Just returned from nine days in Guatemala, and thought I’d jot down some observations and impressions of the place. Having no prior knowledge, I had few expectations although I will admit that I had some biases based on its location nestled beside Mexico.
I now understand why Central America generally and to some extent Guatemala is so popular with Americans and especially retirees. First, the climate is great and actually more accommodating than Florida, as its elevation above sea level provides a more temperate climate and less humidity, at least during its dry season. Second, the people are friendly and hard-working. Third, the cost of living is inexpensive. Fourth, in the case of neighbors Belize, Costa Rica, and Panama, English is spoken everywhere (not true in Guatemala).
Among my biggest surprises (even though I knew Guatemala was a poor country) was the fact that the roads are horrendous, and the driving is even worse. Between the spectacular topography (owing to mountains formed eons ago by earthquakes and volcanoes) and the fact that the vast majority of roads are either cobblestone or dirt, travel around the country ain’t easy. And there is no railroad or mass transit of any kind, probably because of the topography, unless you count the thousands of “chicken buses” the locals take to get around. (Chicken buses are yellow school buses from the USA that have been artistically and uniquely painted and used to transport people and all types of cargo, including livestock, hence the name.) It was not surprising to learn that Guatemala ranks 116 in paved roads with a mere 4,700 kilometers (less than 3,000 miles) of paved roads, behind Western Sahara and before Tunisia.
Another big surprise, which I learned by inquiring about sending postcards was the fact that two years ago, the country abolished its national postal system, so if you want to send mail, you need either a private courier or DHL. Tooling around small villages I noticed most have no street signs, so you have to wonder how the mail every got delivered even when the post office existed. No street signs tell me that all activity in most of the country is very local where everyone knows everyone else.
Probably my biggest surprise was to learn that there is no system of public education in Guatemala, meaning children can only attend schools if their parents can pay to send them privately.
The most interesting bit of history I learned was about the relationship between Belize (formerly British Honduras) and Guatemala. According to our guide, centuries ago, England was granted permission to harvest lumber (Mahogany) from Guatemala in return for promising to build roads in Guatemala, but apparently not only didn’t build roads, but occupied more land than their permission allowed, and kept it, which later became known as British Honduras. To avoid a confrontation, England granted that occupied territory its independence and it became known as Belize. Today Guatemala intends to appeal to the United Nations to either recover that territory or at least be compensated for its improper appropriation by England. Time will tell if they are able to prevail.
If you decide to go to Guatemala, be aware that travel there carries significant risks, so your trip should be supervised by a professional tour guide, at least in a group format, or more preferably, a private tour guide (as we did). There is no public transportation, there are few road and street signs, information about everything is scarce, and YOU MUST SPEAK SPANISH to get anywhere or do anything!
We visited four areas: Guatemala City (the Capital City since the 1700s and where the major airport resides), Tikal (where the most significant settlement of the ancient Mayan civilization resides), Antigua (the well-preserved former capital of Guatemala back in the 1500s, when it was ruled by Spain, later moved to Guatemala City after being decimated by an earthquake) and Lake Atitlan (a magnificent venue formed in the valley of several volcanoes).
These areas provide you with a blend of Spanish (and Catholic) history in the country, history of the Mayan civilization and some spectacular sites of natural beauty. If you have time, visit Chichicastenango (no, that isn’t Pinky Tuscadero’s kid sister) when you are in the vicinity of Lake Atitlan, touted as the oldest and largest open air market in Central America.
Additionally, we enjoyed visiting a coffee plantation near Antigua. I was surprised to learn that Guatemalan coffee is considered the world’s third best quality, behind Ethiopian and Kenyan, although you would never know it as they produce it in relatively small quantities. By the way, the locals aren’t coffee drinkers. Their chocolate is also considered very high quality, even though chocolate’s origin is apparently Brazil. By the way, the food just about everywhere we visited was flavorful and freshly prepared. Lots of fresh fruit, including papaya, pineapple, watermelon, cantaloupe, berries, and veggies, and avocados are served practically at every meal. The staples of the Guatemalan diet include corn, rice and beans.
My advice is to focus your visit on the two main areas of Antigua (for culture and history) and Lake Atitlan (for natural beauty). Tikal is billed as a major attraction given its historical significance as the center of the ancient Mayan civilization, and its available sites are impressive. However, be aware that only about 20% of those artifacts and tombs have been disinterred as of this writing, so you won’t see most of what archeologists believe lies buried beneath the surface. That was a bit of a disappointment. Besides, visiting there will require a short flight or a long bus ride as Tikal is located well north and east of the other two major attractions mentioned. You will probably need to fly into Guatemala City, but know that it offers little attraction and my advice would be to spend as little time there as possible.
Whenever I leave the USA I always return with a great appreciation of many things we take for granted here: words like management, organization, efficiency, transparency, disclosure, communication all carry greater meaning for me now. The Guatemalans are hard-working, skilled, and talented people, but given the dire state of its roadways and communications infrastructure and the fact that they have no public or free education system, suffice it to say they face a challenging future.
In case you wonder about the title of this essay, you should know that “Pinchazo” is a Spanish word that has many meanings, including flat (as in tire) and sharp pain (as in the kind one experiences after many hours of traveling on cobblestone roads). It seemed that every mile or so, traveling on the major highways we saw signs reading “Pinchazo.” Not surprising since the roads are so bad. Our guide told us that not only do they wash their cars daily there, but they have their breaks checked every couple of weeks!