Mayan Culture in Guatemala is alive and kicking. It flourishes throughout the country. This culture is present in clothing, food, traditions, conversations and beliefs. And as a true traveler, you will be curious about its origin. So, I present you 8 activities that will teach you about Mayan Culture in Guatemala while traveling the country. They will give you and authentic experience, interacting with the local community.
This living culture has its origin in an important pre-Hispanic Mayan Civilization of over 3.000 years. it extended from southern Mexico to all of Guatemala and into parts of Honduras and El Salvador. The Mayans mastered writing, mathematics, engineering and astronomy. It was the most advanced civilization on the continent. The best time for the Mayans was the Classic Period (250 – 900 A.D.) since there was significant commercial, architectural, and cultural growth and development.
1. Visiting the best Mayan Ruins
You might wonder how many Mayan ruins there are in Guatemala. Some people say over 1.200 and some studies assert over 4.000. However, the most recent research by the Maya Biosphere Reserve in the Peten region of Guatemala has identified the existence of more than 60.000 ancient Mayan ruins. You can imagine the vast extension of this ancient civilization in the whole of the country.
Thousands and thousands of Mayan ruins are still unexcavated and just some of them allow visitors. With this article you will be able to plan your visit to the best Mayan ruins in Guatemala. You will find maps, tours and prices of 8 ruins to visit.
2. Attending a Maya Ceremony
The Mayan cosmovision, a value and belief system to interpret the world and life, has always been one of the foundations of Mayan Culture. Although in any village in Guatemala there are several Christian churches, a large part of the population practices Mayan spirituality as a religion.
Normally, Mayan ceremonies are held at the beginning and end of the planting and harvesting seasons. Petitions, offerings (non-monetary) and gratitude to the elements of nature are always present.
These ceremonies, officiated by Mayan Spiritual Guides, are rituals aimed at balancing the energies of places, people and their relationship with nature and the environment. They are recited in a Mayan language and some of them will have a translator into English and Spanish.
Where are Mayan Ceremonies held in Guatemala?
Open Mayan ceremonies are held at altars in several of the Mayan ruins in Guatemala. The days and specific hours they are held change over time. I suggest you ask at the receptions and ticket offices of these sites.
If you are in the Lake Atitlan region and want to have an intimate Mayan ceremony, I recommend, from my own experience, these two places:
Feliciana Ujpan is an excellent Mayan Spiritual Guide who has her own Mayan Therapeutic Center El Nuevo Sol. This site was my home for some years and every ceremony Feliciana performed at the site with small groups of people was an important renewal of energy.
Participating in an intimate Mayan ceremony requires a special disposition from all participants. The personal and social education it provides will help you understand the Mayan cosmovision. It will be a unique contribution to your trip and one of the most important activities teaching you about Mayan culture in Guatemala.
The second site I recommend is the sacred caves and waterfall at Lake Atitlan. This ceremony is performed by several Mayan Spiritual Guides in one of the 4 caves you will visit. Not only will you witness the sacred acts for the benefit of the community, but you will also see the most important waterfall in Atitlan. The guide of the tour operator will be present all the time during the visit.
3. Enjoying a Temazcal or Mayan Sauna
The Temazcal or Mayan Sauna is a steam bath of various medicinal herbs, practiced within indigenous communities for spiritual and physical healing. It is popular in Guatemala and southern Mexico. It consists of an individual or small-group Mayan ceremony before and after entering the steam bath inside of a kind of dome. The steam is created by pouring herbal infusions onto hot rocks. Sessions normally last one hour with breaks monitored by the Mayan Spiritual Guide in charge.
Within the Mayan cosmovision, this ceremony represents the entrance to the womb of Mother Earth where the purification and union of body, mind and spirit takes place. In physical terms it implies detoxification and release of stress.
Where to go for a Mayan Sauna or Temazcal in Guatemala?
Most of the Temazcales in Guatemala are located in the mountainous area of the highlands (Atitlan, Quetzaltenango, Quiche). In this region there are several hotels that have Mayan Sauna facilities and offer them free of charge to their guests. I will give you 2 recommendations of places where you can go for a Temazcal in Guatemala. They are the most authentic and will give you a total experience.
Centro Terapéutico Maya El Nuevo Sol, headed by Feliciana Ujpan in San Juan La Laguna, Atitlan: I recommend it because it is the ideal place to take a Mayan Sauna. Here you will have the best and most authentic experience. The session is private and personalized. Just arrange the time and day that best suits you with the Spiritual Guide.
Eco-hotel Uxlabil, also located in San Juan La Laguna: its authentic Temazcales are on offer to their guests and visitors.
4. Learning a Mayan language
In Guatemala there are more than 20 Mayan ethnic groups each with its own language. The main and most widespread are Tz’utujil, Kaqchikel, Q’eqchi and Quiche. After the discovery of Mayan hieroglyphs, it took years of linguistic study to understand the writing systems of these languages.
Learning a Mayan language can be daunting, because the Mayan languages are unrelated to any modern language. This means that even if you are a talented polyglot, learning a Mayan language will be a challenging goal to achieve.
I bet you will be curious listening to the locals and would like to know the basics of a Mayan language. Moreover, among the activities that teach you about Mayan culture, this one will give you an opportunity to test your learning abilities. Mastering the basics of a Mayan language will give you immense satisfaction.
How to learn a Mayan language in Guatemala?
First of all, you need to be fluent in Spanish, because the lessons are taught in this language. For courses I recommend La Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala. This institute provides all the information about Mayan languages and short courses of different levels.
5. Taking Mayan Cuisine Lessons and Food Tours
It is said that love needs food to blossom, well I say that culture does too. Once you cook and eat the native dishes of such a unique culture you feel part of it. I assure you that all your senses will be activated by Mayan cuisine. You will be fascinated from the preparation of the dishes to the last spoonful on your plate. For this reason, of all the activities that will teach you about Mayan culture, I dare to say that this one is the most pleasant for those of us who love to taste the local food when we travel.
Mayan cuisine is a fusion of ingredients, utensils and cooking techniques typical of their culture. This results in amazing flavors for the palate. There are herbs, chili peppers, seeds and spices original to the Guatemalan territory with a history of thousands of years of use and consumption.
Where to take Mayan Cuisine Lessons or Food Tours in Guatemala?
You can take cooking classes with locals or a gastronomic tour around the markets of the towns and villages in Antigua, Atitlan and Guatemala City. Below you will find the buttons to book them with transportation, recipes, and guides included.
6. Visiting a Mayan Weaving Center
One of the ancestral practices of Mayan culture is the creation of textiles. There is a fascinating meaning to the various colors and shapes. According to the Mayan cosmovision, weaving is a gift that was given to women through a goddess called Ixchel. All the symbolism is linked to the concept of gestation and lunar phases. For this reason, the backstrap loom, the Mayan textile process par excellence, represents the creation from the woman’s body.
Each village in the country has characteristic colors and patterns in their clothing. If you look closely, you will see that the indigenous women wear colorful blouses, called Huipil (pronounced wee-peel). The designs consist of lines, animal shapes and geometric figures. Each of the Mayan ethnic groups of Guatemala has its own unique pattern for their Huipil. The same applies to their skirts, belts and head gear.
Where to visit a Mayan Weaving Center in Guatemala?
The Museo Ixchel del Traje Indígena is the ideal place to visit and learn in more detail about the symbolism, history and meaning of Mayan textiles. It is not exactly a weavers’ center but its exhibits are the most complete and organized in the country. It is part of the Francisco Marroquin University, located in Guatemala City, zone 10, one of the safest areas of the capital. You can also visit the Popol Vuh Museum in the same building.
The Tz’utujil Mayan women’s cooperative Casa Flor Ixcaco in San Juan La Laguna in Atitlan provides a direct learning experience of the creation of Mayan textiles. This is the best place to take workshops and watch demonstrations of the indigenous textile process. You will see all its stages, from the planting of cotton, the creation of thread, the preparation of vegetable dyes to the work of the weaver.
7. Visiting the most authentic Mayan villages
Visiting a Mayan village in Guatemala is the ideal way to see the daily life and traditions of this culture. The highlands is where you can still find many of the most authentic villages. Current Mayan cultural richness is concentrated among the mountains and cloud forests of this region. Visiting its indigenous towns will leave you filled with the warmth of its people and impressed by the unique character of their cultures. In this article I list the 10 most authentic Mayan villages in Guatemala to visit. You will find insider tips on how to get there, what to see and what is the best season to visit.
8. Community-based Tourism in Guatemala
Community-based Tourism gives us the opportunity to travel with a purpose and experience authentic Guatemala. This type of tourism is managed by indigenous Mayan communities through local agencies that organize the entire itinerary. The focus of Community-based Tourism in Guatemala is on cultural immersion and support of the economies of rural Mayan villages. The routes, accommodations, activities and tours are provided by local guides and collectives.
To learn more about community-based tourism in Guatemala, the activities you can do, and the agencies that can organize your itinerary, read the article about how to find Community-based Tourism in Guatemala.
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