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The Western Highlands

Guatemala's Maya Heartland

North and west of Antigua, the Interamericana Highway twists around piney ridges and fuming volcanoes. These are Guatemala's western highlands—heartland of the country's Maya culture. The hillsides and valleys of this region are flecked with traditional villages and colorful market towns.

Chichicastenango is a Quiche Maya town known anciently as Chaviar. The town is situated on a ridge 87 miles northwest of Guatemala City (three hours), 67 miles from Antigua (three hours), and 23 miles from Panajachel (one hour). Each Sunday and Thursday, Chichi's central plaza fills with vendors offering handcrafts, flowers, household items and produce. Few visitors leave without a vividly embroidered huipilor a hand-carved mask.

At the southwestern corner of the plaza, worshippers at the Church of Santo Tomas blend Quiche traditions with Catholic observances. The church was constructed in 1540 atop an ancient temple platform; the syncretism is deeply embedded. Each of the 18 front steps corresponds to a month of the Maya calendar and blackened altar stones are set in the floor. Copal incense burns at the entrance and Quiche priests offer prayers to ancestors. Appreciation of Maya culture has a rich history in Chichicastenango; in 1702, the Quiche text known as the Popol Vuh was translated here by Dominican priest Francisco Ximénez.

The city of Quetzaltenango, 58 miles (2.5 hours) to the west of Chichicastenango, is a base for exploring the western highlands. Quetzaltenango, known locally as Xela, is surrounded by villages with traditional markets and colorful churches. Zunil, six miles south of Xela, holds its market on Mondays. Totonicapan's market, northeast of Xela, is held early each Tuesday and Saturday.

Guided hikes are available from Xela to three nearby volcanoes: Santa Maria, Santiaguito, and Tajumulco—the highest mountain in Central America, reaching 13,854 feet above sea level.

Mosaico Travel Services arranges private tours of the western highlands and throughout Guatemala. The best time to visit is during the December to May dry season. Call us at 801.582.2100 for more information.

"If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home."


James Michener