Guatemala's literary tradition dates back to pre-Columbian Maya civilization, when Ki'che authors wrote the holy book Popol Vuh. The book traces the history of the Ki'che people beginning with their creation myth, linking the royal family with the gods in order to reaffirm its legitimacy. The book's exact age is unknown; the Spanish first recorded its existence in Chichicastenango in 1701. In 1972, the Popul Vuh was declared Guatemala's National Book. Several good translations into English exist, including Dennis Tedlock's Popol Vuh: The Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings (Touchstone Press, 1996) and Allen J. Christenson's Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Mayas (O Books, 2004).

Apart from the Popol Vuh, Guatemala's most famous literary works come from the Nobel Prize-winning poet, playwright, and ambassador Miguel Angel Asturias. Considered one of the fathers of magical realism, Asturias authored such works as El Señor Presidente (1946), Viento Fuerte (1950), and Hombres de Maíz (1967). In Men of Maize (Hombres de Maíz; University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995), which appears in translation, Asturias manages to integrate Guatemalan history, Maya mythology, and everyday life into a challenging and riveting prose style. Asturias's The President (El Presidente; Waveland Press, 1997) is also a very worthwhile read. A cultural center in Guatemala City bearing his name is home to chamber and open-air theaters, as well as a military museum and small art gallery. The Miguel Angel Asturias Cultural Center (tel. 502/2232-4041) is located at 24 Calle 3-81, Zona 1.

Probably the most internationally famous book to come out of Guatemala is I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala (Verso, 1987), originally published in Spanish as Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia, an oral history of Menchú's revolutionary activities transcribed by the French anthropologist Elisabeth Burgos-Debray. This book and Menchú's subsequent efforts to draw international attention to the atrocities of the Guatemalan military regime won her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, a fitting honor on the 500th anniversary of Columbus's first transatlantic voyage.

Years later, Middlebury College anthropologist David Stoll stirred international controversy when he published Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans (HarperCollins, 2000), which exposed inconsistencies in Menchú's story. Most pointedly, Stoll considers it unlikely that Menchú could have played a substantial leadership role in a peasant movement given the rigid patriarchy of that society. Menchú has since asserted that some events in the story were invented or embellished by the transcriber, Burgos-Debray. While the Nobel Committee and the international community as a whole have maintained their support for Menchú, you might want to pick up a copy of Stoll's book if only to get a murkier moral picture of that time of war.

Other Guatemalan authors to look out for, both in Spanish and occasionally in translation, include the wonderful short story writer Augusto Monterroso, as well as the poets Luis Cardoza y Arragon, Otto Rene Castillo, and Humberto Ak'Abal.

I find reading books about specific periods of Guatemalan history more enriching than a broad overview, but if you're looking for a sweeping narrative, try Greg Grandin's The Blood of Guatemala: A History of Race and Nation (Duke University Press, 2000).

For the strong of stomach, the Archdiocese of Guatemala's official report on the human rights abuses of the civil war, abridged and translated into English as Guatemala: Never Again! (Orbis Books, 1999), is a powerful history. The report was explosive: Days after delivering it, Bishop Juan Gerardi was bludgeoned to death in his own garage in Guatemala City. It's filled with vivid analysis and testimonials from victims, blaming 80% of the atrocities on the Guatemalan military.

While guided tours and pamphlets available at Maya ruins provide a fair amount of information, those truly seeking an in-depth look at the ancient civilization will want to have some more detailed reference material handy when visiting the many ruins in Guatemala. The Maya (Thames and Hudson, 2005), by Michael D. Coe, is a good primer on the history of this advanced and enigmatic culture. However, I find A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya (Harper Perennial, 1992) by David Freidel and Linda Schele to be a better read, which gives a better feel for what life was like in the Maya world. To delve into the intricacy and reasoning behind the Maya aesthetic legacy, check out Mary Ellen Miller's book, Maya Art and Architecture (Thames and Hudson, 1999).

There are a host of excellent books specifically about Tikal. Tikal: An Illustrated History of the Ancient Maya Capital, by John Montgomery (Hippocrene Books, 2001), is a good place to start. The Lords of Tikal: Rulers of an Ancient Maya City, by Peter D. Harrison and others (Thames & Hudson, 2000), is a similar option. Although it's out of print, you might want to try to find a copy of Tikal: Handbook of the Ancient Maya Ruins, by William R. Coe, written under the auspices of the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania. Archaeologists from the university, working in conjunction with Guatemalan officials, did most of the excellent excavation work at Tikal from 1956 to 1969. Birders will want to have a copy of The Birds of Tikal: An Annotated Checklist by Randall A. Beavers (Texas A&M University Press, 1992), or The Birds of Tikal by Frank B. Smithe (Natural History Press, 1966). The latter three books are hard to find, but you should be able to order used copies in the United States, and you can usually find copies of all of these in Flores or at Tikal.

Immensely popular in its day was Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (Volumes 1 and 2, originally published in 1841), a collection of descriptions of Maya sites by the American explorer and diplomat John Lloyd Stephens, featuring the illustrations of artist Frederick Catherwood. If you're looking for more contemporary works on the more contemporary Maya, Scandals in the House of Birds (Marsillo, 1997) by Nathaniel Tarn is a highly regarded, highly poetic ethnography of the Tz'utujil in Santiago de Atitlán.

If you're bringing along the little ones, or even if you're leaving them behind but want to share a bit of Maya culture with them, look for Pat Mora's beautifully illustrated book The Night the Moon Fell: a Maya Myth (Groundwood Books, 2000). Another option is Guatemala ABCs (Picture Window Books, 2003) by Marcie Aboff, which is a cultural and historical primer written and illustrated for young children. Or, for a handy little picture book filled with photographs of Maya daily life, check out Hands of the Maya: Villagers at Work and Play by Rachel Crandell (Henry Holt & Company, 2002).


In Guatemalan folk culture, both mestizo and Maya, the marimba is king. Mestizo forms reflect their Spanish roots with marimba bands and Spanish-language folk songs influenced by the mariachi and ranchero traditions. Maya music may also prominently feature flute and drum, as with the Ki'che and Cakchiquel, or violins and harps, as with the Kekchi.

If you're taken by the marimba and the sounds of traditional Guatemalan music, you can find a good selection of compilation discs at online music shops. I'd avoid the various vendors selling bootleg cassettes and CDs on the side of the road in Guatemala, since the quality can be sketchy, and the artists don't receive a dime. If you see a group you like while touring Guatemala, it is increasingly likely, though far from certain, that they will have a recording for sale.

Among the Garífuna along the Caribbean coast, you'll likely come across punta and punta rock. Punta is similar to many Afro-Caribbean and Afro-pop music forms, blending traditional rhythms and drumming patterns with modern electronic instruments. (Punta is usually more rootsy and acoustic than punta rock, which features electric guitars and keyboards.) Punta music is usually sung in the Garífuna dialect, though the latest incarnations feature lyrics in English and even Spanish. The Belize-based and offer a good selection of punta records.

My favorite contemporary Guatemalan musician is Ricardo Arjona, a rocking songster and lyricist of the first order. Songs such as "Ella y El" ("She and He") and "Si el Norte Fuera el Sur" ("If North Were South") are smart works of social and political satire with very catchy melodies. Check out Arjona's 12 Grandes Exitos (12 Greatest Hits, 2003) album. For a taste of quintessential '80s Guatemalan rock, look no further than the group Alux Nahual ( and their self-titled 1981 debut. Subsequent albums and tours helped establish the band as one of Guatemala's most famous and musically talented. The group officially broke up in 1999, but regrouped in 2006 to perform a benefit for victims of Hurricane Stan, and are currently doing sporadic performances and tours once again.

Discothèques still spin salsa and merengue, though reggaetón is starting to dominate. Reggaetón is a combination of hip-hop and Jamaican dance-hall reggae, whose firmest roots are in Panama, though the music was popularized in Puerto Rico. In tourist towns, you'll find a budding electronic music and DJ-driven dance scene.

On Screen

The Guatemalan film industry is still in its infancy. However, the country has had subtle appearances in mainstream American productions. If you need an excuse to watch Star Wars (Episode IV) again, look for Tikal in a cameo role as the Rebel Base (the "Massassi Outpost on the fourth moon of Yavin," for die-hard fans) toward the end of the movie. The 11th season of Survivor was also filmed at the Maya ruins of Yaxhá, and the tribes were named after ancient ceremonial cities. More recently, Looking for Palladin (2008), featuring Ben Gazzara and Talia Shire, was shot on location in Antigua. While going back a bit in time, The New Adventures of Tarzan (1935) was filmed in the rainforests of Guatemala, with the fabulous Atlantic coast waterfalls of Siete Altares playing a feature role.

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