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Impressions of Guatemala, two weeks in October, by Steve Cisler.
(c) Steve Cisler, 1997

This is an account of a two week, low cost vacation in Guatemala at the end of October 1997. It includes information and impressions from Guatemala City, Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Chichicastenango, and Rio Dulce. Most of the URLs are at the end of the full article which is best consumed by printing out, finding a comfortable hammock, and opening a cool beverage. Permission to reprint, archive, serve, or mirror this document on any commercial service or ISP must be obtained from the author. <cisler@pobox.com>

Abstract ( Full article )

Guatemala is a small country with varied climate and geography. There are lowland warm tropical rivers and cool highlands where much of the population lives and mountains as high as 13,800 feet. There are about two dozen distinct indigenous groups, but most sources simply divide the population into Indigenous or Ladino, the latter being westernized Indians or those of mixed European-Indian descent. The word has many other meanings in Spanish too. The country and the people have much to offer the traveler and tourist. However, there has been 36 years of civil strife which kept tourists (and Guatemalans) away from this interesting country.

At the end of 1996, the warring parties in Guatemala signed a peace treaty, and those in the tourist trade hoped that a surge of new visitors would be attracted to the country after so many years of fighting, human rights abuses, and the perception that Guatemala was a dangerous place to visit.

I was without work, and before looking for a new job I decided to spend a couple of weeks in the country. A year before I had had a wonderful experience during Day of The Dead in Mexico at Lake Patzcuaro, and Guatemala also celebrated this holiday during All Saints (Todos Santos) Day. I used frequent flier miles for the long journey from San Jose to Miami to Central America to arrive at the end of October, a few days before the festivities.

At the end of 1995, Guatemala was just getting connected to the Internet. Two years later, the Internet was well established in the capital and was spreading to regional cities through non-profit organganizations and business ventures as well. The amount of net-based information on Guatemala is substantial but uneven. I tried booking some hotel rooms through the INGUAT (the official state tourist office) web site, but I never heard back from them before I left. Other people had very good luck setting up reservations and language courses. See the Appendix for some URLs for Guatemala information.

As with other trips, I relied primarily on recent editions of travel books borrowed from the library or, if they were really useful, purchased from a book store. Guatemala, A Natural Destination, by Richard Mahler, was one that I took along. I supplemented it with the excellent Mexico and Central American Handbook from the British publisher Travel and Trade Handbooks. Their descriptions are terse but usually quite accurate, and the books are so compact and well bound they are easier to carry and use than the Lonely Planet series, the guides I usually rely on.

On the Miami to Guatemala leg of the trip I sat next to a guy who seemed to know a lot about flying. As we took off, there was a loud bang outside the plane, and I tensed up. Luckily we were not up to speed when we aborted the takeoff. He said it was a "compressor stall" and said what the pilot would do next. We were delayed an hour or so as they had the mechanics check the engine, revved it up for another test, and took off. It turned out Dan is a pilot who was taking vacation to learn Spanish at a language school in Antigua, the old capital about 45 minutes from Guatemala City. Language schools (primarily Spanish) are big business. There are dozens, and the rates vary. You can have a personal full time tutor and live with a family (three meals a day) for about $160 a week. You can take fewer classes or live with a family and take none at all. It's a good deal, and the Spanish spoken in Guatemala seemed to be clear, with few of the peculiarities of, for instance, Cuban or Puerto Rican accents. Certainly, it was spoken more slowly than in the Caribbean or Venezuela.

Dan had lots of stories about flying, and I asked him what pilots thought of movies about passenger plane travel. He ridiculed Bruce Willis' setting a 747 aflame with a zippo on a winter runway, but said he and his fellow aviators memorized lines from the two Airplane movies. One a flight attendant brought a young boy into the cockpit before takeoff and the co-pilot asked Dan, "Show Timmy your wrestling magazines!" and Dan had to stick his head out of the plane to keep from laughing.

One plane has a design flaw where the fuel in the wings can cause icing on the ground, and the wings must be inspected by ground personnel using a wooden stick to detect clear ice which, if it comes loose, can be sucked into the aft engine and stall it. At airports where Dan's airline does not have a ground crew, he has to check the wings before takeoff. He crawls on the wing with a stick and as passengers look out the window he raises the stick and makes the sign of the cross. He can usually see the passegers' eyes widen after the ersatz blessing.

We landed in Guatemala City about 10 p.m. and everything was closed down except for baggage handlers, a few immigration officers, and taxi drivers. I zipped through customs and hoped to see an employee from the nearby Airport Guesthouse where I had booked my first night ($25), but nobody showed up and I got general directions from a cop. A taxi driver offered to take me for $5, but I wandered around on foot, looking for a street sign, only to see the hotel sign about 200 meters from the terminal. They had not received my booking, but they did have a room with shared bath, bottled water, and hot showers. The beds were fine, and I slept well.

Security is heavy in Guatemala. Houses are locked up tight. Walls have broken glass on the top, if not razor wire, and most banks, trucking operations, and some small businesses have uniformed guards with sawed off shotguns. The hotel remained locked up unless a guest was coming or going, but this procedure was not inconvenient for me.

Guatemala City is large, and like so many Latin American capitals it has attracted a lot of poor rural people, looking for work, living where they can, and taxing the infrastructure of the surrounding area. The nicer neighborhoods are well fortified. Traffic was heavy, and the water supply was treated but many people seemed to drink bottled water. There were no electrical outages while I was there, and the system of buses was as extensive as I had seen anywhere. For 1 Quetzal (16 cents) you can ride across town. Although the pollution in the air is bad, the temperature is wonderful, and I found it easier to breathe than two other capitals with poor air quality: Bangkok and Mexico City.

The town is divided into zones, and these are critical in reaching your destination because the same street can be in several zones. I was looking for the offices of Izabal Adventure Tours, a recommended agency for travel to the Caribbean. Another agency said they had gone out of business, but a clerk knew where the owner now worked. Alfredo Toriello had begun renting construction equipment, but his heart was in tourism, and he graciously spent 20 minutes explaining options I had since he was not running his bus to Rio Dulce, a vacation area in the lowlands where I had planned to go at the end of the trip. He hoped to re-group and make use of the Internet to reach individual travellers like me, rather than group tours which were still afraid to come to Guatemala because of the unrest.

Later that morning Juan Carlos Rueda, brother of the owner of the Airport Hotel, picked me up in his Volvo for the run to his hotel in Antigua, the Confort. We drove up the Pan-American highway, and soon arrived at a large new cemetary. Each grave had fresh flowers and Juan Carlos placed some by his older brother's grave who had died of cancer at 33. I helped him cut and arrange the flowers and after he crossed himself, we drove off at break-neck speed and arrived in Antigua about 30 minutes later.

Antigua is an old town, laid out around the central plaza, and little has changed in the centuries since the major earthquakes forced them to re-locate the capital. UNESCO has designated it as a heritage site, and there are numerous churches, museums, and grand structures to explore as well as a busy market and a number of crafts shops and art galleries. As I said, it's the center for language study, so you see a lot of tourists travelling on different budgets.

I always head for the central plaza and the markets to get a feel for a place. At dusk there was a cacaphony of birds whistling and screeching. Hundreds of people were sitting, strolling, playing music, or hawking wares and food in the soft, fading light. There was the inevitable Andean music troupe, playing vibrant music on an assortment of odd instruments while displaying tapes and CD's for sale. A lot of young girls strolled; roasted nut salesmen accosted me with scoops full of local cashews for sale. Generally, it was very relaxing, and I returned here each day to sit and watch.

A few blocks away the market vendors were finally packing up. It was a sensory overload to walk through the narrow aisles crammed with familiar and exotic vegetables and fruits. Black, white, red and green beans; bricks of tarry molasses and chocolate; pineapples; loquats; mottled avocados of all shapes, peppers the size of a pea up to dried anchos.

Many storefront tourist agencies have opened, catering to groups and lone travellers heading for Tikal, volcanoes, Belize, and to a Day of the Dead festival in Todos Santos where drunken horsemen vie to be the last rider staying in the saddle. Vision, which I used extensively, is highly recommended. Nancy, an American, and Luis, her Guatemalan husband started the firm this year. <ecovision@inter.net.gt telephone (502) 832-0074> Vision offers email for 4 Q or 25 Q per week unlimited use. Cheap phone calls, massage and dozens tours and language courses are available. The Sevilla School looked like a patio restaurant, selling drinks to the students who sat at private tables with their instructors in a court decked with flowers.

There are dozens of restaurants selling all kinds of food: Italian, Thai, steak houses, "tipica" or local dishes at reasonable prices, and a few local fast food shops and one Burger King that was always busy. I had a grilled chicken plate with a tasty salsa, black beans as thick as paste, and hot thick tortillas for 18 Q at a barbeque restaurant. At a Japanese-Thai place near the Christian Spanish Academy (one of the better language schools) teriyaki chicken for 27 Q and a bottle of Moza, a dark Bock beer for 6 Q. I stayed at the Hotel Confort for 80 Q a night. I had a penthouse overlooking the garden, with a balcony and windows that open out on to a view of the volcano. One of the trees is a llame del bosque or flamboyan tree. It's bright flowers littered the pavement like splashes of blood.

Patience. Cashing a travellers check (not American Express at the bank I chose) was a matter of waiting while all the forms are filled out. The Danish woman in front of me finally got to the front of the line, only to find that they didn't accept $50 bills. Her frustration was very constrained. I took my money and headed for the Cybermannia shop, part of a chain of cybercafes. For 16Q, about $2.50, you get 30 minutes of web time on a Wintel box connected to a t-1 line. I used hotmail to send half a dozen messages and then I talked with the manager, Alvaro Figueredo, an economist turned ISP manager. He is working with the city of Antigua to do a whole web site for the government. I launched into a pitch for "Redes communitarias" (community networks), and we agreed to keep in touch by email.

At the Christian Spanish academy I met Benedictor, the guy on duty for the morning. He sat in front of a couple of Macs which kept track of the students and teachers seated around the room. He called Dan, the pilot, and we set up plans to attend the Day of the Dead ceremony in Santiago Sacatepéquez the next day. He signed up for the $8 tour at Vison for a van to pick us up, drop us off at the cemetary and pick us up in the late afternoon.

Halloween night, October 31: American customs have spread to Guatemala and Mexico. Juan Carlos decorated his hotel for a haunted house effect for his little daughter. He had a string of floating ghosts (white balloons and tissue paper), a Ronald Reagan mask perched on top of his Volvo and creepy music blaring from the portable stereo. This seemed to keep all the kids from knocking on the door. As I left for dinner, the kids in costume were shaking cans and chanting "Halloween! Halloween" to encourage adults to drop a few coins in the hole.

I headed for a local restaurant, La Taquiza, where I met three Peace Corps Volunteers who were dining at a nearby table. They were in town for Todos Santos and we compared stories from Togo in 1966, where I served, with Guatemala 1997. Now they use computers, the Internet, much better communications but a much more severe problem with crime and violence. In the last part of 1997 it has become an administrative problem for the Peace Corps.

One health worker said, "In Guatemala City we just go to our hotel room an sit. It's awful to feel like a prisoner. It's not so bad in Antigua, but the number of us who are victims of rape and robberies is a major worry."

They discussed the lynchings (about 100 in 1997, according to a local paper) where suspected criminals are beaten and burned alive, usually in rural areas where there is a vacuum in law enforcement. The Spanish Guardia Civil has been training a new crop of cops, the first class of which just graduated.

The Taquiza is a wonderful restaurant with a delightful waitress. Beans, fresh tortilla, meat, mild sauces made up the tipical menu. Meals including tip and beer run less than $5.00. Highly recommended.

At my hotel a geography professor from Turlock, California, was enjoying his sabbatical by learning Spanish and travelling around the country at a leisurely pace: a week of class, a week of travel, and then back to school again. Later he will head for Nepal and finally to Montana where he will work on a paper for his field of study. Many of the travellers I met were in country for months, and some had stayed for years. Clearly, people feel strongly about Guatemala.

I'm reading J.M. Coetzee's Waiting For the Barbarians which won several awards in and out of South Africa. Both that country and Guatemala existed in a repressive and violent state for many years. Now, with peace and democracy thrust upon everyone, the crime rate in both countries is soaring off the charts. What do soldiers and rebels do when the war is over? Foreign aid groups and the Guatemala government are trying to retrain the warriors, but quite a few have not given up their weapons. President Alvarao Arzú and former guerrilla leader Ricardo Ramirez just received a Spanish prize for their efforts at peace. The president thinks the violence reported in the country is overblown by newspapers in a circulation war. Of course, he does not want to scare away investors or tourists......

Article continued and concluded at http://home.inreach.com/cisler/guat.html

Steve Cislers' home page can be found at http://home.inreach.com/cisler/

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