Guatemala is arguably Central America’s most diverse country. With its spectacular landscapes, incredible experiences and superb architecture, it is no wonder that the country has captivated the minds and captured the hearts of visitors for generations. From crumbling ruins and grand cathedrals to age old traditions and fascinating folklore, Guatemala is bursting with culture, confirms Latin America expert, Sinead.
Despite its locale, sandwiched between Mexico, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras, Guatemala is one of Central America’s lesser known countries. Whilst often overlooked as a holiday destination, Guatemala is home to a rich heritage, stunning volcanic scenery, spectacular ancient ruins and ornate colonial architecture. Here’s what to expect on a trip to Guatemala.
Guatemala is home to arguably the most well preserved Spanish colonial architecture in Latin America. Antigua sits at 1,500m above sea level in the highlands of Guatemala and is the first stop for any visitor. Despite its location in an area prone to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and hurricanes, it remains intact and incredibly well maintained. A huge earthquake in 1773 destroyed many of the buildings and forced people to move from Antigua to Guatemala City, which is now the capital, allowing for many of the city’s churches and municipal buildings to be preserved. As well as the architecture, Antigua is a scenic town, set against a beautiful backdrop of three volcanoes; Agua, Fuego, and Acetenango. Take a walk up to Cereo de la Cruz, simply stroll around the city or enjoy a coffee on the main plaza and soak up the atmosphere of this bustling city.
Traditional ways of life
In the small village of San Juan, one of many surrounding Lake Atitlan, you can visit a local co-operative that still uses the traditional method of weaving to produce the colourful textiles that are so synonymous with the region. There, you’ll discover that from start to finish it takes a whole week to make just one scarf, as the process is so long and painstakingly precise. A local member of the co-operative will show you the whole fascinating process from start to finish, from picking the cotton seeds by hand to beating them and twisting them into a ball of thread, and finally weaving the garment into a finished product. The best thing about the co-operative is that the women can weave at home and once finished, they can sell their garments to the co-operative immediately, keeping 80% of the profits. The other 20% gets re-invested in the village and into education for younger members of the community, aiming to support villagers and enable them to access a better quality of life.
For those who love chocolate, you will also have the chance to visit an artisanal chocolate factory and watch a similar process with chocolate, complete with a demonstration of how the chocolate starts in the cocoa plant and ends up as a finished piece of chocolate (samples provided, of course!).
Mayan Folklore and Religion
Guatemala is one of the few Christian countries in Latin America where Mayan beliefs are integrated with Catholic beliefs and practices. In the churches surrounding Lake Atitlan and when visiting Chichicastenango market on a Sunday, you’ll often see a shaman performing ceremonies with candles and offerings inside a Catholic church.
San Simón (known as Maximón), the Mayan deity associated with smoking and drinking, is a prominent figure in the highlands. Locals come to him with offerings of cigarettes and alcohol to pray for material things. His keeper’s job is to ensure he is topped up with liquor and cigarettes and that they too are in a constant somewhat drunken state – this is something you’re never going to see outside of Guatemala!
No visit to Guatemala would be complete without a visit to some of the incredibly preserved Mayan ruins. The most famous is Tikal which was once a thriving city with a population of nearly 200,000. The tallest temple is over 70 metres and a climb to the top will be rewarded with stunning views over a jungle canopy that stretches as far as the eye can see.