“Welcome to Guatemala”
It’s a greeting, sure. But more often that phrase, when uttered by locals and expats is accompanied by an eye roll, usually in reaction to something that seems simple to execute but is anything but.
I’ve learned this after about a month and a half in this wild, beautiful, chaotic country.
Need to publish something? Ah, the internet is out right now. Like to take a shower? Hm, there won’t be water for four hours. Want to pick up your laundry? Turns out they closed early. Heading to your favorite cafe for lunch? They decided not to open at all. Looking to take a bus? It’s two hours late.
You get the idea.
But this is all just context for me explaining why for those of you who are postcard-level subscribers, your September dispatches will be arriving …from Pittsburgh.
As it turns out, you cannot mail anything from this country. Nothing at all. It’s not that it takes a long time or that its inefficient, it’s that there simply is no mail service anymore.
Arriving at that realization, however, required a bit of a wild goose chase, Guatemala style.
About a week ago, I purchased the postcards from a little shop on the main street here in Panajachel, Calle Santander. Yep, despite the fact that there is no mail service here, you can still purchase postcards.
Next up, a post office. A quick search on my phone showed the town Oficina de Correos was just off the main street. When I arrived at the location, however, I found only boarded up buildings and a small storefront. I went in the tienda and asked: is there a post office nearby?
No, not in Pana, one woman told me. “Solamente in Sololá,” a nearby town up the hill from the lake.
OK fine, I thought. I’m dedicated. So yesterday I made a plan to take a chicken bus — that is, a bus that transports both people and chickens — to Sololá to mail the cards. Just before I got on the bus, thankfully, I looked on my map to see where the post office was, and I couldn’t find one.
I texted one of my Guatemalan friends here, Pupas to ask where it was.
There is no post office in Sololá, he insisted. But “hay un correo en Pana.”
A few beats later, he responded: “Pienso que ya no existe,” I think it does not exist anymore.
Apparently a lot of Guatemalans don’t think about mail all that much.
So I asked a uniformed security guard. Yeah, he told me. Over on Calle Principal. I took the bait and made the walk. The the locale he described, there was indeed an office of sorts, but it had more the look of an empty warehouse. The woman walking around within looked surprised to see.
They had no stamps, and I couldn’t mail from there, she said. To go to an actual post office, she said, I would need to take a boat to San Pedro.
I’m still keeping the hope alive over here, so I searched for the San Pedro post office on my phone. Sure enough, it came up! — next to small, red lettering that read “permanently closed.”
It was time to go see Mike, expat owner of Pana’s Crossroads Cafe and explainer of all town oddities and happenings.
As I collapsed onto one of the wooden stools at the counter, I sighed.
“Riddle me this, Mike. Where can I find a post office?”
He glanced at me, stone-faced, while pouring my espresso.
“Well, its pointless to look for a post office,” he said. “Because there is no postal service.”
If you’re surprised, its possible you haven’t spend enough time in Guatemala.
Apparently, way back in 2016, the new government voted not to extend its contract with the mailing agency. Depending on who you ask, the new president didn’t want to bribe the right people or the workers went on strike and nothing came of it.
Either way, mail was abruptly stopped.
And more than two years later, it’s still non-existent, making Guatemala the only country in Central or South American without a postal service, and one of the only countries in the world to be without (although some countries have suspended international deliveries and others are massively inefficient).
Last year, the USPS smartly suspended its service to Guatemala too. Those letters weren’t going anywhere.
Yeah, and you thought Mexico was bad. Mexico is an efficient dream, comparatively.
There are other shipping options, such as FedEx and UPS, but they are extremely unaffordable. So in synopsis: you can expect your dispatches to be stamped from Pennsylvania.
Welcome to Guatemala: you won’t be getting any postcards from here.