The Threat of the Mariachi
Story by Luke Armstrong, photos by Ray Conway

A poor country can be a land of lost hope or a land of crazy opportunities. A gringo expatriate in Guatemala tests out how far to take the latter.


"It's going to happen."

"What is?"

"Amy, today is the greatest day of all of our lives."

"Why Luke? Why is this the greatest day of all of our lives?"

"They're the real deal. I met them in San Felipe… A mariachi band… For 500 Quetzales ($80) they are going to do it!"

"Slow down. What are you talking about?"

"A mariachi band Amy! We can have a mariachi band follow us around all night to the bars. Call everyone. We're having a mariachi pub crawl!"

Guatemala travel

No international governing body that mentions Guatemala calls it "a land of possibilities."

With a silver medal in the Western Hemisphere for malnutrition, rampant political corruption, impunity for the wealthy and troubling literacy rates, many Guatemalans with the option choose to migrate to my country where the stars and stripes mean employment possibilities their own country can't offer.

For me personally though, Guatemala is filled with previously unimaginable possibilities. I find feasible there what I never could have dreamed of discovering in the USA.

Stuff like this happens here all the time. What's far-fetched in the motherland is doable in Guatemala—land of shimmering possibilities for gringos.

"This is going to be one of the more crazy things you have done," Says Loch, a Guatemalan friend who keeps track.

"This is going to revolutionize hitting on girls," I explain to him, hoping he is picturing it in every awesome detail that I am. "Imagine walking up to a girl at the bar, snapping your fingers and then, BAM, here's a Mariachi band to serenade her. It's not even fair."

Loch just smiles a smile I have seen before—that conflicted grin that haltingly approves while realizing that even if he did not approve, my mind is already so set on a course of action that nothing short of death can stop me.

So I set about calling everyone I knew to join me in the fulfillment of what I could only imagine as the most awesome thing ever to come to Awesome Town.

mariachi guitar

Mariachis in Minor
It's a good thing we purchase the band rounds of tequila prior to asking their ages. We don't mean to buy drinks for minors, which three-fourths of them turn out to be. Jose and Julio clock in at sixteen (trumpet and guitar). Victor seventeen (bass guitar). And Pedro (accordion), who is forty, suddenly seems a little old to be playing in a high-school band. Their instruments, overcoats with brass buttons, gold bandanas, striped slacks adorned with jangles, and musical repertoire make them seem at least old enough for tequila.

Victor's age changes throughout the night, depending on what age he thinks each girl he talks to is. He tells my friend Amy that he is nineteen. Under most circumstances this is still too young, since Amy is twenty-five. But Amy, an ex-pat from Rhode Island, who in the coming months will become a staple in my group of gringo friends, will surprise us all by showing that her courtship age ranges between 18 and 40.

I tell everyone joining our group to stop buying shots for the underage musicians, but it's clear as the night goes on that I've lost any control I once had. Our group continues to swell as we jump from bar to bar. A healthy supply of shots is purchased for the band between songs. I might have accepted the band's heavy drinking as an excuse for the wild behavior they would display in a few hours had that behavior not continued into the morning.

You and Your Mariachi Band Must Leave
The night begins at my "Cheers" bar, the Irish pub they lovingly call "blackout Reilly’s." The last stop is a dive bar empty but for the two bartenders. By then our group numbers more than a dozen. When drinks are ordered, the band busts out into a song we've already asked them to play a dozen times, La Mariachi Loca.

After a few verses, the bar owner walks over to me, the assumed ringleader. She tells me my mariachi band will have to wait outside. I understand what she's saying, but assume I've misheard.

I ask her to repeat herself. When her message doesn't change I remind her in the most cheerful tone I can muster that her entire bar was empty before our arrival. Not only have we brought a slew of paying customers, but also a Mariachi band doing nothing but spreading joy and wonderfulness. Gratis.

mariachi pub crawl

When she insists, everyone pays and files out. I shake my head and tell her how disappointed everyone is in her. I tell her I would rather go punch myself in the face than ever set foot in this "hating fun" bar again. She shakes her fist at me the way people do in early French films and I walk out the door.

Scoring Another Round
Outside, the mariachi band says their three hour rental time is up. I pay them the agreed upon price. But our hearts are heavy. We realize our lives will never be this good again. What will we do without Jose's trumpet and Victor's guitar? Will we ever find happiness without Pedro's accordion?

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