Foreign Correspondence: Guatemala's Secret Charms Come To Light

What's it like to live in a far-off place most of us see only on a vacation? Foreign Correspondence is an interview with someone who lives in a spot you may want to visit.

Al Argueta, 34, is a New Yorker whose parents are from Guatemala. He divides his time between there and Austin, Texas, where he resides. Argueta is the author of the just-published "Living Abroad in Guatemala" (Moon/Avalon; $19.95).

Q. We hear a lot about going to Costa Rica or Belize. Why is Guatemala under the radar?

A. You don't hear much about Guatemala in terms of people wanting to move there. For travel, it has gotten a bit more popular, and actually is right behind Costa Rica when you measure by arrivals and tourism income.

Maybe it's a marketing thing. I've met a number of Americans who left Costa Rica because it's too saturated with Americans. Guatemala still feels authentic, but has all the modern conveniences — and then some — of its neighbors.

I've lived in San Jose (Costa Rica's capital) and would rather be living in Guatemala City. It feels more like a city than San Jose. Guatemala could be the best-kept secret around.

Q. What's the capital like?

A. Guatemala City has about 4 million people. It's the largest city in Central America. You have the opportunity to live in high-rise condos, which you don't in capitals like Managua (Nicaragua) and Belize City. It's also the most modern, aside from Panama City, and has the most modern airport. The city has a lot of good cultural attractions, like excellent museums.

Guatemala City has wide boulevards and a totally different feel than those other places. This is partly because at one time it was the colonial capital of all Central America.

And it's topographically beautiful — surrounded by mountains and with views of volcanoes.

Q. Doesn't Guatemala have a higher percentage of indigenous people?

A. Sure. Tourists who want to see that aspect go straight to Guatemala's Mayan ruins or villages. Half the population of the country is Mayan. That culture runs beneath the social fabric of everything.

There's the colonial heritage, too. Most people get off the plane and go to Antigua, which is Mayan as well as colonial.

Q. How far from the capital do you have to go to see this?

A. Antigua is 45 minutes away — literally over the next mountain. Once out of Guatemala City, it's completely rural and scenic in any direction.

Go down the Pan American Highway and two hours from Antigua is Lake Atitlan, another hot spot for Americans, who've been settling there for a long time. You can live on the lakefront for a lot less than in the U.S. The area has at least 12 Mayan villages, and the villages still have the weekly market day. Villagers wear traditional dress, and each village has its own attire.

Q. How do economics and language play out in Guatemala?

A. There's a lot of wealth in Guatemala, but it's not well distributed. A strong upper class kind of dominates things. The good side is that it has given Guatemala an infrastructure it would otherwise lack. On the other hand, it creates a huge chasm between rich and poor.

Guatemala's experience and social and political dynamics give it a personality of its own. Things are always eventful. It's like living inside a novel.

About 75 percent of Guatemalans speak Spanish. There are also 21 different Indian dialects. Some are in remote areas where the dialect is all they speak. Spanish is the common denominator. Maybe 40 percent of the people in Guatemala City or the other major tourist areas speak English.

Q. Tell me something I ought to know — but don't — about visiting there.

A. Both the Caribbean and Pacific coastlines are really underrated. From Guatemala City, the Pacific is only 90 minutes south on a fast highway. People move there for the atmosphere. There's also great fishing and nice black sand beaches that makes it a little exotic.

The Caribbean coast is a sliver on a peninsula near Belize. It's remote, not easy to get to, and has some nice areas. There's a beautiful jungle river — Rio Dulce — that's popular with Caribbean boaters who go there during hurricane season. It's also popular with expats.

The river actually connects the Caribbean to Guatemala's largest lake, Izabal.

Q. How do the seasons work?

A. It depends on the altitude. In general, May through October is the rainy season. In September and October, you can get socked in all day with rain. The rest of the time, it's mostly an afternoon thundershower.

In January and February, highland areas — elevations of 8,000 to 12,000 feet — can get downright cold. Guatemala can get cold fronts that move down from the United States; temperatures dip to the 50s and 60s for daytime highs. Guatemala City is at about 5,000 feet.

It's always warm on the coast, but it's not like that everywhere.