Just about 30 minutes south of Antigua Guatemala, you hit the Sugar Plains. This is where cane rules, defying the bullying volcano kingdom always in the highland background.
Yolkobsens were making their way to the sunny Guatemala beaches on the Pacific side and passing through the Azucar Prairies to get there, south-bound on highway 49. We’d done it a few times and we’re always gob smacked by how the land turns suddenly flat, like Saskatchewan, but giving itself over to sugar; not semolina wheat and people who don’t know how to drive on a curve.
Guatemala is one of the world’s largest producers of sugar.
The roads are jockeyed by tractor trailer drivers expertly lugging highway sugar trains that dominate the traffic flow for at least 12 to 15 kilometers. Here’s an excellent tip: Keep your distance behind them. You might as well just get used to the slower pace and enjoy the cane fields and the highland silhouette, volcanos always on a no-pay-per-view plan.
These sugar wagons are on their way to any one of a number of local mills, all of which work in a consolidated government-sanctioned industry. Often the overloaded sugar wagons will leave a trail of long cane bouncing off the road and your car, so you might want to give these Sugarland Expresses a wide berth. That’s what our intrepid guide, Dahr did along the way.
You also know that you are in the land of sugar and more sugar because it smells like an aproned giant somewhere is baking up a huge batch of pound cake. As you get closer to the mills, many of which are processing the cane into molasses as well as refined granules, the scent takes on a stronger and less romantic resonance.
Mr. Y insisted on an impromptu side trip to a sugar mill to see how all those sticks of cane become granular white or molasses brown. Of course! What else would you do on the way to the beach? Here’s another tip: Don’t even think about stopping at one of these sugar mills. What am I saying? As if you would.
We were met at the mill’s gate by uniformed men with shotguns, clipboards and no sense of humor. We were not on any lists and we would not be allowed to come in to take pictures, no matter how much we claimed to be only curious and harmless Canadians. I have to hand it to Dahr, though. It’s not every guide who will argue on your behalf with men favoring shot guns and who are devoted to a gloomy perspective on life in general, and gringo tourists in particular.
We knew that we would likely be turned away since the industry here has come under a lot of international scrutiny for everything from worker safety to child labor practices. No tours open to the public here. Obviously, we’ve been thrown out of better places.
We got back on the road, once again dodging falling cane from the sugar trucks. Soon we left the mills and the sugar fields behind as we headed to Sipacate, an hour away on the Pacific shore.