Many years ago, in the pre-children era, Liz and I did a coach tour through Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. The Guatemalan leg took in Tikal and Antigua – both highly recommended – before ending at Guatemala City airport. There were a few hours until our flight so, being a ‘must see round the next corner’ kind of person, I talked Liz into heading into the city to visit (I think) a museum. After a whistle-stop tour, we went back outside onto the street to find a taxi.
A vehicle screeched to a halt next to us. “Get in the car!” “Uh, why?” “It’s not safe for you to be on the street. Get in the car!” “Really, are you sure?” “Yes, get in the car!”
By this stage we were obviously trying to work out where the real danger lay – on the street or in a complete stranger’s car? After a few more incisive questions (along the lines of the ones above…) we made a judgement call and jumped into the car. And, sure enough, we were driven to the airport in complete safety.
I guess this story is indicative of the instability and violence prevalent in Guatemala in the 1990s (pls see Facts & Stats below). It’s certainly indicative of the fact that there are extremely friendly people in Guatemala who’ll go out of their way to help naïve/idiotic tourists.
I couldn’t help thinking back on the incident as I was picked up by car again – although this time from my hotel by the wonderful people from the British Embassy. They whisked me off to our meeting point at the Monument to the Winning Spirit just outside Guatemala’s National Stadium, named after Doroteo Guamuch Flores who, in 1952, became the only Guatemalan to have ever won the Boston Marathon.
There we were joined by a party from the Guatemalan Olympic Committee which included Gerardo Aguirre (President of GOC), Lorena Toriello de Garcia-Gallont (GOC Executive Board Member), Neville Stiles (GOC Director of International Affairs), Oliver Scheer (German Sports Advisor to the Guatemalan Sports Confederation and GOC) and Stefan Hubner (a professor at Oxford and friend of Oliver’s). As the British Embassy contingent included British Ambassador to Honduras, based in Guatemala, Carolyn Davidson and Deputy Head of Mission Andrew Tate, we were a distinguished group (picture above).
With that many VIPs, security needed to be up to scratch and a couple of police motorcycle outriders duly arrived to take care of us. Which was great because they took care of any possible safety issues including setting up temporary road blocks whenever there were streets to be crossed.
In fact, the whole run was great. A cool evening, a sensible pace, a mostly flat route and excellent company.
We discussed things Olympics. Guatemala won its first ever Olympic medal at London 2012 – when Erick Barrondo won a silver medal in the men’s 20km walk. This raised expectations in Guatemala but, unfortunately, there weren’t any more medals at Rio. A reminder of just how hard it is to win a single Olympic medal.
As an aside, as some readers may know, the challenge I set myself prior to Run the World, was to do every different Olympic and Paralympic event in the lead up to the 2012 Games. I can promise you that even trying to do some of these events – let alone medalling in them – is supremely difficult.
On which subject, if you enjoy people making a fool of themselves, then you may like these videos of me attempting a forward roll, high diving and gymnastics with Louis Smith – multiple Olympic medallist and winner of Strictly Come Dancing in 2012. (That last video has had over 26 000 views – I’m sure Louis is grateful to me for the exposure and increased profile…).
We discussed things sport. Running, of course, but also skiing with Stefan (we had a good chat about the Streif – possibly the most iconic downhill in the world.) Needless to say, with that kind of conversation, and the police motorcyclists taking care of the other things I often have to worry about on these runs, I hardly noticed the 10km.
Basically we ran south down Avenida Reforma, the main road cutting through the centre of Guatemala City, which turns into Avenida Las Americas. After 6 or 7km, near the monument to Pope John Paul II, we turned back on ourselves and then branched off to the British Ambassador’s residence, where Union Jack decorated nibbles, photos and drinks awaited us.
Thank you Ambassador Davidson, Neville and Sigrid for organising everything. Thank you everyone else for coming along and supporting Run the World. Enormously appreciated. You are all invited to join me for my 206th & final run in Tokyo in 2020!
The Facts & Stats
Guatemala is a country in Central America bordered by Mexico to the north and west, the Pacific Ocean to the southwest, Belize to the northeast, the Caribbean to the east, Honduras to the east and El Slavador to the southeast. With an estimated population of around 15.8 million, it is the most populated state in Central America. Guatemala is a representative democracy ; its capital and largest city is Nueva Guatemala de la Asunción, also known as Guatemala City.
The territory of modern Guatemala once formed the core of the Maya civilization, which extended across Mesoamerica. Most of the country was conquered by the Spanish in the 16th century, becoming part of the viceroyalty of New Spain. Guatemala attained independence in 1821 as part of the Federal Republic of Central America, which dissolved in 1841.
From the mid to late 19th century, Guatemala experienced chronic instability and civil strife. Beginning in the early 20th century, it was ruled by a series of dictators backed by the United Fruit Company and the United States government. In 1944, authoritarian leader Jorge Ubico was overthrown by a pro-democratic military coup, initiating a decade-long revolution that led to sweeping social and economic reforms. A U.S.-backed military coup in 1954 ended the revolution and installed a dictatorship.
From 1960 to 1996, Guatemala endured a bloody civil war fought between the US-backed government and leftist rebels, including genocidal massacres of the Maya population perpetrated by the military. In 1986 Guatemala saw the start of democratically elected civilian governments. Since a United Nations-negotiated peace accord, Guatemala has witnessed both economic growth and successful democratic elections, though it continues to struggle with high rates of poverty, crime, drug trade, and instability. As of 2014, Guatemala ranked 31st of 33 Latin American and Caribbean countries in terms of the Human Development Index.
Guatemala’s abundance of biologically significant and unique ecosystems includes a large number of endemic species and contributes to Mesoamerica’s designation as a biodiversity hotspot. The country is also known for its rich and distinct culture, which is characterized by a fusion of Spanish and Indigenous influences.
Finally, here’s the latest World Bank data for the Guatemala – with the year 2000 as a comparison.
Population 16.3 m 2015 11.7 m 2000
GDP $63.8 billion 2015 19.3 billion 2000
GNI per capita $3590 2015 $1660 2000
% below poverty line* 59% 2014 56% 2008
Life expectancy at birth 72.0 years 2015 67.7 years 2000
Primary school enrolment** 103% 2014 102% 2000
*Methodology can vary between countries and over time within a given country
**Percentage can exceed 100% due to the inclusion of over and under aged students