Into Guatemala, Gently

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Words by Dalene Heck / Photo by Pete Heck

I wouldn’t say we were nervous to come back to Latin America, but we did coach ourselves a bit as we sat on the plane into Guatemala City. We reminded each other to raise our shield of wariness, to be more diligent in watching our belongings and skeptical of offers made. Eighteen months of being away opened us up to the fear so commonly spoken of about these parts.

We slipped easily back into our Spanish tongues, much easier than either of us imagined. On the short drive from Guatemala City to Antigua, Pete chatted it up with the driver, albeit in simple Spanish, but it was quite an extended conversation. There were causes for some laughter with obvious slayings of common words – like when instead of Pete calling certain items “cheap” (barato), he called them “drunk” (barracho).

Our driver, and the other few motorists he shared the road with, weren’t as crazy as I had built them up to be in my head from previous experience, and the streets were much cleaner. Either Guatemala is an exception to common Latin American problems, or some memories have been twisted over time.

After a few days in Antigua, I believe both are true to some regard.

The city gave us a very gentle re-introduction to Latin America, easing our concerns and reminding us of our comfort level with travel here. Tales from seasoned travelers are not far off the mark – Antigua is fairly scrubbed and aptly marketed for large tourist crowds. Typical North American fare is available and plentiful, several upscale shops are set-up behind crumbled plaster walls.

But we paid no heed, we were too enamoured with all the things to do in Guatemala, and our stunning surroundings, to be bothered by the discord of others. Between sidestepping massive potholes on the sidewalk and roads, we feasted on all the brilliant colours. After months in mostly grey, white and chilly Wisconsin, the blue sky was a welcoming sight, as were the varied hues of the buildings lining the streets.

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The people were so friendly. Common nods, holas, gentle smiles. We’ve been caught up in the fast-paced North American and European cultures for too long, the laid-back nature of the Guatemalans eased us quickly.

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We slurped fresh fruit from baggies, bought for pennies at the side of the road. We wandered map-less, and pleasantly stumbled into the blank and quiet corridors of an abandoned convent. We were never far from the view of the domineering Volcán de Agua, and were reminded of some exhilarating memories living on the base of a rumbling volcano in Ecuador. We wished to see lava flow and the ground to shake, to once again feel the true excitement we knew this part of the world was capable of. One morning I ran out of our hotel room, nearly shouting to Pete who was on his laptop nearby: “Did you feel it? Did you feel it?” I was grinning ear-to-ear, so sure that a tiny earthquake had shook our room. It (disappointingly) turned out to be just the aftershocks of a passing truck.

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We rode an ecstatic high for our first few days. After several months of being at home and then so close to it, we were thrilled to be back somewhere that felt familiar yet tinged with challenge. Somewhere new but still comfortable. We were gently, gently, introduced back into Latin America, and very glad to have landed in Guatemala.

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Many, many thanks to the Hotel Casa Antigua who sponsored our stay in Antigua. We were minutes from the main square, and charmed by the intricate details of the historic building. To read our full review, please click here.

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  1. Just stunning! I’m itching to see South and Central America, especially after living in Spain for so long.

    And just because I’m nit-picky, barato is spelled with just one ‘r’ (says the girl who either rolls her Rs or can’t say them at all!)

  2. So if you call somebody a barato barracho, does that mean they’re a cheap drunk? I’ve learned something new today. Aside from the fact that Guatemala is much prettier than I envisioned.

  3. I love Guatemala and your piece describes my feelings whenever I return there perfectly. I too am a bit wary at first until I get back there and relax in the beautiful surroundings with the wonderful people who live there. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks for your comment Carol Ann, and I’m glad it resonated with you. Hearing all the “BE CAREFUL” comments before we left North America got our guards up for sure, it’s funny how easy we let that happen. But being here just reminded us that it’s really so much better than people think!

  4. Ahhhh…love Antigua. Have you been to the ornate yellow and white church (la Merced?) just north of the arch? Can’t wait to return to Antigua and Atitlan.

    1. YES! So gorgeous, one of the more intricately detailed churches we’ve seen in Latin America. Saving some of those good pictures for the eventual ‘postcards’ post. 🙂

  5. Gorgeous shots as ever, Dalene! I particularly love the photo of the two ladies in blue against the bright red wall.

    I’ve never had the good fortune to visit Latin America, but your love for this special place rings through so clearly in this post. Very excited to read about your upcoming adventures!

    1. Thanks Steph! I will say it is a place you MUST visit (and I hope you do) – there are so many charming aspects of Latin American culture that I am sure you would enjoy. And we ourselves still have so much of it to explore!

  6. Wonderful photos as always…

    I like the way you have described the way we often build a place up in our heads to be something quite far from the truth and how we even convince ourselves of the way we remember things; it happens to me all the time.

    It sounds like a great place. Thanks for sharing.

    1. After 3.5 years of travel, you would think we would have learned to stop doing that, yet it keeps happening! Some things never change I guess. 🙂

    1. We have really enjoyed our time in all of Guate, and I am certain you would enjoy it here. This country deserves quite a bit of time to explore.

  7. I LOVE that last shot. I have a painting of that archway from one of the men who line the street there hanging in my bedroom in California from my visit.

    1. I was amazed at the art those fellas did of the arch. If I had a bedroom of my own, I would have one of these pieces as well. A very unique souvenir.

  8. I love your pictures! I also think it makes sense as a traveler to keep an open mind, but still go into certain situations with a certain level of wariness until you determine safety and protocol, as you did.

    1. We try our best to keep an open mind, but as we’d been away for awhile, it was easy for other fears to creep in. Now that we are almost set to leave, I can say that Guatemala has definitely charmed us. It’s such an easy place to be, yet with the right amount of challenge to make it fun!

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