I landed in Guatemala City on an excessively windy day on Sunday, March 4th. After a fitful night’s sleep at a mediocre airport hotel I was ready to leave Houston and finally continue my way south to Guatemala. I had the usual feelings of excitement and anticipation which I always get before I land in a new country and enter into the mayhem it brings. The whole bag of usual mixed thoughts raced across my mind.
What would it be like? Would I enjoy my stay there? Would I understand and be able to communicate in my broken Spanish? Would I be safe? Would I get sick? Would my ride be there as expected, waiting for me outside the baggage claim? Would the bus ride suck?
You would think that a seasoned traveler would get over these worry wart antics but it never seems to fail. I’m always a worrier and I also go through this kind of strange mixed up, emotional nonsense. At least now I am fully aware of it and try my best to take things as they come. That is the best advice I’d ever received about traveling in different countries: Just let go, and go with the flow! Yet words can mean more than actions for a type A person who is normally as organized and orderly as drill sergeant.
I exited the plane and felt the warm air flow through my Minnesota veins. It felt great to finally be there and to be somewhere warm! I grabbed my mighty red suitcase, stuffed to the rim, and quickly passed through immigration and headed out the door. I was ready for the flood of people waiting frantically outside of the airport doors, with signs and smiles and searching looks across their faces. Of course I was an instant attraction as it isn’t every day a tall, blond-haired woman walks out of the doors, completely alone and searching the crowd as well. My eyes scanned the horizon and sorted through the mass of chaos until thankfully I quickly located my name on a white placard. My ride was there.
A mother and daughter team, locals from Guatemala City, had been waiting patiently for my arrival. I had arranged an airport pick-up before leaving the States as I have had too many bad airport taxi experiences before when entering a third world country. The worst was being followed and mugged right through the newly smashed taxi windows in Peru. The others weren’t as traumatic and involved being ripped off by the driver.
Lilian and her lovely university aged daughter Andrea were wonderful and gracious hosts. They both spoke perfect english thus I was spared for the moment on suffering through my child-level spanish. It was obvious that they are very proud of their country and notably their home Guatemala City. In fact, they made extra effort to show me only the pretty parts of town and purposely selected the nicest streets to drive on. I found it humorous and sweet given the bad rap Guatemala City has throughout the world. But I’m glad they had their pride as it was contagious.
Above is my first sight of the Guatemalan Chicken Bus! I had heard so much about these old American buses that were shipped south of the border and then painted in an elaborate spectrum of colors. My fabulous hosts informed me that each bus is color coded for its destination. Pretty clever! As for the name, I am no idea expect for the fact that I have heard that locals actually bring live chickens and whatever else they have on board!
As we were driving to find a nearby bank so I could withdraw some local currencies (known simply as “Q’s”, I couldn’t recite taking another shot of the beloved Chicken Bus. It would become an obsession of mine for the rest of my stay: Let’s see how many different Chicken Buses I could find!
I needed money, a bathroom and some water before I boarded my 1 pm “First-Class Bus” to Quetzaltenango, or simply called Xela (pronounced “Shay-la”). The First Class bus for the three to four hour ride to Xela, Guatemala’s second largest city located in the Highlands, cost $30 as opposed to the much cheaper fares of the Chicken Bus. I opted for First Class as I felt I deserved the upgrade!
I kept asking Lilian and Andrea if we had enough time to run these two errands as I didn’t want to miss my bus. However, they assured me I was fine and brought me to the Guatemalan Walmart for my tasks. I kept wondering why on earth they chose that but looking back I believe it continues with their quest to prove that Guatemala City is a modern and nice city with all the amenities of home.
I found what I was looking for and promptly boarded the car to make it to the bus depot. It was 12:45 pm so I thought I had plenty of time to spare. When we pulled in and entered the run-down station (exactly what I pictured of a third-world country, not the Walmart) we realized that the bus had already left. The departure time was 12:30 pm not 1 pm. Thankfully my gracious hosts offered to keep me along with them for the next three hours instead of camping out in the dirty old bus station. I was relieved because I was starving, and of course I remember to “go with the flow”.
Thinking my hosts would take me to an authentic part of the city where I could have my first real taste of Guatemalan food, I was slightly disappointed when they decided to take me to their “high-end” mall, Miraflores, instead. Instead were all the same old American and Western brands I’d find at home, for double the price (the government excessively taxes imports). For lunch, they brought me to the food court which had all the same old standbys such as McDonalds, Burger King and the rest. I was so disappointed and didn’t want them to feel bad, thus I asked them if there was a nicer place to actually sit down and have more local cuisine. Thankfully there was a Guatemalan kind of chain, similar to an Applebees or TGIF and I ordered a pizza. It is amazing how much better you feel on a full stomach!
The ladies took me back to the bus station which was located across the street, around the corner from the mall. It was such a contrast! I gave them each a hug. They had been so incredibly kind to me and it was a nice precedent as how the Guatemalan people would be: Warm, friendly and always willing to help.
By 3PM, I was seated in the front seat of the bus directly behind the driver (just where I always want to be so I can look out and take pictures). Following are the shots I took along the way, looking out the front bus window. If only we could have stopped! I would have had a heyday taking pictures!
During our three hour window, the ladies drove me to their street and showed me their house (well at least the outside as the three dogs were ready to bit me if I entered any further).
Their house is the green one. Traditional Guatemalan homes for the middle to upper class look like the ones above. They have a gated front entry which opens up into a beautiful courtyard with plants and gardens, followed by the house in the back of the lot. Also, note the multitude of colors from the colonial times. These majestic hues will be shown throughout Guatemala.
Here is a photo of my first live tortilla shop where the woman make fresh tortillas daily. These can be found throughout Guatemala.
Here are some views along the three-hour drive west to Xela.
A truckload of cows going to the butcher. (I’m happy I don’t eat red meat).
Also my first taste of Guatemala’s lush, verdant countryside.
Finally we started to near our destination. As we approached Xela, the sun began to set and we were rewarded with perhaps one of the most spectacular sunset imaginable. Brilliant, piercing white rays of light shot down through the clouds like lightening bolts. I have never seen anything like it before and there was no way my photos through the dirty bus window were going to do the sight justice. If only we could have stopped the bus! But at least I’ll have the proof of this gorgeous site within my head forever. It was that stunning and to me, felt like a good omen for the start of an adventure!
We couldn’t have timed our arrival into Xela better. To see the sun beams burst through the clouds and crash down into the valley was magnificent. It reminded me of why I was here in Guatemala and what lead the Mayan people hundreds of years ago to establish themselves in this majestical land.
Stay Tuned….what was it like to arrive at my host family’s house? You’ll have to wait and see!