Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The World Will Not End and Other Notes from Guatemala

Good news everyone! The world will NOT end on December 21st.

So says the Mayan calendar.

The Mayans developed a sophisticated calendar focused on a 365-day year. They also devised a Long Calendar, divided into cycles, to record historical events. December 21st marks the end of one long cycle and the beginning of another. The end of the next Long Count cycle, following December 21, 2012, will occur on October 13, 4772. Doomsday followers might want to begin preparing now.

This information was received directly from our Mayan guides. I think they are a more reliable source than end-of-the-world promoters.

Our tour guide picked us up at the airport. We climbed into the van and looked around for seat belts. Hugo said, “Only the front seat passengers need seat belts. People in the back don’t need them.” And we were off on a wild ride to our hotel.

Tour books, tour companies and residents all recommend tourists NOT rent cars. They are targets for robbers, and local drivers are crazy. Single and double solid lines are meaningless and passing on roads where the driver cannot see around the curve or over the hill is common. Mountain roads are steep, windy, and narrow. We did not see a traffic light or crosswalk outside Guatemala City. Pedestrians cross the roads while cars and trucks speed by. Common means of transportation, besides cars, are buses, motorcycles, tuk tuk taxis, and horses.
Guatemalan tuk tuk taxis 
 Most of Guatemala is mountainous, receives abundant rainfall, and the landscape is lush with trees and flowers. Main exports are coffee, bananas, and sugar; there is minimal manufacturing. They make a local beer, Gallo, which is overwhelmingly considered not very good. But Guatemalans are proud of their product. Their rum is better (drinkable!).

A wide variety of fruits and vegetables are grown, and although food appears to be plentiful everywhere, including local markets, malnutrition, especially among the children, is prevalent. Guatemala is a third world country attempting to raise their standard of living. But there are tremendous hurdles to overcome. People in many of the rural villages live in small, one room homes with no electricity. They may have running water. Cooking is done over a wood fire. Folks collecting kindling is a common sight.

The country fought a thirty-year guerilla war ending in 1996 and is still recovering from the devastation. There are elections, a President, widespread corruption, and general lawlessness. We felt safe the entire time, but that is probably because tour companies pay local thugs not to rob tourists.

Coffee drinkers will enjoy the local brew. Restaurants use modern machines, and, if you want coffee con leche, the waiter or waitress supplies a small pitcher of warm milk. Chocolate lovers will also be happy sampling local sweets. The food was good, with a lot of chicken, black bean dishes (frijoles), plantains, eggs and tortillas (white or blue) on the menu. I have to say after a week of corn tortillas I wanted bread.
Home of authentic Guatemalan food. The restaurant is in Antiqua. 
Ask any guide where most tourists come from and the answer is Europe and Israel. Two of our guides spoke, in addition to Spanish, English and Italian.

Young Israelis often spend time traveling after their military service. Guatemala is a beautiful and cheap country (for foreigners). Our Mayan guide in Tikal, Enrique, told us about a recent group of young Israeli visitors he escorted. Then he broke into a rousing rendition of “Havah Nagilah”. A Mayan serenading us with Israeli music in the middle of the Central American rainforest was quite bizarre.
Enrique (Eric), our guide for the Mayan ruins at Tikal.
We met an assortment of interesting locals, tourists and residents.

·     *  The American acupuncturist who lived in the area around Lake Atitlan for twenty years. Most of his clients were regular visitors to a local spa and yoga retreat.
·     *  The thirty-something Canadian web designer who moved to the lake area about four months ago, renting a large apartment (2,000 square feet) for $150/month (that is NOT a typo). She was spending $2,000 to install a modern kitchen.
·      * Clara, the Guatemalan street vendor who accosted us outside our hotel in Antiqua whenever we went in or out. She was persistent.
·      * At the top of Picaya volcano we met the American-born son of Guatemalan immigrants. He was a volunteer working with local crafters, helping sell jewelry made from the volcano’s lava. The funds were used to replace a playground and other facilities destroyed when the volcano erupted a couple of years ago.
·     *  Francisco, our young (19 years old) Guatemalan chocolate-making instructor, had a great sense of humor but difficulty with my name. Actually, many locals could not pronounce my first name. Francisco insisted on using another, and my middle name was much easier to say. I became, temporarily, Cindy. 

 We also met a variety of non-human residents. The rainforest area is full of an assortment of creepy, crawly creatures, including -
Warning of dangerous wildlife...
and crocs in the lake. Needless to say no swimming here.


  1. You know this means we have to go Christmas shopping after all, don't you?

  2. I am happy to have this virtual tour. i accept the fact that my travel days are somewhat limited and Guatemala isnot a place I will likely ever see.

  3. Whew, what a relief that the world isn't ending on Dec 21!!! Enjoy your travels.

  4. 35 years ago when we were Peace Corps volunteers in Nicaragua, we spent some time in Guatamala. I'd love to go back and see what has changed. Your trip sounds wonderful.

  5. Boy, I wouldn't touch Guatemala myself. Costa Rica maybe. But then I'm not much of a traveler. You are an adventuresome bunch -- and good for you!

  6. I know a fair number of people who went to South America (and Central America) to retire because it costs so much less to live there. I was impressed with the people you met, such a great variety! And thank you for sharing all this information and adventure with me!!

  7. Once again, you amaze me. Harvey said, "Guatamala? Why Guatamala? It's dangerous!" And you know how unflappable he is!