Guatemala Trip Part II: Guatemala City

A continuation of Ian’s recollection of a trip to Guatemala. Refer to previous posts for the full story.

For the inexperienced, non-Spanish speaking traveller, getting anywhere in Guatemala City (or simply “Guate” as the locals often refer to it) is a frightening prospect. There are a number of ways to get around the city, each with its own particular dangers and discomforts.

My first inclination is always to walk around any new city I’m travelling in. One can discover a lot by walking around randomly for 12 hours, whereas public transportation tends to confuse things. Unfortunately one of the first pieces of advice my information on the city offered was, to paraphrase, “nobody walks around Guatemala City – if you do, everyone will think you are weird. That, and there is a high likelihood of accidently walking into the middle of a gang war”. I can’t verify either of these claims, but I wasn’t prepared to challenge them at the time.

Next option: taxi. There are two types of taxis in Guate, white and yellow. The white taxis are stress-free – just hail one in the street and give them a destination. The only problem is that over 800 of them are stolen and unlicensed. The yellow taxis are much safer, except one has to call the taxi company and tell them where to pick you up. For someone who doesn’t speak a great deal of Spanish and prefers not to make a fool out of himself whenever possible, this wasn’t much of an alternative.

The last and best hope was the chickenbus. These are school buses painted in bright colours to attract as many people on board as possible, regardless of the listed maximum capacity. There are a number of routes running through the city, each owned by a private company in competition with the rest of the routes. Each bus has an appropriately aggressive driver and, at times, an even more appropriately aggressive conductor to herd passengers on board and keep them in line.

I took a chickenbus to the Parque Central, a half-hour ride North of the airport and the site of Guatemala City’s Cathedral, National Palace and market square. I wasn’t sure what to expect there, but it turned out to be the best decision as there was plenty to do. After tours of the Cathedral and National Palace, a few hours spent browsing the latest in counterfeit goodies, three or four adventures in street meat, two public concerts and the world’s largest marimba, I was having a great time but ready to return to my cell for a nice wet electrocution. The only trouble was, whereas one might expect the “Westbound” route of the bus to run on the same street as the “Eastbound”, in Guate the return trip was to be found 5 blocks away – with no signs to advise anyone new to town find their way.

After dark, thanks to a kind new friend, I found the almost-correct bus (mine never turned up). The bus ride back to the airport hotel was uneventful… merely one or two minor fistfights broke out and only once did the conductor have to beat a drunk off the bus with his 4 foot lead pipe. I’m going to write OC Transpo later on to advise them that they are behind the times with respect to methods effective at encouraging people to move to the back of the bus.

There wasn’t much coffee in Guatemala City. In fact, I was only able to find a much needed cup at the Wendy’s on the corner of the central park. To digress for a moment – a reliably exciting element to travelling in Guatemala was the fact that one encounters doormen outside of most businesses of even moderate consequence. Kind gentlemen to open the door for you with a welcoming smile and the courtesy to leave their shotguns pointed, more-or-less, away from your vital organs. You haven’t properly enjoyed a Whopper until you’ve eaten one under the careful protection of an underpaid ex-militant brandishing a Remington.

The coffee from Wendy’s was satisfactory, given that the previous day had been fuelled by American Airlines’ special brew. Having explored a bit of Guatemala City and experienced some urban culture I was ready to head to slightly more rural parts of the country, where active volcanoes dominate the lower skyscape and coffee plants grow in abundance. My next stop would be Antigua – a major tourist destination and, as a welcome contrast to Gautemala City, a rather dull town not more than a hour’s drive from chaos.

To be continued…

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