Lunchtime in the Guatemalan countryside: Somewhere between Guatemala City and a delicious-sounding town named Chiquimula, on the way to the famous Mayan ruins of Copan, the vendors noisily boarded our bus with their precious goods, hoping to earn a few quetzals from the passengers.

Joaquin, a friendly Guatemalan lawyer sitting next to me, bought us a package of strange-looking nuts; I skeptically bit into one, expecting the worst, but they turned out to be tasty cashews.

I returned the favor and bought two Cokes from another vendor, who opened the bottles, poured the soda into plastic bags and stuck a straw in each -- because as everyone here knows, the bottles are as expensive as the drink itself.

An elderly vendor then opened her basket to reveal tortillas and a freshly roasted chicken. Call it lunch in a rolling Central American restaurant.

Yet a bus trip through this fascinating region serves much more than just food. Whether carrying farmers and their produce to market or Indian cowboys dressed in colorful outfits from the days of the conquistadores, buses offer a close-up look at this complex isthmus -- the ancient land of the Mayas, the Spanish warriors and, more recently, U.S.-backed contras. As important to Central Americans as cars are to North Americans, these buses traverse "highways" more akin to U.S. country roads than monotonous freeways. And though violence is a problem in some areas, traveling by bus through much of Central America can be safer than walking at night around some U.S. cities.

"Tourists are certainly not being targeted in Guatemala," said James Dickmeyer, a U.S. Embassy spokesman in Guatemala. "There's a lot of violence in Guatemala, but it's mostly directed at Guatemalans. You never hear of any {tourists} traveling through and getting hurt from these groups."

Indeed, that's one of the unspoken truths of Central America. Whether in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica or even El Salvador, harming a North American tourist for political ends is bad public relations for any side.It is a land rich in history. The Mayas' sophisticated culture flourished from A.D. 300 to 900. The first European to appear was Christopher Columbus, who cruised the eastern coast on his fourth trip to the New World in 1502. Conquistadores arrived shortly thereafter, beginning more than 300 years of Spanish colonialism that many claim started the enslavement of the Mayas. Central Americans, mostly those of Spanish descent, declared independence in 1821 from a then-weakened Spain.

In the 1830s, Central America's confederation of five states -- Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica -- dissolved amid much squabbling and fighting, which to this day continues to ebb and flow.

Today, seven countries are generally considered to make up Central America: Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. El Salvador is the only one currently involved in a full-scale civil war, with rebels holding claim to various parts of the country. Most Nicaraguans are weary from the nine-year civil war and both sides seem to be seeking peace. Guatemala's army and death squads occasionally assassinate political leaders, leading to fears that level of violence may rise again to that of the mid-1980s. Honduras still suffers occasional political violence, although not on the scale of Guatemala and El Salvador. In Panama, tensions are high following the 1989 U.S. invasion that ousted Gen. Manuel Noriega. Costa Rica, which doesn't even have an army, and Belize are relatively peaceful.

Not long ago, I set out by bus from Guatemala for my home in Costa Rica and learned that this can be an adventurous and inexpensive way to explore Central America, or at least certain parts of it. My 11-day, 1,200-mile journey took me through Honduras and Nicaragua, and allowed me to see the people and countryside in a way that wouldn't have been possible otherwise. I also couldn't help but notice the ironies and broken promises that abound in this land where myths and reality mix as easily as rum and Coke.

Guatemala City has street vendors like New York City has bagels. The day I arrived, I settled in on a park bench to take notes and discovered that both my pens were out of ink. No problem -- within minutes a vendor holding a small box approached me, selling pens for one quetzal (about 18 cents) each. And that was just the beginning -- he then pulled out a pair of sunglasses, complete with a Ray-Ban insignia. He opened the bidding at $14, but soon settled for $8. Then he offered me a watch for $3. Following the tradition that Guatemalans feel insulted if no bargaining takes place, I talked him down to $1.25.

The simplest things can become very complicated in Guatemala. I had to make a phone call, but public telephones are difficult to find here. Finally, outside the telephone company's headquarters, I found an array of at least 15 phones. While I waited to use one, the telephone company's musicians set up and began to entertain those in line -- oblivious to the people trying to use the phones.

An hour's bus ride away from Guatemala City is Antigua, the ancient capital of Central America and a great place to shop for the finest textiles in Central America and explore the ancient ruins. I walked the cobblestone streets, past large stone churches and monasteries hundreds of years old. Some have been reconstructed after deadly earthquakes; others are just hollow shells.

Back on the bus the next day, I headed northwest, traveling about 70 miles to the town of Panajachel on the shores of Lake Atitlan. One can see many a marvelous sight from buses -- such as the man walking his pig on a leash, or the cowboys wearing matching shirts, pants and hats more colorful than a thousand rainbows. Not to mention the entrance to a military base about an hour east of Lake Atitlan, where a 15-foot guardhouse was constructed in the shape of military boots, complete with painted shoelaces. Its roof was a large helmet painted shiny metallic silver.

The best sight of all was the view as we rode down the winding, twisting road along the cliffs of Lake Atitlan to Panajachel. The resort town is heavily influenced by things American, from the numerous cinema clubs showing English-language videos to the bars with North American football to the local teenagers playing not soccer, but basketball.

That night, I visited some longtime North American expatriates. One man, a retired theater professor from Chicago, complained that reports of violence in Guatemala have been exaggerated. His children and grandchildren are too scared to visit him, he said, and pointed out that violence hasn't taken place in Panajachel, but across the six-mile-wide Lake Atitlan in the town of Santiago.

Sure enough, 10 days later, Santiago would erupt in violence as government troops opened fire on a protest, killing more than two dozen people.

Then it was back to Guatemala City on a three-hour ride, where the bus's aisle was narrower than my hips. The next day I was back at the bus stop, awaiting my ride east across the country to Chiquimula. Two hawkers from different bus companies demonstrated their entrepreneurial skills as they argued over which bus I should take for the 115-mile journey.

Although I started out late, at 11:30 a.m., I wanted to push on past Chiquimula to reach the Mayan ruins of Copan, just across the border in Honduras, before dark. My schedule showed no late-afternoon bus from Chiquimula, but one appeared at about 3:30. Somehow that didn't surprise me, and we were soon on our way along a dirt road through the ancient Copan valley.

Whereas campesinos elsewhere wore colorful outfits, the farmers on this bus were dressed in blue jeans and plain shirts -- with almost every male, including schoolboys, wearing identical white cowboy hats. Young girls and their mothers dressed in clothes that were clean and fresh, despite the constant stream of dust coming in through the bus windows.

When the passengers disembarked along the country road, their children and younger siblings ran to greet them from the simple shacks that were their homes.

It was dusk by the time I crossed the border into Honduras and reached Ruinas de Copan. It's a sleepy little town, with nothing to do at night except try to find an open restaurant or sit at a bar and listen to mariachis. (Just in case I had any ideas, a sign in my hotel room stated, "No bad conduct, no state of drunkenness, nothing that will bring shame on this establishment.")

The newspaper here reported another major battle in El Salvador, less than 40 miles away. No one here even mentioned it.

The next day, while sitting on one of the great ancient staircases of Copan, I couldn't shake the eerie feeling that if I turned around, a great Mayan warrior in full battle gear would be standing behind me.

I ventured into a tunnel under another staircase to inspect a tomb, which was empty, of course. After five minutes in the cramped tunnel I decided to leave, but soon became lost. I almost panicked in this small corridor full of dead air and ghosts of the past. Luckily, 9-year-old Neddy, who had rented me his flashlight for 20 cents, wandered in and rescued me, showing the way to sunlight like the expert guide he was.

That afternoon, it was back on the road, back from the ancient glories of the Mayan civilization to the current misery of Honduras.

I left Ruinas de Copan in a van designed for seven passengers and packed with 25. As I sat on my backpack, with the knees of two strangers pinching my back, my arm on someone's leg and at least 10 people standing in front of me, I wondered about the wisdom of such a trip. But that's to be expected; every Westerner who visits Central America should receive a big dose of the frustrations that face the average campesino.

Fortunately, 10 minutes later the van stopped at a town and emptied out, and I grabbed a comfortable back seat. We went around the corner and the van filled up again, just as cramped as ever.

Four hours later I arrived in San Pedro Sula, a grimy little town that I wouldn't recommend to my ex-brother-in-law. It is, though, a jumping-off point to nearby beautiful beaches like Tela, and the exotic reef diving of the Bay Islands.

The next morning, a gorgeous four-hour bus ride from San Pedro Sula southeast to the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa took me past lakes, forests and farms. Surprising amounts of this major thoroughfare remain unpaved, despite all the aid the U.S. government gave to Honduras in the 1980s. The countryside along this route is beautiful, but it's also impossible not to notice the amount of deforestation taking place. It's symbolic of the estimated 80 percent of Central America that has lost its once pristine jungle, a crucial bridge of plants and animals between North and South America.

Visiting cafes and street markets in Tegucigalpa, I began to accumulate quite a variety of coins. I now had Honduran pennies (worth about 1/500th of a U.S. penny) to contend with, in addition to the Guatemalan coins jangling around in my pockets. Everyone I encountered, from street vendors to bus porters, patiently watched me count these pieces. Inevitably, I'd give them too much; they'd always return the excess.

A year ago, the lempira was valued at two to $1; these days it is up to more than five to $1, which means the standard of living has dropped tremendously. Sugar, milk and other basic products in this land-rich country, the second largest in Central America, are in short supply.

Nowhere in Latin America have I seen a people who so lacked pride about their patria. Everyone I talked to, from the taxi driver to the cafe owner to the hotel clerk to the newspaper owner to the well-to-do drunk in the bar, seemed despondent about the future of the country.

I loved the name of the bus company that took me 60 miles southeast from Tegucigalpa to the Nicaraguan border -- Transporte Mi Esperanza, or Transport My Hope.

At the border, I joked with the Nicaraguan customs agents in the bombed-out customshouse, a relic of the war, about U.S. baseball, a favorite subject of conversation here. I had just missed a bus leaving for the next town, but as often is the case in Central America, I hitchhiked, asking a Nicaraguan driving a Soviet truck for a ride.

At the border town of El Espino, two young Nicaraguan girls, around 10 and 11 years old, begged me to buy their oranges.

"Three hundred thousand (about 16 cents) for one orange," said the younger girl. I paid up. Her older sister naturally demanded that I buy an orange from her too, so I did. Thus satisfied, they sat on the ground, dreamily playing with orange peels as though they were jacks.

If Hondurans think inflation is bad in their country, it's nothing compared with Nicaragua, where 4.4 million cordobas now equal one dollar. Just a year ago, it was more like 60,000 to $1.

I still had to get to Managua, and a taxi driver told me he would take me to the nearest bus stop. Fifteen miles and $10 later, he dropped me off at an intersection that was nowhere near a town. A bus would come by in a few minutes, he assured me.

It was 4:30 p.m. and getting dark -- not a good time to be out and about when there were reports of bandidos in the area. Then a few other would-be passengers showed up at this "bus stop."

"Sometimes the bus comes and sometimes it doesn't," said a young Nicaraguan holding a guitar. "I don't know what we'll do if it doesn't."

He shrugged his shoulders and starting walking down the road.

Suddenly a bus appeared around the corner; it wasn't going to Managua but to Esteli, about 40 miles down the road. That was good enough for me. I hopped on board, paid the 1.5 million-cordoba (about 75 cents) fare and relaxed to the sound of the salsa beat pumping out over the stereo. More than ever, I could appreciate the importance of the bus system to the lives of Central Americans.

That night I checked into a hotel in Esteli, a town so sleepy that I went to bed at 8:30. It was no problem getting up at 4 o'clock the next morning to catch the first bus south to Managua.

On the way, the bus became trapped behind a religious procession marching down the middle of the street. The driver, much to his credit, didn't blow his horn but inched his way through the crowd -- to the annoyance of a few worshipers.

"I have to be in Managua at a certain time," he apologized to the crowd as they eventually allowed him to pass.

With the sun on my left and Lake Managua slowly becoming visible on my right, watching the sun rise from the bus was something akin to a religious experience. The beauty of Nicaragua does that to people.

It was only 7 a.m. when I walked into Managua's fanciest hotel, the Intercontinental, for breakfast. Alas, the days of the $1.50 meal were gone -- now the price was $16. Not in Central America, I thought, and headed elsewhere.

Nicaragua has become much more expensive since the conservative government of Violeta Chamorro took over. When a Coke at a nondescript roadside stand costs 50 U.S. cents, it's clear that Nicaragua has turned from the cheapest country in Central America to its most expensive.

Three Bulgarians I met at my hotel found out this the hard way. The threesome, all in their twenties, had flown from Sofia to Moscow to Havana to Managua to ask the U.S. Embassy in Nicaragua for asylum in Puerto Rico. Somehow, they got it into their heads that this was the best way to get into the United States. Naturally, the embassy stamped "No visa" in their passports.

Things were bad in Bulgaria, they confided: They only earned $20 a month, couldn't afford anything in Managua. Their alternate plan was to get off the plane in Ireland, where the plane would refuel, and try to claim asylum there.

That night, to help them get over their rejected visa, I bought a bottle of rum and they enjoyed their first-ever rum and Cokes.

After 11 days on the road, it was time to return to Costa Rica. Disdaining a direct $10 bus ride to San Jose, I took a series of local buses to the border. My route took me past Lake Nicaragua, its beautiful volcano islands popping out of the water like upside-down ice cream cones.

At the town of Rivas, a taxi driver offered to take me the final 20 miles to the border for $15. I talked him down to $8. Another traveler, a West German named Franz, wanted a ride too, but wasn't willing to pay an equal amount.

"I'm going to take this burro," he told the incredulous driver as a donkey ambled by pulling a cart.

So the driver lowered his price to $2.50 for the man. When I protested, he said he needed all the money he could make.

Peter Brennan is a freelance reporter based in Costa Rica. WAYS & MEANS

The political situation in Central America can change rapidly. Before traveling to the region, it is imperative to check with the State Department's Citizens Emergency Center, 202-647-5225, for the most up-to-date information. Currently, the following travel advisories are in effect:

El Salvador: Travelers should exercise caution because of random guerrilla attacks. The eastern and northern parts of the country are particularly dangerous.

Guatemala: Caution is advised because of terrorist incidents and violence between guerrillas and security forces. There have been incidents of roadblocks; travel only on main highways, avoid traveling at night and avoid the south side of Lake Atitlan. There have been reports of robberies on public buses.

Honduras: Conditions are considered to be safe and essentially normal, with the exception of the areas bordering Nicaragua and El Salvador, where armed activity occurs.

Nicaragua: Caution is advised because of periodic flare-ups of violence. Avoid rural areas, stay on main roads and don't travel at night outside of Managua.

GETTING THERE:

At least seven airlines fly daily from Miami to Guatemala City or San Jose, Costa Rica. Pan Am is currently quoting a round-trip, advance-purchase fare of $552 from Washington to Guatemala City, via Miami, with restrictions.

BUSES:

Tourism offices in Guatemala City and San Jose offer good bus schedules for their countries. In other countries, it's best to ask hotel clerks. Prentice Hall's "1991 Mexico & Central American Handbook" is also a good source of information on bus travel. Fares vary, but tickets average out to about 50 cents per hour.

WHERE TO STAY:

Guatemala: In Guatemala City, Chalet Suizo on 14th Street has large, pleasant rooms with windows for $2.25 a day. In Antigua, hawkers will greet you right off the bus and lead you to $2-a-night rooms in the neighborhood. In Panajachel, rooms near Lake Atitlan's shores are more expensive than those in town, less than a mile away.

Honduras: In Ruinas de Copan, Hotel Gemelos charges $1.50 for a room with two big beds, large windows and a bathroom down the hall. In San Pedro Sula, Hotel Nile is nothing to write home about, but for $4 a night offers a room with private bath, plus a place to watch "Rambo" with Hondurans. In Tegucigalpa, Hotel Nuevo Boston (owned by an American) has rooms on an inner courtyard for $6 a night, with private bathrooms and hot-water showers.

Nicaragua: In Esteli, in a small hotel near the central market, I asked the clerk the cost of a room. She looked me up and down, smacking her lips before quoting what she must have thought was an exorbitant price: 6 million cordobas. That worked out to $3 for a 5-by-10 room with no windows.

In Managua, look for Hospedaje Leo's, near the Hotel Intercontinental next to the abandoned movie theater. The rooms are simple, but relatively inexpensive at $4 a night.

Costa Rica: In San Jose, Tica Linda, next to the Esmaralda Restaurant in downtown San Jose, has singles for $2. For a more expensive ($10 to $14 a night) room, try the Pension de la Cuesta, near the National Park.

WHERE TO EAT:

One shouldn't expect exotic native cuisine in Central America: The food, unlike in Mexico, is often lacking in spice and creativity. There's rice and beans and, for variety, beans and rice. Yet, in the main cities you can find a variety of cuisine that can be very good.

Guatemala: At Guatemala City's Restaurante Europa, I enjoyed a nice steak and a local beer for $3.50. In Panajachel, there are many good places to eat, some with gorgeous views of Lake Atitlan. For $3, I ate a steak with fries and beer at a restaurant without a name as I watched the sun set across the blue-water lake. In Antigua, Dona Luisa's serves a nice breakfast of eggs, bacon, juice, rice and beans, and coffee for $2.25.

Honduras: It's difficult to get a cappucino in Central America, but Cafe Allegro, on Republica de Chile Avenue in Tegucigalpa, offers a fine selection of coffees.

Costa Rica: In San Jose, Machu Picchu, a delightful Peruvian restaurant, serves great fish dishes, including a mixture that can feed two or three, for $15. Fulusu's has great spiced beef with vegetables.

CURRENCY:

Plan to spend about $20 per day to live comfortably. Many hotels will change traveler's checks or cash credit cards, although they generally charge a few extra dollars. Professional vendors on the street often give the best exchange rate, but beware of being shortchanged.

Remember that the farther you get from a country, the less its currency is worth. For example, Costa Rican colons are not worth as much in Guatemala as they are in Nicaragua. By the way, don't leave Nicaragua with many cordobas, since they are hard to get rid of. But they can be nice souvenirs, such as the 10 million cordoba notes (worth about $2.50).

SHOPPING:

In Guatemala City, visit the Central Market (Seventh to Ninth Avenue and Eighth Street) for colorful textiles and crafts. The towns of Antigua and Panajachel also have good markets. Less than six miles southeast of Antigua is San Antonio Aguas Caliente, with a wide variety of textiles. Generally, the farther from tourist areas, the cheaper the products, although it's only a matter of a few dollars.

In San Jose, the Central Market (Central Avenue and Sixth Street) has good leather products and inexpensive flowers to decorate your hotel room. Large hammocks are a good buy on the Cultural Plaza.

In Managua, some fine rocking chairs can be found for about $15 in the Central Market. Vendors will pack them for traveling.