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(photo credit: Ofer Zemach)
Dozens of smiling Mayans in their best clothes crowded outside the airport as our flight from New York arrived in Guatemala City. The women had their dark black hair tied in long pony tails and were dressed in embroidered blouses with long skirts belted with a bright rope. The men were wearing sisal hats, multicolored jackets and red-and-white striped trousers. They came from the many nearby Mayan villages to welcome visiting family members living in the US.
One of the most remarkable places on Earth, Guatemala is only five times the size of Israel, but incredibly diverse. The climate ranges from steamy tropical jungles and desert valleys, to chilly alpine plateaus and everything in between. In addition to its natural diversity, Guatemala is home to an amazing cultural diversity including Maya, European and Caribbean traditions.
The Highland Maya comprise about half Guatemala's population and have maintained a rich and colorful culture, including more than 20 native languages spoken in the various regions whose inhabitants have their unique customs and style of dress. It is this blend of Mayan culture with the European that gives Guatemala its essential character.
After almost three centuries as a Spanish colony, Guatemala won its independence in 1821. During the second half of the 20th century, it experienced a variety of military and civilian governments, as well as a 36-year guerrilla war. In 1996, the government signed a peace agreement formally ending the conflict, which had left more than 100,000 people dead and had created some 1 million refugees.
On an exciting 10-day tour organized by experienced tour guide Ronnen Raz, manager of Eco Field Trips, we had the chance to explore the natural and cultural treasures, while traveling through the ever-changing vistas of this fascinating country, frequently called the Land of Eternal Spring.
As we had only few hours before boarding our flight to Flores in the north of the country, we took a quick tour around the streets of Guatemala City, the capital.
Although many tourists simply view Guatemala City as a place for arrivals and departures, there are some attractions that are definitely worth taking in. One is the National Palace, now called the Palace of Culture, in which the peace agreements were signed. It is a beautifully finished green stone building that takes up one entire side of the main square. The stained glass windows, the spectacular interior finishes and the courtyard are worth a visit.
A one-hour flight (four-five hours driving) brought us to Flores, a small city located on an island in Lake Pet n Itz , at El- Pet n region.
Pet n occupies almost the whole northern part of Guatemala. Large parts of it are covered by tropical forests that have been declared protected areas and feature a great variety of flora and fauna.
The main reason for our visit was the trip to Tikal, the most famous Mayan ruins in Guatemala, and considered as one of the archeological wonders of the world.
Tikal was one of the most powerful Mayan cities, occupied by a vast populous for about a thousand years. It is Guatemala's most famous cultural and natural preserve.
Located inside Tikal National Park, the site is dominated by five huge temples, steep-sided granite pyramids rising to 60 meters from the forest floor and surrounded by smaller temples, ceremonial platforms and plazas.
Though there are clear and maintained paths going between one temple to another, we felt we were walking in the middle of a jungle. Parrots were squawking, and Spider monkeys jumped from branch to branch in the canopy of leaves above us.
The highest step-pyramid is a stunning 44 meters, and I must say it's steep and quite tiring, but definitely worth climbing, as you're rewarded by breathtaking panoramic views across the jungle.
We spent nearly the whole day hiking in this truly peaceful and inspiring place, but on our leave I had a feeling there is much more to be uncovered.
FROM TIKAL we drove south to Livingstone on the Caribbean coast. Though located on the mainland, we had to take a speedboat along the Rio Dulce to reach the village of Livingstone, which is populated mostly by Garifunas.
In the 1600s, natives from the mainland of Central America invaded St. Vincent Island in the Caribbean, killed all the local men and married the women. Around 1800, a ship of full of slaves of Nigerian origin ended up on the island and more mixing took place. The addition of elements from Africa created this unique culture which only exists in this one town in Guatemala, in addition to several in Belize and Honduras.
The Garifunas had been friendly with the Spanish, and when Central America won its independence from Spain, they found themselves out of favor and outsiders in their own land. In Guatemala, they were oppressed and unsupported until 1996, when an official agreement gave them recognition.
Livingstone is the gateway to the Rio Dulce (sweet river) and its main businesses are fishing and tourism. It is very different from the rest of Guatemala and has a very laid-back African-Caribbean feel to it, with reggae music playing loudly from Victorian-style buildings.
It is a great place to spend a few days relaxing and soaking up the sun and local atmosphere. Our tour guide, Ronnen, found the town so terrific he stayed for two years.
NEXT ON our tour we visited the colorful city of Antigua. From its founding in 1541 until 1775, it served as the capital of Guatemala, but in 1773 a series of powerful earthquakes turned many of its impressive buildings and churches into rubble. Two years later the king of Spain commanded the capital's removal to what is now Guatemala City.
With cobbled streets lined by brightly colored houses, and surrounded by three volcanoes, peaceful Antigua - unlike Guatemala City - has an international feel. We found the best way to explore it is simply by wandering the narrow streets, where remains of the fine architecture and ruins of churches are combined with modern Internet cafes and markets selling Mayan goods.
While in Antigua, if you're looking for something more adventurous than sitting in one of the touristy cafes, then nearby Pacaya volcano fits the bill. For us it was one of highlights in the trip.
"Considering the nice weather we have, this 2500m. active volcano should be relatively easy to climb," said Ronnen with a smile, but somehow I had my doubts.
To reach Pacaya, we headed the town of San Vicente and on a rough, but passable road we drove to the base of the mountain. From here we started our hike, which for the first 90 minutes took us along a non-too-steep trail through lovely greenery and farmland.
The next 45 minutes were more difficult, and as my breath was getting short, I was nearly tempted to pay the $40 asked by the Gringos following us with their horses, and ride these "natural taxis" up to the top.
The final climb was only about 200m. but really tiring. With each step in the loose ash you gain a bit, and slide back a bit.
On the day of our trek, the volcano was active and we couldn't make it to the top as it was tossing lava into the air with a soft "whoomp" every 20 to 30 seconds. However, with the souls of our shoes nearly melting, we got quite close to the top and stood no more than 30 meters from the lava streams. Needless to say watching the breathtaking views was an exhilarating experience.
THE NEXT DAY we woke up early to visit the famous market of Chichicastenango.
This village is probably the most interesting place in Guatemala for experiencing the modern day Maya. The center of life here is the colonial Church of Santo Thom s, in whose convent the Popul Vuh (Community or Council Book), the sacred book of the Quiches, was preserved and rediscovered.
The marketplace at Chichicastenango is only open on Thursday and Sunday and is located right next to the Church of Santo Thom s. It brings villagers from throughout the region, who often arrive the night before and sleep on blankets in the market square. Rising early, they set out their fruits, vegetables and handicrafts. The local Maya women were wearing very colorful clothing, the traditional woven huipil, which is full of symbolism and meaning. The men were dressed in striped trousers, embroidered shirts, ponchos and battered cowboy hats. The market in Chichicastenango is the best (and cheapest) place do your shopping. No matter how hard you try, you'll find it impossible to leave without a suitcase full of colored textiles and art crafts.
Later, through interestingly suicidal traffic, we reached the village of Santiago. Our minibus driver was driving on the safe side - unlike his colleagues on the "chicken buses" which are still used as the main form of transport. Each of the bright buses is individually decorated with wacky designs and packed with people and animals. (Guatemalan joke: "Who gets into heaven first, the Pope or a bus driver?" "The bus driver. Every time he puts his bus into gear, 50 people pray.")
When we arrived, it was All Saints Day on which extraordinary celebrations take place at the cemeteries. On this day, the Ladino families (Guatemalans of mixed European and native descent) come to pay their respects to the dead. Unlike our own sad remembrances, this is an occasion charged with Latin liveliness, and the mourning is expressed by celebrating. The whole village was a party, with vendors' stands loaded with flowers, food, beverages, candies and handicrafts. When we entered the cemetery, we saw rows of tombs drenched in striking colors. There were flowers everywhere, and kids were flying kites with beautiful designs.
According to their tradition, the kites are flown to raise the souls of the dead to heaven and to turn away evil spirits. The inhabitants of Santiago, believe that on November 2 they can communicate with their dead and send them messages. For this reason, they design beautiful kites with many colors to communicate messages of happiness. A group of people select the best kite design and give a prize to the winning family.
Guatemala features so much to see, so much to experience and so much to leave you marveling, you will want to return again and again.
The writer was a guest of Continental Airlines and Eco Field Trips.