Guatemala: Sleepless in Santa Elena

Ask my five-year-old daughter what she had for dinner during our stay and she will answer with resigned acceptance, beans. And what did you have for breakfast? More beans (sigh). She will only say the word out of the corner of her mouth, as if articulating it properly would give someone the opportunity to stuff more beans in.

My wife, our three children, and I spent three nights living in the house of, and being fed beans by, a local family in Santa Elena, a small city in the north of Guatemala. Through Airbnb we booked our stay with an organization called Buenas Cosas. The organization facilitates volunteerism – a good chunk of which involved the teaching of English to locals, and Spanish to foreigners. The Buenas Cosas compound was located close to the western edge of Santa Elena, several miles away from the tourist district. It was a real neighborhood with dirt roads, chickens, and women balancing loads of groceries in wide-brimmed baskets on their heads.

The compound had an open-air common area. There was a gazebo, where the language lessons took place (replete with hammocks, for when the conjugations became overwhelming). Outside was a small barnyard with sheep, chickens, and one ram they did not allow inside the fence. Someone must have given our children a euphemism-loaded explanation because every time our four-year-old son saw the ram pacing back and forth along the perimeter, he’d say “He wants to see his girlfriends, but he’s not allowed, because he plays too rough”

The pen served as a focal point for the children who lived nearby, some of whom taught our children how to catch the chickens and play a game called Superman – which consisted only of throwing the chicken up into the air as high as possible. Superman was the more pacifist of the activities in which our children participated. They also learned that if you smear a firefly against a rock, it will glow temporarily.


We arrived in the late afternoon after having spent, to our surprise, most of the day driving. We were learning that in Guatemala distance is only one of many variables in the calculation for arrival time. Other factors which are just as important include stray dogs, speed bumps, and missing bridges. Toss in a couple wrong turns, as nothing is marked, and suddenly we are a couple hours late.

When we finally got to Buenas Cosas we were told that the compound was full.  A handful of local families act as subcontractors in this situation and we would be staying with one nearby. This was news to us, but we didn’t push back for a couple reasons. First off, we were, or at least, felt like we should be, excited for the chance to get up close and personal with a Guatemalan family. The second reason was that we were exhausted from the trip to get there – my wife and I probably would have agreed to anything just to not get in the car with the three kids again.

The house was a modest, but tidy place a couple blocks away. We got one bedroom. A quick reconnaissance revealed there were no sheets or towels. I started to rationalize: well, they’re probably used to receiving guests who don’t need sheets because…and I couldn’t think of a single reason. Who travels with their own sheets? They managed to dredge some up for us, but I still have no idea who they might have been expecting.

The family was friendly, if quiet. The mom and dad had three girls who played with our kids, which was a welcome distraction.

After a brief unpacking we sat down to our first bean dinner. Unlike my daughter, I like beans and tortillas, and was quite happy. Afterwards, the five of us retired to our bedroom (there would be no romance here). There was no fan, but the temperature was tolerable. Looking back, I am reminded of the proverb on how to boil a frog: if you plop him straight into a pot of hot water, he will jump out. But if you start him out in a tolerable pot of water and gradually heat it, he’ll stay put – especially if the frog really doesn’t want to have to pack up and drive somewhere else.


The next morning we beaned up, piled back into the car, and headed for the pre-Colombian Mayan capital of Tikal. Santa Elena is the staging area for people who want to visit Tikal, but it’s still an hour’s drive away. As a moderate recompense for having to get back in the car, the highway from Santa Elena to Tikal was one of the nicer ones we saw in Guatemala. The well-heeled tourists fly to the local airport and then rent a car or join a tour, making the road from Santa Elena to Tikal one of the most tourist-heavy stretches of asphalt in the country – clearly the powers-that-be wanted to keep the golden geese happy.

We finally arrived. The condition of the grounds and facilities rivalled those of an US National Park. The trails were neat and tidy, the map was clear and accurate, and the vendors were kept to a tasteful minimum.

Like everyone else, we hiked straight to the Gran Plaza – an open area the size of two football fields, flanked on all sides by several impressive ziggurats (a ziggurat, for any non-Mayan readers, has the same shape as a pyramid, except the sides aren’t smooth – they are cut into steps). Climbing to the top of any of the ziggs yielded an impressive view of the surrounding area, as they were taller than the forest canopy.

Although it wasn’t crowded, there were a good number of people walking about, at least until later in the afternoon, when it began to thin out. Additionally, the secondary structures away from the main trails attracted very few people. It was in one of these we explored a dark, narrow tunnel. Our reward was finding the wide, open atrium where we sat down and ate our snack. All alone in this ancient Mayan ruin, our kids played on the giant stone blocks while the tropical birds squawked and flapped about. Score.

There are howler monkeys in the park. We saw them twice. The first encounter was with a large tour group nearby. Once they noticed the rustling of the leaves, there was a brief scrum to get the best vantage point. Cameras were aimed and fired, accompanied by a chorus of oohs and ahhs. I overheard one photographer exclaim “It’s just like being at the zoo!”. It was not a magical experience.

Our second go-round took place deeper into the forest. This time we were alone. We watched the monkeys swing on vines from tree to tree while we stood in the shadow of a half-excavated ziggurat. That one had a little more of a Mayan tingle to it.

In contrast with the open, curated neatness of the Gran Plaza, the structures that were still fully or partially covered with jungle had a haunted air about them. Some of the underbrush had covered them so thoroughly that I wouldn’t have known they were there had it not been for the posted signs. Uncleared, a ziggurat is just a steep hill in the jungle. It left me with the slightly unsettling, and slightly exciting, sense of the great secrets that could be lurking just out of sight.

Hot and sweaty, and not in the good way

Having seen and climbed on enough ancient Meso-American stone architecture to last us a good long time, we drove home. We spent a few minutes at the Buenas Cosas compound chatting with one of the other visitors. Back home, she had raised money to build a house in Santa Elena for someone in need. She was now here to supervise its construction, despite having no construction experience. The sweat equity she was providing included painting one of the doors. It struck me as a ridiculously inefficient use of resources, but at least she was honest about it – she told my wife it was just a way for her to get other people to subsidize her world travels. We chatted several times over the few days we were there, but I remember few of the details – her many face-piercings were so distracting I couldn’t concentrate on what she was saying.

My daughter had a slight bean-reprieve: before dinner, a vendor selling elotes, corn-on-the-cob boiled in salted lime juice, passed by. They were spectacular, and it was filling enough that she didn’t need to eat many beans to survive until the next day.

After dinner we walked around the neighborhood a little. Every block or two someone was running a small convenience store out of their house. This was important because it made finding a cold beer easy.

That night our room was warmer. I shared the bed with my 5-year-old daughter, who kicks like a mule while she sleeps. Our bed did not have a mosquito net, so we had to sleep under the sheet, despite the heat. I tossed, turned, sweated, and was battered by my daughter all night long.

At 5am we were startled by a salvo of firecrackers from just across the street. My bed mate jumped up, crying. I peeked out the window. I saw no one – neither the perpetrators, nor any neighbors shaking a frying pan and cursing “Damn kids!”

A minute later the loud Norteño music (sounds like a Mexican Polka) started playing. I was irritated, but also perplexed. Kids anywhere will set off firecrackers to purposely bother people, but they are supposed to get yelled at. And now the music? What is going on? None of us were able to go back to sleep. All we could do was lie there and sweat.

Later that day we learned: a child’s birthday is marked with a round of firecrackers at dawn, followed by a small party. Strangely, it made me feel slightly better to know that it had been a culturally sanctioned disturbance of the peace, and not a just bunch of reprobates who had gotten in too late from the night before.

Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to swim in

Santa Elena is on the shore of the large Lake Peten Itza. After our AM beans we left to find a beach. We drove along the coast for twenty minutes and had no luck, for several reasons. Either the road was too far away from the lake to see, or the shore was a fetid swamp, or, in several stretches, one of the lanes of the road was slowly collapsing into the lake. We were obligated to find something – on the drive home from Tikal we had promised the kids we would go swimming if they would just stop fighting – so we continued our search.

Eventually we came across a spot where there had been, several years ago by my estimate, a concrete pier. The section close to the shore had collapsed and been hauled away, or disintegrated. We set up shop and waded in. There were minnows in the water, so it couldn’t be too toxic, I figured.

The end of the pier was still standing 30 feet out in the shallow water. I told the kids to stay away from it, guessing that there were probably lots of water snakes hiding under it.

This was not the travel brochure’s idyllic Central American lake, one ringed by palm trees, orchids, and graced with a topless siren in serene contemplation before a waterfall. But it was, by all accounts, a successful improvisation: the kids enjoyed it, no one got any mysterious rashes, and there were no snake bites.

The alternative

Flores is an island in Lake Peten Itza just off the coast of downtown Santa Elena. A short causeway links the island to the city. Flores is the tourist district. I had avoided looking there when booking a place to stay because, well, we’re supposed to get off the beaten path right? The road less travelled, and all that?

Later that afternoon we took a tuk-tuk into Flores. Strolling along the promenade, sipping a wonderful mango-lemon concoction, we witnessed a spectacular sunset. All ages of children were playing and swimming in the lake, right off the promenade. There were no snakes.

To be sure, Flores was upscale and tourist-centric compared to the rest of Santa Elena. But it was quirky with an aged colonial style about it. Walking along in the cool lake breeze, I was living in abject terror of the sweaty night ahead (justified, as it turned out). I looked longingly at the hotels and their window air-conditioning units and couldn’t avoid the uncomfortable realization that I might have picked the wrong place to stay.

Long-term memory loss

The next morning I got out of bed (I can’t say “I woke up”, because it had been so hot I hadn’t been able to fall asleep) and made it to the breakfast table for our last beaning. We packed up and said goodbye to our hosts.

In the time that has passed since the trip, I still can’t decide how, if at all, I went wrong. Have I gotten too soft in my old age to handle inclement bedroom weather? Should I have complained to Buenas Cosas and moved on? Do I adhere to my manifesto of avoiding the tourist areas a little too rigidly? All of the above?

The best conclusion I can come up with is this: we enjoyed the company of our Guatemalan hosts and we got to see the interesting bits in Santa Elena that we otherwise would have missed. Buttressing the glass-half-full argument is that bad memories fade while good ones acquire a rosy tint as they age. While I can remember that I was miserable in that bedroom, I can no longer remember the specific miserable sensations. I can, however, still taste those wonderful elotes. So if those sweaty nights, someday to be forgotten entirely, are the price of a memorable vacation in an exotic location, so be it.

And next time we are definitely staying in Flores.

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