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Many of these people are the direct descendants of the Maya, and it surprises me to think that I once believed the Mayans to be gone. It's true their cities were abandoned, many for unknown reasons, but in Guatemala you can actually come face to face with the modern-day Maya.
Though most of their 23 Amerindian languages are related, each community is distinct, and can be recognized by their style of clothing and weaving patterns. Many women can be seen wearing their colorful skirts and blouses, though most men wear western clothes. As the story goes, this is said to be because during the Spanish colonial years, a law had been put into place stating that people could not travel outside of their local districts. And since the men were the ones to usually travel, they wore Spanish clothes so they couldn't be recognized by their region of residence.
The following are a few other great reasons to visit Guatemala:
You can sense Tikal's grandeur the moment you step foot into its Great Plaza. Besides its numerous temples, the tallest of which is 230 ft. high (70 meters), Tikal has palaces, administrative buildings, ball courts, smaller groups of pyramids, residential areas, and what researchers believe to have been a jail. And that is only the excavated portion. New structures are continuously being found as more sites are unearthed.
We had the unique experience of camping just outside the main park's gates. The mosquitos came out at dusk, and were vicious little creatures, but then the fireflies came out like fairies dancing across the field in front of us. Once we settled down for the night, howler monkey began to chant their "special" calls. It was a soundbite straight out of any horror movie. We went to sleep scratching at fresh mosquito bites, and to a nightmarish lullaby of nature, it was amazing!
The Jungle of the Peten
Tikal is at the heart of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, which represents the second-largest tract of forest on the American continent after the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil. This is truly the greatest piece of rainforest that North America has to offer, and it does not disappoint, as most people who visit Tikal see families of monkeys and many exotic birds.
So if you like wildlife and are interested in coming face to face with some of the world's most exotic species, then come to the remote forests of the Petén.
Caves and Waterfalls of Alta Verapaz
Unlike what we heard about Samuc Champey, which has a high amount of tourists visiting it every day, we were literally the only people at Las Conchas. It was our own private paradise. The largest of the waterfalls is about ten meters high (30 ft.) and you can jump off it! Tim, who was braver than I, did so a few times, as you can see in our video of Guatemala - The Green North. Tim wants me to insist that if you make fun of his bald spot in the video, he will unfriend you on Facebook. Las Conchas turned out to be such a secret gem that we urge you to visit it to feel the same sense of paradise that we did.
So if you want a truly authentic and personal experience in Guatemala, then come to Chahal in Alta Verapaz where you can visit these waterfalls and caves.
We actually made a bit of a snafu at the beginning of our visit to the lake. The problem was we booked our guesthouse room for a month in a town called San Pedro la Laguna, and then only afterwards we looked up the best route to our accommodations. The roads to San Pedro were not in the best shape, and have been known to be a common place for robberies. We learned that everyone usually gathers at Panajachel across the lake, then take small boats to all of the different towns surrounding the lake, including San Pedro.
So, the day before we were to arrive, it dawned on us that we were motorcycle travelers who were supposed to be staying someplace for a month that was fairly difficult to get to with a motorcycle. Great.
During the weekdays, both Tim and I enrolled in a Spanish course for a week, and planned on continuing if progress was made. But Tim spent several nights a week playing poker (with 20 Quetzales buy-ins, around $3 dollars, no great loss of money). And when he wasn't playing poker, he was petting one of the eight cats that lived in the courtyard. He actually got pretty good at poker by the end, and petting cats. If only he had dedicated as much time to his Spanish homework, he'd be fluent by now.
So if you come to visit Antigua, as nearly all tourists in Guatemala do, bring your camera and your wallet, and then just keep in mind that you won't be the only foreigner there, ha!
Things I didn't like about Guatemala
- Road Conditions - I don't just mean all the potholes and speed bumps (which are called túmulos in Guatemala). And I don't just mean that the pavement comes to an abrupt end out of nowhere and turns into gravel, or worse, sand. I mean like the time we suddenly found that we were in the middle of a giant corn field. Or the other time we wanted to go south on the secondary road to the main highway, and that turned into a cliffside mud pit, forcing us to turn around. Basically, if you want to actually get somewhere in Guatemala without going through some enduro off-road adventure, then you have no other choice than to take the singular main highway, which is full of potholes and speed bumps, but that's better than the alternative.
- Diesel Trucks - As far as I could tell, there are no roads outside of Guatemala City that have more than one lane for each side of traffic. So when you get stuck behind a truck, and you're on some mountainous hairpin curvy road (which is most of Guatemala), then you're going to be stuck behind him for quite some time. And the fumes you'll be breathing will take years off your life. We have actually debated purchasing some sort of gas mask to prevent fainting while being behind these polluting monstrosities.
- Spanish Schools - But wait, everybody knows that Guatemala is famous for its wonderful and affordable Spanish schools! Yes, but that's precisely the problem. Antigua and Lake Atitlán have become such havens for travelers wishing to take some Spanish classes, that they have employed nearly the entire local populations to teach Spanish. So not only are these people not qualified to teach, but many have not even finished high school. Plus, at least at Lake Atitlán, Spanish is probably not their first language! My Spanish teacher was decent, but Tim's was just awful. She was teaching him completely incorrect verb conjugations and was clearly illiterate in Spanish. So if you want to learn Spanish in Guatemala, pay the extra price for a real teacher, and look into the company's certification policies.
- Drugs- I don't think we necessarily fit the exact description of someone desperately in search of drugs, but none-the-less, we were solicited for cocaine, pot, and ecstasy at nearly every turn. Giving our surroundings at some of the locations, I'm sure that business was good, but the constant request to push coke on Tim got a little annoying and uncomfortable when politely refusing dealers.
- Poverty - Guatemala is very poor, and this can become an inconvenience for the traveler who is harassed by vendors and beggars. But more importantly, this is a real problem for the people of this gorgeous country who are trying to find their footing in the modern world economy. And yet, because of their close family ties and positive outlooks, Guatemalans are a joyful people who are always laughing and finding peace and comfort through the company of one another. And this, more than anything, gives me hope for this remarkable nation.
- Discrimination - More precisely, I mean discrimination against the indigenous people. We did not directly see any conflicts, but heard enough stories to know it's prevalent and a major issue. Even my Spanish teacher said she didn't feel comfortable wearing her traditional dress when traveling to Guatemala City. For a country that is so rich in its indigenous culture and roots, it's sad to see its own citizens prejudiced against what I believe to be one of Guatemala's greatest treasures. In fact, the indigenous cultures are the very reason why many foreigners come to Guatemala in the first place, and are what sets the country apart from its neighbors.
I hope I have inspired someone to consider visiting Guatemala, because I know if you do, it will hold a special place in your heart as it does in mine.