Dinner with new friends at Villa Esthella Hostal

Is it safe to travel in Guatemala?

When we announced that we were selling everything we owned, replacing our steady jobs with uncertain online income and going traveling through Mexico and Central America we were met with mixed responses. For the most part our families and friends were happy for us and maybe even a little jealous but there were also many comments of…”It’s not very safe in those countries.” or “Isn’t there a lot of crime?” or “I have a friend of a friend who was robbed and kidnapped down there.”

We knew that everyone was just concerned for us but it really is sad how the media only seems to want to report and sensationalize the bad things that happen in these countries and push aside the good. Of course there is crime here, these are developing countries with much poverty and often with corruption in government which doesn’t help matters. And yes there are issues with drugs and gangs in some areas but crime is everywhere in the world to some degree… even in our own backyards. As with traveling anywhere in the world if you use your common sense, do your research on which areas to avoid, and stay away from anything illegal your chances of running into crime related problems is likely not a whole lot different than back home. If anything it seems that for the most part tourists are shielded from the bulk of the violent crimes in these countries.

In fact rather than being dangerous and scary, in our experience (and that of every other traveler we’ve spoken to) traveling in Mexico and Guatemala is for the most part a very rewarding and pleasurable experience. If it wasn’t why would so many people do it? The weather is great, the scenery is beautiful, the food is delicious, the costs are low and above all the people are awesome! We are greeted with a friendly smile and a helping hand everywhere we go. Not to say that bad things don’t happen here but in our opinion there is far more good than bad. As an example of this we wanted to share with you a recent experience in Guatemala where complete strangers went above and beyond to help us out.

The story starts after five restful days in San Pedro at Lake Atitlan when we took the standard packed shuttle back to Antigua. We were going to spend one last night in the city before heading to Lanquin and Semuc  Champey. We will share our adventures and photos of the spectacular Semuc Champey soon but this story just had to be told first. Upon arrival at Antigua we ran into major traffic congestion and the shuttle driver decided that it was best to drop us off a few blocks away from Parque Central rather than sit in traffic. In the slight confusion of the unexpected shuttle termination we made a very big mistake and forgot our camera bag under our seat.

Lessons learned:

1)      Never place anything under your seat unless it’s strapped to your ankle so you won’t forget it.

2)      Consolidate your belongings so that at the most everything is in one carry-on bag and one checked bag rather than having bits and pieces everywhere that can get forgotten.

3)      If you must travel with multiple pieces always know the number of items you have and do a check count before leaving anywhere.

As we didn’t follow any of the above rules we set off to find Hostel Estella without even noticing we were missing a vital component of our belongings. After checking in I headed up to the lovely rooftop to relax in a hammock and do some writing. There was a great view of the volcanoes and the city so Nathan decided to go and grab his camera but instead he returned with a question…“Do you happen to know where my camera is?” As he spoke the words I had a flashback of putting the camera bags under the seat in the shuttle and saying “We must remember to grab these when we leave.” As it dawned on me what had happened I dropped my head into my hands and felt that I might either cry or throw up. Our cameras are a huge part of our lives and livelihood and as a professional photographer Nathan had a substantial amount invested in equipment.

After regaining some composure we immediately went to speak with the friendly Danielle who had checked us in (travel angel #1). She quickly went to work for us calling the travel agency who had arranged our shuttle from San Pedro. After some discussion she told us that the shuttle was already in transit back to San Pedro and that they would check under the seat when it arrived late that night. This left us feeling pretty nervous about the prospects. After all, we had been told over and over that this country was dangerous and full of criminals who would steal from us or worse.

Thankfully that evening we met a really great British couple (Claire and Sean) on the rooftop who took our minds off the cameras for a while. They are on a two-three year travel plan and were full of good information. We shared travel stories over cold beer and homemade lasagna which Claire whipped up in the community kitchen of the hostel and then we took them to Café No Se for a thank you taste of Mescal.

 

Dinner with new friends at Villa Esthella Hostal

Dinner with new friends at Villa Esthella Hostal

 

Drinks with Claire and Sean at Café No Se

Drinks with Claire and Sean at Café No Se

Sadly though the evening passed without any word from the travel agent and we became less and less hopeful. By morning we were forced to accept the very real probability that our cameras were gone for good. We couldn’t do anything but feel regret at our carelessness and a little anger at some unknown person’s dishonesty as we proceeded to board the shuttle for Lanquin.

After another long, hot but beautifully scenic journey we arrived at El Muro Hostal in the tiny town of Lanquin and were greeted by a bubbly American with a paintbrush in hand. We entered into a wide open area containing a bar and a large wooden covered deck with tables and hammocks overlooking the most spectacular view of mountains and jungle. The rooms are terraced down behind the main building and are surrounded by lush greenery. The fresh, sweet smells and sounds of the jungle are all around and we immediately felt relaxed and comfortable.

Deck at El Muro

Deck at El Muro

View from the deck at El Muro

View from the deck at El Muro

Lounging in the hammock

Lounging in the hammock

Hard at work at the bar in El Muro because the WiFi was better than in the room,,,well that's our story anyway.

Hard at work at the bar in El Muro because the WiFi was better than in the room,,,well that’s our story anyway.

Lanquin is a very small mountain town with not much to do besides enjoy the natural beauty and take day trips to Semuc Champey so we spent the afternoon working. That evening over a delicious dinner we chatted with the people that would be our friends and saviors over the next few days. Max the owner, Alex the manager and Jillian and Adam who worked the bar among other things. Aka travel angels 2, 3, 4 and 5. Max and Alex are both Guatemalan but spent years living in the US before settling back in Antigua and running El Muro. Jillian and Adam are from Portland and are traveling for several months and are doing various work exchange positions that they found through www.workaway.info

Some of the gang at El Muro. From the left is Alex, Jillian, Adam and our amazing chef and tubing guide.

Some of the gang at El Muro. From the left is Alex, Jillian, Adam and our amazing chef and tubing guide.

Our plans were to go to Semuc Champey the next day but it was unseasonably wet so we decided to hold off on the trip in hopes that the weather would clear. This meant that we would need to stay another day which turned out to be a blessing as later that afternoon Alex came to us with his cel phone saying our cameras had been found! We were thrilled to say the least. Alex then took control and proceeded to attempt to arrange to have the cameras sent on the next day’s shuttles from San Pedro to Antigua and the on to Lanquin. They would arrive at 10 pm the next night…or so we thought.

Apparently the person that Alex spoke to at the travel agency did not have the authority to send the cameras and when the owner found out he insisted that we pick them up ourselves. Now we understand and appreciate his concerns but for us to get back to San Pedro would have meant back-tracking on a seven hour shuttle to Antigua then a transfer to a five hour shuttle to San Pedro. We would then have to do the same thing the next day followed by a ten hour journey to Flores, our next destination. Obviously this was not our first choice but to get our cameras we would do it.

Now in an attempt to keep a long story from getting any longer I’ll try to summarize the next few days. We spent four nights instead of two at El Muro in Lanquin. Alex and Max relentlessly worked on getting the travel agent to send the cameras on the shuttle. Jillian, Adam and Alex did a great job at entertaining us and keeping our spirits up with suggestions of local sights to explore, hours of laughter filled conversation, and evenings of charades and salsa dancing lessons at the bar. Nathan and I waited patiently while we worked, explored caves, slid down natural waterslides, tubed down the river and jumped off bridges and rope swings. And we all became great friends.

Rainy market day in Lanquin

Rainy market day in Lanquin

Lunch at the market...some sort of meat? Regardless it was very tasty.

Lunch at the market…some sort of meat? Regardless it was very tasty.

Exploring the sleepy town of Lanquin

Exploring the sleepy town of Lanquin

 

Entering the Lanquin Bat Caves at dusk

Entering the Lanquin Bat Caves at dusk

 

At dusk hundreds of thousands of bats fly out of these caves which span as far as Mexico. We stood at the entrance as they swarmed out around us...amazing!

At dusk hundreds of thousands of bats fly out of these caves which span as far as Mexico. We stood at the entrance as they swarmed out around us…amazing!

 

Just a taste of the breathtaking beauty of Semuc Champey. This was such an amazing day that it warrants it's own post and video to come soon!

Just a taste of the breathtaking beauty of Semuc Champey. This was such an amazing day that it warrants it’s own post and video to come soon!

Nathan practicing his salsa moves with El Muro bartender and great dance instructor Omar

Nathan practicing his salsa moves with El Muro bartender and great dance instructor Omar

 

As for the cameras, after two days of persuasion the travel agent agreed to send the cameras on one shuttle only to Antigua and deliver them into the hands of Travel Angel #1 as he didn’t want to risk trying to connect with a second shuttle to Lanquin. We agreed that this was a good compromise and we booked a shuttle back to Antigua the next morning where we would go to Villa Estella Hostel and pick up our cameras then take a ten hour first class overnight bus to Flores. This is where the story should end…it doesn’t.

We waited for the 8am shuttle the next morning but by 9:15 we were all getting concerned. After a few more calls we are handed the phone to speak with Max who is in Coban. Turns out the shuttle broke down! Max tells us we are now to hop aboard a vehicle with one of his drivers who will take us to Coban where Max will meet us at the bus station. We will then board a first class bus to Guatemala City (Max would purchase the tickets for us). Then we would be met at the bus station in Guatemala City by Juan who owns Villa Estella (enter Travel Angel # 6). He would have our cameras and our bus tickets to Flores. Juan would then drive us across the city during rush hour to the old bus station (a bit run down and scary quite frankly) where we would wait for three hours for our 9pm bus to Flores. Whew!

Thankfully the seats in the first class overnight buses recline right back. We were able to sleep for a solid 6 hours!

Thankfully the seats in the first class overnight buses recline right back. We were able to sleep for a solid 6 hours!

Now we know this is not a story of life and death but these Travel Angels were like life savers to us. We have no doubt that we would never have seen our cameras again if it wasn’t for them and we are truly grateful. We knew that the negative media hype about the dangers of traveling in places like Guatemala and Mexico was overblown and one sided but we never expected to encounter such a display of honesty, integrity and genuine selfless acts of kindness first hand.

I apologize for the loooong story but we really wanted to share this in the hopes that in our own very small way we can contribute to dispelling much of the negativity that surrounds these countries. There are so many beautiful places to see here and so many wonderful people to meet it would be a shame to not experience them due to mostly unwarranted fears.

Lastly, in an attempt to try to repay our Travel Angels (and also because we really do recommend them) we are shamelessly promoting the following businesses.

  • El Muro Hostal in Lanquin. Clean, comfortable rooms, great bar and great food in the center of town with amazing staff that will set you up with tours and advice. Say hello to Alex and Max for us.

El Muro

  • Villa Esthella Hostal in Antigua. Clean, comfortable rooms with a beautiful rooftop deck, a community kitchen and friendly helpful owners.
  • Maya Travel San Pedro. Will help with tours and transportation needs in and around Lake Atitlan.

Comments

  1. Sarah Somewhere

    Woah! What a story!!! So glad it had a happy ending! Yes I agree, the people are so, so lovely here. I must admit, this is the first time anywhere in the world that I have been aware of a slight sense of danger, but only due to concerned locals warning us to be careful. After living in Mexico and not feeling concerned about safety once, it is a little unsettling, but as long as we are cautious there is no reason it should impact our time in this beautiful country.

    1. admin

      We honestly wouldn’t have been aware of it at all if we hadn’t read warnings about crime in travel guides. In Antigua we stayed in a hostel away from the touristy areas on the edge of town near the market and never felt concerned walking home even at night. Of course as with anywhere we were always careful and watchful of our surroundings. As you said as long as you’re cautious it should not affect your time at all. I am absolutely in love with Guatemala and can’t wait to go back and see more.

  2. Beth

    Thanks for sharing such a wonderful story of the people…enjoy the trip and looking forward to the next blog.

  3. Linda

    Great story . Clearly you are having a wonderful time and building great memories. Travel with God.

  4. Laurie Rochon-Sado

    Your story was wonderfully told. God bless all of your travel angels. I love you and miss you both.

  5. alicia-joy

    Hi guys. Wow! what a journey. The pics look lovely and people sound so nice. I am glad. I will be there soon and cannot wait. So glad to hear you got your camera gear back (even with all the hassle. still a relief). :)

    1. admin

      Alicia if you have any questions about Guatemala let us know. We absolutely loved it!

  6. Colleen Friesen

    Great story and not too long at all! I liked hearing all the details.
    I completely agree with your assesment…people are wonderful wherever you travel.
    (Like you say, there are some occasional nasty ones but they’re at home too :) So glad you got your camera equipment back.

    1. admin

      Thanks Colleen. Brevity is my biggest challenge when writing about something meaningful to me so it’s good to know I didn’t bore you.

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