On April 5th, after 12 hours of airports, security scans, and Dramamine-induced slumber I landed in the sprawling shanty-encrusted valley that is Guatemala City. After hours upon hours of nothing but sea, I grew enchanted with Guatemala as soon as we slipped over its thin beaches along the coast and into the vastly green and then vastly volcanic terrain. However, I descended into clarity as we were lowered over the capital. I began to make out miles of tin roofs and cracked concrete, and the city grew more reflective of its ugly name contraction, “Guate,” (sounds like squat.)
I passed through customs, made my way outside to a rapt audience, most already looking past me, but others lifting their hotel name picket signs in greeting. I waved to a young man holding, “Hostal Los Volcanes.” Hostal Los Volcanes was a pleasant 5-minute walk directly from the airport. After I checked in and handed out appropriate tips, I fell into bed feeling like I’d arrived at some sort of home, but also feeling that home was a distant pinpoint 12 hours away. In nostalgic moments, distraction is my best comfort. I got up, grabbed a taxi and headed toward the most dependable site in any city, which is not coincidentally the only Spanish I can piece together: “parque central.”
Spanish architecture—the center-piece being a three-towered cathedral dressed in purple banners and a poster of the child Jesus. Many men and boys were dressed in purple and black robes similar to the cathedral decor. Groups of women and girls walked in groups wearing long textile skirts and ornate blouses. The center was abuzz with preparations for an important religious holiday, Semana Santa. Leave it to me to arrive during one of the biggest holidays in Guatemala without the slightest clue.
But I was fortunate for it. The real life of a place is often kept separate from the tourist façade. Here was an entry for me to fall in step with the heartbeat of Guatemala City. A procession of solemn robed men led in displays of Jesus and Mary to a corner of the square. A marching band started up
a jaunty tune. I wasn’t getting stared at for snapping photos of seemingly ordinary things now. I was one of the many frantic for a shot of bloody and emaciated Jesus propped up on an elbow, reaching out for help. All of a sudden this wasn’t the shanty carpet of the mountain valley I initially saw. This city and these people were beautiful.
I woke early the next morning to catch a 4 hour bus to Quetzaltenango where I’ll be based for the rest of my stay in Guatemala. I was lucky to hail the only cab in sight, but then unlucky as I began to understand that the bus station ticketer was trying to explain that there was no bus today to Xela, the casual name for Quetzaltenango. I wanted to explain that he must be mistaken. I had made a reservation online. The woman ticketer beside him shook her head and pointed to a phone: better to call. As my stomach slid down towards panic, I rummaged through my handful of accessible Spanish, and turned back to my cab driver, “Otro bus?” He picked up the meaning right away, and we headed off to another station, and another, all closed off to Xela for the festival day. At my last resort, I asked to check the minibus lines. It turned out there was a bus headed that way, but I took one look at the minibus–also called chicken bus because you’re likely to sit by some chickens or other livestock–and I decided it was possible, but not worth the extra adventure today. Like any American at the beginning of her budget, I opted to stay one more night in city I was growing to hate again.
Guatemala Travel Tip of the Day: Watch your step! Most of the sidewalks in Guatemala city have missing or un-sturdy concrete blocks.
What I Ate
I was almost seduced by street food, but instead stuck by my memory of stomach troubles in Mexico and found the most Americanrestaurant in Guatemala: Jack’s Place. This is a Jack Daniels themed (or sponsored) pub-style restaurant. Open seating and pleasant atmosphere. They have an English menu with a mixed selection of American and Mexican food. Happy hour and beer specials are available.
Italian café—built on a legacy of early 20th century Italian immigrants–serving desserts and GOOD COFFEE. And they have actual décor.
Mexican restaurant right on the main street, 6a Avenida. Great food, and obviously foreigner-friendly. Bar up front and restaurant in back. Ask about drink specials: I saw one table milking from a large beer-filled tube.
Where I Stayed
Hostal Los Volcanes
Hostal Los Volcanes is awkwardly located in a gated and guarded block near the airport, and seems to be far from any good food or night life. This place is on the pricey side for its basic accommodations. $25 for a single private room with TV. The hostal seems to be run by a group of young men who are friendly and helpful, but will try to pin a $10 shuttle ride to town on you. A cab to Zona 1 should cost $5, or 40 quetzal. This would be a good place to stay, though, for a late arrival or early departure since it’s about a 5 minute walk from the airport.
At my cab driver’s recommendation I stayed my second night at Pension Meza in Zona 1. Five blocks from the central park, this is a good location for restaurants, sites, and getting cabs out to other tourist spots in Zona 10 and 13. The place is shabby around the edges, and is truly the Central American experience I’d always dreamed of (see shower photo.) I didn’t realize the roof was tin until the afternoon shower began to bullet spray above me. However, there is a definite hostel vibe with the young clientele, including a few English-speakers, wifi and on-site computer access, resident bunnies, and staff is friendly. 60Q for a single room.
*Ask me if you want the exact location of these places, I have the details down here somewhere.