Let’s face it, we’ve often gotten an image of Latin American countries as dangerous places. Such impressions are rooted in long outdated events like civil wars, or in the Hollywood staple of the drug trade — which does indeed exist, but rarely has a violent impact on ordinary citizens. In regards to Guatemala, the capital of Guatemala City (population 5 million) is often rumored to be an absolute cesspool that you shouldn’t set foot in if you value your life. Similar claims are sometimes circulated about the Ecuadorian capital of Quito (population 2 million); but when we talked to people who had actually visited these cities, and even to people who had lived in them, we got a much more positive impression. Finally, out of aeronautical necessity, we visited both cities back to back. And our own impression is that neither of them is nearly as bad as it is painted — in fact, we wouldn’t mind spending more time in both.
January 11 - adios Antiqua, Guatemala
We took an afternoon shuttle from Antigua to Guatemala City, about a 45 minute ride, after Kimberly worked in an early morning yoga class in Antigua. Our driver, Javier, lives in Guatemala City and has a very favorable opinion of his hometown. (He also told us that his daughter wanted a violin for her 8th birthday, so they gave her one; 6 years later, she gave her first concert.) He dropped us at the Nostalgic Hostel, smack in the middle of Zone 1, which some reports call the sketchiest neighborhood in the whole city. Other people say that while this may have been true in past years, the district has been revitalized in more recent times. From what we saw, we’d say that the latter is the case.
It’s true that most businesses were patrolled by armed guards, but it was hard to imagine that without them there would be a huge surge in crime. Most of the businesses were little family-run operations, often staffed by kids. At one produce stand we stopped in to stock up, a couple of pre-teen girls had a great time joking with us and making fun or our awkward attempts to speak Spanish. All in all, the activity on these streets just didn’t paint a portrait of a high-risk atmosphere.
January 12th - Guatemala City, Guatemala
The hostel we stayed at was an unexpected oasis in the middle of a bustling metropolis. It was small and mostly quiet, with a cozy little courtyard. Breakfast was provided. The staff were friendly and helpful, even arranging a ride to the airport for us.
Hostel Nostalgic in Guatemala City
Our strolls through the neighborhood took us to some historic buildings, another gigantic Mercado with merchants hustling us at every turn, and a revamped pedestrian mall where we purchased a couple of items we needed, including a replacement for Kimberly’s flashlight to replace the flashlight she left behind in Miami.
Abundance of fresh produce and colorful artistic wares available in Guatemala City
With an early morning flight to Quito, we had to leave the hostel at 4:30 a.m. Not only did the hostel find someone willing to drive us there at such an ungodly hour, but the attendant even came into our room at 4:00 a.m. to make certain we were awake.
January 13th - Leaving Guatemala City at dawn after securing some chocolate in a woven bag accompanied by a worry doll
At the airport, we decided to spend the last of our few remaining quetzales, which we wouldn’t be needing anymore. So with about 50 quetzales ($6.50) remaining, Kimberly bought a bar of chocolate and Dennis obtained a cup of decaf coffee — both amazingly quite good. And that was our queztal quotient — or so we thought. But later we discovered a stash of 300 of them (nearly 40 bucks) that we’d overlooked.
Too bad they couldn’t have been used in Panama City, where we had a layover of about 4 hours. (Although Panama was technically our third country visited on this tour, we don’t count it because it was only the airport, which is always a world of its own. We didn’t even have to go through immigration or customs.) The good news was that the standard currency in Panama is the U.S. dollar; the bad news was that everything was outrageously expensive, even by airport standards (if airports have any). A cup of hot tea was a whopping 5 dollars, which would have been astronomical even if it had been a Starbucks. Folks, folks; tea is supposed to be steeped, not steep. The good news was that the tea was very good (Starbucks couldn’t touch it with a 10-foot teaspoon), strong enough and rather big, big enough for the two of us to split. And after Dennis immediately knocked over his half of it in a freakish accident before he’d had a single sip, he was able to go back to the shop and get more hot water, and the bag made a satisfactory replacement serving.
Flight from Guatemala City to Panama City pitstop for a four hour layover
After we landed in Quito, nearly an hour behind schedule, we were met by another shuttle driver, a ride which once again had been arranged for us by the hostel where we were to stay. But this was a very long ride, about 45 minutes. Not only is Quito really spread out, but just to make things as inconvenient as possible, they put the airport waaaaaay out of town.
The clouds put on a spectacular show from Panama City to Quito, Ecuador
The Hostel Revolution in Quito turned out to be the best hostel we’ve stayed at yet. The beds were sturdy and comfortable, the rooms were hardwood and very quiet, and the kitchen was well equipped. And there was an exercise area on the roof with a fantastic view of the city — and nobody minded us being up there. We had only one roommate, a fascinating older fellow from Ohio named Jim.
Hostel Revolution in Quito, Ecuador and our roommate Jim moving on
As in Guatemala City, our stay was brief, and we didn’t do much in the way of sightseeing — just walking around and taking care of errands. But we had no difficulties, and didn’t sense that there was any danger at all. (The same thing could be said of a subsequent stay, a little longer this time, in Quito.)
From Quito, we had to take a bus to Ambato, the site of our next volunteer post. Like the airport, the bus station was out in the hinterlands, so we called an Uber to take us there. After considerable confusion and paying 35 cents just to enter the terminal, we snagged the proper bus to take us on our 3-hour ride, sans bathrooms. (Note: Ecuador is another country that uses U.S. currency , so we didn’t have to withdraw funds at an ATM, and pay a conversion fee in the process — we already had a modest stash of greenbacks on us. It will probably be the last time we’re in such a nation on this trip.)
January 14th - Quito, Ecuador
It seems to be customary all over Latin America for vendors to get aboard buses to hawk their wares to passengers, then exit a stop or two later. We’d already encountered this regularly in Mexico and Guatemala. But on this particular ride, there surely must have been a record number of them. At one point about a dozen of them were in the aisle at the same time, skillfully weaving around each other as they called out the products they were offering for consumption.
Scenes from the bus window, Quito to Ambato - January 14th
At about 2:00 p.m., we pulled into the station in Ambato, and were met by one of the teachers at the school where we’ll be volunteering: a tall, muscular fellow named Ricardo (who, it turns out, is actually Italian). He and Martin, the co-owner of the school, drove us to our new digs in a little rooftop studio above the school. And once we’d settled in and caught our breath, we were promptly put to work — they wanted us to teach from 4 to 8 that day, and from 9 to 1 the following day.
Settling in to our new home for the next 3 weeks, Ambato, Ecuador - January 14th
And thus began our third volunteer gig, which we’ll tell you about in the next post.
Jan. 11-14, 2022