Convertion course at the time of travel: 1 dollar = 8 quetzales
From my parents home in Boston, I had to take a taxi to the airport because my plane left early in the morning at 5.27. I flew from Boston to Fort Lauderdale with Spirit airlines (the ultra-budget airline of the US) and onwards to Guatemala. I had planned to stay in Guatemala city (locals call it Guate) because the plane arrived only at 3 and I feared that I would have to take a chicken bus (the gringo, ie tourist name, for the local bus) which would arrive in Antigua after dark. In criminality stricken Guatemala, this is an absolute no-no. I was wrong on two accounts: firstly it is only 45 minutes to 1 hour of road travel to Antigua and, secondly, it can be considered as safe because it is all the way along the highway out of Guate and I did not have to take a chicken bus.
I met a girl on the plane that was also going to Antigua because she worked there (she had only been on holidays at her parents in the US) and she invited me to take a taxi with her. She was a really nice girl, she even paid for the taxi with the reasoning that she would have paid the same amount even if I wasn’t there (I wasn't complaining...).
Either way after travelling for an hour in a taxi, I arrived in Antigua. By then it was 4 o’clock. After some searching I found one of the cheapest hotels in Antigua, which still charged 5 dollars for a night in a really rundown box room. It does seem quite expensive for a room in Giuatemala, however Antigua is the number one tourist destination in Guatemala. Although I usually don’t like these touristy places, my safety had taken overhand. Guate is still the city with the highest criminality of the world.
I had looked up the exchange rates for US dollars (I had a stash with me) to Quetzals (the local currency) beforehand. When I came past a money changer, I saw the exchange rates they proposed: they were a third lower than the actual exchange rates. Unfortunately, this is always the problem for money changers at the airport. They are easily accessible to tourists and charge an unnaturally high price for it. The best way to exchange money is to go to touristy centers that sport a huge number of money changers. The competition drives the price of exchange drastically down.
Like in Asia, I knew that the cheapest and, in my mind, the most authentic food is available from street side food carts. Therefore I went to the market (which was still going strong at that hour) and found a nice foodstall where I endulged on a massive meal. Afterwards, I still tried to go out and meet fellow travellers, however that proved difficult because the majority of tourists are holiday makers and not short or long term travellers like me.
The previous day I had come across a bakery near the market and that was where I was headed for breakfast. For only 4 Quetzal I had a nice breakfast. Instead of going back to the hostel, I decided to sit in the beautiful parque central to eat.
Antigua is the old colonial capital of Guatemala. It was built by the Spanish and, unlike most other colonial cities, not raided to the ground. It still sports small colonial houses next to large cobbled streets, very much like Melaka. However, unlike Melaka, it is not a city just kept alive for tourism. This is an actual city, the guatemaltec (people from Guatemala) actually living in the city. It also sports a lot of old churches and ancient decorative buildings (Melaka in Malaysia is now Muslim, while Antigua has remained strongly christian). The pretty and well conserved city is set in a lush country side towered over by three volcanoes out of which one is still active. It is all very beautiful.
However, that beauty has lead to an immense influx of tourists. This influx has not changed the flair of the city, with all its churches, ruins and Spanish architecture. However it has led up to the springing up of ugly signs for travel agency, internet cafes and the like... I guess that this is inevitable, however I find it quite sad. Alas!
Either way, I ate on the beautiful plaza which was chokeful of Guatemalans and tourists enjoying the sunshine. Shoe-shiners (people who clean shoes and call out to tourist “Shoe shine! You need shoe shine! I do shoe-shine".) are aplenty on the plaza. In one word, city life happens here. After my breakfast, I just strolled through the town and marvelled at the architecture. After a while, I found the tourist agency who showed me the way to the cerro de la cruz (hill of the cross) from which one had a beautiful view of the city.
After having appreciated the stunning beauty of the town from above, I strolled a bit more through the city. It was then that I realised that, although the city is a must-see for its beautiful and out-landish architecture, that nothing of the city invited me to stay. I already had enough of the city and the surrounding towns were not that inviting for day trips because Antigua was not inviting as a base. However I have met other people who absolutely loved the city.
That night, I tried to go out again however when I went to a bar the music was so loud that conversations had to be held while shouting and my throat seizing up after a couple of sentence ruined that as well.
After having breakfast in the plaza central again, I took a local bus from Antigua's busstation. The chicken buses are really interesting. They are without exception the old American school buses, mostly painted in bright colors (with quite a few still sporting the yellow of American school buses). However, unlike Indonesian local buses, these are actually quite comfortable because they still have some suspensions; well as comfortable as you can get with three adults squeezing on a bench that was built for two American school children... They can also be used as showers for the bus drivers as the photo below shows (they guy was having a shower in his bus with his son looking in)...
Anyway, after that the Guatemalan bus driver showed that he can indeed compete very well with Asians in the game "try to fit as many people as possible into an as tiny space as possible", I set off to Chimaltenango (10Q) where I changed into a bus going to Panajachel, right on the coast of Lago Atitlan (30 Q). On this bus, I met three other tourists, Lea, Tim and Phil, who were going to the same location as me. From Pana, we took a boat to San Pedro de Atitlan, where after a brief lunch of 3 Tacos for 10 Q (really quite bad value considering that the tacos were tiny) we separated. Lea was living in San Juan, the town just next to San Pedro. She was doing a volunteering job as physiotherapist in a school for disabled children.
I checked into the hostel San Francisco, which I got told was the cheapest one there for 25 Q a night (I found out later that it was possible to go even cheaper with only 15 Q a night but without view). The room was actually bigger than I expected and had two double beds,a glass shard as mirror, an own bath with a hot shower that did not work properly (as in the water was only luke warm). The showers in Guatemala are also interesting. I learned very fast never to touch them: they electrocute you (!). From then onwards, I easily solved the problem by wearing my sandals in the shower (not foolproof but it goes a lot towards solving the problem of electrocution).
I met Tim later and went with him to his previous teacher. He is a Guatemalan and I got to see how Guatemalan family live and it is not that much different from any country in Asian (excluding Malaysia and Singapore).
We then all went to a bar and had a nice evening with a couple of people from Tim's Spanish School.
That day, was spent exploring the city. San Pedro de Atitlan (shortened in the following as San P) lies on the shores of Lago Atitlan, a big crater lake not unlike Lake Maninjau in size and appearance. Several towns are situated all around the lake (I visited them all apart from Santa Clara, which I unfortunately missed out) and the scenery around the lake is just beautiful. The beauty of the lake is best seen in the pictures I have taken.
San P is a very strange city indeed. It is rather touristy, however weirdly enough, the tourists are mostly around the dock and the lakeside. Most Guatemalans live two hundred meters up the hill. Therefore, San P looks as if it belongs to two different countries. One is Gringoland (the inofficial name for that part of the town) and the other one is Guatemala. Even store signs are written in English or Spanish, respectively. I spent most of my time in the Guatemalan part of the town (my hotel was situated right at the border of Gringoland).
Most of the people in San P are Mayans and this shows in the way they dress. Nearly all of the woman wear the traditional dress. I will not explain it here, I have made some photos.
In general, quite a few similarities between SE Asia and Guatemala can be made. Take as an example the market, it functions exactly to the same principles as an Asian market. It is generally cheaper to buy on the market than in the supermarket. It is built up as chaotic, the shops sell the same from A-Z and usually most people will charge a tourist price, however the same bargaining techniques of walking away when the price seems ridiculously high works as well. Usually, the vendor will agree to a lower price in order to sell. The accomodation tends to be cheaper if one goes outside of the touristy centers. The local food is also the cheapest and tends to be half as expensive as compared to Western food. The tienda (the shops) also do not show the prices because all the prices are assumed and known by locals. The best is to get to talk to locals in order to find out the normal prices and to leave the tienda when not getting the local prices. As a summary, it can be said that once one gives up on the style of life and lives like a local, the price of travel decreases massively. A very important step is also to at least show willingness to learn the local language.
In the afternoon, I decided to explore the next town San Juan with Phil (called San J in the following). The walk down there was really nice. San J is a relatively small town with mostly local people, however it is still used to some tourism, meaning that some souvenir shops and travel agencies are still present, however never as many as in San P.
In the evening, I went out to a bar in Gringo land because my spanish was barely good enough by the third day to ask directions.
That day was just a lazy day. Although I eplored the market of San P a bit more, it was essentiallly a day of reading and soaking up the every day life of Guatemala in the market.
In the afternoon, I went to see Lea in San J. She did not have time to see me for a longer time of period, therefore I went to the Cerro de la cruz, a hill which overlooked the lake which had a cross on top as well as the Virgin Mary, overlooking San Pedro. The view from there was absolutely stunning. It allowed a view of the whole lake.
I had met the previous day a couple of young people at the bar who were doing a language school at San Pedro. With these I went kayaking the next morning. Renting kayaks is also a nice and cheap way to enjoy the lake. It is very beautiful, especially if seen from the shore and costs just 1 dollar per hour. Considering that I had found such a cheap accomodation, I still had 17 to spend per day (although I was already saving up for my trip to the ruins of Copan were I knew that the entrance fee was 15 dollars) and therefore this was a nice way to pass the time. In the evening, I went to the hot tube with them (yes, indeed they have hot tubes in Guatemala, however it was as good as solely for tourists because it costs 35 Q for a bath). I had a superb time there. In the evening, I just went to bed.
12.01.2011 to 15.01.2011
I will now sum up the days, instead of doing a daily journal, in San P because I am currently one week late with my journal and I have to somehow catch up on it.
I went to all the towns around the lake excluding San Clara. Out of those, my preferate town was San Pablo by far. It is a truly Guatemalan town without a tourist in sight. Some locals, the minority, even go as far as to say that San Pablo is dangerous because it does not have tourists. However, I did not think so. While I was there, everyone was really nice to me. I got the normal prices, ate my food with the locals with whom I had a broken up conversation (my spanish is still horrible) and got advice from them on the dangerousness of the road towards San Marco.
San Marco, on the other hand, is another matter. It is a tiny town, choke full of hotels (for such a small town) and filled up with yoga and spiritual places. It is somewhat weird and, for me, really not worthwhile. It is true, it is very beautiful, with a lot of trees and access to the Lago de Atitlan. However, this kind of thing is not what I came for: I do like beautiful places however I like to integrate myself as far as possible into the local society. I had the feeling that this would not be possible in San Marco. For holiday makers, it is ideal however not for me. I left pretty quickly.
Panajachel, where I arrived, is a complete gringo town. Choke full of elderly tourists, it is only a trinket shop. The main street is lined with souvenir shops and everybody hassles you. I left after two hours. I had had enough of it.
Santiago de Atitlan is the biggest town around the lake. When coming off the boat, one has to walk past the tourist shops which line the street. It is also quite touristy, however really on that one street only. The problem with Santiago is that it has nothing interesting apart from the Mayan Saint Maximon. The city just looks like any other in central america that I have visited yet. The market is somewhat small and the church is not impressive. I went to see the Mayan Saint Maximon. The effigy of him resided in a private house, which changes every year. To be fair, the mayans may rever him as Grandfather or the god of necessary evil, however for me he just looked like a puppet. I do not mean to make fun of religious beliefs at all, all I try to convey is that I did not like Santiago either. However, as Tim pointed out earlier, I am very hard to please when considering which places are beautiful and which are not.
I left San Pedro at 10 that morning after stocking up a bit on fruit. I took a chicken bus to Guate (30Q, I had talked to a local lady who had told me the price). The ride was interesting. Not only were the spaces in between the seats not able to accomodate me (too long legs) but the bus was absolutely rammed for about an hour (three people were sitting per bench) and then just very full (some benches seated only two but most three). On top of it I sat in the back and was feeling as if I sat on a catapult every time the bus went through a hole. However, as soon as we were on the Panamericana, the ride went smoothly.
Once in Guate, I had problems finding the bus to Chiquimula. I had to take a taxi in order to find the bus because I was in some time pressure to arrive at my destination on time. I had to take the next bus that was going to Chiquimula. There was no way I would have liked to stay in Guatemala (the short stay in Guate already sent all my alarm bells in action). The taxi driver deposited me at the express bus station where I took the bus to Chiquimula. I payed 35 instead of the local 25 Quetzales. I arrived during the night in Chiquimula and went out of my way to quickly find a hostel. It was rather dangerous. That impression was confirmed when some locals who now live in the US told me that it would be safer if I did not venture out of my hostel after dark, not that there would be great need to do that anyway since the town is very boring at night (as far as I was able to confirm it with having spent only one night there.)
That day I got up very early in the morning (6 am) to leave towards the town of Copan Ruinas in Honduras.
Continue reading in the travel guide to Honduras!