The Grit of Guaté
Like many Central American countries, it’s difficult to understand Guatemala through an American lens. Many Americans are fortunate enough to have the resources and time to seek purpose and spiritual fulfillment. Most Guatemalans, on the other hand, are struggling to fulfill basic needs including putting food on the table.
But Guatemala is changing. The Guatemalan economy is booming in large part due to globalization. Many rural Guatemalans can now generate supplemental income by selling agricultural products to the US. And younger Guatemalans are seeking a better life and driving gradual changes in Guatemalan society including greater political and social freedom.
During our 5 weeks in Guatemala, we experienced both of these aspects of Guatemala. And we were left with an appreciation of a dynamic culture that is changing but has still maintained it’s connection to it’s amazing Mayan roots.
Our first exposure to Guatemala was El Peten, a huge, jungle-covered and sparsely populated region in the northern Guatemala. There are several amazing ruins in El Peten including Tikal and Yaxcha. Images from a new drone-based technology called LIDAR recently enabled archeologists to conclude that Tikal is the largest Mayan ruin in the world.
Tikal is in the middle of the jungle and full of wildlife. In fact, it’s so big that tourists have recently gotten lost in the jungle and died while exploring the ruins. One of the most magical experiences we had there was watching the sunrise at the top of a huge temple and seeing Toucans soar over the jungle far below.
In Tikal, human sacrifice was common, especially during times of drought and famine. As it turns out, most historians believe that Tikal was abandoned due to the impact of deforestation and overpopulation. This fact isn’t lost on environmentally conscious Guatemalans who recognize that there’s a significant risk that these same factors could have a similar impact on Guatemalan in the future.
From Tikal, we headed to El Remate, a small village on the shore of Lago de Petzen Itza, giving Leah time to recover from some vicious insect bites she got in the El Peten jungle. El Remate is close to Flores, a beautiful island in the lake which many travelers chose instead of El Remate. But we just could’t leave the dock at El Muelle (and Oz would have been upset if we had)!
Oz improving his freestyle on the dock of El Muelle with our rig in the background. We had the “campground” to ourselves.
Guatemala is a great place to get off the beaten path and experience its many indigenous communities. One of the areas we chose to explore was the Ixil Triangle, a remote region in western Guatemala inhabited by the Ixil Maya people. The Ixil Triangle was a guerrilla stronghold during the Guatemalan Civil War. As a result, the Guatemalan army, with the indirect support of the US, was particularly brutal to the Ixil Maya people. Over 35,000 of the 85,000 inhabitants of the Ixil Triangle were killed between 1978 and 1983.
During our trip to the Ixil Triangle, we used the tiny village of Acul as our base. Acul is located in a beautiful valley surrounded by the Sierra de Los Cuchumatanes mountain range. During our stay in Acul, we heard afirst hand story about how the Guatemalan military burned the village of Acul to the ground during the Guatemalan Civil War. The complete story, as told by a Ixil Maya woman we befriended, can be found in Karl’s blog post.
While we were in the Ixil Triangle, we also went on a multi day hike through several remote Ixil villages including Xeo, Vicalama and Cotzol in the Sierra de Los Cuchumatanes mountains. As we saw firsthand, the Ixil Maya people have maintained many of the traditions of their Mayan ancestors. They practice subsistence agriculture, growing corn, squash and other vegetables. They speak a Mayan dialect. They weave beautiful huipiles and other beautiful clothing that the men and women still wear. And they even use Temazcals, or sweat lodges, for a variety of healing purposes.
As we’ve found throughout our trip, hiking, mountain biking and trail running are great ways to do a deeper dive into a broader range of communities and cultures. Guatemala was no exception. In addition to our trek through the Ixil Triangle, we explored hot springs and waterfalls and Karl spent over a week in the saddle, mountain biking through indigenous communities around Lago de Atlitan, in Tecpan and in the Ixil Triangle. Wherever we went, these communities welcomed us, carbon trekking poles, photochromic sunglasses and all.
One of the benefits of exploring so many indigenous communities on our bikes and by foot was the fact that we were able to see the the interrelationship of Guatemalans and the various ecosystems that they live in. It’s a fragile balance. And only time will tell if the Guatemalan people will do a better job of managing their natural resources than their Mayan ancestors did.