Where Maya and missionary influences meet in Guatemala

An entire civilization dissolved into the sweltering Central American jungles about a thousand years ago. Superb engineers and mathematicians; artisans and historians; warriors and bureaucrats – all of them gone. The sophistication of their culture can be seen today in the pyramids and lesser ruins the Maya left behind throughout Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, and in the Central American countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Belize.

What happened still remains a mystery. >>

Guatemala particularly holds a special position in the Mundo Mayan. In the northern high plateau anthropologists have discovered what may be the largest pre-Columbian settlement in all of the Americas. Called Il Mirador (“The Lookout”), for its size and height, this temple complex served as the inspiration for Mel Gibson’s savage film, Apocalypto. Hollywood imaginings aside, few dispute Guatemala’s status as the “Cradle of Mayan Civilization.”

By the time Hernan Cortés and his conquistadores rampaged through this region in the 16th century, one of the last remaining active centers of Mayan culture was at Guatemala’s tiny Isla de Flores (“The Island of Flowers”). When the Spaniards arrived, the Maya had been flourishing in and around Petén de Itzá (“The Island of the Itza”) for centuries. But it took only a few decades to subjugate the entire region. In fact, the cobblestone streets, the colorful, quaint homes, hotels and eateries that now occupy Isla de Flores are built on top of the bones of Mayan structures.

Almost as soon as Spain had sailed her soldiers to the New World in search of gold and precious stones, the Vatican began sending missionaries. It worked well. From Mexico to the tip of South America, the church estimates that there are now one-half billion believers.

It was no surprise then that on the eastern corner of Flores’ central plaza, I noticed a celebration occurring in a church bearing distinctive Spanish colonial architectural accents. There was rejoicing over what the congregation believed to be a miracle of faith. I moved up next to a young Guatemalan woman standing at the foot of an eight-foot long crucifix of the Christ figure.

“Lo siento, señorita,” I whispered, apologizing for disturbing her reflection. “Pero, que pasa aqui?” I then asked her, interested in knowing what was going on.

“It is the celebration of the Jesas Negro,” she said quietly in Spanish.

The cross had been taken down from its vertical display and was laid outstretched on its back, his feet facing toward a long line of supplicants. Each one waited patiently. The Guatemalan woman spoke with reverence, giving each word its own space as if they were words in a psalm.

She explained to me that some years ago, a cathedral near Flores had burned to the ground. Perhaps a lesser miracle was that no one was killed in the blaze. But according to the woman, there was one more miracle that day:

“After the fire, the church had burned to the ground … but not the crucifix of the Jesús. It was only charred black,” she said.

My personal experience with the properties of heat and wood was mainly in the context of cooking over campfires. Given that, I confess, her story gave me pause for reflection.

I took a moment and looked up to admire the majestic colors glowing through panels of stained glass high above the altar in the main vestibule. When my eyes returned from the heights, I studied an elderly Mayan woman cradling a votive candle in the cup of her hands. It was an odd image. In another time and place, I imagined her worshiping at some ancient Mayan temple gazing in awe at a Mayan high priest holding a beating human heart toward the shimmering sun. I preferred the flickering light of a candle.

You never realize how your definition of the term “luxury” can shift depending upon the circumstances. After trekking about in the steamy, mosquito filled Guatemalan jungles in search of 1,000-year-old Mayan temples, the quaint little hotels and eateries on Flores begin to feel like the Ritz. Many have rooms that overlook the lake, and there is nothing better than sipping on an ice-cold Gallo beer after facing the sweltering heat of the midday sun.

In the end, I felt that tiny Isla de Flores and the wonders of the Mayan world were miracles in and of themselves.

For more information on planning a trip to Isla de Flores, visit www.visitguatemala.com.