Trip Coach: November 6, 2007

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Al Argueta, author of "Moon Handbooks Guatemala," answered your questions on Guatemala.

Al Argueta: Thanks for joining me today to talk about Guatemala. I appreciate you taking the time to ask some very good questions. Guatemala is my second home and a land that I love very much, so without further ado, let's get started!

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Portland, Ore.: Hi, I am a single, mature woman and interested in traveling alone between 11/18 and 12/18 to Antigua to study Spanish and see the area. I have been reading on the government sites and it makes it sound like I'll be dead or robbed before even leaving the Guatemala City airport. And that if I survive the airport, the banditos will get me on the bus to Antigua. I'm an experienced solo traveler but these reports are leaving me a little nervous. Is it as bad as they are making out?

--Janae

Al Argueta: A few folks have written with similar questions. Honestly, I feel Guatemala is one of those countries that often get a bad rap. For many years, especially during the civil war, Guatemala was a pariah state and the country's bad reputation was a way of punishing right-wing governments for human rights violations at the hands of an overzealous military by denying them tourist dollars. I feel that much of the bad press (and government warnings) are a carryover from these times, much the same way that Costa Rica has always been depicted as a peaceful Shangri La.

After the civil war, crime levels tended to increase, reflecting the 'growing pains' the nation was experiencing on the sociopolitical landscape as it moved towards the consolidation of a stable democracy. Guatemala, like many countries in Latin America, has its fair share of violence, which is not surprising given its history and its status as a developing nation. Violence rarely affects tourists, however. That being said, there are certainly places that should be avoided because of a propensity towards banditry and I do my best to discuss these in Moon Guatemala along with practical tips to make your stay safer. The Guatemalan private sector and the Guatemala Tourist Commission have also teamed up to provide excellent services for travelers in need via their Asistur program, offering travel insurance and 24-hour assistance for just $1 a day. As for robberies occurring on the outskirts of the Guatemala City airport, these have been drastically curtailed thanks to increased police presence and the ongoing reorganization of access roads into the city as part of the airport expansion project.

Nothing in life is 100 percent safe. I know folks who have been robbed while honeymooning in Costa Rica just after driving off from the airport in a rental car. My advice is to go to Guatemala, but if you're really worried about being robbed then leave anything you might miss at home and travel with travelers' checks or other form of replaceable currency.

See the next entry for a comment by an expatriate resident living in Guatemala City. I can't say it any better myself.

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Guatemala City, Guatemala!: More of a comment than a question. Please tell people not to be afraid of this beautiful country. My husband and I are expats in our second year here, and we love it. Be wary of gloom-and-doom accounts telling you how dangerous it is here. If you exercise normal street smarts, you should be fine.

Al Argueta: I totally agree!

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Minneapolis, Minn.: I will be in Santo Thomas de Castillo. What are the main things I cannot miss out on seeing while in port for one day?

Al Argueta: Cruise ships on Guatemala's Pacific and Caribbean ports of call have become big business in recent years, with plans for nearly 100 ships to make landfall in Guatemala during the 2007-2008 season. Santo Tomas de Castilla, on the Caribbean side has some of my favorite attractions anywhere in Guatemala. Don't miss the Rio Las Escobas pools and surrounding Cerro San Gil rainforest, just minutes from the cruise ship terminal. Chiltepe Tours is a Gray Line affiliate offering military jeep tours between the terminal and the park. Alternatively, you can laze the day away at the pleasant Amatique Bay Resort or see the funky Garifuna town of Livingston.

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Sausalito, Calif..: We will have one day in Puerto Quetzal on our Princess cruise (Nov. 26th--I know, cruises don't let you see the country worth a damn) and wonder what you would recommend. We both speak Spanish pretty fluently, so we think we can get around OK on our own. Antigua?

Al Argueta: On the Pacific port side, I would definitely recommend a day trip to Antigua. It's easily accessible along a four-lane highway and embodies much of what makes Guatemala so darn appealing: colonial architecture, sentinel volcanoes, cobblestone streets, Mayan culture, great food and plenty of shopping. Have fun and enjoy your introduction to fabulous Guatemala. But I warn you, you'll want to come back and see more!

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Takoma Park, Md.: What is the quality of the water and beaches in Guatemala?

Al Argueta: If you're looking for something on par with the white-sand beaches of Cancun, you're in for disappointment. Guatemalan beaches can be quite lovely in their own way, but they are certainly of a different caliber. On the Pacific side, there are some very nice expanses of wide, sandy, black sand beach. My favorites are at remote Manchon Guamuchal Wetland Preserve, Sipacate and along the Iztapa-Monterrico corridor. Sipacate and Iztapa also have some excellent surfing, by the way. On the Caribbean side, the Punta de Manabique Wildlife Refuge (on its namesake peninsula) has deserted strands of white sand fronting the crashing waves of the Caribbean along with some more placid areas fronting an emerald lagoon as you round the cape towards the Guatemalan mainland. Playa Blanca, near Livingston has the whitest sands of any Guatemalan beach, though the water here and elsewhere along the Caribbean coast is emerald or brown (from river silt during the rainy season).

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Paso Robles, Calif.: What are the pros and cons of purchasing property in Guatemala? Is it a good place to retire? We would be interested but would rather live amongst Guatemalans and not all Americans.

Al Argueta: Your dollar will certainly go far in Guatemala, especially in construction costs. Many Americans are starting to retire in Guatemala. A good place to contact for real estate questions is Panajachel-based Terra X Real Estate, featured in the Fall 2007 issue of Outside's GO magazine.

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Sausalito, Calif.: What's the best mode of transport to get from a cruise ship on the west coast of Guatemala to Antigua? Is there public transportation? Buses? Only taxis? How long would the trip take?

We are seniors, 65 and 67, but speak pretty good Spanish, so can take public transport. For cost's sake, we prefer not to take ship's offering.

Can you comment on safety of public transport in that area. I read recently Guatemala is "The most dangerous country in central America." What is your stance? That's more than one question, isn't it?

Thanks for your help.
--Margaret

Al Argueta: Hi, Margaret. The cruise ship terminal at Puerto Quetzal is a bit out of the way and almost completely off-limits to the general public. This makes public transport to Antigua a bit tricky. You'd have to hitch a taxi ride to the nearest bus terminal and then a bus to Antigua. There should be no shortage of transportation offers from local tour agencies, as Antigua is a popular day trip. My advice is to just book the trip once you get there. You only have a few hours and public transport will be more of a hassle than it's worth saving a few bucks.

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Los Lunas, N.M.: I am leaving for Guatemala Nov 15 and returning Nov 28. I will be in the highlands for 1/2 of my trip. How heavy a jacket will I need for the evening? I have researched temps and it looks like 55-58 degrees in the evenings...will it be damp or dry?

Al Argueta: Pack a heavy jacket and a fleece. The highlands can get quite chilly throughout most of the year. During this time of year, cold fronts descend from the northern latitudes (they're actually experiencing one right now) bringing temperatures in the highlands down to the freezing mark. Quetzaltenango (Xela) often sees lows right at the freezing mark and Guatemala City should see lows in the 50s. If you plan on climbing the volcanoes, bring a hat and gloves. Temperatures in Guatemalan highland towns often feel colder than they are because houses have tile floors and lack heating. November is also extremely windy. On the upside, days are mostly sunny and clear with the countryside retaining much of the greenery bestowed upon it from the now-finished rainy season.

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Niceville, Fla.: Can you suggest an eco-tourism lodge in Guatemala that specializes in birding, including around Tikal?

Al Argueta: Cayaya Birding runs the fabulous Maya Cloud Forest Lodge in the Chelemha Cloud Forest Preserve in the Verapaces region. They can also put you in touch with area lodges on the Pacific Coast and near Tikal. As for the latter region, I recommend La Casa de Don David and La Lancha, both of which are found along the shores of Lake Peten Itza on the road between Flores and Tikal National Park.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: We will be in Guatemala Dec. 1-8 and while we're in Tikal, we want to make a trip to Belize. While we are flying from Guatemala city to Flores we can't afford to fly from Flores to Belize City. What are some ways of getting to Belize city by bus without having to stop and change buses at the border?

Thanks!
--Diana

Al Argueta: Hi, Diana. There are several bus lines operating direct shuttles from Flores to Belize City (5 hours, $25). The first of these leaves at 5 a.m., but there are usually departures later in the mornig, depending on the season. San Juan Travel and Linea Dorada are the most popular lines. The only stop is at the border for immigration and customs formalities, after which you get back on the bus and keep on keepin' on.

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Charlotte, N.C.: My daughter and her friend (2 women ages 19 and 21) are traveling in Guatamala over Christmas. I think they will be there 3-4 days. They plan to base in Guatamala City and venture out from there (not sure they've decided where). They enjoy hiking and outdoor activities. They both speak some Spanish. What should they know for their safety? Any suggestions of places to go or places to avoid?

Thank you,
Trish

Al Argueta: I would recommend they base their stay out of Antigua, 40 minutes from Guatemala City, to make the best of their love for the outdoors. It's also a safer place for two single female travelers.

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West Chester, Pa.: I'll be going to Guatemala for two weeks next summer for a language-learning course. How can I arrange a trip to Tikal after I'm finished my studies in Guatemala City?

Al Argueta: You'll find no shortage of travel agencies allowing you to book a trip to Tikal and the rates they offer on airfare are usually better than what you'd find booking directly with the airlines.

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Pacifica, Calif.: Are there any scheduled shuttle services that go direct to/from Guatemala City and Monterrico? Likewise, since Monterrico is close to El Salvador, is flying into San Salvador a viable option? Are there any shuttle services between San Salvador and Guatemalan cities? Thank you!

Al Argueta: There are scheduled shuttle services linking La Antigua (just 40 minutes from Guatemala City) and Monterrico. You may be able to arrange a private shuttle from Guatemala City to Monterrico with Gray Line Tours. Although it looks close on a map, there's really no benefit in flying in to San Salvador for a trip to Monterrico, as you'd probably lose any time you'd make up with the closer distance negotiating secondary roads and border crossings. A four-lane toll road leads south from Guatemala City to Puerto Quetzal. From there, it's just a short hop east to Iztapa and Monterrico along a good road; a journey totaling about 2 hours from Guatemala City. Shuttle services and luxury buses connect San Salvador to Guatemala City and La Antigua.

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St Louis, Mo.: I'm heading to Guatemala in December and am wondering if Guatemala is one of those countries that prefers the US dollar to any others. Should I make sure to bring small bills and plenty of cash?

Al Argueta: Curiously, Guatemala is not one of those countries preferring the U.S. dollar. Your best bet is to bring cash or travelers checks and exchange currency as you need it. Even in cosmopolitan Guatemala City, paying with U.S. dollars is generally frowned upon; in remote mountain villages this would be even more so. An exception to this would be travel agencies quoting rates for transfers and the like in U.S. dollars and eagerly accepting them as a form of payment.

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Sausalito, Calif.: Hi. Can you recommend an intensive Spanish language school in Guatemala? I will be going for 2 weeks in January 2008 and would prefer to learn in Antigua. I am a rank beginner and only have 2 weeks, but am a fast learner (speak French and Italian) so I need one-on-one instruction.

Additional facts: I am 64, female, move slowly due to arthritis in my knees, would love to stay with a professor or a family not too far from the school (mobility issues). Positive facts: I really want to learn to speak Spanish and am willing to concentrate all day and not have any social life.

Thanks so much for considering my question.
--Geraldine

Al Argueta: Hi, Geraldine. I recommend going to 123teachme.com where you can research language schools based on your specific needs and even see ratings from past students.

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Valrico, Fla.: We will be going to Guate in December and staying in Guate City. What is the closest location to go zip-lining in a rain forest atmosphere?

Al Argueta: Technically, there are no rainforests near Guatemala City, though there are some nice patches of jungle on the volcanic slopes. On the slopes of Pacaya Volcano, the very fun Parque Natural Canopy Calderas has a six-platform-zipline through the cloud forest and camping on the shores of a volcanic caldera.

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Champaign, Ill.: My girlfriend and I are both American Indians, and we'd like to travel to Guatemala in order to meet indigenous peoples and learn about their particular histories and lifeways, as well as compare notes from our own experiences. We also have a deep interest in indigenous cooperative economics, and would love to learn about fair trade coffee work and things like that down there, and maybe make some contacts so that we can direct American Indians to buy from particular Guatemalan indigenous groups. I know this sounds like "work" compared to the sorts of questions you get, but this sort of thing is what we feel is important.

Of course, we'd also like to try out some surfing maybe, or jungle-trekking and homestays or sustainable B&B's, especially if we can help the economy of indigenous people down there by doing so.

Thanks!
--Tol

Al Argueta: A few organizations come to mind. Corazon del Bosque is a Mayan-run ecotourism initiative in the Guatemalan highlands that might be able to point you in the right direction. Also check out Asociación Ak'Tenamit, a non-profit Mayan grass roots organization working to reduce poverty in the rain forests of eastern Guatemala's Izabal region through education, health care and income generation programs. In Quetzaltenango, EntreMundos works with several grass roots organizations and NGOs to connect them with potential volunteers. They're a great resource.

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Portland, Ore.: Is there going to be a military conflict in the near future? When I was in La Antigua in April, I met a US soldier there for 6 month Spanish immersion who said he was one of 600 US soldiers studying with no papers to return to the US. Locals told me the US intends to battle the Colombian drug cartels in Guat before the drugs get into Mexico. If so, will the action be only in the countryside so the cities will be safe?

Al Argueta: This is all just part of the U.S. government's war on drugs but I can assure you there is no foreseeable military conflict in Guatemala's future. The country just recently held the sixth free and fair elections since a return to democratic rule in 1985. What locals told you probably concerned DEA operations in tandem with with local law enforcement to annihilate clandestine landing strips in remote jungle outposts. This is happening in countries all over Latin America. Guatemala also hosts a sizeable population of U.S. military personnel visiting the country on periodic humanitarian missions.

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New York, N.Y.: I've noticed you are suggesting to bring travelers checks and cash to exchange while in Guatemala. I normally just use an ATM card when I travel. Are ATMs readily available in Guatemala? I hate to lose money on exchange rates and the hassle of exchanging money (but do know it's far more secure). Thanks!

Al Argueta: Yes, ATMs are readily available throughout much of Guatemala. I tend to just hit the ATM up for cash whenever I'm traveling in Guatemala.

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San Diego, Calif.: We plan to visit Chichicastenango but can't be there on Thursday or Sunday. What is it like on non-market days?

Al Argueta: There's not much to see on non-market days, as the market is pretty much what this town is all about. Still, it's worth a look around and it's actually kind of nice to see the town without the presence of large tour buses choking its narrow streets. Some of the shops offering handicrafts should still be open on non-market days so you'll at least be able to do some shopping. You can also go peak into the church of Santo Tomas.

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Lakewood, Colo.: My tour company is offering an optional tour to Tikal for the sunrise "experience." I know it will certainly be less crowded--is this option worth the added expense of $40.00 US?

Al Argueta: The sunrise from the top of Tikal's temple IV is certainly breathtaking, as the wildlife comes alive and you can hear its chorus from the surrounding rainforest. At the same time. be advised you may not see the actual sun, as mornings in Tikal tend to be foggy with dense mist coming of the forest canopy. Still, it's pretty magical.

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Al Argueta: That's all the time we have. Thanks so much for joining me today. I hope you enjoyed this chat and found it helpful. You can find answers to many of your unanswered questions (as well as in-depth coverage of questions posed here) in Moon Guatemala. I've tried my best to make it user-friendly and packed with the sort of information today's traveler would find useful. Think of it as the words and advice of a trusted friend intimately acquainted with Guatemala and sensitive to the needs of U.S. travelers that you can take along with you for the ride. Those of you traveling with limited time and wanting to hit some of the highlights will find the suggested itineraries very helpful. They include The Best of Guatemala, Adventure Hiking, Mayans Past and Present, Bird-watcher's Delight and Living it Up. You can pick up Moon Guatemala online on amazon.com at 32 percent off the cover price.

I also blog on the amazon product page to make periodic updates to information found in the book such as the recent admission fee changes at Tikal National Park.

Finally, if you're in Austin, I'll be at Barnes & Noble at the Arboretum on Saturday, November 17 for a Guatemala slide show and book signing starting at 2 p.m. See you there!

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