At a time in the history of the internet where it is already possible to make the top 10 of the top 10 top 10s, this is one more, with the particularity of being mine, and is the answer to the question so often repeated: and what are your favourite places?
It’s clear to me that a place becomes our favourite (often temporarily), not only because of its intrinsic characteristics but also because of our state of mind while we stay there. In my travels, I have been attached to the idea that a place either adopts us, or aborts us, which for me means that, regardless of the time we spend there, we can have a visceral connection with it, or we can have a superficial and sometimes even troubled experience.
Guatemala has adopted me. I went back and forth several times and I developed a lot in the place that ended up taking me as a daughter and entrusting me with a mission: for us born and raised in Western culture, Guatemala is transforming. This transformation that she has the ability to operate in us, can transform her, too, and that is what she wants. It will help us to better understand how we want to live on this rich planet Earth, and by understanding this we may be able to help reverse the course that Guatemala and the planet is taking today.
These are the 10 reasons why I fell in love with Guatemala, and I think you too will fall in love when you visit, at least once in your life.
When in India a German and a Bulgarian invited me to go to Guatemala (a story for another blog entry), I noticed that, besides them, I did not know a single person who had been there. Off the beaten path? I don’t know if it was invented for Guatemala, but it’s there! Also because there are enough roads that give the feeling that we are circulating out of the path, is fact, and especially because in 2017 it received only 2.1 million visitors according to the Guatemalan Tourism Institute, which compared to the more of the 22 million that visited small Lisbon seems quite clarifying. This makes the villages remain, for the most part, authentic and unadulterated by a tourist massification. However the tourism effects are already beginning to be felt in the speculation of real estate and consumer goods’ prices, the confrontation of local cultures with new habits and necessities hitherto unknown, and the promotion of intense and inauthentic exploitation of culture. At every corner, among the purest manifestations, an environmental, social or cultural aberration screams in our faces and makes us question how we want to interact with the most remote, unexplored and therefore preserved sites of the planet.
Guatemala is the birthplace of the Mayan Civilization of which Tikal was the largest metropolis. The decline occurred even before the arrival of the Spaniards, for whom it was easy to annihilate the society. Amerindians descended from the Mayans constitute 40% of the population and with the 35% of mestizos, they are divided into ethnic groups with 23 different languages, although Spanish is the official language. The majority of the Guatemalan population is rural, living far from the great centres, and is intimately rooted in its ancestral culture, rituals and worldview, today with intricate relations with Catholicism and Spanish culture. In the last 500 years, generation after generation, these people have lived through stories of invasions, external domination, civil wars, corruption, guerrilla warfare, resistance and violence, and cultural and patrimonial appropriation. The last ceasefire agreement was signed in 1996. Generalizing, they are sweet, humble and respectful. They can even resemble sad and submissive, for they are greatly accustomed to the marginalization that still exists today, from the wealthy minority of European descendants or the new settlers who often buy their land at the price of rain and impose a new dominant culture. Many are materially very poor, and humanly rich.
It is believed that “Guatemala” derives from Náhuatl Quauhtlemallan, which means “place with many trees”. It is home to a fantastic number of species in 19 different ecosystems. There are lakes, volcanoes, mountains, surf on the Pacific coast, jungle, waterfalls, coast in the Gulf of Honduras. In order to make Guatemala an eco-destination, associated with sustainability, 30 protected areas, National Parks and Biological Reserves were created, such as a Maya Biosphere Reserve that contains the magnificent archaeological site of Tikal, as well as 57,600 hectares of pristine jungle. The resplendent Quetzal, a rare and gorgeous bird is the symbol of the country and is said to be magic.
The Lake Atítlan
Situated at 1,560 meters of altitude in the old crater of a volcano, along with countless others, it is surrounded by small charismatic communities in which the original culture still prevails. It is a combination of scenic beauty, a special mystique and a simple lifestyle that attracts so many people to Atitlan, hippies, investors, retired, activists and new age devotees, and that is where everyone in their own way seeks to seek the best for themselves, that many believe should be what is best for everyone. As a result, the local economy is almost totally dependent on tourism and sometimes seems more like a melting pot, than the crater of a volcano. It is an unbelievable place, one must see, and experience, to believe.
Antigua is one of the most intact colonial cities in the world, small but very captivating, that invites you to stop and stay, and stay, and stay… I know people who went for one day and have been there for six years now. With a busy social and nightlife, especially at the weekend when Guatemalan city executives arrive, with countless art galleries, very good coffee shops and restaurants, and lots of interesting people to see, Antigua is dangerous. In the good sense!
The markets are fascinating, vibrant, and alive. Filled with noise, aromas, colours, colourful fruits and fabrics, crafts and ornate clothing. The weavers weave complex shawls, banners, ponchos, hats, and tablecloths. Textiles are, in fact, kings, or queens, who honour Mother Nature in her most beautiful expressions. A traditional market for coffee or avocado is also an experience for all the senses. It is a trip into the past that allows us to dream of a more balanced future when it comes to trade.
Coffee beans are plentiful. With temperatures between 16 and 32 ° C and altitudes between 500 and 5 thousand meters above sea level, Guatemala is the largest coffee producer in Central America, in a few years surpassed by neighbouring Honduras, and the quality of coffee produced is admittedly very good.
When in Sec. XIX the chemical dyes replaced the indigo and cochineal, it was necessary to find a substitute in the exports and thus appeared incentives for investors to develop the business, mainly foreigners. Today, the “fincas” scattered throughout the country are modernized and begin to have concerns about labour and sustainability issues, and there are incredible projects in this regard, such as De la Gente coffee. For those who enjoy coffee, Guatemala is an oasis.
Guatemala is the cradle of chocolate, “the food of the Gods”. Westerners immediately perceived the value of this plant reserved for the nobles, inscribing it in the Latin name of the cacao, Theo(god)broma(food) Cacao, and continue to perceive, or to rediscover it every 100 years or so: currently there are new age cacao ceremonies, there is Cacao Yoga, Cacao Dance and Cacao Devotional Singing, and I love them all! There are cacao plantations lost in the jungle with all the ancestral character infused in the colonial charm, there are shops and coffee shops in the main cities with cacao of such impeccable quality as underestimated. The offerings to the fire of chocolate plates, now with milk and extremely sugary, are part of pagan and Christian religious ceremonies throughout the country. The cacao in Guatemala, symbol of life and fertility, is God!
If there is one thing they probably would not let us do in Europe, it would be to hike an active volcano and see lava rivers closely. In Guatemala, one can, and it was one of the most humbling experiences that I have ever had. I was with a group of people who suddenly, without anyone instructing us, began to whisper as we approached the lava. With countless volcanoes, one only has to choose which incandescent summit to conquer, who opts for the challenging Acatenango may be fortunate enough to see Fuego, next to it, erupting, and most people are able to climb the dramatic Pacaya without great difficulty.
An American expatriate, aka Emigrant, explained that one of the reasons for moving to Guatemala was for being the land “of the eternal spring”. A good rule of thumb that I have adopted is that I like to walk between cacao and coffee crops: minimum 15, maximum 28. If you still can keep the coconut oil liquid, from 21ºC, it is perfect, and there are countless perfect days in Guatemala. I especially like the rainy season, which is the opposite of what it provokes me here. Everything is luxuriously green, dawns are incredibly beautiful, and it is good to walk in the rain and smelling the wet soil. One hour later everything has passed.
Bonus track – the opportunities
One of the things that most fascinates me in Guatemala are the opportunities. There are opportunities for everyone – or starting a new business, because initial investment levels are low, or finding a social community or social paradigm, as there are so many trials going on, or to find a mission aligned with life purpose since the need for help is what is not lacking there. Guatemala is very generous and I am also grateful for the idea of repaying this generosity with opportunities for it too – to see reverted destructive, cultural or environmental processes, or to stop projects that we have already missed elsewhere, whether due to the harmful environmental impact or because socially they created more harm than good. Opportunities to look at the tourism that we do there, and if that is what we want to contribute to, or with the products we buy from there, and if that is the impact we want to have. Opportunities for everything!
Photo by Patrícia Campos