Last vacation in Guatemala

We vacationed in Guatemala this year. It was my second trip to the country — our entire family had visited in 2005. While I enjoyed both trips a great deal, this time was likely my last visit to Guatemala. At least it was my last visit for the purpose of vacation — perhaps I’ll have an opportunity to do community service there, but I’ve realized I’m nearing an end to my long-held interest in travel to developing countries where they speak Spanish.

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With my husband at Lago de Atitlán, a volcano-rimmed lake

Why? In large part, my tastes have changed as I’ve grown older. It isn’t a question of safety: at no time did I feel unsafe in Guatemala. We took the usual precautions one would take anywhere in the world. But as much as I hate to admit it, I like being comfortable when I’m on vacation. While it’s perfectly possible to find nice hotels and restaurants in a developing country, the “comfortable tourist” cannot help but come face to face with the uncomfortable reality of life for that country’s people. I know it’s good to have a broader world view and not to remain ensconced in my cozy suburban life. At the same time, I’m not sure this type of experience, for me, makes for a “vacation” in the usual sense.

In this and the next post, I’ll explore my thoughts on our recent trip.

Developing country travel is harder at midlife

Traveling to Guatemala made me admit I’d grown older. Partly this acknowledgment had to do with expectations based on the easy life I have at home, and partly my body just doesn’t work as well as it used to. But I appreciate a firm bed, a nice shower, a good cup of coffee and clean bathrooms. I found most of these things during my trip, even the good cup of coffee — thanks to following the advice of my older son to take along an Aeropress and hand coffee grinder. Still, by most measures, it was far from luxury travel.

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With my CSA teacher in 2005 and then again in 2014

My younger son and I spent a wonderful week studying Spanish — each with our personal tutor at the Christian Spanish Academy in Antigua Guatemala. We loved Antigua. It’s an excellent tourist destination with numerous hotels and restaurants, and it’s small enough to negotiate on foot. However, I found wandering around there more difficult this time than nine years ago. Antigua is an old colonial town where all the streets are cobblestone, and the curbs are uneven. Cars might slow down as they approach an intersection, but no one has bothered to install stop signs — presumably because they would go unheeded. I turned my ankle and fell at a street corner when I wasn’t paying attention. Furthermore, many streets weren’t marked, so it was easy to become confused about where we were going.

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Antigua’s cobblestone streets

Don’t they want to attract well-off tourists?

Second, for a country such as Guatemala where tourism is one of its principal industries, it seems odd that they aren’t trying to encourage affluent travelers to visit by making sure they provide world-class accommodations and food.

The hotels where we stayed in Antigua and Guatemala City seemed more run-down than they had in 2005, and it struck me that management efforts to cut operations costs may have detracted from guests’ experience while not actually saving much money. For example, our room on the lower level of the Antigua hotel smelled dank, and they had fewer tropical flower arrangements and candles in the hallways this time around than had impressed me nine years ago. In Guatemala City, our business-class hotel still had not replaced a burnt-out light bulb two days after we requested it. Likewise, shops and market stalls seemed stuck in the previous century, with little evidence of innovation in their product offerings. And don’t even get me started on the restaurants! If you want more of my opinions, check out my Trip Advisor reviews.

Most travelers to Guatemala today are students studying Spanish, or they’re budget-conscious couples (and occasionally families) who aren’t staying in the nicer (meaning “more expensive”) hotels, or eating in fine restaurants. They also aren’t buying many souvenirs. I’m glad they’re there. But attracting more affluent travelers also would help Guatemala’s tourism industry overall. It’s an excellent destination with natural beauty, culture and friendly people. Yet broadening their base of travelers involves improving all aspects of the hospitality industry — not just upgrading an occasional hotel or restaurant. Given the country’s economic and political woes, it’s not an easy thing to accomplish.

The next post will continue my thoughts on this specific trip and vacationing in developing countries generally. In the meantime, enjoy some travel photos!

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Lunch with a view at Café Sky in Antigua

 

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Mayan men in the church courtyard, Santiago de Atitlán

 

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Girls in traditional Mayan attire

 

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Women preparing a float for church festival

 

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Mayan woman fastens blooms to festival float

 

Messy today, empty tomorrow

Today my house is messy and happy. We just returned from vacation, so there are suitcases everywhere, mounds of laundry, mail spilling off the entry table. Plus the packing activities of my youngest son, who leaves for his second year of college tomorrow morning. And my oldest, who leaves tonight with his bride. My daughter was here for a few weeks, but she left nearly a month ago. Our house reflects a summer of coming and going, living in the moment, not concerning myself with clutter. But tomorrow they’ll be gone. The house will be empty. There will be time to clean, but I will be sad.

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When does it get easier to say goodbye to my kids? One or more of them has been leaving for six years now. Their lives are lived elsewhere. While they come back to share themselves with us from time to time, our home will never again be the center of their world. I know this is how it should be, how I want it to be. But I hate it all the same.

Tomorrow I’ll start to clean up the remains of a summer where I relaxed and enjoyed my family’s company. It’s actually easier now, since I no longer have to mediate children’s squabbles, remind them to do their homework, or drive to their innumerable activities. Tomorrow, while I clean, my footsteps will echo through the house. My husband will go to the office. Only the dog will hear my quiet crying.

For one more day, I’ll live in the mess and be happy. Cleaning can wait until tomorrow.

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Tennis in the tropics

As much as I love being at the beach in Mexico, spending time with my older kids, I miss my husband and high school son, who had to stay behind for work and exams. Also, truth be told, I miss my DIRECTV French Open Mix Channel, where they give me six HD different channels to choose from during the first week of the tournament — sometimes they even show doubles matches, which ESPN almost never airs.  The Tennis Channel doesn’t even show doubles very often.

I’m having to make do with re-runs on ESPN-México in poor quality telecast. But it helps me work on my Spanish, and at least we’re at the tournament’s beginning. Yes I know, no one’s feeling sorry for me: my balcony looks out on the sea. There’s a lovely breeze blowing, and it’s air-conditioned inside if I prefer that. Who needs tennis right now?

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I did want to check out the courts here, though. Because rain was forecast for every day of our trip at the time I packed, I didn’t bother to bring my tennis gear. And in fact I had to wade through a flooded passageway to reach the rain-soaked courts our first day. They call the court surface “grass,” but it’s not exactly Wimbledon. It’s the same grass-carpet material my mother-in-law and countless other owners of Southern California ranch homes used to put down in their enclosed patios. However, the resort stretches the grass fabric and glues it down tight, so it works well.

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My husband and I played here years ago, and we enjoyed the so-called grass courts. We had to make sure to play before the sun rose too high, as the tropical heat makes it tough to run around in the afternoon. Maybe I’ll save the tennis for a different location — here, it’s time for a margarita.

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All-inclusive resorts: the good, the bad and the ugly

Greetings from Puerto Vallarta! I came here for the long weekend with my college kids and my son’s girlfriend. We’re staying at a property we used to enjoy when it was operated by Hoteles Camino Real, a high-end Mexican chain similar to Westin. But several years back the property changed hands and now is owned by AMResort’s Dreams. We have resisted returning to this location because Dreams resorts are all-inclusive properties — but since this was a short vacation, it seemed like a good chance to check things out.

Anne’s verdict: the location is as fabulous as ever, but the all-inclusive vacation model does not work for me.

The beauty of this location is that it lies about fifteen minutes south of the town of Puerto Vallarta on its own beach. Although Mexican beaches are public property, this one is inaccessible to outsiders to due to rocks on either side, and the road into the hotel is gated, so only hotel guests are allowed to enter. Thus the beach is clean, not crowded, and souvenir vendors are kept to a minimum. The surf is gentle enough to swim in. And yet, the shops and restaurants of PV are only a five-dollar cab ride away.

 

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We were fortunate that Hurricane Bud brushed by us during the night and brought only heavy rain our first day and a half here. Today was partly cloudy, but much better than I had expected when checking the forecast before departing the Bay Area last week.

 

 

Sunday 27 May 2012

 

 

At the same time, this is my first experience with any type of all-inclusive vacation, where my room rate includes breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus all the drinks and snacks I want. The facilities are lovely, and in general the service is excellent. But they maximize profit margins by offering limited dining options, over-pricing pedestrian wines, and charging for “extra” services such as more than one wifi connection per room. (Sorry, when you’re from Silicon Valley, one Internet connection per room, even when on vacation, is not going to cut it.)

I would imagine the all-inclusive arrangement works well for larger groups, or for people who want to lock in their vacation expenses before leaving home. Also for folks who prefer to spend their vacations consuming alcohol throughout the day, and/or for those who prefer quantity over quality of food. We have witnessed both types of guests here.

Never mind: the breakfast buffet is perfect, we’ve  identified the best restaurant on property for lunch, and after one mediocre dinner on a rainy night when we couldn’t face going out, we committed to sampling the best of what Puerto Vallarta has to offer. Last night we went to an old favorite, the classic Daiquiri Dick’s, owned by a chef who moved down from Los Angeles years ago, and a sumptuous meal (with daiquiris and flaming coffee) cost only fifty dollars each.  Tonight we had what my son the foodie proclaimed our best meal yet at a place favored by locals, La Langosta Feliz, the Happy Lobster.

Here’s to living large — Salud!

 

Back to September

Driving home after dropping my son at school last week, I stopped to let five girls on rollerblades cross the street.  With bike helmets and new backpacks, they joined other kids and parents making their way on foot, bike or stroller towards the elementary school near our house.  A mom with a yellow Lab jogged behind the pink and purple phalanx of girls, keeping an eye on their wobbly but excited progress.Even though our kids are past elementary age, I still love the first days of school in our neighborhood, when parents and kids stream towards their classrooms, clog the streets with parked cars, and make “happy noises” I can hear far down the street.

The elementary school students may be the ones who come to mind first when we think of “back to school,” but transitions are happening at every age.  Friends were telling me about their son’s first week at middle school, and how he had been both happy and a little nervous to move from class to class instead of staying in the same room all day long.  And, to their surprise, how all of a sudden he was coming home talking about girls . . . .  Where had their little boy gone?

It’s a question we parents keep asking ourselves, especially once our children grow up and move towards adulthood.  I mean, my oldest is a junior in college.  He’s an RA, counseling freshmen on how to adjust to life in the dorms, providing a mature influence and disciplinary oversight.  But in my mind, I still see him on his green bicycle, proud to ride off to sixth grade by himself.  My daughter, a college sophomore, tells me she’s going to try a different class because a professor may be knowledgeable but isn’t engaging.  But I still recall how petrified she was to find out she was assigned to the strictest (and most challenging) teacher for the third grade at her school.  Her initial fear subsided into anticipation, as she made a bead bracelet that spelled out the teacher’s name.  Go figure.

My youngest still lives at home but is about to get his driver’s license.  I should be happy to be “free” of shuttling kids around after so many years, but I wonder if I’ll ever again have chances to converse with my children the way I’ve had when they were required to be in the car with me.

The thing is, all our kids all doing exactly what they’re supposed to do – grow up and separate from us.  And even those of us who aren’t parents, or whose kids are “all grown up,” remember what this time of year was like for ourselves: the anticipation of something new, hope for something good, fear of the unknown.

So even if our lives are not governed by the academic calendar, post Labor Day is a great time to start fresh.  The days are getting shorter, but there is still the promise of an Indian summer ahead.  Now that kids are settled into school, some adults  take advantage of cheaper and less crowded vacation destinations.  Others feel we can finally get organized after traveling or feeling scattered during the summer months.  For some, like Rita Konig of the WSJ, it may mean sprucing up our desks.  For me, it’s meant getting back to my workout routine, something that’s proving torturous but necessary.  I’m also signing up for some classes, not a full load, but a couple of things to do for myself, to put my brain into gear.

So whether you have kids or not, find something to do that rejuvenates yourself this month, gives you a new routine or a new way of looking at your old routine.  It may be a vacation without the summer hordes, or a new set of pens for your desk.  Whatever you choose, though, be on the lookout for pink and purple rollerbladers – you might even want to join them!