Sunday, August 25, 2013

Guatemala #6 Touring Guatemala, Shadowed by History

If Guatemala could retain its personality and culture while being run by the Swiss, this would be one of the world’s great tourist spots.   As it is, it’s pretty special. 

(Detail of a traditional fabric from San Juan Sacatepéquez, from the Ixtel Museum, Guatemala City.)

In front of the church at Jototenango near Antigua.

In most of Guatemala, one is never out of sight of a volcano, which continue to be startling no matter how many time’s you’ve seen them--this one looking east from Antigua. 

Its south-central Highlands are an attractive patchwork of green and varied fields, forests, valleys and mountains.  After bright sunny mornings, rains arrive this time of year, bringing an aura of mystery as clouds drift through.  For a desert-dweller, this is exciting.

To the landscape add the Mayan people who make up 70 percent of Guatemala’s population--a handsome lot with ready smiles and strong features that age well.  Now clothe them in some of the most audacious colors and combinations in the world.  Everyone can identify traditional Mayan clothing; it’s close to being a cliche.  Nonetheless it's still powerful to see.  While cheap clothing from up north has converted many to western dress, a remarkable number in the Highlands still dress as before.  A whole lot of traditional attire is dropping away but the first-time visitor doesn’t know the difference.

Finally, add the extravagant Spanish architecture of the 16 century and the habit of painting otherwise ordinary buildings outrageous combinations of colors.   All this makes Guatemala a color photographer’s dream locale. 

The photos above are of folks who sold us something, not taken because we were looking for people notably attractive. Yet indeed they are. Likewise, at the Geronimo’s house which we featured two posts ago—30 photos of one family and its guests taken under poor light.  I shot everyone who was there, not just those who were handsome.

Until my last afternoon in the country, I did not look at a photo book and it was all I could do to limit myself to just one new one, on traditional clothing published by the terrific Ixtel Museum in Guatemala City.  Mayan culture is so varied that it features 16 different textile traditions where 21 different Mayan languages are spoken.

Guatemala’s Pacific Coast could be Costa Rica with another history, or so it seems.  An afternoon at the beach and the surf was a trip highlight for me. 

The Department of Peten in the north occupies a third of the country and was once the center of a Mayan world of 9 million people and had the world’s largest city. 

The temples at Tikal, above, rise 200 feet, peaking out of the jungle in Peten, northern Guatemala.  At one time this was the largest city in the world and the large region--up into Mexico--supported nine million people.  Today it supports 500,000, mostly related to the recently-initiated tourist trade.

 After its collapse in about 900 AD, Peten became almost uninhabited and largely unvisited until 40 years ago when the government moved people into the region.  It remains healthily backwater by modern tourist standards, running on compact fluorescent bulbs or no power at all for two-thirds of the day in Tikal.


Lake Atitlan from Casa del Mundo in morning calm.

Atitlan is a spectacular lake completely surrounded by mountains and volcanoes, the result of an eruption so large that the weight of the magma collapsed, creating a lake 1,000 feet deep.  It is a caldera, like Yellowstone, in its own world, climate and ecosystem, perhaps comparable to Lake Tahoe but much larger. 

So steep are its shores and ledges that roads between many of its small communities are impossible.

Casa del Muno on the northern shore of Lake Atitlan, reachable only by boat.

Boats run like buses around and across the lake, loaded with provisions and tourists.  Aldous Huxley famously compared it to Italy’s Lake Como but with volcanoes added, more beautiful than humanly permissible, he said.  Saint-Exupery wrote The Little Prince here and the volcanoes on his planets are from Atitlan.  It is Guatemala’s number one tourist attraction.

Number two must be the old capital of Spanish Central America, Antigua, less than an hour from the airport in Guatemala City.  Founded at the time of Cortez in the early 16th century and as grandiose as Spain could make it, Antigua prospered for 250 years.  Then a terrible earthquake prompted the Spanish to completely abandon it—to the point of forbidding people to live there—in favor of Guatemala City in l773.  It was gradually reoccupied and today its massive fallen walls and ruins are embraced by upscale hotels and make inviting subjects for photographers. 

A lap pool next to a garden of ruins at Hotel Ciroli in Antigua
Typical courtyard in the inexpensive EuroMayo Hotel in Atigua.
 Antigua has dozens of places to learn Spanish and many high-end shops and restaurants.  My friend and fellow Post Company board member, Joe Call and his wife Nola, spent Holy Week here and said he could happily spend the rest of his life at his hotel. 

But the Swiss do not run Guatemala.  You can’t take a train anywhere.  Roads can be rough.  Its people are remarkable buoyant and cheerful but in the pattern of Third World Countries women with children in tow are frequently pushing trinkets on you and there is a shabbiness to small market towns, not uncommon in Latin America.

For most, tourism is “If it’s Tuesday this must be Antigua” variety, rotating through a few places.  


Guatemala was misused by the Spanish, of course, and, in modern times was set up for United Fruit and similar multi-nationals, which still occupy large portions of the land.  Democratic reform came to Guatemala in the late l940’s, which worked great when limited to education and social services.  But when the government of Jacobo Arbenz forced the sale of some large landholdings in 1954, for what its owners had said it was worth for tax purposes, two cents an acre, the CIA--in a move as bold and ill-fated as removing the elected leader of Iran for the Shah--saw to it that Arbenz was tossed out in a military coup. 

There seems to have been a straight line between the coup and the brutal civil war which tore up Guatemala for 30 years and lives on today, both in the destruction of culture and distrust of government.


In Guatemala as in Argentina and Chile, many were "disappeared."  In fact, more disappeared in Guatemala than in those two better-known notorious cases. 

The uprising began in the late l950's and  a peace accord was finalized only in l996.  We were told the war is still not being taught or discussed in school.  These images above, from a large photographic account of the war published recently, perhaps shows a willingness to acknowledge the painful past.

Income inequality and absolute poverty remain.  This leads the ambitious to try to make it to the United States.
Guatemala has made progress in recent times.  The government may be more honest, well-intentioned and competent than its popular reputation. There is greater freedom of speech.  But if government gets things done it does so in spite of its perception among the populous.  Guatemala City has a reputation as a dangerous place, to be passed through quickly, (I spent two comfortable afternoons there in IXTEL Museum and Sophos bookstore so you couldn’t prove it by me).  The military’s mobilization to deal with (or not deal with) drugs mean that shopping for jade in Antigua requires protection by a heavily armed guard.  That may be reassuring but Switzerland this is not.

Unless you turn a deaf ear, there are tough stories behind beautiful places around Lake Atitlan.  A few days after being there, I had dinner with a woman from Great Britain, Claire McKeown Davies and her husband, Chris, an acting teacher from the Old Vic in Bristol.  Claire was working for Oxfam USA at a time when it was heavily involved in the cause of the poor farmers from whom the revolt against the government had sprung.  When she came to Santiago Atitlan on the lake in l990, the government had just mowed down peasants from 13 villages who had marched, unarmed, on the military base outside of town.  “It was a tense time,” she understates.  Oxfam had become accustomed to the CIA raiding its offices in search of evidence against the rebels.

On the wall of the Catholic Church in Santiago Atitlan is this picture of  a priest from Oklahoma in his coffin.  The president of Guatemala declared him a communist and he was then murdered.  

 Another story from Antitlan finds me again amazed by what by my country gets itself into.  When the Guatemalan government brutally repressed the revolt, it concurrently tried to pacify the Mayans in particularly with social and agricultural programs, which came to be called “Tortillas, rifles and beans.”  This included attempts to improve agriculture—through, for example, ag extension, which inevitably taints similar governmental attempts today.  The U.S. supported both the rifles and the tortillas and beans.

As part of this, the State Department decided to make Lake Atitlan a world-class sport fishing site.  After study, it supported the introduction of the black bass which, it turns out, ate the lesser fish and today Atitlan has neither sport fishing nor sustainable fishing.  
No one forces those who tour Guatemala to look into its most painful history  and most happily choose to avoid the whole thing.  For them we close with more of what's lovely about Guatemala: first, the full view of a huipil or upper garment of Guatemala women, this from San Juan Sacatepéquez.....

A food market scene from Santiago Atitlan....

... some roadside flowers--not the least bit unusual as they were sold in many little stalls on the rainy road from Panachel to Antigua. 






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