Land of volcanoes, magical towns, thick tortilla tacos and beautiful people.
Off I go to Guatemala, the south neighbor which i know very little or nothing of it. I have to confess that if was not because of a business trip, i would have never thought about visiting this country. So after a very short night sleep, I head to the airport for an early morning flight and a couple of peanut bags, a dry sandwich and a few beers after, I arrive to the capital of the country; Guatemala City.
My first impression of the country was not the best one, my luggage got lost somewhere along the way, and even tough this was probably more of a mistake from my fellow countrymen back in Mexico, i still decide to blame it on the Guatemalans, mainly because of the hard face man who handled my complain, who, surprisingly or not, is employed by a mexican company.
Less than one hour into the country and things are not running as smooth as i was expecting, the first impression that Guatemala gave me, was not one that a country wants to give to their visitors, luckly for them, or should i say for me, this perception would be changed during the next two following weeks.
So after more than an hour of shouting names out loud in the arrivals gate of the airport looking for colleagues of other latin american hotels who were supposed to take the same shuttle to the hotel, but somehow managed to get lost and take another shuttle to that same hotel, my driver is informed that the people we were looking for, are already in the comfort of their rooms. I was heading to get into the shuttle when I run into a colleague who was supposed to get the next transportation, a couple of hours after me, it was then when I realized that I had spent nearly two hours looking, first for my luggage, then for my other colleagues, and now, after all the fuzzle, finally we get in to the car and drive towards what will be my new home for the next two coming weeks.
At first glance, Guatemala is a vibrant city, well organized, clean and with very educated and polite people, i would be wrong in all of this perceptions except the last one, which with the past of the days will just keep surprising me on how polite and educated our south door neighbors are.
The trip from the airport to the hotel was a very light and short one, no more than 20 minutes after getting into the car, we arrive to the soon to open, Hyatt Centric Guatemala City. The hotel is located in a very centric area, hence the name of the brand, which its signature for its guests is putting them in the center of the action; and here I am, in the exciting zona 10, one of the 25 zonas in which the city is divided into, this zone full of shopping malls, high-end shops, trendy restaurants and fully decorated with american brands, is not the part of Guatemala I would like to stay and visit, but soon I would have time to explore more about the traditional and local part of this town.
Guatemala City, which its original name is Nueva Guatemala de la Asunción, is a city that with its metropolitan area has an outstanding population of more than 4.5 million people, its crowded, it is really crowded, specially if you consider that its extension and infrastructure is prepared to hold not even half of that number, and you can notice this on the endless traffic jams that accumulate during rush hours, and this is not getting any better, the locals say that the population has doubled in the past ten years. Mainly due to the economic growth that the capital is having and the surrounding communities moving in search of better opportunities. There is not much place where to grow, Guatemala City, and most of the country is built on top of mountains, the capital itself stands at 1500 meters above the sea level and it is guarded by 4 active volcanos, just accessing to the city is difficult, as there are not a lot of roads going in and out of the city, as it was built on a valley surrounded by cliffs.
Once I checked in to my room, and make a couple of calls with the help of a kind receptionist to try to recover my lost luggage. I go and explore a bit of the hotel and meet the colleagues who I will be working to open the hotel in the next following two weeks. Funny and interesting people, all hoteliers, all living outside their home countries and sharing passion about the hospitality industry. We agree to meet for dinner and go to the zona 4, a new area of the city, or should I say an area that has resurged from abandoned warehouses and industrial buildings, to become a chic neighborhood with walking streets, underground bars, original restaurants, art galleries and museums, this is where intellectuals and artist have made their home in the capital.
The sun is down and so it goes the warm weather, Guatemala can get quite chill during the evening, even on a summer night, so after all the hustle of trying to get 2 taxis and 1 uber at the same time, we made it to a place called, La Esquina. Conveniently located in one of the main corners of zona 4, a new concept of market style restaurant that attracts the interest of locals and visitors aswell.
You are received by a market style shelf full of wine, sold at market price, wine and liquor in Guatemala is surprisingly cheaper as I thought it would be, still, this does not mean having a glass of wine is cheap. You are registered at the entrance were the hostess explains you the concept and then hands you a bar code ticket and warns you that you cannot leave the place without it, a big fine would be imposed to those who lose it, I hold on to it firmly and mentalice on not loosing it, rather than asking what the fine would be. So this ticket is your stairway to heaven, its your currency, your gold, your happiness, at least as long as you are inside, once on your way out you will face the terrible reality; the payment. Everytime you consume something, you will hand down your ticket for the attendant to scan your consumptions and so, you can accumulate your bill with out worrying about doing any payment. The thing is, it’s very easy to lose control of yourself as you are not really counting the money, and I mean lose control seriously, for a foodie and drunkard like myself, this place is the glory, you have everything you need here, from tacos, Guatemalan tacos, not mexican, (the difference? the thick tortilla that it is used in Guatemala, which compared to my home country, here it is always, and I mean always, handmade at the moment, otherwise, people will not eat it) to slowly roasted chicken, passing by juicy burgers, ceviches, pizza, and the biggest doughnuts I have ever seen in my life. There is a wine shop, a cocktail shack and a rum stand, because you might not now, but Guatemalans are amongst the best of the world on making rum, high altitude aged rum, yes, finally, things are starting to get merry.
Its was a good way to start my half month in Guatemala, a fun place with lots of food and lots of drinks. My next 2 weeks will run smoothly and with no big excitements, except of a couple of excursion which you can read in a separate post, mainly at work and having dinner around the so called exciting zona 10, which it is exciting, for locals maybe, for myself, the excitement is in the markets, the street food, the old buildings, the local people; of this last, I did have enough of during my whole stay in Guatemala. Working from 8 in the morning until late at night put me in touch with the young part of the Guatemala society. Young ladies and men who are starting their careers in the hospitality industry and that have decided to join an international renown brand, and aswell, the first hotel to open in the capital city in more than 20 years or so.
The people from Guate, as they call it, are polite, extremely polite you can even call them lovely. They are kind and very well-educated, curious about the world and eager to know people from other countries and what the world looks like. Middle class young men and women with dreams and aspirations and hopefully a bright future, that I am sure, if their country follows the path they are currently on, great things will happen. I am sure you are thinking, well, the middle class always have it easier than the low ones, and yes, that might be true, but literacy rates for the whole population, including indigenous people, for ages between 15 and 24 are higher than 85%, that might not impress you, but considering that a few years ago that percentage was lower than 64%, than yes, things do seem brighter, at least for now. By the way, those rates are very close to 100% in the capital city, and not only for young population but for everyone, and this is quite evident when you talk with people; taxi and bus drivers, construction and sanitation workers and long etcetera.
Well, enough of numbers and let’s get to the good stuff. I finally got some time to spend once the hotel had opened, so I decided to adventure myself to the place where everything started, the zona 1, the historic center; La Plaza de la Constitucion or how the locals call it, Parque Central. A big central esplanade surrounded by the Metropolitan Cathedral, the National Library, the Parque Centenario and the Chamber of Commerce. Like most plazas in other countries around the world, this is a place for local people to spend some time in a warm afternoon watching the kids run around, eat some local snacks and talk about the daily life.
The whole area is full of commerce; shops, restaurants and bars alike. There is however one main walking street, the 6th avenue, starting from the Parque Central and going down for more than 10 blocks, here you will find most of the important shops and restaurants, some international brands aswell, in my opinion only one place is worth the stop, Restaurante San Martin, conveniently located on the corner of 6th and 10, this restaurant, coffee shop and bakery is located in a very old Mansion, the place is enchanting as it has not been fully restored and you get transported to another era, the smell of warm baked bread and freshly brewed coffee just completes the whole experience. Whatever you do, make this your last stop on your visit to the zona 1. Instead go wander around the small streets and old buildings and ask the locals on how to get to El Portal, or El Portalito, as the locals call it. This is the oldest cantina in town, established in 1932, this place is always full with locals, their specialty? draft beer and a small menu of local tapas. It is easy to lose the sense of time in here and spend the whole afternoon drinking Gallo, the local beer. One more thing, with every round of beer, comes a round of snacks, most of them good, the rest not so much. Still, I suggest to always give them a try and judge by yourself.
I will leave that previous paragraph for a weekday afternoon as weekends can get very busy, but any way it is, you should start that day by going to the Mercado Central, central market. It is in the same zona 1, just behind the Metropolitan Cathedral, the only church you will see in the main plaza. On your way to the zona 1, you probably saw a place full of colorful tents, well, this is the central market, and what you saw was the ground level, it goes two levels underground more. This market has been around for more than a century, and I am not joking, it was formally inaugurated for the first time in 1871, however before that, it was a place where people gathered to exchange and sell the items they produced, this esplanade, as it was right behind the cathedral, used to be a cemetery which was moved to a not so central part of the city back then, but due to hygienic problems and after a big cholera epidemic broke out due to the exhumation of bodies, and because of ecclesiastical pressure, as this was considered a sacred place, the market was closed. It will not be reopened again until the end of the revolution, around 1945, when it was formally declared a market and a public space, taking all rights of the land away from the church. It was then teared down completely by the big earthquake that struck Guatemala in 1976, 7.5 richter points that killed thousands of people, injured tens of thousands more and more than one million affected by this natural phenomenon, the biggest natural catastrophe that the country has suffered in its modern era. So it was after this year that the market was reborn as the market that you can see today and where you can buy all kinds of locally produced items, from leather and ceramic, to meat, poultry and vegetables, and of course food, and as in any decent market around the world, here you will find the best local food in town, and by this I mean the best tacos you can find in Guatemala, with freshly made thick corn tortillas, fresh salsa, and a great variety of stews, sausages, legumes and deep-fried batter meat. Make sure to ask for Doña Mela, she will take good care of you with a good portion of not so healthy happiness and an iced cold Gallo… Selling beer in a market is something other countries around the world should follow.
Even tough I enjoyed my time with my south neighbor, let me close this story by expressing my disappointment about Guatemalan food and about Guatemala in general, the food it is not bad at all and it is a beautiful country, is just that me being from Mexico, the resemblance from this two countries can’t be ignored. The people, the streets, the buildings, the culture, the food, their love for tequila, all of these things made me think I was in one more of the united states of Mexico, yes this is the official name of my home country. But to be fair, Guatemala is an independent country and it has been one for exactly 11 years less than Mexico (Guatemala’s independence day is September 15th, Mexico’s is the 16th, even that we share), but their proximity has made them very similar and probably centuries ago, where there was no borders, this countries were united as one by the mayan people who used to occupy these lands. I was probably very naive in expecting to see a whole different world, when it only took me a 2 hour flight from Mexico City to get here. Anyway it is, and anywhere you are from, going to a new country is always a good experience, maybe if you are from Mexico or other parts of central america, you wont be very surprised, but are definitely many things to see and learn from.
What I take from Guatemala? the people, warm and lovely people wherever your turn to. Their tortillas; thick and soft, always warm, always fresh and handmade. Their breakfast, which I did not talk about but it mainly consists of thick refried black beans with pork fat and deep-fried plantains, which made my mornings everyday. Their landscape, where amazingly they have managed to build a country on verge of cliffs, next to volcanoes, on shores of gigantic changing lakes, and with hopefully a very bright future. By best wishes goes to Guatemala and their people, they do deserve a bright and better future, specially for their young generation and for the local tribes in the mountain range, who almost always are forgotten; beautiful people with beautiful traditions that I wish don’t get lost with their integration to bigger societies.
So to finalize this post; should you go to Guatemala? yes and no. It all depends what you are looking for. Guatemala has a bit of everything, however if you are looking for a glamorous destination, forget about it. Guatemala is about exploring it, taking risks; climb to a volcano, visit lost towns in the middle of the mountain, ride a bus or shuttle through narrow roads, connect with the local people, explore the markets, that’s what Guatemala is about. My recommendation will be to spend 2 to 4 nights in the capital, enjoy the zona 1 and zona 4, explore surrounding areas and then move to other cities nearby and far away.
Soon I will be writing about two other amazing destinations close to Guatemala City where it is worth spending a night or a week, even maybe a lifetime. Until then, thank you for reading, I hope you had fun and I hope it was useful for you.
Stay hungry and keep moving!