GUATEMALA CITY – Once upon a time a man made a map. Accompanied by a donkey and a few measuring instruments, he rode around Guatemala taking measurements of the country and returned to the capital to scale up.
His name was Francisco Vela, and in 1905, with the help of assistant Claudio Urrutia, he designed what is reportedly the only three-dimensional cement map in the world. Drawn almost perfectly to scale (in relation to Guatemala’s original geography), the Relief Map is a reproduction of the country as it existed at the start of the 20th century – with Belize as Guatemala’s 23rd department.
Featuring mountains, volcanoes, towns, rivers – one of which even has running water – roads and ports, Vela’s map gives visitors a bird’s-eye view of the Central American nation. In recent years a number of petrol towers have even been added to ensure the map keeps up-to-date with the country’s development.
From the two observation towers positioned on either side of Vela’s creation, visitors can appreciate the diverse geographical reality of Guatemala. The complex level of detail is not only apparent in the naming of the country’s departments, but also in the hundreds of smaller cities and pueblos that also are accounted for. The exact pinpointing of the country’s altitude, latitude and longitude, along with the accuracy of the model – 1:10,000 km horizontal and 1:2,000 vertical – is an impressive act of engineering.
Having been praised as one of the “Wonders of Guatemala,” the 1,800-square-foot structure is a popular attraction in Guatemala’s capital. As visitors enter the site, they are greeted with a monument showing engineers taking measurements of geographical landscapes with a manually operated theodolite.
Located in Zone 2 of Guatemala City, the Relief Map pays homage to Guatemala and its culture in a multitude of ways. The concrete railing around the outside of the model is intricately designed with six medallions, each displaying a different symbol of Guatemala: from its national bird (the quetzal) to its national tree (the ceiba). Even the small forest that surrounds the attraction consists of more than 100 hormigo trees, the wood of which is used in the construction of the marimba – Guatemala’s national musical instrument. Known as the “Sonorous Forest,” the trees were planted to commemorate the country’s marimba players and composers, and many of their names are featured on plaques within the forest.
This unique open-air exhibition is now considered national heritage due to its artistic and historical value, and beats the Lonely Planet hands down as the country’s best guide.