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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
<firstname.lastname@example.org 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/