ANTIGUA, Guatemala — When speaking of Guatemala, many conversations focus on migration, crime, corruption and a devastated economy that drives so many north. But, if we are truly to understand the totality of the country and its people beyond the negative associations and stereotypes, it is important to know the other Guatemala often left out of the headlines.
It's a Guatemala millions of travelers pre-coronavirus chose as a coveted tourist destination: the land of the Maya rich with exotic history and lore.
Guatemala's lush landscapes and towering volcanoes inspire the senses. Its ancient lakes and Mayan ruins mesmerize with the memories of civilizations past. But it’s the warmth and vibrant spirit of the Guatemalan people— their culture and history—that touches the heart of all who visit this magical land of the Maya.
Perhaps there’s no more passionate champion of Guatemala than Elizabeth Bell. She moved to the country from Palo Alto, California with her parents at age 14 and never left.
“Guatemala is magical,” Bell said. “The people are authentically friendly, nice, we have a sense of community.
Bell has written many books about this beloved country and is the owner of a tourist agency. She hopes to inspire others to see the beauty and magic of the Guatemala she loves.
“Half our country is Mayan. You’ll see a lot of Mayan women here,” Bell explained. “You’ll notice them because of their beautiful traditional dress. Their culture goes back to 3114 BC when their calendar began — one of the oldest civilizations on the planet.”
One of the most popular tourist destinations in the country is Antigua, a city in the central highlands that was completely shut down through much of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, expats, shop owners and locals say tourism is finally coming back.
“[I am] so happy we’re reopening. Eighty percent of our city depends on tourism in one way or another. Our job has been to reopen safely and with protocols,” Bell said.
The ancient cobblestone streets are finally trafficked with travelers slowly coming back. The plaza is once again filled with shop owners feeling a renewed optimism in a post-COVID Antigua — selling everything from souvenirs, ice cream, guitars and famous candies to embroidered runners and clothing.
It’s been a hard 15 months for vendors in Guatemala. Hurricanes kept tourists away, and COVID warnings and crime alerts advising travelers not to come made things worse.
“We live in a super safe city,” a local vendor assured. “We only offer safe tourism. What does that mean? No gangs in Antigua."
Bell focuses on the magic of her beautiful city. Antigua is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, boasting colonial baroque architecture and brimming with magnificent monasteries and cathedrals. As its name implies, Antigua is a city of rich history and a haven for artists and expats from all over the world.
When asked about Vice President Kamala Harris's visit and promise of economic investment and aid, Bell is all for it. She believes boosting the economy and creating jobs in the country is the key to slowing the surge of migration to America.
“We support any aid the U.S. government will supply through the Northern Triangle. We want to stop immigration. Migration from here to there is not good for local families. We want to keep people here. And how do they stay here? Jobs. That’s what we’re all about with tourism,” Bell said.
As more of the world receives the COVID-19 vaccine and returns to travel, Bell is hopeful tourism will come back strong this summer and is already busy booking tours for the first time in over a year.
“It’s safe to come to Guatemala and we look forward to seeing you. It’s an absolutely magical destination,” Bell said.
The State Department still warns travelers not to travel to the country just yet because of crime and COVID-19, but despite that, as Bell and so many shop owners told us, tourists are coming back. They are eager to share their Guatemala with the world — not just the one in negative headlines that paint only one picture of their beloved country.