We decided to spend the precious few years we have on this Earth being adventurous and exploring the globe, even if some areas may be considered unsafe. Where is safe? Where is unsafe? I suppose there is not a correct answer to those questions. All I know is that travelling and learning about new areas, people, foods, and cultures gives us amazing experiences and memories. We are determined to see as much of the world as we can while we are able.
We said: "We’re going to Guatemala.”
They said: “Why?”
This was the most common response that we received when we told friends and family of our plan to visit the central American country. The unknown instills many emotions in people. We felt curious and excited when we saw a picture of an eco-lodge situated on beautiful Lake Atitlan a year ago. We were instantly intrigued. We decided then that we would someday make a trip to visit Guatemala and see this amazing lake. After about a year, we had accrued enough vacation time. We spent that waiting period conducting research on traveling in the area. To comfort ourselves, as well as our friends and families, we worked to prepare ourselves as much as possible for the experience, so we read accounts of fellow travelers, travel alerts, and CDC websites.
During the few months prior to the trip we solidified our accommodations through AirBNB and obtained the recommended vaccinations for visiting the country. The night before our departure we drove to the lakes region of New Hampshire to drop Loki off with some friends. We would miss him but we knew that he was going to have an excellent time with Kerri and Theo and his canine friend Bambi. Finally, on 12/31/15 we got an early morning ride to the airport and awaited our flight to Guatemala City. It was about a six hour flight in total with one layover in Atlanta.
Flying into Guatemala City afforded us an amazing bird's-eye perspective of the alien landscape. It was different than anywhere I’d been before with several small dips and valleys, and many of the communities organized on the high plateaus. Having never been outside the US or Canada I expected some level of a culture shock once I arrived. It was honestly just a bit overwhelming trying to navigate through customs and get out of the airport. The process itself was quite easy, however. We stuck together and made use of Rob’s small Spanish vocabulary and basically followed the crowd. However, I don’t speak the language and am not a huge fan of crowds, so upon exiting the airport I stuck close to Rob and followed his lead.
Once we made it through customs I desperately needed to use the restroom. I was frantically searching for a ladies room with none to be found. There were several kiosks for people to get taxis, shuttles, and buses etc. so we stopped to ask where to find the restroom and get transportation. We decided to take a cab to Antigua which was about one hour away. The restrooms were located outside the building so we made a detour there first. The ladies room of course was closed so I waited patiently while Rob disappeared into the men’s room. It was when I was by myself that a man came up to me and started speaking Spanish. I tried to tell him that I didn’t know Spanish and finally he said “I’m the guy.” I found our taxi driver! Or he found us. Either way, as soon as Rob came back out we hopped in his cab and started our Guatemalan adventure.
The weather was amazing as we left Guatemala City. Dry and in the 80s. We were mesmerized by our surroundings. Lots of people, "chicken buses" loaded with luggage on top, we even saw a man on top of a bus while it was driving down the road. Since neither of us are fluent in Spanish, conversing with our driver was hard, so we mostly just stared out the taxi windows, absorbing everything we could as it whipped by.
As we approached the former central American capital city, our driver began trying to extract from us exactly where in the city we wanted him to abandon us. We were able to remember and communicate a nearby landmark, "Hotel Santo Domingo", when our actual street name didn't seem to register. A very short walk later had us standing in front of a nondescript door to the hostel Casa del Sol. A door on which the other side of was our temporary home; our solace in this crazy foreign place; our safe space, home base. A door which was locked and to which we had no key. Fortunately, we had been given special instructions by the Airbnb owner on how to get the key from a keybox.
Finally, we were inside! And there were English-speakers here! We got up to our tiny room and threw down all our belongings and crashed on our bed for a while. We were super excited, exhausted, and overwhelmed. We needed to regroup before heading back out beyond the wall. Once we were comfortable, we set out on foot. If our primary mission was lunch, then objective zero was to absorb as much scenery, architecture, flora, and fauna as we could along the way. Our feet carried us to Cafe Condesa (countess) where we devoured the most delicious fresh fruit platter we'd ever had.
Our hunger sated, and our bodies rested, it was time to get lost! We checked out parque central (central park) just outside the cafe. We walked all over the tiny, adorable city. We explored miscellaneous alleys and side streets. We picked random places that seemed intriguing and hopped in for a closer look. We had such a great time. Everyone was super friendly, even if we could only communicate at a very basic level!
It is important to note that it was new year's eve, so the streets were extra busy. Calle del Arco (street of the arch) was packed with artisans, vendors, and performers. We admired local crafts (and of course collected some of our favorite pieces!). As night rolled in, we made our way back to parque central. Everyone packs into the park and there's fireworks exploding and flashing lights and music and all sorts of things happening. We counted down to January 1, 2016 and then headed towards our bed. We were slightly uncomfortable around a bunch of foreign people with explosives and alcohol, but mostly we were exhausted from a long day of travel.
Fernando's Kaffee on at Calle Camposeco and 7a Avenida Norte is a must-see for all you coffee drinkers. There are so many delicious options here, we had to visit it twice. Maybe three times? A popular Guatemalan coffee variation includes a special type of chocolate made for this purpose. It dissolves easily into the drink to make a rich mocha drink that is amazing. I stuck to cafe Americano which has since ruined all other coffee for me. The seating area is very relaxing here. One of the days we sat out here there was a woman making fabrics and selling them. The colors used are incredibly vibrant. Also note there is a cat that likes to hang out at Fernando's, and you will likely meet Fernando himself if you stop in here. He's super friendly and will make his presence known. We decided to forego making our own breakfast one day and stopped here for traditional Guatemalan breakfast with eggs, beans, and fresh tortillas.
One evening we went to Habibi's Lounge to partake in some hookah action. Well, when we arrived, the doors were open into the lobby and the gentleman at the entrance greeted us. I think we asked if we could come in to smoke a hookah (at least that's what I meant to say!). He seemed very flustered, told us no, and disappeared beyond the walls of the lobby. We felt so awkward that we left. When we walked by again a while later, all the hookahs that had previously been on display in the lobby were gone, as was the host. We were a little bummed, but had to laugh at how strange the whole encounter was.
We stopped at Gloria's kitchen for lunch one day. We think it was on 3a Calle Poniente between Alameda de Santa Lucia and 7a Avenida Norte. When we first walked in, we were a little disoriented. The kitchen/register/counter is all immediately next to the doorway. It's super hot; there is no ventilation hood or any sort of safety equipment like we're used to seeing at home. There were just two ladies and one young boy working there. I ordered two tacos for Mandy and a burrito for myself. We paid and took a seat as far from the heat of the kitchen as we could find. Looking around the restaurant further lowered our expectations; the roof of the establishment was a makeshift array of burlap and plastic sheeting, held loosely in place by miscellaneous rough-sewn lumber. The boy brought us a couple glasses of fresh juice that we certainly didn't order. He said it was piña. Pineapple. Freshly squeezed. We tasted it hesitantly, and it was delicious! I'm sure it was my error somehow, but when the food arrived, we ended up with two plates of tacos. So 6 tacos. And a burrito. It was so much food but we didn't even care because it was all so amazing. And it was all only about $5US! We devoured everything and vowed to return.
As we were walking around aimlessly one afternoon, we reached an intersection somewhere near central park. As we tried to decide which way to go, a woman approached us. She was selling fruits. We weren't particularly hungry, but we bought a bag of freshly-sliced mango for 1Q (about 13 cents) anyways. It was unbelievably good. We learned that food just tastes remarkably better when it hasn't traveled far.
If you're looking for souvenirs, Nim Po't is a great place to check out. They stock all sorts of art and crafts made (almost always by hand) in Guatemala and nearby countries. The great part about shopping here for us was that they accept major credit/debit cards. We had exchanged for an amount of Quetzales through our bank before we left home and we were hoping not to have to get any more because it's more expensive to exchange currency in Guatemala. So we took the opportunity to get some small gifts for family and friends back home, without putting a dent in our cash-on-hand.
As a recommendation from our AirBNB host we found outselves at Café No Sé (Café I don't know) on 1a Avenida Sur. This was convenient as it was right down the street from where we were saying. And they had happy hour!! This bar is known for it's Ilegal Mezcal which had been traditionally smuggled into Guatemala from Mexico. Mezcal is made from agave. It is similar to tequila (made from blue agave specifically). We each took a shot, with a couple that we had met from Chicago who were on their honeymoon. Rob enjoyed it. I on the other hand, passed on the second round. Another evening we made our way to Terrace Hostel. Here we sat on the rooftop bar and watched Volcan En Fuego erupt. It felt surreal to be drinking a cocktail on a rooftop while watching lava flow down the sides of a mountain in the distance.
We spent a total of 3 nights and most of 4 days in Antigua. We tried to explore as much of the city of possible during this time. There is amazing architecture around the city and several ruins from the old colonial capital. Rob was interested in all of the vehicles that we saw that are not available or differ slightly from what is seen in the US.
So then we went to Lake Atitlan.
"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to."
- Bilbo Baggins
We're just an adventure-loving couple with a puppy looking to share our stories with the world.