If you’re coming down from Mexico, the prevailing Lonely Planet wisdom is that the Guatemalans are friendlier than the Mexicans. This basically means that around tourist areas they will wear a prettier shirt and more beguiling smile whilst trying to sell you a similarly overpriced piece of tat. Most Guatemalans are actually quite reserved on first meeting, especially those of Mayan descent. Though usually pleasant and courteous, their trust has to be earned – which is hardly surprising from people who have been thoroughly screwed over quite as many times as the Guatemalans have.
Guatemalans are a difficult people to stereotype, as they have little sense of a uniting national identity. They are divided into two distinct cultural groups – the Mayans and the Ladinos – and after centuries of enthusiastic repression and rebellion there is not much love between them. 40% of the population come from indigenous Mayan groups, which is the reason for the fascinating culture you’ll hear gushed about in every guidebook, and also one of the main reasons for the staggering levels of inequality between the rural poor (who are mostly Mayan) and the urban rich (who are almost exclusively Ladino).
It’s hard not to be drawn to the Mayans, as they are a people of remarkable strength and dignity. The civilisation they came from went into decline over a millennium ago leaving them to be trampled on by an endless procession of bigoted megalomaniacs ever since, but like a proud, spiritual cockroach in rather attractive trousers they Just. Will not. Die.
In the villages of northern Guatemala, the Mayan culture is still strong. They wear the traditional dress, speak in one of the Mayan dialects, and some still follow the Mayan religion and ingenious Mayan calendar. They are a little withdrawn but not hostile to outsiders, and gentle and kind to those they trust. Although there is a problem with alcoholism, families and communities are very close.
The Maya have an air of earthy serenity to them but as they have proved, they are far from passive. They may have been driven right to the margins of Guatemalan land and society, but they do not feel like a defeated people. Stay with them for a while and you will really start believing that if the world does end in 2012 and we all wake up in a parallel dimension, the Maya will simply get up, brush themselves off, and carry on exactly as they did before.
The Ladinos are the more Westernised sector of the population, generally of Spanish or mestizo background. Less picturesque than the Mayans and therefore ignored by most guides to the country, they actually represent over half of the population and are the people you’re most likely to run into in the towns and cities. With their jeans, baseball caps, gadgets and cosmetics, they profess to hate Americans whilst trying doggedly to be as much like them as possible.
Because of the levels of inequality between them, it’s easy to develop a Mayans-Good Ladinos-Bad attitude. But bear in mind that you can’t blame every individual for the failings of their society, and give them a chance. They do look vulgar and materialistic compared to the unassuming Mayan farmers but hey, so do most of us.
Once you get to know them, Ladinos are a lot of fun. Louder, brasher and more outgoing than the Mayans, they have all the best as well as the worst of Latin characteristics. They are high-spirited and generous with their hospitality, and though they may be more likely to mug you than the Mayans, they are also more likely to adopt you as their new best friend and take you to riotous drunken parties and dinners with their entire extended family. A reasonable level of Spanish helps for this as not many speak English and besides, English is associated with America. And they hate everything associated with America. (Apart from Hollywood, MTV, baseball, sportswear brands, fast food chains, cosmetics, flashy cars and a few other things, obviously.)
The majority are devoutly Catholic. They also suffer from the twin Latin diseases of alcoholism and machismo. A man must prove his manliness, which apparently can be achieved by drinking himself into a dribbling, bloodshot-eyed semi-coma, then bragging incoherently and starting fights with anyone in a 100m radius. Meanwhile, a woman must do her best to impersonate a doormat that has magically learnt to cook.
The Caribbean coast has a completely distinct culture again, with a large chunk of the population being black Garifunas descended from African slaves and indigenous Caribbean islanders. They have more in common with the Belizeans than they do with other Guatemalans, and often speak English and/or Garifuna as well as Spanish.
Guatemalan reserve does not apply to the Garifuna. If you befriend one expect to have got stoned with them, confessed your darkest secrets, had sex with them, got engaged to them, got drunk with them and punched them before the day is out, happy in the knowledge that all will be forgiven and forgotten by tomorrow. Garifunas seem to have more life in their little toes than most people have in their whole bodies, and an incredible ability to make every day feel like a particularly rowdy party.
Although they’re happy to chill out in a hammock with a joint, they also laugh, fight, drink, dance and have sex with a last-day-on-earth kind of abandon, and have absolutely no comprehension of any desire for quiet or privacy. On a bad day they can be rude and aggressive, but usually they have the vibe of overgrown kids on a manic sugar rush – as likeable as they are completely bloody exhausting.