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Guatemala on a Budget

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October 2007
Guatemala on a Budget

When Three-Dollar Meals Aren't Cheap Enough

When it comes to international travel, my bragging rights are limited as they only include the several trips between the U.S. and India, unless you count my layovers in Germany and France. Sure, I have been to the U.K. as well, but isn't that often considered the "across the pond" extension of the U.S.? [And in any case, any place that has several of relatives (as in the U.S. and U.K) is automatically stripped of any "touristy" allure it may have had]

So my recent Guatemala trip with a friend was my first as a tourist – an atypical one, albiet. Sporting nose studs, we were neither the gringos that the Guatemalans are used to as tourists, nor did we blend in as locals, despite sharing similar skin tones and features. To boot, we were always on the hunt for cheap food and cheap "Made-In-China" souvenirs.

But, why Guatemala? It just happened to be that unknown that got our nod as it seemed elusive, ethereal and cheap. Though we soon learnt that Guatemala or not, "cheap" is elusive in a world spoiled by Conde Nast travelers. But the good news is we did score two-out-of-three. Smaller than Cuba, the country is certainly off the beaten track and offers exquisite surprises.

As tourists, our expectations were quite simple: some ancient Mayan ruins, some mountains, and the hope that we, the svelte brown damsels from the land of floating fakirs and marble mausoleums, will be gawked at as exotic beauties by jaw-dropping locals and foreign tourists alike.

The ruins we saw with admiration. The mountains exceeded our expectations – as they turned out to be volcanoes. But the jaw dropping tourists and the native Mayan? No such luck. (Again, two out of three is not bad, is it?)

Guatemalans are a friendly lot. But being used to overtly friendly (bordering on nosy) Indian masses, I found them to be laidback and unruffled. They couldn't care less that we looked seemingly different from the typical tourists they were used to. Considering ourselves as walking anomalies, we had expected curiosity and nosy natives. We got none. We just had to live with the fact the Guatemalans were too cool to care.

On a serious note though, Guatemala really did have something to offer for even the most seasoned of backpackers. It is one of seven Central American countries. And unlike most of its neighbors, it is known for its ruins, mountains, volcanoes, lakes and vibrant indigenous cultures, more so than its Caribbean coastline (which extends only a few hundred miles on the east).

The country boasts of three UNESCO world heritage sites: the Mayan ruins in Tikal, the colonial city of Antigua, and the archaeological ruins at Quirigua.

The ruins in Tikal—spread over 25 square miles, right in the midst of a tropical jungle —are universally acknowledged as the best and most well-preserved of the Mayan civilization. We did manage to trek through the jungle, walk through the ruins, and climb up one of the temples (as they are called here). I say that we climbed up the temple, but I mean we ploughed our way up a sheer rock face. Well, it seemed like it. We also spotted some Howler monkeys, indigenous to this part of the world.

Lake Atitlan was our next stop. Aldous Huxley called it the most beautiful lake. I would gladly agree. The lake, arguably the most picturesque in Central America, is surrounded by three active volcanoes and is home to just as picturesque villages and hippie towns. Panajachel, San Pedro, San Marcos and Santa Cruz are some of the popular towns dotting the shores of the lake and are well frequented by travelers and tourists.

Indians traveling to Guatemala, rest assured. You may not get your daily dose of pongal rice, but in Panajachel and San Pedro, you will get the local variant of samosas and mango chutney. We ended up at a Bombay Caf� in downtown Panajachel. The food was great, and we even congratulated the chef for his ingenuity. So if you had any doubts about the globalization of Indian cuisine, this should put you at ease.

Our next stop was Chichicastenango, a small town a few hundred miles north of Antigua. Chichi, as it's more commonly known, is home to the famous bi-weekly markets. Tourists flock by the hundreds to Chichi on Thursdays and Sundays when artisans and farmers from around the region come to display their wares: textiles, clothes, handicrafts, jewelry and more. We took a shuttle bus from Panajachel to Chichi on a Thursday. The markets did seem to evoke a certain mela-like atmosphere and the colors of the textiles and handicrafts were indeed resplendent in their shades of cobalt blue, fuschia, and red. But, we were a tad let down. We concluded that the local markets had probably morphed from something utilitarian to a tourist trap for the gringos.

Antigua Guatemala (not to be mistaken for the Caribbean Antigua) used to be the Spanish capital until an earthquake destroyed most of the city in the 1700s. Though the capital shifted 20 miles east to Guatemala City, the city retained its colonial charm. Cobblestone streets, colonial homes, pink bougainvilleas spilling over walls, and centuries' old church ruins are but a few of the things that delight travelers.

Antigua is also the hippest of Guatemalan cities. Its bars, pubs and swanky restaurants are popular among both Guatemalans seeking a weekend of R&R and among foreign tourists. Being the curious and interested tourists, we were hoping to strike conversations and interact with the locals. But really, the only incident where we were actually noticed, seemed a bit questionable for our comfort. At a bar, two local boys approached my friend and said, "Would you like me to make you some company tonight?" With their broken English and our Spanish limited to "donde esta" (where is) and "quanto es" (how much), the "company" we would keep would certainly not involve much conversation. So we passed! Our adventures with the local flavors ended right there.

Some of my favorite moments of the trip are from the two-hour hike up Volcan Pacaya, one of the three active volcanoes within hours from the city of Antigua. We had booked ourselves into a guided tour as soon as we landed in Antigua and left for Pacaya the next morning. The hour long drive gave me an appreciation of the roads. This, to me did not seem like the Third World. The roads resembled less the pot-holed, cracked asphalts of the Third World and seemed more like country roads say, in rural Georgia.

The climb up Pacaya went from easy to moderate to strenuous to just crawl-on-my-knees difficult. The views of the peak and the surrounding valleys however, more than made up for the sweat. Jose, our guide was at times, cajoling, coaxing and at times threatening, especially when my friend and I thought we'd figured out a shorter route to the peak. It's one thing to strike out on your own on a hike up Stone Mountain and another to explore uncharted territories up a volcano. An unfortunate accident last year now prevents tourists from hiking up the last 30 minutes to the mouth of the volcano, but the views from the base more than compensate for that.

Soon we were treading on molten rock. We had to draw on our non-existent gymnastic skills as we tried to negotiate craggy rocks, and gaping holes to get to the ledge from where we could see the lava slowly making its way down from the volcano. On the horizon, one could see the city of Antigua stretch for miles on end, a vision truly indescribable.

Guatemala was not cheap. But then again, if you've traveled in India, few places come cheaper. This country has come a long way from civil war and strife. But the history and culture are eye-opening. A travel experience like this also reveals to us how clueless we are about the planet we live in. Two girls, who come from a culture known for its history and beauty, got to experience another culture's history and its beauty. And that is something a travel guide could never tell you about.

By GIRIJA SANKAR


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