MICE, Ink & Wanderlust

Guat’s Good in Guatemala

Despite all the negativity in my prior post, Guatemala is not at all bad.

With its breathtaking views of Lake Atitlan, Volcan de Agua, Acatenango and Fuego, three of the 37 volcanoes in the Guatemalan Highlands, and the dense tree-lined mountainsides, the sheer untamed beauty of the countryside caught me by surprise with its fierce lushness.

Welcome to Guatemala - La Aurora Airport
Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua is a maze of one-way streets paved with stones, lined with barred windows where mutts rest on window seats, presumably to catch a breeze. It gets pretty chilly at night, but the days can get kind of warm. 

Let me define kind of warm by my standards. Hot to me is 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Warm for me is about 88-105. So kind of warm means the 80-85 range.

Zoning is nonexistent here. Eateries and hotels are sprinkled between other businesses, convenience stores, hostels, schools, and homes. 

Signage is minimal, making it difficult to see from any distance what you’re looking for. 

One other disadvantage is that all the streets look identical…just different variations of the same color scheme. Google Maps and Maps.Me proved to be unhelpful, so I settled comfortably on the fact that the only way to find something was for me to walk by it.

I spent hours on both days exploring the streets of Antigua in search of food. That was the only thing I went out for since by Sunday I was only focused on leaving first thing Monday and I rejected the tours offered. In hindsight I seriously wish I had taken advantage of the chance to see Lake Atitlan.

As with most Latin American countries, every vendor did their best to entice me into their stores as I passed. I’d already been struggling with my luggage being at the 50-pound max, so I certainly wasn’t doing any shopping on this visit. I resisted though and left empty-handed of any Guatemala souvenirs.

What impressed me was that everywhere I went, there were either temperature check and hand sanitizer stations at the door or someone stopped me before allowing me entry with a thermometer in hand and a bottle of hand sanitizer. 

Unlike the U.S., they play no games in Guatemala about their health checks! Citizens wear masks whether they’re inside a business or walking down the street. I saw masks worn on buses, vans, motorcycles, scooters, and bicycles.

Everyone was wearing a mask at the book fair I visited on Sunday down at Parque Central, the main outdoor area in town where people go to hang out or meet up, attend events, and hold photo shoots. Staff also checked temperatures and provided hand sanitizer at both entrances. No one appeared to have any problem whatsoever with wearing a mask.

Antigua Guatemala Parque Central
Antigua Guatemala Parque Central

In the States, the only thing they’ve done this entire pandemic was make sure customers were wearing masks prior to entering establishments or argue with those who refused. In Texas, they couldn’t wait to end the mask requirement. I’ve seen people in Texas remove their masks as soon as they were past the line of sight of front-door scrutiny. 

Try that in Guatemala and see what happens. 

Try requiring U.S. citizens to have their temperatures taken or be forced to use hand sanitizer and see what happens!

In Antigua, the restaurants were relatively unremarkable with a Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, and Subway offering the only familiar options, but there was one standout I must mention. I found it on my first day there and then couldn’t find my way back.

Ay Carmela was one of my walk-by, on-accident discoveries; it greeted me with a line stretching from the order counter halfway down the sidewalk to the street. I ordered a burrito, a quesadilla, a chalupa, and three tacos. I’m pretty finicky, so I figured out of all those, surely I’d like at least one or two. If I liked them all, then I’d have enough for both lunch and dinner later.

Prices were quite budget friendly. Chalupa was Q15 ($1.90); burrito and quesadilla were Q30 each ($3.85); and tacos were three for Q30.

Everything was absolutely delicious. I tried to find my way back there twice the next day (couldn’t stop thinking about those monster shakes pictured above), and promptly got lost twice. Nowhere else compared to Ay Carmela for the remainder of my stay in that country.

On day 3 I was scheduled to leave, departing from Guatemala City at 2 p.m. The scenic one-hour ride to Guatemala City from Antigua was far beyond anything I expected. I’d slept the entire ride from the airport to Antigua Saturday morning after having stayed awake all night in their airport, so I’d missed my first glimpse.

Highways blasted through and around mountains snaked hidden curves, with sheer drops over cliffs on one side or another, reminding me of the road to Lake Tahoe, California. The hills were dotted with multi-story stucco homes to shotgun shacks with metal roofs. Cows, horses, chickens, dogs, and goats were the more common animal sightings among countless exquisite-looking birds I couldn’t name if you paid me. They were a marvel and reminded me that I really need to step my bird-watching game up before I head to Costa Rica. I was beyond frustrated that I couldn’t adequately capture what I saw from the car window; nearly every shot resulted in a blur. 

Guatemala City was just as metropolitan as Chicago, except maybe the streets were cleaner in GC. I happened to find San Martin while wandering around in Guatemala City, a bakery and restaurant with dang-near melt-in-your-mouth croissants and banana nutella pastries. I also enjoyed their shrimp and chicken rotini pasta dish.

As in Antigua, Guatemala City businesses also took temperature checks and hand sanitizer quite seriously. It was here that I learned what the odd-looking mats were for. I’d side-stepped them in Antigua, but in Guatemala City I saw someone use one to clean their shoes before entering a building. I did a little research and found those are called SANI-MATs which Latin Americans view as critical for disinfecting and sanitizing shoes in their fight against the spread of COVID [Related link: Importance of sanitizing shoes during COVID-19].

I didn’t get to see any more of Guatemala during my short two-and-a-third-day stay, but my biggest takeaway was that Guatemalans are far more diligent, sensible, and committed to the COVID fight than my fellow Americans, and that’s pretty darn sad to me.

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