The LBA Latin America awards

As the Latin American leg of the Let’s Be Adventurers world tour draws to a close, now’s the time to reward the best and shame the worst of our discoveries as latter-day conquistadors.

Best night’s sleep

Hostel Lao: Mendoza, Argentina

It’s just got everything. Hot water and decent pressure in the shower, good WiFi, convenient location to get the bus out to wine valleys, friendly and helpful staff, comfy beds, good social area and a nice garden, wine for sale and a great crowd of people. Fabulous place.

Highly commended

El Pueblito: El Bolson, Argentina

El Pueblito hostel, Argentina

A forest fire in the region gave the hostel an ethereal glow but it’s really not spooky, honest!

A beautiful old wooden chalet-style home from home in a stunning valley. It is nestled away from the main road, next to a clean and cool river that’s perfect for an invigorating dip before dinner. They bake incredible bread and the staff are simply wonderful, helpful, friendly, people. Rooms are a bit rustic, but that’s the charm.

‘What a dump’ award for shabbiest hostel

Favela Chic: Foz de Iguacu, Brazil

More favela than chic. The roof leaked so our bags got soaked through during heavy rain. The WiFi didn’t work, the food was garbage and the staff were beyond weird. The fact that there was no-one else there gave the whole place a desolate vibe and the owner tried to charge us twice. Click here for Franki’s amazing TripAdvisor review.

Best end-of-a-hard-day drink

La Vineria: El Chalten

After a long hard slog through the Patagonian mountains, enjoy their huge range of craft beers, a giant wine selection, brilliant music, friendly bar staff and tasteful decor, plus you can see Mount Fitzroy out of the window on a clear day. What’s not to love?

Highly commended

Havana: Cartagena, Colombia

OK, so it’s a Cuban theme bar with its fair share of tourists. But damn it’s fun. Salsa the night away among people who can dance much better than you, weaving around a huge well-stocked bar, to the sounds of a live Cuban band blowing their lungs out. Magica.

Worst hangover

Rio de Janeiro

After a night on the caipirinhas with a Polish pal we made that same night, Rio had us well and truly beaten. Some people talk about feeling like death warmed up. When it’s 40 degrees out, that phrase rings truer than ever. Ouch. Kill us. Kill us now.

Best street art

Valparaiso, Chile

A masterpiece on every flat surface, that’s the beauty of this soulful city.

Valpo, as the locals call it, is legendary for food and drink too. So there is plenty to look at as you reel homewards down its precipitous streets. Check out my blog featuring some of the best of Valpo’s open-air creations.

 

Highly commended

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Take one of the local street art tours and learn about the artists behind the giant, colourful murals found all over the city.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez award for magic realism

Salento, Colombia

Perhaps it ought to be sultry Cartagena, the fictionalised version of which is the backdrop for Love in a Time of Cholera. But for us, Salento was an other-wordly, dreamlike paradise.

Fog rolls through vivid green hills dotted with the world’s tallest palm trees, which look like they belong in a fantasy movie.

Highly commended

Trancoso, Brazil

A twinkly, groovy, tranquil, dingly dell of a beach town, the centrepiece a huge village green surrounded by ramshackle houses daubed in bright colours. At night the whole place is dimly lit with hundreds of lanterns, as overawed tourists and ageing hippies who came here long ago mingle beneath the stars. My sense of surrealism may have been enhanced by the strong muscle relaxants I was taking for a totally knackered back. Oh, the beach is gorgeous as well.

We spent Christmas there and you can read all about how wonderful that was – and see more pictures – here.

Best place to stuff your face

Siete Cocinas: Mendoza, Argentina

It ought to be good because it ain’t cheap. But if you’ve bought your pesos on the blue market, it’s not too bad. The concept is a mix of cuisines from Argentina’s seven regions. The tasting menu was exquisite and we finally achieved our ambition of getting through two bottles of wine with dinner.

Highly commended

Flor de Lis: Guatemala City, Guatemala

Confession time, this establishment is owned by our great friend Harold Caballeros-Arimany (pictured, with his lovely wife Monique) but we didn’t include it only for that reason.

Flor de Lis restaurant

When Franki’s hair was red and mine was plentiful.

Harold and his team of talented chefs have created an amazing degustation menu of genuine high quality, using Guatemalan ingredients in completely novel and delicious ways. A real treat.

Funniest menu translations

La Cevicheria: Cartagena, Colombia

What heart of stone could see “Lovely Wet Lobster Rice” on the menu and not order it.

Highly commended

Nice restaurant whose name we sadly can’t remember: Salvador, Brazil

“Chicken asleep on a bed of spices”. I don’t know how to break it to you guys but the chicken wasn’t just sleeping.

Hairiest moment

Threatened with police in Guatemala

You know you’ve said the wrong thing when a middle-aged woman starts filming you on her phone and says she has called the police. Run. Run really quite fast.

Highly commended

Running out of money in Patagonia

Patagonia

So…what now?

You have no cash, half a tank of petrol and you are 300 miles from the nearest working cash machine. Time to think laterally.

Catchiest tune

Rebellion by Joe Arroyo

If you spend any time on buses, you’re going to hear a lot of salsa and merengue and it’s going to get pretty tedious pretty quickly. But I just never tire of listening to this musical account of Latin America’s slave trade by Colombia’s Joe Arroyo.

OK, i’m basically obsessed with it. That whimsical piano solo, man…you can watch the whole video here.

 

Worst bus ride

Foz de Iguacu to Sao Paulo, Brazil

20+ gruelling hours. If you have any money at all, fly.

Best bus ride

Bariloche to Mendoza, Argentina

Bus bingo with a bottle of wine as the prize! We didn’t but the sheer novelty cheered us for the 13 hours of sadly bingo-less bus journey that followed. The trip through the Andes is pretty eye-catching too. Thank you Andesmar bus company.

Booze of the World ‘Tippler’s Choice’ award

Ron Zacapa, Guatemala

Repeatedly voted the world’s best rum for a reason. Pure, heartwarming joy in a glass. The original Booze of the World post about it can be found here.

Highly commended

Malbec in Mendoza. So much to choose from, so little time.

So that was the end of our time in Latin America. Now the small matter of a 13-hour flight across the dateline to New Zealand…hasta luego Latinoamerica!

Mount Fitzroy in the background, Franki and Rob

Bye bye to scenes like this…

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Booze of the World 2: Guatemala and Nicaragua

The second instalment of Booze of the World sees Rob take on Central America, including the world’s best rum

Guatemala

Beer: Back when I first visited in 2003, there were pretty much two beer choices: Gallo (the cockerel logo adorns a million backpackers’ T-shirts) or Moza. Both are made by the Cerveceria Centro Americana, owned by Guatemala’s powerful Castillo dynasty.

Gallo, at 118 years old the country’s first brew, is the archetypal Central American beer: weak, pissy sub-lager with zero flavour and enough gas to power a small industrial city. It resembles Budweiser in that it tastes of nothing, but plasters its name across everything. I was always a Moza man and to this day it’s my favourite of what Guatemala has to offer beer-wise. It’s a dark Bock-style beer, richer and more flavourful than Gallo with a slight brown sugar aftertaste that suits my sweet tooth.

There are a few other brews finding their way onto the menu in most bars and hostels these days though. The first is Brahva, owned by global giant AB InBev who (according to this BusinessWeek article) are keen on buying Cerveceria Centro Americana.

Unsurprisingly, given that AB InBev make Budweiser, Brahva is if anything like a watered down version of Gallo and to be avoided at all costs. AB InBev’s muscle allows them to undercut Gallo on price too, which should worry anyone who values local production over many-tentacled multinationals. Brahva makes me want to drink Gallo and that shouldn’t happen to anyone with tastebuds.

CCA’s Victoria is also growing in popularity. I prefer it to Gallo but it doesn’t offer much in the way of choice given that it’s also a pale lager. Same goes for their Cabro and Monte Carlo brands…different label, same marginally tweaked weak fizz.

I’d stick to the Moza every time but that’s very much a minority view in Guatemala. And ales? Forget it.

Beer with a twist: One odd quirk I was introduced to in Guatemala this year – although I believe it comes from neighbouring Mexico – is the Chelada and its spicier cousin the Michelada. The former involves adding lime to your beer and salting the rim of the glass, as you would with a Margarita. The latter is much the same only with a variety of spices, or tabasco, added as well.

They both sound hideous. Which is because they are, although i can imagine the limey Chelada might work on a very hot day. Still, if you’re drinking Brahva or Gallo, any added ingredient short of cyanide might be an improvement.

Rum: NOW we’re talking. You’d expect the world’s best rum to come from Jamaica or perhaps Cuba. Not according to many rum experts, who put Guatemala’s Ron Zacapa at the top of the tree. Or should I say the sugar cane.

Its success is despite the fact that its history is relatively brief. It was first produced in 1976 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the eastern Guatemalan town of the same name. They say its quality is down to being stored at altitude in the volcanic highlands. I sampled the stuff in a little wine and rum shop in Antigua, Guatemala almost directly under the famous arch of Santa Catalina.

When I was last in Guatemala there was no way I could have afforded a glass of Ron Zacapa. Much the same is true now but I felt I had to do my duty for Booze of the World. Altruistic, right?

I sampled both the 6-to-23-year-old Zacapa Centenario and the XO, the premium option at 6-to-25 years old. Both embrace you with their warmth from the first sniff, the vapours filling your lungs and circulating a fuzzy glow around your whole body. While the XO is the super-premium brand, I found it almost too subtle. It was so smooth that it lost something of the sugary mouth-burn I like about rum.

The Centenario was a revelation though. Multi-layered, nutty and caramelly without being sickly, with a long aftertaste. You’ll pay top dollar for this stuff anywhere outside Guatemala but if you like rum, you need this in your drinks cabinet.

NB: If you even THINK about putting ice in this, please reseal the bottle and give it to someone who deserves it. And if the word ‘Coca-Cola’ enters your mind, seek professional help.

Quetzalteca: Every country has at least one traditional drink of the people and this is the main one for Chapins (Guatemalans). Named for the Quetzal, the colourful bird that also gives Guatemala’s currency its name, this is a bit like an eau de vie. There are several flavours but I tried the Rosa de Jamaica. It packs a punch but not the body-shuddering donkey-kick you get with some traditional hooches of the peasantry. Surprisingly drinkable although i’m not one for neat spirits.

Nicaragua

Beer: Guatemala ain’t great for beer but Nicaragua is worse. On the first night I tried the Toña, which tastes like someone spilled a thimbleful of Budweiser in your Evian. That’s being kind. A step up from that is Victoria, a pilsen which has a bit more character but is still (can you sense a pattern emerging in Latin America) a pretty uneventful pale lager.

Still, in the baking heat after a long hike in the mountains, it might as well be Ambrosia. Ever seen the film Ice Cold in Alex (look it up here)? Extreme heat is the only way to make Nicaraguan beer taste good.

Oh, there’s also one called Premium aimed at the higher end of the market although the only thing premium about it is the name. All three are produced by Compania Cervecera de Nicaragua, which is in serious need of some competition.

Rum: Nicaraguans are proud of their Flor de Caña and you can’t blame them. It’s got much more character than your bog-standard high-street rum and there are some premium versions too. I can’t say I gave this one the same consideration as Guatemala’s Ron Zacapa but then, once you’ve had Ron Zacapa, everything else pales in comparison.

What else?: It’s usually not worth ordering wine with dinner in Guate or Nicaragua unless you want to drink something dreadful or pay top dollar. Franki and I chose to have a few dry meals rather than shell out the same price we’d pay in London for some dodgy ‘vino tinto’ from the part of Argentina they clearly reserve for ‘countries we don’t mind offending’.

As a footnote, no country with a Caribbean coast is ever without the option of a Cocoloco, a coconut sliced in half with a machete and then sloshed with rum to add to the delicious nectar within.

The verdict

Top tipple: It can only be Ron Zacapa. I prefer the Centenario but if you’re the kind of person who likes the most expensive label, give the XO a whirl. Either way, you’ll be feeling more cosy and warm than a Werther’s Original advert.

Gourmet’s choice: Ditto. In this case the most expensive is also the best.

Bubbling under: I’m a sucker for Guatemala’s Moza. Slips down nicely after a day in the limestone pools of Semuc Champey, climbing a volcano or sweating through the jungle of Tikal.

What to slur drunkenly: Arriba, abajo, al centro, pa’dentro (Rough translation: “Glasses up, glasses down, glasses to the centre and down it”, said as you slosh your glass about to the relevant motions. Very touristy but fun.)

Next stop on Booze of the World: Colombia

 

La Merced Antigua

Guatemala: The Debrief

What we did and what you can do too…

Eat: Arroz (rice), frijoles (refried beans) and aguacate (avocado)

This isn’t really advice because you’re not going to have much choice in the matter. These three staples crop up at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Good thing they’re usually lovingly prepared and delicious.

For a refined take on Guatemalan cuisine, try Flor de Lis in the Paseo Cayala complex of Guatemala City. The capital isn’t popular with backpackers but if you’re there for one night this culinary newcomer is the place to go. The ethos is traditional Guatemalan ingredients served in ultramodern European-style. The Q270 (£23) seven-course degustation menu changes according to the season. Highlights for us were the tender grilled octopus, a delicious mushroom tartar served with creamy cheese on a salt wafer, and a rich risotto.

Flor de Lis Guatemala City

Full disclosure: The owner, Harold Caballeros, is an old uni pal of Franki’s but even so his new venture surpassed our expectations. Plus he and his fiancé Monique are completely lovely. If you bump into them, say hello!

Flor de Lis Harold Caballeros

Drink: Ron Zacapa

Rob will cover this in more detail in the next Booze of the World, but this multiple award-winning rum sugary paradise in a glass and well-deserving of its reputation as being the world’s best.

Ron Zacapa

Try: Climbing a volcano

Pacaya (described in 5 cool things to do in Guatemala) is the least challenging and an easy day-trip from Antigua. Hardened hikers can also have a crack at Agua, Acatenango or some of the volcanoes around Lake Atitlan. There’s nothing like getting up close and personal with a smoking crater to thrill you with the gargantuan power of nature and it’s ability to give and take in equal measure. No wonder the Mayans worshipped them.

Buy: Leather boots in Pastores

This tiny town, just 20 minutes outside Antigua (buses depart regularly from the main bus terminal and cost around Q5 each way), specialises in leather goods, most notably cowboy boots. Having had her favourite pair of boots fall apart in Week Two, this was too good an opportunity for Franki to miss.

The town is little more than a main strip, consisting almost entirely of leather workshops and shoe shops.

Buy boots in Pastores

Walk into any store and you’ll most likely find a cobbler sitting at his machine, scraps of suede and leather around his feet, while his finished goods line the shelves. The stores have long served the local farmers and ranchers only now they’ve cottoned on to the fact that tourists go crazy for the boots as well. The classic cowboy style is still available but the now do rounder-toed versions in plain leathers (as opposed to yellow snakeskin, for example), as well as leather lace-ups, Chelsea boot styles and brightly coloured versions incorporating traditional Guatemalan textiles. Prices tend to start around Q300 (£25).

Cowboy boots in Pastores

All the boots and shoes are hand-made and if you’re going to be in town for a while, you can even order a custom pair, made to your exact measurements. However, as a pretty regular European Size 37, it wasn’t hard to find something that fit. In fact, were money (and, crucially, luggage space) no object, Franki could easily have come back with about five pairs of these gorgeous boots.

Buy boots in Pastores

Do: Take the Chicken Bus

The colourful public buses are a regular sight on Guatemala’s roads. All flashing lights and clouds of black exhaust fumes, these second-hand American school buses have been painted, named (usually after women – look out for Yolanda, Esmerelda, Maria-Jose, among others) and more often than not equipped with a booming sound system which pumps out merengue-pop.

Chicken bus Guatemala

The availability of low-cost shuttle services between the major tourist stops mean it is not necessary to use them but it’s something you should try to do at least once for the experience. Usually packed to the rafters with both people and animals (they’re not called chicken buses for nothing), they’re best for shorter journeys… such as Pastores.

Don’t: Assume that your air-conditioned bus will actually be air-conditioned

If you’ve travelled in Latin America you will no doubt be familiar with the Arctic conditions on most long-haul coach services. If you haven’t, you will no doubt have heard about them. The perils of failing to wrap up warm are well documented in the blogosphere. So, not wanting to fall foul of one of this oft-cited tip, we diligently donned our long sleeves, Heattech leggings (Franki, not Rob), and jumpers for the 12-hour trip up to Tikal.

About two hours in, the AC was inexplicably switched off and we spent the rest of the journey sweltering as the humid heat outside mixed with the equally sultry atmosphere inside the packed coach.

And this wasn’t the only occasion. On the way from Flores to Lanquin, a fellow-traveller boasted how he’d paid an extra $5 to take the air-conditioned bus, only to find himself crammed into the same sweaty mini-van as us. It seems the legendary freezers-on-wheels that populate the roads of South America, have only nominally made their way north to Central America. As with promises of hot water, free wifi, and English-speaking staff, it’s best to take any mention of AC with a hefty grain of salt.

And not forgetting…

…the time we experienced an actual earthquake! It was only 5.4 on the Richter Scale but when you’re not used to feeling the whole world shake beneath you, that’s pretty damn exciting. Plus we got to fill in this oh-so-scientific online quake-o-meter picture quiz:

Earthquake chart

Mayan children

The CIA and malnutrition: Guatemala’s shackles, past and present

Think for a moment about the parts of the world we associate with malnutrition. Sub-saharan Africa during an acute famine, natural disaster zones, or impoverished regions of the Indian subcontinent. It may come as a surprise that Guatemala is the world’s third worst country for chronic malnutrition, behind only Haiti and Angola.

Sometimes called the Land of Eternal Spring – this lush and verdant country has an abundance of food thanks to plenty of rain, sunshine and astonishingly fertile volcanic soil.

Hills above Lanquin

Local markets feature some of the plumpest, most colourful fruit and vegetables you’re likely to see. So why are children being permanently damaged, even killed, by malnutrition?

One huge problem is that in many Mayan communities, for the most part far poorer than their Latino compatriots, children are well fed but badly fed. There is seemingly no limit to the Central American sweet tooth and among Mayans this is even more pronounced. The same globalisation that has done little for their economic prospects has brought with it a wave of addictive but highly unhealthy sweet treats.

Last week I sat on a boat on Lake Atitlan and watched as a Tz’utujil Maya mother fed her gorgeous little girl a chocolate-covered banana, chewing gum and some stuff that looked like a sugary Knorr stock pot, all in the space of five minutes. The mother was obese and her teeth were nearly all gold.

One Guatemalan NGO worker I spoke to, who specialises in battling malnutrition, reported infants being plied with Coca-Cola but not breast-fed. As far as food crops go, it’s largely corn in the form of tortillas, some frijoles, but precious little in the way of vegetables.

The result, in many cases, is stunted development of both brain and body, tightening the grip of Guatemala’s poverty trap.

A malnourished child cannot learn and so, later in life, cannot earn enough to improve the prospects of his/her own child. Provision of education is also poor in remoter rural areas, while many children don’t attend school at all. So there is little chance of them breaking the cycle by learning about nutrition outside the home.

Throw into the mix a lack of clean water, meaning infants and small children often suffer from diarrhea, preventing them from absorbing even the meagre nutrients on offer.

Coupled with the scourge of malnutrition is the other great plague that has dogged Guatemala – violence.

I don’t want to give the impression that Guatemala is a dangerous place to visit – for the most part it isn’t. Tourists who behave sensibly (don’t go waving your smartphone around at midnight on a dark street) are unlikely to encounter any trouble.

Sadly though, like most countries on the drug export trail up to the United States, Guatemala has a problem with criminal gangs.

Gang members in Guatemala

Guatemalan gang members (Source: http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au)

That’s thanks in part to the steady American demand for party favours, with the import supply chain outsourced to its poorer, less well-policed neighbours.

But there is something more deep-rooted than even the drug trade behind Guatemala’s ongoing struggles to address crime and poverty.

It is still recovering from the legacy of a civil war that lasted, astonishingly, from 1960 to 1996 and saw up to 200,000 people killed or ‘disappeared’. The war was waged, for the most part, by US-backed  government forces against the Mayan population and Ladino (mixed Hispanic and indigenous) leftist guerillas, who often turned to indigenous people for food and shelter.

Mayans hold crosses, with photo of victim of Guatemala civil war

Mayans mourn civil war victims (Source: http://www.timhoiland.com)

The grubby pawprints of American foreign policy are all over this tragic period in Guatemala’s history. Here’s a brief outline of Uncle Sam’s involvement:-

In the 1950s, US politicians were terrified by the emergence of left-wing potentially Soviet-friendly governments in Central America. In the case of Guatemala, they were increasingly minded to interfere with Guatemala following the election of President Jacobo Arbenz, who favoured land reforms to redistribute farmland away from a tiny elite, spreading it more widely among the rural poor in the hope of enriching them.

Jacobo Arbenz, former president of Guatemala

President Jacobo Arbenz (Source: http://www.carlosarmandosotogomez.com)

We don’t know whether the Arbenz government would have achieved its aims because he made one crucial mistake that meant no-one would ever find out. Much of the land he wanted to redistribute belonged to US firm the United Fruit Company. Luckily for UFCO, they had friends in high places. Secretary of State John Dulles and his brother Allen, CIA director, both had significant ties to the company and an interest in its prosperity. Between them, they managed to convince the Eisenhower administration that Arbenz was a dangerous Communist, rather than (as many historians of the region say he was) an exponent of a pretty benign left-wing ideology.

John Dulles and President Eisenhower

John Dulles and President Dwight Eisenhower (Source: Wikipedia)

Here’s the fiendishly ingenious and skin-crawlingly sinister part. The CIA sponsored an invasion that consisted of little more than a handful of right-wing Guatemalan forces. Using fake radio broadcasts ‘reporting’ major military victories that never happened, coupled with a relatively small degree of US air support, they intimidated the Arbenz government into capitulation. The new president fled and any prospect of organic democratic political development faded into nothingness.

What followed was more than three decades of brutal military rule, coups and counter-coups, in which armed patrols roamed the country perpetrating genocidal warfare, largely against a mostly defenceless Mayan population. Documents released subsequently revealed that the CIA provided vital support to genocidal militias throughout this bloody period, even as they carried out the worst atrocities imaginable – foetuses cut from the wombs of mothers, children smashed to death against walls, villages burned to the ground, rape, summary executions and much more.

A peace accord, brokered by the UN, was signed with leftist guerillas in 1996. But incredibly one of the (alleged) perpetrators of the CIA-backed coup and the atrocities in the civil war, General Efrain Rios Montt, managed to remain in frontline politics long after.

Rios Montt at his genocide trial, in military regalia and depicted in a mural calling for 'justice for he who ordered the agony'

(Top right) Rios Montt as his genocide trial (Source: http://www.dailykos.com); (Top left) The general in his younger days (www.kcsb.org); Mural with slogan ‘For he who gave the order for agony, i ask for justice’ (Source: http://www.nobelwomensinitiative.org)

When I first visited Guatemala in 2003, his party FRG (Guatemala Republican Front) was still fighting hard in the elections. The General remained a high-profile figure in politics until 2012, his office rendering him immune from prosecution. He was eventually convicted in 2013 of genocide and crimes against humanity in connection with massacres of Mayan Ixil people but that ruling was overturned on a technicality this year and a retrial is set for 2015.

Montt and the CIA left an enduring legacy. After the civil war, thousands of men who had fought on one side or the other found themselves jobless and with little in their skillset other than the ability to terrorise and kill.

Little wonder that Guatemala suffered from one of the world’s highest kidnap and murder rates for many years afterwards. While the security situation has improved, violent crime persists. Guatemala places fifth in the list of countries with the highest murder rates, a table topped by neighbouring Honduras and dominated by Central America [Source: UNODC]

As for the Mayans who suffered so terribly in the civil war, they remain to a large extent second-class citizens in their own country, abandoned and impoverished. The toxic residue of nearly four decades will take just as long, if not longer, to dissipate.

This is just a brief and by no means exhaustive outline of Guatemala’s catastrophic lost 36 years. The full story is far more labyrinthine, though just as heartbreaking. Two books worth dipping into are Bananas by Peter Chapman and Stephan Schlesinger’s Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala.

What I hope this summary shows though, is how the progress of a country as beautiful, diverse and culturally rich as Guatemala has been tragically undermined by the twin menaces of malnutrition and US foreign policy.

I have every confidence in the vivacity and entrepreneurialism of this great nation to overcome its problems. I only wish it had been given more of a chance before now.

For more information about chronic malnutrition in Guatemala – and to donate – please visit Food for the Hungry, Guatemala.

Volcan Fuego, Volcan Acatenango, Volcan Agua

Hello Guate, my old friend: How Guatemala has changed in 10 years

Returning to a country you haven’t visited for 10 years is a bit like catching up with an old schoolfriend. How will you both have changed? Will you be able to recapture the good times of old? Is it still funny to shout out euphemisms for genitalia in class while the teacher’s back is turned?

OK, perhaps not that last one. But flying in to Guatemala, where I spent five weeks in both 2003 and 2004, elicited that same sense of nostalgia tinged with cautious anticipation.

As it transpired, I needn’t have worried. Everything that makes it so easy to fall in love with Guatemala is just as it was. The people are still hospitable and humorous, the food still simple but fresh and nourishing, the towns and villages still a panoply of colour.

The soundtrack to all of this, as ever it was, is provided by the cries of street-hawkers and the roar of the country’s famous ‘chicken buses’, old US school transport converted to carry the maximum number of passengers and tricked out by drivers competing to display the maximum amount of bling.

Most travellers set up home initially in La Antigua, the country’s capital until the mammoth Santa Marta earthquakes of 1773 triggered a move to modern-day capital Guatemala City. Antigua is ‘the place to stay’ for good reason. Its cobbled streets and brightly-painted stone houses are interspersed with ruined but well-preserved churches and monasteries, frozen in time since they were laid low by successive earthquakes.

The backdrop to all of this is the eternal looming presence of Volcan Agua, watching over the city like a strict museum curator ensuring it never loses its ancient charm.

Not only is Antigua far safer and prettier than the capital, but it is almost as well connected for most travel destinations in the country.

On my last visit, I was learning Spanish at the excellent Probigua language school. Antigua boasts an abundance of escuelas where you can learn the lingo but Probigua (PROyecto BIbliotecas GUAtemala) is different. Many of these places are simply out to extract as many Quetzals (local currency) as possible from the gringos but Probigua is a non-profit organisation. Your fees are ploughed into literacy programmes and students join the school’s staff on weekend expeditions in the Probigua travelling literacy bus to deliver books and computers to schools in the region, most of which are sadly lacking in resources.

It was heartening to see the old place that taught me my rudimentary but passable Spanish, apparently thriving as the best place to learn the language in Antigua.

I was even more excited at the prospect of visiting Veronica, the lady with whom I stayed both times I was last here. I used to call her mi segunda mama (my second Mum) and we would joke long into the evening while enjoying her delicious and wholesome cooking, including her excellent guisquil (also known as chayote, a local squash-like vegetable).

Through the haze of a decade’s new memories, I managed to remember where she lived and, totally unannounced, Franki and I made our way up to her house. Cue a very happy reunion as she invited us in to see the upgrades she has made to the family home.

She has acquired five grandchildren since I last stayed with her and most of her extended family now lives in the rooms she once let out to language students like me. I remember well how she and her sons had squeezed into two small rooms to accommodate guests, in order to make enough money to improve their circumstances.

Well here were the fruits of her labours, 10 years on. She had worked hard, opened up her home to people like me, and her growing family was now reaping the benefits exactly as planned. Nothing could make me happier to see her nous and hard graft paying off. Not only that but she was kind enough to pretend that I looked very different with my nascent and still rather pitiful travellers’ beard.

So what else has changed except for Veronica’s grandkids and my ‘beard’? The active Pacaya volcano has changed a fair bit, largely because it has erupted more than once in a pretty major way (check out the video) since I first climbed it. According to our guide, the path I took in 2003 was buried by molten lava earlier this year. In geological terms, that’s a near miss.

Lago Atitlan, the idyllic lake surrounded by volcanoes, has also witnessed some developments. For starters, the lake has risen by about 10 metres in the past decade, meaning much of the dockside infrastructure is now underwater.

On the plus side, the quiet hotels at Santa Cruz de la Laguna (try the uber-tranquil Arca de Noe if you get a chance) now come with added electricity. In 2004 it was candlelight only, which led to me plummeting six feet into an open sewer (thankfully dry) and landing on my knee. I can still tell when it’s going to rain by the twinge under my patella, thanks to that little mishap.

As a coffee lover (addict?), I immediately noticed a big difference in that Guatemala’s largest export is actually available within the country these days. When I first visited, all the good stuff was exported as soon as possible, hardly any of it seeing the inside of a Guatemalan cafe or restaurant. The coffee fincas were dotted around the country but you couldn’t get a decent brew for love nor money.

Now, there are a good half-dozen venues in Antigua dedicated to the art (and it is an art) of serving up the best coffee money can buy. The friendly knowledgeable guys at family enterprise Castellcafe (San Lucas branch pictured here) do a mean espresso and are particularly fond of the Chemex method of brewing coffee. You can find the Antigua branch in the Parque Central.

Don’t expect to find a skinny cinnamon macchiato when you’re in the depths of the jungle or up in the Alta Verapaz though. After all, you wouldn’t expect to find howler monkeys or Mayan ruins in a Shoreditch pop-up coffee house. Sadly.

Without a doubt, Antigua’s nightlife is also livelier than it once was. There are fewer tourists now than in 2004, by some estimates about half as many. But there are more bars than before and they are no longer dominated by tourists.

Whether it’s due to the emergence and growth of the middle class in Guatemala I couldn’t say, but there seemed to be more Chapins (Guatemalans) raving the night away and more places for them to do it.

Coming back to the scene of so many great memories, I was always going to notice what was different about the place. But while much has changed since I was here, there is plenty that hasn’t. For all of its stunning natural beauty and rich cultural heritage, Guatemala still struggles with chronic malnutrition and violence.

Anyway, more on that in the next blog about Guatemala, plus plenty more to come on what to do and see in this stunning country.