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Gone walkabout

Guatemala and Honduras

GUATEMALA | Thursday, 14 February 2013 | Views [1430]

Guatemala

 
After our family time in Mexico, we head south into our next country, Guatemala. The border crossing is a hassle. Local men wanting to change money at dodgy exchange rates, confusion with the exit fees out of Mexico. Do we pay or do we act dumb and say we're broke? We pay $25 and make our way into the land of volcanoes. To travel through Guatemala is breathtaking. So many perfect cone shaped volcanoes interspersed amongst the rugged landscape. We use "chicken buses" for transport.
 
 
The locals use them so they are cheap. (Another tick for 'cheapskate tours'). 60 yr old American school buses brightly painted with shiny chrome bumper bars and large speakers inside to blast out the latest hits of Latin America. People cram inside sitting anywhere they can fit, usually on top of you. We hope our backpacks on the roof don't fly off as we wind our way up and down crazy mountain roads hanging on as we prepare for every sharp bend.
First stop is Xela, the second largest town after Guatemala City. The Black Cat hostel is comfortable with an amazingly huge breakfast included. Because we are in the highlands we have to rug up after about 5pm, bloody cold. We don't have much in the way of warm clothes so we learn to hibernate as soon as the sun goes down. A day trip to local hot springs seems like a good idea so we jump on a chicken bus and pay our 50c for the hour trip up into the hills. We get dropped off on the main road with still another 8km up to the springs.
 
 
 
The go is to thumb a ride in the back of a ute with one of the local farmers. No problems, negotiate a cheap fare, jump in, and enjoy the wild ride up the mountain climbing your way through perfect vegetable gardens growing on steep hillsides. Fertile volcanic soil speeds up the growing process. Farmers work with primitive tools but manage to produce so much. The hot springs will not disappoint,  probably the cleanest and hottest springs I've been in.  After a good soaking my hands and feet look like prunes, we thumb a ride down the mountain trying not to look over the edge as we speed round every bend. Lots of walking tours up the local volcanoes are on offer in Xela, but we decide to wait until our next stop, Lake Atitlan. We deviate slightly on our way to the lake to do some shopping at the famous Chi Chi markets, probably one of the best we have seen anywhere. After many months of almost zero shopping, the girls are in their element. The only limitation is how much stuff can you fit in your backpack! I'm not a great shopper, so as usual, I tag along and check out blokey stuff . I get talking to two boys trying to sell me their handmade wooden flutes. I'm not interested in buying one, we say goodbye and shortly later I reach for my wallet and its gone! Midget pickpockets got me. Even somehow unfastened the button on my pants! Less than 24 hrs later, Sophie got the same treatment courtesy of somebody on a chicken bus through Guatemala City.  Guatemala is definitely one country to keep a watch out for your valuables. 
Our home for the next 10-11 days is San Pedro. One of the handful of towns perched on the edge of this amazing natural wonder. Lake Atitlan is a high altitude fresh water lake. The lake is believed to be 600 m deep, the crater of this enormous extinct volcano, with rugged mountains and volcanoes dotted around the perimeter. San Pedro has plenty of bars, restaurants, alternative music played by alternative travellers, and a mixture of locals, drssed in traditional Mayan clothes, most of which are very poor. 65 percent of the town live in poverty.
 
 
This (along with our urgent need to speak some Spanish) prompts us to immerse ourselves in a week long Spanish language school including a home stay with a local family...no English!  Leeanne jumped in, boots and all, and began talking and even understanding lots of Spanish. Well, my teacher and I  ( one on one lessons) talked lots. I told him some stories, and he learnt some new English ( plenty of 'Australian'). He tried so hard to teach me Spanish but he would often have this puzzled look on his face as he looked at me, like" what do I do with this bloke"! After 20 hours of lessons my brain felt worn out. Glad there wasn't a test at the end! But, I learnt some basic Spanish. Leeanne learnt more, plus we felt good in knowing that some of our fees went to needy families in town. 
 
 
Time to tackle the volcano climb. Sophie has just arrived in town, Ryan has just left, Georgie (the 'wart') is still with us and has become part of our family. So, 4 of us get up at 2am and meet our two guides in town to start our climb to the top,  planning on seeing the amazing sunrise on offer overlooking the lake and the spectacular mountains around. Sounds good, doesn't it ! Well, we get just over half way up and just like that I'm flattened with signs of altitude sickness. Had to get down the mountain, Leeanne and one guide helped me get my wobbly body back to safer ground. The girls and the remaining guide kept going and made it just in time to witness sunrise on top of Volcan San Pedro. I'll try again next time I visit the lake. This place is definitely up there if ever you travel in Guatemala.
 
 
A special place where you feel connected with MN. Sophie needs to return to Honduras to pick up a bag of stuff she left with a hostel, so we decide to join her and travel across the border.  She tells us the story of her last visit to Copan Ruinis, Honduras .  Whilst off walking through jungle tracks she meets a local woman who invites Sophie to her house. 
3 weeks later, she is still staying with this amazing woman. A 32 yr old single mother of six children. The oldest child is 16, youngest just starting to walk. Sophie has this insatiable urge to make a return visit to the family. We tag along, not knowing what to expect. We find a cheap, clean guesthouse in Copan Ruinis. A cobblestone small town with friendly locals and a nice chilled feel to the place.
 
 
The ancient Mayan pyramid ruins are the biggest draw card in town. Well worth spending 4-5 hrs walking and climbing over the crumbling stone structures. They are still magnificent today,  but life  for the Mayan people 1500  yrs ago with their ancient sacrificial rituals and ceremonies really does get the imagination running.
We spend 6 days in Copan Ruinis, 3 of which visiting Sophie's adopted family. After being on the road for 9 months travelling through numerous countries, we are constantly reminded of the privileged  life on offer for most of us Australians. We need reminding sometimes! So much poverty in our world. And never have I witnessed such basic living until I meet this family of 7. Our introduction is welcoming, only 2 of the girls speak a little English. The mother barely speaks as she grinds the corn maize and crushes it with a stone to make the tortilla dough. The dirt floor kitchen is filthy. Barely enough time in her day to wash bowls etc. No cutlery, we eat with our hands.
 
 
Wood is collected by the kids to fuel the open fire. A small rusty hot plate is used every meal to cook the maize tortillas, frijoles (black beans) simmer over the fire in and steel pot. This is what the family eat 90% of the time. They often go without when times are bad. To earn maybe $1 -$2 per day, the children are forced to work in the coffee plantations or sell handmade corn dolls,  long hard days for so little. Not ideal for a 13 yr old girl.
As Sophie has so easily done, we can't help but fall in love with this wonderful family. Daily hardships are tackled with love, devotion and a glimmer of hope. Each day we make the 1 hour walk up through the hills to their mud brick home carrying much needed food supplies purchased at the markets in Copan Ruinis. 
Between the 4 of us, we manage to carry about 40kg of corn maize, frijoles beans, eggs, tomatoes, oranges,coffee and a treat of fresh bread and jam. For a total of $30 spent, this will feed the family for the next month. We even take a family photo, get it printed and laminated . I find a rusty nail on the ground and use a rock to hang the family photo on the wall. It is the first photo they have of the family. Smiles all round! We all share a black coffee, sipping out of a large coconut shell. Only 2 dirty plastic cups in the kitchen. I drink from the coconut shell. On our final day we join them on a pilgrimage to the village church. We are part of a procession of maybe 60 locals as we sing our way along the dirt track leading to the mud brick church.
 
 
 
We are invited inside to be part of the congregation. Lots of singing, arm waving,  flowers and plants decorate the church, the smell of pine needles spread across the dirt floor. We sit on small plastic chairs. This is a special day for this village.  You know it is. We eat tamale wrapped in banana leaf and drink rice milk with cinnamon and sugar, but making sure our host family all had full bellies. They did, they were happy. Time to say our final goodbyes. Must have been so hard for Sophie after building such a loving relationship with one remarkable mother and her six beautiful children. Leeanne and I would love to return one day and hopefully find them living in better conditions with access to affordable education and health care. I believe this will happen, they truly deserve it! It's a proud  but tearful farewell to Sophie in Copan as she has decided to head home and try her luck in the real world. Our time with our children and Georgia has been precious and fulfilling.
 
 
Back across the border into Guatemala again, we make our way to Rio Dulce. Set on a huge river upstream from the Carribean, this town plays host to hundreds of luxury yachts. A lot of them are owned by Americans who spend their time cruising the Carribean and leave the boats in Rio Dulce for cheap repairs and storage at Guatemalan prices. During the hurricane season it is a safe anchorage for the big yachts. We choose to stay down river from the town at a cool hostel called Casa Perica. Only accessible by boat, it is set in amongst the jungle, with kayaks at your door free to use and explore the canals. From here we book a day trip by boat down to the Carribean coast to the town of Livingstone. This is our first taste of cross cultures in Guatemala. The town has a mixture of traditional Guatemalan people with the Carribean dreadlock 'Rastas' cruising round town picking up any kind of business they can from a tourist. The beaches aren't great here, we don't even have a swim. But, the boat trip is well worth it.
With less than a week left in Guatemala, it's time to hitch on our backpacks again and head off to our next destination. A little research, check a map or two, and get info from other travellers. This leads us to Languin/ Semuc Champey. Rugged roads, beautiful scenery makes the trip spectacular. Even if you are crammed into a small van with another 14 people. We stay at El Retiro. A really social hostel right on the river. The must thing to do here is a day out at Semuc Champey. For less than $20 you will get an action packed day including walking and swimming through a cave with only a candle for light. You climb up rope ladders, slip and slide through small openings, gaze at the incredible stalactites, jump into black holes, all while trying to keep your candle alight. It often goes out, just find someone close to get a relight!
 
 
A short bush track from the cave we jump in the river for some good old fashion  tubing,  stopping for some crazy rope swings. The river is low, lots of exposed rocks. Timing is critical or you'll end up hitting one. Won't be pretty! Next is the 10 metre bridge jump. Once again, our guide happily reminds us of the safe spot to jump. "Don't jump on that side..too many rocks. Don't jump over there....someone died last year! He points to the spot and off I go. Have jumped much higher, but still a buzz! The final part of the day takes us on a trek up the side of the mountain to an awesome viewpoint looking down on the famous rock pools of Semuc Champey. Continue down the track towards the pools and you are rewarded with aqua green, crystal clear water cascading over the rock ledges connecting a series of giant pools. A natural wonder.
 
 
We say our goodbyes to many new friends we met at the hostel and make our way towards Flores to visit the famous Myan pyramids of Tikal. They don't disappoint. Leave early and try to catch a glimpse of the sunrise, and spend 5-6 hrs wondering through this ancient marvel. Once again, history has a way of getting the imagination flow. Old civilisations once vibrant, colourful and primitive, only to disappear and be swallowed by the jungle, allowing modern man to discover its secrets.
 
 
As I sit on the bus almost at the border into our next country, Belize, I think of our last month travelling through Guatemala. From the epic landscape,  to the diverse cultural changes from town to town. I think of the crazy chicken bus rides and the characters who work on them. The taste of avocado, frijole and tortilla. I picture Mayan pyramids hidden in the jungle. Women in traditional colourful dress. Older men, so patient, wearing their white cowboy hats and shiny big buckled belts and cowboy boots. So proud and gracious.
Our Spanish is almost passable now, so I say "gracias y adios" Guatemala.
 
 
 

 

Tags: antigua, copan de ruinas, flores, guatemala, rio dulce, san pedro, semuc champey, xela

 

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