First impressions of Guatemala

Our first few days in Guatemala have been delightful! Having been to Mexico many times, I was ready for more of the same: Constant forced interactions with street sellers, a machismo vibe, and a steady underlying tension in the society.

To my delight (and relief), Guatemala is not the same as Mexico. While there are certainly street vendors who want your attention and money, even in the most touristy areas they are neither as aggressive nor as constant. And rather than a machismo vibe, there is a very grounded family feel here – a much more feminine and balanced energy to the place. To be clear, we haven’t seen the whole country – these observations are only for the several places we have visited and toured so far.

I was surprised by this grounded feeling here as I have read and heard of the strife in the relatively recent past. And finally, unlike Mexico, there is a dynamic energy here, but no tension. Again, this might just be in the places we have visited, but there just isn’t the heavily armed military and police presence that I have come to expect in Mexico. Even coming through the airport was smooth and free of tension of any kind.

Getting into the country

Formal visit visas for many Western countries, including Canada, are not required. You simply show up, fill out a Customs form and they stamp your 3 month visitor visa. And you can renew it for another 3 months if you want by visiting an office in Guatemala City. We found the process of going through the airport on arrival very painless.

No, English is not the semi-official language here

Spanish is the language spoken here. Yes, I know you knew that. But I mean that it is really Spanish spoken here, not “Spanish, but everyone also speaks English”. While you will find some people who speak English, you must be prepared to work with most people who only speak Spanish. Even most people in the tourist trade speak at best a few words of English. While they like the foreign tourist income, they do not adapt their interactions to it – the language aspect being one example.

Friendly, friendly, people and place

Dog, cat and chickens...all getting along
Dog, cat and chickens…all getting along!

Guatemalans are really friendly, warm, and welcoming. Though they don’t speak English, their beaming smiles, gentle body language, courtesy, and genuine warmth are clear and evident everywhere we have been. I always like to test layers of a society to see if what is true for one group is really part of the place. Well, this photo says it all. On my early morning walk in Panajachel I passed this front yard scene. Cat rubbing up against dog. Dog with chickens, rooster puttering around. In peace. And the very relaxed perro in the next picture really sums up the Guatemala I have experienced so far.

Guatemala…for Guatemalans

A very relaxed dog in Guatemala
Dogs in Guatemala are very relaxed!

Guatemala is for Guatemalans first and foremost. Unlike Mexico, which has a very strong U.S. influence, Guatemala is a country set up for Guatemalans primarily. This is not to say that there aren’t facilities, signs in English, and the ability to get things done here as a foreigner, just that most of the country is set up for their own citizens, not to meet the needs of foreign tourists. For some people this will be a delight as you can more easily view and experience authentic aspects of Guatemala. For others, this will be an irritant as they expect to be treated with special attention and have the focus on them. And yes, I witnessed visitors from some unnamed country who expected to be treated as if they were royalty and were verbally clear on how much they disliked not being the centre of attention.

Get used to relationships…or don’t – your choice

Guatemala is very relational. We witnessed a younger female European getting very upset and even angry at the lack of exact punctuality and other process-oriented faux pas. And I noticed the discomfort of some visitors who were at a loss when faced with no goals to accomplish. Anyone coming with either a strong process orientation or strong goal orientation will have to adjust. Guatemala: Family and relationships come first.

Guatemala: A fixer’s dream country

Many visitors come here to work on fixing Guatemala. They are here to have their altruistic experience. No judgement here, just that it is clear that good intentions are mixed with the desire to have that “I am doing good in the world” payback. Does Guatemala need help? Like many places in the world, I am sure they do. But humorously, I was told that there at times multiple levels of NGO’s, charities, and volunteer groups working on the same communities and trying to do the same things, almost competing with each other to try to fix the Guatemalan people’s lives.

A country in transition

I love dynamic, changing, and transitioning place. Guatemala is one such country. A country on the move is how I would describe the Guatemala I have experienced so far. This time of change won’t happen without teething problems, but it will happen. And some of the changes won’t be liked by foreigners who are pleased with the Guatemala they are experiencing now or loved in the past.

Would I want to live or retire here?

It would be too early to make a decision about living or retiring in Guatemala from my limited experience here. Many foreigners are living, working, and making out their lives here, so this bodes well. But I have not seen many traditional American retirees here – gated communities, condo towers on the ocean, enclaves, etc. An eclectic mix of nationalities dovetail their interests and lives in Guatemala, but I have not seen a lot of retirees looking for a safe, warm, cheap, familiar haven to relax in. This is primarily because it not a safe and familiar haven – it is a country in transition and a country or Guatemalans, not retiring foreigners who want gated communities.

Alex on the steaming lava field of Volcano Pacaya
Alex on the steaming lava field of Volcano Pacaya


Finally, you gotta love volcanoes here. They are plentiful and play a significant role in the country…we climbed onto the lava fields of one that erupted 2 years ago, with steam vents and a lava cave for us to explore.

Signing off from the town of Panajachel on the shore of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala!

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