On our second morning in Guatemala we enjoyed breakfast at our hotel, Barceló Guatemala City, before boarding the bus for a full day of sight-seeing. We began with a windshield tour of Guatemala City. Our guide, Tony, took us to several different areas of the city, called zones, so we could get an idea of how many Guatemalans live.
Just like any urban jungle, Guatemala City has wealthy neighborhoods and run-down slums. There’s also a lot of history there, and it seemed like with every new block Tony was showing us a statue or a square commemorating some sort of major historical milestone.
We drove through one particular gated community where many foreign ambassadors live (we weren’t allowed to take photos there), and then five minutes later we drove by one of the most infamous ghettos in the area, a shanty town built inside a deep fault line left after the earth split open during an earthquake centuries ago.
Tony said that most areas are generally safe for tourists, but that the more dangerous zones are run by gang members and drug dealers who will extort the residents. I think this type of violence is part of what gives Guatemala a bad name, but it’s really no different than New York City or Chicago. There are safe areas, and then there are less safe areas. The tourist districts, akin to Times Square, are not in the dangerous zones.
After a quick detour to McDonald’s for a potty break, or what Tony would call a “biological stop” for the rest of the trip, we hit the road for Panajachel. On the way we took a break to eat lunch at a charming roadside restaurant called Restaurante La Cabaña de Don Robert. If you’re ever on the road between Guatemala City and Panajachel and need a place to eat, this place cannot be beat. The food was great and it felt like we were eating in a secret garden oasis. I enjoyed some authentic guacamole along with homemade nachos and my new favorite Guatemalan beer, Gallo.
I was initially concerned I wouldn’t be able to find anything to eat in Guatemala because I have the palette of a five-year-old, but at almost every place we stopped I found the food to be delicious and familiar. Tony quickly discovered I love a good spicy salsa, so everywhere we went he made sure the waiters brought me some. This is another perk of using Gate 1. The tour guides are simply fantastic. Tony spoke great English, had the patience of a saint, and always did everything he could to make sure his “sheep,” as he called us, were well taken care of. It’s like he was born to be a shepherd!
Tony actually lived in Boston for several years, and four of the people on our trip were from Boston. It was apparently after a trip to Plymouth to see the Mayflower replica that he realized he wanted to work in the tourism industry.
Anyway, we did finally arrive at Panajachel and Lake Atitlan. To get to the city we had to drive down some winding switchback roads, which offered us a stunning view of the lake below. I was truly awestruck. It was only our second day in the country but I felt like I might have found my new favorite place in the world. There were volcanoes on the horizon and mountain peaks aplenty, and even though the view was obscured by smoke from nearby forest fires, I couldn’t get enough.
We drove down into the city and checked into our hotel, Porta Hotel del Lago. Another benefit of traveling with Gate 1 is you know the accommodations will be top notch. All of the hotels we stayed at were beautiful and comfortable and located in the heart of each city (except for our hotel at Rio Dulce, which I’ll talk about later).
We had a few hours of free time to roam the nearby street market where many Mayan people were selling their colorful, handmade textiles and trinkets. As someone who has travelled extensively in Europe and been to her fair share of markets, I can tell you this street market was special. It took a great deal of self control for me to not buy everything in sight. I knew we still had the great market of Chichicastenango in our future, so I was trying to save myself.
We walked up to the town’s church, which was less than a mile away. A baptism was being held, so I stayed outside while Dad and Jan went inside. I was wearing shorts and a tank top and it didn’t feel appropriate for me to interrupt the ceremony. On the way there we saw one of Guatemala’s most infamous modes of transportation: the Chicken Bus (Pollero in Spanish). These are old American school buses that are purchased for cheap and then refurbished to be used as mass transit. They’re chromed out and repainted and they zip around the countryside like hell on wheels.
I was also particularly fond of the incredible number of stray dogs roaming the streets. Many of them are well taken care of by the locals, but I still felt a pang of sadness knowing they didn’t have families of their own.
We wandered for a while and grabbed a beer at a tiny local bar before heading back to the hotel to meet the rest of the group for our Gate 1 welcome dinner…just one of many amazing meals.