food / travel

Mayan Prophecies Aside, Guatemala's Timeless Heritage Will Blow You Away

Steers on the loose
Steers on the loose
Pablo Bizon

CHICHICASTENANGO - “What happened to the Mayans? Why did they disappear?” asks a tourist, while the minivan enters the winding streets of Chichicastenango, in Guatemala. The guide, Haroldo, smiles, just as every guide should when asked that question, and answers: “Disappear? Look around you, these are the Mayans, they are here.”

This is the first news we want to give to first-time visitors to Guatemala: They find out that they will not only see the breathtaking ancient Mayan cities, but that they will see Mayans, whose culture is still alive in many of the 23 ethnic groups that are present in Guatemala.

Before this, we had other, more urgent news to tell them, but its already old news –we were going to tell you that on Dec. 21 the world did not end, but at this point we suppose everyone knows.

The third piece of news we want to give first-time visitors is more interesting: It turns out that Guatemala is a beautiful and surprising country, where everything is concentrated into a few square kilometers – beaches on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, volcanoes, valleys, lakes, mountains and cultures with ancient traditions. Guatemala, like the rest of the world, is still here after Dec. 21, and more than ever invites people to discover its colors, tastes and history.

We found out that the world would not end from a Mayan priest. Days before the fated December date, he told us “it is not the end of the world, only a change of an era.” Luiz Ricardo Ignacio V., apart from being a Mayan priest, is also the creator of the Museum of Ceremonial Masks, on the outskirts of Chichicastenango. When we asked him what “change of an era” meant, his response was: “Maybe everything will change for the better or worse, but also maybe everything will stay the same, it depends on us.” Ok then. But it is true that the museum is very interesting, with dozens of Moreria ceremonial masks that tell the story of how this long carving tradition evolved over time and the kinds of ceremonies held in the region. There are masks that are more than 300 years old, carved in cedar wood; and more recent ones, made of white pine and painted in vivid colors.

You can’t go to Guatemala and not visit Chichicastenango, a town whose name means “The City of Nettles.” About two hours from Guatemala City through a new highway that winds up and down mountains, volcanoes and deep ravines. Everyone comes to “Chichi,” as it is called by locals, because of its impressive market – probably the most colorful and animated of all Latin-America. It is open on Thursdays and Sundays, and more than for its products - which are not bad at all – it is known for its unique ambiance.

Some say it has lost some its essence, now it is more “global” and chaotic – next to the textiles and ceremonial masks, you will find Chinese merchandise. But getting lost in the market’s alleys is a fantastic experience – they are more colorful and busy than ever – while being followed by sellers of all ages who are intent on selling you something. Haggling here is not just a necessity, but also a cultural custom without which, nothing would be sold.

Soledad, measuring less than 150 centimeters, attends her clientele with great friendliness. She requests 250 Quetzal ($32) for a beautiful flower-embroidered tapestry. I counter-offer 130 Quetzal ($17) and the negotiation begins. Ten minutes later –I resisted as much as I could – I left with my tapestry, for 160 Quetzal ($20). For those who are not used to it, this negotiation may seem very tiring.

In one corner of the market you can see the 400-year old church of Santo Tomas, built on top of a Pre-Columbian temple platform. This is where the Popol Vuh manuscript was found, “The Book of the Community,” which talks about the creation of the world according to the Mayans.

In the distance you can see the local cemetery, where the fathers are buried below white headstones meaning purity, mothers under turquoise headstones meaning protection for women, boys in light blue, girls in pink, and elders in yellow, which symbolizes the sun’s protection over humanity.

The most beautiful lake in the world

We are in the land of corn, not only because it is omnipresent in local cuisine, but because, according to the Popol Vuh, after trying – and failing – with terracotta, wood and the red beans of the Tzite tree, the Gods decided to make man out of corn. The number nine is sacred for Mayans, because it is the time corn takes to germinate, like humans in the womb.

Haroldo tells this story through the windows of the car, as he looks down at Lake Atitlan, the one that Aldous Huxley supposedly called the “most beautiful lake in the world.” A huge body of water surrounded by volcanoes and green hills. On the shores of the lake, there are a dozen of indigenous villages, each one with its own characteristics.

The best way to reach these villages is by boat. After a 25-minute ride, we disembark on the pier of Santiago Atitlan, which is considered the “capital of the Tz’utujil Mayan nation.” We see the traditional clothes; women are wearing “huipiles,” white shirts with colorful embroideries showing flowers, animals and geometric figures; men are wearing white pants with embroidery on the bottom.

In the past, this village was the scene of terrible massacres and horrors of the repression of the Guatemalan civil war, during which indigenous people were victims of state-sponsored violence. At least 300 people from Santiago Atitlan “disappeared” during the war. Today it is one of the most touristic villages around the lake and a strong cultural haven. Religious brotherhoods known as the “Cofradias” are the guardians of ancient Mayan rituals, ensuring that the sun, the moon, the stars and the planets continue their ways. Because in the grand cosmic scheme, man has a hand in everything and must help grease the axis of the universe. Although originally these religious brotherhoods were organized by Spanish priests to promote Christianity, they soon directed their efforts to local beliefs, and each one is named after the saint or deity that it is dedicated to.

On the boat that is taking us back to the other side of the lake, we pass by the beautiful town of Santa Catarina Palopo. Here the Mayan Kakchikel people wear intensely turquoise clothing, including turbans and sombreros. Here there are thermal springs, panoramic trails and beaches. At night it is lively with restaurants and discos.

We arrive to the town of Panajachel. Here there are cobbled streets, baroque facades, and colonial streetlights. When it was founded in 1543, it was considered one of the three most beautiful cities of the Spanish Indies. If an earthquake hadn’t stumped its development, what was once the capital of the Kingdom of Guatemala – which also included the present countries of Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, as well as the Mexican state of Chiapas – would have turned into one of the greatest cities in Latin America. After visiting the city’s impressive archeological museum, we stop by the Doña Maria Gordillo’s candy shop and buy some “canillitas de leche” (condensed milk candy) and some “chilacayotes en dulce” (candied chilacayote – a sort of local melon) and continue on our trip.

We then fly to Flores, an island on Lake Peten Itza. Here the heat and humidity are unbelievably high, different to the rest of the country– we are at sea level and very close to Mexico and Belize. People mostly come here to visit the marvelous Tikal National Park, the largest known pre-Columbian Mayan city. It remained hidden in the forest until its discovery in 1848. In 1979, UNESCO declared a World Heritage Site.

In the tropical rainforest, next to the temples, pyramids and palaces, you can also see large mounds of earth where pyramids and monuments that remain uncovered which let us imagine how this place looked when it was first discovered.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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