Take a chance on Guatemala
Use a little caution but get a great payoff
A fruit seller packages some pineapple for a customer in Guatemala City's downtown plaza. (Alan Solomon / May 10, 2012)
"We wanted to come to a Spanish-speaking country," said Sloan, who lives near Denver, explaining why she and husband Marty, who shared the table and our fondness for Gallo beer, had chosen Guatemala. "Mexico trips were out ... now."
But, it was suggested, Guatemala, like Mexico, is suffering from well-documented violence.
They came anyway.
"I said, 'I don't want to be held hostage by that fear.'"
So here we were, safely enjoying our cold Gallos and fearlessly enjoying a country that only recently (by 1996 treaty) and unsteadily has emerged from 36 years of bloody civil war. Today it's a battleground of sorts between forces of import, export and transport in a drug war of other peoples' making — and, remarkably, a good place to visit.
Guatemala is a beautiful, fascinating, sometimes challenging place. It remains the center of the hemisphere's indigenous Mayan people and is home to three UNESCO World Heritage sites. This tour, via the motor-coach company Caravan Tours, would hit all three: the Mayan pyramids and temples at Tikal, the ancient Mayan carvings of Quirigua, and the town — all of it — of Antigua, the former colonial capital.
Lake Atitlan and the Mayan market at Chichicastenango are the other essentials that make up the nation's tourist corridor, along with unavoidable Guatemala City.
Here's a telling statistic: In 2012, Caravan will lead 34 motor coach tours through Guatemala. In 2012, the company will lead 350 tours through Guatemala's Central American neighbor, duller but eco-loaded Costa Rica.
Why? Lots of reasons. A prime one: "People aren't afraid of Costa Rica," said Velvet Luna, handler of meetings and conventions for INGUAT, the Guatemalan national tourism office.
Afraid? Another telling stat, this one from the U.S. State Department's travel site: "In 2011, an average of 40 murders a week were reported in Guatemala City."
OK, let's deal right now with Guatemala City. It has museums devoted to antiquities and textiles, if you're into that. Like many Latin American towns (and more intriguing for most travelers), it has a classic central plaza and, behind the obligatory old cathedral, a covered market. These are not the places where slayings routinely happen.
Yet bus tours, Caravan's and others, typically skip this market and treat the square like a (pardon the expression) drive-by. Caravan tour director Jorge Fuentes kept his 42 clients sealed in the bus as it crept alongside the plaza. "In the main square," he explained later, "unfortunately, they have incidents."
But he also said this: "If you go on your own with a camera that is not so conspicuous, you will be like a fish in water."
On a Sunday morning, on my own, with a compact digital that fit in a pocket, it went swimmingly. The plaza was full of families emerging from mass or just celebrating life, its edges home to temporary restaurants. Children chased pigeons. Vendors sold pineapples, coconuts, ice cream and other treats. Great photos happened.
In the indoor market, more of the same, except for the pigeons. One of the little restaurants within the market is called Comedor Mary. Not sure if Mary was on site, but Sara, who works tables, spoke English and served advice.
"Don't keep that camera there," she said. My camera was exposed. "You don't want to be seen as a tourist. You have to be careful."
"The problem with tourists," said Luis Mich, in charge of INGUAT's tourist-assistance program, which includes a 24/7 hotline, "is when they are walking in Guatemala, they usually don't take care of themselves.
"The pickpockets of Guatemala are really, really smart. They are the cleverest in the world."