Guatemala has always been the stuff of legend. For me this was evident early on. Guatemala represented an exotic land with a palpable sense of magic and the source of my family’s origins—a land of rugged mountain trails, exotic jungle ruins, and fascinating indigenous culture.
I first visited Guatemala when I was three and was captivated by the country from the moment I set foot there. Some of my earliest memories are of mysterious Mayan Indians who giggled easily and carried baskets atop their heads while walking barefoot down dirt roads.
For all its beauty, you seldom hear much about Guatemala. Most U.S. travelers heading to Central America opt for the well-trodden path to Costa Rica, but as that country becomes more touristed many folks have begun seeking alternatives. I’ll warn you from the get-go: Those looking for another Costa Rica will be disappointed, for Guatemala must be met on its own merits.
But, if I were to compare the two, you’d find that Guatemala has many of the same attractions: Pacific and Caribbean beaches, steaming lowland jungles, white-water rivers, misty mountains, coffee farms, volcanoes, and splendid accommodations from which to enjoy them.
Added bonuses include better road and communications infrastructure, fascinating modern-day Maya culture, colonial art and architecture, and the ruined remains of the great Maya cities dotting vast portions of the landscape.
Surprised? In his book Guatemalan Journey, author Stephen Connelly Benz describes his own culture shock upon his return to the country after a 10-year absence. He writes, “It was something of a shock to have made the long journey to a Third World country—one of the poorest in the hemisphere, according to the statistics I had seen—only to discover landscaped avenues and speeding BMWs.” He adds, “What I learned that first weekend, or rather what I began to learn, was one of the important lessons of my sojourn: you cannot anticipate a place like Guatemala; it defies facile definition.”
From the chic cafés and high-rise hotels of Guatemala City to the mountain trails and quaint dirt-floor huts of the most remote Mayan village, Guatemala is an enigmatic land of culture and contrasts offering an incomparable palette of pleasures for any visitor.
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com