Guatemala: Come to the lush land of diversity is written by Joan Juanita Andersen
My first encounter with the landfill in Guatemala City
The first time I visited the landfill in Guatemala City, I left in tears.
The slum area stretched as far as the eye could see. Small, dilapidated sheds with roofs of tin and plastic formed a giant maze that seemed to engulf everyone who ventured inside.
There were peeled dogs all around. Children ran around half-naked, playing on some old car tires, and toothless wives sat on wobbly folding chairs, sharing gossip and good stories.
On the corner stood a group of young men and boys observing us as they smoked cigarettes and took the cap down their foreheads.
The rumor of Guatemala City's landfill had already put a fear in my life. But it was not until I stood at a lookout point and looked out over the landfill that I realized how wrong it was.
The stench around us was unbearable. The fumes of sewage, death and rottenness mingled with the oozing of the yellow garbage trucks rumbling past. Adults and children competed against each other for the best bites from the garbage trucks. Black vultures flew in a circle around an endless, smoldering sea of remnants.
"What are we going to do here, though?" I asked myself.
Hanley Denning, who had taken me on my first visit to the landfill, had a vision. Here, in the middle of some of Guatemala's worst slums and in one of the most dangerous areas of the country due to rival gangs, she founded 'Camino Seguro' or 'Safe Passage', as the organization is called in English.
I myself was involved from the very beginning and fought side by side with Hanley in an attempt to give the children and families a brighter future through education and awareness of their own resources and opportunities. Hanley himself died in a car accident in 2007, but the organization still managed to continue.
The place has evolved a lot over the years, but is still a place where volunteers from large parts of the world can come and help make Hanley's vision of a way out of poverty come true.
Volunteering in Guatemala
Everywhere in Guatemala, as a foreigner, you can work as a volunteer when you travel to Guatemala. Especially around the city of Antigua, there are lots of social projects and organizations where you can lend a hand. And it is needed.
For despite Guatemala being a rich country, inequality and poverty are enormous. Many children do not go to school, but have to work as shoemakers, coffee harvesters, as helpers in garbage trucks, market vendors or washing cars.
If you want to get a little away from Antigua's touristy environment, you have ample opportunity to work as a volunteer in other parts of the country. Especially in the villages around Lake Atitlan, the big city of Quetzaltenango (Xela) and around the Atlantic coast at Livingston, there are several projects where you can be accommodated with a local family.
Spanish schools are often the starting point for volunteering, but on the internet you can also find useful knowledge and get in touch when you travel to Guatemala.
Everything from hospitals, the voluntary fire brigade and training projects to turtle reserves and sustainable, organic coffee and nut farms make use of the commitment that the volunteers bring with them.
The volunteers bring extra warm hands, new knowledge, new ideas and a great deal of enthusiasm. As a volunteer, you can in turn gain experiences and friends for life, be challenged on a professional and personal level and make a huge difference. And then you can become a shark to speak Spanish.
Guatemala – the land of diversity
Once you have completed a few weeks of intensive one-on-one Spanish lessons, and have started working as a volunteer, you will probably feel like traveling around and discovering 'the land of eternal spring', as Guatemala is also called. There is plenty to see and experience.
Beaches, mountain villages, active volcanoes and jungle. Big cities, slums and extreme luxury. People in traditional costumes and modern young people with sunglasses and mobile phones. Spanish schools, voluntary organizations, Mayan pyramids and small colonial-style houses. Guatemala has it all!
But above all, Guatemala is full of warm smiles. Smile that, despite a year-long civil war, discrimination, drug cartels, violence and corruption, has survived and welcomes you. This is experienced by many who travel to Guatemala.
Traveling in Guatemala is easy and cheap. Around the major tourist sites you can book space in a minivan that can take you around the country. You can also choose to get close to the locals in the public transport, the famous buses called 'chicken buses'.
However, they are at times subjected to robbery attacks, and in general they have a poor standard in terms of security. So check with the locals which routes are safe.
They are definitely worth an experience with their loud ranchero music, bustling fellow passengers and joyful laughter when cultures meet.
Guatemala travel highlights: Antigua and other cities
The first time I arrived in Guatemala, I was 19 years old. My luggage had not arrived, and those who were to pick me up at the airport were not there either. After strolling restlessly around the airport, I broke down in the ladies toilet and was found by a sweet lady who was driving me to Antigua.
It was the middle of the night. The streets were deserted. The thoughts swarmed around in my head and I was not sure I wanted to stay in this country. I was accommodated in a hotel and did not sleep the rest of the night.
As I checked out the next day and turned a corner, I spotted the majestic volcano Agua guarding Antigua. The sun was shining, people were smiling, the houses were low and painted in different colors, and I immediately felt at home.
I lived with a family and went to Spanish school. The schools in Antigua have one-to-one teaching for 4-8 hours a day, and the teachers often take their students on trips around the surrounding villages to get close to the local people. Many people travel to Guatemala to learn Spanish.
Living with a family gave me peace and the care I needed when I was so far from home. At the family, I met other students who either worked as volunteers or were on a round trip. We came along for family birthdays, for weddings and funerals, and I still have contact with them.
In Antigua, there is a rich nightlife, which, however, ends at 01.00 when 'the dry law' sets in. Around the city there are small dance schools where you can learn to dance salsa, Bachata og meringue at a cheap price.
Antigua can be your base, or you can have one of the countless small travel agencies arrange your onward journey around the country. You can also take a trip to the active volcano Pacaya and come all the way up to the crater. Here your shoe soles melt and you have to be careful not to step into a stream of lava.
Tikal and Flores
It is such an early morning that the sun has not yet risen. Above me, the last stars twinkle as we head into the jungle around the Mayan pyramids in the city of Tikal in northern Guatemala.
Our guide has equipped us all with flashlights. The glow from them gives a sense of security here in the vast nature of the rainforest that totally envelops me. "Venganse, con cuidado" (come this way, beware here), says our guide in between when tree roots and holes in the road appear.
We reach the great square where the two huge pyramids face each other. Here we meet other small groups of tourists who are on their way to the same as us; the sunrise over the jungle of Tikal, seen from the top of the highest pyramid.
The stairs up there were disturbing enough in daylight, and I try to hold on tight to the railing while controlling the flashlight. A hiss goes through me as I reach the top.
The dense darkness of the night is just as quietly replaced by a deep, blue color. The sounds of the jungle get louder as the sky brightens and the stars disappear. As the sun breaks through, the air abounds with insects and birds. A toucan takes off from the top of the pyramid and flies close past me.
I fumble with the camera, but unfortunately only manage to take a shaken picture, where you can barely see that it was a toucan. The howler monkeys start their chorus and the heat increases.
Tikal is an impressive sight. The pyramid park was discovered in the 1800th century, and later dug free of the rugged jungle. Here the Mayans sacrificed animals and humans to the gods, here they worshiped the serpent god Quetzalcoathl, and here they conducted their ambitious astronomical research which, among other things, enabled them to make their own, accurate calendar.
Whether your budget is for flying over luxury hotels inside the park itself, or bus and a cheaper hotel in the nearby town of Flores, you will get lots of experiences, new knowledge about the historical Central America and feel the fascinating atmosphere of the kings of the past when you travel to Guatemala.
Lake Atitlán in Guatemala
Divinely beautiful lies the lake Atitlán bathed in sunlight. The San Pedro volcano towers proudly next to it. The lake itself was created by a sunken volcano and is the deepest lake in Central America.
Here by the lakeside, a relaxed life is lived, although several of the towns have gradually become quite touristy.
There are good opportunities for hiking. For example, you can climb the San Pedro volcano on foot or on horseback. You can also get carried away by the lively market in Panajachel, experience Easter or other holidays in San Juan La Laguna, learn about the spiritual life of the Mayans, go on a boat trip around the different villages or work as a volunteer on various social projects or with sustainability. .
The large market in the Quiché region of Guatemala is alive with life. Twice a week, the traveling traders come here to sell their traditional textiles, masks, wooden crafts, hammocks and souvenirs. You can make a good deal and fill the suitcase with the colorful things.
The city is located high in the mountains and also has an exciting and ancient history. The Mayan shamans still perform rituals in the two churches facing each other. They burn incense and sacrifice to the gods while mumbling monotonous prayers.
On special occasions, they also sacrifice chickens. The city is therefore worth a visit - even outside the traditional market days.
Monterrico and Livingston
Monterrico is a small town located on the Pacific coast of Guatemala.
The sand here is black because it comes from the volcanoes, and life goes on at a leisurely pace. You can rent a hammock or a cabin directly on the beach. Here you can also help out at the turtle reserve, eat fresh and venture out into the big waves.
On the other side of the country – on the Atlantic coast – is Livingston.
Many of the inhabitants here are descendants of the African slaves. They speak their own language and have their own culture and style of music. You get here along the impressive river Rio Dulce, which is an experience in itself.
In the jungle of Baja Verapaz lies the jungle paradise and Semuc Champey National Park. It is a system of natural limestone basins connected by small waterfalls. The place is sandwiched between two lush cliff sides. If you are lucky, you can see the national bird quetzal here.
When you get tired of swimming in the turquoise waters, you can visit a giant, underground cave at Lanquin. At sunset, thousands of bats fly out of here.
The Mayans still come and make sacrifices in the caves as they believe it is an entrance to the underworld. No one has yet found the end of the cave, which branches out the deeper you go. It is believed to be part of a larger system of underground caves that you must experience when traveling to Guatemala.
There is always something to do in Guatemala
No matter how long you plan to be in Guatemala and how much money you have available, there is always something to do experience in the country. It is important not to be too busy, because small worlds can open up and new friendships can arise if you stay somewhere a little longer than planned.
I myself should have been in Guatemala for a month, but ended up staying there for 4 years. And there are still parts of the country that I have yet to visit.
Guatemala's reputation can take anyone's breath away. But if you listen to your common sense, stay away from Guatemala City at night, ask the locals for advice, and respect the privacy of the local people, you have the chance to have a trip of a lifetime.
There are many who travel to Guatemala for a special reason, but whatever your reason, go because the eternal spring awaits!
Good trip to beautiful Guatemala.