15.09.2013 - 04.10.2013
We are up and ready for our 3am departure and the mini bus is half filled with people, the other half with surf boards. The bus company is called Gecko Trails Explorer and for 76USD each (plus 5USD for border fees) we are on our way up country on a 16hr journey that takes us through Honduras and El Salvador before reaching the colonial city of Antigua, which was once the capital of Guatemala.
We reach the border to Honduras around 5am and are the only people crossing at this ungodly hour. We cross at the towns of Guasale/Choluteca. The drivers handle the administration and we are left to doze in our air-conditioned seats. Dawn approaches as we drive on, swerving potholes as we go in the damaged road. The scenery is very green and there are plenty of volcano-like peaks. There is poverty along the roadsides too. At 8am we cross in to El Salvador at Goascoran /Santa Clarita. Here the border control guard boards the bus to verify our ids. We are stopped occasionally by police checks along the road as we make our way to the coastal town of Trunco. A surf spot, and all but us depart the bus with their surfboards. The rains begin as we drive out of the tourist enclave by the Pacific coast. It is Sunday and the area is busy with locals, some of whom are dressed up in modern clothing to an almost ridiculous degree. There is no sign of indigenous groups here, and US-style snackbars line the highway. We change the mini bus to a smaller and more comfortable people carrier under the cover of a petrol station forecourt as the torrential downpour crashes down around us. The area is full of people on motorbikes taking a welcome break from the storm. We grab a quick lunch at a Puma petrol station before continuing on, and soon we reach the final border at La Hachadura, where we cross the bridge and enter Guatemala. On we go near the outskirts of Guatemala City before reaching Antigua, about an hour early. The town is busy and the sounds of bands playing in the streets to mark Independence Day carries on the air. We are dropped near our hotel by the extremely helpful and professional drivers and then walk the cobbled streets to the door of Los Encuentros, our home for the next two weeks.
We are welcomed inside by Irma the owner and shown to our room. We pop out to find an ATM, but give up in the crowded rainy streets, and Irma offers to lend us a few quetzales to get some dinner! We find a creperie and have a good meal before retiring early.
In the morning Irma prepares a hearty breakfast of eggs and fruit and we then wander out to investigate the different schools available for Spanish lessons. We see one which is in our guidebooks and meet the teacher Mario who operates out of the back of a tailor shop. He is great, but in the end we opt for the bigger school of Antigueña which has lessons in a huge garden outside and has free afternoon activities such as tours. We both start next day – E is going for 2 weeks, and C for 3 days. We put our laundry in, shop at the enormous supermecado and visit the ATM in the central park area.
Breakfast at 7:30am and a 10 minute walk to school for 8am lessons is the new routine. C´s teacher is called Maria, and E´s is called Marina. The lessons are one-to-one and held entirely in Spanish. We learn grammar and practice talking a great deal, and reading stories. C is re-learning her last lessons of the subjunctive, while E is going over everything from the beginning. The lessons are 5 hours long with a 30 minute break, which leaves the afternoons free for homework and a possible tour. The mornings are sunny and warm, and the garden is alive with butterflies, birds and squirrels that leap about in the banana and avocado trees. The volcano can be seen clearly with whisps of cloud forming about its top. The afternoons are wet, wet, wet as a regular downpour floods the concave cobbled streets so that one must take a running jump to clear the river. Once class is finished we walk back to town with our teachers and continue chatting. The walk takes us near to the market, and we are warned to be careful of being robbed there, and indeed on the streets of town later at night. Through the lessons we learn about Guatemalan culture, the make-up of the population and the normal habits of everyday life in Antigua, discussing social and political problems, and disputes on the borders when it comes to mining rights and the drugs trade. We visit the cathedral and churches in town, and the nearby pueblos and Cerro La Cruz on the northern hillside that affords great views over downtown. Sunday is E´s day off and we wander around town, looking at rings for C made from the locally found jade. We stop for lunch at a place advertising ¨Sunday BBQ¨and step inside. A sunny courtyard, and a good beer menu! E finishes his homework over a long lunch and we bump into two other friends from the Spanish Academy. A band then strikes up and local better-off Guatemalans sing along, and the whole place begins to jump. We have a great afternoon and head back early evening. The second week for E starts and he is back in the routine of school. Marina proves to be an excellent teacher and the lessons are very enjoyable. In the evenings we cook dinner in the hotel and Irma and her family eat in the same place too. It is a quiet place and perfect for studying. We find a ring for C, a beautiful ring made from Silver and a stone of a clear jade called luna. We also have our hair cut one afternoon, and C takes advantage of the cheaper prices and has a blonder colour added! So the week comes to an end and so E´s course is over. It is a slow time of year for the schools and many are struggling to find students. Marina will not find out if she has work next week until Monday morning.
It is Saturday and we are on a tour to Lake Atitlan some 2.5 hrs away. We reach the lake at 8am and the vistas are of a large expanse of water backed by 2 volcanoes. We take a boat across the lake and visit the Mayan villages on the far side. The lake has risen recently and there are several buildings that were once water side and are now submerged, with just their roofs jutting out of the water. The villages are somewhat touristy and as it is low season we are fair game for the touts and streetsellers. The journey later on the lake takes us alongside the volcano and its lush green hillsides. The lake becomes rougher later and we have a choppy run back to port for our return to Antigua. It is a long day and too much really, as we only see the most touristy side to it.
In the morning we board the shuttle bus at 8:30am to take us to Lanquin from where we will visit the green pools of Semuc Champey. It is an 8hr trip, and onboard we meet Gwen and Julien from France. We all stay at the same guesthouse called Zephyr Lodge which is on a hill overlooking a river. The town is tiny and the last 9km are on unsealed road that winds down the steep hills that are a sea of green peaks way, way below. We have a room in an attic with a view down over the river.
We leave with a large group of 20-somethings standing in the back of a flatbed 4x4 for the 11km to the park. We pass through the town and alongside similar vehicles taking people to work. The first part of the tour is into a water filled cave. Not E´s favourite type of trip, and C must help with his fear of small spaces. She talks him round and soon we are inside, armed with candles and swimming in the black cold water. There is an underground river here and waterfalls. It is amazing to be down here, and we go for about 800m inside. After this we return to the daylight and have a go on a huge outdoor swing into the river. There are options to climb and jump off anything, including trees, bridges, and small cliffs. The 20-somethings go wild for it! We enter the park and climb the hot steep steps to the mirador and have a view over the entire system of the cascading pools of Semuc Champey. A view of green and blue colours! We descend and swim in the pools, cooling off in the hot afternoon sun, gazing up at the steep limestone cliffs. We return for cold beers and hammocks!
The next day is spent taking an inflated inner tube for a ride down the river and small rapids. The scenery is beautiful, and it really is a great way to see the country! We later sit by the river and Julien plays his guitar and E accompanies with the Uke, as the sun goes down. Spending time outdoors in the dry weather is sensational. We play Trivial Pursuit in the evening over a huge plate of chicken bbq that feeds 2 of us. (always thinking of our budget!)
Our next stop is Flores, an 8hr drive north. It is a small island linked to the town of Santa Elena by a bridge. From here we take a day tour to the ancient Mayan City ruins at Tikal. We opt for the sundown tour rather than the sunrise tour. Leaving at 1pm we reach the park about 2:30pm and with our guide Luis, are taken around the sites. From central points the sounds of echos are incredible as the Mayans created symmetry with their buildings for sound and light, taking into account the Solstices and Equinoxes. Large vertical slabs line the bottom of the pyramids on which are carved details of events. Nearby, Luis finds a small hole in the ground and with a length of grass entices the occupant out…a Tarantula! He is smallish, black with red hairs on his back, and surprisingly non-venomous.
On we walk beneath trees of howler and pot-bellied spider monkeys to the main area where 64m temples tower above us. It is peaceful here, as in low season, we are almost the only group here. In the trees we see toucans. One has a brightly coloured bill, the other has a multicoloured chest. Amazing to see them so clearly in the trees. A grey fox slinks off one of the temples. We climb the highest temple for the late afternoon sun, and the water vapour coming off the thick forests below rising like smoke. We descend as darkness comes and take a pickup truck back to our waiting minibus for the ride back to Flores.
So comes to an end our time in Guatemala, a place of colourful Indigenous people, great Spanish teachers, volcanoes, lakes and pools of limpid green water, and ancient Mayan ruins. Our next journey will take us over the border to our final country of Mexico….
Spanish class at Antiguena Spanish School
E´s garden of peace
Tacos for our fellow students in the break
..but just coffee for E&C
E with maestra Marina
C with profesora Maria
School activity - Macadamia farm visit
Chinese bikes travel everywhere!
Colonial Antigua (in the rain)
Spontaneous parade on the streets
Guatemala is yet another country where coffee is produced
With Kathryn and Alex
Our street with view of Volcan de Agua
View of Antigua from the hill - Cerro de la Cruz
The guide tells C all about the buildings
Back in the centre - typical windows
The famous arch, connecting 2 monasteries
C finally found some spanish books for exchange
Local ladies carrying their shop on their heads
Iglesia de la Merced
Trip to Lago de Atitlán
Very green water
Mayan villages on the lake
The water has risen substantially
Lunch with a view at San Pedro la Laguna
Santiago de Atitlán
Volcano on the lake
Typical Mayan clothing
The view from Zephyr Lodge
Trivial Pursuit with Gwen and Julien
Dinner at a local comedor
Eh.. no, this is not our hand. Just taking the picture was scary enough!
Pavo silvestre (wild turkey)
Sunset view from the highest temple (70 m)