Near the town of Tecpán in the western highlands of Guatemala are the ruins of Iximché. Perched on a hill some 7000 feet above sea level, this was the cool capital of the Kaqchikel Maya in the 15th and 16th centuries, at the time of the Spanish Conquest.
This was our first visit to Central America, and although we didn't have time to visit the more famous ruins in the jungle of Tikal, we were excited to come to this less-well-known complex. Iximché is off the beaten path for most non-Guatemalan tourists; and among the Guatemalans who visit here, most are indigenous Maya. Built at the end of the pre-Columbian period, this city was used for only a few decades before the Conquistadors would establish their rule.
But these ruins are hardly 'dead;' Maya families regularly come here for recreation and religion. The afternoon we were here, we saw a ceremony taking place. We didn't want to intrude on others' beliefs, so we stayed back--but I was close enough to see that bottles of rum were being used as offerings, and that one of the 'priests' took a break from his duties to answer his cell-phone. Syncretism at work.
And then there were some kids playing inside the recessed ball-court. In the mythology of the Kaqchikels, a ceremonial ball-court was also the gateway to the Underworld.
Five hundred years later, their descendants spend weekend afternoons kicking soccer balls around in those same courts...