We departed Antigua early in the morning with plans to hike Volcan Pacaya. Well under a half day’s drive from Antigua we planned to get there early enough to hike to the summit before the clouds set in. Fast forward 3 hours and a number of U turns later we still had no idea where the hell we were. As we lovingly discussed with each other how we would revise our plans we decided that our chances to summit were quickly evaporating. Instead of waiting around to hike the following day we followed our standard break glass in case of emergency procedure. When all else fails and we continue to be grumpy, we move on. For us, a change of scenery will almost always reverse the flow of karma and result in a change in mood. We decided to make our way to the black sand beaches of Monterrico on Guatemala’s southern coast.
Antigua is a “can’t miss” stop on anyone’s route through Guatemala. It is a beautiful colonial city, known for its crumbling churches and towering volcanoes, both being somewhat related. Antigua has paid the price for its beautiful skyline with various earthquakes throughout the second millennia. Like other colonial cities in Latin America, Antigua’s streets are lined with single story buildings roofed with clay tile shingles and pastel colored facades. Its charm attracts wealthy tourists both domestic and international, which in turn attracts business. Antigua is packed with high end restaurants, fancy hotels, and clean little markets where you can buy Kashi, something I doubt you could find anywhere else in the country. The presence of all this wealth puts Antigua in stark contrast with the rest of Guatemala. Although on the surface it may not feel as authentic as a small mountain village, it is Guatemala none the less, and without having to go to too much trouble, we were able to discover plenty of authenticity throughout the city.
We were both annoyed when our alarm went off at 4:50 am on our first Saturday in San Pedro. Sleep weighed heavy on our eyes and we wanted nothing more than to roll over and ignore the incessant beeping. Still groggy, I forced myself out of bed and began preparing our packs for the day. We had to hurry if we were to be on time meeting the rest of the group. Once Zach was up, we had a quick breakfast of corn flakes, which Rosario had set out for us the night before, and ran out the door. Pedro and the others were already waiting for us when we arrived.
During our time in San Pedro, the school arranged for me and Zach to live with a local Guatemalan family. After nine months of living in the van, our new home felt luxurious. We had a large, private bedroom, hot showers on demand and three meals each day provided for us. Our host “parents”, Rosario and Pedro, were a young couple of Mayan descent who spoke both Spanish and Tz’utujil, but very little English. Not poor by any means, they make a modest but comfortable living and work extremely hard each day for what they have.
When our trip was in its initial phases, as in still just a pipedream, we always agreed a layover for a few weeks of Spanish classes on our way down to Argentina would be an important part of it. We didn’t know where and we didn’t know when, but we were certain we would make it a priority. For one reason or another, perhaps because we began feeling pressure to speed up our pace, I noticed our language regarding classes begin to change; what started as a “Yes, definitely” was becoming a “Well, maybe..”
There are basically two routes you can take if you’re trying to drive directly from Tikal in the north to Semuc Champey in central Guatemala. According to our map the most direct route was a skinny little red line, indicating a secondary road, and a more roundabout fat blue line indicating a nice paved two lane road. We decided to try to make the drive in only one day and thus did not want to take our chances on the skinny red line, despite it being a shorter distance. We aimed for the fat blue line and by mid afternoon we were making good time. At this point, we were supposed to stop driving south and catch a road to head west. Thinking we were looking for another fat blue line of a road we easily sped past the sleepy little town of Modesto Mendez. Once we realized we had possibly gone too far we double backed passing the turnoff once more. Without a decent map, and struggling to understand the directions given to us by the locals, we would waste the valuable daylight we had left searching for this supposed fat blue line. When we finally found the road it became apparent why we were able to drive past it four times. The road was dirt, wider than one lane but not by much, and ravaged by the previous rainy season.
Border crossing days can be stressful ones. It’s a day full of unknown variables that no amount of research can entirely prepare you for. Procedures seem to change regularly, new taxes or fees can be attempted to be extracted, lunch breaks can be taken at all hours of the day leaving you stranded until the officer returns, and around every corner are unofficial porters pouncing on even a momentary lapse in confidence offering their services in the hopes of scoring a few bucks. Although porters can make the process easier, and surely cost less than a cheap lunch, have no doubt, it is a form of cheating. Up to this point we have had a few notches on our border crossing bed post but it was Guatemala that taught us some important lessons, lessons that we had to learn the hard way.