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Guatemala is a geographically diverse country as it is cut into three sections by the Sierra Madre de Chiapas mountain range, which runs west to east through the country. Along with volcanoes, snow-capped mountains, and endless valleys and hills, the terrain of Guatemala is a nature lover's dream.
The Mayan civilization, which was centered in Guatemala, lasted from around 2000 BC to about AD 900 when it mysteriously and almost completely disappeared, leaving behind ancient ruins—such as the ancient city of Tikal—and various customs and styles that live to this day. Since then, the colonial Spanish empire, tumultuous periods of dictatorships, geo-political influence from the United States, and a relatively new democratic system—a system which still struggles with crime, drugs, and general instability—have all left an imprint on the culture and landscape of Guatemala. In 1996 After a 36-year civil war, general peace returned to Guatemala followed by a revitalization and rediscovery of the country’s Mayan roots through education and the development of the tourism industry. Today, more than 50% of Guatemalans can trace their ancestry to the ancient Maya.
Guatemala is an opportunity to tantalize the senses. From the ubiquitous tamale—corn-based dough filled with chicken or pork and steamed in a plantain—to the infectious melodies of marimba chapinlandia music, Guatemala’s tastes and sounds are sure to entice. And while on the road, watch out for “chicken busses,” brilliantly-colored school busses called such because people and goods are crammed on like chickens.
Guatemala Interactive Map
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Guatemala City is the bustling modern center for the country's government and economy. With renowned museums and galleries, vibrant street life and salsa culture, and La Terminal—one of the world’s biggest markets—Guatemala City is a culturally-rich destination brimming with history. Here, you’ll enjoy a deep slice of life in this contemporary city set amid an ancient landscape.
All roads in Guatemala originate from the National Palace, a famous landmark that was completed in 1943 by prison laborers. Considered a symbol of Guatemalan architecture with its blend of old-world Spanish and distinctly Guatemalan styles, the palace is now a museum, which also hosts important government events.
In the eastern half of Guatemala City, the Iglesia Yurrita, named after its Spanish plantation owner Felipe Yurrita, stands out from the rest of the neo-Classical style churches. Legend tells the story of how the church was an offering to Guatemala City’s patron saint Our Lady of the Anguishes after she saved Yurrita’s family and many townspeople from a deadly volcanic eruption. Iglesia Yurrita is a place of distinct beauty with its blush-red facade and incorporation of eastern European and Byzantine architectural styles.
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Hedged in by three volcanoes, the small city of Antigua is a European locale in a tropical setting. Built by the invading Spaniards as the seat of colonial power in the mid-16th century, Antigua is characterized by its mix of Baroque- and colonial Spanish-style architecture with tiled roofs and vine facades. Ravaged by an earthquake in the 18th century, Antigua has been nearly completely restored and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site today.
Known for its museums, legacy of artisanal brocade weaving, and the best coffee in Guatemala, Antigua is also home to Atitlán Nature Reserve, a 247-acre site where volcanoes and tropical forests lay in preserved peace. Santo Domingo—a former Spanish colonial monastery—is now a cultural complex with two museums displaying both Spanish and classical Mayan artworks.
36 Hours in Antigua, Guatemala
Let The New York Times guide you through Antigua, Guatemala, which you can visit on our pre-trip extension.Produced by Fritzie Andrade, Max Cantor, Chris Carmichael, Will Lloyd, and Sarah Brady Voll
©2015 The New York Times
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For the ancient Mayans, Lake Atitlán was a divine energy source and was integral to many religious ceremonies. Nestled behind the guard of three volcanoes, Lake Atitlán’s forested landscape and azure-blue waters come together to create a somber and tranquil vista, sometimes referred to as the "closest thing to Eden on Earth."
Surrounding the lake, several villages still feel the heartbeat of Mayan culture. The residents of Santiago Atitlán, San Pedro La Laguna, San Marcos La Laguna, and San Antonio Palopó are known as artisan boat builders and often wear traditional Mayan dress. The Cojolya Weaving Center in Santiago Atitlán, established by the Association of Maya Women Weavers, carries on the tradition of creating brilliantly colored and geometric designs to their craft. Many also practice a fusion of Catholicism and the ancient Mayan religion, common in other parts of Mesoamerica.
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Tikal National Park
In the heart of the northern Guatemalan jungle, the ancient Mayan citadel of Tikal was once a major seat of Mayan political and economic power. The citadel flourished under Mayan rule between the sixth century BC to the tenth century AD. Conquered by the city of Teotihuacan in central Mexico in about AD 400, the site experienced gradual population decline until around AD 900 when it was completely abandoned. Now, the prodigious Temple IV—the highest Mesoamerican structure still in existence today—peers over the jungle offering sweeping views of the entire park.
Within the 140,000-acre park are expansive broadleaf and palm forests, temples, and even remnants of old dwellings easily over 1,000 years old. Tikal is also one of only a few UNESCO World Heritage Sites given the distinction for both its tremendous biodiversity and archaeological significance.
Earth Diaries - TikalLearn more about Mayan religion with an up-close look at the ancient city of Tikal, and its important spiritual sites. produced by Cynthia Younker
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From the suburb of Santa Elena, a causeway juts out into Lake Petén Itzá to Flores, a charming island town of Spanish-style homes and bright red roofs. Navigating through the narrow cobblestone streets will reveal quaint residences and small street-side cafes and plazas.
Overlooking the entire town is the Catedral Nuestra Señora de Los Remedios y San Pablo del Itza, a simple colonial Spanish cathedral. Yet, amid its beautiful architecture, Flores is also known as the last holdout of Mayan culture against the Spanish colonial invasion. Even the great Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés had to pass by the island in the late 16th century, but the city eventually fell in 1697.
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- Pre Trip:Guatemala: Antigua & Tikal on Real Affordable Costa Rica
The Yaxhá ruins, Guatemala’s third largest Mayan site, are shrouded in mystery. The stone pyramids weren’t discovered until 1904 when an Austrian explorer noticed the structures peaking above the rain forest surrounding them. Today, around 500 structures have been uncovered that belong to the main archaeological site. Yaxhá is believed to have been constructed more than 1500 years ago, but the site reveals very little about daily life here due to the lack of inscriptions that are typical of Mayan civilizations.
Archaeologists believe the site was constructed somewhere around 600 BC. The Mayan civilization that inhabited this area reached its zenith in the eighth century when the population boomed to 20,000 people. Acropolises, astronomical buildings, and ball courts supported the Mayan interests at Yaxhá. Despite this seemingly successful society, the Mayans at Yaxhá did eventually vacate the site. The lack of records also leaves the disappearance of this civilization to theory. A widely supported idea is that the Mayans who lived here were defeated by a neighboring group—the Naranjo—in 799 AD.
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Most Popular Films
Films featuring Guatemala from international, independent filmmakers
Poco a Poco
Meet Guatemalan women who are using traditional weaving to better their lives "little by little."Produced by Actuality Media
Travelogue: Guatemala 1947
Get a glimpse of the bustle of daily life in Guatemala in 1947 with these rare, candid films.Produced by David Conover & Paul Villanova
Earth Diaries - Semana Santa
See how entire communities work together to celebrate Semana Santa (holy week) in Guatemala.Produced by Cynthia Younker
Immerse yourself in Guatemala with this selection of articles, recipes, and more
The Mayan empire fell centuries ago, but their legacy is still felt throughout Central America.
The ancient group painted human sacrifices head to toe in “Mayan blue.” Discover more about the Mayans.
Bring Latin American flair into your kitchen with this easy and delicious empanada recipe.
From Ancient Empire to Contemporary Culture
The Maya then and now
Although the Mayan Empire ended, the Maya continued to thrive in agricultural villages throughout the mountains of Central America ...
When Hammurabi ruled Babylonia and the ancient Egyptians were under Hyksos influence in the 13th Dynasty, another great empire was forming in the Americas. The ancient Maya began as farmers but went on to develop some of the most advanced forms of architecture, mathematics, language, and religion known to the Americas at the time. Even after the end of their 2,700-year reign of power in the region, the Maya continue to wield their influence on contemporary Central American culture, particularly in Guatemala, where modern Maya people comprise approximately 40% of the population.
Using glyphs to understand the past
It is through ancient Maya monuments, art, and architecture that scholars learned about the system of Maya writing, which many suspect is ancient Mesoamerica’s first writing system and the only ancient language in this region to be comprehensively translated. One of the landmark examples of Maya writing is the Hieroglyphic Stairway, consisting of 1,800 ascending glyphs in Copán, an ancient Maya city in western Honduras. While ancient Maya scribes created glyphs both in stones and in paper texts, the Spanish conquistadors burned most of the paper texts in the 16th century while converting the Maya to Christianity, and discouraged the use of Maya script. After the last of the Maya scribes died out, the text remained untranslated until Western explorers in the 1880s renewed interest in the glyphs.
The glyphs themselves were not fully translated until the 1980s—and a world of dynastic succession and a society beset with violent conquest and gruesome religious sacrifice came to life. The texts and stone carvings also illustrate vivid mythologies, the most seminal of which involves mortal twin brothers fighting gods in the underworld, eventually going on to feed the Maya and then transforming into the sun and moon.
Uncovering the world of everyday Maya
While ancient cities like Copán and Tikal harken to a golden age of architecture, art, and ideology in Maya civilization, our understanding of ancient Maya life greatly improved with the 1976 discovery of the village of Cerén, located in western El Salvador. Called “the Pompeii of the New World” because it was enveloped in volcanic ash in AD 590, the site serves as a time capsule for daily life in a small village of that era. Though it appears the residents had time to escape the eruption, they left behind an impeccably preserved village. Excavations revealed that cassava was widely grown. Some archaeologists have posited that this hardy, nutritious tuber—which remains a staple to this day—may have enabled the Maya Empire to accommodate up to two million subjects at its peak.
Although the Maya Empire ended, the Maya continued to thrive in agricultural villages throughout the mountains of Central America—and their cultural heritage still lives on today. Throughout Spanish conquest, they maintained the spoken language of their ancestors, of which there are dozens of dialects spoken in Guatemala alone. Maximón, the ancient Maya god of the underworld, was reincarnated as San Simón after hundreds of years of forced conversion of the Maya people to Roman Catholicism. In addition to a name change, Maximón also got a bespoke makeover and is usually seen in 18th-century European clothes. Many handcrafts produced in the region today reflect the art of their ancient ancestors, such as jade carvings and intricate textiles. The historic and contemporary legacy of the Maya serves as a window to their civilization at its peak, a haunting reminder of the impermanence of great empires, and a reminder of how the roots of the past give shape to a vibrant modern existence.
The Maya then and now
7 Things You Never Knew About the Maya
Shedding light on an ancient empire
by David Valdes Greenwood, for O.A.T.
Between 250 and 900 AD, the Maya reigned in Central America. But by 1000 AD, they had vanished—taking many of the keys of their culture with them.
Still, some fascinating facts have been gathered, and below, you can test your knowledge of this once-thriving civilization:
1. They had their own Farmer’s Almanac
You probably knew the Maya created a written language (the only one in Mesoamerica), but did you know they wrote books, too? These codices—one of which was 122 pages long—included predictions for the tides, eclipses, weather patterns, and sun cycles. Sadly, when the Spanish conquistadors arrived, they burned all but four of these books.
2. They were never satisfied with their looks
From an early age, the Maya tried to change their features: They hung little balls close to babies’ faces to make them cross-eyed, attempted to flatten their children’s foreheads by strapping boards upon them, and modified adult teeth to keep up with local beauty notions—adding inset gems and precious stones for personal style.
3. The Mayan underworld was literally under foot
The underworld was known as Xibalba, and it could be entered easily: A massive waterway flowed beneath Mayan territory, with 2,500 natural entrances (known as cenotes) leading to subterranean cave networks. The Maya believed they could feel the pull of the underworld by standing in a cenote–which explains why it was a site for human sacrifices.
4. They lost their minds over sports
At Copán and elsewhere, they built massive courts for a game similar to racquetball—only the ball they used was much heavier. And depictions of the game are disturbing: Decapitation is a common element, leaving experts unsure if the hefty ball could knock the players’ heads off, or whether actual skulls were used in game play.
5. “Mayan Blue” was a color to die for
The Maya created a blue pigment that was almost indestructible—in fact, it’s still visible in pottery and murals more than 1,500 years later. But some uses of the color were intended to be literally perishable: at Chichen Itza, human sacrifices were painted Mayan Blue head to toe before being offered to the gods.
6. Pregnancy earned women spa days
The Maya loved spending time in a zumpul-ché, a vented stone chamber where water was poured over hot rocks, yielding steam to bask in. Similar to a modern sauna and used for restorative purposes, they were popular with expectant mothers in need of a boost.
7. Some cherished traditions live on
In Hetzmek, the ancient Maya version of a christening, a child of three or four months was carried on a godparent’s hip, the infant’s legs straddling either side. The open legs symbolized the community preparing the child to walk through life. Hetzmek was being practiced when the Spanish arrived, and the tradition is still observed by many of the seven million Maya who still live in the region today.
Shedding light on an ancient empire
Empanadas Offer Savory & Sweet Meats and Treats
from Harriet's Corner
Delicious and satisfying empanadas are a portable meal unto themselves—which is why they've become ubiquitous throughout Latin America. Derived from the Spanish empanar, meaning “to coat with bread,” there are myriad versions, both savory and sweet. Using raisins, allspice, and beef, this empanada recipe features the best of both savory and sweet. Because they include pre-made pie crust, they’re relatively easy to make—the hardest part of cooking empanadas is waiting for them to cool down so you enjoy them! Try your hand at cooking them soon for a taste of Latin America.
½ lb. ground beef
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 large onion, diced
½ green bell pepper, diced
2 Tbsp. garlic, minced
¼ c. black olives, finely chopped
1 Tbsp. flour
1 Tbsp. allspice
1 tsp. cumin
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
2 hard-boiled eggs, finely chopped
1/3 c. raisins
1 (15 oz.) package refrigerated pie crust
1 egg, beaten
salt and pepper to taste
flour (for rolling surface)
- Preheat oven to 400°F. Heat olive oil over medium heat, and add onion, bell pepper, and garlic. Cook until the vegetables have softened (about 5 minutes).
- Add ground beef, and cook until just browned.
- Add olives, flour, allspice, cumin, and cayenne. Cook, stirring occasionally, until mixture has begun to thicken (5 or 6 minutes). Season with salt and pepper.
- On a lightly floured board, roll out pie crust and cut into circles about 3 inches in diameter (you can use a drinking glass as a “frame”).
- On one half of each circle, place one level tablespoon of cooked filling. Sprinkle with a few raisins and chopped egg.
- Brush the other half of the circle with egg wash (the beaten egg). Fold over and press to seal. Crimp edges with a fork.
- Brush top with egg wash and place on a large baking sheet. Repeat until filling is depleted.
- Bake until golden brown, about 12 minutes.
Serves: Makes 20 empanadas
There are pros and cons to visiting a destination during any time of the year. Find out what you can expect during your ideal travel time, from weather and climate, to holidays, festivals, and more.
Guatemala in November-April
Guatemala, known as the “Land of Eternal Spring,” has only two true seasons every year—wet and dry. The stretch between November and April is the dry season, and considered the country’s summer. Clear skies and comfortable temperatures are this season’s hallmarks—it’s far less rainy and humid, and generally cooler than it is during the rest of the year. The weather is perfect for outdoor explorations, such as touring Tikal National Park or Yaxha Ruins, or visiting otherwise steamy cities like Guatemala City and Antigua. The coolest months of the dry season are December and January—which also makes them the busiest for tourism. The crowds will be bigger and prices will be higher during this popular time of year.
Holidays & Events
- December 25: Christmas
- January 1: New Year’s Day
- March/April: Holy Week and Easter
While the dates change each year on the Christian calendar, you can always expect Semana Santa—or Holy Week—to be an event worth witnessing. Antigua is especially famous for its elaborate processions, including lavish floats featuring religious icons, which parade over vibrant carpets created each year for the occasion.
Guatemala in May-October
Guatemala's wet season is also its winter, though it doesn't resemble winters experienced in more northern regions. Instead, the climate is tropical with periodic rain showers, usually in the afternoon. In the dramatic Guatemalan Highlands region—nestled in the Sierra Madre de Chiapas mountains—visitors can enjoy cooler temperatures with clear skies in the morning.
Holidays & Events
- May 1: Labor Day
- August 15: Festival of the Virgin of the Assumption
- September 15: Guatemalan Independence Day; this jubilant, country-wide celebration includes dances, parades, and fireworks
- October 20: Commemoration of the 1944 Revolution; a day set aside to celebrate Guatemala's nearly non-violent revolution, and is usually marked with present-day peaceful protests
Every year in late July or early August, the city of Cobán hosts a Folkloric Festival, an impressive two-week event showcasing the indigenous traditions of the Maya, such as music and dance.
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Small Group Adventure
5 NIGHTS FROM FROM $1,245
PRE-TRIP EXTENSIONGuatemala: Antigua & Tikal
DAYS IN GUATEMALA
- Discover colorful woven customs in Antigua
- Experience daily life in the villages along Lake Atitlán
- Tour Guatemala City's brightly-colored Yurrita Church and spectacular National Palace
- Dive into Mayan history during an exploration of Tikal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Guatemala: Antigua & Tikal
Find the Adventure That’s Right for You
Our Activity Level rating system ranks adventures on a scale of 1 to 5 to help you determine if a trip is right for you. See the descriptions below for more information about the physical requirements associated with each rating.
Activity Level 1:
Travelers should be able to climb 25 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 1-2 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last at least 1-2 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 2:
Travelers should be able to climb 40 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 2-3 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for at least 2-3 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 3:
Travelers should be able to climb 60 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 3 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 3 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 5,000 to 7,000 feet.
Activity Level 4:
Travelers should be able to climb 80 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 4 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 7,000 to 9,000 feet.
Activity Level 5:
Travelers should be able to climb 100 or more stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 8 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 10,000 feet or more.
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