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.

Processed with VSCO with f2 preset

How to walk on cobblestones: 

Slowly. Or just, you know, pick your feet up. Like your mom always told you. Maybe don’t wear sandals much. Definitely not high heels. I saw an Instagram with a woman walking in Antigua in stilettos the other day and I thought to myself “such a nice look to die in.” I really thought I had it solved, and was quite proud of myself until last week, when I literally wiped out, face-first-on-the-ground style, in front of a packed tienda. Ego = firmly in check. 

How to prepare for the weather: 

Listen. The weather here changes faster and in more extreme ways than Britney Spears in the early 2000s. Bring everything you own in your backpack with you everywhere. You’ll need pants, shorts, a sweater, a tank top and a rain coat. Or just be sweating/freezing/wet/miserable in a 2-hour span. It’s up to you.

How to talk to people: 

Work on the language, know some Spanish, but beyond that, smile. Try. Be kind. Be genuine. This is not the United States; people here, for the most part, are incredibly friendly and welcoming to visitors from afar. They will be patient with and forgive your bad language skills. They will appreciate you making an effort. And when you hit a wall, Charades goes really far. 

How to use the restroom: 

Bring tissues. Bring wipes. Toilet paper, and for that matter, a toilet seat, are not givens. If you have neither, I have found the best method is this (for females, OK? If you’re a man, stop bragging already): 

  1. Rotate your backpack so it’s a a front pack. 
  2. Remove a tissue from the interior; use it to cover your nose while you squat. 
  3. Squat in a way so that you rest all of your upper body weight on your thighs; this way, you can almost be relaxed enough to eradicate urine. 
  4. When you’re done, use the tissue you’ve held over your nose. 
  5. Then, toss it in the trash can. There is definitely no tissue/tp flushing here. 

Processed with VSCO with f2 preset

How to eat: 

Eat at the street carts! At the markets! Just do it! I swear, they’re making the best food in the country. You can spend your money at the more expensive restaurants if you want (and listen, I get it, sometimes you need to), but honestly, the street food is good and cheap and you’re much less likely to be disappointed.

How to get a coffee at 6 a.m.: 

Make it yourself. There might some places that open that early …but I haven’t found them. If you are, for example, in Panajachel, it’s impossible. Most places don’t open until 8 or even 9 or 9:30. So invest in a good bag of beans and make sure you have a coffee-making device at your place. Or just sleep in every day until 8:45 and you will be all set.

BC2E03CC-0189-4A4D-89DE-84B1AAA4206C 2.JPG

How to take photos: 

If a person, especially a woman, is wearing traditional Mayan garb, always ask before taking their photo. Many Mayans are superstitious about having their photos taken because they believe it steals a part of their soul. Often, they will be less sensitive if you are a distance away, taking a shot of a scene — a street, the lake, etc. But even then …you may get cursed. If you’re taking a scene shot and the people in the general vicinity turn their heads away to hide them, that’s a good sign to wait until they pass or simply walk away yourself. Sometimes I’ve asked people for their photos and they’ve agreed for a small price. I’m completely on board with that; this way, we both get something out of the exchange. More times than not, I get a hard “no,” and I respect that too. Often, children are more amenable to photos and sometimes even ask me if they can mug for the camera. The younger generations seem more curious and less offended by photography. I always offer to show someone the photo I’ve taken of them. And if they want me to delete it, I delete it!  This is humanity folks!

How to take a shower: 

Maybe you are lucky enough to have a shower with hot water occasionally. If that’s the case, wow you are FANCY. Other times you may not be so lucky. Other times still, your shower may be outdoors. If that’s your situation, here is the proper protocol:

  1. Stop showering so much. Honestly, love ya, but it’s a first-world problem.
  2. Your showering times now revolve around the sun’s arch. Wait until its really sunny, and the sun is overhead, and then go for it. Cold showers are much less offensive when you’ve got the sun bearing down hot on you. If it doesn’t get sunny on the day you want to take a shower, see No. 1.
  3. Exercise your yoga breaths. Yeah, those classes were for more than just tough hip positions. Put that practice in use! 
  4. Limit your process. Two-in-one shampoo-conditioners are good. If you’re packing light, as I am, maybe that’s your “body wash” too. Showers are now a game of how-quickly-can-I-get-out-of-this-freezer. Treat them as such. 
  5. When you’re finally out of the freezer, go run into a sunny spot and stand there, glaring at the sun, wishing its warmth upon you. You might actually feel …refreshed and renewed… and grow to like this new routine. Or again, maybe just stop showering so much.


How to take a bath: 

It might be impossible. I’ll be honest, I’ve only encountered one bath tub on this journey, and it is outside. If that is the case, though, you’re in luck. If the place you’re at has a bathtub, it probably means they get hot water SOMETIME. And if you’re not used to hot water, and suddenly you have a warm bath to slip in, wow, that is true opulence. Maybe the hot water only comes on certain days. Mark those on your calendar. Or if it’s unexpected, when you find out there is hot water, just drop everything you’re doing and get in the tub, preferably with a glass of wine and a book. Oh, and if three other people have been in that warm bath before you? Well, you’re in Guatemala now. It’s time to adjust your standards.

How to work: 

Slowly. And with patience. Sometimes there will be WiFi and sometimes there won’t. Sometimes it will rain and WiFi in the city will go out. Sometimes you’ll be promised WiFi at a cafe, and you sit down, order a meal and coffee and the WiFi is only a theory. There’s a router, somewhere, but we haven’t turned it on in 3 months. Sometimes you’ll have WiFi but there will be insanely loud construction, fighting dogs/cats, screaming roosters, war-level-loud fireworks or a swarm of bugs. You get the idea. Slowly and with patience. 


How to drink: 

The beers of Guatemala, mainly, are Gallo, Cabro and Brahva, mostly. Moza, a darker beer is quite good when you can find it. And there are a handful of micro-breweries in the country, including Antigua Brewing, Antigua Cerveza and the new Kaalpul Artesanal Ales in Panajachel, which makes some delicious brew. There are also plenty of Mexican beers here and some imports such as Rogue, Brooklyn and Abita. Picositas — beers with spices and pickled shrimp — are muy popular. If you hear the word “cusha,”  proceed with caution — it’s the local version of moonshine and can knock you off your feet. Quetzalteca is a traditional liquor made from sugarcane — it’s also pretty dang strong. Rum abounds; start with the Zacapa. A handful of bars that make cocktails beyond mojitos and Margaritas really assist the drinking scene — if you’re Antigua, head directly to Ulew for a cocktail, then go get stuck in Cafe No Sé‘s mezcal bar. And if you’re somewhere near a dock, by god, go find a lakeside stand, grab a beer, walk the wooden planks until you can’t walk anymore and enjoy those gorgeous sunsets. 


How to mail things back: 

Don’t. You actually can’t. 

How to receive mail: 

Don’t. You can, but it’s unwise. A small package might cost the sender around $200 from the United States and the receiver an additional $100 to actually get it. Those are expensive rations, whatever the hell they are.


How to be smart: 

In Antigua, here are some of the steps I took to help ensure my safety. But many areas of Guatemala, contrary to reputation, are quite safe. When in doubt, find a casa with a dog. If you can make that dog love you (hint: feed it) and follow you around town, as Yuki at my casa does, you will never be scared.


How to love other street dogs: 

Easy. Especially around Lake Atitlán (with perhaps the exception of Santiago), the street dogs are loved, well fed and quite friendly. You may adopt one unknowingly simply by petting and talking to it.

Processed with VSCO with f2 preset

How to buy groceries: 

Go to the markets for your produce and perhaps, your fish. Everything will be so cheap there, you’ll be dancing home. You can find some more specialty items at the markets, too, depending on where you are — for example, in Antigua, you can purchase specialty pastas and sesame oil, among other things — but it may be necessary to visit a couple other stores to get what you need. Eggs, and sticks of butter, can be purchased by the piece in most places. Some tiendas — convenience stores — have hidden items in the back if you ask for them. Don’t forget that milk and a lot of other dairy is ultra pasteurized and therefore not refrigerated. And meat, you can buy at the markets, but as much of it is left on the counters, unchilled, you may feel more comfortable buying frozen or refrigerated meat at specialty spots. Ask around!


How to cook:

Do you have a shared kitchen? Great, here’s how to use it.

Processed with VSCO with f2 preset

How to clean your dishes:

The traditional method for cleaning dishes in Guatemala is on a pila — an outdoor stone and wood contraption used to ensure the clean, bleached water is used efficiently. Dirty dishes are washed on one side, on a stone plank with soap and sponges and rocks and rocks for scrubbing, using plastic bowls to splash the water from the center basin over the dishes to rinse them. The dry dishes go on the stone plank on the other end. That way, the water in the center basin remains clean and free of food and soap.


How to celebration Independence Day:

Pick a town, any town, Xela if you want the best party, but I wasn’t there so I can’t tell you much more. On the day before Sept. 15, Independence Day eve if you will, you’ll see groups of people, usually young people, running with lit torches and others, hanging off the outside of public chicken busses (aka, busses that transport both people and chickens). Watch your head; they are likely tossing buckets of water on unsuspecting pedestrians. On the 15th itself, plant yourself along the main drag, wherever it is in this town you’re in, get a coffee and some snacks and watch the long, festive line of parades and marching bands. Eat some street foods. Sip a picosita. Give some appreciation to the Guatemalan flag.

How to do errands:

Slowly. And with patience. Have you noticed “slowly and with patience” is a theme here? You’re catching on. Sometimes your lavandería (laundry service) will promise you your clothes at 5 and they won’t be ready ’til 7. Sometimes they’ll decide to close early and  you won’t be able to get them until the next day. Sometimes the store will be out of what you need. Sometimes the prices of internet data for your phone fluctuate wildly. You understand.


How to negotiate:

With confidence. The simple fact is, as a tourist you will pay more for some things. It’s understandable, to some degree, as our incomes are so much higher than those of the locals here. But some people will take that to an extreme and really look to take advantage of you. Ask around town to get an idea of what tourist prices should be for various services that might not have fares posted, such as boat rides, bus rides, street food, textile goods, etc. and if someone tries to extort you, threaten to go to the next vendor — the price will almost always drop.

How to sleep:

Have I mentioned it’s kind of loud here? Throughout the night, you’re likely to hear a symphony of dogs, roosters, fireworks and traffic. You’re going to need a plan. I used a portable white noise machine with an amplifying speaker, paired with the Calm app on my iPhone (Bedtime stories? Yes please.) and lavender oil. Oh, and depending on how much rain is coming down, you might want to invest in a mosquito net. 

How to live:

Fully, and in the moment. The pace slows down here. The priorities change. While it can take some getting used to as an American, the shift in reality can be really refreshing too. So take a deep breath and look around — at the mountains, the lush jungle foliage, the majestic lake, the beautifully dressed people, the brightly colored produce, the fat and happy street dogs. 

If you’ve lingered long enough to feel as though you resided here for a bit, count yourself lucky. After all, it’s a beautiful life.

2 thoughts on “How to live (or stay for an extended period of time) in Guatemala

  1. That was great stuff. I learned a lot and was entertained. I will never get sick of hearing about and seeing pictures of those dogs. Sounds like they have a pretty good life there and a lot of people get to enjoy them.

  2. Favorite line. “The weather here changes faster and in more extreme ways than Britney Spears in the early 2000’s.” I actually laughed out loud at that one. Not necessarily a good thing when you’re in the middle of an oh so quiet library! But I digress. Love your writing style Amelia. It really brings your many adventures to life. Thanks for the inclusion.

Leave a Reply