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To Guat or Not? – Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala | We're Not There Yet

We decided to come to Guatemala only after wrestling with the safety issues for the better part of the previous 4 months. Stories of violence and crime here are real, but you always have to wonder what the context is- is it actually unsafe to visit? I was pretty skittish about our decision to cross the border and filled up on stories of all the things that have gone wrong with travelers who have come before us. Luckily, the accounts added up to scary, but isolated incidents in parts of the country that we plan to avoid. It is a fine line to make the decision to travel to places that are reportedly unsafe or unstable. On the one hand, you don’t want to buy in to a general and often overblown fear of ‘other’ places and miss out on the experiences that are, frankly, the whole point of traveling. On the other hand, we don’t want to be the ignorant Americans who waltz into a country struggling with genuine social and political issues and assume that we are untouchable or at least, excused from the situation.

Not so scary

We finally decided to head into Guatemala after we met enough travelers whose judgment we trusted and who made it through not only intact, but glowing from their experiences in the country. After about a week in Xela, I can firmly say that we drank the Kool-Aid. We love it here and have decided to stay for at least a month to practice our Spanish and bask in the almost surreal joy of staying in one place for a while.

Within about 20 minutes of arriving in town, we met Attila, a Hungarian who also did a bike tour through Mexico and into Guatemala. Of course, that was about 4 months ago and he is still here (this place has that kind of effect on people). It was a serendipitous meeting with a fellow cyclist who is also very well plugged into the goings-on in the city. We made plans to join him and a group of other travelers for a 80km bike ride to nearby Lake Atilan for the weekend. That’s just the kind of place it is here- there’s a ton going on and the people are super friendly (locals and adopted locals, alike). Before we had even spent a night in town, we started to feel the famous Xela magic start to work on us.

Bridge to Nowhere: this bridge literally connects one side of the sidewalk to the other. It has a plaque that places the construction in the 1600’s when, apparently, it used to straddle a creek. Oh, Xela, you so crazy!

On our second day in town, we found a pretty ideal living situation: prime location next to the park, very, very reasonable rates, and a balcony to boot! We have become so utterly and completely at home here that it hardly seems like were on a bike ride anymore. We have access to a shared kitchen, so we cook most of our meals, go shopping in the markets, commute to ‘school’ in the mornings, and even have started to make friends around town. It’s not that the town is the most beautiful or the most sophisticated, but the balance of a very pretty mountain-nestled location and enough interesting activities going on make this feel like a very familiar place, similar to college towns in the US.

We only have a few pre-Xela days of experience in Guatemala, so it is hard to get a read on whether or not this is just a tourist-friendly bubble in an otherwise chaotic country, but we are making efforts to get to know the surrounding areas and to talk to Guatemalans about crime and social unrest elsewhere in the country. We’ll use Xela as a home base for some other side trips and have decided to avoid Guatemala City entirely, which seems to be where a lot of crime is centered, but doesn’t hold much allure for many travelers. I’ve got to say that we feel pretty good about where we are now. We take standard precautions like not walking around late at night, not flashing valuables, and talking to locals about places to avoid. It is a shame that safety is as big an issue as it is here, but we count ourselves lucky to be here and just want to do everything we can to travel smart and keep the good vibes going.

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