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Have You Ever Seen a Mayan Cemetery?

August 11, 2014 at 12:33 PM | by | ()

If visiting a cemetery has never appeared on your travel to-do list, we're with you. Yet when traveling through Guatemala, you might find them hard to ignore thanks to the bright, bold colors that make them stand out on the green hillsides.

This weekend, we had the opportunity to explore one in Chichicastenango (Chi-Chi-Cas-Tin-A-Go). Tourists are most familiar with the town for its huge native market on Thursday and Sundays, but "Chichi" provides visitors much more than opportunities to buy cheap trinkets. In addition to town officials appointed by the Guatemalan government, Chichi's local indigenous people - the Mayans - have elected its own leaders to preserve its culture and religious beliefs. Centered around the Church of Santo Tomás, ancient pre-Christian rituals and ceremonies still take place today.

Just a five minute walk from the Church of Santo Tomás sits a traditional Mayan cemetery. You'll instantly notice the beautiful colors of the tombstones and grave sites, and if you continue to walk deeper into the cemetery, you can observe the Mayan Fire Ceremony.

Locals preparing the Mayan Fire Ceremony in Chi Chi's cemetery

Used as a portal into the spiritual world and a way to pray and receive healing, a fire is constructed without wood using symbolic gestures and natural materials. Typically, the fire ring is drawn with sugar and a base is built out of resin-soaked tree fruit. Multi-colored candles make up the bulk of the fire, each color representing a different direction. Most of the other offerings placed into the fire are ones that smell good, such as spices, herbs, and flowers. Additional items like eggs and even fireworks can be used, and regional/personal differences apply to the exact ingredients of the Fire Ceremony.

When visiting, a guide, which you can hire in town, can help bring all this to life and also ensure you do not disrespect any of the on-going ceremonies. Obviously, it goes without saying that you should be respectful of the locals when you visit the cemetery, and always ask before you take a photo.

[Photos: Will McGough]

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