When I come across a lawn in Guatemala, it’s a special day.* Add in Mayan ruins, and it’s even better. This weekend, along with a group of friends and our traveling dog Chispa, we drove about an hour outside of Antigua to the Mayan ruins of Iximche.
When we arrived, I was shocked by the amount of lawn that ran purposely alongside the ruins. There were quite a few Guatemalan families taking advantage of the crisp fall-like (well, fall-like for the United States, but in Guatemala it’s technically summer) weather. As a testament to the function of the ruins in modern day Guatemala, we passed an altar where smoke was still burning from a recent ritual. Like many of Guatemala’s ruins, nature is in control. There are no perfectly manicured towers or structures. Trees grow over most of the structures and you’re left to use your imagination to recreate what Iximche looked like in its glory days. Although there are a few signs, they are about what particular archeological find happened within the ruin rather than what I would find more interesting: learning about how the Kaqchiquels lived. However, it’s impressive that this space is still very much accessible to and used by the Guatemalan public.
When I visit places that have been around for hundreds of years, it’s fun to think about who’s been there before me. Iximche was founded in the 15th century by the Kaqchiquels, one of the largest indigenous Mayan groups that’s still very much present today. Iximche was then abandoned in the late 16th century shortly after the Spaniards and smallpox arrived. Have you ever wondered what Pedro de Alvarado and George W. Bush have in common? They’ve both visited Iximche (Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado visited the kingdom in the latter part of the 16th century, and former U.S. president George W. Bush visited in 2007). Again, another difference between important artifacts in the U.S. and in Guatemala: there are no handrails, you’re allowed to climb where ever you like. Even though I felt embarrassed, no one batted an eye when Chispa scaled a ruin, then peed on the top. It’s certainly a different view on how to preserve National Monuments–Can you imagine someone nonchalantly climbing atop a house in Colonial Williamsburg?
After strolling through the ruins, we decided to take a hike down a pretty treacherous hill that led to a river, and further on, a waterfall. After about a half an hour of controlled sliding, we found the small waterfall that was very thoughtfully wedged between two water-worn walls. There was no official trail head and no signage. Like most trails in Guatemala, the trail was maintained by surrounding villagers who use it for gathering firewood. It was a beautiful Sunday with many of my favorite things: good history, lots of green space, and an adventure.
*[Author's Sidenote: What is it about sprawlingly endless lawns that feels so comforting? The large part I owe to nostalgia: I spent my early childhood on an 100-acre farm, and the campus where I went to undergrad is completely shaped by its sprawling lawns and age-old trees. College to me will always be meeting my friends in-between classes on one of the campus lawns to discuss what we were learning, work on the daily crossword puzzle, throw a football, or even take a nap. Perhaps then, that's why I feel so comforted by lawns.]
Laura Stephenson is a recent environmental science graduate from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, focusing in environmental and community health. She is currently studying Spanish in Antigua, Guatemala. Laura writes the “After” Life of an Environmental Studies Student series, telling stories of the activities and endeavors of environmental science and studies students after graduation.