A common theme of Globo Trips seems to be that people question the logicality of my planned itineraries. Indeed, few could comprehend the rationale of the following travel sequence in 2013: Morocco – Italy – Middle East – Denmark – UK – Central Europe – Turkey – the Balkans. Yet to me this route made perfect sense strategically, after countless hours of research. Since most of my acquaintances would be fully aware of my slightly obsessive penchant for travel planning, I am always quite befuddled by their befuddlement when I outline my schedule. Why can’t they just recognise that if it makes sense to Liam, its probably a sound plan (for potentially complex reasons, like beating the Schengen Area restrictions!). After spending one month in Mexico, I travelled to Guatemala for three weeks… and then returned to Mexico for another fortnight. Check out my travel map to understand why I chose this perhaps unconventional order!
Transiting from Mexico to Guatemala was probably the most pleasant international border crossing I have experienced outside of Europe. Usually I loathe “border crossing days”, because of the potpourri of bothersome issues that can transpire. The interminably long queues at the immigration offices; the outrageously expensive visa-fees corruptly overcharged by greedy border officials; the plethora of bribes required, sometimes for the stupidest reasons (i.e. to obtain a medical card “proving” you’ve had the requisite vaccinations); the derelict and dodgy nature of border towns; and, most concerning, the uncertainty of pre-arranged transport on the other side of the border actually materialising. But aside from one small bribe, I can’t complain about the rather seamless process of crossing from Mexico to Guatemala. It was insanely easy: I just walked straight into Guatemala, without any guards to check my documents or delegate me to a queue. I had to search for the tiny and unassuming immigration office, staffed by unenthused officials, to obtain an entry stamp; although I’m sure I could have continued into the Guatemalan interior without anyone batting an eyelid. It was a tremendously unusual border crossing zone, with market stalls, taco stands, crowds and music on both the Mexican and Guatemalan sides. It had a party-like atmosphere, proving that the Mexican proclivity for incessant fiesta is true right up until the country’s boundaries.
One might be forgiven for expecting environmental and cultural continuation when transiting from Mexico to Guatemala, both Spanish-speaking countries with Mayan and colonial heritages. But the economic disparity between the two countries and the consequent lack of modern infrastructure, order and fancy forms of transportation in Guatemala became quickly apparent. The difference between the two countries is perhaps most explicitly demonstrated by the typical vehicles used for bus services in each country. In Mexico, buses are either classed as “first-class”, which are nicer than coaches in Australia, or “second-class”, slightly more dilapidated than coaches in Australia. Meanwhile the Guatemalans use ancient school buses that have reached their use-by-date in North America. After 10 years of operation, school buses are shipped from North America to Guatemala and then refitted and painted in a myriad of colours. Intriguingly, the school buses exhibit whimsical designs and colour combinations in their subsequent years of service to children. The buses are absolutely crammed with people and their cargo, including chickens, so they are aptly referred to as “chicken buses”. Fortunately I didn’t have to suffer through 4 hours stuck on a chicken bus from the border to Quetzaltenango (some travellers consider it a cultural experience, but a 6-footer only thinks of the potential and excruciating lack of leg room), as I travelled by tourist shuttle (for the record, shuttles in Guatemala always lack sufficient leg room too).
The magnificently named city of Quetzaltenango is Guatemala’s second largest (after the to-be-avoided Guatemala City) and located in the verdant highlands of the country’s south-west. Quetzaltenango is often abbreviated to Xela (pronounced Shea-la (I think)), so I shall abide by this practice. Within a nanosecond of arriving at my hostel (is it unlucky to stay somewhere named “the Black Cat”?) I met American Allen, a maths teacher from California. Allen promptly became my tour guide for the day and informed me that he would also be partaking in the three day hike I intended to enlist in from Xela to Lake Atitlan. Allen and I strode off toward the central square as I determinedly attempted to withdraw enough Quetzales for said tour. After a frustrating but eventually successful ordeal of visiting every bank on the square, I was able to view its splendid architecture and absorb its serene atmosphere. Since its founding, Xela has suffered a host of earthquakes that have destroyed the city’s original colonial buildings. The historic core is therefore quite distinctive for a Central American city because the architecture is dominated by 19th century neoclassical styles. I found the austere colours and dilapidation of Xela strangely attractive and refreshing after visiting a series of brightly coloured colonial towns in Mexico. Allen and I whiled away the afternoon by people-watching in the central square. Most notably, we observed the national flag being taken down and several shoe polishers plying their trade. Within short time I concluded that Xela is exactly the type of destination I enjoy visiting: sufficiently off of the beaten trail to be absent of package tour groups and fake hippies, but still “known” to draw a pleasant stream of foreigners (too many foreigners and no foreigners are equally undesirable situations). Xela attracts numerous travellers, usually with either the intention of learning Spanish or trekking in the surrounding countryside.
Upon returning to the Black Cat, Allen introduced me to British-Australian Helen and American Karly and we quickly became a travel group for the subsequent days. Some of the more astute readers have perhaps recognised the repeated appearance of British-Australian Helen thus far in Globo Trip. In the “Oaxaca” entry, I noted how a Sydney resident of British nationality had written in Latuvi’s guestbook recently and puzzled over the unusualness of her identity. At the hostel in Oaxaca City, I correctly identified who this mysterious “Helen” was, although I never actually spoke to her. I immediately recognised Helen in Xela and confronted her with my hypothesis. While Helen had no recollection of sighting my face in Oaxaca (she feigned recognition of Danish Nadia when I showed pictures) she did confirm the accuracy of my suspicions and my extraordinary detective skills. A resident/citizen of Australia for 13 years now, Helen’s only regret about relocating is that she did not originally settle in Melbourne. Another who struggles with the standard traveller question, “where are you from”, is American Karly, a native Texan and passionate advocate of that superb phrase “y’all” but resident New Yorker. Meeting Karly was a rather timely encounter with my imminent trip to New York City. I now feel satisfied that my culinary plan for New York (so, my only plan) is entirely acceptable.
With two days spare until the commencement of our epic hike, we decided to visit the famous Thursday market of Chichicastengo. Confronted with a five hour round trip, we hired a driver for the day and negotiated a 50% reduction on his initial offer. He was quite an amiable and punctual chap, but I can never really trust someone who attempts to charge me at least double the regular price. We departed at the spritely hour of 6:00am in the morning coolness of the highlands. Thankfully, Helen decided audaciously to smuggle her bedding into the car, so we had a rather snug journey to Chichi and discussed life stories, food, travel experiences, food, the glory of Melbourne and food. Or at least I was crapping on about all such topics while others attempted sleep. After arriving in Chichi, we began to amble through the market as an orderly group, though I soon lost interest with such a dynamic. Never one to patiently wait while others indulge in their shopping practices, I chose to “accidently” lose the group and explore independently, convinced that we would eventually meet again. I bumped into Mexican Leon, a most intriguing 55+ year old Nactus and I met in San Cristobal. Leon is a highly enthusiastic, characterful and comedic gentleman who socialises with everyone and travels regularly. He makes his travel decisions on a day-to-day basis… several days of which I happened to influence! In San Cristobal, I recommended he visit the Mayan ruins of Tonina, mainly because I wanted someone to scout the site for me! Unfortunately, Leon drove in the opposite direction to Tonina and eventually arrived after darkness. I then suggested destinations he could visit in Guatemala, including the Thursday market of Chichicastengo, so I kind of destined our reunion.
On every Thursday and Sunday, the centre of Chichi is converted into a huge open-air market, one of Guatemala’s largest. Since Chichi is a predominately indigenous community (descendants of the Maya), attending the bustling market is an ideal opportunity to observe indigenous culture. The market attracts thousands of villagers from the surrounding valleys, who journey to Chichi to buy or sell their wares. The market is consequently brimming with indigenous people that wear the traditional garb of the town or village they’re from. The stalls cram the main plaza and the surrounding streets and alleys with food, traditional clothing, ceramics and flowers. The market is largely absent of mass-produced, generic rubbish; the products are generally handcrafted or locally grown. The market of Chichicastenango feels truly authentic because while some vendors specialise in selling tourist-oriented paraphernalia, most of the products are targeted at locals. Chichi’s primary drawcard is the serene white church that rises above the clutter, colour and chaos of the market. The steep church steps are wreathed with flowers that vendors attempt to sell to worshippers before entering the complex. Hunched old ladies dawdle around the doorway chanting and swinging tin cans that emit smoke, a ritual that honours their ancestors and harkens back to ancient Mayan beliefs.
The driver cashed in twice with us, as we employed his services to visit the hot springs near Xela the next day. En route, we were again subjected to his diatribes about the financial difficulties he faces as the Black Cat charges him 30% commission. While he was probably playing us for a tip (a tough challenge with two Australians and a maths teacher in the group), his discussion certainly highlighted the difficulties independent operators face when a town’s backpacker scene is dominated by one hostel. The road to the hot springs afforded us spectacular views of the sublime highlands scenery, as we past patchworks of agriculture established on outrageously steep slopes. We stopped in the village of Zunil, which is famous for its artisanal products. While the other members of my party snuck photographs deviously of the elderly ladies in traditional clothing, I opted to retain my morality and not partake in such brazenly insensitive activities. Fuentes Georginas is a natural spa established by Guatemala’s “benevolent dictator” Jorge Ubico. A series of pools are fed by hot sulphur springs and are surrounded by steep walls and intensely green tropical vegetation. While the main pools are rather crowded, the driver led us to a secluded pool in the jungle. The water was a tad hot for my liking... but I suppose you’re thinking I manage to find a complaint for everything.
Entering a new country afforded me the opportunity to sample a new cuisine. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that traditional Guatemalan dishes are quite distinct to Mexican fare, although I found tortillas, tacos and corn cobs to be as ubiquitous as ever. Allen and I enjoyed a sumptuous rendition of the national dish, pepian de pollo, at a restaurant owned by a characterful 80 year old lady. She directed us to order specific dishes, though with banter somewhat unseen by elderly ladies thus far on this trip. Pepian de pollo is essentially Guatemala’s response to Mexico’s mole. The sauce is made by dry-roasting and grounding seeds (especially pumpkin seeds), a variety of chillies and other spices, before cooking it with tomatoes and tomatillos. The thick sauce is then served over chicken with rice and corn tortillas. Allen and I also enjoyed delicious tostadas (crisp tortillas) with a mix of traditional pickled vegetables on top. Allen and I also sampled traditional local tamales (every region in Mexico and Central America boast their own variation) that were served with a creamy white sauce. Aguas frescas are cold drinks available throughout Mexico and Guatemala. They are freshly blended drinks with water used as the base. Strangely, aguas frescas taste better than fresh juice in this region, probably due to the suspected addition of loads of sugar. The two most common aguas frescas are hibiscus (delicious, tastes like berries) and horchata (absolutely foul). Horchata is made from rice, with the addition of vanilla and cinnamon.
Well that was an unexpected epic, I was supposed to cover the hike in this entry too! Its probably indicative of how much I enjoyed the highlands of Guatemala.
That’s all for now,
PS: Goodness me I can’t stand party hostels on the mass tourist trail… as I write this on an island near Cancun, I’m watching a wannabe Jimmy Hendrix pretending to be “in the zone” as he strikes out those tunes… with absolutely no audience despite staying in a hostel accommodating thousands of like-minded fake backpackers.