Guatemala, Part IV: The Bustling Craziness of Guatemala City
And we’re back in Guatemala! Following our quick foray into Belize, we returned to Guatemala City to explore the city in-depth.
“Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”Ibn Battuta
Unbeknownst to us, we had not been the only Americans on that bus out of Belize. Waiting in line at customs, we met Julian, a musician from L.A., and his mother Nancy, an advocate for conflict survivors for UNICEF.
The four of us spoke with a taxi driver at the border, who agreed to 100 quetzals per person. Good deal, right?
As we were passing out of the checkpoint, windows rolled down, we slowly passed by an outdoor bar where several people were gathered. I happened to lock eyes with one man, who after a pause began to yell, in accented English: “Be careful! Be careful!”
This reminded me of my own youth spent yelling random things at passing cars with my friends. We thought nothing more of it.
We got to talking with Julian and his travels, which included Iceland, India, and Southeast Asia. He gave us the idea of renting an RV to drive around Iceland, as a more cost-effective combination of lodging and transportation. Nancy reflected on possibly retiring from her profession.
“Don’t do that, mom,” Julian said. “There are too many people who need you.”
We kept driving on through the dark. At one point we deviated from the main road and hit some very rocky terrain, a completely unpaved road. After several awkward moments, I asked the driver, in Spanish:
“Are we still on the highway?”
Several more minutes of bumpy driving. Then the paved road began again.
We laughed, more nervously than genuinely. His lack of elocution disturbed me but I decided to keep it to myself. Finally, several hours later, we arrived in Flores. We produced our wallets to fish out some quetzals.
The driver shook his head. “Ciento cincuenta, por favor.” One hundred and fifty.
I shot a glance at Kristen. She was just as taken aback as I was. I politely reminded the driver that he had said a hundred quetzals per person.
The driver rubbed his eyes, clearly stressed. He began to speak a mix of broken English and rapid Spanish, telling us that the price was Q150. All of a sudden, the bystander’s warning back at the border became clear to me. While my blood was up, I didn’t want to make the situation worse, especially not with other people in the car.
“You do not understand my Spanish,” the driver said haltingly. “Do the, the–” he made the hand sign for calculator, “I did the math wrong. It is one hundred fifty.”
You didn’t do shit wrong, I muttered. I told him, in the most perfect Spanish I could muster, that we understood him in both languages. I reminded him that we had agreed on 100, not 150.
The driver looked hard at me, and I returned an easy glance while presenting absolutely no intention of backing down. He was a thin old guy, I could take him.
“Okay, okay, one twenty-five.”
Wrong as this thief was, we weren’t going to convince him to honor our agreement. So, we paid him Q125 apiece.
When we had unloaded our bags, I asked the group: “I’m not crazy, right? He said 100 quetzals apiece?”
“Yeah, totally,” Julian said. “That’s why he went down to 125. He was just trying to get extra.”
So let that be a warning to you, dear traveler. Don’t let them fluster you, and don’t let them bullshit you.
Back in Flores
We said goodbye to Julian and Nancy and found a nice room at La Casa de Enrico. It’s a charming place overlooking Lake Peten Itza. Enrico, the owner, reminded me very much of Jean Reno from The Professional, yet he was incredibly friendly.
He put us up in a very nice room with wonderful amenities and even gave us room service. The shower was not running hot, and so he offered us a free breakfast the following morning. As for dinner, he served us some of the most impressive fare we’d had so far.
After a good night’s sleep in a comfortable bed, the breakfast we had the next morning was one of the best meals of the entire trip. It was a standard desayuno tipico, but so savory that it will forever stick in our minds. It really is the little things; Enrico brought out fresh slices of bread, still warm, and saucers of fresh jam, also warm, that melted across the bread like butter. To say it was delicious would be an understatement. To eat this bread and jam was to relax, and feel all your cares and worries melt away.
It wasn’t just the food itself, but also the view. The day was gorgeous, and so was the view overlooking the lake. Boats floated by, people walked and talked below, and tuk-tuks and motorcycles drove by on the street below. We ate leisurely, relishing every moment together. Enrico brought out fresh fruit juice that had hints of cardamom and other spices. It was finally like having a true vacation.
But things are not beautiful simply because they last forever, and eventually, it was time to pick up our bags and be on our way. We left a good tip for the wait staff and went out to flag a tuk-tuk down to Santa Elena.
Santa Elena is bigger and busier and is where the big shopping malls, movie theaters, and bus stations are located. This time, we made sure to request the best class of Fuente del Norte bus, the Clase Oro or Gold Class, at Q220 per ticket. The driver assured us that it would have working air conditioning. Unfortunately, that bus would not be leaving for another six hours.
Luckily, the station was spacious, had several restaurants and convenience markets (that only accept cash, by the way), and was air-conditioned. We set out bags down and thought about what to do. There wasn’t a whole lot to go out of your way for in this part of town, but we weren’t concerned. Eventually, we decided to go see a movie. Shazam! was playing at the local theater, so we got right back on a tuk-tuk and zipped on over.
Shazam in Spanish
The mall was very large and nice for a town of this size. I had remembered an outdoor concert being performed under the large canopy the night before when we were driving across the causeway. We felt awkward bringing our big backpacks into the theater with us, but the staff said this wouldn’t be an issue. At Q35 a pop, the tickets were half to a third of the price as back home. With our hot dogs and drinks, we went in and sat down.
Movie theaters are a bit different in Guatemala. While still high-definition, they did not seem to be 4K quality. They are also played at a lower volume, which would be perfectly fine if half the people in the theater weren’t talking throughout the movie. Shazam! was dubbed into Spanish, and a lot of the humor seemed to translate well enough for the rest of the Hispanophone audience. The fact that there was a lot more chatter actually helped in this case, as I quietly translated some of the dialogue for Kristen.
One thing’s for certain: half the people seated around us would not last five minutes in an Alamo Drafthouse.
The Bus to Guatemala City
In high spirits from the movie, we stopped by a Pollo Campero to load up on food, since the night bus can’t stop for meals. Accosted by one panhandler and with no Uber drivers in sight, we ended up walking back to the bus station. Even at night, there were plenty of well-lit bars and outdoor markets with plenty of other people on the street. We never feared for our safety.
Since I still wasn’t 100 percent trusting that this bus would actually be comfortably air-conditioned, I once again showed up in shorts and a T-shirt. My pants and hoodie were kept in my luggage, in the hold.
We were presented with big plushy chairs on the second level of the bus, with plenty of legroom, large storage spaces overhead, and a working bathroom on the first level. Yes, it had AC.
Lots of AC.
Whereas I couldn’t breathe on the first bus, I was about ready to have frostbite on this one. Kristen, having had the foresight to wear jeans and pack a jacket in her handbag, slept comfortably. I, on the other hand, was dying. Now I knew exactly what all those forums meant: these were the cold buses.
I asked the drivers if I could get my backpack out of the hold, but was told no. I asked them if they could turn the AC down, and they said they would. An hour later, it was just as frigid. An older woman even climbed down to tell them that it was very cold and could they lower the AC. Again, they said they would and never did.
It got so bad at one point that I had to do something drastic. Pulling my arms inside my shirt like I used to do back in elementary school was helping my top half, but not my bottom half. So, taking advantage of the darkness–and I’m really not proud of this–I slid my shorts down over my knees and calves. That way, at least all of my legs were somewhat warm, instead of one half being warm and the other half about ready to turn blue.
So let that be another warning to you, dear traveler: show up prepared for both extremes.
We were dropped off at CentraNorte, another very large and very clean shopping mall. Unfortunately, we were also several miles away from the city center, and we had to catch an Uber into town. It was on this Uber ride that we passed through Zone 16, which was the stereotypical assortment of shacks climbing up the hillsides like lichen. It’s actually very impressive and, in a way, cool. However, be sure that areas like Zone 16 and Zone 18 are where most of the violence occurs that you hear about.
We were able to secure an Airbnb in a wonderfully spacious apartment in Zone 10 with perfectly hot water. We were just steps from a number of restaurants and in a safe area. Guatemala City spread out before us from our 10th floor room.
The next day, we went to the historic district of Guatemala City, Zone 1. We had a look at the old post office, which you can explore. However, you have to hand over your passport to the front desk. The post office isn’t very big, and it is a functioning government building, so you won’t see too much. However, the view of Guatemala City from the arch is quite nice.
In Parque Centenario (Centennial Park), the main plaza of Guatemala City, was a large outdoor book market. I love books and so I enjoyed browsing around the several long tables, hunting for something I had never read in Spanish. I eventually bought a Paulo Coelho book, La Quinta Montaña, for Q100 (talking the guy down from Q120). You will also have access to the Cathedral of Guatemala City, which is nice, but not the main attraction in Zone 1.
The National Palace of Culture
We walked across the plaza to visit what I think is the main attraction, the National Palace, also known as El Palacio Nacional de la Cultura (The National Palace of Culture). More colloquially known as “El Palacio Verde” (The Green Palace), owning to the patina on the stone blocks, it was once the residence of the president, and is now mostly a museum, with only two federal departments operating there. We paid Q40 for a 45-minute guided tour.
Built between 1939 and 1943, The National Palace is an impressive structure in its own right, made more so if you know its history. Jorge Ubico, that crazy president I mentioned back in Part I, ordered its construction. Ubico was originally a general in the Guatemalan army, taking power in 1931, and ruling until an uprising removed him from office in 1944. An oppressive tyrant, he militarized a number of social institutions, and pandered to the harsh labor practices of the American United Fruit Company. He would refer to himself as “another Napoleon.”
He was also completely obsessed with the number five.
Guatemalans even called him “Number Five.” He considered it an important sign that there were five letters in both “Jorge” and “Ubico.”
You will see the number five pop up a laughable number of times when learning about the National Palace. There are five levels to the palace, and five main arches on each floor. They used five main construction materials, including concrete and oxidized copper. The copper is what gives the “Green Palace” its characteristic shine. The locals will also refer to the palace as “El Guacamolon”, or “The Big Guacamole.”
At the time of its construction, the Guatemalan quetzal had parity with the American dollar. Despite this, Ubico forced prisoners to do the majority of the labor on the palace, making the cost extremely low even for back then.
Ubico also made sure to include an entrance that only he could use. People who knew him said that he did not like to have anyone in his way.
In 1980, during the Guatemalan Civil War, a car bomb went off by the corner of the palace, prompting the removal of the president’s residence, as well as most organs of the government, to decentralize.
The palace was quite beautiful. My photos do not even do it justice. The gilded ceilings were some of the most intricate I’ve ever laid eyes on, and the two-ton chandelier in the Main Ballroom is beyond impressive in real life.
On the lower level of the palace, you will notice a map of Guatemala, but something will look off about it. You will notice that Belize was still part of Guatemala. I mentioned this to the guide, who said that, yes, Belize used to be a part of this country–
“And still is!” an older man in the tour group piped up.
–but that the government gave it to the British to work on the railroads there. The British never fulfilled their promise.
“Chiapas also used to be a part of Guatemala,” another tour group member said, referencing the state in southern Mexico. Again the tour guide verified this truth, saying that Guatemala sold that region to Mexico in exchange for weapons during the long and bloody civil war.
Speaking of the Guatemalan Civil War, the two sides signed peace accords in the palace’s Plaza of Peace in 1996. You can see a bronze sculpture of a hand, which holds a fresh rose. The guard changes the rose every day.
Next to it is a small altar containing an eternal flame. This altar is in honor of the many thousands of children killed during the conflict.
The guide spoke of the palace with palpable pride. He told anecdotes of American visitors commenting on how impressive the structure was. Both the building itself and the history it represented impressed me. It’s certainly a must-see, in my opinion, and the tour will teach you a lot.
Our Last Night
That night, we walked over to a P.F. Chang’s and had a good dinner. We then walked over to the Red Lion Pub, owned by a British expat. Again, we felt no danger at all walking to and from our Airbnb. While I should reiterate that many parts of Guatemala City are very dangerous at night, it has its nice areas too. Kristen and I felt fancy that night. If a British expat could make a new home in Guatemala City, I figured it couldn’t be that bad.
My flight did not leave until afternoon on the following day, so we got up nice and late. We took an Uber to a fancy shopping mall to use most of the last of our quetzals to treat ourselves to a nice big breakfast.
While we ate, we reflected on our two and a half weeks in Central America. We agreed that Belize was a bust, for the most part, but that Guatemala was worth every penny (although we’ll definitely plan smarter for next time). We certainly can not wait to get back.
And that’s the end of Guatemala! I hope you guys enjoyed these posts as much as I enjoyed writing them.