Saturday, May 21, 2011

Day 6 - Lake Atitlan, Panajachel, La Casa del Mundo

Our shuttle left at 7AM to go to Lake Atitlan. As I mentioned in my previous post, the price we paid for Atitrans was more expensive by about $2 per person, but it showed in the high roofed, individual seat, air conditioned shuttle that we rode in. My mom had to go to the bathroom so bad she was ready to fling herself out the van as we climbed into the highlands; somehow, we made it to the rest stop without causing too much of a ruckus or inconvenience to the other passengers.

The first thing we did upon arrival at Panajachel (the city at the shores of Atitlan where most of the shuttles take you) was grab Empanadas. There is a small Argentinian pizza place right beside the Atitrans office. The empanadas are cheap and delicious, especially with the garlic based chimmy churry sauce. Highly recommended.

My least favorite part of Guatemala - ok, of visiting any country as a tourist - is the haggling. Panajachel is the worst for this. After arriving, we were bothered by probably no less than 5 people all offering to sell us a private boat ride for the day, trying to make conversation to then offer to sell a private boat service, etc etc.

Even armed with the knowledge that public transportation is cheap (around 15Q) and frequent, our white skin still gave us away. We sat near the docks in the sun, admiring the beautifully stunning view of Atitlan and its surrounding volcanoes, while I politely made conversation with a boat man trying to sell us his boat. As time passed, no public transportation seemed to be arriving, and no locals were queuing up for any boat that we could see. Once another family of tourists came along, we agreed to pool together and split the cost of this "private transportation," which ended up being only about double the cost of public ($4 instead of $2.) We were all then promptly shuffled into - a public boat. The guy I had been talking to (who "owned" the boat we were, um, supposed to ride in) couldn't really answer back when I said things like, "this isn't your boat," and "you aren't even driving us…."

The point is, apparently all of the boatsmen at these docks, public or private, are all in kahuts, especially when they spot a set of foreigners arriving during the choppy noon hour, when the use of the boats by locals is minimal. It's annoying, and frustrating, and if you really caused a scene and had some wicked Spanish or Tsutujil (the local Mayan dialect) maybe you could shave $2 off your transportation cost. In the end, we are lucky enough to come from a place where $2 is not a mammoth amount of money, so best to just sigh, roll our eyes, and move on.

Our "private" boat (this is what a public boat looks like.)

The public boat did take us almost directly to La Casa del Mundo, the hotel where we'd chosen to stay. La Casa del Mundo really did feel like "paradise" as one of the shuttle drivers told me. Composed of several buildings, rooms, and patios perched in various heights on the cliff, all of it connected by a semi-maze of vertical stairs, this hotel had a way of making you feel like it was yours. So much small attention to detail in the stonework and well-kept flora, the myriad of patios and sitting spots, and the never-ending amazing views of the lake made the entire place the perfect ending spot to our week long journey. The staff were all friendly, polite, and attentive - they knew how to do business the right way, and it was extremely refreshing. In addition, the full 3 course meal we had that night at the hotel (for about $10) was served in an appropriate "family style" fashion, giving us the chance to talk with other travelers, swap stories, etc. (like the UofM law grad that I met here.)

One of the terraces, submerged because of the heavy rainy season in 2010 (kind of gives it an "Atlantis" feel in my opinion.)

View of Casa del Mundo from the top of our hike. You can match up the terraces from the previous photo.

Family-style dining... with my family (and others.)

We spent the day taking a hike to San Pedro (I think,) which my brother wasn't initially too happy about. Later on my mom and I went to Jaibolito, the nearby village, billed as a "local, indigenous village." To be honest nothing about this small dockside city was that different from many of the other small towns we'd seen throughout the week. It was still eye-opening, though - watching little girls haul 5 cinder blocks on their backs uphill, for example.

That night, after dinner, we opted for the hot tub at the hotel to unwind, which was a small additional charge. A worker heated the water with a wood stove in the middle of the tub, and cooled it down by siphoning water in from the lake. Needless to say, going to bed was effortless that night.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Day 5 -From El Portal to Antigua

We got yet another early start and hopped in the back of one of El Portal's pickups in transit to Lanquin. Once in Lanquin there was a bit of reshuffling and delays as these three Israeli girls failed to show up on time (turns out they were from our hotel also, and might've slept in or something.) Anyways, while their insistence on sitting together was keeping us from leaving (the two shuttles were already more our less full), the delay did give us a little bit of time to get breakfast from local shops around Lanquin. Two of the travelers got empanadas and another a banana, both of which we sampled and were excellent. I picked up some bread/ cookies from a bakery for almost nothing (I think around 15 cents a cookie or something, if even that much.) Finally, we were off.

The drive from Lanquin to Cobán, and then Cobán to Antigua, was not really that exciting. The only remarkable thing was the tasty fried chicken dish I grabbed on our rest stop as well as the heat and desert-like environment that we drove across, a complete surprise to me (Guatemala's landscapes tend to surprise you.) We did have good company, though - folks we had met in El Portal, including Mario from Xela and his Japanese girlfriend, Charlotte from San Francisco, and some sisters backpacking together around central america.

For anyone stumbling across the blog looking for travel times/ road conditions for this leg of the journey, here are my notes:

The cost of a shuttle from El Portal to Antigua was Q160 ($20) per person

We left El Portal at 7AM

20/ 30 minute delay in Lanquin

We were in Cobán by 10:15, had a bathroom break

We left Cobán by 10:30

By 2:50 we were in Guatemala City

By 3:30 we were in Antigua

Total travel time was 8.5 hours (7AM - 3:30PM)

As soon as we got off the shuttle in Antigua, we were instantly bombarded by a guy who was actually surprisingly helpful, when I had expected him to be imposing. It turned out he worked for Atitrans, a pricier shuttle company for Lake Atitlan trips (and by pricier I mean about 2 more dollars per person. Which was worth it on the way down, not worth it on the way back, but whatever, it's 2 bucks....) Because this was the last leg of our journey left to finalize, we decided to go with it for convenience's sake (much to the loathing of my mother, who was insistent that we were being ripped off as he walked us the mile or so to our hotel while we hauled our luggage.)

Like I said, convenience was worth it, because he led us to our hotel and organized the shuttle right at our hotel. Speaking of which, our hotel - Hotel Cirilo - was incredible. It's a relatively newer hotel (so most of the cab/ Tuk-tuk drivers have not yet heard of it) and a bit far from the main square, but that also meant it was far from the late night noise. It's built around an old church ruin, the rooms are spacious and luxurious, the water very hot - a total 180 from the hostel-style lodging of El Portal. The Cirilo staff even offered to prepare our complimentary breakfasts earlier than advertised, since we had to take a shuttle at 7. And they had wifi. And it was affordable. I'd highly recommend this place to everyone passing through Antigua.

The Atitrans people drove us back into town after scheduling the early morning shuttle to the lake. My dad forgot his camera though, so he took a tuk-tuk back to the hotel for I think no more than $1.50 each way and was back in fifteen minutes. While doing some shopping and walking around, we ran into an older couple that we had last seen in Tikal three days ago! We enjoyed catching up with them and asking them more about their trip while still in a bit of shock that our paths had crossed once more.

After that it was onto dinner, some drinks, a little taste of Antigua's night life, and then back to the hotel to take hot showers, unwind, use the internet, and relax….

The windy dirt road from El Portal to Lanquin

Reshuffling the luggage in Lanquin. If you look closely, you can see the girls who caused our delay....

The desert-like landscape from Cobán to Antigua.

The famous arch in Antigua.

The pool at our awesome hotel (Cirilo)

Friday, May 6, 2011

Day 4 - Semuc Champey (Pools and Caves)

Today was a "rest" day - a day of zero traveling. We were very active the whole day, but it was still refreshing to have a break midway through the trip where we weren't spending any time on a bus/ shuttle/ plane….

We got up early the next morning because my dad and I wanted to investigate the pools at Semuc Champey a bit on our own before we went on the guided tour (we signed up for a full day tour through El Portal, including the pools, tubing, and caves to make sure we didn't miss anything.) The pools were very close to El Portal (a 5 minute walk) and the entrance fee was small (30-50Q range.) The pools are in a protected park like area with several trails, some that go along the river and one that climbs up extremely high to get to a Mirador (lookout spot) where many of the famous views of the pools are taken:

We had only explored a small part of the river/ pools on our own before going on the tour. The tour was fine, and it perhaps forced us to make that hike to the Mirador that we would not have made otherwise, but I do not think it was essential. You can easily explore the pools on your own, at your own pace. The one advantage I saw to using the tour was that the guides knew the spots on the pools that could be jumped off of/ slid off of. They took a group of younger kids who were on the tour from pool to pool, starting at the top, and either jumped or slid from pool to pool. Because we were traveling with my brother, whose arm was casted and unable to get wet, we weren't able to join up with them.

So - if you're wanting to do a lot of swimming, jumping, and sliding, I would say to go for a tour. If you just want to see the pools and take pictures, do it on your own.

We took lots of beautiful pictures. My favorite spot was where the river entered and exited the caves underneath the pools (the pools are actually a natural land bridge, so their own water is not really a part of the rio Cahabón, which flows beneath them). Here are some photos:

The "start" of Semuc Champey, where the river plunged beneath the pools

One of the pools (everything in this picture is part of the land bridge; the river is deep beneath us and not connected at all really to the water in the photo.)

I'm a gymnast, so a flip from one pool to the next was necessary I guess.

The group that swam, slid, and jumped between pools to work their way down.

The "end" of Semuc Champey, where the river (below) re-emerges from the cave/ bridge.

We were on the tour from about 9-11:30; plenty of time to hike the Mirador, see the pools, swim, and take photos. Once back at the hotel, we ate lunch (the food was mediocre, but come on, you don't go to Semuc Champey for the fine dining, so it was fine) and then headed to another part of the river where we went on a short tubing ride. This was nice and relaxing and only about 20-30 minutes long.

Next we headed to the caves, which are very easy to find and only about 5 minutes from El Portal as well. Our whole tour group went- about 20 of us - and we heard reports from other tourists that you could just show up to the caves and that the cave guides would leave whenever they had a big enough group - usually about 7-10 people. Obviously with a smaller group you get a bit more "attention" and possibly get to see further back in the caves.

Still, with 20 of us, we had a great time. I had read reports about how dangerous the caves were or potentially unsafe - I saw none of that on our tour. Yes, you have to wade and at times swim with your candle held high so it doesn't go out. But if it does, you just relight it with someone else's. Light was never an issue, and we frequently kept half of the candles in our group extinguished anyways to save light for later. There was a cool spot where you could climb up a waterfall with a rope (the cave system is an underground river) - but this was optional; there was a (slightly sketchy) ladder to the left. There was also an optional jump at the end of the journey towards the back where you could climb up about 12-15 feet and jump into the water. Only about 3-4 of us did it. The guide showed us where to jump with his headlamp, and he did it first, so I felt safe doing it and had a great time.

Speaking of, the guide really was excellent. He seemed flustered, and who wouldn't be, managing 20 of us - including 1 person who could not swim and my injured brother, whose broken arm often resulted in the guide carrying him on his back across the deeper parts of the river. But he did a great job of waiting to make sure everyone stayed in the group and keeping us all safe (you still have to take some personal responsibility here, this is an underground cave system after all!)

I actually managed to bring my camera through the caves without soaking it, and snapped some "rare" pictures of our journey:

My mom and dad. Yeah, the water was a little cold.

Me and my balding spot. You can see the group up ahead.

Our friend Charlotte, who we met here, climbing up one of the ladders to move to the next area.

The cave walls were awesome.

The subterranean cliff jump, which was awesome!

When we left the caves, the sun was out (it was cloudy for most of the day) and lit up the fauna and river well before we headed in for dinner:

El Portal also arranged shuttles to Antigua, so we went ahead and reserved one of those as well (for a reasonable price), rather than doing the route to Cobán and then getting a Monja Blanca bus back (which is also feasible, but more of a hassle.) We had another dinner, enhanced tonight by more conversation from our new friends we had made that day, and got to bed early again to prepare for another long day of traveling in the morning.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Day 3 - Tikal to Semuc Champey/ Lanquin

We had the option this morning of waking up extremely early to do a sunrise tour of Tikal. Maybe we should have, but the exhaustion of the previous two days combined with the expense of it (another park entrance fee of $20* plus an apparently required tour guide fee, the same guy as yesterday) and the chance that it might be cloudy steered us towards more sleep. We were woken up around 5AM by howler monkeys, which was cool once you realized that they weren't ogres/ trolls lurking just outside of your room:

We finished up breakfast and headed out of Tikal around 9AM on a shuttle, once again run by this guide that was apparently inescapable. Anyways, we had private transportation waiting for us in the Flores airport, which we arranged through Voyager Tours for $380 to drive us to Lanquin (Semuc Champey.) The shuttle driver was very nice, friendly, on time, and drove very carefully (maybe even a bit too carefully/ slow for my taste, but there you go.) This was a route that I couldn't find much information on online, especially the duration of the trip, so here are my notes about it:

-We left Flores at 10:30AM.

-We reached Sayaxche in 90 minutes, crossing the river on a ferry.

-The road was in good condition the entire trip

-We reached Raxruja at 1:30PM (3hrs), hit light construction traffic

-We reached Chisec by 2:15PM (3.75 hrs)

-We reached Cobán at 4PM (5.5 hrs)

-We left Cobán at 4:30PM

-We arrived in Lanquin around 6:30PM

My parents on the Ferry at Sayaxche

En route to Cobán

The landscape on the way to Lanquin. It looked like a titanic egg carton mattress.

We were worried by the time that we arrived in Cobán that we would not make it to Lanquin in time to see the Grutas de Lanquin - our whole reason for taking expensive private transportation over a regular 1pm shuttle was to squeeze in a visit to the caves where thousands of bats flood out at sunset. In Cobán we actually changed drivers and grabbed dinner (and took our time a bit, thinking that Lanquin by sunset was now impossible). However, our new driver said it was very possible to make it in time and was extremely helpful coordinating everything with our hotel. He even offered to drive us directly to the caves after dropping our bags off at a Cafe in Lanquin (owned by our hotel, El Portal) since it was on his way out.

The bats at the Grutas de Lanquin were awesome! They didn't flood out of the cave like in a Batman movie, but they were constantly streaming out and it was amazing that you could stand in the middle of it all and the bats would dodge you, sometimes inches from your face (but they never hit you.) The entrance fee to the caves was nominal (30Q/ $3.50) and we got some cool pictures:

There were other people at the caves going to El Portal as well so it was almost too easy - we got a free ride back to the Cafe, picked up our luggage, and then rode on to El Portal (this hotel is right at Semuc Champey, a good 30 minutes itself from Lanquin on a dirt road.)

Overall, a long day of traveling, but we squeezed in a sight at the Lanquin Caves and positioned ourselves well to spend the whole next day at Semuc Champey….

*Footnote - I can't stand the price disparities in Guatemala. If you are Guatemalan it costs about $5 to enter the park. If you are a foreigner, it costs $20. That is 400% greater. Imagine if the USA used the same system... "oh, you wanna go to Disney World, foreigner? That'll be $200 park entrance fee...." I think it would cause more than a bit of an uproar

Friday, April 8, 2011

Day 2 - Tikal

Exhausted from our Pacaya hike, we had to get up at 5AM the next morning to catch our flight to Tikal. We flew with TAG, a national airline here in Guatemala. Their website is perhaps a little "sketchy" (certainly doesn't have the standard flight reservation/ online booking system that major airlines do) but wow, we were impressed with the company. Service was friendly and personal when I booked our flight, the airline itself has its own hangar (you don't go to the "normal" section of the airport to fly with TAG, you go directly to their counter), and the flights were on time.

There was a brief scuffle during check in between my mom and "Tammy the Tour Guide," who was shuffling a mass of elderly people ahead of my mother, her full brim straw hat complimenting her baggy khakis and short sleeve button up, given her the look of either a serious archaeologist or a serious tourist, your pick. Other than that, the morning was uneventful, the flight pleasant, fast, and compared to normal international style airports, extremely hassle free (no security, no stupid liquids rules, it was awesome.)

TAG Airlines - getting on the plane

We landed at the Flores airport, but our luggage did not. My mom decided to freak out about this, and the very friendly man who showed us a digital picture of our bags and asked us to circle/ label which ones were ours so they could be delivered to our hotel did little to lighten her mood. Sure, this digital picture system of forgotten bags was a bit "unprofessional" by our standards, but the man explained that there was simply too much weight for those bags to fit on our plane and that they would be delivered immediately to our hotel once the next flight landed with them. So we hopped on a 45 minute bus ride to Tikal and decided to take our chances.

True to his word, our bags were waiting for us when we arrived at our hotel in the afternoon after our tour of Tikal. More points for TAG airlines.

Tikal itself was pretty awesome; we stayed at the Jungle Lodge, in the park, which was honestly a little underwhelming. I think the biggest problem was that we felt like we had no other options once at the Jungle Lodge; this was where we would be eating, where we would hire a tour guide, where we would have to arrange transportation back to Flores, so we felt a bit sucked into a tourist trap, so to speak.

The tour we took was… memorable - lots of great people in our group. The guide did a mediocre job in my opinion. He was very knowledgable, but had a tendency to stop walking in the middle of the woods on our way between temples to explain the Mayan migration tendencies or something. This would really aggravate me, we must've stopped to talk several times for a total of an hour before we saw any ruins! I guess I was looking for some information a little more specific to the temples in Tikal (whenever we reached the actual temples, little to no explanation was given on their specific purposes, just free time to climb/ look around. Bummer.) He gave a thorough if tedious lecture on the Mayan counting system with a base of 20, which was cool. But yeah, too much stopping in the middle of the woods, too much talk about the local Flora, not enough info about the temples themselves.

Ceiba trees are cool, but when you talk about them for thirty minutes instead of walking to the temples... they kind of lose some of their appeal

The temples themselves, though, are unbelievable. They're massive, slapped right in the middle of the jungle, and are often climbable. Some have modern, wood stairs built into the sides for assistance (like Temples IV and VI, the biggest ones,) but don't let that bum you out - climbing these stairs is as adventurous at times as climbing the actual stone (which can be done in many places.) The stairs in temple VI in particular were so steep that I would call it a titanic ladder of some 100+ steps, which had to be descended backwards.

We saw several spider monkeys, lots of ant trails carrying leaves/ food, and other cool Jungle stuff. After the tour we headed back to explore some of the other temples on our own, which was some nice fun, quiet exploration time. Our feet were exhausted by this point (volcano hike + all day up/ down/ around temples) so we basically crashed at this point, ready to finish up Tikal in the morning and head to Semuc Champey afterwards….

Our first huge, impressive temple of the day

The central plaza (fun fact, the lady in the FG was in our tour group, we ran into her and her husband 2 days later in Antigua by coincidence)

At the top of a temple that was also an observatory (?) - Mundo Perdido

One of the easier staircases to climb

A "palace" that we explored on our own (it had an awesome tunnel/ corridor entrance)

Spider Monkeys were more active near sunset

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Day 1, part 2 - Hiking the Volcano Pacaya

After putting all of my family's luggage at my house in Guatemala City, we headed off to Pacaya via the "back road" by lake Amatitlan - not to be confused with Atitlan, which is much further from the city. The road is simple - once you turn off the "main" road around the lake, you follow the dirt road for a little under an hour without taking any real turns, passing through several tiny towns and around a nice second lake, smaller than Amatitlan, high in the mountains. We passed some random and creepy stuff, like this:

The road literally dumps you out at the start of the Pacaya hike rather than in the town just a bit down the mountain. So as lost as you may feel driving the "back way," it really is a straight shot. We hired a guide for about 100Q - the same guide who took Phillip and I back in August! It was cool that I was now able to talk to him way better than I could the first time, when my Spanish was nonexistent. His name is Eduardo and he left me his phone number (53209678), saying that if we were ever coming back to Pacaya to call him and he would wait for us at the base. He is a nice kid if a bit quiet, about 14 years old, and only speaks Spanish.

The hike is pretty long and was difficult for me (24 years old), my brother (15), my friend Keeley (23), & my mom and my dad (50s). My dad and brother caved in and rented a horse from the relentless salesmen that walked halfway up the mountain behind us.

My mom, in her stubbornness, became even more adamant that she would walk with the horsemen at our heels.

The last time I hiked Pacaya, in August, we had to stop at the end of the tree line. This time, that point was about the halfway mark, and we got to go much, much closer to the crater (while still uphill, the hike was much flatter after the treelike.)

Much had changed with the crater's landscape since Pacaya's massive eruption back in May. While we saw no free-flowing molten lava at the time of visiting (March 2011), there were several cool cracks in the earth where sticks caught on fire, and a small cave that felt like a sauna. The crater itself was very Mount-Doom-esque. Here are some shots:

The sun was setting about the time we started back, so we snapped some quick sunset photos at the top with Volcan Agua in the back - photos which will hopefully satisfy my mother for our 2011 Christmas Card, pending photoshopping in my other brother.

Probably the coolest thing came at the very end as our guide, before getting in our car, shouted "Fuego esta tirando!" which meant that the volcano Fuego (visible across the horizon from Pacaya) was erupting! There was a small stream of red light at the top of one of the mountains which, combined with the brilliant sunset and glitter of the city lights as they turned on in the distance, made for an epic end to a long, full day.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Day 1, part 1 - National Cemetery/ Garbage Dump

My family (mom, dad, and 15 year-old brother - my other brother is in college and could not come) landed in Guatemala City right around noon. Because I've been living here for 6 months and have access to a car, I was able to pick them up right at the airport. The airport is small and straightforward, so it was easy to find them without dealing with cell phones and unnecessary international rates.

Most tourists go directly from the airpot of Guatemala City to Antigua, preferring to bypass the smoggy, polluted capital for the tranquil streets and European charm of Antigua. Because the airpot is only 30-45 minutes from Antigua, this is very easy to do (there are many cabs/ shuttles at the airport.)

If you do want to spend time in Guatemala City, there are a couple of things I'd recommend. One is the Relief Map (Mapa en Relevé) in Zone 1, a gigantic map that is more like a miniature sculpture of the country, complete with mountain peaks, bodies of water, and labels. It is so large that you have to walk around the perimeter or use one of the two viewing towers to get a better view.

Because we were limited on time and wanted to hike Pacaya, we bypassed this Relief Map and headed straight for the Cemetery/ Garbage dump (which border one another) in Zones 3 and 7. The Guatemalan national cemetery is beautiful and, for an entrance of about 37 cents per vehicle, is well worth it. The cemetery is so large that it has a road system to drive along, and tombs ranging from lavish, Egyptian like burial chambers to walls of nearly-anonymous graves populate the place, all adorned in beautiful flowers and touting an amazing variety of stone, seraphs, inscriptions, and painted walls.

The Walls of the Cemetery

Overlook from the Cemetery on the garbage dump

Trucks unloading... and people digging through the trash to re-sellable items

The cemetery is also perched on a cliff that overlooks the city dump. The Garbage Dump is epic in a sad, shocking, eye-opening kind of way - people pay a monthly fee and get access to search through the trash in order to find items to re-sell, and they (attempt to) make a living this way. This area of the city is a place where extreme poverty is not hidden in some overlooked corner, but very readily apparent. A great organization called Safe Passage, located near the dump, serves as an after school program for children of families in the area in an attempt to foster education, create opportunities, and break the poverty cycle in the city.

After snapping some photos and taking in the sights of the cemetery, we headed back in my truck up to the suburb where I live (Fraijanes), stopping at my friend's restaurant, and ate at Sunset Grill on km 15 of the Carraterra al Salvador (which I highly recommend, the food has a TexMex/ southwestern influence and is amazing) before dropping our stuff off at my house and heading towards Volcan Pacaya in the afternoon….