Cascades National Park in Guatemala’s Semuc Champey. Photo courtesy of soft_light via Shutterstock.

To my beautiful Guatemala,

You stole my heart.

Three years ago when I stepped on a plane for the first time – when I stepped into an airport for the first time – I had no idea what to expect. Excited but nervous and surrounded by strangers, I was half convinced I was going to die, but more than ready for an adventure.

Deciding to go on the trip was a rash decision. My school posted a video from a previous trip, taken from the back of a truck as it drove through various parts of the country, and something inside me clicked. I had to go. When I informed my parents, they laughed. I, Miss Scared-of-Everything, the girl who rarely left small-town Pennsylvania, wanted to go to Guatemala? Did I realize that would require flying, something I had sworn I would never, ever, under any circumstances, do? Yeah, right – not happening. I was not going.

I refused to back down – I even made a chart listing all the reasons going on the trip was a good idea – and eventually they gave in. Yeah, whatever, you can go, as long as you pay for it. I put in an application at Subway and landed my first job the next day.

My mom, I found out later, only agreed to the trip because she was convinced I would never want to leave the country again when I experienced life outside our small town.

I called home three days into my trip and declared I never wanted to come home.

group photo

My first introduction to Guatemala was the pilot announcing over the speaker.

Sorry for the rough landing…Guatemala City is not the easiest airport to fly into.

This was not the best introduction for someone terrified of flying; however, as soon as I stepped off the plane, it was love at first sight. Though La Aurora International is far from exciting at 10pm, I was on sensory overdrive, truly experiencing everything for the first time.

The airport was clean and organized – the opposite of the airport we had flown from – and going through customs was a breeze, despite my worries that they would turn me away for some unknown reason. Stepping outside the airport, suitcase dragging behind me, it finally hit me – I had done it. I was officially in another country, with people I barely knew, and I had survived my first plane ride. The feeling was euphoric.

Just barely recovering from my fear of flying, I was forced out of my comfort zone again the next morning when we stopped at Mixco Viejo. Though the Mayan ruins were small compared to places like Tikal, they were still intimidating to a girl who disliked hiking and had perfected the art of tripping on air. Add in the fact the ruins were built on the edge of a cliff and suddenly I knew this portion of the trip was a disaster waiting to happen. I was going to trip down the uneven steps and break a bone. No, on second thought, I was going to plummet to my death when I fell off the edge of a cliff. And, oh no, there were probably snakes and spiders and other unknown critters just waiting to attack me…Someone tell my little brother I love him.

Of course, none of those things happened. No critters were lurking in the shadows just waiting for me to walk by and, surprise, you won’t fall off a cliff if you don’t walk near it. Admittedly, I was nervous at certain points, like when I made the mistake of feeding my fear of heights by looking over the edge of the cliff, it was worth it. Mayan history is far more interesting than I anticipated and as our guide was an anthropologist I learned far more than I intended. The view from the top, where we could see miles and miles of Guatemalan countryside, was extraordinary. The most rewarding part, however, was knowing that I hadn’t caved in to my many fears. The photo of my friends and I doing the victory pose from the top of the ruins still makes me smile.

But, my dear Guatemala, the truth is that while you stole my heart, I left it in Joyabaj.

One of the many students who captured my heart
One of the many students who captured my heart

We arrived in Joyabaj, a rural town in the mountains, just as the Sunday market was ending. I stared, like the awkward gringa that I am, absorbing every detail – the brightly decorated chicken bus on the street, the women carrying their unsold wares on their backs, the children leading goats and cows up the street, and the unpleasant stench that comes from having so many farm animals in one area. For a girl who had barely left her hometown, it was like stepping into a different world.

It took only three days for Joyabaj to become my spiritual home. My days were spent at a local school, assisting the English teachers that would soon turn into friends I would stay in touch with for years — eventually returning to stay with.

The couple who lived next to our hostel – my teacher’s childhood best friend and her husband – quickly became my Guatemalan “parents.” We spent each evening at their house, all ten of us squeezing into their small kitchen to enjoy the traditional Guatemalan food they prepared for us. Afterward, they would often return to the hostel with us, where we would spend the rest of the night sitting around the pool, chatting, and listening to my Guatemalan dad as he sang and played his guitar.

It was in Joyabaj that I learned the kindness of others, went to my first market, rode a motorcycle for the first time, realized black beans might actually be edible and experienced the slower-paced Guatemalan lifestyle — free of the tourist culture of Panajachel and Antigua.

Lake Atitlan. Photo courtesy of Joakim Lloyd Raboff via Shutterstock.

Speaking of Panajachel and Antigua, I fell in love there too. Next to Joyabaj, Lake Atitlan is my favorite place to be. And though Panajachel is the only town I visited and there are apparently many “better”, less touristy villages around the lake, I loved it: the vibe, the shopping, the people — not to mention the brownies at Crossroads Cafe. I even grew fond of the hotel with the chipped mural of the naked lady and the pool without water, though I can’t even remember the name now.

Antigua, while I was only there for a few hours, captured my attention. The city itself is beautiful, with the cobblestone streets and church towering over the town. The vibe, though, was much different than the rest of the country – it was the first time I met anyone fluent in English since landing in the country a week earlier. Though I’d choose a city less catered to tourists for a long-term stay, I hope to return to Antigua to spend a day or two exploring.

When it was time to leave you, Guatemala, I cried. I hugged the people I still refer to as my Guatemalan family, promising to return the next year. I left the country with a suitcase full of souvenirs, hundreds of photographs and a few weeks worth of stories.

More important, however, I left the country with an independence I had never felt before. I had done things I never considered doing, left my comfort zone and never really returned. Little Miss-Scared-of-Everything turned into a confident and independent woman, ready to travel the world and experience everything – though I am still pretty terrified of snakes.

So thank you, Guatemala, for shoving this country girl out of her comfort zone.

I’ll see you in a few months. I’ll be staying a while this time.


Sky, aka Little Miss Independent

By Sky Fisher

By the way, for those asking “Okay, but is Guatemala safe?” remember it’s important not to judge a country by its statistics. Use common sense and research where is okay to go, and you’ll be just fine.

Have you ever fallen completely in love with a country? Please share in the comments below.


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Sky Fisher is a small-town country girl with a passion for travel. She has a love affair with Central America and currently calls Costa Rica home. Follow her adventures at Sky vs World.

Sky Fisher

Sky Fisher is a small-town country girl with a passion for travel. She has a love affair with Central America and currently calls Costa Rica home. Follow her adventures at Sky vs World.

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