These children made me stop in my tracks when I was hiking through the remote villages in Guatemala—I can just exactly picture my three nieces and nephews in that same exact position and shooting those incredibly sweet grins (well, that baby’s not grinning, but the girls—too cute!). Part of what I love too are all the bright colors, which is precisely and entirely how I picture Guatemala in my memories, as a riot of colors from the clothes and the styles of the traditional fabrics. Though these clothes are more modern, they still show that the locals tend toward bright and happy colors (and that makes me happier even looking at them!).
And beyond that, I have a sweet spot for kids on my travels—I’ve nannied/babysat and cared for countless children over the years and couldn’t help kneeling down in the soft brown dirt alongside them to snap this shot. Promptly after they came running toward me and circled their grubby little hands around the camera screen, giggling over their own images. Then they modeled some more when they liked what they saw on the screen before running back to their hole to carry-on with the very serious business of digging a hole!
This trek was during some of my work building stoves in the rural areas outside of Xela, and it was gratifying as well to look at their happy faces and know that they were some of the people benefiting from the new stove construction.
It a moment that pretty much fully resembled the temper-tantrum two year olds throw, I stamped my foot, emphatically shaking my head at the taxi-driver attempting to charge me fully double the fare I know my ride should cost.
“No, no, no. Ridículo. Yo sé que este precio es absolutamente ridículo!”, I rapidly spit out.
And in English that would be “Ridiculous. I know this price is absolutely ridiculous.”
Then, with a good-natured grin the taxi driver assures me that this is the standard price. The locals price. Everyone gets charged this price.
Oh, yeah, sure.
I was standing in that exact spot last week and the price was half of his quote.
So I tell him that. And we rapidly trade one-liners back and forth until he lets out a hearty chuckle, gives a thudding slap on the back to the other taxi driver who had fallen all over himself in his haste to run over and witness the gringa argue (that’s me by the way). Then, not even a hint begrudgingly, my taxi driver smiles big and expansively agrees to the correct fare.
With a relieved sigh I switch out of bartering mode and begin chattering away with the two men. Minutes later the man asked me (in Spanish), “So, how many years have you been living in Central America?”
And that’s my moment.
I was pretty proud right then – they thought through my Spanish and my bartering skills that I’d been here for ages! Now I won’t lie and say I’m fluent in Spanish, but these past few months have brought back a good deal of my previous six years of study, and a week of one-on-one study in Xela, Guatemala fine-tuned a bit of the long-lost grammar. Improving my Spanish was also a really key goal while I was here, so to know that with just three weeks left in Central America that I can hold my own in Spanish, that makes me happy :-)
It’s funny though, backpackers here in Central America have either loved or hated traveling with me – and nearly fully based on if they spoke Spanish. Some of the more clueless backpackers were appalled by how much I bartered over the prices – they were readily willing to accept prices with just a wee bit of price haggling, or none at all! The ones with working Spanish though jumped right in and played often played good-cop to my oh-so-awesome bad-cop.
My philosophy: it’s a part of the culture here and the locals are never ever going to sell you something if they’re truly losing money (oh if only I had a nickel for how many times I heard that gem), so why not try on the new culture and dive in!
I’ll be even more honest and admit that I do love a good debate too, so the bartering, though it can get tiring, is mostly good fun. I’ve fully found here in Central America that a good knowledge of Spanish drastically drops the prices of everything from taxi rides to souvenirs. I’m ok with paying a modestly more expensive gringo price for things – everyone’s entitled to a profit, right?! – but it’s getting fully ripped off that just grates.
And many times, once I get a fair price I’ll bump it back up to the last amount as a tip because sometimes it’s just about knowing that they’re willing to not totally rip you off. Such was the case with the cabbie; for his good humor in the situation he got a decent tip and my gratitude. And for the comment about my Spanish? Well he got a hug for that one!
At the sound of the fireworks Xela and Guate City jogged onto the field, the entire team nearly wholly obscured by the smoke billowing across the slick and grassy football (soccer) field. Some were the pretty and colorful fireworks you’d expect but the vast majority of the fireworks were actually more akin to a huge flare and they let off huge quantities of smoke. Not one single Xela fan in the audience seemed to mind the mere outlines of players and the first several minutes of play were essentially indistinguishable as the misty rain mixed with the white smoke to create a heavy layer sitting over the field.
The rain had hung low and heavy over the mountains surrounding Xela all day, deterring most of the Spanish language students, but our teachers assured that rain or shine Xela was coming out strong tonight to support their team. And just as the last fans squeezed into the benches mere minutes before the game was due to start a soft rain misted the field slowly soaked me over the course of two hours.
The game had only just begun but the home team, Xela, was already jostling, joking and shouting encouragements. In fact, the buzz humming from all of the Xela football fanatics was so strong that I was even drawn into the game—and that takes a lot because I do not follow sports at all! This particular game was a doozy tough because Xela and against Guatemala City were facing off and the a huge rivalry between the two teams generates a true spectacle at the stadium.
Once the smoke cleared it was obvious that for all of the honest and heartfelt enthusiasm from the blue and red clad Xela residents, these were not very skilled football teams. But it actually didn’t matter that much as the team progressed because although it was no World Cup action, every single goal from the opposite team was met with the ever-present “boo-hiss” and a string a very interesting Spanish expletives.
Xela really displayed its true colors on the first Xela goal of the game, however. After several near goals and “just misses” Xela knocked one right in; at that point the fans were so ecstatic that a group of men ran to the fence and jumped up into a straddling position and then began to ride the fence like a bull with their shirts pulled off and circling over their head.
And this was just the first goal of the game!
Xela has its own dance section of the audience and the fireworks, I soon had the pleasure of learning, are not merely an activity reserved for the beginning of the game. There are actually several occasions and reasons for the loud flare-like fireworks:
A near goal
A goal from the other team
Why not, there still a bunch left
And though the fireworks were prone to go off at any given time, the creative amalgamation of Spanish curse words was much more predictable – every time the other team got control of the ball you could expect to hear several very vocal rants issued from passionate fans.
As the game winded down Guate City was up by a goal and my teacher sitting nearby was so upset he couldn’t sit still. There’s this huge aura of mystery around the last five minutes of the football game because the huge and fairly new electronic scoreboard does not actually count out the last five minutes of the game.
That’s right. For the entire last five minutest the scoreboard does not work. Apparently a wealthy local donated the scoreboard to the team…except he thought all boards are created equally and bought a basketball board that ends five minutes sooner than a traditional footy match!
I couldn’t help but laugh at that; oh, Guatemala, only in Guatemala.
With the clock *not* counting down the entire stadium held their breath for the five minutes mentally urging Xela to make a goal.
They did. We won. Everyone went crazy and streamed into the streets to celebrate! And I learned that sporting matches are pretty much an awesome way to spend an evening in a new city. Who knew!?
It’s the warmth and sheer, innocent love that emanates from children that draws me back to volunteering over and over again.
My first ride to the guardería, or day care center, took me 20 minutes outside of Xela and into the significantly more petite town of Llanos del Pinal, a small village nestled under the cloud capped Santa Maria volcano. That first day I walked into the guardería I was completely at a loss for what this experience would entail and had the those first-day-of-school jitters as I walked toward the dusky rose tinted building.
A tentative knock on the door to the guardería and soon the door was flung open to reveal 30 small and tanned faces of greeting all lit up with a glimmer of hope at the sight of me. These children didn’t know me yet but the expectation in their faces was palatable and yet somehow each child managed to stay rooted into their seat as I introduced myself to the caregivers and was told that it was homework time and I could help out by walking around the room and checking homework.
That was the start.
Fast forward just one day and these children had no more cautious expectations and boundaries – the moment I jumped down from the brightly colored chicken bus in front of the guarderia several faces peeped out of the shuttered windows while others audibly argued and fought to quickly unlatch the inside lock and usher me inside.
Then it was a broken chorus of “Buenas Dias insert terribly mutilated name of choice here.”
But I never had time (or really the desire) to correct the chorus of ‘Seenans” and “Chenins” that only sounded vaguely reminiscent of my actual given name (Shannon) because I was soon struggling to keep my balance under the weight of a tiny hugs and a dozen wet little kisses pressed firmly against my cheek.
In the two weeks of my visit these children gave me their hearts and warmly welcomed me in every day – and purely because of me. There was no motivation of seeking candy, or a spare quetzal (the Guatemalan currency) they just wanted my undivided attention, something that they so rarely get from the understandably busy adults in their lives.
I spent my days running multiplication tables with the older kids (try me on my Spanish numbers now and I am lighting fast!) and correcting handwriting and basic math with the little ones.
This experience is a marked difference to volunteering at the monastery last year in Nepal because of my time limitation this time around but I was really grateful that I still feel like my special skill set was making a difference – internet is scarce in this town so I helped research international currencies via the internet for one school project and worked with the kids developing other homework projects throughout the two weeks.
One of the chief reasons that I chose my specific language school in Xela was because I could work with the kids even with just a two week time commitment (most Pop Wuj students just go once a week while they take classes but you can choose to go as little or often as you want!).
Volunteering outside of Xela really centered my Guatemalan experience – I was able to travel into a smaller town and get a feel for a whole different side to the country. The children at the guardería often come from broken homes (that’s part of Pop Wuj’s mission with the day care center’s, to help single mothers care for their children while they work) and they were so willing to openly and without a tinge restraint welcome me into their lives. Giving back and volunteering has been, and continues to be, some of the most positive and favorite memories from my round the world travels.
And because I loved it so, enjoy some more photos (most taken by the kids!)
One of the stories that is most often “wow-ed” at from my round the world trip is my time volunteering teaching English at a monastery in Nepal. It’s really quite fortunate that people are so interested in stories of my young monks, because I love talking about them!
Volunteering in both Cambodia and Nepal are two of the most memorable and rewarding parts of my past travels and I was really eager to find similar volunteer opportunities in Guatemala.
So with the percolating and warm memories of all of the kids I’ve bonded with all over the world (and knowing that I couldn’t stay in fantasyland of Antigua’s pretty little streets indefinitely), I sought out a two week volunteer program. After asking around a good bit, essentially everyone recommended Xela as a perfect place to not only volunteer but to also take intensive language courses. I pointed my compass north toward Guatemala’s second largest city and prepped for a bit of a grittier experience. Just exactly as much as Antigua has developed for tourists, Xela is a town inhabited by locals and built for the locals, something actually weird to find after so long in Antigua.
The Parque Central in Xela (actually nickname for the Quetzaltenango – thank the heavens for the nickname right?!) was my first clue that this is a unique town with a completely different identity from the other Guatemalan cities. Xela’s central park nixes the young children walking around selling scarfs and the ice cream vendors lazily rolling out a murmured “helado, he-laaaa-do” as they pass and trades in these park regulars for your average fare of loafing high-schoolers sneaking cigarettes and Guatemalan couples necking on the benches.
And as I hunted down a nearby comedor for lunch there was not a single lick of English spoken to me, a marked change to not only Antigua, but Flores and the other touristy Guatemalan towns as well. So I settled into my veggie plato tipco and hunkered down with my Lonely Planet in search of a good Spanish language school.
The description of Pop Wuj struck me right off because the school really focus on immersing students into the local culture through several (free) volunteer opportunities so that students can without any reservations or specific or long-term time commitment.
After visiting the school I was sold, they had two fantastic volunteer projects for me – one at a guarderia, an after-school care center, and another far outside of Xela building stoves in rural villages. (Their third volunteer project is a free clinic run by the foreign medical students taking the specialized track of medical Spanish classes). The company’s strong focus on giving back to the community sold me on Pop Wuj so in addition to the volunteering programs I signed up for a week of one-on-one instruction for five hours each day – which sounds insanely long for Spanish lessons but is actually incredibly efficient for learning the language, and the teachers do break up the time with games for beginners.
This time in Xela marks a change in my traditional backpacker routine of visiting a place, seeing the sites and then moving on – and I think I like it. Setting up shop for a few weeks will allow me to really dig in, teach some kids and fine-tune my Spanish. The only real drawback to these three weeks is the fact that Xela just feels a bit grittier and not quite as safe…the city just has a different vibe that kept me on guard as I was walking around, especially walking home at night alone.
So Why Xela and Not Antigua or the Lake or Other Touristy Spots?
I loved my classes at Pop Wuj and my teacher was stellar. One of the best reasons to learn Spanish in Xela instead of other cities in Guatemala is the attitude here. No one in Xela will voluntarily speak English to you. It’s all Spanish.
And at Pop Wuj, although every teacher understands English and can speak it, I only head English spoken once by the teachers the entire time I was there, and that was to me, by request, as I sobbed out my story of my stolen money and canceled debit card, and how I couldn’t pay them for classes yet and won’t they please let me stay anyway.
As I glanced up from my task of delicately descending the roughly cobbled steps I noticed a group of six Guatemalan teenagers below thrusting small cameras and cell phones in my direction. Giggles and huge smiles on their faces, this group was clearly excited over something far bigger than just the presence of this sweaty gringa navigating down the steps of an old church in Antigua’s bustling Parque Central.
I darted a quick look around me and my gaze landed on something, quite literally, far bigger than me…about a full foot bigger to be exact.
The pale Westerner ascending the steps was, without a doubt, around seven feet tall – tall enough that he even would cause a stir on the streets of the US, but here it’s particularly noticeable. The Guatemalans aren’t a tall lot on the whole, in fact, I’m just going to say it, they’re short. Yes there are exceptions, but when you factor in the particularly short stature of the indigenous Mayans a vast majority of the women here barely come up to my chest level.
So this man stuck out. And he created quite a bit of a spectacle as he strolled through the Parque Central; it was fascinating to watch the expressions of awe and excitement wash across the faces of the Guatemalans. Even the child vendors paused their persistent hawking of goods to turn and drop a jaw at the sight of such a tall human being. It was fully clear that many had never seen a seven foot tall person in their lives.
This incident made it really crystal clear that there is a cross-sharing of cultures and information when I travel abroad. I’ve already fully recognized that I am an ambassador for the US, and that other travelers and even the locals are quite willing to make sweeping judgments about an entire country just based on a single encounter.
Funny though, us Westerners so often do the same. It’s so easy to slip into the observation mode – see it all, photograph it, soak it in, process, more photos, think, chew on it, ponder, and then come out with an opinion. But where is the the interaction in this? It’s this very behavior that I think can really cause that cultural spectacle that is hotly debated in travel circles.
Instead, I wonder does this incredibly tall man go on tour buses and snap away photos of local “indeginous communities at work” or has he, more so than most other people, really understood the spectacle aspect that it can take on? Traveling through India I got a dose of the invasive nature of photography – locals literally doggedly followed me around Gandhi’s ashram silently snapping photos of me – and it bothered me. So why do we do it to other people?
I don’t know. A quandary of travel perhaps. I do know though that the world is a smaller place because of travelers. Westerners travel to developing countries to learn about those things so foreign and distance from our own lives, but we bring our lives with us and share it right back.
I look at the faces of these Guatemalans around me and I realize that they can get just as big a kick out of having us in their country. All of the weighty travel debates aside, it’s just fun to share that “Yes,” as I passingly commented to the gawking and giggling Guatemalans, “gringos can grow that tall.”
I have a secret confession to make right now. I really like Antigua, Guatemala.
And I feel like I shouldn’t because the town seems so tourist-purposed and overrun by westerners; Antigua is such a marked contrast to the dangerous and grittier reality in nearby Guatemala City. When I mention to other travelers I spent a month total (split across three visits) in Antigua, I often get judgmentally inquisitive eyebrow lifts.
Antigua’s cobblestone, idyllically pretty streets are clean. The low-slung buildings are a rainbow of neatly painted cookie-cutter storefronts. Crumbling ruins dot the corners of the city’s small blocks at a regular interval—they clearly point to the town’s colonial past. It is, in a grossly simplistic word, cute.
Is Antigua, Guatemala Safe?
I take safety as solo female traveler seriously, and I felt safe on the streets of Antigua. This safety felt absolute during the day, and at night I felt safe in a group. There are few places in the world I ever think it’s wise to walk alone at night, and that does include Antigua. Pickpocketing is the biggest threat here, but I don’t weight that against my big “should I travel here” lists because it’s mostly opportunistic crimes versus violent, thus not really affecting my core safety.
That said, this doesn’t mean that I didn’t keep my wits about me in Antigua, because I did. Traveling Guatemala is not inherently safe—there are more risks than other places. But I never felt unsafe, and even locals from Guatemala City admitted that they drove to Antigua for drinks and nights out because it’s safer than the capital. I have travel insurance through World Nomads, as well as gear insurance when I am on the road, so I generally rate places against the threat of real bodily harm. If you are aware of the main concerns, then both Antigua and the many other parts of Guatemala can be safe for travelers. (My Guatemala Travel Guide more deeply covers the core safety concerns for Guatemala as a whole.)
Don’t forget to book travel insurance for your time in Guatemala—a great policy provides coverage in case your personal effects are stolen or lost, in case of medical emergencies, contains adventure sports rides, and more. I’ve used World Nomads since 2008 and highly recommend it!
All There is to Love About Antigua
The city has slowly and steadily built a strong tourism industry to cater to the droves of tourists passing through this Guatemalan hub. A variety of vegetarian food is also plentiful, and the local artisans market was well stocked with something for just about everyone on my Christmas list.
My love of Antigua highlights one of those never-ending debates about experiencing the “real” heart of a country when you visit. Other backpackers so often make a pissing contest over who went further “off the path.” Who saw the “real” Guatemala.
Is there a fake Guatemala?
To tell the truth, I had some of my best conversations with locals sitting at Reilly’s, a painfully westernized Irish pub in the center of Antigua. And does the fact that some of these conversations took place in English make a difference? I don’t think so.
Reilly’s turned out to be a perfect place to meet other locals my age; Guate City isn’t exactly a hub of safe partying. Local Guatemalans flood Antigua on the weekends, a mere 45 minute drive away. Antigua gave me a glimpse into a vastly different, and yet so very similar, middle class. These twenty-somethings sport slicked-back hair, the women teeter through the uneven streets on pointy heels, which accent their trendy legging/long shirt ensembles. And all carry the ubiquitous smartphone.
And so many of the twenty-somethings I encountered felt like they have something to prove to backpackers visiting their country. The Guatemalans I met worked hard to avoid the stereotype that they “lacked” what we have in the West, or that they felt in anyway inferior because they’re Guatemalan. That was a very real issue in my many conversations with locals.
Travelers come to developing countries quick to dismiss the wealthier areas, the prosperous side of a country. Many travelers look to fulfill a narrative they wrote before they left home. They look for the poverty, for something to pity. And this isn’t only my opinion—this was the communicated opinion of Guatemalans I met in Antigua. They meet many backpackers with this viewpoint, and locals are eager to express their feelings and concerns over this worldview that paints any place different as inferior. Many locals I met were proud of their country and wanted a willing and receptive ear.
I would have missed a deeply real side of Guatemala if I had avoided these gringo-fied areas. I would have created, and thus received, a very different version of Guatemala if I had stuck only to the countryside; the off-the-path locations. I did “go local” when I volunteered outside of Xela. I stomped through the forests of Tikal, and I found remote regions, too. Like the sweet Rio Dulce and the adventurous Semuc Champey.
But the lovely, cute, touristy little city of Antigua, Guatemala? Well it served me just as well in my efforts to understand this dynamic country. I will raise my eyebrows right back at those who want to start a pissing contest with me, because no matter where I go, I am always able to learn something new. At the end of the day, that’s exactly why I travel and what has formed my most transformative travel experiences.
Visiting Antigua, Guatemala
I loved my time in Guatemala. In fact, it’s one of my favorite spots in Central America. I wrote a free and comprehensive Guatemala Travel Guide. It includes everything you should know before you go: responsible travel, book recs, what to see and do, where to study Spanish. A total knowledge dump from my months traveling Guate. If you’re just heading to Antigua, these tips will get you started.
Where to Sleep
I recommend Three Monkeys Hostel or Yellow House. Both offer good amenities, help booking tours, clean spaces and Yellow House has an amazing breakfast. And even if you stay elsewhere, ALA receive a discount off their first booking! Alternately, if you’re traveling in a group, look to Airbnb for the best options.
Where to Eat
I loved Bagel Barn. Go here for the breakfast and plan out the rest of your trip with their tasty coffee and fast wifi.
Or you could visit a nearby coffee plantation, which is an excellent way to spend half a day.
Most travelers will best enjoy wandering the streets and getting a feel for the town, as well as shopping at the main market, so don’t overplan your time with too many things to do. It’s a lovely city and you’ll enjoy just soaking in the vibes.
The chicken bus bumped to a stop in front of the Valhalla Macadamia Nut Farm and I got my first glimpse of the expat lifestyle for Emily and Lorenzo, an expat couple that have created an entire non-profit movement in the region toward sustainable farming. The farm is about 15 minutes outside Antigua and fully trades the jostling elbowing on Antigua’s brightly colored streets for a vast expanse of trees lining the curved drive that leads into the nut farm.
Walking down the dusty dirt path we dodge the low hanging branches and read over the signs that ask us to please leave all of the macadamia nuts on the ground. London backpacker Kat and I found the two line description of the macadamia farm in the Lonely Planet and decided it was worth the trip outside of town – a bit of adventure and escape from Antigua.
We were well rewarded for out trip outside of the city. The pace at the macadamia farm is subdued and as we wander the grounds Emily, an expat who has been running the macadamia farm for more than 30 years, scoops us out from between the macadamia trees and within minutes she’s plying us with various types of macadamia samples.
Macadamia and dark chocolate.
Cocoa covered macadamia nuts.
Macadamia nuts coated in cardamom flavored chocolate – my favorite.
Their Story and a Farm Tour
Emily and her American husband Lorenzo (he’s quite a character and will talk your ear off with good-natured cheesy jokes and his theories on the expat life in Guatemala) started the macadamia farm decades ago before it became fashionable to expat yourself in another country.
They’ve cultured some of the strongest and most disease resistant macadamia trees in the Americas and also run non-profit efforts to give macadamia trees to locals and help them create businesses and process and sell macadamia nuts.
The tour is short, sweet, and personally guided by Emily, so I was able to ask any of the questions that popped into my head about the process.
Then comes the best parts. Emily guides you into the corner of the farm’s small shop hut and Kat and I sunk back into reclining chairs. Within minutes we received our complimentary macadamia nut facial and a mini massage. It lasts a mere two minutes but the two Guatemalan women work a bit of magic in those two minutes, exfoliating your pours and then finishing it off with a dab of pure macadamia oil rubbed into your face.
Emily has me convinced as to the miracles of macadamia oil for keeping skin young – she’s over sixty but has the skin of a thirty year old. If you’re interested, a US-based woman ships this Guatemala macadamia oil throughout the US.
The Pancakes Alone are Worth the Trip
With freshened faces and a lot to think about we hunkered down at an outdoor table and prepared for some of their famous pancakes. The farm runs a small restaurant and we just couldn’t resist Emily’s sales pitch on the farm’s famous pancakes.
Two pancakes made with macadamia flour, smothered in the creamiest macadamia butter imaginable and topped with a dollop of blueberries from the blueberry farm they also own in own in a nearby region of Guatemala.
It was, in a word, fantastic. The macadamias are a subtle flavor but delicious.
And Emily and Lorenzo get to eat this every single day! Their farm is breezy, shady and relaxing and they both still wholly love their jobs and lives after thirty years of operating the small macadamia farm. Though I’m not saying I want to run a macadamia farm in Guatemala, it’s really fascinating to see how expats are able to make new lives in other countries that embrace completely alternative lifestyle choices than the standard nine-to-fivers and yet still find contentment.