It’s hard to say exactly when Guatemala first showed up on my travel radar. I recall a faded sign in 2013, in the Salvadoran surf town of El Tunco, advertising a shuttle there for $25, but my memory takes me further back. It was Tikal.
Whenever I first saw it in photos—five or seven or ten years ago, I can’t be sure—Tikal left an impression still acutely discernible in the mist left by many years of travel since. Its strength, visibly tested in ages long past, was undeniable. Its skyward angles did not belong to my time, and the curious simplicity of its design hinted at a world much more complex than I yet knew. I did not know how I would go, but I would go.
Then, I became a travel writer, and Guatemala opened up to me. Tikal was attainable. It’s a trek to get there, it turned out, even from inside the country so proud to show it off, but in the end the entire Tikal epic surpassed my expectations entirely. Limited infrastructure and sweltering heat only added to the adventure.
Later adventures into greater Guatemala were not without their Central American twists, but by the time I boarded my flight home out of La Aurora International Airport, I’d added an unforgettable and richly colorful chapter to my travelogues. That chapter, as seen through 15 of my most colorful photos, is below:
1. Tikal main plaza, as seen from Temple II
Why not start where it all began, and ended, for me: the heart of Tikal. Tikal’s iconic Temple I, the object of my Mayan affection for so many years, sits stoically on the right. Notice how mind-blowingly empty this UNESCO World Heritage Site is on an early August afternoon.
2. “To Lost World”
The Lost World (Spanish: Mundo Perdido) is actually a self-identifying complex, one of some still unknown number, at Tikal. Its crowning pyramid is 62-feet tall but has only been restored on its western face, leaving the rest of it cloaked in jungle and/or raw, historical truth. As a vast expanse of unknown it is also a microcosm of the lost world that is the whole of Tikal National Park. Of the 222 square miles that make up Tikal, just over six have been excavated—meaning there’s still a whole lot to find there.
Tip: Entrance to Tikal National Park is 150 quetzales, which you can see converted at the real-time exchange rate here.
3. Women in Chichicastenango
After its Maya lineage, Guatemala is perhaps most famous for its textiles. These two strengths collide in this photo from Chichicastenango, an expertly named city with very direct ties to a civilization widely thought departed. Senior-ranking descendants of a pure Maya bloodline live and hold power here in 2015, even if informally, and are looked to by some chunk of their 150,000 neighbors for guidance and leadership. A locally oriented Mayan tongue (K’iche’) is still spoken (alongside Spanish and to a lesser extent English), and one of the oldest copies of the Maya Holy Book (Popol Vuh) is revered in something of a parallel with the Bible.
Sincretismo, it’s called, and in Chichicatenango it’s applied to describe the fascinating melding of Maya and Catholic cultures. Woven around what is otherwise bustling and colorful Central American life, sincretismo brings a new dimension to the Guatemalan experience captured above: The selling of beautiful, homespun textiles, for which there is considerable precedent in Chichicastenango—home of the largest outdoor market in Central America (Thursdays and Sundays).
4. The Living Maya in Chichicastenango
Slightly out of the world’s focus, the “Living Maya” of Guatemala’s Chichicastenango live true to the slightly modernized ideals of one of history’s foremost ancient peoples.
Tip: The prefix -nango means “land of…”—something to keep in mind should you explore deeper into the Guatemalan fabric. Chichicaste, meanwhile, is a type of stinging nettle that grows abundantly in the region.
5. Chichicastenango cemetery
The dead are celebrated with explosive color in Chichicastenango. A different saint is treated to fireworks almost everyday, while the luckiest/wealthiest of the rest are granted final tenancy in some truly eye-popping mausoleums in the cemetery atop the hill. The roofs pictured above are just the beginning; the sprawling property rolls over and around many acres of green earth, dotted by distinct color like a masterpiece of morbid pointillism. Lime green, fuchsia, aquamarine, and on and on, all lifted above a somewhat raw part of the world.
By tradition, tribute is paid at sunset, but as in any society, the extremes of love and grief reach beyond the limits of tradition. On my visit, long before sunset, people were burning fires of respect and wandering the grounds.
6. Lake Atitlán from San Juan La Laguna
German explorer Alexander von Humboldt called it “the most beautiful lake in the world.” Aldous Huxley gushed about it and its picture-perfect volcanoes—Volcán Atitlán, Volcán San Pedro and Volcán Tolimán—in anointing it superior to Italy’s Lake Como. I expected bewilderment at Tikal, it of the time-stopping mystique, but having heard none of the flattery, the easy beauty of Lake Atitlán caught me completely off guard.
Startling vistas of the lake await at each of at least eleven waterside villages, which retain a degree of authenticity exciting to find in a place so vulnerable to tourist desires. Among them was San Juan La Laguna, where this photo was taken. The work of local artisans painted a nice shade on the experience up the hill, but down below, at water’s edge, the lake itself was enough.
7. View from Hotel Atitlán
The jumping-off point for our Atitlán experience—Hotel Atitlán, 45 minutes by boat from San Juan La Laguna—doubles as a worthy place to hole up for the night. Spanish colonial stylings and a botanical garden give it definition beyond the all-encompassing beauty of the lake, and rooms begin at a reasonable $155/night (prices are higher immediately, and with discounts, lower into the summer). The view from the pool is also sensational.
Tip: Including the three that accent Lake Atitlán, official records count 33 volcanoes in Guatemala. An elusive climbing federation disagrees with that assessment, granting membership to climbers who’ve summited all 37 volcanoes that they recognize.
8. Antigua Guatemala from below
A lot happened here, and nothing happened here. In this scene from Antigua Guatemala (which translates roughly to “Old Guatemala”), the colors are delicate but glimmer brightly, and the architecture is at once beautiful and pragmatic in a land prone to earthquakes. The cobblestone streets are quiet, but a volcano threatens violent noise just beyond. And soccer balls and flowers are for sale.
Antigua Guatemala is less of a paradox when you zoom out. In fact, it is both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Guatemala’s most enjoyed destinations, a wildly walkable city of fruit stalls and handmade tortillas that feels authentically layered, with a breadth of experience opening up to you consistent with the time you spend there. (I know this in part by way of a friend who fondly made it her home while shooting a film.)
9. Antigua Guatemala from above
In a country dominated by volcanic peaks, this was the highest I got my camera in Antigua Guatemala. Even from three stories up, this city of roughly 35,000 exists in greater relief as a single block of “old Guatemala”: sun-washed old edifices with clay roofs sustaining life beneath the specter of natural and religious might. Its basic grid plan remains the same almost 500 years after its installation. Antigua Guatemala almost appears to be holding itself together with willpower alone—and possibly the universal love it feels from residents and visitors alike.
10. View of Tikal from Temple IV
As a rallying point for my—and any—Guatemala trip, Tikal made for a great subject of photography during the two-or-so hours we spent excitedly walking its hallowed grounds. The distinct absence of human traffic provided a sense of real adventure and discovery not so available at other, more-touristed Mayan marvels like Chitzen Itza and Tulum (and iconic sites of all kinds), a truth that allowed us even better snapshots of the wonder we were beholding.
The shot above was taken on the route up to the top of Temple IV, Tikal’s highest at 212 feet. Here, the lush green that has nested this amazing world for 1300 years provides a unique and convenient window through which to view it. Fitting, as the adventure to Tikal was as much about the anthropology as it was about the interaction with the natural world—just as was the case in the very beginning. As the story goes, the entire complex was rediscovered in 1848 when it was stumbled upon by gum tree loggers cutting deep into a jungle full of life. More than one tarantula, countless birds and a curious pack of coati tagged along on our search for ancient secrets, as did no jaguars, but our yields did not include luck of such phenomenal scale.
What they did include was the vantage point used to shoot this scene in the original Star Wars.
Tip: Tikal is a trip from Guatemala City, one that is probably worth doing by air (ground transport is an option, but it’s a long way). However you get there, it’s worth staying a night in the area (Petén), and Las Lagunas Hotel seemed to be a convenient and comfortable stay.
11. Parque Central in Guatemala City
I’ve always been taken by the energy of Latin American plazas like Guatemala City’s Parque Central. Guatemala’s—and actually Central America’s—largest city didn’t hold much for me that was overly distinguishing (Paseo Cayalá was at least new), but the plaza was great. The Catedral Metropolitana, anchoring the scene above, played the role of the beautiful church, the great world symbol of strength, wealth and community. The rainbow umbrellas felt appropriate, and even on a slower day, the children, pigeons and vendors pulled together a liveliness that made the short time we spent at Parque Central worthwhile.
Given Guatemala’s incomplete reputation for safety, I also have to note that while I didn’t feel unsafe at any point during my time in the country, I did get hit in the face by a toy plane in Parque Central. The man selling it did some sort of cool flip to impress his young buyers—and then, plane, right in my face. Whether you worry about this happening is up to you.
12. Flores sunset
The sunsets were gorgeous in Guatemala, as were the sunrises we for whatever reason so adamantly sought to see each day. Around the clock, the outdoors will reward you for your time in this country, as was again the case on the tiny island-town (shared with Santa Elena and San Benito) of Flores. Location and essence were one and the same, for the best. The water ruled all, and here, it proved to be a deserving canvas for another Guatemala signature—best enjoyed from a stone wall, with a weird mystery drink in hand.
Tip: Flores is about an hour from Tikal, so if you’re looking for time to kill in Petén before a flight out, and you have a car, or can locate a bus or shuttle (there are enough), Flores is a nice place to wind and cool down.
13. Guatemala from the air
This was the first photo I took of any part of Guatemala, on my descent into La Aurora International Airport, and man, does it look good from the air. A clear and colored shot of a landscape literally bursting from the earth with life set the tone, as it turned out, for a decidedly photogenic and exhilarating Guatemalan topography. Some places feel good to fly into. Guatemala is one of them.
14. Temple V
It was Tikal that ignited my Guatemalan fire all those years ago, and now that I’ve been, it is Tikal, most of all, that feeds my nostalgia. Notably, it was Temple V, pictured here, that left me most in awe of the world I’d flown eight hours from New York for (via DC, and Houston on the return). The path is almost bare, showing just the scars of the shockingly light treads the park has so far seen. The signs are affixed to the same freewheeling vision of Tikal’s potential, all while this incredible temple sits there, timelessly mighty in the Guatemalan jungle, in plain indifference.
Into the jungle, into the wild, into history, we sometimes go in search of new and transformative experiences. In Tikal, I sought these with real meaning and came out with real Guatemalan stories to tell.
15. The flag of Guatemala
A huge Guatemalan flag blows softly through the wind in Guatemala City, in Parque Central, and memories are conjured. For more information on Guatemala, how to visit, and much more, check out visitguatemala.com.
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