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Jan 15-17, 2014

This country took me by surprise a few minutes after I crossed its border. I say a few minutes, but it’s really around 2 hours. That’s the time it took to navigate the different Customs windows necessary to enter legally. Even Mexicans, in full control of the Spanish language, were having some logistical issues and unsure what to do next. But the first person I met after the string was pulled and the barricade lifted – and really the first person you deal with, is the one that sets the tone for your introduction to the country – smiled ear to ear, welcomed me, and then proceeded to fumigate my car. When I forgot to get the fumigation receipt (without which you’re kinda screwed), he came to look for me and brought me back so I could get it. It took another 30 minutes or so to navigate the car through the throngs of street vendors, inches away from your mirrors, hawking everything from satellite dishes to perforated sandals.

And then. And then Guatemala happened. First thing you notice is the road quality. Then you notice the sights. Potholes apart from the roads in Mexico, I was finally able to drive above 50. Where there was a pothole, somebody was working hard to fix it. Sweeping curves around lush hills of green quickly turned into gokart-style hairpin turns around giant menacing walls of ballooning jungle. I was oohing and ahhing every half minute. I pulled over a few times to take pictures, but not nearly as many times as I wanted to. This was the Pan-American highway now, and what a beast it was. Curves and curves and curves on beautiful smooth tarmac. I hadn’t seen a highway like this since the States, and boy was it good to be back on one.

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The landscape is far more interesting than let’s say, the Swiss Alps. We’re talking the prehistoric kind of beauty here. Untouched. Before Human. If a dinosaur popped its head out of all that greenery, it would almost make sense.

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The next thing you notice about Guatemala, is its children. They’re working. From ages 4 and up. On the side of the road, they’re helping build houses, mend fences, run after their mothers carrying firewood or with loads hanging off their heads. And they’re all laughing. Some are barefoot, and they’re playing tag. While working. When I slow down in small towns and bottom out over speed bumps, they stare curiously and then smile and wave. And therein lies the dichotomy. In a country obviously poorer than its upstate neighbor (but with better roads), people are genuinely nice to you, an obvious foreigner. The immediate kind of niceness, the kind that New York taught you to be weary of and to forget.

When I zoom over a hill, trying to close the damn CD cover on the boombox, I get pulled over by the State Police – waiting on the other side. The officer goes to check my license and I start sipping a coconut I bought earlier. He comes back seconds later, and we start talking about the TAR-21 light machine gun he’s carrying. I help him translate some of the words etched into the body of the weapon: Israeli he knows; Weapon = Armas; Industries = Industria. He’s pretty excited. He waves me off, and in the rear view mirror, I see him going back to his colleagues, pointing to his polished Tavor.

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Like most travelers, I decide to forego the noise and traffic of Guatemala City for the calm and peace of Antigua. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s surrounded by three volcanoes, on of them still active and forever fuming. It’s the first town I see Japanese people (Antigua is famous for its language schools). Most of the buildings and churches have been preserved, the roads are cobblestone, and apart from a Citibank on a corner, you’d be hard pressed to think you’re not walking in 18th century Spain. The restaurants are plenty and described as ‘cosmopolitan’. I don’t disagree.

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I set up camp (literally) in the middle of town, in a free overlander camping ground, walled in and guarded by armed Tourist Police. It’s a park (named Racho Nimajay) directly 4.5 blocks east of Parque Central, and right under the Bus Terminal/Handicraft Market, on 5a Calle Poniente. I’m giving exact directions, because it took me an hour to find it. Every blog talks about how great it is, but nobody tells you where it actually is. I plan on staying one night, but I end up staying two, and feel sad when I leave. The food is great, the views amazing, and the tourists roaming the streets are few and well behaved.

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At night, guidebooks tell you to take a taxi anytime after 10PM, but the town feels pretty safe. Every 5 minutes, you see a police pickup with its lights on, creeping by. After dinner I stop at the famous Cafe No Se. It’s a dingy bar, dark and full of character; with hidden mezcal rooms, showers next to the toilet, Brooklyn lager and expats. The man on the microphone is crooning House of the Rising Sun. I get talking to the bartender, Shakti. She’s from Virginia. A friend had a place in Antigua, and she took the leap. The guy next to me, Allen ( has crossed the Pyrenees on foot, and traveled extensively through Africa. The girl next to him, Emma, is from outside Vancouver and has been to the South Pole, and met up with a few penguins. The guy next to her, Jean-Claude, is also Canadian, but French, and drunk, and adamant on how there should be no genders, and everyone should just have sex with each other. He might have a point in there somewhere, but we are not convinced – further explanation necessary.

I tell Allen, you know we’re all crazy right? Look at that blue beaming dot on your phone, and where we all are. ‘Sure, yeah, we’re crazy. But think of the person siting at home, perfectly content, with no desire to ever see anything else. Now – who is crazier?’


These are the personal views and thoughts of Stefan and in no way shape or form reflect the views of Shipwreck Rally, LLC.