South by West- camping from Alaska to Nicaragua

Travel time: January 2003 - January 2008  |  by Jerry Bazant

13- Guatemala beware

Shoe shine robbers; Search for hotel; Search for insurance; Kamikaze bus drivers; Armed guards and assassinations; Lake Atitlan; Indigo dyes; Bargains;
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We arrived safely to Quezaltenango and started to look for a hotel. At the Zocalo I talked to a man who was getting his shoes shined.
"Don't leave your car on the street overnight" he warned me, "see these kids shining shoes? They sleep in the park. They will break into your truck. Their parents don't want to work, and kids live on streets". 
Few hotels we looked at had parking in the courtyard but our camper was too big to go through the portal. After a lot of driving we found a hotel outside the city with inside parking.

...Quezaltenango Zocalo. Where are the shoe shine boys?...

...Quezaltenango Zocalo. Where are the shoe shine boys?...

So far I was not impressed with Guatemala. Roads were busy with mainly old cars and trucks. There were many buses brightly painted and decorated according to drivers taste. Fences on roofs were full of bags, boxes and bicycles.

Overloaded buses were slowly going up hill spewing black smoke and then speeding downhill, seemingly out of control. It looked like only drivers that passed the kamikaze driving course were allowed to drive. I saw a  pick up speeding out of a parking lot and getting into the way of the bus.  The bus driver instead of slamming brakes blew the horn and floored the gas, missing the truck by a hair.

...baggage goes on top and is unloaded by the bus attendant to make sure that it is claimed by the right owner...

...baggage goes on top and is unloaded by the bus attendant to make sure that it is claimed by the right owner...

We did some sightseeing over the weekend and tried to find someone to tell us where and how to get a car insurance.  Asked a taxi driver, policemen, hotel clerk and tourist information but got only vague information. Most cars and even taxis don't carry insurance!! So Monday morning was spent driving around the town, looking for an insurance company.  

Gunter, the world traveler was our leader and speaker. He took a six week Spanish course and pretended to speak grammatical Spanish. In the first place the "insurance agent"  had a gun stuck in his belt. Gunter spoke to him but but the agent could not understand. Gunter tried again and was slowly getting visibly angry, not at himself, but at the other guy. So I butted in with my home-schooled Spanish and Lord behold, the guy understood me! They did not sell our kind of insurance, we have to go to the Occidental Bank and he scribbled their address on a piece of paper. Outside Gunter was pissed off with me.
"You have terrible Spanish, you don't know any grammar" he told me contemptuously. Anyway, they decided to drive without insurance so we were on our own.

...Banco Occidental. Security guard at the door...

...Banco Occidental. Security guard at the door...

The Occidental Bank was in the overcrowded downtown. A car was pulling out of the parking spot in front of the Bank as we came, so I slipped in. Wow!! The parking attendant armed with a shotgun rushed in.

"The parking is only for bank clients." he told me. I gave him the piece of paper with Bank's address.
"We are going to the bank" . "No, you cannot park here!" he insisted.

I noticed he was holding the paper up side down. He can't read! It took a lot of talking before he let a gringo park there. Going to the bank one had to pass the outside security guard with a shotgun and then more guards [armed only with revolvers] on every floor. The bank people were very nice and we got the three months insurance,  even though the visitors permit was valid for one month only.
 

...bored armed guard is more decoration than the bank protection...

...bored armed guard is more decoration than the bank protection...

Is Guatemala a dangerous country? Consider this. Mentioned in the weekend newspaper there were two armed robberies with six people dead, one judge assassinated, two men found in a ditch riddled with bullets and 21 people died in a bus accident.
It is a very poor country that had a civil war going on for 35 years.
Guns are everywhere. Security guards with shotguns at every bank, shopping center, small supermarket or store. Saw two policemen riding a motorcycle, Uzi sub machine guns hanging casually over the shoulder, weaving through the traffic like pizza delivery. In the outdoor market and downtown were many Indian women carrying babies in a shawl on their back and more children around.

...lake Atitlan with villages nested under an active volcano...

...lake Atitlan with villages nested under an active volcano...

Well, we split up with Gunter and Marta. We were not compatible couples. They were super organized, trips were planned weeks ahead and strictly adhered to. Also our interests were different. We arranged to meet in the next campground but never saw them again. Gunter hated people that "don't speak proper Spanish."

Now that the truck was insured we could relax and went to a touristy town Panajachel on the Lake Atitlan. Tourists outnumbered locals by 20 : 1 and if it was not for the lake it would not be worth stopping. Our campground on the lake shore was nice and came with a hotel and a nice swimming pool. In the morning we shared the grounds with a herd of cows and "look before step" was recommended.

...sharing the campground with cows is back to the nature experience if you are looking where you're stepping...

...sharing the campground with cows is back to the nature experience if you are looking where you're stepping...

Lake Atitlan is very big, some 30 miles long and was created by a collapsed volcano. Water is very deep and very clean. There are many Indian villages around the lake and we took a boat tour around these villages. The boat had a relaxed atmosphere, passengers could climb, sit or lay down anywhere they wanted. I even found life jackets stashed in a box out of reach in the bow.

...we are going shopping...

...we are going shopping...

Immediately after landing we were attacked by small kids, selling carved pencils, jewelery, trinkets and more. They were cute and some spoke a bit of English [ and sold more]. Then came the women with handmade shirts, table cloths, shawls, belts and more, balancing bundles on their heads. They could be persistent, shy, indifferent, bothersome or funny. I made a mistake to show interest in a shirt and the woman followed me on the boat to the next village.  
She was very amusing and I ended up buying two shirts.

...villages built under the rim of volcano are subject to earthquakes and flooding. Soon after we left one village was wiped out by a rock slide...

...villages built under the rim of volcano are subject to earthquakes and flooding. Soon after we left one village was wiped out by a rock slide...

The local Indians are still using natural indigo dye to color cloth. Indigo dye is extracted from plants and was used since ancient civilizations to dye wool and silk. It was a highly prized export commodity until the end of 19th century when a German chemist Bayer [of Aspirin] discovered cheap synthetic substitute. On our boat was an expert on native indigo from New Zealand who came to study local dyeing. He took us around one village explaining the process and Sue bought me blue pants that look much better than your cheap blue jeans dyed with the synthetic stuff.

...tour boats carry tourists around the lake and they can get on and off any boat at their convenience...

...tour boats carry tourists around the lake and they can get on and off any boat at their convenience...

We learned few lessons in bargaining. If you showed interest, the price would drop by 30% and more. The best time to buy was when the boat is about to leave. Then the price of a blanket might drop from the "rock bottom" price of 150 quetzals to 75. 
I don't like to drive a hard bargain just to get the satisfaction of saving a few dollars because they are poor, but tourists are the suckers. Sue bought a nice woven tablecloth; "Hand made" she was assured. In the next village she talked with a woman that was hand weaving  cloth. She showed her the tablecloth. "Machine done, with some hand stitching" said the expert. That's why the price went from 200 to 50 quetzals.

...sudden and violent storms often hit Lake Atitlan. They don't deter fisherman from going way out in tipsy boat...

...sudden and violent storms often hit Lake Atitlan. They don't deter fisherman from going way out in tipsy boat...

...too young to go to school and too small to sell pencils to tourists...

...too young to go to school and too small to sell pencils to tourists...

...waterborne saleswoman followed me from a village to village...

...waterborne saleswoman followed me from a village to village...

...until I bought this indigo shirt from her...

...until I bought this indigo shirt from her...

..."Chica Sexy" bus driver also put the cross up front for the faithful...

..."Chica Sexy" bus driver also put the cross up front for the faithful...

© Jerry Bazant, 2009
You are here : Overview The Americas Guatemala 13- Guatemala beware
The trip
 
Description:
This journey in our pick up truck camper took us West from Ontario to British Columbia and Alaska, then South to Nicaragua. Later we trailered a sailboat and cruised the coast of BC, Alaska and Sea of Cortez in Mexico.
Details:
Start of journey: January 2003
Duration: 5 years
End of journey: January 2008
Travelled countries: United States
Mexico
Guatemala
Belize
The Author
 
Jerry Bazant is an active author on break-fresh-ground. since 12 years.
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