Month 46 was dedicated entirely to Guatemala, as I slowly worked my way from El Salvador toward the Belizean border. Guatemala was the last Central American country I had yet to visit, and probably one of the most anticipated arrivals. Perhaps that’s too much for a place to live up to, as I don’t gush about my time in Guatemala like I do my time in Nicaragua or El Salvador.
I moved far too quickly this month, most likely because I never found a place I loved enough to settle down in. But that just led to a further sense of discontent. As is my unfortunate nature, I fled at the slightest pulse of unpleasantness, preferring the distraction of movement to the true challenge of sitting still and examining the root cause. That said, the month was brimming with highlights, and when all was said and done I’d had the privileged of exploring a country I used to dreamily flip through guidebooks for — and that’s always a win.
Where I’ve Been
I visited five destinations in Month 46, which doesn’t seem so hectic, right?
• Thirteen days in Antigua / Guatemala
• Eight days at Lake Atitlán / Guatemala
• Three days in Monterrico / Guatemala
• One day in Guatemala City / Guatemala
• Four days in Flores / Guatemala
But in reality, I used Antigua as a home base and hopped around from there, plus broke my time at Lake Atitlan into three different towns. Hence, my month actually looked more like this — a tad more exhausting.
• Six days in Antigua / Guatemala
• Three days in Santa Cruz / Guatemala
• Three days in San Pedro / Guatemala
• Three days in San Marcos / Guatemala
• Five days in Antigua / Guatemala
• Three days in Monterrico / Guatemala
• One day in Guatemala City / Guatemala
• Two days in Antigua / Guatemala
• Four days in Flores / Guatemala
• Crossing the border in Guatemala, and having officially visited every country in Central America! It was a fun little milestone, and I look forward to saying the same in Southeast Asia someday.
• Arriving in Antigua right into a high five from Luke, the most amazingly generous host ever. Luke and I met years ago on the blogging circuit and he’s one of my creative peers that I just truly respect. We’ve crossed paths everywhere from Denver to Toronto to Brooklyn and now to Antigua. He’s been in Guatemala on and off since 2008 and I can say with confidence that my time there would have been far more shallow were it not for him. I hope I can show him the same kindness in Koh Tao someday!
• Roasting marshmallows over a volcano. It’s a cheap, easy activity that no visitor to Antigua should miss. Also a highlight? The lava earrings I bought there, my one beloved souvenir from Guatemala.
• Hanging with Antigua expats. Thanks to Luke, I was introduced to all kinds of amazing people, places, and events: Hobbitenango, the gorgeous hobbit-themed getaway on a mountain; live music all over town; a fundraiser stand up comedy show that poked fun at expat life; Mariachi or Muerto, a battle of the mariachi bands at Hobbitenango; a home-cooked dinner party; and his wonderful friends, who made all these moments fun and fiercely reminded me of my own community in Koh Tao. Again, in another life I would have passed through Antigua in a few days, but due to this connection I spent more than two weeks!
• Eating in Antigua. The salads at Pitaya. The painful trendiness of Tu Pina Tambien. The view at McDonald’s (seriously). The breads and cheeses and even macarons (!) at Metiz. Eating in Antigua was delicious!
• Staying at Iguana Perdida in Santa Cruz. Not often does budget accommodation stand out so significantly — often, it’s just a place to lay your head at night. But this lakefront compound was a destination in and of itself. I loved the communal dinners, the onsite dive shop, the free morning yoga, the warm staff of travelers and the eternal views out into the ocean. My own treehouse for $10!
• Getting so much writing and reading done. Something about the isolation and calming energy of Lake Atitlan allowed me to write and read more than ever. I worked on short stories and essays by day, and cozied up and read for my evening entertainment. I’d love to work more weeks like this into my travels, where I basically style a DIY writing retreat.
• Scuba diving at altitude. I love finding quirky dives wherever I go, and diving in a high-altitude lake in Guatemala certainly fits that bill. While I was bummed we had such poor diving conditions, the visibility didn’t affect the novelty of it all.
• Listening to a church-off in Santa Cruz. On afternoon, I finally dragged my bum off the lakefront and up the steep hill to the town of Santa Cruz. I quickly tuned into the fact that it was Sunday — and in this teeny tiny town, at least a dozen churches were competing for dominance of the airwaves. I’ll never forget that moment of standing at what felt like the top of the world, looking out over this beautiful lake, and listening to these competing hymns blasting from provincial pulpits. It was gorgeous!
• Lotus on the lake. I didn’t love San Marcos, but I did adore the morning yoga classes at Del Lago. It was among the most scenic places I’ve practiced!
• Meeting of the Mayans. I had one of my most interesting experiences in Guatemala in San Marcos. I was wandering the backroads of town looking for somewhere to eat, and stumbled into a dusty, empty family-run restaurant. The son of the woman cooking sat down to chat when I arrived and ended up joining me for my whole meal — where he told me about his work as a professor of Mayan theology at a nearby university and showed me the books he’d authored for sale on Amazon. He gave me a lot of insight into the tension between the tradition Mayan locals and the new age expat community that I was only able to wonder about prior. It was fascinating, and a good reminder that I sometimes should eat without wifi!
• Getting back to the beach. It felt so good to arrive in Monterrico! The previous month I’d spent all but four days at the ocean, and this month it was strangely reversed. My first two nights there I went running on the black sand beach at sunset and then came back to my hotel and swan laps in the pool, which I had all to myself at night. Doing backstroke under the stars — it was magical.
• Badass busing. I’d been taking mostly tourist shuttles on this trip as the routes I’d traveled would have required endless transfers and extra hours via public transit and these days, I mostly see time as money. But those shuttles do take some of the fun out of things, and so I was happy that twice this month I was able to work in journeys via Guatemala’s infamous chicken buses, basically retrofitted and brightly painted decommissioned American school buses that function as the country’s main source of public transit. My journeys from Monterrico to Guatemala City and Guatemala City to Antigua were both crowded, hectic, and sweaty (and one of them involved sharing a seat with a pulsing bag of live crabs) — and they were so much fun.
• Floating around Flores. This town could not have been sweeter, and was the perfect place for a low key last few days in Guatemala. I was mostly glued to my computer getting ready to take a week (mostly) off while my family was around, so I mostly explored through short walks to stretch my legs. But it couldn’t be a cuter town — especially San Telmo restaurant.
• Waking up with Tikal. While some of my fellow travelers could not have been more disrespectful (see lowlights below), hearing the jungle literally roar to life was a special moment. Other highlights from the day included seeing a huge diversity of wild animals, and hanging out with some local kids at the entrance to the park.
• One wild night. This month was a very tame one — very tame — but I did have one wild night out on St. Patrick’s Day. Going out with the whole hostel, dancing on bars, closing down bars, the whole bit. It was great fun, and it was also the first night I met…
• London Lawyer. After a failed fling in San Juan del Sur I was happy to avoid the distraction of a romantic interest for a while. But a month later, an innocent dorm room crush in Antigua turned into a sweet travel romance which eventually snowballed into a spontaneous trip to Bermuda. I had left Nicaragua feeling vaguely bitter about the previous situation, but I left Guatemala grinning about this one.
Lowlights and Lessons
• I quite simple did not love Antigua, or, overall, Guatemala — though my opinion has been softened with hindsight. Still, when you’re talking about a place as universally beloved as Guatemala, it’s tough to feel like you’re just not getting it.
• Remember when I wrote about leaving my laundry in El Salvador last month? Well, lucky for me a friend I’d met at Equilibrio was traveling right behind me and offered to bring it with her to Guatemala. There’s one shuttle a day from El Tunco to Antigua, leaving at 2pm and arriving around 8pm, and she was on it just two days after I was. We made plans to meet that evening so I could grab my laundry and we could grab dinner. But I didn’t hear from her until the next day, and she had a pretty good excuse for why: her shuttle had been hijacked by armed robbers. At around 7pm, just an hour outside Antigua, her bus was boarded by men with guns who drove the bus out to a field and tied everyone up in a clearing while they ransacked the bus. Thankfully, they left without harming anyone and after eventually untying each other and pushing the bus out of a ditch the group was able to get to law enforcement. But needless to say it was a harrowing experience — I was affected just hearing about it. Had I lingered just two days longer in El Salvador, that could have been me. That story, along with others I heard within days of arriving in Guatemala (like a couple who’d had their hotel room wiped clean while out for a walk and lost everything but the clothes they were wearing) and the fact that the expats I met were vigilant about not walking alone at night, left me feeling on edge, a feeling that is rather unfamiliar for me. I hesitated to write this because I dread a flood of “is Guatemala safe?!” questions — I’m not qualified to answer — but I can say anecdotally that there’s nowhere else in Central America I felt quite so uneasy.
• I was absolutely shocked by and unprepared for the cold — and the cobblestones — of Antigua. After six weeks in what felt like a sweaty swamp, I couldn’t believe I was freezing cold again. Antigua is indeed in the highlands and the weather there reminded me more of Cusco than of anywhere I’d been in Central America. In Lake Atitlan I basically went to bed every night at 9pm as it was the only place I felt warmth. Low 40s! If you are heading to Guatemala, pack boots and a sweater!
• I was allergic to Guatemala — my allergies were completely out of control the entire time I was there. I mean like, walking down the street and people asking me what was wrong because my face was red and puffing and oozing with various liquids kind of out of control. Antigua was the worst, but they were also acting up in Guatemala City and in Lake Atitlán but it might have been altitude related because once I was back down in the lowlands I finally had some relief.
• By the time I left Guatemala, I felt like I’d lost almost everything important that was once in my bag. My amazing Scandinavian headlamp, sentimentally gifted to me by an ex boyfriend? Gone. My beloved bedazzled eye mask? Bye bye. My favorite bikini? Left on the beaches of Monterrico. My Mophie Case? Who needs it! (Actually, I did.) And worst of all, my extremely expensive extremely critical backup hard drive, which I left hidden between my mattresses at Lake Atitlan after being paranoid about room robberies around the lake. Once I realized I’d left it, I did everything in my power to get it back — calls and emails to the hotel went unanswered, and my extremely sweet and generous friend Steffi took a boat from San Marcos all the way to San Pedro to ask in person for me, but no luck.
• Lesson learned in San Pedro: I would rather use a shower to wash my hands for three days then to remove a wolf spider from the sink of my private hostel room.
• I was kind of underwhelmed by San Marcos and San Pedro. I suppose I’m glad I checked them out, as I would have wondered otherwise. However, I wish instead I’d spent my time at Yoga Forest or at a local writer’s retreat (which I only saw the poster for on the final day, derp) instead!
• My most frustrating moment in Guatemala was the day I left the lake. I booked a shuttle from San Marcos back to Antigua, and waited with about fifteen other people at the designated spot the morning of departure. Two shuttles pulled up and started calling off names — everyone’s except mine. I kept showing my voucher (purchased, like they always are, from a random travel agency in town) and both bus drivers told me I wasn’t going with them. Chaos is a familiar old friend in these kinds of travel situations, so at this point I wasn’t alarmed. Finally, after much confusion, one of the bus drivers told me to get in, and off we went. About twenty minutes later, as we’d reached a desolate stretch of highway, the bus stopped and the driver hopped out and threw my bags off the bus onto the side of the road. “Wait here,” he said, ignoring my protests. Moments later I was choking on exhaust fumes and trying not to cry as I stood on the side of the road in rural Guatemala, completely alone aside from an outpost of rifle-toting municipal police. After a few moments of evaluating my options — there were few — I tried to approach the police to respectfully ask in Spanish to borrow their phone. I couldn’t understand them as they slipped into Quechuan, though their leering looks gave me a clue to their topic of conversation. I retreated back to my bags and checked my watch again. After twenty minutes had gone by, I approached the police with a different tactic — tears. Well, it wasn’t so much a tactic as it was I couldn’t not cry at this point. This time, the youngest one offered me his phone — if I paid twenty quetzales. I bitterly handed over the money and tried calling the number on my bus voucher. No answer. Back to my bags.Ten minutes later I tried again, with my last twenty quetzales, and through both a language and poor cell service barrier tried to explain my situation. The line went dead. Back to my bags. In between each of these encounters was a very long-seeming stint of sitting on my bag in the sweltering heat, trying to decide if it would be safer to try to walk to the next town or hitchhike down the highway or maybe just lay down in the middle of the road and end it all! (The heat may have been getting to me.) Finally, finally, a full forty minutes after I was first dumped, a new minivan appeared. “Get in!” the driver said while snatching my voucher, as if annoyed at me for being late. Bewildered but relieved, I climbed in, only to find out that this van had originated in San Pedro, clear across the lake. What I can only imagine is that the travel agent who sold me my ticket had a friend/brother/cousin with a van leaving from San Pedro, and so he decided to sell me a ticket on that bus regardless of the fact that it made no sense whatsoever. The fun didn’t end there, either — when we arrived in Antigua, the driver refused to bring us to our hotels as promised and dumped us on the side of the road. While my fellow bus-goers grumbled, at that point I couldn’t have cared less, happy as I was to see civilization.
• My friends and I had a miscommunication about our time in Monterrico, and I was left cooling my heels there alone for longer than expected (had there been great wifi I might not have minded being stranded.) While we had a fantastic time once they arrived, it was frustrating to basically plan my entire month’s schedule around a long weekend that turned out to be more like 24 hours.
• I was SO wildly annoyed by my fellow tourists at Tikal. You can read my full rant here, but come on man — even a loudmouth like me knows there are moments when you need to zip it. Watching the sunrise from a sacred temple in which your guide asks you not to speak is one of them.
• Ah, freelancer life. This was the month where, with almost $10,000 due in outstanding invoices, I had to call my mom and ask her to put money in my accounts so I didn’t overdraw on them. I signed the first check that arrived straight over to her and paid her back in less than two weeks, but it was still an awful feeling and a first for me in almost four years of self-employment. That, along with scary low income levels, did not a pretty picture make.
• I love my fellow travelers, but occasionally I lose my patience for them. On my shuttle from Antigua to Atitlán, the driver tied all our bags to the roof of the van. It was a rainy morning and each time it started or stopped drizzling we’d pull over and haul the bags on or off the roof. I’m surprised they don’t have a tarp, I remarked absentmindedly, thinking of all the dozens of shuttles I’ve taken that did. “This isn’t America, you know,” my Swiss seat mate chirped smugly, and continued on to a soliloquy of the horrors of being forced to travel next to someone carrying an entitled US passport. As if a piece of plastic sheeting were a rare exotic luxury and I’d just expressed shock that our minibus wasn’t outfitted with wifi and a latte dispenser. Aaaand that was the last human I electively spoke to for a week.
• This isn’t Guatemala specific, but Central America is truly the land of no hustle. Going to the ATM required endless doses of patience as each person took what felt like a lifetime within the booth. Like, what are they doing in there, composing a sonnet with the keypad? And buses. If they leave on time, great — they won’t arrive on time. Sometimes I’d look at the window and the driver would just standing around shooting the shit, like sorry, did you have another country you needed to be in? And don’t even get me started on the sidewalks. Should you have the audacity to walk a clip faster than drunk toddler, the people you leave in your dust will look behind you, bewildered, to see what must be chasing you. For this New Yorker, trying to slow down to Central America time was a constant and ever-amusing challenge.
• A first for me: slipping off an unattached toilet seat and literally falling into the toilet in Flores. My life is so glamorous it hurts sometimes!
I actually had an affordable month! Excluding my business expenses I spent $1,464 on a month in Guatemala. And good thing, because I had my worst month for income in years — but more on that in a minute.
My largest expense was, obviously, food — as usual I ate in places with healthy options and with wifi, which added up to $661. I spent just $235 on accommodation despite staying in mostly private rooms thanks to Luke’s generous hosting for much of my stay in Antigua. Entertainment clocked in at $174, including diving, volcano hiking, a night out for St. Patrick’s Day and a tour to Tikal. Miscellaneous, including toiletries, gifts, and a Sephora order my mom would bring down the next month totaled $143, while transportation came to $138. Finally, I spent $82 on spa treatments (two massages and a pedicure) and $31 on health and fitness (yoga and zumba classes).
I was actually on my computer working constantly, but in my case that doesn’t always translate directly to income. Month 45 was literally my worst month for earnings in over three years of blogging. (Spoiler alert: It was a temporary blip and I was back up to the big leagues the next month. Still, it emphasized the importance of saving!)
What little money I did make came from a small amount on blog ads and affiliates, and a bit of freelance writing and video work. In one small boon for the month, I sold (what I hope will be just my first) photo to National Geographic! The pay is meager, but the milestone is huge.
Health and Fitness
Fitness was more or less a fail for me in Guatemala. I walked a lot and did a ton of yoga in Antigua and Atitlán, and ran and swam in Monterrico, but I didn’t visit a gym once outside one half-hearted Zumba class (Guatemalan Zumba is not quite as spicy as Nicaraguan Zumba, I learned.) Luckily I was able to seek out some fairly healthy eating options, and with a few exceptions I drank very little alcohol throughout the month. Far from my worst month, but certainly not my best.
Two weeks in Belize before circling back into Guatemala once again!
Thanks for coming along for the ride.
Since I left home for my Great Escape, I’ve been doing monthly roundups of my adventures filled with anecdotes, private little moments, and thoughts that are found nowhere else on this blog. As this site is not just a resource for other travelers but also my own personal travel diary, I like to take some time to reflect on not just what I did, but how I felt. You can read my previous roundups here.
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