Monday, March 7, 2011

Guatemala – We finally made it to Central America

Early morning in Miami Beach,
ready to leave for Latin America
Our departure to Central America started somewhat daunting:
First we hit a literal road block right after leaving our friend’s house in Miami Beach, a local marathon meant that there were major road closures, and no detours signaled. After asking a few police officers and crossing over a toll road, we finally made it onto the freeway (losing about 45 mins in the process). We arrived at Fort Lauderdale airport just in time to drop off our rental car without having to pay a late return fee. Whew!

Then Spirit Airlines would not allow Patrick to check in for his flight to Guatemala City. Apparently there is some regulation that allows Americans to fly there without a return ticket, but not Europeans. So he had to immediately book any kind of ticket out of Guatemala, all while the countdown was running with only 45 minutes to spare before the flight was leaving. Note: we had to wait for one hour in the slow moving check-in queue to find out about this requirement. Anyway, he ended up booking a partially refundable business class ticket from Guatemala to Costa Rica. The Spirit staff was very kind and let us use their computer to do the booking on another airline. With that hurdle cleared, we were literally checking in at the last possible minute to make the flight, and the check-in agent assured us that they would hold the plane until we were on it. We were quite surprised by the assistance and patience that we had been given to meet the requirements for an outward flight confirmation. But we were equally perplexed by the glitch as this requirement was not written anywhere in our research (guide book, Guatemala’s visa webpage nor in the Spirit Airlines booking requirements)...oh well, we are entering a new frontier now and it all started in the nearly Hispanic country of Miami.

Front row seats, nice upgrade after
all the check-in troubles.
On a good note: The plane was completely full, and as a reward for having to go through this little hiccup, we ended up getting upgraded to the front row…where the comfortable and wide first class style seats are. Too bad that Spirit is a low cost carrier, so we didn’t get any first class food and beverage service in our comfy seats (but we did exit the plane first and got ourselves a prime spots in the immigration line)!

Of course, at Guatemalan Immigration, nobody wanted to see any onward tickets. So we assume that this requirement was more for the benefit of Spirit airline which would have to fly him out of Guatemala at their cost if he were not granted entry.

We must admit we’ve taken the easy entry option for the next stage. We booked a room at the Holiday Inn because it has a regular shuttle to and from the airport. It was nice to see their van waiting after we claimed our 2 backpacks tagged with “late check-in. Do not delay plane”.

So now we are here in Guatemala City. It’s a Sunday afternoon and we are staying in the Zona Viva (lively zone) but when we explored the streets, there were only a handful of people strolling about. It looked like we just arrived in the largest ghost town in Central America. We continued walking for another 2 hours but still not much happening here. The busiest place we came across was the sidewalk outside of a hospital… how sad is that?
Our only goals were food and money. So we took off in the late afternoon to complete these tasks. Since we had no local money yet, ATM was first on the agenda.

So Patrick grabbed the netbook to check ATM options in Guatemala. While searching the web for a nearby ATM location, he came across a warning on Lonely Planet’s website about “ATM skimming” in Antigua. This is the first time we ever heard about this kind of scam. Someone (the thief) mounts an additional card reader in front of the regular slot where you put in your ATM card (of course this fake reader is very well disguised). This way they can record your card information. To get to your pin code, they mount a small camera somewhere above the keypad, or the more sophisticated thieves place a second keypad on-top of the actual pad. The tricky thing with this scam is that you will not know that your information was just stolen; the rigged ATM will still dispense the money that you requested, but the thieves have all necessary info to clone your card and use it elsewhere.

We thankfully read about this just before using the first ATM in Guatemala, and now know to be extra careful at any ATM and inspect it for signs of tampering before we use it. One person even suggested man-handling the reader by tugging and pulling it a bit. ATM skimming is apparently also a problem in other countries, including the developed world.
Read more about ATM skimming

Tostadas to "toast"
our arrival
Now with the maximum amount of Quetzales (the currency is named after the national bird of Guatemala) which ends up being Q2000 ($250), we feel rich and hungry. Unfortunately the only places we seem to find are American fast food places. We opt for Quiznos and then a local fast food joint where at least we found some Tostadas to make us feel like we weren’t still in the USA.

Tomorrow, we are heading to Antigua, which is the old capitol of Guatemala and a tourist hotspot. Hopefully there will be some more people and life there; otherwise, we start to think that our 6 months in Latin America could be rather lonely and boring!