What a difference Guatemala makes Part 3

This blog typically is directed at all things Costa Rica however I had the unique opportunity to spend a week in Guatemala (a neighboring Central American country to the north of Costa Rica).  This is the final part of a series of posts that will cover my week long trip. You can read part one here and part two here.

It was about 9:30pm and I was just about to doze off in my hotel room.  The next day we had to depart at 6:30am in order to get to our village visits so I was looking for one of those “early to bed, early to rise” nights.  With the TV on low and my consciousness slowly fading into dreamworld I was promptly started by the sudden ringing of the room phone.

“Hi Dustin, please come meet the group in the lobby.  There has been a change in plans.”  Well this had interesting written all over it.  Living in Central America you become used to things that would never be a concern in the US.  As a University Construction Management student I remember reading through construction contracts and chuckling about acceptable reasons for finishing a project past its due date.  Hurricanes, war, strikes, political protests.  Yeah, like those things were ever going to happen so much that it would disrupt a construction project.  Well those things are very real here.

Most places only have one route to get there.  If there are detours they are a good 3-4 hours.  So any of these things could quickly throw a monkey wrench into everything.  Sure enough there was going to be a strike the next day that planned to block all the highways leaving Guatemala city.  Why were they blocking the streets?  Who were the culprits?  You might be a little surprised to hear that the government hasn’t been paying their doctors since July.

This might seem unheard of that a government would not pay their employees.  Actually last year in Costa Rica teachers went on strike for one month because some of the teachers were not getting paid.  Some.  They interrupted the school year for one whole month before the government got their act together.  And there were various days when roads were blocked in protest.  In the end all everyone got paid, even for the month they were on strike and there was no reduction in vacation time or extension of the school year due to the strike.  Everyone won except the senior students who had one less month to learn and prepare for the national exam that they needed to pass in order to graduate, but I digress.

Who knows how the Guatemala doctors will fare but I was not the least bit surprised by the situation so when our departure time got pushed up to 2:30am in order to avoid the blockade I thought well at least we would avoid the morning rush hour.  I have to say though it could have been worse.

That same night on the news we heard of some schools that weren’t being allowed to teach because some neighborhood gangs were threatening them that there would be violence if they didn’t pay them 15 thousand dollars.  I never figured out why they wanted that money but it probably wasn’t a very good reason.  Nevertheless I’m very content that the most I’ve had to deal with in Costa Rica are peaceful marches and roadblocks.

Throughout the course of these posts a lot of things have swung in Costa Rica’s favor however one obvious advantage Guatemala has over Costa Rica is its transit system.  The main highway that runs through Costa Rica connecting Nicaragua and Panama is primarily a two lane road, one lane for each direction.  If you’re lucky you might have a passing lane on some of the steep uphill climbs but keep your guard up because those lanes are closed in random spots from mudslides that happened years ago that the government has never repaired and doesn’t plan to repair them.  Not so in Guatemala.

All the main highways going in and out of the city are 4-6 lanes and there are always additional passing lanes for the uphill sections.  Mudslides are just as common as in Costa Rica but when they happen the government is there to clean it up quickly and re-open the lanes.  They still have too many cars in the city but what big city doesn’t have traffic issues?  My only concern was feeling sick from inhaling all the fumes sitting in idling traffic.  Besides that the only other issue I had with the roads were the number of speed bumps.  This is really the only way to control speeding in Central America but it was a little over-exaggerated here.  Usually when you get to a school zone you have one bump at the beginning of the school and one at the end however in Guatemala they would have like four.  And for the manual car drivers, they were spaced just far enough apart so you would have to shift from first to second gear just for a second before arriving to the next bump.


Both weather patterns are quite similar with a rainy season and a dry season at pretty much the same time of year.  Guatemala is in the hurricane zone whereas Costa Rica is

Cooler climate, but excellent look out points
Cooler climate, but excellent look out points in Guatemala

not.  From what I saw the majority of Guatemala is drier than Costa Rica (similar to the Guanacaste region).  They have higher elevations and are situated further to the north so it can get colder than in Costa Rica.  When I was there the last week of January there were some places that got below freezing at night.  That never happens in Costa Rica.  Due to this it wasn’t surprising to not hear much talk about beaches.  One of the crown jewels of Costa Rica, however if you ask a Guatemalan about beaches they’re likely to tell you about the beach trip they took…. to neighboring country El Salvador!


In the short time I spent in Guatemala I would have to say tourism and agriculture are a big part of the economy, which is quite similar to Costa Rica.  Both countries grow lots of coffee too.  One thing I noticed in Guatemala is there are not a lot of industrial coffee processing.  A lot of the coffee is sun dried whereas in Costa Rica they have mechanical ovens that can dry the coffee quickly in addition to sun dried.  The sun dried process takes a few days but the quality is better.  In this sense Guatemala might be a little more of a “I’ll get to it mañana” country than Costa Rica.  Other than that you will see a lot of corn being grown in Guatemala.  We planted fruit trees in some of the rural villages we visited to help diversify their diets because everything they were eating was corn based.  You’ll see corn in Costa Rica too, but sugar cane, bananas, pineapple, etc all have their growing zones as well.

To conclude my little Costa Rica-Guatemala series I’d like to talk about the culture.  My wife is Costa Rican and her and her parents joined me on this trip.  It was very interesting to see how they interacted with the locals and to hear their opinions about the culture.  They shared some of the same reactions as to why they would live so remote but were very curious to learn about how they lived.  My in-laws grew up on farms and were able to teach the Guatemalans about farming.  Some of them knew so little that they weren’t even sure how to plant trees or seed a garden properly (not that I knew any of that either, but at least I know I have the resources if I ever plant my own garden).

I have to say both cultures pride themselves on their friendliness.  The Guatemalan accent is very sweet and inviting and even though the Costa Rican accent is distinct it is filled with “honeys, sweeties, and cuties”.  There seemed to be an ongoing battle between who could be the most polite and sweet.

One astonishing thing that is echoed throughout many Central and South American

Traditional dress
Traditional dress

countries is the cleanliness of their formal dress.  Living in mud huts in dry and/or rainy conditions it is beyond belief how they maintain their traditional dress spotless.  We visited villages on a Sunday and everyone had on their sparkling Sunday best.

This concludes thoughts and reactions after a week in Guatemala and how it compares to living in Costa Rica.  Despite its flaws I’d still choose Costa Rica over Guatemala however the experience traveling there was refreshing and exciting.  It makes you thankful for what you’ve got too.  Costa Rica is a step above the rest.  What I saw in Guatemala compares to Nicaragua and Panama living conditions.  I’ve never been to Honduras or El Salvador but I would assume they are similar to Guatemala too.

As for getting back to sleep after resetting my alarm for 2am it didn’t really happen.  The adrenaline switch was on and shortly I would be on my journey.

UPDATE: The Fire Volcano (volcan del fuego) located just 45km from Guatemala city began erupting heavily today.  They closed the international airport this afternoon so we just lucked out having flown back on the third.




What a difference Guatemala makes Part 2

garbage dump guatemala

This blog typically is directed at all things Costa Rica however I had the unique opportunity to spend a week in Guatemala (a neighboring Central American country to the north of Costa Rica).  This is part two of a series of posts that will cover my week long trip. You can read part one here.

One thing that can’t be denied in Guatemala is that it is a relatively poor nation.  The main reason I’d traveled here was to help the poor people.  When most people think of third world poverty they think of lack of food, money, clothes and shelter.  Guatemala has all that and more when it comes to poverty.

Poverty.  It exists all over the world and Central America is not the exception however Costa Rica is better off than Guatemala.  Costa Rica has not had to endure civil wars, genocides, hurricanes, droughts, nor ancient civilizations that have chosen some of the most remote places to live in the country.

In Guatemala to visit the most needy villages we had to ride in the back of a pick up truck over an hour up a mountain on a dirt road (that is impassable during the rainy season).  I

We could cross this river - in the dry season...
We could cross this river – in the dry season…

was soo curious as to why someone would live so far away from everything.  Were they forced to flee to the mountains?  Was the soil better?  I was so puzzled that in one of the villages I straight up asked the Pastor why he lived so isolated.  His response was quite simple in that this is where he grew up and this is where his parents, grandparents, great grandparents etc all grew up.  So at some point  many centuries ago this was prime real estate???…

This is the shakiest bridge I've crossed in Costa Rica
This is the shakiest bridge I’ve crossed in Costa Rica

Costa Rica doesn’t have an ancient civilization history.  The country was often avoided because it was so jungly that early settlers avoided it at all costs.  In Costa Rica if a place is too isolated nobody lives there.  Granted people do live in rural areas but they have electricity, water, plumbing, and an access road to their homes.  In rural Guatemala none of this is true.  It is common for people to access their homes on foot, collect water from the stream, no electricity whatsoever, and a bathroom is literally unheard of and not well understood.

One of the projects on the mission part of my visit to Guatemala was to help build homes for low income families.  The “homes” are more like storage sheds about the size of my bedroom.  One feature not included in any of the homes was a bathroom.  I asked about this and I was told that the people don’t make good use of them.  They are so used to  peeing and pooping whenever and wherever (literally like animals) that they didn’t see a use for them.  I was told they once built some outhouses for the families but they ended using them as a storage room.  This rocked my world and gave poverty a whole new meaning for me.

No plumbing rough in needed
No plumbing rough in needed here

The villages are so isolated from everything that they don’t even realize the importance of a bathroom.  There was no knowledge, no education.  Parasite infections are so common here that people need to take medicine every six months because the water is so contaminated and hygiene is bad.  What seemed so obvious to me was knowledge that simply hadn’t occurred to the local population.  I’m sure if everyone peed and pooped in an  outhouse and washed their hands there would be a significant improvement in the overall health of the villages.  Knowledge is power and I hope efforts are made again to introduce bathrooms into the villages.  Once bathrooms are a commonplace the next issue to tackle would be trash disposal.

You can't see the school next door in this pic
You can’t see the school next door in this pic

Everyone knows it is bad to litter and you are likely to get a ticket if you are caught doing it.  Whenever I see someone litter I know that they know they are damaging the environment.  In some parts of Guatemala trash is strewn so freely it will make you sick to your stomach.  In the remote areas there is no trash collection however almost nobody burns their trash either.  Some homes I visited it almost seemed like the trash was laid out in the yard as if they were trying to grow a garden or something.  This was so prevalent that I couldn’t imagine people were doing this on purpose, they just didn’t know better.

With the remoteness of these villages you have to think that it wasn’t too long ago that trash began arriving to their communities.  Probably not until aid groups started coming trash was mostly organic.  Even talking to the Pastor he said he might go into the main town once or twice a month (a place where you could buy things that would produce non-organic trash).  There they have trash cans and campaigns to keep the town clean.

In Costa Rica the worst thing I have seen is people driving out into the country to dump construction garbage or old appliances and that is mostly because the government will not readily collect that kind of waste.  Besides that the big cultural change that is trying to be made here is to get people to recycle.  So in that sense they are one step ahead of Guatemala.

The sanitation issues in Guatemala are alarming but the solution is not that difficult to solve.  It may take time but what the villages are lacking is education.  They could really improve their health and quality of life by improving just these two things.  One thing that has been really beneficial to Costa Rica is not having to fund an army.  Instead they have been able to invest in education and that has had a lot to do with the fact you can drink the water and find bathrooms in everyone’s homes.

It’s likely that some of these cases still exist in Costa Rica but with all the traveling and volunteering I’ve done in the country I have yet to come across anything like the remote villages of Guatemala.  To speculate, maybe in Guatemala for every 5,000 families living in this kind of poverty you might have one in Costa Rica.  That’s why you don’t see a lot of poverty alleviating organizations in Costa Rica as there are other Central American countries that could really use the aid.

Stay tuned for part three of this series which will conclude the differences between Guatemala and Costa Rica.


What a difference Guatemala makes Part 1

Antigua view from hills

This blog typically is directed at all things Costa Rica however I had the unique opportunity to spend a week in Guatemala (a neighboring central american country to the north of Costa Rica).  This is part one of a series of posts that will cover my week long trip.

A lot of people assume all countries in this part of the world are all alike: poor, underdeveloped, politically unstable, hurricane prone etc. Having lived in Costa Rica awhile now I would like to share some differences I noticed between the two countries.  (note: In Guatemala I spent half my time as a tourist and the other half as part of a mission team working in rural impoverished communities).

Only $15!!
Only $15!!

1.  Guatemala has cheap tours (compared to Costa Rica).  I wanted to cry.  I spent two nights in Antigua, Guatemala, a UNESCO heritage site and probably the most touristy city in Guatemala yet I felt like everything was a steal in comparison to Costa Rica.  They had many tours that were outrageously cheap.  Volcano hikes, boat trips, bungee jumping, and just plain old market shopping where you could find prices half of what they would be in Costa Rica.  I looked dumbfounded at the price sheet and not in a million years could I offer tours that cheap.  We went to hike a volcano and had round trip transfer (1hr each way), park entrance, and tour guide all for about $15 a person.  A tour like that runs about $30 in Costa Rica not including transportation.

2.  Costa Rica I think has better bang for its buck than Guatemala.  Sure you pay a little more but you get friendly, outgoing, English speaking drivers/guides.  I’m not saying that Guatemalans are mean or unfriendly but they are more timid in nature.  You as the tourist have to initiate conversations with them and once they feel comfortable with you they will start to open up and tell you all about their country.  You should also know a little bit of Spanish as the English is not as good as it is in Costa Rica.  Our guide gave a huge sigh of relief when she found out everyone in our volcano hike group spoke some Spanish.  I don’t think the tour would have been as engaging if they would have had to speak English.    I also wasn’t that impressed with some of the nicer restaurants I went to in Antigua.

I complain a lot sometimes about restaurant food in Costa Rica being expensive however I have a theory.  Despite being expensive the portion sizes are enormous.  I think restaurants raise their prices and then justify it by serving more food which I think is fair so really my gripe is not with the price but rather with how they are encouraging an obesity epidemic.  I didn’t feel the same in Antigua.

One nice restaurant that I went to and ordered a cheeseburger that was about the size of a typical kid’s meal burger and I got some french fries that were good but I only got about half that I would get at any Costa Rican restaurant.  On top of that the rum and coke I got tasted quite watered down and was served in a glass slightly larger than a shot glass.  For full disclosure purposes I should note that we received a 10% discount to eat at this restaurant because it was owned by the hotel we were staying at.  So technically we were “recommended” this restaurant, however it may have been a desperation tactic to get people just to eat at their restaurant.

The best overall meal price-for-quality had to have been a pizza that I got at a fast food joint in Antigua.  It was pretty decent pizza that I got for about half of what I would normally pay in Costa Rica.  Actually, I got a medium supreme pizza and 2 pepsis for the same price as my kid’s burger and half fries from the previous restaurant.

These were some observations from the tourist part of my trip and are not meant to be generalizations about the country as a whole, just my little piece of Antigua and the surrounding area.  Stay tuned for upcoming posts comparing the culture, economy, weather, sanitation/health, infrastructure etc of Guatemala and Costa Rica!

Now some pic comparisons:

Water Volcano - Antigua, Guatemala
Water Volcano – Antigua, Guatemala
Arenal Volcano- Fortuna, Costa Rica
Arenal Volcano- Fortuna, Costa Rica
Antigua, Guatemala with active volcano in background
Antigua, Guatemala with active volcano in background


San Ramon, Costa Rica sans active volcano
San Ramon, Costa Rica sans active volcano
My adopted Guatemalan dog
My adopted Guatemalan dog
My Costa Rican dog
My Costa Rican dog