Sorry friends. I know it’s been awhile and I still haven’t put up the promised post of a microbus ride in San Salvador. But please take this first. My amazing trip to Guatemala.
This was my first trip outside of El Salvador since I arrived two months ago. We had a long weekend because September 15, last Thursday, was Día de Independencia (Independence Day) for the Central American countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Costa Rica. Mexico also recognizes this date as its independence from Spain.
I have known that Guatemala was definitely one of the places I wanted to visit while here in Central America. So many people have told how what a beautiful country it is, especially Antigua. However, I am very happy that my friend insisted we spend most of our trip in the town of Panajachel.
In ‘Pana’ the indigenous culture of Guatemala is more apparent, more untouched than in Anitgua. Don’t get me wrong, Antigua was breathtaking, but the influence of international tourism and money is very apparent. The characteristics of Guatemalan culture appear more commercialized. I was, however, only in Antigua for a day and a half so I really can’t make an educated judgment just yet.
The journey to Pana was a bit much. Three buses my friends, two of which were really crowded. They were three or four people to a seat in yellow school buses re-made into public transportation. I am somewhat accustomed to this though. Public transportation in El Salvador is very much the same. Although, as my Salvadoran friend pointed out, “In El Salvador we do not squeeze 3 or 4 people in one seat!” It was all part of the experience though.
We got to Pana at about 5 p.m. on Thursday. It was raining and a friendly man showed us to the main street of the town where we found “Mario’s Rooms.” Everything about this hostel was lovely, from the people who worked there to the authentic décor of the rooms. We shed our bags and our wet clothes to take in what was left of daylight in Pana.
Vendors lined the stone streets, displaying the beautiful and unique craftsmanship of Guatemala. Everywhere were the rich colors extracted from the earth are on display in the form of fabrics, bags, clothes and jewelry. I wanted one of everything. I had to remind myself that if I kept stopping to look at ‘things’ I wouldn’t enjoy enough of the natural beauty that surrounded me.
We sat on plastic stools to eat tostadas from one of the many food vendors. The toppings are divided into sections: guacamole, beans and chile sauce create a pinwheel of color. Finally cilantro and onions are sprinkled over the top. We ended up having a conversation with the woman making the food about finding love, or more so, finding a good man. She has a daughter who is 30 years old and she told us she is worried she will never find a good man to marry. She left us with the advice that a man who believes in God is able to love and respect a woman. It was food for thought.
Of course, this was not the only notable street food I consumed during my trip. Later the same evening, I can say without shame, we consumed a second meal of pork, rice, beans, guacamole, tortillas and coffee by gaslight in the street. The tortillas in Guatemala are similar in flavor and texture to those in Salvador. They are also made with maiz, but they are slightly thinner. I had a delicious piece of fruit pie with banana, guava, apple and I believe, fig with a merengue topping. I tried hot chocolate made with rice, strange texture, but decent taste.
This was just in Pana. In Antigua for breakfast one morning I had Chile Relleno stuffed inside a delicious roll with lettuce, guacamole and curtido. The Chile Relleno in Guatemala is different, of course, than the Mexican version I am used to. Their version is filled with veggies as well. I smoked Hookah and ate custard cooked with rose water in a Mediterranean Bar where we sat next to a group of young Israelis travelling through Central America. I ate pasta with calamari and saw the most elegant McDonald’s I have ever seen equipped with a trendy café.
Me and my fellow monchileras (backpackers) got a little crazy in a bar one night in Panajachel called “Pana Rock.” Yes. It sounds cheesy and it was a little cheesy. I am thinking it is some spin off of Hard Rock Café, a marketing scheme I suppose. Maybe there is or will be a “Roma Rock” or “Paris Rock” for example. I don’t know. The second band that played was bearable, even kind of good for a couple of songs. We had a lot of fun dancing once the D.J. started. But mostly, as usual, I enjoyed people-watching. It was an eclectic mix of extranjeros and locals. I do not like to generalize, but I feel like I can spot a group of backpackers from Spain a mile away at this point.
One day in Pana we took a boat across Lake Atitlan to the beautiful pueblo of San Pedro.
I also broke down at one point when I couldn’t understand a financial transaction. Trying to figure out the exchange rate compounded with the language barrier I face on a daily basis got to me I suppose. Before that various decisions had been made about money that I couldn’t understand nor calculate in my head. For a control freak like me, this proved to be too much. It was a good lesson for me to learn to ‘let it go.’ I am grateful I have good friends who are understanding and patient. We were able to laugh about the love fest that ensued in the street while they were consoling me. There are moments when I need my native tongue to feel I am myself. Language is truly amazing. I have to come to realize how much I am able to communicate without being fluent in a language, but also how much I miss for the same reason.
Getting to Antigua was an adventure in itself. Two buses, both very crowded. It was a beautiful day though and the driver had some old Ranchera music playing. Although I had to grip the handle bar on top of the seat in front of me to keep from sliding off as we whipped around sharp turns, I managed to take a little nap leaning against my friend. Again, we also three to a seat with the aisles full.
We got to Antigua in the late afternoon. After dinner I got my first look at Antigua by twilight. It was beautiful. Although there were a lot people out and about, it still felt peaceful.
Below is the arc and clock tower of the city marking the center of the city. After passing under the arch it opens up into a square with a park and at the top, Cathedral San Jose.
One of my favorite moments during the trip was getting up early the last morning to walk around by myself in Antigua. I needed some space and wanted to see more of Antigua in the daylight. The air was sweet and fresh and the streets were quiet. As I walked I greeted people who were sharing the early Sunday morning with me. A few motorcycles and mopeds flew by, trucks carrying people locals to church, restaurant workers and shopkeepers were preparing for the stream of tourists that would pass through their doors that day.
I passed by many historical sites, ruins of old buildings beaten down by time but still standing. I was reminded of wandering around Rome where the remnants of history are everywhere you turn.
I returned to see San Jose Cathedral in the sunlight and caught the end of a morning service.
I ate my Chile Relleno sandwich, drank coffee and watched pigeons in front of the church in Merced Park.
Thank you Guatemala. It was beautiful and I hope to see you again soon.