Guatemala Feature

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Guatemala Today

… is modernizing its economy.

The cumbersome financial and economic systems of the past are no more. Recent administrations here have made a concerted effort to streamline Guatemala's economy, encourage foreign investment, and integrate the country into the modern world, as well as reduce its dependence on traditional agricultural crops (coffee, bananas, and sugar). Bulky, money-pit state enterprises have been privatized and made more efficient. Trade barriers have been reduced, as Guatemala has negotiated free-trade agreements with the United States, its Central American neighbors, and other countries. Much remains to be done, but infrastructure is improving, most notably in the transportation sector. Old Guatemala hands who remember a rickety primary-highway system will be pleasantly surprised to see how easy it is to get around between major cities, and the capital's La Aurora Airport, once one of the world's dreariest facilities, now gleams with space and efficiency following a 2007 makeover. There's always a "but" to these things, however: The new-found prosperity has not trickled down as much as the government has hoped. The richest 10 percent of the population still earn over half the country's income, and some 30 percent of Guatemalans live below the poverty line. A 30-percent illiteracy rate places limits on the marketability of the country's workforce to foreign firms. And the largest single contributor to the country's economy? It remains the remittances sent home by Guatemalans who live and work abroad—some estimates place the population of overseas Guatemalans at one million.

… is no-smoking.

One of the world's toughest no-smoking laws took effect in Guatemala in 2009, prohibiting lighting up in all public places. This includes stores, offices, public transportation terminals and vehicles, bars, restaurants, dance halls, and hotels. The prohibition even includes outdoor seating areas. The "no fumar" signs are everywhere, and fines are heavy, both to the smoker (Q520, or $65) and to the business where the violation occurs (Q5,200, or $650).

… is religiously diverse.

Roman Catholicism, that historical bulwark of faith in Latin America, commands only a slight majority of believers in Guatemala. Evangelical and Pentecostal groups make up about one-third of the population, with mainline Protestants, Mormons, and Jehovah's Witnesses picking up most of the rest. You'll see a couple of Jewish synagogues, Islamic mosques, and Buddhist temples in the capital, too. As always in Guatemala, traditional Mayan beliefs overlay the system, especially among the sector of the indigenous population that professes Catholicism, as a visit to many small-town churches in the highlands will attest.

… is coming to terms with its past.

A 36-year civil war (1960-96) took a heavy toll on Guatemala, but most of the population seems anxious to move on. To its great credit, the government has taken concrete steps to address past wrongs that came to the surface during the war. The army, once an institution feared by the average Guatemalan, has been stripped of its one-time internal-security role and has been replaced with a national civilian police force staffed by members of the communities in which they serve. The country now recognizes co-official status of 23 non-Spanish local languages, guaranteeing educational and administrative access for millions of citizens to the languages they speak at home. The government has devoted ever-increasing percentages of its budget to social programs that benefit the poor. The old adage about "taking one step forward and two steps backward" applies, though, and grievances still remain following a decade and a half of true peace. Downright baroque cases of scandal, graft, corruption, bribery, and even murder continue to plague the government. (None of these need interfere with your travels to Guatemala.) Not content with those aspects of the status quo, the population frequently mobilizes in opposition to government misdoings, these days with the 21st-century tools of YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter at its disposal.

… is no longer obsessed with Belize.

Guatemala has renounced its long-standing territorial claims on its eastern neighbor that date from the 19th century, even if many maps here still show Belize as part of Guatemala, and the two countries now have diplomatic relations. Crossing borders between them is a cinch these days, although the Guatemalan government occasionally suspends flights between Flores, in El Petén, and Belize City if it decides to engage in a bit of posturing. Any lingering differences between Guatemala and Belize need not concern you as a visitor; it's easier than ever to combine both countries into one vacation.

What's Hot in Guatemala Now

The Mayan Calendar. The long-count indigenous calendar is coming to an end on December 21, 2012. Whether the date will mark the apocalypse or will merely reset the odometer to zero is hotly debated these days. Google "maya calendar 2012" to see what the fuss is about, and decide for yourself if you think the gods will grant another 5,126-year cycle.

Making a Difference. Guatemala is secure, and long free from the iron grip of past military governments. It is once again one of the Western Hemisphere's premier destinations for a volunteer vacation. (You can always pick them out: they'll be wearing group T-shirts.) Some trips are religious in nature, some travelers come down on their own and hook up with a Guatemala-based program, and still others who have done "Tourist Guatemala" have fallen in love with the country and look to return in a different capacity. Needs are great here, and the many programs offer you a chance to help and experience a new type of travel.

Ricardo Arjona. Guatemala's contribution to farándula—that's showbiz, Latin America style—is this one-time basketball player, two-time Grammy winner from Jocotenango, near Antigua. The musical style of singer-composer Arjona, born in 1964, is tough to pin down with an easy label, but think of him as a combination of Latin and rock, with social and political commentary, for which Guatemala and the region provide ample material.

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