: colorful fresh fruits and veggies, pottery, wood carvings, and all kinds of trinkets, fabrics, and woven garments with vibrant colors and unique patterns. Should you get tired of shopping, the village church, Santo Tomas and the cemetery are worth a visit.
Not as big but less touristy is the Friday and Tuesday market of Solola on Lake Atitlan. The vivid colorful merchandise is available with delicious food and interesting souvenirs, but the top attraction of this market is the colorful local inhabitants who visit in their traditional costumes from their highland villages.
LAKE ATITLAN and PANAJACHEL
Lake Atitlan is a magnificent lake surrounded by volcanoes; most notably the Atitlan Volcano and the San Pedro Toliman Volcano. It lays at 5240 feet in the highlands and is surrounded by small Mayan villages which are often referred to as the “Magical Villages”. The roads surrounding the lake are narrow and not too good. These villages are more easily reached by boat and some of them are completely secluded with only boat access. There are a total of eleven quaint little Mayan villages, each one with its own character such as San Marcos, San Juan, Santa Cruz or San Pedro.
Penajachel, a small town of 15,000 inhabitants, is located on the north shore of the lake, and is the starting point where you can take a boat and visit these villages. Its cultural center is the famous Casa Cakchiquel, which was built in 1948 as a hotel and where writers, painters, artists and visitors such as Che Guevara and Ingrid bergman came to stay.
TIKAL and FLORES ISLAND
Tikal is by far the largest and tallest pre-Columbian Mayan city. To avoid a 10 hour drive to reach the National Park you can visit easily by plane. Overnighting in the small island of Flores is an interesting option. This tiny island on Lake Peten Itza is linked to the shore by a causeway and stands 40 miles away (1h ¼ drive) from Tikal National Park, a Unesco World Heritage site. From Flores you can also visit the other nearby ruins of Uaxactun, the oldest astronomical Mayan observatory, and Yaxha, which was the third largest ceremonial city of the Mayan world with 20,000 inhabitants and more than 400 buildings. In Ixpanpajul Natural park, you can enjoy a swing ride on a zipline over a canopy of jungle forest
Traces of civilization in the area go back to 1000 years BC. The Mayan population started to develop around the first century AD and essentially collapsed in the 10th century AD. During this period more than 3000 buildings were erected and still remain: impressive palaces, temples and pyramids are among the tallest pre-columbian structures ever built. Numbers and letters are used more than names to distinguish the buildings, such as burials 1, 10, 48, 85, 116, etc…, or Groups G, H, R… etc…, Temple I, II, III, IV etc… You will see the Great Plaza, the Plaza of the 7 Temples, Mundo Perdido, the Central, North, and South Acropolis and much much more. The site is grandiose and impressive.
More than 30 kings and queens ruled Tikal during that time. Connections with Teotihuacan in Mexico and Copan in Honduras have been proven. Many theories try to explain the sudden demise of the Mayan Civilization, with the most logical being overpopulation, linked to an agrarian failure and a long period of drought since only rain water was available and kept in reservoirs.