Guatemala has some great sights, there's no doubt about it. It has some of the best Mayan ruins in the world, one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, amazing volcanoes, atmospheric colonial architecture, glorious beaches, wild rainforest... the list goes on. It also has a comprehensive system of tourist shuttles to shuffle you between the main sights, as well as the crazy chicken bus system for other destinations. On paper, Guatemala is a great place to visit.
That's probably why there's such a large number of 20-somethings plying the well-worn route between Tikal and Antigua, and west towards Lago de Atitlán and the highlands. Generally this tourist route – part of the popular Gringo Trail – is safe, and although you have to be careful not to head out on hikes in certain areas without guides, it's easy travelling. However, the advice from governments and locals alike is not to stray off this well-beaten track, because there are still bandits out there in the countryside, and you do risk being robbed or worse. Sure, some travellers ignore this advice and head off there anyway, and they post to the Internet to say that they have no idea what all the fuss is about, but the advice still stands, and it serves to constrain the majority of travellers to this standard route.
The result is that travelling through Guatemala is a bit like being back at university. I have a friend who calls these people the 'gap-yahs', and he's right; the road here is full of children who are just out of 'uni' and spending mummy and daddy's money on their trip of a lifetime, and although there's nothing wrong with that, it can get a bit wearing when you're not the same age. It's a rare 21-year-old who has an opinion that's worth listening to, because at that age we think we know everything but haven't yet discovered that we in fact know nothing; as a result the other travellers in this part of the world make me feel old, and not a little grumpy, though as a bonus, they also make me appreciate what's good about being old.
So perhaps I warmed to the locals? To be honest, I found them a bit too aloof, and despite me smiling at them as much as I could, that didn't seem to work as well as I'd hoped. Perhaps the locals are a bit jaded by the tourist trail and are starting to see tourists as walking wallets; perhaps they're busy dealing with the massive issues their country faces, and having lots of rich kiddies wandering around is hard to take; or perhaps I've been spoilt by the likes of Ghana and India, where the locals are so warm and friendly that everywhere else is bound to appear slightly grumpy in comparison. But whatever the reason, I didn't particularly fall for the Guatemalans, and they didn't particularly fall for me. Indeed, it reminded me of Indonesia, where I also failed to connect with the locals, despite learning their language and trying really hard to be friendly; on top of this, physically Indonesia bears a striking resemblance to Guatemala, with its lakes and volcanoes and utterly forgettable breeze-block architecture surrounded by lush rainforest, and everywhere I turned, I could kid myself that I was back in Indonesia. The upshot is that if you love Indonesia, you'll love Guatemala... and the opposite also applies.
So Guatemala was OK, but not as life-changing as the stream of travellers coming the other way implied would be the case. There are some great sights and it's easy travelling, but I suspect I'm looking for something different, something a bit more engaging. Hopefully El Salvador and Nicaragua will be slightly further from the tourist trail and a little less like Hampstead or Putney; we'll see.