Guatemala, September 2005









* Saturday

Flew into Guatemala City, withdrew the 1600 quetzals (~$210) that would last me all week, and then walked out to take city bus 83 into the center part of town. But you can't take a city bus (1 quetzal) with a 100Q note. So back into the airport to try to change it. The woman who sold cut fruit for 3Q was no help of course :). So I stood in line at the money changers but only got 50Q notes from him. The best line for this was the booth where one pays a security tax to leave the airport, got a 100Q worth of tens and fives from him. While walking back and trying to manage the wads of cash in my pockets the fellow who helped me in line offers me a ride into town. This is a little sketchy, right? Next thing that happens is that he picks up his Hells Angels friends and then they rob me on my first day? Nope, it went fine, and I was soon on a brightly colored retired school bus festooned with religious slogans on my way to Antigua.


Antigua wasn't all I thought it would be. At times there were more tourists than locals, or so it seemed. It was supposed to be a UN historical special place or something but the buildings didn't impress me; I just felt like I was back in South America. Checking into the Yellow House hostel I was tempted to leave in a couple hours with three Irish guys on the overnight bus to Flores for the Tikal ruins in the jungle. If it weren't for the expense (~$200) of the guides, the treks would be better as you can pick more distant ruins, have more there and lots of time hiking through the jungle, using a machete to clear a path through the mosquitoes.


I dropped off the DVD recorder that I offered to bring to a dentist who works in Guatemala at his hotel and walked around the town, deciding what to do. I didn't run into the Irish guys again after I decided that's what I wanted to do.


* Sunday


Instead, I headed north to Chichicastenango, in time for the Sunday market.

There I bought shirts I couldn't resist despite not having the closet space, and some other fabrics. Mostly I just tried to soak up the atmosphere. It just felt like being in an issue of National Geographic, like standing in the balcony of a basketball court watching the vegetable market below.


* Monday


I may have crossed the line buying food in the market as I felt a little sick today, weak and tired, mostly. It might have been the milk and rice drink, the hot sauce with dinner, or it anything else. The advice I heard that seems to make sense is to not take as many chances when you are only here for a week as you can easily spend your week sick (I later re-ignored this advice). Still I managed to get to the post office and climb to a sacred Mayan site with some other tourists from the hotel.


I felt like Chichi was running out of amusements, so I went up a bit further north into the glorious hill country of Nebaj. No problems with bus connections and very necessary bathroom stops were possible as my body decided it was healthy and didn't need any of the water I had drunk.


Nebaj ( seemed like the right size and the right proportion of indigenous to tourists, maybe 199 to 1. I went to El Descanso to pick up a book for hiking in the area and got directions instead as the book is now out of print. The directions were simple enough.


* Tuesday


Felt great the next morning and woke up early enough to end up on the same microbus as the guide also going to Cocop, with two tourists in tow. I felt a little bad about walking along with a paid guide but he was happy to have the Spanish speaking company and invited me along. Some great hiking on the trail from Rio Azul to the village. As we came into the village, the Swiss woman and the Englishman were enthusiastically taking photos of the farm animals. At one point a village woman ran out and scolded them. I had read that the Mayans don't like their picture taken and that seemed proof enough; they don't even like their turkeys photographed.

With a little bit of work I got the keys to the posada where I would stay the night in the village and arranged to have lunch with one of the families in the village. I have to say, she picked up her skirts and ran over when she found out she had a paying customer for lunch. She asked if I wanted grass soup, and well, I'll play along. It turned out to be big leaves from some vine in her backyard wrapped around the ubiquitous maize substance and cooked. Delicious, no problems.

But not much to do in villages. There is no central square to sit on a bench and watch things go by. Virtuous Mayan women don't talk to foreigners so you get a feeling you're not welcome in the village as all the men are out gathering firewood or maize. After my nap some boys started to appear and I got into a soccer game. A great way to break the ice. I managed some decent kicks in before the rain and late hour ended the game. In Guatemala, which isn't all that close to the equator, it goes from dusk to darkness in about thirty minutes. Luckily, I wasn't late for dinner as they are on the Latin American schedule, and 6 pm meant 7 pm. But the dinner came before I was even hungry and it was the best part of the trip, watching the whole family around the wood stove (no chimney) in the one room building with the dogs at the door, the cat wandering around. Just a few days ago I was in Philly, and now I am so far away. I found myself resenting that they recently had electrical lines connected but it didn't really spoil the image at all.


* Wednesday


Up for breakfast, which didn't seem to lack the corn content of any other meal, and I hiked over into Pexla. The "x" in Mayan words is pronounced "ch" by the way. I was a little nervous on this hike because I had three teenaged companions and I wasn't always sure if they were going to jump me. Some of their questions were a little too personal, like how much did your camera cost, what's in your pack, can I carry it for you, do you have a cell phone. Not quite as bad as "so would you report a theft and how much is in your wallet?" but this isn't a very safe country, and when they huddled together plotting in the Ixil Mayan language I wondered what was up. At one point they were asking about their heroes Rambo and Jean-Claude Van Damme, I wondered if they were afraid to mess with an American because we all know martial arts, although that was one of their questions as well. I ended up with no problems, and they were only disappointed that I didn't spend the day in that village with them watching movies. (Why didn't I? No place to arrange for lunch.) Instead, just in for a soda and back on the trail. I found a local woman who did actually talk to me as she was shooing off her dogs with thrown stones, until her neighbors saw her and I sensed it was time to go. So we can't drink the water from the tap in Central America because the water supply isn't treated but we can still drink spring water in the countryside, right?

I tried some and was fine. In fact, I was quite fearless in my food choices and never got sick again on the trip.


Had my village lunch and back into Nebaj. Getting there I ran into a Belgian girl and we went from hotel to hotel and finally settled, and I mean settled, on a local spot which turned out to me more of the sort of place that offers cheap weekly rates to locals than to tourists. We tourists can be so demanding for what we get for a $3 a night hotel... And the service for our $1.30 dinner, so brusque... The US and Guatemala were playing each other that night in soccer/football but there is something about that place where it gets dark almost instantly that I was ready for sleep around 8:30 pm. Besides, is it safe to be the only guy from the US in the room if the US wins? (They tied.)


* Thursday


Secured lodging at my prior hotel in the morning, and started investigating the overnight bus ride to the capital. I have been burned by incorrect bus schedules before and didn't want to miss my flight needlessly. I made the all the inquiries one could do, but decided not to take it. The drivers drive liken maniacs to avoid armed bandits so they aren't the safest way to get around, and I also figured I wouldn't get any sleep on the ride in this school bus that's bouncing around the road.

I pretty much just hung around town today, buying some textiles in an artisan's market and scoping out the bus station.

I stopped by El Descanso, the gringo hangout (language school + internet + guides + restaurant) later on, and ended up going to dinner with a guy from the capital. We had some good conversations although I can't remember now what they were about. He has traveled to the US and Canada before so he was a bit more intellectual than the average José.


* Friday


This morning I hiked out of town to visit the local waterfalls. I planned to stick around and read, but there wasn't a spot to sit close to the base of the waterfalls (corn field) and it was a little buggy on some of the spots on the way back.

In the afternoon I decided to hike over to a colorful cemetery, the one in Chichi being too dangerous to visit alone, and instead found the start of the path leads over the "mountain" to Acul, another village. So I hiked there instead, and had lunch at a nice posada. I went to see a hacienda that sold cheese but was too late in my trip to think about buying a half pound. Still looked like a very nice spot to stay if you don't mind being out of town.

For the evening I decided to visit another city in this Ixil Mayan Triangle region and took a micro into Cotzal. Now I checked in Nebaj and was told that these buses run until eight or so, but in Cotzal I was told 6:30 pm instead, it then being 5:30. On the other hand, it turned out that there weren't spots to eat dinner, (50 centavos for a doblada tortilla concoction on the sidewalk however) so I was sort of ready to return at 6:30 when it was already dark. I watched the end of a town volleyball game in the square and started talking to a gringo from Duke University who was living there for a year with his wife on an agricultural project when I found out that my 6:30 ride wasn't going back to town. Oh, OK. And no other busses back? I was prepared to stay the night with this guy from Duke, no harm done; just a night without tooth brushing, but a microbus did appear to take me home. I'm almost disappointed I didn't get stuck, would have been a fun conversation.

I've considered writing them, General Delivery to "Los Gringos".


* Saturday


According to my guidebook, 5 am to 8 am is the best time to get a bus to Santa Cruz del Quiché from Nebaj so I went over to the bus station at 6 only to find that it was pretty deserted and the lone bus there wasn't leaving until 8. So I with my packs wandered into town, no restaurant open for lunch, shooed off a beggar, went back to the bus station for a Corn Flakes breakfast and then found a bus hiding behind the 8 am departure already full of people. I don't know who they are, but each bus station has guys ready to help you find your bus and stow your pack on the roof. I still watched them to make sure it was secured, but had no problems and no one ask for a tip later. So I got on the bus and settled in for a ride to Quiché.

There I found a hotel room and walked out to some ruins just a few km from town. Not much in the way of ruins, just the unrestored piles of rocks sort of thing, but there isn't much to do in Quiché. It's the sort of place where when I got off the bus, the helpers couldn't believe I was staying the day. I did start to get a little bored, trying to avoid overshopping and overeating. I got offered pot in the town square and had some nice conversations with other people there, even discussing Günter Grass's Tin Drum. It was fun to watch the shoeshine boys play soccer with a plastic bottle and then steal a piece of hose from a beggar who apparently used it in his dance routine. I accused him of having a tail at first.

Motorcycles, with sort of a dirt bike hybrid bred into them, were popular here and they did start to look appealing to me.

I might have tried to do more with my last night in Guatemala, but it started to rain so I went on to bed at the usual time. Again, there doesn't seem to be much night life in these cities except for the criminal and ne'er-do-well elements that I should avoid anyhow.


* Sunday


Up early in Quiché, took my bus ride back to the capital to transfer to a local bus to get to the airport. Here I had two friendly locals walk me over to the street to pick up the local bus talking about this and that, warning of robbers. I was at the airport plenty early (but not as early as if I had had a night bus drop me off at 5 am) but I needed that time to get through the slow lines at the airport.

And I'm home.

I wish I had had gotten into the jungle and that's what I want to do if I return, but with just a week and the limits of transportation, I am satisfied with what I did do, see plenty of locals in their element. There is also a Lake (Lago de Atitlán) which I am now assured is not as touristy as I thought it was when I was there. Hey, with just a week you can't do much but I did enough.



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