Review of the New Documentary “Guatemala: On the Edge of Discovery”

In 2015, I was invited to write a travel article about Guatemala with an emphasis on Tikal and other ancient Maya sites. Having once aspired to be an archaeologist and lectured and written about the Maya, but never having visited the region, I was eager to go. Little did I know that the country as a whole would turn out to be one of my all-time favorite destinations (thanks in large part to the impressive selection of things to do by and our main guide, Jose Antonio Gonzalez):

I was, therefore, delighted to watch the new film by noted documentarian Brent Winebrenner, “Guatemala: On the Edge of Discovery,” an eye-opening overview of one of the most underappreciated countries on the planet. In one hour and 18 minutes, both those who have never been there and those who have returned many times (it becomes addictive) are given a sweeping presentation of the country’s history and culture with stunning cinematography and a wonderful soundtrack of native music and the sounds of nature and people, as well as interviews (including noted archaeologist Richard Hansen).

The geography of the country is extraordinarily diverse, from volcanic mountains and tropical forests to beautiful beaches and thriving cities. The biodiversity is perhaps unmatched by a place of this size and it is a birdwatcher’s paradise. Guatemala’s cultures are also varied (including two dozen with different indigenous languages) and mixtures with sometimes surprising results, such as Maya traditional shamanism integrated with a devout Catholic faith.

The first evidence of humans in Guatemala dates to 18,000 years ago and civilization appears as early as 3000 B.C. For those fascinated with the Maya, but unable to visit the centers of their civilization, the documentary provides a virtual tour of their cities that have been so far discovered (many remain hidden in the dense forests or buried and barely investigated, making New World archaeology the most exciting field in the profession). The Maya flourished from 750 B.C. to 900 A.D. when their cities were largely abandoned for a variety of reasons, probably due to lack of water and poor agricultural practices that would not support a large population. The surviving people developed a new culture, but were brutally conquered by the Spanish in the 16th century. Guatemala became independent in 1821.

I saw only a small part of the central and northern areas, so the documentary motivates me go back to see the rest. Armchair travelers will thoroughly enjoy the film. Someone who would have an even better understanding of Guatemala’s attraction compared with rest of the world, Patricia Schultz, author of 1000 Places To See Before You Die (Workman Publishing) commented: “This is a smart and beautiful film with a sensitive soul—truly one of the best of its kind.”

Watch the trailer here: You can stream it by renting for a week for $6.99.

By Scott S. Smith

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