Everyone told us not to spend time in Guatemala City. Blogs and online guide books will assure you that it is dirty and dangerous. So, obviously, us being us, we had to make a point of spending a couple days there on our trip to Guatemala. We ended up falling in love with the city, finding the people lovely and helpful, the public transportation AMAZING, and the city full of culture and vibrancy. It’s a big city which comes with a certain amount of grime and crime, but our experience there was eye opening and exciting!
When we first landed at GUA we booked it to Antigua. Our experience riding in cop cars and finding bus stations is documented in our blog post Antigua Makes My Feet Happy!
Day 1: Euro Hostel & Oakland Mall
We were in full travel mode when we rolled back into Guatemala City from Antigua. We had a room at “Euro Hostel” by the airport so we knew generally where we were going. Guatemala City is divided into “zonas” which makes it pretty easy to navigate. The zonas all have a reputation too, so this is also a good way to avoid ending up in the wrong part of town. We found the passengers and bus drivers to be very friendly and helpful, so we just let them know where we were headed. They told us to hop out near Trebol station and take a taxi to our hostel. We knew we could probably take a bus but we were inexperienced with the bus system at this point, and sweating with all of our shit on our backs. So we hailed a taxi and coughed up the ten bucks to take us to our hostel.
We gave our driver directions and pulled up to a gated community that wouldn’t let us in without proof of residence! We argued a bit, the taxi driver was the opposite of help. We ended up hopping out and wandering around. We walked back to the gate after determining that was the right way in and it turned out they just needed an address, which I was able to scrounge up from an email confirmation. It was annoying at the time, but hey- good security 24/7! We felt really safe at this place and it was really close to the bus route and the airport.
We checked in and realized we needed to hit an ATM to pay for our room and avoid 15$ in fees for using a credit card. We had planned to go out that night anyways so we added that to our to-do list. The rooms were nice, good common area, and there was a kitchen we could use. The free breakfast was not super good, but they did have a cook that would make you whatever you want for breakfast, lunch and dinner for under 5 bucks. The place is far from any restaurants or stores so this feature was very convenient. For us the safety (they had their own guard as well as being located in a gated community) and the airport shuttle made the higher price of this hostel super worth it. There were cheaper options but many of them had shady reviews.
After dropping off our bags we headed back to main road with minimal things with us. I had my important stuff in my money belt and did bring my camera and umbrella in a side bag. We were on guard from all the horror stories we had heard, so I avoided using my camera in most places even though I really wanted to whip it out. This was a good excersize in staying present and using control.
We wanted some “city time” and decided to head to “Oakland Mall” to watch Wonder Woman (Mujer Marvellosa!) at the Imax. We knew it was in Zona 10 so we hopped on a bus and got out near there. We walked around on a nice trail that passed through some historic locations with signs showing where you were. There were lots of families walking around and we felt safe. And stoked. What a huge, cool city! We asked around for directions to the mall. We thought we could walk but it was actually a 10 minute cab ride away.
The mall was HUGE! Three stories, very modern, and a huge carousel inside. We got there just in time to wolf down some food. I ate at Go Green! again (I fell in love with the stupid chain restaurant in Antigua) and ran to the theater. I made sure to save lots of room for popcorn- sweet and salty just like in Costa Rica. The theater was great and we had fun at the movie. When we came out all the stores were closing- it was getting late. We went to an ATM and couldn’t pull money out, we tried another before we realized it was a weekend and one of our deposits hadn’t gone through.
SHIT!! The last time this happened to me it was so. bad. No cash in a foreign country= not good. This put us in a bad position because we barely had any cash left for a cab ride back home. We flagged down a couple of cabs and tried to bargain them down but I gathered that the cab companies had set rates. One guy called to ask permission to accept less but said he wasn’t allowed to do that. Scott and I got in a huge shitty argument. We scrounged up some more change. A super nice cab driver came back around and told us he is picking up someone else going that way so we could share the fare with her. More arguing in the cab.
It sucks when this happens but hey- it’s a reality of travel. Ninety nine percent of the time Scott and I are awesome complimentary travel partners…1% of the time we are both assholes at the same time and it gets rough. We made up back at the hostel. We had a place to stay and no real problems. We would find an ATM tomorrow.
Day 2: Take random busses and make new plans
We woke feeling optimistic, and walked hand in hand down the road until a bus picked us up. We took it to a park across from the airport where the zoo, museum of ethnology and archaeology, museum of modern art, and the natural history museum are located. We had a full day of museum wanderings planned. We strolled up to the first museum and took some photos outside before discovering:
Museums are Closed on Mondays! I did check online first and whatever site I ended up on said the museums were open Mondays- false info!
Five minute pout fest. Scott wants go back to the hostel. I replied “you can go back if you want… or you can take my hand and go on a random adventure with me…”. He looked doubtful, I was confident. I headed off in a random direction. We ended up at a bus stop. We waited there for a bus that would take us somewhere familiar, but the first bus to come by had “central market” as well as several other destinations scrawled on the windshield. I asked Scott if we should take it and interpreted his shrug as a “Hell Yes!”. We hadn’t done any research on it but it sounded right. I scrambled for a seat but Scott had to stand on the full bus. He was a gentleman and made sure all the women and kids had seats instead of sitting down as passengers left.
I struck up a conversation with a sweet college aged girl sitting in front of me, her name was Ana. I asked her where she reccomended we go if we had one day in the city. She told me we should get off at her stop with her and I agreed. We rode for a long time all the way across the city observing the busy streets and stores throught the bus windows. When my new friend got up and motioned for me to follow I grabbed scott’s sleeve and we squeezed through the other passengers to the front of the bus. Ana pointed across the street and showed us the National Palace.
A huge beautiful building towering over an open plaza. We follow her across the street and she heads down a set of stairs to the explosion of colors, sounds and scents that make up the HUGE underground central market. This is exactly what I was looking for! I thank Ana for being a great tour guide and she kisses me on the cheek and wishes us a good time. Guatemalans are so sweet!
The market was incredible. We ordered soups from the cafeteria that could easy have fed three people each. We took our time enjoying the flavors and relaxing in the bustling busy environment.
We then wandered around doing a little bit of shopping. My advice is to avoid buying any souvenirs in Antigua and buying gifts at the central market in Guatemala City before you leave. We found everything they sold in Antigua for half as much… plus some AMAZING shoes and bags. Since we had months of travel ahead of us we couldn’t buy much, but I had a few specific items that I wanted and Scott was infinitely patient as I scrounged through piles of scarves looking for the exact one I wanted. We probably saw 1/3 of the market over 2-3 hours, and when we couldn’t take anymore we hit up the vegetable market near the entrance and picked up some veggies to cook for dinner.
When we stepped out we could see the tops of a few beautiful churches in the surrounding area. We wandered around the streets feeling very safe, taking photos, picking up some items we needed from small stores and stopping for Scott to get a haircut at a barbershop
We bought lechee fruit from street vendors and splurged on some ice cold bottles of sparkling water before spotting the bus line that would take us back towards our hostel and hopped on.
The hard part
And here comes the part that I struggle with including. We sipped our sodas on the bus and felt totally relaxed and happy after a great day. We were talking when suddenly I started zoning Scott out. I heard raised voices coming from the front of the bus and my focus moved there as yelling turned into a loud clap. People looked scared. My first thought was gunshot but I knew it wasn’t a gunshot. A young guy was yelling and punching the floor repeatedly and screaming things I couldn’t understand. People crowded away from him as he staggered over to me. An older lady locked eyes with me. And then suddenly I could understand the words he was yelling in Spanish- “Look at her- look at her with her tattoos- LOOK AT HER!!”. The woman’s eyes looked scared for me. She motioned for me to get off the bus as she got off herself. I lost it. I ran off the bus and down the street. Scott looked back towards the bus and exclaimed “Holy shit!”, as the agitated passenger was punched in the face and kicked off. He ran off the other way and I calmed down.
I felt so dumb. I reminded myself that shit like this happens in Denver all the time. Scott was nice about it. It wasn’t like I was really in danger, but being targeted shook me up. Luckily the buses were very frequent and like five minutes later another bus came and took us back to our side of town. I hated how scared I was but quickly realized why that hit me so hard. Days before two men in the US were stabbed and killed on a public train in Portland in an altercation with an unhinged racist while trying to defend a muslim girl. I had wondered how that could happen, and guessed that it’s because things move so fast in those situations.
Even though there was a rough end to our adventure I still felt really good about our spontaneous adventures through the city. I try not to overdramatize things and the reality is something like that could have happened to me anywhere. I don’t think it means Guatemala City is “dangerous” … I think it just reflects the fact that it is a BIG city and when you are crammed in with so many people your chances of encountering sketchy people are just that much higher.
The rest of our stay was spent between the hostel and the airport. It was smooth sailing and we were still amazed that we pulled off such a last minute trip to a country we had never been to before ❤ We fell in love with Guatemala and look forward to visiting another part of the country this winter!