Adventures in America – Part 4
Our flight to Guatemala from Boston was on a smaller Mexican airline called Volaris, it seemed like their version of our Indigo and the staff kept proudly reminding passengers of their excellent on-time record, and to their full credit the flight left on time, staff on ground and in-air were quick, courteous and helpful.
After the manicured americanized airports of Costa Rica, we were somewhat relived to find Guatemala to be a lot more like India, little unkept and somewhat chaotic with fewer security staff and people happily jumping queues to get ahead in line. Having learnt our lesson in Costa Rica, we had booked ourselves in the front of the plane, hoping to get out and beat the long queues at immigration this time.
To our relief, we breezed through immigration here, unlike Costa Rica where they interviewed every traveller with twice the suspicion of even the US authorities, but we were not so lucky with customs. While waiting for our baggage at the belt we saw a hefty, military uniformed, customs officer with a sniffer dog who after unsuccessfully sniffing some Israeli tourists quickly made his way to us and found a selection of kadhipatta leaves that mom had hidden in her purse, between the pages of a paperback book. Luckily the officer was kind and after a sweet warning he confiscated the offending leaves and let us carry on.
This wasn’t our first brush with the customs authorities on this trip, we had some ‘sauf’ confiscated on arrival in Costa Rica, also with a warning about carrying food products, so if you want to get someone in trouble then I suggest you entice them to carry loads of Indian spices and vegetables on their trip to central america, then sit back and watch the fun. Also Ironically you can carry any number of guns and up to 500 rounds of ammunition through security here, as long as you claim its for hunting, but a single curry leaf is seen as a hazard. Goes to prove that spicy curry has killed more westerners than guns in the last decade, especially if they were unlucky enough to have eaten it at one of our train stations.
Also like India, soon as you clear the formalities you’re greeted by a wave of touts, offering coffee, trinkets, taxis, hotels and tours and you get to practice your ‘No Gracias’ [No Thank You] early on, which is good because you’re going to need it in plenty. We grabbed a quick coffee and cake and booked ourselves Ubers to get us out of Guatemala city and out to the suburb of Antigua, which I was told is an old Spanish settlement, with cobbled streets and small brightly painted houses, much like our dear fort kochi. Our Uber driver was a bright young-ish Lady who spoke little English, but offered a huge smile in exchange And we slowly chatted our way on to Antigua.
We asked many questions along the way about the many signs and sights and she tried her best to find the words to explain it to us. As far as driving goes its also a lot like India, people cut lanes, stop anywhere and don’t stress about stopping mid traffic to chat with the car in the neighboring lane. Oddly enough this chaos seems relaxing to us, because the stress of being ‘correct’ all the time is lifted and you don’t have to worry about mistakenly breaking a rule, People here understand each others struggle and accommodate the unexpected willingly instead of grudgingly. I’m also pleased to report that a variety of India made vehicles dot the road, we’ve seen a maruti 800, tVS bikes, bajaj auto rickshaws , which they pronounce bahah, and many Mahindra Scorpios and pick up trucks. Good to see our contribution reach foreign shores and be appreciated.
Also in the list of Indian contribution can be added yoga, curry, bhajans and turmeric. They call it curcuma here and hippie cafes offer a milk and turmeric shake, with numerous signboards extolling the myriad benefits of the magic root. They offer such great praise for it that you might be excused for thinking that India’s billion plus population arises from turmeric, not sex. This could be a lucrative new market for the makers of VICO Turmeric since it has reached near saturation point at home in Indian minds and movie theatre ads.We completed the drive to Antigua, in record time, thanks to our lady schumacher who drove up the steep winding mountain road at full speed, oblivious of us fearful passengers who kept trying unsuccessfully, to reach the non existent brake pedals under our seats.
Driving on the opposite side will do that to you. Antigua is a lot like fort kochi, but much grander in scale and size. A UNESCO world heritage site, very well preserved with stunning monuments and churches lining the edges of cobbled stone streets, interspersed with small beautiful homes and charming eateries. The area follows an easy grid pattern with well marked streets, lots of central plazas and stunning mountain views from every corner.
A heavy Spanish influence can be seen in the architecture and you can stop outside any house to take a stunning photo.Being a tourist attraction in a third world country it also offers the standard menace of drunks, beggars, street musicians and stray dogs.
Standing anywhere in the public plaza will see you quickly accosted by an army of trinket sellers and snack vendors, where the No Gracias you practiced at the airport will come in very handy.
We stayed in a lovely quaint house, restored and decorated with love and care by an artist couple. Every corner was unique and the house featured a lovely patio and multitude of stairs leading you invitingly into its many sweet bedrooms and balconies, one with a panoramic view of the volcano nearby. We could spend a month living here, and took many photos, hoping to someday replicate something similar for ourselves.
The town is easily walkable and we made full advantage of it, getting out often for long strolls in every direction, exploring the many sides of Antigua, its tourist quarters, residential areas, living and dead churches, schools and the like.
We were warned of crime there, but saw none of it. But when we went to exchange money at the local bank, it was like entering a high security prison. Armed security guards kept watch on the double grilled iron gates, asking every visitor their business and insisting we remove our hats and sunglasses before entering the building.
That was the first time I felt like we were in a place where things can sometimes go awry. Its funny how the sight of armed guard, placed to make you feel safe, can actually make you worry. Having successfully converted enough of our gold nuggets to Guatemalan ‘Quetzals’ we hit up the local shops for handicrafts.
The entrance to these shops may be small and unassuming but upon entering you can find a maze of alleys with hundreds of shops, split into many stalls, offering animated shopkeepers actively guestering you towards a multitude of handcrafted items in mind-boggling colors.
We wanted to take home everything and had to really hold back because of our baggage limits, this must be how I imagine foreigners freak out when they visit Rajasthan, mesmerized by the vast array of culture and handicrafts on display.
Apart from the shopping we made full use of the eatery options, never eating at the same place twice and before we knew it our two days in Antigua had passed by in a blur, and we were repacking for the next destination Lake Atitlan.
A high altitude natural crater, surrounded by rumbling volcanoes, Lake Atitlan is natural wonder that’s found it place in the heart of the global hippie community who flock it’s shores looking for that ideal mix of cheap accommodation, natural surroundings and ubiquitous WiFi coverage.
Travel guides describe it as a mecca for the spiritually minded, with a vibrant community of global citizens, digital nomads and local culture. You can spot them at local cafes pecking away at their laptops, enjoying the cool climate and tropical surroundings. There was a time when I wanted to be one of them, now I pray for a power outage so they can be driven out and I can have the big sofa chair.
Our journey there was supposed to be a 5 hour bumpy trek, up potholed local roads but we were surprised to find that with elections coming, the whole highway had been re-done and we made it there in a comfortable 3 hours on smooth roads, even with a coffee stop at a local roadside cafe thrown in between. Its comforting to note that wherever you go in the world, roads only get fixed in the months leading up to elections, then get forgotten for the next four years. Its not just an Indian problem, phew!
So we finally pulled up to our AirB&B, which from the outside was just a battered wooden door set amidst a thicket of leaves, past that came 140 steep stone steps, through a myriad of gardens and we carefully trekked down them to find our castle on the lake. It was so close you could spit into the water.
A beautiful wood and mud house, set in 3 levels with stunning views of the lake and its neighbouring volcanoes. We walked through it’s levels mesmerized, gazing wantingly at its beautiful bedrooms, floor to ceiling windows and many many beautiful sit-outs.
Our house also came with its own sauna, wood fired pizza oven, private boat deck and outdoor shower. As is with many beautiful remote homes, getting out of here can sometimes be a challenge, you have to either trek up the 140 winding steps to the mountain road and try to catch a tuk tuk or make your way onto to the boat jetty and try to flag down a passing boat. What it lacks in convenience it makes up for with character. There’s something charming about jumping on a local boat and getting to the nearest town that your average urban commute can’t compare to.We tried to get out at night, but were unsuccessful at flagging down a boat and spent another 30 mins out in the cold and dark on the jetty praying for the next and final boat of the night to spot us, all jumping and flashing our phone lights trying to get noticed, this time successfully! Dinner was at a local garden restaurant, a mix of local breads, yummy tuna steak and homemade gluten free pasta, delicious! After an eventful night we met a nice local friend of Kanika’s who shared the number of a local rickshaw lad that would pick us up and take us home from the town.
We’ve spent our days here taking boat rides around the lake, visiting the many different towns that dot its shores. Our town San Marcos is one of the newer settlements, with a chic bohemian vibe, fancy vegan cafes, yoga and meditation centres and the usual tourist shops selling healing crystals, leather bracelets and other knick knacks, a lot like dharamkot in the mountains of India.
All the cafes here promote healthy living, responsible eating and there are five times as many vegetarian options as there are meat ones.For those who can’t go without, or are still working their way towards better living, wine, beer, meat and cheese can also be found in some cafes.
Smoking is permitted at few cafes and the town tries to cater to everyone without judgement. Its a nice little community and closely knit, everyone seems to know everyone, despite half the towns population being of foreign origin. Its just a small town, with just one main paved street, only 6ft wide, lined with shops and cafes on both sides, placed side to side, and a few smaller dirt trails leading away to other properties.
You pass the same locals everyday and can very quickly feel at home here. In the big city you have enough space to walk around people and obstructions with your eyes glued to your phone but here you have to make eye contact, and step aside to navigate around people coming the other way. I’m pleased to report that due to this minor inconvenience everybody you pass makes eye contact and says hello, good morning and enjoy the day. The locals are especially delightful in their greetings, which they pair with a wide smile, bright eyes and general happy demeanor.
San Juan nearby is an artists town, with a textile market and lots of galleries hosting painters co-operatives, selling traditional Guatemalan arts and crafts, San Pedro, is one of the town nearby is less charming but offers a much larger variety of food, drink and bars and caters to a larger volume of tourists, mostly backpackers.
Pana Jachel is the largest town on the lake and the most touristy. It caters to an upmarket category of traveller and can boast clean wide paved streets, well-organized shopping markets and lots of good dining options. It has an international vibe, one you might find in many other coastal tourist cities. What it lacks in charm it makes up in convenience, and cleanliness.
There’s a lot more to do here, more food, more bars, more shopping and a buzz about the place that city folk would enjoy, if you’re new to the Spanish language and Central American culture then this would be a good place to start your exploration of the lake.
Our Hotel here is sweet, neat and well equipped. The staff are friendly and you can literally just walk out the door to a great cafe or restaurant at stone throws distance. But it’s noisy, like any big city, it’s the first time in 3 weeks that we are going to sleep with the sound of traffic and people partying around us, so if you’re not into that then avoid spending the night here.
We still have another few days to before we head back so stay tuned for one final post covering the end of our Guatemala stay and our return journey home through Boston and London. Thank you for reading and I hope you find your way here someday to see what we’ve seen, it’s a mini-India in many ways and something worth seeing, truly…