We’re taking a break. [You can read more about our blogging sabbatical here]. While we spend 6 weeks traveling through Central America with our North Face backpacks, we’ve decided to take this opportunity to take a step back from writing. It’s not that we’re burnt out, we’re just looking for some perspective. While we’re away, we’re playing host to some wonderful writers on this blog who are each sharing a perspective from Central America. While we are not blogging, we are sharing photos and quick impressions of our experiences on social media, so make sure you like our page on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
Salud, Clark and Monica
One of the many things I loved about Guatemala was how easy it was to get off the beaten tourist track and see the “real” people and real life. It amazes me in every single country I visit how similar tourists are to ants, following each other in a line, never deviating from that designated trail outlined in a travel guide. On the one hand I feel sorry for them, on the other I feel happy for me, that it’s so easy to quickly find myself the only Westerner around, meeting friendly, genuine people, not jaded by the hordes of tourists.
For example, walk down the main tourist drag in Panajachel or Santiago Atitlán, and nearly every kid you meet will accost you with shoe shine boxes, woven bracelets, trinkets, begging hands, and will mutter under their breath when you don’t oblige. Three blocks away, every kid you meet blushes with shyness beneath your gaze, carries on with the load of tomatoes she is carrying on her head, or the load of wood chips he is carrying on his back. Two kids will be playing with bottle caps and not even look up at you. If you raise your camera and ask to take a photo, people smile for the picture instead of presenting you with their palm, demanding monetary compensation for the photo. If you walk by and wave and call out “Hola!” people will stop what they’re doing, look up at you, and wave back, “Hola!”
One of the most perfect examples of this was in Santiago Atitlán, a village on the shores of Lake Atitlán, a volcanic lake in the western highlands of Guatemala. The steep hillsides are covered in lush jungle and colorful flowers, and the volcano dominates the skyline.
Mayan culture is still intact here, most of the residents being indigenous Mayans and still speaking a Mayan dialect (but everybody knows Spanish). We met a man who taught us several words in the Mayan language, particularly for the local wildlife. Any guidebook will explain what the town is most famous for: the Mayan deity, Maximón. He always has a cigar or cigarette in his mouth, and is usually brought alcohol as an offering.
Many residents wear the brightly-colored traditionally-woven clothing. You can find women weaving vibrant creations on their looms all over the town. There is a weaving museum as well. For me, the traditional dress was one of the most charming aspects of the village. It’s the most obvious way by which I feel I’m in another culture … surrounded by people dressed wholly different than I am.
We were there on a market day, which is always a special experience, no matter which country you are in. Chickens, turkeys, vegetables and fruits, cloth, daily necessities, exchanging hands all around us. Musicians performed in the square; ladies cackled together in flocks; men sat in shade in a straight row along the wall of the central building, barely moving or speaking; children chased each other, giggling. It’s not a large market, but it’s always interesting to see what the locals buy for themselves.
One of the primary agrarian products in this area is green onions. Walking along the lake shore outside of town, we saw the hillsides next to the water covered with huge plots of green onions. Women sat in the shade of trees chatting and laughing while they bundled the dark green onions. As these are one of my favorite foods, I noticed a slight salivation at the corner of my mouth.
It doesn’t take long if you are meandering aimlessly to find yourself in a maze of narrow cobblestone streets. Walking further to the outskirts, the cobblestones give way to dirt paths heading off into the thick of the jungle. Descending a steep slope back into town, we found ourselves on a very rocky path, passing by shacks patched together from all kinds of materials – wood, corrugated metal, plastic. At one particularly nice home built entirely and congruously of cement painted light green, a sign mounted on the outside of the house advertised “dentist.” Dentistry was obviously a lucrative business in this town. I noticed a motorcycle on the side. How a person could navigate a motorcycle up that path was a mystery to me!
On the outskirts, the residents are so much more relaxed than the rather high-strung vendors along the tourist streets, who are constantly shouting out to you, “Hey, special price for you!” The folks on the outskirts are generally too busy talking to one another to pay attention to you strolling by. No one tries to buddy-up to you; they are concerned only with their own friends.
After meandering around the town and its outskirts, we passed down the tourist drag and ended up buying some beautiful woodwork. As we were waiting for the boat to cross the lake back to Panajachel, where we were lodging, we struck up a friendship with a little girl waiting with her parents, Lauracita Lena. We played with pebbles and made dolls out of popsicle sticks and string. It was a charming end to our day, relaxing with the demographic who are always the most welcoming in any culture – the children.
Naturally, any town or city has its outskirts. But the villages throughout Guatemala, even the most touristed ones, require only a few steps to breach that boundary between the beaten and the non-beaten track.
Shara Johnson lives in the small mountain town of Nederland, Colorado. She’s a writer and amateur photographer. You can follow her adventures abroad at SKJtravel.net.