It was fascinating to see local Mayan customs in Chichicastenango.
The carvings of Quirigua are some of the most intricate to survive in such good condition, telling the story of King K'ak Tiliw and the rise and fall of this Mayan city.
We travelled through very fertile agricultural land, stopping at a check point to ensure we weren't bringing any prohibited fruits into a fruit-growing region.
Mario entertained us with stories from the Popol Vuh, a collection of myths and legends about the Hero Twins including a virgin birth, flood story and treachery between gods and mortals.
Arriving in Chichi we went to the Hotel Santo Tomás, our meeting point if necessary and where we would have lunch.
Chichi has the largest open-air market in Guatemala and though the population are mostly Ladinos, Quiché Indians come from villages for miles around to buy and trade. It is a bit touristy, though, as its relatively easily accessible, and we were pestered by people, especially children, selling masks, musical instruments or touting for their particular family shop.
Mario first took us to the small, fruit and vegetable market held in what otherwise is a basketball court. Growers come from other regions to sell produce such as tomatoes, onions and potatoes which aren't grown here.
It's always fun to watch the hustle and bustle of a market.
We then went down through the main market where colourful clothing, bags, etc. were being sold. Though Mario had warned us to be careful and on the lookout for pickpockets and thieves Andrew was very nearly robbed - a thief unzipped a trouser pocket but didn't manage to get the wallet - we were even more careful after that.
We passed by the church of Santo Tomás where flower sellers had covered the steps to either side with their wares. Inside this Catholic church, built on an ancient Mayan spiritual site, there are also candle-bedecked Mayan altars, used by the Shamans for traditional rituals. Nearby is the Dominican Monastery where the Popol Vuh was transcribed in the 18th century by a Dominican priest, Father Ximénez, and this is now the only source available.
We found the market crowded, touristy and not so atmospheric so were glad to get out into the open away from the busy streets.
Mario took us to the colourful cemetery where a ten niche mausoleum will set a family back about $4000. Poor familes can rent spaces in public niches. They must pay for seven years to begin with then continue paying if they want to keep the space, otherwise the remains are removed and left on a pile of bones. Very poor people are buried directly into the ground.
Here too there are Mayan ceremonial altars and several had burning fires from recent use. For the local people this is not a sinister place and families will come with a picnic to the grave of a loved one.
Mario asked us if we'd liked to climb the hill on the other side of the town where there is another Mayan shrine, warning us it was quite a haul, especially in the heat, but we were keen to do this rather than wander the market.
Returning through the town we passed the Church of Calvario, across the plaza from Santo Tomás, and on its forecourt, reached by another impressive set of steps, there was a Mayan ceremony being performed. Mario said it would be OK to go up and watch and I made a donation to the participants in black at the church door so that I could take photographs and video.
I'm not too sure what was going on but there was a mariachi band and a group of people carrying perhaps saints in little covered shrines decorated with balloons and feathers. One contained a model of a man carrying a cross on a white horse - one of the men at the church door carried a smaller model of a man on a white horse. The group turned to face the four cardinal points, kneeling and bowing their heads, while a woman swung a can containing some kind of burning incense. One of the men in black then lit a fircracker in a metal cage and danced in front of the group of people and then they all left down the steps of the church. Fascinating.
We continued on our walk. passing through a family's land - Mario knows the family who also have a textile museum - and on up a steepish hill.
We stopped at the family's own ceremonial area which had a fire pit and a long stone "altar" with rounded stones, crosses, grasses, flowers and candles. Opposite the altar and on the other two side of the enclosure were smaller crosses and stones with flowers and grasses - a covering of the four cardinal points again perhaps. The Catholic and Mayan traditions seem to be strongly mingled in Chichicastenango.
At the top of the hill there is a worn stone idol presiding over a Mayan ceremonial altar. A Shaman was conducting a ceremony, chanting while people knelt with candles and waited to cast items such as sugar and rum onto the fire. We kept a respectful distance.
We returned to the Hotel Santo Tomás and had a very good lunch and a couple of beers each - very thirsty after the heat of the town. Then we returned to Antigua for one more night at the lovely Hotel Palacio de Doña Leonor before leaving to drive to Honduras.
It was a seven hour trip, including a few stops along the way. We passed through Guatemala City and Mario made a detour to go through the centre so we could take a look - mostly monumental colonial and later buildings.
Mario, as usual, made the journey very interesting and our first short stop was at a Mayan obsidian quarry near San Antonio La Paz. This amazingly sharp, shiny black volcanic glass is one of the finest cutting tools ever produced, smooth at microscopic levels where steel scalpel blades look rough.
Further on we stopped again near San Cristóbal Acasaguastlán and walked from the road toward the Motagua River to the site of robbed-out Mayan graves from around 900AD, the covering stones broken and the contents removed.
Despite being near a large river this area is very arid supporting many cactii as well as the Lignum tree which has very hard wood. Along the road we had been seeing Royal Poinciana trees with their vivid orange flowers and further on Mario pointed out cashew trees with orange or red fruit and the curved seed pod hanging below, inside which is the nut.
Turning south we stopped at Estanzuela to stretch our legs and visit the small but very good Museum of Paleontology and Archaeology.
It has several interesting prehistoric skeletons - the sloth is surprisingly large. There is also a reconstruction of a Mayan tomb complete with skull and offerings but there are no explanations in English so without a guide it's difficult to get much detail.
After a late lunch we crossed the border and Mario took us to our hotel. Mario was not licensed to guide us in Honduras so we looked around the ruins of Copan on our own. On the day we left Honduras Mario collected us early from our hotel and we set off back into Guatemala heading for Quiriguá.
Though Quiriguá does contain the remains of buildings and even a ball court, its justified claim to fame are the intricately carved stelae and zoomorphs. These are each protected by a neat thatched roof and lie in a peaceful grassy setting.
The stelae tell some of the history of Quiriguá which from the second century AD was an important trading post between the mighty settlements of Tikal and Copan. Each stela has a deep carving of a ruler and glyphs recounting important dates and events.
The peak of Quiriguá was in the eighth century AD after K'ak' Tiliw, also known as "Cauac Sky", was appointed ruler by 18 Rabbit of Copan in 725AD. The extent of K'ak' Tiliw's ambition can be gauged from his attack on Copan in 738 when 18 Rabbit was captured, brought to Quiriguá and beheaded in the plaza. Human blood was a much prized sacrifice to the gods, and royal blood would be the best.
From this point Quiriguá was independent of Copan and Tikal, probably with the military support of Calakmul. K'ak' Tiliw died in 785. From 751 to 806, when the city state was at its height, a new monument was erected every five years. K'ak Tiliw created the Great Plaza and most of the carved stones here date from his reign.
Mario explained the significance of the carvings, who they represented and what particular event might be commemorated. The first three stelae we came to were A, C and D, all showing King K'ak Tiliw. Each has date hieroglyphs on the lower half of the two east and west sides. Stela D has particularly magnificent deeply incised carving.
Mario also explained the complex Mayan calendar and how Mayan hieroglyphs depict dates. I consulted Sacred Texts and Mayan Calendar Description for additional information on the details of the Mayan calendar as it was difficult to make notes at the time.
A base of 20 is important in the system which is, on its most fundamental level, composed of three calendars: the Long Count of 20 baktuns each of about 144,000 days; Haab which is a civil calendar with a year of 360 days and eighteen "months" of 20 days with an extra short month of five days added at the end of the cycle; and the Tzolkin ceremonial calendar which had a cycle of 260 days - 20 periods of 13 days.
The Long Count is cyclical and a new cycle began on 21st December 2012. A baktun is sub-divided into 20 katuns, a katun has 20 tun, a tun has 18 uinal (360 days, the same as a Haab year), a uinal is 20 kin or days (the same as a Haab month).
Zoomorphs are quite different to Stelae being large oval stones carved in animalistic shapes such as toads and snakes and identified as altars. These are particularly intriguing, especially those which show the birth or death of a ruler respectively emerging from the mouth of, or being swallowed by, the earth monster.
Zoomorph B, near Stelae A, C and D, was dedicated in 780 by K'ak' Tiliw. It is over 4m long and must weigh tons. It shows K'ak Tiliw emerging from the mouth of a reptilian Earth Monster, a birth analogy.
To the east of Zoomorph B are two enormous Stelae - E and F. Stela E is the tallest carved Mayan stone known, at about 10.7m high, 3m of which are buried, and weighing an estimated 65 tons. It was dedicated in 771 by K'ak' Tiliw.
Stela F is another big one at around 7.3m high and dates from 761. Both these enormous stelae bear portraits of K'ak Tiliw. Though smaller than E, Stela F has some really impressive carving, showing K'ak Tiliw holding his hands to his shoulders on the south face and holding a sceptre on the north face, in both portraits wearing a magnificent headdress.
Nearby is Zoomorph G dating from the year of K'ak Tiliw's death in 785. It again represents some kind of monster, very cat-like with fine claws and curved lower incisors! It has a human head at both ends.
Further south Stela H is quite different to the ones we've seen up to now. It dates from early in K'ak Tiliw's reign, 751, and the portrait faces west. K'ak Tiliw holds a horizontal bar, also known as a Serpent Bar; a demon or god emerges from the ends of the bar on the north and south faces. The hieroglyphs on the east face are arranged in unusual double diagonal lines.
Stelae J and K stand on the southern extremity of the Great Court - Stela J details the capture and beheading of 18 Rabbit of Copan. Stela K, dating from 805, was the last monument to be erected at Quirigua and shows the grandson of K'ak Tiliw who was ruler at that time and is known as "Jade Sky".
South of the Great Court the ball court was located surrounded by the remains of monumental buildings in the so-called Acropolis area of the site. There's not much to see of the ball court, the walls being covered with mounds of earth, but steep, deep steps facing it suggest spectators may have stood on the surrounding buildings to view the game.
Here can be found a magificent zoomorph nicknamed "The Great Turtle" by the explorer Maudsley (a wonderful collection of his photographs and drawings can be found on the Mesoweb website). It dates from 795 when K'ak Tiliw's son "Sky Xul" was ruler. It is intricately carved on all faces and in excellent condition.
From Quirigua Mario took us to meet our new guide who would be showing us Tikal. We were really sorry to say goodbye to Mario - truly a "Number One" guide.