A Country in Transition: Mayan Culture and Local Color in Guatemala

Guatemala is a country in transition. Emerging from a brutal civil war that lasted 36 years and struggling with some of the lowest literacy rates and life expectancy in Central America, Guatemala has been characterized by its government’s almost chronic instability. However, a country is not its government. A country is its people.

As home to some of the most spectacular Mayan ancestral communities in Central America, Guatemala has a population that is over 40% indigenous. There are more than 20 dialects of the Mayan language still being spoken. The Peace Accords, signed in 1996, mandate that Mayan now be taught in public schools. This acknowledgment of the importance of the country’s indigenous inhabitants is crucial.

One of our first stops on our Road Scholar program was Tikal, the iconic ancestral Mayan community. Tikal is the stuff of legend. It rises like an apparition out of the jungle, appearing not quite real, like a dream or a vision. I climbed to the top of the Lost World pyramid and gazed out across the vast expanse of trees. From this vantage point, you can see where filmmakers shot the Millennium Falcon landing on the rebel base in the first "Star Wars" movie.

Strolling through the market in Chichicastenango, you can hear Mayan being spoken by colorfully dressed women who come from nearby communities to buy and sell everything from weavings to produce. The churches, products of Spanish colonialism, often have Mayan shrines inside them to accommodate both those who accepted Catholicism and those who did not. This is also mandated by the Peace Accords. From the scent of copal drifting up from the fires built on the church steps, to the sounds of Catholic prayers translated into Mayan, this country is the essence of syncretism.

When I was 12, I was in Guatemala with my family. One of my clearest memories is being at the market in Huehuetenango and watching a regiment of goose-stepping soldiers parade their way through the streets. That was at the beginning of the civil war. This time, I had the honor of sitting down with two ex-combatants from the war, Melvin and Beatrice, who had survived their country’s brutal genocide as guerrilla fighters in the mountains of the Guatemalan highlands. They now live in a community called Nuevo Horizonte. The community raises cattle and farms tilapia. As I spoke to Beatrice about her experiences, it occurred to me that she was not much older than I was when the war started. She grew up with a gun in her hands. Many of us left with tears in our eyes. I am still carrying that moment in my mind.

We visited a Mayan school along the Rio Dulce, Ak’Tenamit, where the students must get up at 4 a.m. every morning in order to arrive at school, via school boat, by 7 a.m. They are assigned chores for the daily operation of their school. Tuition is 200 pounds of corn per family. The families also work for the upkeep of the school; the mothers cook and the fathers farm. They make over 15,000 tortillas a day. These kids are grateful for the education. They are proud and work hard. Many of us took school supplies and made a donation for the continued success of this school. We talked about that school for days.

We visited women’s weaving and medicinal collectives in San Juan La Laguna on Lake Atitlan. These communities are thriving because the women have reclaimed their traditions and taken charge of their futures. They are fearless and beautiful, like most of the people we met in Guatemala.

This program epitomizes the power of Road Scholar: to create connections, to make the world a more intimate place, to learn by sharing and, hopefully, to have a positive impact on the places we visit and the people we meet. To be able to be the conduit through which people share stories and learn is a great responsibility. And a great honor.

Want to learn more?

Explore the colorful culture and enduring legacy of Guatemala on a Road Scholar learning adventure.


About the Author


Elena Ortiz-Junes, Senior Director of Road Scholar’s U.S. Southwest Programs, is based in Santa Fe and has been working in the educational travel industry for more than 30 years. She is a native New Mexican and member of the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo. In her spare time, she loves to cook, garden and read.

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