3/3/17. Crossing borders is always a little nerve-wracking (we are apprehensive about going back to the US later this month, what with all the confusion about changes to immigration laws and everything) so we were a little apprehensive about heading into Guatemala and, in particular, changing buses in Guatemala City.
Carlos, the owner of the hostel in Santa Ana, had arranged our bus ticket to Guatemala CIty and a taxi to the bus stop on the edge of town at 6.15 a.m.(which was overly cautious as the bus didn’t leave San Salvador, 65 km away, until 6.00 so we had almost an hour waiting at a bus stop outside McDonald’s on a very smelly dual carriageway into Santa Ana – but better early than late!)
The border crossing was very straightforward but took over an hour as we had a long wait for a Salvadoran official to board the bus to scrutinise all the passports closely (just as on entering the country – and again no stamp unfortunately!). For the Guatemalan side, the conductor took all our passports away and returned them stamped (hooray!) and off we went again. No need to have been concerned about this part of the journey.
A river formed the border and as soon as we crossed the bridge the road was lined with stalls selling all manner of clothing. This rang a bell with Stephen who remembered that his former employer, Intertek, had a sizeable business inspecting apparel and textiles manufactured in the country.
On descending from the bus at the Guatemala City bus station we were asked “Antigua?” and then shepherded to an area off to one side. There we were told that there was a shuttle bus waiting outside and they could do us a “special price” of $20 per person, instead of the usual $25. Stephen was reluctant to pay as this seemed like a rip off but Christine was keen as she didn’t fancy trying to find an alternative, probably from a place elsewhere in the city (and therefore a taxi ride away) so the decision was made!
We were the only ones on the shuttle which took an hour and a half and dropped us at the hostel. This was far less salubrious than Carlos’s establishment in Santa Ana, smelling strongly of dogs, and with the Russian lady owner’s bed taking up almost the whole space behind the desk in reception! However, the room was less smelly, reasonably clean and had a stonking view of the volcano that dominates the city’s skyline so we went with the flow. It was at this point that Stephen discovered that he had left his reading glasses on the shuttle so, until we get back to Houston where he has a spare pair he will be holding documents 6 feet from his nose or asking Christine what they say! The joys of getting old!
Our reaction to Antigua (pronounced “An-tee-gwa”, unlike the the Caribbean island which has no “w” in its sound) was similar to that to León in Nicaragua – wondering what all the fuss was about to start with but then finding the place growing on us as we walked around soaking up the atmosphere over a couple of days. It is even more low rise (if that makes sense) than León and Granada – barely any buildings are more than one storey tall. We suspect that this is a response to series of 3 earthquakes in the 17th and 18th centuries each of which destroyed the city and resulted in it moving a few miles away. The last, in 1773, was particularly devastating and, as a consequence, lost its status as capital to what is now known as Guatemala City.
There is a lovely artisan market in the city which displays all manner of merchandise, but particularly stunning were the clothes and other textile goods which are in a glorious range of colours and exhibit some wonderful workmanship. Christine was completely entranced by these and showed immense restraint by only looking despite the temptations. We also discovered an indoor market which had a similar range of goods but which appeared to be operated on a Fairtade basis buying from local collectives.
On Friday morning Stephen persuaded Christine to return to this indoor market to buy a beautiful shawl in her favourite colours of orange and gold and brown. See below.
We spent half of Thursday planning the remainder of our stay in Central America as we had made contact with Sheila and Robin (the custodians of our bikes back in Houston) and then booked our flights back to the US of A for the 16 March from Chetumal, a city in Mexico just over the border from Belize. Flights from there are much cheaper than from elsewhere in Central America.
As a result of this planning & subsequent buying of bus tickets and booking of accommodation we have a trip mapped out through Guatemala, into Belize and then a water taxi ride (the only travel not booked yet) to Chetumal. This is most out of character. We feel really organised and proud of ourselves!
After the shawl shopping expedition Stephen wandered round Antigua pretending to be a photographer (photos page is being updated slowly because of problems with the website software) while Christine guarded the luggage at the hostel.
The bus ride to our next port of call, Panajachel on Lake Atitlán, took us really up into the highlands. Antigua and Pana (as almost everyone calls it – much easier to say!) are both at about 1,500m (around 5,000 feet) but in between we climbed to almost 2,700m (not far off 9,000 feet). We have never been so high, other than in an aeroplane. What really surprised us was (a) the number of towns and villages we passed through on the way – it was one of the most populated stretches of countryside we have seen in Central America and (b) it did not feel especially high – Christine felt no twinges of altitude sickness!
The descent into Pana by the lake shore was spectacular and mildly scary for Christine sat up front alongside the driver. The town is a bustling little place clearly geared towards the tourist trade thanks to its beautiful setting. Lake Atitlán has been compared to Lake Como “but with volcanoes”. It is certainly a lovely place.
After settling into the hostel (no smelly dogs or Slavic women sleeping in reception here, thank goodness) we took a wander around town which left us with a very favourable impression despite the complete focus on the tourist trade.
On Saturday we went on a boat trip visiting three other villages on the lakeshore. This is very much a Mayan centre – lots of ethnic handicrafts and the people here are just tiny! The women are mostly around the level of Christine’s shoulder – so little more than 4’ 6” – but many are in traditional dress. It is especially nice to see a tiny woman holding her daughter’s hand, both dressed in the same traditional costume.
One of the consequences of being at 5,000 feet (both here and in Antigua) is that the temperature is that much lower – say 25-30°, rather than 30+ and at night it gets almost chilly! Even Stephen needs a blanket as well as as a sheet. And here on the lake there is a strong breeze too,
We have also enjoyed observing (from a distance) the antics of the tuktuk drivers both here at the lake and in Antigua. The streets are very narrow and, in Antigua, cobbled so cars go very slowly (a boon when crossing the road) but none of this slows the tuktuks down!