You will find here some advises on :
Learn to speak Spanish : Quite a few people come to Guatemala for this unique reason ! As a backpacker in the area, you should also seriously consider spending one or two weeks to grasp the basics. This probably won't save your life but it will make it much easier and enjoyable ! It will also show respect to the local people, for who the American presence in the area (and subsequent use of English) may be a sensitive issue...
Be respectful and keep a low profile : It is clearly a bad idea to look even remotely close to a rich tourist ! It will attract pickpockets and hide some smiles away. Associated with any kind of arrogance, it could even trigger violence ! Avoid therefore to walk with your photos camera in evidence and use it discretely.
Ask for authorization before taking somebody in photo. Rumors about westerners kidnapping children for adoption or organs traffic are still lively in some remote places. Best therefore to avoid any kind of suspicion. In most places however, kids will cheerfully ask you for a photo...
Keep a smile on your face and greet all the people you meet : Guatemala people are very hospitable as a whole but it does not harm to initiate the friendliness. When confronted to a drunk people, be patient and compassionate. Remember that insulting anybody is insulting everybody !
Ask the locals about the latest safety issues : seeing you walking into a dangerous direction, they may actually stop you and inform you of the situation. But it is always safer to ask beforehand.
Do not be too stressed out by the safety issues : most people have no problem in Guatemala and those who did usually did not follow the basic safety advises. Those advices are : never leave your bag unattended, be discreet with your valuables, do not walk on your own at night in big cities, have a separate 'give-away' wallet with some money (just in case), leave your important documents at your GH whenever you can, make copies of your documents, beware on crowded buses (remember that most of the thefts are of the 'opportunist' type) and avoid traveling at night. Registering with your embassy on arrival would be fine except that it would mean spending some time in Guatemala city, the most dangerous place in the country !
If you are tall, try the seat above the wheel arch in the chicken buses : your legs will rest more comfortably...
Organize your trip according to the markets that you wish to experience. Most indeed take place only once or twice a week ! Planning a bit ahead therefore becomes essential. Of course, not all the markets are as colorful nor interesting. Visiting a village during its market day is however always a good idea. See the table market days for more details.
How to keep the low cost even lower ?
When internet is expensive, check if it is possible to send your mail only, without checking your account. Not being connected when writing your letters, you will save a lot.
Try to negotiate directly with the artist or worker when shopping for souvenirs. They do not always know how much their work is sold to the tourists and you will avoid the shop's commission anyway. Also, even if you pay a little bit too much, you will have the satisfaction to help the right person.
Bear in mind when shopping for souvenirs that the average monthly salary of public servants or workers is Q800 (US$105) only or Q25 per day. There is no reason to pay three times the daily wage for this little carved pen !
Travel with the locals on chicken buses. The expensive tourist shuttles are for tourists or tall people who wish to sit comfortably while improving their chances of being robbed.
Buy your food from the fresh markets rather than the supermarket. And check if the small restaurant at the corner won't turn out cheaper than cooking your own meals... The same things apply with the small 'tienda' : they are sometimes cheaper than the supermarkets and they are always more friendly & authentic...
Avoid booking your Spanish school in advance. There are plenty of schools to choose from and it is always a good idea to shop around and compare the atmospheres. Also, most schools charge an extra booking fee...
But remember that enjoying a trip is sometimes or from time to time worth a little bit more... Backpacking is more about the bag than the money !
Description ? Antigua is clearly a much nicer place to stay than Xela but Xela is a bigger, more traditional town.
Location ? Antigua is only 45mn away from the capital but Xela offers more things to do in its surroundings
Weather ? Antigua is much warmer than Xela
Schools ? More choice in Antigua but this does not facilitate the selection, does it ?
Teachers ? Teachers in Xela are likely to be more educated than in Antigua
Home-stay ? Possible in both places but you are more likely to be able to be on your own in Xela.
Prices ? Xela is slightly cheaper, especially during the high season
Safety ? Xela being slightly less touristy, it is slightly less dangerous
After school ? Antigua is a very touristy place with plenty of nightlife and opportunities to speak English.
Conclusion ? Do not book in advance, visit Antigua like everyone else and, if you do not like the touristy atmosphere, go to Xela to study more seriously ! If you are surprised to see that Xela is also full of students (most people nowadays recommend Xela over Antigua), continue North to the much smaller town of Huehue. You are less likely to be bothered there...
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