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Guatemala Part 1: Where Volcanoes, Lakes and Volcanoes meet Gothic Architecture

GUATEMALA | Wednesday, 11 May 2011 | Views [2521]

Coming into Central America, Bron and I agreed that Guatemala was the place that we were most looking forward too. Mexico was so impressive (with the exception of Bron getting a case of Mexican Two-Step) that I wondered whether Guatemala could hope to match the lofty expectations that I had placed on her. Half way through, I can happily say she has not let me down. Guatemala is the backpacker heaven it is made out to be.

This is true for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s cheap. In San Pedro La Laguna, you can get a clean private double room, with a bathroom and hot water, with views over a lake purported to be the most beautiful in the world, in a cool hacienda style building, for around $A7 a night (2 people). One on one Spanish lessons for 5 hours per day, including homestay accommodation and three big home-cooked meals for a week will give you decent change on $30/day.

There is a ridiculous amount of fun things to do here, we’re already talking about when we’ll come back – and we’re still to reach traditional highlights, including Antigua, the reserves around Coban, and Tikal. There is also El Mirador, a difficult trek out to what is now believed to be the largest Mayan site, and potentially the biggest pyramid in the world.

Our experience so far has been limited to the southern highlands, in the surrounds of the city of Quetzaltenango – known to everyone living there as Xela (pronounced Shella) and San Pedro La Laguna, on Lago de Atitlan. Our first stop in Guatemala was Xela – reached via a shuttle trip through an exhilarating mountain pass, sharing the road with garishly coloured chicken buses (old pimped up american school buses) and vans overflowing with passengers, leaving the late comers to hold onto ladders for the 150 km trip into Xela from the Mexican border. Xela is surrounded by volcanoes, and was the victim of the 5th biggest eruption in the last 300 years just over 100 years ago, where it was covered in a huge amount of ash, and then suffered a huge malaria outbreak, which killed a good part of the population.

Once in Xela, we organised an overnight hike to Fuentes Georginas via Pico Zunil, an extinct volcano, through a non-profit volunteer-run company, Quetzal Trekkers. We were joined by a friendly British couple and three tour guides (an Englishman, an American and an Irish – supply your own joke). The hike up to the summit of Pico Zunil (3542m) was pretty steep but interesting – passing through a Mayan village; pine, bamboo and cloud forests; and with lots of nice vistas and rock scrambles. As the day went on, the wind and clouds picked up, and we were feeling pretty bad about our chances of getting a nice sunset over Volcan Santa Maria and its sister volcanoes. We were struggling with the thin air and a lack of solid aerobic exercise, and it was with relief that we finally reached the summit, and set up our tents to wait for the sunset.

At this time, chance (and it turns out regular weather patterns) led to the clearing of the clouds, as the sun was getting low – leading to an incredible sunset over Volcan Santa Maria, and impressive views over Lago de Atitlan and its volcanoes, as well as the volcanoes around Antigua. The guides cooked up a tasty dinner whilst we took photos and we even saw the red of eruptions from the Santiaguito Crater on Santa Maria. We couldn’t believe our luck, and all the hard work seemed more than worth the effort.

Another view from Pico Zunil. It was really incredible

The next morning, the guides woke us early for the sunrise. The deep reds of the sunset weren’t there, but we were treated to rich golds over Lago de Atitlan and the volcanoes over that side, while drinking coffee with a nip of whiskey to wash down our porridge. Great stuff. To make things even better, Santiagiuto erupted a few times, shooting ash clouds high into the air.

Once we’d tidied up from breakfast, we began the steep descent through cloud forests, pine, bamboo and sheoak forests on the way to the Fuentas Georginias hotsprings – a nice treat for our aching legs, coupled with beer and burgers for our hungry stomachs. An incredible hike, one of the best I've done.

The next morning, Bron and I got up bright and early for a 3 day hike from Cantel (near Xela) to San Pedro la Laguna, with Guatemalan company Altiplanos. Our guide was the friendly Angel, along with his 11 year old brother Jel. They led us through a steady climb up into the mountains, before passing through some Mayan farming villages (the Mayan population makes up about 80% of Guatemala, especially around Lago de Atitlan and the highlands), cornfields and cloud forest. We ended the day’s hike around 2pm in Chirix’Jimay where we stayed with a local Mayan family. To kill time, we played some naughts and crosses and hopscotch with Jel, to the amusement of the locals. Angel prepared a tasty pasta for dinner, and we went to bed pretty soon after it was dark.

Chickens are the unsung heroes of Central America - they are everywhere. The lunch of tomorrow, today!

On Saturday, we got up at 5am, had some breakfast and got walking just as the sun was rising. Today was a fairly tough day – we had a steep descent from 3100m to 1400m down some sketchy treks containing a mixture of forest, coffee plantations and little Mayan men carrying their own weight in firewood, where we hit a series of three rivers. The first were some nice and cool little rivulets, where we could wash our faces to freshen up. At the bottom of the streams we could see little pieces of gold shining in the sun. The third river was a set of wide rapids, and was crossed by a series of logs lashed together and balanced on the rocks. I don’t think Bron enjoyed crossing that…

From here, it was up, up, up. We spent around 4 hours ascending up to Santa Clara La Laguna, and had some great views of the ranges where we’d come from on the way up. At Santa Clara, we were again hosted by a local Mayan family. After lunch, Angel taught me some karate (he’s represented Guatemala in competition, finding that out made us feel a little bit safer on the trails around Lago de Atitlan, where there are occasional robberies), while our host family prepared a Mayan sauna for us. A Mayan sauna looks a bit lit a backyard pizza oven, only instead of a concrete base, there are wooden benches, and the fire in contained in a little enclosure with heated stones on top. A pot of water is heated on the stones, and there is also a pot of cool water.

Our guide Angel teaching some karate

When we first clambered in, it was a little smoky, making it hard to breathe or open our eyes. That settled after a bit, and then it was really pleasant. We sweated out a lot of the grime from the last few days, which we then washed off with the water provided. After about an hour, we were about done though, and we finally headed out. I’d spent a little too long in there, and was a bit giddy, having to sit on a seat out in the cool until I felt a little better, and we could head into town for dinner.

Sunday, we were up at 5am again to hike out to Lago de Atitlan to enjoy breakfast in the early morning sun. Lago de Atitlan is widely regarded to be one of the most beautiful lakes (personally, I preferred Lake Louise in Canada, and Lake Wakatipu in New Zealand, but personal preference I guess) in the world, and Aldous Huxley described it as ‘too much of a good thing’. It is the deepest lake in Central America, and is ringed by three volcanoes. It was a little hazy, but we still had beautiful views over the lake. From our nice little breakfast spot, it was time to move on, but it was only a couple of hours hiking to reach San Pedro La Laguna, where we were booked in for a language school, where we bode a sad farewell to our guides, after another excellent hike.

Once we settled into a nice little hostel on the lake front (so cheap!), we jumped onto a water taxi and took a trip across to Panajachel to collect our bags. What should have been a simple process turned into a 5 hour ordeal – suffice to say our hiking company which was storing our bags operates under a different name in Panajachel - but we finally recovered our kit.  

We’ve started off at our language school now, and are doing homestay with a family located conveniently 10 steps from the language school, with a nice view of Lago de Atitlan. So far so good, the family is lovely, although Bron’s tutor seems to try to overload her brain, whereas mine is more from the slow and steady school of teaching, which means I’m not getting taught as fast as I’d like. Here’s hoping he speeds up in the next 3 days. The weather has been overcast at the lake so far, with any luck we’ll get some sunny days to really enjoy the view.

Lago de Atitlan in the morning - fingers crossed we get a clear day.

Tags: guatemala, hiking, volcano


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