Dearest Guatemala, you’ve already stolen my heart. While you revealed your eclectic landscapes to me through the small oval window of a Boeing jet, I instantly felt myself falling for you. As we approached the land mass of Mexico from the open expanse of endless turquoise ocean, I was taken aback by the unending jungle below. It was as if the ocean had never ended, but merely changed colours from blue, to green. Edging closer and closer to Guatemala, the land began to change as the seemingly undulating green mass of jungle morphed into rolling hills with scattered farms scarring their humps. The humps soon soared higher, breaking into mountains as we closed in on the massive Ciudad de Guatemala. The city was enormous and sprawling, covering the land in all directions on hills, mountains, and valleys- covering every inch with its creeping edges, with several monstrous volcanoes setting the backdrop, one of them spewing smoke form it’s crater.
As the plane glided in, arcing first left and then dipping right to carve through the mountains for our final descent, I was taken by surprise as the plane landed in the heart of downtown. The high rises of downtown flashed by my window in a blur at an alarmingly close proximity. I peered excitedly out of my little oval as we taxied to our gate. There was a high cement wall around the airport, with a chain link fence atop it. Children were scattered along the fence, fingers slipped through the links in a tight grip as they looked on excitedly at the massive jets landing in their home.
Deboarding and getting through customs and baggage was an absolute breeze. I was asked no questions, waited about 10 minutes in lines, and didn’t need my bags searched. I was worried that, not having a return flight booked, I would be asked to show some more documentation about my trip, but luckily I cruised through the whole process. The airport was easy to find my way through and I immediately saw a stand for a shuttle to Antigua for $10 – perfect. I ended up meeting a girl at this booth who happened to be going to the same hostel as me. As the shuttle pulled out of the airport, I chatted with a fellow Canadian who had also just quit his job and planned to travel for the next 6 months through Central America, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand. The girl I had met at the shuttle booth also happened to be a TESOL teacher and a writer working on a novel. I was overcome with a sudden and intense feeling that I was in exactly the right place in the world at that moment. In my first half hour in Guatemala on this journey of mine, I met two people whose lives were so parallel to my own already.
The drive to Antigua was captivating. It was highly reminiscent of driving through the back mountain roads in Jamaica: the roads were narrow, winding and always, always climbing. There were no road rules like we have in Canada, but traffic moved with such fluidity it put ours to shame back home. Everyone was aggressive in their driving; yet I felt in the safest hands possible. If I had tried to drive here and keep up with the speed and flow of traffic I would have been in an accident immediately, I’m sure, but our driver handled the roads with such surety I think he could have done it with his eyes closed.
I could not drink in the sights fast enough as they whirred past me through the windows of the shuttle. Huge purple flowers were bursting from trees overhanging the highways. The land dipped and climbed on all sides, with houses perched precariously all over the rolling landscape. The sides of the tight two lane highway were lined with corrugated wavy tin sheets-sometimes as fence, but more often as the walls of shanty houses- an unending line bordering the road from Guatemala City all the way to Antigua. Garbage was scattered almost as abundantly as the flowers. We climbed and climbed and climbed and I had to keep yawning to pop my ears to adjust to the altitude. After about 40 minutes we finally crested and began the descent into the town of Antigua. I looked out ahead of me and gasped. The impending mass of Volcan Agua loomed impressively before me, appearing as if out nowhere. I was amazed at how suddenly it appeared and how regal and grandiose she stood before me- as if proudly standing guard over the city.
As we pulled into Antigua I was mesmerized by the colonial antiquity of this stunning gem of a city. The cobblestone roads made our driver, who previously sped manically on the highway, slow to a careful crawl as we bumped along. Nearly all of the buildings in the city were only one story, and all of them were connected in huge city blocks, their walls alternating between shades of faded blue, rust red and bright yellow. I knew instantly getting lost in Antigua would be very easy; the buildings all looked identical in their colours and shape, the streets an indistinguishable maze. I began to pick out land marks to help me keep my bearings – the volcano to the north, the large yellow cathedral to the south. The streets were littered with a scattering of historical ruins, remnants of earthquakes that desecrated the city in the past, that you could see once in a while standing high above the rest of the squat architecture.
Our hostel was literally ‘a hole in the wall’ as they call it. A small sign on a long yellow wall read “Hotel Place To Stay” next to a tiny closed wooden door in the wall. We rang the bell and were let in. There was a bit of a mix up with our reservations- he told us he was full. This was a little upsetting seeing as how I had booked and paid a deposit online to secure a private room. The girl I was with, Angelina, was supposed to arrive two days earlier, so her room had been given away even though she had it booked for 3 nights. He said he did have one room with three beds he could give us at a discounted price since there had been an error in booking. This worked out perfectly for everyone, and me and my new roomie were shown to our room with profuse apologies from Roul, the keeper. He gave us a quick tour of the quaint little hostel. It was modest and simple, but adorable with a nice little outdoor walled in terrace, 4 cats, and a massive and incredibly chilled out bunny rabbit as permanent residents. We settled in and decided we would venture across the street to the market, which was conveniently situated a mere block away.
The market – where to begin. It was both incredible and overwhelming. We walked up and down aisle after aisle of mostly outdoor stalls, our eyes wide as they tried to see everything all at once. It felt like being in a dollar store the size of Costco, but with far more variety. Everything you could possibly think of was being sold there. DVDs and video games, snow cones and slushies, toys and candy, toothbrushes and knives, cotton candy and pizza, empanadas and tortillas, clothes of all varieties, knick knacks and purses, shoes and paintings…and the fruit. OH the FRUIT! Stand after stand scattered between the plethora of other goods – a stark contrast of bright colourful heaven stacked upon itself- vines of purple grapes ready to burst, bright orange mango slices in bags, steaming roasted plantains, ruby red tomatoes and fresh, lusciously ripe green avocados, just to name a few. Needless to say, I was in absolute heaven, practically wiping drool from the corners of my mouth as I yearned to taste it all.
Aside from the bountiful wares, the people in the market were just as fascinating. The women would confidently snake their way through the swell of people with a large heavy load of their wares wrapped in fabrics upon their heads as motorcycles whirred past them; their traditional dresses, a colourful array of woven thick fabrics in intricate patterns, swishing about their legs. Many of them would be sitting with their children in the main alley of the market with their fruits and vegetables spread before them, sometimes nursing a baby or yelling after a running child one second, while telling you prices and weighing out your vegetables the next.
While I wondered around, my gaze was stolen by an older man, surely pushing 70, wearing a bright purple shirt, a black vest, black faded jeans and an oversized cowboy hat. His weathered face was lit up by a brilliant smile as he said “Buenos Dias” and tipped his hat to me when I walked past. You would see these wonderfully dressed men everywhere, starkly contrasted by the younger men who dress in a modern western style of t shirts and jeans, leather jackets and spiked hair.
Feeling the effects of the sun, we grabbed ourselves a pina fresa slushie to cool down in the wonderful heat and then walked for a good two hours exploring the market and side streets before ending up in a park and finally deciding on something to eat. I tried my first street food – I can’t even tell you what it was called, other than it was messy and delicious. It had a crispy fried tortilla with a blanket of lettuce atop it piled high with pickled red cabbage, carrots, some kind of white powdery queso, a meat and vegetable mash, topped with a salsa- yum!
Wandering back to our hostel was surprisingly easy and I was proud of myself for having kept my bearings the whole time and got us back without any wrong turns. We were both exhausted from each only having a total of 5 hours sleep in the last two days, so we settled in for a siesta. I was rudely awoken to the garish howls of someone in the hostel screaming at the superbowl game on the television. Damn. I though leaving Canada would save me from the superbowl craze, but I was mistaken. The yelling was beyond obnoxious; with a deep southern American drawl, this man hooted and hollered at the tv like he was in a rodeo. I finally gave up getting anymore sleep and decided to get up.
But then I had a moment of anxiety. I wanted my roommate to wake up and come with me. I was suddenly scared of venturing off into the nightlife of our hostel as I hadn’t met anyone else yet. I sat paralyzed with this anxiety for an hour or so reading my book, listening to the wild roar of that American just outside our door. Finally I forced myself to get up and join them, as much as I didn’t want to be watching American football in Guatemala. I shyly watched with everyone for a while, and then to my relief, Angelina came out- I knew she would be hungry, so we headed off back to the market hoping it would still be open, but unfortunately it was closed down for the night. Instead we found a fast food joint called Pollo Campero that had pizza which she had been craving all day. We ordered a large, for four dollars. Four dollars! We grabbed a few more snacks at a stand and headed back to the hostel.
We sat around the big table outside on the terrace with all the other travellers and began easily chatting, my anxiety at last melting away. The vibe indoors by the tv was not fitting with me, but this vibe outside was. I chatted with a beautiful girl from Italy who looked over a map of Italy proudly with me and suggested where I should go, when I visit in the fall, naming places in her startlingly beautiful accent which left me swooning to hear her say more. I spoke with Kerri, a girl from Wisconsin, the heart of the American Midwest, and we chatted for hours about travel and how important it is to us, how it’s changed us forever already. Another traveler struck chords on a guitar, another lit up a joint, and the conversations mixed in and faded out of each other as the night wore on.
As we all sat around chatting, we were interrupted by sudden intense blasts that sounded like gunshots- but were of course only fire works. They kept going off at an alarming rate, so we all ran to see what was happening. Right outside of the front door of our hostel was a large group of people and a huge blue cart holding an intricate statue of the virgin Mary with an inscription that read “Reina de la luz” (Queen of the light). The fire works continued and increased in intensity. They began lighting whole boxes that would shoot off one after the other. Then they lit a cord hanging down from a bunch of connected fireworks that was strung across the alleyway and they all lit up, sparkling like mad all at once, snapping and crackling, setting the whole alley alight with their brilliance. I was warmed by their heat in the cool evening, smiling ear to ear as they sputtered out. We all clapped excitedly and were told the best was yet to come. They pulled a blanket over a young mans head and set atop his shoulders a curved cage that had a bull head at the front of it. This cage was lined with an staggering amount of fireworks and sparklers of every assortment. It was set alight and the man took off running down the alley zigging and zagging as the array of fireworks blasted loudly from all sides of the cage hitting the walls of the alley and firing straight up into the air, leaving us hostel stayers squealing with delight, and gasping with fright as their sparks showered down on us. He must have run up and down the alley 4 times before the vast collection of fireworks finally exhausted itself.
The whole spectacle left me breathless. Of all the streets, of all the nights, this just happened to be right outside our front door – as if it were just for us. The locals were crowded around as eagerly as we were, the ceremony obviously of a deeper religious meaning to them, than just as an unexpected light show for us. I felt so fortunate to have been witness to such a beautiful and exciting demonstration. I went back inside to the terrace once it was over and sat down with the other travellers, talking excitedly, buzzing from the high of the night, about what an amazing and unexpected experience it was.
And this was all in only my first day. Stole my heart indeed Guatemala.