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Guatemala Guidebooks

Review by Carl Franz

On our last trip to Guatemala, I field tested three major guidebooks: Paul Glassman’s

Guatmala Guide

Guatemala Guide, Tom Brosnahan’s La Ruta Maya “Travel Survival Kit” (Lonely Planet) and the budget-oriented, Real Guide to Guatemala and Belize by Whatmore and Eltringham (now published under two titles:the Rough Guide to Guatemala and the Rough Guide to Belize). In Guatemala I also picked up a couple of locally published guides by resident authors: Henry’s Hint$ On Guatemala by Henry Gall and Guatemala For You by Barbara Balchin de Koose.

Although it made a nice, thorough reading list, when stuffed into my daypack, this travelling library was about as portable as an adobe brick. To avoid a herniated disc, I skimmed Guatemala For You and Henry’s Hint$, jotted down a few notes and then shipped them back to the States. I then whipped out my trusty razor knife and ruthlessly pared down two other books to special ‘lite’ editions. Thus, I was able to carry Brosnahan’s slender chapter on Guatemala, as well as the relevant portion of the Real Guide. (The leftover portions of both books were also mailed home for future trips.) Though I often cursed its weight and size, Glassman’s Guatemala Guide was the only book to escape editorial surgery.

Not surprisingly, travellers who go ‘People’s Guide style’ will find that each of the books I discuss has its particular strengths and weaknesses. Because of the nature of book publishing and the inevitable long delays between research and actual publication, no guidebook is ever truly up-to-date. Nonetheless, prices in 1991 editions of the Guatemala Guide and Travel Survival Kit are now ancient history. (I much prefer a comparative price rating system such as Henry’s Hint$: “RB” — Rock Bottom — to “E” for Expensive.)

As for the Real (Rough) Guide, it is casual, detailed and enjoyable to read. This guidebook is also aimed squarely at budget travellers. In fact, penny-pinching is stressed to a fault when the authors skip pricier hotels that offer excellent value. Every traveller deserves an occasional splurge and twenty or thirty bucks can buy a lot of comfort in Guatemala. It would be nice if the Real Guide would broaden its horizons and suggest a few.

Lonely Planet’s contribution is perplexing. Veteran writer Tom Brosnahan shows astute commercial sense when he devotes most of his Ruta Maya Travel Survival Kit to the heavily visited Yucatan Peninsula. Unfortunately, that doesn’t leave much for his Guatemala-bound readers. You can follow my example and chop out 100+ pages, but until the author covers Guatemala in more depth, there is little in the Survival Kit that isn’t adequately covered by my other choices.

Illustration by
Becky Meloy
The next runner-up, Guatemala For You, reminds me of Glassman’s Guatemala Guide in both size and presentation. Both books also suffer from an unnecessary overdose of clear-eyed objectivity. If the authors ever felt exhilarated, excited, inspired or challenged by their experiences, it doesn’t show. De Koose offers especially good historical and cultural detail but ultimately, Guatemala For You seems better suited to background reading in a comfortable chair than the back seat of a bus. Of course, some people prefer this approach, and these are the sort of ‘intelligent’ guidebooks that well-read foreign residents of Guatemala recommend to their visiting friends.

Finally, there’s the mild oddball of the lot, Henry’s Hint$ On Guatemala (1993). Written by Henry Gall, this 210-page book (with maps) is a fine example of the best — and occasionally the worst — in self-published travel guides. Overlooking the book’s need for copy editing and polishing, not to mention a thorough purge of cliches (Huehuetenango is “a sleepy town.” yawn....), I found Henry’s terse travel information to be quite useful and useful. For example, he dismisses the need to list hotels in Guatemala City with a curt, “look in the phone book,” but gives important directions to small town hotels and back country lodging. The bibliography is also very good, but the book’s index could use some additional work.

Unlike better-known authors, Henry isn’t shy about giving personal, subjective tips. I may not agree that, “There is really nothing to Tecpan” but even as a vegetarian I’m somehow glad to learn that, “It is the closest place to Antigua where you can buy lamb’s meat.” Whereas Paul Glassman describes Lake Atitlan as “a gem in its natural beauty”, Henry flatly declares, “It would be a crime not to see it.” Frankly, this opinionated, mildly cranky style appeals to me far more than an impersonal, arm’s-length view.

I may be carping, but it seems that a country widely acknowledged as one of the hemisphere’s most colorful and complex destinations merits more than a dry recital of the facts. If you want juicy travel writing about Guatemala, however, I’m afraid that none of the books listed here will satisfy you.

As an overall tool for nuts & bolts Guatemala travel, Glassman’s book, combined with the Real/Rough Guide: Guatemala, will be the most useful.

Guatemala Guide
by Paul Glassman
2000 edition

The Rough Guide to Guatemala and Belize
The Ruta Maya
La Ruta Maya: What is it
Getting There
Suggested Itinerary

Review: The Last Lords of Palenque
©1972-2000 by Carl Franz & Lorena Havens
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