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The Beauty of Guatemala and its People

by Ruth Atherley 

I first heard about Guatemala when I was a young girl and received Guatemalan worry dolls as a gift. According to the legend, you tell your worries to the dolls, place them under your pillow and by morning, the dolls will have taken all of your problems away. I remember looking at these cute little worry managers, thinking that I would like to visit Guatemala one day. Any culture that wanted to help me with my problems was one I wanted to check out.

Located in Central America, just south of Mexico, Guatemala has impressive natural beauty, with 37 volcanoes (three of them active!). The country has experienced earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and floods, a violent civil war from 1960 to 1996, and continues to have extremely high levels of poverty and unemployment. And yet, Guatemalan people are incredibly open, friendly and welcoming to travellers. (They are quite quirky too, but more on that later.)

My husband and I decided to take an eight-day tour with BikeHike Adventures, a Vancouver-based active tour company. We love having a tour guide when we travel, but don’t want to be shuttled around on a big tour bus with dozens of other people. We like to put our feet on the ground and see things outside of the big tourist spots. We have travelled with BikeHike before (Vietnam, Cambodia and Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro) and have had amazing experiences that would never have happened if we hadn’t taken the “road less travelled.” While we aren’t elite athletes by any stretch of the imagination, we also like being outside and active when we travel. It is a different way to get local – and to come home feeling healthy (and without any weight gain!).

Throughout our journey, which took us from the historic and beautiful city of Antigua (about 40km from Guatemala City) to Lake Atitlan and to the Tikal area, we had many interesting and unexpected adventures. The two-hour climb up the active volcano Pacaya, just 52km outside of Antigua, was one of the highlights – and the challenging climb up was well worth the effort. Roasting marshmallows from the heat of the earth, with sounds of the active volcano exploding in the background, was a special, once-in-a-lifetime moment. It felt surreal, like we had stepped into a scene in a sci-fi thriller.

We did a fair amount of biking on back roads and trails and really saw what rural Guatemalan life was like. As we were biking in the highlands near the small town of Totonicapan, which is about a three-hour drive north of Antigua, dozens of children ran down their dirt driveways to wave at us and say “hi” (which is likely the only English they know). I wanted to stop and give them all hugs – with their big smiles and excited eyes.

We also took a long hike through the Zunil mountain range, in the same area as Totonicapan. Watching farmers as they prepared for spring planting gave us a deep appreciation for the back-breaking work that they do, with only the most basic tools to plant and harvest their crops – and they do it on a steep hillside.

Another highlight of the trip was staying on the shores of Lake Atitlan. It is an incredibly beautiful area, and kayaking on the lake – which is in a volcanic crater in the Guatemalan Highlands of the Sierra Madre mountain range – felt like we had dropped into a dream. The description of a place as “breathtaking” is often used, but Lake Atitlan is a place that truly fulfills the meaning of that word.

In the realm of curious and quirky, in the village of Santiago Atitlan, which is on the shore of Lake Atitlan, we went to a special house where you can visit a shrine to Maximon – a Mayan deity worshipped by many Guatemalans. With the assistance of our local guide, we paid for and gave Maximon (a wooden/plaster figure that stands about three feet high) an offering of alcohol that his Cofrades (guardians) then poured into his mouth. We don’t know where the alcohol flows, but the Cofrades were very serious about putting the bottle to Maximon’s wooden lips and helping him drink. To finish off the small ceremony, a cigarette was lit and sat perched on his lips – filling the small room with smoke.

After our encounter with Maximon, we had so many questions for our guide. It turns out that this Mayan god is quite a controversial local “resident.” The shamans of the town share him and he moves to a different house each year. While much of the legend and lore is a mystery, we did learn that the Maximon ideology is about respecting and representing both the dark and the light of human nature. From what we understand, some Guatemalans believe in the spiritual power of Maximon and others don’t believe in him at all. There is a great deal more to Maximon and what he means to the people who worship him than we had the chance to delve into on this trip, but he is a compelling figure that we plan to learn more about. It might even take another visit and offering to Maximon.

In the charming, small city of Antigua, an experience that we heard about, but just missed (by one day!) – and plan to go back to see – are the colourful carpets of Semana Santa (Holy Week). The people of this historic village celebrate lent by decorating the beautiful cobblestone streets with alfombras – carpets made of sand and sawdust, adorned with plants and flowers. Locals spend hundreds and hundreds of hours creating these beautiful masterpieces – and then an Easter procession comes through and the handmade, but temporary works of art are pretty much destroyed under the wheels of the floats and the feet of those walking. It is an exercise in living in the moment, I am certain.

An aspect of Guatemalan culture that really touched our hearts is the widespread caring attitude towards dogs and cats. Most of the cats we came across lived in people’s homes and were loved. While we saw many dogs that appeared to be homeless, they in fact, had a “person.” They might not live in the person’s home, but they have someone who cares for them. Guatemalans choose to be “responsible” for a dog – and, to the best of their ability, they feed and care for them. We saw holes dug into the sides of small hills so that the dogs could find some relief when it got hot. When hiking in the hills, in random areas, we saw makeshift doghouses built out of scrap wood, with straw or material inside, to create a comfy bed. We saw families taking their dinner leftovers out to feed the dogs in the area. And every single person I spoke to about “their” dog had an amazing glow about them – something that a dog person recognizes right away – when they talked about their pet. Whether the dog lived in their home or not, the emotional connection and compassion was clear. This says something special about the Guatemalan people and their big hearts.

We saw quite a bit of Guatemala on this trip – and we saw it powered by our own two feet (hiking, biking and walking) and arms (kayaking) – but we didn’t see nearly enough. This is a vibrant country filled with interesting, complex, multi-dimensional people who have been through much and are still smiling. While I think that many travellers are starting to discover this amazing place, it still falls under the radar a little bit.

For those who like to get a real sense of the countries that they visit, Guatemala is one of those magical places that offers the opportunity for an authentic, local experience that is certain to deliver special memories that will last a lifetime. My first instinct all those years ago upon being introduced to my worry dolls was right – this is a place I really like.


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