Travel Tales: Guatemala
When I entered Guatemala from Mexico on a luxurious, overly air-conditioned bus, my sheltered American self thought, “Guatemala can’t be much different from Mexico.” After passing through customs, I hopped on another bus: an old U.S. school bus brightly painted in red and turquoise with “Jesus es el Señor” emblazoned across the side. As the driver sped out of the parking lot, rosary beads swung wildly from the rearview mirror. Things were about to get very different.
Guatemalans have a love of vivid color, evident in their indigenous clothing, their homes and yes, their buses. Chicken buses—so called because they’re stuffed to overflowing with chickens as well as people and bags—are an explosion of color. And the drivers are often as colorful as their buses, careening around blind mountain curves at top speed. View a photo gallery of chicken buses in Guatemala and then take a look at a photo essay showing the transformation of an American school bus into a chicken bus.
Quetzaltenango, also known as Xela (shay-la), was my first stop. Xela is the second largest city in Guatemala but feels more like a lovely colonial town. It’s less inundated with tourists than other areas, making it a popular place to study Spanish, confirms On the Road Travel. The town also makes a good base for trips to nearby sites. A quick chicken bus ride away is San Andres Xecul, a small village that boasts one of the most colorful churches you’ll ever see (but not much else). The egg yolk-yellow façade, covered with a profusion of painted vines, saints and even tigers, stands in stark contrast to the cool, quiet shadows within.
Xela is also the jumping-off point to visit hot springs in the area. A chicken bus took me to the town of Zunil, where I tried out another popular form of transportation in Guatemala: the pickup truck. After negotiating a price with the driver, I hopped into the back of the truck and rode 30 minutes up to Fuentes Georginas, a series of natural hot sulfur springs with cottages and a restaurant on site. I rented a cottage, had dinner and enjoyed a nighttime soak. After more soaking the next morning, I made the hike back down to Zunil, marveling at the strength and poise of an indigenous woman who was walking with a pile of wood balanced on her head.
Guatemala boasts one of the most beautiful bodies of water to be found anywhere in the world: Lake Atitlan. A volcanic lake filled with deep, cold water, Lake Atitlan is surrounded by three volcanoes and a number of small villages. I landed in one very touristy village, Panajachel, and then took a lancha (motorboat) to San Marcos. Get an introduction to the lake and the personalities of the surrounding villages in “On the Shores of Lake Atitlan,” a narrated slideshow by Wayne Curtis on the Web site of the Atlantic.
Reputed to be the most spiritual of the villages on the lake, San Marcos is an odd mix of local Mayan descendants and expatriates from all over the world. The village offers one paved road and a maze of dusty paths cluttered with scattering chickens and roaming dogs winding through a forest of banana, orange and avocado trees. Streetlights don’t exist, so flashlights are mandatory. I left after two days, only to return for almost two months; it’s that kind of place. Author Joyce Maynard wrote a travel column about San Marcos in The New York Times; she first visited there in 1973 and now makes her second home there.
Part of what made San Marcos so appealing was the hotel I stayed in. Aaculaax (pronounced Ah-cu-losh) is a collection of Gaudi-esque structures perched on the side of a mountain overlooking the lake. Stained glass windows, intricate mosaic and the incorporation of the natural environment made each room unique. I wound up in the Cascada room, which overlooks the beautifully landscaped mountainside, the treetops and the lake far below. A boulder carved with entwined snakes served as the innermost wall of my room; the other three walls were windows.
For a taste of city life in Guatemala, I went to Antigua. The Spanish colonial architecture provides a gorgeous backdrop to a bustling cultural center: modern hotels, a variety of great restaurants, Internet cafes, art galleries and Spanish language schools abound. Being there during Semana Santa (Holy Week) added a whole new layer of experience. The air was thick with incense, and elaborate tapestries of flower petals and natural resins were painstakingly created on the cobblestone streets, only to be destroyed as the processions came through. Get inspired to visit by viewing an Antigua photo gallery and then learn more about the city with Around Antigua.
How better to end a trip than by risking life and limb by climbing a volcano? From Antigua, I booked a tour of Volcán de Pacaya, a volcano that’s been continuously erupting since the 1960s. It took two terrifying hours for our group to hike to the top, the lava rock hot and slippery beneath my Pumas (I recommend sturdier footwear). At the top, all senses were engaged: we could see, smell, hear and even taste the volcano belching thick red lava and smoke into the air. It took days to get all the lava dust out of my hair.