We’ve had two days here in the capital and, apart from the almost inevitable stomach bug, it’s been great. We were slightly wary before we came as there is reportedly a murder in the city virtually every day, a lot of the victims being public transport drivers who haven’t paid their protection money. There are also frequent robberies and pickpocketing is common.
We seemed to be in luck when our shuttle bus driver from Copan said he knew the owner of our hostel in Guatemala City and would take us to the door. We were a bit suspicious as Copan is 5 hours away and the City has 2 million inhabitants so it semed rather unlikely but we decided to see what happened. In the event we were dropped at a junction but the shuttle driver flagged down a taxi for us for the next stage. Unfortunately the taxi driver was a bit thick and it took him 45 minutes and 2 phone calls to find the destination, a journey that we later discovered should have taken 10 minutes as the city has a very simple to follow grid system.
It was dark when we arrived but our host, Lucien, assured us we were in a safe area. He then spoilt it by saying, ‘You haven’t got anything in your pockets, have you? No passport, camera, credit cards?’ We hadn’t. We walked briskly down the middle of the road to avoid being attacked from the shadows of doorways and made it safely to the supermarket and back in one piece. Our only exchange with the neighbours has been an invitation to admire the handiwork of a chap who had finished painting the entire front of his house in time for Christmas. He then said he was pleased to meet us.
Yesterday we visited a huge scale relief map of the country of Guatemala and it was fascinating to see all the places we had been. Today we walked to the central plaza along 6th Avenue, in fact a (very) poor man’s St Stephen’s. The plaza has the Presidential Palace on one side and the Cathedral on another. We were very lucky to catch the Christmas Festival and markets that go on for a month. All the usual Christmas tunes were playing, there was a roller skating rink (too warm for ice) and a small cable car ride which had a queue as long as that for the London eye. The atmosphere was amazing, smiling families, activity, music and marching bands blasting out salsa with majorette type dancers, all looking as though they were thoroughly enjoying themselves.
People here clearly spend lots of money at Xmas too but it seems to be mainly focused on life size models of a slightly scary baby Jesus, angels, farmyard animals, stable flooring etc for creating your own nativity scene. There were mercifully few Father Christmases and very little emphasis on present buying.
We visited the Cathedral, a vast domed white building with beautiful paintings and a wonderful high ceiling. A mass was being held and it was interesting to see quite a cross section of Guatemalan society gathered for the service on a Thursday lunch time, some of whom seemed to have dashed in during their lunch break. The church is clearly playing a central part in many people’s lives.
We also visited the Presidential Palace, a magnificent building with a variety of architectural styles, which purports to celebrate the marriage of conquistador and Mayan culture, as well as the peace since the end of the civil war in 1996. I fear it has a much darker history than that as several dictators ruled from here but we couldn’t catch all of the guide’s explanation in Spanish and we suspect it was somewhat sanitised in any case.
This evening we had dinner in a jazz bar. Nice meal, good music and a great atmosphere. All in all we’ve loved Guatemala City but it’s really hard to reconcile the friendly, open, vibrant people and atmosphere with the news reports of exhortation and murder. How can these lovely people be capable of such things? We have been very careful while we’ve been here and we can honestly say that the worst that has happened to us is the shoe shine boy who charged us four times the going rate (but at £1.80 we can’t really complain) or the old lady selling bananas who charged us twice as much as the supermarket.
Our personal experience of this country has been that it’s vibrant, colourful, sometimes loud, verdant, with a beautiful and varied landscape and the people have been friendly,smiling, welcoming, helpful, polite and trustworthy. We would really like to come back one day. I haven’t got many photos as I didn’t take my camera out with me so just a couple of views from the hotel.