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Heart of the Maya World
By Ron Kapon, Contributing Travel Editor

Guatemala map
New York, NY - I was looking for a place to visit for five days, one that would allow me to write several stories. It was early summer so sun and warmth were not important and I did not want to travel through many time zones nor fly for more than five hours. I thought about Costa Rica, Nassau, Dominican Republic, and Aruba, among others, but eventually chose Guatemala. Its reputation for making great rums, especially Zacapa and Botran, and their Mayan heritage both would make interesting articles. Mexico is to the northwest; Belize to the northeast, Honduras and the Atlantic Ocean on the east; El Salvador and the Pacific Ocean to the south. For the record, there are 21 Mayan ethnic groups in Guatemala with 21 different languages of Mayan origin. I was also there during the rainy season (May-September) and the average temperature was around 65-70 degrees. Not a bad time to plan to travel.

My only regret- because of time constraints- was not getting to Tikal, one of the most important cities in the Maya Classic period (from AD 250 to AD 947). Settled in 700 BC it is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and it also served as the victorious rebel base in the first Star Wars movie, just in case anyone ever asks that question when you get your chance on "Jeopardy." Over 3,000 structures have been unearthed including temples, palaces, and altars.

I arrived in Guatemala City in just over 4 and a half hours, with the airport 10 minutes from my hotel. Chaotic, congested and polluted (I see you are already changing your mind about this trip but read on), it is the largest city in Central America with over three million people...about a quarter of Guatemala?s population. The capital was relocated here in 1776 (nice choice of years) after Antigua was destroyed by an earthquake. The city is surrounded on three sides by hills and active volcanoes, including Pacaya, which is in constant eruption (did you actually purchase airline tickets yet?).

But, if you do go, visit the Ixchel Museum (Zone 10) for examples of hand woven textiles and costumes from the indigenous people. The historic center contains the obligatory central plaza with the National Palace, Metropolitan Cathedral, nearby Central Market and Natural History Museum. My guide kept talking about the spectacle of Holy Week with its processions, candlelight vigils and sawdust floral carpets during that most important week in this predominately Catholic country. I stayed in Zone 10, also known as Zona Viva, the capitol?s hub of business where you can find shopping and entertainment, a seeming world apart with luxury hotels, restaurants and clubs. If I was worried about my safety before I came I never encountered a single problem walking the streets. These are some of the friendliest folks that I have ever met and, of course, every bank, jewelry store, money exchange and hotel had armed guards both representing the police and private security. Nothing unusual in this part of the world.

In about an hour I was in Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage site, considered the best preserved colonial city in Spanish America. As mentioned above, it served as the county?s capital for more than two centuries. The streets are still cobblestone and I had a chance to visit both a coffee plantation and jade factory, where I was able to purchase several necklaces from street vendors at a third of the price that one might encounter in a retail establishment. The Spanish Colonial style is evident in its 17th and 18th century houses, churches, squares, parks and ruins, all within walking distance from my hotel, from where I could view the three volcanoes, including the active Fuego. There are 40 language schools located within the town making it the main destination in Central America for travelers wishing to learn Spanish but the fact of the matter is who has the time unless one is planning to set up residence here?

After an early breakfast we drove the two hours to Chichicastenango (I just love the name of that town and try to say that three times fast!) where I spent several hours visiting the largest native clothing and crafts market in Central America. The marketplace has operated continuously for over a thousand years and, seemingly, always on Thursday & Sunday. It was fascinating to stop by Santo Thomas Church, since it, was built in 1540 and I watched the Sunday services blending Mayan and Catholic rituals.

Another hour and I was in Panajachel which is 5,100 feet above sea level and 15 degrees above the equator, which translates into a sunny cool climate. Guatemala?s highland area is a showcase for the Maya culture and it is here where the rites, traditions, teachings and the ways of life continue to express themselves as they were hundreds, maybe thousands, of years ago. It is the gateway to explore the three endemic and original villages around Lake Atitlan, famous for its women weavers. Aldous Huxley described it as "the most beautiful lake in the world." There are boat cruises available to take you around and across the lake and I encourage you advantage that opportunity.

On the subject of "Guatemalan Gastronomy," except for one meal, where I was served old lettuce and tomatoes that caused a brief case of Montezuma?s Revenge, I had a great time savoring only local foods. One of the staple foods for Guatemalans is corn, used even before the arrival of the Spaniards, and the Maya held that it was the substance from which humans were formed. Hey whatever floats your boat.

Other common foods are beans, cheeses, corn tortillas, avocado and rice. Because the country sits between two oceans there is an abundance of seafood including Dorado, Snapper, Squid, Shrimp and Tuna. The south coast produces sugar cane and different types of citrus fruits like papayas, watermelons, mangoes, bananas and peaches. And, there is the omnipresent soup served very hot, especially Tapado or seafood soup. It became mandatory to try it and, once having done that, I ordered it for every lunch and dinner. In the highlands the lower temperatures are ideal for growing wheat, sorghum, barley and, especially, their fabulous coffee. I was also introduced to Jocon, which is chicken with a green sauce prepared from a base of fresh coriander but I skipped the offering of armadillo and iguana in favor of keeping me entrails at some degree of normalcy.

For more trip information:

  • Useful Websites:
    Guatemala Tourism Board
    Quinta Real Hotel
    Intercontinental Real Guatemala
    Hotel Posada de Don Rodrigo
  • I would suggest doing as I did when considering gifts to take home - bottles of 23 year old rum and several pounds of coffee. With that in mind, in 2 ? hours I was back in Guatemala City and ready for the second half of my visit, drinking the greatest rums in the world. More on that another time.


    Ron Kapon is seeking wine tasters for the New York Tasters Guild. Please go to www.tastersguildny.com or email him at Ron@tastersguildny.com.