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Guatemala es una gran aventura ! – Episode 1

Guatemala: bus trip

… this is what a T-shirt I bought in the Chichicastenango market in Guatemala reads. It is dark red and it shows a chicken bus, a former U.S. school bus used throughout Central America for passenger transport after having, of course, been repainted in the brightest colors and decorated with slogans as reassuring as possible for travellers … “Jesus loves you!”

Diary notes – April 2005

Bucharest Budapest Frankfurt Atlanta Guatemala

The most direct route between Europe and Guatemala is through the U.S.. If you do not need a visa or have a visa for the States, everything is OK, so I embark on going through Caudine Forks of the security post 9/11. Along the way, I catch a weekend in Atlanta, a perfect opportunity to mingle with the thousands of Herbalife sellers who have stormed the American metropolis for a global convention … and, indeed, the entire world is in Atlanta, from Brazilian singers in a permanent stir to the delicate Japanese girls, concerned to preserve the whiteness of their skin under huge umbrellas. But Atlanta is not the city of Herbalife… Atlanta is Coca Cola which, besides its headquarters, also has a museum, Atlanta is Delta Airlines that have made Hartsfield Airport the busiest airport in the world, Atlanta is the capital of Southern Confederation destroyed by the Yankees during the war of secession and, last but not least, Atlanta is Margaret Mitchell, the famous author of the novel “Gone With the Wind”, the houses of whom still survive among the forest of skyscrapers in downtown. I am visiting the memorial house where I find the Romanian edition of the novel are published in the ‘60s…

On the flight to Guatemala, a motley crowd – Guatemalan cowboys with large hats, Mayan housewives in their colorful clothing, Yankee businessmen with moustaches and sunglasses, these J.R.s who rob Central America, preachers who want to christen an already Christian population… After a flight of about four hours, the airplane spins over the city, takes a curve at the cornice of a hill and finally lands on the small La Aurora airport. Finally, after a line like in the old times, I experience a pleasant surprise –although the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website says that I need a visa, there, as a Romanian citizen, I do not need visa to enter Guatemala for 3 months…

Out of the only ATM in the lobby, I take out some quetzals (the local currency, but also the national bird of Guatemala, a small multi-coloured bird) and I rush to get on the first towards Antigua. All the guides say that it would not be a bad idea to avoid the capital where there is next to nothing to see, but, instead, you can have the pleasure to be robbed… in fact, while I was in Guatemala, leafing through the local press every day we learn details about how two to three people were shot in the not so peaceful Guatemalan capital (the record was of eight on the very day I got to Tikal, eight of which three bus drivers who had not paid the mite).


If Guatemala City is a city to avoid, the small town Antigua, located at about one hundred kilometres of the turbulent capital is a real colonial treasure. Antigua is one of the most beautiful colonial towns of Central America, an incredible city with cobblestone streets, houses painted in mustard or ocher, soothing patios, full of flowers, schools to learn Spanish or salsa dancing, an exquisite cuisine and, last but not the least, the impressive volcanoes that dominate the city from heights of over 3500 meters.

Once in Antigua, the shuttle leaves me in front of Posada Juma Ocag a colonial small house with several rooms, two steps away from the Mercado and the bus terminal. Nice, a spacious and airy room, but it’s time to take a walk in the city.

Antigua was founded in 1543 and was the capital of Central America for over two hundred years… until 1773, when the city was destroyed by a violent earthquake, moving the capital Guatemala City. However, the initial tragedy has led to saving the historical city – if, in Guatemala City, modernization has led to the destruction of the old city and  the replacement of colonial houses with modern and less modern, but completely tasteless blocks of flats, Antigua was left alone by the Guatemalan developers, as a city with a beautiful colonial architecture.

What is there to do in Antigua? Simply walk in the streets, which are beautiful, colorful, cheerful, visit the ornate churches, full of glitter, where the Catholic religion is combined with the beliefs of the local Mayans, hide among the ruins of the monuments that were destroyed by the earthquake in 1773, go on a Mayan souvenir shopping spree or relax under the gentle spring sun in one of the patios that are full of greenery and flowers, treating yourself to guava, watermelon, pineapple or avocado juices. During weekends, numerous tourists in the capital ciudad storm the old ciudad streets, but, on weekdays, life flows slowly among locals where a slow lifestyle is a virtue and Mayan women in their colorful huipile add an authentic sample of the old colonial city.

On a hill there is a cross – Cerro de la Cruz, a place where you can enjoy the city. Every day, during the morning, local police organize a trip to that place in order to protect potential tourists from being robbed, but, unfortunately, during the days I spent in Antigua, the police took a break and no tour was organised.

Antigua is the Guatemalan tourism center. From here, you can arrange all kinds of tours… I, for one, bought myself a plane ticket to Flores in northern Guatemala, or you can ride the so-called shuttles to the main places of interest in Guatemala and even Honduras. And, since the chicken buses are kind of slow and they need to be changed in two places, we have opted for the transport “in style”, in a van full of gringos. In addition, security was improved on the American Careterra, the highway linking Alaska to Tierra del Fuego and the shuttles with gringos are no longer subliminally “marked” “Tourists loaded with money! CHARGE!”

The small town of Panajachel, situated on the shore of the Atitlan Lake, a lake of large dimensions and high altitude, surrounded by volcanoes, is a tourist town par excellence. The place had been discovered by hippies ever since the 1960s, but many were chased by the civil war in the 1970s-1980s during which the democratic forces, with the direct support of the U.S.,  wiped out about 1 million Mayan people, most of them women and children. The restoration of peace has led to the return of tourists, both short-term ones and those who stay here for years, Panajachel also having a fairly large community of foreigners who have married and have remained on the shores of Lake Atitlan, hence the nickname of the city – Gringostenango – “the gringo place”.

Panajachel is not too spectacular; it has two main streets that converge to the lake, one of which is full of shops and restaurants, dominated by gringos and Ladinos, the other is quieter, with houses. Obviously, the commercial street is full of colour and flavour – Mayan ladies selling their products, fruit vendors, tourists, hippies, peopleof all sorts…

Instead, if you get to the shore of the lake, it is only then that you realize why Panajachel has become Gringostenango… the incredible landscape of a quiet lake surrounded by volcanoes… and where you can embark on a boat to visit the surrounding villages.

Although partially converted into tourist attractions, the villages around Atitlan are much more authentic. Children running after who knows what candy or quetzal, fruit and vegetable markets, churches where locals pray as if to ancient idols, people dressed in traditional clothes of different colors depending on the village where they come from. In Santiago Atitlan, the locals worship Maximon, a combination between a Mayan deity, Pedro de Alvarado (the conquistador of Guatemala) and the biblical Judas, a wooden statue before which the Guatemalan come to seek blessings and luck. Maximon is dressed in a sea of ​​scarves, he has a tie with a pin, a hat on his head and a cigar in his mouth. Around it, there burn candles, he is looked upon with admiration by the image of Jesus, while the locals come to offer him money, cigarettes and spirits, and the strangers some quetzals to photograph him. But his favorite gifts are Payaso cigarettes and the Venado rum, but he settles for low quality spirits such as Quetzalteca Especial. In my case, he has enjoyed a bottle of Kreskova.

Recently blessed by Maximon, feeling a positive aura around me, I returned to Panajachel, ready to take up a new challenge “guatelmateca” – traveling by the chicken bus to a fabulous fair.


Pictures of Guatemala:

Antigua Guatemala


Antigua Guatemala


Guatemala: Antigua

Antigua Guatemala: the local church

The church in Antigua


Public transportation

Guatemala: bus trip

In the bus

 Guatemala: Volcano del Agua

Volcano del Agua

Guatemala: banana flower

A banana flower

Guatemala: Maya

Guatemala: Jugos

Antigua Guatemala

Old colonial traces

Antigua Guatemala

Guatemala: Salsa dance lessons

Salsa lessons

Guatemala: Panajachel lake

A port at the Atitlan lake

Guatemala: local coffee


Guatemala travel

Guatemala food: Pina!

Pineapple… mon amour

Travel to Guatemala: visit Atilan

Crossing the villages around the Atitlan lake

Guatemala: Atitlan

Bits and ends for the gringos

Guatemala travel: Atitlan


You may want to help me with the translation… no habla espanol!

Guatemala trvel: Catholic saints a la guatelmateca

Catholic saints a la guatelmateca

Guatemala: Maximon

His Holiness, Maximon

Guatemala: Maximon

Maximon’s house

Guatemala: Atitlan

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