We’ve been in the country for almost three weeks now: in the northern Peten region next to Belize, in the central highlands of the Alta Verapaz, and on the shores of Lake Atitlan. Guatemala isn´t a country we had given much thought to before, but it´s turning out to be fascinating.
Here are some of our impressions so far:
- The population is a mix of Spanish-speaking (Hispanic) “Guatemalans” and various flavors of “indigenous” (Mayan) people, who speak at least 20 distinct languages. Depending on where you are, you’re more apt to hear one of those languages than Spanish. (Not good for our Spanish practice, but interesting nonetheless.)
- The scenery is really varied and dramatic. We’ve seen deep jungle; mountains covered in misty cloud forest; corn growing on impossibly steep slopes; herds of cattle grazing in wetlands; dry rolling hills full of scrub brush and cactus; and a big slate-blue lake ringed by perfect cone-shaped volcanoes. I had no idea that Guatemala was such a mountainous place. It makes the bus rides feel long and queasy, but the views out the window are fabulous.
- There are lots of children everywhere. Guatemala reportedly has one of the fastest growing populations in the world. Some of our funnest interactions have been with giggly little girls.
- The machete is an all-purpose tool. People use it for everything from cutting wood to slicing pineapples. A mowing crew on a Guatemalan highway initially looks familiar: a couple of guys in day-glo vests direct traffic past a series of plastic cones. But when you get to where the mowing machines would be, there are six men with machetes whacking away at the vegetation on the side of the road.
- Everything seems to grow well in the wet central highlands, especially flowers. In the town of Coban, we saw women in traditional dress selling lavish bunches of cut flowers (red ginger, white calla lilies, snapdragons) in the central market. Since we were the only tourists around, some of them didn’t mind when Melissa asked if she could take a few photos, and they looked eagerly to see the results on the back of the camera.
- In most of the places we’ve been, women still wear traditional styles of dress. Brightly woven fabrics are turned into long skirts, belts, embroidered blouses (called huipiles), and sometimes turban-style head wraps. Such fabrics are also used to tie up the big bundles that women carry on their heads and to sling children across their backs. The colors, patterns, and styles of women´s dress seem to differ from region to region and even village to village. Some are muted and simple, others garish and elaborate. We’ve been having fun trying to spot the variations as we go from place to place.
- On a (traveler’s) bad day, Guatemalan towns feel dirty, dusty, loud, littered, and poor. On a good day, they feel colorful, cheerful, vibrant, and interesting. Full of fruit and flowers and the smell of fresh baking tortillas.
- Although local people watch you intently with a wary, serious look, if you say “buenos dias” (good morning) or “buenas tardes” (good afternoon) as you pass by, or if you wave to children on the side of the road from your bus, faces light up into smiles. It takes so little to make a basic human connection. We should always remember to do it.