Thursday, November 10, 2005

First Week in Guatemala

Market in front of ruined church, Antigua Locals at Lago Atitlan

I got to Guatemala about a week ago and have visited two of the top tourist spots. Antigua, an old colonial city about an hour or so from Guatemala City, is a beautiful place, full of colorful buildings, old churches, great restaurants and cozy cafés. It´s a definite magnet for tourists, and it was nice to hang out there for a while, meeting people, seeing some movies, eating bagels with cream cheese and basically hanging out. On Monday I went with a group and we hiked up Pacaya Volcano, which is active--so active that we could see the glow of lava when we peered over the edge of the crater at the top, felt the heat on our faces and were occasionally choked by sulphurous fumes when the wind blew in our direction. One man in the group had hiked the volcano two years ago and he said there was a whole section at the top which wasn´t there then--the volcano has spit out enough lava in the past few years to add about 15 or 20 feet to its height.

As opposed to the rest of Central America, here in Guatemala there is a sizeable population of indigenous people (Mayans) who dress in traditional clothes, speak Mayan and maintain some of their cultural traditions. It was sort of strange to suddenly arrive in a place and find people in colorful clothing, women carrying babies in cloth on their backs, and other sights which remind me more of parts of South America than of the countries right next door. Lake Atitlan, where I am now, is dominated by Mayan communities and as a result it is a really colorful, beautiful place. The lake itself is gorgeous, surrounded by mountains and volcanos, and the towns are full of women in predominantly blue and purple clothes, with hair ornaments and fancy belts, and men in cowboy-type hats and beautiful embroidered three-quarter-length pants. The amount of handicrafts, clothing and souvenirs for sale is overwhelming and extremely tempting. I might come home with an entirely new wardrobe if I stay here much longer.

Lake Atitlan was one of the areas hardest hit by the landslides after Hurricane Stan. I rented a boat on Tuesday with some other travellers and cruised around the lake visiting some of the smaller towns and enjoying the beautiful weather. All around us we could see muddy streaks in the mountaintops of sections of forest which had been washed out. While most of the villages have cleaned up and are getting back to normal, there are some which were completely buried (along with their residents) and have disappeared off the map. I´ve been trying to find a way to help out with the recovery effort, as many travellers have, by cleaning or painting schools or hospitals or doing whatever is necessary, but I don´t seem to be looking in the right places and haven´t found any opportunities yet.