Observations on the Guatemalan Highlands

You can click on any photo for a larger version

If you look at a map of Guatemala, draw an imaginary circle in the center left of the country and that´s the highlands. If you don´t know where Guatemala is, well it´s right south of Mexico with a long Pacific coastline and a tiny corner on the Caribbean. The north is a massive jungle concealing Mayan ruins, and the south is a steaming coast of tropical fruit trees and black sand beaches.

It rains here and doesn´t seem to stop, at least not during summer afternoons. There are clouds, fog, mist, sprinkles, showers, downpours, floods, mud, mudslides, and cold – not to mention the odd beautiful morning or even full day of sunshine, revealing scenery that reminds you that you are actually on vacation.

But that´s just the weather. Really, if you have proper rain gear and a dry place to hang it every night then the most striking thing about this country is the culture, and lots of it. A smiling, unhurried, modest, and well-dressed people live in Guatemala. Here, the Mayans aren´t an excuse to bore your friends with misinformed warnings about the end of the world in 2012, but an enduring population with distinct dress, languages, and customs.

Unfortunately, these original inhabitants are still second-class citizens and suffer discrimination at the hands of the ladinos, descendants of Spanish colonists and the still-ruling elite. Ladinos of course have their own culture – salsa dancing, tight jeans, and big smiles as well. Many are also exploited and underprivileged, and I´m sure that most are perfectly nice human beings. Every single one I met and spent time with was wonderful, but then I didn´t meet any politicians.

Photo by Alex Schwab

The people, both Mayans and Ladinos, are friendly and helpful. Children are everywhere. In small towns 90% of people wave and say hello and the other 10% look at you like you have two heads. For many of them Spanish is a second language. People are either taciturn or really chatty – there doesn´t seem to be a middle ground. If they feel like talking, they will talk a lot.

About the Mayans, the first thing you notice is the clothing women wear: colorful, hand-woven dresses of unique designs and patterns, often specific for a certain village. Most men stick to jeans and such, but in certain towns they dress traditionally, such as in San Martin Sacatepequez, gateway to the Chicabal volcanic crater lake, where they wear a white smock with colorful sleeves. The majority of people you see in small towns and on the cheapest buses are dressed like works of art.

Ah, the buses. I describe them in more detail here, but once again, the second-class buses are former US school buses – just as uncomfortable but much more stylish and with bumping music, usually club hits or bachata. They pass by constantly, go everywhere, and are often painfully slow as the drivers try to pick up anyone who might want a ride. They jam the people in until there are three to every seat and the aisle full, along with all their bags and parcels.

This is an election year and ads large and small line the streets and highways promoting all 10 (!) candidates and their many running mates in each city and town. Especially prominent (and often defaced by graffiti) are the two leaders Otto Perez and Sandra Torres. US army school of the Americas graduate General Otto Perez fronts the Partido Patriota whose slogan is Mano Dura – tough hand – meaning death or worse for all kinds of criminals – not a universally popular concept in a country plagued by poverty and where thievery isn´t a career move but a survival tactic. The second leading candidate, Sandra Torres, is the ex-wife of current president Alvaro Colom, whom she divorced because the Guatemalan constitution doesn´t allow presidential spouses to run for office. It still hasn´t been decided whether this move was legal or not. Also included on the ballot is the longshot Rigoberta Menchu, a Nobel Prize-winning Mayan activist.

The short story – and I write this as someone who was thoroughly ignorant of all things Guatemalan just three weeks ago – the short story is that Guatemala is controlled by 15 families who intermarry and shift power among themselves in a semblance of democracy, not giving the little guy (and for sure not the little gal) much of a chance.

The food here doesn´t blow you away at first pass. Black beans and scrambled eggs for dinner anyone? How about every night? The tortillas are thicker and a little smaller than those in Mexico and are good but get stale fast. There is no salsa or outstanding hot sauce to speak of. Pity. However there are amazing dishes to seek out. Pepian is a curry-like dish usually with chicken and rice and a distinct smokey flavor. Market food is good, with variations on things like tostadas and rice drinks. Fried chicken is omnipresent. Fruit is plentiful but not as varied as in warmer areas, but you can find rarities like rambutan, mangosteen, pitalla, and a seed-pod fruit called cushin.


The landscapes are spectacular. Volcanoes and mountains are all around, with steep valleys and rivers flowing dirty brown from the constant rain. Small farms give mountains a checkerboard appearance and animals roam free – stray dogs, beasts of burden, and meals-in-waiting. Everything is verdant green with a variety of forest, from pine to tropical, all uniformly thick and lush. Winding, twisting, occasionally washed-out highways cross these mountains like cracks on the concrete wall. If this tiny country were flattened it would be huge, as the length of bus rides will tell you.

Volcan Santa Maria as seen from Laguna de Chicabal

Quetzaltenango is the biggest city in the highlands and the second biggest in the whole country. Lago Atitlan is a giant lake surrounded by volcanoes and expat-hippy settlements. Chichicastenango is a traditional mountain town with a huge market. Finally, the most touristy place in the country is Antigua, the former colonial capital. Please check back for descriptions of each of these places as I visit them. Thanks for reading!

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About Ted Campbell

U.S.-Canadian writer, translator and university teacher in Mexico. Travel stories and practical tips on my blog No Hay Bronca: nohaybronca.wordpress.com Twitter: @NoHayBroncaBlog // Contact: nohaybroncablog (at) gmail.com

Posted on July 3, 2011, in Guatemala, Travel and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

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