Traveling through Guatemala is an experience I would recommend to anyone looking for some adventure. The cultural is vibrant and has a major Mayan flavor all throughout it. The food is amazing, tons of spices, and you can still find burritos and tacos due to the close proximity to Mexico. The terrain is diverse: black sand beaches, mountain peaks as high as some in Colorado, jungle, lakes, rivers… you name it. It is also home to one of my favorite cities Antigua.
Antigua was a Spanish colony and served as the capital of Guatemala in those days, it has buildings that are still standing from the mid-1500s. This is really quite a feat as the area (which is surrounded by volcanoes) has many earthquakes. After dealing with too many terrible earthquakes, the capital was moved up the valley to a more stable spot in 1776. This is now Guatemala City.
If you can brave the impending threat of another earthquake, however, you will quickly fall in love with Antigua upon first visit. The cobblestone streets keep traffic speeds low and building code prevents any businesses from changing the outside architecture of the building – it all still looks like an ancient (in new world standards) colonial town! For example, McDonalds and many other chains are present in Antigua, but there are no big signs, no billboards, no special colors or golden arches. The outside of the building looks the same as every other building with only a tiny sign by the door to say that it is McDonalds. Interestingly enough, McDonalds is a sit-down restaurant here, with better quality burgers than our fast food version in the States! Given the choice between a $2 local meal and a $5 gourmet Mickie-D’s burger, however, I can’t say I tried it.
It is an interesting mix of old-European architecture and vibrant Guatemalan culture. While walking the street you will undoubtedly be approached by some Mayan people who would like to sell you a craft of some sort. Any of you who have traveled with me know how much of a sucker I am for these street vendors. The handicrafts are exquisite but they are also really cheap! The amount of labor going into the multi-colored garments and tablecloths is incredible. For some Mayan families selling these crafts is a big part of putting food on the table for their many children. It is a win-win, you get to take home an authentic souvenir and you help support the most local of economies. I also like buying from the young children to encourage them to continue making crafts and doing something productive instead of reverting to begging.
But I must say my encouragement in that is hardly needed. The young entrepreneurs of Guatemala can be found in any city at any time. Need a smoke after a long night in the bar in Antigua? An eight-year-old will sell you one as you leave the bar while his mother has you ordering tacos. Forgot a rain jacket? No problem, if it starts raining 10 kids run out with ponchos and umbrellas. Hungry while taking a stroll around town? The young business man pictured below has your back, he’ll even whip out his cell phone to use the calculator and tell you the price in Dollars or Quetzales.
While all of these young business men and women are successful (at emptying my pockets) in their young careers, none were more impressive than the young entrepreneurs of Semuc Champey. These beautiful pools are located pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It took us a 12-hour bus ride that finished with an off-road jeep adventure to a small hostel that only has generated power for a few hours a night. Needless to say there wasn’t much of a town, so the locals got crafty in pulling a few bucks in from the endless waves of tourists rolling through.
One young lady could be overheard speaking in at least 5 languages selling her hand pressed chocolates – she was 12 at most. We went on a jungle hike several miles up, at the top was a family selling fresh coconuts that they would open for you on the spot with a machete. You had amazing street food and young guns offering a turn on a rope swing, still another few running a tube rental agency. But my truly favorite entrepreneurs were the ones we found on the river.
These young boys, aged 6-10, would paddle by on their tubes, winding through the gringos with their small coolers offering beverages. Not just any beverage though, beer. Ice-cold BEER.
“Hey buddy, you wanna beer?”
“Hey pretty lady, you wanna beer?”
“I have coldest beer in Semuc Champey, my name is Rodrigo. If you want the coldest beer you come to Rodrigo.”
I regretfully cannot remember the kids’s real names, proper nouns are my downfall. But that was the script. Young masters of marketing and branding, found in the middle of nowhere Guatemala. The best advertising I saw involved this smooth talking Rodrigo. There is a rather tall bridge, perhaps 35 feet or so. After our tubing adventure (and the coldest beer in Semuc (not cold)) we decided to have a look at the supposedly jumpable bridge that crossed the river near our hostel. As we were gathering courage and speculating about how difficult an emergency evac would be from this specific spot in Guatemala, Rodrigo climbed to the highest point on the bridge, screamed “MY NAME IS RODGRIGO – IF YOU WANT BEER YOU BUY FROM ME!” and jumped off.
Needless to say, we followed his lead, jumped off, and then bought out his entire supply so he could go home for the evening. Ladies and gentleman, I present to you the young/bilingual/brilliant entrepreneurs of Guatemala. While traveling remember, you can’t buy more local than from these hardworking kids.