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Ethnic Cuisine: Guatemala

by Lou Seibert Pappas

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Guatemala is a magical destination. The heart of the Maya world -- it offers stunning scenery, intriguing archeological sites, ancient colonial cities, art, culture, a varied global cuisine, and a wealth of handicrafts for shoppers. Magnificent volcanic peaks, picturesque lakes, lush agricultural lands, scrubby desert, and rain forest thread the countryside. Besides its physical beauty, it is the incredible diversity of the land and its people that makes this country such a captivating holiday destination.

Perched at the top of the Central American Isthmus below the Yucatan Peninsula, Guatemala cover 42,000 square miles, an area comparable to Ohio and home to 9 million people. It borders Mexico to the North, El Salvador and Honduras to the South, the Pacific Ocean to the West and the Caribbean Sea and Belize to the East.

Two-thirds of the country is mountainous, with the main mountain chains in the southwest forming a string of volcanoes, many exceeding 11,000 feet.

Rainforest, bush, and swamps in the North yields timber and chewing gum. The fertile plains of the Pacific and Caribbean are used for cattle, sugar cane, cotton and fruit plantations. The economy is primarily agricultural with coffee, cotton, sugar, bananas, and beef leading exports. Corn and beans, the staple diet, are cultivated at all altitudes. Tourism is a primary money maker.

The multi-faceted populace is intriguing. More than half of the population is Indian with a strong indigenous culture, though they have adopted some European customs forced on their ancestors more than five centuries ago. All of Guatemala's Indians are Maya, but at least 22 different ethnicity's, differentiated by language, exist within that group. The other half are divided among Ladinos, the descendents of Europeans and Indians, a handful of African immigrants, and the European minority, predominantly Hispanic, which maintain a colonial lease on power. This creates a colorful human tapestry where the people are the product of the merger of sophisticated pre-Colombian cultures with Spanish colonialism and the consumerist influences of modern America.

It is in the central highlands, west of Guatemala City that Indian culture dominates. This area offers wildly beautiful scenery alongside the many Indian villages with their endless array of fiestas and markets, all worth a visit. This is a prime destination locale for the tourist.

Antigua, the old colonial capital, devastated by earthquakes but still offering superb architecture and the remains of huge churches, is an idyllic base. There are many international flights to Guatemala City and Antigua lies 45 minutes away by shuttle or private van.

From here, day trips are easily accessible to Lake Atitlan and the vast market in the town of Chichicastenango. Tikal, the most impressive of the Mayan sites, rivaling any in Latin America, is reached on one or two-day tours; most visitors prefer an overnight stay as a flight is necessary from Antigua and the weather can delay departure.

Holy Week is a prime time for a visit since Antigua offers the most elaborate and impressive pageant of processions in Central and South America, rivaling those in Seville, Spain.

History notes on Antigua: The territory of Guatemala was explored by Pedro de Alvarado on Hernan Cortes' orders and finally conquered after months of fighting the defiant Maya. As part of the colonial expansion movement, Alvarado founded the city of Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala at Iximche in 1524. This was the first European community on Guatemalan soil, and the old trades of Europe and the natural talent of the Maya made for a perfect partnership, as their creativity gave birth to the Guatemalan colonial style.

Alvarado was killed in an expedition and his young wife, Dona Beatriz, took over, yet her reign was short-lived. She was killed in a flood and a wash of rain and mud. In 1527 the capital moved to Ciudad Vieja, a valley a few kilometers from Antigua. Later it moved to Antigua. After the 1717 earthquake the city reached its peak with 70,000 inhabitants and 32 churches, 15 convents and monasteries, and 10 chapels. Antigua was again destroyed by the severe earthquake of 1773.

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