Friday, April 19, 2013

Planning Your Own Trip to Guatemala

I had an incredible time in Guatemala, and I highly recommend visiting this beautiful country. If you’re interested in traveling here, I have created a suggested itinerary, based on my experience. I have also answered a couple questions you might have and included some travel tips. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions!

Suggested Itinerary for 11 - 15 Nights
(Please see specific posts regarding each location for more details, including transportation, accommodations, food, and activities):
  • After arriving in Guatemala City via airplane, take an overnight bus to Flores. Explore the Mayan ruins at Tikal National Park. Spend the night in Flores.
  • Take a shuttle to Lanquin and spend two nights. Tour the Kan’ Ba Caves and swim in the Semuc Champey pools. If you want to tube the river, stay an extra night.
  • Take a shuttle to Quetzaltenango and spend two nights (or skip if you have no inclination to hike). Hike to the summit of Volcan Santa Maria. If you want a less challenging hike, easier trails are available, too. Stay for a third night if you want to soak in the Fuentes Georginas hot springs. (If your shuttle arrives early enough, you may be able to do this on your first day.)
  • Take a shuttle to San Marcos la Laguna or San Pedro la Laguna (both are towns on lake Atitlan). Choose where you would like to spend your evenings, as the last water taxi is at 5:00pm. Spend three nights, taking days trips to Panajachel and Santiago for their markets. Stay another night, timing your visit to include a Thursday or a Sunday, if you want to visit the Chichi market, too. You can stay longer, visiting other lakeside towns, hiking the surrounding area, and/or kayaking.
  • Take a shuttle to Antigua and spend two nights. Explore the city and market. Spend another night or two if you’d like to hike the nearby volcano or join a guided bike tour through the countryside.
Please remember that these suggestions are based on my own personal experiences and perspectives. If you are more of a city person, then you might enjoy more days in Antigua and less at the lake. If hiking is your thing, you might want to book a three day hike to some secluded Mayan ruins. Guatemala is full of so many adventures and experiences - create your own best journey!

Do you need to speak Spanish to visit Guatemala?
I can happily tell you - absolutely not! I barely speak any Spanish, just a few frequently used words and phrases. And I survived just fine. If I didn’t understand, I often looked around me for translation from the other tourists (communicating is most often needed with travel). Do not expect the hotel staff or drivers to speak English, though; sometimes their knowledge of English is not much better than my abilities with Spanish. Fortunately, it works out, though, as long as you don’t need to communicate extensively or anything complicated. Don’t be surprised if there is miscommunication; it happens sometimes. I usually like to point to written words whenever possible to help clarify. Remember, you are in their country, and they are doing you a kindness by speaking your language. (And for many of them, English is their third language.) Be grateful you’re able to visit this great country at all and how warmly you are welcomed! This being said, would speaking Spanish help? Of course! If you can, try to learn some basics via a course, a computer program such as Rosetta Stone, or a phrasebook prior to visiting. Unfortunately, unless you speak Spanish well, you will miss out on one of the wonderful experiences when traveling - speaking with the locals. I do wish I could have had conversations with them.

Chicken Bus or Tourist Shuttle?
Traveling around Guatemala, you have the option of taking a shuttle or a chicken bus. The chicken bus is the local transportation. Guatemalans cram onto the bus, often carrying large bundles bound for the market (including chickens, of course). It’s an old school bus painted with colorful designs and a name splashed across the side. It is cheaper than a shuttle, but you will need to figure out where the bus stops are located, how to flag down a bus on the highway, where to get off, and possibly where to change buses. The shuttle is a 15-passenger van that often picks you up from your hotel and drops you off at the doorstep of your destination (or somewhere nearby). It usually needs to be arranged and paid for in advance, and it’s more expensive. I traveled via shuttle because of the convenience and the price difference wasn’t too much for me. (And, if we’re being honest, I was completed intimidated by figuring out the buses, especially with my severely limited Spanish.) If you choose to travel via shuttle, arrange for your shuttle the day before, if possible. The agencies aren’t always open in the morning, shuttles usually leave early, and sometimes there’s only one shuttle each day. Also, if your hotel doesn’t offer what you’re looking for, it might be worth shopping around - there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of shuttle operators. Keep in mind, if you go somewhere off the tourist trail, a local bus might be the only option.

Travel Tips
  • Lock bags/purses on an overnight bus with a small luggage lock. (I met a woman who had her ipad stolen from her bag while she slept.)
  • Carry a small tissue pack for the bathrooms because they often don’t have toilet paper at rest stops.
  • I’ve noticed all women wear long skirts or pants and a t-shirt, traditional shirt with sleeves, or a tank top covered with an embroidered shawl. Not wanting to disrespect their culture and conservative dress, I refrained from wearing short shorts and revealing tank tops. You might want to keep this in mind when you pack, if you care about respecting local custom and dress. (This isn’t as much of an issue in cities like Antigua.)
  • Guatemala has the same electrical outlets as America, but many of them are only two prong. If you have any three-prong cords, you might want to purchase a two-prong to three-prong adapter.
  • Guatemalans have an aversion to appearing unknowledgeable because one of the biggest insults in their culture is stupidity. In order to avoid the possibility of this judgement, Guatemalans will pretend they know things when they don’t. So, if you ask a question, you will always receive an answer; it just might not be the correct answer. They will share incorrect information, rather than admitting they don’t know. Twice, I have asked for directions and have been pointed in exactly the opposite direction. A good strategy is to ask someone who also looks like a traveler, or to check with someone else before you get too far. The children will like to help you find a place, but they also like a tip when you’ve reached your destination.
  • If you are planning to spend any time in the jungle, it’s a good idea to have bug spray available. Mosquitos lurk in the shadowy areas, and they’re everywhere at dusk.
  • Money: I’m told that the exchange rate is highest in the airport. Exchange in a bank or use an ATM. If you need money straight from the airport, a taxi will accept American dollars and give you change. Also, the ATM gives you cash in the form of Q100 bills, which are quite large for many purchases, and it can be difficult to get change. If you bring the bills to a bank, they will exchange them for smaller bills for no fee.
  • Avoid stomach problems: When eating fruit, choose options that require peeling, such as a banana or mango. When eating at a restaurant, only eat raw vegetables, such as a salad, if the restaurant uses purified water for cleaning. Cooked vegetables should be fine. Also watch out for ice and frozen drinks that may be made with water that hasn’t been purified. If eating street food, choose your vendor carefully.
  • Souvenir/gift ideas: chocolate, coffee, handicrafts

Helpful Websites

If you need to spend a night in Guatemala City, this hostel looks good:
Quetzalroo Hostel
6ta Avenida 7 - 84 zona 10, Guatemala City 10110 , Guatemala
phone: (502) 5746-0830
Private rooms with shared facilities - US$34.99 per room/night
Includes complimentary return transfers between the airport/bus depot and the hostel, internet access, and continental breakfast.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Wandering the cobblestone streets of colonial Antigua, Guatemala

March 12, 2013

Traveling here from Lanquin, the landscape changes dramatically, from a luscious green to a parched brown. Dusty hills and trees devoid of leaves remind me of raisins left too long in the sun. The cool, refreshing breeze becomes a hot, dry blast. Squat, concrete buildings replace the wooden shacks, and modern attire replaces the traditional Guatemalan garb. Passing through Guatemala City, my senses are repulsed by the pollution and industrialism - not a city I wish to spend any time in.

Antigua, on the other hand, is charming. The old, historic part of the city has cobblestone streets, and a beautiful church watches over a lovely central park with fountains full of flowers. We only have one evening, but it’s enough to build my excitement for when we return at the end of our travels.

March 21, 2013
Every bump is a sharp jab to my bladder. I think they forgot to install the shocks on this shuttle, or maybe it’s just the perils of sitting in the back seat. If shuttles are the luxury way to travel around Guatemala, I cringe to think what it would be like on a chicken bus. Although, I have to admit, I am curious... just not curious enough.

Traveling really brings out the gratitude in me. This trip has refreshed my appreciation for the water pressure in showers, clothes washers, high-speed Internet, and food I have at home. In Guatemala, I am thankful for the opportunity to slow down, beautiful scenery, colorful people, pretty birds, a predictable weather pattern, and meeting fellow travelers.

I have reached my market maximum. Walking through the Antigua market, I am just weary of being hassled. I would like to shop in peace, just be able to look at the selection without the shopkeeper calling out everything available and putting textiles in my face. It’s like they think you won’t realize you’re looking at a pair of pants if they don’t tell you. I miss American stores where the employees ignore me and I have to look around in exasperation for assistance finding a drill bit or opening a dressing room.

March 22, 2013
We meander along the cobblestone streets, and I enjoy the muted colors and the architecture, especially the windows and doors.

There are many old churches. 

At one of them, we pay a Q5 entrance fee walk to among the ruins, a result of numerous earthquakes.

For my last day, I indulge in a sweet lunch of favorite treats I don’t often eat at home: juicy wedges of pineapple from a street vender, a pina colada ice cream cone from the shop on the corner, and a candied fig filled with marzipan (an Antiguan treat). Hardly healthy, but incredibly yummy. Even better when enjoyed while sitting on a bench in the park, warm sunlight streaming down and interesting people walking past.

It’s our last night, and we’re finally trying street food. Until now, we’ve been reluctant, unsure what anything is and worried about stomach aches. But I’ve built up courage and curiosity over the past two weeks, and I’m eager to partake in this local custom. And I’m so happy I do. The food is yummy delicious, and I eat well past full, well past caring if I’ll have a stomach ache later or require multiple runs to the shared bathroom in the middle of the night. The food is so tasty, any repercussions are worth it. My only regret is that I didn’t enter the world of street food sooner. I’ve been missing out. To console myself, I tell myself that Antigua has better street food than any of the other towns and cities we’ve visited (but really, I’m probably wrong, and I hope I am).

March 23, 2013
We are leaving Guatemala this morning, bound for Austin, Texas. It has been a wonderful trip, in every sense of the word. Looking back, it’s difficult to choose favorites, but I do: the best activity was exploring the Ka’n B’a cave, the best food was found in the street stalls of Antigua, the best place to stay was in quaint San Marcos la Laguna, the best accommodations was the Zypher Lodge hostel. I don’t think traveling has a perfect moment; all the pieces combine to create the perfect experience.

I enjoy the exotic, but I always appreciate returning to the familiar. It’s so nice to start a conversation with anyone I see, to ask a question whenever I’m confused, and know that I’ll be understood. And all my technological creatures comforts - text, email, Internet, a plethora of phone apps - my connection to friends and family, my connection to the larger world, an escape from the long line through customs. Do I miss it? Not so much. But it always feels good to come back to it. I guess because it all feels like home, and home always feels good. Although, when I think about it, I think I could leave it behind, build new parameters of comfort, create new homes. Or expand my home to encompass the world.

Hotel Dionisio - A private room with a shared bathroom cost Q125. Our room is small and sparse, containing a thin mattress, a couple pieces of furniture, and a small window.The bathroom is a short distance down the hall and has hot water. No towels were given to us. It seems to be in a good location, in between the central park and the market.
3a. Calle Pts. #19 “A”, interior Callejon Confino

The Black Cat - A private room with a shared bathroom cost Q160 per night (but we had an increase to Q208 on our second night because of Semana Santa prices). Breakfast is included, and you get a to choose a dish from their menu. Towels are not provided. Wi-Fi is available, but I don’t think it works in the rooms (I didn’t try). Water bottle refills are available for Q5. The Black Cat has a bar downstairs, good for relaxing and meeting people, but it closes early, so it should not be too disruptive to sleeping. The hostel is okay, but I thought it was a little grimy feeling, and our room smelled musty.

Other Options:
  • A Place to Stay Hotel - A private room with a shared bathroom costs Q50 per person, and breakfast is included. We were originally planning to stay here, but we stayed at the Black Cat instead.
5a. Calle Poniente Callejón Landivar # 42 Antigua G.
T. (502) 78325515
  • Holistico Hostal - This hostel had no private rooms available on the dates I needed, but it has lots of positive reviews and also includes breakfast.
1 calle poniente No. 6 B
  • The Yellow House - This has lots of positive reviews, and breakfast is included. It only has dorms, and I needed a private room.
1a Caliente Poniente between Ave del Desengano y 7A

1C PTO C.9 C.El Rosario Antigua
This Italian restaurant is near the central park. It isn’t the cheapest place to eat, but it is reasonably priced. We were seated in a lovely inner courtyard. I ordered a glass of the Quattrochi Cabernet Sauvignon from Argentina for Q39, which was maybe a little light for my taste. Nick started with the pumpkin cream soup, which was alright - a subtle pumpkin flavor. We shared two entrees - the five spice tenderloin and fettuccine carbonara. Both were good, but nothing outstanding. I did appreciate the freshness of the homemade pasta. Still, an excellent price for a fancy dinner.

Dona Maria Gordillo: Dulces Tipicos
4a. Calle Oriente #11
The translation of the name, “typical sweets,” definitely caught my attention. I tried the marzipan/coconut/fig and orange/marzipan (Q37 for both), and both were incredibly delicious (I did like the fig a little more). When we return to Antigua, I go back for more: almond cookie (dry and crunchy), marzipan confection (really good), tamarind ball (tart and way too sugary), orange/pineapple ball (sweet and sugary), a tiny honey bar (sweet and sugary), and a marzipan cookie (tastes like snickerdoodle cookie dough - yum!) for a total of Q50.

There are two more shops advertising dulces tipicos if you continue walking past Dona Maria, away from the park. In the first one, I got a guava ring (meh) and a cocoa glob (Nick liked it, but I didn’t) for maybe Q12. At the second shop, I chose a fig filled with marzipan (the one from Dona Maria is much better), a coconut cluster (coconut held together by a milky cream), and a leche stick (another customer’s favorite, but I didn’t like it at all) for Q18.55. I think Dona Maria has the best quality.

Imaginova, S.A. Anfora
4 Calle Poniente 24 A
We picked up a chicken, a beef, and a vegetable empanada (called choncis) the night before we left town to eat for breakfast. All tasted very good, even at room temperature the next day, with the chicken and vegetable being my favorites.

Frida’s - This is a Mexican restaurant in honor of the famous artist. It is our lucky day: Thursday is two for one margaritas (Q37). I have a frozen guava, and Nick gets the orange/lime - both good, but I like mine better. And, on an empty stomach, it’s very effective at perking up a weary traveler. I enjoy the mango chicken (Q92) and Nick has nachos - both are good, but nothing outstanding. It is a pricier lunch, but I think Antigua is the Switzerland of Guatemala, as far as restaurants are concerned.

Polla Compero - I succumb to the Central American love of fried chicken, and we dine at this fast food chain. Definitely not the best fried chicken I’ve had (or even good for that matter), and at almost Q50 for a three-piece meal with fries, coleslaw, and a bun, definitely overpriced by Guatemalan standards. If you want to join the local craze for fried chicken, I suggest trying one of the street stalls at the market instead. I don’t know it it will be better, but it will be cheaper.

Black Cat - The hostel has a menu, and breakfast is complimentary with your stay. I chose the tomato, onion, and cheese omelette, but I asked for fruit instead of the potatoes, beans, and bread that it’s normally served with. Nick had the bacon and egg sandwich. Both were good.

Marco Polo Heladera - On a hot day, ice cream really hits the spot. I thought it was fun to get a cone and enjoy it in the central park across the street. I had a large waffle cone with pina colada (pineapple and coconut) for Q14 - bueno.

Frozen fruit pops - I’ve been seeing so many people walking around with these, that I finally had to try one. I had mango, but there are lots of other fruit flavors available (Q5 each), and it was tasty.

Merced Market - The market is past the arch, if you’re walking from the central park. Locals gather here to sell their food at tables, grills, and carts; there seems to be more in the evening for dinner. This was definitely some of the best food we’ve had in Guatemala. Since it was our last night, and therefore our last chance to eat street food, we went all out, sharing and sampling many of the dishes available (and would have liked to try more). Here is what we tried, named according to what it would most likely be called in America (no idea what the Guatemalans would call each dish):
  • Sausage taco - Q12 - one of my favorites

  • Vegetable and chicken pupusa - Q6

  • Chicken tamale - Q5 - the best masa I’ve ever tasted

  • Carne tortilla - Q15 - like a cheesesteak

  • Pork quesadilla - Q15 - one of my favorites

  • Fried dough - Q5 - I think it’s better than the fried dough at American fairs.

  • Pineapple empanada - Q7 - alright

  • Marzipan - Q5 - pretty gross; the marzipan at the sweet shop is way better

  • Marshmallows dipped in chocolate - Q5

Please see the post above for images.
A note regarding street food from “We did find eating street food in Guatemala a bit riskier than in other countries in terms of belly aches and less ladylike bowel issues. It is especially important in Guatemala to pay attention to who is eating where – seek out the popular food stands. If 20 locals are surrounding the street food vendor, jump in line there too. Locals want clean, healthy food as much as visitors do. Do not feel deterred by this warning, but do make sure you choose your street food wisely.”

The market here is huge; it seems as big, if not bigger than, Chichi. There are two sections: an artisanal market geared toward tourists and a grocery/mall geared for the locals. Both are interesting to walk through. By this point in time I was pretty shopped out, but I did pick up a few things (asking price in parentheses):
    • Magnet - Q10 (Q30)
    • Ten postcards - Q30
    • 2 large and 3 small cloth napkins - Q65 (Q80)

A few activities that sounded fun, but we didn’t have time for:

Traveling to Antigua from Lanquin
Unable to find easy transportation to Nebaj or Xela, we made a stopover in Antigua. Zypher Lodge is associated with Adventuras Turisticas, so we were able to make arrangements through the hostel. It cost Q60 per person for an eight hour ride. It could have been this one time, but I don’t know that I can recommend this shuttle company. First, we stopped at the driver’s house. Then, we stopped at a gas station where we waited for a girl to bring him money. Then, we stopped to change vans. Then, we waited for the new driver. We both had queasy stomachs and aching heads, due to the noxious fumes emitting from the shuttle. The shuttle driver dropped us off near The Terrace, another hostel that a rider was going to, but it didn’t have any private rooms available, so they pointed us to nearby Hotel Dionisio.

Traveling to Antigua from Lake Atitlan
A shuttle from San Marcos at 8:00 am costs Q75 and takes approximately three hours.

Traveling from Antigua to the Guatemala City Airport
We booked through our hostel: Q85 for a 9:00 am shuttle ride. We were told it takes an hour, but it was forty-five minutes of driving around and picking up other passengers before we even left Antigua, so it took closer to two hours. Give yourself plenty of time to catch your flight.