Best Cultural Experiences Of Central America
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Intrigued by Central America's culture? The bridge that connects North & South America, Central America is comprised of seven countries. BCD offers you in-depth reporting on two of those: Belize and Guatemala, neighbors that are bordered by Mexico on the north, and El Salvador and Honduras to the south. Let BCD give you the bird's-eye-view of these two countries, below which you will find a collection of in-depth articles and interviews profiling people to meet and places to go--insights worth planning your trip around!
Maya civilization once flourished in what today is Belize and Guatemala, and the countries are rich with impressive Mayan sites. Deep in the Guatemalan jungle are the mysterious ancient ruins of Tikal, one of the major sites of the Mayan civilization, which was a thriving metropolis from the 6th century B.C. to the 10th century A.D. Tikal, which encompasses more than 3,000 buildings, is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage property for both its cultural significance and biodiversity. Belize features smaller but equally fascinating sites: Caracol and Xunantunich are in the western part of the country near the Guatemalan border, and Lamanai , which is further north.
Despite being a tiny country roughly the size of Wales or the state of Massachusetts, Belize has incredible diversity. Its environmental breadth spans a barrier reef with more than islands or "cayes" along its Caribbean coastline--named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996--to dense jungles of the Cayo District in the west, and the foothills of the Maya Mountains in the south.
Belize's people are equally diverse, encompassing the Yucatec, Mopan and Q'eqchi' Maya; Creoles, descendants of the "Baymen," pirates who were the earliest European settlers, and African slaves brought to Belize by the British in the 18th century; the Garinagu, of West African and the indigenous Carib heritage; Mestizos, people of mixed Spanish and Maya descent who came to Belize to escape the Yucatan's Caste War in the mid-19th century; and German-speaking Mennonite farmers and craftsmen who came from the U.S. and Canada in the 1960s. Belize's folk legends, cuisine, music and spiritual practices each reflect the country's multi-faceted
To explore Guatemala's history and contemporary culture more fully, BCD recommends visiting Antigua, Lake Atitlan and the village of San Juan Comalapa.
The small city of Antigua in the central highlands of Guatemala is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Antigua is famous largely because of its exquisite Spanish Baroque architecture, dramatically set against the peaks of three volcanoes that surround the city. Explore gorgeous period pieces like the Santo Domingo Monastery (now a hotel), La Merced Church, and the evocative ruins of La Recoleccion. Browse through the renown Nim Po't market, home of the world’s largest retail Maya textiles collection. Make excursions to communities just outside the city to meet some of these artisans and learn about their weaving techniques.
Lake Atitlan is 31 miles northwest of Antigua but worlds away. The 1,000-foot deep lake is surrounded by three volcanoes and villages of Tz'utujil and Kaqchikel Mayans, who have an array of rich cultural traditions. Visit Casa de Mascaras, where ornate masks are carved that are worn during performances of the 'Conquest Dance.' Make the trek to Chichicastenango or "Chi Chi" two hours away in the Highlands, where the twice-weekly market offers a bonanza of Mayan artistry and creativity.
For immersion in a different cultural genre, visit San Juan Comalapa, about an hour north of Antigua in Guatemala's western highlands, renown as a community of painters. With a total population of about 40,000, there are more than 500 residents who wield a brush, producing their own brand of "naive" art. Visitors can meet the town's most well-known painter today, Oscar Peren, and the up-and-coming Dilia España, both of Kaqchikel Mayan heritage.