I had been obsessed with going to Guatemala since circa 2007. Precisely since February 2007, when for my birthday I got a book about traveling to Central America. From Poland. In, I recon; late 1980’s or early 1990’s. Let me say that again: a book about traveling to Central America from Poland in, I recon, late 1980’s or early 1990’s. Now; there is something very special about traveling specifically from Poland to Central America around that time. The special thing is; it was practically undoable.
In late 1980’s or early 1990’s; tourism to Central America practically doesn’t exist, because it is considered super dangerous (at least in Europe; it’s believed to be one of the ‘suicide destinations’), tourists from Poland practically don’t exist, because passports are still hardly obtainable for Polish people after the recent fall of the iron curtain. Plane tickets to anywhere in the world are extremely expensive against Polish economy, which is just slowly and shyly making its first shaky steps on the international free market after years and years of dependence on foreign economies. Plus there is no internet (at least not in Poland and not as we now it) and no decent cable (at least not in Poland and not as we now it), there is no global village yet; Eastern Europe is very Eastern, Latin America is very Latin and they are very far from each other, so going from Poland to Central America is basically like going to a place on earth that is not even sure to exist.
At that time in my country everybody has family or friends who fled abroad in the early 1980’s and live in the US or Western Europe, but hardly anyone knows somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody who went to Central America. Nonetheless the author of the book overcame all of the above odds, made his journey, wrote a book about it and became my hero.
Of all the places he visited he spoke most highly about Guatemala. I don’t remember exactly what he was saying, because I had read the book 6 years ago and then left it in my Warsaw apartment, so there’s no way I can even check it for the sake of writing this text. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that he speaks so highly about it that by doing so kind of fathered my obsession with going there. His experience became my ideal of an amazing, truly romantic journey. Going to a country that is so far away both; in terms of spacial and cultural distance, going to a country where nobody you know has neither ever been to, nor is planing to visit. Going far and alone to meet the unexpected, the ABSOLUTELY unknown. Going against some odds. How good does that have to feel? Overcoming some new, unexpected challenges. Hell yeah!
Fast forward 6 years. I’m already living in NY and even though the world has gotten so much smaller within the last years and even though I am as close to visiting Guatemala as ever it’s still hasn’t happened. There’s always something… finding the time, finding the money… Right so; how do I find the time? And how do I find the money? Maybe I can sell something? My literary hero sold his fridge to buy his plane tickets. I do own a fridge back in Poland, but it has to be at least 9 years old and even if I found some weirdo; someone who for sure would have to be slightly retarded to be up for willingly making such purchase, the amount I would cash in from this transaction will probably not fly me further than New York-Rhode Island. One Way. Seems like a lame idea. Romantic, but lame. So yes; overcoming challenges… Making your dreams come true against some odds… After a few years of failing to make this journey happen I finally decided that if I can’t have it the way I want it (preferably for at least two months) I am going to make it however I can make the best of it. No journey is ever too short. It’s all about what you make out of it. Some people can travel for months and still come back unchanged, untouched by the people, stories and views they have encountered in foreign lands they visited. Others can travel within barely a span of days and come back dirty rich with the wealth of every small experience of the journey. I happily follow into the category of “others”. I turn into a sponge whenever I travel and absorb everything with some sort of serene yet hungry experience lust. So yes I’m making it happen. And I’m making it my way.
I’m cutting it a little short and flying in and out of El Salvador (to push it even more towards the “budget” side of the whole trip; plane tickets from New York to San Salvador are at least half the price of the tickets to Guatemala City) planning to make my way to and from Guatemala by bus. Ah, romantic. Big time. And even though we’re way into the age of the Global Village my destination is still relatively virgin. With everybody I know going to Taiwan, Thailand or Vietnam on a massive scale I imagine the entire south and east Asia must be as mainstream and crowded as Turkey and Egypt a decade ago for Europeans. Luckily whoever hears me mention my travel plans freaks out over how dangerous it is and how careful I have to be. This fact makes me hope that there’s nobody going there this March, but me and… what… maybe three other people? I’m also going to travel alone and I don’t speak Spanish. I do have this funny thing with languages that if I really need to I will understand the language even if I don’t speak it. If it is absolutely necessary I might even start speaking it temporarily, even if I officially do not have any command of it, but still; as of March 2013 I do not speak Spanish. Nor any of the Mayan dialects. Nada. So it is all looking very promising. Should be romantic enough to satisfy my travel thirst, that has been neglected for a while. Off we go.
Guatemala; the country of Eternal Spring, numerous volcanos, the most beautiful lakes mankind has seen, ridiculous skies, omnipresent culture and striking contrasts.
The first thing that makes me love it is the temperature. With early March in New York being sunny and pretty but way too “crisp” and “fresh”, and with El Salvador (which is my first stop on the way) hot and stuffy even in the middle of the night; the temperature in Guatemala of approximately 27-28 degrees Celsius feels just perfect. I managed to run away from the winter, and thank God for that, because I have absolutely no tolerance for extended periods of freezing cold. Or just cold.
I slept most of the way on the bus from San Salvador and woke up on the Guatemalan boarder. Crossing it by land is an experience in itself. Right before and right after crossing it the driver opens the doors of the bus and about a dozen people jump in trying to do some business with the newcomers. Half of them are men trying to sell quetzales- the local currency, the other half are women carrying baskets of home made tortillas, empanadas or fruit offering them to the passengers. For a couple of minutes the bus becomes a noisy marketplace with vendors running to and fro yelling “Quetzales, quetzales!” here and “Tortillas, tortillas” there, like it is a contest for; who yells louder makes more business. You can buy the food, but it is not recommended to exchange the money. The exchange rate obviously has nothing to do with real life.
The bus makes it way all the way from San Salvador to Guatemala City. It takes about 6 – 7 hours, even though everyone will tell you that it’s a 4 hour ride. That’s the thing with time; it’s absolutely relative depending on where in the world you are. Here it’s expandable. Every hour quoted by a local will most likely expand to at least an hour and a half.
Guatemala City is for me the first experience of huge contrast. In this case it is the contrast between what I was told or expected to see and what I actually saw. I was told by my Guatemalan friends that the capital is very dangerous and that I should pass through it unnoticed and leave as soon as I get there. I then imagined it to be some nasty dirty, shady, God forsaken monstrosity of a metropolis. But upon entering the city I saw something quite the opposite; a jaw-dropping panoramic view like from a dream. If you’re driving into Guatemala City from San Salvador you’re actually driving down, because the city is located in a valley. So if you’re driving early in the morning in early March you will most likely see clear blue skies and a gorgeous volcano clad in white tufts of cumulus from the waist down overlooking a vibrant, diverse, clean city with modern suburbs, short-cut lawns and busy downtown. I did not visit the city, just passed through it. I will, however visit it next time around. Because come back I will for sure. And come back I will shortly.
Because there is so much beauty.
There is Antigua Guatemala.
There is Tikal.
And there is Lake Atitlan.
And there is Lake Atitlan.
And there is Lake Atitlan.