When I arrived in Guatemala, I had no idea that a year later I would still be here. In my mind I thought that I would be in Buenos Aires, or somewhere close to it. At least South America. So how did I end up here staying here for a year? I let life unfold in front of me and went with the flow. A year later, I have come to know a Guatemala that I would never have comprehended had I simply passed through.
Transitioning from tourist to temporary resident isn’t a light switch. It happens over time. I first entered Guatemala as a tourist. I had plans visit key locations, take Spanish lessons and move on. My first stop was Flores, and the Mayan ruins of Tikal. From there I went to Semuc Champe, the blue cascading waterfalls in the jungle. Then I popped into Antigua for a weekend before heading to Lake Atitlan. There I took two weeks of Spanish lessons at a school that my friend Aaron Mitchell had recommended.
When I returned to Antigua, I stayed at small hostel called Motocamp. The hostel was for the motorcycle traveler. Jose, the owner, ran motorcycle tours and rentals from there. I had only planned to stay for a week, but when Jose learned that I was motorcycle teacher and tour leader, he asked me to stay and help with a big tour that was coming the next week. Sticking to my philosophy regarding take the unexpected path, I decided to stick around.
(Jose after another night of booze and girls)
The tour came and went, and I learned how business here in Guatemala aren’t exactly run like a well-oiled machine. Opportunity comes in many forms. For me, this was easy idea to help Jose bring his newly acquired business to a higher level.
Deciding to stay longer, I justified myself with staying here through the rain season. After all it made sense not to ride my motorcycle in Central America during that time. I worked at the hostel trying to incorporate improvements and helping with tours. I would discover more of Guatemala this way.
Change comes slow in Guatemala, and to my frustration, sometimes with resistance to doing things more efficient. After a few months of working and trying to bring viable improvements to the hostel and the motorcycle rental, I had to step away with efforts in vain. It’s not to say that improvements weren’t made, but just not to the level that it could have been.
(Jose, Harriet and Me)
About the time that I was ready to move on, another opportunity fell into my lap. I had been building my resume on Workaway.com, a website that networks volunteers with companies looking for help in exchange for room and board. There are thousands of hostels and other businesses on it worldwide. I sent my resume to OX Expeditions here in Antigua. A hostel and touring company that does hikes to the two active volcanoes here in Antigua. What initially started as a volunteer position at the hostel quickly turned into a paid position as a guide. For the next 6 months I would work as a guide taking groups up Volcan Acatenango, or Volcan Pacaya. The work was hard, but my fitness level became very good.
The volcanos are the main attraction here in Antigua. It is the hub for backpackers and tourist. Everyday shuttles and busses pickup and drop-off backpackers. They all have that "deer in the headlights" look as the wander the streets with their maps looking for their hostel. Volcan Acatenango is the most popular tour because it gets you very close to Volcan Fuego, the most active volcano in Central America. It spits out Strombolian eruptions every 20 minutes or so, and every once in awhile has Pilinian eruptions that last for hours or days. The climb up Acatenango to see Fuego is very difficult, and yet no matter how you try to tell people how hard it is, and that if you do not exercise on a regular basis, you should not attempt it, people still do. I call these people sandbags because it’s like pulling a wet sandbag up the mountain.
(Did you expect anything less?)
(60 year old champ at 14,000 feet!)
Volcan Pacaya happens to be my favorite and that’s where I did most of my tours. Pacaya is the most dangerous volcano in Central America. It has Strobolian eruptions. Much smaller that Fuego, and when it does have a Pilinian eruption, they are huge with massive lava flows and giant ash clouds. In 2010 Pacaya rained 20cm’s ash on Guatemala City and closed the airport for 4 days. But the reason Pacaya is my favorite is because of the beautiful landscape created by this volcano. Acatenango is like walking on the moon when and if you make it to the top, but Pacaya is like walking on Mars. The terrain and rock features are amazing, and if you camp at night there, you’re usually in for a spectacular lava show as Pacaya spits up burst of lava like a fireworks show throughout the night.
Time went on and life started to become somewhat of a normalcy. Although life in Guatemala in anything but normal. There is a certain freedom here that you cannot experience in the United States. The people here truly are free, and they have little rules and enforcement. Unless you are doing direct harm to someone else the police don’t really have anything to do.
(My Friend Matt visiting from the USA)
(Tolga from "The Ride Must go On"
(A couple from Switzerland riding around the world on WR250R's!)
Guatemala can be hard to digest as an American. Life is organized chaos. Antigua is a modern city, yet 5 minutes outside the city people still collect firewood to cook. Extreme poverty (by US standards) is everywhere. Government and infrastructure are in shambles. You never know what street is going to be closed due to construction. You see things that just make no sense. Trucks driving at night going 20kph with no lights on a high speed road, or Chicken Buses loaded to the hill with more lights than an alien spacecraft going 80kph down a narrow street spewing black smoke out its tail. When you say WTF? ; The response is a shoulder shrug and “Guatemala”. Things here aren’t repaired they are “Chapused” which is another way of saying “Jerry Rigged”, an improvised temporary fix that’s permanent.
(No interpretation needed!)
(Marlon from Mototours)
(Dinner with friends)
(Kite festival outside of Antigua)
But, Guatemala has is charms. It’s really a love/hate relationship. The wildness, the landscapes, the people, and the chapuses are what make Guatemala charming. Antigua itself is easy living for the expatriate. There are more restaurants in Antigua than any other place in Guatemala. I’ve made many friends here Guatamateca and gringo alike. I have found a home here in Guatemala, and I shall return.