“Why would anyone want to go to Guatemala?” I asked myself as I sat in front of my laptop in Costa Rica’s Cafe Milagro. I had been in the country for a month and wanted to get out and explore the rest of Central America. The usual suspects? Nicaragua. Nah, another time. Panama. Been there earlier in the year. Heard Bocas Del Toro is nice, but Costa Rica has plenty of beaches. El Salvador. Delicious pupusas, but possibly too dangerous. Honduras. I hear the ruins in Copan are beautiful and that there’s amazing diving in Utila, but it’s also the murder capital of Central America. Belize. Yes, but the ticket is a bit expensive. Guatemala. Hmm, always heard it was a bit dangerous. But, $187 round trip? Worth the risk.
So, I proceeded to plan my trip to Guatemala in a day. Even if the trip ended up not being all that great, at least I would’ve checked it out and not wasted too much money. I started to make my rounds on the usual travel sites: Expert Vagabond, Nomadic Matt, Snarky Nomad, Gadling and a few others. Dangerous caves and a 400 meter landbridge in Lanquin? Check. Ruins in Tikal? Check. A volcano or two near Antigua? Check. Dark-skinned (Garifuna) people in Livingston? Check. As I began to put my itinerary together, I was taken aback by all this country had to offer. How had I not heard about this before?
A week later, I hopped on a plane and arrived in Guatemala City. The airport wasn’t too hectic, and it was simple enough for me to take out money. Not wanting to waste any time, I grabbed a taxi headed to the Monja Blanca station. Before leaving the airport, I asked someone how much a taxi should be. “Seventy Quetzales,” she said.
I walked out and an older man asked me if I needed a taxi. “Si, setenta (seventy) Quetzales a Monja Blanca,” I said. He nonchalantly said, “Ochenta (Eighty).” Not wanting to be one taken for the fool, I said, “No, setenta.” All of a sudden, he stopped walking and assumed this soul-piercing stare. “Es ochenta,” he said firmly.
In the world of sales, either you’re selling someone on “Yes,” or they’re selling you on “No.” After that stare, I was sold.
My taxi driver asked me if it was my first time in Guatemala. “Si. Pero es un poquito peligroso, no?” He quickly scoffed at my question and said that Guatemala has some of the kindest people and most beautiful lands in Central America. Kind people and beautiful lands? I’ve traveled to dozens countries and literally never heard anyone ever discuss Guatemala. I chalked his talk up to self-serving propaganda and nodded along as he told me that “everywhere in the world has the potential to be dangerous, depending on where you go.”
We drove past Central American city streets that, by now, had become familiar to me. Concrete buildings, fast-food restaurants, a beautiful piece of art here and there, graffiti and the perpetual modern installation of traffic. “Como se llama?” he asked. “Mateo,” I replied. “Estoy Angel. Mucho gusto, Mateo.” “Angel,” I smiled and repeated to myself, remarking on the fact that the first person I met in the country was an angel. Maybe things aren’t as bad as the media makes it out to be?
“Travel well,” Angel said and I exited his cab. I entered the Monja Blanca bus station, which more closely resembled a run-down post office somewhere in the States. A man called me over to his desk; I purchased my ticket and took a seat. Eventually, someone came in screaming for all 11am passengers, and I hopped on a bus headed to Coban, a town two hours from my destination of Lanquin.
The initial trip to Coban was about four hours. I had heard that, in Guatemala, four, five, and even ten-hour bus trips were the norm if you wanted to see the country. And, with a mix of reading Letters to a Young Poet and intermittent bouts of sleep, the four-hour trip flew by!
Once in Coban, a man kindly pointed me in the direction of the second bus I’d have to catch. It was about a ten-minute walk. So, I started on my way. After a few minutes, I looked behind me and took in the beauty of the little town I was in. Majority of the shops had hand-painted signs, some of the buildings were painted in various pastels and I heard people laughing in the street. Being a product of the millennial generation, I (of course) grabbed my phone to snap a shot. Almost immediately, I heard, “Take one here!” It was a group of five young guys standing in front of a shop.
“Quieres para mi sacar un foto?” I asked in my broken Spanish. “Si,” they nodded. So, I proceeded to take my Nikon out of my bag and snap photos of them in front of the shop, then of a few of them on a motorcycle outside. Then, strangely enough, of one of them behind the store window holding a leather boot (did they hear about the mannequin challenge?). A man with a broom in his hand started to laugh at the boys posing, so I also took some photos of him. We all exchanged information and I headed out to catch my bus.
But, at this point, I was a bit emboldened from those guys asking me to take their photos. So, I started to ask others – old men, women standing in front of shops, dogs (they can’t really say no, right?) etc. – if I could take their photos. And, they said yes!
Young guys having some fun in Coban
The sun was beginning to set, so I headed towards the bus station. The bus station I was looking for, “Martinez Transportation”, was closed. So, I asked around and a woman pointed to a sign that said, “Parada de autobuses.” I stood there, asked if that was where the bus to Lanquin was, and a woman said, “No, it’s around the corner.” I walked around the corner, and then another woman told me it was around the other corner; the original place I had been standing.
It seemed like I was going nowhere fast, so I went back around the corner (if this is confusing to you, imagine what it was like for me) and asked in the simplest Spanish if I should stand there and wait for the bus. A woman said, “Yes, but early tomorrow morning.” The last bus to Lanquin had left fifteen minutes ago. Now what? I wanted to be in Lanquin that evening so that I could go on an early tour to Semuc Champey.
Metalworker in Coban catching me shooting him
I checked my phone. A 13 hour walk. Yeah, right. But, I figured that if I walked in the direction of the town, I’d be able to get a taxi. I quickly found one, but he told me it’d be $80. Hell no. I kept walking and took a breath. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but panicking never helped me before, so I wasn’t going to start then. I looked up and saw a man on the roof of a store with a mask cutting metal. The sparks flew off the blade like they were trying to frantically escape it. He caught me looking and we exchanged nods. I pressed on.
Another taxi eventually stopped for me, and I was a bit more “New York” with him. “You’re taking me to Lanquin… now,” I said. It was a younger guy, so I felt a bit bad for getting slightly aggressive, but I needed to get to this town and it was getting dark. “Okay, 400 quetzales (approx. $53).” “No, es demasiado caro. 300.” He proceeded to call his boss. “No, es 400. Lo siento.” “Okay,” I said, a bit desperate now. I got in the car and we waited for ten minutes. “Que tal?” I asked. “Mi jefe es preocupado. Tenemos un otra conductor para ti.” “Another driver?” I asked, confused now. “Si, el viaje es un poquito peligroso.” “Esta bien.” I said. After a few minutes, another driver came. One who was less youthful and a little more rough-looking.
We exchanged salutations and were off. It was pitch black now and the road was extremely bumpy. The car curved around hillsides (that had no guardrails) and I began to sweat a bit. “It’s expensive?” He asked in broken English. “What is?” I replied. “A ticket to the United States.” I wanted to tell him that “expensive” is a relative term, but I doubted he would have entertained my lame attempt at waxing philosophical. “Um, it can be.” I said. “Are there jobs?” he asked. “Yeah, depending on what you want to do.” “I can do anything!” he shouted while looking back at me.
It was only getting darker and the roads weren’t getting any smoother. “Look at the road and stop thinking about the States!” I wanted to scream, but didn’t. “I’m very smart,” he added with a smile that showed a piano-colored set of teeth; alternating patterns of black holes and teeth that were somewhat white. “I can tell,” I said, wanting to do anything to make sure we didn’t crash, or that he didn’t decide to try and get his airfare off of me.
I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I was willing and ready to tussle at any moment if he decided to try something – embarrassed because I thought the worst of someone whom I didn’t even know.
“This place is very far,” he said. We were almost there, and I didn’t know what saying that would do now. Maybe he was just talking out loud because he had to drive back, even though I was almost sure I heard him talking to a girlfriend on the phone who was located in or near the town we were going to. Twenty minutes later, we arrived. He told me I had to find my hostel. “Can you just drive me there?” I asked. “No, I need to go,” he replied. He was definitely talking to his girlfriend on the phone before. “No, we’ve already come this far (I was hoping we’d crossed some sort of friendship boundary over the past two hours), we’re almost there! A little further, mi amigo.” “Esta bien,” he said.
I knew that the hostel was out in the middle of nowhere, and he confirmed as much. We stopped in the middle of the small town and he rolled down his window to ask a shopkeeper where the hostel was. Without responding to us, the shopkeeper walked into the light of the nearest streetlamp and whistled a loud and distinct tune. A few seconds later, a teenager came running down the street. “Zephyr hostel?” he said once he saw me in the back of the car. “Yes,” I replied. “Great, follow me.”
Mateo Askaripour is a writer who quit his flashy job in NYC to live life on his own terms. He’s done everything from working at an orphanage in Nairobi to building a new university in Abu Dhabi to sleeping on volcanoes in Guatemala. And right now, he’s working to get an agent for his book. Regardless of where he is, he’s always working. To keep up with him, follow him on Instagram & Twitter at @AskMateo and read one of his elaborate stories at www.SwagPapi.com
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