A couple of easy hours from Miami, Guatemala is a time warp. One of the physically closest of our Central American friends, it is at the same time one of the most culturally different—more so, certainly, than modern Mexico. These days, when you can be waved through US immigration not only in the Bahamas but now in Curarçao, Guatemala demands that you look again.
The first time I went to Mexico City, to attend the painter Orozco’s funeral in 1949, I was immensely depressed by the largest metropolis south of our border (or, now, north of it, for that matter). In the same way, Guatemala City, where most visitors enter the country, makes everything else in your stay an upper. This capital is flat, rectilinear, temblor-jittery. It lacks the greatness of Buenos Aires, the quaintness of Quito. Its best hotel, the relatively luxurious Camino Real, is latticed with a corseting of ugly external girders that guards against another earthquake. But this cement vest in no way qualifies Guatemala’s hospitality, which is extraordinary, even for South America. There is a profound courtesy-without-servility everywhere—among the ladinos, the Indians, everyone-which surely spoils you for the New York City subway.
Too, it is from this undistinguished capital that access is gained to one of the wonders of the world, that pure marvel of Mayan civilization called Tikal, whose temples repose in a set ting more sylvan, tranquil, and untouricized than Monte Alban and Macchu Picchu in Peru.
A mere 30 miles away, the old capital of Antigua (pronounced in the Spanish way rather than that of the ex-English island not far off) at once gives a different impression, that of earthquaked dilapidation, with few colonial churches still standing after the 1976 devastation. None holds a candle to those in Mexico’s Oaxaca, nor out side it. All the same, close by the Indian village of Santa Maria de Jesus the dwelling of Francisco Marroquin, first Bishop of Guatemala, has some how survived, a cool and silent gem, resting under the lip of the ominous Agua volcano, in whose crater, it is said (I didn’t check) a soccer field can be housed. Antigua boasts one garden hotel of charm, plus a rather claustrophobic posada, the Don Roderigo. The town has sprouted pension-type language schools, in private dwellings, but the last report I read of these, from The Miami Herald, was not encouraging.
Everything is remarkably welcoming and remarkably cheap. The Indian villages are Indian. Every tourist goes to Chichicastenango, staying with luck in the old Mayan Inn. Here the market is superbly indigenous, religious, and superstitious: mages or brujos do steady business in the incense-ridden church, pouring over arrangements of candles and tokens. Tourists there may be outside, but these are Guatemalans playing to each other. A fiesta here or, better, at tiny San Antonio Palopó on Lake Atitlán, is virtually medieval. The costumes—the turban-like headdress of both sexes, or the handwoven walk shorts of the men—are worn without affectation or any self-consciousness. They belong to the tradition and are, in many cases (like the floppy caps of the Nabaj), marks of identification. Here tourists are not pestered, at least not in the predatory manner of some countries, not to mention the panhandlers of that NYC subway. Usually it is children, with ready grins and glyphic eyes, who ask for handouts. One tip for fending off such importuning is to learn a phrase or two of Indian; this can be counted on to double them up and roll them in the aisles.
As everyone seems to know, Lake Atitlán was called the most beautiful lake in the world by Aldous Huxley; this was in Beyond the Mexique Bay, which I recently reread. It is extremely disappointing as a guidebook to Central America, but it speaks volumes for the tenacity of the Englishman abroad. An ailing Huxley seemed to think nothing of ten hours straight in mule saddle over rough country. Lake Atitlán is certainly not lushly romantic like the Italian lakes of Orta and Como; it is starker, more classical in feeling, and of course infinitely less populated. It has one lovely lakeside hotel set in tropical gardens, somewhat marred now by an abandoned sky scraper to one side. The lake is said to be the least polluted in the world and it well may be so. We swam there with pleasure and impunity. The principal lakeside town, Panajachel, however, has become an agglomeration of trailers, campers, and backpacking tourism. In this complaisant gringotenango the aging flower children, with their 60ish love beads, smoke pot and . . . sell flowers. The locals seem remarkably tolerant of this rather grubby Skid Row introduced into their midst.
Is Guatemala safe? Some years ago a State Department advisory counseled against a visit, but today tourism is the country’s second hard-currency earner (after coffee). A lot of this tourism looked German to me. There are guards put on hotels and banks, and even the better restaurants, plus patrols on the main roads. The Indians even mount their own to protect their highland villages. The Nabaj is said to be full of guerrillas, but an Englishman I know who works there seemed un troubled by their threat.
Some roads are not safe, however. Local drivers know. My wife Colleen and I wanted to go to a Corpus Cristi mass at picturesque Patzun, not too far from the lake, but we couldn’t find a chauffeur to take us. Teaming up with an adventurous German couple we finally winkled out one who said he’d go provided the military would guarantee a road patrol. Approached, the nearest military understandably told us they didn’t advertise when they sent out patrols. Today you even enter Chichicastenango to sandbagged machine-gun emplacements. A US AID officer I’d coincidentally met after the intervention in Grenada had just lost a month’s pay packet delivered to some hill Indians. No sooner had he left their village than he heard the rattle of Kalashnikovs; his workers were robbed at gunpoint. So, generally speaking, there does not seem much clanger for tourists on the beaten track. Off it, there may be. In the recent past busloads (including one backpacking Brit) have been held up and shot roadside. For the guerrillas are robbers, your basic ladrones out for money. They obtain this thanks to their Russian weaponry. One needs but one guess at who supplies them with such sophisticated and expensive arms. Guatemala has sieve-like Pacific and Caribbean coastlines. Once in the pos session of an AK-47, an implement it would take a hill Indian years to pay for, the robber is indebted to, and eventually inculcated into, the Communist Party. A glance at the widest geographical contours of the region shows this lovely little country sandwiched between the Ortegas of Nicaragua and their nasty little mirror image, Noriega in Panama. It is a holiday in itself to visit a place with such dignified and natural courtesy; one can only hope Guatemala’s pacific people will be allowed to live in peace.