It is about a 1.5 hour ride from Antigua to Guatemala City. Our options were to use a US$10 ride in a private van (a tourist shuttle) or do it the way locals do, take a chicken bus for Q10 (1USD = ~7.6Q). Buses leave fairly regularly and since we did not feel the need to be transported in a bubble we boarded a waiting bus at the starting point in Antigua and made ourselves comfortable.
The bus continued to fill up. A completely dishevelled and obviously drunk man stumbles in and occupies one of empty seats. He is a veritable anachronism in his appearance and seemed to have jumped into the scene from a biblical era across the centuries. An elderly local woman in the front seat complains loudly to the driver/conductor about him but we do not understand the nature of the complaint nor can we follow the response of the staff. People who come after deliberately avoid occupying the seat next to him even if it means they have to squeeze in as the third person in a seat meant for two. Shortly after, a second drunk boards the bus and in his compromised situational awareness, he seats himself right next to the first drunk. Within seconds, he rises up in great agitation and stumbles down the aisle and occupies a seat at the back. He is clearly outraged by something about the first drunk.
Eventually every seat is taken other than the undesirable one next to the First Drunk. A young tourist couple get in and bravely occupy the seats. The prehistoric First Drunk starts mumbling something and reaches across and slaps the back of the complaining old woman. She promptly raises a cry and this time the staff firmly approach the offending man and motions him to get off. The man offers no protest and very obligingly alights from the bus without any fuss as if this was his standard procedure for the day. We also considered the possibility that he merely wanted to make the journey of the first 5 minutes without paying as he seemed very satisfied with the proceedings. The drama over, we are on our way. After a few minutes, the Second Drunk staggers forward and occupies a seat upfront and comically nods his head to the loud beat of the latino music that issues from the bus’ capable speakers.
Since Antigua is in a valley surrounded by mountains, getting away requires vehicles to negotiate steep, winding roads. Our experience traveling through the extensive hilly terrain both in Honduras and Guatemala have taught us that handle bars are perhaps the most critical pieces of equipment on these buses as they careen left and right through the curves. Once the road crests at San Lucas, it starts downhill towards the greater metropolitan area. The bus continued along a wide arterial road, Roosevelt Avenue, home of Walmart, Cemaco and other megastores and businesses. Since we did not know what route the bus would take through the city or where it would terminate, we closely tracked its progress in an offline map app on the phone.
“Do you speak English? Where do you want to go ?”, we heard this from the seat directly behind us. A young teenage girl nodded and pointing at the phone said, “it would be better if you put that away, someone is going to take it.” This was a little strange given several other people in the bus seemed to have phones in their hand, some even smartphones. Did we have a some kind of bulls-eye painted on our backs? But heeding her warning, the phone was put away.
“We want to get to the city center. Does this bus pass close to the city center ? Parque Central ? Cathedral ?” we quizzed.
“You should get off at the next stop and take a taxi. This bus won’t take you there. And be very careful” she added.
We we got off at the next stop, which turned out to be squarely in the middle of a busy shopping district and right outside the large Miraflores mall. With so many people going on with their business, what are these people talking about? But as instructed, we hopped into the next cruising taxi for the short ride into the city center.
Guatemala City (simply Guate to locals) in Guatemala Department became the capital after Antigua Guatemala (now just Antigua) had been destroyed by an earthquake in 1773. Despite its location in the tropics, it’s relatively high altitude (1500m) means it is generally mild, almost springlike, throughout the year. It is subdivided into 21 zones, the zones assigned in a spiral form starting in historic city center designated Zona 1. Downtown has been a no-go zone of abandoned buildings and crime hotspots for years but many of the major sites are in Zona 1 and pockets have been renovated, cleaned up and revitalized. Consequently this city is variously described as ‘fascinating and full of energy’ or ‘dirty and dangerous’ depending on which part is being discussed.
Standard colonial urban planning scheme required every town in the New World have a large plaza for military exercises and ceremony. These go by different names - Plaza de Armas in Peru, Zoccolo in Mexico and Parque Central in Honduras and Guatemala. The plaza is typically the heart of the city and where we were headed. The taxi dropped us just off the plaza (specifically named Plaza Constitucional in this case) with the driver repeating similar warnings about minding our bags and contents of our pockets. Exiting the taxi we walked right into the bustling square that was teeming with a tide of Guatemalans out to stroll, chat and snack at the numerous temporary food stalls on this clear New Year’s afternoon.
Video: Guatemala City, Parque Central
As is customary, the plaza is surrounded by the main cathedral and important civic buildings. The Cathedral Metropolitana is a stately edifice with heavy proportions and sparse ornamentation. Inside are three main aisles lined with arching pillars, and a well attended service was in progress when we made our way in.
On the north side is the Palacio Nacional de la Cultura, the imposing Presidential Palace and the point from which all distances in Guatemala are measured. Additional civic buildings grace the other sides and the Central Market lies directly behind the Cathedral.
After taking a few pictures of grand buildings and generally walking around taking in the buzz we were feeling a little peckish and surveyed the offerings at the many food-stalls around. Lots of tacos/frijoles (refried beans)/queso (cheese) but all part of some kind of pollo (chicken)/jamon (ham)/res (beef) ensemble. So we gave it a pass in favor of one 'assembled on demand' taco vendor who loaded up crunchy tacos with guacamole and/or frijoles from containers in her cart. Before we approached her she was customer-less and eating her own food but our business generated a deluge of additional business for her and we had to scramble over the shoulders of the other patrons to get second helpings of the tacos. We did not charge any fee for this. We kept her busy with a steady rate of consumption and the whole operation was somewhat reminiscent of a road-side pani-puri vendor on the streets of Mumbai. (Of course we would never admit to patronizing one of those). ’Lunch’ was rounded off with a scoop of local ’Sarita’ ice-cream; they are everywhere in Guatemala.
Appetite sated, we walked down 6a Avenida, the main pedestrianized street radiating south from the plaza. While it has cafes, ice-cream parlors, restaurants and the like and seemed very busy, it was curious that it appeared to be the only street with any kind of activity. We peered into the cross streets as we passed them, several seemed uninviting with a series of crumbling houses, broken pavements and graffiti that looked vaguely threatening. So rather than criss-cross through town as we would normally do in any new place, we struck with the crowds on 6a Avenida and walked due south.
Then without prior warning, we suddenly found ourselves at the start of a vintage car parade! Pausing curbside, we spent the next several minutes gawking at very old cars, many with fashionable young people behind the wheel.
Video: Guatemala City, Car Parade 1
Video: Guatemala City, Car Parade 2
Passing the tail end of the parade we continued towards Zona 4 which has many official buildings like the National Bank, the Municipality and the National theater. But before we got there, we had some specific business to take care of that would require us to detour into the side streets.
While we would be spending the next 3-4 days in the Guatemalan Highlands, we later wanted to get to El Peten in the north so we could visit Tikal. The preferred means of getting there was to take an overnight bus from Guatemala City to Santa Elena. Since ‘luxury’ options are available (seats that recline to almost horizontal) we could expect to get a good nights sleep while saving on precious vacation days. We could have arranged for the whole thing with a travel agent in Antigua, but where is the fun in that? We wanted to book the tickets directly with the bus company and also this was to be a dry-run trip for when we would have to come back to take the bus in the future.
The tricky part was that all the bus companies in GC are clustered in an area of Zona 1 (around 18a Calle), that is the worst area for crime. Guidebooks warn that it is exactly where the lowlife and hustlers tend to lurk and is especially dangerous at night. If you are arriving by bus at night or must go someplace around here, take a taxi say all the sources. So in our minds this was already a little bit of an adventure. The fact that most shutters were down and the streets completely deserted meant we did our best imitation of Olympic speed walkers to cross the 5 or 6 blocks to the office of Fuente del Norte, our choice of bus company for this trip. Thankfully it was open and the man at the counter very helpful in explaining the difference between the ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ seats and the cost of the tickets. Luckily for us one of the ‘Maya de Oro’ buses similar to the one that runs to Peten was parked right outside and he invited us to go in and take a look.
Satisfied this was not going to be a night bus from hell (the seats looked like business class seats at the front of an airliner), we secured our tickets and just as quickly retraced our way back to the security of 6a Avenida and the financial district. We also congratulated ourselves on paying 50% of what we would have paid had we gone with the travel agents in Antigua.
Modern, bright green, air-conditioned Trans-metro buses were plying on the main streets. This is a new addition to the city’s transportation plan and augments the dreaded Red buses that are informally referred to as Rojo Diablo or Red Devils. According to guidebooks, the green buses frequently have armed guards on-board to ensure the safety of passengers!
Unfortunately we would not stay long enough in the city to ride on either the green beauties or the red devils. It being a holiday, most of the museums that where further south in the more affluent Zone 10 would be closed today. We had spent just a couple of hours (maybe three) in this sprawling city, the largest and most modern in Guatemala, so it is a little bit like having peeked at the Grand Canyon through a keyhole slot. Really getting to know this city will have to wait for another trip.
A quick taxi ride brought us back to Mirafores mall and we waited for an Antigua-bound bus. One came by almost immediately. Once aboard, we looked for an empty seat and finally let our guard down again.
Photo Album: Guatemala City
Nice pot pourri of experiences - the drunks, the venture into the crime zone to book bus tickets of all things .........
I've heard of how unsafe Guatemala city is ( we had a centre there in my working days, but alas, I never ventured there). I remember we struggled to impose a no firearms policy !!! From the advice of the locals, nervousness seems justified. A pity, for, it spoils a tourist experience.
M - First glass flights, business class buses, ....... what next ?? :):) From , on Jan 18, 2015 at 02:11PM
Your link to the night bus from hell was a little underwhelming especially after the ghastly sobriquet. But yeah. I was wondering what you'd have done without those makeshift seats in front. From, on Jan 26, 2015 at 05:20AM
@Kishore - The sleeper bus to Jianshui is not an experience we want to relive. Thankfully it was only an evening ride and not overnight. The "night bus" reference was for the then upcoming Guate to Tikal trip. From, on Jan 26, 2015 at 05:28AM