In 2010, I visited Guatemala for a month. While it is a beautiful country with breathtaking scenery and amazing history, traveling in Guatemala is quite a bit more difficult than doing so in the United States. I would like to offer three suggestions to people planning a similar trip.
Travel is Unpredictable
When I got to Guatemala, I planned to spend my weekdays learning Spanish at a language school, and my weekends traveling the countryside. My number one goal was to see Tikal. Given this, I immediately went to one of the many tourism agencies that line the streets of Antigua. They were willing to sell me a trip to Tikal, however, they called me on Friday to tell me that all trips had been cancelled because of the weather.
I searched hard for a tourism agency that would send me to Tikal, but, apparently the road was under a mudslide, and it was impossible to go. Instead, I signed up for an adventure travel program that offered a bike ride, hike, and kayak trip to Lake Atitlan.
The following week, I tried again to get to Tikal, but the road had not yet been cleared. I ended up staying in Antigua and visiting a macadamia nut plantation and a coffee plantation. This cost me the same as the trip to Tikal was supposed to, because I had already paid and the agency refused to refund my money, only offering me the two tours in exchange. There’s a tip: don’t pay in advance!
Finally, the third week the language school I was at offered a trip to Tikal, and I jumped on that! This one actually did get to go. My problems with travel, however, were not over.
The final weekend I needed to get to the airport in Guatemala City. I jumped on a bus, but the road was closed. I wound up spending an extra week, and several hundred extra dollars to change my flight because I couldn’t get out of the city and to the airport. So things are unpredictable. Make plans, but be prepared for plans to change, and have a back up. Buy insurance on your flight.
The preferred method of long distance travel in Guatemala is the chicken bus, or old school busses that have been repainted. If you, like me, have not been on a school bus in the last two decades, you might not have noticed when you were small how small those seats were. People pile in on top of one another, often squishing three and four to a seat that in the US we might debate whether we wanted to share at all. There are also no regulations stating that everyone has to sit, or even be in the bus. A crowded route might see the bus packed, and even people sitting on top of it.
If you’re taking a chicken bus, make sure you can see out the window, and know what you’re looking for. No one is calling out stations, and you might wind up far from your destination if you don’t notice it passing.
Be prepared for a wild ride, whether on land in a chicken bus, or on water in a small boat. Water taxis travel through Lake Atitlan and during a storm, we found ourselves and our luggage completely soaked through from the waves. Fortunately, this didn’t break the iPad I brought, but it easily could have. If you go to Atitlan, leave the electronics wherever you’re staying as a home base.
Most of Guatemala is highlands, and I didn’t know ahead of time that I would have problems breathing as soon as I got there. Even a short walk, or a bike trip was difficult. Fortunately, I discovered while I was there that pharmacies can prescribe medications. With some difficulty in translation, I explained the problem to the pharmacist, and was given an inhaler. This helped a lot.
While there, I accidentally drank lemonade with ice in it without thinking to make sure the ice was safe. I wound up with Montezuma’s Revenge. I went to the pharmacy, and again they were able to give me medicine. However, this time they only had sulfa, which I am allergic to. I tried explaining that, but they told me it was the only cure. Since my allergy gives me a head-to-toe rash, but doesn’t cause anaphylaxis, I took it anyway. I itched the entire week I needed to take it, but I did get better. I’m sure that if I had been in the US, I could have gotten a different antibiotic, but I guess something is better than nothing.
Traveling through Guatemala is a wonderful adventure that you will never forget. The archaeology of Tikal will haunt you forever, and if you have the opportunity to explore Mayan rituals, you will never look at Catholicism the same way again. If you have never left The United States before, Guatemala will certainly shock you with both its beauty and its poverty. You will come home a changed person, for the better.