My husband, Mario Saenz, designed and directs a study abroad program for honors students at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York. In July and August of 2002, I spent five weeks studying and traveling with the students of the course "The Contemporary World."
Guatemala is a country of contrasts. It is incredibly beautiful and horribly poor. The pleasure in seeing the gorgeous mountain peaks, lakes, and volcanoes is offset by the knowledge that this is the poorest country in Central America. Driving into the mountains one sees ancient men carrying huge burdens on their backs, boys riding on bicycles up inclines that would challenge Tour de France riders, and women and girls weaving by the side of the road.
A trip through the mountains on a Guatemala bus, even a luxury tour bus, is a white-knuckle experience. Drivers pass on blind curves with no shoulders. Chicken buses (the local Guatemala buses) belch black smoke as they crawl upward and descend with brakes squealing.
Before our first long-distance bus trip we spent a week in Guatemala City learning about the history and culture of Guatemala. We stayed at the lovely Ciudad Vieja hotel and made daily trips to the Universidad Landivar for lectures or to a museum or cathedral.
Two weeks in the highland city of Quetzeltenango, called Xela (shay-la), followed. There students continued their studies of philosophy, politics, and literature. In Xela we took over the entire Hotel Modelo Anexo. Students often sat studying or chatting in the courtyard outside their rooms. Many of the students had never been outside the United States, and they found the poverty and cultural differences of Guatemala striking. The students enjoyed hanging out at Tecun and the park and buying handmade goods from three young girls who would hound everyone mercilessly until they had bought something. Whether or not these working children go to school is hard to tell. When asked they say they go to school, but one often sees them working on school days.
Day trips included a visit to Fuentes Georginas. On a clear day the ride up the mountain to the hot springs, standing in the back of an open pick-up is worth the price alone. The Fuentes are very popular and can be crowded. The group also made trips to Zunil and Momostenango.
Two weeks later we headed to the lovely colonial city of Antigua. Here we stayed at Posada Belen, a guest house run by the nuns of Convento Belen. From the public areas of the second floor one gets wonderful views of the volcanoes Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango. Fuego often spews smoke and lava. Classes were held at the Posada and at CIRMA (a research center).
At first everyone was relieved to be in a city that appeared cleaner and more prosperous than Xela. But after two weeks, many were tired of being in a such a heavy tourist area. However, everyone enjoyed hanging out in the Parque Central. And I was relieved to find some decent vegetarian food. In Xela, I had dinner practically every night at Café Q, one of the few restaurants with vegetarian options. In Antigua, I enjoyed eating at Café Masala, Café Fuente, Café Riviera, and Frida’s.
After one week in Antigua the group traveled to the Peten to see the Mayan ruins of Tikal. One of the foremost authorities on Mayan archeology accompanied the group and led a tour of the site.
After one more week in Antigua the group returned to Syracuse. Many of the students later said that the trip was a life-changing experience.