The Top 5 Good, Bad, and Ugly Things of Our Trip in Guatemala

Family trips to new countries are never what you anticipate them to be, and our trip to Guatemala was no different. Here’s my Top 5 list of the good, the bad, and the ugly things from our trip in Guatemala:

The Good:

1. Buenos Dias: Everywhere we walked, we couldn’t go without passing someone and getting a friendly “Good morning” or “Hello” from perfect strangers. The friendliness of the locals was so infectious that we’d pass by other foreigners and be greeted by them as well.

2. Fruits and Vegetables: Produce is so cheap in Guatemala that we’d walk away from a local fruit stand with a pineapple, watermelon, papaya, and bananas for less than $3 USD total. We indulged in all the local fruits and vegetables that by the time we left Guatemala, we could not eat another delicious avocado or piece of corn.

Fresh fruit stand at local market

Fresh fruit stand at local market

3. Street Food: Tacos, tortillas, enchilladas, tamales, soups, chicken sandwiches, fresh guacamole, and more were on display each day throughout the town of Antigua. Locals loved the street food and so did we.

Our favorite street food stop

4. Walking: We walked our butts off in Antigua by walking to the local supermarket, around the town, and to and from our kids’ preschool. In contrast to how much we walk in the United States, we walked at least 10x more in Guatemala on a daily basis.

5. Scenery: Surrounded by volcanoes (dormant and active), the town is a mix of cobble-stone streets, old colonial architecture, and a visual assortment of trees, plants, and flowers. The sunrises and sunsets were just beautiful in this environment.

Antigua's panoramic backdrop

Antigua’s panoramic backdrop

The Bad:

1. Tasteless modern day slavery: A nanny/housekeeper would accompany one of our daughter’s classmates to school with an apron on. Her duties during the daily preschool pickup with both parents was to hold the door open while the wife would step out of the SUV with her high heels on and hold their son’s backpack at a few meters distance while the parents chatted up the teachers. I can understand having help, but this was just disgraceful.

2. Too much McDonalds: We ate more McDonalds in Antigua in 4 weeks than we did in all of 2013. McDonalds was the cleanest, most child-friendly place that we could find for eating out with our kids. With fancy restaurants and cooking not really options for us, McDonalds became our default option at least 5-7 times over the course of 28 days. And what was our last meal at the Guatemala airport? Old faithfuls including a Big Mac, chicken mcnuggets, and fries. Not good.

McDonald's in Antigua

McDonald’s in Antigua

3. Stray dogs everywhere: Unfortunately, stray dogs in Central and South American countries seems to be the norm. I never felt unsafe in Guatemala, but my heart skipped a beat every time a hungry, desperate stray dog would walk by us.

One of the stray dogs who "lived" by our guesthouse

One of the stray dogs who “lived” by our guesthouse

4. Shuttle ride from Panajachel to Antigua: Imagine being on the Super Shuttle with every seat taken and someone in front of you chatting it up with her neighbor for 2.5 hours straight while everyone else tries to take a nap. That was our shuttle ride from Panajachel (Lake Atitlan) back to Antigua. On top of that, my wife and I could not move our legs because we had “saved” $10 USD and had our kids sit on our laps. What that meant was we were held motionless for 2.5 hours with 2 kids sleeping as flat as possible on our laps.

5. Mysterious insect bites: Our legs and arms got bit pretty badly by some insects, most likely ticks. Unlike mosquito bites, these bites would feel itchy for at least 2 weeks. Our youngest daughter got a bite on her face, which left a mark that finally has gone away after a few weeks.

The Ugly:

1. Shuttle ride from Antigua to San Pedro: We made the mistake of taking the extra-long shuttle ride (3 hours total) to San Pedro, instead of going to Panajachel first. What this meant was that we had about an hour more of relentless winding mountain roads and bumpy potholes. It left Karen, my wife, throwing up midway and literally brought to tears out of pure despair and pain by the end of the ride.

2. Smog from the buses and cars: There doesn’t seem to be many regulations on smog emissions on cars and buses in Guatemala. We’d literally run away to avoid the large, black smoke clouds that would come out from the exhaust of the many commuter school buses that passed us on our way from preschool and back. Our girls came back with a pesky cough that we think is a reaction from all the dirty pollution that the vehicles produce on the roads in Guatemala.

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Smoky cobble-stone streets from cars, tuk-tuks, buses, and motorbikes

3. Food poisoning from bakery treats: We could not leave Guatemala unscathed, unfortunately. During our last week, we all caught a bug in our stomachs from the local food. The culprit was most likely some undercooked and/or spoiled meat in some pastries that we bought at a bakery. I was left bed-ridden for an entire day and the girls were left vomiting and had extra urgent runs to the bathroom even while they were sleeping.

4. Dog poop everywhere: Since stray dogs are everywhere, so is their poop. While being constantly cognizant if poop was in our path while walking, we stepped in a few indiscernible droppings on a few occasions. Smelly shoe bottoms didn’t make for nice fragrances when we returned to our room.

5. Poverty: Not quite as jarring as the poverty of the streets of India, but nonetheless, poverty is widespread throughout Guatemala. Little girls work the streets as solicitors of handicrafts and little boys hustle as shoe shiners. Traveling just five or ten minutes outside of Antigua and the living conditions change to a different landscape where flooring is non-existent and roofing is sheet metal pieced together. Luckily, there are a lot of great organizations helping to end the cycle of poverty, one child at a time. A couple that we encountered were Common Hope and Living Water International.

Mother and child selling $0.25 cents avocados at the local market

Mother and child selling $0.25 cents avocados at the local market

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For all the good, bad, and ugly things, traveling in Guatemala has certainly been one of our better travel experiences as a family. Guatemala is a destination that we want to come back to in the future to see how things have changed and progressed.

Related reading: What We Did with Our Kids in Antigua, Guatemala for Four Weeks

Cliff Hsia is a writer, husband, and father, who is determined to live a better than normal life by traveling the world, slowly and purposefully, with his wife and two young daughters. His writing has been featured on MSN, TODAY, The Huffington Post, The Good Men Project, and other publications. He writes about travel, parenting, and lifestyle design.

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  • shal

    I think a lot of ugly’s you mention are not specific to Guatemala but the reality of traveling in the “third” world..