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Guatemala Part Three: Highlands around Antigua

Day 13: 25 December 2015

Pacaya Volcano or Shit happens!

That morning I met some other friends from Frankfurt, Clara and Reinhard just arrived in Guatemala – just a coincidence, no arrangements. After the breakfast Clara joined Anja, Manuel and me on our tour to the Pacaya Volcano, which began at 2 pm that afternoon.

Pacaya Volcano is pretty much on every tourist plan visiting Antigua. Again, we had no difficulties booking this tour. Every tour shop in town offers it, all of them offer the same: shuttle transfer with hotel pickup + an english speaking guide. The entrance fee for the trek is to be payed on site.

All of us were anticipating a very special experience of seeing glowing lava. We were told, that one can even grill marshmallows on lava. So I grabbed a pack of them on my way to the trek.

Our guide met us at the entrance of the park. To our common confusion he was speaking Spanish! But we didn’t really discuss much, as we could understand the most of his talk anyway. But I got kind of a strange feeling.

After an hour of steep claimbing we were finally at the volcano slopes. The sun was going down. What a gorgeous view it was! We could see the other three volcanoes  in a row – Agua, Acatenango and Fuego. Fuego was even smoking. There were wind generators lower in the valley. Apparently the active volcanoes create special thermic conditions, providing this generators with constant wind.

The recent eruption of Pacaya was 5 years ago, so the slopes are pretty much cooled off now. Of course the guy selling us the tour didn’t mentioned that. But apparently there are still a few spots with open lava. Alas we were not the lucky ones to see them. Our guide said “It’s a different trek!” Just like that! He made us climb over an hour that bloody volcano to see a couple of grey steamy slopes. I got mad! I didn’t hesitate to express my disappointment. Unfortunately none of the group said a word, thus I couldn’t make him change the trek. The part of the group started already descending by this time. I was bitching around for the rest of the ride home. The guide was instead pissed, that he didn’t get a tip! What a brazenness!

If you ask me about the value for the money, I’ll answer “I got ZERO for what I payed!” A nice sunset is not a volcano experience I booked, and the most important is that they wasted my time and my opportunity.

The whole system is constructed so that tourists has no chance but to pay no matter what. Once you book a tour (any tour at any shop in Antigua or whole Guatemala) you pay the whole services in advance.

That’s why our guide didn’t seem like he would care much of the customer satisfaction. Why would he? He’ll get payed anyway, he collected our vouchers before the tour started. I’m sure he doesn’t even know, who was the one selling us the tour. So the sellers and the executive staff are two independent parties, that actually don’t care about the quality assurance of the service.

In fact I got back to Antigua and talked about the problem we had at various shops. You can’t nail either one of them, none of parties is guilty, none of parties is responsible, the gringo should have asked more detailed questions, the gringo knows everything better. This voucher system is pretty much common in many countries, however I’ve never faced such a lack of care or responsibility as in Guatemala. There is neither collective nor individual sense of service quality.

I would be happy to ask many more questions, if they could speak any english! The questions I managed with my poor Spanish were answered with a smile and a “Si”. Looking back I have the feeling, they will sell you whatever you want, irrespective if they have it or not. You can’t expect something like consultancy or a recommendation on their own initiative. You get what you ask, and nothing more. I guess it is a mentality issue, which might have his roots back in the history of Spanish conquest.

The same frustration about a tour we had a day after with a personal driver. I’m not gonna get into details here, but within 10 days in Guatemala we booked 3 tours, all of them failed to bring up any satisfying service. I kept asking other travellers I met on my way about their experiences in Guatemala. Unfortunately they confirmed my position and opinion.

This kind of service issue is unfortunately not mentioned in any guide book, if you make a deep research, you may  find a few bloggers writing about it. I guess the average tourist is not very demanding, giving the system a good basis for its continious existence. In my eyes it is an unsustainable strategy for a country with tourism being its main income source. Apparently the business goes OK for now, I assume the stream of the tourist seems to bring enough income. I ask myself “For how long?”.

Day 14: 26 December 2015

The Rural Guatemala

The countryside around Antigua is really beautiful. The villages scattered around in the valley and on mountains are easy to reach. You can make a stop every 30 minutes and discover lots of scenic views and interesting insights in indigenous communities. The rural experience in Guatemala was for me a true highlight!

That day we took a private shuttle to explore few villages north of Antigua: San Felipe Jesus, Jocotenango, Pastores and San Andres Itzápa. It was 5 of us. I would actually prefer a chicken bus, but my travel companions were wishing more comfort, so I agreed. All of those villages had their own special element. Pastores for instance seemed to be specialised in boots. Obviously I couldn’t resist the temptation and got a pair of handmade boots.

Nice to meet you, Maximón!

The most memorable and fascinating village was San Andrés Itzapa. This is one of the villages in Guatemala where the locals worship the smoking wicked Saint San Simón or also called Maximón. People come alone or with their families to ask him for help and protection, offering him alcohol, cigarettes, clothes and other stuff. They stand in the line in the church and wait for their turn to approach Maximón. After they talk to him it is time to bring offerings. The candles they burn are of different colors. Each color stands for a certain kind of request (health, family, wealth, etc..) Apparently this unusual Saint has an impressive track record judging on the credits and acknowledgements on the walls of the church.

We witnessed some offering rituals right at the church court. There were multiple altars on the ground, where people together with a Shaman were proceeding their rituals. They were burning eggs, herbs, candles, corn and other offerings. The Shamans were spelling some not hispanic spells, the other participants followed his guidance and threw offerings into the fire. All that was so not christian and mind-blowing.

I’ve never seen a monotheist religion that close to pagan tradition. Vatican would actually forbid all that activities, but as we found out later, it has not much of influence in many other mayan communities in Guatemala as well as in Mexico.

Day 15: 27 December 2015

Adios Guatemala!

This was my last day in Guatemala – arrived in Panajachel on the Lake Atitlan. I was still frustrated from the negative experiences in Antigua on one hand, and had heartwarming memories of my rural adventures in highlands on the other hand.

Panajachel is a transport hub, ugly and touristic as hell. We choose this place for our convenience to travel to San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico on next morning. I strongly recommend to avoid Panajachel, if you wish to experience the true tranquility and the beauty of the Lake Atitlan. There are a bunch of other villages, which have much nicer atmosphere, are less commercialised and touristy, and of course, more economic.

I didn’t spend this day at the lake, but finally made it to Chichicastenango. Reinhard, Clara and me got the first best chicken bus heading toward north. In a bit longer than an hour we reached Chichi, it was sometime after 2pm.

Surprisingly we couldn’t see many tourists at one of the most famous touristic markets in Guatemala. By arriving in the afternoon we escaped the main stream: the tourist busses from Antigua arrive in Chichi early in the morning and leave the market sometime in early afternoon. Thus we were rewarded by a very authentic experience because we choose to go there on our own.

Learning #5: Avoid any products of mass tourism! To explore the real Guatemala one should go on his own.

The market was really beautiful, very colourful and less expensive as in Antigua. I enjoyed strolling there very much and got many souvenirs for me and my family. And again, the churches captured my attention. Built on ancient mayan temples they represent the mayan-christian symbiosis.

There were about 10-12 saint figures in the church, all of them with christian names but in mayan costumes: colourful clothing decorated with feathers and crowns. There were altars for offerings on the floor in front of each Saint, the Shamans were sitting next to them and waiting for clientele. People are not allowed to take photos there, I managed somehow to make 1-2 shots. Indeed a very unusual place! This kind of places are not rare in here. Mayan spirituality and Christian religion are interwoven here in Yucatan in a very fascinating way. Vatican turns a blind eye to this whole spiritual mix. Apparently this is a product of a long process after the spanish conquest and in a way a compromise for the both mayan communities and the catholic church.


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