Some countries you just have to go back to, and one of them is Guatemala. You have to go back because your retinas are full of so many images the first time around that it all ends up feeling like a beautiful dream. It's impossible to travel through this singular Central American country and not be changed by it. What you see takes you far beyond the usual touristic images of climate, scenery, and Maya ruins to a veritable whirlwind of colors. It's as if all of Guatemala was a huipil woven by the hands of time, a rainbowed reality expressed in a thousand ways: longsuffering villages with deep ties to the land; life palpitating in the midst of the most everyday things; the mysterious essence of its millenary people.
In Guatemala, there areas many possible trips as there are ways of seeing, and there is so much to see that a traditional tour is not enough. If you are interested in the legacy of pre-Colombian cultures, Guatemala is an absolute must. It is a place where the Maya spirit is alive and well, not only in the bygone world of the great ruins, but also in the living breathing world of indigenous peoples. Today, it is estimated that somewhere between 55 and 70 percent of the Guatemalan population are descendents of the Maya.
More than 200 archeological sites have been recorded in Guatemala, but in some ways it would be accurate to say that the entire country is built on the visible and invisible ruins of the old cultures. Names like Quirigua, Tikal, Iximche, Yaxha, and Mixto Viejo express the inheritance of a people that built grand cities and accumulated enough knowledge to survive in very precarious times and conditions.
To visit Quirigua Park--which, like Tikal and Antigua, has been declared a UNESCO human heritage site--you would travel east along the Motagua river valley. The Motagua is an old navigable river that starts in the Cuchumatanes mountains of Huehuetenango and empties into the Atlantic Ocean. Quirigua Park, near Puerto Barrios, is relatively small and was a city of kings that fought against and defeated neighboring groups in Copan (Honduras). This archeological site was once a civic and religious ceremonial center and, like most Maya fortresses, it was surrounded by ravines and ditches as a defense from external aggression. Today, in and among the many banana plants dotting the area, you can also see traces of this moat that used to surround the park. Quirigua has many stela including the largest one in the Maya world, the stela of the fuego ardiente or burning tire. Ceremonies at this site included blood sacrifices, with the piercing of ears and tongues and even penises with sharp obsidian glass. The blood produced was believed to "water" the earth and bring fertility to the land. Quirigua is a good place to admire the refined sculptural talent of the Mayas who celebrated and recorded major events by engraving them on stone.
Other must-see ruins for those interested in the Maya are buried in the Peten, the northernmost department of the country that shares a border with Belize and Mexico. Eleven Maya cities--that we know of--are located deep in the forests and jungles of the Peten. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in what is known as the Classic Period, their political and religious center was Tikal. Most of the cities, and even parts of the more painstakingly restored areas of Tikal and Yaxha, are still hidden beneath the cover of time. Recent excavations have also revealed the extraordinary constructions of the ancient Maya from a time one thousand years before the Classic Period. Once it was mistakenly believed that these ancestral peoples had not fully learned the art of construction. What a surprise it was to find El Mirador and other cities like Tintal and San Bartolo in the depths of the forest. In these places, reachable by helicopter or via a journey of several days by mule, you can see monumental pyramids, including the Danta Pyramid, the highest of the pre-Colombian world (230 feet) and perhaps the largest in volume in the world (comparable only to the Cheops Pyramid in Egypt). …