Guatemala: 3 Worlds In 1 Visit

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.


Two of the three volcanoes just outside Antigua
Two of the three volcanoes just outside Antigua.


There are marvelous iron door knockers throughout the ancient walled city of Antigua. Image
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. 7 - Old school shaved ice at Mayan village

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). IMG_0116

In the Parque Central, young Mayan girls huddle before setting out to sell their trinkets.   IMG_0134
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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All the fabrics made on those looms. Note Virginia in traditional Guatemalan attire (she still wears it around the house...not)

All the fabrics made on those looms. Note Virginia in traditional Guatemalan attire (she still wears it around the house…not)

Waistband Loom: Ancient yet still used today

Waistband Loom: Ancient yet still used today

Wine made from lowquats, nespiro in Spanish. Sounded great. Was awful to drink.

Wine made from loquats, nispero in Spanish. Sounded great, I love loquats!  It was awful.

About ragingtraveler

Hello there! Welcome to this crazy little blog of mine. The title is a reference to the famous Dylan Thomas poem, "Do not go gentle into that good night" (but rage against the dying of the light, etc. -- I drank a shot of Jameson's whisky in his honor at the White Horse pub in New York City a while back, a place where it is said he drank 18 shots of Jameson and died that night at 39; but that's another story.) And as Thomas declares in the poem, and if you are anything like me, you will not give up. You will not fade away. You will not go gentle into that good night. You will rage against the dying of of the light. You want to explore everything this life has to offer before we are dragged off, kicking and screaming, to that next Great Adventure. So let's see what this adventure is all about, shall we? Hey, along with my wife Virginia and our faithful dog, Wyatt Earp Clark (don't ask; it is supposed to be 'ironic'), we just moved to Portugal! For a year. Call it a gap year for geezers; an experiment in grey; an are-you-crazy-or-what-senior-meltdown -- call it whatever you like, but this is our way of stepping out of our comfort zone, not settling in for life's last stand. Call it brave or foolish (or a little of both), we are committed to taking a peek around every corner we can. While we still can. Care to join us? Welcome aboard, matey! View all posts by ragingtraveler

2 responses to “Guatemala: 3 Worlds In 1 Visit


    I’m enjoying your Guatemala posts Nelson. I’ve been to Belize a few times (and in fact contracted dengue hemorrhagic fever there, but that’s another story), but never made it to Guatemala. It’s on our list and I’ve done a bit of research. From what I’ve seen, the countryside and small towns and villages are wonderful, but Guatemala City, not so much. Have you spent much time in GC, and would you recommend it? Thanks in advance. ~James


    • ragingtraveler

      Hello James, nice to connect with you. Dengue fever! Wow, It is a wonderful Cambodian rock band (!), but a terrible plague for many. I hope you are well-recovered and remain so (I understand it can return, like malaria, in some cases). Upon doing research, we did not spend any time in GC. Probably not the safest place at this time, and we were told as much by some folks we met in our travels in country. By arrangement we were taken directly from the airport to Antigua. One couple we met at Casa Del Mundo said the hotel staff in GC recommended in no uncertain terms that they not leave the hotel while waiting for transportation to Antigua. Anecdotal I know, but the city, big and sprawling, seemed to have an air of desperation (could just be me, though) amid the grinding poverty there. Plus, as you say, the real beauty lies in its other parts. It is a wonderful place, we felt totally safe outside GC, and the glories of the terrain can’t be fully appreciated unless you are there. Climb a volcano, explore villages, so much to do, GC was really just our jumping off point. The last stop (after Chichicastenango) we made was Tikal, a major Mayan city that rose to the height of the civilization to around 900 A.D. and then mysteriously disappeared (like everyone else, I have my own theory, as I am sure you will too once you’ve seen it). It was not so easy to get to or to be there, but the ruins, the twenty story pyramids, some barely uncovered and peaking out from the jungle, were spectacular and a highlight of our trip — and would be for any trip. Thanks for reading and I am glad to respond. Cheers, Nelson


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