The north-west highlands are the real Guatemala. At least, they’re the Guatemala most people were imagining when they bought their ticket. This is where Guatemala’s remaining Mayan population is concentrated, mostly in the smaller villages up in the mountains. The people are kind, the culture fascinating, and the landscapes stunningly beautiful. So many backpackers coming down from Mexico miss them all together, heading straight to the tourist villages on Lake Atitlan and then to Antigua. This is roughly comparable to reading an entire book then stopping just before the last chapter so you never find out the point of the story. A ridiculous waste of time.
Quetzaltenango (Xela) is Guatemala’s second city, yet it’s small enough to walk round in a day. The surprising thing, for anyone used to Central American cities, is that you might even want to. It’s an attractive jumble of multi-coloured houses, colonial-style squares and chaotic marketplaces. What makes it cool though, is that there’s more interaction between tourists and locals here than almost anywhere else in the country. A large proportion of the foreigners in Xela are staying for a longer period of time, either working or studying Spanish, and bother to make Guatemalan friends. This gives the place an easy-going, friendly vibe, rather than the “us-and-them” mentality you get in some other parts of the country.
Nearby is Chichicastenango, which is famous for having the largest market in Central America. A sprawling, disorientating maze of stalls selling everything from vegetables to pirated DVDs to hats, it’s a great place either to buy Mayan textiles, or just wander round enjoying the exuberant vibe of it until your eyes hurt from so many intricate patterns and ludicrously bright colours.
To see what’s really left of the Mayan lifestyle though, you need to head up into the villages. This is where both the poverty and the beauty of Guatemala really hit you. Many are no more than little clusters of wooden huts at the end of dirt tracks, where Mayan women cook tamales over open fires and wide-eyed children husk corn on the mud floor. The most interesting are hidden deep in the remote hills of the north-west, surrounded either by pine forests, mountain paths and hot springs in the highlands, or semi-tropical rainforest and steamy plantations of coffee, macadamia nuts and cacao in the lower hills near the coast.