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No Worries 'Mas o Menos' 2 years on the road, travelling South East Asia, China, South & Central America and who knows where after that... Photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/dojo77/collections/

Tikal'd Pink

GUATEMALA | Tuesday, 21 December 2010 | Views [2417]

After crossing the border into Guatemala we jumped on a bus heading towards the capital. The ride took longer than expected because we had to wait two hours in a small town to pick up new passengers. This meant we had all sorts of opportunities to buy from the local vendors who sell anything they can from plastic buckets, hemorrhoid cream, chillies, nail clippers, tomatoes, marshmallows, toothbrushes, you name it, we were offered it.

Driving around the mountains we saw the view down the valley across the whole of Guatemala City, known just as Guate to the locals, and we were shocked by the size and sprawl of it. For a capital in Central America it was big, much bigger than the others we had passed through and we couldn’t help but gawp out the window as we crawled through the rush hour traffic. There were tall buildings and international companies with large headquarters, every brand of fast food joint we have ever heard of, drive through pharmacies, mega malls and a lot of traffic running through dual carriageways of all things, when was the last time we saw one of those? We decided against spending a night there, just because we thought it would take over an hour to get through all the traffic to a hotel so we jumped straight on another bus to head over to...

Antigua

Guatemala’s colonial gem and the previous capital of the country is one of those towns that has been nicely renovated to show the traditional character of buildings but unfortunately it does not really feel lived in. It’s very pretty, clean and quiet, it’s safe for tourists and has lots of restaurants and cafes catering to all the needs of foreigners and as a first base in Guatemala it’s a good place to get an introduction to the country and people. It was also cold in Antigua and I started to regret throwing away my fleece a few weeks earlier thinking I wouldn’t need it again, doh!

Almost 60% of Guatemala’s population is made up of Maya tribes and the streets of Antigua were full of women in wonderful traditional costumes, selling wares on the streets and washing clothes in the public wash baths.

There is a huge market with everything you can think of to buy and thankfully a cable that replaced a broken cable for our camera battery charger. The new cable was $2, we thought we would have to pay $90 for a new charger that we probably wouldn’t have been able to find in any shops.



Antigua is surrounded by four volcanoes, with the most famous one, Volcan Agua, looming over the entire town along with Volcan Acetenaga and Volcan Fuego, the latter which erupts every 15 minutes.

Volcan Pacaya

We decided to visit Volcan Pacaya, which is not as active as it used to be but was still a great volcano to visit. It took us 2 hours to walk up the volcano, around the rim and down into the basin to find some lava. At the start of the path there are horses with their owners who annoyingly following groups up the path in case it is too tough for them. As one of our group decided to take a horse they seemed to think the rest of us would cave in too, but it was quite funny to be walking up the narrow path hearing calls of ‘Taxi’ behind you. Thankfully they gave up after half way and we could enjoy the walk in peace.

It was really cold on the edge of the caldera but when we descended it became a lot warmer. It was fun trying to get down into the basin as it was very steep and made up of volcanic sand so we had to surf down on our heels.

As we started to climb over rocks we found out that if we spilled water on the ground it sizzled because the rocks were so hot. At the end of the path we found a cave that felt like a sauna, it was so hot it was difficult to breath and we could only stay in there for 30 seconds at a time. Some stray dogs had a good idea to live up there as it’s much warmer for them to sleep there at night.

When we arrived at a crack in the crater the heat coming out of it was immense. Our guide held a branch over the gap to show how hot it was and it caught alight instantly.

We stayed in the caldera until it became dark so we could see the lava glowing.

On the way back down we had to spend an hour walking back along a narrow path in the dark. Some of our group had torches so we could see a little of the way, but apart from that we just had to follow close to the person in front and hope no one slipped over the edge.

The volcano was a good hours drive away from Antigua so by the time we returned we were very hungry. To our surprise there was a Christmas carol concert taking place in the main plaza and there were hundreds of people sitting around eating meals. When we saw the food stalls and the long queues we realised the food was being given away for free, so we lined up and tucked into tamales, bread and soup for nothing while listening to Christmas songs, what a great idea to boost community spirit.

Lago de Atitlan


The road to Atitlan is lined with groups of Maya children waving at every bus and car that passes by. This was a little surreal at first and Ryan started to tire of waving back after we passed by the tenth group but then we realised it was Sunday, and the biggest market day of the Maya week, so all the children have to sit by the side of the road waiting for their parents to return from market. Maybe they tell them, ‘Just keep waving, we’ll be home soon’

After arriving in the main town of Panajachel we took a boat across the lake, which is surrounded by hills and volcanoes, over to Santiago, one of the most authentic towns on the lake as most of the people here dress in their traditional costumes. The male costume consists of a cowboy hat, a nice shirt decorated with hand sewn patterns, stripy shorts and a sash belt that they fold and tie around their middle so they can carry things in it rather than using pockets.

Santiago is also home to Maximon, the deity of the Maya people. He is paraded around the town during Easter week each year, but for the rest of the year he lives in the caretakers home, which changes location every year. It's okay for tourists to visit him but to find him you can pay a guide to escort you or wander around asking the locals for their help. We asked our hotel owner where he lived but his instructions were a bit confusing, so after asking another three people in the streets we eventually found him down an alleyway and in a room at the back of someone's house. His chamber is decorated with balloons and candles and the incense they were burning immediately reminded us of Tibetan monasteries. There was a ceremony under way when we arrived, but once we had made our offering to Maximon ($3) we were allowed to enter and take photos. He’s a great looking icon, covered with scarves, ties and hats that have been offered to him, but his favourite offerings are rum and cigars. He usually sits with a cigar in his mouth but during the ceremony the caretaker gave Maximon a cigarette and lit if for him, it wasn’t just for show.

We feel we should tell you about the showers we often have to use in South and Central America. They are given the nickname of ‘Suicide Showers’ because you can buy a shower head that you connect directly to the mains electricity so it can heat up the cold water. After the first time you get an electric shock from this you quickly learn to never touch the shower head to make any adjustments when the water is flowing. Often you can feel the tap buzzing when you turn on the water, it’s a little scary! It’s easy to tell when someone in a hotel is having a shower as the lights usually dim and buzz when a shower is turned on. The shower we had in Santiago was a particularly good example of this.



San Pedro

When we arrived by ferry in San Pedro it immediately sent us back to Thailand. The town was full of narrow alleyways and streets similar to Chiang Mai and Ko Phi Phi, which were lined with guesthouses, internet cafes, restaurants, bars, even massage parlours all just catering for tourists. The specials dishes on the menus were even pad thai and green curry and we even saw people watching The Beach in one of the cinema rooms on offer, we were suffering from serious traveller confusion and I thought we may have travelled too much as we just didn’t know where we were. The one difference that bought us back to reality was the number of Spanish schools on offer because it’s a very popular place to learn the lingo, but we gave that a miss here and just enjoyed Gringoland and the banana pancakes on offer.

We then spent a night in Pana, which again is just a long street catering for tourist needs. Apart from the local market there doesn’t seem to be any reason for some of these towns to exist or make money apart from tourism. The kids who wander the streets trying to sell keyrings, purses, handmade toys etc can speak a number of different languages to impress the tourists and when that doesn’t work they just start begging. It’s quite a sad affair really and left a bitter taste in our mouths as there were plenty of good kids who really should be at school or at least just being kids and not working all day for little money.

Chichicastenango (ChiChi)

Getting to ChiChi was a bit of an experience. Our motto usually is why pay ten times more for a tourist shuttle bus when you can jump on a couple of chicken buses for $1. After the first bus climbed it’s way up into the highlands we were dropped off at a crossroads where we had to wait for the next bus. Being half way between two towns the bus was jam packed when it arrived and the only ‘standing’ room was on the stairs by the front door. Then the bus stopped for some more passengers and they had to stand in the same place as us. There was only room for about three people but with six people squeezed in I was somehow still upright even though my feet weren’t on the floor, I think my shins were holding me up against the steps. Chicken buses are always driven far too quickly, but they just don’t have the maneuverability to take corners the way the drivers make them and in this case I seriously thought it would be the day we met our match with dodgy buses. The ticket collector was screaming for people to move down the bus as he hung from the outside by one hand. If anyone let go on any of these corners we would all have fallen out the door. It was chaos but after a while the bus emptied a bit to let us stand inside, which was so much better.

In the town of ChiChi there is a large Maya population and at both churches around the plaza you can witness Shaman carrying out Maya ceremonies. Shaman pray on behalf of families who have to stay away from the church when the ceremony is underway. The main church is half Maya and half Catholic, mainly because the Spanish built a church on top of a Maya temple when they invaded the area, but now they have integrated both religions into the one place.



We were there for the weekly market that is one of the biggest in the country. We saw families head into town the night before with bundles of wood poles to make their stalls with, carrying their goods in shawls on their backs or heads. They then sleep in the streets so they can set up their stalls early the next morning.

Coban

We decided to head to Coban on the back roads of the country and we knew it would be a bumpy ride squished into small vans but we didn’t know we had to cross a huge landslide along with plenty of small ones that had occurred during the rainy season. At least it was the dry season and roads have been haphazardly built through the rubble, but it was still a little nerve wracking. We planned to do some sightseeing in the area but I ate something dodgy and got sick so we just spent a couple of days enjoying free wifi and cable TV in our room so we don’t actually have anything else to report from there.



Tikal (Star Wars Rebel Base)

We arrived in Flores after three mini bus rides and a river boat crossing. Flores appeared to be a pleasant town at first but it soon revealed that it was just another tourist bubble that Guatemala seems to excel in. This little town on a island in the Lago de Peten Itza has been renovated just for hotels and the usual tourist followings, but we couldn’t find any locals eating anywhere so trying to find a cheap place to eat was impossible. It was a good job we didn’t travel all the way into the Peten Jungle just to visit here, but just to use it as a base to visit Tikal. We had an early start as we wanted to arrive in the park for opening time at 6am but that meant we were up in time to see the luna eclipse.

We hooked up with a couple of Israelis to explore the ruins with and they helped to keep us awake for the day. The ruins are set deep in the Peten jungle so walking between each site you walk among soaring trees with thick roots, filled with Howler monkeys who howled away as we passed underneath them.

Tikal was probably the most important Maya city from around 250 to 700 AD with the biggest population and was built for business and religious purposes, and probably to chop off a few heads too. It is set on a hill in the jungle so the pyramids that can reach up to 60m high climb out of the canopy to give you a view of the jungle for miles and miles around. The ruins and pyramids were very impressive and very steep and were unlike anything we have seen before. Climbing each one meant climbing up big steps or staircases to reach the tops, but there was always a great view over the plazas below and you could see other pyramids poking out of the canopy and usually a handful of monkeys in the trees next to you.

Some of the pyramids have not been excavated and are covered in jungle apart from when you look through the tree tops and you can see the peak of the pyramid in all it’s former glory. The view from Temple IV was perhaps the most talked about temple during the day as it was the location and film set for the Rebel Base in Star Wars. We’ve been on the set of Star Wars, how cool is that!



Summary

And that was it for Guatemala. We both agree Guatemala is a great country for someone to start a backpacking trip because it's set up to get tourists around the country easily and it has all standards of accommodation, transport and food options. For us, we know we would have loved it at the beginning of our trip but for now it was just a ’Guatever’ experience. But before you think we are ungrateful, luckily we have learned to still enjoy places and find the little exciting things that are different to everyday life even if they don’t impress us as much as they should do at first. There were little glimpses of wonderful everyday in Guatemala, the community spirit in Antigua was uplifting, feeling the heat of lava almost burning your hand, meeting Maximon was completely surreal, morning commutes across the still Lake Atitlan was the perfect way to start each day, seeing Maya ceremonies and shaman at work was mystical and the pyramid heights of Tikal and stepping foot onto the set of Star Wars was unico!

As you wander around towns and villages you hear the slapping of hands everywhere as someone prepares tortillas to go with every meal. Listening in on conversations we discover we can’t understand a word because the Maya dialect is commonly spoken with it’s punchy, stuttering tones we haven’t heard anything like before. Seeing a row of seats on the bus crammed with a family of 6 all staring up at two strangers hanging on to the rail for dear life as we round a corner on two wheels always gave us a smile, and eventually they would smile too as they realised we were friendly and nothing to be afraid of. It’s a colourful, busy country packed with people of vastly different classes and there’s plenty of things to see and do. Just remember to ask the tour touts lots of questions to make sure they aren’t trying to swindle you! 

Highlights


Favourite Place - Chichi (Jo) Lake Atitlan (Ryan)
Favourite Attraction - Maximon (Both)
Favourite Food - Free tamales in the park (Jo) Mayan Curry (Ryan)
Favourite Beer - Moza (Both)



Lowlights

Too many touts trying to get you to stay in their hotel, to take their shuttle bus, to eat in their restaurant etc, it was just tiresome.

For those of you thinking of possibly travelling to the region:  Costs in USD

Accommodation - $12-15 for a private room in hostel
Restaurant meal - $3-4
1L Bottled Beer - $2
500ml Soft Drink - $0.75
1.5l Bottle of water - $0.80
Bus - $ 0.75 / hour

Until next time

Jo y Ryan

Photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dojo77/

Tags: antigua, chichicastenango, coban, flores, lake atitlan, san pedro, santiago de atitlan, star wars, tikal, volcano pacaya

 

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