Travel Journal: Two Jam-Packed Weeks in Guatemala

My wife  Carrie was in the Peace Corps in Nicaragua from 2005-2007 and when she finished her service, we backpacked up Central America by bus.

Along the way, I sent out e-mails to family and friends with updates of what we had seen and done. This page features my e-mail from Guatemala, as written on June 5, 2007 and completely unedited.

A sunrise over Lago Atitlan in Guatemala
A sunrise over Lago Atitlan in Guatemala

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Well, I must say that these past two weeks in Guatemala have been the most action-packed of the entire trip! It all started when Carrie and I headed to Guatemala City to meet up with Melissa, who was flying in on a Thursday and leaving on that Sunday, and quickly headed over to Antigua for some QT.

Since then we have been tearing through the countryside on one bad-bus ride after another and tomorrow we leave for Mexico. Now, on with the show…and the longest email ever…read what you can.

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Liquid Hot Magma @ Volcano Pacaya

Glowing magma just under the surface of Volcano Pacaya in Guatemala
Glowing magma just under the surface of Volcano Pacaya in Guatemala

Since learning about them in elementary school, I have always been fascinated by volcanoes and lava. Despite hiking one in Nicaragua, I had never actually seen lava with my own eyes.

All that would change when Carrie, Melissa and I hiked Volcano Pacaya, which is just outside Antigua. The hike began with a tough climb through a forested area during which children on horses were offering the people having trouble making it up the hill a “taxi ride” on their horse. However, once we got above the canopy the real fun began…we got to hike to the actual lava flows!

After walking over hardened flows from previous eruptions for a while, we made our way up towards the cone and immediately began to feel the heat coming down the volcano. You could see the whitened areas that literally were hardened a few feet above underground lava rivers. Our guide only needed to touch a branch with dead leaves to the rocks and they caught fire.

As we continued the hike the sulphur smell began to mix with the scent of the burning rubber of the bottoms of our sneakers. Our final reward for our hike…we literally were 10 feet from active lava flows! Carrie got to roast a marshmallow over a lava jet and I pretty much stood there awestruck and taking photos when I remembered. All in all, one of the coolest experiences of my life!

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Mayan Markets in Guatemala

Everywhere you walk in Guatemala you see indigenous people dressed in typical Mayan outfits: colorful and hot! However, the best place to see these people is in the marketplace and we made it to ones in Antigua, Solola and Chichicastenango.

Masks for sale in an Antigua market - Guatemala
Masks for sale in an Antigua market – Guatemala

These markets are like nothing you have ever seen back home: imagine a flea market on a bad day and multiply that by 100. The first type of market is the local one, where people are selling foods, housewares, beans, machetes, furniture and anything else you might need in your daily life. These are loud and chaotic with people yelling and bartering everywhere.

The other market is the tourist one, where there are usually neatly arranged stalls each selling the same blankets, bags, tee-shirts, traditional Mayan clothing and all sorts of Nick-knacks.

Any time they tell you a price it’s a safe bet you can get the item you’re looking at for half of that and that new price is still probably double what it cost to make the item. The merchant usually asks, “What are you looking for? I can give you a good price. What do you want to pay?” All of this comes out in one stream of talk as you begin to leave their stall to find a better price. It’s very intimidating at first but becomes a sort of a game after a while.

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La Casa del Mundo on Lago Atitlan

After saying goodbye to Melissa, Carrie and I made our way to Lago Atitlan, a beautiful lake in the middle of the country. Our first stop was Casa del Mundo, a gorgeous mini-resort that our guidebook referred to as “the most magical place in all of Guatemala.” For a mere $25 per night we got a beautiful room overlooking the lake, four volcanoes and a dozen other towns.

The triple volcanoes of Lago Atitlan, as seen from our balcony at Casa del Mundo in Guatemala
The triple volcanoes of Lago Atitlan, as seen from our balcony at Casa del Mundo in Guatemala

During the day we relaxed, swam and hung out in a hot tub that as heated by burning wood. Normally it required a day’s notice and hefty fee to use, but being the friendly people that we are we managed to spend both nights getting to know new friends in the hot tub. The place was honestly so amazing that we recommend it to anyone looking for a nice few day getaway. Not to mention, the chill town of San Pedro and the yoga/meditation/hippie village of San Marcos are a short boat ride away.

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Visiting a Peace Corps Volunteer in Chicamon

A school project in Chicaman
A school project in Chicaman

During our time at Casa del Mundo, Carrie and I met Becky, a Peace Corp Guatemala volunteer who was traveling with her sister. Always interested in visiting local villages and getting to know other PC folks’ work, Becky put us in touch with Ally who is an eco-tourism volunteer.

Despite the fact that we were two complete strangers, Ally graciously opened her doors to us and invited us to stay with her for a couple of days. During that time we went for an amazing tubing ride down a river by Chicaman (which was one of her eco-tourism projects), saw her work with the schoolchildren to create a world map and hung out getting to know what life is like in Guatemala. All in all a great break from our travels…thanks Ally!

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Bad Times in Livingston and Rio Dulce

Two of the things Carrie was most excited about on this trip were learning how to play drums and taking a beautiful boat ride down the Rio Dulce. As you may remember, our first attempt at the drums was ruined by a bad experience with the locals in Hopkins. So, in an effort to still make it happen, we headed way out of our way to go back to another town right by Belize called Livingston, which had drumming and was right next to Rio Dulce.

Trying to Get a Hotel in Livingston

Livingston - the main road off the dock
Livingston – the main road off the dock

After a six hour bus ride complete with people trying to rip us off, we got to the dock in Puerto Barrios right as the last ferry was leaving. We then had to wait 1.5 hours for a water taxi to have enough people to make it worth their while to take us to Livingston.

Well, history has a way of repeating itself as moments after we got off the water taxi in Livingston we were accosted by a rasta trying to get us into a hotel. He was not doing this out of the kindness of his own heart, however.

Much like in Hopkins, the locals are given little tips by the business owners for every person they bring them. This leads to them following you around and harassing you until you get to a hotel or restaurant and they can get their tip. After we finally shook the first local, another one came up and when I tried to get rid of him he basically yelled at me and threatened me…not a great start to our Livingston experience, especially after our 10 hour trip to get there.

Later that night, while at dinner, the first rasta decided to stand outside the restaurant because we did not tell the owner that he had recommended the place to us despite the fact that he hadn’t  Well, between that and the fact that Livingston was the hottest place ever and the hotels had terrible ceiling fans that did nothing to cool us down, we headed for Rio Dulce the next day.

My seat on the back of the boat for the entire tour
My seat on the back of the boat for the entire tour

This led to more frustration as despite having reserved our spot on the boat we had no seats. Carrie got stuck in the front where she couldn’t even see the beautiful boat ride and I was in the back, hunched over as the captain was driving the boat directly above me and the motor was blaring in my ear the whole time.

After all this we decided that we were done with the area and headed up to Tikal first thing the next morning. This became another ordeal as the bus that we paid top-dollar for was full and we, along with our new friends Andrew and Lucie, had to stand for four hours.

long the way we all had to get off the bus for a police checkpoint and for a fruit-inspection where they made sure we were not carrying any fruits infected with bugs that could hurt their crops. Making matters worst was that there were around 25 other people standing in the aisles, so we were crammed the whole time.

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Mayan Ruins at Tikal

A 4:44am tire change en-route to Tikal
A 4:44am tire change en-route to Tikal

The Mayan ruins at Tikal are among the most famous in the world and we wanted to do them right. So, along with our new friends Andrew and Lucie, we got up at 2:45am to go on a sunrise tour of the ruins. After our bus finally showed up at 3:30, we had to wait another 30 minutes while the not-so-competent folks who run the tour got their act together.

Then, when we were about 20 minutes outside the ruins we had to pull over to fix a flat tire and everyone had to get out of the bus. Once it was fixed and we all piled back in, we were told there was another flat and we had to all cram into another nearby tour bus. Carrie wound up on the floor going over bumpy roads and I was crammed into a seat with five other people…not the best start to the day.

Once we finally got to Tikal, we basically sprinted through the massive jungle that the ruins are in to get to the sunrise lookout point in time. Meanwhile, the sky is getting brighter and brighter…an obvious sign of us missing the sunrise. However, it really didn’t matter, as it was a cloudy day and we never saw the sun anyway. We sat there for a while and listened to the sounds of the jungle as birds called each other, howler monkeys asserted their dominance and animals all around woke up to start the day.

A just-after-sunrise view of the biggest structures in Tikal... the same ones seen in Star Wars Episode IV
A just-after-sunrise view of the biggest structures in Tikal… the same ones seen in Star Wars Episode IV

After some time passed we finally began the tour and all problems from the morning slipped away. We hiked up five different temple ruins getting amazing panoramic views of Tikal. Our guide pumped us with more information than we could possibly remember and we had a great time walking around.

However, when it came time to head back to our hotel, we managed to get on the slow bus that couldn’t go up a hill faster than maybe 10mph. It was hot, we were exhausted and the trip took twice as long. Just another day in Central America…but man was it worth it for those amazing ruins!

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Bus and Transportation Woes

10 hours on a local bus. Uuugh
10 hours on a local bus. Uuugh

Somehow the first part of our trip was relatively free of transportation-related issues. This all changed our first night in Guatemala when our 6 hour bus ride turned into a nearly 10 hour ordeal that got us into one of the most dangerous capitals in Central America after midnight.

Thank goodness for kind people on the bus who helped us make hotel reservations from their cell phone. On another leg of our journey, I was stuck in the front of the school bus getting my feet trampled by everyone who walked by, every minute or so. There were four of us crammed into a teeny seat and the guy next to me spent half the three hour ride sleeping on my shoulder.

Solola Chicken Bus
Solola Chicken Bus

While the front of a chicken bus is the worst because of all the constant commotion, the back is no bargain either as it is usually hot, stuffy, smelly and the bumpiest part. We’ve spent many rides back there as well. One cool part about these horrible rides is that we were often surrounded by indigenous Mayan people, all dressed up in their traditional clothes. Unfortunately, these clothes are made of thick material and they didn’t smell too good!

In addition to school buses and the occasional nice coach bus, the other main form of transportation in Central America is a microbus. This is basically a minivan that you can cram up to 20 people in. These are not too much fun, but we did get a huge laugh when we rode in one that had a pig tied to the roof and every time we took a turn it would slide around and squeal. Guatemala also uses pickup trucks that cram in nearly 40 people in the back…that can’t be safe.

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This and That

  • A girl wore flip flops while hiking Volcano Pacaya and was surprised when she burned her foot on hot coals.
  • We saw a parade promoting literacy in the streets of Antigua.
  • Hippie Community Near Semuc Champay - Guatemala
    Hippie Community Near Semuc Champay – Guatemala

    While visiting Semuc Champey (an amazing limestone swimming area) we stayed at the closest thing to a hippie commune I’ve ever been to…the only thing missing was naked people walking around.

  • Also by Semuc, we swam through the Kah ‘Ba caves and while climbing a rope ladder up a waterfall I lived out many Goonies fantasies at once.
  • Every country in Central America has at least a few towns called San Antonio and San Francisco.
  • We got ripped off and paid $15 each for a car ride to a market when we later learned it cost less than $2 each on the bus…lesson learned!
  • Once you check into a hotel (at least of the caliber we’re staying in) they don’t clean your room or change your sheets and towels until you check out.
  • People carry heavy bags with their head.
  • Reinactment of getting our bags across the river to Semuc Champay
    Reinactment of getting our bags across the river to Semuc Champay

    Speaking of heavy bags over the head, rather than walking 15 minutes out of our way, Carrie and I swam across a powerful river with our bags above our heads to not get our cameras and sneakers wet…it was the hardest swim of my life!

  • Guatemala seems to be a popular destination for Israeli army folks finishing their service and wanting to let loose.
  • Everything here seems to be written in English, Spanish and Hebrew.
  • It’s hot as heck down here!
  • We met a coyote who brings people illegally to the United States on a dock by Lago Atitlan…he charge $5,000 per person regardless of whether they make it safely and they have 14 days to pay it back.
  • On Sunday, people line up around the block to pray.
  • We crammed in around a month’s worth of sightseeing into two weeks.
  • I hope there aren’t too many errors, cuz I don’t even have time to proofread this!
Scenes from a bus stop in Solola, Guatemala
Scenes from a bus stop in Solola, Guatemala

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Photo Gallery:

When I sent these e-mails out, they contained a link to a photo gallery on Snapfish. Below are all the images from snapfish, just as unedited as they were in 2007.

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