Monday, November 16, 2015

Busted Myths About Panajachel and Guatemala

I did a lot of research before deciding to move to Guatemala. I mean A LOT. I've always loved planning trips, and sometimes have even planned trips for my friends and family, and planning this move was kinda similar. Way back when I started thinking about moving from Canada to Guatemala, it comforted me to think that it was just a looooong working vacation. :)

In my research about Guatemala and Panajachel in particular, I discovered a lot of misinformation. In no particular order, here are some myths that I've disproven or clarified in the seven months I've been here.
Oooh, dark and brooding volcano. 
Myth 1 -- You can't find anything from "back home".
BUSTED -- Sandra's on Santander in Panajachel has all sorts of gringo food, from Pringles to Cocoa Puffs to English muffins to Old El Paso taco spice mix. (Why??) However, gringo stuff is waaaay overpriced. A bottle of spray-on sunscreen costs $19. Peanut butter is $10. But if you don't care about the brand name, many stores here are stocked with Doritos-like chips, copycat Frosted Flakes, and even Ramen noodles. Yummy! Plus, it's not that far to get to a larger cities where there are fully stocked Walmarts, Price Marts, and Home Depots to satisfy all your needs. :)
Bert says he remembers thinking he would never get to drink chocolate milk again. Happily, there is chocolate milk here and even strawberry milk!

Myth 2 -- It's really unsafe. You're going to get robbed, kidnapped, stabbed, etc.
Kinda Busted -- Yes, there is crime but most of it is not directed towards gringos. There is a lot of gang violence in the larger cities, which one of the main reasons I don't live there. In Panajachel, there are cops and tourist police all over, especially on weekends, and I've never really felt unsafe while in town. However, pickpockets are attracted to the large gatherings during festivals where distracted tourists are an easy mark. Plus, a friend experienced a bus robbery while on a chicken bus coming back at night from Chichicastenango. Armed men boarded the bus and robbed all the passengers. So I have to say, yes, there is crime here, but that's true in all countries, isn't it? Just use extra caution when traveling smaller roads and also when out after dark. As in all of life, use your smarts!

Myth 3 -- No three-pronged power outlets.
Kinda Busted -- Our lake apartment had been renovated to upgrade the wiring and install three-pronged grounded plugs. Our current casita has three-pronged plugs but they aren't grounded, so technically they're no good. However, the main power source from the street has a grounding rod, so we're working on getting a grounding wire from there to at least one plug in the house. We've seen quite a few places with three-pronged outlets, including local restaurants that offer free WiFi. The trick is: are they really grounded? Extension cords at the 3Q store have the third prong ripped out, but the hardware store has real three-pronged cords. Bottom line: yes, many places only have two-pronged power outlets but it's not as widespread as I was led to believe.

Myth 4 -- Lake Atitlan is polluted/Lake Atitlan is the most beautiful lake in the world.
Hard to bust or confirm a myth that has both sides to it! The answer is: both are true. Sections of the lake are pristine and gorgeous. Other parts are clogged with plastic refuse and smell like sewage.

Myth 5 -- You need quetzales before you arrive.
BUSTED -- American dollars are fine to change in many places, although rates vary. We changed our last American dollars at Guipil's on Santander. He usually puts out a pylon with a sign in English that says they change money. In several other stores, we've also seen signs to change British pounds and euros, plus there are many banks in town.

Myth 6 -- The bank machines/ATM/ABMs will rip you off.
Kinda BUSTED -- I wanted to say this was busted but in September I actually DID get ripped off by the BI bank machine on Santander near the computer store. I tried to withdraw Q2,000, about $350 Canadian, and it froze. I eventually got tired of waiting and cancelled the transaction. However, my account was debited the money!
I went into the bank branch next door and told them. They informed me that that particular bank machine doesn't work for international cards. Apparently, there's usually a sign up that says that but it had been torn down. I have since seen that sign up and have warned others away from that machine. I'm still waiting for the banks to work it out and refund me the cash.
That being said, I have also used many ATMs with no troubles at all. I've used both machines in the Despensa Familiar without problems. Different banks charge different fees, so try a few machines before you decide which one is for you. Getting a local bank account is a difficult process for foreigners, so you just gotta suck it up and take your chances. Or follow the advice of some American friends and use an alternative service like Western Union or Xoom.

Myth 7 -- There is no bread in Guatemala.
SO BUSTED! -- Not sure where I heard this rumour but I remember thinking before I came here, "How will I do without bread?" There are panaderĂ­as all over the place here, and loafs of bread sold in the Despensa, Chalo's, and Sandra's. For your regular white sandwich bread, it's best to buy at the Despensa. Homebaked full-sized loaves are a bit hard to come by, so it's usually best to go early in the morning before they sell out. There are lots of fresh buns and smaller loaves for sale all day long at the local bread shops. Cheap too!

Myth 8 -- It's hard to find shoes that fit larger feet. (Bert's contribution.)
BUSTED -- We had read on forums before we came here that finding large shoes would be very difficult as Guatemalans are very small and stores don't carry bigger sizes. Totally absolutely completely not true! Guatemalans have an obsession with shoes. There are shoe stores every 10 feet, both new and second-hand. And Bert says it's actually easier to find bigger shoes because mostly only the gringos buy them. What a weird myth!
Amazing embroidered shoes for sale on Santander in Panajachel.
Myth 9 -- Guatemala is stuck in the past. 
BUSTED -- Bert and I both remember feeling that we were going to some remote, backwards, third-world country that had no modern conveniences, electronics, and infrastructure. I worried about not finding computer supplies. I also remember thinking there wouldn't be paved streets and the kids wouldn't have toys, like they would be playing with sticks or something. Bert remembers thinking about bringing down school supplies and other donations to help the poor.
Well, weren't we naive?? They have everything here: computer stores, Internet cafes, hair salons, pet stores, and cell phones galore! I distinctly recall arriving in Panajachel and staring at a Mayan woman in full traje (traditional clothes) talking on an iPhone as she walked down the street.
Yes, there are very poor people here, and yes, we do live in Pana which is a very touristy town with lots of modern stuff, but I do honestly feel like a bit of a dork for thinking I'd be living with some sort of jungle natives with no concept of the Internet. (Cringing as I write this!)
However, it is true that Guatemala is a third-world country with rampant poverty, injustice, gender inequality, and civil unrest, but it is also a country that is moving towards a better life for its citizens. Things can only get better here!

Anyhoo, I hope these clarifications are helpful to those of you considering a visiting or relocating to Guatemala. I wanted to write them down before I forgot all my preconceptions! We've lived here now for over half a year so things are becoming routine. I had almost forgotten all the strange things I fretted about before arriving at this lovely place. :)

No comments :

Post a Comment