My mom and I wanted to take a special trip this year. She was retiring this fall, and I was celebrating a significant birthday. After pondering different options, we settled on Guatemala. Neither of us had been there before, and people kept telling us that it was a beautiful country.
In order to prepare our itinerary (I am known an obsessive trip planner), I interviewed people who had lived or been there for an extended period of time. Besides getting a list of “must see” natural wonders, they had something else in common. They warned us to be careful. This even repeated itself on our flight there. As we landed, a nice family man, who sat next to us and chatted with my mom wished us well and, warned us to be cautious during our travels through his country. Sadly, Guatemala is a young democracy that after thirty-six years of civil war is plagued by corruption, crime and most recently, violence stemming from the Mexican cartels. Its people, however, are gentle and humble. They seem far removed from the tropical flair that generally characterizes Venezuelans. One incident caught my attention. As we crossed paths with a young foreign student who was wearing very short shorts, two young Guatemalan teenage boys gaped at her, but never said a word. Had they been in Venezuela, I am sure that that they would have done their best to get her attention.
Our base camp was Antigua. The city has cobblestone streets with underground electric wires that further add to its colonial look and feel. Antigua was the seat of Spanish colonial government for the Kingdom of Guatemala, which included Chiapas (southern Mexico), Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica until a powerful earthquake in 1773 caused the capital to move to present-day Guatemala City. I kept thinking that Antigua would be a great location for a period soap opera. Growing-up in Caracas, I have fond childhood memories of watching the Muppet Show as well as Venezuelan soap-operas. Not so impressive were the security guards we saw outside banks and expensive shops that wore very visible rifles. It was a gentle reminder that being careful was not to be taken lightly.
Our first side-trip was to Lago Atitlán. This is a lake that is surrounded by a dozen small villages and three volcanoes. We stayed in Jabailito, a very small town that is only accessible on boat or foot. Our hotel was built on a cliff and decorated with so much love and care, that I wondered if were secretly being filmed for a Travel and Leisure program. By the way, its name is Casa del Mundo or Home of the World. The natural surroundings also added a special aura. The birds were on high volume, and the sky had endless stars. It is with little wonder that I had the best three nights of sleep I have had in ages!
One of the days we shared a twenty-minute boat ride and a guided tour of Santiago de Atitlán with two former Peace Corps volunteers. As soon as we got off the boat, would-be guides surrounded us. Our instinct took us to Juan, a 10 year old boy who said he would show us around town. Our first stop was to see Maximón, an idol that fuses Mayan and Catholic beliefs. The short-version of the story is that many many years ago, he was the only man left in the town who impregnated all of the women, so when the men returned from war, and his legs were chopped off. For the rest of his life, he attempted to redeem himself by doing good deeds. Indeed, we were fortunate enough to see a shaman make offerings while a young couple prayed to Maximón. Besides inhaling the smoke of the candles, incense and cigarettes, I was sweating from the lack of ventilation and wondering what is faith really all about. Believing, I suppose.
Our final side-trip was to Tikal, one of the major sites of Mayan civilization. On the day of our arrival, we did a 3-hour walking tour of the complex that left me ready for bed at 4:00pm! (we had been up since 3:00am that morning). The following day, I got up at 3:40am to be part of an early bird tour. This meant that I would climb one of the tallest temples, and watch the sunrise. It was absolutely spectacular to hear a symphony of animals just as a gentle mist started the day. I took many pictures, and now only wish I could have recorded the sounds as well. I kept pinching myself and thinking how lucky I was to be able to experience this. It was also especially nice to see a Guatemalan high school group who was there as well. Too often, sites of cultural value are only frequented by foreigners who can afford such trips.
However, part of my natural high was deflated when we went to the two museums located right outside the natural park of Tikal. I have no doubt that a significant amount of money has been spent by major American universities (including Harvard and Penn State) to investigate the people and civilization that once lived there. So it was frustrating to see these museums that were mere in skeletons of what they could be. There was a lack of uniformity with the labels; some were written in Spanish while others were bilingual (English and Spanish). Humidity had affected many photographs and documents on display. Both museums were mere rooms with a handful of artefacts. All of this would not be seen in the most basic of museums in the US. A real pity.
In the end, all of the hoopla about crime was exaggerated. No place is 100% safe; being careful not paranoid is the way to go. Guatemala is known as the country of eternal spring. To me, that name represents a country that has a natural beauty is early bloom that fortunately has not yet been overrun by mass tourism. Would I go again? In a heartbeat!
Photographs taken by the author:
1. View from Hotel Casa del Mundo, Lago Atitlán
3. Sunrise from Temple IV, Tikal