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dannygoesdiving This is a blog & photo journal of the trips that I (Danny) and Jo (wifey) have taken over the past few years.

Guatemala - muggy but not buggy

GUATEMALA | Tuesday, 2 September 2014 | Views [1154]

Antigua - chicken buses

Antigua - chicken buses

I have a belief that a holiday doesn't start until you have survived the horrors of Miami International Airport, even with its improvements the whole experience is something that nightmares are made of and I'm surprised it doesn't feature in a horror film....so jumping ahead we spent a uneventful 4 hours in the sterile and almost deserted (more store assistants than travellers) airport in Guatemala City, before boarding a small plane for the short 45 minute flight to Flores in the north of Guatemala, with the aim of visiting some of the most spectacular Mayan ruins dicovered to date - the city of Tikal.

We stayed overnight in Flores and is often the case wished we could have spent a few hours here but that was not to be - arrived at 8PM in the dark and left at 7AM barely awake. An hours shuttle ride and we arrived at the Tikal Inn (www.tikalinnsunrise.com), one of only 2 hotels within walking distance of the ruins. Bags dumped it was time to go ruin spotting, the first thing we noticed was how humid it was, I was dripping with sweat within just a few minutes; both the second and third things we noticed were much more welcoming - no bugs (despite all the dire warnings) and even better virtually no people - at some of the sights we were completely alone and I'm talking the main areas of Tikal, not just the less visited areas.

We decided to leave the Gran Plaza for later in the day and start with the outer temple complexes. The initial structures were quite literally ruins, making it difficult to appreciate how impressive they must once have been, Temple 5 (second highest at 57m) changed that perspective and it was followed by more and more impressive ruins. The great pyramid plaza (or lost world) not only had the oldest building in Tikal, but also provided us with our first opportunity to climb a pyramid. Fighting both the heat and vertigo we reached the summit which provided amazing views of both the other structures in the plaza as well as the tops of the surrounding pyramids that jut above the surrounding jungle. Our final stop for the morning was temple 4 (2-headed snake temple). Its the tallest temple in Tikal at 64.6m and once again you can climb to the top to enjoy a truly magnificent view (wooden steps take you up the side of the temple). The breeze was most welcome and there were only 4 other people to share the views with. As its at the far end of the whole complex you get to capture the classic photo - jungle as far as you can see, with 3 temples (1,2 and 3) jutting above the jungle canopy.

We had now been in Tikal for about 3 hours, a combination of  humidity and the heat of the midday sun became too oppresive so we wearily trudged back to the hotel. A treat along the way was a couple of mexican black howler monkeys napping in a tree.

Our room was ready, so we dumped our bags and jumped into the pool to cool down. Food and a brief siesta followed before we hooked up with a guide who took us back into Tikal for a 4 hour 'sunset tour'.  We started at the visitor centre to look at a scale map of Tikal, then wandering past a couple of crocodile infested ponds ! and finally re-entered Tikal. The latter part of the day meant even fewer tourists (we saw less than a dozen in the 4 hours) and more wildlife. Some were easy to find, occellated turkeys walked right by us; howler monkeys noisily crashed over our heads and spider monkeys groomed themselves in the treetops. Our guide however was very adept at spotting birds -parakeets, colourful keel billed toucans, lineated woodpeckers and flycatchers to name but a few. The history and archealogical knowledge he imparted bought what we had already seen to life and having asked where we had already been meant he took us on a different path. He eventually bought us up and through a maze of buildings forming the Central Acropolis and WOW we were suddenly looking down on the Gran Plaza.  To our right was Temple 1 (the Big Jaguar), to our left was Temple 2 (mascarones temple) and opposite the stunning 8 temples making up the North Acropolis. The plaza really was impressive, by far the most impressive architecture of Tikal. Climbing the North Acropolis we watched the sun start to set before it disappeared behind clouds. Tired and smelly we headed back to the hotel - an early start, heat and exercise, followed by the knowledge of an early start (4AM meet for a sunrise tour) meant an early night and easy sleep.

We were shocked awake by the alarm a 3:15AM and stumbled around in the dark as the power didnt kick in until 8AM each day. Mumbled greetings from other crazy and half asleep people were exchanged then we were off into Tikal, having been warned to stick to the centre of the pathways so as not to disturb the scorpions and snakes which were hunting at that time of the day ! We reached our destination (pyramid 4) and climbed to its summit to await dawn and the unpredicatable sunrise (uncooperative most of the year but almost unheard of in rainy season). The first stirrings of daylight and then the tops of the other pyramids slowly appeared out of the mist. A sunrise we didnt get to see, but the cacophony of jungle noises was a sound to behold, especially the distinctive sounds of the howler monkeys. We left the group at this point and walked back to the central plaza, choosing to climb pyramid 2 we had the place and view to ouselves. Toucans, parakeets and woodpeckers were flying from tree to tree and there was a mutual recognition of how privileged we were to have this moment to ourselves. Slowly we wandered back to the hotel, pausing often to watch the troops of monkeys swinging from tree to tree, then skillfully plucking the berries from the trees. A final treat was seeing a large band of white nosed coati foraging in the grounds near the hotel. 

Breakfast, sleep, chill by the pool, beer, lunch then it was time to jump back into the shuttle and head to Flores airport for a return flight to Guatemala City where we were met by a taxi and whisked off to our hotel (www.casa-cristina.com) in the old colonial town of Antigua. 

Antigua was the 3rd Capital city of Guatemala (abandoned in 1776 after a number of earthquakes destryed most of the town) - the 1st Capital 'Ciudad de Santiago de los caballeros de Goathemalan' was abandoned in 1527 after a number of kaqchikel uprisings; the 2nd Capital 'Ciudad Vieja' was destroyed by a  devastating landslide from Volcan Agua in 1541. Guatemala City has been the Capital since 1776.

Our first day in Antigua and we were going to be hitting the ground running at we were meeting Julia of Los Ninos de Guatemala at the opposite end of town at 8:15AM for an 'experience Guatemala tour', touted as providing a unique opportunity to see both the countries beauty and struggles.(www.ninosdeguatemala.org). Having succesfully found our way to the meeting point we jumped aboard our first chicken bus (3Q for any local trip) travelling for about 15 minutes to the Ciudad Viejo (Guatemala's 2nd capital which was destroyed by a mudslide in 1527). After learning a little about the history of the town and the day-to-day lives of the local population we headed to the first of 2 industries that are predominant in this area (different towns within Guatemala specialise in certain trades or industries), with Ciudada Viejo being known for chicken bus refurbishment and making coffins (is there a link somewhere ?).

Chicken buses start off life as US/Canadian yellow school buses, after being bought at auction they are driven down through Mexico to places such as the one we visited and then the magical transformation begins. The basics involve removing the wood within the floors and fabricating a metal floor, changing the doors from outward opening to inward opening (normally not closed) and changing the stairs from 3 steps to 2 (to do with how the doors open).  Sometimes the buses are cut and rewelded if they are too long for the proposed routes ie. need to get around the narrow streets, and are often stamped with the wording'bluebird' as this is deemed the 'must have' bus brand - the workshop we visited had one of these press stamp machines !  Then they are decorated and individualised according to the owners requirements.  The driver and conductor often pay a fee to operate the buses and share the profits  - this is why they are often full to the brim with people. We learnt that its best not to sit at the back of the bus as thats where the cut and rejoin takes place and not to sit at the front as thats where the action is in the event of a shooting !  Being a bus driver is officially the most dangerous job in Guatemala.

We briefly visited the school to see the children at play - amazing how children can successfully amuse themselves with the most basic of things (making a jumping game out of a piece of rope with a stone filled plastic bottle tied to the end) then continued onto the family owned coffin carpentry workshop where we saw how they put together, paint and decorate the coffins, as well as learn about the industry and the cultural relations related to death in Guatemala.

We walked towards the edge of the town to the neighbourhood where the poorest of the community live and where most of the children who attend the school come from. It was humbling to see the conditions in which they live, as we learnt about the socio-economic situation of the families and the difficulties they face.

Finally we headed back to the school, to see the facilities and learn how the charity helps both the children and the families break the cycle of poverty and how they help the community achieve a better life.  A return trip on the chicken bus, complete with being offered various wares (all for 5Q) from vendors jumping on and off the bus saw the ending of a tour that provided a real and unique introduction to Guatemala and one that the majority of tourists never experience.

After a lunch of savoury and sweet tamales, we decided to spend an afternoon exploring Antigua. Antigua is a truly captivating town, as well as one of the best preserved colonial cities, thanks in part by it being abandoned after the earthquake of 1776.  Its touristy but not gaudy, with enchanting cobbled streets, brightly painted buildings and a healthy smattering of colonial architecture (mostly preserved as ruins).  After our fill of plazas, cathedral, churches and convents we wandered around the main bus station (open air) which is wall to wall brightly coloured chicken buses, before delving into the heady sights, smells and sounds of the local market, finally ending up at the artisans craft market. All in all a full and exhausting day.  That evening we enjoyed a beer or two in the central plaza before tucking into some mexican food.

A slightly more respectable start to the day saw us flag down a tuk tuk for a bone jangling 15 minute trip to the plaza of San Miguel Escobar where we had arranged to meet a local small holder coffee farmer and interpretor through an organisation called De La Gente - they offer lots of different tours but this one appealed to us (www.dlgcoffee.org).  Wandering to the edge of town we walked up Volcan Agua and through a field of corn (whilst trying not to think about all the horror films involving corn fields that I had seen) until we reached the land of our farmer. Here we learnt about the process of growing coffee and how it is picked when ripe. Retracing our footsteps we went to his house to see the methods for first de-shelling the seeds, then the drying process and finally the very manual sorting process. We were shown the traditional way of both roasting and then grinding the beans before finally having a cup of coffee. We sat down for a meal with the family and left with a better understanding of where our daily cup of coffee comes from and even more importantly a 1LB bag of coffee from our farmer.

A random wander around Antigua and an evening of pasta and gallo de pollo (chicken soup).

No rest for the wicked it would seem, back to ridiculously early starts as today we planned to climb Volcan Pacaya. An hours drive saw us reach the visitor centre, stepping out the car we were nearly bowled over and impalled by children, all trying to sell us walking sticks (for 5Q), financing their enterprise we then bought tickets and a guide (required) and headed up the volcano. There were only a handful of people on the track so it did'nt feel too crowded, along with our guide we were also accompanied by a handful of dogs which apparantly also do the walk each day in the hope of food scraps (and yes Josie did give away over half her food !). The guide was very informative pointing out the flaura and fauna along the way and telling us how it was used locally/ historically for ailments, he even pointed out potential toilet paper which was softer than most brands on the market. The trek was pretty easy despite some of the stories I had read in other travel blogs, maybe it being so overcast helped, although to be honest most of the walk takes place under ample tree cover. Breaking above the treeline we were treated to our first closeup view of the volcano; well partial view as it was shrouded in clouds. We walked down onto the black lava flow, there were 2 distinct colours of lava, one represented this years eruption in March, the other and more extensive was from the eruption of 2010. There was no visible active lava to see, there were however lots of plumes of smoke/steam and potent smell of sulphur. We reached an area where people were roasting marshmallows from the heat emitting from the volcano, I had heard about this and thought it rather gimicky, then suddenly before I knew it I was there marvelling as my marshmallow browned, becoming a gooey mess on the stick !  The ground was so hot that I could feel the heat radiating through my walking boots, many of the rocks were too hot to touch although I found a few to hold and warm my hands.

Exiting the crater we were treated to a brief break in the cloud revealing the volcano in its full glory, complete with smoking crater. We walked for about another hour up the side of the crater. It was a real rugged, barren, smoking wasteland and as the mists descended it felt like we were the only onces on some desolate planet. The skies opened and it was time to make a hasty retreat back down to the car. No lava but a great experience.

Back in Antigua we grabbed empanadas on the go and had another random wander around the cobbled streets of this enchanting town.

Finally a day with no planned activities and so a well deserved lie in - wrong - it was Sunday and being close to a church meant we were subjected to the endless ringing of bells. Grrrrrrrr. Breakfast (eggs and chorizo), followed by chilling on the terrace until the 'collectivo' shuttle arrived for our 3 hour journey ($10) to Panajachel on the shores of Lake Atilan, from where we planned to catch a boat to Santa Cruz, our home for the next 3 nights.


The initial scenery was pretty uninspiring, at least until we started to head down towards Lake Atilan. Here the area was lush with terraces of crops becoming the dominant feature. We entered the town of Solola, a truly non touristic place buzzing with day to day activity and with everyone wearing traditional colourful outfits. Panajachel by contrast was the exact opposite, the main road to the public docks was a mix of restaurants, markets selling the normal tourist trinkets, hostels and throngs of tourists. Urgh. Arriving at the dock we got our first proper look at Lake Atilan, well we would have but for the rain and the mist - there were meant to be 3 volcanos out there but only time would tell. We jumped on a small boat and travelled for 15 bouncing minutes to Santa Cruz and our hostel (www.laiguanaperdida.com). The place had a whole different vibe about it to the town we had just left. It was very laid back and was the perfect place to chill for a few days. We signed up for the communal evening meal which was initially a little overwhelming with the sudden appearance and bedlam of about 20 people, effectively suffocating the previous calm. However it seems to work well, with one set meal (and veg option) and everyone around the table talking to each other rather than clusters of individuals/couples not interacting or tapping away on their smart phones (no WiFi here). It hammered it down with rain all evening and most of the night.


The rain was gone by the next morning, a quick breakfast then off for a tour of the towns of Santiago and San Juan that surround the lake. The waters were flat calm and the views were breathtaking, travelling directly from one side of the lake to the other made you appreciate that you were in a huge water filled crater surrounded by volcanoes. Our first stop was Santiago (famous for its weaving), We walked through the sidestreets passing the local vendors, the native traditions are firmly held onto in this area, most of the people dress in their traditional dress (and not for the benefit of photo snapping tourists) and Spanish is a second language and not even spoken by everyone. In fact each side of the lake has a different culture and language, and costumes tend to be town specific. We stopped to allow an old lady to demonstrate how they put on/wear the traditional headdress (hair belt) which is used on a daily basis still as protection from the sun - the band is 20m long, is wrapped around the head; the length represents the days in a mayan calender month.

Then onto and through a market, with an exotic display of produce as well as fish and crabs (legs bound in bamboo to step them getting broken) caught locally in the lake. We exited into a square which was almost overflowing with both loose and bagged up avacardos, a sight to behold, before going onto the cathedral. It is interesting how as in Peru the Spanish tried to incorporate local religions and beliefs into the catholic faith to make the transition seem more acceptable ? There were 18 steps at the front of the church (months in a mayan year) and the carvings at the head of the altar included both Christ and the mayan folk saint  Maximon.

The next stop was to see the shrine of Maximon himself, who moves to a different house each year. His shrine is attended by two people who keep the shrine in order and pass offerings from visitors to the effigy - visitors offer money, spirits, cigars and cigarettes (Maximon even had a lit cigarette in his mouth). He is known as a link between the underworld and the heart of heaven and his expensive taste in spirits and cigarettes indicate that he is a sinful human being. The room was hot (from the candles) and smoky (candles, cigarettes and insense). There was live music and alcohol even at 10 in the morning and a steady stream of locals coming in the hope of wishes being fulfilled or ailments treated. An intense but interesting place.

On our way back to our boat we stopped at a weaving cooperative to better understand the process and understand the time, skill and intricacy involved in making both their clothing and the wares that they sell to the tourists.

Heading to the next town we passed fisherman in traditional wooden boats fishing and pulling up crab pots. San Juan had an even less touristy feel to it, this area is well known for the cooperatives that the people have chosen to form as an alternative to selling their land for foreigners to build restaurants and hotels. We visited another weaving cooperative, this time learning more about the process and learning how they create the colours (dyes from insects, fruits, vegetables, flowers and tree barks) and how they make them fade resistant (sap from the banana tree). Next we visited a medicinal cooperative and learnt what plants they use for both medicinal and hygiene purposes. We grabbed a meal in one of the local eateries (comidas), probably the tastiest I have eaten so far in Guatemala - galdo de rie (beef soup), with a piece of beef, half an avocado, a piece of corn, various cooked veg, rice, tortillas and a local rice derived drink, all for 40Q (about $6). By now the skies were darkening and the water was looking far less inviting and so it was time to head back to the hotel.

Chilled for a few hours, reading my book on the balcony whilst watching hummingbirds buzzing around. That evening we had another tasty home cooked meal, although somewhat noisy as there were a group who were leaving the next day and so having somewhat of an impromptu party - shots at 5PM meant noise until late in the evening !

Our luck seemed to be holding out when it came to the weather with the sun shinning again the following morning; today we were going to the town of Solola to see the indigenous market, the plan was to take a 3 hour hike out of the crater before flagging down a bus to take us the last few miles into town. We followed the road up to Santa Cruz before joining a single track trail used on a daily basis by those who farm corn on the hillside aswell as those traveling to the market. The walk was seriously hard going, with us effectively climbing at elevation for 2 hours before rejoining a road. That said, what a walk it was. Firstly the scenery was stunning, stopping to catch your breath and allow your heart to stop pounding like it was trying to escape, you were continually blown away by the view - looking down on the town of Santa Cruz, hillsides of corn being tended by the locals, coffee plants and even the occasional avocado tree. Looking beyond all this was Lake Atilan and then the 2 impressive volcanoes. It was also quite humbling to be passed by a couple of locals laden down with firewood. Reaching the road we could see Solola in the distance, perched on a hilltop, with crop terraces running down the hillside. We walked for another hour, crop terraces on either side comprising of a wide variety of produce - corn, beans, carrots, onions, cabbages and more. The crops were all being weeded by hand and everyone we saw was in traditional dress.

The bus journey into Solola was another adventure in itself, what could be better than hurtling down a steep, twisty, turny road. Fear aside, the area is like a breadbasket, with terraced crops all around. First stop in Solola was another local comida where I had local fish from the lake, with rice and vegetables and a couple of glasses of fresh pineapple juice - total cost for the 3 of us with drinks was a mere 80Q (about $11). Sated, we headed to the indigenous market that takes place in the town twice a week, where we wandered through a bewildering maze of colours, sights and smells; fruit and veg, fish, meats and live poultry, corn being ground, tortillas being made, traditional clothing and everything inbetween. I didn't see another tourist and 90% of the people were dressed in traditional clothing. We bought a couple of tasty looking avocados, it was certainly worth the effort of getting there. We caught a chicken bus down into Panajachel where we wandered for a while - what a contrast to the last town, it was at the opposite end of the spectrum, being the most touristy town around the lake - the Kho San road of Guatemala. Catching a boat back to Santa Cruz, we chilled until the evening meal, that night we barely had the energy left to head to bed.

The company we used for both tours can be found on www.kayakguatemala.com and I can highly recommend them.

Checkout day, Jo joined a yoga class whilst I chilled. Then we had our avocados on home baked bread for breakfast, took a leisurely stroll along the lakeside and generally chilled. Boat to Panajachel , shuttle to Antigua and a last night in Guatemala. Next morning it was off to the airport...adios Guatemala y hola Costa Rica.

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