LAND OF THE MAYAS Ruins, mix of cultures give Guatemala charm


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.

The most intriguing highland town is Chichicastenango, 25 miles due north of Lake Atitlan. The town is an ancient center of the Quiche (kee-chay), who are among the most traditional of today's Mayas. The market is held every Thursday and Sunday. Rich in the superbly woven textiles for which the Mayas are famous, the market also displays cunning painted boxes, jade necklaces and the lurid masks the Mayas use in their dances. The masks are "rigid with expressions of Mayan valor and Spanish greed, as if the dominant emotions of a lifetime have been bared in rigor mortis," as the writer Ronald Wright memorably puts it. The market abounds in pre-Columbian stone ax heads and carved idols, which the street vendors aggressively foist upon you. These objects are illegal to take out of the country but wonderful to hold in your hand.

As we strolled through the streets of Chichicastenango, we were approached by an 8-year-old boy who offered to be our guide. We wanted to see the cemetery, so we hired him on. A regular wheeler-dealer, the kid spoke a bit of English, which he was eager to practice on us, a smattering of French and German and fluent Spanish. He said his name was Thorstein, but it was beyond our multilingual fumbling to determine how a Quiche youngster had acquired a Viking moniker.

The Mayas bury above ground, and the hilltop cemetery is full of gaily painted mausoleums. Thorstein, who knew every family in the region, kept up a running commentary. Waving at a gaudy yellow hut, he sneered, "Too much money." An old man stumbled past us, spitting imprecations. "Too much licor," Thorstein said sagely.

The common people who can't afford mausoleums are buried in simple lime-plastered mounds. We came to a pair of these, full-size and child-size, lacking even a wood cross, and Thorstein said, "My father. My hermano." His baby brother had died at 5; his father at only 38. Shocked, we expressed our sorrow. "Too much licor," Thorstein said matter-of-factly.

He led us to a crumbling chapel that contained the tomb of Ildefonso Rossbach, who died in 1944. A foreigner who fell in love with backwoods Guatemala, he became for 50 years the much-loved parish priest of Chichicastenango. A fire lit that morning still was burning in the gravel before the door. Thorstein stirred it with a stick (touching the copal with one's fingers is tabu), as he explained the white and black magic locals performed here. The sacrifice of chickens was de rigueur. "A white chicken for matrimonia," said Thorstein. "Black chicken for a sick person. A red chicken for buena suerte" -- good luck.

Having spent a week in the highlands, we flew to the Peten, in the northern lowlands, Guatemala's wild west. There is only one paved road -- the main route to Tikal. The countryside is seamed with rivers, and the outboard-powered dugout canoe is as vital to commerce as the diesel truck. In jungle strongholds, the guerrillas who have fought the government for 14 years read Lenin and oil their rifles. Twice in recent years, guerrillas have taken over Tikal. Rather than terrorize the tourists, though, they have lectured them on the revolutionary struggle.

We spent a few days in Flores, the tiny island town in Lake Peten Itza. Reticent shops, crooked alleys angling up to a central plaza, wash hanging on backyard lines -- Flores has the feel of a medieval European hill town. Here in the fabled town of Tayasal, the tenacious Itza, the last Maya to be conquered, held out for 175 years after Alvarado had subjugated the highlands. The tide of victory was turned by an extraordinary Franciscan friar named Avendano who, steeped in Maya lore, persuaded the Itza that their own secret prophecies decreed a cataclysm in 1696.

In Flores, for $20, we hired a taxi that took us 40 miles to Tikal. Chichen Itza in the Yucatan, the most visited of all Mayan cities, feels somehow tame, gardened and restored. But at Tikal, deep in the tangled rain forest of the Peten, a primal rawness lingers about the ruins. A team of archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania worked for 13 years at Tikal in the 1960s and 1970s. They found more than 3,000 separate buildings spread over six square miles. Yet for all their labor, most of the great city remains unexcavated.

R One needs to spend at least two days at this sovereign site.

At Tikal, find your way to El Mundo Perdido, the lost city, whose squat pyramids were built in the Preclassic, long before anything else at Tikal. Or prowl through the North Acropolis and locate the huge, grotesque molded heads hidden in dank side-chambers. Loll on the ground beneath a stand of giant mahogany and ceiba trees. Walk the Maler Causeway out to Group H, where the walls abound in enigmatic Mayan graffiti scratched in the stucco more than 1,200 years ago. Climb to the roof comb of Temple IV, at 212 feet the tallest building ever found in pre-Columbian America, and see how, for all its grandeur, Tikal is nearly swallowed by the jungle that stretches to the far horizon.

Vast tracts of the Peten are uninhabited today, yet during the Classic Age, this was the Mayan heartland. Tikal is only the grandest of the ancient cities. There are others in every direction: Seibal, Yaxha, Uaxactun, Rio Azul, Yaxchilan, Altar de Sacrificios, El Peru, Naranjo . . . and no doubt some that have yet to be rediscovered. Guides from Flores will take you to several of these sites if you have a few days to spare and a nerve for adventure. Matt and I ended our Guatemala trip with a three-day jaunt by van, boat and footpath to Dos Pilas, where a Vanderbilt University team is in the midst of a five-year dig.

In some of the finest virgin rain forest left in Central America, we crouched and stared at pristine hieroglyphs carved on a fallen limestone stela; the words, an expert told us, celebrated a great victory by Dos Pilas over Tikal in the eighth century. At the time, Europe amounted to little more than a patchwork of benighted fiefdoms. Yet all over the Peten, kings adorned with quetzal feathers sipped chocolate from jeweled cups, and tortured their captives to prepare them for sacrifice, while their bards scribbled epics in fig-paper books and their priests plotted the motions of Venus.

Those were the days to be a Maya.

If you go . . .

Several airlines, including Continental and American, fly to Guatemala City. From there, daily flights go to Flores in the Peten. These cannot be booked from the United States, but are seldom sold out.

Several U.S. travel companies offer one- or two-week guided tours of Guatemala. One of the best is run by Sobek Expeditions, P.O. Box 1089, Angels Camp, Calif. 95222; telephone (800) 777-7939.

Other tour operators include Overseas Adventure Travel at (617) 876-0533; Tara Tours at (800) 327-0080; and Festival Tours at (800) 327-2838; or call the Guatemalan Tourist Information Office at (305) 358-5110.

The best way to see the highlands is by rental car, but it is easier and remarkably inexpensive (about $40 a day or less) to hire a car and driver for days at a time. The Hotel Atitlan in Panajachel, with its secluded beach and splendid flower garden, may be the most delightful inn in Guatemala. The Mayan Inn in Chichicastenango is a close rival.

In Flores there are a number of decent, cheap hotels ($15-$20 per night). The Jungle Inn at Tikal has clean rooms and a funky ambience. To get to other Maya sites in the Peten, look for the guide services at the Flores airport.

Observe a few routine cautions: In markets and crowded streets, pay attention to your wallet or handbag, and don't drive country roads at night.

--David Roberts

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