I was excited to return to Guatemala to help with the WorldStrides teacher convention. I wanted the teachers to get to know the impressive place I knew from my previous travels. But I was also worried. Guatemala was one of the first countries I had become familiar with almost 10 years ago and I was worried that the traditions that made the place so colorful and fascinating might have come and gone.
Even though the more generic modern world is making its mark, the country is as spectacular as it was. The volcanoes and mountains, the dual coasts, the rainforest draped Mayan sites are all spectacular, but it’s the people that make the place. The supremely colorful traditional clothing and fabrics, mostly worn by the women, still abound. It is a wonder that a rare place like Guatemala is still able to exist in the modern world with its traditions enduring. It is still so worth traveling to and experiencing!
Convention Day 1: Not Inside Out, but Outside In!
The colonial town of Antigua is perhaps one of the best places in the country at capturing aspects of a different time. Thus it is declared one of UNESCO’s sites of “Cultural Heritage of Humankind.” It features cobblestone streets, slow motor traffic, and thin sidewalks (walking side-by-side is nearly impossible away from the plazas) along with high colonial walls. The American concept of a lawn and yards is reversed: Enter a hotel or a museum or glance into a courtyard and you see lush plants and wonderful fountains and decorative gardens but from the outside, you’ll see the outer wall. Even the Spanish school abutting our hotel looked like it was a single entrance to a single place, but instead was a maze of gardens, lovely buildings, and even many remaining coffee trees from its time as a farm. Many of our teachers would stop in their tracks due to a glance into a courtyard wonderland, needing a photo and a longer look to capture what they saw.
The rest of the day? Amazing. We visited the indigenous village of Santiago Zamora to learn about Maya-Kaqchiquel culture, enjoyed a typical lunch prepared by local women artisans, and later ventured to the village of San Antonio Aguas Calientes, famous for its textiles and handicrafts. This area just does not run out of marvels!
Convention Day 2: Market of Markets!
Sunday began with a trip to Chichicastenango to shop in the most colorful and picturesque market in Guatemala, where locals buy and sell fruits, vegetables, grain, animals, flowers, textiles and handicrafts. I think we took 5000 photos there alone and shopped a bit too. We then went to a Mayan ceremony performed by a Shaman (spiritual guide) on a hilltop at the site of Pascual Abaj, an ancient shrine to a Mayan earth god and then enjoyed an authentic lunch at the Shaman’s house. An inspired group of teachers then headed to the airport for the flight to Lake Peten and the Tikal Mayan area!
Convention Day 3: A City Swept Over by a Sea of Rainforest!
Ah, Tikal! As impressive as Chichen Itza and Uxmal are, just north of Mexico’s Yucatan, Tikal remains uniquely stunning. It’s a standout among Mayan sites and was once a huge, advanced, complex and busy Mayan city of perhaps 150,000 in the years well before the arrival of Europeans. The rainforest eventually devoured it when its people left to continue a more rural life nearby. Driving past today’s Mayans on the way into the site, we soon passed animal crossing signs for jaguars, wild turkeys, coatimundi, agouti and the like, meaning we were reaching the center of both the rainforest and the abandoned city. Even today much of the city lies overgrown, perhaps hundreds of Mayan stone structures masquerading as hills around the restored pyramids and buildings. The feats of engineering here, from stone construction to large clay-lined reservoirs, would be amazing 500 years ago, but they date back from 1,000 to 2,500 years. When well-traveled teachers are constantly exclaiming their awe, you know you are someplace special.
So Close It’s Often Overlooked
Guatemala is a gem. History, culture, language, science and COLORS all so close to our southern border, yet not visited frequently enough. I think we all left hoping more American students would get to know one of their closest neighbors better and more often!