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- Fieldwork in Guatemala

The major part of this project consisted of collecting and systematising empirical material. This is also reflected in the relative sizes of the three parts of the text, where Part II clearly is the largest. For my fieldwork, I travelled to the city of Quetzaltenango in Guatemala, where I interviewed nine persons in a total of 15 qualitative interviews.

This chapter introduces my interviewees and deals with how I collected and handled the empirical material which is the base of the project. Before looking at that, however, I will present a brief introduction to Guatemala’s geography, population and history.

Guatemala’s location in Central America (left) and a map of Guatemala.

Guatemala and the Maya

Guatemala lies in the northernmost part of Central America, bordering the Pacific Ocean between Mexico and El Salvador and the Caribbean Sea between Belize and Honduras. Even though it covers an area of less than 110,000 km[1] [2], one finds an immensely varied landscape within its borders.1


The lowlands of El Peten - the big, almost square-shaped northern part of Guatemala - are nearly covered in dense jungles with a hot, humid climate. Not many people live there, but there is an abundant wildlife, and tourists and archaeologists alike come to the area to see the remains of the ancient cities that the classic Maya built in the area more than thousand years ago. In the first millennium CE, and especially during the 650 years between about 250 and 900 CE, this area along with southern parts of today’s Mexico was the centre of the Maya world.[3] In today’s El Peten one finds the ruins of famous “lost cities” such as Tikal and El Mirador. Right across the Mexican border lie the cities of Palenque and Calakmul.

The area known as the Western Highlands of Guatemala is quite different from El Peten. In this area, volcanic activity has created a big, mountainous plateau, and several cities are located higher than 2,000 m above sea level. In this area one finds Central America’s highest peak, the volcano Tajumulco (4,211 m). The landscape is dominated by hills and mountains, and the iconic cone-shaped volcanoes can be seen on nearly every horizon.

When the Spaniards arrived the area in 1524, the classic city-states of the lowlands were largely abandoned. The inhabitants that the Spaniards met were highland Maya, and the Western Highlands is also the area where most of the Maya population lives today.[4] It is in this landscape my interviewees practise Maya spirituality and do parts of their work as ajq’ijab by visiting sacred places to pray and perform ceremonies.

  • [1] The maps and geographical data in this section, unless otherwise noted, are
  • [2] retrieved from Central Intelligence Agency. “The World Factbook: Guatemala”
  • [3] Coe, The Maya: 60 f.
  • [4] There are Maya populations in all of Guatemala’s neighbouring countries, but themajority of the Maya today live in Guatemala.
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