Mayan Art and Language
There is such a beautiful abundance of Mayan archaeological relics in Guatemala, Honduras, and southern Mexico. Some pieces have mythological meanings, such as the depictions of nawales, or spirit guides, which often take the form of animals. Others have cultural meanings, such as masks for ritual use and stone carvings that commemorate historical events and their dates. I am told that shamans used (and continue to use) these long fold-out books inscribed with incantations and instructions for various rituals.
Another central component to Mayan culture is the calendar. The video below gives a pretty good description of its details and significance.
The Tz'utujil and Kaqchikel Mayans (whose languages are related to K'iche') consider Atitlan to be a sacred lake. One reason could be that its 52-year cycle of flooding corresponds exactly to the 52-year synchronization of the solar and lunar calendars. It was easy to get around San Pedro using a Tuk-Tuk (the red, three-wheeled carts) and to take a boat across to San Marcos. To my disappointment, I did not manage to see a crocodile here (the crocodile is my nawal, according to my birthdate on the Mayan calendar).
In San Marcos, I encountered a group of men who invited me to join them in a cacao ceremony. The leader of the group was a British fellow named Duncan who had learned to make a ritual cacao drink from the village's cacao shaman. While we all got comfortable and introduced ourselves, he stood off to the side and prepared the cacao drink. We each got our own cup and could add as much sweet resin and cayenne pepper as we wished. The effect of the cacao, Duncan explained, is to open our hearts and get us to share deep reflections and connect as human beings. The image of a cacao is also used to write the number zero, which is significant because each bean contains 20 cacao seeds, and the Mayans used a base-20 counting system. Cacao beans were also used as currency in ancient times.
Antigua Guatemala (literally, "Old Guatemala") was the country's previous capital following an earthquake that left much of the city in ruins. Some of the ruins are still preserved from the 1500's. Inside the convent of Santo Domingo, there was a really nice display of (most likely modern) Mayan-style stone carvings, giving a sense of the blending of Catholic and indigenous cultures. I never got an explanation for why one of the heads in the museum looked like an alien.
Antigua was my base for a night while I regrouped for a long bus ride to the Honduran border. It was time to see the ancient ruins.
Copán Ruinas (Honduras)
Just across the border into Honduras is the site of the ancient city of Copán, whose ruins are begging to be explored. These were the most impressive and best preserved that I saw on the whole trip. The temple painted red has been restored to look like what it might have looked like during the peak of classical Mayan civilization. One of the most widely featured designs was the the scarlet macaw (in Spanish, "guacamaya"); these gorgeous birds also flew overhead and made conversation.
Some of these photos are from the town of Copán Ruinas where I spent the night, including the modern sculpture of the person emerging from the cornstalk; a Mayan creation myth describes people being made from corn. As an outsider, I love learning about people's beliefs and life stories.
A fascinating book that I read during the Guatemala adventure was Secrets of the Talking Jaguar by Martin Prechtel. In it, he describes his experiences becoming a shaman while living on Lake Atitlan with the Tz'utujil Mayans. Prechtel gives a personal and enlightening account of Mayan culture and spirituality, which provided me with a way of connecting more deeply with people when I got here. Of course, knowing Spanish also helped immensely.