The Maya II: Guatemalan Highlands   4 comments

This is a continuation of my series on travel to the land of the Maya in Central America.  I flew into Cancun, and then worked my way down through the peninsula (see last post), traveling through Chiapas and entering Guatemala from the west.  Hope you enjoy the photos!  But please be aware that not only are they small files, but that it’s not okay to download them without contacting me for permission.  Clicking the photos will take you to my website where purchase of much larger files is easy as pie.

There is no way to travel through this area without being impressed not only with the Maya, but also towns with well-preserved colonial architecture.  I visited Campeche in the Yucatan, and San Cristobal de Las Casas in Chiapas.  Both are the home of incredible Spanish colonial architecture and each have their own character.

Campeche is, despite its spectacular architecture, relatively free of heavy tourist influence, while San Cristobal, maybe because it is smaller, has more of a tourist feel to it.  Also, Campeche is on the sea and Cristobal is not.  Both towns, however, are places where you can stroll the streets with plenty of photo opportunities, plenty of places to eat and drink, plenty of people-watching.  As a bonus, the two towns sit in an area of perfectly balmy climate.

A couple gets close near the cathedral in Campeche on the Yucatan Peninsula.

The colonial architecture of Campeche, on the Gulf of Mexico, is one of the highlights of a visit to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

I After San Cristobal, I headed for Palenque in Chiapas, and toured that site amongst plenty of other tourists.  Aside from Chichen Itza, this is the most crowded Mayan site I visited, but it was a gorgeous day and I did not really bother getting there too early.  The occasional crowd never bothers me, since I make a point to get well off the beaten track on more than enough occasions.

The carvings at Palenque are very well preserved.  In general, you must go to museums to see well-preserved Mayan carved panels and stelae (stone pillars).  This is because the weather has really done a number on the artwork left at the actual sites.  But Palenque and a few other cities have plenty of artwork that is stunning in its detail.  Also, Palenque is set in gorgeous wooded hills, with a stream flowing right through it.  Go to the edge of the ruins and check out the jungle; you might see some wildlife.

The Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque, an ancient Mayan city in Chiapas, Mexico.

Leaving Palenque, I entered Guatemala.  The transition was definitely noticeable.  No more air conditioned buses and vans, no more leaving when scheduled.  Guatemala is a fairly chaotic country, full of people and energy, more traditional & not nearly as rich as Mexico.  North Americans who only travel to Mexico think that country is third world.  They have no idea.  If they were to continue south to Guatemala and beyond, then they would understand what third world actually means.

I don’t say this to denigrate these places.  It’s just a simple fact.  Mexico is more modern, easier to travel through than most Central American countries, much easier.  These days Mexico might be more dangerous in places, because of the drug war.  But it is most certainly more kind to travelers of all types than Guatemala (and let’s not even talk about El Salvador!).

A tricked out chicken bus in Guatemala.

So there I was in the highlands, waiting for the “chicken bus”  I had chosen at random to attract enough passengers for us to set out.  After a time, we were heading towards Xela (Quetzaltenango), the main city in the highlands.  By the way, to pronounce “X “in Spanish, you simply say “Sh”.  So Xela is “Shela”.  That chicken bus was taking me into another world, a parade of busy mountain villages with  hordes of people and energy.  There is nowhere on the planet quite like this, though parts of South Asia’s mountain terrain are closest.  The markets alone are enough to set this place apart, and the Maya culture is as dominant as it is anywhere in Latin America.

These Maya are different than those in the Yucatan.  It seems that each village brings a different dress, a different set of customs.  They all speak different languages, have a different look.  They do all share many similarities, but they’re not nearly as monocultural as the Yucatan Maya.  And another thing I noticed: in these highlands where you find so many traditional Mayan villages, you will be hard pressed to find any ancient Mayan ruins.  They’re all in the bordering lowlands and in Chiapas.  It seems that the big ancient Mayan cities were all built in the lowlands or hill country, whereas the modern Maya have been pushed into the highlands, where it is harder to make a living.  A simplistic observation with some exceptions I will admit, but the pattern is there.

A cool evening in a small town in the Guatemalan Highlands, with its white-washed church, is graced by a bright moon.

View from inside one of the colonial buildings surrounding the square in the town of Quetzaltenango (“Xela”) in the Guatemalan highlands.

The heart of Quetzaltenango (Xela) in the Guatemalan Highlands is its Parque Central.

Xela is a city surrounded by volcanoes, home to markets and many Spanish language schools.  Here the Maya are mixed in with other Guatemalans.  I enjoyed Xela’s central square (Parque Central), taking many photos.  I also was befriended by a few Mayan women in the market; they worried over me and made sure I was safely on a bus with my spendy camera gear.  I wanted to climb a volcano.  It was a tossup between the very active volcano Pacaya, and the highest mountain in Central America, Tajumulco.  I went with the highest one!

The sun rises over the Guatemalan highlands, as viewed from the summit of the highest mountain in Central America, Tajamulco.

We camped only 500 or so feet from the summit, so close that we reached the top just before sunrise next morning.  I managed to catch a pretty nice photo, the haze of the lower country setting a counterpoint to the intensely clear rising sun.  I visited the little village of Todos Santos Cuchumatan afterwards, managing to get my MP3 player stolen on the bus along the way.  But this was to be the only theft I’d suffer on the 3-month trip through Central America.

Todos Santos is fairly popular with travelers.  But it still feels way off the beaten track and the Maya there hold tight to their traditions.  The road is rough and the bus ride bouncy and long from Xela.  The town sits in steep terrain and by virtue of its elevation (8200 ft., 2500m.) is quite cool, especially at night (think wool blankets).  On the day I got there I walked uphill and soon ran into three Mayan girls who were chatty and friendly.  I spent some time with them, taking pictures, laughing, and sort of flirting.

A young and happy Mayan woman in Todos Santos, heart of the Mayan culture in the Guatemalan highlands.

A young Mayan lady high up in the Guatemalan highlands, in the village of Todos Santos.

Young men in Todos Santos Cuchumatan, in the Guatemalan Highlands, wear the tradtional colorful pants favored by the Maya in this region.

Colorful is a good way to describe the dress of most Mayan women, and these two were no exceptions.  What is different about this town, however, is the dress of the men.  Mayan men normally don’t bother with colorful dress, but here they tend to wear bright red & white striped pants, topped by a jaunty hat.  Even small boys wear this getup, and man are they ever cute!

After a few days relaxing along the shores of Lago Atitlan, I visited another remote town in the Ixil triangle, Nebaj.  From this town I hiked up a dirt track, following locals weighed down with incredible loads (from market) as they trekked across a pass and down into a beautiful valley.  There was a small village here, accessible only by foot.  As you might imagine, an agrarian, simple way of life prevails here, in utterly beautiful surroundings.

It was very warm during the day, cooling off a lot at night, just the way I like it.  (It takes a great amount of heat to get to me; same with cold.)  The night market at Nebaj was fantastic, with a whitewashed church, the bright moon, and some tasty and exotic (for me) treats all creating a magical atmosphere that just seemed to define the highlands.

Street food in a village square high up in the Guatemalan highlands includes unusual sweets.

The Ixil area drops off spectacularly to the east into central Guatemala.  I took a jam-packed van to an amazing place called Semuc Champey, passing one of the largest landslide scars I’ve ever seen.  The rainy season can see spectacular landslides on the rough roads that traverse the Guatemalan Highlands.  Once at Semuc Champey, I realized why it was listed in my guidebook.

A huge volume of re-deposited limestone (travertine) fills the river valley here.  It’s similar to what you find at places like Yellowstone’s Mammoth Hot Springs, but grey not white.  The river flows over, under and through all this limestone, forming a series of green, paradisical pools and waterfalls.  It is probably the most atmospheric swimming hole I’ve ever been to.

The clear pools at Semuc Champey in the Guatemalan highlands invite a cooling swim.

I was not done with the Maya.  From Semuc Champey I kept going east, heading for Lake Izabal.  But the roads turn into dirt through this area, and public transport just stops. So I hitched, something I did quite a bit of in my (much) younger days.  I was dropped off at a lonely junction where two dirt roads come together, and patiently waited under bluebird skies for any 4×4 to come by.  But it was Sunday and my wait was a long one.  No problem: the Mayan children from a village nearby kept me entertained.

Mayan children near the village of Cahabon in remote central Guatemala can’t stop laughing about having a stranger in their midst.

This is probably the most remote area I visited in Central America.  The people were nearly all Mayan, and were dirt poor.  I had stumbled upon it, and was leaving in the back of a pickup all too soon.  A definite negative was the state of their land.  Guatemala had seen fit to allow loggers to flatten the whole forest in this region some 15 or 20 years ago.  The trees are growing back, but so far are still quite small.  A mature tropical rainforest used to grow here, and it’s obvious the land and wildlife misses it.

My trip continued into eastern Guatemala, which was well on its way to becoming my favorite of Central America.  I continued my off-the-beaten track travels, staying on the shore of Lago Izabal where I took a small boat past dugongs and growler monkeys.  I also stayed at a jungle lodge along the Rio Dulce (my cabin was named Tucan).  But I was no longer in the land of the Maya.  I would return to Maya country in western Belize and northernmost Guatemala.  That’s the subject of the next post in this series.

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4 responses to “The Maya II: Guatemalan Highlands

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  1. Beautiful capture of the children ! Great information too. Thank you for sharing.
    Oh, I almost forgot: I WANT THAT BUS 🙂

  2. I like these pictures. I am trying to learn Spanish.

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