My first trip to Guatemala in 2007 was extremely brief – I spent just two days there on a brief visit from Mexico to see the Mayan city of Tikal – but it remains probably my best travelling memory. Tikal is the most amazing place I’ve visited, and viewing the sun rise over the jungle from the top of Temple IV was an experience that truly merits using the travelling cliche of ‘magical’.
That brief stop made me hungry to go back and see more, which is why I made it my second stop after Mexico. This experience was a very different one to the first – Tikal is in the remote, sparsely-populated Peten region of Northern Guatemala, whereas this time I spent my entire time in the highlands further south, where the majority of the population live.
In many ways Guatemala has a lot of similarities with Mexico, especially the southern state of Chiapas (both share a high indigenous Mayan population). The food is pretty similar – lots of tortillas, rice and beans, although the quality and variety of streetfood was nowhere near as good as Mexico, and the chili sauces disappointingly mild. The volcanic landscape of the highlands in many places looks similar to Mexico. The Spanish colonial cities share similar histories and architecture (in particular Antigua looks very like San Cristobal de las Casas).
In other ways the two countries are very different. The indigenous population of Mexico is very much in the minority, whereas Guatemala has the highest indigenous population of any country in the Americas, and it’s very noticeable (one of the plus sides to this for me was that Guatemala is the first place in the world I’ve ever felt tall, which is saying something). Probably the biggest difference for me was the number of other tourists – after swine flu and the drugs war kept Mexico pretty gringo-free, it was a shock to the system to visit somewhere where there were so many.
My first stop was Huehue, the closest big city to the border withe Mexico. It was instantly obvious that the city was much poorer than anywhere I’d experienced so far, and one symptom of that was that when we went looking for a bar to have a relaxing drink after a hard day of traveling, we were amazed to find there is only one in the entire centre. Which was obscenely expensive – which came as a surprise, seeing as I’d expected Guatemala to be cheaper than Mexico. In fact, it generally is, the biggest difference being that beer and other alcohol is generally double the price of its northern neighbour. The other expensive thing in our time there was our visit to the Mayan ruins of Zaculeu – worth a visit because the restoration carried out by the United Fruit Company in the 1950s actually makes them look far closer to how pyramids would have looked originally than in other sites with more sensitive restoration – but which were more than double the cost to visit of any of the far more impressive ruins in Mexico.
Getting from Huehue to Xela was pretty cool, as it was my first experience of the legendary chicken buses, old US yellow school buses that have been shipped down south, painted in glorious technicolor patterns and put to service plying the steep and winding highways of Guatemala. I loved Xela too – my first impressions weren’t that great, but over the couple of weeks I got to spend there I fell in love with the place. There were very few tourists there, instead most of the foreigners there are language students, giving the town a bit of a college town feel.
One of the other great things about the town, unlike the places I would visit later, is that ther gringos don’t hang out in gringo ghetto bars, instead everywhere I went had a good mix of Guatemaltecos and foreign students (most noticeably at Bar Rumba, where it was always entertaining to watch the locals salsa-ing away expertly while most of us foreigners spent more time tripping over our feet trying to copy them).
It’s also a great city to base yourself for a while, as there’s loads to do nearby, including the volcanic hot springs of the Fuentes Georginas (the water was so hot it was like being in a bath), and treks to the variosu nearby volcanoes. Probably most interesting of all was getting to visit the nearby market of San Francisco el Alto, the largest market in Central America. Unlike the more famous market of Chichichastenango, which specialises in artsenias and therefore is quite a tourist magnet, this market is very much a general market, selling pretty much everything under the sun in stalls crammed into the narrow winding lanes of this mountain town. Highlight for me was the main square at the highest point in the town, where locals were selling sheep, goats, pigs, turkeys, cows, dogs, cats and geese, none of them kept in pens, giving the place quite a chatoic feel. It was quite and impressive sight watching little old indigenous women struggling to wrestle a newly purchased (and very reluctant piglet) into a bag to take home.
There’s no other way to describe it, Lake Atitlan is simply stunning. High up in the western highlands, the lake is completely surrounded by high mountains and extinct volcanoes, with pretty little villages, each with a different character clinging to the sides. Being this beautiful, it’s no surprise that bit’s very much a tourist magnet – in fact I saw more tourists around the lake than I had anywhere so far in my trip. I stayed in San Pedro la Laguna, the backpacker village (others include Panajechal, the most touristy; San Marcos, full of new age types and therefore the best place to go if your aura needs a good cleaning ro you have wonky chakras that need aligning; and Santiago Atitlan, the most indigenous of all the villages), and spent a very pleasant few days, chilling by the lake, kayaking across it to San Marcos and back, and hiking up the Nariz de Indio (Indian’s nose), which gave spectacular views across to the volcanoes and over the lake.
Antigua is a very different place to the rest of the country. It was the colonial capital until late in the 18th century when a series of earthquakes nearly destroyed the city. Now, most of the colonial buildings have been restored and are painted in bright colours; meanwhile many of the huge former convents and churches still lie in impressively ruined states dotted around the city. As the obvious tourist highlight of the country, the government has ensured the city is cleaner and safer than the rest of the country – it’s been said that this is what Guatemala would be like if it was run by the Swiss. I must admit that despite its stunning beauty, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had the colonial cities of Mexico, mainly because the city seems to be mainly populated by foreigners, giving it quite an un-Guatemalan feel compared to Xela. Don’t let that put you off though – I think I’ve just been spoilt by elsewhere.
One of the best things about the country is that so much is crammed into such a relatively small space (the whole country is about the size of England), and if any of you back home are jealous of my travels, Guatemala would make a pretty perfect place to take a two-week holiday, as in that time you could see one of the best preserved colonial cities in the Americas, see one of the world’s most beautiful lakes, hike active volcanoes, get to see amazing ruins, as well as seeing how the descedents of the Mayans who built them still have a traditional culture that’s very much alive to this day.