Days 131-132, Guatemala City and back in the States!

We decided to spend the last night in Guatemala at my paternal grandmother’s house – she may be 84 but she’ll hold a grudge for as long as you live. Her house is also the house where my parents and I lived while in Guatemala. It was way smaller than I remember, but it just goes to show how 18 years can alter your perception. The dinner was lovely and I’m so glad I got to spend one more night with my family because I really don’t know when I’ll get to see most of them again. Afterwards and the following morning, I browsed through all the photographs that she had stashed away. I found some really good ones but here are  the two that I loved the most.

My dad as a baby – bald and fat, just like I was. Also, I’m pretty sure there’s a picture somewhere of me making that exact face.

My grandmother’s family. She’s the little in her dad’s arms. My great-grandmother had a very intense look. Also, the little boy in front (my great-uncle) had the same death-stare I’ve perfected. I guess it runs in the family.

The day of our flight from Guatemala to the States was long and unexciting. But once we landed on American soil (at the Atlanta Airport before catching our connecting flight to DC) we found the most Americans foods we could – we first got BBQ and hamburgers (not pictured) followed by Starbucks. Mmmm, man was I glad to be home.

All in all, the trip was a success! Sure, there were things we could have done differently but it was all a learning experience. I’m absolutely glad to be home where I’m not afraid of the drinking water (or fruit). But the whole trip made me realize that I need to spend my life doing more things like that – exploring new cultures, trying new things, and becoming a citizen of the world. Hopefully, my next trip abroad won’t take 18 years to happen. I’ve had my heart set on Thailand for some time now, maybe it’s time to start planning…

Days 129-130, Lanquín and Semuc Champey

In order to save some money, we arranged a ride from Río Dulce to Lanquín via a shuttle that made that commute into Lanquín everyday. The ad we responded to mentioned that it took some backroads which made it a more direct ride; however, these were not your typical backroads, these were through the mountains and countryside of Guatemala’s poorest villages. Only the first hour of the road was paved and the rest of the ride was up and down roads left untouched by the rest of civilization. To make a long story short, we were not prepared mentally and physically for that ride and now we know better. I only had enough energy to capture a handful of photos that day before arriving in Lanquín.

We got to Lanquín at night and checked into a really eco-friendly hostel called El Retiro. Unfortunately for us, we got there too late and they only had dorm beds available. Considering that we were both getting sick (and running high fevers) we took whatever we could get. That night was miserable. Luckily, once morning came, we discovered that it was a pretty beautiful place. We were surrounded by mountains and lots of beautiful scenery. We prepared for a guided tour to Semuc Champey, one of Guatemala’s most beautiful spots. It’s a natural limestone bridge with springs that are DIVINE – all the while, a gushing river runs beneath them.

Our tour included swimming in caves, tubing in the Cahabòn River, hiking up El Mirador for a great view, and swimming in the natural pools. I was advised against taking my camera into the caves (duh) and into the river (duh) so I only got to capture a couple of places.  I will say that swimming in those caves was a lot of fun – we were in there with only candlesticks to light our way and it felt completely isolated. Apparently, the water was also freezing but I wouldn’t know about that – I was running a high fever and it felt heavenly.

This is where the river and bridge separate – the river continues into an underground stream while the bridge creates the beautiful pools you see above.

Caution – when swimming in dark caves with nothing but candlesticks, you might bump your face into rocks. Oops.

Honestly, even though the ride into Lanquín was terrible, I wish we would have spent more time there and skipped Río Dulce and Lívingston. We could have spent an entire week there and not have been bored. Oh well, it just means we’ll have to go back :) This was our last destination before heading back to Guatemala City for one final dinner with my family and our flight back to the States. It was the ending we needed to a trip with lots of ups and downs.

Days 127-129, Río Dulce and Lívingston

In Flores, we had booked what we thought was a first-class tourist shuttle for the 5-hour trek to Río Dulce, the connecting point for a boat-ride into Lívingston. That was our first mistake. Our second mistake was taking said ride at night. “Miserable” would be the word that comes to mind if I were to describe that bus ride. It was only a step up from those chicken buses that they tell you never to take. It was packed, it was smelly, it was terrible. The invasion of my personal space makes me incredibly anxious and I was anxious – for five whole hours. Arriving in Río Dulce at 10PM also made me anxious but we made it to a hotel safe and sound. The next morning we were able to see that Río Dulce wasn’t as sketchy as its night-life made it seem but still nothing too special.

The only way of getting to Lívingston is by a two-hour boat ride. It wasn’t terrible and it was a semi-tour of the river with one stop included. The weather didn’t help the ambience as several storm clouds could be seen in the distance.

The castle above was one of the first things on the boat-tour, it’s the fortress El Castillo de San Felipe, built to keep pirates from looting the local villages. Later on, it served as a prison and is now part of a protected park. 

The people who live off the river really have to survive off what the river provides them. From afar it looked like these two little girls were fishing or just hanging out on their boat, but as soon as our boat got closer, they came up to us and started trying to sell us jewelry and trinkets made out of shells and other materials.

We decided that after the past 24-hours, we deserved a nice hotel and so we got one (although it didn’t have laundry, internet or at times, working water). But the view was spectacular and it had strategically placed hammocks to enjoy the breezes. 

We decided to explore the town of Lívingston and decided to have lunch at a hole-in-the-wall place all the way at the end of the main street (there’s only one) called Tiling Lingo. The owner, Maria, is a riot – she’s enthusiastic about the food, culture and everything about life. Her chai teas were also the best I’ve ever had. 

Chris was really adamant about ordering a tapado, a traditional Garífuna meal. (Garífuna is the name of the Afro-Caribbean culture that thrives in Lívingston). The meal consists of seafood (whole crab, shrimp, fish, scallops) with coconut milk (yum), some veggies and plaintains – and it’s all stewed together. What we didn’t realize was that all the seafood would come intact and you’d have to work for your meal. Now that I think about it, the meal was pretty paleo!

“Hey Mr. Grumpy Gills!”

Shortly after taking that last photo, I was hit by traveler’s sickness – I literally ran out of the restaurant to our hotel. I don’t think it was the food we were just eating but rather a combination of dehydration and other factors. Needless to say, I was out of commission for the rest of the day. It’s quite unfortunate because we didn’t enjoy Lívingston as much as we should have but it happens. The next morning we headed back to Río Dulce to catch a ride into Lanquín so we could explore Semuc Champey.

Day 127 – Tikal

We had booked a 4:30AM shuttle for Tikal, one of the largest sites of Mayan ruins. It’s different from the other known ruins because it’s hidden deep in the rainforest. From what our tour guide told us, it’s believed that most of the structures are still left to be discovered. We were able to check out all the major temples and climb all of them but apparently, in order to see all the structures that would take a whole month.

The moment the temples come into view, the sense of awe just washes over you. These structures are enormous, to say the least. Their sheer size is enough to astonish anyone but what really captured me was the how advanced this culture was. They invented the number zero for Christ’s sake! Being there made me realize that I know very little about my own ancestry – I probably know more about other historic cultures and civilizations. It’s quite a shame but I would love to learn more.

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The temple above is probably the most impressive one we saw that day. The Temple of the Grand Jaguar was built in honor of Ah Cacao (Lord Chocolate – I like him already). It stands on the east side of the Grand Plaza. On the opposite side of the plaza, facing the Temple of the Grand Jaguar, is the Temple of the Masks (seen below) – built in honor of the Ah Cacao’s wife. It’s a bit smaller, but apparently, when the relative equinoxes come around and the sunrise and sunset align with the temples – they cast shadows from each temple so that they are appear connected. Cool, huh?

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No worries, these slabs were only used for (human) sacrificial purposes.

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Temple of the Grand Jaguar again.

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View from the top of the Temple of the Masks: The Grand Plaza.

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I believe this is Temple V – and yes, we climbed to the top!

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See?

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Our tour guide was a bit unconventional (his name was Boris but he was Guatemalan.. uh, what?) so he told us that he’d rather take us through the rainforest to get from site to site instead of the normal pathways in order to be exposed to what the Mayans would have had to deal with. In the photo above you can barely make out the shapes of some howler monkeys. Note: they don’t call them Howler Monkeys for nothing – they are LOUD. We heard them throughout the entire tour and it sounded like lions roaring.

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This really cute snake held up traffic on the staircase up to Temple IV (the highest one in Tikal).

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Of course, we had to get plenty of handstand shots around the site. I hope we didn’t offend the Mayan gods.

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Day 126 – Flores, Petén

The trip from Xela to Flores was a long one – 13 total hours spent in a bus. We chose an overnight bus ride so it wouldn’t be too bad but nothing replaces sleeping in a real bed. At least we saved on a hotel room for that night. Regardless, we arrived in Flores at 6AM when the rest of the country was still waking up. It’s a tiny little island surrounded by Lago Petén Itzá. The first thing we noticed once we arrived was the dramatic change in climate. Xela was pleasant with cool breezes during the day and chilly at night (as it’s surrounded by mountains). By contrast, Flores was hot and humid. All. Day. Long. After finding a suitable hostel, we started exploring, scouting out several coffeeshops but none really seem to hit the spot. Apparently, we had been spoiled by Xela. Since we got to Flores on a Saturday and had missed the 4:30AM shuttle to Tikal, we decided to explore Flores all day and then head out to Tikal the next day. It was a good decision.

Seeking sufficient physical activity, we went running but quickly realized that Flores was too small to get a long run in. And it was getting really hot. And it was only the morning. The heat quickly turned exasperating. Nevertheless, we decided to venture out across the lake into a little village on the shore called San Miguel. We had read that there was a beautiful beach and some Mayan Ruins that you could hike to and of course, we couldn’t say no. 

This was our own little concoction – vanilla milkshake (with macadamia nuts!) with a shot of espresso poured in. We’re brilliant. Obviously.The hike to the beach and ruins was definitely an interesting one. We read directions out of the guidebook we were using and they seemed to be correct but the distances listed were WAY off. On paper, it seemed like the hike would take maybe thirty minutes – it actually took us closer to an hour. But we eventually found the beach!

And it was worth the hike. Given how hot Flores is year-round, it was no surprise that the water was considerably warm. It was the perfect temperature. The shore was especially rocky, which made it difficult to walk on, but we adapted and crab-walked our way deeper into the water.

 

 

Afterwards, we sought to find those ruins or, I should say, “archaeological site.” We weren’t really sure what to expect, especially given that once we got to the site, we were greeted by two sets of these monstrous stairs. 
At the top, we found nothing but a spectacular view. The site is called El Mirador and it makes sense – you can see everything from the top. Apparently, it was where the native Mayan tribe would keep a look-out on the surrounding villages. I was a bit disappointed that there weren’t any tangible ruins to climb around but I’m glad we made the trip. In the picture below, the island you see is Flores itself, where we were staying.
 
My boyfriend, ladies and gentlemen.
Our boat ride back to Flores was steered by this really cute boy (who couldn’t have been older than eight).
Once we were back on the main island, the sun was still burning strong. There were plenty of docks alongside the island where people could swim off and that’s exactly what we did. Well, Chris did. I sat in the sun and photographed everyone else. I did jump in once though!
The sunset in Flores was a spectacular event. The photo below has only been cropped – the colors are real.

Days 123-125, Quetzaltenango and San Carlos Sija

After a very traumatizing (insert terrible motion-sickness here) car ride into Quezaltenango (also referred to as Xela [sheh-lah]), we realized that this was maybe the perfect Guatemalan city. It’s populated enough that there are things to do but not so touristy where you’re constantly approached to buy things. The sun was setting when we arrived so we quickly checked into one of the nicer hostels we had the entire trip. Xela had a definite Charlottesville vibe – not quite city but too big for town.

The morning after we arrived we had several places we wanted to visit, most of which was a little coffeeshop (can you tell we like coffee? We really like coffee) called Café La Luna. It was known for its chocolate/coffee inspired drinks, which were definitely not disappointing. Mayan chocolate has a distinct flavor that blends well with coffee and boy, did they take advantage of that combination.

The walk to the coffee shop made Xela seem very European. Apparently, it had a lot of German influence since it was mostly built once the Germans took over and kicked the British out.

After spending the morning in Xela, we arranged to be picked up by my maternal grandfather in the Parque Central. To say I was nervous to see him would be an understatement – but I really had nothing to worry about. My maternal grandparents have visited the States several times so it hadn’t been as long as with my other relatives. I had vague memories of their house but I didn’t quite realize that it was so isolated. They live in a very untouched part of Guatemala’s country-side, a town called San Carlos Sija. They literally live off their land (crops, animals, etc) and pretty much keep to themselves. Having been living in the US for as long as I can remember, the peacefulness of the country surprised me. There wasn’t much to do, not many people to talk to. Determined to not become bored, Chris and I found several things to keep us busy (read, play with the animals, walk around, nap, eat) but it was a complete shock to our system. My grandparents went to bed at 8PM that night and we didn’t have a choice but to follow suit shortly after. It was the quietest place I’ve ever been.

My grandparents also have a gazillion photo collages occupying their walls – photos of their nine (yes, NINE) children and their endless number of grandchildren (note: my mother was the only one to have only one child). Speaking of which, wasn’t my mom a total fox? She’d kill me if she knew I put this up on the internet but I can’t help but be in awe of how beautiful she was and still is.

Note: baby chicks are fast little things. And they do not sit still.
Like many Guatemalans, my grandparents sustain themselves by selling their own crops – mainly corn. The morning we were there, my grandfather got up at 5AM (when the sun rises), put on this hat, and started working on the fields.
After spending the morning and afternoon with them and several other family members, my grandfather dropped us off back in Xela. Feeling the need to be a part of modern society, Chris and I ventured back to a restaurant where we had dinner a few nights before: El Sabor de la India – seriously, best Indian food I’ve EVER HAD. I can ever forgive the serious carb-overload because it was just that damn good.
The next morning we got up early to attend a yoga class in Xela, which was actually pretty good. The instructor was a bit of a hardass but in a good way. I also discovered that I’m incredibly inflexible – gotta work on that. After some delicious breakfast and some damn good coffee, we headed back to Cafe La Luna for more coffee (and chocolate)! We had booked our 13-hour bus ride to Flores (with a connection in Guatemala City) for that afternoon so we spent the rest of the afternoon being silly Americans and drinking too much coffee.

Days 121-123, Panajachel

After Antigua, we booked a shuttle to Panajachel, a town alongside Lago de Atitlán.

The lake itself it surrounded by three volcanos, all of them majestic. The town we stayed in (Panajachel) was filled with street vendors and cute comedores. We arrived in Pana in the morning, with empty bellies so our first mission was to find food.

Example #1 of great food in Guatemala. This place was called Jasmín Deli, and the dish above was the standard desayuno chapín (Guatemalan breakfast). 

After filling out bellies, we went in search of a place to stay. After turning down a really nice but expensive hotel, we found one we thought would be a good fit. We were wrong. Our room smelled like sewage, no hot water (they said they had it), and it was right next to a chicken coup (roosters crow at all hours of the night). I had been prepared for an experience like that but still. Even their in-house parrot had it in for me. Regardless, it gave us even more reason to be outside and explore the town.

Again, lots of street vendors with beautiful things to sell. The textile market in Guatemala is incredible. There are beautiful fabrics and material all over the place; however, it can be a bit overwhelming. Everyone wants you to buy their things and the constant bombardment of vendors can be draining.

The next morning, we got up early so that I could go on a photowalk while the streets were still quiet and so that Chris could do a workout next to the lake. It’s a complete different place when there aren’t a lot of people. It’s tranquil – almost serene. 

This particular picture reminds of the flash-fiction piece by Ernest Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

The only way of traveling from village to village is by boat, apparently, there is no road that circles the lake. These boats (lanchas) are incredibly cheap though never run on time. 

The volcanos really do serve as an incredible backdrop. You almost wouldn’t know that they were there, especially if it’s a foggy day. Later that same day, we went on a mountain-bike tour that ran along the lake (hills, towns, fields included). Our tour guide, Rogerio, made the entire ride look easy, while I was sweating and panting like a dog any time we hit an ascent. We went through several towns and were able to witness what non-tourist Guatemala was like. 
While recovering from our grueling mountain biking experience, we heard drums outside and (of course) had to investigate. There were two secondary schools holding a parade to celebrate an anniversary of some sort. We just watched them warm up but it was fun seeing the kids enjoy themselves. 

The morning before we left Panajachel for Quezaltenango (Xela), we explored the north side of town, which included the church below. Nearby, we found a fantastic coffeeshop called CrossRoads Café. The space was really tiny but it made up for it in atmosphere. (I’m currently drinking coffee that I bought there). It was a nice send-off into our next location.

Days 119-120, Antigua

Crista (my godmother) dropped us of in Antigua so we could commence our backpacking journey. Antigua was really adorable with lots of church ruins, restaurants, shops, and tours. Its backdrop is also a volcano. The most beautiful part of Guatemala is definitely its natural environment – you’re never too far away from mountains, volcanos, lakes, rivers, or jungles.

Probably the most unassuming volcano ever. Yeah, that slight hint of a slope right there, what you thought was just sky? Nope, that’s a volcano.

One of the many churches we visited. Most had been hit by earthquakes and were eventually deemed nonfunctional and now serve as museums.

Of course, Chris had to climb everything.

One of the first meals in Antigua – this platter was incredibly filling: cooked veggies, chicken stew, some guacamole and a side of tamales. And the corn consumption commences!
Every church we passed had an incredible presence, just like they had originally been designed to have. 
A cute little park with a great view of the volcano. We went running our second morning in Antigua and stopped by here to do some squats. Yes, we were doing squats in Guatemala. The locals gave us funny looks.
This was probably my favorite church ruin – it’s the Catedral de Santiago. Completely ominous with huge pillars just sprawled as if the 1773 earthquake that wrecked had occurred recently.
Later that second day (after we both got sick with Traveler’s Disease) we somehow managed to gather enough energy to go hike Volcano Pacaya. Pacaya actually recently erupted in May 2010 so it’s very much still active. The ascent took about an hour and a half, maybe two, with a straight shot up. It was exactly the kind of physical activity I needed. The end result was amazing.
It felt like we were on top of the world.
The clouds would hide everything around us and then clear off and show off a spectacular view. That’s the crater of the volcano.
Once we got closer to the crater, the ground became considerably hotter. At some points I felt like my shoes were going to melt off. Our tour-guide placed some sticks and branches on top of a small opening and it soon went up in flames. [Anyone seen Volcano, the movie with Tommy Lee Jones? That scene in the train tunnel where the guy jumps into lava to save the passenger? Yeah, I kept playing that in my head.]Sunset on top of a volcano.

Days 117-119, Guatemala City

[Sorry for taking so long to update, I’ve been crazy busy – but no more excuses! I’m going to start posting my pictures from Guatemala by location/event instead of by day-to-day.]

We arrived in at the Guatemalan Airport at noon, where we were greeted by my godfather, followed by my paternal grandmother and uncle, and one of my maternal aunts. My godfather then drove us to his house so we could rest and prepare for a dinner later that night.

My god-family’s neighborhood was a gated-community with armed guards at the entrace. One thing that took me by surprise was the prevalence of armed security guards. It goes to show that the violence and crime levels are severely elevated than what I’m used to, because I saw some sort of weapon around every corner. Regardless, it made me feel safe and I really loved their neighborhood (not gonna lie, the yellow houses were the inspiration for our now-yellow bedroom).

The entire family (sans Chris, who took the picture).

Reunited with my sister – it was exactly what I needed at that moment in my life. I feel like if I had gone to Guatemala sooner, I wouldn’t have been mature or ready to reconnect with my sister on an adult-level. Although we hadn’t seen each other in almost two decades, by the end of the night it was as if no time had passed. Chris says we even laugh the same way.

We spent our second day in Guatemala with my godmother, who drove us all over the city to see the main sites, including the Parque Central. Here’s the church on the east side. I was incredibly nervous taking my camera out in public here just because I know that Guatemala City is the most notorious for robbery but it was fine – I only took my camera for a couple of minutes at a time.On the third day, we spent the morning packing and playing with the puppies that my godparents were fostering. Look how small the puppy is! Afterwards, we headed out to Antigua, Guatemala’s original capital.

Day 116 – See you soon!

This will probably be my last post for a while. Tomorrow Chris and I fly out of Dulles for Guatemala at 6AM. As you can tell, we won’t be sleeping much tonight. I’ll try to update whenever I can but I won’t have my laptop with me so no pictures (although you can rest assured that I’ll be taking plenty of them).

I’m feeling nervous/excited/anxious/nauseous about tomorrow. Guatemala is my blood yet I feel completely disconnected. I’m going to be visiting relatives I haven’t seen in close to two decades; it’s rather unnerving. In terms of being prepared, I don’t think I can do much more – I’ve been preparing for days now.

I had a really strange experience the other night: I awoke in the middle of the night realizing that I had just been dreaming and thinking in Spanish, something that hasn’t happened in a very long time. Although it’s my first language, I’m exponentially more proficient in English and feel bad that I’ve neglected my native tongue. To dream and think in a certain language is generally a marker of one’s fluency. It was a bizarre comfort to dream in Spanish, as if this trip will only reestablish the connection to my roots.

The picture below was taken in Guatemala in 1993, on the day that we got our visas approved. And now, after 18 years, I’m heading back. Saludos!