Falling for Central America in 4 Days
This past year I started a new job and with the start of that new job came an extra PTO day that I’ve never been granted in the past: the day after Thanksgiving!!!! Of course as soon as I found out I got this day “for free” I decided to try to go international over the holiday. Though this later got me in trouble with my friends and family (only kinda), I am so happy I decided to take the trip.
Planning this trip started with figuring out an international destination that wasn’t going to break the bank or take 7+ hours to get to considering I only had 4-5 days. Insert Central America. A place I’d never researched or had on my radar. After approximately 5 seconds of scrolling through the Pinterest search “Central America Travel” I stumbled on a photo of Lake Atitlan, and that settled it; I was going to Guatemala. Well, if the flight was affordable, that is. Thankfully I stumbled on a flight for less than $300 and immediately booked it.
I spent a very short time in Guatemala, but 4 days was all it took for me to fall in love with the country, culture, and Central America in general. Leading up to the trip (5 days before my departure to be exact) I received a phone call from my mom that went something like this:
Mom: “Whitney I know that you enjoy travelling, but your Dad, and I have been talking to some well traveled friends, and we all agree that Guatemala is not a good place for you to be going alone.”
Me: “Well Mom the flight is booked, and I am going….what exactly do you/your friends know about Guatemala that worries you about the place?”
Mom: “Well IDK! It just seems like a dangerous place for you to be going.”
Me: “Okay Mom well we both know I’m going on this trip regardless of this conversation, but just keep in mind you, and Dad also thought Croatia was dangerous before you went.”
Mom: “FINE. You are probably right.”
Fast forward 15 minutes to when I get a call from Eric A:
Eric A: “So Mom called to let me know that her and Dad feel weird about you going to Guatemala.”
Whitney A: “Of course she did.”
Eric A: “Well I just told her to consider that if you die it’ll save her a lot of money on Christmas gifts.”
Needless to say my parents got over it, but I think the above conversation shows how much we fear the unknown. Don’t get me wrong, I understand, that you need to practice a certain level of caution when travelling alone anywhere, Central America included, however, I am a firm believer that if you use your street smarts and show respect to the people, culture, and place that you are going, you will almost always be welcome.
I departed Chicago on Wednesday, November 22nd in the afternoon, and arrived in Guatemala City around 9:00PM. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was a little nervous. I hadn’t traveled completely solo since I moved to Germany in 2014. I started questioning my confidence with solo travel when I landed at the Guatemala City airport with little to no Spanish skills. I was relying on a message from my hostel in Antigua saying that someone would be waiting outside the airport doors holding a sign with my name on it. After walking out to what seemed like an abandoned parking lot I didn’t see anyone holding a sign with my name on it. I got a little more nervous. What the hell was I going to do if this person didn’t show to drive me to Antigua?! The more I walked around the more nervous I got. Finally I tried calling the hostel, and they assured me someone was coming to get me. He did eventually show up. Insert a major sigh of relief.
The drive to Antigua was smooth and easy, lasting about 45 minutes. Upon arrival in Antigua I checked into my accommodation: Three Monkey’s Hostel. It was a quaint little place with a great rooftop deck and courtyard. The staff were incredibly friendly, helping me find a good late night place to get food and drink.
I was directed straight to Cafe No Se where I met an expat from Oregon that spends his summers in Alaska on a fishing charter and his winters in Antigua working various jobs. Between him, the bar owner-an expat from New York, and a local Guatemalan tour guide that I met, my nerves dissipated immediately. Follow my nerves disappearing with Cafe No Se’s famous Grilled Cheesus, and you could say I settled in quite nicely. I learned during my conversations that I totally dropped the ball in planning for this trip and should have planned time to hike Acetanango-an active volcano that people typically hike up later in the afternoon, camp, and then wake up at dawn to watch the sunrise around the surrounding volcanoes.
I woke up the next morning with about 3 hours to explore Antigua before my shuttle picked me up to head to Lake Atitlan. I found a small cafe/bakery to eat breakfast and enjoy Guatemalan coffee. After breakfast I walked the streets admiring the architecture and stopped to pet every friendly stray dog I could find. 12:00PM arrived, and it was time to return to Three Monkeys Hotel for my shuttle. After about 30 minutes my nerves started coming back, because, once again, my shuttle wasn’t there. When it finally did arrive I realized that this is the reality of scheduled shuttles/cars in Guatemala. The streets are rougher and hillier. Nothing is actually on time, or at least, not usually, and that is okay.
It took around 4.5 hours to get to Panajachel (one of the two towns accessible by land on the lake.) Once I arrived I walked down the street toward the lake to catch a water taxi to Santa Cruz, the village where La Iguana Perdida is. The taxi cost me 20Q, however, I am pretty sure bartering is fairly easy to do. After about 35 minutes on the water enjoying the views we pulled up to the docks, and I could see the line for Thanksgiving Dinner at La Iguana Perdida from the boat. I was immediately overwhelmed by the large expat population. The sense of community was intimidating at first, but as I settled in and had a drink, I really started to enjoy myself. After dinner, a couple of girls from the states invited me over to play cards. Chelsea, Madison, and Olivia all know each other from a study abroad experience in Costa Rica. After completion of the program Chelsea traveled a bit, and then took an internship in Guatemala. Olivia and Madison were visiting her for a long weekend. We played cards all night, talked all about our travels and experiences, and, after copious amounts of alcohol, joined the rest of the group at the hostel bar to participate in a classic Thanksgiving tradition. We went around the group, 15 people at least, and talked about what we were most thankful for (and took shots of course). Moments like these are the reason that travel is so infectious. To meet a group of people from all over the world and connect within hours of knowing each other is incredible. No judgement, just genuine interest in one another.
The next day Chelsea, Madison, and Olivia left the lake to head back to Antigua. This meant I was a loner again. I took Chelsea’s advice and walked up the only street in the village to CECAP. CECAP is a vocational educational program in Santa Cruz that was started to introduce new skills to the community to help make it more prosperous. The school sells a lot of hand crafted items from the students, and also offers a rooftop cafe, with BEAUTIFUL views of the lake. I spent a good portion of my day between the cafe and roaming the streets hanging out with the local dogs.
That evening I sat down for the family style dinner that La Iguana Perdida offers-a dinner that requires you sit with others staying at the hostel to engage in conversation and meet new people. I ended up at a predominantly Australian table with the exception of a lovely woman from the UK. Another night was spent getting to know new people, including Andrew, a pilot from Australia, and his girlfriend. After another night of drinking and conversation, I kidnapped Sox, the local cat that hangs at the hostel, and hung out for a bit before bed.
My final day was spent out on the water. I took the water taxi from village to village until I arrived in San Juan. San Juan was recommend to me by the girls at the hostel as the best place to find local Guatemalan coffee. I wandered around until it was time to catch my shuttle back in Panajachel. One common theme that I noticed all around the lake was that a lot of the locals have next to nothing, houses made out of cinder block with no real flooring, yet, they were some of the happiest and kindest people I’ve ever encountered. I never once felt unsafe.
A long shuttle back to Guatemala City via Antigua landed me at my hostel, Los Volcanes, at 10:30PM. I online ordered Pizza Hut with the help of my hostel host, stuffed my face, and passed out. Up at 3:30AM, my hostel host drove me over to the airport to catch my flight back to the states.
4 days is a very short time, and it took a lot of work to get to Lake Antigua, but it was worth it. Since stepping foot on US soil I can’t stop thinking about Central America. The people, the views, the food, the dogs, and let’s face it, the cost. This is a great option for backpackers that don’t want to break the bank.
Until next time, Guatemala.