The Guatemala Trip (July 2017)

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Going to Guatemala

15 June 2017

On a whim, I decided to book a weekend in Guatemala mid June 2017. I literally booked the ticket the day before I left! Whether that is advisable or not is probably the subject of another post!

I’ve done some spontaneous things in my travels but never this. I knew I wanted an inexpensive weekend trip which was reasonably close as I just got back from Japan and I still had a time slot for a longer summer trip plus my upcoming 10 day Middle East trip in the fall.

Despite having so far been to 11 countries, I’ve actually traveled very little in Central America up to now (aside from Panama). So it seemed like a good idea to take my weekend to explore Guatemala.

I am an American Airlines Platinum member so I tend to prefer to fly AA if all else is equal as I have a far greater chance of being upgraded. The great thing about Central America is that American Airlines is usually the best bet anyway. In my case, I flew to DFW (Dallas) out of LAS (Vegas) and then connected on to Guatemala City. My connection was supposed to be an hour but due to delays it was cut down to eleven minutes!! Despite that hiccup, if you ever have a choice of which major hub to use, choose DFW. I’ve long felt it’s one of the best airports in America. Organized, modernized, easy to get around, good food, superior lounges, and clean.

I also had a bear of a time picking accommodations in Guatemala. I decided to go one night in Antigua. All the flights seem to arrive in the evening and it’s a quick journey by car from Guatemala City. I would then move on to Lake Atitlan on Sunday. There were plenty of options in Antigua for accommodations but very little options by the lake so I went with a pricier option to guard against a letdown there. More on my Guatemala trip to come!

 

Antigua

16 June 2017

After I arrived at Guatemala City International Airport (GUA) around 7:15pm (20 minutes late), our captain began landing procedures only to pull up at the last minute. That was a bit alarming to be honest (cant say I’ve ever seen that). He then came on the overhead speaker to state that another plane hadn’t moved quickly enough out of the way so we would “try again” to land in about 10 minutes. Uh, ok.

Anyway on the 2nd try we did land at GUA without any issues. It was raining and dark by that point but our approach was quick and we deplaned quickly as well. I found the customs process to be extremely fast and painless. Maybe 5 – 10 minutes ( I did not check a bag). As soon as I exited customs, I was at the front of the airport where my driver from Antigua Rentals & Services was waiting with my name on a sign. I was really surprised with how small an airport GUA is. The upside to that was a quick process to exit the airport (which I’ll take)!

My driver was Alejandro, who is actually the same person I corresponded with to arrange my reservation for my tour. He told me that he usually isnt in the field but was in this case due to unforeseen circumstances. I was impressed by his on time reliability and the cleanliness of the van. I ended up paying around $330 US for roundtrip service from GUA to Antigua, then from Antigua to Lake Atitlan, then from Lake Atitlan to GUA for the flight home. The pricing seemed to match what I’d seen elsewhere for a private vehicle and in reality it was a good deal for all that private driving around the country and having someone to call upon for advice and assistance when needed. While I generally do not endorse paying for private cars due to the expense but Guatemala does not seem to have enough of a transportation system to support random arrivals and cross country travel on a whim. Arranging shuttle buses that accommodated my tight 3 day itinerary in the country was impossible. There is no train or subway system I could find so that left me with the only choice of either taking taxi’s or arranging a car. I decided the expense of knowing someone will be ready and waiting to help me complete my itinerary was more important than saving minimal costs in this case.  Also I refuse to rent a car when I’m in other countries. I hate driving even in my own country. It’s just additional anxiety and distractions I don’t need.

After sifting through EPIC traffic in Guatemala CIty (seriously it is beyond even L.A. traffic) we finally made it to Antigua after about a 2 hour journey or so. I imagine if there was a train system that journey would’ve been half the time. Traffic delays were a major issue, even at 8pm on a Friday night. It also seems to me that traffic flow was poorly regulated and basic traffic rules only optional. Quite an experience!

When I reached my hotel (the Camino Real Antigua), I was happy to say that the hotel immediately impressed me. Click here to read more about my experience with this hotel in my full review. 

After checking into the hotel and getting my bags situated I did a quick walk through the night streets of Antigua but did not get too far as it was already quite late. I have to say that one thing I have generally avoided in my travels is arriving at my destination late at night. Especially if it’s a first time visit. I find that it is challenging to feel comfortable exploring at night right out of the gate. Also, the exhaustion of a long journey can curb my enthusiasm. When I went to Japan (just prior to this trip to Guatemala) I also arrived late but that was a lengthy trip and a major time difference. I already knew in advance I’d be turning in early the first night to start fresh very early on day 2. In this case, I only had two full days so it was a bummer to get in so late. Having said that, flight options were not exactly plentiful on short notice. So I sucked it up!

I woke up early on Saturday morning and immediately got to my normal routine of walking. I enjoyed strolling through the colonial streets. I stopped off for a quick traditional breakfast at the Cafe Santa Clara (eggs, beans, and some type of local sausage I hadn’t tried before). After that I walked (more like wandered) through the central square and perused the many stands in their small market there. I also realized then that my camera battery had died and I did not have my charger (left back home in Vegas).  Face palm moment! After doing some quick google searching on my phone, I got the impression that finding a Nikon battery charger was next to impossible in a town like Antigua and after visiting two electronics stores on the square, I realized this might be true. So I emailed Alejandro (my driver from the night before) and asked if he had any suggestions and it turned out he did! Foto Solis was just a block away and had the exact product I needed. I made sure to stop by Alejandro’s office (which was just down the road from the square) to thank him for his help. Hard to travel without a working camera! Live and learn.

Alejandro suggested I walk up to the Hill of the Cross and I was amazed at the number of steps up there! Yet once I caught my breath I made it up to the top and encountered a lot of tourists from various countries and enjoyed taking amazing photos! I’d highly recommend it for the best shots. We all have to get our Instagram game going!

I was originally planning to leave at 4pm that day but Alejandro convinced me that it would not be safe to attempt to drive to Lake Atitlan after dark as the journey would take more than 3 hours. It turns out he was right on with that suggestion. I left at 1pm! A short but fun little day exploring Antigua.

I wish I had more time in Antigua but I can certainly recommend it for a visit. It is a 500-year old Spanish colonial town with very old buildings that possess great charm and warm, welcoming people. A great introduction (albeit brief) to Guatemala.

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Panajachel

16 June 2017 – 17 June 2017

So after my driver picked me up at my hotel, I said my goodbyes to Antigua and left at around 1pm Saturday. We proceeded to spend a good hour in the nightmarish Guatemalan traffic getting out of Antigua and made our way to Lake Atitlan by road. The journey took about 3 hours and I got to see a lot of the heartland of this beautiful country.

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My immediate impressions were that it’s a very mountainous and hilly country (we spent a lot of the drive passing through CLOUDS); that it’s a country with very little in the way of actual traffic rules; and that the people are certainly impoverished although they also seem generally upbeat and content. It’s a complicated country (as all are) and it’s not uncommon to see the clash of western luxury against abject poverty. Throw in the mix of indigenous Mayan people and it’s even less clear. As much as I’ve already traveled, you’d think I would learn not to prejudge or simplify/dismiss cultural complexity but I still make that mistake. Case in point: sitting at a bar and reflexively assuming tequila or mezcal would be the drink of the country. It never crossed my mind that Rum would be more prevalent here. I just assumed (not thinking) that Guatemala is like neighboring Mexico. Not so. Not at all.

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Anyway, after the long long trip to Lake Atitlan, we reached the village of Panajachel on the lake. It’s a small town of about 14,000 people but there is a lot of tourism there as well so it certainly feels larger than that. From there, I got to the boat dock at Kayucos. I was glad to have pre-arranged transportation with the hotel because there were a lot of vendors trying to sell to me as soon as I got out of the van. Luckily the hotel Laguna Lodge has their own boatman. In this case, it was Francisco. I realized before I boarded that I was out of cash and I was uncomfortable going to a remote area without it so Francisco hailed me a Tuk Tuk (a fast moving small vehicle that can easily navigate small and tight city streets), he paid for my Tuk Tuk with 10 quetzal and held on to my bag. I was a little nervous leaving my bag with someone I just met but my poor planning on the cash front and my instincts that I could trust Francisco prompted me to go on a Tuk Tuk to a local ATM.

After a chaotic and crazy ride to the cash machine, I took out some queztal and got back to the dock to find Francisco waiting for me with my bag intact and safely on the boat.

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We then took a harrowing 20 minute boat ride to the Laguna Lodge (which is not accessible by roads according to the hotel). I have to say it was the most chaotic boat ride I’ve ever taken. Constant bouncing and slamming into the water, jolting side to side, up and down. The force of the waves were so powerful that I truly think someone with a poor constitution or a bad back would be in a world of literal hurt. That’s how choppy the water is on Lake Atitlan. I also didn’t see a life preserver on board and considering how that boat slanted, that was a bit nerve-wracking. But alas, I made it safely to the other side (as you can probably tell by the fact you’re reading this!).

Anyway, after getting to the Lodge, I was presented with a drink of some kind. I would guess some kind of watermelon or other fruit but Francisco says it was a “fruita mixta” which I would assume means many different fruits. Whatever it was, it was incredibly refreshing.

The hotel check-in process was simple and decidedly low tech. It’s something like being in a medieval castle if you could reimagine it Mayan/Guatemalan style. It’s low tech for sure (no TVs, although I don’t mind that at all). Also, it’s a very eco-friendly hotel. They conserve power and water and use solar energy, locally grown organic products and are generally environmentally conscious in everything down to how the bed linens and window curtains are made.

 

When I got to the hotel, I found it to be pretty deserted. The first night I didn’t see more than 1 other guest the entire time. It honestly felt like something out of the start of a murder mystery in a far off distant estate, hidden by the night!

I have to admit that at first I was alarmed. I’m a “city boy”. My fondest memories are getting crazy in the megacities of the world. I’ve never been comfortable in the quiet. This hotel is isolated (literally). So it feels like being stranded on an island in some ways, which didn’t sit well with me. I like to get out and go and walk and observe urban-ness. This is NOT that.

So after a couple hours of fretting, it then occurred to me that this is EXACTLY the kind of experience I crave. It’s not filled with tourists, or on the “well worn” path. It felt totally different from any place I’ve ever stayed. Really not even close. Isn’t the exploration of the previously unknown a law of travel? I think yes.

So I decided to use the quiet time to reflect, and go inward, and of courses continue to “sample” the deliciously addictive local rum Zacapa rum. It’s pricey (by Guatemala standards) at around 80 queztal a glass. But you only live once! Yolo.

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I indulged in the hotel restaurant’s 4-course meal and drink and dreamed and imagined to my heart’s content. With the world hidden away in a shroud of clouded darkness and monsoon-like rain, I found myself on a hidden island. No better time to enjoy the amazing music in the restaurant (Nessum dorma anyone? What about Dust in the wind?) … and sit alone in a castle on the lake and wonder and hope and just be.

The moment is what we make of it. It can’t be anything else.

Sitting in that dark, lonely restaurant in a dark lonely hotel on a dark, lonely lake, despair could’ve taken over. Instead, I noticed my new favorite rum at the bar and enjoyed a glass. Then I heard one of my favorite songs (Dust in the Wind), a cover of the original. Then several other 80s songs that I just love. Then the exact song I belted out walking down the streets of Kyoto, Japan not two weeks before (Nessun Dorma). It was like the universe was wrapping its arms around me and saying “you’re fine, this is what you wanted.” Then I realized that being in this crazy place in a part of the world that’s totally foreign to me is EXACTLy where I’m supposed to be. This is what I do. If I want to experience the world in all its glory, I sometimes have to get away from the markets and the street vendors and the tours and see it in its unspoiled glory. This was exactly that. This wasn’t the Marriot and it damn sure wasn’t Puerto Vallarta and that $800/night villa. This was Lake Atitlan, Guatemala; in all its splendor and all its power. All those who venture upon it better man up.

 

Lake Atitlán

17 June 2017

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After having a nice evening of dreaming and enjoying the Laguna Lodge, I ran into a slight challenge. You see, I have a problem with bugs. I try to not let them bother me but I just can’t stand bugs. I knew in advance that the hotel was rustic and basically in the forest but I don’t think I properly prepared myself for it. The other not unrelated challenge is that I absolutely cannot sleep when I feel warm. There is no A/C system at the Laguna Lodge. Not a problem considering how cool it is outside but opening the doors means letting in even more bugs (since they inexplicably do not have screen doors or any way to get air flow in without bringing in the bugs, ants, flies, and whatever else is hovering out there). So I had to just tire myself out enough to fall asleep bugs or no bugs, this eventually happened around 4am. The room itself was very comfortable with a big comfy bed, nice big bathroom with a big shower, and it had a rustic authentic feel to it. They upgraded me to the Quetzal room for free as well, which had an amazing view and big balcony. Though none of that mattered the first night because flies kept buzzing past my head and the room was sweltering!

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The next morning, I got up around 9am and visited the hotel restaurant for breakfast. I was decidedly underwhelmed by breakfast. Mostly because the windows in the restaurant were wide open and flies and ants seem to descend on me. I finally gave up trying to eat and let the bugs have the rest! It was that bad. At dinner, the windows are closed and I found the bug problem far less pronounced. On the upside, when I got back to my room I found that it was already being cleaned and it was comforting to see them clean out the bugs too. I also asked the young man cleaning it if they had a “ventilator” which I think means fan and thankfully he said “yes”. So that solved one problem for the 2nd night!

I decided at that point that I couldn’t sit around the hotel all day but without sleeping much I got a later start than I usually do and unlike most places I visit, I could not easily go for a walk and see a lot of things since the hotel was isolated and nature walks are not exactly my thing.

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So I caught the pricey boat ride to Panajachel (about $20 – $25 US each way). At first, when I got there, I found the town to be pretty underwhelming with nothing but street vendors selling the same stuff. Determined to correct my negative mindset, I did what I always do when things get a bit sour and I started walking. I just kept walking until I found something interesting. As normal, the universe didn’t let me down!

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I ended up at the end of Calle Santander and found a beautiful spot for photos and views of the lakes. Panajachel does have tourists of course, but it’s certainly a more gritty town and I wouldn’t call it a “resort town”. There is clear poverty and a lot of street merchants who will approach you. Obviously, street merchants are not isolated to Panajachel and some variation of that can be found all over the planet so that didn’t bother me at all. The more I walked the more I discovered and found little off the beaten path shops and food vendors and I enjoyed watching the kids play in the streets and taking in the sights and sounds of the town. It turned out to be a very nice shortened day exploring the city.

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I tried Papusas and then found a Uruguayan restaurant **insert restaurant name**. I also bought a little coffee table book on Guatemala history and culture and I’m looking forward to reading it.

Upon return to the docks at Kayusco for the boat ride back to the hotel, I decided to hire a boat instead of using the hotel’s expensive service. I found the boatman I hired charged me half of what the hotel does so I’d definitely recommend hiring your own boat if you need to cross the lake.

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I got back to the hotel to storming rain. When I got into the hotel, I realized I wanted to have that amazing meal again that I’d had the night before but the only problem is the menu changes each day. So I tried my luck asking the staff if they could just skip the day’s menu and replicate the same from the night prior. The new menu had peanuts (which I don’t eat) and other things that just held no appeal to me. To my delight, they agreed to remake the same meal for me. So I got to enjoy the delicious meal of soup, salad, vegetable phyllo and banana mascarpone tart.

 

I also retired early to my room and enjoyed just sitting on the porch listening to the rain and relaxing. I normally do not retire so early on a trip but in this case, I think I needed it. Besides, what’s the point of solo travel if I can’t do what the hell I want, when I want?! Besides, I clocked in another 4-5 miles walking that day anyway!

My trip to Guatemala would end with a nice evening meal, relaxing in my room (with a fan in hand and bugs less noticeable) and a new sense of appreciation for the country and its uniqueness. Even though I only had two days in Guatemala, it actually felt like a lot longer than that. Maybe it’s the way I travel but to me, a 2-day trip feels full and I left with no regrets. Solo travel is hard sometimes. In that way, it’s sort of like relationships. It can be tough and challenging but you have to keep working at it and working at it to bear the fruits that are more amazing than words can say.

 

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