When they think about Guatemala, assuming they ever think about Guatemala at all, the first things most people think of are Mayans, volcanoes, and civil war.
Mayans still make up nearly half of Guatemala’s population. A fairly poor and downtrodden half, sure, but there they are, still practising many of the traditions passed down to them by their pyramid-building, end-of-the-world-predicting ancestors and stubbornly resisting any attempt to assimilate or exterminate them. And there have been quite a few of those.
And there are volcanoes, some of which are so active they’re in an almost continuous state of low-level eruption and you can go and watch the red-hot lava oozing from the ground. You can poke it with a stick if you like. It’s one of those universal human compulsions that you don’t want to admit you have but you do, you really do.
And there was a civil war. It pitted the dispossessed and persecuted Mayans against a state run by Hispanic-controlled military regimes famed for their human rights abuses, forcing them into tactics of guerrilla warfare under Marxist revolutionary groups. It was brutal, bloody, and it lasted 36 years. In many ways Guatemala is still reeling from it, but that’s not immediately obvious when you first arrive. The tourism industry has revived quicker than pretty much anything else, and by now it’s doing well as a sort of slightly alternative backpacker destination for those ‘graduated’ from Mexico – kind of like Laos is to Thailand.
There’s a lot of anti-American feeling in Guatemala. (This applies to Brits as well, as a worrying proportion of the population believe England to be a part of the USA.) It’s a shame, but bear in mind that the CIA orchestrated the coup that chucked out Guatemala’s democratically elected centre-left government in 1954, robbing them of any chance of social and agrarian reform and putting them under the thumb of brutal right-wing military regimes and puppet governments for the next 40 years.
The excuse was to “protect against the threat of Communism”, but it was actually as much about protecting against the threat of impoverished Guatemalan campesinos getting any scrap of land back off the US company United Fruit. Land that United Fruit was not even using, but “holding in reserve against natural catastrophes”. Consider how you’d feel if your country had been subjected to violent repression leading to 36 years of civil war, 200,000 deaths and a near genocide of its indigenous people, all over some rich foreign cunts’ hypothetical bananas, and the antipathy becomes more understandable.
The civil war ended in 1996, and Guatemala has been putting itself back together ever since. There’s still a long way to go. Inequality is enormous, healthcare poor, and literacy shockingly low. In most places roads and other infrastructure leave a lot to be desired. Existence, for example. But things are slowly looking up. At least now there are fair(ish) elections, most of the campesinos own their own land, and there is legal protection for indigenous rights and culture.
Guatemala is still fairly undeveloped and rural, which is good for travellers because most of the cities are horrible. Guatemala City is an absolute shithole, featuring grids of dirty apartment blocks surrounded by squalid slums, and very little else. Most travellers leave as soon as possible for nearby Antigua, which is an eerily pretty colonial town full of cobbled streets, leafy plazas, and other assorted clichés. After a few days of feeling like you just walked into a travel agency commercial you might find yourself yearning to get back to Guatemala City for a dose of realism. Quetzaltenango strikes a good balance between the two, and is probably the nicest city in Guatemala to spend some time in.
Guatemala’s real beauty is in the smaller Mayan villages, particularly in the highlands of the north-west. Those people you see in the travel brochures wearing colourful embroidered clothes picking medicinal herbs and hand-weaving beautiful textiles – they’re not just whoring themselves out to tourists, they actually live like that. And if you’re interested in the ancient Maya, or just want to take photos of big stone pyramids, there are some awe-inspiring archaeological sites in the jungles of Petén.
Nobody really comes to Guatemala for its beaches. There are some on the Pacific coast, but they’re black sand and more popular with surfers than sunbathers. And there are some on Guatemala’s little window of Caribbean coast, but they’re too dirty to live up to any Malibu ad inspired fantasies. The Caribbean coast is definitely worth going to, but more for the delightfully mad Garifuna community than the scenery.
Guatemala can feel like a hard place to really connect with. Its fucked-up history has created a deeply divided and complicated society that will confuse you more the more you get to know it. Under the sugar coating laid on for tourists you find a layer of shit. Dig through that and you find a layer of gold, under which may or may not be another layer of shit. It can drive you mad but somehow you are always drawn back, as to a strange-tasting food you can’t quite decide if you like or not. All the Guatemalan cultural groups are, in their own way, fiercely independent and intriguingly enigmatic. You could spend years trying to work them out, and you’d probably fail.
But you’d have a lot of fun trying.