Guatemala: Closing Thoughts
I love Guatemala.
The landscape is particularly beautiful; high mountain lakes, volcanoes, jungle canyons, raging rivers, colonial cities, ancient ruins, and more. There is even a Caribbean coastline, although I didn't make it out there on this trip.
Guatemala vies with Panama for supplying Great Adventure. Caves, river rapids, windy mountain roads - there's a lot for the adrenaline junkie to feed on. Best of all there are no "adults" or lawyers to tell you that you aren't allowed to do something. This truly feels like a free country! Dangerous? Damn right. You have only yourself to blame if you get hurt.
Best of all, Guatemala is inexpensive - by far the least expensive country in all of Central America to eat, sleep, and play tourist in. If you're traveling on a budget, there is a certain peace in knowing that you can enjoy time here and not worry that you're unduly accelerating the end of your trip.
Guatemala is one of the more interesting cultural experiences in Central America. The people are far more Mayan and less "westernized" than any other country I visited. Outside the few cities and tourist zones, most people live by subsistence agriculture, and there are large areas of the country where Spanish is a second language - if it is spoken at all. Most women wear traditional Mayan clothes and in some places the men do as well. If you'd like to visit the "real Guatemala", spend a few days in Todos Santos - but realize that this is a game of anthropologist, not tourist. And bring a blanket.
My impression was that Guatemalans are not as warm and welcoming as the people I met in other countries. I can only speculate that this is related to their recent long civil war, or the still sometimes tense relations between indigenas and ladinos. Guatemaltecos are not unfriendly, they just tend to be much more reserved and quiet compared to their neighbors.
Guatemala does have a crime problem. Certain (fortunately well-known) roads are frequented by highwaymen, while kidnapping and extortion are thriving enterprises. Gavin met a girl in "hiding" because of threats; I spent some time talking to an Israeli expat who walked away from a business after fighting with extortionists. Guatemala may look like a touristic paradise on the surface but the locals will tell you there are many problems underneath. This is something to consider if you're looking to relocate, but as a visitor, the country is still wonderful.
I'll be back.