GUATEMALA CITY has the quiet air of a village grown over-large. The narrow streets, paved in concrete with high, red-painted curbs, struggle to cope with the mass of traffic. The sidewalks are narrow and shops spill out onto them, with black-clad armed guards a presence in many. Sun-faded paint covers walls that are broken up with iron-barred windows and bursts of political graffiti.
The city market is crammed with a mass of colours: the bright indigenous fabrics the country is famous for, and shiny fresh fruit and vegetables. Men meet and part with a gentle open palm slap and fist bump. Stoic faces break into a friendly smile at the slightest provocation.
“The city is Guatemala’s fourth capital, after a massive earthquake in 1773 laid waste to the previous one, Antigua Guatemala,” says Miguel Alvarez at the National History Museum. “At that time, the capital governed a territory that covered most of modern Central America. The new city’s location made it the perfect place to guard the main route down the Central American peninsular from New Spain (Mexico) to Peru, as well as being within easy access of the Atlantic coastline along the rivers that flowed north. That was the same reason the Mayan established themselves here, with the extra attraction of rich deposits of obsidian and jade nearby. Obsidian was used for tools, while jade was reserved for royalty; it was the Maya gold.”
When I ask him what is his favourite piece in the museum, he walks off to bring me an exquisite gold-plated silver chalice of 1560, made by Spanish artisan Lorenz de Medina. “The borders of modern Guatemala were drawn by the Conquistadors,” he says. “They were arbitrary, following rivers or other geographical features. The Maya region was present-day Mexico, Guatemala and Costa Rica. We had more than 30 Mayan languages and the Maya cities were fighting each other over control of the commercial routes. The best thing the Spanish did was to bring the Spanish language and unite us. They did not destroy Maya culture; they just drove it underground.”
The most obvious reminder of Guatemala City’s Spanish history is found in its central plaza, dominated by the twin towers of the Metropolitan Cathedral. Inside the church, vast pillars reveal an obvious strength that is more impressive than its looks, despite the many ornate altars, dark wood statues and rich side chapels. It is no surprise to hear it has withstood numerous earthquakes. Outside, a series of tall pillars is carved with the names of thousands of those who were killed, tortured or “disappeared” during Guatemala’s 36-year Civil War. More than 200,000 people, 80 per cent of them Maya, were killed in a war that lasted from 1960 to 1996, with the government responsible for the vast majority of deaths.
A visit to Kaminaljuyú, a once-great Maya city now buried by the modern one, shows how their culture survives. The archaeological park has a small but impressive acropolis covered in ramshackle sheeting and some other grass-covered remains. Then, in heavy rain, I spot a series of round altars under some trees in a remote corner. On one, a street hawker is making offerings for better trade and, when he asks who I am, adds a long series of prayers for my future safe travels.
I feel as if I need some of that credit with the ancient gods when I take the anarchic road to Antigua, which climbs through the neighbouring city of Mixco, now effectively absorbed into Guatemala City itself. Shops are crammed together by the roadside behind narrow sidewalks, offering the bright Chinese plastic and cheap clothing that mark poor areas worldwide. There are more tyre shops than seems economically feasible, while suicidal motorbikers and tuk-tuks fight for road space.
We speed past the ubiquitous Central American camionetas, recycled from former American school buses. The familiar yellow paintwork has been replaced with all the colours of the rainbow and their sides bear names such as “Carmalita”, “Esmeralda” or “Jesus Es Dios”. “The buses are painted different colours because a lot of people can’t read,” says my Guatemala friend, writer and historian Norman Raxon. “Illiteracy is around 60 per cent in rural areas as education is in Spanish, not Mayan languages.”
They have “Speedy Gonzales” mud flaps and belch smoke from engines that throb with a Detroit beat I can feel in my chest. A conductor hangs from the open door, urging passengers aboard. “We call him a “brocha” or paint-brush because his hand flaps up and down to call you,” says Norman. The brocha jumps down before the camioneta stops to hoist sacks and bags onto the roof, bringing the clichéd Central American souvenir “chicken bus” to life.
The road descends into the shadow of four volcanoes, one active enough to be sending a puff of smoke high into the cloudy sky. Antigua’s cobbled streets are teeth-achingly rough but very much part of the town’s character. It retains its handsome colonial one-story buildings that spread away on all sides down narrow streets.
“A lot of people who visit go home, sell everything and move here to stay,” says Norman. Ninett de Córdova, originally from Guatemala City, is one, having settled here to manage a boutique hotel. Maison de la Luz, like several other upmarket hotels in the town, is stylishly converted from a former colonial house. “I loved Antigua when I visited and, now that now I live here, I love it even more,” she says. “Younger people like the bars and clubs but I enjoy just walking around appreciating the atmosphere. It is very relaxed and you feel safe, which you do not always do in Guatemala City, like any big city. The people are pure-hearted.
“I also love the colours; the colours of the walls and of the women in the market. Their clothes are rich and intense, with the sort of palette you would never find in a shop. Then there are the smells, like in Holy Week when the roads are carpeted with pictures made from flowers or sawdust. When the procession goes by, the aroma that rises is amazing.”
The town’s people are as much part of its appeal as anything else. They smile easily and are happy to draw me into their life. When I show interest in a school, I am invited to watch morning assembly, when white-gloved students earnestly carry the national flag to the stage as all sing the country’s and school’s anthems. In the evening, the central plaza is filled with more students studying under streetlights and a group of youths practicing hip hop moves with great athleticism. All are friendly and happy to chat.
The evening light smooths out the town’s ruins, some dating to the 1773 earthquake, to show it at its best. “The town has been recognized by Unesco, so there are a lot of rules to preserve it,” says Ninett. “There are six or eight colours that you can paint your house and you will have to repaint it if you use the wrong one. That happened to my poor neighbour.”
From Antigua, the road west climbs steeply again. Huddling together against the merciless traffic, a group of racing cyclists attack the steep incline, heads down but keeping up a punishing pace. Then the road passes into rolling open countryside where over-large groups of workers harvest carrots by hand into plastic bags that are stacked high into pick-up trucks. Patches of flatter land appear, then hills again in a landscape where stands of spindly trees hint at what once was.
Suddenly, the land bursts into life, even greener and more fertile than before: more like English parkland than a volcanic landscape. Just off the main road is the modern Maya town of Tecpan, a place that makes me wonder why anyone would live there. A grid of narrow streets is lined with tiny one-room shops that give the impression the inhabitants make a precarious living selling basic food and clothing to each other.
One of its reasons for existence is the Iximche archaeological site where a few scenic ruins hint at the grandeur of Maya culture at its height. The pyramid bases of some temples and the remains of two ballcourts stand out in the grass that softens the outlines of the former city. Despite the lack of grand structures, there is a definite air of history hanging over the sprawling site. Once again, I find a set of Maya altars in a tree-shaded spot where the incense hangs heavy and the prayer is intense.
“This was the first Spanish capital,” says Norman. “In 1524, its Maya rulers allied themselves with the Spanish Conquistadors whose Aztec allies called it Guatemala, so it has given its name to the whole country. The Spanish later had to move the capital to Ciudad Vieja because of on-going resistance.” They chose a safer site in a nearby valley but that capital was in its turn destroyed by the mudslide from a volcanic eruption in 1541, leading to the move to Antigua.
A mudslide seems a very real risk as the road rises again towards Chichicastenango. It climbs through almost sheer embankments carved into the hillside. Signs warn drivers to “Frene Con Motor” and of “Curvas Peligrosas”. Billboards advertise fried chicken, prosperous politicians, steel roofing and English classes. More tire shops sell well-worn, second-hand rubber.
There are massive stacks of firewood for sale, then piles of concrete blocks for house building. Rainwater cascades down the roadside and backs up into a gully. We pass a jumble of half finished concrete houses thrown on top of each other. Wood smoke hangs over rusty tin roofs, while neatly turned-out school children wait for the bus. Mist hangs in the trees with, in the distance, the cloud-capped cone of a volcano. The beauty of the landscape alternates with the ugliness of urban poverty.
Chichicastenango is almost impossibly picturesque, with a colourful market built around a church that in its turn stands atop a Maya pyramid. The steep steps of the pyramid are filled with women in traditional clothes selling vegetables while a Maya priest throws candles and seeds on an altar, then waves smoke over it from a rusty perforated tin burner. Inside, the nave is filled with similar shrines, each lit with many candles at which worshippers pray with marked devotion. Christianity and a much older religion blur in a cloud of incense.
In the market, packed with stalls selling Maya cloth in rich colours, I meet Elena Guit and Alfonso Coc, a married couple in their 40s with seven children. They have worked 20 years in the market but complain about competition from cheap imports that undercut the handmade fabrics they sell. They buy shawls for around $14 around Lake Atitlán and sell them for $15. Most of their customers are local women, a sign of how the tourists who do make it here have yet to affect its authenticity.
Plunging 340 metres, Atitlán is the deepest lake in Central America and has been compared to Italy’s Lake Como for beauty. On an overcast day, admittedly also common in Northern Italy, that description is a bit of a stretch but it is certainly a dramatic sight as the road winds down to it. A boat trip across the lake to Santiago Atitlán reveals more of its charm, with heavily wooded shores and dramatic glimpses of cloud-wrapped volcanic peaks.
The Maya people here wear more subdued colours than in Chichicastenango, with the men sporting cowboy hats and rubber boots, a form of dress that reflects the number of men who go to Texas to find work. “The economic situation in Guatemala makes life hard for women so we decided to start this project to make some money for our family and our kids,” says Maria Francisca Hernandez, who is president of the Heart of the Lake Community Association, a weaving co-operative of 33 women.
“Anyone can join as long as they work hard. We weave at home because we have to take care of the family, cook and look after the house. When we sell anything, 90 per cent goes to the woman who makes it, while the rest goes to pay taxes and the running costs of the shops, marketing and so on. Our men work in the corn and coffee fields and make about $4 a day. That’s not enough to live on.”
She tells me their biggest problem is finding customers. “We produce a lot of goods but don’t have the people to buy it,” she says. “We need good roads first, so we can get out to market, and also a university so our children do not have to travel to Guatemala City. University costs about $60 a month and that takes too much of our income. We want to study but it is difficult when it costs so much.”
The road back to Guatemala City takes me past Pacaya Volcano and I climb its 2,500-metre summit to take in the view and the experience of flirting with danger. The smell of sulphur wafts from gaps in the earth that give forth steam and enough heat to toast marshmallows. Near the summit stands an unlikely craft shop selling exquisite jewellery.
“People don’t understand what a store is doing next to an active volcano but that is what makes it unique,” says owner David Flores, who was born in California but has come back here to embrace his Guatemalan roots. “The shop was inspired by an eruption in 2010, after which a group of artists decided to do something to help those people affected. We recycle the lava stone that fell into the pieces we produce, which are all hand-made. The proceeds help educate Maya children.”
I ask him why people live so close to a volcano that could erupt at any moment. “They have owned their land here for hundreds of years but the volcano did not become active until the 1960s,” he says. “Their cows used to graze here where you see the lava field. They are not going anywhere.”
His love for the land of his ancestors is evident and I ask him what it is that makes it so special. “I feel so much warmth here,” he says. “It is a country that has so much tradition and is so authentic. You have the Caribbean, the Atlantic, the culture, the Maya ruins and Spanish colonial history. It is a hidden treasure. The downside is that it is a country still trying to find an identity for itself. It is still coming out of its legacy of internal warfare but the potential is incredible.”
David comes up the volcano at 6am and leaves at around 5.30pm in high season. The store has moved about four times as the volcano erupts. “We get some warning of when it will erupt but they cannot gauge how large it will be,” he says. “I’ve witnessed a few things most people wouldn’t see but you gain lots of respect for the volcano. It gives you enough time to evacuate.”
In Guatemala, it seems that even the volcanoes are friendly.