Coffee & Cardamom

While Guatemala was one of United Fruit Company's quintessential banana republics and is now most famous for its shade-grown, volcanic mountain coffee, it's also the world's principal exporter of another agricultural product -- cardamom.

Grown primarily in the Alta Verapaz mountains near Cobán, cardamom was brought to the region as a cash crop by German immigrants in the mid-20th century. Like coffee, this aromatic spice thrives in the area's cool, moist mountain climate. Today, cardamom is Guatemala's fourth-most-important cash crop behind coffee, bananas, and sugar. Small producers -- farmers with less than 4 hectares (10 acres) of land -- grow 70% of the country's cardamom crop.

Cardamom is an important ingredient in the curries and cuisine of India, where it's also believed to be a medicinal herb and an antidote for snake and scorpion venom. In Scandinavia, the spice is used to flavor bread and pastries, and across the Middle East, it's often added to coffee and thought to be a powerful aphrodisiac. In Guatemala, keep your eye out for cardamom-flavored chewing gum, chicle de cardamomo. It's sold in convenience stores and supermarkets across the country.

A Different Kind of Beauty Queen

Cobán is the site of one of Mesoamerica's greatest celebrations of Maya culture. For 2 weeks in late July and early August, the city of Cobán and other towns around Las Verapaces celebrate La Fiesta Nacional Indígena de Guatemala (National Indigenous Folkloric Festival). One of the highlights of the celebrations is the selection of Rabin Ajua, the local "queen" of the festivities, chosen from representatives of the various communities around Las Verapaces. The selection of Rabin Ajua is made on July 21, and is the centerpiece of the celebrations, which include traditional local cuisine, music, and dance.

The Underworld

The ancient Maya believed that caves were a mystical portal between the world of the living and the underworld of spirits and the dead, which they called Xibalba. From their earliest days, there is evidence that the Mayas made extensive use of caves for ritual purposes, as well as for the daily tasks of keeping dry, storing grains, and gathering water.

Guatemala's National Bird: The Resplendent Quetzal

Revered by pre-Columbian cultures throughout Central America, the resplendent quetzal has been called the most beautiful bird on earth. Ancient Aztec and Maya Indians believed that the robin-size quetzal protected them in battle. The males of this species have brilliant red breasts; iridescent emerald green heads, backs, and wings; and white tail feathers complemented by a pair of iridescent green tail feathers that are more than .5m (1 3/4 ft.) long. The females look similar, but lack the long tail feathers.

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