Guatemala: 10 Days, 10 Impressions

With growing curiosity and a healthy double-edged dose of excitement and apprehension, we set off recently for the next segment of our journey: a new region with its own story, unfamiliar cultures with their own features, and distinct cuisines with their own flavors.

We share ten impressions from our first ten days in Guatemala – from chuchitos to proselytizers to contradictions – as we begin to absorb and comprehend an entirely new cultural panorama.

1. El Autobús del Pollo

Chicken Bus and A Bike - Xela, Guatemala
Playing Chicken with the Chicken Bus, Guatemala

Ah, the chicken bus, Guatemala’s infamous public transport of choice. For American readers, imagine the yellow school buses of your childhood painted in every shade of the rainbow. Throw in a few Mary and/or Jesus stickers and some brightly-painted slogans on the windshield (e.g., “Siempre preciosa” – “Always precious” or “Cristo viene” – “Christ is coming”) and you begin to grasp the concept of the chicken bus. Oh, but instead of sitting two to a seat, you sit three adults and three (or more) children in the same space.

2. Speaking simply

After a few days of Spanish lessons, we know enough verbs, nouns and prepositions to cobble together some thoughts and engage in basic conversations about food, family, and whether or not we slept well last night. However, the demands on us moved up a notch at lunch the other day when one of the school coordinators inquired about our travels, our website and the goals of our journey. Limited language skills often encourage expression in simple yet profound terms. The upshot of our discussion, expressed as easily in Spanish as it is in English: “Cultures are different, but people are the same around the world.

3. Street food

Street Tacos in Xela, Guatemala
Carefully assembling a taco. Such precision at the market in Xela, Guatemala.

Concerned that our stomachs had lost their resilience from our stay in America, we backed off from gobbling Guatemalan street food for as long as we could…which is to say 24 hours. As avocado lovers, how could we resist rich lathered guacamole spread atop a crispy tostada at Parque Union in Antigua? Pair this with any of the following and your taste buds are headed south of the border:

  • from a stand at Parque Union, chuchitos – the Guatemalan version of a tamale
  • from the weekend market, cheese-stuffed pupusas – stuffed grilled rounds made from tortilla dough and topped with salsa, greens and cheese
  • street-side ceviche – seafood (especially shrimp) turned in a sauce of tomatoes, lime, onions, chilis and earthy vinegar
  • bus station chiles rellenos – fried sweet pepper stuffed with meat and diced vegetables, sometimes served between tortillas like a sandwich.
  • market tacos – shredded meat cooked in a rich tomato sauce, topped with roasted onions, cilantro, fresh vegetables, and a squeeze of lime – all tucked between a healthy dose of tortillas.

Down it with some horchata (rice milk sweetened with sugar, cinnamon and vanilla) and finish yourself off with some papayas, mangoes and pineapples. In case you are wondering, our stomachs are fine. The good bacteria we collected in Asia are apparently still doing their thing.

4. Guatemalan Children

Guatemalan Kid, Alfalfa Hair - Antigua, Guatemala
Flyaway hair day. Guatemalan child in Antigua.

Something about Guatemalan children’s dark eyes – curious, playful and shy at turns – coaxes a smile and a melted heart. All children here are pretty cute, but dress them up for school and they become off-the-charts adorable. Each morning on our way to Spanish class, girls dressed in a bright red sweaters and plaid skirts briskly make their way to elementary school with the aid of their older sisters or their more-traditionally dressed mothers. For us, a dose of color…and a dose of hope.

5. Proselytizing

Guatemala is a heavily Catholic country, so perhaps this comes as little surprise. But the passion is startling. A woman preaches the Bible through a megaphone to the market throngs in Antigua; a believer belts out a 20-minute sermon without skipping a beat in the aisle of a chicken bus. Competition even ensues when two sermons converge in the middle of the Xela central market (Democracia). The blasé reaction of locals suggests this is an everyday affair.

6. Markets

Girl in the Antigua Market, Guatemala
Market day in Antigua, Guatemala.

Antigua is not known for its central market. Perhaps that’s because most tourists don’t venture past its first 100 yards. Should you venture further, you’ll enter a cascading series of other worlds and a labyrinth of stalls offering mounds of dried chilies, stacks of greens, and rainbows of tropical fruit. Step back from the mysterious light of the market’s inner sanctum and you realize this: one’s position in society is reflected in his position within (or outside of) the market. For some, away from the sun in a covered permanent stall; for others, outside on the ground in the midst of swirling clouds of dust.

7. Tortillas

A hand-written sign in Spanish “Selling Tortillas” jutted out from a doorway on a dusty street leading out of Antigua. So we poked our heads inside to find a narrow alley full of doors, and with the help of a neighbor, we found the tortilleria. As the woman bagged the palm-sized tortillas fresh off her stovetop, we engaged a group of neighborhood children. We understand that we’ll eventually tire of eating tortillas every day, but for now we enjoy their signature aroma…and the adventure of finding them on back streets.

8. Guatemalan Women

Indigenous Woman at Antigua Market, Guatemala
Breaking a smile at the Antigua market, Guatemala.

Bright colors are by no means exclusive to Central America, but the aesthetic here is distinct and extraordinarily colorful. Embroidered necklines, bold stitched patterns, laced aprons and indigo skirts – often topped off with psychedelic woven head cloths – make the continuous flow of indigenous women in Guatemala a site to behold. Wide faces and long braids express something native and timeless, while some facial features are fascinatingly reminiscent of Asia (more specifically of places like Tibet and Cambodia).

The balance with which women transport massive bundles on their heads would put most modeling school students to shame, particularly as it’s often accomplished with a baby strapped on back and in the crush of crowded markets.

9. Learning a language through humor

When you are unable to speak a language fluently, humor can help facilitate engagement and take up the slack. For example, Dan enjoys puns and wordplay in English. Give him a new language and the results can be, well, dangerous. One afternoon after class, our host mother inquired as to whether or not we were tired, and later, how long we’d been married — to which Dan later responded, “Yo estoy consado porque estoy casado.” (Although not quite as lyrical in English: “I am tired because I am married.”)

10. Contradictions

Despite the friendly smiles and general warmth we’ve experienced on Guatemala’s streets, personal security seems of greater concern now than it ever did during our travels in Asia. Whether it’s climbing Agua Volcano outside of Antigua (“take only limited cash and a disposable camera for the bandits”), visiting the cemetery in Xela/Queztaltenango (“travel in groups of four to deter thieves”) or planning a trip to the weekly market in San Francisco (“don’t carry anything in your pockets because they will be picked or cut”), locals continually express concern regarding our personal safety. Though taking care of our possessions and ourselves is nothing new to us, the apparent potential for violence is. Only time will tell.

————————————————–

Although we’ll always be gringos here in Guatemala, life has already begun to feel more familiar and less foreign to us. Conversations lengthen, signs become clearer, and some of the apprehension finds its way out. Day by day, we peel back the onion. And life reveals that there is still much more to learn.

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Comments

  1. says

    Guatemala is one of the top places on my list to travel and I’m glad I can travel vicariously with you in the meantime. As always, your food photos make my mouth water. I find it interesting to hear about the proselytising. In Panama, I was surprised at how blase people were about religion.

    Glad to hear you’re settling in!

  2. Mark says

    Wonderful! for those of us stuck in 9 to 5 and snow, experiencing other cultures in a different way than fear is a wonderful thing

  3. Chip Ritter says

    Great post, you two! I’m glad to hear things are going well as you embark on your continuing adventure. I look forward to your stories and insights.

  4. says

    Hi Kids —
    Wonderful article about Guatemala — really well written and gives a great insight into the culture. The pictures are beautiful.

    Good Job!!!

    Love,
    Dee

  5. says

    Ahhhh – Guatemala! I loved that country – I can’t wait to follow your adventures through Central America as I spent 6 months travelling from Mexico to Panama in 2003 and then again from Honduras to Panama last year. You are going to love it!

  6. Meredith Roach says

    Just got back from a month long stint with NGO in Guate, your photos are amazing. I couldn’t agree more with #10 – security worsened daily while I was there and I was robbed in Antigua. I finally stopped mentioning it to the locals b/c the look of shame and anger on their faces was too much to bear. While there, I was living with a 50-something single woman who’s lived and run a school in the same small town all her life. Due to the violence, she’s unable to leave her house after dark despite the fact that 3 generations of her students walk the streets of her city. She and her brother both commented to me that they feel less safe now than they did during the Civil War. Pretty impactful.

    I’m adding you to my twitter! Safe travels and enjoy the moments!

  7. says

    @Leigh: The proselytizing may be because we’re here during the most religious time of the year – the lead-up to Holy Week (semana santa) and Easter. It will be interesting to see if the market and bus sermons continue afterward.

    @Mark: “experiencing other cultures in a different way than fear is a wonderful thing” – love this pithy statement.

    @Meredith: I’m sorry to hear about the robbery in Antigua – the laid back attitude there makes you forget that theft is very possible. Trying to figure out the security situation is tricky here as each person seems to have a different take on what’s safe and what isn’t. The overwhelming attitude seems to be that things have gotten worse and a lot just depends on luck after you take measures to not walk around late at night and other common sense actions. Our first concern is for our personal safety, but as we’re carrying with a lot of equipment – not only for this blog but for other projects – we really don’t want to lose everything by being on the wrong bus at the wrong time. But, we also don’t want to avoid opportunities and experiences because of fear – it’s a fine balance.

    @Agne, Chip, Bohdana, Cindi, Dee Dee: Glad you enjoyed this piece – plan to keep more posts like this coming your way!

  8. says

    What a great post — fantastic pictures too :)

    We’ve been in Mexico on the first leg of our trip for a week now, finding similar experiences to yours in Guatemala. We’re actually trying to figure out if we can make it there or not. We really wanted to see Tikal and Chichicastenango.

  9. says

    Your suggestions for street food in Antigua have me inspired! Just arrived here today and am looking forward to hunting down horchata to go with a taco! :-) I’ve come to many of these same initial conclusions – particularly just how beautiful and stunning the clothes of women are!

  10. says

    @Shannon: Antigua street food was surprisingly good. Particularly in retrospect (compared to more southern bits of Central America), Guatemalan street food was very good and diverse. And the clothes. So bright! Enjoy it.

  11. says

    @Claire: Thank you. Guatemala is a terrific country. Looks like you found that out firsthand. And you chose to spend about the same amount of time there as we did. For us, Guatemala was a highlight in Central America.

    In Xela, we studied Spanish with Casa Xelaju. Oh, and we studied Spanish with all the friendly people at the outdoor market :)

  12. Aldie says

    Oh… wow.. thank you so much for all this information. It’s funny how you know more about my own country than I do. I was born and raised there till I was about 8 years old and then sadly had to come with my family to live in the U.S.
    I’m not complaining, I’m just so happy to read about my country in such a wonderful way, such as you do.

    Thank you so very much! God bless you and keep you both safe from harms way where ever you go.

    Aldie.

  13. says

    Hey I wonder if you think it is still unsafe or dangerous in Guatemala? I see your trip was a while ago… Just wondering.We are currently living in China and have travelled here extensively and in no place have we felt our cameras or our wallets to be in danger,

  14. says

    @Ruthi: Yes, our trip to Guatemala was in 2009 so it’s been a few years. From talking with friends who have visited more recently I think the situation is pretty similar – it’s more than likely that you’ll be fine if you take care with your possessions and follow common travel safety advice. However, I would say that the level of theft and perhaps feeling danger from time to time is likely higher than what you’re experiencing in China (and other parts of Asia). I do hope you’ll still travel to Guatemala – it’s a really beautiful place.

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