26.02.2010 - 10.03.2010
A small van, collected us and about 10 others from our hostel, and, with bags perched precariously on the roof, we started the journey that would eventually end in neighbouring Guatemala. The trip to the Mexican border town was uneventful and only involved one stop that allowed us to buy a couple of very expensive and rancid tasting banana milkshakes. Our bags were unloaded and, heaving them onto our backs we walked through the local market to the customs office. Plastic bags and paper packets were strewn all over the road. Old ladies sat in the dust amongst the litter and sold bead necklaces, holding small babies as they did so. The sun beat down and the breeze did nothing to ease the uncomfortable humidity, instead just whipping up the dust and blowing rubbish around our ankles and legs.
Mexico was beautiful, this town however, was not. Crossing the border proved very straightforward - no awkward questions about our schedule or parentage or why we were visiting as has been the case in other places. A Guatemalan stamp in our passports, a new bus, bags on top again - and we were off. Initially the bus had to negotiate narrow, steep, concrete streets for which the driver obviously felt the best approach was to drive as fast as possible and get it all over and done with quickly. We survived somehow. And then the road opened up just a little and endless Guatemalan hills stretched off in front of us. Apart from being squashed into a tiny seat and following enourmous trucks bellowing out clouds of black smoke the drive was very pleasant and late afternoon we arrived into Xela.
We checked into the Black Cat Hostel and then went a wandering. Our first impression of a Guatemalan town was not necessarily that positive - we needed money and each money machine we tried was behind locked doors and guarded by mean looking men with huge guns. There's certainly an 'edge' to the place. But, the main square near to where we stayed was busy and attractive. A religious parade (yet another saint of some sort...) trumpeted their way through the streets. Small children dressed in rather comic looking purple gowns were struggling to hold up some sort of papier mache model of this saint as they tried to keep up with the band.
And, later on we found a little bar, the local beer was tasty enough - well, all lager tastes the same anyway...! And we ate at Salon Tacun.
A lazy day. Well, we had one or two things to organise. A simple job such as sending some post ended up taking a fair amount of the morning - a little harsh perhaps, as sleeping in and breakfast had also taken up a lot of time. A hike was then organised for the following day, booking of future hotels, a haircut, etc etc...... It was very nice getting a few little things organised and walking about the small town in the sun. We ate at Cafe Babylon. I opted for something local - Guatemalan chicken in red sauce. There were no lies I suppose - a dish with a bit of sad looking chicken smothered in a bland red sauce appeared. Marsha's salad was far better.
28th February and 1st/2nd March
A van picked us up at the crack of dawn and drove 30 mins outside of Xela to the start of our walk. The 'walk' was in fact going to be a 3 day trek taking us far into the Guatemalan Highlands, staying in a couple of villages on the way before finally ending up at Lake Attitlan on the 3rd day. And so, we had to carry everything we needed for 3 days: sleeping mats, sleeping bags, food, loads of water, several change of clothes etc... The packs were heavy and the path ahead looked steep and the hills behind were definitely very tall.
Our guide, Angel, was a slightly built Guatemalan, and together the 3 of us set off on the trek about 7am. Initially the path took us through a couple of villages and we nodded a 'Buenos Dias' greeting to those villagers we met many of whom strode past us in bare feet carrying huge baskets of sticks or foodstuffs on their heads. We continued upwards through the dense forest eventually arriving at a plateau where the trees were more sparse and the views opened up. We were exhausted and learnt then that as well as perhaps a lack of fitness, this was also due to the fact that we had climbed to 3000 metres above sea level - and once told, we of course recognised that the air was noticeably thinner!
Small children waved and shouted 'hola' as we passed. Insisting on photos we checked with Angel that it was ok and then happily snapped away. The reason we checked first was because a few years previously a Japanese tourist had been snatched by locals whilst comforting a small child that was crying. Thinking he was in the process of kidnapping the child, they took the poor fella and lynched him. Anyhow, we had no such problems and carried onwards and upwards.
We saw no other tourists at all. Birds noisily chattered in the branches above and sometimes a local man would wander by, but otherwise we were alone. At one point I noticed our guide looking furtively left and right. 'Are you looking for animals', I asked. Confirming he was I then asked as to what animals. 'Oh, no worry. Is nothing really', he replied. Aware that my question had been answered with politician like avoidance, I asked again. He hesitated before muttering, 'Oh, bears, snakes - Black Mambas mostly'....
Later on we stopped for a rest. The clouds swirled around the valley sometimes completely blotting the hills from view. And, then patches of blue sky would appear and the sun would beat down upon us, and far in the distance we could see a small river meandering its way through the jungle - before the clouds blew across once more. Angel disappeared for a few mins to relieve himself and left Marsha and I on our own. Suddenly out of the bushes appeared 5 men each carrying a large machete. They brushed past us, fortunately after something other than gringo blood.
Much later we arrived at the village where we were to stay the night. Just a few huts dotted around the hillside. We gratefully sat and removed our shoes and socks. It had been a good walk! The weather turned a little after our arrival and as thunder and then rain appeared we joined the small children of our host family in watching a movie on their tv. The family seemed to be somewhat of a Jean Claude Van Dam fan. We watched these violent bloodbaths unfold on the tv screen along with these tiny children who were engrossed as they clutched at their cuddly toys and sucked their thumbs.
Dinner of spaghetti and a rather sorry looking sausage appeared and then, very early, we unfurled our sleeping bags and mats and settled down onto the concrete floor.
We actually slept very well and it was with some reluctance that at just before 6am we were roused from our slumbers. A coupld of mugs of porridge soon helped us along the way and before long we were on the road again. The village was at 2500 metres and the path ahead led steeply down. A little rain overnight had helped to dampen the dusty ground and we made good progress. There were some clouds early on and the sun's rays shone through to the jungle - it was stunning. Sadly neither of us could capture that early morning light and mist in the jungle on our cameras.
Down, down, down we went. We stopped at a small stream and Angel informed us that there was gold in the stream. Doubtful, I scooped up some grit from the bottom and sure enough loads of gold coloured specks were glittering in my palms. We assumed that it couldn't be real gold or somebody would have fished it all out by now - or perhaps that's what everyone thinks who comes by....
A little further on and we reached the river at last. It being the dry season it was reasonably tame, however, it still needed to be crossed and the only way was the awkward looking collection of sticks jumbled together sort of resembling a bridge. But, safely across, photos taken, and we were heading back up. The river was at 1500 metres and Angel informed us that Santa Clara - our destination for the night - was 2300 metres up. It was very steep at times and the little bridge was soon far below us.
Exhausted, almost out of water, hungry and with blistered feet we arrived at the entrance to the village some time in the afternoon. Our homestay was of course at the top end of the village and delayed our rest by a further 15 mins. But we made it. Shoes off, socks off, packs off. Food - sadly no shower, but a change of clothes nonetheless, and we felt almost human again. There was a little internet place which we used and then dinner at El Angel before we camped down in the spare room at the homestay. We were both asleep almost immediately despite the cold concrete below us.
Early morning and it was just a short 20 minute walk up the hill to a spot overlooking Lake Atitlan from about 500 metres up. The sunrise was fantastic. We sat, ate cornflakes and admired the view for ages before carrying on our way. The last part of the trek - we were due in San Puedro by lunchtime.
We clambered down the hill towards the town, occasionally being overtaken by impatient old ladies in bare feet as they scurried past. The view of the lake all the way down was breathtaking - it is known here as the most beautiful lake in the world! Towards the bottom we encountered a coupld of religious symbols on a hill overlooking the town.
Eventually we arrived into SanPuedro, nearly 3 days after having set out from Xela over 40km away. We had a celebratory cup of tea (we know how to party!) and then said our goodbyes to Angel and boarded a boat for Pana' firstly to pick up our stuff that had been taken there, and then to Santa Cruz.
Some photos of the walk:
In Santa Cruz we checked into the Isla Verde - an eco friendly hotel on the shores of Lake Atitlan. The views from the terrace were gorgeous. Our room, sadly, was about 250 stairs up the hill which after 3 days walking just about killed us, especially as when we arrived at the room we found it uncleaned and had to return down and wait for the cleaning to be done. Eventually though we enjoyed a long awaited shower.
We enjoyed the lie-ins, the food, the drink, reading, the view of the lake, relaxing and generally doing very little over the next few days, courtesy of the Isla Verde. Marsha set the alarm on the 4th and boarded a boat bound for Pana' and then a bus to a nearby huge market that gathers every Thursday. And that was about the extent of our activity over the few days. Lovely!
We moved hotels - about 10 mins down the lake, still in Santa Cruz, to a place called Arca De Noe. Financial reasons only. Once done, we then walked from Santa Cruz westwards to the little village of San Marcos. In the guidebooks we'd read, the authors spoke of beautiful trails around the lake with stunning views, but, with the occasional bandits lying in wait in the bushes. So, taking nothing more than a handful of dollars for lunch on arrival we went on our way. And the books were right - the views were lovely. Along the way there were several large private homes and also some hotels springing up along the shores of the lake. They looked like wonderful places to live and stay - so we popped into one - La Casa Del Mundio. It was a hotel built into the side of a cliff face reaching right down to the clear blue water of the lake. Balconys stretched over the water, hammocks hung loosely in the shade, the views across the lake to the volcanos on the distant shore were breathtaking. We wandered around, had some food and decided it was one of the best hotels we'd ever seen - so booked ourselves in for a couple of nights - about a week ahead.
The trail continued up over hills, around sandy coves, in and out of forest and eventually ending up many hours later in San Marcos - and bandit free. Of course we had checked with some local people and others who had done the walk and heard that it was very safe these days.
San Marcos was a little bit of a let-down food-wise. A beautiful lake but no-one as yet had bothered to build their cafe, bar or restaurant lakeside. Also, we had had to hand over a cash deposit to the cliff based hotel we'd stopped in at and we'd only been left with a few dollars. A quick burger at some sort of anonymous place and then we managed to persuade the boat taxi driver to return us to Santa Cruz despite not having quite enough for the fare. The boat ride back gave us further glimpses of the houses and hotels we'd seen whilst walking - and many more that had been hidden from view. Most are owned by ex-pats - god knows what they do here - but they obviously make (or have made) a lot of money - the houses are very luxurious.
The Arca De Noe Hotel's owners are German, and she prepares a homemade meal each evening for those staying at the hotel and any others who book in. At 6.30pm on the dot she rang a small bell summoning us into the dining room. There, we joined another young couple (She Costa Rican and he French) along with about 10 elderly American women who lived in Santa Cruz.
The food was absolutely fantastic. 6 courses. Gourmet food, gourmet standard. Amazingly good and amazing value at under $10 each for the lot. Everything was homemade including the array of spices, dips and sauces on offer. The Chilean wine to go with it was also of high quality. We were so busy enjoying the food that half way through and we hadn't really chatted with the old ladies. So, we got talking a little with Nancy who was sat next to me.
Once it was established that I was British, the eccentric, little, old lady opposite immediately embarked on some loud and lengthy monologue in a bizarre Africans accent. After she had eventually finished her bewildering performance she grinned over at me expectantly.
Not knowing quite what she wanted from me I said, 'that was nice'.
'Who do I sound like', she asked.
Thinking that an answer of Winnie Mandela might offend, I replied that I wasn't entirely sure.
'British! That was a British accent of course', she said, shaking her head at my obvious ignorance.
I suggested to her that next time tried her British accent she should raise her hand so we'd all know. Marsha told me later on that she'd, found this well meaning joke reasonably offensive being clearly quite proud of her British impersonation. Anyhow, it didn't stop the old lady from persevering with it for the remainder of the meal.
Breakfast at the Arca Del Noe was also quality. And, sat out in the garden with the sun rising above the volcanic hills east of the lake, the setting was also hard to beat. Afterwards we relaxed in the hammocks in the garden for a couple of hours. Unbeknown to us at the time, a various assortment of invisible mosquitoes and sandflies also joined us and had their breakfast whilst we read.
Mid-morning, we had a shower each which we realised was actually a rather public affair as people walking the path outside could potentially see a fair amount of what was going on. Anyhow, once clean, we boarded a boat for Pana' and then a bus to Antigua a couple of hours away. After much searching we settled on a place near the centre. Sharing a room with 4 other strangers is never the best and we decided to search for alternative accomodation the next day.
On of the main reasons for visiting this incredibly touristy town is to learn Spanish. Spanish Schools are abundantly dotted around the town. We checked some out - having already spent 3 weeks or so in this part of the world, our lack of Spanish was beginning to frustrate us and so we decided to do something about it.
We ate at Sabor Del Tiempo, mainly because the Chilean wine was cheap and the pizzas large. Engrossed in whatever, we didn't inspect the wine bottle that carefully on arrival at our table and only when the bill was set down at our table did we realise that we'd been drinking some actually very nice Sav Blanc at twice the price we'd intended - ah well...
Antigua is awash with tourists, with churches, with language schools, with cafes and restaurants and bars and with religious parades. The little cobbled streets are forever being temporarily made pedestrionised as another parade noisily rambles by. Often the main feature of these parades are purple cloaked children carrying a huge religious themed float. Always a brass band accompanies the marching children, loudly leading the way. Today is Sunday, and there seemed to be even more parades than normal. Fireworks explode in the blue skies above indicating the start of another group of worshipers intent on publicly displaying their affection for some saint or another by making children walk the streets in colourful clothing.
We came across one parade that seemed to be a little different. Teenage boys and girls, arm in arm and very fancily dressed walked behind a group of about 10 students who each wore a sash, on which was displayed their college study - computer, mathematics etc... Graduation day in Antigua!
We wandered around getting to know our neighbourhood - as we would be here for a week or so. We checked into a cheaper place at the top end of town - with our own room. And, we signed onto a Spanish School for a week. We found a gym, several bookshops and decent cafes and even a Salsa studio where daily lessons were offered - just not on Sundays. It may be touristy, but it looks like being a decent place to spend a week. As usual, sometimes the most satisfying part of travelling is sitting with a coffee overlooking a busy square as people go about their business in the sun wondering how everyone else's working day is going... Of course, today being Sunday and all, but you get my drift....
8th - 12th March
The 5 days followed a very similar sort of pattern. The alarm awoke us just before 6am, breakfast in the square and then 4 hours of Spanish. A quick bite to eat at one of the many cafes nearby and then Marsha went off shopping and generally wandering around the cobbled little streets in amongst the colourful cafes and markets. Meanwhile I continued on with the one on one Spanish for a further 2 hours - although little good it did me. We met afterwards either in a cafe for some tea or depending upon the time at the Salsa studio near the hotel. After an hour's 'dancing' we both went to the gym which we'd joined for an hour or so on the running machines or bikes etc...
On the Sunday the American at the Spanish School had promised that despite being a smallish outfit he had plenty of clients - and yes, we could pay with visa.In reality, no-one else was on their books at that time – we and our 2 teachers were alone in the small garden at the desks provided. Occasionally the American who had been so pleasant on the Sunday would drop in, but he’d studiously ignore us. Oh, and they didn’t take visa.
‘Buenos Dias, Como estas’, began my teacher.
I hesitantly replied,’Buenos dias’, and then paused. ‘Erm, I´m a beginner I’m afraid’, I explained. A brief grimace passed across her face, but she boldly continued. What made the lessons initially all the more difficult for both teacher and student was that their English was little better than our Spanish.
But, words were written down, learnt and endlessly repeated. Phrases were committed to memory, verbs were conjugated and simple pleasantries were exchanged as our understanding and vocabulary grew. After a day or so we became increasingly confident enough to start volunteering information using full sentences. Admittedly, sometimes these words and sentences seemed to take an eternity to be said, but, the teachers were reasonably patient as they listened to long dull explanations as to where we live, the places we´ve been, how we met, how many siblings we have and so on….
As was the case when we learnt Indonesian, it wasn´t so bad to read and talk, but listening to replies was near impossible. And so, when we attempted our Spanish out in the street in cafes and shops, we´d put together a sentence in Spanish only to receive a rapid babble of Spanish in return. ‘¿Cuanto por cada postal, y, tienes unos sellos?, I asked in one shop – ‘How much for each postcard and do you have some stamps?’.
‘ncnxçzcbNZç+$Clkajdc&gjas$cb*nzbcnb*cJsds¨%dvdvhd’, she replied.
Right, I was kind of hoping for a number accompanied by the appropriate number of fingers and a quick ‘si’ or ‘no’. Of course, either the whole conversation degenerates into chaos and eventually I just slowly start to back away, or, the Spaniard rolls his/her eyeballs and then we continue in English.
One evening having returned to the hotel after our gym session, and sweating and probably smelling a little, we put our clothes together and handed them in to be washed. A man was standing nearby waiting to speak to the man at reception himself. Sensing an opportunity, I turned to him, closed my eyes in concentration and stuttered out, ’Todos los dias vamos al gimnasio despues nuestra clase de salsa y por eso ahora tenemos que lavar nuestra ropa’ – (everyday we go to the gym after our Salsa class and so now we have to wash our clothes). Now, this was an absolute triumph for me, a whole Spanish sentence to a complete stranger and it had only taken about 30 seconds to say. I opened my eyes and grinned at the man expectantly. Surely my effort was worth a shake of the hand, a clap on the back or at least a few words of praise. He was staring at me blankly, open-mouthed, clearly wondering why this gangly foreigner was telling him all about his personal hygiene issues….
The Spanish lessons were actually quite tiring mentally, and so the Salsa classes late on in the afternoon were a good way to stretch the legs and take our minds off the language for a while. After having completed a couple of lessons in Cuba a few weeks back, we had a vague idea of some of the basic steps. Our teacher was a tiny Guatemalan man who couldn’t take his eyes off himself in the giant mirror installed in the room. He seemed entirely bored by our labored efforts to learn new steps, however, he was pleasant enough and we managed at times to actually put together a few twists and turns that weren´t complete disasters.
Salsa requires the man to lead which Marsha understandably resents as I can’t hear the beat or rhythm. I’m often heading off in unexpected directions and launching into turns mid-beat. Marsha dealt with my general incompetence reasonably well and even managed to contain her natural instinct for freestyling whenever she felt like it – something my toes still remember her doing in Cuba on many an occasion.
Towards the end of our first session our teacher and the female teacher at the studio showed us how Salsa should look. It really is a very graceful dance. We have a way to go but the lessons had been a lot of fun and hopefully we´ll be able to drop into various places and clubs along the way through Central and South America and further practice our new steps, turns and moves.
And, as the sun set over the volcanoes above the town, we headed back across town away from the Salsa place to the gym. It was, surprisingly, packed every evening. Generally we had to wait for a while for two of the 4 running machines to become available. At 1500 metres above sea level the exercise was even more difficult than usual, but, we certainly felt as though we’d earned our dinner an hour or so later.
Food options in Antigua are plentiful, albeit often expensive. We ate at a very cool wee place called Kafka for 3 nights in succession. The food was excellent and cheap. On the Friday, having finished with the Spanish School, Salsa and the gym for the week, we celebrated by having drinks at the Sky Café before eating at an Italian place near the square. The bottle of Chilean wine successfully whetted our appetite for South American wine and on the way home for some reason we dropped into another bar and ordered una botela mas….
One evening after finishing all of our lessons and exercise, whilst having a drink at the Sky Café we noticed a sea of purple in the distance. Gradually the purple mass neared us and human shapes emerged. It was another procession but far bigger than anything we’d seen previously. Hundreds and hundreds of men dressed in flowing purple robes were slowly moving through the streets. White clouds of Smoke blew around them in the breeze, coming from the fiery coals a few of the men were carrying in pots. Others were carrying crosses and banners, but in the centre of the procession a massive truck sized float was being slowly heaved along the road on the shoulders of about 60 men. On the float appeared to be various scenes from the last few days of Jesus Christ. Occasionally it would stop and sway back and forth as the men marked time. The 20 piece brass band behind it would then start up yet another instrumental blast. Lights adorning the float flashed on and off, and it would start to move again.
This incredible sight was attracting huge crowds and we joined them and followed as the purple procession meandered its way through to the central square a couple of streets over. Dozens and dozens of cameras clicked and flashed as it eventually halted in front of the main cathedral in the square. A truly absorbing sight.
And so, armed with a small sized Spanish vocabulary and a couple of dance moves that occasionally go as planned, our week in Antigua was at an end. We enjoyed wandering the streets - the cobbled lanes, the colouful shops and the chaotic markets complete with the aromas blowing about from the street barbeques - one last time. We had a big breakfast on the square and at noon we awaited our bus back to Pana' outside of our hotel. A couple of American school groups on their spring break pulled cases past us and into the hotel alongside. We waited. Around 1pm the bus turned up and so it was later than expected that we pulled into Pana' - neither of us feeling to good after the twists and turns on the road - or perhaps it was the wine the night before....
We checked into one of the cheapest places yet - Tommy - at $4 each for a double room you can't complain. After spending an hour fruitlessly searching for a bookstore we settled into an internet cafe for a while. Later we ate dinner at Cheritos. The menu had all sorts - including some Indonesian dishes which we prudently avoided. Eventually we settled for some Chinese food and asked (in Spanish) for it to be picante (spicy). Either our Spanish left a lot to be desired or we're completely immune to spice - still, it was very nice.
The dogs in Pana' were odd. They appeared to take on human qualities. One sitting cross-legged on the pavement outside the cafe eying us suspiciously as we emerged after dinner. Another appearing to grin and laugh after it lay in wait in the bushes and leapt out surprising Marsha. One last dog accompanied us all the way along the street, guiding our way, sensing our indecision as to which direction to go. All very strange...
We were back at the lake. Lake Atitlan - 'the most beautiful lake in the world'. A week or so earlier on our walk from Santa Cruz throug bandit territory to San Marcos we had happenned upon La Casa Del Mundo - a fantastic looking hotel - and we'd booked in for a couple of nights. After a quick omlette in Pana' (ordered in Spanish. That was fine. The reply was in Spanish asking me a question. I tried pardon a couple of times before just plumping for one of the options. Sadly I chose wrongly - with the omlette either came fried potatos or some brown grungy muck. I had unwittingly ordered the brown stuff. More lessons needed I feel...), anyhow, after breakfast we left Tommy and caught a boat taxi to the hotel.
The hotel is built into a side of a cliff. Balconies and terraces and little pavilion like bedrooms all overlook the lake and the volcanoes that surround it. The place is stunning. The water is clear, the sky blue, the air full of bird life - we saw a few more tiny humming birds. We hung about (literally) in hammocks, read books, swam in the water, ordered wonderful food and drink and watched the sun cross the sky as boats passed by below us. It is a truly idylic place.
In the evening everyone sits down together for a very good 4 course meal at a ridiculously low price. Chilean wine accompanies the meal as do several other American tourists or volunteers. All in all it is not surprising that Lonely Planet rates the place as the most magical place in Guatemala. The 2 days go too fast but very very pleasantly. More than once we discussed the possibility of abandoning any further travel in favour of spending the next 4 months here...!
As I write this, I'm in a hammock on the terrace about 50 metres directly above the lake below. The sun is going down and I'm hoping Marsha is at the bar ordering me a 'cerveca'.
Much more of the same for the morning before we had to check out. Reluctantly, bags were loaded onto the boat taxi and we sped across the lake to Pana´ and stayed at Tommy once again. We wandered down the shoreline a little further than we had previously and explored to the end of Pana´ - a town that obviously once attracted many more tourists than it does now. Huge lakeside restaurants and bars with attractive views across the lake laid mostly empty. Upbeat music pumped out of each but the desperation in the waiters´ eyes and voices as they tried to entice us in betrayed the real situation - no-one ate there anymore.
And, nor did we. Back on the main road in town and slightly in land, and the place was alive with people, colours and sounds again. We lazily busied ourselves in shops, cafes and bars etc... for the remainder of the day.
St. Patrick´s Day. And to celebrate, we took a boat over to Santiago De Atitlan. This town - the largest on the lake - is also the least touristy. It is also here that 'Max´ lives. Maxamon or 'Max' as he is known locally is an evil spirit and he stays as a guest in different houses across the town at differing times of year.