Guatemalan First Impressions

Guatemalan First Impressions – Antigua Guatemala

We arrived a full day late. Our flight from Madrid to Bogota was running late, causing us to miss our connecting flight to Guatemala City and had to overnight in Bogota. Our shuttle rearranged with Viator and Gray Line, we finally made it to Antigua Guatemala. We have some interesting Guatemalan first impressions. Already I love the country. Flying into and landing at Guatemala City, is incredible. The landscape has volcanoes everywhere you look.

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Guatemalan First Impressions Volcanoes
Guatemalan First Impressions Arriving

The airport is a peaceful sort of a place, after Bogota and many Asian airports. It’s small for an international airport. There’s a 5B (that’s a banking brand) ATM on the third floor, where we acquire some cash). There are booths here to get a transfer to Antigua for US$10. There are a few folks trying to get our business outside the airport, however, our name is on a sign for our pre-booked transfer.  We wait for 10 minutes for another group and then we’re off.  We’re sharing a transfer with three Argentinians. The commentary is in Spanish, some of which we understand.

Guatemala has a population of 15.1 million people. Guatemala City is the largest city in Central America. 3 million people, sharing 1.7 million cars are crammed in here. It feels like they’re all in front of us in traffic. Here’s a piece of advice. Don’t try and get from Guatemala City to Antigua during rush hour. Even after Asian traffic, this is madness.

Guatemala City to Antigua

The Guatemalans buy their petrol in American gallons and drive in kilometers. Our 41-kilometer journey takes us around 1 hour and 45 minutes. Our transfer, with Gray Lines, booked with Viator, cost us US$15 each and drops us off right outside our hotel, the Posada Juma Ocag.

Most of the time on the transfer is spent getting out of Guatemala City.  It feels like it goes on and on and on.  The roads seem good, but there’s just too much traffic.  Lots of camionetas – or chicken buses as they’re called by travelers from outside the region – and lots and lots of cars.

Guatemalan First Impressions Chicken Bus

There’s barbed wire on every building that we drive past.  The crime rate here is one of the highest in Latin America, so perhaps it’s justified.  There are bars on all windows, but that might cultural also.  There are auto repair shops everywhere.  The standard of driving indicates that this is a necessity.

Guatemalan First Impressions (22)
Guatemalan First Impressions Barred Shops

The cost of the shuttle goes up for night time travel.  I imagine that this is danger money for the drivers, as we dodge chicken buses (camioneta de pollos), other shuttles, motorbikes driving the wrong way on the roads and people lighting fires in the ditches.

We arrived in Antigua in the dark.

Antigua Guatemala

We’re back in the land of “no toilet paper in the toilet, it goes in the bin”.  We’re also in the land of single ply toilet paper.   We have a private room, set in a courtyard, with a private bathroom.    It’s costing us 200 Quetzales a night.  (US$26.62, GBP£21.76)

Guatemalan First Impressions Posada Juma Ocag

Dinner on our first night is just across the road at a strange Guatemalan/German combination called Wieners, where they have travelers specials for 40 Quetzales.  (US$5.32, GBP£4.35) – a bowl of soup and a main meal.  We pay extra and sample the national beer, Gallo.  We supplement it with other beers Victoria and Moza.

Guatemalan First Impressions Beer

Guatemalan First Impressions

Volcanoes surround us.  Only 18 kilometers away the Volcán de Fuego is smoking away, completely active.  Buildings are primarily concrete.  They’re painted with a Mediterranean yellow, to blue to pink.  Bars are on all windows.  Window sills jut out into the narrowest pavements EVER.  On the top of all walls and gates we can see barbed or razor wire. Doors lock at 8pm, or stay locked all day.  It’s necessary to ring a bell to gain entrance to our hotel.

Guatemalan First Impressions Antigua Guatemala
Guatemalan First Impressions Volcanoes (2)

Vivid Colors, Constant Noise

There are bright colors everywhere on the women’s clothes.  There’s noise everywhere.  There’s music playing on massive speakers that look like they could house whole families.

Guatemalan First Impressions Volcanoes (2)
Guatemalan First Impressions La Merced
Guatemalan First Impressions Color (2)

The streets in Antigua are cobbled.  Cars rattle and squeal their way along them.  Tuk tuks whine their way around the streets plying their trade.  Yes.  Tuk Tuks.  No colors on them, though, here in Antigua they’re all the same boring gray and blue colour.

Guatemalan First Impressions Antigua Tuk Tuk

Pimped up chicken buses (camioneta de pollos) sound their horn and rev their engines constantly roaring away at high speed, braking suddenly for a fare.  There’s constant traffic.

Guatemalan First Impressions (12)

Is Antigua Anglicized?

We’d read that Antigua was very touristy.  Reports said it was full of expats and foreign visitors and it wasn’t an easy place to learn Spanish because it was easy to find English.  I think we must have gone to the wrong Antigua!  That doesn’t mean that people aren’t friendly or helpful.  They are completely.  But they help you in Spanish.  I’d been expecting a Chiang Mai style experience, where menus, hawkers and pretty much everything is in English and the set up is for the English speaking tourist.

Guatemalan First Impressions Antigua
Guatemalan First Impressions Antigua (2)
Guatemalan First Impressions Central Park Antigua

We ate at a few places that had menus translated into English, but we read the Spanish.  Our orders were taken in Spanish, regardless of what the menu said.  Our only experience of being surrounded by English-speaking tourists was over lunch, when the table across the room spoke loud American English to ensure they were heard by the entire block.  Perhaps, I said, it’s good we’re going to Quetzaltenango.

Antigua to Quetzaltenango

And so we took a shuttle, which I confess we booked in English at the Bigfoot Hostel.   And here we are in Quetzaltenango.   This is Guatemala’s second largest city.  It’s at 2,330 meters above sea level.  It’s cold and it’s very different to Antigua.  We’re staying with a family, at a home-stay while we take Spanish lessons.

And there I’ll leave you.  Hasta Pronto!

Guatemalan First Impressions Chicken Bus (2)

Travel Tips for Exploring Guatemala

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