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The Land of Eternal Spring
Guatemala, the land of eternal spring, is a country in Guatemala is a country in Central America bordered by Mexico to the north and west, the Pacific Ocean to the southwest, Belize to the northeast, the Caribbean to the east and Honduras and El Salvador to the southeast.
The ancient Maya occupied a vast geographic area in Central and South America and the culture extended into most of Guatemala. Mayan ruins in Guatemala are a living testimony to a culture that once flourished. From the third to ninth century's Maya civilisation built awe-inspiring temples, pyramids, and cities, the ruins are the truly astounding evidence of a long lasting, dynamic cultural tradition. The monuments paid tribute to the rulers of the past and inscriptions inside are concerned with dynasties and conquests, alliance and raids.
Today's descendants of the Old Maya, or the Indigenous as they are locally referred, to account for more than 50% of the Guatemalan population. Their present culture is vibrant and thriving, best shown by the many traditionally dressed woman and children seen along the streets in the entire country.
Weaving is one of the outstanding Maya craft, an ancient art that has survived uninterrupted for centuries and is now becoming famous all over the world. The Maya also make baskets, pottery and wood carvings of animals, saints and brightly-painted toys and chests.
The country is mountainous with small desert and sand dune patches, hilly valleys filled with people, except for the south coastal area and the vast northern lowlands of Peten department. Two mountain chains enter Guatemala from west to east dividing the country into three major regions, the highlands, where the mountains are located, and the Pacific coast, south of the mountains, and the Peten region, north of the mountains.
The three regions vary in climate, elevation and landscape, providing dramatic contrasts between hot, humid tropical lowlands and cooler, drier highland peaks. Guatemala's location between the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean makes it a target for hurricanes. Guatemala has 37 volcanoes, four of them are active.
Guatemalan cuisine reflects the multicultural nature of the country. Antigua Guatemala is well known for its candy which makes use of many local ingredients, fruits, seeds and nuts along with honey, condensed milk and other traditional sweeteners. Many traditional foods are based on Maya cuisine and prominently feature corn, chillies, and beans as key ingredients.
There are also foods that it is traditional to eat on certain days of the week - for example, by tradition it is known that on Thursday, the typical food is "paches" which is like a tamale made with a base of potato, and on Saturday it is traditional to eat tamales. Certain dishes are also associated with special occasions, such as fiambre for all Saints Dya on November 1 and tamales which are common around Christmas.
With 33 volcanoes spread throughout its highlands, Guatemala is one of those rare destinations that reward even the most jaded world traveller with revelatory experiences. Stark silhouettes rise above Guatemala's mountainous landscape and only few visitors will return home without pictures of these giants in their collection of snapshots.
Aqua, Fuego and Acatenango are perhaps the most photographed volcanoes in Guatemala. These three peaks watch over the sleepy, colonial town of Antigua Guatemala and the forested cones of Aqua and Acatenango attest to their slumbering old age, while the bare peak of Fuego and the small ash cloud rising from its summit are evidence of continuing activity.
Toliman, Atitlan & San Pedro are three majestic volcanoes towering above Lake Atitlan and form the natural dam that contains the lake. At night spectacular displays of lightning can be seen beyond their peaks from Panajachel. A smaller volcano called Cerro de Oro, on the south side of the lake, once contained a Maya fortress in its crater. Aldous Huxley once called Lake Atitlan the most beautiful in the world, located in the Guatemalan highlands about 150 km from the capital.
Lining the shores of the lake you will find a dozen picturesque Indian villages where life and customs have changed little over the centuries. Panajachel is also the gateway to explore the three indigenous villages around Lake Atitlan. Santiago Atitlan, Santa Cararina Palopo and San Antonio Palopo, all are famous for its women weavers and their typical clothes.
Panajachel, or Pana as it is called by many locals, is a town full of interesting sights, sounds, and smells. The town has numerous hotels and is full of small quality restaurants and interesting nightspots. During the day you can visit the surrounding villages, enjoy the breathtaking views onto the volcanoes that surround the lake or visit Panajachel's busy market street. It is one of the best places in Guatemala to shop for souvenirs.
Quetzaltenango is a colonial town surrounded by mist-covered mountains with the Santa Maria and Santiaguito volcanoes forming a lovely backdrop. Quetzaltenango is the center of the Quiche Maya people and the second largest city in Guatemala, and is where the Spanish Conquistadores built their city.
Chichicastenango is a small and stucco-white town, lying on the crests of mountaintops at an altitude of 1,965 meters. It is located about 140 km and 2-3 hours drive northwest of Guatemala City and is home to what is surely the most colourful native market in North and Central America, perhaps in all the Americas.
The famous handicraft market of Chichicastenango draws not only the K'iche' Maya of the surrounding region, but vendors from all over Guatemala. They represent many of Guatemala's linguistic groups such as Mam, Ixil, Kaqchikel and others, each hawking his or her products in a riotous cacophony of colour, dialects and costumes, smoke, and smells.
This town in the mountains of Quiche has been, since pre-Hispanic times, one of the largest trading centres in the Maya area. Another major attraction in Chichicastenango is the 400-year old church of Santo Tomas which is situated next to the market. Shamans still use it for their rituals, burning incense and candles and in special cases a chicken for the gods. Each of the 18 stairs that lead up to the church stands for one month of the Mayan calendar year.
Tikal is among the world's travel wonders, many calling it one of the most spiritually powerful spots on earth. The monumental site, with its towering pyramids, looms out of the thick jungle canopy like stoic sentinels of ancient mysteries. The Great Plaza is the most spectacular structure. On the eastern side is the temple of the Great Jaguar and on the other side stands Temple II.
Tikal was once a wealthy metropolis and the seat of power for the great Jaguar clan lords. Tikal has been declared a Heritage of Humanity by UNECSO. The ruins of Tikal include more than 3,000 structures extending over six square miles and including palaces, temples, ceremonial platforms, ball courts, terraces, plazas, avenues and steam baths.
The Tikal National Park is not only home to an ancient Mayan City. Screeching howler monkeys and squawking parrots provide nature's soundtrack to all visitors in the area. From monkeys to white lipped peccary, brocket deer, coati-mundis, toucans, scarlet macaws, parrots, ocelots; even the jaguar can occasionally be spotted.
Quirigua is one of the smallest Mayan cities and one of the most notable due to its splendid series of monuments including temples, eleven other large stelae and four rocks carved in the form of mythological animals. Quirigua is just 94 kilometres from Puerto Barrios on the road to Guatemala City, making it the closest place from the capital to see important ruins.
Lake Peten Itza is set within the Maya forest which constitutes the largest continuous expanse of tropical forest remaining in Central America. Built on an island, the town of Flores is a sleepy town with a Caribbean feel, pastel-colored buildings, friendly people and a slow pace of life. Flores was once a Maya ceremonial center, by the 17th century it was a Spanish outpost, and today, it's the capital of Peten province.
The Pacific coastline of Guatemala stretches 250 km from the Mexican border in the west to the border with El Salvador in the east. The area offers black volcanic sand beaches along the coast; mangrove swamps irrigated by numerous rivers behind, and lush, subtropical forests further inland. Agriculture is the prime industry, with extensive coffee, sugar cane, cotton and banana plantations.
Monterrico is probably the most popular beach destination in Guatemala and the little town offers several hotels and restaurants. Monterrico is a great place to relax, eat fresh seafood and of course for swimming. The Monterrico Natural Reserve includes mangrove swamps and lagoons home to green iguana, marine turtle and crocodiles.
On Guatemala's Caribbean coast is the country's largest lake, Lake Izabal, hemmed in by the Sierra de las Minas to the south and the Santa Cruz Mountains to the north. The lake is surrounded by lush tropical rain forest inhabited by hundreds of bird species, monkeys and many other animals. The waters of the lake are rich in fish and unique to the lake is the fresh-water manatee (sea cow), largest mammal in the country and in danger of extinction.
The old Spanish fortress of San Felipe is found near the town of Frontera, where a bridge spans the Rio Dulce. This small fortress was built in 1651-2 at the lake's mouth, to keep out marauding pirates. Later it served as a prison and was reconstructed as a historical monument in 1956.
Livingston, a charming town located at the mouth of the Rio Dulce, is unique in Guatemala due to its Garifuna culture. Originally a mix between a native tribe, the Kalipuna's and slaves from Nigeria mixed in the 17th century and conserved their own language, music and religion. Livingston can only be accessed by boats travelling across the bay from Puerto Barrios or down the Rio Dulce from Frontera.
The Island of Flores is located on Lake Peten Itza and dates from 9th century. Flores is built over the old city of Tayasal and the charming streets and alleys deserve to be visited. In the 15th century, Pedro de Alvarado arrived on the Island while on a trip to Honduras. He gave King Canek a Spanish horse, which the Mayas treated almost like a god. After several failed attempts to convert the natives to Christianity, the Spaniards destroyed Tayasal in 16th century and it was then abandoned until the 18th century.
The area of Coban is incredibly rich in flora and fauna and lakes are found throughout. Large, dense cloud forests of exceptional beauty, sparkling waterfalls and several incredible cave systems make it an ideal place for true Eco-tourists.
Coban is an important centre of coffee and cardamom production and the Mario Dary Biotope Preserve was created to protect the Quetzal, the national bird and symbol of Guatemala.
Antigua Guatemala is among the world's best conserved colonial cities, it is a magical and captivating small town that makes you feel time might have stopped some 300 years ago. From its colonial architecture to its beautiful surroundings; strolling through the town on the cobblestone streets, you will experience the splendours of ancient times!
Antigua Guatemala was once the third most important Spanish colony in the Americas. More than 30 monastic orders called Antigua home and built stunning monasteries, convents and cathedrals in the town. Its setting is majestic, nestled between three dramatic volcanoes.
Aguateca is not for the average tourist, but getting there is half the fun. You have to take a boat, and if water levels are not high enough, you walk the shallow parts of the lake. There are no imposing temples, although its ruins are among the best preserved and restored of the Mayan sites in Guatemala.
Due to its natural habitat for fauna and flora and its richness with Mayan ruins, the general Peten area has been declared both Cultural and Natural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO and has since been the only place on earth to have received these two recognition's.
Guatemala's capital city is the most modern and cosmopolitan city in Central America. Fast paced and vibrant, Guatemala City, or Guate as it's referred to locally, is a wonderful blend of old and new and possesses a distinct Latin charm.
Guatemala City was founded in 1776, after a devastating earthquake destroyed the former Spanish capital of Central America, "La Cuidad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala", known today as Antigua Guatemala (or simply Antigua).
Guatemala City has an active cultural life throughout the year. Most of the country's museums are to be found here. There are also more than 30 galleries showing Guatemalan artists in painting, photography, engraving and sculpture. Theatres present a wide range of plays, especially national playwrights.
The Central Market is a block from the Cathedral and is where you will find unique Guatemalan handicraft flowers, fruits and vegetables. If you have never been to Paris you should visit "Torre el Reformador", the world's only scale replica of the Eiffel Tower.
Huehuetenango is located along the ridges of the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes, the highest mountain chain of Central America, and has a varying climate that ranges from deep cold to hot and humid. A large number of the inhabitants of Huehuetenango are of Mayan descent, mainly from the ethnic group of the Mam.
Along with the Mam, the Chuje, Kanjobal and Jacalteca Indians share the territory around Huehuetenango. The State of Huehuetenango is politically divided into 31 municipal districts that differ especially in how people dress.
In Huehuetenango people are generally farmers, shepherds or artisans who manufacture textiles, guitars, fireworks, pottery and baskets. They also cultivate corn, potatoes, wheat, barley, coffee and sugar cane. The main religion is a mixture between the ancient Mayan religion and some Christian elements.
Zaculeu, the ancient capital of the Mam Maya group, lies on the banks of a stream in the Cuchumatan Mountains. The site contains a ball court and several temples that show the architectural influence of the Mexican highlands. The buildings seen today, date back to the Maya Post-classic Period, although the original settlement goes back to the 5th Century A.D.
Well by now you have a good idea of what Guatemala has to offer. So come pay a visit to the "Land of Eternal Spring" you will fall in love with the friendly people, their culture and country and want to stay awhile.