Imagine that you’re standing on the steps of a Catholic church built in 1545. All around you are devout descendants of the famed Maya Indians, slowly ascending the steps on their knees, with wisps of smoke from their incense filling the air. They are almost certainly praying both to the Christian Blessed Virgin and to their ancient ancestral gods.
Where would one find a scene of such contrasting worship, an exotic scene not likely to be duplicated in many other places on our planet? The answer is — the small, fascinating Central American country of Guatemala.
I can’t conceive of two countries, both of which are in what we call Latin America, more different than Guatemala and Argentina, the South American nation that I’ve written about over the last two weeks. About the only thing they have in common is the fact that they were colonized by the Spanish centuries ago.
I visited both nations way back in the 1970s on “press junkets” for travel writers, in which the host countries, airlines and hotels pick up the tab and the writers then return home to reveal the highlights of their trip for their readers. ( I also visited Guatemala in 1976 to cover the effects of a devastating earthquake, but that’s another story for next week.)
Argentina is modern, sophisticated and European-oriented, while Guatemala is much more traditional, with most of the population being either pure-blooded Mayans or of mixed Spanish and Mayan ancestry.
Guatemala City, the capital, certainly has a modern appearance, with luxurious hotels, restaurants and night clubs. But to get a sense of the country, one needs to hit the road.
I don’t know how modern the country’s highways are now, but in 1974, when I first went there, the only way to get to the “real” Guatemala out in the countryside was via vehicle on narrow, twisting two-lane highways in the mountains, with lots of blind hairpin turns and sheer drop-offs on one side of the road.
The village where the Mayans mix Christianity and their own ancient religions is called Chichicastenango. Yes, it’s pronounced just like it’s spelled. Spanish priests worked to convert the natives to Christianity but their efforts were only partly successful. As I said, they have formed a blend of two religions and once they have reached the top of the church steps, they continue on their knees toward the ancient altar, where they pray to more than one deity.
Chichi, as it’s known for short, is also home to what has to be one of the most colorful markets in the world. The bright clothes put on display and sale by the Mayans are a kaleidoscope of color. You can buy everything from a wicked machete to a fantastically colored cape. And they expect you to bargain. I bought a beautiful golden cape for the asking price of $10 and the seller looked at me like I was crazy for not bargaining him down to a lower price.
Another site of ancient Guatemala, though very different, is Antiqua Guatemala, which was a thriving Spanish settlement until hit by a terrible earthquake in the 1700s. The old colonial ruins, especially the church, are a wonder to see.
And speaking of wonders, let me tell you about Lake Atitlan. This achingly beautiful lake is in a volcano crater and surrounded by other lovely peaks. It is one of the most relaxing and serene places I have ever been.
Unfortunately, my group of writers was not taken to any of the famed Mayan ruins, because at that time they were quite remote and difficult to get to.
Should you check out this very, very different destination? The country has a history of dictatorships and a violent opposition, not unlike Argentina, which has led to guerilla warfare. But Guatemala is supposedly safe to travel these days. If you’re looking for something exotic and off the beaten path, you may want to consider a trip there.
Next week: a look at a much more tragic Guatemala, when it was hit by a huge earthquake more than 40 years ago.