South of Guatemala City, the road drops from the high plateau into a coastal plain, a land of rich volcanic soil that extends along the Pacific from El Salvador to Mexico.
The foliage turns from tan to a lush green. The temperature is tropical. And the land, which in most of the country is divided into tiny plots, rolls out into large green fields and gazing land.
This is Guatemala's richest agriculture area, where most of its exports - coffee, sugar and cotton - are produced. It is also one of the few places in the country where one finds modern farm machiner. International Harvester tractors, Ford pickups and huge flatbed semis stacked high with sugar cane and cotton.
There are areas like this, lush and rich, in almost every Third World nation. Most often, they are legacies of the colonial past, producing bananas, sugar cane, coffee, rubber and other crops for exports.
The coastal plain of Guatemala remains today a fuedal society, dominated by large plantations or fincas . They are owned by rich landholders, most of whom live in the capital. They are worked by thousands of Indian fieldworkers, who are brought from the highland plateau by truck and busload.
As one moves toward the Pacific, the coffee plants and banana trees give way to sugar cane, cotton and grazing land. The place takes on an appearance and atmosphere like the Mississippi Delta country north of Yazoo City.
The air hangs heavy; sweat gathers on the body. The fields dominate, overwhelm, mesmerize. They are seldom interrupted by buildings or people. The land, like that of the Mississippi Delta, is too precious to devote much of it to living.
Eighty per cent of the families in many upland Mayan Indian villages spend part of each year here. A survey of one such community, Nabaj, two years ago found the average stay to be three months; the average wage $1 a day (this figure has risen since). The typical family brought home $20 to $30 from their three-month stay.
I talked with one woman who had been coming here every year for a decade. She worked as a cook - her job, to feed 30 men. She said she would rise at 1 each morning to start making tortillas. She would serve the first meal at 6 a.m., the second at 11 a.m. and dinner at 6 p.m. She was paid 3 cents per man a day. About 90 cents.
She stopped making the trip four years ago. "I have too many children now (eight) and the work was too hard," she said. Her situation was not unusual. "We all suffered equally at the coast," she said.
We stopped at one of Guatemala's best known plantations, the Finca Pantaleon, at dusk. The Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP), an underground terrorist reform group, had kidnaped its owner, Robert Herrera Ibarguen, on December 31, and had held him captive for 5 weeks.
The Finca Pantaleon was a classic company town with row after row of aging brick houses, like those the best of the coast companies built 60 years ago in the hills of West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky. The community included two churches, a company store, a huge sugar processing plant, a railroad siding with scores of railcars stacked high with sugar cane. And about 600 familes.
A 74-year-old man, Don Alejandro, who had spent all his life on the finca, said that two weeks earlier, workers had received an increased in wages from $1.45 a day to $1.70, and thus "everything is tranquil here."
"The owner is good," he said. "It's the managers who always screw us."
I asked how he knew the owner. "I saw him when he came to put the cornerstone of the church in," the old man said.
Herrera, the owner, was still in captivity at this time. I asked what would happen to him.
"If your heart is good nothing is going to happen to you," he answered. "If your heart is bad, you have to pay."
Three days later, Herrera was released after his family paid a ransom reported to have been more than $2 million.