Guam: The Tallest Place on Planet Earth

Photos by Joyce McClure: Ypao Beach
Photos by Joyce McClure: Ypao Beach

Guam: The Tallest Place on Planet Earth

by Joyce McClure
www.pedacitosblog.com

When friends in the states ask what Guam is like, I reply, “It’s like Miami.” Hot, humid and the ocean is right out there. And there. And there. And over there, too.

A strip of large, brand-name hotels sits along the shore in Tumon on the west side of the 225 square mile island. (Little Rhode Island is five times larger!) Chain restaurants with names like Appleby’s, California Kitchen, Ruby Tuesday and Lone Star are scattered around the main tourist areas.

Then there’s the largest Kmart in the world and Macy’s and Ross Dress for Less for shopping. Guam is, after all, a US Territory with two large military bases housing the Air Force and Navy.

But that’s not all. Not by a long shot.

Far from the madding crowd

When planning a visit to Guam it’s easy to stay away from the madding crowd if you do what the locals do, of which I am now one after moving here last year from Yap (check out my Pedacitos entries about that remote island 500 miles southwest of Guam.)


Plaza de España (c.1734), courtyard of the Governor’s palace
during The Spanish, American and Japanese occupations.

Since covid hit it’s easier than ever to avoid crowds because the throngs of Japanese and Korean tourists have been reduced to a trickle. But the gate is still open so bring your vax card and proof of its legitimacy, heed the 3Ws – Wear a mask, Wash your hands, Watch your distance – and enjoy your journey around this rarified island that is still largely unknown to Western travelers.

(For current information on covid requirements, go to Guam Visitors Bureau)

Food = Culture

Guam is the center of the ancient CHamoru culture and home to a large Filipino community. Toss in Micronesian, Korean, Japanese and Thai, add a dash of Mexican and two handfuls of Spanish, stir well and that’s the cultural stewpot that is Guam. It’s reflected in the locally-owned restaurants scattered around the island.

What might look like a dive on the outside will probably offer up some of the best food made from grandma’s recipes using local ingredients – reef fish or tuna caught that morning (Micronesia is the home office of tuna), coconut, bananas, taro, breadfruit and more. So skip those chain restaurants and go where the locals go.


Umatic Bridge (1986) on Umatic Bay where Magellan’s fleet landed on Guam in 1521.

It takes a village

Guam is made up of villages that have evolved over the centuries from farming, ranching and fishing centers to today’s residential and commercial hubs. Each village has its own patron saint, Catholic church and annual local festivals celebrating everything from locally-grown bananas and coconuts to peace and heritage.

They’re a great way to experience the local culture while eating your way to stardom. Although the pandemic has curtailed events for the time being, contact the Council of Mayor’s office at (671) 472-6940 / 477-8461 or mcogadmin@teleguam.net for information about which ones are taking place and the location.

Voyage through history

One of my favorite places to while away a few hours is the Guam Museum, a treasure chest of information and artifacts about the history of the island, its people and environment.


Guam Museum

The interactive exhibits never fail to draw me in for a few hours of immersive education from the time thousands of years ago when the island was first discovered by Austronesian seafarers from Southeast Asia to the arrival of Spanish explorers in the 16th century (who seemed to think they discovered this island first…think again), the island’s strategic importance during World War II, and on to today with a gallery of art by local artisans.


Mural by Guam artist Lee San Nicolas in the village of Agat

Hours are limited during the pandemic so call (671) 989-4455 / 989-2658 or email theguammuseum@gmail.com to make a reservation.

Shake rattle ‘n roll

Formed millions of years ago by two volcanos, Guam is a mere 124 miles from the Marianas Trench, the deepest trench in the world in the Ring of Fire where multiple tectonic plates meet. Which means there are frequent earthquakes but no one seems to notice the usually minor shakes.


Asan Beach and War in the Pacific National Historical Park

A friend who is off island sent me an anxious text last week asking about the earthquake she’d read about. “What earthquake?” I asked. The temperature is in the mid-80s year round and there are two seasons: dry from January to May, and rainy from July to November when it’s a bit cooler. January is considered the best month to visit.

Two sides of the same coin

Those two volcanoes are the reason the north side and south side of the island are different geologically since they blew their tops at different times a gazillion years ago. The north side is primarily limestone and has less vegetation than the mountainous south side but still has a beauty that is well worth the drive.

When I took my first drive to Ritidian Beach in the Guam National Wildlife Refuge, a family of wild pigs scurried across the winding road, tails in the air. Explore the two-miles of trails, relax on the white-sand beach, take a guided tour of the ancient CHamoru village or visit the caves along the limestone cliff.

Circling the south side of the island is one of my favorite leisurely drives – Route 1 joins Routes 2 and 4 to loop around the outer edge of the island passing through villages that have long been inhabited by CHamoru families.

Along the way are spectacular lookout points, parks, public beaches and villages with historical markers pointing out things like the place where Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan is purported to have landed in 1521, the War in the Pacific National Historical Park and the Spanish Fort Nuestra Señora de la Soledad (c.1810).  

It’s an uneasy history of colonialism and wars to say the least – as Churchill once said, “History is written by the victors” – but an important one in the scheme of things combined with awesome scenery.

Go take a hike

The reef surrounding Guam is a favorite for water sports but Guam also has some of the best hiking trails. Passing by waterfalls, through tropical forests, past caves and streams, up hills and down mountains, the undeveloped trails are favorites of visitors and residents alike.


Entrance to Asas Ridge Hiking Trail

Mount Lamlam (“lightening” in CHamoru) is an easy, leisurely two-hour ramble for even unfit hikers and will give you bragging rights for having scaled the tallest elevation on Planet Earth. (Everest is the highest.)


Ancient latte stone, the most recognizable of all Guam landmarks found nowhere else in the world,
are sacred pillars on which ancient Chamorro houses were constructed as early as 500 AD.

Although it’s only 1,332 feet above sea level, Lamlam is 37,820 feet from the bottom of the Marianas Trench. I recommend joining the Guam Boonie Stompers for one of their Saturday outings. Be sure to dress for the heat, wear sunscreen and take water. And don’t hike alone. It’s easy to get lost out there.

 

This article first appeared on www.pedacitosblog.com.

 

 

 

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