A large bougainvillea with purple flowers grows alongside a city street.

Arriving in Guatemala

Landing in Guatemala City

On my flight from Houston to Guatemala City, I was sitting next to a woman who was wearing traditional Guatemalan clothing. I tried to test out my Spanish skills by asking whether she needed to use my pen for her customs form. She declined, but I didn’t understand what else she said in reply. She subsequently asked the other guy in our row to help her with the form. From watching their interaction, I gathered that she couldn’t read, so my pen was not the assistance she needed.

As I disembarked the plane in Guatemala City, I was running on about 2 hours of low-quality sleep. I had probably consumed about 1000 calories in the last 48 hours. I had purchased an eSIM data plan on Airalo ahead of time (check out my post on getting the most out of your phone while traveling), hoping that my phone would work when I turned it on upon landing. No dice. It looked like I had full bars, but I couldn’t get online. Right before the customs area, there was an ATM that I attempted to use, but no cash came out. I couldn’t use my translator app because I had no internet, so I was not sure what the machine was saying to me.

My anxiety was building as I headed to the airport exit. Up until this point, even during my trials and tribulations in LA, I had stayed pretty calm. But by degrees, my reality was dawning on me. I was arriving alone in a country where I didn’t know anyone and didn’t speak the language. All I had were my instructions from the airport shuttle confirmation email. The email told me the name of the nearby cafe where I should go to get picked up. I still wasn’t sure exactly how to get there, so I asked an airport employee for help. She didn’t speak any English, but fortunately, she recognized the name of the cafe because it was literally one door down from the exit. She pointed me in the right direction.

The Waiting Game

Right outside the airport door, I encountered a big crowd of local people, all waiting to greet their family and friends who were arriving. I witnessed some really touching reunions, grandmothers crying as they kissed their arriving grandchildren, couples embracing after long separations. It was sweet to see, and I enjoyed the people watching briefly. But I found the crowd kind of overstimulating and overwhelming overall. 

I went into the cafe. Judging by all the other obvious foreigners milling about the tables, it’s a common spot for people to meet their rides. I attempted to use another ATM, to no avail. My confirmation email from the shuttle service said that someone would be there with a sign with my name on it, but I didn’t see them. It was about 12:20 PM, and I was pretty sure the pickup time was 12:30.

I spoke in very poor Spanish to a couple of people working in the cafe. It was kind of terrifying, in a way that surprised me. Prior to this, my only conversations in Spanish had been 1-2 sentence exchanges with people in my neighborhood in Colorado. These cafe employees could no doubt see the concern written all over my face. But they were also very kind, and they confirmed that I was in the right place. Nonetheless, between the lack of cash and the lack of phone service, I was starting to feel more and more stressed. How would I get in touch with the shuttle service in case something went wrong? How would I pay for my hostel? 

I got on the airport’s free wifi, and I was able to message my parents. They reminded me that I could place a collect call to my bank to ask about the card. I did so, and the customer service rep reminded me patiently that I had locked my debit card, and it was my own fault my card wasn’t working. She unlocked it for me, and I was able to get some cash out of the ATM. I also was able to message the shuttle company on WhatsApp, and they confirmed that the driver was coming for me.

But after about 40 minutes of sitting in the cafe, I had not seen anyone from the shuttle company. The crowd of local greeters dispersed, and little by little, so did the clusters of waiting gringos. Had I been left behind? I messaged the shuttle company again to ask, and they pointed out that it was only 1:10, and the shuttle time was 1:30, not 12:30. Oops. I knew that. I continued trying to figure out what was going on with my eSIM, but Airalo’s FAQ was not helping much.

When the shuttle did eventually arrive, one of the people to whom I’d spoken earlier pointed out the driver. I boarded the shuttle and my relief was so palpable. I had read online that you can actually catch the same shuttle service for about half the price of reserving ahead of time online. But it was only $20 for my booking, and for that extra $10, I was just happy to know that someone was expecting me. Given how stressed I was even then, I stand by that choice. 

There was one other guy on board, another American, visiting from Atlanta. I told him about my little freak out, and my phone situation. Turns out he had had the same issue, and with a brief instruction from him, I had data! We talked animatedly as we rode out of the city, and I shared some snacks with him.

Observations on the Road to Antigua

As we drove out of Guatemala city, traffic was a little hectic. Lots of honking and abrupt braking. We drove for a while along a divided highway, 3 lanes in each direction. There were a lot of people standing at intervals in the grassy, tree-lined median, some of them just walking, others selling snacks and drinks or panhandling. There was one parent who had themself and their kids all dressed up in grubby looking animal costumes, holding their hand-lettered sign asking for money. That was a new one.

On the road, I saw a lot of the same cars we have in the US. Japanese models are popular. But I also saw a few makes that I didn’t recognize. There are also a lot of public buses on the road. I’ve read that they’re refurbished school buses from the US. Each one is privately owned, with no overarching system of routes or timetables. Anyone can ride for a small fee, it’s one of the cheapest ways to get around in Guatemala. They’re tricked out like something from Pimp My Ride, emblazoned with bright colors, chrome accents, and boldly lettered (often religious) slogans. (Sidenote, my shuttle-mate told me that Xzibit’s fanciful automotive creations were faked, which I guess is not at all surprising.)

When we eventually got out of the congested city streets, the divided highway began to meander up into the lush volcanic mountains. I noticed that Guatemala has a lot of the same plants as Hawaii. Jacarandas are very common, as are bougainvilleas. In some places, the winding road reminded me of driving to Hilo along the Big Island’s Hamakua Coast.

We were lucky with traffic, and after less than an hour, we had finally arrived in Antigua.

I just realized that I was too stressed to take any photos of my arrival experience until I was in the shuttle to Antigua.
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….AND you got through it. So many don’t even try. I am proud of you.