Adios, Guatemala! Incomparable Antigua, dreaded Guatemala City, and hitchhiking to the best Xmas parade ever

     Name me a more beautiful town in Central America than Antigua. You can’t do it. Granada? Suchitoto? Boquete? Those places’ beauty fades the farther you get away it—the opposite of me; at 100 paces I look dazzling—but not Antigua.
     For years Antigua has been known by travelers as the place to learn Spanish before heading deeper into Latin America, which is still a great idea. (I give a hot tip at the bottom of this post about how to stay there super-cheaply.) I hear scuttlebutt that San Pedro on Atitlan and Quetzaltenango are emerging as alternatives, but I remain a big fan of Antigua. We stayed two weeks. It’s rightful popularity is bringing in all the usual fifi stuff: absinthe bars, bagel shops, boutique hotels, five Japanese restaurants by my last count, and all of it in a finite area, probably pushing rents up and squeezing out “normal” businesses. I have a feeling the first to go will be used bookstores:

     Not everyone in Antigua embraces the peace, love, and good vibes.

     A few people have written to me about crime in Guatemala and how it affects travelers since my last post about it. I also forgot to include this recent article from the New York Times about Antigua’s mayor and a group of others who were arrested for an impressive variety of crimes.
     I can’t get out of my head what Dr. Samayoa said in Antigua. It was a little impertinent of me to ask him why he had an armed guard in his waiting room, but he plainly told me that he had no choice. His office had suffered two robberies, property damage, and subsequent threatening phone calls, but he said it has faded away with the boost in security. I must have looked incredulous for he raised his hands, shook his head, and said, “This is Guatemala.”
     The woman who rented a room to us behind her restaurant said that recently she was in a car with two of her little girls when a man brandished a knife, but ran off before anything happened. She was naturally still traumatized by the effect it had on her family and half-insisted on driving us to Guatemala City on her way home instead of us taking the bus. I thought her concern was a bit much, but then I read that hundreds of bus drivers have been murdered in Guatemala City in recent years for not paying protection money to gangs. (The day we arrived, one was killed in a drive-by downtown.)
     I could relay these stories all day and still, nothing happened to me. It helps that I don’t go out too much at night or stray away from main areas when I do, I’m a pretty big guy (in discussions with other travelers they often roll their eyes when I claim this makes a difference, but would you rather try something with me or someone smaller?), I speak some Spanish, I don’t flaunt anything of value—who knows what it is? You can’t discount sheer dumb luck either. In all my travels the worst thing that has ever happened to me was being pickpocketed in Istanbul in a soccer stadium. That was in the 90s and nothing else has come close.

     Kent shampoo is so money.

     To go from Antigua to nearby Guatemala City can feel like exchanging a gentle paradise for urban combat, and I can see why most people go to great lengths to avoid it. No one has ever rhapsodized Guatemala City as The Pearl of the Americas, but I like cities. I like the hustle and bustle. I only wish it didn’t feel like I had been sucking on a chicken bus exhaust pipe at the end of the day.
     For everyone else, everything reviled about Guatemala City seems to be encapsulated, literally, by its congested, colorful central market. It’s a total fire hazard with a dozen busy food stalls stuffed in the basement, cramped, crowded, noisy, intense—in other words, my kind of place.

     We were fortunate to couchsurf with an American, an energetic go-getter from the Midwest whose been living here for seven years and teaches gymnastics, of all things. He said he said he already knew me from my website (I’m kind of a big deal) and we schemed about all the hard-to-get places we want to travel to. I wonder if teaching gymnastics is like being a chef: you can do it anywhere in the world. If he can teach in Guatemala City, surely he can do that anywhere. He might be on to something.
     I didn’t write the newest Guatemala City members of CouchSurfing, a couple whose profile says they they can host up to 20 people at one time. It might be related to their occupation: “We develop activities for the swinger lifestyle and for adult nudist groups”.
     Couchsurfing is so big now that you get all types just as you would in the non-Couchsurfing world.

     A temporary ice skating rink on the main square in Guatemala City. Considering how many people clung to the edges, not many can skate, but you have to admire their enthusiasm. It was a pure carnival on the square. Along with the requisite myriad food options there were judo exhibitions, gymnastics, rock climbing and my favorite, an old American pool shark at a billiard table dressed like a Depression-era hustler who loudly announced in English all his trick shots as if he were Minnesota Fats performing in Wichita. The crowd ate it up.

     This was a surprise. A Palestinian runs Nawal Panaderia, a bakery in downtown Guatemala City on the walking street, 6 avenida 16-27, with this delicious zaatar bread that I ate in excess in Syria last year. It’s an addictive blend of spices that will save you a trip to the Middle East.

     In Guatemala it was amazing how often I saw kids taking paseos on their own. I’m sure someone was watching them, but I couldn’t see anyone.

Hitchhiking across Guatemala
     I didn’t take trying to hitchhike from Guatemala City to Mexico City lightly. I don’t take hitchhiking 1500km (900 miles) for granted anywhere but in Japan, but judging from our success in Mexico and Guatemala already, a solid 1100km (700 miles), I knew it was doable. I didn’t expect it to be the slog it was in Chiapas, southern Mexico, and I have to praise my travel partner, Lisa, for being such a trooper to endure the scorching hot lowlands, freezing mountain passes, dire situations, and general uncertainty of four days living by the seat of your pants. Anyone else would have pushed me in front of the first chicken bus.
     The good thing about traveling with someone is you see how things can be done differently. I’ve hitchhiked a gazillion miles in my life, but it’s still instructive to see other techniques. For example, Lisa always likes to ask everyone right after we get into a car, “What’s your name?” which is something I never say when on my own—it feels a smidge intrusive—but which I see has a disarming effect.
     Guatemala City to the border was about eight rides, all but two of them had women in the car. The first had all women: a mother and her two little girls who picked us up outside our Couchsurfing host’s condominium, which was the third such time outside our host’s place that we got an immediate ride. It helps to look like an obvious foreigner in a gated community.
     The rides came pretty quickly all day, but roads are windy (how they found a flat plot of land for an airport anywhere in this country, I’ll never know) and by nightfall we were about 5km from the border when a family saved us from a potentially dangerous and dark spot on the road. They drove us to the border town of Tecun Uman. I asked the driver if crossing the border at night was safe and he hesitated, which was all I needed to see. We stayed in Tecun Uman. I was dreading a horrible, scummy settlement like the border village of La Mesilla to the north, but it was quite pleasant, and we had the bonus of arriving on an auspicious day.

     This was fantastic. We arrived in Tecun Uman on the evening of a Christmas parade, and it had to have been the coolest I have ever seen with a wide variety of people and things floating by (twice!) One of the marching bands that passed had a strikingly full sound, and upon closer examination I saw that there was an electric bass player in the mix whose cord (that you can see if you look closely) stretched to an amp on top of the truck rolling behind him, which was then attached to a battery in a tricycle following the truck. Classic.

     Next post: the weird confrontation the following morning with corrupt Guatemalan immigration and the hot hitchhiking hell through the smuggling routes of Chiapas, Mexico.

Practical information:
     Don’t send anything from the Antigua post office. They have no stamps(!) and then they’ll say the franking machine doesn’t work, but they’ll take your money and say they’ll do it when it does work. Instead, they pocket everyone’s cash and summer in Cap d’Antibes. The nerve.
     The best accommodation deal I saw in Antigua was this: one week’s accommodation plus three meals a day for 700 quetzales at Hostal El Pasar De Los Anos on 5ta Calle Oriente 10A near 2a Avenida Sur. That’s only US$90, and the place looked pretty nice, plus it’s only 1.5 blocks from the main square on a quiet street. The dorm rooms looked fine, and hardly anyone was staying there. They also offer salsa lessons in the middle of it, free wifi, hot showers, etc. It might have been a temporary deal, but it’s worth checking out.
     Who else on the internet gives you this kind of information? Who? WHO?
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Adios, Guatemala! Incomparable Antigua, dreaded Guatemala City, and hitchhiking to the best Xmas parade ever — 4 Comments

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