By Kristin Brinner
After two amazing months in Mexico we decided it was time to see a new country.
Heading for the Guatemalan border with Mexico we had the same apprehensive feelings that we had two months earlier when we were heading for the Mexican border with the United States.
We made the mistake of reading the U.S. State Department's report on Guatemala, and almost headed north for the U.S. Reports of kidnappings, carjackings, murders, and thefts gave us some sleepless nights. By talking with other travelers about their experiences in Guatemala, and reading the slightly more balanced UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office country report, we calmed ourselves down. Yes, Guatemala does have its problems, but we hoped that by being smart and cautious we wouldn't encounter them.
First on our agenda: learning Spanish. From our guidebooks, Guatemala seemed like a fantastic deal. A typical week-long program included a home-stay with room and board and four to five hours of one-on-one instruction a day for less than $200/person.
We decided to take three weeks of Spanish at the ICA language school in the gothic city of Quetzaltenango, also referred to as Xela. We met our new ‘family’ on our second night in Xela and got to know them better over a supper of steaming mugs of hot chocolate and sweet Guatemalan bread.
Shirly and Sergio Castillo had been hosting students from ICA for several months, and they knew to speak slowly and clearly so we could understand them. Their two very sweet children, Oscar and Alfonso, are 5 and 6 years old and enjoy practicing their English with us. After talking with the Castillos for several hours, our brains were overloaded with Spanish so we went to bed early.
ICA places its students with typical middle-class families, and it has been interesting to see the similarities and differences from life in the U.S. While they have cable and cell phones, the Castillo home is quite simply constructed around a small central courtyard. The family shares one bedroom, and spends much of its time in the adjacent living/dining room area. The bathrooms and sinks are located outside in the courtyard, and both clothes and dishes are washed in a cement sink.
Our room was upstairs over our bathroom. It was a large simple room furnished only with a bed and dresser. The water and electricity was somewhat unreliable, and taking showers in the chilly morning made for some chattering teeth. Sometimes in the middle of the night we were awakened by cats walking noisily on the tin roof, and in the mornings by a wobbly recording of music blasted from a nearby church.
We could notice our Spanish improving each day, and conversations with the Castillos became much more enjoyable as we didn't have to struggle so hard to express ourselves. One of the things we enjoyed the most about our time in Xela was learning more about how life in Guatemala has changed so much over the last 30 or 40 years. After a difficult and bloody colonial period, democracy was beginning to take hold in Guatemala between 1945 and 1952. Much of these reforms were undone as the Guatemalan government was overthrown by a CIA-orchestrated invasion from Honduras in 1954, after Guatemala attempted to expropriate vast lands that were being held fallow by the United Fruit Company.
As a reaction to the violent military dictatorships that followed this coup during the 50s and 60s, left-wing guerrilla groups began to form. By 1979, Amnesty International estimated that 50,000-60,000 people had been killed during the political violence of the 1970s. The 1970s, 80s, and 90s were marked by military coups, dictators, and starting in 1982, a civil war between the ruling military junta and the URNG, a coalition of four powerful guerrilla groups. Atrocities were committed by both sides in the civil war, which ended in 1996, after an estimated 200,000 people had died, millions left homeless, and countless others had disappeared. While life in Guatemala has dramatically improved since then, human rights abuses, corrupt government officials, drugs, and poverty still plague the country.
Despite all of this, the people of Guatemala are incredibly friendly. It is considered impolite to begin a conversation or enter a store without first greeting people with ‘buen dia’ (good day), people smile as you pass them on the sidewalk, and Sergio greets us a with a hug and a handshake every time we see him.
Tourists in Guatemala are generally unaffected by the problems that plague its citizens, but we were glad to be living with a family so we could better understand their lives. Sergio and Shirly grew up during the civil war, and have shared stories about hearing gunfire around their homes, and seeing neighbors and their children pulled from their homes, never to be seen again. Despite that, Sergio smiles as he talks with pride about Guatemala, and says ‘gracias a Dios’ (thanks to God) when he discusses how his children’s lives will be so different from his childhood.
Beyond the Spanish lessons, we explored the beautiful countryside around Xela. One weekend we arranged a guided trip to climb inactiveVolcan Santa Maria, the volcano we could see from our bedroom window.
We bundled up in our warm clothes, gloves, hats, and long underwear, and started the hike under a half moon. After an hour, the sun rose and we were shedding clothes, throwing them in our day packs. Three hours later at the summit, gusts of wind and clouds whipped over the peak, and we quickly sought shelter behind some rocks to put on every available layer of clothing.
Crowds of people, many in the colorful traditional clothing we see in Xela, were crying, singing, and praying while huddled in the rocks to keep warm. This volcano is a highly spiritual place for indigenous people of this area. At the top of Volcan Santa Maria, we had a spectacular view of the surrounding mountain ranges and the 2488 m tall active Volcan Santiaguito. This volcano is considered to be the ‘hijo’ or son of Santa Maria, and erupts about every 45 to 60 minutes. After 20 minutes of miserable cold and shivering, we headed back down. By the time we were halfway down, it was sunny and warm again, so we could better enjoy the views of the mountains around us, the farms and towns below us, and the wildflowers that grew on each side of the trail.
Streams of people continued past us climbing to the peak, many of them grandmothers carrying children on their backs or bundles on their heads, wearing beautiful indigenous hand-woven dresses, and hiking in heels and flimsy sandals. They really put us to shame as we battled the elements decked out in Gortex jackets, nylon pants, fleece gloves, and hiking boots.
We also made several trips to the nearby Fuentes Georginas, natural hot spring high in the mountains. The hot springs are nestled in a narrow green valley shrouded in fog. The hot water, naturally heated by the surrounding volcanic activity, pours out of cracks in the rocks into three pools of varying temperature. The hottest pool became unbearable after about 10 minutes of soaking, so we retreated downstream to a pool that soaked away the cold that had permeated our bones from our unheated bedroom and icebox classrooms.
One morning we woke up early to join a volunteer project hosted by ICA. For the last 15 years, the school has sponsored a reforestation effort in the surrounding mountains. This project's mission is to raise a hundred thousand trees of local species such as alder, cypress, pine, and eucalyptus every year. Deforestation in Guatemala is a problem as 60% of Guatemalans still use wood for heating and cooking. We walked about two miles to a nursery on the outskirts of Xela with great views of the erupting volcano. It felt strange to walk in a city pas two nternet cafes and clothing stores, while goats were herded down the street.
On the tree farm working with friendly Laura, her son Julio, and another farmer named Carlos, we hoed, weeded, and raked until our hands blistered and our backs ached. Chris was especially brave and helped me pick the transparent finger-sized worms out of the freshly turned dirt. We felt totally beat after only working four hours, but we were quickly reminded of how lucky we are when we passed city block sized gravel pits where all work was done by hand with wheelbarrows and shovels.
On our last weekend in Xela we spent a day at the indigenous village San Andres Xecul for its annual festival. To get to San Andres Xecul, we took one of the 'chicken buses' that serve as public transporation throughout Guatemala. These chicken buses would give the Diablo Rojos of Panama City a run for their money any day. The custom paint job, booming sound system and pimped out accessories gave new life to old school buses retired from the US.
We arrived in Xecul as the marimba orchestra was testing the decibal limits of the band's wall of speakers. Rickety faded amusement park rides that I imagined had their heyday in the US in the 1940s were set up in the central square, and filled with shouting children wearing multicolored traditional clothing of the local indigenous people.
This was a "green" fair with all of the rides hand powered by men heaving levers or simply pushing the rides to keep them moving. In the central plaza, following a speech of mixed Spanish and K’iche (the local Mayan language) and some earsplitting fireworks, a crowd gathered around a roped-off area.
Men adorned in sparkling costumes and wearing freaky conquistador masks began to dance haltingly back and forth as larger groups of dancers adorned in black and white bedazzled monkey costumes, or yellow and black spotted tiger costumes, joined them dancing. After watching for about an hour, we headed back down the hill to catch another chaotic bus back to Xela. While we enjoyed the chicken bus experience, it made us appreciate having a our own car for transportation. We couldn’t imagine riding for 6 hours packed into the back of a cramped school bus on the way to Tikal.
After three fantastic weeks we sadly said goodbye to the Castillos. We planned two additional weeks of travel through Guatemala to visit Lago Atitlan, Chichicastenango, Antigua, and Tikal before heading south in to the rest of Central America.
Next week, sailing from the San Blas Islands to Cartagena, Colombia.
For a full account of our travels, see our blog at The Darien Plan.
For those considering driving the Pan-American Highway, we have collected information on border crossings, car shipment, road conditions, gas prices, and everything else we found useful as road trippers driving Latin America at www.DriveTheAmericas.com