Big, dirty and dangerous was Lonely Planets description of Guatemala City. Then, whilst researching how to get to the centre from the North bus station, I found this warning on good old Wikipedia.
I spent two days exploring the city before heading out to Lago de Atitlan, a volcano ringed lake, where I was expected for the second Workaway volunteer placement of my trip. Here’s what I saw…
Public phone boxes on every street corner
I’m not sure I saw a single phone box in El Salvador or Honduras. Everyone had a smart phone – it was particularly fun watching bus drivers texting on WhatsApp while wrestling the bus around mountainsides. Here you can call anywhere in the country for 25 centavos.
Silver faced jugglers
At several traffic lights (and there were many as nearly all streets are one way only and designed in a grid system) I saw middle-aged ladies, their faces painted bright silver but in normal clothes, juggling a few oranges, then sending their cute kid to hustle drivers for a few coins.
Literally everywhere there’s a shoe shiner with a wooden box of polish and rags sitting on a little stool, waiting for their next customer. Clearly there are a lot of highly polished shoes walking around the city.
A German bear
And a piece of the Berlin wall at Plaza Berlin, funded by the German embassy and with a great view of volcanoes when it’s not cloudy. I walked here along Avenida de las Americas, which every Sunday hosts Pasos y Pedales, when the road is closed to traffic and every city dweller who owns a dog turns out. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many different types of dogs. Plus a whole lot of ‘my dog is better thans yours’ and so many dog selfies…
Money changer street
I wasn’t sure what was happening here at first. I was rambling down what looked like a normal street in the historical centre and kept passing men or women sitting on little wooden stools right on the kerb gesticulating and shouting at passing cars. It was only when one shook a mini calculator at me and asked if I had any money to change that I caught on.
Coconuts in wheelbarrows
Lots of coconut water being hacked out of coconuts pushed around in wheelbarrows by scruffy men wielding large machetes.
A fabulous underground central market. The first section is crammed full of handicrafts, with loads of Guatemalan textiles. Ladies here wear intricately embroidered huipiles or blouses, and woven skirts in bright colours, matched with a faja or sash. Apparently the conquering Spanish insisted each Mayan tribe wore different coloured outfits to distinguish where they were from, a tradition that continues today. Tourist can buy pretty much anything made from the brightly coloured textiles with or without embroidery, from tablecloths to backpacks.
There is also a food section, with one corner given over to lunch stands where I discovered the national dish Tostadas. These are a base of crispy bright orange tortilla rounds, laden with a choice of toppings such as finely chopped onion, coriander and tomato, with lime, salsa and guacamole. Delicious!
Let’s go sexting! as one blog I read put it. Sixth Avenue (there are either streets or avenues in the city and pretty much all are numbered) is a pedestrian street, ten blocks long, crammed full of fast food joints, cheap and expensive clothing stores, a very nice bakery (yum), chain coffee shops and more. Being just a few blocks from my hostel I found myself walking up and down it more than once.
A modern bus system
Dire warnings in Lonely Planet about catching a local red bus – not unless you absolutely have to and you’re guaranteed to be robbed. Considering the sheer volume of these ancient little red buses plying the street with the conductor hanging out the door shouting the destination, I’m not sure of the probability of being robbed, but luckily there’s the wonderful Transurbano bright green buses that run the few necessary routes for sightseers. At each stop or raised platform, there’s turnstiles staffed by police, where you feed in a one quetzal coin and form an orderly queue. With route maps and clearly labelled stops, it was so easy to get around. I still did a lot of walking though!
A million McDonald’s
I really have never seen so many McDonald’s in one place. Along every street and around every corner there would one, if not three. Along with Tegucigalpa, Guatemala City is also a fan of the Postres (dessert only) McDs outlets.
Goats walking the streets.
Yes, seriously. Not once but twice a herd of goats and their shepherd/herder/minder (??) pushed past me on a busy inner city street. Apparently you can buy a fresh cup of warm goats milk if you wish.
Next stop – Lago de Atitlan a few hours north.