Virgin Trail: Travels in the Other Central America

The More Lookers, the Less There is To See?
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Dec. 15 2003 6:13 PM

Virgin Trail: Travels in the Other Central America

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The nighttime facade of the grandest of Antigua's ruined churches, La Merced, which was originally built in 1548
The nighttime facade of the grandest of Antigua's ruined churches, La Merced, which was originally built in 1548

ANTIGUA, GUATEMALA—A few blocks from the ruined colonial churches and tourist sports bars of Antigua Guatemala's tourist district, I stumble across a barbershop where it's not necessary to speak Spanish to get a hair cut. Rather, without even uttering a word, I can peruse a wall-mounted poster and point to the Latin American hairstyle of my choosing. At first blush, this option comes as a relief, since my Lonely Planet Spanish-language phrasebook (which for some reason is flush with dubiously useful drug-Spanish, such as "I take cocaine occasionally!") is completely bereft of barbershop phrases.

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Unfortunately, all the hairstyles from the point-and-choose poster seem to hearken from distant decades. The coiffure labeled "Serpentina" (which leaves one's ears largely obscured by lightly feathered tresses), for example, looks as if it would prepare me to shimmy under the disco balls of Raytown, Mo., in, say, 1977. "La Musica" (a gently wavy hairdo that runs longish in the back), on the other hand, is Guatemalan vernacular for the 1980s barbershop staple now known as the mullet. Even the illustration for a "Normal" haircut seems to suggest that normal hair was invented by the Beatles sometime around 1964.

Since I've been living out of a Land Rover since I left San Francisco four weeks ago, I elect to skip the bewildering menu of hairstyles and keep things simple. "Dos," I say to the barber, pointing two fingers at his electric clippers. He grins and snaps a No. 2 setting onto the clippers. Three minutes later, I have a crew cut that is, mercifully, too basic and utilitarian to merit a space on any Latin American hairstyle posters.

For me, this haircut offers a welcome chance to slow down and enjoy the quirky ambience of Latin America. For the past month, I've been part of the "Drive Around the World" expedition, a Land Rover-sponsored global drive-a-thon that aims to raise money for Parkinson's disease research. Our goal—to circumnavigate the globe on lines of longitude in nine months—may have a romantic ring to it, but the reality of endurance-driving expeditions is that they don't leave you with much time to see the countries through which you're traveling. Thanks to our ambitious schedule, our nine-person, four-vehicle expedition team blew through Mexico in just two weeks. As we raced to keep up with our itinerary, the countryside and culture outside our windshields sped by in a blur of tollbooths, gas stations, road signs, stray cattle, cacti, and cheap hotels.

Now, however—thanks to a fortuitous change of the day our Land Rovers ship from Panama to Ecuador (thus bypassing the roadless Darien Gap)—we'll have a chance to slow down and enjoy our Central American surroundings. For the next week, as we travel relatively short stretches from Guatemala into El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, we'll have the novel opportunity to linger in places.

This change of pace is perfectly timed for me, since Antigua is the last major tourist destination on our route until we roll into Costa Rica a week from now. Places like El Salvador and Nicaragua have little tourist infrastructure and bad political reputations—and that's exactly why I think I'll enjoy traveling there. I don't say this merely because places known for wars and crises are off the beaten path; I enjoy such places because they reveal more about the traveler-host relationship than your average tourist "hotspot" can. Just as, in previous travels, Laos revealed a spontaneous vitality I found lacking in Thailand—just as Syria surprised me in ways Egypt never could—I suspect that El Salvador and Nicaragua will show me more about travel than I could find here in the gringo-saturated streets of Antigua.

Admittedly, preferring obscure destinations to popular ones is not a particularly original travel strategy. In the 19th century, an American visitor named William Brigham observed that travel veterans in Guatemala preferred far-flung places because they "know how soon the individuality of a country is lost once the tide of foreign travel is turned through its towns or its by-ways." At the time, Brigham was bemoaning the demise of mule paths in the face of Guatemalan railroads; I could just as easily grouse about the Guatemalan fast-food restaurants and Internet cafes that have colonized Antigua's colonial buildings.

Internet cafes notwithstanding, however, I'll admit that Antigua is a wonderful place to linger for a few days. Once the Spanish administrative capital of Central America, it is said to be the best-preserved colonial city in the Americas. Surrounded by volcanoes (including the active Volcan Fuego, which belched a faint puff of smoke into the southwestern sky this morning), Antigua's narrow cobblestone streets are crowded with flat-fronted pastel buildings that were originally built in the 17th and 18th centuries. Horse-drawn buggies clop through the main square, where Mayan women gracefully balance baskets full of fabric atop their heads. Bougainvillea vines climb the facades of ruined churches, and locals still gather to do their laundry in the pools of the public plaza. Antigua's laid-back, college-town vibe attracts students to its six-dozen (and counting) language schools, and it's not uncommon to walk into a café and hear Germans, Koreans, Israelis, and Iowans chatting away in rudimentary Spanish.

As I leave the barbershop with my expedition teammate Nancy Olson, we stumble across a strange sight near the Parque Central: Outside of a solemn church sanctuary, a mortar-like tube sits in the middle of the street. Every few minutes—at certain points in the worship service—a middle-aged man jogs out of the sanctuary and drops fireworks into the mortar tube. A half-dozen powdery red and yellow bursts stain the sky above us, then the middle-aged man trots back inside and rejoins the worship service. Ten minutes later—after a bit of singing and kneeling and chanting—the man pops out with another armful of fireworks and repeats his routine.

Nancy knows a little Spanish, but her inquiries yield little specific information from locals (and, sadly, my Spanish phrasebook—full of useful lines such as "Do you have a methadone program in this country?"—doesn't cover inquiries about festivals). Before long, a crowd of gringo travelers assembles outside the church, and there is much discussion about what could possibly be going on with the explosive worship service. Could it by chance be an Advent ritual? Some synthesis of old Mayan traditions? Independence Day? The start of the Guatemalan World Series? Guidebooks are consulted, jokes are made, cameras flash, and—strangely—I begin to lose interest in the entire spectacle. Against my better intentions, I find myself longing for the same experience in different, more solitary circumstances.

The writer Walker Percy once pondered this weird contradiction of travel. "How does one see the thing better when others are absent?" he asked wryly. "Is looking like sucking: the more lookers, the less there is to see?"

The answer, of course, is that there is still plenty to see—but this doesn't stop me from wandering off to watch the proceedings from a different vantage point. By the time I go to bed, the divine purpose of the fireworks is still a mystery to me.

The following morning, our expedition team arises early, loads the Land Rovers, and heads into El Salvador.

Several companies sponsored the Drive Around the World expedition; click here for a partial list.

Rolf Potts is the author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel. His travel essays have also appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, National Geographic Adventure, and on National Public Radio. He keeps no permanent address, but his virtual home can be found at rolfpotts.com

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