25.09.2005 - 15.06.2006
Finally, at long last, we did actually leave and flew to Guatemala City without a problem. We had made a hotel reservation in Antigua, our only advance reservation, aside from the Spanish School in Xela, and we went directly there from the airport. Guate City is big, dirty, dangerous, and best avoided if possible. Antigua, only 45 minutes away, is the opposite. It is relatively clean, safe and charming, though arguably the most touristy spot in Guatemala. We spent the first couple of days walking around and getting used to speaking Spanish again. Our initial plan was to spend just a few a few days here, and then to go on to Xela, several hours north, to study Spanish for a month. However at the end of the week, the road to Xela remained closed because of "derrumbes" (mudslides), and so we decided to stay in Antigua and study here instead. Both Xela and Antigua are full of high quality, well organized schools, as well as private teachers. The difference is that Xela, or Quezaltenango, is bigger and much less touristy, so you more or less have to speak Spanish. It is also colder, at 7500 feet, (2300m), compared to Antigua at 5000. The days in both cities are usually warm, but the nights in Xela can be quite chilly, especially in winter. There are many guide books that describe both cities in detail so I won't do so here. Suffice it say, that Antigua is the old Spanish capital, full of authentic colonial buildings, some in disrepair, some renovated.
It is small, about 50,000, and surrounded by lush, green, 14,000 feet (4200m) volcanoes, some of which are still active. It also has a lively night life with many bars and restaurants. Not surprisingly, it is also one of the most expensive places in Guatemala, though still cheap by US or Euro standards.
We began by apartment hunting and school shopping. Many of the schools have websites and are listed in the Lonely Planet. Often the schools will let you sit in on some classes for free, but the most important thing is your particular teacher, so make sure you have a lesson with her (and it usually is a her), before making up your mind. Schools are often a good source of information about rooms and apartments, although most also offer the opportunity to stay with a family. This is a good, cheap option, but usually the accomodations are very basic, and some families are much more simpatico than others. The cost for individual instruction is anywhere from $80 to $120 US for 4-5 hours daily. The instruction in our school, Ixchel, was excellent, but there were few extracurricular activities, the administrative staff not particularly welcoming, and they did not treat their teachers particularly well. Nevertheless after a month we learned a great deal and met several interesting people. Most, though not all, were younger Europeans and Australians, long term travelers like us. Traveling is a great age leveler, and one of the pleasures was being able to spend time with folks much younger than ourselves, who treated us like peers despite the fact that we went to sleep much earlier than they did.
Rather than renting a completely separate apartment, we ended up in a large room in a colonial house, with a shared kitchen($350 a month). What sold us was the large, 2nd story inner courtyard, a fantastic place to sit and hang, with views of the buildings and volcanoes around town. Also a regular apartment would have been more money, anywhere from $400-700.
Our typical day consisted of getting up around 7, making a quick breakfast in the communal kitchen, and then attending classes from 8-12 or 1. We would then walk back in a leisurely way, perhaps stopping off at Dona Luisa's bakery to buy banana bread. We might also go to the large, open air market to pick up fruit and vegetables for lunch or dinner. We ate a lot of "pinas" (pineapples) @2 for 5 quetzals, or about 30 cents a piece. The market was a great place to practice our Spanish, not to mention our bargaining skills. We could often wile away several hours going from one stall to another, buying string beans, tomatoes, potatoes, or whatever happened to be in season. We usually passed on the non-refrigerated meat, buzzing with flies. Most of the stalls were run by indigenous women, clothes as colorful as the veggies they sold. Near the market there were also several inexpensive restaurants, often with a Menu del Dia, always a bargain. The trick was to find places clean enough so that we didn't get sick from the food, and so we got several names from our teachers. For all its tourists, the market is an authentic place, as are other parts of the city.
After lunch we would rest for a while, do some homework, and sit on the courtyard talking with other students or travelers.
Perhaps we would go for another walk around town and check the internet, have a beer, etc. As restaurants could be expensive, most of the time we cooked dinner, and brought it up to the courtyard to watch the sun set over the volcanoes.
There were 10 or 15 other people staying at the house, but most did not use the kitchen at the same time. Two young German girls were especially engaging. They were volunteering at Camino Seguro. This project, started by a woman from Maine, was set up to help kids and families who lived off the largest garbage dump in Guatemala City. There was a school which provided meals for kids and families right near the dump, and for older kids there was training for work in the tourist trade. The German girls(18 and 19), were spending 6 weeks there. They stayed in Antigua because it was just too dangerous to stay near the dump, and so each day, they had to take the chicken bus an hour each way. I found them to be remarkably self-reliant and mature, much more so than most US kids who had just graduated high school. We often ate dinner together and discussed their work at the project and their own families. They were only the first of the many young, European women we met, traveling on their own, often solo, sometimes to very dicey places.
At one point we considered volunteering at Camino Seguro, but the prospect of riding on the crowded bus two hours a day was enough to dissuade us. We also considered volunteering to help the flood victims. Antigua was in relatively good shape, but many of the nearby villages had been inundated by mud and water. We talked to several other people who had spent time digging out homes, but the work seemed so physically demanding that we didn't know how we could manage it and study Spanish at the same time.