Living in Guatemala vs. the U.S. -- Part 1

I regularly get asked by friends what it is like to live in Latin America vs. the U.S. or Canada. Consider this the first episode in trying to explain the differences. If you can specific questions, email them or post a question here and I will try to address them.

I have lived in Guatemala for almost seven years and in Central America since early 2002. I also ran a web site on Nicaragua for years. I don't know everything but I sure know a lot more than I did 15 or so years ago.

This post is inspired by a Canadian friend whose car is "in the shop". She talked about the few places she could walk to and how she has never taken a bus. Let me contrast that with my experiences in Guatemala.

I initially moved to Panajachel and then San Antonio Palopó on Lake Atitlan. I now live in Guatemala City. There are some differences but not many.

On the lake there are thousands of local tiendas. The places where people go to buy daily needs like eggs, tortillas and toilet paper. Most people don't have private vehicles because they can't afford them so the local tienda system makes a lot of sense. While you might think this means higher than supermarket prices, it does not. For example, you will find eggs in a supermarket cost a bit over Q1 per egg. In a local tienda you can expect to pay Q1 or a bit less.

How is this possible? Economics. Local tiendas have low overhead. Many are in a converted garage with "mom" running it while she takes care of her children. Stock is delivered to them and they pay cash for it. It is a system that makes sense.

The lack of private vehicles means more of the population use public transit. More use means lower prices and more convenient schedules.

I moved to Guate (Guatemala City) so my daughter can attend University Mariano Galvez. While we are temporarily living in an apartment in Zona 1, we will soon be moving to a house in Zona 2 - walking distance to the university. First, here is what it is like near the apartment.

  • Within two blocks of the apartment you can find at least 10 tiendas, probably half of them making tortillas.
  • There are two banks within a block.
  • Within two blocks an assortment of restaurants including Ray Sol, a great vegetarian one.
  • There is a public market about five blocks away as well as people with carts selling fruit and veggies on the street.
  • If we need to go somewhere further away, there are two TransMetro bus stops nearby plus stops for TransUrbano and the "red buses".

I own a motorcycle but the last time I rode it was when I moved it here from San Antonio Palopó over six months ago. While "suburbia" (the outskirts of the city) are different you can easy elect to live where things are convenient.  Here are some specific examples:

  • I needed to renew my driver's license. The closest place is right at the "Terminal" TransMetro stop. I left home at about 0830, took two buses to get there, went through the process and then two buses back home. I was home by 1030.
  • Two months ago I broke a rib. I walked to a clinic, paid Q30 to have a doctor verify it was broken, bought medications and such for about Q400 and walked back home.
  • I picked a lawyer within walking distance for my house buying. I communicate with him in email (I did talk to him on the phone once, always email ever since). It takes me about the same amount of time to walk to the building he is in then to travel to his office on the very slow elevator.

I grew up in Los Angeles California where you drive your car for everything. It took a lot of getting used to but my experiences have been similar to here when I lived in Costa Rica and and Nicaragua. It requires significant attitude adjustment but once you realize it is possible and the weather being between 10C and 30C 24/7/365, it's a nice change.