Saturday, June 7, 2008

Our Trip to Guatemala Part I: Background and Preparation

***This is a revised version of what I wrote on Mayan Families Connection, spiced up with pictures and links!***

My husband, Michael, and I went down Thursday, April 10 and returned Monday, April 14. A very short trip, I know – but we will be back!

Here is a description of what happened, peppered with some tips and advice for those of you who are coming down soon.

This was the first time either of us had been to Guatemala. We had actually made the decision to travel there last December, before we knew about Mayan Families. Our original plans had called for four days in Antigua. But once I found out about Mayan Families in my research for the trip and then started getting involved, we rescheduled to have two nights in Panajachel and two nights in Antigua.

Sharon from Mayan Families was extremely kind in organizing a van for us from the airport, and she had Anna help us get reservations at Hotel Atitlan in Pana.

Michael and I prepared for the trip by gathering together as many donations as we could fit into our carry-on-sized luggage, including some presents for our sponsored students' families. We could only use carry-on luggage because we had an extremely tight connection on the return trip, so we would not have had time to wait for checked bags. If you're in a similar situation, you might want to bring things down in a suitcase that you can leave there in Guatemala.

We didn't have many special travel preparations. We brought down some US dollars, but we also used ATM machines in Guatemala to take out Quetzales. I used my PacSafe CitySafe shoulder bag, which is slashproof and tamperproof (you can find it on, among other places). Michael and I also left our regular wedding bands at home and wore inexpensive bands we use for travel (we got ours at I love wearing my Royal Robbins nylon zip-off cargo pants. Not the most fashionable, but you can wear these things for days without them getting too dirty. The pockets are big enough to fit your camera, water bottle, small guidebook, and all sorts of other stuff. One pocket both zippers and velcroes for extra security. I got these a few years ago as a gift, so I don't know if you can still find them. However, if you can find a pair of pants with the qualities I have mentioned, they are worth their weight in gold! A money belt is also essential for any kind of foreign travel.

The Guatemala City airport is brand new, but it is still not completed. Keep this in mind for when you are leaving, so do not expect to find many shops/places to eat here. In particular, there is no place to buy reading materials, so get your newspaper in town or from one of the newspaper boys selling them just outside security.

That being said, the airport is very clean. If you stop to use the restroom (a good idea, since it is a three hour drive to Pana), you will have your first encounter with how toilet paper is disposed of. Given the fragile nature of much of Latin American plumbing, toilet paper is discarded in a waste basket – NOT in the toilet. The good news is that toilets always have waste baskets next to them. The bad news is that they aren't always emptied as often as you would like. But you'll get used to it. Another word of advice is to carry a bit of toilet paper – or at least a packet of tissues – with you at all times. Not all restrooms are good about keeping their stalls supplied. Don't get caught empty-handed!

After we got our luggage, we were waved through customs. It seemed they were only stopping some of the native Guatemalans. Once we walked through the door, we found hundreds of people waiting outside. Various men asked us if we needed a ride, but we said no and then saw the man holding a sign with my name on it. The man was wearing indigenous dress with a cowboy hat. Wow, I thought, we're really in Guatemala. We walked a short distance to a van where the driver was waiting for us. After loading our luggage, we got in and started the journey out of Guatemala City.

-The journey to Panajachel-
The first twenty minutes or so after the airport were extremely interesting. What did we see but all sorts of US chains, including McDonalds, Little Caesar's, Taco Bell, and, of all things, Hooters! We also saw huge franchises of Guatemala's favorite chicken place, Pollo Campero. It was a bizarre mixture of places we knew and yet in an environment that had a very different feel than home. We saw some women walking along the side of the road in guipiles and cortes, and we saw others in Western clothes.

After a while, we finally got into the countryside. On the way, we saw examples of desperate living situations we would see throughout our trip. Of course, there were also billboards for exclusive gated communities. The disparity between rich and poor was clear.

We stopped at a gas station to fill up the tank, and Michael and I took the opportunity to get out Quetzales at the ATM and buy bottled water. I saw a family in traditional clothing eating hot dogs by the concession area. Who knew that hot dogs were a big thing down here?

After driving for a while, we got to the "exciting" part of the trip. This is where I will need Michael to recount what happened. I, personally, get motion sick, and I had forgotten to take Bonine or Dramamine before the trip. So I closed my eyes and put my head down. If you are like me and you want to see the ride (that is a big IF), don't forget your meds or acupressure bracelets!

Michael writes: The road from Guatemala City to Panajachel, once you've left the outskirts of the city, is not for the faint of heart, nor, really, for foreigners to try to drive on. The steeply mountainous terrain, combined with the difficulty in building bridges in a seismically active country, means countless steep ascents and descents, numerous very tight switchbacks, and some of the most stunning views imaginable. Guatemala appears to have some sort of ban on guardrails, resulting in some truly heart-stopping turns overlooking thousand-foot near vertical drops, with nothing but the driver's skill to keep the car on the narrow road. Don't try this in a rental car – leave the driving to the locals! And pay no attention to the speedometer – it's best you don't know.

Holly again: The driver told us we were getting close, so I picked my head up to see the last leg of the journey. I couldn't believe the local mode of transportation I saw. There, in the back of an old pick up truck, about 10 indigenous people were standing, holding onto a metal rail in the center. No seats, no seatbelts, no nothing! And those trucks were speeding around the same switchbacks as we were.

-Arrival in Panajachel-
We finally rolled into the town of Panajachel. I saw storefronts and restaurants and the famous tuk-tuks. We had to drive about a mile out of town to our hotel. And there it was – the great Lake Atitlan. I first saw it from the hill above our hotel. Unbelievably beautiful…despite the fact that we had an overcast day.

Hotel Atitlan is not inexpensive; however, we were only staying two nights, so we decided to treat ourselves. And was it ever worth it! Michael and I were living in the most densely populated city in the US, and we have very little contact with grass, trees, and birds other than pigeons. This hotel was a feast for our soul! It has acres of the most beautiful gardens, a lake view to die for, and wonderful little details, such as all the unique decorations (colonial antiques, Mayan handicrafts, and more), the free range parrots, and the three little Schih-tzu dogs that wander around. All the rooms have lake-view balconies, and there is an infinity-edge Jacuzzi overlooking the lake.

After exploring the grounds, we stopped by the jacuzzi to have a drink and soak our weary feet. It was heaven!

We took a tuk-tuk into town for dinner, and then went to bed early, so we would be ready for the day of adventure with Mayan Families that awaited us!!!

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