While visiting my daughter, who was working in Guatemala City, and I took the opportunity to experience the local culture. Guatemala is often called “the land of eternal spring” although it can be cold particularly in January and February. The city has the all the affluence of any modern city with international shops, shopping arcades, multi- screen cinemas and good hotels. It is the country’s capital city, known as Ciudad de Guatemala. The city has many excellent and diverse eateries. As a traveller it’s always handy to look out for the American burger chain with a letter on the roof. Although I prefer a more authentic local experience, at least at the big chains you are sure of a reasonable priced coffee, and easy access to clean facilities (most important!). In Zone 1 of the city you will find many architectural treasures. The area is always packed with people usually well dressed. Two museums house Maya artefacts while others offer indigenous and modern art. Bargain with local vendors and try a frozen banana instead of an ice lolly or enjoy a tortilla.
As you leave the city centre there is such a contrast in the areas at the city’s edges. Here you slip and slide after heavy rain. Depravation and poverty are evident everywhere. My first view was of a street full of cheap hotels. I asked my daughter how hotels could operate in such a deprived area, I couldn’t see tourists staying here. She told not to be naïve! These were not hotels but something else…the only way that some local women have of financial survival.
Street children were everywhere, a few not old enough to be of school age in UK. Some have clothing fused to bits of their bodies, where sores become infected. Many sniff glue as a way to take them into oblivion. The city dump is a life saver, although the smell is obnoxious in the heat of the day. Here at least waste food can be found and articles to sell. Fortunately vultures hover overhead and they clear most of the rotting food. Nights are very cold and children take cover where they can a drain, or a skip houses many. There are all sorts of reasons why the children here go onto the streets – it may be abuse or overcrowding or bereavement. There are some charities trying to offer help, but this – in the first instance- is often met with suspicion.
With the bank holiday weekend coming up my daughter suggested we leave the city and visit the slightly cooler area of the lakes. From Guatemala we travelled on to Panajachal – a town in the highlands some ninety miles from the City. Penajachal is the gateway to Lago de Atitlan. I started the day feeling fresh and clean, but that was before we got on the “chicken bus”! After a few hours squashed inside with the heat, the people and the animals, I fitted in well with some of the locals. How many people can you get on a seat or standing?? The roof had bundles strapped to it and the passengers who couldn’t get on board hung on to the side! All men carried machetes in their belts and women breastfed while chickens, piglets and puppies barked, grunted and squawked. At no time did I feel vulnerable, my only worry was getting off at my stop with the bus being so tightly packed. At the time the bus cost pence a tourist bus pounds.
Finally we arrived and I gladly exited the bus. The journey had taken a little longer due to a mud slide. Penajachel is breath taking. A lovely town with a daily market. A massive lake surrounded by green volcanic mountains. It shimmers in the sun. It’s wonderful. Locals look colourful in their costumes. Their hair covered with coiled scarves threaded with ribbon and a sort of tinsel. The men wear colourful shirts some with ¾ length shorts, complete with Stetsons. We booked a clean, respectable, but cheap hotel. The next day we get a boat across the lake to a village full of Indian crafts; colourful and exciting. We then go onto the next village where we explore the local church. We descend from the church in another direction. There are two paths very narrow. The first is concrete the other squelchy. A smallish boy blocks our path and wants money to let us down the firm one. My daughter wouldn’t pay as she says it encourages them, so we end up slipping and sliding on the other. I did give him a can of coke, which he was thrilled with.
Light is fading and the day cooling as the boat returns us. Skinny dogs are everywhere. Traders are still there plus family groups eating. The following morning we had a swim before lunch and heading back to the city. Once more on to the chicken bus dear friends. I would have loved to have stayed longer. It was delightful and so relaxing, and the blissful coolness of the water.