On Guatemala

Thoughts on Guatemala

We do not see the real Guatemala.  It is hidden from the tourists. Because we are on the tourist track we see what is presented to us from the shuttle buses and tours.

Guatemala has a 71% literacy rate. Over half of the 13 million people in Guatemala are native Indians, these people are the poorest in the country. Near half of the county’s population lives below the poverty line. 13% of the population lives on $1/day. Most of these Indian groups that have their own language and culture. The Guatemalan government officially recognizes 23 different languages in the country.


The political power and 65% of the land in Guatemala is held by a small number of families.

When I talked to some Guatemalans they said that one big concern they have is for the stability of their country. There are many social inequalities, prejudices, illiteracy and nowadays gangs in the capital city are growing and becoming more violent. The gangs are connected with drug trafficking.

But we do not see this. We see volcanoes, Mayan ruins and crafts markets.


What we see is beautiful… Guatemala is beautiful. Or is it?

The other thing I noticed is that basic market forces of supply and demand were ever present in Guatemala. Adam Smiths Invisible hand of economics was working.  I was most keenly aware of this because…. like I said, we were on the tourist track.

In Antigua city there are over 70 travel agents. It is hard to walk two blocks and not pass four or more travel agencies. Thus, the supply is quite high. It was pretty quick and easy to check half a dozen travel agencies for the price of a tour or shuttle to someplace. This put the market force on the side of the demand…. that is us.

Anytime we wanted anything from a travel agent we would check about six places and then choose the best price. Or we would say to travel agent A that travel agent B has cheaper price and then ask if they could match or beat that price. Most often it worked.

Now some inside info on the shuttle bus business in Antigua. Im talking about the vans that take tourist to the usual destinations.  A quick check around and you will notice there is a variety of prices for shuttle transportation to the same place. Example we found a trip to Panajachael city on Lake Atitlan (2.5 hrs away) cost anywhere from 12 to 6 dollars.

The reason comes down to, who owns the cars (vans) usually, as I was told by one travel agent, three to five travel agents will pool their resources and buy the vans. But if you are a new travel agency and do not have the resources to buy a new van, you would need to subcontract the van from one of the travel agents who does own a van. And that means that you the customer, would have to pay the price of the subcontract and a little extra for the new travel agency, (booking fees etc.)

We found the same situation in San Cristobal, Mexico, only a little more monopolized. A travel agent we talked with said that there were only 3 transportation companies in San Cristobal that handled all of the transports for the travel agents.  So it does pay to shop around.

In Antigua we used PLUS travel agency for basic transportation to and from places like Panajachael, Chichicastenengo, etc. They had the lowest price. $6 Antigua to Panajachael. (Interesting, it was only $5 to go Panahachael to Antigua if you bought the ticket in Panajachael… same company!)    For our trips to Pacaya volcano, Tikal and our transportation to Costa Rica we used PACAYA EXPEDITIONS Travel agency (Pacayaexpeditions@gmail.com)  . At Pacaya talk to Alexander.

On our trip to Pacaya Volcano, we met up with little stick entrepreneurs.  A van drives you up to a small village on the side of the volcano where the trekking tours begin. The climb take about 2.5-3hrs to reach the molten lava.  At the village there are children selling Sticks.  These are nice wooden walking sticks about 5ft long. They are very useful when you reach the old lava beds. There, its just loose volcanic rocks and its like trying to walk in deep loose sand; there is nothing firm to hold your food so you step up but slide back as you put your weight on it.  The sticks are very helpful.


Again, the forces of supply and demand are at work here, even for the kids.  When the van pulls up, 9-12 people get out. Six children all selling sticks rush to meet them. At that moment the potential stick demand is high and the supply limited. (Although each child is holding 4 or 5 sticks) The price starts out at 5 Quetzales. (About $0.80)   They sell a few sticks to a couple of passengers. That reduces the demand; fewer possible buyers.  Then the price begins to fall. One child says only 4 Quetzales, … one sale at that price… then the price falls again.  You get the idea of what is happening here.  As the market dwindles the price for sticks drops.

Soon Jeong and I said we would pay only 1 Quetzal for a stick.  No child would accept that. Yet when our guide yelled for us to all follow him up the trail, suddenly the stick market was about to disappear completely.  Children followed us up the trail a bit asking for 3 and 2 Quetzales.   But Soon Jeong and I said, no thanks, well give you 1 Q for a stick.    It took about 30 more feet up the trail for the kids to realize that their last chance to make any money on stick sales was just about gone. …Demand was almost zero and the supply was ample… Soon Jeong and I bought two sticks for 1 Quetzal each.


Please do not think we are such bad people as to bargain so hard for a stick from a small child.   When we came back down from the volcano, we gave the sticks back.  That made the stick transaction a rental and not a sale.

Soon Jeong was deeply struck by the kids and the dogs there.  There are a few starving dogs that will follow the group all the way to the top of the volcano in hopes of getting a hand-out of food. There is desperation in their eyes.  Soon Jeong said that the eyes of the children and the dogs there were the same.  Poor and destitute. Longing…hoping for something to help their existence. She told me she will never forget their eyes.

When you go to TIKAL on the overnight bus, the bus will let you off in Flores. To get to Tikal you must hire a shuttle van.  The ride takes about 45 min. HOWEVER do not do what we did…. the overnight bus will stop just outside of town where a van is waiting. The driver of the van will get on the bus and ask if anyone needs a van to Tikal. The price was $10. (About average) This seems like a good idea because the van will head back the way you just came to get to the park and that will save you some time.  DO NOT TAKE THIS RIDE the driver is a crook.

We took the van and paid for a round-trip shuttle. The driver said that he would come back and pick us up at Tikal for the return. We told him to pick us up at 6:00pm.  He does not come back. Fortunately there was another shuttle van that was the LAST one leaving Tikal and we took it paying an additional 100 Pesos to get back to the bus station in Flores.

Please see the attached photo. This is our receipt from the man, The license number of his white van is 601BBW.  He is about 45-65 years old, has brown thinning curly hair, Glasses and the distinguishing thing is he is missing his front teeth.

Having seen most of the major Mayan ruins; Uxmal, Chichen Itza, Monte Alban, Tulum, Copan and Tikal.  I can say that Tikal is the winner in my opinion.  I recommend that you go and see these and decide for yourself.

I must say that I want to spend more time in Guatemala. There is much much more to see. It is also still relatively inexpensive.  Even on the tourist track its not too bad.  Far cheaper than tourist things in Costa Rica.  Food is a great bargain in Guatemala also.


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