I’ve just left Guatemala and it’s nothing like the dangerous country that most people make it out to be. When I was doing my research on all things Guatemala, all I came across was how dangerous the country was, especially in the Guatemala, the capital city: The high rates of crime, the drug trade, kidnappings, murders and pure nastiness. One person in Mexico kept on telling me how he knew people who had their bus stopped by bandits and robbed at gunpoint or machete. Now I don’t know under what circumstances these people were in but I could only imagine that they weren’t doing anything dubious or intentionally putting themselves in a dangerious situation. However, it’s hard not to I had get quite paranoid when listening to these stories. I even started making contingencies in case we were held up and robbed.
After recovering in Rio Dolce from the unexpected sailing adventure from Caye Caulker, we caught a bus to Antigua via Guatemala City. Now I try not to judge a book by its cover but driving through Guatemala City felt like driving through a prison. Most buildings were protected in barbed wire, slabs of broken glass glued into top of brick walls and armed guards equipped with pump action shot guns. I was afraid that everything I had read and heard was coming true. We were glad only to be staying there for 10 minutes for the changeover but nothing about it made me feel comfortable.
In contrast, everything after that as soon as we left the city was more positive and presented many highlights for the trip. Below is a summary of those highlights of the central highlands region of Guatemala.
If you want to escape the humidity then then the central highlands are where it’s at. At 1500m above sea level, the temperature is mild during the days and cool in the evenings. With a tonne of Colonial influence in the architecture, Antigua is now a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. Strolling along the streets are there is an obvious presence of old ruins as well as churches. Up until the 1700’s it served as the capital until an earthquake decimated most of the city. To this day, a lot of the old features are present in the buildings and including the cobbled stoned roads which wreak havoc on car and motorcycle suspension.
Like most cities in central america, there is a main park in the middle of town where most people congregate and with a cathedral overlooking it. Over the four nights we spent there it was quite evident that many Americans and Europeans move to Antigua for it’s charm and settle down. For the younger folk like myself *cough*, they come here to learn Spanish as they are easier to understand than their southern counterparts.
To be honest, I didn’t do too much while in Antigua. Since arriving from the coast I was starting to get the runs (TMI?) so spent a lot of the time eating, napping and checking out the markets and also a coffee museum tour. Try not to drink 8 cups of coffee like I did. We were hoping to hike up Volcan Agua but the weather was always against us each day we decided to hike up.
I did however pass through Antigua again after San Pedro and we climbed up Volcanes de fuego. Again, the weather was fine until we got there and afterwards it turned into a storm up the top of the mountain and decided to sprint 4.5km down the mountain in the pissing rain trying to avoid the horse shit from the horses ridden by the cowboys who pick up those who can’t make it on their own two feet. Oh yeah did I mention the stray dogs that follow you up the mountain? Keep an eye out for them as they will turn on you once you “cook” your marshmallows over the hot air that escapes from cracks in the surface at the summit.
My main reason for visiting Guatemala was to learn Spanish. I found a great place to stay at Cafe Atitlan, away from the party central but still a short walk if I ever needed to wet my appetite. It was also close to some nice cafes so it was good trade off. First order of the day was to enroll into spanish classes and a chap at the cafe recommended Mayab Spanish school as he’d been there for a week now and enjoyed it. I spent 5 days with classes in the morning and afternoon at 2 hours per session.
It was like being back to school each day however my brain was getting an intense workout having to absorb so much information each session, resulting in me hitting the sack by 8:30pm each evening. I know what you’re thinking… “Suck it up princess”.
I’m no expert in Spanish now but things definitely make more sense as I travel now. Reading menus and signs in general are a lot easier, however speaking is still a challenge. I just have to put it all into practice now for the rest of the trip.
I spent a total of two weeks in San Pedro. during the time I met so many ex pats from the USA and Canada. Many had come to visit for a coupe of weeks and never left. I can understand why though. The weather is amazing, everything is cheap, the locals are super friendly, in fact the friendliest of all places that I have visited so far. Each day, you would see the same old ladies selling bread onthe street, the numerous tuk tuk drivers, the half sober irishman who owns the cafe walking the streets or the lady from the US who moved there three years ago.
I also used San Pedro as a base to visit other attractions around the lake such as Panajachel and San Marcos. It was the low season so those places were pretty quiet. Panajachel is super touristy but if you want to spend time meditating and getting your yoga on then San Marcos is for you.
One thing I didn’t understand was people wearing no shoes on the street. The streets are populated by street dogs and also used by the horses for the horse riding tours. And both animals shit like crazy. One word people….WORMS
If you’re an outdoor enthusiast and enjoy hiking then Lake Atitlan is a must do. On of the highlights was definitely hiking up the Indian Nose for a sunrise view. I also went kayaking exploring the shoreline and getting a different perspective on the rising water levels along the lake.
Without even hiking the peaks, you can gain an appreciation on how beautiful the place is. Both in Lake Atitlan and in Antigua. The landscapes are forever changing by the minute the landscapes from the clouds that roll in, out and around. At certain times of the day, the clouds settle into the mountain range and it feels as though the mountain ranges were breathing.
Food wise, I would say that it was my only disappointment with Antigua and San Pedro. With the influx of tourists and foreigners, most menus are void of any traditional Guatemalan cuisine and is full of western food such as hamburgers. Also the portion sizes as generous as they were are too big, so most times I was way too full. That said, I did however find a couple of nice places that served traditional dishes however they were few and far between and more of a treat as they were expensive.
There certainly is a particular charm about San Pedro. It seems perfect for somebody who wants to escape the daily grind back in the developed world. At first I told myself that I could definitely stay here longer and one week turned into two, however the burning desire inside of me that wants to explore and discover eventually told me that the time would not be now and I had to move on.
So my friends. Have you ever come across a place in your travels and ended up being there for an extended period of time?