GUATEMALA — a tropical, picturesque, adventure-filled destination — is what Costa Rica used to be. As in Cheap. Because the tourist hordes haven’t discovered it yet, Guatemala remains affordable. The Central American country, bordering southern Mexico, is still a spot where $100 can get budget-minded travelers their own bungalow and all meals for a day, with money left over for a turtle race (yes, a turtle race – and no, while some were molested, none had their throats slit).
At least all this is true in Monterrico – a town famous for its never-ending volcanic black-sand beaches, azure blue waters and a relaxed atmosphere. After the jump, molested turtles, six year olds driving four wheelers, Hulk Hogan’s illegitimate brother, and a seriously hungover Barbie:
It’s always a good sign that the town you’ve shown up in also happens to be where the actual denizens of a country vacation. It generally means decent accommodations without the expense of a tourist resort (and minus the tourists). Pez de Oro (bungalows from $60, pezdeoro.com) at the end of the Monterrico strip, doesn’t disappoint. Quaint, colorful, with great service and food, Pez features individual bungalows with high, thatched roofs, tiled or polished, painted concrete floors, ceiling fans and carved-wood furniture. Each comes with a private balcony or porch with an ocean view.
In the morning, visit the mangrove forest. The back canals are used as local highways, transporting cars, goods and people on small flat-bed boats, but a large area is off-limits to commercial transportation and is a designated a bird sanctuary.
Tour it by canoe and spot herons, eagles and even flying fish. An excellent guide can be found at the turtle sanctuary next door to Pez — our guide, Noy, was extremely knowledgeable, although his English was not the best.
In the evenings, between January and March, the turtle sanctuary sets hatchling turtles free. For $5 you can get your very own turtle and race it against others. It’s pretty cool, although those turtles must be super traumatized – as they got the heck molested out of them before being set free in the ocean. You know some kid went home with one in his pocket…
Not to mention how many times they get dropped before the race – half of the little guys wobbled off into the ocean with stage 3 concussions. But it’s better than the alternative – never having hatched at all. The eggs have to be taken into the sanctuary of they will be smushed by four wheelers, which are often driven by 6 year olds. Not kidding.
The food is great – outside of the restaurants. There’s some street ceviche right out of the ocean… and a wide variety of nuts. And I’m not talking about the locals.
For actual dining, eat at the Taberna El Pelicano — 40 feet away from Pez. The menu is longer and more creative than anything else in town, and features a variety of pastas, entrees, vegetarian dishes, desserts and a list of daily specials, which usually includes jumbo shrimp grilled to perfection.
After, there’s a super cheesy disco called Johnny’s Place that’s as good as any to hang out – cheap booze, lots of people watching AND… (obvi my favorite thing about the place) – a bouncer who looks like Hulk Hogan’s illegitimate brother.
Side note – on black sand beaches… Everyone loooooves to say, “OH! BLACK SAND!” but honestly… it’s hot as hell – black soaking up the heat a million times more than regular sand – and when it’s on your skin, it just makes you look filthy. There. I said it. And… the undertow in the waters off of Monterrico is so bad – the water is basically there to look at. not to swim in. At the end of four days, I looked like this:
To get out of town, and after a few days you will be bored enough to crawl out, use a car service — you do not want to shave years off your life on a local chicken bus. The drivers show up on time and transport you from city to city with scenic stops in between destinations. Sergio Castaneda’s Pelican Transport (+502 5202-1611) offers clean vans, reasonable prices and English-speaking drivers. Request Freddy — he is muy tranquilo and saved our lives at least twice. More on Freddy later.