I was a bundle of nerves before I left NYC for Guatemala. I had read enough stories about how unsafe it was, hadn’t travelled solo in another country for a while, and Central America just felt like a world away. My fears were gradually alleviated when I landed here, realizing how laid back the locals are, and in some ways, how much more organized travelling here is than many developing countries I’ve been to.
Here are my impressions of Guatemala, penned during my three weeks here:
Guatemala pushed me out of my comfort zone.
When it comes to comfort zone, no country forces you to push your boundaries the way India does. But after all these years of travelling, often solo, in India, Europe and Asia, that nagging feeling of being too cocooned in my comfort zone had started to surface. My time in Guatemala has rekindled my sense of adventure; from speaking only Spanish for twenty days, to delayed buses depositing me at abandoned bus stops in the middle of the night, to living with and adapting to the ways of a Mayan family, to exploring places that I had only ever read about in text books. It took me longer than usual to lower my guard to the ways of the country, being my first tryst with Central America, but I came out with the realization that as long as I followed my instincts, I felt as safe as I did in any other part of the world.
The ancient Mayan way of life is still alive… but maybe not for long.
First things first, the “end of the world” calendar of the Mayans has been misconstrued by most people; it merely signified the end of an era. I tried to raise the topic in some light-hearted conversations, but was met with confused looks; the Mayans clearly didn’t have an idea of the broo-ha their calendar had caused at the end of 2012! Of the 22 indigenous Mayan communities that live in Guatemala, many still speak their native sound-oriented languages (“ha” means let’s go in Q’eq’chi, and “maltiosh” means thank you in Itza), are distinguished by the patterns of the women’s dresses, and a few even worship Maximon – a Mayan saint depicted with cigar and alcohol, and Ixcacao – the Mayan Goddess of chocolate!
But it was living with a Mayan Itza family that led me to realize that while Spanish colonialism and Guatemala’s dictatorship era wiped away big chunks of the ancient Mayan way of life, tourism and globalization continue to chip away at it. Most communities are now entirely catholic and primarily speak Spanish; the younger ones often aspire to learn English and adopt western ways – something we can’t really hold against them. Go experience their unique culture while you still can.
The natural beauty is stunning!
While I expected to rub shoulders with Guatemala’s ancient Mayan culture, I didn’t expect to be awed by the country’s natural beauty, something I seldom read about in my research. Antigua itself offers breath taking views of three active volcanoes, and on it’s outskirts, the road winds along green-sculpted mountains, past swaying maize fields, and across sleepy villages. In the northern department (as states are referred to here) of Peten, I found myself amid rolling meadows with grazing cattle, lived in a village that overlooked the pristine lake Peten Itza, and hiked in the dense tropical rainforests of the Mayan Biosphere Reserve. And my solar-powered Airbnb studio in the village of San Marcos La Laguna was like an eagle’s nest above Lake Atitlan and its volcanoes (Sign up on Airbnb with my referral link and get 25$ off your first stay). So yes, I give Guatemala full credit for sweeping me off my feet with its natural beauty!
Vegetarian food in Guatemala is delicious!
Frijoles (black beans) and arroz (rice) are the staple diet in Guatemala, and as someone who is always craving Mexican-style food, my vegetarian taste buds felt delighted here. My host family in the village of San Jose typically ate the expensive meat dishes for only one meal, with plenty of veggies. Lunch and dinner mostly consist of frijoles, platanos (plantains) and huevos (eggs), and sometimes pasta, topped with salsa picante or chile, served with heaps of maize tortillas. In many local-run cafes and restos, I’ve indulged in bean or veggie tamalitos, empanadas, tostadas, and such. Yummy!
The locals are friendly, but knowing a little Spanish is a must.
I must admit that I was taken by surprise in Antigua, where I met only two locals over my three days who spoke any English at all! I had chosen to ditch expat-run cafes and was after local interaction, which rigorously tested the little Spanish I had learnt years ago. It really helped to enroll in the Bio Itza Spanish school and live with a Mayan Itza family in a little village in Peten; I was literally the only English speaker in the village, and got to practice everything I learnt. I had plenty of light-hearted conversations with locals, was approached by young girls and boys in remote villages to take selfies and add me on Facebook, and even had a few admirers! And of all things I thought I’ll be doing, I didn’t imagine I’d be playing basketball with Mayan boys and girls.
It’s a delight for offbeat travellers.
I was a little wary of spending too much time in Antigua, the most popular first stop and colonial town in Guatemala, but even when I strolled along its cobblestoned streets over the weekend, I saw only a handful of other travellers (SEE: A Glimpse of Antigua, Guatemala). I borrowed a bicycle from my Airbnb home and cycled through some pretty neighbourhoods, peeping into courtyards, hearing Spanish music pouring out of most homes, and watching people relaxing on their hammocks – something I’ve come to love about the spirit of the people of Guatemala, even in remote villages. Point being, if you like to go off the beaten path and discover unspoilt locales and cultures, Guatemala is your kind of place.
By the time you’re reading this, I’ll be seeking more adventures in a protected forest in Honduras!
What are your impressions of Guatemala?