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 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. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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. <email@example.com 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.
I picked up a bus schedule from Atitrans (502) 832 0644 which runs shuttles for tourists around the country. It's a good way to travel, if you tire of the much cheaper, slower chicken buses that run everywhere and are jammed with local travelers and a few backpackers. Most of the chicken buses are old school buses or converted vans or trucks. Most of the shuttle runs cost between $8 and $20 dollars, but it's more for the longer trip to the Atlantic coast. Large Pullman buses are available, and they have bathrooms, comfortable seats, toilets, attendants, and a VCR.
Every 50 years the Mayans celebrate Katum, a time to communicate with the dead. Mixing Catholic and indigenous traditions results in some wondrous customs and holidays in Guatemala. During All Saints Day, Nov 1-2, groups of boys and young men assemble and try to fly the largest kites in the world in the cemetary of Santiago Sacatepéquez, a small town about 30 minutes from Antigua and the capital. Legends say that God permitted the departed spirits to visit their relatives, but the good spirits were bothered by the bad ones. A Mayan priest said the noise of paper rustling in the wind brought happiness to the tortured spirits and allowed them to communicate with the living. The kites are constructed months in advance by the religious brotherhoods or cofrades. They design the round patterns on tissue paper, pasting colored paper over the pencilled design on white paper. So the sail area is very decorative but flimsey, and it is bound to a wheel of bamboo, twine, and wire and set aloft using a long cord of maguey fiber.
There was one narrow road leading in and out of Santiago. Our van dropped us off around 9 a.m., and already there were hundreds of visitors and locals setting up shops to sell food, drink, and souvenirs. We walked about 25 minutes to the cemetary where the kites were to be launched in the afternoon. At the entrance was an inflated Coke bottle about 20 feet high. Uh-oh! A kid gave us a pamphlet showing the event was sponsored by Coca-Cola. I worried that the sponsor might overwhelm the event, but, aside from a Coke kite, coke for sale, and the large Coke bottle, it was not bad. Too many other things were happening.
Kites ranged in size from a foot in diameter to about 40 feet! Those were the two dozen show kites. The largest that actually lifted off in the afternoon breezes were about 8 feet across. They could be carried by one person to the launching area while the giant ones had to be assembled on the graves, all of which were freshly weeded and very neat when we arrived. Many were sprinkled with marigolds, the flower of death, and pine needles.
At first people took care not to step on the graves, but by 5 p.m. they were a mess, and the crowds were sitting atop tombs and even in a row of newly constructed open crypts. One couple made love in one as the kites flew, not caring about the thousands of spectators, but this was no Woodstock. Generally, it was quiet, and the cofrades worked hard to assemble the giant wheels, some of which collapsed under their own weight after being tilted up against a tall pole for display. Each had a different theme: political peace, Jesus as savior, discovery of Guatemala by the Spaniards, a married couple, Mayan priests, and geometric designs. Many launchings lasted only a few seconds, and the kites were damaged on landing. One large one took off, twisted in the air, and almost hit me as I scurried across the mounds. Though the ones aloft were not heavy, the sharp bamboo spokes radiating out were quite dangerous. Aborted launches necessitated quick repairs, and as they were rewiring the frame, a dog ran across the paper and punched holes with each step. One kite landed on a video crew and bumped the cameraman who was much more concerned about the dust coating his gear. By late afternoon the air was hazy because the cemetary was almost full. Perhaps 5000 people had crowded in, and so Dan and I decided to head back to the van rendez-vous site. Swimming against the surge of late arrivals we took 30 minutes to reach the parking area which was jammed with buses and trucks and stalled traffic. A platoon of Guatemalan soldiers, armed with M-16s, heavy machine guns, and even grenade launchers, headed away from the festivities. I was relieved that they did not have to use their firepower which seemed excessive for a public event. Probably, they did not have any training in crowd control, just recon missions during the war. The van came a couple of hours late because of the traffic. We had to take a dusty circuitous route back to Antigua, and the gear shift lever fell off the van just before he reached my hotel.
I relaxed today and spent hours sitting and watching people in the park which was jammed because of the holiday weekend. After a great bowl of corn soup (11 Q) in a Chinese restaurant called Suchow, I contemplated going to a movie. Tiny movie houses show a succession of first run videos, most of which are not in that format yet in the states. Whether or not they are pirated, I can't say, but you have the choice of 10 or 12 different movies in a given night for less than $2 each. As I looked over the schedule, I thought "This is ridiculous. Why kill an evening in Antigua by watching Trainspotting?" Luckily I headed back to the plaza where a huge crowd had gathered. Many were holding candles. I heard a brass band playing funeral music, and clouds of sweet smoke wafted into the trees and I saw the monks and lay people swinging censers. Across the plaza I saw a huge illuminated structure about 40 feet long, swaying in the street. I counted 90 men in dark suits carrying the "mesa" with two pushing a cart containing a muffled generator used to illuminate the lights built into the display. To the rear another light allowed the 40 piece band to read the music. The display showed Christ prone, surrounded by eight huge white vases and about 20 feet from his head there was a large white temple.
The pace was very slow and the men rocked slowly back and forth as they inched their way along the cobblestones streets. Every two blocks another groups of bearers would relieve the others. I joined in at the rear and felt included in a non-religous way. It was the first parade I had been in since the Apple Halloween parade years before. I wondered why these events are not part of my life in California since they are so enjoyable in other countries.
He thrusts with his right foot, jumps up, falls off. Pushes again, coast a foot, stop. The Lone Skateboarder in Antigua, a town with bumpy sidewalks and cobblestone streets. Innovator, change agent, or fool? It makes as much sense to have one here as it does to go topless inTehran. Not a good fit. People fit well in Antigua, but cars do no--at least not in the center where most visitors wander and most locals promenade. Skateboards will never rule.
The van ride from Antigua to the airport went rapidly. I talked with Tom, a yachtsman about my age who was trying to get immigration papers for his wife to become a permanent resident in Guatemala. After teaching for some years in New Orleans, serving as tribal administrator for the Seminoles in Florida, and then consulting, he stopped working and began sailing the Caribbean. He went to Cuba and stayed a year. Then he met and married a much younger woman from the provinces, and he was trying to bring her to Guatemala. His boat was moored in a marina in Rio Dulce on the Atlantic, and he plans to sail the Bay Islands of Honduras later in 1997.
We discussed America and the global economy. He thought all decisions in the US were based on fear (of crime, of growing old, of not getting your kid in a good school, of immigrants...) instead of more positive motivations. He thought the world's economy is really a pyramid scheme, and he said the Cuban government can't give up control or it will go the way of Russia and be controlled by a capitalist criminal class.
I checked into the Airport Guest House again ($35 for a double with bath), changed my clothes and took a bus into town. It took me into a rough neighborhood that I walked through on my way to the Universidad del Valle. It was full of tire recyclers, mechanics, and a massive farmer's market that looked like a hurricane had swept through, leaving heads of cabbage by the railroad tracks, corn husks, old tomatoes and a large amount of litter. I did not feel unsafe, but after a body shop owner was kidnapped, many businesses had shotgun-toting guards out front. Rent-a-cop firms have to register with the government this month, and only 40 out of 200 have complied, probably because they have fired cops and ex-soldiers with bad records on their payroll.
It was a long walk to the University located in Vista Hermosa near a new housing development which was well fortified with grills, concertina wire, armed guards and smooth metal doors to repel intruders. The campus was far more open. I was visiting Lucretia de Fuente, a contractor for the United Nations project to build telecenters in libraries around the country. We had met online after the Global Knowledge '97 conference. I had planned to speak to the librarians, but we got our dates mixed up, and I was only able to visit her and her staff. This seems to be a good project because the librarians are talking to each other for the first time, and now they have access to email and the Net. The hope is that they will collaborate in setting up these centers.
In the evening I met my friend Ted who arrived that evening from Miami, and we walked back to the guest house. The next morning the owner heard that we were going to the Atlantic and told us about the beachfront land that he had bought but could not afford to keep. The interest rates are around 25% for such real estate loans, and he needs to sell it (under $25,000). The pictures looked nice, and it looked like a good buy, especially since Guatemala does not have much beachfront on the Atlantic. Much of the frontage is mangrove without any sand. You can contact Mr. Rueda if you are interested in the property, about 15 minutes from Puerto Barrios. (Tel 323086)
A van whisked us back to Antigua where we changed to a larger bus for the beautiful ride to Lake Atitlan, the most beautiful body of water in the world, according to Aldous Huxley who visited here in the 1930's. I sat by Kaye, a nurse from Sydney who was taking one of her periodic odysseys around the world for six or seven months. Though she was traveling alone, she had had no problems with harassment (except in Morocco) and felt quite safe in Guatemala, but just as I had heard stories, she related one of a French woman being robbed of all her money at an ATM machine in the capital.
We almost hit a cyclist who turned out to be a drunken young man riding down the center of the Pan American highway, oblivious to the danger he was in. The temperature dropped as we climbed through misty forests, corn fields and rows of cabbage, brussel sprouts, and flowers. The market in Solola was jammed, and I would have enjoyed walking around, but we just inched through the parked trucks and vans and then descended to a fantastic overlook just above the town of Panajachel on the edge of the lake. Later we got out at the bus office, in the midst of a long row of vendors of tourist -quality artifacts. This is not a criticism; much of the goods were gorgeous, but there was so much, and we wanted to reach our hotel located in a small town about 30 minutes by boat from Panajachel.
The boat touts quote all sorts of prices, reasons why we would have to pay more, why the boat was leaving or not leaving, and so we took our time, asked around and found a large vessel that cost 20Q each for the trip to Santa Cruz de Catalina. This is a hillside village about 5 km along the shoreline, with a tiny dock bordered by two guest houses and a paved road that climbs at a 30 degree angle up to the main village. Arco de Noe (Noah's Ark) was recommended by a traveler in Antigua, and it certainly had an unbelievable view, great swimming, and rooms that ranged from extra rustic (no electricity, water, and one window) to spartan stone cottages that did have water and solar powered lights. The main hangout was the office and veranda where you ate, visited, and just sat and watched the lake change from blue to silver to grey green as the boats came in, and the purple bouganvillia and banana trees rustled in the breeze. Our double cost 70 Q; we had few mosquitoes, and a comfortable bed (something you ought to always try when you are frequenting these types of establishments.) We met a Liza Fouré, a photographer <firstname.lastname@example.org> who had organized a trip for writers and artists. All of them heard about it on the Internet , and she was taking them from place to place.
Santa Catalina is a place where the tourist (or traveler, if you feel different from Them) need not do much more than sit and gaze at the lake and after tiring of that, talk with the other visitors, most of whom have interesting stories and lives and opinions to share. I found that my mind wandered from the words; the visual feast was overwhelming. At mealtime everyone sat at a long table, and the Indian girls running the kitchen and registration served the wonderful fresh food which was mainly vegetarian. The managers, two ex-Peace Corp Volunteers from the 1980's were not renewing their five year lease. The Austrian and German who own it have found a new tenant, but he had not arrived. This is the only hotel I know of that has a FAQ file because they tired of answering the same questions over and over. The ambivalence about their experience is reflected in what they wrote after only a year into their lease.
A slow hike up to the village yielded even more spectacular views. Quite a few people were building additions to their houses perched on the side of the mountain. The fields were so steep you almost needed a shot gun to blast the seed into the earth, and the very crude road to the main highway has not encouraged much traffic. The church on the square was lined with plain carved Santos, as if they were waiting their
turn at the altar. I'm sure the place came alive on a sunday or feast day, but we were returning to Panajachel and heading for the largest market in Central America on Wednesday. We saw one old Datsun truck that was used to haul supplies from the water, but mostly human beasts of burden carried incredible weights up the hill. Old men and young boys hauled 80 lb. sacks of flour using a tump line to take some weight off the back. When we were going back down to the hotel, we met a man inching his way up the hill with three full cases of beer and soft drinks on his back. He greeted us with great spirit, and I wondered how he could be struggling so hard and yet be so friendly to two strangers.
We took the wrong boat and had to pay extra fare. The place was full of backpackers and a few long hairs selling silly hash pipes, rasta hats and odd pens and junk. Two old hippies rode in the boat with us. One in his 40's had been on the lake for 27 years and he was still true to the life style of Mendocino circa 1970 using words like "doobies," "old lady," "far out," and "whoa!" and his parting words to his friend: "Don't be a stranger. Come on by the house. I'll turn you on." I asked him how things had changes since the peace accords had been signed at the end of 1996. "Well, more peaceful I guess, but we're real laid back here on the lake." The lake was the scene of some terrible massacres by soldiers of villagers in Santiago Atitlan during the 1980's. Laid back, indeed.
Our bus ride to Chichicastenango for 10 Q was perfect. This was the only chicken bus (converted school bus used mainly by the locals)we took. The seats were in good shape, and I did not have to sit sideways because there was enough leg room. We climbed into apple country, and the temperature dropped, then we descended to 1600 meters and arrived in the narrows streets of Chichicastenango where peoples from many villages all over central Guatemala gather. Wednesday was set up day, and I'm glad we arrived to watch the transformation.
A tout took us to Hotel Belen, several blocks from the square. Sebastian, the owner , had worked 14 years in a Greek restaurant in New York and now rented rooms to backpackers. Our room with bath was 70 Q with hot water, and a balcony with a view of the marketplace and town which has a very rough look to the buildings and houses. The market drives the activity in town, and dozens of vans from other towns arrive early Thursday morning to spew out their passengers who spend four hours buying crafts from the hundreds of stalls on the square. Also there are regular stores that have more selections and reasonable prices for wholesale and retail buyers. I bought some woven goods: embroidered head coverings and a piece with tropical vegetables in a matrix. Ted got a mask for $4, a pot for less than a dollar, a vest and bedspread for about $25. We had meals at surrounding restaurants (La Parilla 20 Q plus beer), That evening an evangelical preacher shouted prayers until her voice gave out, and she was spelled by a fellow who sang badly and shouted into the low quality microphone and PA system. It was the worse kind of noise, except I did not understand the messages.
Many former Catholics have converted to the evangelical and charismatic churches all over South America. The Vatican has made the reversal of this trend a top priority, but the force of these protestant sects is very compelling. They believe in miracles, immediate healing, improvement of business and lives through faith in Jesus, and there seems to be a lower tolerance of vestiges of Indian beliefs, culture, and dance. For some interesting articles on this phenomenon in Latin America see the web pages of the Pacific News Service.
Salespeople seemed to outnumber the visitors and guides in the marketplace. Inside the plaza are the foodstalls. Teenage girls pated out tortillas in a rhythm like skipping rope. Cauldrons of potatoes, chicken, and mystery meat simmered as we wound through the narrow lanes. These little food stalls fed the crafts stall owners. We gringos tended to eat in the small restaurants around the plaza. There were no grand views, and it feels crowded and closed but very alive. Inside the church the feeling changed. It is the site of a continuous vigil by indigenous folk who burn incense on the steps and at the entrance to the church. There are puddles of wax from votive candles inside the austere dark building. Even with no special ceremony taking place I realized this place and the existence of the Indians is tied up not in sales of textiles and produce but in some mix of Catholic, Pentecostal, and Mayan rites and beliefs that must enrich their lives in ways I can only guess.
Back in the material world I continued to wander through the stalls and buy a few items: a skeleton sling shot, belt, a shirt. Young girls selling tiny boxes of dolls for 1 Q were persistent as the shirt sales people who wandered up and begin fitting you for a cheap cotton shirt. There were only a few beggars, usually handicapped in some obvious way. Two different men were selling home remedy guides. On a table each spread a dozen common and exotic plants, and one had a large tattered medical book. He would point to a plant, show it in the book and tell what it could do: "This is an onion. Onions have vitamins that are good for the lungs." He explained all this to a crowd of twelve that were fixed on his words. "These are remedies for poor Indians like us who can't afford regular medicine." This argument went over well, and several people bought the pamphlets. Others held up containers of pills long expired and asked how they could be used. In no other place did people congregate for a single event. All other transactions were somewhat different: entice, display, bid, bargain, walk off, return, buy, and depart. Most items can be acquired for one-third to one-half of the asking price. We strolled for hours, ate, and then picked up our growing burden of luggage and found the van, a 30 passenger Toyota whose driver was very careful and did not pass in a reckless manner like so many other people on these roads. Except for an over-zealous traffic cop, the trip was uneventful.
We checked into the Bugambilia in Antigua (84 Q for a double with bath) we ate again at La Taquiza and Dan the pilot dropped in for dessert. We traded tales and told about our planned trip to Rio Dulce in the morning. Ted was able to see a little of this old town before we left. He is responsible for most of the photographs linked to this article.
Juan Carlos Dardón, our tour organizer, picked us up early in the morning and dropped us in Guatemala City where we took a small chartered cab to the coast. Besides Ted and I, Becky a prospective employee of Dardón, and Mary, a graduate student in Latin American history were sardined into the tiny car for 6 hours. We had a 45 minute wait for breakfast midway through the trip. The countryside was pretty, but all the towns grew along the highway in a chaotic sprawl. We stopped for an hour for highway construction. A man in a sailing t-shirt struck up a conversation. John Clark has a 46 foot catamaran and is the only legal passenger sailing charter in the Rio Dulce area. He has been running 3 and 6 day tours for the past five years, and I was impressed with his knowledge, attitude, and experience. As an ex-Coast Guard inspector of small boats, I can't say much more since I did not see his rig, but I was planning to take his three day trip,but the weekend we had free was the six day journey to the cays off of Belize. Clark has radio contact with the Cafeteria Erny in Rio Dulce, or you can contact Aventura Vacionales 5A 1 Av Sur, Antigua (tel 502-8-323352) according to the Mexico and Central America Handbook. U.S. Fax number is 702 255 3641. 3 day/2 night trips are $140-150 per person; six day/five night to the Cays runs $343-360/person. These prices are very reasonable, and Clark says he has a great cook. I can vouch for the fact that he has good tales to tell, always an important measure when you travel.
At Puerto Barrios, a run-down banana port with an active market, groups of enemployed guys stared at visitors as we boarded a fiberglas boat shaded with a tarp. It was a cool and speedy trip along the coast to RioMar, a little resort owned by Dardón, just across from Livingston at the point where the Rio Dulce debouches into the sea. RioMar sits on a little creek edged by mangroves and a fisherman's shack. A dozen egrets loitered in the shallow water and on the shore. I sat on the pier and watched a smartly dressed girl of 10 navigate her dugout down the stream and onto the bank with such ease, just as if she pulled up on her bike and hopped off on the lawn. Young men cleaned fish for several hours, tossing the entrails into the water where a flock of pelicans gobbled them up.
RioMar was very restful and beautiful, but lacks a few amenities if you like to hang out at the Radisson or Hilton. We did have bottled water, electricity from 6-9, private bathrooms and excellent insect screening which kept all mosquitoes out. Actually, we only saw fireflies at night, and I had less problems with bugs than I did at higher altitudes.
The caretakers are the Morales family. Mrs. Morales had 16 kids, but four died after she was bitten by a scorpion while pregnant. All but one of the survivors are girls. The eldest, Myrna, is about 12 and asked if we would like to visit a cave. After a lunch of fried palomito, rice and potatoes, and a short siesta we set out with candles, flashlights, with Mryna and Dina wielding machetes to clear the weeds from the path. We walked along the river and walked past vacation homes, tiny huts and into a dense growth of bananas and flowers. The temperature was in the 80's as we reached the mouth of the cave. The girls scampered through the small opening, and I lurched after them. Once inside the air and water were refreshing, but the thousands of bats were a new feature none of us had ever faced. Their sonar was not perfect, and several of them brushed against my face and chest. It took half an hour to wind through the tunnels and waterfalls and dark pools. Seeing little Myrna chimneying above a rushing creek was really quite amazing. It inspired us to do the same. There was just enough danger to make it exciting, and it was good exercise before dinner. Fireflies dotted the lawn as the motoboats hummed and kids bawled in a distant dwelling. That evening we took a small boat over to Livingston. It's is one of those end-of-the world places that seem remote yet very active. Livingston has 5000 people, mostly Garifuna (which is a Nigerian word meaning people who eat cassava). There is a lot of yacht traffic, drug smuggling, and a few tourists like us. Many Garifuna live in the New York and Boston area, and some return for visits or for retirement.
The travel books and Guatemalan highlanders warn travelers about Livingston. I was very apprehensive about it and even left my wedding ring in the hotel room, but as soon as we disembarked and walked onto the main street we could tell it was safer and more appealing than many other places. However, we only visited the tourist strip with a few restaurants, shops, locals strolling and gently talking or laughing as Caribbean music played on jukeboxes. There are roads within but not to Livingston and only a couple of trucks were in evidence.
We ate at the Happy Fish on the main street. I had a delicious fish soup called Tapado (40 Q) which contained crab, shrimp, palomita, plaintains in a cocoanut broth. Highly recommended.
The tour signs and fliers looked like high school projects. Amateurish yet enticing: round trip to the Honduran Bay Islands, trips up the river, eco-hikes near Livingston. Groups of young men roamed around the streets, laughing, staring at newcomers, and making us a bit uncomfortable. A percussion group wandered down the street, stopping at several restaurants, hoping for tips. On the side streets were bars and night spots that were noisy and uninviting--to us, anyway. About nine we headed back to the Texaco pier. The water was still and oily smooth; no boats were underway. Again, it felt like the end of the earth.
Saturday morning after a large breakfast, Myra and Dina took us back to Livingston to begin a long hike up the coast to the Seven Altars. The town seemed less ominous in the daylight as we wound through the back roads of town. Some of the houses were tin-roofed, others thatch. Some had electricity, others did not even have running water. On a small school was the European Community sign advertising "education without borders". We stopped at a Catholic church where a teenage boy was sleeping in the pew near the door. Up front an old man was bouncing a baby girl on his lap. Jose Silva Alvarez asked if we came from France, and we said, "No, California" Without prompting he began telling us his life story: schooled in a convent in Belize, he got a job with United Fruit and was assigned to New York City where he worked for 12 years. He returned to Guatemala for retirement. His grandsons and great grandchildren live on Staten Island. Jose speaks English, Garifuna, Spanish. Most people in town still speak Garifuna, even the parish priest from Chicago. This place reminded me of Haiti and of Africa, but it has its own particular flavors.
At we left town, we passed a soccer match, a small housing development, and came to a narrow beach that ran north toward Belize. Plastic bottles, shells, and driftwood littered the beach. Palms shaded us the whole way, and we passed several modest resorts: a bungalow with private bath on the beach for 70 Q (about $12) with cheap food and beer. An old man ferried us across a river for 5 Q and after two hours we turned from the beach and climbed in the rain forest, emerging at a series of beautiful pools that cascaded one to another over a stretch of half a mile. The sides were formed by some calcium deposits and were smooth but not slippery. This was one of the most beautiful fresh water bodies of water I have seen, but it was not easily photographed because the forest encroached upon the pools. I sat under the waterfall and looked out through the trees to the horizon and the Belizian cays.
Dardón came to pick us up in his motorboat, and we spent an hour or so on the beach about a mile from the Seven Altars. Just down the beach the vice president of Guatemala was having a little party. A naval vessel patrolled a kilometer offshore, and we kept our distance too. We returned to RioMar in our overloaded little boat and rested in hammocks as the resort animals wandered around, brushing their tails against the guest's feet, and after a long rest lunch was served. Tapido again but a little different. Good and filling after the long walk. Mr. Morales showed us the dugout he was building from a single large log. We then headed out in the boat for a ride up the Rio Dulce to see the sunset after the cliffs of the river mouth give way to a wide lake bordered by huts and vacation homes of wealthy people from the capital. The river meanders through an area of primary rain forest and dozens of egrets and other water birds that took off as we passed. A hot spring bubbles from the rocky cliff, and boats stop frequently for a hot bath. It was such an exhilarating run that I can say that few other rivers offer a combination of views, mild weather, good water for swimming, delicious fish, and an abundant bird life. Many places in Livingston and Fronteras offer these river tours, and I recommend you take the trip from Livingston or Fronteras, up river.
That evening we returned to Livingston to dine at the Africa Place restaurant. Built in the moorish style by a Guatemalan Jew who had visited Morocco, it featured local and Nigerian dishes. Sayings in Hebrew lined the walls. A grizzled drummer played and sang until we gave him money to go away. We ate as Juan Carlos told us his life story.
At breakfast Mr. Souza came by to dine. He had lived in exile in New Orleans for many years after his father was killed in a political mishap. He returned to serve as a manufacturer's rep. for American companies. Retired now he was buiding a dive resort about 200 meters from RioMar. He says the Belician cays, 90 min. away offer wonderful diving. His place will be open in 1998.
A small boat picked us up and we headed 40 km. back up the river, across the lake and to the bridge that connects the road from Peten to Guatamala City.As we approached the dock a big sign proclaimed: "We give good email, and we love getting it." 15Q for 25 lines and 3 Q for an extra 25 lines. The Olimar is the gathering place for yachters, backpackers, tourists, or others looking for news, filling food and local information. Later we toured the Castillo San Felipe nearby. It's a small, well-kept fortress that the Spanish built to keep the British pirates out of the Lake Izabal.
Juan Carlos met us in his van we we drove to the Mayan ruins of Quirogua, about an hour away. They lay inside a banana plantation owned by United Brands. The bananas were bouncing across the road on a conveyor belt that led into the large packing shed where the choice ones were cut, rinsed, and packed for shipment to the U.S. and Euope. The rest of the fruit was shoveled into gigantic semi-trailers for sale in the city, but it would not be ripe for three weeks.
The ruins were given to the government by the American company on the eve of a national election. It is very well cared-for and it has some of the largest stellae in the country (10 m. high) as well as ball courts, restored stairs, and other areas roped off because of current investigations. A grave robber approached us at the snack bar and offered to sell us arrowheads, beads, shards of pottery and a beautiful piece of jade carving for 5000 Q. Whether or not it was countefeit, the jade was beautiful and illegal. We left in the late afternoon and had a fast trip back to Antigua where we spent another night in the Bougambilia. While we were gone a few items from our packs were taken. Nothing major, but petty theft is a a constant problem for visitors and locals. I stopped by the Vision 1 tour agency to pay for the remainder of the tour to Rio Dulce.
The next day we took a van to the airport and flew back to San Jose without incident at either border.
Siglo XXI is a major newspaper that has English and Spanish news online plus tourist information. Good travel stories and useful ads for Antigua at www.sigloxxi.com/Antigua/index.html
centramerica.com A commercial ISP's index of other guatemala sources of information. A good starting point for exploration.
Pacific News Service has good background stories on events in Latin America, including the surge of membership in evangelical protestant churches.
A site maintained in California for Mayan artists from the Lake Atitlan area. There are other sites that cover textile arts and Mayan crafts.
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