Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 3. Guatemala

In April 1976, my wife and I moved to Turrialba, Costa Rica where I set up an office for the International Potato Center at CATIE – Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza. My principal remit was to develop a research program on adaptation of potatoes to warm and humid environments – the so-called tropical potato, as well as supporting the regional activities that were led at that time by my colleague Oscar Hidalgo from the regional office in Toluca, Mexico.

Very soon the focus of my work became the bacterial wilt pathogen (Ralstonia solanacearum), and this led to the identification of some interesting sources of resistance to the disease and development of agronomic practices to reduce the severity of attack in the field. And when Oscar moved (in late 1977) to North Carolina to begin his studies for a PhD in plant pathology, I became CIP’s regional leader for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, and we transferred the regional office to Turrialba. And in early 1978 we began to develop the concept of what became PRECODEPA, a cooperative regional potato program funded in large part by the Swiss government. Through PRECODEPA I visited Guatemala many times. The potato scientists there took responsibility for postharvest storage technologies.


In the south of the country the mountains stretch from the frontier with Mexico in the west to El Salvador and Honduras in the west. And it’s in the mountains to the west of Guatemala City, in the region of Quetzaltenango that most potatoes are grown. Much of the country, stretching way to the north is low-lying tropical rainforest – the home of the Mayans, and where we visited Tikal in 1977.

There are many volcanoes in Guatemala, some active. To the west of Guatemala City lies the old city of Antigua, and further west still the Lago de Atitlán, with a ring of villages on its shores, each named after one of the Twelve Apostles. The highly picturesque town of Sololá lies close by to the north.

27-1977-07 Solola 09Unlike Costa Rica, which has a very small indigenous community, Guatemala is ethnically and culturally very rich, and reminded us of our years in Peru. The beautiful weavings and typical costumes can be seen everywhere, and on an every day basis.

Guatemalan agriculture is quite interesting based as it is on multicropping or milpa systems of maize, beans and squashes. In fact, multi- or intercropping is extremely common in Guatemala, and I’ve even seen potatoes intercropped with maize and other crops there – something that is quite uncommon in other countries.

06-1977-07 Comalapa 0102-1977-07 Lago de Atitlan 02

During one of our visits we met with representatives of an NGO (with several US citizens involved) in a small community, Comalapa, about 67 km west of Guatemala City and north of the provincial capital of Chimaltenango. I must have been very naive. It’s only quite recently that I became aware of the civil war that was ongoing in Guatemala at that time, and I’ve often asked myself whether we were lucky not to have come across either right-wing or left-wing groups that made people ‘disappear’.

Here are some photos that I took around Lago de Atitlán and Sololá.

Tikal – may the force be with you

July/August 1977 (so long ago I don’t remember exactly). Destination: Guatemala.

My work with the International Potato Center (CIP) in Central America took me to Guatemala quite frequently between 1976 and 1980. We supported the Instituto de Ciencia y Tecnología Agrícolas – ICTA in seed production and post harvest storage of potatoes.

Guatemala is a beautiful and fascinating country, and has a large indigenous population (unlike Costa Rica where we lived at the time). However, more of that to come in another story.

Steph travelled with me only occasionally, but in 1997 I’d planned a trip to Guatemala (visiting Quetzaltenango) and Mexico, and returning to Costa Rica with a short stop in San Pedro Sula in Honduras to stay with John and Marion Vessey (who were the witnesses at our wedding in Lima in 1973). After leaving CIP in 1974, John had joined CIMMYT in Mexico for a couple of years, before moving on to United Fruit and carrying out research on banana diseases.

And during this work visit to Guatemala it was too good an opportunity not to miss out on a visit to the Mayan ruins of Tikal, deep in the jungle of the Department of El Petén, about 190 miles by air due north of Guatemala City.


We decided on a two-day visit to Tikal, arriving early the first day, and departing in the middle of the afternoon on the second. I guess the flight (on an old Aviateca DC3 or similar) took less than an hour, landing on the rough strip not far from the Tikal ruins park.

Buses took us to the Jungle Inn where we would stay – basically bamboo huts, rather rudimentary, but adequate for just one night (but has certainly gone up-market in recent years). From there it was a short walk through the forest into the ruins.

1977-07 Tikal 01

At first there was not a lot to see, but as the forest opened up somewhat there were tantalizing views of masonry among the trees, and walls disappearing off into the distance. And all of a sudden, there they were in all their magnificence, the tall temples that the Mayans had constructed centuries earlier.

There’s so much to see, and a huge number of pyramids and other buildings that (in 1977 at least) were still hidden under swathes of vegetation. But the principal temples have been uncovered, the central plaza and surrounding sites opened up to reveal the true majesty of this important Mayan site. No doubt, however, that the two pyramids facing each other across the main plaza are truly impressive – and steep!

And the views from the top are particularly striking, with tops of other ruined temples peeking above the trees into the distance.

All around are the reminders of what a sophisticated civilization the Mayans had. There’s even a ‘football pitch’ – well, a court for playing a game with a rubber ball made from the latex of local plant (but not the rubber tree – that’s from South America).

There’s so much to see and explore that time passes quickly. One advantage of an overnight stay is that you can visit the ruins very early in the morning, as we did on the second day. I don’t remember too much about our night there, except for the constant hum of mosquitoes.

All too soon our visit was over, and our DC3 was lumbering down the airstrip and lifting off into the late afternoon sun towards Guatemala City.

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And of course, Tikal was featured as the rebels’ headquarters in George Lucas’ first Star Wars movie (Episode IV) released in 1977 — just before we went there!

We’ve been fortunate to visit several other iconic sites in our travels: Machu Picchu, of course, in southern Peru; the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon at Teotihuacán, just northeast of Mexico City; and Angkor Wat in Cambodia. We’ve seen some of the most impressive native American sites in Arizona and New Mexico, and would love to visit all the sites of ancient Egypt, and Petra in Jordan – if only the political situation would settle down and permit safe travel. One day . . .