We are enchanted with the people, the land and the arts of the Maya world. The ancient Maya world included Guatemala, Belize, southern Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras. Each region has its own charm and amazing sites. We want to visit them all!
Guatemala City is the capital of Guatemala and reminders of its ancient Maya and Spanish past can still be found among its landmarks and museums. There is a wonderful artisan market with handcrafts from all around the region. But the recently remodeled zoo is our favorite site in the city and the animals are always awake!
Antigua, Guatemala (pictured above) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of the former capitals of Spain in North America, the Spanish colonial town founded in 1527 was built to include universities, hospitals, cathedrals, museums and palaces. It was destroyed by a large earthquake in 1773 and the capital was moved to its present site leaving behind La Antigua (the old one). Its ruins still stand among the charming restored colonial style buildings along the cobblestone streets. It sits in a beautiful valley set against the awe-inspiring backdrop of 3 volcanos (Volcan Pacaya has recently been very active). Antigua's religious festival during Semana Santa (Holy Week) takes place during the spring and is the most popular in the Americas.
Local women in their embroidered huipiles (blouses) are walking advertisements for Guatemala’s textile heritage. It can take up to six months to create these pieces; the region-specific weaving patterns and techniques communicate everything from birthplace and social position to marital status and religious background. The artisans market near the bus station has handwoven goods along with other handcrafts.
HIGHLANDS, MAYAN CULTURE
Traveling to the highland mountains is to enjoy the Maya lifestyle. Each indigenous town preserves their ancestral customs and traditions. It’s market town of Chichicastenango is a popular tourist stop. Quetzaltenango or Xelajú (Xela for short) is the second largest city of Guatemala. Known as “The Cradle of Culture” the colonial town of Xela was built in the XVI century. The region has 12 volcanoes and is famous for its hot springs’ healing and soothing powers.
Located in The Western Highlands, Lake Atitlan (pictured above) is an area rich in the Mayan culture. There are more than 20 Mayan ethnic groups in Guatemala, and the Lake Atitlan area is home to a handful of them, most notably the Tz'utujil and Kaqchikel people. Each of the towns and villages surrounding the lake is known for something different — for example, textiles, ceramics or leatherwork.
Access to the Pacific coast from Xela is through the Boca de la Costa. One of the earliest Maya ruins, Takalik Abaj, is located near Retalhuleu. Nearby are two theme parks, a Dino park and the Irtra, one of Central America’s only 5 star resorts. Along the coast you’ll find beautiful black sand beaches, mangrove swamps, iguana, crocodiles and nesting sea turtles. In Monterrico in the south you can visit the sea turtle rescue preserve established by the San Carlos University and adopt a baby sea turtle for release into the sea.
PETÉN, ADVENTURE IN THE RAINFOREST
The area known as Petén (pictured above) is believed to be the birthplace of Mayan civilization, as some of the oldest Mayan sites are found here. The most impressive of these is Tikal, which was once one of the largest Mayan cities and is an absolute must-see for travelers in the area. The ruins, composed of huge temples and limestone pyramids, are utterly incredible. Aside from the ruins, Tikal is also an awesome place for birders and wildlife enthusiasts.
There are two other important Mayan sites in Petén—El Mirador and Yaxhá. El Mirador, set deep in the northern portion of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, is one of the largest and earliest Mayan sites in the world. Its massive ruins are still being excavated and are sure to reveal a wealth of treasures in the future.
On the road to Tikal is the beautiful Lake Petén Itzá, one of Guatemala’s largest. The lake, which has a characteristic turquoise-blue hue and is surrounded by thick forests, is quite beautiful (Francis Coppola has homes here). There is a scattering of villages along the shores of the lake—many of these are quite small and culturally authentic.
YUCATAN, RIVIERA MAYA AND BELIZE
In Mexico, the Yucatán Peninsula's Caribbean Coast stretches from Cancún to the border of Belize. The 80-mile slice from Tulum to the Punta Allen peninsula is known as the Riviera Maya. Here, travel is all about the turquoise sea and powder-fine sand. Sites among the ancient remnants of the region's Mayan civilizations include Tulum (pictured above) and Chichen Itzá,
Visiting cenotes is an experience unique to this area. Cenotes are sinkholes filled with fresh water, typically found in caves, that the Mayans believed were sacred places. There are thousands of cenotes found in the Riviera Maya area. Gran Cenote in Tulum is one of the most popular destinations with wooden platforms leading to a circular underground water wonderland surrounded by limestone stalagmites and stalactites.
VERAPACES, NATURAL PARADISE
The Verapaces region is the destination for adventure travelers. The natural geography has lush ancient forests, with ecosystems typical of the dry forest, cloud forests or rainforests, which serve as a refuge for many regional species including the elusive Quetzal and more than 800 species of orchids. Outdoor recreation is ensured with mountain climbs among the waterfalls, rafting in the river rapids or touring the limestone terraces of Semuc Champey (pictured above) and the extraordinary limestone caves of Lanquín or Candelaria.
EAST, MOUNTAINS AND DESERT
In this region you'll find the sources of Maya jade found in the Sierra de Las Minas mountains. with a jungle ecosystem and declared protected area in Zacapa, home of its legendary rum (ron in Spanish). It is home to more than 885 species of mammals, birds (including the elusive Quetzal pictured above) and reptiles that live in this cloud forest. It houses one of the most important Catholic pilgrimage sites in the region, the municipality of Esquipulas, whose insignia is the Basilica of the Holy Black Christ of Esquipulas.
Chiapas in Mexico is the site of some of the region’s most spectacular Mayan ruins—at Bonampak, where intricate murals are preserved, and at Palenque (whose king Pakal is represented above), which is located in a national park.
The pine and oak highlands of central Chiapas rise 8,000 feet above the Grijalva River to the northwest and extend for nearly 220 kilometers southeast into neighboring Guatemala. For at least a thousand years the Tzotzil and Tzeltal-speaking Maya have lived in the valleys of this plateau, near the many limestone springs that are fed by underground rivers. Most communities also specialize in a particular craft or crop which they sell at the market in the colonial city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas.
Among the Chiapas Maya, brocade weaving is perceived not only as an art form, but also as a sacred duty ordained by the gods and perfected by the ancestors. For centuries Chiapas women have woven and brocaded gowns for the images of their gods, who are now identified with the Virgin and Catholic Saints. These sacred textiles, stored in the saints' coffers, are still the source of their art and a symbol of their Maya identity.