If foreign a destination is renowned for Civil war, Political unrest, corruption at all levels and tainted with violence and threats to safety, ostensibly western opinion will tend to be bias in the negative. One such nation is called Guatemala.
Guatemalan history is one of great controversy. Mixed with the looming Mayan legacy, thriving culture, spectacular jungle scenery, technicolor fabrics, a population of over 15 million and some of the most welcoming people in central america. Having all this in our thoughts as we drove the last kilometers of the Mexican coastline, we once again felt a whole different nervousness as we approached the border. Having had such an amazing experience through out Mexico, which also came with the same warnings, we were now entering the true Central America and wondered what this would bring for us and our travels.
We entered the Mexican border town of Tapachula, armed with notes and instructions from previous overlanders, and were instantly assaulted by the chaos and madness that are boarder towns. Touts swarmed our vehicle sprinting alongside yelling ‘stop, we help’… we didn’t hit any but Russ did passed comment about scoring ‘hits’ on his door like an old WW2 fighter ace. Windows up, we drove through the running throng and made a wrong turn. We drove on thinking we were on our way to the custom office and quickly realized our error as the street constricted so much so that we barely fit let alone trucks or buses We muscled out the tuk tuks and the bumpy cobbled road lead us straight into the market street and into preying eyes of locals all seeming to unappreciated our presence in their main square. Not a good start and with the touts still running along side we beat a retreat back out of the crowded center. This is a one road in and one road out kinda town and we still cocked it up, it was only a matter of time before we stumbled across the boarder post. We hit the main road again, rolled into the customs and immigration gates managed to get ourselves and Troy over the in only one hour with the help of a South African family, thanks Maarten and Jennie. Success, with only one illegal bribe/ payment taken of 40 pesos we are let loose again and into the highlands of Guatemala.
There is something surreal when as a foreigner you look into a distance and know what you are gazing at is a completely different country. Having lived in the islands of New Zealand and Australia, driving across international boarders is not common to us. After crossing the scenery changed somewhat. No more palm trees and dry fields, but lush green forest thick cloud and rolling hill sides. We commenced our climb into the highlands and along the Pan American. Our destination was a small lake side village called San Pedro on the shores of Lake Atitlain where we were to learn Spanish at school for 2 weeks to a useful level. “Hola, dos cerveza por vavor” was about our limit. We required communication skills for the road, the further south we travel the less likely english will be spoken and with the long journey ahead, we needed to up the ante and really how hard could it be?
We traversed mile after mile of crap pot holed highways before descending an incredibly steep escarpment to San Pedro. The bonus of this was the most spectacular views across the lago which is ringed by 3 impressive volcanoes. This would be home for the next 2 weeks and we felt instantly relaxed. We squeezed Troy through streets that seemed way too narrow before coming head on with a chicken bus, that’s when you realize that there is room for everyone to pass with alot of creative maneuvering and finger crossing. We squeezed our way to the Corozan Mayan Spanish school with excitement of returning to student life and eager to take on learning a new language The family at the school greeted us with open arms and friendly smiles. We quickly organised a home for Troy and our very own Guatemalan family to move in with. Time to step away from our daily drive and finally a chance exploring a town intimately something we had not done in a while. Welcome to San Pedro!
Our family were fantastic, although completely non english speaking, this we were told by the school was perfect, a chance to forced us to use spanish and a great way to practice what we were learning each day. Mum ran a local seamstress business from home making all the traditional blouses for the local tiendas (stores) and Dad was a primary school teacher at a near by town. The 2 daughters were 12 and 17, both well on their way with their educations and building a future for themselves. Our room was basic, clean and safe, on the top floor of the home with views over the entire town, we quickly set up camp, settled in and got an early night in preparation of our first day of school, a feeling we have both not experienced for a very long time. After the first lesson our brains were overloaded, the words were charging around our heads and we wondered if we were really up for this challenge?
A week went by and were had a new found spanish speaking confidence Not only were we learning fast at school, we would come home and practice our sentences and vocabulary, being corrected along the way by our willing family. We were exposed to the everyday traditional life of a Mayan Guatemalan family. Breakfast was at 7.20 sharp, everyday a different dish, sitting with Mum and Dad sipping my dilmah tea, watching Russ devour the plate full of interesting porridge and fried bananas before being sent off to school with a full belly and a ‘have as good day kids’. Lunch was a different affair all together, the biggest meal of the day for Guatemalans. At 1pm the kitchen was filled with women, Mum, the maid, the young employee seamstresses and daughters, then Russ and I. Needless to say Russ was a hit and there was alot of giggling and blushing going on as they watched him eat the over sized ’man’ servings of different and interesting meals being placed before us. Dinner was a light snack, always some different traditional dish, the flavors were nothing we had tried before. The absolute freshness of each meal, no preservatives, nothing out of a bottle and everything that is good for you. A full table with all the family was a chance to talk about our day and be together and welcomed. We became close and comfortable being there and the family seemed to love our willingness to interact and be part of them. It was great to see, that despite a language barrier and being a whole world away from Australia and New Zealand, a family is still a family, no matter where you come from and this in itself was a warm feeling.
School was challenging yet rewarding, we had an awesome teacher named Ventura, not to be confused with Ace Ventura, pet detective He put us through our paces and by our second week we were rolling out sentences and having reasonable conversations about this that and the other. Classes were held on a one on one basis with Russ and I to our very own teacher. The classroom was inside a breezy hut on the lake shore, surrounded by coffee plantations and scenic views. The relaxed environment was not only peaceful but allowed us to learn at our own pace and focus on the language skills we needed to survive the next 6mths. The usual buying beer, pricing repairs at a mechanic and bargaining for a cheap price on camping. The school also arranged a traditional cooking night. Staff and students all getting involved with making a traditional Mayan meal of tamales a dish made with seasoned mashed potatoes placed on a banana leaf with chicken and a chili wrapped and cooked over and open fire. We all got involved with the prep, getting hands right into the mashing, no potato mashers here! The women masters then light a fire and cook our meal over it. It was a great experience to see how the woman hold on to the culture and maintain the old ways. The food was delicious and we will defiantly be trying that recipe at home, watch out our first dinner guests in Aussy!
Week 2 we decided to rent our own place, for a mere $28 per week we had our own unit. Hot shower, toilet, kitchen, rooftop , laundry and comfortable bedroom. We missed the home cooking but it gave us a chance to explore the local restaurants and bars, meet people and make friends. San Pedro is a strange place, a haven for the ‘nonconforming‘ hippies living cheap and cruising through their days. On one side are the traditionally clothed locals living their lives, then the expats and vagabonds invading their peaceful existence. Gringos had claimed a part of town known as ‘gringo alley’ where they owned all the bars along the strip, pulling in all the foreign tourists with cheap food and beers. We were unsure if we liked the vibe but got immersed ourselves in it non the less.
As our time drew to and end at the lake we planned our next steps. We had not driven or camped in Troy for over 15 days and had begun to miss our life on the road. It was time to make tracks and the next stop was the infamous Guatemala City. We required another laptop and had arranged, via our friend and pre owner of ‘penthouse’, California Dave to FedEx us one. This involved us navigating Troy through a very hectic city, deep into the industrial area, something we did not feel that safe doing. The hours ticked by as we tried to push through to the FedEx location and much to our best effort we did not arrive there till after 4pm, well after our usual 3pm cut off for driving and having a camp for the night. Even the FedEx lady asked us where we would stay, telling us the area was not safe and we were a target driving the streets in our shiny truck and camper filled with valuables. Nervously we scanned the GSP for a camping location and hustled to the outskirts of town to a water park/campground and into safety for the night. Guatemala city for us was daunting and not a place we wanted to stay and explore, although I am sure there are some hidden treasures in there somewhere.
The next day we found the tourist trail and the beautiful showpiece city of Antigua. The former Guatemalan capital has been plagued by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and floods over its history but yet remains full of renovated and crumbling colonial relics, bougainvillea lined cobble streets, churches, plazas and throbbing vibrant markets. We set up camp at the local tourist police who occupied a destroyed and abandoned hospital which was devastated from previous floods and earthquakes. The camping was free, the showers were cold but the security could not be better! So we left Troy in the compound and set of with the camera and a walking tour map to explore this famous city for a weekend.
We strolled the streets endlessly, seeing something different each time. We shopped up big buying fabrics, textiles, bright and beautiful things for our home in Australia. We wined and dined at some beautiful little cafes and bars, each with their very own style and ambiance. Culture tradition, Spanish colonialism and tourism all in one big melting pot. Antigua felt alot like Patzcurio in Mexico, the same traditional buzz, the vibrancy in the streets and the charm of the old times. This truly is the gem of Guatemala and can see why so many foreigners set up a life there permanently, its a very livable central american city.
Guatemala to us was a world of color and brightness The people welcoming, smiling and very short. The countryside was rolling, lush and thriving. Our time here was filled with culture and traditional experiences. Thanks Guatemala…you were awesome…to all the haters…Guatever! Don’t believe the hype!
We celebrated Global Inc Safari’s 6 month Anniversary of being on the road with a small hotel room, Jacuzzi fried chicken and beer. Reflecting on where we have already been and what is still to come. So far Latin America has been fantastic with each and every destination surprising us more and more. With January at an end we are now more conscious of time, kilometers and our final destination of Argentina. We have 6 months left and along way to travel. So we decide its time to hustle head for the next border and prepare to cross into El Salvador, a country with an even deeper and darker history. We’ve planned the route and are aiming for the central western highlands before making our way to the pacific coast and then back to some beach time!
Check out the Guatemala pics:
Driving Guatemala & San Pedro: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.477683558934088.96318.319040084798437&type=1