Guatemala: Reality check

By Tim Roxborogh

Tim Roxborogh is humbled in a Guatemala town off the tourist track.

The town of Chichicastenango in Guatemala is famous for its colourful street markets. Photo / Thinkstock
The town of Chichicastenango in Guatemala is famous for its colourful street markets. Photo / Thinkstock

I really should've learned more Spanish.

"Buenos tardes, I am sick, can I have one of your rooms for an hour to lie down por favor?"

It might've gone down easier for the hotel staff in Chichicastenango if I'd had more than "good afternoon" and "please" at my disposal.

The oddity of a white man asking for a one-hour room without a girl in tow also seemed to throw them. I tried to explain that my bus wasn't leaving for another hour and I was so overcome by altitude sickness that I had to lie down immediately. More blank looks. I guess that's one of the problems of getting altitude sickness when you're not that high up.

Chichicastenango is moderately perched at 2100m and is all cobblestoned streets, men in cowboy hats and squat women in traditional purple woven clothes. It is also undeniably pretty with its fertile volcanic slopes and Spanish colonial architecture.

The town is famous for its street markets that stall the tourists buses for a few hours and that's precisely what had brought our group here.

En route to the Unesco World Heritage city of Antigua, we stopped here to shop - only I was lying (by myself) on a hotel bed while a diabolical steel-drum band entertained the squawking courtyard parrots. Bemused, the hotel staff had eventually figured out I wasn't some sort of con-man, took my money and led me to a room to gather my "this-will-be-a-good-experience-in-hindsight" thoughts.

Down at a more manageable 1500m, Antigua is a walled city largely devoid of cars that makes you feel like you've dipped back in time a few thousand years. Again, a place of cobblestoned streets, Antigua is ringed by volcanoes and comes complete with archways, parks, cathedrals and more than enough touristy shops to fill your bags.

Although when we hit Murphy's Irish Pub, we realised that the times had indeed changed. All-in-all, it was a fun - if quaint - two days in one of Guatemala's prettiest and richest cities.

San Jorge, on the other hand, was a little more challenging. In fact, at first I hated it. It's as poor a town as I'd ever seen with the population of some 2000 living in grey concrete box houses stacked on a hillside. The only flat space in the town was in front of the Catholic church - a bumpy patch of grassless dirt half the size of a full football field.

The kids we'd experimented teaching English to invited us for a game of football and I broke my jandals. Things weren't going well. We were here to see the real Guatemala but from that town square/football pitch all we could see were shop-houses selling junk food. It was a bleak picture. Until we spent two nights hosted by a local family. Our hosts were Daniel, his wife Mary and their daughter Grace.

At 29, Daniel is considered an elder in San Jorge and is the town's most educated resident. With one degree in tourism and another in business almost completed, he runs his own travel operation, sits on the council and supports not just his immediate family but his parents as well.

In a part of Guatemala where even Spanish is not the first language but where each town relies on its own local dialect, Daniel is close to fluent in English. He knows the economic hopes of this small town depend on people like him.

It was a real eye-opener of the kind we came here for; a clue to what life is really like for the people who live here and in other similar towns in this country. And what they need to guarantee a secure future.

Sure, we spent a chunk of tourist dollars in San Jorge, but we did that all over Guatemala and in some beautiful, relaxing and thrilling places. San Jorge was where we felt humble just to have been there.

TOP FIVE GUATEMALAN HIGHLANDS

San Pedro: Just a day trip for us, this beautiful lake-side town is known for luring in foreigners for chilled-out weeks on end.

Antigua: Surrounded by volcanoes, this photogenic town is one of the safest and cleanest places in Guatemala to learn Spanish, shop for local crafts and practice your mountaineering.

Panajachel: Excellent markets and perfect for exploring the towns surrounding Lake Atitlan.

Chichicastenango: Provided you're free of altitude sickness, the markets here every Tuesday and Sunday are as good as you'll find in Central America.

San Jorge's homestays: Awkward and verging on the depressing, this town is a slice of the Guatemalan pie that's yet to benefit from the tourism boom. Humbling.

Tim Roxborogh was assisted to Central America by Flight Centre.

- NZ Herald

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