It seemed like a good idea on paper, to spend New Year's Eve in the capital city of Guatemala, a country that's known for its party spirit and firework-fuelled celebrations. After all, as the new year creeps round the globe, capital cities everywhere party until dawn, from Sydney to Beijing to London to Rio de Janeiro. It surely wasn't much of a leap to expect Guatemala City to follow suit, at least a little bit.
So we asked the man at the hotel reception desk where would be the best place to celebrate the start of 2014, and he looked at us with a completely straight face and said, 'Antigua.'
'No, we meant here, in Guatamela City', we said.
'Antigua has great new year celebrations,' he repeated as if reading the answer from a cue card. 'You should go there.'
'But we're not in Antigua,' we pointed out. 'What happens here?'
'Everything pretty much shuts down,' he said in an unnecessarily robotic voice. 'They close for the afternoon of 31 December, and reopen on 2 January. But there's a big party in Antigua.'
'OK, well, perhaps we could book a nice restaurant instead?' we asked.
'No problem, you can ask the concierge,' he replied, so we went over to the concierge's desk.
'Hello,' we said. 'Could you help us book a nice restaurant for New Year's Eve? Something romantic and classy, maybe a bit of fine dining? Juat as long as it's not Mexican.'
'Yes, I can help with that,' said the immaculately coiffured woman behind the desk. 'How about our Italian restaurant here in the hotel? It is one of the best in Guatemala City.'
'That sounds good,' we replied, as we'd heard the hotel restaurant was great. 'Could you book us a table for, say, 8pm?'
'Certainly,' she said, picking up a phone and dialling the restaurant.
It was when her face dropped that we suspected there might be a bit of a problem.
'Um, our restaurant is shut tonight,' she said, sounding genuinely surprised. 'We do have a special meal in the café on 1 January; is that any good? We've got turkey.'
'No, not really, we're looking for something on New Year's Eve,' we said. 'Can you suggest anything else?'
'Let me ring round and find out,' she said, and we left it with her.
It wasn't much of a surprise when she rang later to say that the only open restaurant that she'd been able to find closed at 6pm, and was that any good? No, we said, it wasn't, and we put down the phone, faced with the realisation that Guatemala City is clearly not the place to be for New Year's Eve. Perhaps 2014 wasn't going to start with a bang after all.
You see, the problem is that Guatemala City is split into zones, and those zones might as well be separate cities. The capital city of Guatemala is famous for its criminal gangs, drug violence and regular appearances in those top ten lists of the most dangerous cities in the world, and this is indeed true: some zones of Guatemala City, particularly Zones 3, 6, 18, and 21, are seriously criminal, and if you venture in there toting a fancy camera, white skin and a vacuous expression, you will almost certainly be mugged, and probably a lot worse. Guatemala City is, for a lot of people, synonymous with violent gang crime, but there are places you can stay that are relatively safe.
One such area is Zone 10, where the fancy hotels are. We managed to book a room at one of Zone 10's top hotels, the Westin Camino Real, for six nights, completely free, because we had a stack of loyalty points from a previous holiday that we discovered we could use there (and if we didn't use them in the next couple of months, they would expire, so we figured we had nothing to lose). It sounded perfect: a classy hotel, a capital city, and New Year's Eve in the tropics; what could possibly go wrong?
After all, Zone 10 is the place to be if you're a tourist. You can walk around this part of town in the daytime without worrying too much about pickpockets or knife-wielding robbers, and even at night it's not too dangerous (though it isn't completely safe, like any capital city after dark). The problem is that while violent crime may have been removed from Zone 10, it has been replaced by a different type of crime, that of being incredibly dull. Zone 10 is pleasant enough, with wide boulevards and lots of trees, but it doesn't win any prizes for excitement, with its quiet restaurants and relatively empty streets, and soon after booking in we'd explored enough of Zone 10 to know that it was fairly devoid of life.
Zone 1 is better, as we discovered when we headed up there in the daytime on New Year's Eve. This is the historical centre of Guatemala City, and there are some interesting buildings around the main plaza, Parque Central, as well as the hectic and extremely packed shopping street of 6th Avenue, which leads south from Parque Central to the claustrophobic market stalls around Plaza Barrios. It was rammed and looked quite lively, and we didn't see any other tourists in four hours of exploring, which was fairly intimidating; no doubt New Year's Eve kicks off round here nicely, but the advice is not to go there after dark as it's full of pickpockets and muggers, so we rolled back down south to Zone 10, which by this stage had practically gone to bed.
That afternoon, we figured we might as well pop out to do a quick round of the area, just in case anything was still open. We'd resigned ourself to an evening of sitting in the hotel, ordering room service and drinking in front of the TV, but as we wandered, we spotted one sign that was still lit, in a little basement opposite the moribund Holiday Inn. As we wandered over, we saw it said 'Shakespeare's Pub' in red neon, which sounded intriguing. 'What the hell,' we thought, and slipped down the steps into the twilight of a dark room, where a solitary couple sat propping up the bar, and a young barman fiddled with a computer behind the counter. It was 4.30pm, and it looked like the end of the world.
Of course, we ended up staying there until 1.30am, drinking far too much strong, dark beer and meeting the most glorious collection of ex-pats, who were seemingly as confused as we were by the complete lack of life on New Year's Eve. There were Violeta and Earl, she a middle-aged Guatemalan and he an 80-year-old American, both now hailing from Miami; she could talk the hind legs off a horse and kept the conversation flowing all evening, while Earl threw in pithy comments from a lifetime of experience. There was the couple who had come in to drown their sorrows, because they'd just buried the husband's father that morning. There was a moody German called Baron, who looked exactly like the old man from the film Up, and who stared into his beer with a determination that would have been unnerving if we hadn't had it pointed out to us that he was like that all the time. And behind the bar was James, a witty 20-something from America who'd lived in Guatemala City for years, had studied classical music and now played in a punk band while working in bars to pay the rent; and the American owner, Val, a Doctor Who fan whose stories of the gritty end of life in Guatemala City made my neck hair stand on end.
Later on, a couple of Koreans came into the bar, and one of them came over for a chat. I'm not sure how it happened, as the details are hazy, but he started singing opera at the bar before trying to chat up Peta in halting English, while Violeta waved at me from behind his back, pointing to Peta and mouthing, 'Look at what he's doing!'
'It's OK, Peta can handle herself,' I mouthed back, and sat back to watch as the disparate cultures of America, Korea, England, Germany and Guatemala bounced off each other in a muddle of alcohol.
It all ended with group hugs at midnight, more beers, more tall stories and, eventually, a drunken stagger one block south to the hotel. We didn't plan it, but New Year's Eve in Guatemala City was indeed legendary, just not in the way we'd been expecting.
We didn't do much else in Guatemala City. We'd tried to visit some of the tourist attractions the previous Sunday, but even though there's a special Sunday bus for tourists that takes you round the main attractions, such as the zoo and the museums, we failed to find that bus, and besides, most of the attractions are closed on Sundays, so it all seemed a bit pointless.
And Guatemala City isn't suitable for just wandering around, or even taking the bus. There are three safe bus routes, operated by the TransMetro company with their distinctive green buses; these are safe because the stations are guarded by men with big guns, and the buses run in their own lanes and only pick up passengers from the stations, so it's much harder for dodgy characters to jump on board. These green buses connect Zone 1 and Zone 10, Zone 1 and the main bus terminal, and southern Zone 1 with northern Zone 1, but that's it. To explore any other part of the city you either have to take a taxi or a red bus, and the red buses are asking for trouble. Since 2007, over 900 bus drivers have been killed by the drug gangs, who extort the bus companies by threatening to kill their drivers if the companies don't make regular payments. Although the gangs don't specifically target passengers, they do sometimes get caught in the crossfire, and as the gangs have recently resorted to blowing buses up to make their point, the red buses are effectively no-go areas for those looking for safety... and that's without even mentioning the standard pickpocketing and thievery that goes on, quite apart from the gang violence.
So we decided to spend most of our time relaxing in Zone 10, which is a world away from the realities of the city. It's perhaps best summed up by the Westin company's signature Heavenly Bed, which our room proudly boasted. The Heavenly Bed includes what the blurb calls 'Ten Layers of Pure Comfort', which includes:
- 13" pillow top mattress with 8 3/4" box spring
- Two feather and down pillows
- Two hypo-allergenic pillows
- Boudoir pillow and cover
- Duvet cover with an overstuffed polyester insert
- Down blanket
- Bed skirt
- Top sheet
- Decorative sheet
- Bottom sheet
- Pillow cases
After all the rock-hard beds that we've failed to enjoy in Guatemala's cheaper hotels, it was a bit like sleeping in a cloud, and we were so impressed that I followed the web link in the blurb to discover that they sell the Heavenly Bed online. The Kingsize bed we were luxuriating in – the cheapest of the three levels of Heavenly Bed that the company sells – will set you back a princely US$3788, and we could well believe it.
Meanwhile, the bus drivers out in Guatemala City take home an average of $38 a day. It doesn't take a maths genius to work out that our bed was worth just under five months' pay for the average red bus driver, who risks being murdered every time he takes to the road, and that's ignoring the crazy driving, the safety issues of maintaining ancient buses that are crammed to the rafters with passengers, and the heavy pollution that the buses belch.
After reading that, we perhaps didn't sleep quite as soundly as before. Welcome to Guatemala City...