Exploring 2,500 Years of Architectural Heritage in Guatemala
While we love highlighting the communities of the Adirondack region, which is at the core of AARCH’s mission, we also celebrate other places throughout the world and the rich architectural heritage that has shaped them. What began with our first trip to Cuba in 2016 has become an AARCH tradition – to expand our understanding of architectural history by exploring places around the world. When we travel abroad and experience new ways of thinking, we return home with a better idea of who we are and where we come from.
Our recent trip to Guatemala in March highlighted the importance of these international relationships. Our guides at Antigua Tours by Elizabeth Bell (including Elizabeth Bell herself) were extremely welcoming, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic about introducing us to Guatemala’s history and culture. We can’t speak for everyone on the trip, but we were blown away by how much ground (literal and figural) that we were able to cover in 10 days! We learned so much about the people and history of Guatemala in a manner that wasn’t rushed and held space for nuance.
We began our trip in the Spanish colonial city of Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage Site nestled in a valley ringed by three volcanoes. On walking tours around the 12-by-12 block city, we learned about its history as the colonial capital from its founding in 1543 until extensive earthquake damage in 1773 led to the capital’s relocation to Guatemala City. Our guide, Elizabeth Bell, pointed out that although much of Antigua’s colonial architecture followed European (primarily Italian Renaissance) designs, it was built by local tradespeople and adopted some local building techniques. For example, Italian and Spanish architectural styles had to be adapted to withstand Guatemala’s frequent earthquakes, which led to lower, squatter buildings with thicker walls. With the exception of extreme disasters, this was a sound practice that has left nearly five centuries of architectural fabric in Antigua.
As we explored the city, we got to see a number of preservation projects in various phases, most of which were churches. The conservation philosophy in Antigua is to preserve the buildings as they are, stabilizing the structures through the least invasive means necessary without attempting to restore them to their original state. Where elements must be reconstructed, workers use period-appropriate materials, but in a way that clearly differentiates new work from the original. In many cases, this looks like simple brickwork without the decorative stone or plaster finishes present in the original building fabric (think column capitals and sculptural elements). It is always exciting to see preservation practices around the world and compare international methodologies to those in the United States.
Another highlight of our time in Antigua was witnessing the creation of sawdust and flower carpets before a Lenten procession. In Guatemala, processions are held each Sunday of Lent, culminating in Holy Week, which is now on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Carpet-making begins the day of the procession and is often finished only moments before it passes through, disturbing the transient creations. There is no spirit of competition in carpet-making – it is a community activity that brings family, friends, and neighbors together.
From Antigua, we headed up to the highlands of Lake Atitlán, where we encountered a more rural side of Guatemala. In particular, we learned about the ways in which Maya culture is very much alive in Guatemala. From our base in Panajachel, we traveled across the lake to the villages of Santiago Atitlán and San Juan la Laguna, where we visited artisans’ shops and walked through the villages. In this region, we saw more people wearing traditional Maya dress and observed the fusion of Maya and Christian rituals in local churches. Local artisans showed us how they keep traditional practices alive, such as weaving, embroidery, and chocolate-making. As we left the region, we stopped in Chichicastenango, one of the largest and oldest indigenous markets in the Americas. Locals and tourists alike visit the market, which sells everything from produce and meat to handcrafted garments and homewares.
Of course, we could not go to Guatemala without experiencing some of the country’s striking Maya archaeological sites. We visited Iximché, Tikal, and Uaxactun, which showed us a broad cross-section of Maya history. Not only did we learn about the daily life and traditions at these sites, we also learned how they developed in relation to their geography and other cultures. For instance, Iximché was built on an easily defensible plateau, Olmec influences are visible in early structures at Uaxactun, and Tikal became closely linked to Teotihuacan in modern-day Mexico. Though only a fraction of the structures at these sites have been reclaimed from nature (which can swallow them back up in as little as two years), they so clearly demonstrate the inextricable link between people and place. One can only imagine what life was like living in the shadows of these massive monuments.
There’s nothing quite like a new place to put more familiar places in perspective. As in Guatemala, the Adirondacks are a product of the landscape and the mingling influences of various cultures, and of course, the region’s architecture reflects this. AARCH’s trip to Guatemala exposed us to different traditions, climates, and ways of life, all of which have shaped the built environment there. We connected with many warm and welcoming people in Guatemala, who generously answered questions and shared their culture with us. Connections like these are especially poignant after the isolation of the pandemic and illustrate the ways in which people bring places to life. We are so grateful to our superb guides and everyone who traveled with us, and we look forward to exploring more stories of places around the world!
- Most Maya structures did not have windows, they only had doorways and openings for ventilation (often too high/small to see out of). Scholars suggest that this may have been for increased privacy and insulation.
- There are 33 types of Maya bees, which are native to Central America. They are smaller than the European bees we have in the United States and bite, but don’t sting. They also produce a wide range of honeys with unique health benefits and flavors.
- A scene from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope was filmed at Tikal. The scene was shot looking out over the jungle from Temple IV, which was built in 741 CE.