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Cultural travel in Latin America
Getting to know the indigenous cultures of Guatemala, Panama & beyond
Something that too few people know about me is that I have a great affinity for indigenous cultures around the world. It probably goes back to poring over my parents’ National Geographic magazines when I was young. Regardless of how the passion arose, it’s what initially brought me to Papua New Guinea. It’s what makes the Amazon Rainforest of Brazil amongst my top wish-list destinations. And it’s what makes my heart race when I think of travel to Central America.
I’ve been to and through this area several times. It’s a part of the world rich in culture, for sure. But as I daydream about returning, I find myself most attracted to just a few places: Guatemala, Panama, and southern Mexico.
I’m delighted that Expedia has partnered with Avianca airlines to highlight travel across Latin America. These folks make getting to wish-list destinations like these that much more possible.
Though nearly all Guatemalans are descendants of indigenous groups, it’s believed 40 percent of the population is considered fully indigenous. In other words, they are direct descendants of the Maya. Pretty much wherever you go in Guatemala, you see this ancient culture looking back at you. The Mayan culture dates back to 1800 BC, and this lengthy heritage is etched on the face of nearly every resident.
Woman at Chichicastenango market
The K’iche’ people are the largest indigenous population with nearly 2.5 million people, most living in Guatemala’s highlands. It was in the mountainous area of Chichicastenango (or “Chichi”) where I first became entranced by the K’iche’. I visited the traditional market in Chichi, where each Thursday and Saturday vendors set up stalls to sell handicrafts, hand-woven clothes, souvenirs, livestock, incense, and much more. This is arguably the most visually festive market you’ll see anywhere in the world. With so much vibrancy, it’s easy to see why I would be so taken in.
You can get to Chichi via bus after flying into Guatemala City, about 90 miles away.
San Blas Islands, Panama
I knew very little about Panama when I first visited. My initial impression was surprised delight. Though Spanish is the official language, many of the people I met spoke English, and transactions are done in U.S. dollars. For a non-Spanish-speaking gringa, it was easy for me to slip into the country and feel pretty comfortable.
Unfortunately, my time there was brief and I only visited the western mountain region—known for its gourmet coffee beans—and Panama City.
When (not if) I go back, it’s going to be to visit the Kuna Indians of the San Blas Islands, located off the northern coast of the country. The women there are known for their molas—intricately woven, brightly colored panels of textile worn on the front and back of their blouses. Being adept at creating a fine mola is a status symbol for the Kuna women. Though these can be purchased in other parts of Panama, I want to go right to the source!
The San Blas Islands are just off the beaten path enough that they aren’t too touristed. After flying into Panama City, you can get there via a relatively easy day’s journey in a 4×4 Jeep and then a short water-taxi ride.
Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
The state of Chiapas is located in southern Mexico. It’s home to approximately 13.5 percent of Mexico’s indigenous population, which is one of the largest indigenous groups in the country. Many from this large population speak only their native language (which descends from Mayan).
My favorite city in Chiapas is San Cristóbal de las Casas. As southern Mexico goes, it is one of the more developed areas in terms of tourism—attracting people for both its colonial architecture and its indigenous communities.
Despite its popularity, getting to San Cristóbal de las Casas can be an adventure unto itself. Like Chichi, it’s relatively remote and there are no direct flights into the city.
These indigenous populations have remained relatively intact because of their isolation from the rest of the population in their countries and their resistance to assimilate.
Viewfinder Tip: Booking with Avianca means you’ll be in excellent hands, as they have been recognized six times as the “Best Airline in Central America.”
In Guatemala and Chiapas, the Indians live primarily in the mountainous regions away from the broader population. In Panama, it’s water that separates the Kunas from the rest of the country. In all of these cases, isolation has helped the indigenous populations maintain their language and culture to a large degree.
That same isolation not only preserves the local culture, but also keeps away most of the mainstream tourist hoard. In other words, there are still plenty of places to discover in Latin America. Luckily, Avianca makes it easier to get to these destinations, as they have flights from major hubs in North America to locations throughout Central and South America. You can connect with Avianca via Twitter and Facebook.
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