A Central American gem in the rough, Guatemala has fascinated travelers and travel writers for centuries. The beauty. The history. The people.
Of course, none of them ever got it right.
And in a three week visit, I won’t either. I came away enchanted, but just as clueless as when I got there. Like sipping an amazing cocktail, its flavors awash in your mouth, but with no idea of the ingredients it took to make it. I’ll tell you what we saw, what we did, and how we felt. That’s about the best I can do in one snapshot of time.
My hope is that the commentary and photos will give you a glimpse into a world so foreign and tropical and exotic, yet is closer to my home here in Phoenix, Arizona than it is to where my daughter lives in New York City (by 150 miles, no less).
This is not the forum for political statements, however, I have strong feelings regarding the following. I will be brief.
Recently, several thousand children, in an attempt to find their parents, have made the long and dangerous trek from Guatemala to our borders. By bus, train, car, on foot. Many were exploited, violated, robbed, beaten and worse. But they got here. With fierce determination, self-discipline and the naive courage of children, they made it. And to those who would gnash their teeth about illegals I say: these are exactly the kind of citizens we want as Americans. They have the kind of ‘can do’ spirit that those whose only gesture of fortitude is to rail again their entry to this country don’t have. It took real guts for those children to make that journey. I support them.
But, I digress… First stop: Antigua
Yes, that’s a volcano. Go ahead, click on it. It will give you a better sense of proportion. There are three of these conical giants within view of the city. This one is Volcán de Agua or “Volcano of Water”. The other two come as a pair; Acatenango and Volcán de Fuego or “Volcano of Fire” can be seen with just a turn of your head to the north.
We arrived late. A driver brought us from Guatemala City to our hotel. It was a rough night. On our first morning, standing out on the veranda, I felt a surge of giddy adrenaline at the sight of three volcanoes as I panned across the skyline. It’s both thrilling and not a little off-putting to see the first thing when you wake up. Though Virginia and I did our research before hand, we were, needless to say, unprepared for almost everything we saw. Which, of course, makes the taste of every new sight, sound and touch that much sweeter.
There are marvelous iron door knockers throughout the ancient walled city of Antigua.
Virginia demonstrates the height of many door knockers. Why so high? From the 16th century until recently, they were reached on horseback.
After a few days of aimlessly wandering the city, we hired a guide to give us a different perspective of life for local Guatemalans. More on my general philosophy on hiring guides later. The first place Celestino, a native Mayan, took us was a tour of eight Mayan villages that ringed the ancient city.
At the same festival, making shaved ice treats old school.
This cathedral was in the first Mayan village we visited. It was built, as they all were, right over sacred Mayan temples. Don’t get me started. This one was built in 1546. The brutal Spanish colonization of South America had been in full swing since 1519, a mere 27 years after Christopher Columbus ran back to Spain and proclaimed, “Hey, everybody! There’s a New World over there and it’s free for the taking!” And, yes, that’s a direct quote (with a sprinkling of snark for flavor).
In the Parque Central, young Mayan girls huddle before setting out to sell their trinkets.
The central part of Antigua is like a box, with nine major streets (calles) that criss-cross north to south. It initially appears to be the easiest city in the world to navigate. You follow the box north, south, east and west, no meandering curves and winding roads to make you lose your sense of direction, right? No.
The problem (for me, anyway) is that you stand on one street corner and look down it, fine. Go to the next and do the same. They look eerily similar. But, hey, you’ll remember landmarks, cathedrals, the crumbling ancient walls, yes? You get to the next corner and…it’s the same thing! Again and again I found myself spun around, lost in a city that only has nine streets! They appeared to be the same, but were in fact completely different. For someone who prides themselves on becoming quickly oriented, getting a grasp on the local territory, it was often frustrating and occasionally maddening.
Then, just when we start to get our footing, the layout is finally starting to make a bizarre, colonial kind of sense, it’s time to leave for the next portion of our adventure. We were in for another shock. We are taken from a world where our First World sensibilities worked just fine, into a world where everything we knew was challenged. Onto Lake Atitlan; one of the deepest, and most astoundingly beautiful lakes on earth. It’s coming up next; follow me there, won’t you? I can guarantee your safe return, but will you remain unchanged? That I cannot.
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