The name "Guatemala" comes from Nahuatl Cuauhtemallan, "place of many trees". This was the name the Tlaxcaltecan soldiers who accompanied Pedro de Alvarado during the Spanish Conquest gave to this territory.
Archaeologists usually divide the pre Columbian history of Latin America into the pre Classic period (2999 BC to 250 BC), the Classic period (250 BC to 900 AD), and the Calistic from 900 to 1500 AD.
The first evidence of human settlers in Guatemala dates back to 12,000 BC. Some evidence suggests human presence as early as 18,000 BC, such as obsidian arrow heads found in various parts of the country. There is archaeological evidence that early Guatemalan settlers were hunters and gatherers, but pollen samples from Peten and the Pacific coast indicate that maize cultivation was developed by 3500 BC. Sites dating back to 6500 BC have been found in Quiche in the Highlands and Sipacate, Escuintla on the central Pacific coast.
The Colonial Period (1519-1821)
After arriving in what was named the New World, the Spanish started several expeditions to Guatemala, beginning in 1519. Before long, Spanish contact resulted in an epidemic that devastated native populations.
During the colonial period, Guatemala was an Audiencia and a Captaincy General (Capitania General de Guatemala) of Spain, and a part of New Spain (Mexico). The first capital was named Tecpan Guatemala, founded on 25 July 1524 with the name of Villa de Santiago de Guatemala. It was moved to Ciudad Vieja on 22 November 1527 when the Kaqchikel attacked the city. On 11 September 1541 the city was flooded when the lagoon in the crater of Volcan Agua collapsed due to heavy rains and earthquakes, and was moved 6km to Antigua on the Panchoy Valley. In 1773 a series of earthquakes destroyed the city of Antigua and the King of Spain granted the authorization to move the capital to the Ermita Valley which is present day Guateamala City.
On 15 September 1821 the Captaincy general of Guatemala (formed by Chiapas, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Honduras) officially proclaimed its independence from Spain. After Guatemala won independence it was ruled by a series of dictators assisted by the United Fruit Company. From 1944 until 1996, Guatemala was embroiled in all types of conflict and fighting from aggressive dictators to military coups to US backed operations supporting regimes that killed many innocent civilians!
There is no doubt these horrific events took toll on this beautiful country and for many years deprived it of any type of touristic appeal. What stands today is a country that has huge potential and offering to the international tourist. In complete agreement with one of our CouchSurfing friends (Majo from Guate City), I think it is a great shame that Guatemala is perceived as a country that is too dangerous to travel to and from my experience it is always different when you are on the ground in a country rather than listening / reading very subjective media reports. The civil war finished some 13 years ago and now this country is on the up and no more dangerous than any of the other countries in Latin America. Actually, I would go as far to say that there are more dangerous places in some of the developed cities in the western world!
We arrived in Guatemala City, or Guate as it is known to the locals, after about 4 hours in a mini bus from Playa El Tunco to Antigua and then another hour in a taxi from Antigua to Guate. The capital is a big city in excess of 1 million people. We had planned a few days here to see the city centre and meet some new couchsurfing friends before heading to Lago Atitlan.
We CouchSurfed with a nice woman called Leslie Brul who lived in the suburbs of Guate and although we hardly had the opportunity to speak to Leslie, because she worked so much, we were very appreciative that she let us stay with her for three days. We also got to meet four other CouchSurfers who were being co-hosted at the house – Seb and Victoria from Argentina, Alejandro who was also from Argentina and finally but not least, Luiz from Brazil! They were all really friendly and nice so we enjoyed getting to know them during our stay in the house.
During our time in Guate we meet up with a few other CouchSurfers who showed us around the city and also invited us to a house party. We were grateful for the time given to us by amazingly interesting Flor and her friend Jose as they showed us around the city for some 3 hours, which included visits to the National Palace and Central Mercado. Thanks for everything as it was really nice to get to know the both of you. Flor was also kind enough to drop us off at another CouchSurfers’ place, the fun spirited Marie Jose or Majo for short. Majo is a person who when you are with it is impossible not to have fun. She is always smiling and just exuberates a positive vibe! Majo was actually hosting a house party that evening in her apartment for her university friends as they had not seen each other in some time. That evening we had a great time getting to know all her friends from university – about 15 engineers in total! They were all friendly and cool people. So what a day, got to meet up with a few different locals and do the local thing, all thanks to “CouchSurfing”!!!
Majo was so nice that she actually offered to drive us around the next day (Saturday) and show us some of the smaller pueblos scattered around the volcans outside Guate City. Again we were fortuitous enough to receive another glimpse of Antigua as our day trip with Majo finished in this beautiful town. Thanks Majo!
One thing must be mentioned about Guate City…it has more fast food places than Estados Unidos itself…ok, that could be an exaggeration, but there were a lot! I had my first (and second) Taco Bell in Guate City and also visited a WalMart for the first time (that was an experience because around lunch time everyday they give away free food samples at the end of each food aisle…there must have been about 30 staff members offering everything from cheeses to coffees to chicken pasta dishes to desserts to fruit to beers to scotch. It was impressive and after visiting the store just to buy a bottle of water, we no longer needed to go for lunch! Thanks WalMart!).
The trip to Panajachal on Lago Atitlan took longer than anticipated as we had to catch a string of “chicken” buses. Despite the numerous changes from one bus to the next the transitions actually happened quite fluidly all considered…it could have been much worse. So by late Sunday afternoon we had arrived at our next CouchSurfers’ house in Panajachal - super mum Helga Knapp and her 3 children!
Helga moved to Guatemala from near Stuttgart, Germany some 15 years and now lives in the lakeside village of Panajachal with her three children. We were able to hang out with the family and learn about their lives in Panajachal and Lago Atitlan! We hope you liked our cooking as much as we enjoyed your company. Super experience and we hope to see you again one day!
If you get the chance to visit Guatemala then you must make time in your itinerary to visit Lago Atitlan and the surrounding pueblos on the lake. For not much money we booked ourselves on a day tour around the lake which consists of four stops at small villages hugging the shores of Lago Atitlan (villages included San Marcos, Santa Clara, San Pedro and Santiago). What an experience and easily some of the most stunning landscape in all of our trip. I know this phrase has been used several times during our trip, but honestly you would be lucky to find natural beauty like this anywhere else in the world! Mesmerizing! Check out our photos and I am sure you will agree with this statement.
We also spent several hours in Panajachal at the local street markets buying up everything we liked that was artisanal and that could fit in our backpacks! We thought we would leave our shopping for family and friends until the end of our trip because we didn’t want to carry things around for a long time. This was a great idea because Panajachal had some of the best artisanal arts and crafts on offer in Latin America and the vendors were very friendly when it came to bartering for a deal. We got some amazing deals and it was only when we tried to buy more things in Antigua did we realize how good our deals in Panajachal were!
Get to this place if you come to Guatemala!
So moving on and only a few hours from Lago Atitlan is the magnificent, grand, beautiful old city that is Antigua de Guatemala, literally translated as Old or Ancient Guatemala!
We made our way from the town centre to our penultimate CouchSurfing hosts’ house, the wonderful Belinda Sanchez! We enjoyed getting to know Belinda and her guapito chiquito Rene. Belinda is a tour guide so we did indeed benefited from her knowledge of the local area and also thanks must be made to her friends, who also helped us with suggestions about the local area. Belinda’s house was a few miles outside the main town centre so every day we enjoyed the walk into the town centre. Very relaxing and tranquilo!
A little history…
Antigua is famous for its very well preserved colonial architecture. On 10 March 1543 the Spanish conquistadors founded present day Antigua. For more than 200 years it served as the seat of the military governor of the Spanish colony of Guatemala, a large region that included almost all of present day Central America and the southernmost state of Mexico. On 29 September 1717, a 7.4 magnitude earthquake hit Antigua Guatemala, and destroyed over 3,000 buildings and much of the city's architecture was ruined. The damage the earthquake did to the city made authorities consider moving the capital to another city. Antigua remained the capital of Guatemala until 1773 when another series of massive earthquakes destroyed the city and reduced many of the town’s iglesias and catedrals to rumble! After the clean up of the earthquake it was decided to move the capital to present day Guatemala City, some 40km from Antigua.
For me, Antigua has to be my favourite stop in all of Latin America (South and Central) in terms of being the number one colonial city. Overall, I would say it is in my top 10 favourite experiences on the entire trip. We spent 5 days in Antigua and I found myself constantly remarking, “geez, this place is incredible”, “geez this place is beautiful”. Literally every corner turned you experienced moments of impromptu exhilaration that had not been experienced at many other places during our time on the road!
Those that have already been fortunate enough to visit Antigua will understand when I say that Antigua is one of those places dosed in such immense colonial beauty that it is impossible to take a bad photograph.
After five historic soaked days in Antigua we were off on a night bus from the old capital to Flores (near Tikal) via the new capital (Guatemala City)! This would be our penultimate long distance bus journey and with this in mind we were ready to plough through this experience for a second to last time. The bus trip was relatively smooth apart from one police inspection in the early hours of the morning which did not really interrupt our sleep because it was near impossible to kip on this road. We arrived in Flores around 5am the day after we left and after finding a friendly taxi driver who helped us with our accommodation, we were sorted. It was always going to be a very long day for us because we knew that after checking in we needed to have a shower and then head out to visit Tikal for the day. Despite not getting much sleep on the bus, we were able to conjure the energy to visit the magnificent Mayan site known as “Tikal”!
Tikal is considered one of the largest archaeological sites of the pre Columbian Maya civilization. Tikal was the capital of a conquest state that became one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya. Although architecture at the site dates back as far as the 4th century BC, Tikal reached its climax during the Classic Period of 200 to 900 AD. During this time, the city dominated much of the Maya region politically, economically, and militarily, while interacting with areas throughout Mesoamerica such as the great metropolis of Teotihuacan in the distant Valley of Mexico. There is evidence that Tikal was conquered by Teotihuacan in the 4th century AD. Following the end of the Late Classic Period, no new major monuments were built at Tikal and there is evidence that elite palaces were burned. These events were coupled with a gradual population decline, culminating with the site’s abandonment by the end of the 10th century.
The ruins of Tikal are located amongst thick rainforest vegetation in the northern region of Guatemala. Tikal was home to all types of flora including the giant kapok tree (Ceiba Pentandra), Tropical Cedar (Cedrela Odorata) and Honduras Mahogany (Swientenia Macrophylla). Fauna in the region includs foxes, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, eagles, toucans, falcons, parrots and millions of the unforgettable leaf cutter ants (those little fellas work so hard)!
Tikal relied solely on its ten reservoirs for water supply and during the 20th century archeologists refurbished one of these ancient reservoirs to store water for their own use. The absence of springs, rivers, and lakes in the immediate vicinity of Tikal highlights a prodigious feat in that the Mayans built a major city with only supplies of stored seasonal rainfall. The reliance on seasonal rainfall left Tikal vulnerable to prolonged drought, which is thought by some to have played a role in the collapse of the Mayan dynasty.
It was estimated that Tikal had a population ranging between 10,000 to 90,000 inhabitants. The population of Tikal began a continuous curve of growth starting in the pre Classic Period (approximately 2000 BC – AD 200), with a peak in the late Classic Period with the population growing rapidly from AD 700 through to 830, followed by a sharp decline at the end of the dynasty.
There is no doubt Tikal is an impressive Mayan site and like other ancient architecture, such as Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu, The Great Wall, it is difficult to fully appreciate how far ahead of time these civilizations were in terms of their architectural and engineering prowess. Also the sheer size and greatness of these buildings makes one stop and think, from where did they source the materials, how did the get the materials to the site and then how did they build such magnificent structures. It really is completely mind-blowing!
So by mid afternoon we were done at Tikal! We meet our waiting taxi driver and journeyed back to our hotel for some rest and recovery before heading out for dinner.
Most people only spend one day in Flores, an island on a lake connected to the mainland by a bridge, and I guess that is all it really warrants because it is merely a stopover point to Tikal. But in all fairness Flores is a worthwhile place to spend a few days. The streets are chilled out and contain enough character to captivate ones attention for an extended period of time.
Well that is it for Guatemala, a country freed of conflict and war these days and now looking forward to a much brighter future – also a country that certainly leaves a positive impression on one minds and now firmly cemented on the route of every backpacker of Central America! See you in Mexico for our last edition of our world tour blog!