Guatemala 2005
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 The old colonial city of Antigua is a UNESCO heritage city (similar to Trinidad in Cuba), and still looks much like the seventeenth century capital of Spanish America it originally was.  The streets are cobblestone, the roofs are clay tile, there are no neon signs and buildings may not be more than two stories high. 

Map of guatemala


The buildings are nearly all Spanish Colonial in design:  each house is a mini fortress with no windows onto the street and the exteriors are often shabby and peeling.  However, peeking in through a doorways usually reveals a beautiful interior courtyards with a fountains, flowers and small trees.


This small city (maybe twenty blocks square) has developed an international reputation for Spanish language training. Apparently, Los Guatemaltecos speak a particularly pure version of Spanish without heavy accents or obscure dialects. There are more than one hundred language schools and people come from all over the world to study. The schools are very professional; the teachers are excellent and well-trained. The large number of foreign visitors makes Antigua kind of a tourist trap but the atmosphere is more like a small college town than a resort.  There are dozens of excellent restaurants, many shops and good accommodation.  Cost of accommodation, meals and shopping are very reasonable and the Spanish lessons are a bargain.  Guatemala still suffers from a certain amount of crime, although nothing like the lawlessness and violence that terrorized the country during the long civil war in the seventies and eighties. Nowadays, the very effective Tourist Police ensure that visitors to Antigua don't have to worry about their safety.

The town is very high, around 1,400 meters (4,000 feet), so the climate is not tropical.  November, when we visited, is the tail-end of the rainy season and it was often cloudy.  Temperatures during the day were in the 66 - 69°F range  and cooler at night.  When the clouds cleared away, though, the sun was very hot.  Altogether it was very comfortable and pleasant.

Antigua is laid out in the traditional Spanish style around a large parque central or central square.  City Hall occupies one side of the square and the ruins of a huge cathedral, another.  In the centre is a large and ornate fountain. Shady trees, pathways, park benches and flower beds make the parque a very pleasant place to stroll, or just sit on a bench and watch the world go by.

El Parque Central

Antigua City Hall
We stay in the beautiful Spanish colonial house of Ana Consuela de Solares.  The gracious Doña Cony presides over the dining table and makes sure we all speak Spanish at mealtimes.  The house is arranged around a lovely courtyard filled with flowers and sunshine, with an elegant, shady gallery along one side.  It is like living in a secret garden, sheltered from the noise, dust and traffic of the street. 
Doña Cony
Gallery and courtyard


Our bedroom window looks on a beautiful volcano rising above the end wall of the courtyard.  In fact, every view in Antigua seems to feature one or more volcanoes. 

Our accommodations in this beautiful setting, including three meals a day except on weekends, cost US$90. per week per person.  We share the house with six other students of Spanish:  four Americans, a Canadian and a lady from Holland.  We eat three meals a day with these people and become very good friends.  Table conversation is supposed to be in Spanish, and when Doña Cony is present we all make an effort.  Otherwise, I'm afraid, we often slip back into English much too easily.

Dinnertime conversations

We enroll in Centro Linguistico International for two weeks of Spanish lessons, attending school from 8:00 a.m. to noon every weekday.  All instruction is one-on-one; each student has their own teacher.  Instructors and students sit at little wooden tables around the courtyard of another lovely old colonial building.  Each table has a parasol for shade for when the sun comes out.

Our Spanish progresses quickly with this intense instruction.  By the end of the two weeks, Susan, who essentially started from scratch, is able to form simple sentences and understand a remarkable amount of what she hears.  I started as an advanced beginner and on the last day my instructor says I am now at the "advanced intermediate level".   I can use five verb tenses, although the irregular forms of the preterite tense continue to plague me.

During break times we chat with other students from the U.S., Denmark, Czech Republic, Japan, Korea, Australia and many other countries.  Just across the street is a little kiosk that sells unidentified (but delicious) snacks on a tortilla that really hit the spot at mid-morning break.  Each afternoon, the school offers activities which are led by some of the teachers.  We tour a museum or two and go on a field trip to a large coffee plantation that features our first trip on one of Guatemala's infamous chicken buses. 

One day we visit Casa Popenoe:  an immaculately restored colonial mansion.  William Popenoe was an executive with the United Fruit Company during the 1920's. (For decades the United Fruit Company essentially owned Guatemala -- the original "Banana Republic").  He and his wife bought the house which had been destroyed by an earthquake many years earlier and they painstakingly restored it to its former glory, filling it with original furniture and artwork.  Two elderly Popenoe daughters still reside in the house.  They discretely withdraw to let visitors like us tour their home.

Colonial-era kitchen in Casa Popenoe

On our first weekend, we travel by minibus (much less challenging than a chicken bus) to the town of Panajachel about three and a half hours away.  Along the route, we see many signs of the devastation wreaked recently by Hurricane Stan:  lots of mudslides, many bridges washed away, signs of flooding everywhere.  In one sad village, there is a high-water mark on all the buildings about two meters above the ground.  Unfortunately, the floods weren't just water -- every one of the affected building was filled with thick, heavy mud, which is still being labouriously removed by hand.  The damage harmed more than the buildings as many, many fields and their crops were either washed away or covered with a foot or more of thick mud. The majority of the indigenous Mayan people are subsistence farmers.  The WHO estimates that 300,000 -- 400,000 Guatemalans will die of starvation and related diseases over the next year due to loss of this year's crops, their only food source.

Panajachel is on Lake Atitlan, truly one of  Earth's beauty spots.  The lake occupies a huge caldera, created by a massive volcanic eruption in prehistoric times.  When all the lava had been blown into the atmosphere, a huge cavity was left.  The cliffs along the shore fall 900 meters sheer into the lake, the water is 900 meters deep and below the water is some 900 meters of silt and sediment.  Around the lake, several "new" volcanoes have arisen, creating stunning landscapes. 


A tour boat carries us around the lake to visit the picturesque villages where we mostly have time to visit the handcraft market and allow the vendors to pester us.  In these more isolated villages, the Mayan people still wear their traditional costumes for everyday use, not just to impress tourists.  Their clothing is woven on hand looms and incorporates every colour under the sun, frequently all mixed together in the same design.  The Mayan people are shy and nonaggressive by nature but have learned to be persistent about selling  their handmade items.  Some of these communities also have Spanish Language schools and some even teach Quechua, the local Mayan language.  It would be an interesting party trick to speak Ancient Mayan but it doesn't seem very useful outside of the immediate area.  Guatemala has 22 different Mayan languages in everyday use.


The village of San Pedro Atitlan:



On Sunday morning our minibus takes us to the nearby regional town of Chichicastenango.  "Chichi" boasts the biggest outdoor market in Guatemala.  We spend many interesting hours threading our way through alleys choked with people, looking at the things for sale, fending off vendors and occasionally buying something that piques our interest.  (Travelling with backpacks discourages a lot of shopping.)

The market in Chichicastenango

One of the more interesting sights is a religious dance in the plaza in front of the church.  It features dancers wearing masks and costumes portraying the Spanish Conquistadores and very loud mariachi music.  We never do figure out the significance of the tableau but it is colourful and intriguing and certainly very much enjoyed by the crowds of locals who gather around the square.


One afternoon, after class, we go on an adventure with one of our housemates.  She volunteers with an aid agency called Camino Seguro or Safe Passage  This organization was started by a young American girl in 1999 to help the children of Los Basureros, people who eke out a precarious living by scavenging in the Guatemala City garbage dump. 

Guatemala City - main thoroughfare
Side street near the dump
Entrance to the dump

 The dump, and therefore the project, is in a desperate part of Guatemala City:   houses are built of scavenged pieces of wood, cardboard and corrugated tin.  The air is filled with noxious odours, smoke, blowing dust, flying paper and plastic bags.  We wait on the edge of the neighbourhood for an escort so we can safely enter.  We can't go into the dump, itself, (much to Bob's disappointment) but it surely is one of the hellholes of this world.  Everything goes in the dump along with regular garbage:  toxic waste, biohazard material, chemicals etc.   The garbage pickers spend their days rummaging through this poisonous stew, looking for material they can recycle and sell.


The volunteers of Camino Seguro help the children to attend school by providing them with a mid-day meal and assistance with homework.  They try to improve their health and hygiene and teach basic life-skills.  The Agency operates a daycare centre to look after the youngest children so their parents can go to work in the dump. 

Camino Seguro day care centre
A happy little girl

We also toured a kindergarten, primary school and a vocational workshop for adolescents, all operated by volunteers and funded by donations. Two years ago, a donation of US$200,000. funded the construction of a beautiful new school building.  Camino Seguro is currently helping 537, out of possibly 2,000 children of Los Basureros

 I think this is a fund-raising strategy -- a very effective one!
A classroom for older students.
Two young boys at the Camino Seguro school
"Mama: I learned to read and to write!" A proud shop teacher shows off his
students' accomplishments.


Our visit to Camino Seguro involves our first real introduction to a Guatemalan icon: the Chicken Bus! In Canada and the U.S. a school bus can only be used for five years before it must be replaced.  As a result there are hundreds of surplus buses, relatively new and in good shape, available every year.  Many of them end up in Guatemala and other Central American countries as privately-operated transit buses.  The first thing the operator does is install a very loud air horn.  Next, comes a new paint job with brilliant primary colors and lots of aftermarket chrome trim.  A luggage rack is installed on the roof and many hand-holds in the interior.


Each bus is operated by a driver and a conductor.  The driver's job description is quite simple:  he drives the bus as fast as humanely possible, weaving through traffic, overtaking slower vehicles uphill and down, disregarding oncoming traffic and generally risking the health and well-being of himself and his passengers on a minute-by-minute basis, all the while blowing the air horn.  Of course, there is a large crucifix hanging in the windshield so nobody needs to worry....! 

The conductor's job is much more difficult;  he has to hang out the door of the moving bus to shout the destination at potential passengers ("GUATE!... GUATE!... GUATE!...), hang out the door of the moving bus to shout and gesticulate at slower vehicles being overtaken, push and squeeze passengers in the door until there is scarcely room to breathe --  never mind to sit down -- and in spare moments help the driver to blow the air horn.  The conductor is also responsible for stowing luggage and freight (including occasional livestock; hence, "Chicken Bus") on the roof rack.

The Chicken Bus business is free-enterprise at its most basic and is very lucrative for the owners.  The buses  engage in fierce competition for passengers and the drivers and conductors obviously earn a per cent of the revenue.  I ask our driver why he drives at such a hair-raising rate of speed and he says if he slows down all the passengers will shout at him to drive faster and, if he doesn't, they will take a different bus.  The fares are very cheap; we ride 48 km into Guatemala city, about an hour, for 6.50 Quetzals (about C$1.00) but each bus carries thousands of passengers a day.  As we leave Antigua, I remark that the bus is full as there is at least three adults in each seat and the aisle is crowded with standing passengers.  Our guide, who rides the bus every day, says:  "This bus is NOT full!  Trust me!"  Another fellow told us about once riding several kilometres with only his feet on the doorstep and grasping the handholds -- unable to even get inside the vehicle.   Then, when the bus IS full, the conductor wiggles and squirms his way down the length of the jam-packed aisle, collecting fares.  Traveling by Chicken Bus is not for the faint-hearted, but it is never boring!

Our second weekend, we travel by minibus (not Chicken Bus) to visit the ancient Mayan ruins at Copán.  The biggest archaeological site in Guatemala is at Tikal in the northern province of Petén but it would  be too far to travel just for the weekend.   Someday we will go back and visit Tikal when we have more time.  Copán is actually just a few kilometres across the border into Honduras so we get to add another country to our list.  The minibus collects us very early on Saturday morning and some six hours later deposits us in the pretty little village of Copán Ruinas.  The Mayan site is about 2 km from this village, which was actually built in 1890 to house the archaeologists who did the initial excavation.

Guatemala - Honduras border crossing


The Copan site is a fascinating testimonial to the sophistication and complexity of the Mayan civilization.  A mild climate and abundant resources left their society ample leisure to develop impressive architecture, beautiful artwork and a complex social order.  Because they developed a written language and left a detailed history behind, we know a great detail about their civilization.  Our tours of the sites are fascinating and we learn a great deal about life in Central America before Conquest.  Thousands of Honduran school children are bussed to the site each year to learn about their historical heritage.  Two young Honduran ladies join our tour and it is fun to see their fascination at discovering their own history.

Two lovely Hondureñas


Next morning we walk back out to the ruins site and visit a secondary area called Las Sepulturas.  According to our guide, this was the area of the ancient city where the middle classes lived.  It is very beautiful and peaceful as most of the tourists visit only the main site.  In a place like this, if you sit very quietly and you listen very carefully, you can almost hear the voices of the people who lived so long ago.   Once again, we are impressed by the sophistication of this early civilization:  elaborate houses, channels to bring water from the river into the homes and sewer systems to flush the waste away, complex art, and an elaborate religion. 

Part of the sewer system

 On this day, our guide speaks little English, but he speaks slowly and and his Spanish is clear and distinct and neither of us has a problem following his descriptions and explanations.

Our guide describing the site
Some much-deserved refreshment after a
hard day exploring the ruins.

On our final evening in Antigua, our housemates decide to celebrate American Thanksgiving.  It is a week early but we are to leave the next morning and we have enjoyed each other's company so much that they want to include us.  David sets out for the market to find El Pavo (the turkey) and Susan volunteers to make her famous Pie de Calabasa (pumpkin pie).  El Pavo is located without undue difficulty, but neither Susan nor Blancha, the housekeeper, nor Felix, the cook can locate una calabasa anywhere in Antigua or the immediate surrounding area. 

What to do?   What would Thanksgiving be with out pumpkin pie? 

Undeterred by this setback, Susan sets out for Cafe Condessa on the central square where she remembers seeing pumpkin pie in the display case.  Even by Guatemalan standards, Cafe Condessa is not inexpensive and her hopes to be offered a discount if she buys the whole pie are dashed.  In the end, the traditions are honoured and the pumpkin pie is a fitting (albeit expensive) end to a delicious meal.

El Pavo -- the guest of honour
Salsa lessons The elegant Doña Cony

We have a relaxing and interesting holiday, we both improve our Spanish and we could happily  stay for another three months in this beautiful and fascinating country.   We hope to return.

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