At the Mayan Heartland: reflections and photos

These are the collected mini-posts and some of the photos that I had shared with my friends and followers throughout my trip to Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras (click any photo to enlarge). They include information, reflections and impressions.

First day in Guatemala in the company of awesome friends. The capital impresses with its crowds and markets and monuments. The Downtown is dotted with decadent Art Deco buildings, the trees are everywhere and the National Museum hosts mindblowing masterpieces of Mayan Art from Dos Pilas, Piedra Negra, El Naranjo and elsewhere: stelae, masks, carved stone and intricately painted ceramics. My Central American adventure has begun.
Today I crossed the border from Guatemala to Honduras to visit the archaeological site of Copán, one of the most important Mayan cities from the Classical Period (250-900CE). The site is famous for the widespread use of Mayan scripture, reminiscent of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Copán is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; it’s the first of many Mayan sites on my itinerary for this trip.
According to the Mayan Popol Vuh, the human beings were created from maize following three failed cycles of creation. First, the gods created the animals, but the animals could not worship them, and they were sentenced to be subject to humans. The gods then created humans made of mud, but they were imperfect, and were destroyed by the gods. In the third cycle of creation, they created humans made of wood, but those humans had no feelings, and they -too- were destroyed by a flood. Finally, they created humans made of maize mixed with divine blood, and this is why the Mayans refers to themselves as ‘hombres del maíz’ (men of maize).
I came, I saw, I was stunned.
Today, a dream came true. I crossed an ocean to venture into the Mayan heartland, precisely to see this. Tikal is a spectacular Mayan city dotted with pyramids and temples in the middle of the Guatemalan jungle of El Petén. What’s even more stunning is that the Mayans had no wheels and didn’t use metal tools, and yet they were able to construct wonders like this city that still stands the test of time. Most of the stone pyramids here are from the 8th century, including the magnificent Temple of the Jaguar and that of the Masks. Stay tuned for more.
The Mayan King stands in his full attire. He grasps his erect penis with one hand, and with the other he punctures it using an obsidian knife. The blood drops fall unto tree leaves prepared for this purpose, and the leaves are burnt so that the smoke would carry the message to the gods, hoping they would relieve the people from their plight. This ritual bloodletting scene can be seen in many Mayan ceramics and drawings, and was way less horrendous than the human sacrifice practiced frequently by the Mayans to appease their gods and maintain the cosmic order.
When the Spanish conquistadors discovered the Mayan cities and monuments in Central America, they did not spread the word about it. In part, the Spaniards were interested mostly in gold and silver, and the Mayans had none of that. Moreover, the Spaniards failed to understand how old these monuments were, and would not believe that the native Americans whom they saw as savages were capable of such refinement. In the 19th century, the explorers Catherwood and Stephens rediscovered the Mayan sites of Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. Their writings and drawing would revolutionize the West’s perception of the human civilization. Here I follow their footsteps along the Ruta Puuc in Mexico, visiting the spectacular ancient Mayan sites of Kabah and Uxmal.
Mérida is a charming colonial city in Mexico’s Yucatán, founded by the Spanish invaders in 1542 on the site of an abandoned Mayan village that had 5 pyramids. These pyramids were dismantled and recycled into building material for palaces and churches (including the Cathedral and Casa Montejo), and the Mayans were enslaved into forced labor. The city is famous for its patios, arcades, shady plazas, colorful façades, and orgasmic tacos
A cenote is a sinkhole in the limestone terrain, one of the typical attractions of southeastern Mexico. The Mayans believed that these Cenotes were a gateway to the region of Chaac, the rain god. Many human bones and skulls, as well as ceramic vases and accessories were discovered by the archaeologists in some of these Cenotes, which means they were a scene for presenting sacrifices and offerings to the Mayan deities. Today I jumped into the blue waters of the X-Cajum Cenote.
Málo-kín (good morning in Mayan Yucatec language)
Following my visits to Copán in Honduras, Tikal in Guatemala and Tulum and Uxmal and Kabah in Mexico, here I stand in the presence of Chichen Itzá, one of the ‘new’ Seven Wonders of the World.
Here dwells the god Kukulkán, the feathered serpent, whose pyramid (El Castillo) reaches a height of 55 meters. This pyramid doubles as a calendar, with the total number of steps on its four sides adding up to 365, the number of days in a year. The god himself appears in the form of a snake crawling down the pyramid through a light-and-shade trick that marks the equinoxes.
This site shows the extent to which other civilizations like the Teotihuacan and the Toltecs had an impact on Mayan architecture and culture in general. I have always dreamed of visiting this site since I started collecting the National Geographic Magazine over 20 years ago. Dreams come true when you work on realizing them.
Mexican Valladolid (from the Arabic Balad al-Walid) is a quiet city founded by the Spanish invaders in the sixteenth century, famous for its pastel colors and colonial architecture, as well as its track record of political struggle and social mobility. The Spanish conquistadors had a tradition of naming new cities in the New World after Spanish cities, and this is why we find many cities carrying names like Mérida, Valladolid, Córdoba, Santiago and Guadalajara
The Story of Chocolate:
When I had the chance to order Mayan chocolate, they brought me a cup of hot chocolate along with a spice set that included cinnamon, pepper, habanero chili, achiote , etc.
The Mayans were the first to produce chocolate from cacao, and their chocolate was usually bitter and water-based (they had no cows for milk). Actually, the word chocolate comes from the nahuatl word Xocolatl (hot water in the Aztec tongue). Chocolate was a special drink enjoyed by the kings, and the cacao beans were so valued they were used as a currency. The Europeans ‘destroyed’ the authentic taste of chocolate by adding milk and sugar to it; the Mayan chocolate had spices and would be sweetened with honey.
The Mesoamerican ball game was a ritual sport practiced by the Mayans and by other Mesoamerican civilizations. Instead of kicking the rubber ball with their feet or hands, the players were allowed to only use their waists/hips in purpose-built ball game courts with slanting walls on both sides and stone rings through which the ball had to pass in order to ‘score a goal’. The game ended in blood; the captain of the losing side was sacrificed. The game reproduces the story of the Twin Heroes (Hunahpú and Xbalanqué) that managed to beat the Lords of Xibalbá (the Underworld) in a ball game, before rising to the sky to become the sun and the moon. As such, the ball represents the sun and the ball game establishes the link between the Underworld, the Earth and the Heavens.
Few cities anywhere in the world left me as awe-stricken as Antigua did. Once the capital of all Central America, words would not do the city justice, for Antigua seems like an unearthly realm, the brainchild of the three mighty volcanos that surround it. Cobbled streets, pastel walls, baroque façades, artifacts to die for; the city survived the catastrophic 1773 earthquake, but is still bears the scar: it’s the blemish that makes it even more attractive. The more I walked, the more the enchanted corners that I came across, but the journey takes me elsewhere.
Two weeks through my journey at the Mayan heartland in three countries, the time has come to share with you some information and anecdotes about this civilization:
The Mayans constructed the world’s largest pyramid (sorry Egypt!) called La Danta at El Mirador Site in Guatemala. It is still not fully excavated.
In addition to Egypt and Sudan, there are true pyramids in Mexico, Belice, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador
The average life expectancy among the Maya was 45-48 years due to malnutrition, disease and wars
The Mayans had their own cross long before Christianity, with its 4 arms symbolizing the 4 cardinal points. These directions were represented by red for the East, Black for the West, white for North and yellow for South
The Mayans thought that cross-eyed kids were beautiful and blessed by the gods. Some actually would tie a dangling object at the forehead of their kids to make them cross-eyed
The Mayans did not practice metallurgy, but they were great ceramists and stone masons and they used jade -instead of gold- for jewelry and funerary masks
In addition to a architecture and art, the Mayans left literary masterpieces like the Rabinal Achí, the Chilam Balaam and the Popol Vuh
The Mayans aligned many of their pyramids and temples with three stars of the Orion Constellation forming a triangle that represented the primordial hearthstones.
The Mayans referred to themselves as Men of Maize and People of the Jaguar. They developed the first standard writing system in the Americas, used the zero, and developed two sophisticated and accurate calendars.
The Mayans were not exterminated by the Spanish (like the Aztecs for example). They still survive and, in Guatemala alone, there are more than 20 Mayan ethnic groups (Kiché, Ma’m, Kaqchiquel, Tz’utujil, etc.)
The Mayans had their extensive pantheon gods and goddesses, including Chaac (rain god) and Kukulkán (wind god) and Ixchel (medicine goddess)
Having enjoyed the masterpieces of the Mayan civilization, the time has come to explore the contemporary Mayan culture in the villages and towns of Western Guatemala. The Mayans take pride in their culture and their heritage, and it is clearly visible in the way they still use their native languages and keep their traditional costumes, decorated with symbols that reflect their cosmo-vision. I managed to learn some Mayan phrases in a village and I tried using them in other villages, only to find out that every ethnic group has its own tongue. The Mayans suffered ethnic cleansing and deculturalization attempts, but they have managed to overcome all these challenges, despite the hefty price they paid. I asked my guide, Dolores Rastan (a Tz’utujil Mayan) about what it meant to her being Mayan, and she said it meant being connected to the earth and the sky, and never losing the bond with the elements of Nature, just like a tree whose roots dig deep in the soil, while its branches yearn for the sun.
Finally I joined a Mayan ritual, a ceremony associated with Maximón, whom the Maya celebrate as a folk saint-deity-sinner that combines features of Saint Simon, Judas Iscariot and Pre-Colombian gods, and hence, represents both light and dark. They make offerings of tobacco and wine to this saint whose effigy features a seated man with a cigarette in his mouth and a hat on his head. This effigy changes premises every year and people flock to his site to venerate him. One of the most prominent social phenomena among the present-day Mayans is that of religious syncretism, a mixture of Catholicism, Shamanism and Animism. I have visited several Mayan altars and ancestral stones around Lake Atitlán and saw how the Mayans have ‘adopted’ many Christian Saints, linking them to ancient gods so as not to to lose their old beliefs and sacraments, and I have read about how they sacrifice animals inside some churches, like that of Chichicastenango. Many of these churches were actually built on the sites of ancient Mayan temples, but the Mayans never lost the bond with the sites. Watch my photos for more.
How did a splendid civilization like that of the Maya come to an end, with nothing left of it other than monuments and a living cultural heritage in Mexico & Central America? When the Spanish invaders arrived in the 16th century under the leadership of the criminal Pedro de Alvarado, the Mayan golden age (the Classical Period 250-900 CE) was long behind, a distant memory. In addition to civil wars, disease and malnutrition, the most critical factor in the demise of the Maya civilization had been the overpopulation and the accompanying overconsumption of natural resources, accelerating urbanism, and systematically clearing large areas of trees to use the land for agriculture, all at the expense of the forests and rivers. The environmental balance collapsed and the consumption exceeded Nature’s carrying capacity. The climate changed, the droughts hit and there was no turning back. These are lessons from the past, but history repeats itself in our communities.
Lake Atitlán is one of the most fascinating natural sites in Central America, surrounded by many towns where the visitor can explore the daily life of Mayan people (Cakchiquel and Tz’utujil) in the markets, streets, farms and cult sites. The Lake -sacred to the Maya- is surrounded by mountains and volcanos, while the lake itself occupies the site of a very old caldera (I had a swim there). Moreover, there are scores of local artisans and artists.
I have visited Panajachel, Santiago Atitlán, Santa Cruz, Santa Catarina Palopó, San Pedro, San Juan Tolimán and San Marcos la Laguna.
I came to Chichicastenango to spend three days with a Mayan family and to attend the eve of the Feast of Saint Thomas. Once I entered the city, it felt as if I’ve walked through the mirror of Alice in Wonderland! I have never seen such a feast for the senses other than in the most impressive of the bazaars in the Orient, and I’ve never seen religious syncretism as sophisticated as the one here. I leave you with some photos of the market, cemetery and cult sites, and tomorrow we proceed with the Feast that coincides with the Winter Solstice.
I have never seen a community celebrating its faith as zealously and vividly as the Mayans. As a professor of cultural heritage, the Feast of St. Thomas presented me with a tour-de-force and an opportunity to explore the extraordinary richness of the Intangible heritage of the Quiché Maya: dance of the masks, dance of the Jaguar, flying men, fireworks, marimba music, food stalls, processions with saintly effigies that resemble Pre-Colombian gods, pagan and Christian rituals inside the church and offerings at the Church’s staircase which once led to a Mayan temple. This staircase becomes a microcosm where people celebrate St. Thomas and the serpent Kukumatz on one of the most significant days for those that venerate the elements of nature and the serpentine energy; the winter solstice. The music, dance and fireworks never ceased for a second, while more people in their best costumes kept flocking in to celebrate this hybrid feast-carnival-collective hysteria. Here, and despite the poverty, I have seen the ‘joie-de-vivre’ that Europe has lost.
I came to Sant Andrés Xecul in Western Guatemala after two chicken-bus rides to visit the most colorful and iconographically-charged churches in the world. The façade of this 17th-century church features some 200 figures and shapes that assimilate Christian and Mayan symbols in an acute state of horror vacui: angels blessing the sun, others gazing to the west, jaguars supporting a column, all against a backdrop of yellow, which in the Mayan culture symbolizes the maize. Higher uphill, I visited the Calvario Church only to find some locals engaging in yet another Mayan ceremony that involved offerings to an altar outside the church.
For days now, I have contemplated how the sun would disappear behind cloud-clad mountains and mist-covered volcanos. The Kaqchikel Mayans told me the sun would complete its nocturnal journey through the Underworld in the form of a jaguar: The Jaguar God of Terrestrial Fire that walks fearless across the dark realm of Xibalbá.
I have seen tamarind skies embellished with black Jaguar spots, I have seen the honey-hued Lake Atitlán in the sunset, but more than anything, I have seen how my Vía Crucis melted into the immense Via Láctea.
No journey is greater than one that inspires a parallel journey of inner reflection. My Mayan nahual (sign) is the ‘Road’; I am the road that I walk

I headed early in the morning to Sant Cruz del Quiché to visit one of the holiest sites for the Quiché Maya, namely Q’umarkaj, the old Quiché capital that was burnt down by the Spaniards that also massacres the inhabitants with the help of the Kaqchikel Mayans, enemies of the Quiché. This city was once dotted with temples, pyramids, palaces and a Ball Game court, but now it is a magnet for pilgrims that come to pray to their ancestors at the relics of the Temple/Pyramid of the god Tohil. Old altars are all over the place, but I only came across a shaman that allowed me to take a pic as he performed a ritual. He asked me where I came from, and when I told him I was Egyptian, he gazed at me, then smiled and said that our ancestors had communicated together millennia ago, and that they would definitely come back one day.
My Central American journey has come to an end, thank you for following. I will forever remember the Quiché, the Kaqchikel, the Tz’utujil, the Popol Vuh, Xibalbá, Chaac, Xpalanque, Hunapú, Kukulkán, the nahuales, Maximón, the huipiles and everything related to the Maya.

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