GUATEMALA is a country of contrasts - cobblestoned Spanish colonial cities and remote Indian villages, monumental Mayan ruins, and beaches clad in black volcanic sand. Twice in the last three years I've traveled there. On the first trip in 1984, when war was raging in neighboring El Salvador, I tried to keep an open mind, wanting to be free of the preconceptions that might color my experience. But at first that was hard. Not only was there fighting in El Salvador, but Guatemala itself had just emerged from a period of intense internal conflict. Yet, while there was still some evidence of this strife, my one-week trip proved more than enjoyable. I came away intrigued.
Driving from sprawling Guatemala City to the town of Panajachel, on beautiful Lake Atitl'an, a friend and I encountered a roadblock manned by soldiers who were checking vehicles for guerrillas. The United States Department of State had advised that no passport was necessary for American citizens traveling here. So all I could offer the soldiers in the way of identification was a birth certificate. As I did so, I experienced my first moment of trepidation in this country, and it proved to be my last. We were quickly cleared and passed on through the barricade.
A visit to Panajachel, a lively town in the state of Sololais, is something almost any traveler with modest Spanish language skills would enjoy. The town offers an abundance of hotels and restaurants with plenty of variety. And Panajachel is a fine place to see and buy textiles called tipica, the traditional fabric from which Indian clothing is made here. Unique pieces of the material make their way to this spot, and vendors hop to catch the eye of collectors and tourists.
We had come because my friend collects tipica and manufactures textiles based on some of the Indian designs for customers in the United States and elsewhere. So we were especially interested in the street stands and the local Thursday market that display both newer pieces and some unusual antique ones, though the latter are becoming scarce and costly today.
In addition to all this, Panajachel's geography is breathtaking. Steep volcanoes drop straight down to the lakeside. Local lore reveals that Teddy Roosevelt once fished in Lake Atitl'an and introduced a species of bass here. Just the spot for a Rough Rider! We used a four-wheel-drive vehicle to negotiate the bumpy roads and then hired a small boat to take us on when the terrain became too rough for driving.
Halfway around the lake we came to a village that is home to some of the women who weave for my friend, and we brought back beautiful pieces made on primitive backstrap looms.
From the village we made our return to Panajachel by a kind of water taxi used to haul not only people but poultry, bags of dry cement, bottled soft drinks, fresh produce, and more. It stopped at every small village as we completed our circuit around the lake.
But despite the leisurely pace, we decided this was a much easier way to travel than the crowded buses that maneuver the difficult shore roads.
It was two years later that I returned for my next visit to this country, hoping to learn more about its textiles with my friend and seeing more towns. This trip started with a visit to a textile museum in Guatemala City - the Museo Ixchel del Traje Ind'igena - where one can get a look at the diverse styles and patterns reflected in the country's Indian artistry.
Then my friend and I rented a car to drive back into the mountains. After a stop again in Panajachel, whose elevation is nearly 5,000 feet, we drove on to towns at considerably higher elevations, where the altitude and latitude conspire to produce a pleasant climate - warm days and cool nights during most of the year.
In all, I had only a few days to scratch the surface by visiting these and other destinations, but I recommend the following as the most interesting of the ones I encountered:
Billed as the ``Monumental City of the Americas,'' Antigua offers architectural ruins that attract American, European, and Asian visitors. This ancient capital of New Spain is only an hour from the present capital, Guatemala City, or two hours from Panajachel. Accommodations are very civilized, with their own centuries-old flavor. Restaurants run the gamut from Spanish to Italian, Japanese, and Chinese. And there are plenty of tours, shops, and museums to choose from.
Chichicastenango is less than two hours by car from Panajachel. Many people like to visit its famous Sunday and Thursday markets. There is a carnival atmosphere in the town square, dominated on two sides by large, whitewashed churches. Again, the textiles are worth seeing, and there are tours available and much to learn.
In Totonicap'an, I arrived on market day, when the square was brimming with people and goods. The cross between flea and farmers' markets offered more than enough to hold my attention. And just outside town, we saw men and women by the roadside bundling and dyeing long strands of fiber. This complex-looking process produces designs called ikat when the strands are woven into a cloth piece.
On the road to Quetzaltenango we saw many people walking with their goods on their backs, headed for the local market. By this time I was used to seeing women with produce or fabric piled high on their heads. One man was carrying half a dozen or so clay pots inside a light wood frame on his back. The overall effect was striking - one of a man walking up the hill with an open-backed bookcase following close behind.
That same day we stopped in a small mountain village called Zunil and visited a women's weaving cooperative established a few years before. It was one of several specific examples I saw of assistance given to these people by the developed countries.
In this instance, the biggest help had been learning about the markets of the industrialized countries, and how they might better supply them. The shirts, jackets, and tablecloths being woven from native cotton were richly colored and very pleasing to see.
Each of my trips to Guatemala lasted only about a week. The exposure they provided to the beauty of the nation's textile arts inspired me to begin a collection of my own. I've pledged to return as often as I can - to see more and to add to the collection.
If you go
For information, contact the Guatemala Tourist Commission, PO Box 144351, Coral Gables, FL 33114, tel. (305) 854-1544.
Several airlines offer flights each week from New York and Miami, and more flights are in the planning stages now.