Culture North America

The Colours of Guatemala

Guatemala is such a diverse country: one where mountains, lakes and forests vie with ancient towns and villages, where history ancient and modern, exists side by side. It is, most of all, filled with colour as Jackie Marriott discovered.

Lake Atitlan, with its surrounding volcanoes, and Lake Peten Itza standing within the rain forests, change colour with the mood of the day. Within green forests, macaws, parrots and toucans of red and blue and yellow and green fly amongst the trees. The ladies of the villages around Lake Atitlan weave materials of the most intricate patterns in rainbow hues, the colour and style of dress and hair adornments denoting the town or village from which they come.

Markets and Chicken Buses

The local markets bustle with noise and smell and heat, selling fruits and vegetables, materials and other every day requirements such as flour sieves, a reminder if needed, that these markets are a necessary part of Guatemalan life.

Guatemala market

In the towns are the ‘chicken buses’, so-called because when they were introduced, people would board them complete with their produce or livestock – including chickens and goats. These buses, too, are brightly painted, with different colours for different routes.

In the UNESCO world heritage city of Antigua churches are decorated as if by Wedgewood; homes and buildings in shades of pink, yellow and blue. And everywhere were cemeteries recently lovingly painted and decorated for 1 November, the Day of the Dead.

Civil War memories

In the country cemeteries are reminders of the long Civil War, which only ended in 1996. There are images of war on the memorials, now fading with time, and the tombs of victims of massacres; the same date on each bearing sad and silent witness. The memories of these events are scarcely fading with time. This turmoil is still bitter in the hearts of many. After an earthquake a few years ago, a number of villages refused to allow the army in to help, preferring to wait days until the Red Cross could get through. However, in the aftermath of an earthquake which occurred whilst I was there (November 2012) the army, and the help it was bringing, was much in evidence. Perhaps attitudes are beginning to soften now, and trust returning.


Mayan temples rise above the jungle, awe-inspiring in their majesty, impressive in their art. But the Maya in Guatemala are not history. Many villages are 99%, or even 100%, of Mayan descendants and their religion and rituals still continue; although in places Catholicism and Maya intertwine. Mayan priests are allowed to celebrate within the atria of the churches and sometimes there are carvings of Mayan gods on internal walls. Those of Maya descent have free access to the archaeological sites in order to practice their religion and the smoke of fires carrying their prayers and offerings to the sky were present everywhere, in the Mayan historical sites, in the towns and churches, in the cemeteries. The Maya are alive and well.

Stunning vistas

Sadly, illiteracy is a huge problem – depending on the source ranging between 23% and 40%, with only 1% of the population saying that they have ever read a book. Thus the different colours of the buses serve a practical purpose, as do the different coloured denomination banknotes.

Yet, we saw cars and buses and houses covered in balloons and banners, congratulating, with pride for all to see, the graduation of young family members. Things are changing slowly because Guatemala is a poor country, but they are changing.

And, in the rain while drinking hot chocolate, I saw the elusive Quetzal bird.

All photographs © Jackie Marriott

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