Guatemala

Guatemala is a country of exotic experiences.

You can gaze at the somber tops of temples thrusting above the rainforest in Tikal. Climb an active volcano and roast marshmallows in the lava’s heat near the colonial city of Antigua. Visit a wooden saint who dangles a lit cigarette from his “lips” in a small village on Lake Atitlan. And, you can shop for a rainbow of textiles in the giant market of Chichicastenengo.

Inexpensive for Americans at about 8 Quetzals to the dollar, Guatemala is the land of friendly adventure, where the locals are happy to give you an insider’s view to their culture for the equivalent of $1.50, and shopkeepers will cheerily set aside selling to give you advice on the sights. Tidy small hotels rent rooms for about $25 a night; a full meal with alcohol can cost about $10. Large tours geared toward tourists and Western-style hotels are considerably more.

Guatemala wasn’t always this easy of a country, of course. The vicious 36-year-old civil war only ended in 1996 and tourism has yet to completely rebound. There are students, French tourists and the occasional ex-pat American, but for the most part, Guatemala has few tourists.

The government, though, has been working on infrastructure, and the roads from important city to important city are wide and smooth. Rumors of banditos are overrated, though occasional attacks happen. Don’t hesitate to take a tourist bus or hired car to your next destination (there’s no public transportation).

As a single woman traveling alone, I never felt unsafe – except in Guatemala City, which has little to recommend it anyway.

The Western Highlands

The western highlands around Lake Atitlan are particularly charming. The weather is called “eternal spring,” and it really is. Year round, people enjoy daily temperatures in the 70s, which drop to about 60 at night.

Depending on the source you use, Guatemala is between 40 to 70 percent indigenous Mayan. In the dozen small towns around the lake, the women wear their traditional costume of heavily embroidered shirt (called a huipl) and skirt and balance bundles wrapped in cloth on their heads. For almost all Mayans in these towns, Spanish is a second language, and English is a choppy third. Their first is their own Mayan tongue, which varies from village to village.

A good place to get acclimated is Panajachel, a picaresque blend of local restaurants, tourist bars, and bicycle-led “tuktuks” to drive you around. A launcha, boat, will take you to Santiago, where the Mayan saint Maximon lives. Give a local about 10 Q ($1.50) to take you to the smoky basement that hosts him. Maximon, I was told, is called St. Sebastian in English, but I had never heard of a Christian saint wearing a low Gaucho hat and an uncountable number of ties, with a hole that lets the whiskey slide down smooth.

Bring a pack of cigarettes, a bottle of liquor, or a tribute of 10 Q for the statue saint, if you want to take pictures – and you will.

Tiny travel agencies can hook you up with a bus or private driver for other day trips in the area, from coffee plantations, to Chichi’s not-to-be-missed market, to the sleepy Antigua if you want a gay-friendly bar hit, or just need to see the fountain that has water streaming from Mermaid nipples. A day is fine for Antigua and its hulking church ruins, but overnight if you want to hike up Pacaya volcano. Tours leave at 6 a.m.

Oh, and take the walking stick and the horse when they’re offered. Believe me, it’s a long trek up – but it’s worth it when the lava is crackling around you and the clouds you are hiking in are lit by a dry orange glow.

Steamy Tikal

It’s a long, long bus drive to Tikal National Park (http://www.tikalpark.com/) from Panajachel– about 12 hours. Or take an easy, hour-long plane ride for about $250 RT if you’re short on travel time, as I was.

Nevertheless, take the bus. Take the plane. Go to Tikal and see the Mayan ruins, because they are awe-inspiring.

Tikal’s Mayan temples were hidden by the jungle after the Mayans left in 899 AD and until the Guatemalan government started excavating in 1985. Now, you can climb steep steps and peer above the forest to the tops of the other pyramids. It is an otherworldly experience – and in fact, the view was used in Star Wars to simulate the rebel base on the planet Yavin.

When you’re back on solid ground, the monkeys and toucans in the trees above – and the strangely cute coatil in the fields below – will help take your mind off the steamroom heat; I was slick with sweat the minute I got off the bus that brought me to the park’s entrance.

If you’re not too tired the next day and you want to play Indiana Jones, a zipline tour through the tree canopy will raise your heart rate. Or explore the nearby island city of Flores, with its shops and shabby gentility.

Or just spend some more time in Tikal, preferably with a guide. If you hadn’t thought of yourself as an adventurer before, Tikal will make sure you’re whistling the Indiana Jones theme before you leave.

Travel Tips

Give me the deets

A good first webstop is http://www.goto-guatemala.com, which will lead you to local city sites and is easy to navigate. The official Guatemala tourism site is a bit muddier. Find it at http://www.quetzalnet.com/Tourism.html

Getting around

Within cities, use the always-available tuktuks, which will take you from hotel to bar for about 50 cents. Taxis are good for traveling a little farther afield.

For travel from town to town, either

Hire a driver (well worth it if you are part of a small group) at any travel agency;

Make reservations on a tourist bus, but beware: The arriving and returning times are rarely convenient;

Or hop on a “chicken bus” like the locals. It’s really cheap, but… Well, you get there when you get there, and in the meantime you might be sharing an American school bus seat with an entire family.

Around Lake Atitlan, you can get from village to village either by heading to the local dock (about 20-40 Q roundtrip depending on your negotiating skills) or wave down a pickup truck. The driver will gesture you toward the back, you’ll join locals on a bench, and then pay a small fee (usually about 2-0 Q depending on distance) when you hop off.

Safety

During the day, travelers need only beware of pickpockets and the occasional merchant scam artist. At night, though, it is best to travel in large groups or by taxi/tuktuk. In Antigua and Guatemala City particularly, there is a lot of street crime. Even locals don’t walk the dark streets alone once night falls.

Health

As in many third world countries, do not drink tap water that hasn’t been boiled or eat raw fruits and vegetables that you haven’t peeled. Malaria pills are helpful if you visit Tikal, a hotbed of both malaria and dengue fever. If you’re staying in the western highlands, pills aren’t necessary.

Photography etiquette

Do not take pictures in Mayan places of worship without explicit permission (Christian churches are OK, but sometimes Christian and Mayan churches are intermingled, so be sure to ask)

Also, do not take pictures of small children without permission. The rumor among Guatemala’s indigenous community is that Westerners kidnap children and bring them home. Some travelers tell of taking pictures of children and then being followed by angry mobs. Be cautious; ask first.