The group was amazing and led with their hearts. The ancient sights took my breath away and left me in wonderment.
Marjorie B. - 2009 Shapeshifting pilgrimage


Mother and child walk along a colorful street in Antigua

Antigua may be the most outstanding and best-preserved colonial city in Spanish America with its natural beauty and historic monuments. The Spanish Colonial style permeates every part of the town: its houses, churches, squares, parks and ruins, also its traditions and folklore as well. Antigua sits in a small valley surrounded by towering volcanoes, which are clearly visible over the red tile roofs and church bell towers that dominate the small city's skyline.

Sited in the Panchoy Valley, Antigua was designated "La Muy Noble y Muy Leal Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala" (the Very Noble and Very Loyal City of Santiago of the Knights of Guatemala) by the conquistadors in 1543 and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The festival of the town's saint (Santiago or St James: Patron saint of the conquistadors) is celebrated July 25th. After the conquest of the Maya by the Spanish, the races intermingled and their customs and traditions gave rise to a singular form of life, art and culture that is today reflected in every aspect of Antigua.


Seen from within the sanctuary atop Temple II, Temple I stands against a stormy sky background. Archaeologists found within it the rich tomb of the eighth century king Jasaw Chan K'awiil (also known as Ah Cacao or "Lord Chocolate"), although it is still unclear whether the building was originally conceived as a funerary monument or whether its use as such was an afterthought. The harmonious proportions of this temple have made it something of a symbol in present-day Guatemala, where it graces, among other things, the half-quetzal bank note. Photo and text courtsey of www.mesoweb.com

One of the most famous and beautiful of Maya sites, Tikal's massive and steep pyramids (one is over 200 feet high) loom above the lush jungle of the Petan where one can observe spider and howler monkeys and numerous bird species such as toucans, parrots and macaws. At its peak Tikal was home to an estimated 100,000 people and the site has over 3,000 structures within a six square mile area. Well preserved glyphic texts tell of a dynamic historical record spanning over 1,000 years, including a very old long-count inscription date of 292 BCE.

Tikal is the largest of the ancient ruined cities of the Mayan civilization. Now part of Guatemala's Tikal National Park, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Watch this YouTube video of Tikal.


Chichicastenango is located two to three hours northwest from Guatemala City and lies just north of Lake Atitlan in the Department of El Quiché. The center of life in Chichicastenango is the Church of Santo Tomás where you will see practiced the mixture of Catholic and indigenous Maya religious beliefs. Most of the inhabitants of Chichicastenango are indigenous Maya called Maxeños. The church is built atop a Pre-Columbian platform, and the steps led originally to a temple of the pre-Hispanic Maya civilization. Shamans still use it for their rituals, burning incense and candles and in special cases a chicken for the gods. Each of the stairs that lead up to the church represent one month of the Mayan calendar year.

Shamans on the steps of Santo Tomás church doing a cleansing/smudging ritual
photo by Betty Roth, from 2009 Shapeshifting group

Just a few minutes walk from the church of Santo Tomás in the center of Chichicastenango there is a wooded hill and atop this hill is an ancient rock [abaj] with a carved face known all over Guatemala as Pascual Abaj. Daily there are Maya priests and priestesses performing ceremonies there. People come for all sorts of things: to bless a marriage, to pray for a good harvest or to give thanks for a good harvest, or to remedy a problem such as preventing thieves from stealing their corn. The rites are conducted by the aj'itz (Maya priests).

Chichicastenango, where the beautiful colors of the Maya people of Guatemala are most visable, is home to what is surely the most colorful native market in North and Central America, perhaps in all the Americas. Market days are Sundays and Thursdays, and draw not only the K'iche' Maya of the surrounding region, but vendors from all over Guatemala, representing many of Guatemala's linguistic groups such as Mam, Ixil, Kaqchikel and others, each hawking his or her products in a riotous cacophony of color, dialects and costumes, smoke, and smells. In Chichi one can see traje, that is, beautiful traditional native costumes, from all over Guatemala. Those knowledgeable of the textiles can tell where the wearers are from, because many of the costumes are village-specific or group-specific. The Market spills down the steps of the church of Santo Tomas


English novelist Aldous Huxley described Atitlan as, “the most beautiful lake in the world.”

Lake Atitlan takes its name from the Mayan word, “atitlan”, which translates to, “the place where the rainbow gets its colors”. Although the bottom of Lake Atitlan has yet to be completely sounded for depth, it is commonly recognized as the deepest lake in all of Central America, with a known maximum depth of 1,115 feet. Volcanic in origin, the surface of Lake Atitlan Guatemala is approximately 5,125 feet above sea level, and the lake measures around 12 miles long and anywhere from 4.4 to 7.5 miles wide. It is framed by the Atitlan, Toliman and San Pedro volcanoes.

The small Mayan villages that lay along the lake shore give insight into Mayan culture. The K’iche’, Tz’utujil and Kaqchikels are the predominant Maya ethnic groups that provide an explosion of color appreciated in their textiles, crafts, artworks, and way of life.

When the Spanish Conquistadores arrived in America, one of their main drives was to eliminate the native religions; The Mayan concepts of life and death were just too outrageous for them to understand. However, the Mayan religion managed to survive, hidden under the traditions of the Catholic Church. In the lakeside town of Santiago Atitlan, the yearly cycle of rituals is still followed, part of the Mayan concept; that humans have their place and duty in the greater scheme of things and, in order to ensure that the sun is going to cross the sky and the seasons are going to change, it is necessary that the humans do their part.

Santiago Atitlan

Maximom, photo by X. Luz

We will take a scenic boat ride across the lake, passing by the three impressive volcanoes of Toliman, Atitlan and San Pedro. Upon arrival in Santiago, we will walk with our guide to find the house where the Maya God Maximon is living. Each year a different “brotherhood” has the privilege of taking care of their God, so his location changes. Once with Maximon, you may see local shamans performing rituals for local people.


Mayan priest at Iximche

Ixim'ché ("tree of corn") was founded as the capital of the Kaqchiqueles kingdom, which ended with the Spanish conquest in 1524. Trees were still growing from the platforms when Swiss-Guatemalan archaeologist Jorge Guillemin arrived in 1960. With 12 years of excavation, Iximché’s plazas reemerged in all their sun-baked glory; to this day, however, some ruins remain partially covered.

Iximché's significance is derived from its role as a field for different kinds of social and religious interactions. Traces of a spiritual relationship to this place inspire today's Maya from all over Guatemala go there to perform ceremonies and one may find residues of panela sugar and other items sacrificed on the altar at Iximché’s south end. Iximche has also become a focal point of identity constructions for locals, Pan Mayan activists and the nation itself and in March 2007 was the site of the III Continental Summit of Indigenous Peoples and Nationalities of Abya Yala.

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