Thursday, September 29, 2016

Another Successful Visa Run to Tapachula

This was my second solo visa run to Tapachula by chicken bus and it went pretty well. A couple of the transfers were a little different than last time but I still managed to get there and back in good time and with minimal discomfort.
I love seeing men in traditional clothing. There are fewer of them around than women. It seems it's only older men who wear these type of clothes anymore.
We were almost to Malacatán when the chicken bus stopped behind a lineup of cars. After the ayudante made a phone call, one word echoed through the conversations on the bus: derrumbe. Landslide! The bus driver turned off the bus and a few of us got out to stretch our legs.
A traffic jam in Guatemala??
I was actually excited to get off the bus cuz I wanted to take a closer look at something in the forest next to the road. It looked to me like they were tapping the trees for something! There was a whole forest of similar trees with these little metal cups attached to them.
After I got home, I researched my hunch and was pleased to know I had guessed right. They're "gum" trees, or chicle trees. For a bit more information, check out this excerpt from a book about chicle.
Tapping chicle trees!
chicken bus Gautemala
My chicken bus. Super fancy.
One of the tricky transfers I had on the way to the border was at Malacatán. I had told the ayudante I wanted to get to the border so he motioned to me to get off the bus at a certain spot in Malacatán. Then he gave some rapid-fire directions, of which I understood barely anything, before waving cheerfully and driving off. Hmmm. I started walking in the general direction of his hand movements and ended up having a very interesting walk through the market. But I didn't see any combis/minivans/colectivos for the border. Hmmm. Got to an intersection and noticed a sign saying "El Carmen" this way, so I turned down that street and walked some more. Another turn and some growing concern that I was lost and then...yay!...a minivan comes up behind me with a young guy yelling "Tally-man!" That's me!
This colectivo was a sweet ride. It had fringe hanging from the ceiling! And who doesn't love a baseball cap that says "Dope"?
First order of business upon arriving in Tapachula? PIZZA. Yes, I actually went to Domino's before even going to my hotel. It's 174 pesos for a large three-topping pizza. Pretty expensive for me but so worth it. It's my reward for nine hours on chicken buses!
Domino's pizza with bacon, pepperoni, and mushrooms, plus some awesome chocolate bars I can't get in Guatemala. Best dinner ever!
I had an awesome sleep in my hotel -- Hotel Cervantino -- and woke early. What to do on my one day in Tapachula? Find my medication and take in some sights! I started early to beat the heat but was covered in sweat within five minutes of walking. Ugh. I love Mexico but the heat kills me every time. I feel disgusting the entire time I'm there and get tons of comments from store owners and waitresses. I always just reply, "Soy de Canada." (I'm from Canada.)
There was some sort of religious demonstration going on at the Bicentennial Park.
Third Street is my favourite! It was still decorated from Mexico's Independence Day on September 16th.
For some reason, I thought this was funny. El Mas Cronchi -- the most crunchy. I love how they appropriate English words. :D
OMG HALLOWEEN STUFF!!! I am in heaven!
The coolest pop can I've ever seen. See-through! I didn't buy it though. I bought a root beer! Yummy.
After circling around to several Farmacias Similares to gather up enough medication for six months (so I don't have to do another visa run for six months), I walked to the Chedraui in the north end. Last time, I went to the south end one. I got a bit lost and asked for directions, which is when I found out the true pronunciation of Chedraui -- ched-ROW-ee. The last two syllables sound like "rowdy" without the D.
Chedraui is like a big huge awesome Walmart. I can spend hours in there. Plus, it's air conditioned! Ahhh sweet relief.
Baked sandwich-y things in the Chedraui bakery section. The type of filling is baked right into the crust or something. Must be food dye. Pretty cool. I was tempted to buy one but I had already filled up on cold leftover pizza.
After some lovely cool shopping, I headed back out onto the street. While I had been on the shuttle into town, I had noticed a nice walkway by the river, so I headed that way. But first, I had to pass through the market. So awesome!
Gorgeous flowers plus a cheese store. CHEESE! Cheese is expensive in Guate but seemed to be everywhere in Mexico.
The "fresh" meat always cracks me up. Oh, plus we sell backpacks. Why not? :)
Found the fish section! They had whole octopi and other neat things. Really crowded and busy though, so I didn't get more pictures.
A view of the flower vendors from a second floor parking garage.
I walked up to the second floor of a parking garage and took a video of the market street. You can find it here on my YouTube Page.

As I was nearing the end of the open air booths, I noticed many people walking into a large warehouse-type building. Of course, I had to check it out! Turns out it was the biggest indoor market I'd ever seen. There were mazes of aisles selling all sorts of neat things. I walked and gawked for almost an hour before deciding to find an exit.
These are slot machines...kinda. I know they are for gambling. I'm not sure how you play them.
Dried chilis and beans and mysterious things.
One of the many meat aisles.
As I was wandering through the aisles, an ancient old lady came up and said to me, "Quieres una gallina?" I smiled at her and at the live chicken hanging from her arm and said, "No, gracias." What would I do with a live chicken??  Ha!
Had a good laugh at these! I asked the butcher if they were for cooking. He said no and said something and made chopping motions with his hands. They laughed at me when I made a dramatic fake horrified face and exclaimed, "Pobrecitos!" (Poor things!) We chatted a bit about Canada. They wanted to know if there was snow there yet. :)
When I finally found my way out of the building, I took this picture of it. Seeing as how there's not really much to do in Tapachula, I would recommend a walk-through of this place and the street market. Very vibrant and full of interesting sights.
Tapachula has some nice parks. I was grateful for the clouds and the breeze as it kept me a bit cool.
I found the river path and walked the entire length of it. I was pretty much the only person on there for most of my walk.
The river was high and muddy. The stone path ... perhaps it was the old path? I walked on the smooth red cement part with the arches and flowers and benches.
A bit shocking to see some pretty bad poverty right next to the fancy river walkway.
A meeting of pigeons on the yellow rail and more shacks behind.
Fancy long walking path.
I am fascinated by the different lifestyles I get to see in my travels. Laundry hanging to dry, a woman cooking on an open fire in the yard, chickens running around, and children playing in the dirt. 
Goes on and on. A nice walk!
Lovely flowers growing up over the arches.
This was a very tiny, very spectacular flower.
Super pretty!
These blossoms are quite big!
At the end of the walkway, I turned in the general direction of where I thought the central park was. Strolled through some neat old neighbourhoods and took a few wrong turns before finding my way back to the central park and my hotel.

An interesting observation I have about Tapachula. It seems to me that the city must have been more prosperous at one time than it is now. Things just look worn out or in disrepair. It's like at one point they had a lot of money to make fancy buildings and sidewalks and stuff, but then the money ran out and they can't afford the upkeep. It's a bit sad. But all the people there seem content and there is a lot of food and shopping available, so they must be doing pretty well. It's just my sense of the place. I still like visiting there though!
I saw an awesome cemetery and really, really wanted to go in to look around but there were shady-looking men hanging about at the entrance waiting for me to be alone so they could take all my monies. NOPE! Not falling for it! I settled for taking pictures over the wall.
I am fascinated by cemeteries.
I got back to my hotel just in time to avoid the afternoon downpour. I watched some movies subtitled in Spanish, good for learning, and wandered around the hotel until the rain stopped.
Pictures in the hotel. Yeah, not creepy at all.
The hotel is attached to some sort of chapel. I am too nervous to go through the doors to see. Perhaps the hotel was a housing area for nuns? Anyway, they have neat religious stuff.
Central Park in Tapachula. Great place to sit and people-watch.
For dinner on my second night, I went to a Chinese restaurant. It tasted just like the Chinese food you get in the mall back home! Ha! I was disappointed they didn't have chicken balls but was glad to eat something with vegetables. I was tempted to eat a more daring local food but reconsidered due to my past bad experiences with throwing up on buses. Ugh.

I purposefully slept in on Sunday because it was so blissfully quiet compared to my place in Guate. No barking dogs, crowing roosters, loud party boats, or pets demanding my attention. Ah, sweet sleep!
But soon enough I had to get up and get back on the numerous shuttles and buses to get home to Pana. Everything went smoothly, I got my new 90-day tourist visa stamp, had a nice stopover in Xela for a bit more shopping, and made it home just as dark was falling. A successful trip!
I love that the vendors come on the chicken buses to sell snacks! This guy was very popular. He sold fruit for Q3 and coconut for Q5. When the lady behind me bought coconut, he put all sorts of things on it. I think it was sugar, spices, and maybe lime juice? One day, I should try it!
I took some more video of riding on the chicken bus. Not super interesting as the dramatic views were shrouded in fog. Head over to my YouTube channel to see if there are any videos you've missed!

Monday, September 12, 2016

Internet Service in Panajachel, Guatelamala

Let's talk Internet. One of the questions I see a lot on expat message boards and Facebook groups is, "What is the Internet like in Guatemala?"
Well, I researched this before I moved here too and was reassured to know that, yes, there is Internet service in most towns in Guatemala, it's just that it's slow, unreliable, and expensive.
They weren't kidding.

Let me tell ya. I work online. I need Internet to make a living. When my Internet goes down, I lose money. I lose clients. I lose respect. I lose my freaking MIND. :)
woman screaming computer laptop frustrated
This is not me, but it certainly could be. Usually the screaming and swearing is followed by frustrated tears.
I have had personally used four different Internet services since moving to Panajachel in April 2015. I will give you the breakdown of each, plus one that I haven't used, and you can cross your fingers and hope that at least one of these will be available to you when you move to Lake Atitlan. (Hint: bigger towns mean more options and better service.)

1. Claro -- the biggest national player and widely viewed as the best home Internet service. I have had this at two apartments I've lived in and was very pleased with it. You may recall my blog post about a tree taking out our Internet line and the Claro guy came the next day. Impressive!
Prices on their website as of this writing range from Q149/month for 1 Mbps speed to Q999/month for 25 Mbps (which is not available in many places, probably only Guate City and perhaps Antigua and Xela).
So what's the catch? First, you have to sign a year contract. Second, you will need a landline phone line, which can be a problem in some areas, including where I live in Jucanya. And I've heard that Claro says they "can't" put in new landlines. What?? Regardless, this is the best Internet you can get in Guatemala, according to many.

2. TecnoCompu -- This is my current provider in Panajachel and I am fairly pleased with them. Installation seemed pricey to me: Q300 installation fee plus a Q200 deposit for an antenna on your roof. Only one computer is allowed, which would be technically impossible to enforce, and they charge you more per month if you tell them you want to have more than one computer on the line. (Hint: this is easily circumvented using VPNs or by turning your computer into a hotspot.) I pay Q325/month for 4 Mbps. This is a very small local operation with some super helpful young guys. I believe it piggybacks on Claro.

3. Tigo -- the other big national player, pretty comparable to Claro but for some reason, not as popular. I haven't used their home Internet service but I do have a mobile Internet USB stick for emergencies. It was Q199 to buy the stick and came with some free time. You get a phone number with the stick and just go to a tienda and put money on it like you would for a cell phone. Prices for their home Internet service are supposedly on their website but I couldn't get the page to load. Huh.

4. Mayanet -- A few of my friends have this service and have recommended it. I don't have much info except their Facebook page. They're located on Santander near Chinita's, I believe.

5. Panadish -- this is the only DSL service in Pana, which I got excited about, but it SUCKED. Slow all the time. Very expensive, Q399 a month for 4 Mbps and I only got that speed one day out of 30. Lots of outages too. I only got this service because my current apartment already a cable installed for it so I wouldn't have to pay for installation. But I disconnected it after the first month because it was so very bad. That's probably the only good thing: no contract.

If you have a laptop and want to socialize while surfing the Web, there is Free WiFi at lots of restaurants and cafés in Pana and other places around the lake. Buy a drink and a treat and enjoy!

If you don't have a computer but want to get online, there are a surprising number of Internet "cafes". One that I visited had their rates posted starting at Q1 for up to 10 minutes, with scaling rates per minutes, so that 46 to 60 minutes only cost Q5. (That's less than a dollar!)

So how does this compare to Internet back home? 

In Ontario, I used TekSavvy. It's only available in some parts of Ontario but it was awesome. Great prices and great service. I recommended it to anyone I talked to.

Their cable Internet service doesn't even offer anything less than 5 Mbps, which is $25 (Canadian) per month, or equivalent to about Q144.
The speeds offered goes all the way up to $60/month or Q346 for 100 Mbps. 100!! Can you imagine?? Oh, I wanna cry. I miss this so much!
They also offer DSL Internet, which is $30/month for 6 Mbps with additional tiers of speeds up to $50/month for 50 Mbps.

So compare that to the Q325 I'm paying now for shoddy 4 Mbps. That would be $56.33 Canadian per month. Ridiculous! For the amount I'm paying here, I could get 50 Mbps of DSL back home. With like 99% uptime. Oh! Such luxury!

TIP: Prices listed are in Canadian dollars. To convert into your currency, go to

So while I'm crying over slow and unreliable Internet, I comfort myself with fresh strawberries year-round for only Q5 a pound, breakfast out for Q20 or Q30 if I'm feeling luxurious ($3.50 to $5.20 Cdn), plus a sweet bachelorette apartment for Q1000 ($173 Cdn).
Life is hard, isn't it?  :)

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Sololá and Santa Cruz La Laguna With My Sister

We made two trips out of town during my sister's visit: one up the hill to Sololá and one a short boat trip to Santa Cruz. We wanted to get the full Guatemala travel experience!

Oh boy, did we ever get the chicken bus experience in all its glory. On Wednesday afternoon, we hopped on the bus in Panajachel to go up to Sololá. The ride up was fine. Normal really. It was the ride down that was the kicker!
The museum in Sololá. I didn't get many pictures cuz my camera battery was dying.
We only had about an hour to wander around Sololá and see the main square and a few stores. Then we wanted to take the chicken bus down to the mirador (lookout) halfway down the hill. I confidently told the driver, "Queremos ir al mirador." (We want to go to the lookout.) He said, "Bueno. Primero or segundo?" (Good. First or second?") Umm.... primero??  I didn't realize there were two! But the first one was the correct choice as it has all the vendors and stuff.

So we hopped on the bus and it was PACKED. Suzanne got a seat but I was left standing in the aisle on a rapidly moving school bus that was careening down a twisty mountain road. Then the helper asked us to move towards the back door to hop out at the lookout...while we were still moving. So Suzanne and I started lurching and laughing our way through the crowded bus to the emergency exit, and thankfully they made a full stop to let us clamber out using a small metal step. Whew!

The view of Lake Atitlan from the mirador between Panajachel and Sololá.
It was neat to see the two volcanoes, Toliman and Atitlan, lined up one behind the other.
After a brief stop to view the lake and buy some trinkets, we stood on the side of the road to flag down a ride back to Pana. Well, a chicken bus came barrelling around the corner at full speed. I put up my hand and backed quickly away from the road. I could not believe that the driver actually stopped in such a short distance! We got on and stood in the aisle for the rest of the ride down to Pana, doing our best to balance ourselves on the curves and hills. Fun!

TIP: The chicken bus from Pana to Sololá cost Q3 each. The ride down cost Q2 to the mirador and another Q2 to Pana. Hmmm...

On Thursday, we went for a quick lancha ride over to Santa Cruz la Laguna. It's only a short distance from Pana but is only accessible by boat. The cost is Q10 per person each way.

My sister enjoying the boat ride. We both are addicted to being on the water. I could ride the boats all day.
The gorgeous waters of Lake Atitlan. If I had a boat, I would drive out to the middle of the lake and swim in the amazing deep deep DEEP water!
The dock at Santa Cruz la Laguna. Heavenly!
Enjoying refreshments at La Iguana Perdida before our big hike up to the town. We were tempted to stay here all day.
We were going to climb up the road to Santa Cruz but a nice woman in La Iguana Perdida told us to go behind the restaurant to the stairs because it was "shorter". Well, shorter didn't mean easier, that's for sure! But we were very glad we did it. It was very scenic and we felt triumphant when we reached the top!
Some of the stairs we climbed. There were soooo many. Just when you thought you'd had enough, you turn a corner and there were more! Also, some of the stairs were sloped upwards, so you were climbing stairs while climbing a ramp. Actually a rather efficient way to ascend.
I think I passed out. HA HA! 
Not sure what she's gawking at!! See the sloping stairs? Up up up!
When we got to the top, it was only a short walk to the restaurant we were looking for. It is called Café Sabor Cruceño and it's run by graduates of the local college cooking program. They also have a gift shop selling students' crafts, and you actually get to walk through the sewing class area to get to the restaurant. The college, CECAP, is a fantastic project for this small town of 6,500 people, which includes several outlying villages further up the mountain.

A view of Santa Cruz from the restaurant, 
Amazing vista from the restaurant. Totally worth the hike up. The road on the bottom right is where we walked down, and where the tuk-tuks drive. I think a tuk-tuk is Q10 so you don't have to climb the hill if you don't want to.
Looking down from the restaurant balcony. Some kids waved up at us!
We sat at the stools right at the edge of the balcony. It was quite windy but we didn't mind.
Delicious pepian stew, a Guatemalan dish. It had lots of veggies and chicken, and was so flavorful and rich. Almost like eating the best gravy ever...with rice! The little pitcher to the right is hot sauce. Muy picante!
Suzanne had tamalitos de chipilin, another traditional Guatemalan food. The same thing that we ate earlier in the week from the lady selling them on the street.
The Santa Cruz church and basketball court.
Starting to walk down. Amazing to see the houses perched on the side of the mountain.
That's the restaurant up there!
Another view of the restaurant. So much jungle!
Walking down down down. Much easier. We were leaning back on the steep slanted road.
Back down at the docks. 
When we reached the docks, a guy waved at us and asked us if we were going to Pana. We said, yes, and he said Q15. I was like, nope. I know the public boats are Q10. He was a private lanchera (boat driver) and he wanted to get fares. To be honest, I wouldn't have minded paying, but I had actually forgotten some of my money at home in Pana and we only had Q20 left! So we literally couldn't pay him what he was asking anyway. :)
There was a nice young couple at the docks waiting for a boat as well. They asked us to take their picture. They were going just to the next dock at La Fortuna hotel. They wanted to know if they should take the private boat. I told them the public boat would be along in less than 20 minutes. Sure enough, we looked towards San Marcos and there it was in the distance, speeding towards us across the deep blue water.
Well, the girl was from Spain so she spoke excellent Spanish. She ended up bargaining with the boat driver to get us the normal Q10 fare. She pointed to the public boat coming as her bargaining chip! The driver finally agreed, and we hopped aboard. We had a nice conversation with the couple, who were just on vacation for a few days. They were curious how I ended up living here and why I was living in Pana rather than gorgeous Santa Cruz. The answer? Internet service. (Plus, omg, the stairs!) But yeah, my main reason for choosing Panajahel over the other Lake towns is reliable Internet.

Anyway, after they disembarked at the hotel, we had the boat to ourselves for the ride to Pana. I don't think the driver was very happy!
A big cute dog at the dock in Santa Cruz.
I've thoroughly enjoyed my visits to all the small towns on Lake Atitlan. I've a few more to see still! I've been to San Pedro, Santa Catarina, Santiago, and Santa Cruz. There are 12 towns so I'm not even halfway yet! So much to see. :)