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Think of travel to Latin America and most United States citizens think of certain resort areas of Mexico or perhaps a trip to the cloud forests of Costa Rica. Few ever consider Guatemala. Last year, well under 100,000 citizens made the journey. Why?
The stumbling-block is the media images we have planted in our minds: images of violence and civil strife. Once planted, such images are slow to dissipate. However, since the signing of the Peace Treaty on December 29,1996, the strife has ended. The word apparently hasn't gotten out to US travelers. I guess peace just doesn't draw the same media attention as war. Since 1996, this Central American country has been working double-time to rebuild its economy and to attract visitors.
On a recent visit, I found that Guatemala has caught on with European travelers. I met many groups of French, German, and English travelers (but could probably count on my fingers the number of US travelers). I experienced a friendly people, eager to entertain guests from the US. The traveler that foregoes a visit to Guatemala is missing an excellent opportunity, not to mention the price value. A trip to Guatemala can cost a fraction of a trip to neighboring Belize with its high prices and value-added-tax.
From the cosmopolitan center of Guatemala City to the mountain highlands, to the steamy lowland jungle with its ancient Mayan sites, Guatemala, in her 42,042 square miles of area, is land of varied natural and cultural beauty with much to offer the intrepid traveler. With a population of two million people, Guatemala City is the largest city in Central America. Here one finds the most up-to-date facilities and accommodations as might be expected anywhere in the world. Two places of particular interest in the city are the National Palace and the Metropolitan Cathedral. The National Palace used to house government offices but is now a museum. The Metropolitan Cathedral is filled with paintings and artifacts from the 16th Century.
A visit to Guatemala should include a stop in the city of Antigua. The city has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). The city served as the Spanish colonial capital of Guatemala from 1543 to 1773. At the time, it was the most important city in the Spanish colonial government between Mexico City and Lima, Peru. The town suffered several earthquakes in that period, after each of which it was rebuilt. However, when the devastating Santa Marta quake struck in 1773, the governor ordered the city abandoned. The city had been home to several religious orders that had built many impressive monasteries and convents. The city remained in ruins until coffee growing in the later 1800's started to bring people back into the region. The cobblestone streets and the ruins of Iglesia La Merced and the Las Capuchinas Convent are popular with visitors today. Today's town is a virtual museum of Spanish colonial history and architecture.
An excellent place to stay in this colorful, former capital is the Casa Santo Domingo. The hotel was formerly a Catholic monastery and had remained buried in earthquake rubble until 1989. At that time excavations and work on making it the lovely hotel it is today started. In fact, excavations are still ongoing. Throughout the grounds the soothing sound of running water may heard--a result of the many fountains built by the monks who once made Casa Santo Domingo their home. The place emanates peace and solitude. A place of quiet meditation is found behind her thick wooden doors which block out the few street sounds there are. Bird songs fill the morning air as a worker quietly sweeps fallen leaves from the central courtyard.
The Guatemalan Highlands, populated by modern Mayans, is a place of traditional dress, which means brilliant colors. The clothing details reveal the identity of the wearer's village and people group. The hand-made clothing is made using the brightest color dyes available. Be sure to bring plenty of color film. The best place to see the brightest array of color is probably the Central Market in Chichicastenango. The market represents the largest indigenous trade center in Guatemala, if not all of Central America. Each Thursday and Sunday, the Mayan people from the surrounding areas gather to buy and sell. The market is an explosion of color: hand-woven textiles; jade carvings; brightly painted wooden carvings; fruit and flowers, it is all for sale.
The market also represents an excellent opportunity for the traveler to do some bargaining. Never pay the first price asked for an object. It is expected that one will bargain, and there are some excellent deals to be made. However, one should remember the hours of labor that go into producing these objects and that one is dealing with poor people with families to support. Get a bargain, but don't take advantage.
Although Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion of Guatemala, there is a good deal of syncretism. Chichicastenango also offers one the best places to observe it first-hand. The market is centered around Iglesia Santo Tomas, a Catholic church, named in honor of the town's patron saint, Saint Thomas. The church was built in 1540 on the site of a pre-Christian temple. Today, one may see the Mayan priests swinging buckets of burning incense through the air, carrying on their Mayan services at the church.
Located at an elevation of 5,125 feet, Lake Atitlan is also found in the highlands. Surrounded by three volcanoes this beautiful lake was formed in a cataclysmic eruption about 85,000 years ago. At 1260 feet deep, it covers just over 49 square miles and fills a valley dammed by volcanic ash. Several Indian villages line her shore. Life goes on here much as it has for centuries. The people fish and weave cotton and wool. They also grow onions. While in the village of San Antonio Palopo I saw people cleaning large bundles of onions--the women on one side of the pier, the men on the other. They do not work together. Later I was to learn that the area produces more onions than anywhere in Central America. It was in San Antonio Palopo that I watched as a lady worked a back-strap loom weaving thread into some of the lovely cloth for which the region is known.
Panajachel is the town where the travelers gather. The villages do not have guest accommodations and Panajachel has the area hotels. Hotel Atitlan is located here. Located in a serene location, the hotel is surrounded by gorgeous flower gardens that attract multitudes of feeding hummingbirds. The region is one of the most picturesque of anywhere on earth. It is this rugged scenic beauty that attracts visitors.
Since Guatemala lies at the heart of the ancient world of the Maya, it would be a shame to miss Tikal. Tikal, like Antigua, is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Tikal was occupied from 600 BC to 900 AD, a period of 1500 years. Here one finds one of the best-preserved archaeological sites of the Maya, and the best examples of Mayan achievement. The site features some of the tallest buildings ever built by the Mayans. It is only a half-hour flight from Guatemala City to Flores and then a 40-minute drive to Tikal. It makes for a great day-trip.
I felt safer during my visit to Guatemala than I have in many US cities. Whether you are looking for adventure travel, eco-tourism or history and archaeology, this is an excellent destination with much to offer.
Text and Photos [c] PROSE & PHOTOS