While the tours I took in Guatemala were a great way to see landscapes I would not otherwise have seen, they’re not always the best way to get a sense of the culture of a place. I met fellow travelers from many other countries on these tours but the guide was always the only person from Guatemala.
One way I’ve found to meet more local people is to stay with a family while traveling. Living with locals gives you immediate access to information and experiences that you would never find in a hotel or even a hostel. It is also a very affordable way to travel. I searched Couchsurfing first to see if I could find a free room to stay in. There was one offer, but it came after I had already made other arrangements. (If you’re wondering what Couchsurfing is, read this post I wrote about my first experience with it.)
I then tried AirBnB, which basically works the same way as Couchsurfing except you actually pay for your room. There is no shortage of places to stay just about anywhere in the world on AirBnB’s website. In fact, I’m in the process of booking an AirBnB in Hanoi for my first week in Vietnam.
My AirBnB in Antigua was a room in a guest house in the center of town. It was clean, quiet, comfortable and cheap ($13). The young owner, Cesar, who grew up in Antigua, gave me great tips on what to see and do and where to get the best cup of coffee in town. He checked in with me frequently and helped me arrange the tour to the volcano and my shuttle to my next destination. All of this was easier, faster and cheaper than if I had tried to figure everything out on my own. On my last night in Antigua, Cesar invited me out with two of his friends to eat at an amazing vegetarian restaurant. We had a nice time and I enjoyed listening to their stories of life in Guatemala.
At Lake Atitlán, I chose to stay in a smaller, less touristy village called San Juan la Laguna. Josias offered a spacious and beautiful room in his house with a private bath for $20. What I loved about my time there, again, was the access to the local culture. Josias and his family, like most people in San Juan, are Tz’utujil, an ethnic Mayan subgroup. His wife cooked fabulous meals and his two sons, ages 2 and 4, kept me busy playing dinosaurs, hide and seek, and teaching me which wild plants I could eat on their street.
Walking to their house every evening on the outskirts of the village, I felt immersed in the culture as the locals greeted me warmly, and I never saw another tourist on their street. Another advantage of staying with locals is that it is nice to have a family to come home to, especially when traveling alone. Playing with Josias’s sons felt just like playing with my own grandchildren.
These pictures show more about some of the cultural experiences I had during my time in Guatemala.