Guatemala City

Guatemala I arrived in Guatemala City on a Sunday evening around 7.30pm after a four hour ride from Tapachula, Mexico. This was the first ride of the trip without detailed satellite navigation so I was little anxious as to how it would go.

In the US, Canada and Mexico I had the benefit of granular Garmin GPS guidance which always took me to the door of wherever I needed to go. From now on I have to rely on high-level maps for direction, as most countries in Central and South America haven’t been digitally mapped yet. It’s the equivalent to relying on Google maps or old printed maps, which only detail the major highways. The latter term is used quite loosely.

Fortunately, the road from Mexico to Guatemala City is well signed posted. So I didn’t get lost. But before that I had to cross the border checkpoint. Which in itself was an event as it appeared suddenly and without notice on a bridge over a small stream.

Where on both sides of the stream a small service industry has sprouted. Offers of assistance with paperwork, translation, cambio (money) exchange and cafes line the streets. Worse still these nuisance entrepreneurs surround you offering their assistance right up to and outside the checkpoint itself; the authorities don’t keep them at bay. Being a little tired and unsure of what/where I was supposed to go I really just wanted to tell them to fuck off and leave me alone.

So as I first had my passport stamped and later dealt with the motorbike entry I had to keep one eye on my baggage. Overall the procedure went relatively quickly, even without their assistance.

The ride itself was only 280-300km and was pleasant enough. Not too much traffic and only a few old buses and trucks. These vehicles not only slow the pace but also expunge their dirty waste in a black cloud through their rear end exhaust. Not so bad if you’re in a car but quite a different scenario when your tailgating on a motorbike. The only thing of note on the ride was an encounter with the largest pothole I’ve ever seen. I was driving behind a truck so I didn’t see it in time to swerve.

When I eventually came out of the hole I pulled over to examine the bike. The only damage was the loss of my registration plate, which somehow broke off. Although I searched for it, it wasn’t to be found. I believe the full impact was cushioned by the animal that must have fallen into the pothole before me. I’d say it was a donkey.

On arriving into Guatemala City I followed the signs to “Centro”. Since I always choose accommodation in the city centre I knew I was fairly close. But rather than spend time circling around or asking numerous people for directions (at night), I hailed down a taxi. I paid the driver Quatales 60 (Euro 5), tailed him and arrived at the hotel within 10 minutes. Much better option.

Guatemala City didn’t strike as a poor metropolis. I always get an initial intuitive feel for the affluence or otherwise of a city on the drive into the centre from the airport. Or as currently the case from another location. The quality of the: roads, housing, vehicles, shops etc are good indicators of a city’s relative affluence. In Guatemala City I was struck by both the number of mid and high range cars, the absence of old clapped out junks and the public buses were in better condition than other parts of Central America. The quality of the roads, housing and numerous high-end shops steered to a not too shabby impression. Despite all these I guessed there must be extreme poverty under the surface, which resulted in an unnerving amount of private security.

Because of this the plan was to spend no more than a week in Guatemala. In addition this was my second time in the city, the first visit was four or five years ago. The main reason for staying this time was simply to get my motorbike serviced. Otherwise I would have driven right through. In someways Guatemala City reminds me of San Paolo, Brazil. Where you only go there if you really have to, but get out quickly as there are much safer and better parts to the country.

On Monday I dropped the bike into be serviced and the tyres replaced. As expected, it would take a couple of days as some parts and the tyres had to be ordered. So as Suzuki dealership took care of my baby I chilled out and toured the city.

Base camp was in Zona 10 which is the hotel, bar and restaurant area. I stayed in a small but nice hotel and even got an upgrade to a serviced apartment for the same price, as my room didn’t have WIFI. The room cost only Quetzals 320 (Euro29) per night.

Most mornings I ate breakfast in Zona 10 and did some admin stuff back home. Guatemala City with its three million inhabitants is subdivided into 21 different Zones. On a few occasions I headed into the city centre (Zona 1) where Parque Central, the main Cathedral and the Presidential Palace are located. All of which are quite modest. Guatemala City only became the capital in 1775. Previously it was Antigua where the influence of the former Spanish rulers is more evident in the old world architecture.

Just off Parque Central is the main shopping street. A long pedestrian street that stretches over 1km. In someway this street is more unique than many of the indecipherable main streets of most European and North America cities. There are no international branded chains here as they’ve bypassed the city for the big Malls on the outskirts. So on the one hand it was nice to see many local stores while on the other hand I don’t think I would be bought anything there.

I did come across a great café – Café Casa. Which served superb coffee, pastries and pizza. Where I ploughed through some great reading. I finished a book called The Governor (a leftover from Tommy’s visit). It’s John Lonergen’s autobiography. The man who ran Ireland’s largest prison for over 20 years. I’d always admired him and his book reinforced the opinion. A man of great integrity, leadership, humanity and humility in a place where it might be least expected. Definitely recommended reading.

And the other good thing about Café Casa is that they have a large library, where books can be exchanged. A welcome facility as I couldn’t find a store that sold English books. I picked up Grisham’s Painted House, which looked unread and finished it within three days.

The evenings were pretty chilled. I hit a sports bar near the Holiday Inn, which is owned by a Canadian. I met Sergio at the bar and challenged him to a game of pool. And contrary to my gut instinct, I didn’t ask him if he was any good as I was glad of the company. However he jumped the gun by saying “I have to warn you, I’m pretty good”. So I decided to keep my mouth shut and see how I faired.

Normally I hate to play pool or any sport for that matter against someone who cannot hold his or her own. Like most guys, it’s all about winning and at the very least competing well. After an hour or so I won 6-1. A sweet victory in the face of such bravado!

Having said that, he took the defeat in good spirits and I agreed to a rematch a couple of days later. However this time Sergio beat me 6-3, although I did gift him one game. When I potted the white after sinking the black.

The other things that struck me about Guatemala include: individual height and security presence. Having lived in The Netherlands for almost decade I eventually became use to the fact that my 6’00” height (1.8m) is average. Where it was not uncommon for women, even without heels, to be taller than me.

It is scientifically proven that the Dutch are the tallest race in the world. I suspect the opposite might be true of Guatemalans. Even aside from the tribal Mayian population the average height over here is 5’2”. So it’s great to have presence again through height.

The other presence, which is visible is the level of armed private security. Here you definitely feel much more aware of personal security. Every retail outlet, bar and restaurant has at least one armed security guard. Which is seldom a discrete side arm but more often than not a shotgun held in both hands as if ready to be pumped into action.

It went from farcical to surreal where a decent Chinese restaurant I passed had two armed guards on the door. On two other occasions I saw an ice-cream delivery van that also had an armed guard literally riding shotgun. I hope things aren’t so bad that people hijack ice-cream vans for Magnums or Solernos. I guess the company do COD.

Because of this I always took extra care when I was out and about. This is the first city on the trip where I haven’t clipped my camera case onto the loop of my jeans. One day I walked around the salubrious hotel zone carrying a plastic bag from a sports shop where I’d purchased an ipod armband. Clearly a small item but I still noticed a few stares. And, I can tell the difference between a quick glance at the gringo in town versus been eyed up.

Sadly this all results in less walking and more taxis, which fortunately are reasonably cheap. Then I heard a story, after which I couldn’t wait to get out of Gotham as quickly as possible.

I’d eaten a few times in Tacotento, a well-known franchise also in the hotel zone. A restaurant-bar type place where the staff spoke good English and they showed Premiership football. One of the waiters told me that in November 2010, there was a drive-by gangland hit at the fast food outlet right across the street. Where the hit men sprayed bullets into the store killing the two intended targets plus six innocent bystanders, including a young girl selling knickknacks on the street.

So when I got the call that my bike was ready, I hit the road the next day. The bike had a full 10K service however I didn’t manage to get the rear tyre replaced. My bike being a rarity in this part of the world I couldn’t wait for the two week lead time for delivery. I’ve advance ordered a tyre for delivery in Costa Rica. Should be fine.

On collecting the bike I could tell the difference immediately. It looked, felt and sounded better. In fact, it put me in mind of collecting a rejuvenated wife whose batteries were recharged after a day at the beauty salon. So I packed up and headed for Antigua for two days.

This is a nice small colonial town and was on my way south to El Salvador. Antigua is a great town to visit for a few days and a refreshing break from Guatemala City. You can walk anywhere at any time completely uninhibited. The place is like a living museum and a relic of the former colonial days.

It was nice to chill out for two days and the highlight was a visit to O’Rielly’s Irish Tavern. But more ceremoniously, my first Guinness of 2011. I ended up having stacks of pints with a Guatemalan lad William who had never drank Guinness. Obviously I introduced him to the virtues of the black stuff and he did well to keep the pace. Funny though, next day he told me he vomited that night. Well, I cannot hold that against any man. Besides he did well to keep up with a professional on his induction.

So overall a nice week in Guatemala. Like I said, there are great places to visit in this country but just use Guatemala City as a transit location.

Onwards to El Salvador.

Keep the faith.

Al Dempsey
2 April 2011.