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By Heidi Smets

First impressions

A colourfully painted, discarded, American school bus drives through the Guatemalan highlands. Swinging salsa and ‘Radio Romántica’ love songs blaring through the loudspeakers. The co-driver hangs out of the door and calls the destination ten times in a row at an almost tongue-breaking speed, so that he can be sure that the bus is filled with passengers up to the ridge.

With some fitting and measuring work, 100 people can easily fit into the bus; three per double bench and the rest in the aisle and possibly hanging out the door, with a shaky rod as the only grip. Most passengers are Mayas and their beautiful, colorful clothes make a first bus ride in Guatemala extra impressive.

The co-driver climbs up to the roof of the bus to lift up the passenger’s luggage – large baskets filled with mangoes, corn or chickens. He then pushes his way through the crowd of people and animals so that everyone can pay the travel fee. No change available? No hay problema; the co-driver remembers who has how much change in credit and when everyone leaves the bus, it will be taken care of. 

Almost everyone who travels independently through Guatemala regularly ends up in this chicken bus. Perhaps most striking is the tolerance during the, sometimes many hours of bus rides. I remember that there would have been a lot of arguments, irritations and discussions if the average Dutch man had to cover his commute in this way.

History 

Guatemala was the heart of the Mayan civilization. This civilization reached its peak from the year 250 to the year 900 AD. The Mayans built complex cities, each forming an independent kingdom. Much of their religion was based on incredibly accurate astronomical and mathematical insights and calculations. To this day, it remains a mystery why the Mayans suddenly left their cities. When the Spanish conquered Guatemala in 1523, there was little left of the great civilization. The Spanish found several Mayan tribes, who were in conflict with each other, and conquered their land. The new landowners brutally exploited the Mayans who lived on their territory.

From 15 September 1821 Guatemala was independent of Spain. Guatemala was first part of the Central American Union before the República de Guatemala was declared in 1839. Since then, a series of dictators, coups and military power followed.

In the 1960s, popular discontent grew and with it social unrest. The rural population (mainly Indian) was beginning to resist the army and the government, which together only work for the interests of a small, elitist group. The guerrilla movement is being cracked down on by the military. Villages are being massacred and burned down to counter the resistance. Violence reached a low in the early 1980s. It will take until the end of 1996 for a peace agreement to be reached. On paper, it’s peace. On paper, the Mayans are now accepted as full citizens with the right to fertile land, education and health care. On paper, they can practice their traditions and customs in freedom. However, the reality shows that peace is not achieved by a few signatures, but that peace is a lengthy process.

Cultures

Guatemala is a multicultural country. The population consists of direct descendants of the Mayans, ladinos, whites and Garífunas.

There are 21 different Mayan groups in Guatemala, each with its own languages and customs. Each individual Mayan group is recognized not only by its language, but also by its clothing, which is different by group and area and is decorated with ancient symbols characteristic of that particular Mayan group. In the last century, the divorce is less strong than before and marriages take place between people of different groups. However, the separation between the Mayans and the Ladinos is much greater. The Mayans generally live off agriculture and are the poorest part of the population. The Ladinos manage the middle classes, the commercial companies and work for the government. The Ladinos are a mixture of Spanish and Indian blood and they speak Spanish. The Mayans and Ladinos make up the vast majority of the Guatemalan population.

There is a small group of white supremacists: immigrants from Europe and the United States and the direct descendants of the Spanish.

The Garífunas live on the Caribbean coast of Guatemala. They are descended from African slaves who escaped a shipwreck around 300 years ago. Slowly the Garífunas spread across Caribbean islands and the coast of Central America. They adopted the Caribbean language but stuck to their African traditions in the field of music and religion. Livingston in Guatemala is one of the few traditional Garífuna villages in Central America. Due to the isolated nature of the village, the culture and language are well preserved here.

Tourism

Tourism in Guatemala has developed quite gradually. The so-called ‘hippie tourism’ in the 1960s and 1970s was, in a sense, the beginning of a still growing flow of tourists. Guatemala can by no means be characterized as a mass tourist destination, but there is a marked increase in the number of foreign visitors. After the end of the civil war in 1996, Guatemala is a safer country in the eyes of many foreigners and therefore more attractive as a travel destination than before. However, figures show that crime has increased since 1996.

Guatemala receives the largest number of tourists in Central America after Costa Rica. The fact that Guatemala borders the popular Mexico has a certain influence on these figures. Guatemala is often visited in combination with Mexico and recently the tourists residing in Mexico can take a day trip by plane to Tikal, the ruins in northern Guatemala.

Although it does not lack a rich culture and natural beauty, tourism in Guatemala has not really got off the ground for many years because of a negative image. The civil war, crime and kidnappings did not make the destination particularly attractive. INGUAT, the Guatemalan Institute of Tourism, has therefore focused on changing the negative image in recent years. Examples include the so-called ‘tourist police’ in busy tourist spots and the leaflets issued by INGUAT in which the visitor is presented with a number of tips for returning home safely. 

INGUAT seems to be concentrating heavily on tourist dollars without too much concern for the negative, especially cultural, effects of tourism. Promotion of Guatemala as a tourist destination via McDonalds placemats in the United States raised the question to me whether INGUAT is targeting the right target group in this way. By drawing all the attention to the ‘luxury tourist’, the tourist dollars continue to circulate in a small circle. The Mayan population, which is allowed to play the ‘tourist attraction’, does not share the economic benefits that tourism can bring. In a travel guide, the government’s position on discrimination against the Indian population and tourism is summed up briefly and forcefully: “… sticking pictures of them (Maya’s) on its tourist brochures while sticking guns in their faces…”

Of course, INGUAT does not alone determine the development of tourism. More and more local initiatives are emerging, including outside the tourist attractions such as Antigua, Lago Atitlán and Tikal. Since the end of the civil war, many areas have been more accessible than before and various small-scale, sustainable tourism projects as well as boarding houses and tours are being set up by the local population.

Both the ancient and contemporary Mayan culture has the most appeal for the tourist. In ancient times, Guatemala was the center of Mayan culture and today Guatemala – where the Mayans largely define the street scene – is still the most ‘Indian’ country in Central America. Guatemala is often visited in combination with the neighbouring countries Mexico, Belize and Honduras and this route is also referred to as La Ruta Maya. In addition, the Spanish schools determine to a large extent the influx of tourists. Many foreigners choose Guatemala for a Spanish course because of the low cost, the good atmosphere and the opportunity to see much of the country on weekends, as Guatemala is a relatively small and well-travelable country.

Corn

According to the story in the ‘Popol Vuh’, the holy book of the Mayans, the Mayans were born out of corn.

According to the story, the gods first tried to scoop the Mayans out of clay. That wasn’t a success. They were too soft and too weak and fell apart into hundreds of pieces. Then the gods created Mayans out of wood. But the wooden Maya had no blood, no brain, and therefore no purpose. After all, the wooden Mayans could not communicate with the gods or even come up with anything to talk about with the gods. Eventually, the gods created Mayas of corn. The men and women of corn had the same vision as the gods and had the qualities that the gods had in mind.

This myth highlights the greatest agricultural victory of native American peoples: growing corn. There is even evidence that corn comes from Guatemala because corn fossils that are 80,000 years old, or even older, have been found here.

Those travelling through Guatemala, and especially through the highlands, will see that corn is still of enormous importance to the Mayan population today. Next to most houses in the countryside is a milpa, a piece of land where the family grew corn. The milpa is of great importance to the owners. The land is the place where the ancestors are buried, the land is the place where the history of the community is guaranteed and the land is above all the place where generation after generation corn is grown in order to survive.

In the early hours of the morning, the women walk to the nearest corn mill – there is often one per village – and grind the corn fine while it is still dark. The cornmeal serves as the basis for almost all the food: the tortillas, the tamales, the chuchitos and the atoll. The unmistakable smell of yarn corn tortillas can be found all over Guatemala. Corn leaves are dried and used for various purposes and sacred figures are created from corn to celebrate certain holidays. Incense wrapped in corn leaves is burned during rituals and one still uses the expression “el hombre de maiz” to denote the Mayans. In Guatemala, corn is the food of the gods and the basis for contemporary life.

Do’s and dont’s

Do’s 

  • Treat the locals with respect. Who wants to be treated purely as a tourist attraction and beautiful picture?
    • When you buy something you are expected to negotiate. This does not mean, of course, that you have to go to extremes. Guatemala is not an expensive country and a few extra Quetzales can use any Guatemalan. It is wise to agree in advance a price for, for example, a taxi ride.
    • If you are unexpectedly robbed, hand over your belongings immediately. Robbers often do not shy away from actually using their weapon.
    • Inquire about the safety of certain bus rides, volcanoes, walking routes, etc. Examples of places that are unsafe in connection with armed robberies: the cross above Antigua, volcano Pacáya, the paths and small roads around Lago Atitlán.
    • The US dollar (cheques and cash) is the only currency you can exchange. In Guatemala City (e.g. at the airport) and in Antigua you can use a Dutch debit card (Cirrus) to use ATMs.
    • Semana Santa (the week before Easter) is a week not to be missed, with its many processions and decorated streets. Antigua is a good place to spend Semana Santa, but very busy.
    • It is worth finding out what days are market days. During the weekly market, even the smallest, sleepy villages turn into a colourful spectacle. The same goes for annual festivals.

Dont’s

  • Unsolicited photography is not always appreciated. It can even be perceived as very violent and aggressive.
    • In recent years, numerous Guatemalan children have disappeared, suspected of illegal adoption and organ trafficking. It doesn’t hurt to be careful with contact with local children.
    • It can be very disturbing for the Mayans if there are snoopers present in their rituals where sacrifices are made to the gods.
    • Guatemala City is not a safe city. A taxi is not an unnecessary luxury when you have just arrived with all your luggage. Many travelers shun Guatemala City altogether. Nevertheless, there are interesting places (Palacio Nacional, museums). With common sense and without valuables, you can take a quiet look at the city.

Guatemala as a destination

Guatemala is a poor and rural country. The poverty and consequences of years of civil strife are everywhere, both visible and invisible. This means that the traveller who chooses to go to Guatemala must realize that indelible consequences of oppression lie behind the colourful appearance of the population.

If you choose to go to Guatemala, you will choose an exciting destination, but you must be prepared to travel, eat and sleep like the Guatemalans do. With the exception of a few places, Guatemala is not set to the tourist who seeks luxury and comfort. The bus journeys are slow, the hotels often ramshackle, a hot shower is sometimes hard to find and chicken with beans can get bored after a few weeks. Anyone who can see the charm of this and who shows respect for the local customs and traditions will be overwhelmed by the splendour of the country and especially by the kindness, warmth and courage of the Guatemalans.

Because Guatemala is a small country, it is a good idea to choose a place as the ‘base’ from which the surrounding places can be visited. Many small villages do not have a hotel or guest house and in addition, the distance is often small enough to make day trips. Quetzaltenango, for example, is a great place to choose as a base for visiting villages, markets, hot springs and volcanoes. Petén, the province in which Tikal is located, is a beautiful area for nature lovers and has more to offer than just Tikal. The coast may not be up against the beaches of Costa Rica, Honduras or Mexico, but it is certainly interesting for those who want to get to know a completely different face of Guatemala. Guatemala is a diverse country, both in terms of nature and culture.

The traveller who is really interested in the future of Guatemala and the Guatemalans, I would like to urge you not to cling to a travel guide, but to do your own research on initiatives that support the local population. Only in this way can tourism revenues reach all layers of the population. There are hundreds of Spanish schools from which you can choose a language course. Why not choose one of the schools that uses some of the revenue to support an elementary school or a women’s cooperative?

The Quetzaltrekkers at the Casa Argentina in Quetzaltenango organize volcano walks and a walk from Xela to Lago Atitlán to raise money for a street children’s project. In the cloud forest around Cobán, you can make a trek with a local guide and share a meal with a local family. The income goes directly to the people involved. For those who keep ears and eyes open, there is plenty of information about these initiatives, for example on the bulletin boards in hostels and cafes.

With some patience and detective work it is possible to travel almost every area of Guatemala. In Guatemala it is sometimes said: ‘donde hay carretera, hay camioneta’. In other words, where there is a road, there is a bus. This is true. But it is wise to inquire if the area to be visited is safe. And for the whole country: knowledge of the Spanish language makes the visit a lot easier, and also more valuable.

Last impressions

During my last visit to Guatemala I worked as a tour guide and travelled through Central America with a tour group of fifteen Dutch people. Our journey began in Mexico. As soon as we arrived via Chiapas on the Guatemalan border and boarded the chicken bus on the other side of the border, the mood was right at once. Wonder about the surroundings and the people and giggles because of the chaotic bus journey, alternated.

A nice experience to see Guatemala again through the eyes of people visiting the country for the first time. I also realise at that moment that, after many visits to Guatemala, my appreciation for the country and its population has grown enormously. During a first visit, everyone will be impressed by the colourful street scene. But those who delve into the history, the contemporary situation and the background of the Guatemalans will be even more impressed with the country and its inhabitants.

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