A Dangerously Nice Place

Published: February 16th 2011
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There's a ute under thereThere's a ute under thereThere's a ute under there

Near a town in western Guatemala
It would be so easy to get sucked in to this place. There has been a real danger as we have moved through that we might do as a German couple we met have, and spend all of our remaining time around here. They were to spend 6 months moving around Central America but will now just stay in Guatemala. We have had to keep moving so that we don't start looking harder at the land that is for sale and keep wondering whether it might just be possible to, perhaps, shift here for a while.

Guatemala has a lot going for it. Problems certainly, and there is not a tremendous amount of evidence that much is happening to address some of those, but we have found it easy and delightful with the people welcoming and interesting. Not that we have seen enough of the place. We have only been here a couple of weeks and one of those we spent in Xela doing a course in Spanish. We have covered a bit of the country but haven't given as much attention to some of the tourist attractions as they may have warranted.

Again, people here are just little
Running from the Bus in AntiguaRunning from the Bus in AntiguaRunning from the Bus in Antigua

The ex-USA school buses are decorated in Guatemala
bit different from those in the countries we have visited in this part of the world to date. They tend to look a lot like people from southern Mexico but their attitude is a little different. There is a little more reserve when you first meet someone, even a person trying to sell you something. It may be my imagination but, while you will generally receive an acknowledgement for a 'hola' or 'buenas' passing someone on the street, it may not be accompanied by a smile. If the interaction continues though, then there is a strong likelihood that the smile will come. People here are perhaps a little reserved with people like us but they are by no means unwelcoming or unhelpful and, with each other, they pay a lot more attention to the social niceties than is common in many other countries, including our own. We are developing a theory that this may, partly, possibly result from speaking español. In español a question may seem to be framed a little impolitely – to an English speaker – but we suspect that this occurs because all of the niceties have already been sorted.

We have also noticed another difference in attitude between bus drivers and conductors in Belize and those in Guatemala and Mexico. In Belize the offsider to the driver was a busy man – and we only struck men in these jobs. Helping people on and off with their gear, holding babies while mothers got themselves sorted, ensuring that everyone who could be seated was, opening and closing windows so that we didn't all get wet in the showers of rain and even assisting in smuggling some live chickens through the border with Mexico. While I wouldn't push this point too hard, there seems to be a slightly different attitude in both Mexico and Guatemala. The service mentality is not quite there. I hesitate to say that they are doing you a favour having a bus you might travel in or a restaurant you might eat in, but it might be that they are closer to that position than the Belizeans who work in those sorts of jobs. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Just interesting to speculate on why it might be.

We arrived in the country at Melchor, coming from San Ignacio in Belize. Our taxi driver for the ride to the
Pretty IslandPretty IslandPretty Island

Flores, from El Mirador (where there is also another Mayan ruin, although they seem to be 'closed' on Sundays)
border gave us plenty of advice about crossing the border and what to do when we were over. A very helpful man, he made sure we knew that it would cost us 35 Belize dollars in departure tax – didn't tell us about the 2.50 Belize dollars national park tax, but you can't have everything – made sure we knew that the Belizean border people wouldn't require extras but that on the Guatemalan side we would definitely get stung. He was right.

Our man advised us to have one person take the passports up and for him to have a few $1US notes rolled up in his hand. We took his advice. It didn't quite work as intended. Adam had the requisite few dollars and another $5 available when he took the passports up. The entry is supposedly free but the border control man wanted a significant amount per passport. He was told that there was only a total of $8 available. Not enough so Adam turned to seek the keeper of the cash, who duly looked the other way. It turned out that $8 was enough.

I did make one mistake that day. I had misjudged the
Our Hostel in FloresOur Hostel in FloresOur Hostel in Flores

Great views from our room
amount of Mexican pesos we would need for the trip out of Mexico and had too many. I wasn't worried because I figured that it would be a relatively simple matter to change the money anywhere in the country next door, which Guatemala is. I was right. It would have been easy to change them at the Belizean border and I could probably have negotiated a reasonable rate. There was plenty of competition. But I thought I would probably get a better rate at a bank so hung off. Turned out to be a mistake. Banks in most of the places we stayed were not interested in pesos, only US dollars. Some changed Euros but nothing else. I was finally able to change them in Panajachel at a money changer, but not at a particularly attractive rate.

There was a lot on offer at the border, particularly taxis to Flores or Tikal. Given that this was our destination we were interested and sought prices. After we made it through the initial bids of around 600 Quetzales it seemed that the price stabilised at around 400. On the advice of our Belizean taxi driver we walked out of the area
Table with a ViewTable with a ViewTable with a View

Lovely spot on Flores for a drink
across the bridge and up the road about 400 metres until we were nearing a market. Here, we would be able to find a 'collectivo' mini van which would take us to Flores. One more than usually desperate taxi driver actually followed us all the way. He did, eventually, shave his price down to a pretty acceptable 250 quetzales but, by this time we were nearing the place where we might find a collectivo, so we hung tough.

Our collectivo ride cost us 25 quetzales each for the trip to Flores of about an hour and a half and it was interesting. Our bags were tied to the roof with sundry other goods by a – pretty skinny looking – piece of string. We 4 joined the other people already inside, at that stage probably about 9. It was a squeeze but we all had a seat and it wasn't too bad. But our driver had a much better idea than we did how many people you could fit in a mini van. At one point we had 23 people on board, although 5 of them were children, a couple quite large. One bloke spent his trip standing on
Family Members in RuinsFamily Members in RuinsFamily Members in Ruins

At San Jeronimo ruins in Antigua
the step at the door bent across the backs of those of us prepared to lean forward so he had room to do so. I think there was room for one and maybe two more if the door had been left open and they could have stood with their heads outside the van. We found out on later trips that you could get 26 full grown adults into a collectivo if you really need to.

Flores is an attractive place. Built on an island in a lake that doesn't seem to have any rivers in or out, it has a lot of tourist type establishments. It makes a nice place to pull up and to stay while you take your day trip to Tikal, reputed to be one of the best Mayan ruins. Unfortunately, for those who make money off Tikal, and perhaps for us as well, we had reached our collective saturation point for Mayan ruins and decided not to make the trip. We did hire a boat to travel around the lake, climbed a hill to view the area, walked over to Santa Elena to have a look around, had the best steak I have had in
Can We Fit Any More OnCan We Fit Any More OnCan We Fit Any More On

On the highway to Panajachel
a very long time in a restaurant in Flores and generally enjoyed ourselves. Flores is not cheap and really is not worth a lot of time, but it was relaxing.

Our trip from Flores to Rio Dulce was on a 'proper' bus but one that was not at all flash. Our driver was in a major hurry and he was prepared to take risks to meet his timetable. It was instructive to learn how close you could cut the margins on overtaking but we made it all right. Interesting as well to have a constantly changing set of other passengers. One who stands out for me was the bloke in very nice cowboy gear – cuban heeled boots with what looked like snake skin uppers, pressed newish looking jeans, flash shirt and bright white hat, along with a machete in a scabbard and a functional looking pistol in his belt. We have since been informed that, for some Guatemalans, a pistol is considered an attractive, and obviously useful, fashion accessory.

Rio Dulce is said to be one of, if not the, safest anchorage for yachts trying to get away from hurricanes in Central America. It is some distance
Walking on the HighwayWalking on the HighwayWalking on the Highway

on the way to Xela
up the river from the harbour at Livingstone. Clearly, there are a yachties who agree. There seemed to be plenty around. It is a functional town but with a beautiful part of the river to wander about on. We could have stayed a while but needed to keep moving.

A decision had been made that we would skip Guatemala City. While we would have to travel through there, because that is where the buses go, we didn't really want to spend a lot of time in the place. Guatemala City has a lousy reputation. After a while you do tend to take warnings with a grain or two of salt – if we listened to everything our government advised we wouldn't go anywhere – but, in the case of Guatemala City, the advice from other travellers was pretty constant. We decided to pick up a bus straight out to Antigua. The traffic in Guatemala City was heavy, roads not so good and, at one set of traffic lights, we were diverted aroung a the scene of a shooting.

Antigua feels safe and is attractive. Like a lot of the country it has its active volcanoes and here you
Late Nativity SceneLate Nativity SceneLate Nativity Scene

At San Antonio de Palopo on Lake Atitlan
can climb them and have a look down in to the crater. We weren't overly taken with Antigua, despite its being a World Heritage Town, but the German couple and many others would disagree with us about that.

Panajachel is the largest town – as far as I can tell – on Lake Atitlan. Our hotel there was a little off the beaten track, about 1.5 km from the main street where all of the tourist shops, restaurants and such were located. The Hotel El Sol is run by a Japanese man and his Guatemalan wife, ably assisted by the man's parents. We had dinner a couple of times in their restaurant. This, of course, is in clear breach of the rules – that require that we eat local at all times – but we were able to skilfully argue that it was served by a Guatamalteca, Spanish was spoken during the meal and, in any case, rules are meant to be broken. The Hotel El Sol is relatively small and, I suppose, attracts a mainly Japanese clientele, but it is easily the cleanest and best maintained hotel we have been in for many a moon, the people running
Birthday DinnerBirthday DinnerBirthday Dinner

We had a Japanese meal for Klaire's birthday
it were delightful and the food was most welcome. Doomo arigatoo gozaimashita Hotel El Sol.

The real reason for a visit to Panajachel is the Lake, rather than random Japanese hotels in strange places. The Lake is a very nice and substantial body of water surrounded by 3 active volcanoes and lots of smaller villages. We took the obligatory boat trip to 4 of the villages. Clearly, mornings are the time for the boat trip at this time of the year. Each afternoon we were there the wind came up pretty well in the afternoon and the ride would have been pretty choppy. The villages are all different and have different things for sale. We probably did disappoint a lot of the sellers but then we made the day of a school cooperative where we bought some pretty nice things.

It struck us all that the shores of this lake would be a beautiful place to live. Obviously, the same thought has struck others and there are some very nice looking residences around the shores. My essential requirement for a place there would be a good sized and fast boat. The volcanoes are all active and I wouldn't relish trying to row a boat away from the shore as one those little hills got mobile. A little local information from the boatman added another criterion too. The lake, it turns out, used to be about 4 metres lower. Last year there was a lot of rain and it rose. Some of the houses and buildings closer to the shore then are now underneath the water. And if you are interested we spotted advertisements for land, albeit not large plots, back from the water at about $7,000AUD. Houses are much more expensive of course but what a place to camp for a while!

The trip from Pana to Xela took a couple of hours, this time in a privada minibus. We had booked a place on the net that sounded like it met the criteria – beds, bathrooms, wifi and a kitchen within walking distance of the language school we had also booked. We could have organised a homestay more cheaply but, as we only had a week allocated, we thought a hostal would be easier. The La Choyocan turned out to be a sort of cultural centre with half a dozen interesting rooms. The rooms were OK

IIn Panajachel
but only if you enjoyed sleeping up some very steep steps to a bed under a roof of sheets of see-through corrugated plastic with some hessian hung underneath to cut some light. Pretty good actually.

The Spanish school was interesting. It operated, as most of them do, on the immersion principle of language teaching. We were each allocated a tutor and that tutor proceeded to talk Spanish to each of us. Adam, who has been trying to learn Spanish and succeeding pretty well for the last few years, was a star and he and his tutor had a lovely time. Both Pat and Klaire had tutors who had been at the business for a while and moved along pretty well. Of course, both Pat and Klaire are pretty good at this sort of thing and took to it all well. My poor tutor was a young teaching student. Confronted with a student who was probably as old as her grandfather, I am not sure which of us was the most worried. At least she could speak and understand the language of instruction though. I spent a lot of time trying to work out what the bloody words were and
Tourists in PanajachelTourists in PanajachelTourists in Panajachel

Two of the many
looking them up in my wonderful machine, which I can tell you is called a 'traductor' in español.

I am aware that there is a major debate in pedagogical circles about immersion learning. I am more than happy to agree that young children, even young people, can benefit from this type of instruction. Please, though, leave those of us who are slightly more mature out of this stuff. Let me have my books and dictionaries and learn like I always have. For all that, Cindy was a good teacher and did take me through some of the basic foundations of Spanish language (note from PC: Gloria is an excellent teacher and her knowledge of English as well as how to teach Spanish meant she could efficiently explain rules and provide examples in response to my spontaneous questions). I don't mind the rules. I may, at times, like to ignore them but I need to know them. I came out after a week with a reasonable understanding of some of the rules for speaking in the present tense. I now need to get that under my belt and move on to the past and the future. Although, given the Spanish penchant for excepciones, there are probably a lot more tenses than that.

The school gave us 5 hours a day of one-on-one instruction and, helpfully, put on activities in the remaining hours of the day where we could continue to speak Español. The activities were, I will say for me, much better than the school. One afternoon we travelled to a village where they specialise in making textiles and local rum. We couldn't buy the textiles because the minimum length was 7 metres – oh dear – but we could buy some rum. So we did. Volunteering to help teach English allowed us to find out how difficult our tutors were having it. Cooking a local meal for all to eat was interesting but the hit was a visit to a community project where Mayan women organise for children who don't go to school often to get together on a Saturday morning. These kids were the children of weavers and potato farmers and had work to do a lot of days. Some had quite a bit of schooling but others very little. All seemed bright and, after a while, we got on very well. Some of us handed them
Santa Catarina DocksSanta Catarina DocksSanta Catarina Docks

Again, on Lake Atitlan
our cameras and we had some great photos taken.

That night Julio, one of the teachers from the school, asked us if we would like to go to the football. Xelaju were to play against Guatemala City. We agreed. Julio is a keen supporter and member of the club. We joined some of his mates for a beer or perhaps two before the game and then fronted into the social club part of the ground. Thus, we more or less became part of the Xelaju MC cheer squad. Firecrackers, flags, flares, lots of climbing on the fence – but not by us – pelting of opposition players and officials with cans, chants led by three big bass drums. A memorable occasion. Thankfully Xela drew with Guatemala City 2 all. It was a good game.

Fronting back to our hostel, we found a full on reggae band in operation and some hundreds of people in the area that we had been using as a sort of common room while we listened during the week to the band practising in another part of the hostel. Great stuff. Very full on and very noisy. Upstairs at about 1.30 am you could
Waiting for the BusWaiting for the BusWaiting for the Bus

Front of the hotel in Panajachel
sort of sleep to the music. A nice place to live. We had a little lie in the next day.

From Xela – the full name for which is Xelaju and which I should probably mention has a much longer formal name, Quetzaltenango, that it received at the time of the Spanish invasion – we took a privada minibus to Guatemala City to catch a Tica bus to San Salvador. We will spend up to a week there before moving into Honduras on current plans.

Additional photos below
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Work at an AngleWork at an Angle
Work at an Angle

Not all of the mountainside fields are terraced
Terraced Vege GardensTerraced Vege Gardens
Terraced Vege Gardens

At Lake Atitlan
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Volcano 1

On Lake Atitlan

On the way to Xela

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