28 September, 2008

Visiting a PCV in Guatemala

For those of you who may end up suffering from cabin fever this winter, I would like to offer you a cheap way to escape the cold by extending a general invitation to come visit me in Guatemala. I can promise warm weather, beautiful hikes, good coffee, diverse cultural experiences and of course some swimming in a beautiful volcanic lake, one of two oceans, or some hot springs depending on your fancy – all for dirt cheap.

When I say cheap, I mean you can spend as little as $135 per week plus the cost of airfare. What’s the catch? Well, what I’m offering isn’t so much a vacation as an experience. You will be sacrificing a whole lot of creature comforts, especially if you are above 5 feet 2 inches tall. Of course I am not limiting visitors to those who wish to rough it for a week; I would be more than happy to show anyone around the country I currently call home. However, going on my first experience with visitors this last month, I have come up with a set of “suggestions” that will make any visit run more smoothly.

Although Guatemala is roughly the size of Tennessee, the mountainous terrain and the generally poor road conditions make travel the largest obstacle in the country. For example, although my home is located only about 100 miles away from the capital, the journey takes me usually between 4 and 5 hours. Other trips that look close on a map can often be much longer due to unexpected construction or road blocks (both natural due to landslides and manmade because of minor protests).

There are only two ways to get around Guatemala: the cheap way, and the expensive way. The cheap way is the way I do it, on a camionetta a.k.a. chicken bus (think decked out school bus with luggage racks inside and out and ladders on the front and back for the helper to climb up and down while the bus is moving). These are slow and uncomfortable, but by far the most reliable means of transportation in the country. They leave sometimes in accordance with a schedule, but more often than not when they are full. By full I do not mean 57 person capacity, I mean three to every seat and two people standing back to back in the isle. It gets tight. If you chose this way to get around Guatemala, make sure you bring only one carryon bag, preferably nothing bigger than a 40 L hiking bag. If you cannot survive on what you can fit in one of these for the time you are here, you MUST choose the more expensive way. I just wouldn’t be able to handle the stress of more luggage than that on these busses.

The second way to get around is to rent a car or hire a driver. If you want to see half of the cool stuff in the country, you will absolutely need a 4 wheel drive vehicle with good clearance. The more beefy the shocks the more comfortable your ride will be. I hear going rates for a pick-up from Avis is around $60 a day, but I’m sure you can look online and find something cheaper. I am not sure how expensive it is or what the details are for hiring a driver, but I would be able to find out if you wanted to look at that route. I would be able to drive for you as well.

I should mention that there are also shuttles that one can hire to transport you around some of the country’s tourist hot spots for those of you who think you are all cool because you can read a guide book. Take heed of their warnings about these shuttles: they are often unreliable and many times the drivers will try and cheat you. I dislike these shuttles other than to and from the airport out of Antigua.

As far as food and lodging goes, the options are similar to those in the transportation category, but I trust the mid range a lot more. You can stay in hostels for as little as $3.50 a night. These will be clean and safe, but you will be sharing a bathroom and sometimes not have hot water. There are lots of hotels in the $35-$50 a night per person range, and I consider these to be absolutely luxurious – to most people they will probably be on par with a Holiday Inn Express in the states. Of course there are also more expensive places, and I can recommend some to you if you need me too, but I have no personal experience with them whatsoever.

A meal can be between $1.50 and $4.00, but with an American appetite you will probably not be full afterwards, it took me a while to adjust to the smaller portions, but I have also lost 15 lbs since I arrived and I haven’t been sick for more than a day, so maybe for a week it would be worth it. These meals are mostly sanitary, but may make you sick if you have bad luck. Gambling with food sanitation has become second nature to me, and I like to think that my belly is a little stronger than most. More expensive but %100 safe food will range between $4.00 and $8.00 (McDonalds and Wendy’s fall in this category), and of course there are nice restaurants with fancy food for more money (I occasionally treat myself to a $14 meal at Chile’s in the capital, and I hear there’s even better food that that in some restaurants!).

A quick note on drinks: the beer sucks and it is expensive, about what you would pay in the states. This is due to the fact that there is only one company that makes beer in the whole country, and they actually became a monopoly by buying the only bottle manufacturing outfit in the country and then refusing to sell bottles to anyone else. The mixed drinks are a bit better and may be a price break for those of you living life in the big cities of the U.S. of A., but for those of you used to frequenting small town family establishments, you are better off waiting to imbibe until you return home.

Admission to most of the places I would take you will be ridiculously cheap as compared to what you are most likely used to, and I am available to help anyone on any budget to plan your ideal trip to the Land of Eternal Spring. I unfortunately do have some restrictions I need to work around if you would like me to accompany you on part of or the entirety of your journey. These restrictions all basically branch out of the singular and inescapable fact that I am a Peace Corps volunteer. First off, if you want me to help show you around, give me all the notice you can. I need to manage vacation days, not to mention I actually have a job that I am doing down here, so the more notice the greater the chance that I can spend more time with you. Second, I am a “volunteer” and as such am given roughly $275 by the government of the United States of America to survive on every month. Remember when I said I occasionally eat at Chile’s? That $14 is 5% of my monthly wages. Out of this sum I pay rent, utilities, food costs, transportation costs, and any other incidental expenses that may come up, which is why I am thoroughly unversed in the high rolling side of Guatemala. That being said of course, I have also seen and done some amazing things so far on this budget, so it is by no means inadequate. It does mean though that I cannot afford to spend a whole week or two eating Wendy’s and paying for private bathrooms.

So there you have it, my personal travel warnings for Guatemala. One more thing I should mention, but this goes for almost any trip you might be planning: don’t bring anything you aren’t prepared to replace. I’ve had a string of bad luck recently with theft, and I would consider it irresponsible on my part not to say something. If you bring a camera or something, make sure you can carry it on your person at all times, and some kind of money belt or a special pocket for holding valuables (credit cards and passports) is advisable.

I love having visitors and I promise I will do everything I can to help make your trip amazing, but I don’t want to give anyone any false impressions. Tickets down here can occasionally be cheaper than domestic flights, so pick your favorite fare tracker and get down here! If nothing else gets you down here, I live next to an ACTIVE VOLCANO and I pass the coffee that you will be drinking at Starbucks next year on my morning walk to work! Peace.

1 comment:

Christopher said...

I'm sold. I better start planning!

Hope everything is going great. Miss ya Kyle!