Guatemala…where do I even start?
What I knew before I arrived:
– I have friends who lived there and were happy.
– somehow I always had in the back of my mind that it was dangerous but I can’t quote any specific statistics right out of my head, so I wanted to keep that part more in the back of my mind and not determine my experience.
– incredible historic sites.
– definitely rather lower incomes.
– it’s in Central America.
How it all really evolved:
Making sure that the ‘danger’ factor was not the main thing my brain was concerned about, because, you know – what you focus on happens/becomes reality, I believed in the best. I focused on getting to know friendly people and discovering the country from its best side. Although I never really got to a completely safe feeling. Somehow I was always alert and listened closely to my gut. Except once, when a driver didn’t want to stick to his words and thought he could do what he wanted in Tikal, I was safe, but even stood my ground firmly there and got well back.
Speaking Spanish is of definite advantage. I met an Australian who paid pretty much twice as much as I did for the transport to and from Tikal just because she didn’t speak Spanish. Besides, just that you buy water one day at a story for 2Q(uetzal), doesn’t mean that you’ll get it for the same price again the next day. Sometimes it was 3, sometimes 4, sometimes 5 – in which of the last 2 cases I refused to buy it.
More than once I had the feeling that people wanted to take advantage of me because I was a foreigner. Something quite natural especially in developing countries. It is a difficult situation – if the national park of Tikal charges a foreigner 6x the amount of a local, why should any local be different if they see that the government charges foreigners more than them? It looks only right to them because often they don’t know anything else. Plus, in combination with low morale, high corruption, and crime, people are just people. What can you do about it? Bargain, confront them, and if you’re local if you notice that one of your people charges a foreigner more because of their nationality – speak up! For goodness sake, speak up – change has never happened by staying silent in such situations. Why should you care? I invite you to travel to other developing countries, eventually on other continents, and you’ll experience this type of ‘reverse racism’ yourself – and believe me, it’s no good for anybody.
If you want to buy something, always start at 30-50% of the price that the person mentioned to you. Depending on the value, even lower sometimes. Go to local stores and restaurants, especially in Guatemala city, you will find great ‘Menú del día’ at around 20Q including a drink (~€2,5).
Check out the various cafés in Guatemala City. No, not Starbucks. There are so many unique artisan coffee shops and most of them offer great wifi and a spot to plug your laptop – just in case, you know. 😉
Upon checking in for my return flight from Guatemala, I met a French woman, who told me she came for NGO work and found it absolutely horrible. Turned out she was told that it was so dangerous that she shouldn’t go out anywhere – so she only went from the hotel to the NGO and back. Please, don’t let anybody give you that much b******* about any country. Inquire with locals about where you can go and what to do. I walked around freely – though except once for a few blocks never alone at night. I happily used Uber and got great service. Just be aware, don’t wear anything expensive (yes, this is a good time to keep your LV or Chanel’s in the closet!), dress normal, and mirror the behavior of locals when you’re out – don’t wait at the red light when everybody crosses, which shows you’re definitely foreign and new to this place. And yes, with that bulletproof SUV, you will stand out for sure and raise interest in your ‘value’. So, rather go for a Toyota Corolla – the glasses are tainted anyway.
All of my friends advised against taking public transport, so I listened to them. For traveling within the country, I used ‘collectivos’, which are small, 9-10 seaters and are pretty safe. If you got a bit of a crazy driver, just call the company right on the spot – they’ll talk with him and you can avoid the direct confrontation. I paid anywhere between 8-15$ for a trip and it was absolutely worth it. Besides, for any distance longer than 3h, I highly recommend taking the plane as you don’t want to do night busses on those streets for 8h. Your sleep is just too valuable!
From Flores, the city with the closest airport to Tikal, you can get collectivos to all kinds of places – even San Ignacio and other cities in Belize, as well as Mexico. Flores is a cute little town and I definitely recommend to stay for two nights at Isla de Flores to get the full experience. At around 2pm every day, about 5-6 women open up their food booths with homemade food of all kinds and cakes of very good size. Not just is it a great business for them, but you can get dinner at a very reasonable rate, enjoy the sunset around the lake, and just have a good evening.
If you look for accommodation – be very clear about what is important to you. To me, it is getting my sleep. So, I looked out for anything that said party next to a hostel or any bars or clubs next to a hotel. You won’t always get it right, but it will definitely help you avoid a lot of sleepless nights. Also, be aware that Guatemaltecans have a very different noise level that they are used to than e.g. Austrians. In Austria, if somebody sleeps, the rest of the house turns to whisper and really careful with their voice and actions. In Guatemala, let’s just say, this is very different – like I’ve observed in my developing countries. People are simply used to noise since most of the walls are not very thick. Also, make sure you have air condition where you’re at. Otherwise, buildings tend to get moldy quickly and the awareness of mold or dust is not yet as high as e.g. in the UK. If people see something like mold, mostly they overpaint it but don’t actually get it out of the walls. So, if you’re sensitive to this, you might notice itchy eyes or sneeze more than normally. Just because you don’t see anything doesn’t mean it’s not there. Due to also being quite picky about my health, I mostly went for 3* and upwards accommodation and it paid off. Last but not least, even though the rooms are sometimes simple, often the value is made up again by a really good breakfast.
Lake Atitlan is very nice with its volcanos and 12 villages surrounding it. Though some of the villages can be very touristy, especially with all kinds of meditation, yoga, and spirituality centers. It is definitely a highlight to see, and 2-5 days will give you a good impression – I was very happy with 2 days.
Tikal is definitely one of a kind and you should plan a whole day for it. If you’re coming from Flores, you got ~3h transport (going there and coming back), as well as a good 3-4h, discovering the ruins in the park as well as its vast flora and fauna. I don’t recommend to plan anything else on that day as you will walk for ~10km and the only thing you’ll be yearning for at the end of it is a good, long, shower. My return ticket to Tikal was 80Q, and I did it with the same guy that I took as a taxi on the first day going from the airport to my hotel. However, when I went from the hotel to the airport, I took a TukTuk as that was only 10Q and the usual price for taxis is 25Q. So, if you find a TukTuk upon arrival, get it!
Antigua is quite a historic place, but once you’ve been to smaller cities in Mexico, you will recognize that they are all very similar in their layout, colors, and structure. The city is already very touristic and you’ll find that it has higher prices than Guatemala city. A lot of locals own houses there but rent it out and live somewhere else due to the higher living cost. You’ll find quite a number of foreigners who’ve established businesses there and play a key part in the local economy. On a completely different note, I got a manicure there, which took 1h and was very very good (better than I had it anywhere else) and I paid Q80 – probably was overcharged again here but it was ‘quite an ok’ bargain.
The food in Guatemala tends to be a lot of meat, frijoles (beans), tortillas, rice, vegetables, and fruits. Chia seeds have been around for ages and are an absolutely normal part of the diet – although you’ll barely find them in any hotel for breakfast.
Talking about food already, one’s gotta mention the coffee, which is definitely one of the best in the world. My friends also told me about the rum being absolutely incredible – well, I leave that up to you to judge, I got no taste for those drinks!
Overall, I’d say Guatemala was worth the visit, especially for Lake Atitlan, Tikal, and all those little artisan cafés in Guatemala city. About a week gives you a good impression, if you got time, go up to Semuc Champey which is absolutely unique, but a bit difficult to get to. Be aware of the environment around you, listen to locals and get their advice in terms of where to go and where not to go, and do your best to inform yourself about the prices in advance of whatever you want to consume or do.