Volcano Bagging in Guatemala

Guatemala sits above the junction of three of the world’s tectonic plates. As a result, it’s a country of considerable seismic activity, with frequent earthquakes and regular volcanic eruptions. A chain of over 30 volcanoes extends in an arc across the southern half of the country, from Mexico to El Salvador, and includes the 4200-metre Volcán Tajumulco (the highest point in Central America). Three of these volcanoes (Santiaguito, Fuego, and Pacaya) are highly active, regularly spewing smoke, ash, and lava.

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The Belize-Guatemala Territorial Dispute – Part 2

One problem with treating Guatemala’s claim as irrelevant is that it does nothing to stop Guatemala’s unofficial ‘colonisation’ of western Belize. Now that Petén is so environmentally damaged, poor Guatemalans have been coming over the unpatrolled border in increasing numbers. Harvesting of xate (a palm leaf used in flower arrangements), illegal logging, poaching endangered animals (like rare Scarlet Macaws), looting Maya ruins, and now gold-mining, are all becoming daily problems in the Chiquibul (a protected area that contains 7% of Belize’s land). And Belize simply doesn’t have the manpower or resources to patrol the huge jungle. There have been several years of skirmishes between Guatemalans and the BDF (Belize Defence Force – the Belizean Army), at times necessitating an armed escort for tourists visiting the remote Maya site of Caracol. And things came to a bloody head last year, when Guatemalans shot and killed a BDF soldier at Caracol, in full view of tourists. The damage to Belize’s fragile environment and its economically-important tourist industry is far worse than any macho posturing and sabre-rattling from Guatemalan politicians. And while these problems won’t suddenly disappear if the claim is dropped, the prevailing Guatemalan view that ‘Belice es nuestro’ isn’t exactly discouraging these incursions – on the contrary, it’s giving them an air of undeserved legitimacy. Continue reading

The Belize-Guatemala Territorial Dispute – Part 1

At every Guatemalan border crossing, on the Guatemalan side, in the immigration office where travellers get their passports stamped, is a map of the country. Not too surprising really, but these maps are a bit different – they include Belize in the territory of Guatemala. At first, I thought they were on display only in the Guatemala-Belize border crossings, to make some kind of unsophisticated point to their neighbour. But they seem to be in every crossing – they’re certainly on the Mexico-Guatemala borders, as I’ve recently seen them there first-hand. Continue reading

Saints, Shamans, Sacraments, and Syncretism

In the middle of virtually every Maya town and village in Mexico and Guatemala is the Catholic Church. It’s often the largest building in town, and it’s often on the highest point, reflecting the Spanish colonists’ desire to impose their religion on the natives and dominate them (spiritually and physically). Continue reading

The Drunken Horse Race of Todos Santos

Todos Santos Cuchumatan is a small town (or a large village, depending on your point of view) nestled high up in the Cuchumatanes mountain range of western Guatemala, near the Mexican border. It’s a simple place – one bank (with one ATM), a handful of basic hotels, and a few even more basic restaurants. And at an altitude of 2,500 metres, it can get cold, cloudy, and rainy at any time of year. The streets off the main road are dirt (or mud, after it rains), and everything’s shut by 9pm. Continue reading

Studying Spanish in Guatemala

For the last month, I´ve been learning Spanish in Quetzaltenango (aka Xela), Guatemala´s second city. Normally, when I travel, my routine is to visit a new place, see the sites, and then move on – so staying put for more than a week is something new for me. And normally, I come home with a camera memory card full of photos, the fading remains of a tan that I hoped would last but knew wouldn´t, and a liverful of the local alcohol – so coming back with a new language is another new experience for me. But the two things that I took away from my experiences on my hike in the Ixil region last month are: 1) don´t trek in the rainy season, and 2) learn some Spanish. Continue reading

Hiking in the Guatemalan Highlands

Guatemala may be only the size of England, but it has a huge variety of landscapes, from black volcanic beaches to flat, endless vistas of palm trees and banana plantations, to numerous caves, rivers, and lakes, to vast jungles full of Maya ruins and exotic animals. It’s also the most mountainous country in Central America, containing 30 volcanoes and the highest peaks between Mexico and Columbia. Continue reading