Guatemala is a country wracked with violence. With 52 murders per 100,000 people, it has one of the highest homicide rates in the world.
It is possible for you to visit or live there without incident, but there is a much higher chance that you will encounter something criminal and violent. Extremely heavily armed narco-traffickers, former revolutionaries, gangs, corrupt officials and simple thugs seem to show up with far too much frequency.
The recent past is no comfort. A horrific civil war wracked the country for 36 years before the signing of peace accords in 1996.
Estimates are that an astonishing 200,000 people died in that conflict, with reports of other widespread and significant human rights violations. Though the fighting is over, the echoes of this past continue to reverberate today.
Life in Guatemala
Many average Guatemalans struggle to create good lives in a bad situation.
Rising professionals struggle with issues of bribes. Villagers scrape out meager livings in the poor areas left to them. Roads, health care, and public services are challenged by most of the money in the country being held by just a few people.
And seemingly everywhere there is violence.
It’s a real shame. This country is a true Central American jewel.
There are too many beautiful sights to even count, and you can travel through amazing natural surroundings, from verdant jungles to cool mountaintops, oceans to volcanoes, cities to caves, manatees to macaws to marlins to the legendary Quetzal bird.
The ancient Mayans reach out to you with grand cities and pyramids, many of which have yet to be uncovered. Modern Mayans spark life into each day, with the vivid colors of their materials and traditions.
Plus, at a personal level, our neighbors and my coworkers were terrific, generous, welcoming, and supportive.
The Guatemala Highlands and the Mysterious Lake
In the Alteplano, the city of Quetzaltenango sits against the mountains.
Known as Xelajú (sheh-lah-HOO) from ancient times, this city is near the open valley where the final K’Iche’ Mayan king of the highlands,Tecún Umán, led a last stand against the Spanish conquistadores in February, 1524.
As I understand, the conquistadores’ leader Pedro de Alvarado renamed Xelajú as Quetzaltenango, giving it the name used by his Nahuatl-speaking allies. However, perhaps somewhat defiantly, most inhabitants still refer to it as Xelajú or simply Xela.
If you drive about 13 miles from Xela into the lush mountains, you can go to a place where a simple path wanders past tiny huts and across agricultural fields toward a mountaintop.
If someone in your car doesn’t know this place, you could go right past it with a good chance of not even notice this path. But, at the other end, is a real surprise that will connect you with the ancient Mayans.
We join a local Mayan “medicine man” who points out everything from the uses of plants along the way to small spots in the increasingly dense growth where rebels used to rally in their decades-long fight against the government.
There are open fields and other places to rest along the way. After about two hours, we reach the top and peer down into the large crater of the volcano we just climbed.
A sizeable lake fills the bottom. Thanks to a Peace Corps volunteer and locals who organized the recent construction of a long, steep set of stairs, we descend and save hours of fighting through thick plant growth and tumbling down the slope if we lose grip.
Once at the bottom, we’re treated to a great view of the lake surrounded on all sides by the jungle rising to the edge of the volcano.
Chicabal is the center of Mam Mayan cosmology, so there is no swimming in the lake or partying on the shoreline. Only a couple of simple altars.
The “Grandparents” Return
A visitor can join in, however, and toss a kernel of corn into the water to make a wish.
Our medicine man tells us that, at 11:00am exactly, we will see “the Grandparents” return. We check our watches. It’s 10:45.
10:55. We stand on the shore of the lake and stare at the rim of the volcano, wondering if this is some joke on the gringos and gringas. Our guide talks about “the ancestors” visit, and how they return to their people every day.
10:59. Can something like this actually happen…and on time?
At exactly 11:00am, a wide, low bank of clouds claws over the rim of the crater and swoops down to fill the area. A Hollywood special effects team would have been challenged to create such an awe-inspiring sight that arrives like clockwork.
Whether you believe that it is actually ancestors returning daily to visit their loved ones or simply a stunning natural wonder, it is one of the miracles in a land that needs miracles…and any visitor is fortunate to have seen it as well.
Next Week: Tikal
© Mark Dorr, All Rights Reserved