Guatemala, "the Heart of the Mayan world," is known internationally for its archaeological riches, for treasuring the traces of a civilization that astonished the world with its mastery of mathematics and astronomy, and for the elegant and mysterious buildings propitiously sheltered through the centuries under the protective mantle of the deep jungle.
The possibility of experiencing in-situ this confrontation between time, territory, and the history of a continent could be in itself a reason to embark on a fascinating journey through it. But, if you are an enthusiast of expeditions and adventures, a lover of contemplating natural wonders, or a restless gourmand eager for new culinary experiences, Guatemala will also become an inexhaustible source of new and unexpected encounters. To this, we could add the amiable character of Guatemalans — or Chapines, as they like to call themselves— and their predisposition for lively chatter. Above all, the magic of Guatemala lies in the transmission of popular wisdom and ancient cultural heritage that survives almost intact, inspiring locals as well as curious visitors.
My journey through Guatemala took me, after a brief initial stopover in the capital, on a multi-day tour through the department of Las Verapaces (or "Vera Paz," which in Latin means "True peace"). This mountainous region in the center of the country is administratively divided into two municipalities: Alta Verapaz, whose capital is Cobán, and Baja Verapaz, with Salamá as the main city. But before leaving Guatemala City I was introduced to the typical gastronomy of the country, a meeting of diverse flavors, spices, and cooking techniques that arises as a fusion of the rich culinary traditions of the Mayan peoples and those inherited from the various regions of the Iberian Peninsula. For those of us who come from cities with a palate so often mediated by the abuse of a few generic spices or by the daily consumption of industrialized food, typical Guatemalan cuisine offers a true feast, not only because of the diversity of its dishes but because of its parade of new flavors and previously unknown fragrances.
In the central Cayalá neighborhood —a new area whose neocolonial architecture respects the traditional spirit of the city—, the Guatemala Espectacular restaurant offers, for example, not only privileged gastronomy but a varied program of folkloric shows for the enjoyment of patrons. We were able to taste — fresh from the expert hands of Chef Renato Méndez and instructor Iliana Cifuentes — the exquisite Pepián guatemalteco. This typical stew combines chicken meat with potatoes, onions, carrots and a range of local spices as well as other traditional condiments like chile guaque, chile pasa, coriander, sesame, and green beans, all added to taste. Pepián has an intense, unique, and delicious flavor, and produces a comforting effect of satisfaction. Its preparation is usually meticulous since the spices must be previously browned in a pan (this guarantees that flavors are not mixed or lost), and then diluted in a blender before being added to the broth while it’s cooking.
Traveling from Guatemala City to Cobán, in Alta Verapaz, takes a little more than four hours by car. Far from being a tedious or exhausting trip, the tour allowed us to witness the changing beauty of the geography in the area, as well as get a glimpse at the way of life of its inhabitants. The first landscapes were composed of limestone and other colors, populated by semi-dry vegetation known as the Chaparral espinoso (thorny Chaparral), one of the seven ecosystems of Guatemala. From there, the car entered the ascending serpentines of the road to reach the most elevated zones of the Sierra de las Minas, with its impressive valleys and ravines covered in the vegetation of intense and very rare green. And so, between talks and brief stops in which we were able, in passing, to visit a natural deposit of obsidian — a sacred stone and an important cutting tool for the ancient Mayans — we arrived at the land of the Cloud Forest in the Baja Verapaz. The forest is named as such for the characteristic wet blanket of white mist that seems to surround the top of the highest hills, producing from time to time a very fine, almost imperceptible drizzle, which inhabitants have named with the pleasant onomatopoeia, chipi-chipi.
In this deep jungle, refuge lives the beautiful Quetzal — Kukul for the Mayas, or Quetzalli* in Náhuatl, which means “sacred,” “precious,” or “the one with the long tail with bright feathers” — the national bird of Guatemala. An endangered species, the Quetzal (Pharomachrus Moccino) has found in the Mario Dary Rivera Biotope — named in honor of its founder, the biologist-environmentalist and Director of the University of San Carlos — a safe habitat and an area suitably protected against the dangers of deforestation and the extinction of its vital biosphere.
This interesting ecological reserve offers not only the almost unique opportunity to see this exotic bird but also the possibility of immersing in the exuberant labyrinths of the tropical rainforest — an unforgettable experience. In this place of freshness and pure air, the flora and, in general, the work of nature, acquire an overwhelming and endearing dimension. Orchids and bromeliads abound, as well as huge tree ferns surrounded by tiny waterfalls and streams that the hill spills generously on the land. Mosses and lichens cover the rocks and the different species of trees — oaks, walnuts, cypresses — seem to intertwine infinitely and ascend towards the light, in a spontaneous choreography, impossible to decipher.
Slim trails fittingly built with natural materials take hikers from one side of the Biotope to the other. Following them, we climbed the mountain, taking well-deserved rests on the descents. Unfortunately, we could not see this beautiful bird with a long scarlet-green tail and a reddish breast, though we did manage to hear its song in the distance. The likelihood of seeing one multiply during dawn or dusk near the Aguacatillo trees — its favorite fruits — and between the months of February to May, which correspond to its reproductive stage. But inside this space of serenity and introspective amazement, we were able to perceive the thousand and one voices that populate the silences of the jungle, a privilege that is usually denied to the citizens of large cities. At a certain point, an army of cicadas began to improvise a sort of epic and masterful symphony, which increased its intensity in crescendo until it gradually dissolved into the stillness and anonymity of the jungle.
Cicara Simphony at the Quetzal Biotope Mario Dary Rivera. Recorded by Adriana Herrera.
The end of the day surprised us in Cobán — which in Q'eqchi’ means "The city in the clouds" —, where we found refuge in the rooms of La Posada de Cobán, a comfortable and picturesque hotel with colonial architecture. The hotel is located one block away from the center of Cobán, the capital of the municipality of Alta Verapaz. While we had breakfast the next day in one of the hotel's covered galleries, we were surprised by the elegance and beauty of the traditional outfit of the woman who attended us. She wore an exquisite and traditional huipil (or blouse), finely woven in white threads — the color that the city of Cobán uses for these garments— combined with a blue corte (or skirt), decorated with geometric motifs of various shades. Both pieces were handcrafted confections with a beauty and complexity of realization worthy of praise.
Huipiles vary in designs and colors according to the traditions of each region and are generally very expensive garments to produce, not only because of the materials used, but also because of the skill, patience, and meticulous work required to make them. "It is much more expensive," a friendly driver joked, "to marry a woman ‘of Corte’ than one who wears normal clothes." In Cobán, we saw women of all ages proudly wearing these traditional garments. The intense white of their beautiful huipiles contrasted, opportunely, with the copper complexion of their skins and with the jet black of their long, straight hair.
When the Spanish conquest of Guatemala began in 1524, the Mayan peoples of the Q'eqchi’ ethnic group were mainly grouped in the current municipalities of Baja and Alta Verapaz. Successive expeditions were sent by the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado (remembered for the Tóxcatl massacre in Tenochtitlán) to seize Tezulutlán, or the “land of war,” as the region was then known. These expeditions faced severe setbacks in the face of resistance from the indomitable Q'eqchi's, led, among others, by the legendary “Cacique de Caciques” or “Chief of Chiefs,” Aj Pop O 'Batz'. But the definitive colonization of the region would not come through sword and armor. Rather, it presented itself under the symbol of the cross and the gospel of the Dominicans of Fray Bartolomé de las Casas. Over the years, they managed to displace the military-conquerors to impose, in alliance with the local caciques, the Pax Dominicana or "true peace" that gives the department its name.
Many of these Mayan stories and traditions became intertwined, among many other experiences, when we visited the Grutas del Rey Marcos and met Diego Fernández and his family, a magnificent conversationalist and host, and co-owner of the Cecilinda farm in the town of San Juan Chamelco. Today, the farm is a park of natural pools and an ideal space for adventure, relaxation, and direct contact with the exuberant nature of the place. Its land is located in a small valley surrounded by green hills from which the crystalline waters of neighboring springs descend in waterfalls and streams.
When Oscar Fernández— Diego's grandfather — bought the land, his life project was agriculture, particularly the cultivation of corn and coffee. Walking one day up the side of the hill, Oscar found a medium-sized hole in the ground from which a continuous breath of very fresh air came out. "This land is not only beautiful," he jokingly commented to his son Ivan, "but it also comes with air conditioning included." Sometime later, after a long period of intense and constant rains, the walls of the hole gave way at their edges and a torrent of freshwater began to gush down the hill. The diameter of the opening was enlarged by Oscar and his assistants in 1998, having finally discovered the entrance to the cavern. Since then, three generations of the family have worked on the common cause of turning the place into a popular tourist center for the enjoyment of all.
There are many legends that circulate around the Grutas del Rey Marcos, surrounding the place with an aura of mysticism and a charisma that is difficult to evade. Caves have been bearers, through the centuries, of the worldview of the Mayan Q'eqchi’ and their deep spiritual communion with the earth and natural elements. In fact, the high areas of the farm are commonplaces of prayers in times of harvest times. In this ancient practice that survives in rural areas, villagers ask permission from the land to cultivate it and then thank it for the kindness of favors granted. These ceremonies are known as Mayejak and are also usually performed as a spiritual invocation against the spread of contagious diseases, or against droughts and famines.
But caves, especially, are essential archetypes in Mayan mythology, where they are considered as "doors to the underground world" or xibalbá (according to the Popol Vuh of the ancient Quichés) where the Lords of the Underworld live. This ancestral story, present in the substrates of collective memory, clearly feeds the legend of the grotto that an old woman from the area told Oscar Fernández on one occasion. According to her, different beings lived in the cave, capable of predicting the future and moving with the help of the stars. They were gods, said the old woman, and their king was called Marcos.
The lively conversation we had with Fernández served as a preamble for delving into the history of the cave, while La Cecilinda's hardworking Chefs — Dafne Milián, Diego's wife, and Fredy Cuc — finished preparing a delicious K'aqik, the traditional stew of the region. Unlike Pepian, K’aquik is made with turkey meat in the form of a thick broth to which local and traditional spices are added, also previously browned in the pan. The broth has different types of chiles such as pasa, huaque, and cobanero, as well as peppers and tomatoes, xamat, mint, and garlic, among others. K’aquik is usually accompanied with rice, although our table did not lack tamales and other delicious side dishes prepared with local vegetables and meats. After a short break, our hosts gave us a traditional and energizing infusion of hot cocoa — the sacred drink of the Mayans —, served in small guacales finely decorated with geometric motifs of various colors.
The Cave of King Marco is located at the top of an adjoining hill, so the ascent towards the entrance will be the first challenge that every visitor will encounter if they come from the bungalows. Being in good shape will certainly help you, although the journey can be done in small and timely stops until you reach the finish line. Once there, the park services will offer you high rubber boots and a white helmet like the one construction workers use. An underground river flows through the interior of the cave, the level of which usually varies according to the intensity of the rain, so your boots will help you to cross the water deposits that appear along the way.
The entrance passage is relatively comfortable and easy to traverse. Then it narrows like a funnel, requiring a kind of choreography — a leg and the head first, the body later — to get through. But any effort will be worth it. Once the obstacle is crossed, two wide and majestic galleries will open, divided by a river that runs restlessly towards a destination impossible to identify. In this space of amazement and contemplation at the work of nature, water and its uncontrollable path have sculpted — through the centuries — a repertoire of unusual shapes of incredible beauty. Like a jungle of inverted Gothic steeples, the stalactites seem to descend towards you, in a compact and defiant rain. Some are long, wide, and lavish in detail, like melted candle wax or cathedral pinnacles. Others are slender or very fine, and they cut through space like spearheads.
Stalagmites, on the other hand, have another appearance or perhaps, in a figurative sense, another “geological temperament.” Wide, stubby, and stable at their base, they swarm and rise like the buildings of a large city, in shapes and sizes that vary whimsically: from the tallest and most massive — therefore the oldest — to the smaller and younger ones that resemble incipient petrified bubbles on the floor of the cave. Crossing the river towards the adjoining gallery, there is a wide space whose aura and physiognomy honor its name: El Santuario, the Sanctuary. The cavern continues to other areas that, for security reasons, are closed to the public.
In recent decades, the Gruta del Rey Marcos has become a favored place for geological research and, especially, for the study of the climatic evolution of all Mesoamerica. Scientists from the University of San Carlos de Guatemala — as well as from other prestigious international centers — have visited the cave, collecting specimens that were then subjected to the most modern research techniques. One of the stalagmites studied, for example, turned out to be no less than 102 thousand years old1.
This perception of an immeasurable time that contains us but also escapes us due to its magnitude, to the limits of the imagination, is one of the sensations experienced when the guide announces that he will turn off the light for a minute, as a moment of introspection. In the dark, I could not remember the legend of King Marcos or any of the other stories. I could only listen, absorbed, to the roar of the river on its path, imagining its infinite threads or its simplest spills, carving, drop by drop, the perfect sculpture of King Marcos, a world of ocher shapes and tonalities that seems to evoke the words of Alfonso Reyes when he affirms, rescuing ancient oriental wisdom: "The spirit of life sleeps in the mineral, dreams in the vegetable, awakens in the animal, and becomes consciousness in man." The evidence of these words would accompany me in the days that followed in my journey through the land of the Q'eqchi’s. And I suspect, will never now leave me.
1 Chavarría Robles, Otto Inque: Estudio de la dinámica y evolución climática de Mesoamérica a partir del registro elemental de alta resolución espacial de estalagmitas desarrollado en las Grutas del Rey Marcos, San Juan Chamelco, Alta Verapaz. Thesis Project. Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala, 2017.