Understanding The Contradiction that is Central America

I was recently in Central America with Overseas AdventureTravel on their trip, Route of the Maya. 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. It was a surprise to me that they felt complemented that I wanted to return. They are a kind and gracious people, so if they were complemented in this way, I was more than happy to oblige. 

Before joining the tour, I spent nine nights in Nicaragua using different tour providers from bookings I had made on Viator.com. In El Salvador, where I also spent an additional four nights before joining the group, I used two providers, one of which was El Salvadorian Tours. 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.

One of the things that jumped out at me almost instantly was the contradiction that is Central America. 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, a meager living and just trying  to survive. 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 gifts 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.

This contradiction continued as I worked my way to El Salvador and toured for four days before joining the group. I took my own pre-trip of the Flower Route, which OAT offers on many departures. It is a worthy few days to spend whether with OAT or on your own. 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 are near 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 celebration in town that day, 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.  “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. It is an extremely powerful song, especially after having been to the country and met the people.

El Salvador by Peter, Paul and Mary (full screen)

Many of the public squares, which looked so beautiful along the volcanic soil of the Flower Route, and other parts of El Salvador we visited as part of the OAT tour, were really public execution sites during their civil war. The people suffer to this day about the loss of families and lives that the government denies ever having killed.

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 a small town across the lake from Panajachel, you will find 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.

There is no “ultimate paradox” that I could see in Central America. It was all filled with one paradox after another. Antigua itself, surrounded by volcanoes and filled with 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 years, that seeing vestiges of the many ruins is part of the experience of Antigua. Its history is complex as well, and if you Google Central American contradictions as I did while writing this article, you will see that much has been written about the region in this regard.

Like any other part of the world that is worthy of your time and money, Central America and all its apparent contradictions and paradoxes in all their forms, just adds to the fascination.

Read more here on the paradox of Latin America

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