From Latin America

Lake Atitlan – A Circuit of The World's Most Beautiful Lake

Posted in Traditions and Culture by escapedtoperu on May 31, 2010

Few of us can claim to have investigated Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, the place Lonely Planet travel guides describe as "The closest thing to Eden on Earth." However, in the absence of a spin around the lake, this article can give you an idea of the wonders of one of the most beautiful parts of the planet. Use it to assist you when choosing your next vacation, or at least to fake some good travel stories when chatting with your friends!

Getting there
Easy to access, the lake is about a two and a half hour drive from Guatemala City or Antigua. Most arrive at the lake in the main town, Panajachel and stay in a hotel there or take a boat to other hotels on the lake. Getting to Panajachel is easy, and can be organised through a tour operator offering a door-to-door services between Panajachel and Antigua or Guatemala City.

Showered in rainbows
Held in place 1560 meters (5100 ft.) above sea level by a natural dam of volcanoes makes for an ideal climate. It's never uncomfortably cold or hot. The rainy season lasts from May to October, but the sun does shine some almost every day. The word "atitlan" is a Mayan word that translates as "the place where the rainbow gets its colors" and in the wet season you are sure to see a few colourful arches rising gracefully above the lake.

Visit lakeside towns by boat
There is no road that encircles the lake, so visitors will have to settle for the next best option; taking a boat across the smooth waters to any one of the towns that sit on its banks. There are 11 communities around Lake Atitlan (including Panajachel) and visitors will have a variety of locations and experiences to choose from. Munching on hummus in Moonfish cafe in the hippy retreat of San Marcos or partying until the early hours in San Pedro, Lake Atitlan will have something to keep you entertained. If you want to get to grips with the language, numerous Spanish schools are based in San Pedro for you to choose from.

Visiting the volcanoes
Lake Atitlan is the result of land collapse following volcanic activity 84,000 years ago, and since then volcanic activity in the region has build three impressive volcanoes that dominate the skyline around the lake. All can be visited from the towns surrounding the lake.

The tallest of the three volcanoes, Atitlan, dominates the stunning lake with which it shares its name. Atitlan's summit takes about 8 hours to reach; the reward is a breathtaking view of the world's most beautiful lake and Guatemala's Pacific coast. Perhaps the most frequently photographed of all Guatemala's volcanoes, San Pedro's beautiful cone seems to rise from the waters of Lake Atitlan. The hike to the top takes about 4 hours, and while visitors will not get great views due to heavy vegetation on the summit, the crater serves as a refuge for rarely encountered species of plants and animals. Along with Atitlan and San Pedro that form the natural dam holding in Lake Atitlan, Toliman, the third volcano, has its own delights to offer. A small group of rare Horned Guans survives in the forest near the summit and hikers should plan on camping out for a good chance of sighting the birds.

Getting to know the locals
The lake basin supports a wide range of agricultural products, including coffee, that provide well for the largely indigenous population living around the area. Mayan cultural tradition is still strong, and many locals will be seen in traditional dress. Numerous humanitarian organisations, based out of the main centres of Panajachel and San Pedro, allow visitors who want to commit a couple of weeks to visiting communities and assisting in various projects.

However you want to get to know Lake Atitlan, you will be surrounded by the awe inspiring vistas that have left an undeniable impression on travellers over the centuries. With the ease of transport access from the big centres of Guatemala City and Antigua to help you get to one of the most beautiful places in the world, what are you waiting for?

Author: Gary Sargent – Escaped to Peru / Escaped to Latin America

Chichicastenango – World Famous Markets and Riotous Festivals in Guatemala

Posted in Traditions and Culture by escapedtoperu on May 31, 2010

Travellers wanting to see the Mayan culture alive and well in the present day can't do much better than the town of Chichicastenango. As 95% of the population of the town is recognized as indigenous, you'll find it difficult not to be surrounded by native culture! Apart from being a mouthful of a name, the town (also known as Santo Tomas Chichicastenango) is surrounded by mountains which gives it a secluded feel even though it is only about 140 kilometres outside Guatemala City.

The handicrafts market
Every Thursday and Sunday, thousands of vendors and visitors descend upon Chichicastenango, attending what is said to be the largest native market in North America. Since pre-Hispanic times, the town has been one of the largest trading centers in the Maya area. Not much has changed; despite plastic sheeting for shelter and greater attendance, visitors will hear Quiche predominantly spoken and native dress is commonly worn. The vendors represent many of Guatemala's linguistic groups such as Mam, Ixil and Kaqchikel.

The night before the big market, vendors can be seen setting up their booths in the main plaza and adjacent streets and continue in the early daylight hours. In announcement of the event, firecrackers start being let off early in the morning and continue sporadically throughout the day.

Rich variety of colours in the wide range of traditional dresses worn by the women attending the market. Those knowledgeable in the designs can even tell which part of the country the wearers are from, as the designs are unique to each community or group. The women wear the traditional multi-coloured Huipile (blouse) and a skirt, otherwise known as a corte, composed of a striking selection of natural dyes.

The sprawling labyrinth of stalls may seem chaotic, but the market is highly organized, with traditional areas designated for specific types of goods. Visitors can find a huge selection of goods, including textiles (particularly women’s blouses), hand carved masks, handicrafts, food, flowers, medicinal plants, pigs and chickens, machetes, and much more.

Adding to the chaotic racket of the firecrackers is the scent of the incense which is burned in abundance on the steps of the church, drifting over the bustling throng of traders and visitors. On Sunday, travellers will have the added delight of watching the cofradias (local members of the religious brotherhood) have processions in and around the church.

The Church
Forming the centre of the community, the 400 year old church of Santo Tomas demonstrates the strong Masheno (local townsfolk) beliefs in pre-Christian religion and ceremony. Each of the 18 church steps represents one of the 20-day months in the Mayan calendar. There is a strong sense of shamanism and ritual in Chichicastenango, with the church used for shamanic rituals, burning incense, candles and, on special occasions, even chickens!

The festival
Around Christmas time in the 3rd week of December, the town hosts the added excitement of the masked and costumed dancers of the Dance of the Conquest, a satirising carnival pageant on the conquering of the Americas. The streets of the town are filled in a riotous cacophony of color, dialects and costumes, smoke, and smells that challenge the realms of imagination. Images of the patron saint Tomas are paraded through the streets, strong smells of incense pour from the church and the sounds of firecrackers, rockets, drums and brass bands assault your senses from all directions.

Those looking for evidence that the Maya are alive and well in the present day need look no further than the mountain town of Chichicastenango. Be sure to include a visit to the market or festival in your Guatemala vacation.

Author: Gary Sargent – Escaped to Peru / Escaped to Latin America

Antigua – The Incredible Moving City of Guatemala

Posted in Uncategorized by escapedtoperu on May 25, 2010

Moving cities are normally reserved for fairy tales; castles in the sky and mythical kingdoms. The last place you'd expect to find such a place would be Antigua in Guatemala, but once you arrive it's not difficult to believe.

Walking down cobbled streets in the chill of the early morning, the sunlight brings alive the colours in the colonial city walls. A mist lies blanketing the lower slopes of the imposing Volcan de Agua that rises above Antigua to the south. Passing churches and grand plazas, you'll suddenly find yourself staring at the crumbling remains of once-mighty buildings, gracefully collapsing between restaurants, hotels and businesses. Words fail to describe the magic of the town.

Its difficult to believe that this sprawling cocktail of influences could have moved location like a travelling circus, but La Antigua Guatemala (or just Antigua for short) has found it difficult to settle in the same place.

Moved by the locals
The first of Antigua's big moves was for social reasons. Originally founded as the capital in 1524 on the site of a Kakchikel-Maya city (now called Iximche), severel Kakchikel uprisings forced the Spanish to consider a relocation.

Moved by the gods
The next location for the capital was deemed to be Valley of Alotenango (Rio Guacalate). The city was formally established on November 22, 1527. Things didn't last long there however, because on 11th September 1541 the site was destroyed by a devastating mudslide from the local volcano.

The golden years
So far spited by the indigenous population and now higher powers, the Spanish persevered. The Panchoy Valley was the next spot picked by the authorities and on March 10th 1543 the current location of Antigua was established. For the next 200 years the city functioned as the centre of government for the Spanish colony of Guatemala, reaching its estimated peak of population at around 60,000, until the next big shakeup.

The capital leaves, Antigua stays
Shakeup it literally was, an earthquake measuring 7.4 on the Richter scale hit Antigua on September 29, 1717. 3000 buildings were destroyed and the government gave serious consideration to moving its base of operations. This decision was made for them in 1773 when the Santa Maria earthquakes destroyed most of the town and the government made the decision to abandon the Panchoy Valley for the safer Valley of the Shrine, where present day Guatemala City stands. Antigua was left deserted with a few hangers-on, adopting the name of La Antigua thanks to its once illustrious glory days as the capital city.

What's left
Antigua may not have ascended to the same hights as in its glory days (the population now is estimated at 35,000) but visitors can still get a sense of the diverse influences that the city has picked up over its years of transience and change. Anyone in town during Semana Santa can witness the incredible processions through streets covered with elaborate and beautiful carpets predominantly made from dyed sawdust, flowers and even fruits and vegetables. Anyone keen to learn Spanish in an immersion environment will also be spoilt for choice, with a wide variety of language schools spread around the city; students and their teachers can often be seen wandering the streets or sitting in cafes conversing over a cup of coffee.

Thousands of travellers that come to Antigua fall in love with its colonial charm and unique blend of old and new. If you are planning a trip to Latin America, make sure to include it on your itinerary and do it soon; you never know when it will get itchy feet and decide to move again…

Author: Gary Sargent – Escaped to Peru / Escaped to Latin America

Volcano Hunting In Guatemala – Hot Stuff

Posted in Uncategorized by escapedtoperu on May 25, 2010

If geography classes never used to excite you, Guatemala will change all that. Sitting on the boundary between two tectonic plates, the country is host to over 30 volcanoes of all shapes, sizes and states of activity. If you ever wanted to see what the inside of our planet is like and what happens when it decides to make an appearence, Guatemala is for you. From the thrill seeking adrenaline junkies that want to stand next to flowing lava to those wanting to see the lush tree-covered volcanic slopes rising above the gorgeous Lake Atitlan, there's something for everyone.

Active volcanoes – Bubbling Hot
If you want to feel like you're inside a National Geographic Channel episode, you couldn't go wrong with a visit to the following active volcanoes.

1) Pacaya
Pacaya is an active volcano located within easy reach, just 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of Guatemala City. A short hike brings visitors to the summit, where they can observe eruptions of ash and lava at close range. Some even return with stories of how walking over the upper slopes melted the soles of their shoes…

2) Fuego
Constantly spewing small ash clouds, this monstrous volcano's last major eruption occurred in 1974. To hike up barren slope is grueling, and most visitors will be content to admire Fuego's beauty from the safety of Antigua's cobblestone streets.

3) Santiaguito
The most dangerous volcano in Central America, Santiaguito first erupted on Volcano Santa Maria's southern flank in 1922. It constantly spews spectacular ash clouds and lava, and may be safely observed from nearby Santa Maria's summit. The hike to the top of Santa Maria takes about 4 hours and camping on the summit is recommended, to witness a spectacular nighttime lava show from Santiaguito below.

Dormant volcanoes – Keeping Us Guessing
They can't promise booming gas eruptions or spewing lava, but these volcanoes are just as impressive to visit.

1) Acatenango
Acatenango's last eruption was in 1972, so you can climb all the way to the summit without dodging lava flows. One of the most beautiful and varied hikes availble, you'll pass through entirely different ecosystems on the way to the summit. First farmland, then cloud forest followed by high alpine forest and finally the volcanic zone to the very summit.

2) Agua
Looming over the pretty colonial town of Antigua, a climb up this volcano is recommended for spectacular views. Hiking time is about 5 hours from Santa Maria de Jesus, or 2 hours from the end of road that climbs partway to the top.

3) Atitlan
The tallest of the three volcanoes dominating the stunning lake with which it shares its name, Atitlan's summit takes about 8 hours to reach; the reward is a breathtaking view of the world's most beautiful lake and Guatemala's Pacific coast.

Extinct volcanoes – Just Big Hills
Their glory days as unstoppable forces of nature may be gone, but the volcanoes left by ancient activity still have plenty to offer the visitor, especially in the way of flora and fauna left undisturbed by any activity.

1) San Pedro
Perhaps the most frequently photographed of all Guatemala's volcanoes, San Pedro's beautiful cone seems to rise from the waters of Lake Atitlan. The hike to the top takes about 4 hours, and while visitors will not get great views due heavy vegetation on the summit, the crater serves as refuge for rarely encountered species of plants and animals.

2) Toliman
One of the three volcanoes, along with Atitlan and San Pedro, that forms the natural dam holding in Lake Atitlan, Toliman has its own delights to offer. A small group of rare Horned Guans survives in the forest near the summit and hikers should plan on camping out for a good chance of sighting the birds.

3) Cerro de Oro
A smaller volcano on the south side of Lake Atitlan provides an interesting mix of geography and history, having once contained a Mayan fortress in its crater.

Getting to know the varied and spectacular geography of Guatemala will undoubtedly be an adventure, but that doesn't mean you should take unneccessary risks. If the lure of the active volcanoes should take your fancy, ensure that you book a tour with a reputable and responsible agency that provides you with a professional guide. This way you'll make sure that you will have nothing but incredible memories and photos of some of the most incredible and unique experiences that Latin America has to offer.

Author: Gary Sargent – Escaped to Peru / Escaped to Latin America

Tipping – How Much Is Too Much? by Gary Sargent

Posted in Traditions and Culture by escapedtoperu on May 17, 2010

Tipping while on a Peru vacation or while touring in Guatemala, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil or any of the countries on the Latin American continent is the same minefield as the USA, Europe or Australia, but with a couple of added complications. It's very difficult to provide generic amounts for tipping in all Latin American countries due to the widely varying cost of living. Conventions on tipping do of course also vary from North America to Europe and Australia. However, the following advice can provide a good starting point.

Get to know your new country
You are no doubt excited about your destination already, and probably doing some research. Your guidebook will doubtless offer some suggestions for tip-ical situations (I'm sorry, I couldn't resist). I've included a few examples below for your reference, if your research doesn't bring any results.

Don't get mislead by the exchange rate
Write down a couple of conversions between currencies on a slip of paper which you can always quickly check when negotiating prices or trying to calculate the value of a tip. Try rounded amounts, like $1, $5, $10 and $20 to form a basis for rough calculations.

Use local currency when you can
The American dollar is accepted in many Latin countries (and in some like Ecuador, El Salvador and Panama is the only option), but avoid the temptation to only stick to what you know. Using foreign currency forces the service provider to change the currency, which is a hassle and you could end up getting stung on the exchange rate that they use anyway. Saying that however, the US dollar will be happily received, particularly for larger amounts.

Pay the person you want to tip directly
Make sure that your server, porter, guide or whoever is providing you the service gets the tip cash in hand, personally. If a number of people need to be tipped, it is a good idea to have a couple of seal-able envelopes with which you can give them a confidential, independent tip.

If your local research has been lacking in examples for amounts to tip, I can suggest the following as starting points:

Tip 1: Have to hand coins worth around 50 cents in local currency or a US$1 bill.

Tip 2: In restaurants, the tip is usually at least 10% of the total bill. Even when service charge is included, it is customary to round it up to the nearest full figure.

Tip 3: Local guides may be people relying on their tip as a significant proportion of their income, or they may be students working their way through college, retired people, or part-timers supplementing their income from other sources.
Most people prefer to tip according to their level of satisfaction with the service. However the following rule of thumb may be helpful: if you are in a group of more than four people, accompanied on a half-day tour by an English-speaking guide, a tip in local currency to the value of a meal and a drink in that country is reasonable; if you are in a smaller group and have enjoyed a more personalized service, you might double this amount; double again for a full-day tour. Many clients who have been particularly satisfied give more.

Tip 4: Don’t forget your driver who, in many cases, may have shown extreme skill on difficult roads. In general terms, he / she should be tipped a lower amount than the guide. Wages paid to people in employment of this type are normally very low – often since employers assume that gratuities will be given – but, refraining from giving a tip as a statement to discourage such practice will only serve to deprive the workers in question of an amount upon which they have normally come to rely.

Tip 5: Though it is not obligatory to tip taxi drivers, it is often common practice to round up the fare, and indeed, it is usual to agree rates in advance if the taxi does not have a meter or it is turned off.

Tip 6: If you are on a cruise, there is often a single ‘kitty’ tip for all. The convention is usually US$10 per person per day, although this is only a suggestion as we understand that tipping is a personal choice. You will be given specific guidance on board – some companies recommend US$15 per day per person for the crew, and the same again for your guides.

Tip 7: For the Inca Trail or other treks, there are quite specific conventions concerning tipping, which may well change during the life of this article, as access to the trail is to be severely restricted. Generally accepted rates are as follows:

If you are part of a group, each group member should allow:
• US$5 per person for the porters (ratio is 1 client: 1 porter)
• US$10 per person to the cook
• US$10 per person to the guide

However, if you are part of a very small group, you may consider increasing these amounts.

If you are on a privately escorted trip, you should allow:
• US$25 for the porters
• US$10 for the cook
• US$50 for the guide

This works out at a total of US$85, irrespective of whether you are alone, or with another person. Please note also that the weight a porter may carry of an individual client’s personal belongings has been set at 8kg (in addition they will be carrying food, camping and cooking equipment to a maximum weight of 25kg). We would also encourage you to donate any unwanted outdoor clothes or sleeping bags to the porters. There may also be the added complication of assistant guides and cooks who should receive less than the principal guide or cook but more than the porters.

When dealing with gratuities on any Latin American trip whether to Mexico or Argentina, the following golden rules are helpful to keep in mind.

Only pay when you want to
For all this talk of giving the perfect gratuity, don't forget that nobody should expect a tip. Don't feel obliged to provide anything if you have not been satisfied with the service.

But, at the same time…

Be nice!
Even if the service isn't great, or even good, consider leaving a tip. Customs and language barriers are just a few of the circumstances that may prevent you from seeing the situation in its entirety.

Time For A Vacation? by Gary Sargent

Posted in Uncategorized by escapedtoperu on May 17, 2010

It's no secret that companies want us to believe that products will improve our quality of life. From shampoos that will make us more attractive to the latest big-screen TV to blow our minds, advertisements and shop windows are shouting about how we can be more happy if we own their stuff.

The interesting thing is that recent research has shown material possessions are not likely to make us happy at all; the key to a fulfilling life lies elsewhere.

A paper published in the January, 2010 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Travis Carter and Tom Gilovich looks at differences in the way people treat choices involving material goods (toys, electronics and jewelery) and choices involving experiences (climbing the steps of the temples at Tikal, boating across Lake Atitlan). Carter and Gilovich drew some interesting conclusions, including that people become less satisfied with consumer purchases over time, whereas those who had bought into experiences grew more satisfied over time.

A big factor behind this conclusion was that material purchases are easily subject to comparison. In the words of Gilovic, interviewed on BBC Brazil:

"Imagine you buy a flat screen TV, and you're happy with it. But then you come to my house and I have a TV with a larger and better picture. That will disappoint and annoy you."

If you go on a Guatemala vacation or a Brazil holiday package and someone else also does the same thing, you will have your own specific memories of the trip, different to the other person – your personal connection with Guatemala and Brazil which no one else has, and that makes the holiday special.

Experiences are individual, and thus non comparable. The study suggests that comparison between material purchases is the factor which breeds unhappiness and resentment, a factor that experiences are free from.

Another key point made by the study is the extent to which your purchase is a part of you. According to Gilovic:

"If you go on a hiking trip to Machu Picchu in Peru or in Patagonia, and the weather is terrible, you might not view it as a pleasurable experience in the here and now. Instead, you may view it as a challenge, and over time remember the positive aspects of the vacation experience more than the negative aspects," says Gilovich, "With material things you can't do this, because they are what they are."

Such memories form part of our character. In comparison, material possessions are exactly that; possessed by us. We feel no true connection with them, and they can be broken or replaced, often with a newer model, not to mention the diminishing appreciation that we feel for material things over time.

So, next time you've got a bit of spare cash that you are wondering how to use or you can't decide on a gift for someone else, consider investing it in experiences. According to the study, you're much likely to be happier, for longer.
 

Tikal – Alternative Visits to The Famous Mayan Ruins in Guatemala

Posted in Uncategorized by escapedtoperu on May 11, 2010

Anyone visiting the Classic Mayan ruins of Tikal will be impressed.  Rising out of the dense jungle, the looming temples demonstrate the might of the ancient Mayans and demand respect from visitors, even thousands of years after their construction.  If you're looking for alternative ways to be introduced to Tikal beyond a standard visit, you could try any of the following suggestions.

From A Galaxy Far, Far Away

Tikal was featured in the first Star Wars movie in 1977.  If you keep a careful eye on things, you'll see a spaceship landing on the rebel planet of Yavin IV in dense jungle with impressive ancient towers rising out of the tree canopy that look a lot like…Tikal.  To get the same view on the site, climb up to the top of Temple IV and look out over Temples I and II.

As a bird watcher

Tikal has an incredible array of bird-life, and even if you aren't a budding ornithologist you'll be impressed by the 410 species of bird that have been found on the site.  Humans aren't the only tourists, with the North American Songbird paying a visit to Tikal to escape the cold winter months back at home.  If birds aren't your thing, you could always stay alert for the wide range of other fauna, including howler monkeys, toucans, spider monkeys, falcons, coatis and (if you are very lucky) the occasional jaguar or cougar.

At full moon or at sunrise

If you can manage it, you can visit by 'unofficial' access to the site out of normal hours, either through tour operators or by trying independently.  The noises of the jungle at night or the strange calls of the howler monkeys in early morning bring a strange ethereal feel to Tikal and you'll probably have the site to yourself.  You certainly wont need to worry about the relentless attacks of mosquitoes that you get during the peak times for the site, and sunburn will not be a concern either.  It probably wont be cheap, but you'll see a side of Tikal that few people have been lucky enough to experience.

As a conspiracy theorist

The Winter Solstice is at the end of the Mayan calendar, on December 4th.  According to the Ancient Maya, their calendar finishes in the year 2012.  At Mayan New Year, crowds of foreign and Guatemalan believers in Mayan religion and legend flood the steep steps and lofty platforms of Temple VI to welcome the new year in their colourful robes, counting down each year to what many people interpret as the end of the world.  If you believe it or not, it's certainly an impressive spectacle.

In a time machine
Its not the most likely trip you'll ever take, but if you can get your hands on one you'll be able to visit the amazing milestones in the history of Tikal and the Maya.  Choose from any point, from the first constructions raised on site in the 4th Century BC through the classic period between 200 and 900AD when the site flourished to its abandonment in the 10th Century AD, probably due to overpopulation and agrarian failure.  It would certainly be an impressive time to show up, as Tikal was so important in the Classic Mayan Civilization that the collapse of the Mayan Empire shortly followed.  The next stop could be the 'discovery' of Tikal hundreds of years later, bushwhacking through the jungle with tree-gum collector Abrosio Tut to stumble across the overgrown pyramids.  You could pick any incredible historical period; after all, you've got a time machine!

For those unable to move freely through time, you can still get a sense of the rich history of Tikal through the guided tours that run all year round.  As excavations have been conducted on the site since 1956, you'll have plenty of information on hand.

However you decide to discover this ancient jewel of the Mayan civilization, don't make it a missed opportunity.  Guatemala is a country full of historical treasures and breath-taking landscapes that, incredibly, has managed to avoid mass tourism.

United Fruit Company in Guatemala – US Invasion For a Bunch of Bananas

Posted in Latin American History by escapedtoperu on May 10, 2010

Many people are aware of the 'Banana Republics' in the bad old days of Latin America; countries in which international corporations had so much power and influence that the government would be a puppet for foreign corporate interests.  In 1954 the United States Army invaded Guatemala after what many believed was a decision made by a United States corporation; a key player behind one of the biggest Banana Republics in Central America.

One of the key culprits in meddling with Latin American government affairs in the first half of the 20th century was United Fruit Company.  They were a US corporation founded in 1899 off the back of a railroad venture in Costa Rica.  An important part of United Fruit Company's strategy was to gain control of the distribution of banana growing land.  It did this through convincing governments that reserve land was needed to protect against the possibility of crop destruction from natural disasters or diseases.  Because such huge percentages of land were owned by United Fruit Company, land ownership legislation was often breached and concessions were required from the government.  This lead to political involvement, even though United Fruit Company was a foreign corporation operating overseas. 

United Fruit Company
The 'Banana Republics' that grew from these situations often saw strong investment in infrastructure from corporations like United Fruit Company.  Railroads, ports and transportation systems were put in place, and extensive employment was created.  United Fruit Company also established many schools in the countries in which it operated.  However, the Company often left vast tracts of land uncultivated and worked hard to block infrastructure development beyond its own operations, establishing its own network as a strong monopoly.  Employment under United Fruit Company also wasn't much fun, testament to the extensive and often violent strikes that took place amongst its workforce over issues such as rates of pay and working conditions.

Guatemala
By the 1950's, things were looking promising for Guatemala.  The dictator Jorge Ubico had been overthrown in 1944 and two administrations of democratically elected Presidents were leading Guatemala forwards.  The President from the second administration, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, was reforming the country extensively, including the permission of free expression, legalized unions, diverse political parties and basic socioeconomic reforms.  One of these was a land reform aimed at reducing the suffering of the rural poor by redistributing unused land.  The basis of this reform was that all such land would be purchased by the Government at the same value declared on the owners tax forms.  The property could then be sold back to peasant cooperatives at low rates.  Arbenz started by setting a strong personal example, selling his own land under the scheme.

Arbenz' land reform was ruffling a few feathers in United Fruit Company boardrooms.  Of their 550,000 acres owned in Guatemala, 85% was uncultivated, which meant that the Company would lose a lot of leverage in Guatemala.  Through the US Government, United Fruit Company asked for greater compensation than what was being offered by the Guatemalan Government.

The US invasion of Guatemala
In 1954, United Fruit Company's concerns were removed.  United States fears of Communism taking root in Central America by a "domino effect"  starting from Guatemala had caused the CIA to take action.  Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas invaded from Honduras, overthrowing Guzman's administration.  His forces were supported by US military troops, and trained, organized and equipped by the CIA through their covert program "PB Success".

Various arguments exist as to the level of involvement of United Fruit Company in the decision made by the US government to sponsor an invasion of a democratically elected government.  Some historians point out that the land reforms had led to internal Guatemalan plotting against Arbenz from early 1954, and an overthrowing of the government was inevitable with or without US intervention.  However, when you consider that the Director of the CIA at the time of Operation PB Success was Allan Dulles, a former President of United Fruit Company, and a board member at the time, evidence starts to build up in favour of corporate interests manipulating the US Government and international politics.

The aftermath

Following the coup, things went downhill fast for Guatemala.  The country was plunged into 40 years of bloody civil war with a death toll up an estimated 150,000 victims.  Despite the benefits of the nullified land reforms, things didn't go so well for United Fruit Company either.  Stock value and profit margins declined and it was forced to sell off the last of its Guatemalan holdings in 1972.

Nothing changes

This fairly tragic tale of a country on the path to democratic reform thrown back decades by foreign commercial interests sets a cautionary note for the future.  It's also fairly sobering to know that things haven't changed as much as we'd like, 60 years after the US invasion of Guatemala.  In 2007, a large fruit company, Chiquita Brands International, was fined $25 million for for having paid “protection money” to the AUC, a right wing para-military organization in Colombia who are on the U.S. government’s list of terrorist organizations. AUC "protection activities" included assassinating union leaders and threatening independent farmers to sell their land to Chiquita.  Currently, Chiquita are being sued for having paid money to the FARC, a left wing group also on the United States’ terrorist list for similar services, also in Colombia. Who are Chiquita Brands International?  They were created from a renaming in 1984 of United Brands.  One of the companies merged in 1970 to form United Brands was…United Fruit Company. 

It seems that old habits die hard.