Guatemala Blog

Lunes, 19 de marzo

After flight changes and rerouting through Mexico in the middle of the night, ya llegamos! Antigua Guatemala: the old capital city, five centuries old, a UNESCO World Heritage site, cobblestone streets, colorfully painted walls, ornate wooden doors and windows bars, ancient churches weathered by earthquakes, not-so-distant volcanoes, a bustling plaza, vibrant Mayan textiles and languages…you can imagine that we are already enchanted! It is special to be here as the city prepares for its biggest event of the year- Semana Santa (Holy Week leading up to Easter). Preparations of the massive Andas, or floats, are in full swing, and we got to peek in on a garage that holds the huge solid wood structure to carry Jesus and the crucifix by 50 men!  You can see most windows draped in the royal purple while the jacaranda trees serendipitously bloom their lavender flowers just in time. The other benefit is that we WON’T be here next week when it is a madhouse- one of the largest in Latin America.

After strolling the town with our wonderful guide, Mitzy, +and barely recovering from the lack of sleep, we enjoyed a dip in the pool and some delicious pollo in our charming hotel cloaked in greens, tiles and fountains. We are looking forward to a tour of some churches, a coffee farm, and more authentic food tomorrow!

 
 

 

Martes 20 de marzo

¡Qué día tan fabuloso! Rested and refreshed from a crazy yesterday, we embarked on a full day of Aventura chapina (chapín is the nickname for Guatemalan). First we stopped at a supermercado for some snacks- plantain chips, of course! Then we spent some time at a coffee plantation just outside Antigua in Jocotenango where we saw the whole process from berries on plant to a toasty cup of café. A few lucky readers may be receiving some beans when we return! Next was a Mayan music museum where our beloved Mitzy introduced the long history of the Maya in this region, from the languages, dress and housing, to the syncretic religious practices since the arrival of the Spanish.

 

 

Perhaps our most precious hour was our lunch with the women´s cooperative of Santiago Zamora, another outskirt of Antigua. This group of seven Mayan Kaqchikel women cooked us an amazing authentic lunch of chiles rellenos, salsa, beans, rice, handmade tortillas, salad, vegetables, avocado, jamaica juice. Some of us bought huipiles—the ornate blouses that represent each native group’s town. The women presented a folkloric dance for us, including the adorable 5-year-old Fátima and the baby Manuel on his mama´s back. At the end, each woman introduced herself and shared her gratitude for us for our participation in their cooperative. It was special to hear how they use the money from this small venture to send their children to school, build their business, give small loans, and even help each other´s families when there is sickness or special need. The students felt honored to be received with such warmth in this intimate experience in a rural concrete home in the Guatemalan highlands!

 

The rain held off for the rest of the afternoon but left us the dramatic sky for some amazing photos during our walking tour of Antigua. First we popped in the center of Ciudad Vieja, the second capital of Guatemala located at the base of the same volcano that destroyed it with a mudslide just 14 years after its founding! Antigua was technically the third capital (the first was Iximche, thanks to an alliance between the conquistador Pedro Alvarado and one of the Mayan tribes Kaqchikel). But in the 1700’s two earthquakes toppled the city, including its massive churches. Today we visited the ruins and reconstructions of the cathedral, and the monastery La Merced- an elaborately adorned yellow and white church with Guatemala’s largest fountain in a gorgeous courtyard. In between historical lessons, we stopped for Antigua’s best ice cream and at some candy stalls, enjoying the sights of a city preparing for its festivities next week.

Vieja

 

Have I mentioned how much we are smiling and laughing? This group is clever and hilarious! Mitzy is impressed and Isern and I (Reid) are delighted by the constant questions about Spanish and their cultural observations. Tonight we told stories over a delicious dinner at Restaurante Las Antorchas (ask Steve, our valiant chaperone about his “ajo en el lado” story jajaja!).  We sang and danced on our drives today to Latin pop music on the bus (Zander knows all the words to “Súbele a la Radio” by Enrique Iglesias?!).

It´s impossible to share all the jewels we´ve learned about plants, Spanish expressions, and Guatemalan culture. Hopefully you’ll hear a few more from their own mouths! Tomorrow to the Volcán Pacaya and a cooking class! ¡Que vivan los chapines!

 

Miércoles, 21 marzo

Our week took a turn toward the scientific today with a lesson on Guatemala´s volcanos and the ring of fire. We arrived at the Pacaya Volcano for a hefty 2km hike up. Pacaya is one of Guatemala´s four active volcanoes of 37 in all. Some of us bought walking sticks for 5 quetzales and then we embarked. Thankfully we had shade on our steep hike up and a gracious and spunky guide, Arturo. We stopped for a freshly peeled orange (which are green here!) with salt, crushed pumpkin seeds, and chile powder. Delicioso and refreshing! Another gorgeous sky and light wind greeted us at the top of the peek…one of the non-active peeks, of course! To our left was the active one, with constant smoking and even some perceptible lava rolling down. Tired but proud that we made it without the help of the horse taxis, we admired the 360 view and snapped photos, climbed the black rocks and even toasted some “angelitos”—marshmallows—in a small hot vent! Looks like Will’s turned out the best! Don’t forget the Isern store! He pulled out a massive quantity of snacks and the vultures (read: hungry students) descended! With satisfied stomachs, we took a different way down, a sunny and dusty trail, where our bus driver Willy met us. ¡Por fin!

Volcán Pacaya Hike

 

Despite the dust and some burnt skin, we headed straight to our next destination, the town of San Miguel Escobar for a very special lunch. We divided into two groups to visit the homes of Maria and Thelma where they showed us how to cook the Guatemalan national dish, Pepián. It was so cool to have two different experiences we could share out—not just about the cooking, but how regular families live with wood-burning stoves for cooking, multipurpose concrete outdoor sinks, and bamboo sticks for walls. One group helped chopped all the vegetables to go into the dish: carrots, green beans, tomatoes, onion, squash and red pepper. (Connor is a pro with the knife!) The other helped grind the ingredients for the salsa-y stew: roasted chiles, garlic, onion, cilantro, tomatoes, pumpkin and sesame seeds…and also make tortillas! (Harrison was thrilled to take the tortilla technique home after past failures!). Included with the meal was rice, chicken, guacamole, and more Jamaica juice. We ate together and learned about the cooperative these families are participating in, De la Gente, to sell these cultural experiences, cultivate coffee, and eventually own some land of their own. While heading back to the bus, Isern joined in a group of local students playing an after school game of soccer. Gol!!!!!! Oh wait, he just informed me they called him off-sides!

 

Time to head back to the hotel and get all the volcanic ash out of our shoes! Some got rest and others explored Antigua a bit more with a map and another craving for ice cream. We then dressed it up for a fancy dinner at Welten, fish or carne and tropical juice served in champagne glasses, hanging vines and petals on the tables.

Amigos, it’s late and we have to rest for another full day! Tomorrow we check out of this hotel and depart for Chichicastenango, and Lake Atitlán.

 

Jueves, 22 marzo

Adiós, Antigua. ¡Hola, Lago Atitlán! We had a 2.5 hour drive to Chichicastenango, but Mitzy educated us on the way all about today’s Mayan population in Guatemala, including the 36-year-long civil war, Mayan Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Rigoberta Menchú, and even recent politics—what headlines we can imagine! Students also shared out about yesterday´s home visits. You should have heard Annika articulating in Spanish her time learning from chatting with Julio yesterday during their lunch! As we winded through the highlands leaving one department for another, our minds expanded to include these Guatemalans in our worldview, more appreciative of our education and aware of our privilege.

The craziness began when we broke up into a few groups to bargain and purchase from the endless assortment of items and persistent vendors. Students put their Spanish to work, talking down prices and making deals for the items they’ll be sporting when they return…and a hopefully an item for you, dear reader! Check out Callie getting her hair done with a “cinta” she purchased by a woman from Panajachel. The colors, smells, heat, and sounds nearly overwhelmed us for the hours in Chichicastenango. We topped the visit off with a peaceful walk up the hill to a cemetery where the brightly-painted graves and mausoleums herald the continuation of a vibrant afterlife and an invitation to visit, picnic, and honor loved ones throughout the year. Many references today to Día de los Muertos, a theme we spend a lot of time in Spanish class, along with never-ending jokes about Isern´s conquistador roots! He’s good at taking it over and over from Mitzy! Ha!

 

A stop at the supermercado followed for more snacks and some supplies for tomorrow’s school visit. A few young vendors were glued to us to the end, and Harrison couldn´t help but gift his ball to a sweet little Jennifer right before we sped off. We had a long descending drive to Lake Atitlán filled with games of MASH, more Spanish pop music, and a roudy round of Bohemian Rhapsody! Alas, the breathtaking lake surrounded by volcanoes and little towns lighting up for the evening! We pulled over for a quick pic before all was dark. But we haven´t seen our view yet, so we anxiously await tomorrow´s sights! 

Weather has been sunny and warm, with nights just slightly cool—amazing! Wifi is weak here, so forgive the lack of contact from many of us. Tomorrow we have the school visit and a boat ride across the lake! Hasta la pasta!

 

Viernes, 23 marzo

We woke up to the most marvelous view! Indescribable! A gorgeous day in Lake Atitlán. We are technically in Santa Catarina Polopó, a town next to the lake´s largest town, Panajachel. We have another charming hotel with a pool and large thermal Jacuzzi, bright green lawns to run around and get some exercise, and a phenomenal panorama of the lake including the three volcanoes across the way. We had a similar breakfast to most mornings: fresh juice, café con leche, and panqueques with plátanos, eggs-pan-potatoes-fruit, or a desayuno típico with eggs, queso, frijoles negros, y tortillas.

Even sweeter was the next thing on our itinerary: the elementary school visit! First we spent about half hour in a kindergarten class where each student was matched with one or two kids and a container of playdoh. They had just eaten a tamales breakfast provided by school in order to nourish the children who often don’t have much food each day. It was a great entry point to make a connection with a child who lives in poverty and is learning Spanish in school (a Mayan dialect being their first). They chatted with kids about their families, favorite things, and made shapes and animals with the playdoh. The smiles on the faces of students young and old were priceless! We then visited a second class where they sang a song for us while the maestro played the guitar, “La vaca trabajadora.” Sophie and Will took a turn on the guitar and we sang BINGO for them. Next we all walked out to the nearby soccer field for some pelota, bubbles, and balloons. Isern joined in of course, despite his hurt leg, and the kids protested when it was time to leave the spectacular lakeside play.

Escuela en Guatemala

 

We quickly boarded our little lancha boat for a ride across the lake, the wind and sun energizing us as we bounced around in our life jackets and awaited the next set of sights in the little town of San Juan de la Laguna. Mitzy took us to an art gallery where we saw the three styles of vibrant paintings- flat, birds eye view, and vista de hormiga (ant’s view). The paintings show the typical life of people who live around the lake picking coffee, weaving, cooking, and celebrating in Mayan ceremonies. We then visited a cooperative of 15 women, led by five midwives, in the cultivation and production of medicinal plants and products like rosemary shampoo and ruda stress relief tea. Next we walked uphill for another demonstration of the entire process of the cotton threading, dyeing, and weaving. Our kids tried the thread pulling (hard!) and the weaving with a backstrap loom (hard!) with naturally dyed threads with plants like annatto seeds, coconut husks, carrots, and beets. After watching four others with the loom, Connor picked it up and impressed the husband-wife supervisors with his prowess—“¡él ganó a las mujeres!” Connor the best weaver--I bet you didn´t expect that!

More shopping, coffee-sipping, and a tuk-tuk ride and we boarded the boat to return to Santa Catarina. The windy ride back inspired some more belting of classic songs like “Don’t stop believing” and another “Bohemian Rhapsody” with the “mama” part replaced with “Antonio”! Our late afternoon has been filled with pool time, guacamole, and primping for a night out of dinner and some festivities in Panajachel. How can more fun continue? Don’t stop believing!

 

Sábado, 24 marzo

 

Today was a chill travel day, leaving Lake Atitlán for Guatemala City to catch an evening flight to Flores in the Petén rainforest region of northern Guatemala. We got to sleep in a bit and enjoy a few more hours of the sunny lake view, including some hackey-sack and another short shopping stint in Panajachel.

 

On the bus to the capital we chatted, took naps, clarified Spanish expressions, compared souvenirs, and sang more songs, (thanks, Merit, for adding some Killers to the playlist!). We stopped at a rest stop, played on the playground, and ate some lunch. As we neared Guatemala City and its traffic, Mitzy laid the foundation of ancient Mayan history to set us up for our big day tomorrow in Tikal! We learned the numeric system and three kinds of calendars, and pulled out our colorful quetzales bills to identify the numbers written in the corner of each. Leave it to Sophie to make comparisons between the fall of the Roman Empire and Ingelise to remember every obscure historical detail mentioned only once before! These brains! We heard the legend of Guatemala’s national hero, prince Tecun Uman who died in a dual against the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado; a quetzal landed on his chest at his death, giving the bird its beautiful red front plumage. We passed his statue just in time for her story...the amazing Mitzy does it again!

 

After another stop at the super, we arrived in the domestic terminal with some time to spare. We easily boarded on time and departed at 7pm over the twinkling capital city. Landing in Flores, we walked down the steps of the plane like movie stars into the gentle humidity, onto a bus, straight to the coolest tropical hotel. Again we are awaiting the sunrise to see the beauty of our surroundings, assuming they will match the magical sounds of the birds, frogs, and howler monkeys we hear now. We had a delicious authentic dinner of taquitos, empanadas, and flan. Goodnight to the lush greens and ceiling geckos. Tomorrow our Mayan rainforest adventures await...with a few surprises! ¡Buenas noches!

 

 

Domingo, 25 marzo

What a spectacular end to an unforgettable week! The whistling birds and gorgeous laguna view woke us long before our official wake up call this am. Jarod seemed to be the first up with pics of his tropical findings of red macaws and crocodiles long before breakfast. While we wished we had more time to explore the hotel, we knew it was time to see what we came for—the wonders of Tikal!

About an hour bus ride took us to the archeological site, passing Lago Petén Iztá and its touristy offerings. Mitzy gave us an overview of the area, showing maps of the nearby ruins, the protected areas for biodiversity, and the buffer zone for multiple use. Upon entering the park, we quickly saw examples of the lush rainforest and wildlife- wild turkeys and white-tailed deer! Lathered with sunscreen and walking shoes, we set off for about 5 hours of Tikal trekking, amounting to some 14,00 steps and 38 floors climbed (thank you, phone app)!

We’ve been so lucky to have Mitzy as a guide, and today was a prime example. She took us on a tour of Tikal that had us identifying plants, noting architectural trends, and turning around to surprise magnificent views, all the while knowing when we needed a little review or a little rest. We saw both excavated and still-covered structures, Mayan arches and altars, Spider monkeys and a rare torron bird (a relative of the quetzal), huge ant crossings, and endless palms, lianas, and epiphyte-laden trees. Our bodies are tired but our brains are full. Here are just a few chunks we learned:
-The true discoverer of Tikal was a gum tree worker in the mid 1800s, not the governor who claimed it.
-In Mesoamérica, temples have a structure at the top while pyramids have a flat top and stairs on all four sides.
-In its time, Tikal would have been painted in red with forests cleared throughout, making space for gathering, ceremonies, etc...not the dense forest we trudge through now.
-some of the stelae tell stories with glyphs and carvings while others were used like chalkboards for teaching just for a time
-extensive commerce took place along the sacbes (roads) connecting Mesoamérica, even all the way to Teotihuacán in central Mexico.
-power corrupts (bet you didn’t know that one)
-and tons of references to the Mayan calendars, seasons, sacred numbers, the gods and underworld.

One of the most thrilling moments was climbing Temple IV, then sitting down the steep steps and turning around for the stunning view all at once. Some of us could practically hear the Star Wars ships zooming past. Our Indiana Jones Papa Gary was particularly proud of conquering the fear of its height for such a breathtaking view above the canopy with other temples and pyramids popping up out among the trees. Another such moment was the unveiling of the Gran Plaza from a side structure. Sienna made several remarks at how mind-blowing these moments were—so true! Good thing she didn’t fall in love as much with the cute little coatimundis as she has all the Guatedogs!

Almost as thrilling was being greeted with a chilled wet towel to cool us off as we walked into our lunch. The day was beautiful but yes, sunny and humid! After lunch we headed straight to a zip-lining adventure in the canopy. Twelve of us 16 strapped in harnesses and climbed the steps and ladders up the canopy for eight incredible cables through the selva. And a group of spider monkeys seemed to be following us, sometimes even squawking at each other, perhaps competing for a better view of MeritGrace’s quetzal blue hair gliding through the trees while gripping her birkenstocks with her toes so they didn’t fall off! Maura impressed the employees with her full upside down hands-free swings, huge smiles all the way! Watch out, monos!

We surprised the students with a stop back at the hotel for a swim in the enchanting pool we thought we’d have to miss. This meant a record fast dinner in Flores to make our 8:50pm flight out of Petén and back to the capital. But not before a little circle of love in the airport, complete with some Best of/Most Likely awards and some sweet exchanges of words, wishes, and friendships bracelets between us and our beloved Mitzy.

We’ve begun the final tiring stretch of travel home with a late arrival to our hotel in Guatemala City and leaving here at 4am for our flight!

Thanks for reading, amigos. This has been life-changing. Gracias por la experiencia, y adiós, Chapilandia!


Beth Reid

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