I just got back from a vacation to Guatemala. A friend in Cleveland said, “Seems like more people are leaving there, than going.” Definitely. “Guat’s up?” is a T-shirt slogan in the tchotchke shops down there, and very few people are buying. The gringos I ran into were mostly missionaries—Mormons and Evangelicals—and Red Cross workers.
Guatemala was my wife’s idea. She studied Spanish at Cuyahoga Community College, taking advantage of Ohio’s free-tuition program for adults over 60. She has mastered the verbs “ser” and “estar.” (“Ser” is “to be” when you’re permanently somewhere, and “estar” is when you’re temporarily somewhere.) The permanent part of Guatemala is the sixteenth-century colonial town of Antigua with its cobblestone streets, imposing churches, and charming plazas. Another seemingly permanent thing: Lake Atitlan, which is like Lake Tahoe but smaller. The transient parts of Guatemala include corrupt governments and natural disasters.
Judith Bautista, a tour guide in Antigua, estimated the tourist business is off by 90 percent. She said she hadn’t led a trip since March 2020—until my wife and I hired her. I told her, “Be optimistic. It’s coming back. Look at us!” Yeah, look at a couple of double-vaxxed senior citizens ready to get out of the house. Judith specializes in tourists who have more money than years left. Not backpackers. “I pray to God you are right about more tourists, or I’ll have to find another job,” she said.
“If you’re 22, physically fit, hungry to learn and be better, I urge you to travel—as far and as widely as possible,” Anthony Bourdian once wrote. “Sleep on floors if you have to. Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them—wherever you go.” I’m for that, except for the sleep-on-the-floor part. In 1973, I spent three nights on the beach at San Lucas Toliman, Lake Atitlan, recovering from stomach problems. Never again. This time around, my wife and I—and two of our adult children—stayed at luxury hotels. The purified water and ice cubes were fine. The hotels were about 20 percent full. The other tourists were Guatemalans.
Guatemala was all masked up, and there were temperature checks at all the restaurant entrances. Few people had been vaccinated. We bought $400 Medjet insurance before the trip just in case we tripped on something down there. Medjet will airlift you to an American hospital of your choice if you fall and crush your hip, say. The sidewalks in Antigua are jagged and not well-lit. I didn’t fall, but I did wind up a few feet from molten lava. That was my wife’s idea, again. “Roasting marshmallows at a volcano” wasn’t on my must-do list, but I just added it, to cross it off.
My family spent several thousand dollars in Guatemala—our person-to-person, non-governmental remittance program to Central America—and we had a great time. According to the Guatemala Literacy Project, poverty rates in rural Guatemala exceed 70 percent, and a typical Mayan laborer earns less than $4 a day. I asked a Mayan villager what he was doing for money now that the tourist business is so off. He pulled out a machete and said he cut branches and twigs and sold them for firewood.
I’ve never met friendlier people than in Guatemala. That would make another good T-shirt slogan: “Guat’s not to like?”
Photo by Deccio Serrano/NurPhoto via Getty Images