Country Count: 8
“Take half of what you need, and twice as much money.”Evan S. Rice, The Wayfarer’s Handbook
Holy crap I’m doing it! This is my first travel blog post, and I’m equal parts nervous and excited about it. My girlfriend Kristen and I spent two and a half weeks in Central America, mostly in Guatemala, with a quick foray into Belize. I’m definitely going to break this post up into three or four parts, so that I can say what I want to without being too long-winded.
To begin with, I’ll come right out and say it: we under-budgeted pretty hardcore on this trip. All told, we averaged about $90 a day, when our budget was closer to $50 a day. I chalk some of that up to Belize. Even though we were only there a few days, it was definitely a more expensive country than Guatemala. The Belize dollar is 2:1 with the US dollar, whereas the Guatemalan quetzal is at 7.5:1. More on Belize later.
Another issue was the time of year we decided to go: Semana Santa, or Holy Week, leading up to Easter. Not only were cheap accommodations harder to come by, but we were also at the mercy of buses that didn’t run on holidays or were sold out. We were forced to spend more nights in hotels, compared to taking night buses like we had planned.
I mean, we’re both still pretty inexperienced travelers. Like with anything, practice makes perfect. In this case, the practice is awesome!
Despite the unexpected costs, this was a wonderful experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Kristen and I both had a wonderful time, especially considering this was our first international trip as a couple. I’m happy to report that we did not murder each other.
Kristen was flying in from Cancun, where she had spent a week with a girlfriend, enjoying the ruins of Tulum and Chichen Itza, and lounging on the beach. We had both just quit our jobs; I was an estimator at a commercial landscaping company, which as an INFP was very not my thing. I flew into Guatemala City ahead of her so that I’d be there to greet her at the airport the next day.
Now, a lot of people, even a lot of guidebooks, had some very harsh things to say about Guatemala City, or Guate as it’s known to locals. Safety came up constantly. So, I opted to stay in Zone 10, which seemed safe to the point of being bougie. I chose the Quetzalroo Hostel, which was very nice and reasonably priced. My Uber driver, Jonathan, acknowledged the safety issue but also exuded pride in his hometown.
Having most of a day free before picking up Kristen, I got up nice and late the next morning. I talked to Marcos at the front desk about what to do in the area. He recommended I try out the newly revitalized 4 Grados Norte entertainment district, in Zone 4.
Marcos called me another Uber, which is *dirt* *cheap* in Guatemala. The ride was literally like $1.83. He dropped me off in the diamond-patterned grid of streets that is 4 Grados Norte, and immediately I knew I had discovered something incredible: the hipster enclave of Guatemala City.
I was surrounded by coffee shops and restaurants and bars and boutique stores, all with people chatting happily outside. There was the ubiquitous Guatemalan security officer armed with a shotgun to remind you where you were, but I felt perfectly safe. The buildings were clean and the trees shone brilliantly in the April sun. I could have been at a sidewalk cafe on 2nd Street back home.
You’ll notice that I keep mentioning zones. Guate is divided into 25 zonas, some much better than others. I can personally vouch for zones 4, 9, 10, and to some extent, 1. The latter is downtown Guate, and has all kinds of really cool historical sites to visit, like the National Palace, as well as a lot of the main bus terminals. This place is perfectly safe to wander around…during the day. There are a lot of areas in zone 1 that locals told me, in no uncertain terms, to avoid after nightfall.
I mentioned before that some guidebooks like to talk a little bit of shit about Guatemala City. Yes, there are a lot of areas with extremely high murder rates. Yes, the driving is probably the most aggressive I’ve ever seen (several intersections did not have working stoplights and so people just kind of…went). However, despite its bad reputation, I kind of liked it. It has a lot to offer. The National Palace in Zone 1 was wonderful. While I didn’t have time to make it out there, there’s supposed to be an incredible museum on Mayan art in Zone 10, called the Museo Popol Vuh. I would even say the city’s on the up and up. There are plenty of new-looking office buildings, and construction indicative of investment, which shows confidence in the area. Zone 10 has a P.F. Chang’s and other good restaurants, and is perfectly safe. There is a BRT (bus rapid transit) line called TransMetro that serves as a cleaner, safer alternative to the oft-maligned red city buses. While I didn’t have much time here at the beginning, we did stay in the city again at the end of our trip, and had a wonderful time. I’ll write more about it in Part III. Anyway, all this to say, please don’t write off Guatemala City.
After getting my cup of coffee and a Gallo beer, I finally got the text from Kristen. I called up my boy Jonathan and we went to go get her from the airport. Happy to see each other again, we continued on to Antigua, our home base for the next few days. Unfortunately, we became ensnared in rush hour Guate traffic, and decided to dip into a mall to eat and wait for the traffic to die down. Jonathan recommended Pollo Campero, which is like their version of KFC, but better. We found ourselves eating in a food court that could have been Lakeline Mall back home, if just for different demographics. It was safe and clean and lively. Some more experienced travelers will be thinking “duh.” However, I mention this because a lot of people from more developed nations have this idea that all of Central America is nothing but drug trafficking and gang wars. Yes, unfortunately, there is plenty of that in this part of the world. However, I’m here to tell you that in two and a half weeks in Central America, we witnessed absolutely no violence.
Our bellies full of delicious fried chicken and the gridlock gone, we continued on our way. We began to crest the mountains to the west of Guatemala City, as a variety of vehicles swerved around us. Most of these were motorcycles, scooters, and colectivos, or microbuses, although these were overshadowed by the main champion of the Guatemalan roads: the “chicken bus.”
If you have no idea what a chicken bus is, first think of an American school bus. Yes, these are repurposed school buses, and judging by the ones that still had their original school districts on them, many seemed to come from Iowa. These buses are then typically painted in eye-catching color schemes, most seeming to involve tan, green, red, and purple. Some even had electronic screens mounted to the front. All, however, had their own names, like ships. These included names like Esmeralda and Flor de mi Tierra. Now imagine these things packed to the gills with people and produce. As the name indicates, live animals are typically transported on board. Throw in several pieces of baggage strapped on top. The mental image complete, now put it into motion by whipping it through a curvy road at speeds that a packed school bus should probably not be operating at.
We did not ride the chicken buses. I feel that these are the kinds of things that people do because they have to, and not because they have the luxury of simply wanting to. I can understand a tourist wanting to experience daily life from the point of view of a typical Guatemalan villager. However, I also feel that me riding in one of these things would almost be…insulting, on some level. On a more personal note, I actually have anxiety riding in vehicles going fast that I am not in control of. Ironically for a traveler, I also have anxiety flying in planes. To be in a crowded little box going as fast as these things were going through the mountains, well, sounds like the best way to give me a panic attack. I spoke to another American who had ridden on one, and he said it was “intense.”
About an hour after leaving Guatemala City, we arrived in Antigua. Officially known as Antigua Guatemala (“Old Guatemala”), Antigua was the nation’s capital for well over 200 years, until a massive 1773 earthquake badly damaged the city. This prompted the Spanish colonizers to relocate the capital to present-day Guatemala City three years later. Several churches in Antigua show signs of destruction from that earthquake as well as others that have struck throughout its history. Today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and arguably the cultural capital of Guatemala, you will find everything from a vibrant Mayan cultural presence to Domino’s Pizza.
Antigua was absolutely wonderful. There’s a reason so many travelers make it their base of operations, especially during Semana Santa. I would advise, however, to book accommodations well in advance of going, and to double-check with your host about amenities, noise level, etc. Or else you may end up in our situation: all too happy to find accommodations for about Q100/night ($13/night) on Airbnb, only to realize that the out-of-the-way neighborhood was very loud at all hours of the night, there was no warm water, and not even any electrical outlets. The host was super sweet and while it was a look at “the other side of Antigua,” we did decide to find other lodgings where we could actually, you know, get some sleep and charge our phones. We ended up at Hostel Burkhard, where we were much happier and more centrally located.
Antigua is crowded as hell this time of year, but it’s lively, colorful, fun, and very safe. You’ll see lots of locals gathered in the street working on alfombras. These “rugs” are actually made of colored sawdust and other materials, which are arranged in colorful, vibrant designs. Think of them sort of like big, rectangular mandalas. These are then periodically sprayed down with water to ensure they don’t blow away in the wind.
Getting around Antigua is not difficult, as the city is laid out in a grid, and there are many volcanoes and churches to serve as landmarks. Don’t worry about unfolding your big-ass map, as everyone and their dog will be, too. While the Guatemalan people are, by and large, very friendly and welcoming, they do not always excel at giving directions. Stop a local on the street to ask where the pharmacy or supermarket is and they will invariably tell you the Spanish equivalent of, “Oh, it’s down there.” Even the tourist police posted on many street corners gave us directions that turned out to be completely wrong. In his book The Wayfarer’s Handbook, author Evan S. Rice observes that there are some cultures in which it is just not acceptable to simply say, “I don’t know.” I suspect that Guatemala might be one of them. Not a big deal though; wandering around the streets of Antigua is always a pleasure.
While the chicken buses rule the highways, we were introduced to the champions of the city streets: The tuk-tuk. Also known as a mototaxi, these motorized, covered trikes are bumpy as shit on the cobblestone streets, but are also super endearing. Every Guatemalan town of any size has them, and some are decked out differently depending on where you are. The tuk-tuks of Antigua are all uniformly silver with blue stripes. These vehicles are typically several decades old, and hail originally from India. However, one driver told me that a few Guatemalan companies are starting to manufacture their own models. While we did our best to haggle, the average fare seemed to be about Q20 to get from one side of town to the other. Not bad, but Antigua is the tourist epicenter of the country, and so the cabbies (tuk-tukkies?) price accordingly.
As with any voyage, there are things to prepare yourself for. You *will* be pestered by vendors. You *will* get tired of saying “No, gracias.” On the other hand, many of these vendors, the majority of whom are Mayan, do have some very cool crafts to sell, such as bracelets of volcanic stone, earrings, hats, flowers, and colorful woven blankets. The female Mayan vendors also wear these beautiful, vibrant dresses, and you may be tempted to snap a few photos of them. From what I read in my guidebooks, many people in the Mayan community do not appreciate having their picture taken, so always ask. Also know that they may be okay with it, but then might charge you five dollars to have their picture taken (American dollars are accepted all over Guatemala).
There are several things to do in Antigua, such as the ChocoMuseo, where Kristen and I learned about the history of chocolate, and got to make some of our own. There are wonderful places to eat, such as the Rainbow Cafe, where you can get a hearty plate of breakfast (eggs, bacon, toast, cheese, and black beans, and coffee or juice) for only Q39. If you want to try Guatemala’s de facto national dish, pepián, I recommend Arrin Cua, and its relaxing outdoor dining area.
However, the most impressive activities lie outside the city. There’s a wealth of hiking and ziplining activities available to you, as well as a number of Mayan historical sites. We decided to go on an excursion to Pacaya Volcano.
Volcan Pacaya is about an hour’s bus ride outside of Antigua, up in the mountains. The hike is about 3.5 miles round-trip, and isn’t very difficult to do. If you want, though, there are locals on horseback who will offer you a ride on their “taxi.” That joke is funny for the first 500 times you’ll hear it.
I wish I had better photographs to show, but unfortunately there was a lot of cloud cover the day we went. Either cloud cover, or a sort of haze from the slash-and-burn agriculture prevalent in the area. Either way, it was a pleasant if not entirely photogenic hike. Look out for the stand about halfway up where a family sells oranges, prepared in an interesting way: using an old-timey lathe, the rind is peeled away from the fruit, which is then cracked in half and covered with an assortment of spices, including chili powder and what I believe was cumin. This only costs Q5, and is surprisingly refreshing. I asked the woman what this type of snack was called, but they don’t seem to have a word for it. Anyway, it’s really good.
The main thrust of Volcan Pacaya is being able to get as close as you want to molten lava at the top. Close enough to feel the heart radiating from the chunks that roll down the mountainside. I was speaking with the gentleman who runs the Volcanic Rock Shop near the summit, and he said that in Costa Rica, by law people are allowed no closer than 2 km from an active volcano. Indeed, when I was in Costa Rica, I remember being able to see lava, but from a long way away. In Guatemala, no such restrictions exist. So long as you’re careful, you can get as close as you want.
Close enough, in fact, to do this:
Well, that’s the end of Part I! This post ended up being pretty long, but I should be able to make future posts a little shorter. Stay tuned for Part II, focusing on Lake Atitlán!