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Compass Navigation Through Guatemala City

We took a local bus into Guatemala City from Antigua for 8 quetzales, $1 each. We arrived in the middle of a city that neither my wife nor I are familiar with. The bus was suppose to take us into Zone 1 to a little bus terminal, which was within walking distance to where we [...]

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We took a local bus into Guatemala City from Antigua for 8 quetzales, $1 each. We arrived in the middle of a city that neither my wife nor I are familiar with. The bus was suppose to take us into Zone 1 to a little bus terminal, which was within walking distance to where we were going to catch another bus out of the city.

After a ride that took well over an hour we found that myself, my wife, and our baby were the last people on the bus. The bus driver pulled over and told us to get out. We asked the driver before we got on the bus if he was going to Calle 18, Zone 1, he said that he was.

Apparently, he decided en route that he did not really want to go there. He told us to get out.

“Where are we?” I asked him.

Zone Three, he said.

“Where is Zone One?”

He pointed behind us. For some odd reason that I cannot comprehend, he pointed in the wrong direction.

I know this because I had a compass.

Sighting compass similar to the one I use

I photo copied a map of Guatemala City out of a Lonely Planet the day before, and I had been able to figure out where we were by reading street signs, orienting myself to the cardinal directions with a compass, and then matching this to the map.

A map is next to useless if you can’t orient yourself on it. To do so, you either need to know what direction is north, or have some other landmark to indicate where you are going.

I found that using a compass is the quickest way to do this.

To know what way to turn at an intersection you need to know what way you are facing. In cities this is often difficult. If you know that you are walking south and need to go east at XY street, then you know right off that you need to take a left. Add to this difficulty the fact that many streets in most cities of the world are not labeled, and you often need to navigate by compass heading alone.

Guatemala City is a confusing city to navigate — not because the streets are not labeled, but because there are many streets with duplicate names. I have never seen a city that has two sets of number oriented avenues that count upwards in opposing directions. From west to east the avenues count down to one sequentially, and then begin counting up again the farther you travel east. So each avenue in the west of the city is matched by another avenue of the same number in the east.

So there are two third aves, two ninth aves . . . And on and on. Many streets have the same names.

As I got off the bus in Guatemala City, for some reason, the driver told me that Zone One was in the exact wrong direction. He pointed west when where I wanted to go was to the east. If I did not have a compass I would have easily thought that the streets in the direction he pointed were going to the east — my map would have been flipped. There is a reasonable chance that I could have walked up to the wrong Avenue 10 in the wrong direction.

But I didn’t.

I carry my compass in the pocket of my vest: it is always with me and always easily accessible. I use it often: it gets me to where I want to go.

In Guatemala City I knew exactly where I wanted to go, and the thirty minute walk from Zone Three across Zone One past without confusion or disorientation — we got off the bus, ignored the driver’s direction, and got to where we wanted to go.

It is amazing to me how few travelers will carry a compass with them. I suppose they would rather be lost in the streets, nervously peering into their guidebooks every few steps, or just trust a taxi driver to really taking them to where they want to go. I am seldom lost when traveling — I am seldom lost because I always know where north is, what direction I came from, and the relative direction of where I want to go.

I know this because I use a compass.

Compasses can be purchased through the Vagabond Journey travel gear Amazon store below or through the graphic link in the sidebar.

Filed under: Central America, Guatemala, Navigation, Travel Gear

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3703 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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  • Ellie in Maine March 28, 2010, 2:38 pm

    Hi Wade and Hannah and Petra!
    On a roadtrip years ago, I went to an unfamiliar hospital in Pennsylvania, trying to locate my daughter and husband who had gone there for emergency treatment of a sudden illness of our little girl. I asked a doctor in the corridor, “where is the emergency room?” He said, “In the North Wing.” I took my compass out of my pocket and oriented myself to one of the three corridors that beckoned from that spot. The doc freaked out, took my elbow and led me in the right direction – obviously thinking I was NUTS. Your story reminded me of that occasion. Best wishes,
    Ellie in Maine

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com March 28, 2010, 3:53 pm

      Hello Ellie,

      This is a good story, how else could you tell where north is when inside a building!!! Directions and maps often demand that you know where the cardinal dirctions are, and I have not yet figured out how to do this inside of a major complex like a hospital, train station, or a city without a compass.

      Thanks for the comment!

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  • Ellie in Maine March 28, 2010, 4:56 pm

    To be honest, Wade, I have to say that there WERE (small) signs for the North/South/East/West wings – which I didn’t notice until afterward. I just reached for my compass when he said North. So the story is not about how smart I am, but how out of touch with the indoor modern world, when under stress!

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    • Wade March 28, 2010, 5:36 pm

      I must say that I admire your initial reaction. You are definitely from Maine! If someone says go north you should reach for your compass! Think of how easy navigation would be if everyone did this.

      “I am two clicks north, thirty degrees west at the bakery haha.”

      Instead I guess we get cell phones that can track the exact locations of our friends without ever having to know what way north ever was hahaha.



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