In reaching Guatemala, we officially reached our first real border crossing (Mexico didn’t really count as they simply just waive to you as you drive in to Baja.) and everything went very smooth for the most part. The whole ordeal took under and hour and the only idiots we had to deal with were ourselves.
Never really knowing what to expect but always kind of expecting to be taken advantage of we approached the border thinking we had everything in order. To leave we needed our exit stamp from Mexico in our passports, the money back from our visas and proof that we were leaving with the car we came in with. To enter we needed our passports, title to the car, and money to pay the visa fee. The money part is where we went wrong, we forgot one little step, checking to see the exchange rate for the currency in the country we were entering vs. the currency in the country we were leaving.
We looked to exchange money before crossing the border, but were told that the only place was at the border itself. So we proceeded to the “between zone” where you have officially left one country, but are not quite accepted in to the next. The first thing they did is spray our car down with chemicals in which they asked for money. We told him we needed to exchange our money first. He immediately called over one of the many guys hanging around with the fanny packs on to exchange our money, telling us that this was our only option. Of course this automatically set off our scam radar and we refused to exchange with him.
We told him we would come back and pay and the guys didn’t put up much of a fight letting us move on as they knew we couldn’t actually go anywhere else until they lifted the gate for us. Determined we were not going to fall in to the scam and exchange money with these fannypack guys, we made a big deal out of avoiding them and tried to exchange at the bank and then the customs office and so on.
“You have to use the guys out there”, they all said.
“Well, what’s the exchange rate then?”
“Oh, we don’t know”
“Oh well of course, why would you… you only work at the border?”
Thinking this is all one big scam and they probably all share a portion of the money they make at the end of the day, but left with no other choice, we decided we will just exchange what we need to get across and then go to a bank in the border town for the rest. Having no basis for bargaining power, without previous research on exchange rate, we had to accept what they gave us. So we exchanged and moved on, but not without letting them know we weren’t happy about it. Once in Guatemala we sought out the closest two banks only to find out they were offering less than at the border and that those guys were actually offering today’s rate. Haha.
We drove our jackass-selves the mile or so back to the border and exchanged the rest of our money with our assumed “fannypack-scammers”. The lessons learned…
- look up exchange rates before you get to a border so you know what you should get
- not all people who work at borders are trying to take advantage of you… but most ;)
Now safely in Guatemala we made a b-line for the town of San Pedro on Lago Atitlan only four hours away. It was a beautiful drive and halfway through it and literally in the middle of my first comment on how nice the roads were in Guatemala we approached this…
There was a road around it, but it seemed to mark the beginning of the adventurous roads to come. We were now navigating our way through the Guatemalan highlands, which lie around 10,000ft+ and then within the last 10 miles making our way down to Lago Atitlan which lies around 5,000ft. Lucky for us, once we hit the winding narrow road down, it started pouring rain!
In San Pedro for merely a minute and we see one of our new Aussie friends. He saved us from performing our own homework, and immediately gave us the location for the cheapest hotel rooms in town. There were four hotels lined up in the same alley and we essentially asked the first three about pricing and chose the cheapest one for the night.
UGH! This was our grossest accommodations yet and the dark, dank bathroom was the worst of it. The bathroom consisted of a concrete cell with nothing more than a toilet and shower head that constantly dripped on you when you were on the toilet. No sink and no light…the latter of which was probably a blessing.
Exhausted from the day of traveling we passed out that evening on our rock hard bed only to be woken up a couple times that night by our drunken neighbor banging around. Come 5:00am, the day greeted us with the unrelenting, loud, obnoxious beeping of our drunk neighbors alarm clock who was most likely too passed out to hear it in combination with the overwhelming smell of sewage emitting from our bathroom. Jed was up and out of there quickly. I tried to hold out a little bit longer as I’m not quite chipper at 5:00am, but about 5:30 it was too much. Holding my pee, so as not to have to venture in to the depths of the bathroom, I dressed and went to go find Jed only making a minute stop to angrily bang my fist on the neighbors door.
We made breakfast that morning in our camper and talked about how we had grown to hate it when we have to get a hotel room. We would much rather be in our camper in our own bed!
But thinking we had no other choice and wanting to shower we checked in to the fourth hotel in the alley by 8am that morning. This one was way nicer and just as cheap. Guess it’s best to thoroughly check all your options before committing.
We went in search of spanish schools later that morning. San Pedro is littered with them! We had previously received a tip from fellow travelers a couple months ahead of us on their own Pan-Am journey about the school they went to and enjoyed, Corazon Maya. And even though I just talked about checking all your options first, we felt like we weren’t going to get a better deal than this. The wonderful little family that owned the school agreed to let us park our car inside the gate and camp in it for only 100Q ($12.50) a week. They had a semi-warm shower, bathrooms that were cleaned every day, private access to the lake, a great garden with tons of fruit trees, a friendly staff, and wireless internet that reached our camper . Oh, and the school seemed good too. Perfect! We were in! School starts tommorow!
With our only mission of the day done by 10am, we went back to our hotel and spent the rest of the rainy day hanging out with the Aussies and their other friends who were traveling through. It was a fun and interesting day. Bottoms up!
Jed and I opted to take our classes in the afternoons from 2-6pm when it was more likely to rain, and to keep our sunny mornings free for exploring the area. The area of Lago Atitlan is adorned by tall lush volcanoes surrounding a beautiful deep lake which in itself is a sunken volcano reaching a depth of 340m. Little towns, like San Pedro, are sporadically perched along the shore rising steep into the hills like little amphitheatures to the lake, the area’s source of life.
Jed had spent a little time here before about 8 yrs ago, but when we first arrived he wasn’t even sure this was the place he was before. We later learned from our spanish teachers that 2010 was very strange year for weather including 4 days of consistent hard rain that brought the level of the lake way up, driving families from their homes. (Just 4 Days!) The rain was followed by long hot dry weather that produced the perfect conditions for these long weed like plants to take over the lake floor close to shore. Apparently there was even a month during that year that the water from the lake was too full of bacteria to use. The Mayan inhabitants in this area use this water for everything including washing themselves, their dishes and their clothes, in which, lies part of the problem; the detergents and soaps they now use are full of chemicals. There seems to be a little push in the area to do better and my teacher said that they are aware of the problem, but unfortunately the cost of natural soaps is more than most can afford.
After all said, the lake and surrounding area is still spectacularly beautiful and we enjoyed spending our mornings running on the trails in the mountains, kayaking in the lake or simply walking through the town on the cobblestone streets.
This was a wonderful place for us to spend our first anniversary on June 11th! Although, previously not really realizing the exact day, we had planned this as one of our 8 hour lesson days. Oops! But hey, we’re celebrating every day at this point. We did add some special touches to the day though; Jed picked me a colorful bouquet of flowers in the morning while I made him french toast. We splurged that night and took ourselves out to a fancy dinner in the “gringolandia” part of town. The meals were amazingly good, reminiscent of a fancy restaurant I worked in in the past, and we each had rum shakes with fresh fruit to drink. The best part, our total came out to about $15.
Our favorite part of the town was of course the market. Every morning the stalls were packed full of fresh fruits and vegetables for sale for cheap. And feeling pretty sick of tacos at this point we were ecstatic when we found that at lunch time these ladies showed up with pots of home cooked food. Jed was especially excited about the deep fried chicken!
En los tardes, Jed y Yo vamos a la escuela. Nosotros nos gusta las maestras y nosotros aprendemos mucho, pero hablamos mucho Spanglish ahora! Necisitas mas escuela in futuro!
(In the afternoons, Jed and I went to school. We liked our teachers and we learned a lot, but now we speak a lot of Spanglish. We need more school in the future!)- loosely translated.
Spanish school was great and we did learn a lot, but there is still soo much more to know! We plan to keep studying.
Our classes were one on one, and probably the best part was just getting to know our teachers and talking to them for four hours every day. We came to think of school as essentially paying for friends… or rather someone who is forced to sit there and listen to you stutter and stammer your way through sentences!
We got to learn a lot about San Pedro and the Mayan culture from our teachers. It is a very machismo culture and although the town of San Pedro is apparently fairly progressive compared to many other areas in the country, men still very much rule the roost.
However, in my opinion, the place would completely fall apart if the women someday revolted. The women wake up at daybreak to cook tortillas and breakfast for the men so they can eat fresh food before work, this is usually followed by working a job themselves, cleaning their clothes and the man’s by hand, cleaning the house and making the rest of the meals that day. The men pretty much work and then do whatever they want. There is a huge drinking problem among the men in this country as well, while women are not even allowed to drink except for maybe a small glass of wine on special occasions.
One of my favorite things about the school we attended is that it was founded by a woman, whose sole purpose of the school is to educate local girls. Women in this country are often pulled out of school at an early age because they are needed to work in the house and their families can’t afford for them to go to school any more. Part of the money we paid for classes goes solelytowards the school/education for these local little girls. It definitely made me feel good!
The group of girls would come to school almost every day and we made friends with some of them. One afternoon I was sitting in the camper on the computer and someone hopped in. Assuming it was Jed, I didn’t even turn to look until this little voice started talking to me in spanish. I was surprised to find this young Mayan girl standing there. Two other girls hopped right in after her. The three of them were very intrigued by the camper and had decided they would simply check it out. I was friendly with them and let them look around at our stuff and play with some of our things. This was fun for a bit, but an hour and a half later I was a little overwhelmed and Jed had disappeared on some “urgent” errand. When I turned around to find one girl with my mascara all over her face I drew the line… okay, not really. I lied and said Jed and I had to leave right NOW to go to a restaurant (I know- lame, but it was the only thing I could think of to say in Spanish).
In addition to my mention of the machismo culture and the support for women’s education, I do want to mention that not all the men around here carry on the “king of the world” attitude. We met some really wonderful guys as well, who have moved on with the times and very much respect all the women in their lives. In fact my teacher invited Jed and I on a hike this past Saturday with her and her husband up the volcano through the land that he works everyday. We had a great time with them and they seem to have a very loving, respectful relationship. The land that he worked, harvesting coffee, fruit and corn, straight up the side of the volcano was also very impressive!
All in all, San Pedro and the spanish school was a great experience for us. We feel more able to communicate now and are ready to move along and study on our own for a bit. However, in just the two weeks we have spent here we have come to feel at home in this little town and are a little reluctant to leave it. There is a wonderful, safe and friendly community here and we have very much enjoyed getting to know it. We even have a cat and dog that adopted us at our school that we now have to say goodbye to.