Urban-Rural Mobility: Shared and Contested Spaces

Guatemala is primarily a rural country and remains highly agricultural (International Fund for Agricultural Development - IFAD, n.d.). There are several cities, with the largest (by a good margin) being Guatemala City, boasting a population of 2.8 million (United Nations, 2016). The remainder of the country is composed of small- and medium-sized cities and rural communities. Guatemala City is the political, economic and transportation capital of the country. It is also one of the most violent cities in Latin America, averaging 47 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015 (Ortega Sanchez, 2016). Yet Guatemala City is integral to the transportation system in the country, both for residents and visitors. It houses the major international airport and is a major connector for domestic and regional bus travel.

Transportation is one example of how Guatemalans move together, yet separately. Though transportation routes and hubs are shared among most travellers in Guatemala, there is considerable discrepancy between the types of transportation employed by those of varying socioeconomic class. Most indigenous Guatemalans travel by bus (often repurposed US school buses), which are both dangerous and crowded. These public and privately owned buses are especially vulnerable to armed robberies (Roberts, 2010). Even though it is the least expensive form of transportation, a trip to the capital from rural areas is sometimes outside the reach of the poorest Guatemalans. Foreign tourists customarily travel by shared or private van (microbus), and upper-class Guatemalan travellers most often travel by private car. Road maintenance is sometimes prioritized for more affluent neighbourhoods and travel routes. Roberts explains,

Guatemala City now possesses a superhighway that circles the city and around which gated communities cluster. It is not complete, however, and access to the densely populated municipalities of the west and south of the city is limited by poor road links. The transport system in Guatemala has long been plagued with problems of old, overcrowded, unreliable buses. (2010, p. 604)

Numerous roads in Guatemala are dangerous, both in terms of upkeep and crime. The average Guatemalan cannot afford private security to travel these roads, which has become popular among members of the upper class (Bevan, 2013). This luxury affords wealthy Guatemalans with the freedom of mobility to travel where they want, when they want. Road bandits also pose potential threats to international visitors. In the summer of 2015, a young American missionary recounted to me a tale of how his wallet was stolen at gunpoint when he was travelling on a rural road with his interpreter. No one was injured, but he was relieved of approximately US$200 and his passport. Had he not been able to pay the robbers, the outcome may have been different. Poor Guatemalans usually do not have the means to pay the robbers or the security firms to protect them.

While wealthy domestic tourists are able to avoid some issues that come with transportation, they also create a specific set of challenges. Generally, domestic tourists in the Global South who travel for leisure purposes come from urban areas and are from higher income groups (Ghimire, 2001). This has created some tension in Guatemala, especially with regard to automobile travel. Guatemala still has a relatively low rate of automobile ownership (68 per 1000 individuals) (World Bank, 2014), and most of these are either owned commercially or by members of the upper classes. For comparison, the rate in the US is 797 per 1000. Many parts of the country, particularly non-urban areas, are not equipped for large modern automobiles. The presence of these automobiles can cause issues in spaces that were originally intended for foot traffic, travel by horse, bicycle or, at most, motorized scooters and small taxis.

Despite the fact that all international tourists travelling by air are obligated to pass through Guatemala City, the majority of tourist activity occurs outside the urban centres. As many tourism destinations in Guatemala are either historic, cultural or environmental in nature, they were not developed with infrastructure to accommodate mass automobile travel. One example of this is the colonial capital of Antigua. Antigua is located approximately 45 min from Guatemala City. Its proximity to the capital makes it a ‘must see’ for tourists, both foreign and domestic. Unlike Guatemala City, which is the modern capital and economic and transportation hub of the country, attempts have been made to preserve Antigua as a relic of the past, as it is a protected World Heritage Site. This causes a number of congestion issues.

Transportation headaches abound in Antigua. Little (2009) explains that ‘capitalinos’ (residents of Guatemala City) come to Antigua on the weekends to party, where they frequently cause destruction and sometimes even commit violent crimes. Automobiles driven mainly by domestic tourists have damaged cobblestone streets and colonial era buildings. Similar issues are emerging in the Lake Atitlan area of the Western Highlands. Whereas few local residents own personal automobiles, domestic tourists oftentimes bring cars into the area. During one particular holiday, I witnessed a traffic jam on a narrow street when two cars attempted to pass each other and got stuck. The street is barely wide enough for one full-sized automobile and is primarily used by scooters and local taxis (tuk tuks). On another occasion, I observed a ladino (non-indigenous) couple driving a Porsche Cayman down a narrow cobblestone street. This outward display of luxury and impracticality was greatly at odds with the transportation utilized by locals. If domestic tourism continues to grow at a rapid pace, it will place additional strain on the already poor infrastructure of rural areas, an issue that will certainly need to be addressed in the coming years.

In addition to the movement of tourists from urban to rural areas, rural to urban migration has resulted in a flow of people in the opposite direction (Baud and Ypeij, 2009). Rural Guatemala has seen mass migration towards the capital city over the past several decades by individuals looking for greater economic opportunity (Roberts, 2010). Unfortunately, these individuals often survive in precarious conditions, either in squatter developments or semi-legal housing (Roberts, 2010). It is generally difficult for them to escape their previous socio-economic status, as their opportunities are limited to unskilled and informal work. On the other hand, city dwellers of the elite and middle classes are able to pay for private education and healthcare, live in gated neighbourhoods and are not reliant on the weak public services available in the city (Roberts, 2010). Further complicating economic challenges, rural (usually Maya) migrants are geographically dispersed throughout Guatemala City. Subsequently, they lack social support networks they may have enjoyed in their home communities (Roberts, 2010). Therefore, despite living in close proximity, there are many boundaries (both physical and social) that separate urban and rural residents, as well as urban residents from diverse socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds. These issues contribute to the high levels of inequality in Guatemala.

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