A millennium of Maya civilization, 3 centuries of Spanish colonial rule, and almost 4 decades of guerrilla war have left Guatemala's economy, politics, crafts, architecture, languages, and religions with one common trait: profound variety. Home to some 13 million people, Guatemala is by far the most populous country in Central America, and its residents are extremely diverse. Roughly a decade after the end of a long and brutal civil war, Guatemala is still writing its own history at a dizzying pace. The country seems poised between following a rising path to prosperity, democracy, and justice, and taking a precipitous fall into crime, chaos, and continued impunity.

The Maya Calendar

While the standard Gregorian calendar is now in general use throughout Guatemala, some Maya communities and elders still rely on the ancient way of tracking time. In the Maya Calendar, each day has a hieroglyphic representation composed of numbers and pictographs, many of which can by found on stelae at most ancient Maya sites.

The Maya Calendar is actually a system of several calendars that can be combined in a number of sophisticated ways. The calendars and their accurate astronomical calculations predicting the cycles of the sun, moon, and Venus indicate the Maya had knowledge of mathematics and astronomy that was unknown to their old-world contemporaries.

The three main Maya calendar systems are known as the Tzolkin, Haab, and Long Count systems.

The Tzolkin calendar has 260 days, arrived at by multiplying 20 by 13. The numerical system was founded on a base 20 system (as opposed to our own base 10 system). Some think this came from the number of human fingers and toes, and that 13 symbolized the number of levels in the Upper World, where the gods lived. Another theory is that 260 days came from the approximate length of human pregnancy, and that midwives developed the calendar to coordinate with expected births. The Maya believed that each day of the Tzolkin had a character that influenced events. A priest read the calendar to predict a baby's future, and children were often named according to the day they were born.

The Haab was the Maya solar calendar made up of 18 months of 20 days each, plus a period of 5 unnamed days at the end of the year known as the Wayeb, which add up to a 365-day cycle. It was thought that if an event occurred one day during a specific Haab cycle, a similar event was likely to occur on that same day in the next Haab cycle.

The Long Count Calendar was used primarily by the priests and royalty. It tracked longer periods of time, and was based on the number of days since a mythical starting point (Aug 11, 3114 B.C.). The Long Count Calendar can be used to describe any date in the future.

In yet another layer of complexity, the Tzolkin combines with the Haab to form a synchronized cycle of 52 years, called the Calendar Round.

According to the Popol Vuh, the sacred Maya book of creation myths and predictions, we now live in the fourth world, the gods having failed in their first three creation attempts. It is believed that this age will end on December 21, 2012. While some New Age analysts have dire predictions for the date, more optimistic prognosticators foresee a day of positive human evolution. Hotels around Tikal and other major Maya ceremonial sites are already booking up for this date.

The Maya Calendar was so accurate it was adopted by other Mesoamerican societies, including the Aztecs and Toltecs.

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.