Travel to Guatemala to become a force for good.
Visitors aren’t exactly swarming to Guatemala, but that’s precisely what makes it one of the world’s true travel gems. Rugged summits and vibrant rainforests fill this country’s borders, where 24 different Mayan groups still maintain their time-honored lifestyles. “The Mayan people are still using the very colorful dress that is traditional,” says Rafael Chicojay, an outdoor adventure guide with Guatamala-based Viaventure tours. Travelers with enough to time to explore the rural Highlands region of southern Guatemala will tap into the richest cultural experience, says Chicojay. “You can see some ceremonies, see how people live,” he continues.
In Guatemala, Mayan culture isn’t just a historical artifact that’s preserved at sites such as Tikal, a stunning archaeological complex and one of Guatemala’s three UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Here, the Mayans remain a living community.
In part, that’s because tourism hasn’t flooded the country’s every corner. “Less experienced travelers sometimes think Guatemala is dangerous,” says Noe Carrillo, Viaventure’s general manager. Remembering the horrors of the civil war that ravaged Guatemala from 1960 to 1996, some Americans assume that political unrest continues (and in fact, the U.S. Department of State does issue cautions about travel to certain regions). “Some travelers feel apprehensive about visiting Guatemala, but, says Carrillo, ‘They leave with a very different impression.'”
It helps that travel spending does a lot to uplift residents that often struggle to find pathways to prosperity. Many Guatemalans are poor, and in rural areas, farming offers plenty of work but little pay. Larger cities don’t always provide greater economic opportunities—as Chicojay knows firsthand.
Becoming an adventure guide let Chicojay improve upon the impoverished life he grew up with near Antigua to create more economic stability and opportunity for his 9-year-old daughter. “Thanks to tourism, I can say I have a better life than before, when I was little,” he says. “I have the opportunity to give the best education to my daughter.” And he can buy meat for the family table. “Black beans and corn are our basic grains, and if you want to eat some meat, for us, it’s a little expensive, a bit hard,” Chicojay explains.
He even enjoys time for family play. Twenty years ago, when Chicojay became an outdoor guide, he discovered mountain biking and now calls it his favorite sport. Not only does he participate in local mountain bike races, but he’s also teaching his daughter to ride. “On the weekends we practice, but during the rest of the week, she has homework,” he explains. That schoolwork takes top priority for Chicojay. “I try to push her with her education, because she’s nine years old and likes to play, but I want her to take advantage of all the opportunities that I have for her,” he says.
Guiding provides economic benefit for more than just Chicojay’s family. According to Carrillo, the government of Guatemala supports schools that train and educate would-be guides. “It’s considered a great job,” he explains. Thus Viaventure enjoys an ample pool of Guatemalan-born guide candidates, which the company trains even further to make sure that employees meet high standards (Viaventure is among the country’s best-paying tour companies, offering top salaries and benefits).
As an outdoor adventure company that offers nature-based trips beyond the biggest tourist destinations, Viaventure has a particularly beneficial impact on smaller villages and rural communities. Not every Guatemalan can live close enough to Tikal to work there as a ticket seller or groundskeeper. But Viaventure distributes travel revenue beyond those visitation hotspots by hiring small, far-flung businesses to transport baggage, haul trip supplies, and supply food and meals. “That money goes directly to the people in the villages,” explains Carrillo.
That’s prompted many rural Guatemalans to value not only tourism revenue, but also the natural places that visitors come to admire. “People have learned that visitors don’t want to see a lot of trash, so locals work hard to keep trails clean and free of litter,” says Carrillo. Managing trash is harder in Guatemala than it is in the US, where most residents enjoy regular trash pickup and disposal that prevents discards from ending up on mountainsides and in streams. But in rural parts of Guatemala, says Carrillo, “everyone is responsible for their own rubbish.” Thus many families have upped their effort to keep household trash from polluting the peaks and forests that are a source of pride for Guatemalans. “Our guides have a passion for the history of the country, and for the outdoors,” says Carrillo.
It’s easy to see why. Tikal and its 3,000-plus structures may be Guatemala’s star attraction, but the northern part of the country also holds many lesser-known Mayan sites that are surrounded by jungle where tapirs and jaguars still roam—not to mention about 500 bird species.
Volcano enthusiasts also find plenty to get fired up about: Pacaya Volcano, near Antigua, is a popular, easy hike to a steaming caldera, while Volcán de Fuego offers greater challenge (and arguably, better rewards). Most travelers visit Fuego Volcano on an overnight backpacking trip that skirts Fuego’s lava-spewing summit (it’s among the world’s most active volcanoes) and admires its night show from camp on neighboring, inactive Acatenango Volcano.
Visitors generally spend a week in Guatemala, says Chicojay, but travelers that can spare two to three weeks for exploration can plumb the remote Highlands region, which he ranks as the country’s most pristine. “There are a lot of mountains and culture up there, it’s very beautiful, and the Mayan people are still using the traditional ways,” says Chicojay. Venture there, and you can truly blaze your own path.
Author: Kelly Bastone