October 27, 2009

10 Things You Should Know About Living in Guatemala

1. Quetzal
The Quetzal is the local money but also the national bird of Guatemala. You won’t be able to get any quetzals outside the country. One hundred quetzals equal 15 USD so items may seem very cheap to you. No you won’t be able to pay everything by credit card, so you better get used to have cash in your wallet! When you return to your home country, you’ll be running all the time to the cash machine before thinking “Oh yeah I can use my credit card again!”.

2. It will take you 4 hours to travel 170 kilometers
Yes traveling around Guatemala takes time, a lot of time. You will soon be used to the bumpy rides on the local buses called camionetas or chicken buses. They are old school buses from the States redecorated in flashy colors. The game is to have as many people as possible into the bus, so you will feel like a chicken. The first drive is always the scariest with drivers thinking they are driving a Formula one. But that’s the best way to live the real Guatemalan experience! You will soon get used to it.

3. Spanish is not just your second language
There are twenty-three indigenous languages in Guatemala so for most of the population Spanish is only their second language, too. Ninety seven percent of Guatemalans speak Spanish so that shouldn’t be a problem when traveling around. But if you go to small villages you might be surprised that nobody understands you. There are still places in Guatemalan where nobody speaks Spanish or so little of it that having a conversation with them might be a challenge.

4. Prepare to get high

If you go to Quetzaltenango which is  located at 2 330 meters high, be ready to be short of breath every time you climb stairs. The first week I was in Xela, I didn’t understand why I was always so tired until I realized it was because of the altitude. Of course!! Guatemala has a spectacular chain of thirty volcanoes in only 109,000 sq km. So you will probably be climbing a few, like Tajumulco which is the highest volcano en Central America (4220 meters high).

5. You’re a gringo

Gringo means American, but for most Guatemalans if you are a white foreigner then you are a gringo. Don’t be offended. You can try to explain them that you’re coming from the UK, France or Spain but if you’re in the country sometimes it’s not worth it. I remember once I was traveling and a guy asked me where I was from. When I answered France, he asked in which state it was (in the United States). When I replied “No it’s in Europe”, he asked me again where it was it the States.

6. La hora chapine

The first time you meet a Guatemalan you might be annoyed because he will be late. Don’t be. Just try to get used to! La “hora Chapine” means people always arrive late. It can be from 10 minutes up to an hour. So if you’re used to always arriving late yourself, you will be very happy here. But if you’re someone like me who likes people arriving on time, you will feel frustrated for sure. Just tell them to meet at 6:30 p.m. if you want to meet them at 7 p.m.

7. You will eat fijoles and tortillas until you get sick of

The fundamental staple of Guatemalan food is the tortilla, a thin round patty of corn dough cooked on a griddle called a “comal”. They eat tortillas at every meal like we do with bread in other countries. It’s the exclusive domain of women and you’ll see and hear women making them in every corner of the country.
The second staple are the frijoles or black beans. They can be eaten boiled or fried, in soup or with tortillas and eggs. Frijoles are served in their own dark sauce or in a thick black paste.

8. Sometimes electricity or water runs out
There are often power cuts or the water runs out. Just be always ready. Have some candles in the house and have your pila (water tank) full.

9. Don’t get bolo with the Gallo
Gallo means “chicken” in Spanish. That’s also the name of the national beer. You can buy it anywhere, even in the remotest village. People may have no electricity but they will surely have Gallo! Alcohol is a big problem in Guatemala and you’ll see a lot of bolos (drunk people) around town at any hours of the day or night.

10.Salsa is in their blood

If you want to dance salsa, you’ll find clubs and dance schools in all cities. Salsa is in their blood and it might cost you a lot to get to their level, but it’s worth it. Many clubs have a special salsa night with free classes. Ask around or check the add  boards around town.

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