Guatemala: A country full of colourful contradictions

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Toronto Star October 24, 2014, Antigua, Guatemala–Visit a saint who smokes and drinks. Watch a school boy in a crisp uniform check his phone as a young woman walks by with a basket of fruit on her head. Guatemala is a country full of unlikely combinations, and, just as the vibrant mix of colours and patterns of the traditional clothing does, it all goes together beautifully.

Sandwiched between Mexico and Belize, the Central American country shaped like a puzzle piece has centuries of experience making contradictions work. The Spanish conquest began in the 16th century, but the Maya managed to graft a little of their own faith onto the facades of the Catholic churches they were forced to build in Antigua: corn among the saints on the San Jose Cathedral and pineapple in the baroque at La Merced Church and Convent.

But it’s all pure Catholic in the Hall of Miracles at Antigua’s San Francisco Church where thousands of Guatemalans have left notes, photos and a good few crutches to say thank you to their local saint, Hermano Pedro, for granting their miracle.

A few hours away in Santiago, on the shores of Lake Atitlan, children hoping for a few coins lead the way to see Maximón, a folk saint the local Maya believe will bring you good crops, or revenge on an enemy, provided you bring him a drink and a cigar. The idol accepts visitors (and a fee for photos) in a small room with overflowing ashtrays and candles on the floor.

This is a country of many cultures. Just look at the clothes. Business people in suits in Guatemala City. Men with colourful birds embroidered on their striped pants in one Maya town. Bats on shirts in the next. And everywhere, the Maya women wear bright blouses and skirts with colours and patterns that tell of their different histories.

There are lots of colours on the “chicken buses,” too. Tricked out in vivid stripes and swirls, the former school buses career down the roads. The colours indicate the bus route for the many illiterate riders and the patterns are just for fun, although they have to be approved by the local municipality. Tourists are welcome to hop on a chicken bus. If you’re really adventurous, you could join a few locals and ride on top. Inside it’s three to a seat and you’ll want to buy a seat for your luggage to keep it close and safe.

Because of a 30-year civil war that ended in 1996 and the presence of drug cartels, Guatemala has long been considered a risky place to visit. But the tourist board insists that’s not the case any more. It issues the same advice mom does: stay away from bad neighbourhood; take a taxi after 10 p.m. and be careful of new friends you make in bars.

In Antigua, Guatemala’s biggest tourist attraction and an UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Central Park, is brimming with colonial history and full of vendors hawking woven bracelets, colourful necklaces and other souvenirs.

Just 10 kilometres away, tourists are pretty much ignored in the main square at Santa Maria de Jesus. While the kids come close for a better look and collapse in giggles after posing for photos, the women selling live chickens, fabrics and baskets of beans are too busy on market day to notice the visitors taking pictures.

Or maybe they just understand.

Guatemala is a very photogenic country. The colours. The green landscape. The volcanoes (of which there are 33). The mix of old and new. The smiling children who tag along with the official tour guide, walking with their arms draped around each other.

As is the case with pretty much every country in the world, there are places you shouldn’t go and people you don’t want to see, but the only thing likely to be stolen in Guatemala is your heart.

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