Guatemala – December 2013


Photo’s are at:

For anyone brave enough to make it to the end you will discover that this wasn’t one of our normal travel experiences; in fact, we came home with a lot more than we bargained for – and I don’t  just mean the usual arts and crafts for our gaggle of sibling offspring – nor food poisoning (well – not me anyway … poor Geoff πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰ !)

It’s hard not to be swept away by the charms of La Antigua Guatemala (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and the original site of the capital until they discovered it was perilously located in an earthquake/volcano zone so they moved the new capital to Guatemala City πŸ˜‰  It’s safe to say we far prefer the old one and we got in and out of GC as quick as our car could take us!

So .. Antigua …. Spanish colonial architecture, built in the 1500’s, raised to the ground by various exciting events –  earthquakes, floods and volcanic eruptions – and re-built as many times over the centuries incorporating the ruins of churches and convents on practically every street corner  rather than knocking them down and starting again.

Cobbled streets; craters in the cobbled streets (ideal for heels, especially in the dark πŸ˜‰ ); busy parks filled with locals hawking their produce to tourists, people selling lottery tickets and small children polishing pedestrians shoes (not so good, but needs must); peaceful side streets; dilapidated walls (stained with centuries of painting and re-painting in ever brighter colors and tumbling bougainvillea)  hiding exotic courtyards and the haciendas of wealthy Guatemalans; indigenous arts and crafts markets spilling from the church ruins into the streets; a chaotic fruit and vegetable market; tuk-tuks dashing about the streets barely avoiding unwary pedestrians; and the gorgeously decorated chicken buses belching their choking fumes over anyone unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time πŸ˜‰ … all surrounded by volcanos and verdant mountains.

First class food – and even more surprisingly for me – no disgusting stomach bugs to endure for the duration of our visit – the visit to Antigua anyway – the less said about the latter part of the trip the better πŸ˜‰ πŸ™‚

Efforts at communicating went remarkably well – partly because some people spoke english very well (yippee!) but mostly because the Guatemalans  in the cities speak spanish very clearly (double yippee!).  Still, most people spoke no english at all and I wouldn’t say this is an easy country to navigate through without a basic understanding of espanol – even tragic efforts like mine were a godsend at times πŸ˜‰

Talking of helpful – we weren’t able to lay hands on any Guatemalan quetzals before we left so we were planning on getting some when we arrived. To cut a long story short when we arrived at the hotel we still didn’t have a bean in local currency and the housemaid (no english) raided her own purse and those of any of her willing staff to lend us some money so we wouldn’t starve until we could get to the bank – that sort of set the scene for the kindness of the people we were to meet throughout πŸ™‚ Not sure you’d get that in a Hilton back home πŸ˜‰

Luckily everyone else was unbelievably helpful too as Geoff couldn’t quite manage to navigate this small 9 square block town centre despite being in possession of a perfectly drawn and labelled map πŸ˜‰

Our first night out should have been a quick 15 minute stroll into town. Despite said map clutched in sweaty paw (for reasons still unknown and best glossed over) our stroll culminated in Geoff confidently guiding us on a dark, crater filled tour of every corner and extremity of the 9 blocks in search of our restaurant which we had paced right by at speed in the central square some 45 minutes earlier. I did cautiously squeak my suspicion that something seemed amiss (just about the point we were hurrying past it) but, as a girl, I was of course totally unqualified to comment on matters of direction πŸ˜‰

Eventually, exhausted, I stopped to ask a family group having dinner on the sidewalk – all set up with plastic tables and chairs and a portable stove. The efforts to assist us were so enthusiastic that one of the men tried to practise his english upon us which transpired to be even worse than my spanish. I was beginning to think it was just me being dim but finally even Geoff gave up, apologized and (laughably bearing in mind his linguistic skills still only extend to ordering a gin and tonic) and asked if he could give us directions in spanish instead πŸ˜‰ His friends erupted in peals of laughter and we could still hear them ribbing the poor guy 4 blocks away as we criss crossed our way back to the centre πŸ˜‰

Geoff’s map reading skills didn’t improve for the remainder of the visit (even in broad daylight) so we spent 3 aimless days traversing, weaving and re-traversing which, with hindsight, was fortuitous as we would have missed a lot of the interesting street life if we had had a purpose and someone with basic map reading skills guiding us πŸ˜‰

Onwards and upwards, we left Antigua on Christmas Day and took the route across the mountains towards Lake Atitlan. The route through the hills dotted with farms, tin roofed buildings and patchwork fields was beautiful. This should not be a country plagued by poverty – the land is very fertile and agriculture (small holding and multi-national conglomerate) is obviously  a mainstay of the economy. We weren’t too thrilled with the agriculture in the central valley area – all owned by US conglomerates growing the largest vegetables we have ever seen – mutant carrots the size of small tree trunks, cauliflowers twice the size of footballs – we discovered the produce here is all grown for the US market and is so polluted with fertilizers and pesticides the locals won’t touch them with a barge pole – which says a lot for people who mainly struggle to put maize on the table never mind anything as nutritious as a vegetable. Thank god we only eat organic!

The journey wound through the mountain roads and we started to spot dozens of groups of kids from the farms and towns in the hills sitting at the side of the road waving at the traffic. They were waiting for cars and pick-up trucks to stop and hand out used clothing and second hand toys – their Christmas presents. The benefactors come from the wealthy cities – Guatemala City and Antigua – and anywhere we saw a parked car at the side of the road the kids ran from all sides, darting between the oncoming cars and swarming to get to the presents first. Kinda put the “western” world’s seasonal commercialism into perspective….

After only a 3 hour journey we finally arrived in another world entirely from Antigua – Lake Atitlan – in the Highlands of Guatemala – deep blue/green and flanked by 3 volcanoes.  We were met by a boat to take us to Laguna Lodge Eco-Resort a very peaceful, beautiful place – the rooms less than 15/20 feet from the water. We sat on the balcony looking over the water listening to the waves lapping on the dock and watching the colorful ferry boats overloaded with mayan indigenous locals, their shopping supplies and back-packers zipping about from one town to the other – all with a backdrop of the large and impressive San Pedro volcano πŸ™‚ An interesting tidbit about the lake – it appears to be rapidly rising – 5 meters in 5 years and it may not have stopped yet – if you look at some of the photos – clearest perhaps in photos 214-215 Santiago-San Pedro dock – it is easy to see the devastation being quietly wreaked upon the lower lying properties …

The generally calm waters of the lake can pick up a little in the late afternoons and had a habit, in the blink of an eye, to start to resemble the Pacific with only a few gusts of wind πŸ˜‰ Morning trips were glassy calm – but not so much in the afternoons πŸ˜‰ One of our trips was quite enlivening – the captain squeezed in 4/5 people per bench (wide enough for 3 if you don’t mind intimate physical contact with your unknown neighbor) and filled it with luggage, shopping and village supplies and set off listing rather heavily on my side (nothing to do with my somewhat excessive chocolate consumption in Antigua for which it is famous πŸ˜‰ ). We had already spotted the name of the boat – Titanic – and were regretting not having got to the dock 2 minutes earlier when a much safer and emptier looking vessel had left heading for our part of the lake πŸ˜‰ Geoff particularly enjoyed the rolling swell, the heat beating down on the roof, the overcrowding and the choking fumes blowing into our faces from the 2 stroke engine as it idled in the dock. I think the heavy listing to one side also added an unexpected frisson of excitement for him too πŸ˜‰

10 days in Guatemala , I fear, has taken 10 years off our lives in inhaled boat fumes …and that doesn’t take into account the additional heady delights of the fumes from the chicken buses and the tuk-tuks!

Speaking of which, feeling brave – we decided to experience the delights of the chicken bus from the central hub for the lake (Panajachel) to Solola for the Friday market – only a 15 minute ride uphill– I suspect it should have been longer but why take those narrow, winding mountain roads uphill with care for your precious human cargo when you can tackle them in your 1960’s decommissioned US school bus and drive it like a Formula 1 driver in a Ferrari?

Needless to say, the bus was exactly as expected – crammed full of indigenous Mayan locals in full and beautiful regalia, bags of purchases spilling from their laps onto their neighbor (luckily no chickens on this particular trip); dangerously overloaded with luggage on its roof; kids and men clambering onboard at various stops and trying to hawk dodgy looking wrapped sweets for a few quetzals, melting ice-cream in cones and lottery tickets …. Never a dull moment πŸ˜‰ I got extra cozy with a rather heavy but highly decorative local who decided the gringa (me!) looked comfortable enough to sit on for the duration of the ride – nothing personal I guess as he did smile very sweetly at me before he plonked himself down – bliss!

Squished, but alive, we made it to the town square which was peaceful (a bit too peaceful). It seems they had moved the market 6 blocks uphill (steep) so we invested in an exciting ride in a tuk-tuk and were deposited in the middle of chaos in the marketplace. Of all the sights we saw in Guatemala, the indigenous markets are our favorites – shops spilling onto the streets; booth vendors with proper market stalls selling fruit, veg, fish, bread etc etc; ancient ladies sitting in the streets with baskets of whatever fruit and veg they had grown in their gardens; live chickens in baskets; multicolored chicks (we weren’t too sure what had gone into producing a bright turquoise or pink chick but whatever it was it can’t have been good). For 2 vegetarians these parts of the markets are always a little disturbing but its all part of life here. We did find ourselves rooting enthusiastically for a huge rooster which had escaped from its basket and was leading its owner on a merry dance through the other stalls and pedestrians legs in a desperate bid for freedom. Sadly it was too stupid not to run away in a straight line but had obviously decided instead that shrieking, squawking and flapping wildly in ever decreasing circles would win him his freedom πŸ˜‰

The chaos, noise and frenetic business activity of the markets is quite enthralling – most of the time wherever you stand you are just right in the way of the locals – and god help anyone who gets in the way of an octogenarian with a basket of vegetables (or 5 dozen eggs in cartons) balanced precariously on her head with her eye set on the tomatoes in the next stall – you will be knocked flying without a thought.

The main lake towns – Panajachel, Santiago, San Pedro, Santa Caterina and San Antonio (the 2 favs) are a typical Central American mixture of street chaos, half built concrete structures, tin rooves, highly colorful painted buildings, indigenous Mayans in fabulous multi-colored clothing and people selling fabric and glittery decorations which they thrust relentlessly in your face until you give up the will to live πŸ˜‰ We found that they do eventually give up trying to sell you something you definitely don’t want, once they have chased you twice around the town practicing their english phrases πŸ™‚ If you are stupid enough to mention the name of your other half they will pick up on it in a millisecond and then you have a traveling companion bellowing “Jen… Jen… you want this…is very good…very nice… buy this for your friend.. or your mother….” I could have killed him (Geoff πŸ˜‰ ).

The towns are highly colorful places, the native indigenous people wear amazing brightly colored, intricately patterned clothes – differing patterns and styles according to your village of origin. We learnt that there are 5 indigenous languages in the 12 hill towns around the lake – apparently incomprehensible to each other – with spanish being the second language of the villagers and the common business language. No wonder I found it harder to communicate here. Everyone was trying to speak in second languages! πŸ˜‰

A day trip to Chichicastenango (one of the most famous indigenous arts and crafts markets in the country) took us on a trip again through the mountains through more fertile farmland, tin rooved farm houses, dilapidated towns, kids playing bare-foot in the streets, farm workers bent double with huge piles of wood on their backs, beautiful rolling hills etc etc … and then a sudden descent into the most manic market we have ever seen. It is divided up into three areas: the tourist arts and craft stalls (upon reflection we were not sure where all of the other “tourists” actually were because we barely saw any and instead rather stuck out like the only couple of pale gringos in a multicolored Mayan people soup πŸ˜‰ ); the flower sellers and women burning incense on the church steps as the congregation left the Sunday service (fab); and the craziest fruit and veg market in the world. Even worse than Solola market – if you are stupid enough to try to stand still even for a nanosecond, re-group or catch your breath, you will be caught up in a tide of humanity, mown to the ground and trampled πŸ˜‰

2 hours of that was quite enough for a Sunday morning so we headed off to the cemetery which I had read was very colorful (rather an understatement). Some deceased were buried under impressive concrete or brick structures newly painted and decorated with flowers and others were buried under mounds of painted, dried mud. The discrepancies of wealth or poverty. We watched grieving relatives burning offerings to the dead until it all got a bit too voyeuristic so we rushed off for lunch at the world’s worst restaurant –  at hotel Santo Tomas (don’t go there even if you are starving).

And so back to the luxury eco-lodge and on to the more unexpected aspect of our vacation. Unusually for us, we got friendly with the owners of the lodge who were a very interesting couple from NZ (Mayah) and Australia (Jeffro) and who had literally built the lodge by hand with the help of locals from the nearest town, Santa Cruz. They are also very involved in helping local indigenous people who struggle to survive with the poor living conditions and poverty which many villagers seem to endure to some extent.

Of course, Guatemela is a country of contrasts –  in parts very much a third world/developing country for most of the population – and conversely – in a much smaller part – very “first” world – judging by the number of private helicopters we saw coming and going over the haciendas in Antigua, there is quite a lot of money here too.

So… we got chatting about their local town (Santa Cruz) – which we had already been exploring the day before. It isn’t wealthy by any stretch and we had seen first hand that there is lot of poverty there – although people are living with million dollar views overlooking one of the worlds most beautiful lakes, the necessities of life are very hard to come by – food, clean water supplies, effective shelter (leaky mud huts and partial tin rooves don’t hack it in the winter) and education are all rather at a premium.

To cut a long story short (and for anyone who knows us well enough to know we prefer children spit-roasted and served with a delicious garlic mayonnaise πŸ˜‰ we asked Mayah and Jeffro if there was anything we could do to help anyone in need – whatever that might be. We have been quietly contemplating over the last few years how we might get involved in providing support for either a family, or children in need somewhere in South/Central America… we seem to have a connection with this part of the world… though we can’t quite put our fingers on why… and we have really wanted to do something more personal than just giving money through a church, or a charity…

We asked Mayah and Jeffro to think about a family we might be able to help who value education and would be supportive of their child staying in school for the long term benefit of the child and the family…

…so… they took us to meet the Alvares Santos family who work very hard to make ends meet – Lucas (a bricklayer), Maria (mommy), Francisca (16), Jose (11) Graciella (8) and Lucas junior (14 months). With school registration fees and books/supplies now out of reach for Francisca’s ongoing education, they could no longer afford to send her to school although they really wanted to  …the middle 2 kiddies go to basic level but it is so bad in Guatemala that even 8 year old Graciella is illiterate 😦    We took a shine to them immediately πŸ™‚

We didn’t know what to expect when we went to visit them (and I’m fairly sure it must have been an unequally odd experience for them when the former employer turned up unannounced at their door with 2 fat brit/yanks in tow πŸ˜‰ ) but the decision didn’t take us too long once Francisca told us she really wanted to continue her schooling to learn english (she already had a few words) so that she could work with the gringos (which kinda made us laugh πŸ˜‰ ) in the tourist industry and help her family to improve their lives and assist with the expenses of the elderly extended family.

So – there you go – friends and family who know us well enough to know we are kitty people but definitely not kiddy people – will no doubt be somewhat surprised that we suddenly have ongoing school fees for 16 year old Francisca which we didn’t have a week ago πŸ˜‰

The family are absolutely charming and we really hope that whatever we can do to help Francisca will be money very well spent πŸ™‚ We don’t know how many years commitment that is – it all depends how well she does… In the end, she is the one with the hard work ahead – quite  a lot of responsibility for a 16 year old ….  Maybe down the road we’ll have to think about what we can do for the others too… at the end of the day, we both believe that education is the only way out of poverty…

We visited the family again before we left to take the nippers some late Christmas presents and some fruit and veg for Maria because good nutrition is nearly impossible to come by here if you are on the bread line (most people just live on maize) …and Graciella ran down the hill towards us like long lost Mr and Mrs Santa … kinda cute really… πŸ˜‰

And so …another highly memorable Central American trip over …. we were barely off the runway in Guatemala City and Geoff was already whining on about when we can go back …. my first rule of travel, however is that one should never go back to the same place twice … the world is too big etc etc….. somehow I suspect I haven’t got much of say in that now – at least as far as Lake Atitlan is concerned, anyway πŸ˜‰



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