Sitting atop the largest pyramid in the world in northern Guatemala's ancient Mayan city El Mirador, I tried to imagine how the city below looked nearly 2,500 years ago.
Standing nearby, the site's principal archaeologist, Richard Hansen, explained how this had been one of the greatest cities of the ancient world, filled with dozens of grand palaces, pyramids, and temples painted in vivid red, green, yellow, and white hues, and adorned with elaborately carved images. Now mostly covered by forest, the 10-square-mile city also boasted the world's first "highway system," with hundreds of miles of raised causeways, up to 150 feet wide, sealed with a thick layer of white limestone plaster. I couldn't help wondering how it was possible for such an advanced civilization to have disappeared so suddenly and completely.
To unravel this and other Mayan mysteries, I joined a tour called "The Lost Kingdoms of the Mayas," led by two remarkable guides from Bella Guatemala Travel — Jose Antonio Gonzalez and Emilio Faillace. For 10 days, our small group explored colonial cities, lakes, jungles, and Mayan museums and ruins scattered across Guatemala and western Honduras. Gonzalez shared his boundless enthusiasm for Mayan archaeology, frequently reminding us that "archaeology turns mystery into history."
We were all surprised to learn that while Europe lay mired in the Dark Ages, the Mayan kingdoms spread across much of Central America were flourishing. Their level of architecture, art, science, and writing put the Mayan culture among the most advanced in the world. Remarkably, many centuries-old Mayan traditions still flourish throughout Guatemala, as I witnessed repeatedly in archaeological sites where "spiritual guides," or shamans, performed traditional ceremonies around fire rings in order to bring better health, wealth, or happiness to their clients.
Our guides pointed out that Guatemala is bordered by Mexico, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador, and it depends on agriculture, textiles, and tourism to sustain its 16 million people. Many travelers once considered Guatemala an unsafe place to visit: After gaining independence from Spain in 1821, Guatemala endured significant political tumult, culminating in a vicious civil war from 1960 to 1996. But the country has recovered from those dark days, and I felt completely safe and grateful to be among the growing number of visitors from around the world.
Of the many experiences we had on this comprehensive tour, these are the highlights I'll remember most:
I came away from this trip knowing that we had been fortunate to see and learn much about both the ancient Mayan civilization and modern-day Guatemala. Over the years, I had heard consistent praise about Guatemala from other travelers, and now I'm grateful to have finally been able to traverse this road less traveled with the help of Bella Guatemala Travel.