On Holiday

Letter From Guatemala

A couple of easy hours from Miami, Guatemala is a time warp. One of the physically closest of our Central American friends, it is at the same time one of the most culturally different—more so, certainly, than modern Mexico. These days, when you can be waved through US immigration not only in the Bahamas but now in Curarçao, Guatemala demands that you look again.

The first time I went to Mexico City, to attend the painter Orozco's funeral in 1949, I was immensely depressed by the largest metropolis south of our border (or, now, north of it, for that matter). In the same way, Guatemala City, where most visitors enter the country, makes everything else in your stay an upper. This capital is flat, rectilinear, temblor-jittery. It lacks the greatness of Buenos Aires, the quaintness of Quito. Its best hotel, the relatively luxurious Camino Real, is latticed with a corseting of ugly external girders that guards against another earthquake. But this cement vest in no way qualifies Guatemala's hospitality, which is extraordinary, even for South America. There is a profound courtesy-without-servility everywhere—among the ladinos, the Indians, everyone-which surely spoils you for the New York City subway.

Too, it is from this undistinguished capital that access is gained to one of the wonders of the world, that pure marvel of Mayan civilization called Tikal, whose temples repose in a set...

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