A Passport to Guatemala’s Mayan Past

WE WERE ON a motorboat to the past—or so we hoped.

My husband, Paul, and I sat near the bow of the skiff, soaking in the sun and the view as we zipped across Lake Atitlán, in Guatemala’s highlands. Several large volcanoes towered in the distance, seemingly standing guard over the villages scattered along the green shores.

Our destination was Santiago Atitlán, the largest town on the lake and a place to encounter the culture of the Tz’utujil—one of roughly 20 Mayan ethnic groups in Guatemala. As we approached the shore, we saw women in traditional purple-striped blouses, waist deep in the water, washing clothes. We walked from the rickety pier into town, at first seeing little more than stalls where locals were aggressively hawking water bottles and maps. But a left turn took us into Santiago Atitlan’s main plaza, which was crowded on market day. Tz’utujil women, some with children, sat on the ground with their wares spread around them: piles of fruit and vegetables, spices, meat. The women wore huipiles—striking blouses embroidered with birds and flowers. Some men wore traditional purple-and-white-striped pants, also stitched with symbols.

Starting around 1500 B.C., the Maya established one of the dominant civilizations in Mesoamerica. At its height, the empire stretched from southern Mexico to parts of Honduras and El Salvador, with its center in present-day Guatemala. Skilled at agriculture, astronomy and mathematics, the Maya built stepped stone temples, palaces, cities that held tens of thousands of residents. But for reasons that are not understood, their civilization went into decline even before Spanish conquistadors arrived in the early 16th century; urban centers were abandoned to the jungle and many traditions vanished.

But not all. The Maya managed to preserve some of their culture, particularly in Guatemala’s western highlands, which extend from the colonial capital of Antigua Guatemala to the Mexican border. Earlier this year, Paul and I tried to experience as much of that as possible over a one-week trip, exploring one of the most important ancient sites (now sprawling ruins), as well as communities like Santiago Atitlán.

We started in Antigua Guatemala, a 16th-century town just 20 miles from Guatemala City, the modern capital. We spent hours walking the cobblestone streets and taking in the colorful and sometimes ornate colonial architecture. At Jades Imperio Maya, we browsed jewelry made from jade—a prized commodity and good-luck symbol for the ancient Maya, who used it for ornamentation and ceremonial masks. In a workshop at the back of the store, craftsmen shaped stone into objects such as the ring I bought.

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