Thursday, February 5, 2015

Arrival in Antigua, Guatemala

During my week in Colorado, I still didn't know where I was going or what exactly I was doing for my winter getaway. Oops :). I knew I wanted to head south to the warm sun and waters though. Besides my trip to Peru last fall, I haven't been south of the U.S. border. And I know how to speak Spanish fairly well, so it seems like it'd be a given to head there. I focused my sights on Central America. 

————————(if you don't care how I decided on my final destination, skip this section)————
From there, I tried to narrow it down. Costa Rica has been a hot spot for Americans for a while and thus it is more expensive. Belize is a newer hotspot and also costs a bit more. The other countries tend to be cheaper but usually less developed, more crime. I searched for some blogs of other travelers and that was very helpful. Turns out plenty of people have traveled all across Central America (so it can all be done safely despite what you may hear otherwise) for a couple or few months. So it was good to compare their thoughts and I even emailed one girl some of my general plans so she could weigh in and give me her thoughts. 

I went through several different plans, which included joining a tour for the whole two months, partial tour and solo trip, finding a boat I could run around the Caribbean on, use one place as home base and do short trips, volunteer or work somewhere. There are really tons of ways you can choose to see a new place. I decided a solo trip with day tours at the destination would work best for me. 

Panama was initially on the list, but since Costa Rica was off due to expense and Panama is further south, I soon deduced that Panama probably wasn't realistic. 

Nicaragua is cheap, so major plus. But I wanted to get in snorkeling, which didn't seem to be a big highlight. I saw more about their pacific coastline, surfing, volcanoes and the giant lake within the country. I don't surf and the lake didn't appeal to me. So Nicaragua moved low on the list. 

Honduras supposedly has the worst crime statistics currently. I knew my mom would not be happy with that. But you always need to take that stuff with a grain of salt. As a tourist, you aren't going all over in the country. Chicago also has very high crime rate, but people still visit. If you stay in certain areas where the tourist activities are, you generally don't see the crime. Outside of crime considerations, it seemed the least developed for tourism. There are some Mayan ruins but one of the biggest pulls is two islands north of the country, out in the Caribbean, Roatan and Utila. They are known for great diving, snorkeling and scuba certification. From the US you can fly direct to Roatan and back, so no need to set foot on the mainland. These are heavy tourist magnets, therefore more expensive and not really reflective of the country. However, it is also a bit further from the mainland than I liked. 

El Salvador does not have a Caribbean coast, which was a downer. Good surfing on the pacific coast didn't appeal to me too much. But, there was one recommended beach town close to the Guatemala border. Pretty cheap, low crime. Seemed like a good option except not as many activities as I would have liked. 

Guatemala doesn't have much coastline on the Caribbean. It has lots of ruins and volcanoes. The city of Antigua was suppose to be beautiful and backpacker central - i.e. easy connections throughout the region. It also happens to be close to the border with El Salvador. It has a lot of tourism but still cheaper than Belize and Costa Rica. I found there was a beautiful lake nearby and there is a river that heads to the Caribbean that also was one of the must sees. 

Belize is more expensive again but it has some of the diving and snorkeling off some islands very near to the coastline. The islands sem to have easier mainland access than Honduras and there is one island more suited to the cheaper backpacker crowd. It is also very close and easy to get to Guatemala. 

You already know my final destination, Antigua, Guatemala, and probably the way I worded my comments above would have led you there. Since Antigua seemed to be a good, fairly central location, I decided to set up shop there for my first month. The second month I was going to split between that place in El Salvador and the backpacker island in Belize. But after arriving and reading more on Guatemala, there is plenty to keep me busy here while I work my way north and into Belize. I'll be in Belize only my last week and in Guatemala all other weeks (current plan). 

I booked flights, housing for my first month in Antigua, housing for my last week in Belize and a car transfer from the Guatemala City airport to Antigua. All this (but nothing else) was arranged in the 1-2 weeks prior to leaving. I was on my way :). 
The blue dot is me and the red is the airport. I arrived and there was no sign with my name. It was 10:30pm or so and your stomach just sinks a little when you don't see your driver. What to do now? I've been in that situation before too. First, I try not to get too worried. They may just be a little late (though they shouldn't be). You find your confirmation info and try to find a phone number. There are almost always 'taxi guys' offering their assistance. But you want to avoid them if you can. They generally only want to make a buck and are likely to overcharge and not really know where your destination is. I took care of some luggage stuff and waited. Checked again and still no 'Lena' sign. One guy spoke English well and kept offering to help. I gave in and he called the cell phone of the guy I booked with. Always have someone's cell phone. We finally sorted it out and my name appeared! The taxi guy proceeded to show me his phone with the charges used and asked for money. I gave him $4 and he seemed happy enough. Turns out my driver was waiting the whole time but still in the car because the arrivals monitor didn't reflect our appropriate landing time. He quickly got me to Antigua and Daniel was waiting for us. 

I am staying with a couple, Daniel and Paola, in an extra room they rent out in their house. They have three rental rooms in total. It was practically midnight, so I got a quick tour of the room and bathroom and headed to bed. I also found out they had a newborn (less than a month old) but thankfully I had practice with sleeping with babies in the house! And I think my friends I visited this summer can confirm that I have no problem sleeping through any baby crying :). This was roughly two weeks ago. 

Here are some quick initial pics:

My first lunch, chile rellenos, vegetables, rice and a pineapple fresco (a very light juice with water). It was really good :) and I think around $6. I did decide to put myself on a stricter budget and will talk more about that another day. 

A view of Antigua from a hill on the north side of town. That is the volcano Agua that is on the south side of town. It's helpful so you always know which way is south :).

The balcony of the house which looks out over the mountains. It has yet to rain in two weeks but everything remains green. It is roughly 75 degrees every day with lows in the 60s, maybe 50s at night. Sun shining, puffy white clouds and blue skies (though my phone pics don't show that very well). It's been just beautiful.

I actually staying in San Felipe (blue dot) which is a small town outside Antigua. I can easily walk to town though. It takes 25-30 minutes for me to walk from the dot to the main park in town, which is the green square towards the middle with 5a calle on its south side. It's nice because there is a bus I can catch ($0.25 one way), or I can easily walk, or there are tuk-tuk and taxi options (both more expensive). It's quiet at night and Paola is super helpful with any questions I have and recommendations. 

I'm taking it easy and relaxing quite a bit, but have some fun things to share in future posts :)!

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