Land of Plenty
For the last couple of decades, Guatemala has been known mostly for its brutal civil war, in which fanatical guerillas and CIA-supported government death squads killed an estimated 200,000 of their countrymen.
Although the cities were mostly isolated from the war, much of the countrysidewith its profusion of volcanoes, rain forest, rivers, wildlife, and Mayan ruinswas considered a place for only the most intrepid of foreign tourists.
But in late 1996, a formal peace treaty was signed, and the fighting came to an end. Although by no means a Costa Rica or Belize, Guatemala is now a do-able destination for the green traveler. For adventurous types, the fact that Guatemala has little of the tourist infrastructure of, say, Costa Rica is one of its biggest draws. If you're sick of being told by all your savvy-traveler friends, "Oh, man, you should have seen it 20 years ago, before it got ruined by tourists," here's your chance to get in on the ground floor.
The Mayan Culture
The Mayan Indians who inhabit the countryside of Guatemala have tenaciously clung to their traditions. Here, as in few other places in the Western hemisphere, one can see a strong indigenous culture little touched by the 20th Century. Colorful markets, fiestas, and native art and handicrafts--especially hand- woven cloth and garments--are everywhere in the Guatemalan countryside.
Because of its wildly varied terrain--from sweltering sea-level jungle to snow-dusted mountain peaks at almost 14,000 feet, all in an area the size of Maine--Guatemala has an extraordinary biodiversity. Birds include macaws, toucans, giant jibaru storks, and the country's national bird, the rare and spectacular quetzal. Among the earthbound are jaguars, manatees, monkeys, sea turtles, and a dizzying variety of flowering plants.
More than 30 active and dormant volcanoes, ranging from 8,000 to 13,846 feet, form the mountainous spine of the country. Most are distinct, free-standing, steep-sided peaks that lends an air of drama to the scenery. Most of the mountains have non-technical trails to the top, from which there are superb views.
Even in the beautiful old colonial capital of Antigua, a favorite of foreigners, the best place in town charges as little as $60 a night, and there are plenty of rooms for $20. In smaller towns and villages, $10 a night is the usual rate for a clean, pleasant room. (Hey, you shoulda been here ten years ago, when a nice room went for $2 a night.....)
What's Not So Great:
Environmental and Archaeological Damage
Because of an exploding population and a who-cares attitude by big companies and small farmers alike, a third of Guatemala's land has been seriously degraded, and Mayan sites, almost all of them unguarded, are routinely looted. (Peasants have even been known to plow up the central plazas of ancient ruins in order to plant corn.) The government is beginning to see the light and set aside parks and preserves, but it has a long way to go to match the aggressive environmental ethic in Costa Rica and Belize.
Although the danger of guerilla warfare is past, bandits prey on tourists in certain areas. In early 1997, for example, five tourists were shot (three killed) while climbing Pacaya and Agua, two popular volcanoes near Guatemala City. And one tour operator we talked to will not bus its clients from the airport to Antigua, 45 minutes away, after 9 p.m.
There is a sharp breach between Guatemala's two ethnic groups, the Ladinos and Indians, each of which make up about half the population. The Ladinosof Latin descent, comparatively sophisticated, urban, and richrun the country. The Indiansof Mayan descent, generally rural and poorare considered second-class citizens. The vast economic and political power imbalance between Ladino and Indian is the primary cause of Guatemala's long and brutal civil war.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
Best Hotels in Guatemala