The eastern highlands, often just called El Oriente, connect Guatemala City with El Salvador and Honduras and must rank as the least-visited part of the country. Virtually the entire population is ladino, and only a very few elderly people, in a couple of isolated areas, still speak Poqomam Maya, the region’s indigenous language. The ladinos of the east have a reputation for behaving like cowboys, and demonstrations of macho pride – quick tempers, warm hearts and violent responses – are common.
The landscape lacks the immediate appeal of the western highlands – the peaks are lower and volcanoes here are heavily eroded. Close to the border with El Salvador the hills are incredibly fertile and the broad valleys lush with vegetation, but in the north of the area, around the key town of Chiquimula, the landscape is very different, with dry rounded hills and dusty fields. From this region it’s a short hop to the ruins of Copán in Honduras, while Esquipulas, with its famous basilica, and the lovely volcanic crater lake of Ipala are also close by. To get to the Oriente you branch off the Carretera al Atlántico at the Río Hondo junction, skirt Estanzuela, and head past Chiquimula and Esquipulas to the three-way border with Honduras and El Salvador.