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Frank McGinity: Guatemala Reveals a Priceless Time Capsule of Maya Civilization

Temples and tombs at Tikal, Yaxhá park and Lake Atitlán are among the must-see stops on a journey back in time

One of the more famous and extensive sites from the Maya civilization, Tikal was an important urban center in the pre-Columbian civilization. Click to view larger
One of the more famous and extensive sites from the Maya civilization, Tikal was an important urban center in the pre-Columbian civilization. (Frank McGinity photo)

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It was a lively group on our trip to Guatemala. Organized by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, we were going there to view the ruins and archaeological findings of the ancient Maya civilization from more than 2,800 years ago. The Maya are traced as far back as 800 B.C., which is called their pre-classical period. Their golden age began in 250 B.C. and lasted until about 800 A.D.

During our visit to Tikal, one of the more famous and extensive sites from the Maya civilization, we were able to hike around part of the 18,000 kilometers of a preserved park. At one time there were more than 4,000 structures there from the pre-classical and classical periods. Many are underground in order to preserve them.

The ones above ground, however, were testament to an advanced and sophisticated culture. Some structures, called temples, would rise more than 60 feet with the king’s quarters at the top. This is how you display power.

For some unknown reason, the Maya abandoned this location around 900 A.D. and moved on to the lowlands. It could have been because of population pressures, drought or a need for a better location to grow their staple crop of corn.

A once powerful nation seemed to disappear and disburse, but we saw enough to experience their advanced culture. The color of their pottery, their tools, their architecture in building these temples were examples of this advanced culture. Even their knowledge of astronomy was evident.

And we got our exercise for the day climbing several 200-step temples to see the views. We even learned how to count in Mayan. A bar equaled five and a dot equaled one. On a number of stones and plaques in the area, we could pick up these numbers. Even our hotel, Camino Real Tikal, used a variation of this numbering system on its rooms.

We would move on to the great archaeological park of Yaxhá, located west of Tikal. This was also a marvelous example of Maya culture, with its temples, palaces and residential complexes. In the eighth century, there were some 20,000 inhabitants and 500 buildings here. There are a number of other sites as well since the Maya nation was spread out across the countries of Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico and Nicaragua.

The Maya culture and descendants are quite visible in Guatemala today. We visited the towns of Antigua and Chichcastenango, as an example, and the customs are still evident. The special colors worn by both the men and women were on full display.

The religious services, such as their devotion to Maximón, were truly unique. Every year, one family in the community offers one room in their house for worship. The room may include some religious statues and Maximón. He might have a cigar in his mouth and be offered rum while the Catholic statues are prayed to and offered candles and incense. It is an example of how the Maya worship has been successfully integrated into the Catholic faith.

It is estimated that there are more than 6 million Maya descendants in Guatemala. And they are truly religious. We watch a Mayan walk on his knees to the altar at Iglesia de Santo Tomás as he said his prayers.

We went on to some popular tourist sites; the best known was Lake Atitlán​. It is beautiful lake surrounded by several volcanoes. (There are 11 active volcanoes in Guatemala.) The lake reminded us of Lake Como in Italy. A great place to catch our breath and enjoy the beauty of the country.

A boat ride to San Salvador for lunch added to our enjoyment of this interlude. The Hotel Atitlán, on the lakefront is well recommended.

Guatemala has a population of about 14 million. It’s a poor country by all appearances, with very bumpy roads and a population that is paid (in some industries) about $7 for a day’s work. The fabrics produced in the country are fabulous, with their lively colors and designs. It’s worth the trip to pick up some outstanding scarves and dress material.

The government still has a reputation of some corruption, which inhibits progress and doesn’t allow the country to grow out of its strictly agrarian economy. Some of this is a vestige of the civil war that raged in the 1990s. No one was safe from indiscriminate killings.

There was still enough time for us to make a side trip to Belize for rest and recreation before our trip back to the United States. Belize seems in better shape than Guatemala. English is the primary language there and there are still examples of the old British rule. Belize also has some fine archaeological sites.

The trip was well worth it. We absorbed a great deal about the ancient Maya nation and saw clear evidence how that society is still present today. So, thanks to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art for putting it together.

— Frank McGinity is a Santa Barbara resident. The opinions expressed are his own.

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