Ruins, mix of cultures give Guatemala charm

LAND OF THE MAYAS

October 21, 1990|By David Roberts | David Roberts,Universal Press Syndicate

In Guatemala City, I asked the upper-class teen-ager if she

knew any Maya people.

"No," she answered in English. "I don't think I've ever even seen any."

She was, of course, mistaken: At every bus stop in the capital, Mayan men and women stand waiting for their rides to work. Yet the teen-ager's ignorance somehow was logical. Her ancestors, the Spanish conquistadors, had wiped out nine of every 10 Mayan Indians they had found in Guatemala in the 16th century. Four hundred years later, her people, called "Ladinos," run a government that does little more than the minimum to improve the lot of the surviving indigenes, whom they call simply "Indios" and who constitute more than 40 percent of the population.

The golden age of the ancient Mayas, makers of the most advanced pre-Columbian civilization in the New World, lasted from A.D. 250 to 900. During that time, they built such magnificent cities as Chichen Itza, Palenque and Uxmal in Mexico; Copan in Honduras; and Caracol in Belize.

The greatest Mayan city of all is Tikal. It has become Guatemala's No. 1 tourist attraction. But many of the visitors to the Tikal ruins don't realize that more than 3 million Mayas live in Guatemala today -- more than are found in the other Central American countries and Mexico put together. Guatemala remains the heartland of Mayan civilization.

No pretext for a visit to Guatemala is more compelling than to make acquaintance with the Mayas -- both ancient and living. There are many other reasons to travel to our nearest Central American neighbor: the alpine beauty of the volcanic highlands, a remarkably favorable exchange rate between the dollar and the quetzal, a cross-cultural openness in the hinterlands that, in the words of photojournalist Galen Rowell, reminds one of the free-and-easy hippie ambience of Katmandu in the 1960s.

Despite continuing skirmishes between guerrillas and the army, Guatemala is safe for visitors. There is little of the anti-American feeling found in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Panama.

Visitors fly into the capital, Guatemala City. A day there is long enough, time to wander through its excellent museums with everything from ancient Mayan artifacts to modern art, before heading west. A smoggy metropolis, the city was leveled in the earthquakes of 1917 and 1976, and as a result little remains of colonial architecture. Only 30 miles west lies Antigua Guatemala, where the Spanish built a colonial capital to rival Mexico City. The population today is only 16,000, but the town breathes the melancholy grandeur of the conquest: half-ruined baroque churches by the dozen, where still the people pray; clean cobblestone streets and bright-hued housefronts; a glimpse of cool inner patios spangled with hand-painted tiles; and rising 7,000 feet above the ancient worries of the village, the steep blue cone of Volcan Agua, its summit lost in mist by 10 a.m.

The road wends on, deeper into the highlands, till you come suddenly upon Lake Atitlan, rimmed by tall mountains whose shoulders shelve into the dark water. Tucked in a wrinkle of its north shore is the village of Panajachel, full of Cakchiquel-speaking Mayas and blissed-out hippies, both young and aging, from Germany, France, Sweden, Holland and even the United States. It is worth strolling the streets just to hippie-watch, for here in full splendor are the idioms that became extinct up north two decades ago.

Barefoot flower children with beads and half-a-dozen cloth bracelets each; trust-funders sipping beer in their vegetarian restaurants; stoned couples making out on the beach; bearded vagabonds who have gone native, sporting the red-and-blue tunics, called huipiles, that Mayan women wear. The mutual good feeling between hippies and locals as they admire each other's crafts and mores is enough to make you believe in peace and love all over again.

A morning ferry traverses the lake to the village of Santiago Atitlan. Cross the waters and you have changed cultures, though at first blush the markets and churches look the same. In Santiago, though, the huipiles are white, instead of red and blue. The people speak Tzutuhil instead of Cakchiquel, an entirely different language. They were once, in fact, enemies, and if you knew how to probe skillfully enough, you might still uncover the ++ old Tzutuhil bitterness against their neighbors, who allied themselves with the butcher Pedro de Alvarado, a lieu

tenant of Cortes who conquered Guatemala in 1524, bringing Christianity with him.

Nothing in Mayan life today is more bizarre than the amalgamation of pagan with Catholic beliefs. In the Santiago church, they keep a statue of a "saint" called Maximon, supposed to be a combination of Judas, Pedro de Alvarado and the Mayan god Mam. Other towns have a Maximon, whom the people revile every year during Holy Week. In Santiago, for some reason, at Easter they take Maximon out of his cupboard, stick a cigar in his mouth, and revere him.

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