GUATEMALA, one of the poorest countries in Latin America with a startlingly high percentage of its mainly indigenous population living in poverty, is probably not at the top of everyone's list of must-see destinations. However, as I have discovered over the past month and a half, what Guatemala lacks from an economic perspective, it more than makes up for with its incredible cultural and linguistic diversity and abundance of natural and archeological treasures.
When I left my home in North Vancouver for this Portugal-sized country of 15 million inhabitants earlier this year, I had read very little about it and had no idea of the marvels waiting to assail my senses. I was coming to meet my boyfriend, who was born in Guatemala but whose family moved to Canada during the bloody civil war that lasted until the mid '90s. Together, we would spend two months exploring this place of many trees, which is what "Guatemala" means in the Nahuatl language.
On the trip from Los Angeles to Guatemala City, I felt a little out of place as one of only two or three non-Latin Americans on the plane. In the air I leafed through my newly-purchased Lonely Planet book and began to get a sense of what I might expect. It sounded like there was something in Guatemala for everyone, and now, after a month and a half, I can confirm this to be true.
At first I thought that Guatemala would be filled mainly with seasoned backpackers, ready to get in some serious bushwhacking time with the help of a trusty machete. I was wrong, of course. While I have seen my fair share of machetes, I have also seen young families traveling with toddlers, high school groups, middle-aged musician couples stopping to perform at open mike nights as they explore the country, seniors tour groups, and a whole lot of regular people looking to explore a place that's a world away from their everyday lives - I suppose I can count myself in that last group.
I think that the diversity present in the different types of travelers is a reflection of the diversity that is Guatemala itself: there are over 20 indigenous languages spoken here; the incredible weaving and textile-making traditions unique to each region are still in full swing; the biodiversity ranges from pristine flat land rain forests where you can make every second plant into some kind of curative tea to the mysterious cloud forests high up in the mountains where bird watchers hope to catch a glimpse of the rare and beautiful national bird of Guatemala - the Quetzal.
For those travellers that fully know how to appreciate their down-time, there are more hammocks in this country than anywhere I have ever seen, and for adventure lovers, there are more volcanoes than one could climb in a lifetime as well as dozens of caves and unexcavated ruins just begging to be visited.
There have been several highlights of our trip that I would recommend to those thinking of traveling to Guatemala. As an awe-inspiring starting-off point and a great place to catch a glimpse of colonial splendour, Antigua is the place to go. The central highlands city has well-preserved Spanish baroque architecture and is filled with beautiful multicoloured buildings. Its centre is sprinkled with ruined churches set against a backdrop of towering volcanoes and rolling green hills. The shady, treefilled main square is the hub of city activity and a photography buff's dream: Mayan women selling necklaces and scarves, couples kissing on benches, old men pushing around ice cream carts, and musicians from around the world performing on any given afternoon.
If you get tired of civilization, you can head to Semuc Champey, a natural paradise at the end of a 45-minute pickup truck drive (I had to hop in the back of one - it's quite the adventure) down a bumpy gravel road in the department of Alta Verapaz. Here, a rushing river hides beneath a natural limestone bridge which is covered by sparkling swimmable turquoise pools with green mountains rising from the valley all around you. A few hours here and everyday worries will fade away - if you come in the early morning or evening, chances are you will be alone as you explore this exotic wonderland.
The Rio Dulce ("Sweet River" in Spanish), can be explored by kayak as you marvel at the different birds feeding and flying all around you. On a day trip to Finca El Paraíso, you will come upon a toasty hot spring waterfall tumbling into a cool river in the middle of a forested park.
Travellers to Livingston on Guatemala's east Caribbean coast may think they have arrived in a completely different country. Livingston, accessible only by water, is inhabited by the Garifuna - a unique hybrid culture formed by Carib, Arawak and West African people along the Caribbean Coast in Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras. The Garifuna speak their own language, have their own unique take on Christianity, dance the Punta, and know how to cook up some mean grilled fish and seafood soup. Local
tour guide, Pichi, will take you five kilometres along the beach to the Siete Altares ("Seven Altars"), which are cascading freshwater pools surrounded by forest, as he fills you in on local customs and tells amusing anecdotes.
To get an unforgettable taste of the ancient Maya culture, most people head to the archeological site of Tikal, where the early morning mist gives just the right atmosphere to enormous temples and pyramids poking out of the rain forest. Climb Temple 4, pretend you are a Mayan royal and marvel at your kingdom. I personally couldn't believe the mathematical precision with which each structure in Tikal lines up with the stars, the seasons, other sites hundreds of kilometres away, and how on earth they managed to build the Grand Plaza so that the echo of hands clapping sounds like the call of the Quetzal!
Tikal is one of Guatemala´s most famous attractions, but if one wants to ditch the tourists and feel like a true explorer, it is possible to arrange a five to seven day guided hike to El Mirador ("The Lookout"), the little-excavated archeological site just seven kilometers from the Mexican border. It is home to the largest temple in the Mayan world - La Danta. The exhausting trek is worth it once you are sitting 72 meters-high atop La Danta and all you see around you are trees and strangelooking bumps which are actually unexcavated Mayan ruins. We even heard the unsettling roar of howler monkeys and spotted jaguar tracks in the mud as our guide told us legends from the Popol Vuh (the Mayan creation story) and about how the dirt trail we were standing on was once a gleaming stucco-covered Mayan highway.
There are places in Guatemala people visit and leave feeling amazed, and then there are those places they never want to leave at all. I personally found that a good place to recuperate after a multi-day trek is the tranquil town of San Marcos, which lies on the shore of the breathtaking Lake Atitlán. It seems to attract gurus, natural healers, and organic food lovers from all over the world, and indeed many of them have made San Marcos their home.
Strolling along the paths in the lakefront neighbourhood, it's hard to tell whether you are in town or in a forest as the inhabitants of San Marcos have managed to blend the two seamlessly. For those wanting to take a stab at making their own chocolate, there are a few contacts in town that can sell you the right stuff and will even conduct a cacao ceremony to rid body and spirit of negative energy. A 10-minute boat ride across the lake will take you to San Juan where local women have formed artisan collectives and proudly display and sell their products, while showing visitors how cloth is spun, dyed, and woven. Guatemala has a high rate of domestic violence towards women and is well known for being a machista society, so seeing women take their abilities and transform them into social and economic empowerment is truly uplifting.
The bottom line is that a savvy traveler will find Guatemala to be full of hidden marvels, and even well-known attractions will tend to exceed expectations. Even though I have been here for over a month, I feel like there is still so much to see. Vancouver is home to many people who would enjoy the surprises of Guatemala, not to mention its affordability as a long-term travel destination. Vancouverites are a culturally and environmentally aware bunch who would be able to truly appreciate Guatemala's rich indigenous heritage and foster amazement towards its natural setting, which is completely different but just as spectacular as ours. A side note: the weather is notably better than ours - they don't call Guatemala "the country of eternal spring" for nothing.
For more information on visiting Guatemala check out: www.lonelyplanet. com or www.visitguatemala.com.