Road Trip: Beginning our Climb into the Mountains from Guatemala City

Loading up the luggage in the roof rack of the Toyota HiAce bus, a staple of Guatemalan transportation.


The stage has been set, so we can actually start our journey, and I can make some observations on what I saw. The afternoon Avianca flight from Los Angeles to Guatemala City was uneventful, but while flying over Mexico, I realized how much of the country is deserted dry desert. Landing at La Aurora Airport in Guatemala City after sundown, there wasn’t much to see. However, the airport signs were in three languages: Spanish, of course, then the English, and finally, the Hansul symbols of the Korean alphabet, which was a bit of a surprise. Guatemala is a distinct but minor destination of the Korean Diaspora, so there we are.

The customs officer displayed an attitude which I witnessed, and came to expect in all sorts of interactions with the Guatemalan locals, which was some level of care and attentiveness, but without any officiousness or bluster. It may have helped that my wife’s sister, who traveled with us, is fluent in Spanish, so conversations were easy.

We stayed in a hotel near the airport in Guatemala City on the first night. Our travel in the country generally included drivers and guides, which made things easier, and also gave us some personal interpretations and opinions on some of the things we saw. Our primary guide, a young Mayan woman, was hilariously outspoken on some things. I will share some of her explanations and opinions, but I can give no guarantees on the veracity or correctness of what we were told. One person’s opinion, in some cases.

We were told not to go out at all in Guatemala City at night, and to travel in groups and with a guide during the day. It is a big city, with big city problems and crime, major and petty. Sure enough, the driveway to the front of our hotel sported a huge, ten-foot high welded metal gate, of heavy construction, that could be pulled closed on a moment’s notice. The hotel itself was pleasant and comfortable, in that universal style which is not specific to any particular place.

Our mode of transportation from the airport to the hotel, and also from the hotel up the mountain, was the Toyota HiAce, a universal but older design, seen everywhere in the country. Some HiAces are privately owned, many are used by hotels and tourists, and some are used as public transportation alternatives to the larger converted school buses. The tourist buses are prominently labeled “Turismo” on the front. I guessed that the name was put there to indicate to the locals that the bus was not part of the public transportation network, so they would not try to flag down the bus as it rolled by. Our guide informed us that sometimes local authorities, reminiscent of our own speed traps, would occasionally stop the buses on the highway to inspect paperwork and press for small bribes. There had been some incidents that had been elevated to the American consulates and embassies. So the “Turismo” label was a good way for the tourists to avoid an awkward situation, by scaring off the petty local authorities.

Another view of our HiAce, at a rest stop. A privately owned HiAce is alongside. The driver is guarding the luggage while we visit the restroom and buy snacks.


We set out on Sunday, July 2, in our Toyota HiAce, for Lake Atitlán. There was a tremendous amount of traffic on the roads, all the way from motorbikes up to buses and larger trucks, with everything in-between. Stop-and-go on the major highways was the order of the day. Our guide explained that the last day of June is “Military Day”, and the long weekend it creates each year is one for traveling and partying. She noted that the actual celebration of the military, as part of the weekend, was a non-event for most people, and it was just a long weekend for its own sake for many. On top of that, the preliminary election for president had just been concluded, which is also an excuse for a holiday. The campaign signs of all the candidates were posted wall-to-wall on every vertical surface, promising “change”, “power”, “respect”, and all sorts of other things. The prevailing attitude of many seemed to be “sure, whatever”, according to our guide.

Guatemala City. The election has just finished, and political campaign signs are everywhere. The highway is crowded with buses, motorbikes, cars, and trucks, all leaving town for the long holiday weekend. Blue sky in the morning.


The heavy traffic and stop-and-go conditions allowed for a few things to be observed. The traffic was tangled up, but everything worked out. Motorbikes, especially, would dart through small gaps in the traffic, but there was no road rage to be seen. Again, the drivers generally seemed polite but would assert their space and work the gaps. People demonstrated a practical knowledge of where the four corners of their own vehicle were, and where the edges of the other vehicles on the road were as well. Semi-organized chaos, but no crises. Traffic was a constant negotiation, but generally in good faith and without visible anger, most of the time. In the midst of all of this, the rules of the road were treated more like suggestions. Things such as merges, turns into and out of the road, stopping in traffic along the way, or following the lanes and limit markings, all seemed to be somewhat up for grabs. The reason it all seemed to work just fine, was the overall patient and tolerant attitude of the people on the road. There were plenty of excuses to exhibit road rage, from many, many real-world slights and the bending of the rules of the road to someone’s advantage, to the disadvantage of others, and, yet, nobody got visibly angry. I attribute it to a widespread acceptance of the realities of the traffic situation, rather than the expressions of anger that are often seen at home, when a driver feels “slighted”.

Traffic leaving Guatemala City was heavy on a holiday weekend. The truck on the right side is definitely a Hino! Note the concrete work holding back the cliff face. More of this sort of thing to come.


A cotton candy vendor plying his wares in traffic. He has found a clever way to protect himself from the hot summer sun while he works.


Another phenomenon was that the holiday traffic jams allowed beggars and street vendors to literally wander through the traffic in order to pitch their plights and sell their wares. It is common for them to line the edges of the roads and populate the center divides in places, but the holiday traffic allowed them to be more aggressive. I saw all manner of vendors, from food and soda, to ice cream and cotton candy, smartphone brackets, helium balloons, and other bits of kitsch that I couldn’t identify. They didn’t get in anyone’s face, but they were “right there”, in the lanes of traffic, to maximize any available sales. As it was a warm and humid day, the ice cream vendors seems to be doing the best business.

This street vendor is selling smartphone cases and brackets. Heavy holiday stop-and-go traffic allows him to wander in the traffic lanes. Note his glare. Most of the time, I was careful not to be obviously taking people’s pictures, as it is a very rude thing to do without permission.


The saddest and most uncomfortable sights were the legless beggars, some of which had actually perched themselves between the lanes of traffic, along with others who populated the broad center divides. Most of these people had stationed themselves on the edge of Guatemala City, not too far up the road, but not in the center of town either.

Volunteer firefighters are collecting their “pay” from people traveling along the highway. It’s how things are done.


Volunteer firemen were also collecting cash, in a fashion analogous to the fundraising that firefighters occasionally do for charity here in California, collecting from drivers. Our guide explained that it is the way the fireman get paid, as volunteer firemen (“bomberos”) are universal in most of Guatemala. Unlike in parts of Mexico, most of the fire equipment (and all of it that I saw) is not donated equipment from the U.S., but instead smaller and newer locally sourced trucks.

Volunteer firefighter ambulances. Toyota HiAces again.


Speaking of vendors, roadside street food vendors were common. A person would wave a red (or some sort of vaguely red) flag at the traffic to indicate that food was available. Some of the vendors had small stores or shelters, and others were just a few people with a couple of large pots set up. You take your chances…

A roadside street food vendor along the highway. Stopping in the right-hand traffic lane in order to buy something is how it is done.


Another common sight, all along the highways, were the “pinchazos”, the tire repairers. Some were associated with small tire vendors, but most were little, likely one-person roadside offerings, often marked as “24 horas”. They would set out an old tire with “pinchazo” written in block letters and an arrow on it. People often repair damaged tires there, they don’t necessarily buy new ones, which can easily exceed their personal budget.

24-hour tire repair, and tire sales. This is one of the more elaborate pinchazo businesses, which line the highways, mile after mile. The ubiquitous “pinchazo” tire is partially obscured behind the pedestrian.


Junkyards were another roadside phenomenon, again more common outside the edge of Guatemala City, but not seen so much further up the road or in the middle of town. Yards run the gamut from a few trashed cars along the side of the road on an empty lot or a property strewn with various discarded objects, up to dedicated buildings and well-fenced lots. I did not see the carefully organized and large laid-out lots of cars, familiar to us here in the U.S. These were definitely not “serve yourself” businesses, and even the cars on an empty lot likely had someone close by to pull the requested parts and close the transaction.

Roadside auto parts recycling, Guatemala style. The Israeli flags, in this case, likely signify that the business owner is an Evangelical Christian. In this Catholic-dominated country, the Evangelical movement has taken to flying the Israeli flag.


Another roadside auto parts recycler. A bit less organized, and a bit more messy.


The other extreme, a GM truck being overtaken by the local shrubbery. Don’t assume that you can just help yourself to parts from this one. There may be someone close by who it “belongs to”.


The roads themselves were usually in very good condition, though the markings and signage could be somewhat inconsistent. Cracks, potholes, and makeshift repairs were not to be seen. Someone among the Guatemalan powers-that-be has definitely prioritized good roads. The large cuts into the hillsides to accommodate the highways were carefully and elaborately reinforced, which is no small feat in a geography that includes a lot of rain, earthquakes, and the shifting of soils. As the roads truly are the transportation lifeblood of the country (the irregular mountainous conditions mean that railroads and airports are mostly out of the question), good roads appear to be a priority, realized in a way (at least on the major highways) that we here in the U.S. could often only dream of.

Retaining the cliff walls overlooking the highways is a big job. This particular effort is still under construction. Note the typical uniformly high quality of the road surface.


Halfway along the way from Guatemala City to Panajachel at Lake Atitlán, we stopped for snacks and a bathroom break. The roadside gas station and mini-mart complex would not be unfamiliar to those who travel the U.S. Interstates. However, many of the gas stations, which do run the gamut from full-on roadside complexes to a few pumps on an otherwise mostly empty concrete pad alongside the road, have a large fuel truck parked on-site, in a dedicated spot. It appears that many of the stations pump the fuel directly from the truck, through the underground infrastructure, directly to the gas pumps, rather than storing any significant amount of fuel underground. I’m not sure why it is so, but it appears that it is how they do things. The fuel was sold by the gallon, and pricing appeared to be the equivalent to about $4.50 per gallon, at the time (32 to 36 Quetzals, at roughly 7 1/2 Quetzals to 1 U.S. Dollar).

A “Don Arturo” service station, with the typical fuel truck parked alongside the operation.


Our Texaco mini-mart rest stop, halfway along on our journey. There is the (unmarked, no logos) fuel truck, alongside the gas station complex, as they do it there.

Leaving the rest stop, the climb became steeper, the afternoon weather went from sunny to cloudy and wet, and the landscape changed from suburban to decidedly rural. The mix of personal and commercial vehicles changed as well. Stand by for Part 3.