Friday, January 9, 2009

Lake Atitlán

The last part of our trip is Lake Atitlán. Lake Atitlán is the deepest lake in Central America and one of the most beautiful in the world. In ancient times, it was thought to be a spiritual center, much like the Pyramids in Egypt. Today, the traditional indigenous people that live around the lake have found a way to co-exist peacefully with the dreadlock-wearing, pot-smoking, wonky gringos that also seem to be drawn here. There is a strong ex-pat population in a few of the cities!

Our base is the town of Panajachel, the biggest on the lake. From here, you can take a public boat and visit other towns around the lake including San Pedro and San Marcos la Laguna. We paid the 25Q fee (much higher than what the locals pay) and hopped on the boat for a 50 minute trip along part of the lake. We decided to get off the boat at San Pedro to explore the city across the lake. While in San Pedro we tasted some Guatemalan coffee and walked around the small town, all the while trying not to get run over by the Thai-inspired tuk-tuks that populate the streets:

We even saw some of the local ladies doing laundry in the lake:

We also saw some coffee plants, as well as a small processing plant where the fruit is removed and the beans are dried:

On the boat ride back to Panajachel our captain was a crazy gringa!

We were pleased to find that the food in Panajachel is much cheaper and more delicious than the rest of Guatemala. Dinner has been running us about $4/night here.

On Thursday we took a shuttle with Daniela (a fellow Pacaya climber) to Chichicastenango for their big Thursday market-the biggest market in Central America. We saw a variety of goods including: handmade blankets, hammocks, scarves, placemats, traditional clothing, various wooden masks, and plenty of food. In front of one of the churches was the flower market:

We said goodbye to Daniela, who is headed back to Croatia, and now we are enjoying the last bit of our time here together with some chocolate fondue:

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Volcanoe Pacaya

I think climbing the active volcano Pacaya, located a few hours outside of Antigua, will be one of my favorite memories from Guatemala. The trip required an hour trek uphill until we hit the tree line and then another hour scrambling through volcanic rock of various sizes until we hit molten lava. Especially near the end, it was very slow going, in the words of our guide, “se necesita caminar como niños,” or “you need to walk like little children [using hands and knees]”. It was quite cool until we got within forty feet of the lava. We could feel the heat radiating beneath our feet well before we could actually see the lava. We were so high up, mists of clouds swirled around us.

Our group consisted of eleven young people from all over the world – Canada, Croatia, Germany, Czech Republic, and the USA. We bonded over the experience and even took turns roasting marshmallows over the lava.

The trip back down was also tricky, especially because the sun had set for the majority of it. Luckily some of the other travelers came prepared with headlamps so we didn’t have to feel our way down in total darkness. We celebrated our successful climb with Guatemalan beers on the bus ride back.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


Our last three days have been spent relaxing in the little beach town of Monterrico. Both of our guidebooks agreed, Monterrico is the place in Guatemala if you are in need of relaxation and some time on the beach.

After the shuttle from Antigua dropped us off, we trudged down a sandy beach path in search of our hotel, El Mangle. Our heavy suitcases, combined with the hot sun ensured this was not an easy task. Luckily, for a few Quetzales (the Guatemalan currency) we were able to procure the assistance of one of the locals.

When we arrived at El Mangle, we were told it would be a three hour wait for our room. We decided to spend the delay lying by the pool and grabbing some lunch at what would soon become our favorite restaurant, Las Brisas. When we returned to El Mangle, we were quoted a room rate that was much higher than we agreed to previously on the phone. Dissatisfied by the smelly room and the high price we decided to return to the hotel attached to Las Brisas for a sunnier, cleaner room at a better price.

CECON, a local turtle preservation group was hosting a baby turtle race in order to raise awareness and money. We decided against sponsoring a turtle in the race since our guidebooks mentioned that these races might actually be detrimental to the turtles’ survival. We were surprised at how dark the little turtles were – they were completely black!

After the race, we grudgingly returned to El Mangle to get some pizza cooked over a wood fire. We had seen a man preparing the pizza dough from scratch while working out the room problem and we couldn’t resist sampling it! Luckily, this is one aspect of El Mangle that didn’t disappoint.

The next morning at 5am we met Sender, a local guide, for a tour of the real Monterrico Mangle (Mangrove in English) by boat. The early start time maximized our chances of seeing a variety of fish and birds and also allowed us to catch the sunrise over the swamp.

Mangrove shoots are harvested by hand and used to make roofs for people who want a fancy alternative to the palm-thatched hut. Mangrove roofs are expected to last up to 25 years.

We also saw a bunch of “mud-skipper” fish, that the locals call “cuatros ojos” (four eyes), jumping along the water’s surface. They looked a lot like snakes, however they were much too speedy to be caught on film.

Our boat ride lasted two hours, allowing for ample siesta and beach time for the rest of the day. The beach at Monterrico has beautiful smooth black sand. The only drawback is the vicious riptide that makes swimming too dangerous for many.

We also checked out the turtle hatchery museum but were discouraged by the dirty, small appearance and the 40 Quetzal ($5) price tag, especially compared to the $1.25 price for locals. Our guidebook did tell us that the hatchery has an unwritten deal with local poachers - they don’t turn in the poachers as long as the poachers donate 12 turtle egg nests for every one they sell.

One night we caught the sunset over the beach and were quite amused by the creatures that come out at night at Johnny’s, a local bar:

This character is actually from Chicago, and he claimed to be a writer who has a play that is in production in London starring Joan Rivers. Seriously!?

Kelly also tried one of the local dishes, ceviche. Ceviche is marinated in a citrus-based mixture, usually with lemons and limes. In addition to adding flavor, the citric acid causes the proteins in the seafood to become denatured which pickles or "cooks" the fish without heat. It was interesting and delicious, a little like pico de gallo.

All-in-all, Monterrico was just as beautiful as we had hoped and we really enjoyed our time there. Now we are back in Antigua for two days, a change in plans due to missing out on our first opportunity to climb the volcano Pacaya (more on that later). After that it’s off to Lake Atitlán for the last leg of our journey.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Antigua, Part I

Our first day in Antigua was spent exploring the city. We stumbled upon a tiny kitchen with local women making tortillas by hand. They were happy to sell us four for 1 Quetzal (about $0.13).

We also checked out the city square and some old cathedrals.

We took a tour of the most famous jade factory in Guatemala. It was even visited by Bill Clinton during his presidency! I custom designed a beautiful jade necklace and picked out a matching ring and earrings, all for about $100 US.

On the way back from the jade factory, we stumbled upon a crowd in front of the church. Soon there were very loud fireworks and confetti as the Cardinal of Antigua (we think) and procession of people with candles exited the church.

Last night for we rang in the New Year in style in our new friend Ricardo’s Tabacos y Vinos (Cigar and Wine) shop. He was kind enough to provide us with some delicious wine and a Cuban cigar.

Some of these pictures may even show up online on Ricardo’s website:

For our New Year’s dinner, we went to Ricardo’s friend Hector’s restaurant. Hector went to culinary school in the United States and returned to Guatemala to turn his home into a restaurant. The tiny place consisted of a few tables with the kitchen in plain view. Even though Hector doesn’t have a sign, or even a name for his restaurant, word of mouth ensured that the place was overflowing.

We feasted on homemade pasta and duck with crème freche and choclat fondant for dessert. It was heavenly and very reasonably priced.

The streets were filled with people, especially in front of Ricardo’s shop right under el Arco de Santa Catalina, the famous arch of Antigua. There were musicians and people dressed up as old women dancing in the streets. There was also a little boy wearing a bull costume covered in fireworks that went off as he pranced around the street.

After Ricardo’s shop closed we hung out in the doorway safe from the jostling of the crowd and the spontaneous fireworks that kept going off in the streets. We friends with the other people sharing our nook. We were lucky because they were willing to share the bottle of champagne and flask of whiskey that they had brought with them.

These ladies really knew how to ring in the New Year!

The next morning, we enjoyed the opportunity to sleep in for the first time during our trip. Needless to say, not everyone was so lucky.