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I entered Guatemala through the Mexico border and took a bus to Guatemala City. Crossing the border is an intimidating experience – people freely walk across both sides, so anyone can pretend to be anybody and there are no defined gates to separate the two countries. Upon arriving at the El Dorado bus station in Guatemala City, the adventure began. El Dorado is a traditional bus station with basic amenities, such as an ATM, washroom, currency exchange, Spanish newspapers, and a homely restaurant filling the air with delicious smells.
There is a bustling street scene outside with plenty of people walking around, and it is easy to catch a cab. While riding around the city, you will see police guards standing on random street corners with large shotguns in their hands. Other than that, Guatemala City operates like any other major city with plenty of corner stores, street markets, hotels, public bus stops, and locals just going about their average day.
The ‘old school’ vintage chicken buses at the El Dorado bus station have colorful exterior designs and hard seats on the inside. They fill up with people very quickly while stopping at crowded bus stops throughout the city. The fare depends on where and how far you want to go. Luckily, there is a bus to Antigua and the surrounding suburbs.
Antigua is a popular resort town where you will see many foreigners enjoying brightly-colored colonial buildings and cobblestone streets as well as locals trying to sell you everything under the sun. I boarded the chicken bus at the beginning of the route and was charged 20 Quetzales before taking off. The money collector would step out and scream, “Antigua!” “Antigua!” “Antigua!” at each major bus stop while people waited in crowds to fill the bus.
The moment you step off the bus in Antigua a bunch of people will bombard you with touristy offers, such as exclusive Spanish classes, 2-star hotels, hostels, cab rides, etc. If you stop to talk and walk with these thirsty guys, you will be trapped. They will grab your hand and urge you to follow them, which seems very intimidating at first if you are not used to it, but stand your ground without being rude and kindly decline. They will continue to ask and you should continue to decline.
I ended up taking a tour of the Spanish school/hotel. I made up my mind to leave when they showed me a chart outlining thirty to a couple hundred dollars to take Spanish classes for several days, depending on the class length. Luckily, the guy handed me a map with directions on how to get to my hotel, Posada La Merced, so I did not need to take a cab.
The hotel room was very clean, but small, and the normal price was fifty dollars per night. I felt a bohemian vibe throughout the hotel, which was covered with indigenous paintings, artifacts, carvings, and designs. Moreover, a lot of Americans were staying there and the staff was very friendly.
Walking around the city was a very interesting experience for me. There were groups of Americans led by a tour guide snapping pictures of the beautiful architecture. And the corner stores sell everything you need – the best snack to buy is black beans in a can with corn tortillas. Very delicious!
While walking down the street, people will try to sell you everything under the sun. I do not know if they were attracted to me because I am a young African-American male, but I was a bit surprised when people bombarded me with offers from everything to clothing and drugs. The energy is not disrespectful, but it was very intrusive and extremely desperate. I ignored the offers. I did, however, buy a bracelet from a guy who made it on the spot with my name sewn in and some bags of fruit from a couple of indigenous women. I suggest that you wash off the fruit thoroughly with bottled water and then dry it off with a piece of tissue or napkin. I felt a bit weird after I ate the fruit that I did not wash. Not sick or dizzy, just weird. I think it was because of the foreign bacteria.
Upon arriving back at the El Dorado bus station from Antigua, I booked a ticket on a VIP bus to Santa Elena. The VIP bus did not have a VIP interior, but there are amenities such as reclining seats, plenty of legroom, and snacks.
Upon entering Santa Elena/Flores, Lake Peten Itza looked very calm and relaxing, a total contrast to Guatemala City. There was an African-American female who left a comment on one of my YouTube videos stating that she spent a week in Santa Elena and absolutely loved it. People were very nice and polite, and she even met a guy for a romantic rendezvous. However, when I got there, a guy in an unmarked taxi told me that I should not stay in Santa Elena because the town is boring. After reading her comment, I wish I had stayed there.
From Santa Elena, you can catch a six passenger van to Tikal or the border of Belize. I went to the border city, Melchor De Menos. When I arrived, I didn’t know we were at the border at first and I was sitting in the van looking clueless until everyone got out and other passengers got in.
The town is no different from any other border town, very basic, and confusing if you do not know Spanish. If you walk a couple of blocks north on the main street, you will eventually find seven dollar a night hotel rooms that have dead mosquitoes in the sink, a filthy shower, a wooden bed, and a hard mattress. After leaving, you can walk south on the main street and turn left to find the border. You will see other people heading that way as well.
There are several reports about immigration officials asking visitors for money to complete the process of leaving the country or get an exit stamp. I was not asked. However, upon entering the Guatemala/Mexico border, I was asked for 10 Quetzales and I gladly obliged. So, I think those requests depend on the immigration officer and how you look, so make sure to dress down (like you have little money) and remain nonchalant when you decide to cross that border.
Overall, Guatemala was a nice place that I would visit again. However, one thing I did not like was being overcharged for stuff. As an American, people will sometimes overcharge you compared to their native counterparts, so expect that. Understand that there are poor parts of Guatemala, so people will literally hound you and ask for money sometimes. Stay aware of that. Will I return again? Yes, I would.
Find out more on my YouTube channel MultiStreetsSmarts or type in “Black in Guatemala”.