Paradoxes in Central America: Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala

There are many times when we travel that we encounter the uncomfortable. It can be a part of history that may have affected our own lives, like the concentration camps In Germany or Poland. Or it can be an entire county like Vietnam, where we may have lost loved ones, or just know from living through the time. But one thing I hardly expected to encounter was a strong and even emotional reaction to my trip to Central America, over historic events I was hardly aware of. This is part of why we travel; to learn.

Much of what I learned about in Central America recently was not exactly pleasant and ranked right up there with some of the world’s greatest atrocities.  But mixed in with the beauty and complexity of everything else I saw and experienced there, it made me realize what a paradox and contradiction that entire region has become over time. The countries where I noticed this the most simply because I spent the most time there were Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, even though we also went to Honduras and Belize briefly.

I took the trip Route of the Maya with Overseas Adventure Travel.  I departed on October 25, 2017 and returned on November 25. The OAT portion of the trip began on November 7 and ended on November 22. This is a wonderful trip for anyone wanting to explore Central America for the first time. For me however, it was my fourth time back there, and my goal was to finish seeing the rest of the Central American countries I had not seen.

Nicaragua

Before joining the tour, I spent nine nights in Managua, Nicaragua at the hacienda styled Hotel Los Robles. I used different tour providers from bookings I had made on Viator.com. Seeing these countries in this fashion provided the opportunity to get different points of view, from tour guides with different levels of experience, education, and cultural backgrounds. It also prevented me from getting “tour fatigue,” which I often feel on organized group tours.

In Nicaragua, I saw immense beauty mixed with the kind of poverty that region is known for. I met coffee pickers working for $9 dollars a day while on a coffee tour north of Managua in Matagalpa at the Selva Negra Coffee Estate. The coffee pickers earn a meager living which barely allows them to survive as they roam to different parts of the country every few months to pick coffee. Their government however, spends millions to add odd looking trees to the Managua landscape as a form of art, and celebrates dictators. Hugo Chavez, the late dictator of Venezuela is celebrated in one roundabout, Jesus in another. Politics or religion, pick your favorite. Perhaps most stunning was the gift of an army tank, given to the government by Mussolini after the Second World War and showcased near the water’s edge. So dictators were celebrated, as were the leaders of the revolution. The 50,000 who died in the revolution? Not a sign of remembrance that I could see, no matter which side they took. In between learning about Nicaragua’s history of revolution in both Granada and Leon, I also took a hike to the El Chocoyero El Brujo Nature Reserve on a five hour excursion from Managua. This brought me face to face with the beautiful blue national bird of Nicaragua, parakeets, howler monkeys, and at the end of the hike, even two toucans kissing. My last full day trip was to San Juan Del Sur where I was able to see where the turtles had their nests since I was there during the first week of turtle nesting season. This was quite a contrast from dictators and revolutionaries!

El Salvador

In El Salvador, where I also spent an additional four nights at the Marriott in San Salvador before joining the group, I used two providers there from bookings I had made on Viator.com, one of which was El Salvadorian Tours.

The contradiction continued as. I took my own pre-trip of the Flower Route, which OAT offers on many departures, but which I toured independently. It is a worthy few days to spend either way. While on the Flower Route, I visited the town of Suchitoto, which is very near another town memorable during their civil war, Cinquera. I confess that I was taken aback by seeing bombshell casings outside of the church in Cinquera. They are used as church bells these days, since the original church bells were destroyed in the civil war. There are other remnants of the war in the town, including bullet holes, which can be seen in several other San Salvadorian and Nicaraguan towns.

 In Cinquera, US planes that were shot down during our active involvement in their war during the 80s are located in front of this house of worship and fenced in by railings that hold M-16s. Yet amid this backdrop, a quiet life continues, and people take Chicken Busses and go on about their lives. There was a fiesta in town that day at the church, and ironically, it sounded like I was hearing strains of the Beatles song, “oh, bla de, oh bla da life goes on…” For indeed, life does go on amid the contradictions.  

Many of the public squares, which looked so beautiful along the volcanic soil of the Flower Route, in towns with  beautiful murals such as Ataco and others across, El Salvador,  were really public execution sites used government death squads during their civil war. The people suffer to this day about the loss of loved ones the government denies ever having killed. Some of this history is preserved in a museum in San Salvador, the small but powerful Museum of Word and Image. This museum captures through both art and photography what he people endured during the war. There was also a film on the use of the clandestine Radio Venceremos, used to convey information to the people during the war and ridicule the government.  

As the OAT tour continued, the contradiction intensified.  One contradiction which struck me was the Mayan ruins themselves. Only a fraction of them have been unearthed. When we were at Joya de Ceren in El Salvador, we learned that we were really many miles from the heart of those Mayan ruins, the majority of which they cannot unearth. It is ironic because for as much as they want to preserve Mayan culture, they cannot to the fullest extent. The wind, rain, and other elements of nature are slowly destroying the ruins that have been discovered. So when archeologists discover an excavation site, they dig it up, only to bury it again in order to preserve it. This is true for many of the excavation sites across Central America.

During both my independent tours as well as the OAT tour, I learned about Monsignor Romero, an Archbishop who was killed by the death squads while he was celebrating Sunday Mass. I visited the church where he was killed, as well as the Catholic University where many of the unsuspecting priests and nuns were killed by the death squads thinking they were out of  harm’s way.  On the OAT tour we visited the cathedral where he was buried. He is considered in El Salvador much like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Robert F. Kennedy, for the sacrificial work he did to try to help the downtrodden people live better lies, knowing his life as at stake.

“Screams of paradise” pretty well sums up the dichotomy, as described in the song El Salvador by Peter, Paul and Mary, written during the height of their war, and played on the bus as we were departing the country.  It is an extremely powerful song, especially after having seen  the sites,  met the people, and heard the stories of loved ones lost, children taken, and meeting former child soldiers, fighting alongside the gorillas at age 10.

Guatemala

Contradictions abound as I think of my week in Guatemala. The Mayan culture – not dead at all, although many will say it is – is still so strong in some villages, that the church needs to cater to what they consider to be both the Mayan “pagan” rituals as well as the Christian and Catholic rituals.  And in the small town of Santiago across the lake from Panajachel, we visited shamans as well as churches, and people who go to both. The churches there are tolerant of this paradox and allow it in order to keep the Mayans in the fold and attending church. We visited one church where we saw images on the pulpit of both Christianity as well as Mayan culture.  For indeed, the Spanish settlers who came to conquer Central America and tried to transform the Mayan culture, contributed to today’s paradox which exists in many forms, including the art that is produced.

Part of Guatemalan history includes genocide; the helpful prevention of people from it, and the subsequent ironic use of it among their own. There was an influx of Germans who both were part of the burgeoning coffee trade as well as refugees from Hitler’s Germany up until 1944. The contradiction? That Guatemala had its own genocide of the Mayan people in the 1960s.  The desire to now maintain harmony and reconciliation with the Mayan people is evident in Guatemala City today, with symbols of peace in some of the roundabouts.

There is no “ultimate paradox” that I could see in Central America. It was all filled with one after another. Antigua itself, surrounded by volcanoes and much the result of seismic activity, is perhaps one of the most beautiful Spanish colonial cities in all of Central America.  Yet it has ruins amidst the beauty of the colonial architecture, and has been leveled so many times over the centuries, that seeing vestiges of the many ruins is part of the experience of Antigua. Its history is complex as well, and like any other part of the world that is worthy of your time, money, and exploration, Central America and all its apparent contradictions and paradoxes in all their forms, just adds to the fascination.

The Hotel Los Robles cost me about $800 for me nights there, and I paid about another $1000 for my private tours in both countries. The four nights in the Marriott cost about $300 plus one Marriott Rewards certificate. I used frequent flier miles to get there. The OAT Tour cost was about $3200, but I was able to apply some ravel credits to it, which brought the price down somewhat. Although  OAT does not charge for a single supplement, many of the Viator tour providers did!

Photos: Jann Segal

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