Guatemala was hard. It was uncomfortable. We were routinely inconvenienced. It rained every day. Toilets were hard to find, there were no ‘campgrounds’, and laundry...forget it. Simply put: it was exactly what we were looking for. All of this to say, Guatemala can be done in utter comfort, luxury even, if that’s what one desires. But our desire for this trip was to live our day-to-day in regular places with regular people. To find that experience in Guatemala meant leaving the beaten track and traveling to towns, forests, and jungles where life was lived without tourism.
We saw none of the sights- we did not go to Tikal, Lake Atitlan, or Antigua. We didn’t climb a volcano. The closest we came to a “sight” was Semuc Champey- but even then we didn’t make it to the epic swimming holes. At Semuc Champey, we arrived, felt the immediate trappings of tourism, drank an overpriced beer, and decided at 3:30 in the afternoon to take an off-road route that all reports had said was closed due to mudslide. That drive, and the people we encountered, was more meaningful for us than a dip in a river. So, if you’re looking for a travel guide, or epic shots of the top sights, there are better blogs. This one is about daily life, of regular people, and of navigating remote roads in a van.
We entered Guatemala from Mexico at La Mesilla and headed straight for the mountains. The initial stretch of road was paved, and at several places we came upon kids (some quite young- maybe 6 or 7) and young men who would pull a rope taught across the road and demand money in order for us to pass. While they were disconcerting in their intensity they weren’t any real threat. We gently pushed through with our van until they dropped the rope and let us go. We chalked this experience up to being too close to the border, and had only one other blockade for money during our trip (that time was a group of men and a spike strip, and sadly, we ended up paying).
Once we had some distance between us and the border, as well as dirt roads under our tires, things felt infinitely more secure. The new challenge became where to sleep each night. The regions we traveled were light on public lands and traditional campgrounds, which meant we had to get real comfortable with setting out for the unknown each day. Occasionally we found that epic spot we all dream of, but usually we found ourselves in a parking lot, on private land or farm, behind a hotel, at a gas station, or in a nature preserve. Don’t be dissuaded though- there are plenty of camping and lodging options on primary routes and at popular destinations. However, the beauty of winging it was the forced interaction with the local people- continually stopping to ask directions or get road conditions, negotiating a place or price for lodging, and sourcing the supplies we needed for our own day-to-day. Travel in that manner made us feel more connected to the people we encountered.
Our greatest challenge regarding daily living was laundry. Only a few times were we in towns that had laundromats. The rest of the time we washed clothes by hand, same as everyone else. Or we swam in rivers wearing the sweaty, muddy clothes we had on and called it good. It wasn’t a true hardship, but we sure did roll back into Mexico with a heap of dirty clothes. My rude awakening to the lack of laundromats came in a small town where we stopped so I could buy a few handmade textiles. As we settled on price I asked the woman who made the clothes how I should wash them. She looked at me like I was insane and said, “with water.” In my world there were options for wash cycle or dry cleaning, tumble dry or hang dry, etc. In her world there was water, a concrete basin, and her own two hands.
We traveled a very small area of Guatemala which was contained primarily in the mountainous region of Huehuetenango. We loved this area for it’s climate, and the immediate warmth we noticed in the people we encountered. The region is primarily inhabited by indigenous Mayan groups. If any people personify endurance, it is the people of Guatemala. They have struggled historically, and their struggle continues today, oppressed in a life of poverty. The poverty we witnessed was extreme; where only the support of community and subisistence living provided the necessities to get by.
The Mayans of Guatemala work hard. They cook and heat with fire. In each home a fire is started at 5am and maintained until 8pm. Every day. Many areas are quite deforested which meant long distances traveled (on foot) to obtain their fuel source. Every day, men, women, children (little ones!), and the elderly hauled bundles of wood on their backs held with a strap across their foreheads. Needless to say, they have mastered the art of a hot smoldering fire using a minimum of wood.
In the remote towns and villages we saw no machines to lighten the load of labor: no washing machines, no road equipment, no farming machinery. Road work- to include pouring concrete to pave a dirt road- was all done by hand. The most remarkable had to be the work of harvesting corn. Corn is grown everywhere in Guatemala: on the steepest hillsides, in the middle of the jungle, on the highest mountains. And there are people scattered all over the place, harvesting each ear. No matter how remote we felt, if we looked hard enough, listened long enough, we would see someone moving amongst the crops, or hear some rustling through the stalks. Bags are filled, and then carried long distances on foot. This goes on in the rain, the sun, the heat...
Amid all of the work (the labor for money, as well as the daily toil to sustain life) it never failed that people made time to stop and talk with us. Every encounter was slow, and meaningful. There was sincerity in their interest of where we were from, where we were going, and always a desire to make sure we had everything we needed to get there. Offers of directions, suggestions of places to go, calling of friends in villages along our route to let them know we were coming. I can’t count the number of women I hugged upon meeting them. Smiling at one another as we approached and exchanged introductions- it was like we were friends or family. The only barrier to real connection was the camera. Mayan people as a rule do not want to have their photo taken. For that reason, I have no photos to share, but my memories are a treasure, and I will share what I can.
Our tires rarely touched pavement during our entire stay in Guatemala. Using our map, as well as iOverlander in reverse (that is to say we located the areas with no postings and chose to explore there), we found areas that saw little to no tourist traffic. The roads went straight up, and straight down. Anyone who drives a Mercedes Sprinter knows the cursed turbo lag that kicks in on super steep inclines (exactly when maintaining steady momentum is critical), and these hills proved quite the test for our van, as well as our nerves. This was usually the case on mountainous roads, but also true in towns- the streets are steep. Really steep. But the engine kept chuffing, our brakes held up, and we rambled along.
One of highlights of our trip was the route from Semuc Champey to Senahu. At Semuc Champey the first guy we asked about the road ahead said it wasn’t good. We couldn’t get specifics from him, but he insisted it was muy mal. Not convinced, we kept asking. Finally, we asked a seven year old girl if the road to Senahu was open and she said, “yes, straight ahead!” Finally receiving the answer we craved, we pushed on. The road was narrow and rough, but not a challenge by any stretch, and it took us through some of the most remote villages we were to encounter in all of Guatemala. It was a stunning and moving route that has been seared into my heart by the beauty of the land and the overflowing kindness of everyone we encountered.
The land was fertile, green, and dripping with water. Water flowed in creeks, crystalline rivers, thunderous cascades, and if all that wasn’t enough, it poured from the sky. We got used to the feeling of wet. The trip was hard, but that is the essence of life in this place. People here live a hard life. But they live it joyfully, with generosity. And that is the lesson I take away: live more with less. Connect well, live fully, show kindness, and be generous- these are marks of a life lived fully. Thank you Guatemala, for reminding me to live.