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Tourist Profile: Guatemala

Guatemala is a country gathering its wits after thirty-odd years of insane civil war. Budget-challenged travellers have been drawn to the country throughout this period of turmoil because it offers Central America in concentrate form: its volcanoes are the highest and most active, its Mayan ruins the most impressive, its earthquakes the most devastating and its history of repression decidedly world-class. Guatemala is the Mayan heartland of Central America, though the government has both touted and tortured the Maya - sticking pictures of them on its tourist brochures while sticking guns in their faces. Despite this, indigenous Guatemalan culture is alive and well, in the ancient ruins of Tikal, the Mayan/Catholic rituals of Chichicastenango and the blazing colors of everyday Mayan dress. Since the peace treaties were signed, inspiring even the least-intrepid travellers to venture beyond the Guatemala City-Antigua corridor, indigenous Guatemala has been rolling out the red carpet to once-isolated and lovely villages accessible to some of Central America's wildest natural wonders.

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Few colonial buildings grace the city, and it is visited more for its role as the nation's administrative and transport hub than as a must-see tourist site. In Zona 1, Plaza Mayor is a classic example of the standard Spanish colonial town-planning scheme, and is the city's ceremonial center, with the retail district nearby. It's best visited on a Sunday, when it's thronged with thousands of locals who come to stroll, eat ice cream, smooch on a bench, listen to boom-box salsa music and ignore the hundreds of trinket vendors. The square is lined by the imposing Palacio Nacional, currently being restored to house a national history museum, and the twin-towered Catedral Metropolitana. An earthquake destroyed the original market building adjacent to the square in 1976, and today the hugely chaotic Mercado Central specializes in tourist-oriented crafts. North of Zona 1 is the shady and restful Parque Minerva, featuring a quirky relief map of the country. Several important museums can be found in Zona 10, including the Museo Popol Vuh, which is a superb private collection of Mayan and Spanish colonial art, and the Museo Ixchel, which displays the rich traditional arts and costumes of Guatemala's highland towns.

Zona 13 houses the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, with its prized collection of Mayan artifacts, and the Museo Nacional de Arte Moderno, which has a superb collection of 20th-century Guatemalan art. Several km west of the center lie the extensive ruins of Kaminaljuyú, an important Late Pre-classic/Early Classic Maya site. Unfortunately, the ruins have been largely covered by urban expansion. Most of the city's cheap and middle-range hotels are in Zona 1, while posh hotels are clustered in Zona 10. Zona Viva is the place to go to eat expensively and dance the night away.

Antigua Guatemala: Antigua was the nation's capital from 1543 until 1776 (following the devastating earthquake), when the capital was moved 45km (28mi) to the east to the present site of Guatemala City. Antigua is among the oldest and most beautiful cities in the Americas. Set amid three magnificent volcanoes - Agua, Fuego and Acatenango - its superb yet sturdy colonial buildings have weathered 16 earthquakes and numerous floods and fires. Antigua is especially beautiful during Semana Santa, when the streets are carpeted with elaborate decorations of colored sawdust and flower petals. The city's churches have lost much of their Baroque splendor, the post-earthquake repair and restoration leaving them denuded of embellishment and elegance. However, many remain impressive, in particular La Merced, the Iglesia de San Francisco and the Las Capuchinas (now a museum). Casa K'ojom is a fascinating museum of Mayan music and ceremonies and related artifacts. On Sundays, visitors and locals alike gather to assess the goods for sale at the bustling market held in Parque Central. Quetzaltenango Chichicastenango: At 2030m (6658ft), the magical and misty highlands town of Chichi is surrounded by valleys and overshadowed by looming mountains. Though isolated, it's always been an important market town. The Sunday market is the one to catch, as the cofradías (religious brotherhoods) often hold processions on that day. The locals have combined traditional Mayan religious rites with Catholicism; the best places to witness these old rites are around the church of Santo Tomás and the shrine of Pascual Abaj, which honors the Mayan earth god. Incense, food and drink are offered to ancestors and to ensure the continued fertility of the earth. The town's Museo Regional contains ancient clay pots and figurines, flint and obsidian spearheads maize grindstones and an impressive jade collection.

Guatemala City: Guatemala City is the largest urban agglomeration in Central America - it's far from a pretty site. It sprawls across a range of flattened, ravine-scored mountains, covering an entire mountain plain and tumbling into the surrounding valleys. With its rickety chicken buses and chaotic marketplaces, the city's Latin character is over the top to the point of cliché. Like all Guatemalan towns, a strict grid system has been imposed on the city's layout: avenidas run north-south; calles run east-west. The huge city has been divided into 15 zones, each with its own version of this grid system.

Quetzaltenango: The commercial center of southwestern Guatemala, Quetzaltenango, more commonly called Xela ('SHAY-lah'), is an excellent base for excursions to the many nearby villages, noted for their hot springs and handicrafts. The city prospered during the 19th century as a coffee-brokering and storage center until an earthquake and volcanic eruption ended the boom. In recent years, Xela has become well-known for its Spanish-language schools. The town's major sights are the central square and the buildings which surround it, a couple of basic though useful markets and the ubiquitous Parque Minerva - many such monuments were built during the presidency of Manuel Estrada Cabrera (1898-1920), to honor the classical goddess of education in the hope of inspiring Guatemalan youth to new heights of learning. The beautiful volcanic countryside surrounding Xela features natural steam baths at Los Vahos and Fuentes Georginas. Also in the vicinity is the picture-postcard village of Zunil, the garment district of Guatemala, San Francisco El Alto and the center for wooly woolens, the village of Momostenango.

Flores: The capital of the jungle-covered northeastern department of El Petén, Flores is built on an island on Lago de Petén Itzá, and is connected by a 500m (1640ft) causeway to the service town of Santa Elena on the lakeshore. Flores is a dignified capital, with its church and government building arranged around the main plaza, which crests the hill in the center of the island. The city was founded by the Itzáes, and at the time of conquest was perhaps the last still-functioning Mayan ceremonial center in the country. The pyramids, temples and idols were destroyed by the God-fearing Spanish solidiers, and the dispersal of the Mayan citizens into the jungle gave rise to the myth of a 'lost' Mayan city. Modern sights include boat rides stopping at various lagoon settlements and a visit to the limestone caves of Actun-Can.

Panajachel: Don't be deterred by this town's nickname of Gringotenango ('place of the foreigners'), nor by the town's lack of colonial architecture or colorful market. The attraction here is the absolutely gorgeous caldera lake (a water-filled collapsed volcanic cone). Since the hippie-dippie days of the 1960s, laid-back travelers have flocked here to swim in Lago de Atitlán and generally chill out. Volcanoes surround the lake, and the town is the starting point for excursions to the smaller, more traditional indigenous villages on the western and southern shores of the lake. The most popular day-trip destination is Santiago Atitlán, with its colorfully dressed locals and a unique, cigar-smoking resident deity called Maximón. The market town of Sololá has been attracting traders for centuries, and the town's main plaza continues to throb with activity on market days. Village life can be sampled at Santa Catarina Palopá, while lakeside San Pedro La Laguna is perhaps more attractive because it is less visited.

The dry season, from November through May, is the most pleasant time, weather-wise, to be in Guatemala. Along with summer holidays, however, this is also the busiest time. Although the rain may restrict some activities during the wet season, it's still worthwhile planning your trip for this time of year, particularly as you'll be more likely to pick up accommodation bargains. If you're planning to be in the area around Easter, try to be in Guatemala for Semana Santa (Holy Week), the highlight of the country's festival calendar.

Currency: quetzal

  • Budget: US$2-5
  • Mid-range: US$5-15
  • Top-end: US$15 and upwards
  • Budget: US$5-30
  • Mid-range: US$30-60
  • Top-end: US$60 and upwards

Prices in Guatemala are very reasonable. You can pick up a one-plate meal for less than US$2, or stuff yourself on almost-free fruit and snacks from elaborate markets. Camping is incredibly cheap, and bus trips cost around US$1 an hour. Even if you splash out on a few comforts, you should be able to get a room with a bathroom, plus two or three meals, for US$25 a day.

It's a waste of time trying to change anything other than US dollars - even currencies from neighboring countries will probably be difficult to exchange. If you do have a different currency, try the casas de cambio at Flores or Guatemala City airports. ATMs are springing up around Guatemala City, and most banks will give you an advance on your Visa card over the counter. It's worth noting that MasterCard is almost completely useless in most of Guatemala. Waiters expect a tip of around 10%, on top of the 10% IVA (value-added tax). Hotels charge a 10% tourist tax in addition to the 10%IVA. Most hotels and shops have fixed prices, but you'll be expected to bargain at markets - remember to keep your sense of humor and perspective.

The fishing and farming villages which emerged on Guatemala's Pacific coast as early as 2000 BC were the forerunners of the great Maya civilization which dominated Central America for centuries, leaving its enigmatic legacy of hilltop ruins. By AD 250, the Early Classic Period, great temple cities were beginning to be built in the Guatemalan highlands, but by the Late Classic Period (AD 600 to 900) the center of power had moved to the El Petén lowlands. Following the mysterious collapse of the Maya civilization, the Itzaes also settled in El Petén, particularly around the present-day site of Flores. When Pedro de Alvarado came to conquer Guatemala for the king of Spain in 1523, he found the faded remnants of the Maya civilization and an assortment of warring tribes. The remaining highland kingdoms of the Quiché and Cakchiquel Maya were soon crushed by Alvarado's armies, their lands carved up into large estates and their people ruthlessly exploited by the new landowners. The subsequent arrivals of Dominican, Franciscan and Augustinian friars could not halt this exploitation, and their religious imperialism caused valuable traces of Mayan culture to be destroyed.

Independence from Spain came in 1821, bringing new prosperity to those of Spanish blood (creoles) and even worse conditions for those of Mayan descent. The Spanish Crown's few liberal safeguards were now abandoned. Huge tracts of Mayan land were stolen for the cultivation of tobacco and sugar cane, and the Maya were further enslaved to work that land. The country's politics since independence have been colored by continued rivalry between the forces of the left and right - neither of which have ever made it a priority to improve the position of the Maya. Few exceptional leaders have graced Guatemala's political podium. Alternating waves of dictators and economics-driven Liberals were briefly brightened by Juan José Arévalo, who established the nation's social security and health systems and a government bureau to look after Mayan concerns.

In power from 1945 to 1951, Arévalo's liberal regime experienced 25 coup attempts by conservative military forces. Arévalo was followed by Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, who continued to implement liberal policies and instituted an agrarian reform law to break up the large estates and foster highly productive, individually owned small farms. The expropriation of lands controlled by foreign companies, a move supported by the country's Communist Party, was the signal for the CIA to step in (one of these foreign companies was the United Fruit Company, which interestingly was part-owned by the then US Secretary of State). With their help a successful military coup was organized in 1954, Arbenz Guzmán fled to Mexico and the land reform never eventuated.

A succession of military presidents followed, and as both protest and repression became more violent, civil war broke out. Booming industrialization in the 1960s and '70s helped the rich get richer, while the cities became increasingly squalid as the rural dispossessed fled the countryside to find urban employment. The military's violent suppression of antigovernment elements (which meant the majority of landless peasants) finally led the USA to cut off military assistance, leading in turn to the 1985 election of the civilian Christian Democrat Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo. Arévalo's five years of inconclusive government were followed by Jorge Serrano Elías, who won the presidency for the conservative Solidarity Action Movement. His attempts to end the decades-long civil war failed, and as his popularity declined he came to rely increasingly on military support. On May 25, 1993, following a series of public protests, Serrano carried out an auto-coup. Lacking popular support, Serrano fled the country, and an outspoken critic of the army, Ramiro de León Carpio, was elected by Congress. Carpio's law-and-order mantle was taken up by new president, Alvaro Enrique Arzú Irigoyen, who attempted to heal his feuding and crime-ridden country with a neo-liberal technocratic salve. In December 1996, the government signed a series of peace accords with leftist guerrillas and the army agreed to reduce its role in domestic security matters. The greatest challenge to a lasting peace stems from great inequities in the basic social and economic power structure of Guatemalan society. Guatemala swore in a new government January 14, 2000, under its recently elected right-wing president, Alfonso Portillo. An admitted murderer, Portillo won by claiming that if he could defend himself, he could defend his people. His main campaign promise is to shake up the country's armed forces.

Guatemala's many Mayan ruins and colonial buildings are its most impressive architectural attributes. One of the most intriguing cultural aspects is the infinite and exotic variety of the handmade, traditional clothing of Guatemala's Maya population. The design of the women's colorfully embroidered tunics, capes and skirts dates back to pre-colonial days. Certain details of garment and design identify the wearer's group and village, and can also have multiple religious or magical meanings. Music and traditional dance also feature in many Mayan religious festivals. Spanish is the most commonly spoken language in Guatemala, and Roman Catholicism is the principal religion. Evangelical and Pentecostal Christian denominations have gained wide followings, while the Maya have preserved aspects of their traditional religions, often blended with Catholicism.

Guatemalan cuisine can't compete with that of Mexico, although standard Mexican fare such as tortillas and tacos can be found. Mostly you'll encounter tough grilled or fried meat, meat and more meat. Beans and rice are often the cheapest and best alternative, and the country has a surprising number of Chinese restaurants. Coffee is available everywhere - sometimes spectacularly good, but the best beans are typically exported. Beer is prevalent, in light and dark versions, and rum and Quetzalteca are the nation's favored rocket fuels.