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Architecture

In Guatemala City, colonial buildings coexist with skyscrapers and tin-roofed slums. The Plaza Mayor, Catedral Metropolitana, and Palacio Nacional are all impressive colonial structures. You might call the architectural style of the Children's Museum "colonial" as well -- that is, if you're referring to a lunar colony. Also check out the vermilion, neo-Gothic Iglesia Yurrita in Zona 4, which tips its hat to Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí.

Antigua is a fabulously preserved colonial city, and many of its colonial-era churches and buildings have fortunately survived several major earthquakes. Those that didn't fully survive still add to the city's ageless air of grandeur. The Palacio del Noble Ayuntamiento and the ruins of the Convento de las Capuchinas are two of its many highlights.

If you're looking for Classic monumental architecture in Guatemala, you're in luck. The creative Maya masons who constructed the stone pyramids built them to last -- they've even survived the daily swarms of tourists who scamper all over them -- though it's not clear how long they can endure an existence unprotected by guide ropes.

The most famous Maya ceremonial city in Guatemala is Tikal. With more than 3,000 mapped constructions to date and a score of impressive excavations and reconstructions, a visit here gives you the sense of visiting a vibrant ancient city. Smaller architectural marvels dot the country, including giant stone stelae at Quiriguá, and new sites are being discovered and excavated all the time. Those looking to see perhaps the finest example of Classic Maya hieroglyphics should head to neighboring Honduras and the ruins at Copán, where you'll find a staircase that holds the distinction of being the longest book written in stone.

Art

Guatemalan artists range from folk artists and artisans working in a variety of forms, materials, and traditions to modern painters, sculptors, and ceramicists producing beautiful representational and abstract works.

The best-known crafts are indigenous woven tapestries and clothing. Artisans use natural dyes extracted from the clavel and heraño flowers, then mix in the crushed bodies of mosquitoes to keep the colors from running. The fabrics are woven on huge looms or simple, portable back-strap looms. Traditional dress for women includes a huipil (blouse) and corte (skirt), often fastened to the waist with a rope belt. Women often also wear a tocoyal, or headdress. These can range from pieces of cloth to long, narrow ribbons wound in a tight spiral and adorned with tassels. Highly figured and embroidered men's shirts are called trajes.

Today, Maya textiles are displayed on the walls of hotels and restaurants. They are sold on the streets of cities, villages, and in souvenir shops (where you'll find dolls dressed in typical dress, purses, and other accessories made of the beautiful work). In your search, it's well worth a visit to a bustling market, such as those found in Guatemala City, Antigua, Chichicastenango, or Santiago Atitlán.

In recent years, mass-produced machine-woven fabrics have started appearing in markets. To spot a fake, look for gold or synthetic threads woven into the cloth, and for overly neat stitching on the back.

Note: Please show respect for the Maya culture and remember that only women wear huipiles, while many of the embroidered shirts and pants are meant specifically for men. While most Maya craftspeople are more than happy to see foreigners purchase their goods, for some indigenous people, seeing gringos walking the streets in native garb can be insulting -- especially when women unknowingly wear traditional men's clothing, or vice versa. Use caution, and when in doubt, don't model your purchases in any but the most touristy towns or settings until you get home.

Other common handicrafts found in gift shops and markets across Guatemala include carved-wood masks and carved stone and jade.

Handicrafts are far from the only art in Guatemala. Mural painting is a growing form, especially works depicting emotional subjects. See the murals representing Guatemala's war-torn past and peaceful future in the church in Rabinal for an example.

If you're looking for modern art, various galleries in Guatemala City and Antigua carry a wide range of contemporary locally produced art.

The Wild, Wild World of the Huipil

The most distinctive piece of traditional clothing found in Guatemala is the female blouse known as a huipil -- a large shirt made of two rectangular pieces of heavy cloth, which are sewn together with no tailoring or shape other than a simple hole for the head (and often a slit along the centerline for breastfeeding). Huipiles are usually worn about waist length, but they are often significantly wider at the shoulders than the actual shoulders of the Maya women who wear them. Huipiles are traditionally woven on a simple back-strap loom, and feature intricate patterns and designs that may be a mix of loom technique and embroidery. These patterns and designs range from the entirely abstract to figurative, with people, animals, flowers, celestial bodies, and gods and goddesses all finding their way into the fabric of this distinctly Guatemalan art form.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the huipil is that dozens of villages have their own style of design: Nebaj in the Ixchil Triangle of villages in the Central Highlands is famous for its tight, intricate hand embroidery with figures of horses, birds, and people; the weavers from Chichicastenango embroider the neck, shoulder, and center of the chest areas with predominantly abstract designs; while those in San Lucas Toliman are known for their unique representational embroidery that resembles stick figures.

The huipil has been worn since long before the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century. However, it was the Spaniards who instituted the concept of specific village-related huipil styles to establish class and slave organizational structures. During the civil war of the last century, the army followed the conquistadors' lesson and used the huipil and other items of indigenous dress to identify people from villages thought to be sympathetic to the guerrilla cause.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.