Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Passions in Secret, or, the Explosion of "Auto-hotels"

Since I drive a lot, and visit a lot of different parts of Guatemala (well, within limits: mostly in the western highlands), this gives me the opportunity to observe whether certain phenomena are purely local (like teenaged Maya girls driving tuk-tuks in San Pedro la Laguna), or are more widespread (like the popularity of knock-off Hollister and Ambercrombie gear.  Which brings me to the recent growth of auto-hotels (that is the name they go by in Guatemala; we might call them motels). A few years ago, perhaps on my second trip to Guatemala, I noticed ads for one "auto-hotel" on the outskirts of Santa Cruz del Quiché, the departmental capital of Quiché. There are at least a dozen hotels and rooming houses in town, mostly located near the Parque Central -- where the Catholic Church, government palace (direct translation of palacio de gobernación), municipal building and the marketplace are all situated -- or near the bus terminal, which is about 6 blocks away.  However, this one caught my attention because it was out on the outskirts of town, on the road heading toward Chichicastenango, a strip of road with a few sparsely-distributed gas stations, some roadside eateries and a lumberyard.  The architecture was distinctive: a row of individual garages, of the kind you would see in an American suburban home, with roll-down doors, and on top of those, a row of rooms (the idea being, I suppose, that you park your car and then go upstairs to your room). I passed it several times a week as I often made the trip between SCQ to Chichicastenango, and I never saw many vehicles there - but I usually made the trip in daylight, so perhaps that wasn't the right time. It was called Princess Auto Hotel (no translation here; that's the name), and the billboard featured a silhouette of a figure of a fairy-tale princess (long gown, crown). 

In any case, I started to notice auto-hotels, nearly all with a similar architecture, in other areas, like around Xela -- and again, situated on the outskirts, not in the center of town where there are a lot of hotels -- Xela being a major tourist destination. So, my hunch is that these are mostly designed for Guatemalans and not foreigners -- after all, tourists would be more likely to want to stay either somewhere very picturesque, a room with a view, or in the center of a town with amenities for tourists, or both.  Back in 2011, I heard some advertisements on local radio stations around Quiché for the Princess, touting its attractions for couples -- privacy, a place to be alone, to sleep tranquilly.  The auto hotels' billboards advertised 24 hour availability, cable TV, hot water (no small attraction in a country where a lot of people don't have indoor plumbing, see recent post). 

I didn't think a whole lot about these, but then on this last trip, I started to notice more of these auto-hotels, and at least one whose name implied perhaps another agenda. Or maybe not. But on the outskirts of Xela, on the highway heading towards Cuatro Caminos, there is a new auto hotel called Pasiones en Secreto (Secret Passions). In addition to hot baths, cable TV, internet, 24 hour service, this one advertised a jacuzzi -- something that one doesn't see much outside of high-end hotels in Antigua. 

But what intrigued me most was the name, as it seems to suggest that the hotel is designed for illicit encounters. Which led me to wonder: what is going on here? Who are these hotels serving? Or who are the developers imagining as their clientele?  Does the mini-boom in auto hotels means that there is a shift in family or sexual patterns underway? Are they geared towards men who spend a lot of time on the road? They are not, for the most part, situated near red light districts (there are a few around Chimaltenango, which is the center of commercial sex industry in Guatemala, but there are lots and lots of cheap roadside hotels around Chimaltenango, and since I am usually trying to make my way through heavy traffic I haven't observed the auto hotels there as closely) but are out on the highways, not in the middle of nowhere but not in densely populated areas.  So they don't appear to be geared towards men traveling on their own who might want to purchase the services of a sex worker.   The radio ads I heard for Princess sounded like they were geared towards married couples who might be living in crowded multi-generational, multi-family settings and in need of some privacy --a  place to have sex without the kids, the dogs, the in-laws, the grandparents, within earshot or even sharing the same room. There is a new sign outside Princess, but I wasn't able to slow down and read it closely as there was a truck on my heels, but I did catch the line "Impress your partner" -- so that seems to bespeak an established relationship.

I asked one of my friends what she thought about this. She spoke about the need of young couples for a place to be intimate - that more and more teenagers are having sex at an early age. But I'm not sure she's completely correct on this as an explanation for the growth in auto hotels. That is, I'm sure she's right about teenagers and sex. That's a well-documented phenomenon -- in rural areas, people either marrying very young or girls getting pregnant and having babies at a young age without the benefit (or drawback) of a marriage.  Some of the sex is non-consensual (incest is pretty rampant) but some of it is undoubtedly teenagers doing what teenagers do. However, teenagers are very unlikely to own cars, especially in rural Guatemala. And although Santa Cruz del Quiché and Chichicastenango are both relatively sizable towns, the entire department of Quiché is basically rural by comparison to the area around the capital -- and certainly capitolinos (residents of the capital), or at least middle class and above capitolinos view it that way.  For the Guatemalan elite, just about everything outside of Guatemala City, Antigua and Xela is the equivalent of Mirkwood on the map of Middle Earth, or in that famous New Yorker magazine cover, the great expanse to the west of 12th Avenue in Manhattan.  A used pickup costs around Q40,000  -- more than a year's salary for most people (for those who actually earn a salary, which a lot of people in rural areas don't).  So I don't think teenagers are the main target clientele for these: teenaged couples who would want a private place to have sex would be traveling by motorcycle or bus or tuk-tuk, or foot, and the auto hotels are not conveniently located unless one is traveling along a fairly major highway.

So is there a population of mobile or at least car-owning adults with the economic means to pay for a hotel, and the need to use one? Are Guatemalans having more sex than before? Are they have more affairs? Are they having more of the kind of sex that you really to have some privacy to enjoy fully? 

So, this remains a small mystery to me ... but maybe someone among my Guatemalanist friends, or Guatemalan friends, might have some deeper insights. Then again, I could call up the popular sexologist, Yulissa, host of a nightly radio call-in show, "Intimately, Yulissa", which airs on Emisoras Unidas, one of the main commercial radio chains...


  1. I don't know why the suddent proliferation where you travel... Maybe signs of entrepreneurs trying to cash in on new money flows.. Some extra migra/narco dollars to spend on some lady friends? But I've always seen them in the Oriente on the outskirts of towns. Where to go have your affairs without the town being able to see your car.

  2. Thanks. I'm sure they existed in other parts. For example, there are a lot in the area around Retalhuleu and Mazatenango, where there is a lot of seasonal migrant labor on the fincas as well as a lot of truck traffic-- there are hotels here along the highway from Reu to Guate that advertise by the hour (Q60 for 3 hours), and they don't look especially new. I am questioning why they are suddenly appearing in parts of the altiplano in the last year.