The TACA/LACSA Airlines flight I was on started its descent towards Aurora International Airport, Guatemala City, Guatemala.
Sitting on the window seat, I was wondering what to expect from a country notorious for high levels of crime, the highest degree of fire-arm penetration across Central America and the resultant inexistence of safety/security, when all of a sudden my eyes widened with amazement.
The clouds had given way to acres of green top hills. Far in the horizon, a solitary volcano stood out from behind the hills – it was purplish, calm and serene.
As we approached the Volcano, Guatemala City came into view. One word: HUGE! (for Latin American Standards at least).
La Aurora International Airport was pretty empty for a place located as centrally as Guatemala City. Walking into the terminal building, I came across a Cafe Barista (The most famous cafeteria chain in Guatemala by far) and was already smiling :)
The next morning I was to fly to Flores (about 500 kms away) and then drive into Belize (also known as the British Honduras). TACA airways is known for the quality of paintwork they effect onto old, defunct American Airplanes! And the fact that I realised I was to fly aboard a well painted, old ATR, had me leaving my fate in the hands of god.
The approach to Flores was pretty – with the runway strip located on an island in between a lake! Flores Airport was more or less like the multi-purpose hall we had back in B School!
Belize is like a large village.. the roads just go on and on with little buildings, shops and gas stations located at random intervals. I din't realize when I entered Belmopan (the capital) and when I left it! It was hardly a city at all.
The people are mostly Creoles (A mixture between Latinos and the West Indians). Their language is called Creole – something like the English they speak in the West Indies. I had my Guatemalan friends pretty impressed by the fact that I could understand Creole – I must give Michael Holding due credit for helping me develop that ability!
Now, we all know that the Chinese are everywhere. But in Belize? Yes!
They run hotels and serve Chinese food. I was a little hesitant to try the Belizean Chinese food – but was pretty amazed to find that it was something similar to what we get in India.
Dinner was at a Sri Lankan joint: Spicy Prawn Curry with Rice, Potatoes and Papad! Impressive.
The Belizean beer, Belikin is worth mentioning. Smooth and light, it lives up to the meaning of its name (The road to the sea) given the rate at which it makes one want to run to the washroom!
Before flying back to Guatemala City, I did stop by Tikal National Park (Big tourist attraction with ancient Mayan temples and a lot of wildlife). The Mayan temples were pretty cool. The wildlife was scanty. No Jaguars or snakes (as promised by my guide), just a bunch of racoons and howler monkeys.
Highways in Guatemala are pretty well maintained. Road signs however are peculiar given the fact that they have bullet holes all over them. Localites like using the road signs for target practise apparently! No wonder there were signs stating: Respect Road signs! No points for guessing which sings had maximum bullet holes!
Nearly every gas station on the highway had an adjoint gun shop! Gun licences are apparently as easy as buying a coke in Guatemala :)
Back in Guatemala City, I was staying at a hotel in the party district of the city (Zona Viva – ‘The lively zone’ literally, if I translate into English). The place is dotted with restaurants, cafeterias, confectionaries, junk food joints, pubs, casinos, bars and hotels! I hardly got to visit any of these sadly.
Coming back to my favourite topic: Food/Drink/Beer!
The Guatemalan Beers worth mentioning are...
Gallo (meaning Rooster) – a little bitter
Dorada (meaning Golden) – smooth and nice
I also experimented with this local cocktail (Michelada) – a queer mixture of Tomato juice, beer, lemon, salt and pepper! Was fun.
Guatemalan Coffee is probably the best Coffee in the region (I can vouch for the fact that its better than Costa Rican coffee atleast!).
Cafe Barista was pretty good with its shakes and lattes.
Churros (something I’ve been wanting to try since my brother ranted about them like a madman, after he came back from Spain) – not as good as I thought they would be.
I found them to be too sugary - The sugar simply killed the chocolate!
The most eventful day in Guatemala was the day I spent in Antigua, Guatemala. I had read so much about it on the internet and the place surely did exceed my expectations.
It was the Spanish capital of Central America at first and then Guatemala later. Surrounded by three volcanos (including the famous Water Volcano, Volcan de Agua) which in tandem with earthquakes and floods, have destroyed the city numerous times over the past!
Antigua is very Spanish in its design and architecture and is not over-commercialised despite being one the major tourist draws.
Cobbled streets, churches, cathedrals, ruins, souvenir shops, museums and Tuk tuks (RED Auto Rickshaws – branded under the mark Bajaj Torito – meaning Little Bull! Yes. Hamaara Bajaj!) – the place has it all!
The souvenir shops were just like in India! Bracelets, flutes, bags, clothes, charms, Jade stuff, trinkets - New Market totally!
Of course, the restaurants! I ate lunch at a Spanish restaurant – very plush –delectable food – very romantic! Its a pity my companion was married and a mother of 4 :P
The ruins left me amazed. They were so mysterious - somehow it has gotten me determined to go on the Euro Trip I've always dreamt of!
The saddest thing however was the fact that the clouds kept me from getting a shot of the peak of Volcan de Agua. Despite numerous silent prayers to the lord almighty, the recalcitrant clouds held fort over the peak, keeping it from view.
Antigua is a place I could go to a million times without getting bored!