Guatemalan Way of Life
The usual socioeconomic dividers aside, the way you live in Guatemala depends largely on where you live – the differences between the coast and the highlands, big cities and small villages are so marked that sometimes it feels like that one-hour bus ride has taken you into another country. Some things are common to all Guatemalans, though – a set of national characteristics that when taken together largely define the essence of ser Chapín (being Guatemalan).
Bright Lights, Big City
Around half of all Guatemalans live in what are classified as 'urban environments,' but it’s important to remember that by international standards, Guatemala City is the country’s only really big city: while the capital has 3.5 million inhabitants, Quetzaltenango (the second-largest city) is yet to hit 200,000.
Life in the capital (and even in the larger cities) resembles life in any big city in many ways. There are slums, middle-class neighborhoods and exclusive gated communities. Overcrowding and an ever-growing car culture make for traffic jams that wouldn’t be out of place in London or New York. Guatemala City, in particular, has a bad reputation for street crime and it’s rare to see people out walking at night. The capital is also where you’ll see the most fortified homes, with razor wire, barred windows and closed-circuit camera surveillance – people tend to take as many measures as they can afford to guard against burglars and home invasion.
That the standard of living in Guatemala City has slowly improved is thanks largely to the efforts of ex-President and five-time mayor Álvaro Arzú, whose initiatives to open up public spaces and create pedestrian-only streets earned him the nickname 'El Jardinero' (the Gardener) from critics.
Life on the Mountain
Guatemala’s mountainous regions also happen to be the most indigenous. As a result, Maya culture and tradition is much stronger in the mountains than on the coastal plain and in the capital. Even in larger cities you’ll see many more women (and even some men) dressed in traditional Maya clothing, and no doubt you’ll hear locals speaking in their dialect. Many people from these regions, particularly from older generations, speak Spanish as a second language, and some don’t speak it at all.
The cold is a factor in the mountains – towns like Quetzaltenango and Todos Santos regularly register below-freezing temperatures in December. Another sight you’re likely to see is men chopping and hauling firewood, which is used for both heating and cooking in many traditional homes.
The highlands' rich volcanic soil makes for some of the best farmland in the country. Vegetables grown in the Western Highlands are exported as far away as Belize, while the Cobán region has become a leading exporter of cardamom – much of it going as far away as India and the Middle East. Many mountain dwellers work in agriculture, either tending small subsistence plots or working on larger commercial farms.
Down on the Coast
The pace of life on the coast – where midday temperatures regularly hit 40°C (104°F) – slows right down. There’s very little industry in these parts, and economic opportunities are few. The big employers on the coast are the sugar cane, chicle and African palm farms, which provide seasonal work. It’s hardly cushy employment (imagine cutting cane with a machete in 40°C heat) and many coastal dwellers migrate to the cities in search of better opportunities.
Fishing is another income source. There are a few large industrial operations, but the bulk of fishermen (Guatemalan fisherwomen are extremely rare) either work independently, selling the day’s catch at market, or in small cooperatives.
Housing on the coast is radically different to the rest of the country. Due to the extreme heat, cinderblock is not the popular construction material it is elsewhere, nor is corrugated iron for roofing. The classic coastal house will be open plan, often with wooden walls and a thatched roof. Doors will always be open and windows often lack glass, instead just having wooden shutters to keep out the monsoonal downpours of the rainy season.
Guatemala’s rural areas, while undoubtedly the country's most picturesque, are the epicenter for many of the country’s persistent problems. Life in many villages has barely changed over the last hundred years, as subsistence farmers eke out a daily existence on tiny plots of land. The precariousness of this life is emphasized with every flood, drought, plague or crop failure – the smallest of any of these being enough to place entire families in danger of starvation.
Guatemalan governments have ignored villages, and infrastructure levels can be dire. Many children have to travel for hours to attend the local school and what they call a school may not be something that you recognize as such. Access to health care is equally limited – at best a village will have a small medical clinic, capable of dealing with minor complaints. Patients requiring hospitalization may need to be transported several hours away. Many smaller villages don’t even have a doctor, and medical care is provided by curanderas (healing women), comadres (midwives) and maybe a pharmacist.
Despite all of these drawbacks, Guatemalan villages are often stunningly beautiful – surrounded by lush countryside, with dirt roads winding between adobe huts, an old colonial church on the plaza and chickens and horses roaming about, as barefoot children play in the streets in a carefree way unseen in the rest of the country.
Despite the huge regional differences, there is such a thing as ser Chapín. With a few unfortunate exceptions, you’ll be amazed when you first reach Guatemala by just how helpful, polite and unhurried Guatemalans are. Everyone has time to stop and chat and explain what you want to know. This is apparent even if you've just crossed the border from Mexico, where things aren't exactly rushed either. Most Guatemalans like to get to know other people without haste, feeling for common ground and things to agree on, rather than making blunt assertions and engaging in adversarial dialectic.
What goes on behind this outward politeness is harder to encapsulate. Few Guatemalans exhibit the stress, worry and hurry of the 'developed' nations, but this obviously isn't because they don't have to worry about money or employment. They're a long-suffering people who don't expect wealth or good government, but make the best of what comes their way – friendship, family, a good meal, a bit of good company.
The tales of violence – domestic violence, civil-war violence, criminal violence – that one inevitably hears in Guatemala sit strangely with the mild-mannered approach you will encounter from nearly everybody. Whatever the explanation, it helps to show why a little caution is in order when strangers meet.
Guatemalans are a religious bunch – atheists and agnostics are very thin on the ground. People will often ask what religion you are quite early in a conversation.
Orthodox Catholicism is gradually giving way to Evangelical Protestantism among the ladinos (people of mixed indigenous and European parentage), with the animist-Catholic syncretism of the traditional Maya always present. The number of new Evangelical churches, especially in indigenous Maya villages, is astonishing. Since the 1980s, Evangelical Protestant sects, around 60% of them Pentecostal, have surged in popularity and it is estimated that up to 45% of Guatemalans are now Evangelicals, and as this number grows higher, Guatemala is on course to become the world's first majority-Evangelical country in the world in a couple of decades.
During the civil war, many priests gave outspoken support to the Maya and their struggle for self-determination. This defence of human rights, attracted persecution (and worse) from dictators at the time, especially from the Evangelical Ríos Montt.
Catholicism in the Maya areas has never been exactly orthodox. The missionaries who brought Catholicism to the Maya in the 16th century wisely permitted aspects of the existing animistic, shamanistic Maya religion to continue alongside Christian rites and beliefs. Syncretism was aided by the identification of certain Maya deities with certain Christian saints, and survives to this day. A notable example is the deity known as Maximón in Santiago Atitlán, San Simón in Zunil and Rilaj Maam in San Andrés Itzapa near Antigua, who seems to be a volatile combination of Maya gods, the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado and Judas Iscariot.
Guatemala's most venerated local Christian figure, the 17th-century Antigua-hospital-founder Hermano Pedro de San José de Bethancourt, was canonized in 2002 when Pope John Paul II visited Guatemala.
Feature: The Biggest Party in Town
It's Friday night in any small town in Guatemala. The music's pumping, there's singing and hands are clapping. Have you just stumbled onto a local jam session? Sorry to disappoint, but what you're most likely listening to is an Evangelical church service.
The Evangelicals are the fastest-growing religion in Latin America, and the Catholic Church is worried – this is their heartland, after all, and the reasons that they're losing their grip aren't all that easy to identify.
Some say it's the Evangelicals' use of radio and TV that brings them wider audiences; for some it's their rejection of rituals and gestures and customs in favor of real human contact. Others say it's the way the newcomers go to the roughest barrios and accept anybody – including 'the drunks and the hookers,' as one priest put it.
For some, they're just more fun – they fall into trances and speak in tongues, heal and prophesize. And then there's the singing – not stale old hymns, but often racy pop numbers with the lyrics changed to more spiritual themes.
Drinking, smoking, gambling and domestic violence are all severely frowned upon, so the influence of the Evangelicals goes far beyond the church doors.
Despite modernizing influences – education, cable TV, contact with foreign travelers, international popular music, time spent as migrant workers in the USA – traditional family ties remain strong at all levels of society. Large extended-family groups gather for weekend meals and holidays. Old-fashioned gender roles are strong too: many women have jobs to increase the family income, but relatively few have positions of much responsibility.
Cynics say that much of this closeness has more to do with economics than sentiment – that it’s hard to be distant when there are three generations living under the same roof. But this doesn’t really play out. You see the strong bonds of family among middle- and upper-class Guatemalans, and one of the questions you’re bound to get asked at least once (and possibly many more times) while on your travels is whether you miss your mother.
Despite this closeness, it's rare to meet a family who doesn't have at least one member who has emigrated to the US to work – the couple of hundred dollars that these emigrants send back per month is the sole income for some families, and, when tallied up, equals around half of what Guatemala earns from exports.
Women in Guatemala
One of the goals of the 1996 Peace Accords was to improve women's rights in Guatemala. By 2003, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had to report that laws discriminating against women had yet to be repealed. Women got the vote and the right to stand for election in 1946, but in 2015 only 13% of congressional deputies were women. Women's rights leaders repeatedly criticize Guatemala's machista culture, which believes a woman's place is in the home. The situation is, if anything, worse for indigenous women in rural areas, who also have to live with most of the country's direst poverty.
The international organization Human Rights Watch reported in 2002 that women working in private households were persistently discriminated against. Domestic workers, many of whom are from Maya communities, lack certain basic rights, including the rights to be paid the minimum wage and to work an eight-hour day and a 48-hour week. Many domestic workers begin working as young adolescents, but Guatemalan labor laws do not provide adequate protection for domestic workers under the age of 18.
Probably of greatest concern is the high incidence of violence against women, accompanied by Guatemala's steadily rising murder rate. These victims were once brushed off as being 'just' gang members or prostitutes, but it is now clear that murder, rape and kidnapping of women is a serious issue. The international community has begun to put pressure on Guatemala to act, but the realities of machista society mean that even with the passing of legislation specifically aimed at protecting women, crimes against women are seldom investigated and rarely solved.
Education in Guatemala
Education is free and, in theory, compulsory between the ages of seven and 14. Primary education lasts for six years, but the average school-leaving age is 11 years, according to UN statistics. Secondary school begins at age 13 and comprises two cycles of three years each, called básico and magisterio. Not all secondary education is free – a major deterrent for many. Some people continue studying for their magisterio well into adulthood. Completing magisterio qualifies you to become a school teacher yourself. It's estimated that only about 56% of children of the 13-to-18 age group are in secondary school. Guatemala has five universities.
Overall, adult literacy is around 81% in Guatemala, but it's lower among women (76%) and rural people. Maya children who do seasonal migrant work with their families are least likely to get an education, as the time the families go away to work falls during the school year. It is estimated that 21% of Guatemalans between the ages of five and 14 work instead of attending school.
A limited amount of school teaching is done in Maya languages – chiefly the big four, K'iche', Mam, Kaqchiquel and Q'eqchi' – but this rarely goes beyond the first couple of years of primary school. Spanish remains the necessary tongue for anyone who wants to get ahead in life.
If there’s one thing that unites almost all Guatemalans, it is their passion and enthusiasm for fútbol (soccer). If you’d like a universal talking point, you could do worse than brush up on your soccer teams. Many Guatemalans keep a keen eye on their local team and at least one European team (Barcelona being by far the most popular Spanish side).
The national squad has never qualified for a major international tournament, and Guatemala's football federation was suspended from FIFA between 2017 and 2018 following corruption allegations.
The 10-club Liga Mayor (Major League) national competition is keenly followed by reasonably large crowds. Two seasons are played each year: the Torneo de Apertura (Opening Tournament), from July to November, and the Torneo de Clausura (Closing Tournament), from January to May. The two big clubs are Municipal and Comunicaciones, both from Guatemala City. The 'Classico Gringo' is when teams from Quetzaltenango and Antigua (the two big tourist towns) play.
Feature: Getting Along with Guatemalans
While Guatemalans tend to give foreigners a fair amount of leeway, at least trying to adapt to local ways is bound to make your travels run more smoothly.
- Even in such routine situations as entering a store or taking a bus seat, a simple greeting is often exchanged: buenos días or buenas tardes and a smile is all that's needed.
- When leaving a restaurant, it is common to wish other diners buen provecho (bon appétit).
- In general, the Maya are a fairly private people and some communities are still recovering from the nightmare of the civil war. People may be willing to share their war stories, but don't dig for information – let your hosts offer it.
- Referring to a Maya person as indio (Indian) is considered racist. The preferred term is indígena.
- When dealing with officialdom (police, border officials, immigration officers), try to appear as conservative and respectable as possible.
- Dress modestly when entering churches or attending family gatherings.
Sidebar: Water source
While many rural houses now have running water, the village pila (communal laundry trough) remains a place to get together and exchange gossip.
For the best up-to-the-minute news on the football scene in Guatemala, including results, fixtures and league tables, log on to www.guatefutbol.com.
Sidebar: Maximon book
To get a handle on Maximón and shamanism around Lago de Atitlán, check out Scandals in the House of Birds: Shamans and Priests on Lake Atitlán, by anthropologist and poet Nathaniel Tarn.
Sidebar: Women's organisations
For information on Guatemalan women's organizations including volunteer opportunities and background on rights issues, visit the website of Quetzaltenango-based Entre Mundos (www.entremundos.org)
Sidebar: Guatemala's Migrant Children
To understand more about Guatemala's place in the current American migrant crisis, see the 2016 Unicef report Broken Dreams: Central American children’s dangerous journey to the United States (PDF available online).
The ancient Maya constructed a civilization that was vastly impressive, complex and fruitful. While some legacies, such as the archaeological sites, are obvious, scholars are still working to put together the various pieces of how Maya society worked. The Maya didn't disappear with the arrival of the conquistadors however, and traditional rituals and beliefs still carry on into 21st-century Guatemala.
Ancient Maya Beliefs & the Creation of Humanity
The date of creation that appears in inscriptions throughout the Maya world is 126.96.36.199.0, 4 Ahaw, 8 Kumk'u, or August 13, 3114 BCE on our calendar.
On that day the creator gods set three stones in the dark waters that covered the primordial world. These formed a cosmic hearth at the center of the universe. They then struck divine fire by means of lightning, charging the world with life.
The gods made three attempts at creating people before getting it right. First they made deer and other animals, but as they were unable to speak and honor the gods, the animals were condemned to be eaten.
Next was a person made from mud. At first, the mud person spoke, 'but without knowledge and understanding,' and he soon dissolved back into the mire.
The gods' third attempt was people carved from wood. These too were imperfect and also destroyed. The Popol Vuh, a book compiled by members of the Maya nobility soon after the Spanish conquest, says that the survivors of these wooden people are the monkeys that inhabit the forests.
The gods finally got it right when they discovered maize, and made mankind from the yellow ears and white ears of this indispensable grain.
The Maya Cosmovision
For the ancient Maya, the world, the heavens and the mysterious underworld called Xibalbá were one great, unified structure that operated according to the laws of astrology, cyclical time and ancestor worship.
The towering, sacred ceiba tree symbolized the world-tree, which united the heavens (represented by the tree's branches and foliage), the earth (the trunk) and the nine levels of Xibalbá (the roots). The world-tree had a sort of cruciform shape, so when the Franciscan friars came bearing a cross and required the Maya to venerate it, the symbolism meshed easily with established Maya beliefs.
Each point of the compass had a color and a special religious significance. Everything in the Maya world was seen in relation to these cardinal points, with the world-tree at the center.
Blood-letting ceremonies were the most important religious ceremonies for the Maya – a way for humans to link themselves to the underworld – and the blood of kings was seen as the most acceptable for these rituals. Maya kings often initiated blood-letting rites to heighten the responsiveness of the gods.
Maya ceremonies were performed in natural sacred places as well as their human-made equivalents. Mountains, caves, lakes, cenotes (natural limestone cavern pools), rivers and fields were – and still are – sacred. Pyramids and temples were thought of as stylized mountains. A cave was the mouth of the creature that represented Xibalbá, and to enter it was to enter the spirit of the secret world. This is why some Maya temples have doorways surrounded by huge masks: as you enter the door of this 'cave' you are entering the mouth of Xibalbá.
Ancestor worship was very important to the ancient Maya, and when they buried a king beneath a pyramid or a commoner beneath the floor or courtyard of a na (thatched Maya hut), the sacredness of the location was increased.
Feature: The Maya Colors
The Maya put great stock in the significance of different colors, something that can still be seen today in the choosing of colored candles for traditional religious ceremonies.
The four basic Maya colors are red, white, black and yellow, which correspond to the cardinal points, and the four branches of the Maya tree of life. Red represents the sun rising in the sacred east. White represents north, for the North Star and the heavens. Black is west for the dying sun at the end of the day, while yellow is south, and the sun itself. Red, white, black and yellow are also the four colors of traditional maize kernels – humanity itself was created out of yellow and white maize.
A fifth color, blue-green, is associated with religious sacrifice. Maya Blue, as it is known, was a locally created mix of indigo and clay minerals, whose composition made it resistant to age and sunlight – a uniquely Maya piece of chemistry.
The Maya Counting System
The Maya counting system's most important use – and the one you will encounter during your travels – was in writing dates. It's an elegantly simple system: dots are used to count from one to four; a horizontal bar signifies five; a bar with one dot above it is six, a bar with two dots is seven, and so forth. Two bars signifies 10, three bars 15. Nineteen, the highest common number, is three bars stacked up and topped by four dots.
To signify larger numbers the Maya stack numbers from zero to 19 on top of each other. Thus the lowest number in the stack shows values from one to 19, the next position up signifies 20 times its face value, the third position up signifies 20 times 20 times its face value. The three positions together can signify numbers up to 7999. By adding more positions one can count as high as needed. Zero is represented by a stylized picture of a shell or some other object.
The Maya Calendar
The ancient Maya's astronomical observations and calculations were uncannily accurate and time was, in fact, the basis of the Maya religion. Perhaps the best analogy to the Maya calendar is the gears of a mechanical watch, where small wheels mesh with larger wheels, which in turn mesh with other sets of wheels to record the passage of time.
Tzolkin or Cholq'ij or Tonalamatl
The two smallest 'wheels' were two cycles: one of 13 days and another of 20 days. As these two wheels meshed, the passing days received unique names. The two small wheels thus created a larger wheel of 260 days, called a tzolkin, cholq'ij or tonalamatl.
Vague Year (Haab)
Another set of wheels in the Maya calendar comprised 18 'months' of 20 days each, which formed the basis of the solar year or haab (or ab'). Eighteen months, each of 20 days, equals 360 days, a period known as a tun; the Maya added a special omen-filled five-day period called the uayeb at the end of this cycle in order to produce a solar calendar of 365 days.
The huge wheels of the tzolkin and the haab also meshed and repeated every 52 solar years, a period called the Calendar Round. The Calendar Round was the dating system used not only by the Maya, but also by the Olmecs, Aztecs and Zapotecs of ancient Mexico.
The Calendar Round has one serious limitation: it only lasts 52 years. Hence the Long Count, which the Maya developed around the start of the Classic period.
The Long Count uses the tun, but ignores the uayeb. Twenty tuns make a katun and 20 katuns make a baktun. Curiously for us today, 13 baktuns (1,872,000 days, or 5125 Gregorian solar years) form something called a Great Cycle, and the first Great Cycle began on August 11, 3114 BC, which means it ended on December 23 (or 25), AD 2012. The end of a Great Cycle was a time charged with great significance – you may have noticed a little (non-Maya) end-of-the-world panic around Christmas 2012.
Ancient Maya architecture is a mixed bag of incredible accomplishments achieved despite severe limitations. The Maya's great buildings are both awesome and beautiful, with their aesthetic attention to intricately patterned facades, delicate 'combs' on temple roofs, and sinuous carvings. These magnificent structures, such as the ones found in the sophisticated urban centers of Tikal, El Mirador and Copán, were created without beasts of burden (except for humans) or the luxury of the wheel. Once structures were completed, experts hypothesize, they were covered with stucco and painted red with a mixture of hematite and most probably water.
Although formal studies and excavations of Maya sites in Guatemala have been ongoing for more than a century, much of their architectural how and why remains a mystery. For example, the purpose of chultunes, underground chambers carved from bedrock and filled with offerings, continues to baffle scholars. And while we know that the Maya habitually built one temple on top of another to bury successive leaders, we have little idea how they actually erected these symbols of power. All the limestone used to erect the great Maya cities had to be moved and set in place by hand – an engineering feat that must have demanded astronomical amounts of human labor.
Modern Maya Rituals
Many sites of ancient Maya ruins – among them Tikal, Kaminaljuyú and K’um’arkaj – still have altars where prayers, offerings and ceremonies continue to take place today. Fertility rites, healing ceremonies and sacred observances to ring in the various Maya new years are still practiced with gusto. These types of ceremony are directed or overseen by a Maya priest known as a tzahorín and usually involve burning candles and copal (a natural incense from the bark of various tropical trees), making offerings to the gods and praying for whatever the desired outcome may be – a good harvest, a healthy child or a prosperous new year, for example. Some ceremonies involve chicken sacrifices as well. Each place has its own set of gods – or at least different names for similar gods.
Visitors may also be able to observe traditional Maya ceremonies in places such as the Pascual Abaj shrine at Chichicastenango, the altars on the shore of Laguna Chicabal outside Quetzaltenango, or El Baúl near Santa Lucía Cotzumalguapa, but a lot of traditional rites are off-limits to foreigners.
Feature: The Maya Bury Their Dead
It is the night before the funeral, and the shaman is in the house of the deceased, washing candles in holy water. If he misses one, a family member could go blind or deaf. He has counted off the days, and divined that tomorrow will be propitious for the burial.
He prays to the ancestral spirits, asking for the health of the family and the absence of disaster. The list is long and detailed. Personal objects are placed in the coffin; if they're not, the deceased's spirit might return home looking for them.
Members of the cofradía (fraternity) bear the coffin to the cemetery, a trail of mourners following. Four stops are made on leaving the house: at the doorway, in the yard, on entering the street, and at the first street corner. At each stop, mourners place coins on the coffin – in reality to buy candles, symbolically so that the spirit can buy its way out of purgatory and into heaven.
As the coffin is lowered into the ground, mourners kiss handfuls of dirt before throwing them on top. Once the coffin is buried, women sprinkle water on top, packing down the soil and protecting the corpse from werewolves and other dark spirits.
Every All Soul's Day (November 2) the family will come to the cemetery to honor their dead. Sometimes this will stretch over three days (beginning on November 1). They will come to clean and decorate the grave, and set out food such as roasted corn, sweet potatoes, vegetable pears (chayote or chokos), and other fresh-picked fruit of the field. The church bells will ring at midday to summon the spirits, who feast on the smells of the food.
Feature: The Maya Script
The Maya developed a sophisticated hieroglyphic script that formed the most advanced writing system in the Americas. The script was developed in the Preclassic period, with the earliest surviving texts dating from the 3rd century BC. It's thought that its use persisted until at least a century after the Spanish conquest.
The script is partly phonetic (glyphs representing sounds) and partly logographic (glyphs representing words). Over 1000 glyphs are known, and around 80% of these have their meanings known. Scholars have suggested that the written language throughout the Maya world was a form of Chol, the language group of the Eastern Highlands.
Each heiroglyph is actually a block consisting of a main sign with one or two smaller signs affixed to it to assign it further meaning. The script itself is read left to right and top to bottom. To learn more on the script, and the battle to decipher it, watch the documentary Cracking the Mayan Code, widely available online.
Feature: The LIDAR Revolution
Archaeologists' understanding of the ancient Maya is currently undergoing a revolution, thanks to the development of LIDAR technology. LIDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) is best described as radar but using lasers. Lasers sent from a survey plane to the ground penetrate even the thickest of jungle cover and bounce back to a recorder to give a detailed 3D image of the terrain.
Our picture of the Maya has been transformed as a result. To date, over 2000 sq km of northern Guatemala has been surveyed and more than 60,000 previously hidden structures revealed. Not least among these are the complex series of elevated causeways linking cities; a more intensive system of farming and irrigation canals, dykes and reservoirs than previously imagined; and whole networks of defensive walls and forts. Where population estimates for the Maya civilization at the height of the Classic period previously hovered around 5 million people, the new data suggests that the region could have supported between 10 and 15 million instead.
There are plans to survey around 5000 sq miles of the Guatemalan lowlands, but already the results are revealing a culture larger and more complex than even the experts have previously imagined.
Sidebar: Mayan folktales
Mayan Folktales, edited by James D Sexton, brings together the myths and legends of the Lago de Atitlán area, translated into English.
Sidebar: Maya art and architecture
Mary Ellen Miller's well-illustrated Maya Art and Architecture paints the full picture from gigantic temples to intricately painted ceramics.
Sidebar: Ancient Maya writing
The Maya, by Michael D Coe, is probably the best single-volume, not-too-long telling of the ancient Maya story. Coe's Breaking the Maya Code recounts the modern decipherment of ancient Maya writing, and his Reading the Maya Glyphs will help you read ancient inscriptions.
Sidebar: Drugs used by Maya priests
Maya priests used a variety of drugs during divination rituals – ranging from fermented maize and wild tobacco to hallucinogenic mushrooms.
Sidebar: The Ancient Maya
The Ancient Maya, by Robert J Sharer, is a 1990s update of Sylvanus G Morley's classic 1940s tome of the same name, and is admirably clear and uncomplicated.
Arts & Architecture
Guatemala's rich cultural heritage stretches back centuries and the country has produced more than its share of important artists and groundbreaking artistic achievements. The enduring legacy of Maya architecture and weaving cannot be denied, and the country has produced writers and musicians who have attained international fame. Many traditional crafts survive as well, with handicrafts manufactured both as everyday items and for sale as souvenirs.
Literature in Guatemala begins with the creation of the Maya script, the most sophisticated writing system in the Americas. The Popul Vuh, the creation story of the K'iche' Maya is the country's first great literary epic, a centuries-old oral tradition first transcribed in the 16th century.
Colonial Guatemala’s first great literary figure was poet and Jesuit priest Rafael Landívar, whose collection of poetry Rusticatio Mexicana, containing 5348 verses in Latin, was published in 1781.
A great source of national pride is the Nobel Prize for Literature that was bestowed on Guatemalan Miguel Ángel Asturias (1899–1974) in 1967. Best known for Men of Maize, his magical-realist epic on the theme of European conquest and the Maya, and for his thinly veiled vilification of Latin American dictators in The President, Asturias also wrote poetry. He served in various diplomatic capacities for the Guatemalan government.
Other celebrated Guatemalan authors include short-story master Augusto Monterroso (1921–2003), who is credited as having written the shortest story in published literature, El Dinosaurio. Look also for his published work The Black Sheep and Other Fables. Luis Cardoza y Aragón (1901–92) is principally known for his poetry and for fighting in the revolutionary movement that deposed dictator Jorge Ubico in 1944. Gaspar Pedro Gonzáles' A Mayan Life is claimed to be the first novel written by a Maya author.
Guatemalan-born Arturo Arias is an author and professor of Spanish-American literature at the University of Texas. His most famous works include Itzam Na (1981), Jaguar en llamas (1990) and The Rigoberta Menchú Controversy (2001), in which he examines the heated debate that ensued after Menchú won the Nobel Prize.
Born in the US to a Guatemalan mother, Francisco Goldman is probably the most famous author writing about Guatemala in modern times. Primarily a novelist, Goldman has also written a nonfiction account of the assassination of Bishop Gerardi, The Art of Political Murder, that won him international and critical acclaim and a good selection of enemies from within Guatemala’s power structure.
One of Central America's largest literary competitions, the Juegos Florales Hispanoamericanos, is held in Quetzaltenango – the nation's literary capital – in September to coincide with Independence Day celebrations.
No discussion of painting in Guatemala would be complete without a mention of the fabulous mural work that the Maya created long before the Spanish arrived. Most have been severely worn by time and vandals, but a few archaeological sites such as San Bartolo and Río Azul have paintings that remain surprisingly vivid. The tradition continues with large modern Maya murals such as that in Chichicastengo, using the Maya Popul Vuh to narrate an account of the civil war.
One of the earliest postcolonial painters of note was Tomás de Merlo, widely credited as the father of the 'Antigua Baroque' movement. You can see many of his works in the National Museum of Colonial Art, in Antigua, and hanging on church walls in Antigua, too.
Modern Maya Painting
One truly Guatemalan genre of painting, dubbed 'Maya naïve art' was spearheaded by Andrés Curruchich, a native of San Juan Comalapa near Lago de Atitlán. Curruchich’s works depicted the simple rural scenes of the Guatemalan countryside you can still see today. There is a permanent exhibition of Curruchich’s work in the Ixchel museum in Guatemala City. While the artist died in 1969, his legacy continues – there are an estimated 500 artists working in San Juan Comalapa today, many of them trained by Curruchich himself. Juan Sisay was another Maya primitivist painter from the Atitlán region to gain international fame.
Of all modern Guatemalan artists, the architect, muralist, painter and sculptor Efraín Recinos is probably the most famous. His murals grace Guatemala City’s National Music Conservatory and he is also responsible for the facade of the National Library and the design of the Centro Cultural Miguel Ángel Asturias, both also in Guatemala City. Recinos was awarded Guatemala’s highest honor, the Order of the Quetzal, in 1999, and the country went into mourning when he died in 2011.
Guatemalan festivals provide great opportunities to hear traditional music featuring instruments such as cane flutes, square drums and the chirimía, a reed instrument of Moorish roots related to the oboe.
The other popular form of 'folk' music is made by the Garifuna people who live around the country’s Caribbean coast. Completely different from traditional Maya music, the Garifuna’s most popular style is Punta Rock, variants of which you can hear in dance clubs around the country.
Guatemalan tastes in pop music are greatly influenced by the products of other Latin American countries. Reggaetón and Latin Pop are huge.
The only record label seriously promoting new Guatemalan artists (mostly in the urban/hip-hop vein) is Guatemala City–based Outstanding Productions.
Guatemalan rock went through its golden age in the 1980s and early '90s. Bands from this era such as Razones de Cambio, Bohemia Suburbana and Viernes Verde still have their die-hard fans. The most famous Guatemalan-born musician is the Latin Pop superstar Ricardo Arjona.
Feature: The Marimba
The marimba is considered the national instrument, although scholars cannot agree whether this xylophone-type instrument already existed in Africa long before and was brought to Guatemala early on by slaves. Marimbas can be heard throughout the country, often in restaurants or in plazas in the cool of an evening.
The earliest marimbas used a succession of increasingly large gourds as the resonator pipes; modern marimbas are more commonly fitted with wooden pipes, though you may see the former type in more traditional settings. The instrument is usually played by three people and there is a carnival-like quality to its sound and compositions.
Jazz buffs should be familiar with the sound of the marimba – the instrument became hip in the 1940s when jazz greats such as Glenn Miller started to include it in their compositions.
Guatemalans make many traditional handicrafts, both for everyday use and to sell to tourists and collectors. Crafts include basketry, ceramics and wood carving, but the most prominent are weaving, embroidery and other textile arts practiced by Maya women. The beautiful, handmade traje (traditional clothing) worn by local women is one of the most awe-inspiring expressions of Maya culture.
The most arresting feature of Maya traditional clothing is the highly colorful weaving and embroidery, which makes many garments true works of art. It's the women's huipil, a long, sleeveless tunic, that receives the most painstaking, loving care in its creation. Often entire huipiles are covered in a multicolored web of stylized animal, human, plant and mythological shapes, which can take months to complete. Each garment identifies the village from which its wearer hails (the Spanish colonists allotted each village a different design in order to distinguish the inhabitants from each other) and within the village style there can be variations according to social status, as well as the creative individual touches that make each garment unique.
Maya men now generally wear Western clothing, except in places such as Sololá and Todos Santos Cuchumatán, where they still sport colorful trajes.
Materials and techniques are changing, but the pre-Hispanic backstrap loom is still widely used. The warp (long) threads are stretched between two horizontal bars, one of which is fixed to a post or tree, while the other is attached to a strap that goes round the weaver's lower back. The weft (cross) threads are then woven in. Throughout the highlands you can see women weaving in this manner outside the entrance to their homes. Nowadays, some huipiles and other garments are machine made, as this method is faster and easier than weaving by hand.
Yarn is still hand-spun in many villages. For the well-to-do, silk threads are used to embroider bridal huipiles and other important garments. Vegetable dyes are not yet totally out of use, and red dye from cochineal insects and natural indigo are employed in several areas. Modern luminescent dyes go down very well with the Maya, who are happily addicted to bright colors, as you will see.
The colorful traditional dress is still generally most in evidence in the highlands, which are heavily populated by Maya, though you will see it in all parts of the country. The variety of techniques, materials, styles and designs is bewildering to the newcomer, but you'll see some of the most colorful, intricate, eye-catching and widely worn designs in Sololá and Santiago Atitlán, near Lago de Atitlán; Nebaj, in the Ixil Triangle; Zunil, near Quetzaltenango; and Todos Santos and San Mateo Ixtatán in the Cuchumatanes mountains.
You can learn the art of backstrap weaving at weaving schools in Quetzaltenango, Santiago de Atitlán and other towns. To see large collections of fine weaving, don't miss Museo Ixchel in Guatemala City or the shop Nim Po't in Antigua.
The Maya, particularly in the highlands, have a long tradition of skilled artistry, products of which you can see in nearly every market in the country. The small town of Totonicapán has dozens of tiny workshops that are open to visitors where you can see tinsmiths, potters, wood carvers and instrument makers at work.
Jade was a sacred stone to the Maya and remains a popular material for jewelers. To see the finest pieces you can tour the workshops and showrooms in Antigua.
Some of the most popular Guatemalan souvenirs are the wooden masks used for village festivals. Many display a curious mixture of pre- and post-Columbian influences, such as the very devilish-looking masks used to depict the Spanish colonizers. Again, masks are in markets everywhere, but to see the best selection, go to Chichicastenango, and for the best prices, head to Panajachel or Antigua.
For most visitors, Guatemala's built heritage is typified by either monumental Maya temples or ornate Spanish colonial buildings. The country does have one architectural star however in the late Efraín Recinos, who blended modernism with traditional Maya themes to try to create a distinctive Guatemalan style. His most famous building is the Centro Cultural Miguel Ángel Asturias in Guatemala City.
Outside this, and a few flashy bank and office buildings along Av La Reforma in Guatemala City, Guatemala's built environment is chiefly characterized by expanses of drab concrete. Some humbler rural dwellings still use a traditional wall construction known as bajareque, where a core of stones is held in place by poles of bamboo or other wood, which is faced with stucco or mud. If you see a flashy house in a poor town, it will often be a remisas building – built by money sent home from Guatemalans working abroad.
During the colonial period (the early 16th to early 19th centuries), churches, convents, mansions and palaces were all built in the Spanish styles of the day, chiefly Renaissance, baroque and neoclassical. But while the architectural concepts were European-inspired, the labor used to realize them was strictly indigenous. Thus, Maya embellishments – such as the lily blossoms and vegetable motifs that adorn Antigua's La Merced – can be found on many colonial buildings, serving as testament to the countless laborers forced to make the architectural dreams of Guatemala's newcomers a reality.
Guatemala does not have the great colonial architectural heritage of neighboring Mexico, partly because earthquakes destroyed many of its finest buildings. But the architecture of Antigua is particularly striking, as new styles and engineering techniques developed following each successive earthquake. Columns became lower and thicker to provide more stability. Some Antigua buildings, including the Palacio de los Capitanes and Palacio del Ayuntamiento on the central plaza, were given a double-arch construction to strengthen them. With so many colonial buildings in different states of grandeur and decay, Antigua was designated a World Heritage site by Unesco in 1979.
After the 1773 earthquake, which prompted the relocation of the capital from Antigua to Guatemala City, the neoclassical architecture of the day came to emphasize durability. Decorative flourishes were saved for the interiors of buildings, with elaborate altars and furniture adorning churches and homes. By this time Guatemalan architects were hell-bent on seeing their buildings stay upright, no matter how powerful the next earthquake. Even though several serious quakes have hit Guatemala City since then, many colonial buildings (such as the city's cathedral) have survived. The same cannot be said for the humble abodes of the city's residents, who suffered terribly from the devastating quake of 1976.
Sidebar: Guatemalan rock bands
Guatemalan music is more than just marimbas – to find out about up-and-coming bands from the country's thriving rock and metal scenes, check out www.rockrepublik.net.
Sidebar: Guatemalan blankets
If you are looking for a traditional blanket made from home-spun wool, make your way to Momostenango, near Quetzaltenango.
Sidebar: photos of pre-Columbian ceramics
If pots are your thing, take a look at www.mayavase.com, which has an extensive, searchable database of photographs of pre-Columbian ceramics.
Sidebar: Maya textile books
Well-illustrated books on Maya textiles will help you to start identifying the wearers' villages. Two fine works are The Maya of Guatemala – Life and Dress, by Carmen L Pettersen, and The Maya Textile Tradition, edited by Margot Blum Schevill.
Sidebar: photos of Maya textiles
For a photos of huipiles and other Maya textiles, see the Guatemala online gallery of the Spurlock Museum of World Cultures's (https://www.spurlock.illinois.edu/collections/notable-collections/profiles/guatemala-textiles.html)
Sidebar: Art tours
For a personalised inside into the contemporary Guatemalan art scene, Art Tours Antigua offers studio and gallery tours and the chance to meet local artists.
Sidebar: Nan Cuz
Nan Cuz, a Maya painter of mixed German–K'iche' heritage grew up in Nazi Germany and found international fame with her bright, sometimes surreal landscapes of her Lago Atitlán home. La Galería in Panajechel celebrates her life and work.
Sidebar: Antigua's architect
Not all of Antigua's colonial masterpieces were built by Spanish architects. It's iconic 17th-century cathedral was designed by Joseph de Porres, who was of mixed African–Mayan descent.
Land & Wildlife
Even 'city people' will have to admit that some of the best parts of Guatemala are in the countryside. The ever-changing terrain takes in the balmy coast, the harsh highlands, cool cloud forest, lush jungle and desert-like savannah. The birdlife is rich wherever you go, and there are enough exotic four-legged creatures around to keep most wildlife-spotters happy.
Guatemala covers an area of 108,889 sq km – a little less than the US state of Louisiana, a little more than England. Geologically, most of the country lies atop the North American tectonic plate, but this abuts the Cocos plate along Guatemala's Pacific coast and the Caribbean plate in the far south of the country. When any of these plates gets frisky, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions ensue. Hence the major quakes of 1917, 1918 and 1976 and the spectacular chain of 30 volcanoes – some of them active – running parallel to the Pacific coast from the Mexican border to the Salvadoran border. North of the volcanic chain rises the Cuchumatanes range.
North of Guatemala City, the highlands of Alta Verapaz gradually decline to the lowland of El Petén, occupying northern Guatemala. El Petén is hot and humid or hot and dry, depending on the season. Central America's largest tracts of virgin rainforest straddle El Petén's borders with Mexico and Belize, although this may cease to be true if conservation efforts are not successful.
Northeast of Guatemala City, the valley of the Río Motagua (dry in some areas, moist in others) runs down to Guatemala's short, very hot Caribbean coast. Bananas and sugarcane thrive in the Motagua valley.
Between the volcanic chain and the Pacific Ocean is the Pacific Slope, with rich coffee, cotton, rubber, fruit and sugar plantations, cattle ranches, beaches of black volcanic sand and a sweltering climate.
Guatemala's unique geology also includes tremendous systems of caves. Water coursing for eons over a limestone base created aquifers and conduits that eventually gave way to subterranean caves, rivers and sinkholes when the surface water drained into underground caverns and streams. This type of terrain (known as karst) is found throughout the Verapaces region and makes Guatemala a killer spelunking destination.
Feature: Don't Let Your Folks Read This
We don't want to worry you, but Guatemala, along with being the Land of the Eternal Spring, the Land of Smiles and the Land of the Trees also seems to be the Land of the Natural Disaster. Don't panic – there are really only three biggies you have to worry about:
Earthquakes Sitting on top of three tectonic plates hasn't really worked out that well for Guatemala. The present-day capital was founded after Antigua got flattened, but Guatemala City still got pummeled in 1917, 1918 and 1976. This last one left 23,000 people dead.
Hurricanes Nobody likes a hurricane. They're windy and noisy and get mud and water everywhere. Guatemala has two coastlines so theoretically the hit could come from either angle, although it's statistically more likely to come from the Pacific side. Hurricane Stan in 2005 was the worst the country's seen, killing more than 1500 and affecting nearly half a million people. Hurricane season runs June to November – for the latest news, you can check with the National Hurricane Center & Tropical Prediction Center (www.nhc.noaa.gov).
Volcanoes Great to look at, fun to climb, scary when they erupt. Guatemala has four active volcanoes: Pacaya, Volcán de Fuego, Santiaguito and Tacaná. The nastiest event to date was back in 1902 when Santa María erupted taking 6000 lives. In recent years Pacaya and Fuego (both outside of Antigua) have been acting up, with increased lava flow and ash. When Fuego erupted in June 2018, over 160 people were killed by the resulting ash flow. If you need to keep an eye on it, log on to the Smithsonian's volcano page (www.volcano.si.edu).
Plants & Animals
Guatemala's natural beauty, from volcanoes and lakes to jungles and wetlands, is one of its great attractions. With an astonishing range of different ecosystems, the variety of fauna and flora is great – and if you know where to go, opportunities for seeing exciting species are plentiful.
Estimates point to 250 species of mammals, 600 species of birds, 200 species of reptiles and amphibians, and many species of butterflies and other insects.
The national bird, the resplendent quetzal (for which the national currency is named), is small but exceptionally beautiful. The male sports a bright-red breast, brilliant blue-green neck, head, back and wings, and a blue-green tail several times as long as the body, which stands only around 15cm tall. The female has far duller plumage. The quetzal's main habitat is the cloud forests of Alta Verapaz.
Exotic birds of the lowland jungles include toucans, macaws and parrots. If you visit Tikal, you can't miss the ocellated turkey (also called the Petén turkey), a large, multicolored bird reminiscent of a peacock. Tikal is an all-round wildlife hot spot: you stand a good chance of spotting howler and spider monkeys, coatis (locally called pisotes) and other mammals, plus toucans, parrots and many other birds. Some 300 endemic and migratory bird species have been recorded at Tikal, among them nine hummingbirds and four trogons.
Good areas for sighting waterfowl – including the jabiru stork, the biggest flying bird in the western hemisphere – are Laguna Petexbatún and the lakes near Yaxhá ruins, both in El Petén, and the Río Dulce between Lago de Izabal and Lívingston.
Guatemala's forests still host many mammal and reptile species. Petén residents include jaguars, ocelots, pumas, two species of peccary, opossums, tapirs, kinkajous, agoutis (tepescuintles; rodents 60cm to 70cm long), white-tailed and red brocket deer, and armadillos. Guatemala is home to at least five species of sea turtle (the loggerhead, hawksbill and green ridley on the Caribbean coast, and the leatherback and olive ridley on the Pacific) and at least two species of crocodile (one found in El Petén, the other in the Río Dulce). Manatees exist in the Río Dulce, though they're notoriously hard to spot.
Guatemala's wildlife faces two major threats. The first is the loss of habitat, as more land is turned over to farming. The second threat is hunting, which is mostly done for food, but also takes place for the collection of skins and other products, as is the case for deer, turtles and some reptiles. Endangered mammals include jaguars, howler monkeys, manatees, several species of mice and bats, and the Guatemalan vole.
More than 25 bird species native to the region are listed as endangered, including the Atitlán grebe (found only in Guatemala) and the national bird, the resplendent quetzal. Many reptiles, including the Morelet's crocodile are likewise disappearing.
Feature: Snake in the Grass
The Central American or common lancehead, also called the fer-de-lance (locally known as barba amarilla, or 'yellow beard') is a highly poisonous viper with a diamond-patterned back and an arrow-shaped head. The cascabel (tropical rattlesnake) is the most poisonous of all rattlers. Both inhabit jungles and savannah.
Guatemala has more than 8000 species of plants in 19 different ecosystems that range from mangrove forests and wetlands on both coasts to the tropical rainforest of El Petén, and the pine forests, open grasslands and cloud forests of the mountains. The cloud forests, with their epiphytes, bromeliads and dangling old-man's-beard, are most abundant in Alta Verapaz. Trees of El Petén include the sapodilla, wild rubber trees, mahogany, several useful palms and Guatemala's national tree for its manifold symbolism to the Maya, the ceiba (also called the kapok or silk-cotton tree in English). Cities such as Antigua become glorious with the lilac blooms of jacaranda trees in the early months of the year.
The national flower, the monja blanca (white nun orchid), is said to have been picked so much that it's now rarely seen in the wild; nevertheless, with 550 species of orchid (one third of them endemic to Guatemala), you shouldn't have any trouble spotting some. If you're interested in orchids, be sure to visit the Vivero Verapaz orchid nursery at Cobán and try to land in town for its annual orchid festival, held every December.
Domesticated plants, of course, contribute at least as much to the landscape as wild ones. The milpa (maize field) is the backbone of agricultural subsistence everywhere. Milpas are, however, usually cleared by the slash-and-burn method, which has been an important factor in the diminution of Guatemala's forests.
Parks & Protected Areas
Guatemala has more than 90 protected areas, including reservas de biosfera (biosphere reserves), parques nacionales (national parks), biotopos protegidos (protected biotopes), refugios de vida silvestre (wildlife refuges) and reservas naturales privadas (private nature reserves). Even though some areas are contained within other, larger ones, they amount to 28% of the national territory. Tikal National Park is the only such area on the Unesco World Heritage list in Guatemala, and owes half its listing to the archaeological site found within.
Many of the protected areas are remote and hard to access for the independent traveler.
Parks & Protected Areas Table
Área de Protección Especial Punta de Manabique
large Caribbean wetland reserve; beaches, mangroves, lagoons, birds, crocodiles, possible manatee sightings
boat trips, wildlife observation, fishing, beach
Best Time to Visit
Biotopo Cerro Cahuí
forest reserve beside Lago de Petén Itzá; Petén wildlife including monkeys
Best Time to Visit
Biotopo del Quetzal (Biotopo Mario Dary Rivera)
easy-access cloud-forest reserve; howler monkeys, birds
nature trails, birdwatching, possible quetzal sightings
Best Time to Visit
Biotopo San Miguel La Palotada
within Reserva de Biosfera Maya, adjoins Parque Nacional Tikal; dense Petén forest with millions of bats
jungle walks, visits to El Zotz archaeological site and bat caves
Best Time to Visit
any, drier Nov-May
Parque Nacional Grutas de Lanquín
large cave system 61km from Cobán
bat-watching; observation of the nearby Semuc Champey lagoons and waterfalls
Best Time to Visit
Parque Nacional Laguna del Tigre
remote, large park within Reserva de Biosfera Maya; freshwater wetlands, Petén flora and fauna
wildlife-spotting, including scarlet macaws, monkeys, crocodiles; visiting El Perú archaeological site; volunteer opportunities at Las Guacamayas biological station
Best Time to Visit
any, drier Nov-May
Parque Nacional Laguna Lachuá
circular, jungle-surrounded, turquoise lake, 220m deep; many fish, occasional jaguars and tapir
Best Time to Visit
Parque Nacional Mirador–Río Azul
national park within Reserva de Biosfera Maya; Petén flora and fauna
jungle treks to El Mirador archaeological site
Best Time to Visit
any, drier Nov-May
Parque Nacional Río Dulce
beautiful jungle-lined lower Río Dulce between Lago de Izabal and the Caribbean; manatee refuge
Best Time to Visit
Parque Nacional Tikal
diverse jungle wildlife among Guatemala's most magnificent Maya ruins
wildlife-spotting, seeing spectacular Maya city
Best Time to Visit
any, drier Nov-May
Refugio de Bocas del Polochic
delta of Río Polochic at western end of Lago de Izabal; Guatemala's second-largest freshwater wetlands
birdwatching (more than 300 species), howler monkey observation
Best Time to Visit
Refugio de Vida Silvestre Petexbatún
lake near Sayaxché; water birds
boat trips, fishing, visiting several archaeological sites
Best Time to Visit
Reserva de Biosfera Maya
vast 21,000-sq-km area stretching across northern Petén; includes four national parks
jungle treks, wildlife-spotting
Best Time to Visit
any, drier Nov-May
Reserva de Biosfera Sierra de las Minas
cloud-forest reserve of great biodiversity; key quetzal habitat
Best Time to Visit
Reserva Natural Monterrico-Hawaii
Pacific beaches and wetlands; birdlife, turtles
boat tours, birdwatching and turtle-watching
Best Time to Visit
Jun-Nov (turtle nesting)
Environmental consciousness is not enormously developed in Guatemala, as the vast amounts of garbage strewn across the country and the choking clouds of diesel gas pumped out by its buses and trucks will quickly tell you. Despite the impressive list of parks and protected areas, genuine protection for those areas is harder to achieve, partly because of official collusion to ignore the regulations and partly because of pressure from poor Guatemalans in need of land.
Guatemala's popularity as a tourist destination leads to a few environmental problems – the question of sewerage and trash disposal around Lago de Atitlán being a major one, and some inappropriate development in the rainforests of El Petén being another. Infrastructure development in Guatemala is moving at such a pace, though, that these problems seem minor compared to some of the other challenges that environmentalists face.
Deforestation is a problem in many areas, especially El Petén, where jungle is being felled not just for timber but also to make way for cattle ranches, oil pipelines, clandestine airstrips, new settlements and new maize fields cleared using the slash-and-burn method.
Oil exploration is a concern all over the country – Guatemalans are scrambling to start drilling in El Petén, as the Mexicans have been doing for years, tapping into a vast subterranean reserve that runs across the border. In his short stint in office, then-president Alfonso Portillo proposed drilling for oil in the middle of Lago de Izabal. The plan was shelved after massive outcry from international and local environmental agencies and some not too subtle pressure from Guatemala's trading partners. It's a project that's gone, but not forgotten.
Large-scale infrastructure projects are being announced with regularity, often in environmentally sensitive areas. The most controversial of these was the Northern Transversal, a strip of highway consolidating existing roads stretching from the Mexican border at Gracias a Dios, past Playa Grande and connecting with Modesto Méndez on the Belize border. Concerns with the project are many, as the road passes through sites of archaeological, environmental and cultural significance. Local environmental groups fear the new road will facilitate oil exploration in the Ixcán. One component of the plan is the construction of the Xalalá dam, a hydroelectric project. Despite claims that the dam will produce 886GWh of hydroelectric energy per year, thus reducing the country's energy deficit and reliance on fossil fuels, the project has run into stiff opposition as detractors claim that construction will displace local communities, affect water quality downstream and alter the ecology of the area through habitat loss.
Transnational mining companies are moving in, most notably in San Marcos in the Western Highlands and the Sierra de las Minas in the southeast. Without the proper community consultation called for by law, the government has granted these companies license to operate open-cut mines in search of silver and gold. Chemical runoff, deforestation, eviction of local communities and water pollution are the main issues here. Police have been used to forcibly evict residents and quash community groups' peaceful protests.
Despite such a dire-sounding list of obstacles, a number of Guatemalan organizations are doing valiant work to protect their country's environment and biodiversity. The following are good sources of information for finding out more about Guatemala's natural and protected areas:
Arcas (www.arcasguatemala.com) NGO working with volunteers in sea-turtle conservation and rehabilitation of Petén wildlife.
Asociación Ak' Tenamit (www.aktenamit.org) Maya-run NGO working to reduce poverty and promote conservation and ecotourism in the rainforests of eastern Guatemala.
Cecon (www.cecon.usac.edu.gt) Manages six public biotopos and one reserva natural.
Fundación Defensores de la Naturaleza (www.defensores.org.gt) NGO that owns and administers several protected areas.
Sidebar: Tajumulco peak
Tajumulco (4220m), northwest of Quetzaltenango, is the highest peak in Central America. La Torre (3837m), north of Huehuetenango, is the highest nonvolcanic peak in Central America.
Sidebar: Fuego Eruption
When Feugo volcano erupted on June 3, 2018, its ash plume reached more than 14.5km into the atmosphere, killing around 160 people and leaving thousands homeless.
Sidebar: Timber, tourists, and temples
Timber, Tourists, and Temples, edited by Richard Primack et al, brings together experts on the forests of Guatemala, Mexico and Belize for an in-depth look at the problems of balancing conservation with local people's aspirations.
The Pacunam foundation (www.pacunam.org) ties together work and research on conservation issues with Maya archaeology and sustainable tourism.
Sidebar: Flora and fauna guide
Les D Beletsky's Belize & Northern Guatemala: The Ecotravellers' Wildlife Guide is a comprehensive, all-in-one guide to flora and fauna in the region. The book features hundreds of illustrations and photos and some welcome splashes of humor.
Sidebar: Bird books
Bird-lovers must get hold of either The Birds of Tikal: An Annotated Checklist, by Randell A Beavers, or The Birds of Tikal, by Frank B Smithe. If you can't find them elsewhere, at least one should be on sale at Tikal itself, and both are useful much further afield.
Sidebar: Scarlet macaws
To see rare scarlet macaws in the wild, the place to head to is La Ruta Guacamaya (the Scarlet Macaw Trail) of El Perú ruins in El Petén.
Sidebar: Bird and war book
Jonathon Maslow's Bird of Life, Bird of Death begins as a story about a naturalist's search for the quetzal, but quickly develops into a terrifying portrait of Guatemala during the civil war.
Sidebar: Green Guatemala?
Guatemala lost 17% of its forest between 1990 and 2005, but despite continued deforestation, still has 52% tree cover.