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Noise in Guatemala

Waking Up to Bombas and Bells: Street Noise in Guatemala

Many expats in Central America find it hard to get used to the noise. Latin America is simply a louder place to live. Street noise, fire crackers, and the bells. Those bells. In this lighthearted piece, Jake Stamp talks about the noise in Guatemala.

I have the good fortune of living in the historic center of Antigua, Guatemala, founded by the Spanish in 1542. I also have the dubious fortune of living equidistant from two churches dating from colonial times; San Francisco El Grande and Escuela de Cristo.

Both churches are shining examples of Antigua’s “Earthquake Baroque” architectural style

Stone walls built three to four meters thick at the base, taper as they rise, topping off with short bell towers. No tall steeples and spires here like with European churches of the era. Despite suffering serious damages in the 18th-century earthquakes that impelled the Spanish to abandon Antigua, both churches are active and still hold mass several times a week. And despite sitting only two blocks from each other, they both hold full congregations.

This means they both use a certain auditory call to prayer. No, not church bells. Or not just church bells, I should say (they ring all the damn time, anyway). The more invasive sounds used to invite the faithful to congregate come from the bombas. These fireworks are like mortar shells, launched into the sky to explode with a frightful BOOM.

At 6:00 AM on a Sunday, Wednesday, Friday, Monday, Saturday, Tuesday or Thursday, dozens of these shells go up. The sounds are so loud they set off car alarms, laying another layer of sonic assault on a sleeping gringo. And then the bells ring. Sometimes it’s only a dozen rings, sometimes hundreds of rings lasting forever. One church stops, and the other begins like they are competing for parishioners.

I often lay in bed, imagining a gaggle of small elderly women in black halfway between each church (that is, outside my front door), critiquing the morning’s bells. I imagine them all out there arguing about which mass to attend that morning.

Nobody moves to Central America for peace and quiet. I knew about the bombas and the bell ringing situation when I rented my house. It’s understandable though, how a first-time visitor could misinterpret these early morning explosions.cEspecially when hungover and not operating at full mental capacity.

My friend’s intro to noise in Guatemala

A childhood friend flew down to visit for a week, arriving on a Saturday afternoon. After a raucous tour of Antigua’s famous bar scene culminating with mezcal shots somewhere, we weaved our way back to my house in the wee hours of Sunday morning. Soon after crashing out, fully-clothed and wasted on my bed, a frantic knocking on my bedroom door woke me up. I had become accustomed to the explosions, bell ringing, and car alarms and was fast asleep.

My friend, not so much. The booming of the bombas had begun and he was like what in the actual f? He was terrified. Confronted with a look of such panic in a pair of bloodshot eyes, my response was to laugh and assure him the revolution hadn’t started. I told him to go back to bed.

A cultural difference to get used to

The constant noise in Central America reflects a different attitude towards the community. People live close together, and there’s more contact between people than you’ll find even in large cities I’ve lived before like San Francisco or Seattle.

There’s always someone knocking on the front door. People selling all manner of products from brooms to cheese, or for some unfathomable reason, four-meter-long bamboo poles. Volunteer firefighters ask for funds. Beggars of all ages knock. Or a kind, older gentleman in an immaculate three-piece suit, wishing to inform me my outside light is on and electricity is not free, joven.

And we mustn’t forget the sounds of traffic… cars and motos and tuk tuks misfiring at all hours. Buses sounding like airliners as they splutter to life. While all the noise, door knockers, and odorous wafts of incense from religious processions may seem invasive, they are only a simple fact of life in Guatemala.

For every spate of Sunday morning bombas causing flashes behind the eyes a sleeping gringo after a night out, there’s another moment where you open the door only to find a passing friend who yes, would like a cup of coffee, or a pickup truck laden with tropical fruits parked across the street.

I wouldn’t swap it for the world.

Jake Stamp is a native of Carmel Valley, California with a tendency to wax rhapsodic about his many years of living in Guatemala and extensive travels throughout the rest of Central America. He currently divides his time between Santa Cruz, California and Antigua Guatemala. 

Jake Stamp

Jake Stamp

A native of Carmel Valley, California, Jake Stamp first came to Guatemala in 2003. He stayed for four years, half of that time as the part-owner of what was then Guatemala’s only Irish pub. He then returned to the US and worked in real estate in San Francisco and Seattle before moving to southwestern France for two years. He now divides his time between Santa Cruz, California, and Antigua, Guatemala with his wife Logan and their one-eyed street cat rescued from San Antonio Aguascalientes, Guatemala.