The Mayan Thread in Guatemala
By Courtney Young
The Mayan civilization is famous for its calendar, pottery, hieroglyph writing, and mathematics. Many people can recognize their impressive pyramids and recall the mystery of their fall. This empire may have receded into history, but the people are not lost- they are home in Guatemala.
Although not distinctly the Mayan, the vast majority of Guatemala’s indigenous population (which make up approximately 40% of its total population) are of Mayan descent. As you travel through Guatemala you may recognize Mayan people by their artfully woven clothes or their distinct dialects.
These clues also help distinguish between Mayan groups. A shared common ancestor has not lead to a common shared identity! Many Mayan people organize themselves into local municipios (municipalities) and align with their municipios over larger cultural or political groups.
There are at least 21 Mayan languages in Guatemala and many varieties of textiles which both vary between municipios. An experienced anthropologist (or fashionista) can deduce someone’s origin from the colors and patterns on their clothes or bag. Each municipio has its own patron saint and celebrates their saint’s day in a different fashion.
The adoption of saints by way of Catholicism is just one of the Spanish influences woven into Guatemalan culture. The city of Antigua is a colorful example of colonial Spanish amid indigenous culture; there you will see iconic architecture including many Catholic churches.
Looking to immerse yourself in the ancient and modern Mayan cultures?
For best overview: Museo Popol Vuh and Museo Ixchel del Traje Indigena in Guatemala City. These museums, located next to each other, give a great synopsis of Mayan culture and history through artifacts, art, and textiles.
To explore powerful relics of the past: Tikal in the north east. Tikal is arguably the most famous Mayan ruin in Guatemala and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. Tikal was likely called Yax Mutal during its rein as the political, economic, and military hub of the region between 200 and 900 AD. Added plus: It’s in an immense rain forest.
To meet the modern Mayan: The northern highlands. Travel through Totonicapán or Quetzaltenango where most people are Mayan descendants. These regions are dotted with towns of people subsistence farming and small cities filled with car dealerships and Ecuadorian Chinese restaurants. It’s interesting to see the mix of modern and ancient cultures at play in this area.
To discover beautiful diversity: Lake Atitlan. This beautiful lake is surrounded by 11 villages each sporting its own unique style, vibe, and Mayan textile. Visit Lake Atitlan and its surrounding villages by boat to experience different Mayan cultures and languages within a few hours’ journey.