May 21, 2017: A Journey into the World of the Maya

On our first full day in Guatemala, we went on a journey through Maya country, traveling through several small villages that have ties to ancient Mayan culture.  Perhaps one of the most exciting stops was Chichicastenango, where the Popul Vuh, the great Mayan epic, was first translated into French in the eighteenth century.  It was mildly disappointing, and yet ironic, to learn that this copy is no longer in Guatemala but in Chicago at the Newberry Library.  It was market day in Chichicastenango and as we walked through town, it was interesting to notice how Mayan traditions blend with later traditions.  Many of the women in the town wore traditional dress while cooking traditional foods with modern appliances.  It was clear that many of the vendors took great pride in showing and selling their wares, which included magnificently woven table liners that partially told the story of the Popol Vuh, handcarved wooden masks, pottery, elaborately embroidered traditional shirts for men, and gorgeous huipil (handwoven square-cut blouse) for women.

A largely indigenous town, dominated by the K’iché Maya, Chichicastenango embodies the syncretism of contemporary Guatemala. At one end of the market sits the 400-year old church of Santo Tomás. The architecture is Spanish Baroque, and the church holds icons and images that are traditionally Catholic, such as the Crucifix and images of the Virgin Mary.  The church was built on top of a pre-Columbian temple, and the 18 steps leading up to the church are said to each represent a month in the Mayan calendar. The steps are adorned with baskets of flowers and shrouded in the smoke of fragrant incense. Inside the church, a Mayan priest passed herbs and flowers over a couple kneeling before an image of the Virgin Mary in a ritual we were told would provide healing to the couple.

Steps leading up to church of Santo Tomás

Across the market stands the Chapel of the Calvary which is slightly smaller in size but similar in style to San Tomas. On the terrace directly in from of the chapel, worshippers fanned a bonfire of incense and fragrant wood. Inside, in a room off the main altar, a shaman was present to read signs of the future to a couple who listened intently.  In contemporary Guatemala, there are no tensions between the rituals of the church and the Mayan practices; they live and function side by side.

Chapel of the Calvary

After an amazing buffet lunch at Hotel Santo Tomas, we headed for the town of Panjachel on Lake Atitlán, a beautiful crater lake ringed by small villages and three volcanoes: San Pedro, Tolimán, and Atitlán. Since there are no road circling the lake, we travelled by boat to San Juan de la Laguna, a village known for traditional dying and weaving.

Crossing the lake on a skiff

The population of San Juan la Laguna is approximately 95% indigenous Tz’utujil, who adhere to their traditional cultural and religious practices. Many of the shops in San Juan are storefronts for cooperatives of coffee growers, natural dyers, weavers; we even visited a midwives’ medicinal garden.

Weaving demonstration in San Juan

From San Juan, we travelled by boat to our final destination of the day, Santa Catarina Palopó, where we settled in for a night at the beautiful Hotel Villa Santa Catarina.


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