How to live (or stay for an extended period of time) in Guatemala

Well, part one in this beautiful country is coming to a close.

I’ll be back, of course, after a two-week hiatus in the States, and I’m excited to explore the Northeast side of Guatemala when I do. But since I’ve been here for two months now, I thought I’d reflect on some of what I’ve learned with this guide:

How to find somewhere to stay: 

There are plenty of hostels, of course, and some hotels, but I go with Airbnb. If you travel in the offseason, as I am now, it’s possible to negotiate for very good prices, especially if you stay for longer than a week. I typically pay about $10-13/ night to stay in very nice places, typically with shared bathrooms and kitchens (although I have also had my own bathroom, as I do now, for that price) and charming features all their own (such as a jungly outdoor bathtub). And if you want something very lux? It’s possible to have that for about $30 or $40/night. But seriously, lower your standards. You’re in Guatemala now.

How to walk around town: 

Slowly. The foot traffic moves extraordinarily slow here. The general pace of moving is extraordinarily slower here than it is in the U.S., and there is not a lot of — OK zero — walking etiquette, so if you’re a fast walker like me, you may find yourself in need of some walking zen. People may cut in front of you, stop abruptly in front of you, wave their arms in the air and whack you in the head; they’re not screwing with you, this is just how they walk.

The hilltops: Antigua’s less recognized gems

I was in Antigua, actively exploring, for two weeks before I discovered that Santo Domingo del Cerro (meaning Santo Domingo of the hill) even existed. 

Someone had off-handedly told me before I arrived that I should go to “the sculpture park.” After hearing nothing about it in town, after a few weeks I started searching online and found the location, although there was very little information and very few photos. Even Google Maps added to the confusion, suggesting it wasn’t possible to walk to the hilltop when I attempted to retrieve directions.

When I brought up the hilltop attraction to new friends that lived in the city — with the exception of my Airbnb host, who also worked as a tour guide —  I was met with vacant expressions. 

Santo Domingo del Cerro? What’s that? A couple people assumed I meant Cerro de la Cruz, the popular short hike up to an oft-Instagrammed lookout.

So upon making the ascent up one of the many hills that borders Antigua, I didn’t expect too much. A green lawn with a dozen or two sculptures, perhaps. And likely, a good view.

Instead, I was completely blown away by what ultimately became one of the highlights of my stay.

GALLERY: Antigua, Guatemala

Scenes from around Antigua, Guatemala, an astounding blend of old (magnificent churches, heritages traditions, crumbling ruins) and new (craft cocktails, modern art and design). Surrounded on all sides by volcanoes and hills, the views don’t stop. Read more on what Antigua has to offer in my city guide.

How to be sick in Guatemala in 22 steps

Let’s get one thing straight: This is not a guide telling you how to avoid sickness while in another country, bereft of our mothers and boyfriends and best friends and anyone else that will listen to us whine, because look at us, we’re already here.

Maybe we neglected to eat vegetables for two or three months. Maybe sensible sleep has been elusive due to spiny mattresses and bottom sheets that won’t stay on and stifling humidity and crowing roosters and 4 a.m. explosions. Maybe, last weekend, we decided to consume a bath tub full of mezcal and beer and then dance the Macarena on top of a bar.

The reasons aren’t important. 

The fact is, we’ve been holed up in this 20 x 10-foot room with no ceiling fan and no moms and no BiteSquad, hacking up one of our prized lungs and wilting faster than a dandelion in Death Valley for three days now. It’s time for a game plan for at least managing this thing.

Here we go.

GALLERY: Panajachel, Guatemala

Scenes from around Panajachel, Guatemala, one of many villages set on Lago de Atitlán, a  crater lake surrounded by mountains and volcanos, and referred to by many famous travelers as of the most beautiful views in the world.

Read more on Panajachel and its surrounding watery paradise, here.

Falling in love with Lago de Atitlán in Panajachel

A handful of tins held still-fresh flowers against the little makeshift houses. Some of the colorful, stacked mausoleums boasted new, glossy coats of paint. But now, as the sun dipped lower, the graveyard was empty except for swallows passing overhead, called by the approaching evening to the watery grasses beyond.

I walked past the dusty memorials, an above-ground maze set against the backdrop of the Sierra Madre mountain range, and down the sloping path that bordered it. 

Then there she was: the tremendous Lake Atitlán, always there but ever in a different state — often peaceful, often vengeful and sometimes, at sunset, impassioned.

I was on the edges of Panajachel, one of the many towns lucky enough to perch along Lago de Atitlán, a translucent crater lake surrounded by hills and volcanos in Guatemala’s highlands. 

The shores of the town, now a center for tourist trade, offer rows of lakeside restaurants, built predominantly for white faces and heavier wallets, jutting out over the cerulean water. A short boat ride away, magnificent castle-like resorts built into the cliffs are stocked with every luxury.

But the real beauty of Pana, as its called locally, is that the best its star attraction is free to anyone craving it — the wealthy tourist, the poorer local, even the dead, who are graciously permitted to continue in the afterlife atop the dirt, in sight of perhaps one of the world’s most enchanting views.