Our Amazing Race: 48 Hours in the Hills of Guatemala

Misty Xela, Guatemala
Early morning mist in Xela, Guatemala.

Some friends have suggested that we attach helmet cameras to our heads to give viewers the unabridged full monty version of our lives.

Trust us, you really don’t want to see all of it.

But there are moments where a helmet-cam would communicate our circumstances better than a pen, better than a camera (although we did our best with the video below). Moments of on-the-run multi-hop transport and cultural over-immersion that leave our heads spinning and our bodies reeling.

This time it’s Guatemala. But what we are about to describe could well have been in Armenia, Uzbekistan or Nepal, albeit with a few cultural adjustments.

This is our amazing race, one that doesn’t finish at the end of this year’s TV season.

Woo-hoo: The chicken bus from Xela to Totonicapan

We ponder a Guatemalan riddle: why post a sign inside the bus that reads “Christ lives” when virtually all bus drivers insist on driving like hell?

Men on Top of Chicken Bus - Xela, Guatemala
Loading up the chicken bus.

We lose track of the stops on this 90-minute bus ride – one that was supposed to take only 45. The irony: twice as long, double the frenzy.

At each stop, vendors pour into the front as others hop off the back — all while the bus continues to move. Peanuts, bananas and bags of water all make sense. But school geography stencils, cheap perfumes, and a Guatemalan version of Spirograph? (The vendor assures your child will get straight A’s if you buy him one.)

Then, in the middle of nowhere Guatemala in this chicken bus full of locals, an indigenous couple turns and asks us – the only gringos on the bus – for directions to a small village.

Do we really look like we have any idea where we’re going?

Happy Hour at 5 AM

We’re in Totonicapan to photograph microfinance borrowers for Kiva. That night, we forgo earplugs because we have an early start and fear sleeping through the alarm.

Little did we know that a full-blown happy hour would break out in our guest house at 5 AM. The common-area TV blares just outside our door (soap operas start early in these parts). An unrelenting parade of footsteps, morning chatter and laughter competes.

Who are these people living it up at this hour? We are the only foreigners; the other guests didn’t look like vacationers. And this guest house is no place for a vacation: tiny rooms, separate beds, and bed linens that murmur “u-use your slee-eep sacks.”

As the party disperses (where did they go?), silence descends and we fall back asleep.

Five minutes later, the alarm goes off.

Totonicapan to San Francisco El Alto – “It’s only a 15-minute ride”

It’s 5 PM; our photo shoot is over and it’s time for a microbus to the bus station. The bus, designed to hold 17 people packed like sardines, now holds 30. School kids indicate we missed our stop. Fortunately it’s only a few blocks back. Backpacks at the ready, we hop off, the bus still moving.

Downtown Totonicapan - Guatemala
Downtown Totonicapan.

Minutes later, we’re on another chicken bus to Quatro Caminos (Four Roads), a transit frenzy where four roads meet. The drunk man behind us prompts us to forget all the Spanish we picked up the previous week.

“No comprendo.”

Although locals assured us that we would arrive in San Francisco El Alto in 15 minutes, we are already almost one hour into the journey. Is this what’s meant by the Mayan calendar?

Up the Hill, Squashed

At Quatro Caminos we disembark and get pointed in the direction of yet another chicken bus. A young man ushers us on, promising a quick arrival in San Francisco. If only we had a nickel for every promise like this.

This bus is stuffed. Three or more seated on each side, aisles packed. The bus sways as it tackles switchbacks up the mountain. All eyes are on us, our large gringo frames and backpacks flailing with the turns.

We’d love to take a photo of sunset over the hills – if we weren’t certain to slam our lens right through the window. Laden, we clutch the luggage rack above with two hands as the bus driver accelerates out of one hairpin turn and into another (see the first part of video below).

As darkness descends, the bus driver curiously turns off all interior lights. There’s an upside to this darkness: if we go careening off a cliff – a distinct possibility given the way he’s driving – we won’t see it coming.

When are we supposed to arrive in San Francisco El Alto again? We turn to a crowd of school kids for help. One girl shrieks and retreats at our inquiry. Another boy, armed with middle-school confidence – urges us: “Get off now!”

A Town with No Map

Edge of town. Edge of night. We’re without a map and we stand out in the darkness as the only foreigners in town. This town hosts one of the – if not the – largest market in Central America each Friday, but our guidebook doesn’t see fit to provide a map. It’s also a place our Spanish teachers described as dangerous — the kind of place where thieves cut your pockets to steal.

As we consider our circumstances, the lights from local tiendas (shops) shine through the day’s unsettled dust. Under weak bulbs dangling on flimsy strings, vendors and families set up stands for the following day’s market. Although this lends the place an ethereal quality, we are still on alert and directionless. We walk briskly, deliberately, and with feigned purpose. We pause occasionally to ask directions and dodge the town drunks who wish to practice their English.

Hotel Galaxia

Dark, fairly bleak. This must be our place. It’s supposedly the best of the accommodation options in town.

The woman running the hotel gives us the rundown of the market schedule. Stalls go up at 3 AM. People start buying at 5 AM. Animals are sold behind the Catholic Church.

Our room: only cold water. A convenient excuse not to take a shower before tomorrow’s market. Our room evinces a dilapidation so complete that renders it impossible to imagine the place as new. It hangs together, but falls apart. The walls are leprous, pallid, and punctuated with holes that once served as electrical outlets.

Hotel Room in San Francisco El Alto, Guatemala
Hotel room in San Francisco el Alto, Guatemala.

But a few functioning holes remain. We have electricity. And the room has a wastebasket. In our book, this is almost luxury.

But the bed sheets still sing the song of sleep sacks.

Market Day

5 AM alarm is brutal. It’s the kind that leaves the body burning with sleep deprivation. Maybe that’s just the effect of the recent bed bug bites on our legs.

The weekly market beckons as we hear it unfold on the streets outside.

As we exit, we dodge men carrying heavy loads on their backs and women baskets on their heads. The food stalls appear almost medieval – black cauldrons of chicken, rice and beans simmer atop burning wood fires. Women open lids to let us peek inside. “Come back. It will be ready later.” Genuine smiles, we are all tired.

Market Day in San Francisco El Alto, Guatemala
Market day in San Francisco el Alto, Guatemala.

Light falls on a stack of cowboy hats under the shadow of the church. Women unpack large Chinese market bags full of dried, salted fish. Young girls bob and weave the maze of rickety wooden tables, carrying large metal kettles filled with hot chocolate. They giggle as they pour our cups. Hot chocolate at 6 AM never tasted so good.

Above the Catholic Church, pigs squeal for their lives, geese peck at small puppies, sheep crowd close to their owners, cows stubbornly refuse to move. The animal market disappoints on only one account: no donkeys, as we were promised.

Video: Market Day in San Francisco El Alto, Guatemala

 

The market crowds swell at 9 AM. So does the heat. It’s time to go. Another chicken bus and we’re back where we started two days before: Xela.

Just in time for us upload photos and prepare for a three-day, 40 kilometer (25 miles) hike to Lake Atitlan that leaves the next morning.

View Photos from Totonicapan

View Photos from San Francisco El Alto

Totonicapan and San Francisco el Alto Travel Information

What to Do: Both Totonicapan and San Francisco El Alto are known for their weekly markets when – mostly indigenous – vendors and buyers from neighboring hill villages and towns descend for a day of trade. The Totonicapan market is on Tuesday and Saturday. San Francisco El Alto, Friday. These are truly local markets, meaning you won’t find souvenir or other stands geared towards foreigners. Go to Chichicastenango for that.

We highly recommend arriving in San Francisco the night before so you can wake early and enjoy the market before it becomes crowded and hot, ideally between 5:30 and 8 AM. You’ll have the market to yourself. Travelers that do visit usually arrive by tourist shuttles from Xela.

Where to Stay: You don’t come to either location for luxury accommodation. In Totonicapan we stayed at Hospedaje San Miguel (tel: 7766 1452) next door to the Casa de la Cultura (8 Avenida and 3 Calle). Rooms are basic (bring ear plugs and sleep sacks), but showers in the shared bathrooms have surprisingly hot water. Cost: $10 for a double room with shared bathroom.

Hotel Galaxia (2 Calle, 1-81, tel: 7738 4007) in San Francisco El Alto is right below the main square and in the middle of all the market action. The woman who owns it is very kind. Cost: $10 for a double room with private bathroom (cold water).

How to Get There: Both places are serviced by direct chicken buses from the Rotunda or Minerva bus stations in Xela (Quetzaltenango).

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Comments

  1. Lisa Munro says

    Sounds like great fun!

    You know you’ve been in Guatemala too long when you find yourself outraged that the bus driver has failed to create a fourth lane on a two lane road.

    :)

    Safe travels!

  2. says

    haha, I love that they asked you directions. We have had that happen before as well. I wonder, do they think we have a GPS handy? We only spent a short time in Guatemala, enough to see Tikal. Received an email to come home and work, so we cut the trip short. Seeing your photos makes me want to explore it more.

  3. says

    @Lisa: We’ve been there. I’m embarrassed to say that there were times in Guatemala when I wondered why the bus driver didn’t just get a move-on, requiring even sketchier driving. Our travels on public transport around the world has given us a strong sense of fate…

    @Caitlin: This photo was taken at 6 AM walking to Rotunda bus station…we also thought it captured the feel of the city well.

    @D&D: It’s amusing how often we get asked for directions, especially when we look so out of place (i.e., the only foreigners around). Hope you make it back to Guatemala one day – there is certainly no shortage of markets, cities, treks, and ruins to explore.

  4. says

    Just found your site via Almost Fearless and truly enjoy your articles. Guatemala will be our first country we visit when we begin our trip. Thanks for the details in your blog!

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