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The more backpacking changes, the more it stays the same

Simon Calder’s Travel

New Year’s Day, 1988: bienvenido a Guatemala and welcome to chaos.

Start the year with a tropical adventure: always a good plan. In that distant decade of Thatcher, Wham! and lax rules when flying, I smoked my way across to Miami on Virgin Atlantic. There I connected to now-defunct Eastern Airlines for the two-hour hop to a new and bewildering world. First contact: the dysfunctional and labyrinthine La Aurora airport on the outskirts of Guatemala City. Rather than the traveller choosing between “red” and “green” channels at customs, arrivals were invited to press a button connected to some traffic lights that randomly chose red or green. Mine glowed red but the officials waved me through anyway and concentrated their firepower on a gentleman whose ambitious collection of baggage made me wonder how the plane had ever got off the ground in Florida.

By the time I blearily emerged from the terminal into a melee of meeters, greeters, hustlers and taxi drivers, night had cast a cloak of uncertainty over proceedings. The driver I ended up with weaved around what appeared to be a down-at-heel trading estate rather than the grand highway to the centre of the capital. I imagined I was being abducted.

Thirty-six years, one month and one day later I felt the same absence of control and knowing what the heck was happening. This time I was flying out of Guatemala City, but everything was exactly as I remembered it. All that has changed, it seems, is the addition of intermittent wifi. And that was very much the story throughout my stay in the nation that delivers the best of Central America along with generous winter sunshine.

Street life: Guatemala City

(Simon Calder)

While a few aspects of independent travel in Guatemala have been transformed over the decades, mostly it remains an analogue experience. On multiple visits I have not been abducted once, and have encountered almost universally helpful and friendly souls who enable travellers to experience a volcanic landscape rich in indigenous culture and the delicious cuisine of Guatemala. Once you get out of the city squeezed awkwardly into a hollow between peaks.

One vast improvement in the capital: better security. In 1988, backpacker lore was to get out of Guatemala City as quickly as possible. The longer you stayed, the greater the certainty that you would fall victim to robbery. I have…

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