Antigua, Guatemala – Trying Hard for Tourist Dollars

Gulf of Tehuantepec, Mexico, blows a

A "Tehuantepecker" blows at 50 knots.

Gulf of Tehuantepec, Mexico, is calm

On another day and in a better mood.

Crossing the Gulf of Tehuantepec, Mexico

We make our crossing in dead calm.

Navy check-in at Puerto Chiapas, Mexico.

A cute pooch waits to sniff the next boat.

Antigua, Guatemala Antigua, Guatemala Antigua, Guatemala Cathedral at Antigua, Guatemala

Colonial architecture and ornamentation is Antigua's


Cobblestone streets in Antigua, Guatemala Cobblestone Streets in Antigua, Guatemala

Pretty cobblestone streets get much needed repair.

Arch in Antigua, Guatemala Bell tower in Antigua, Guatemala Cobblestone streets in Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua is nestled in the mountains.

Mayans sell colorful weavings in Antigua, Guatemala

Mayans sell colorful weavings in front of a

church ruin.

Motorbikes are the best form of transportation in Antigua, Guatemala

The most popular form of transportation is small


McDonalds in Antigua, Guatemala

"McDonalds is my kind of place..."

McDonalds in Antigua, Guatemala

" kind of happy place."

Cathedral ruins in Antigua, Guatemala Cathedral in Antigua, Guatemala Porsche parked in front of cathedral in Antigua, Guatemala

A sleek Porsche sets up the view of the cathedral.

Church grounds in Antigua, Guatemala Tuk-tuk driving in Antigua, Guatemala Horse drawn buggy in Antigua, Guatemala

The town lives for tourists.

Cathedral in Antigua, Guatemala Horse drawn carriage in Antigua, Guatemala Pan flute street performer in Antigua, Guatemala Antigua, Guatemala Hand made chocolates in Antigua, Guatemala

Handmade chocolate bars.

Steel door barricades a building in Antigua, Guatemala

Steel doors with viewing windows

protect the inhabitants inside.

Open air market in Antigua, Guatemala

The open air market.

Street musicians in Antigua, Guatemala

Musicians set up street-side.

Mayans in Antigua, Guatemala Bike shop in Antigua, Guatemala

A bike shop where we picked up a pair of

awesome Guatemala jerseys.

Antique bike display in Antigua, Guatemala

A display of antique bikes.

Mayan woman displays weavings in Antigua, Guatemala Painted schoolbus in Antigua, Guatemala

Painted schoolbus that tourists are advised to avoid.

Bike race in Antigua, Guatemala

Our bus back to Mexico weaves through a bicycle race.

Antigua, Guatemala

Late February, 2012 - We returned to Huatulco from our inspiring days in Oaxaca, and focused our thoughts on crossing the

dreaded Gulf of Tehuantepec, a 250 mile stretch of coast between Huatulco and Puerto Chiapas that is prone to horrific storms

affectionately nicknamed "Tehuantepeckers."  During these vicious blows the wind howls from the north in the Gulf of Mexico,

then crosses Mexico's narrow isthmus and finally accelerates to gale force once it hits the Pacific on the south side.

The trick to crossing this gulf is timing, as the Tehuantepec blows and calms down at regular intervals all winter long.  Armed

with today's sophisticated weather forecasting and a bit of patience, it is not too hard to find a good time to make the jump.  The

conventional wisdom is to wait for a three-day window of calm weather.  We were lucky and got six.

Since the crossing takes a typical cruising boat anywhere from 32 to 48

hours, this allowed us plenty of time.  Cruisers are advised to follow the

coastline with "one foot on the beach" (very close to shore) in case all

hell breaks loose unexpectedly, but we shot nearly straight across the

gulf in 36 hours of flat calm water and still air.  We arrived at the brand

new Marina Chiapas rested and smiling.

We were now just 16 miles from the Guatemalan border, and the

check-in process included a boarding by four members of the Navy

and a cabin check by a drug-sniffing dog.  The dog arrived with booties

on his feet so he wouldn't scratch up the boat.  Very polite.

This marina is a great place to leave the boat for inland

explorations, and after a few days we packed our

backpacks and took an 8 hour bus ride to Antigua,

Guatemala.  The distance isn't that far, but the bus

probably averaged 30 mph at best, as the roads were

twisty and there were lots of "topes," or speed bumps,

plus we made lots of stops.

The most important

stop was at the

Guatemalan border

where we all shuffled

off the bus, checked

out of Mexico,

walked across the border, and then checked into Guatemala.  In the distance we saw people

crossing the river that defines the border, wading waist deep in water from one side to the

other, perhaps in an effort to avoid all the official border crossing paperwork.  The border

area was chaotic with vendors filing the streets and money changers approaching us

constantly with wads of Mexican pesos and Guatemalan Quetzales clutched in their fists.

Our bus conductor shuttled us through the mayhem and we re-boarded our bus on the other

side, suddenly conscious that we were no longer in the familiar land of Mexico.

As the bus climbed and descended the mountainous terrain, we

crossed endless streams and rivers where women were

washing their families' clothes on the rocks.  As the day wore

on and the washing was finished, each river we crossed was

strewn with clothes lying on the rocks to dry.  We passed men walking alongside oxen and horses

carrying heavy loads, and we saw vast fields of sugar cane stretching into the distance.

Well after dark the road widened and the lights grew thick as we

approached Guatemala City.  Suddenly our world was transformed

from extreme rural poverty to the glittering glitz and glam of new

wealth.  Our fast, wide, multi-lane highway carried us at top speed

between flashy new buildings, and we watched in awe as all the

chain stores we have ever known flew past our window.  The bus

station was deep downtown, however, and our driver had to slow to

a crawl and creep around sharp turns on narrow colonial streets

between crumbling antique buildings.  We got stuck at one turn

where a parked car made it impossible for the bus to get around the corner without damaging

something.  The driver hopped out, enlisted the help of a nearby cop and, to cheers from the

passengers, bent a large metal street sign back to allow the bus to pass without getting too

scraped up.

Once at the terminal, our bus conductor helped us negotiate a taxi ride

to Antigua, and soon we were being whisked along those same decrepit

inner city streets in a cab.  At a red light the driver reached over and

manually locked each of the four doors of the cab.  Mark and I

exchanged a look of surprise as we both us silently acknowledged that

we were truly in a new country.

Quetzales are currently about 7.7 to the US dollar, and I began

thinking about quick ways to handle this new exchange rate in

my head.  I calculated and recalculated the gas prices I saw

posted at the gas stations, stunned by the prices.  Gas was

nearly $5 per gallon, a far cry from the $3.30 or so that was

typical in Mexico.  After about 45 minutes we arrived in Antigua.

It was around 7:30 pm, and we were surprised to find the

streets nearly empty.  We had to ring the doorbell next to the

sturdy steel front door of our hotel to be let in.  After dropping

off our bags in our room, we asked for suggestions of where to

get a bite to eat.

The hotel manager shrugged noncommittally and suggested we'd find something

within a few blocks.  We took off into the night and walked a star pattern around our

hotel.  The only people we saw on the streets were a handful of loud gringo tourists.  It

took a good bit of walking before we found a restaurant that was open.  A single gringo

patron was at the bar drinking a beer.  The waitress was sullen.  We ate in silence in a

room full of empty tables.  Where the heck was everybody?  The tab for two beers and

a small plate of french fries came to over $10.  This was definitely not Mexico.

By day the mood

improved slightly.

Brilliant sunshine

filled the streets

and we found them

peopled with tall

gringos speaking

English in various

accents and tiny

Mayans selling woven textiles.  The

architecture was wonderfully decorative

and old, and the narrow streets were all

cobbled, many in need of repair.

Antigua is known for its immersion

Spanish schools, and we had come hoping to take a week or two of classes

while living with a Guatemalan family during our stay.  Apparently that was

why most other people were in town as well.  There is a Spanish school on

every corner and several more on every street in between.  There must be a

hundred Spanish language schools in this small town.

The teaching method is tutorial, and the price is generally $100 per week for

4 hours a day of tutorial work and $90 per week for a home stay that includes

meals with the family.  All over town we saw pairs of people walking, sitting,

pointing and talking.  Each pair was made up of one Guatemalan teacher and

one gringo student actively engaged in Spanish tutorials.  Many solitary

gringos carried books around town, and students could be spotted

everywhere crouched over homework, their dictionaries, textbooks and

notebooks spread out on bistro tables next to their cups of coffee.

We took photos freely, trying to get the warm

and fuzzies for this odd place.  After an hour

or so, however, Mark commented that he felt

really uncomfortable wearing his camera and wouldn't bring it out

again on our explorations around town.  He found it attracted way

too much attention -- people were staring at it.

One of the best things we found in Antigua was its amazing

McDonald's, definitely the prettiest one we have ever seen anywhere.

It has a beautiful outdoor seating area with cushioned seats and sofas

(very popular for tutorial Spanish lessons).  Its delightful shaded patio

looks out onto a lush garden filled with flowers.  Ronald McDonald sits

on the park bench in the middle of the garden, his arms outstretched

on the back of the bench, inviting folks to take a seat and get a photo

with his iconic figure.

We stopped in and filled our

gringo tummies to the brim.

How awesome it was after

months of tacos to savor

one of the new Angus

burgers!  We sat back and

relaxed for a moment, until

Mark noticed that a little kid

had made his way into the

bushes next to us to within

arm's reach of our table and

was eyeing up my camera

in front of me.  "That kid is really interested in your

camera…" Mark commented.  I grabbed it and

put it in my backpack.  There was a creepiness

to this town that we were not accustomed to

feeling in Mexico.

The church ruins around town were lovely in a

way, but most had an air of abandonment.

Antigua is situated in a zone rich with

earthquakes, and each glorious cathedral and

church has been gutted repeatedly by

centuries of tremors and shakes.

The tourist map shows numbered streets that

are laid out with avenues in one direction and

streets in another.  The street signs, however,

harken back to an earlier era when the streets had names that weren't numbers.  So we felt our

way around town by becoming familiar with landmarks.  However, because all the streets look

somewhat alike, the best landmarks turned out to be the people that inhabited the streets.  Take

a left at the guy in the white shirt with no legs who lies on his back and holds out a tin cup (he's

on that corner everyday).  Take a right at the man in the dark blue jacket who's missing both a

foot and an arm and reaches his good hand towards you clutching a shiny Quetzal coin in hopes

that you'll give him another.

In stark contrast, parked a few feet from the old woman in the tattered shawl who was hunched

over her begging basket was a brand new Porsche with Guatemalan plates.  A few cars

down was a glistening BMW.  Big shiny Range Rovers were common.  Between these fancy

cars, over at one of the town's large public fountains, a line of women washed their families'

clothes in the outdoor pools under the

ancient church's stone arches.  Tiny

tuk-tuks zipped all over the place,

ferrying people on bumpy rides up

and down the matrix of streets.

On our third day, in an effort to get

comfortable in this rather inhospitable

town, we moved from one hotel to

another a few streets away.  We tried

to take one of these tuk-tuks so we

wouldn't have to carry our bags.

The hotel matron had told us not

to pay more than $1.50 for

the ride, but none of the

drivers would go that low,

and all drove off in disgust at

the idea of taking us a few

streets for less than $3.  We

walked instead and were

glad for the exercise.  In

Mexico, five mile taxi rides in

real cars were routinely just

$2 or so.  Our sticker shock

in Antigua just didn't stop.

We had narrowed down our

school choice to either the highly rated (and new)

Antigua Plaza or to tutorials and a home-stay with a woman who taught

independently and had been recommended by a fellow cruiser.  Both seemed

like they could be wonderful situations for improving our Spanish.  But in

discussing life in Antigua with the school director we were strongly advised not to

go out at night, not to carry more than a few dollars in our pockets at any time,

and never to show our cameras in public.  We were assured the school was safe

behind it's solid locked gate (and the outdoor setting for class tutorials in the

colorful garden was absolutely lovely), but the director confessed that she

preferred not to go out much herself.

An older woman walking her dog in a stroller caught our eye that afternoon and

we struck up a conversation.  She had lived in Antigua for as an ex-pat for 12

years.  "Don't go out at night," she suddenly said.  "Don't carry more than $10 in

your pocket.  And don't let anyone see your camera!"  Here was the same

unsolicited advice again!!  She explained that tourists and business people have

been targeted by "express-kidnappers" who zip up on a scooter

and either run the victim around town to ATMs to empty their bank

account, or strip them of their belongings at gun point.  A woman

who refused to give up her bag in a recent robbery in

Antigua had been shot in broad daylight.  "Things have

gotten really bad in the last six months," she told us.

Both of our hotels were barricaded by large doors that

were locked at all times.  Guests were not given keys to

these front doors but instead had to ring a doorbell to be let

in.  At night each hotel had a second steel door that

provided extra protection.  When you rang the bell the

manager slid open a small window and peered out at you

before letting you in.

Antigua seemed to wear a superficial veil of prettiness over

a dark inner core of of fear.

We looked for signs of normalcy around town, for people who lived and worked in

Antigua outside of the tourist trade.  We found few.  There were none of the typical

Mexican tienda convenience stores or fruit stands or grocery stores or hardware

stores or clothing stores or pharmacies that make a community livable.  A handful of tiny closet-sized stores sold

Budweiser-equivalent beer for $2 a can ($12 a six-pack) and expensive packaged snacks.  Spontaneous smiles from the

locals were almost nonexistent.

The only place that offered a feeling of

congeniality was the large open air market at one

end of town.  Here we saw imported fruits

(Washington apples) and local fruits and

vegetables of all kinds.  Heading into the large

tents at the back of the market we discovered

where American designer clothes end up once

they've been marked all the way down.  Racks

and racks of brand new clothes filled the back of

the tent.


occasionally dirty,

and a few still

showing their original

store tags, these brand new

designer label clothes were strung

up alongside used duds.  We were

amazed to be able to buy a brand

new pair of Levi jeans, tags and all,

for $4 and several pairs of new

name-brand shorts for even less.

The economics in Antigua baffled

us.  If the folks on the street had

seemed happy it would have been a

lot less unsettling.

We left Antigua after four days never having

gotten comfortable enough anywhere in town

to stay for a whole week of Spanish classes.

Other cruisers who had been to Antigua in

years past thought we were crazy not to have

fallen in love with the city, and other travelers

will surely have different experiences.  But for

us it was a place we were very glad to leave

behind.  Upon crossing the border back into

Mexico we both looked at each other and

laughed, saying, "Thank goodness we're back

in Mexico!"

The homes seemed better kept, there was a lot less trash on the roads, and

in no time we saw the happy grins and heard the exuberant laughter of the

locals that make Mexico so much fun.

Upon our return to Groovy in the marina at Puerto Chiapas, I researched the

travel advisories from the UK, Canada and the US to Guatemala, El Salvador

and Honduras to try to find out whether the scary vibe we felt in Antigua was justified.  I discovered the warnings to each of

those countries are not only severe but are expressed in a totally different tone than those to Mexico.  Even with the terrible

drug wars, the murder rate in Mexico in 2011 was 18 per 100,000, about the same as Atlanta.  In Guatemala it is 41, a little

higher than Detroit (34) but less than St. Louis (45) which is the highest in the US.  El Salvador's murder rate is 71 per 100,000

(the second highest in the world) while the rate in Honduras tops it, for first place, at a whopping 86.

Unlike Mexico where tourists have not historically been targeted by violent criminals (until

the recent bus robbery in Puerto Vallarta), tourists in these other countries have been

targeted along with business people because of their perceived wealth.  Although each

advisory was quick to point out that the vast majority of travelers never have any trouble,

they also helped us come to grips with the unnerving sense of danger that we felt while we

were there.  An El Salvadorian on the bus with us back to Mexico told us there had been 20

murders in his small village in the last two months.  Not mincing words for a moment he

said quite plainly, "El Salvador is a beautiful country, but I wouldn't recommend that you

travel inland there now."

We settled back into life in the brand new Marina Chiapas for a few days.  We were one of

just three boats staying there, as construction around the marina was still in full swing and a

dredge blocked the entrance to the marina.  Not sure which direction to head with Groovy,

we decided instead to take another inland tour, this time on the Mexican side of the border

through the intriguing Chiapas countryside  to the charming colonial city of San Cristobal

de las Casas.

Find Antigua on Mexico Maps.