Trip Start Sep 02, 2006
Trip End Sep 01, 2007

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Flag of Guatemala  ,
Wednesday, January 17, 2007

So I left Chicago and headed towards Central America. I had never been there or South America for that matter, so it was all very exciting however I was a little apprehensive that I would have forgotten how to travel as it was nearly a month since I came back from Thailand.
Nevertheless off I went with a few dollars in my pocket and an e-ticket in my hand. My first impressions of Guatemala City were really good as you fly in past tree clad mountainsides. However, my second impressions were that it was pretty much a pit.
By all means come to Guatemala but I wouldnīt recommend spending anymore than the minimum of time in the capital. The rest of the country I am sure is much nicer (though I have yet to explore much of it - thatīs for later) and Peten in the North I know is much, much nicer as this is where I have spent all but my first day of in Guatemala.
Well back to the first day and my Guatemala City experience. I got in at 1pm and with the bus taking about 10 hours it was too late to go there that night so I decided to hang around and see what the city had to offer before getting a night bus north to Flores.
Well I can confirm that the city has got a semi attractive cathedral and central plaza, with a few funky looking ice cream vans hanging around it and a few witch doctoresque people (entertaining) and selling medicine to the onlooking masses. Watching one of these characters was actually where I met my bodyguard for the day - literally.
He was an ex-US marine, called Jason aka Jay-Jay, who now lives in Guatemala teaching bodyguards how to handle firearms etc (or at least he said so) and anyways he was the first person I found who spoke anymore than hi in English so I was more than happy to believe him and in compensation for his more than pleasant and colourful company I bought him dinner and his bus ride home. 
He took me to the bus station which is in a rather sketchy area - unless prostitutes is your bag - which I suspect for some of you it is - you know who you are...and thatīs where I stayed for the next 6 hours. The bus station that is not the brothels!
After my relaxing (?) time in Chicago I was really tired and as far as I could see Guatemala City did not have a lot to offer so the bus station seemed the best place to be. I actually met a nice Guatemalan and Panamanian guy there and a couple of fiery hot Chilean girls who were also going to Flores. However, sadly for me not on my bus - darn it!
One of my main reasons for visiting Guatemala was to learn Spanish and it is a ton of fun too. However, starting off it looked rather problematic as I was told when arriving in Flores that the school where I was meant to go had burnt down the week before - joy!
Now this may have been porky pies as they then quickly told me about another and better one which this particular guide was passing by with another group of people he was taking elsewhere. Well I think he was correct the place he took me to - San Jose - is a lovely hillside village of about 2,000 people, overlooking a huge lake, with colourful houses and about 40 minutes away by bus from Flores. It is much, much nicer than the previous place I was meant to stay - San Andreas - so overall I am well chuffed.
I stayed with a local family for 3 weeks - Elsa

plus 3 sons - Jorge, Wilson and Jimmy- they were just so nice and welcoming. A couple of times I wasnīt exactly crazy about the quality of the Spanish teaching, however they made it all fantastic.
I was initially going to learn Spanish in the South of Guatemala. As lots of people do that many of the locals apparently often speak English so I thought full immersion was a better route to go. My family donīt speak any English so this was good as it forced me to speak Spanish to them, which I did get better at but they speak way too fast for me to understand a lot of it.
The place I stayed was basic but clean, though I never saw any sign of anyone else taking a shower. The food was extremely basic. Black beans and tortillas for nearly every meal. Meat (other than hot dogs) was rare and I got most of my protein (and cholesterol!) through eggs.
I had one-to-one Spanish tuition in the week mornings and took my classes in a big garden where they have these wicked little huts scattered around the place. Apart from one week I was the only student there so it was ideal. Most afternoons I spent at the lake learning Spanish and the weekends I did the same, or watched the locals play football (they are good by the way and I hope Scotland do not face Guatemala in our next visit to the World Cup...which will probably not be until 2020!) I also took the odd bus trip to Flores to get money, hang about and catch up with my travel blog. My village not yet being hooked up to the electric highway.
My first Spanish teacher - Emilio - was okay, however he really is an eco-guide and I donīt think his heart was totally in it. My second teacher - Rosio - was really good and she was pretty fit to boot...I never had any fit teachers like that when I was at school - well maybe Miss Halliburton - so it was long past due.
Saying that Emilio was a good guide and took me on some afternoon activities around the area. All for the grand price of zero - my kind of price. We went canoeing, visited some limestone caves and a Mayan archeological site called Motul. It had some interesting Mayan carvings, however most of the fun occurred getting there and back.
Getting there we rode through some farms with some real cowboys with lassoes to boot. I was transfixed on these when we rode by a young kid and a dog at the side of the track.
Or rather the other 3 did and when I passed the dog silently bounded up to me and tried to bite me. Little ba$tard.
Fortunately it was only a warning bite and did not break the skin, however it did give me a shock as funny enough I am still not all that keen on getting rabies. I do not have any signs of it however I have started to sniff dogīs bums, though I think this is just a phase I am going through...
On the way back the bike I had broke down and I ended up having to wheel it back the last 5km. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I needed all the fitness training I could get for a 5 day trip into the jungle to see the ancient city of El Mirador.
8 of us went - I being the token non-Yank and the others were mostly linked to the Peace Corps and working in Guatemala. So clearly there Spanish was much better than mine and fortunately we didnīt have to rely on mine. This was doubly fortunate as all the guides turned out to only speak Spanish - regardless of the travel agency implying to me that their native US guide would be coming too.
At this time of year it can rain a lot in this part of Guatemala and it is a 65km (40 miles) hike to El Mirador which we needed to cover in 2 days EACH way. This is a fair distance regardless of the conditions, however when it is in the humid jungle, has been raining heavily it resulted in a trail that was mostly mud and water - generally ankle deep or higher. Plus in the first day the guides only walked us about 15km.
This meant the second day was a BEAST. We covered 50km (30 miles) and most of the way I was either hugging trees or jumping around the trail to try and keep my feet dry and avoid being ankle deep in mud. This ended up being a little pointless as after hour 12 of the 13.5 hour trek it was pitch black (never the cleverest place to be in the dark is the jungle...) and we had to wade through a pond that was up to my mid thigh.
Not wanting to (a) get stuck in this mud and (b) being $hit scared of what was lurking in this pond, I positively skimmed across it. Nevertheless my feet were more than a tad moist after it.
This was easily the most difficult dayīs trek of my puff, however I really enjoyed it as it was amazing to see how hard you can push your body when you really need to. Plus I got the extra enjoyment of motivating (read: bully) one person who looked like he was not going to make it. 
El Mirador itself was the main Mayan city from something like 500 B.C. to 400 A.D. when it moved to Tikal (which hopefully I will be visiting when I come back to Guatemala after a couple of weeks in Belize).
It has the LARGEST building in the world (by volume) - El Dante. We were able to climb to the peak of it and it has amazing views over the jungle canopy and to other temples in the city and beyond. Most of the building consists of one huge platform stretching something like ― mile in diameter (though donīt quote me on that).
Sounds impressive huh? Well it is, however I was expecting to walk out of the jungle into this Mayan city oasis and well simply put...you donīt. Due to the place being so remote and having been abandoned over 1,500 years ago it is now all covered in trees and earth so there really is not a ton to see at ground level. It is being excavated, however due to itīs sheer size one of the archaeologist when asked how long it may take to renovate laughed back at us saying īNot in the next hundred years my friend!ī
There is one temple which has been partly excavated and restored. It is really impressive with its huge rolling steps, jaguar claw carving and sacrificial altar. It is (mysteriously) called Temple 34, which I suspect is not the original name as they also have the cool sounding Temple of Monkeys and Temple of Tiger.

Talking about monkeys we got to see lots of them all over El Mirador and some on the way there and back. Plus a flock of toucans and even a chameleon - which, as advertised, changed colour when the guide moved it to a different part of the tree. 
The wildlife watching was superb and all in all the whole trip was a great experience - however my leg muscles are in no rush to do it again anytime soon. Saying that I recommend going there just for the hike alone - it will be an unforgettable adventure.
If you are really interested in archaeology then by all means go, however you then might want to do the same as Mel Gibson and visit it by helicopter. Apparently his visit was his inspiration for his new film īApocolypticaī (sp?).
My other memories of my initial foray into Guatemala were:
(1) The family I lived with barely can afford food however the good news is that they do have cable. So I got to see a Chicago Bulls game and the Superbowl. Well I suppose the first one is good news L
(2) There seems to be really nothing much written in English in Guatemala - only Spanish. (Maybe in the south where there are more tourists). So in that way it seems like China - however in every other way it is so different.
(3) Overall I am quite happy that Guatemala is a safe place, however compared to Asia - which is super safe - I know I will need to be more vigilant. Especially in the dodgy areas around bus stations and at night always, always take a taxi.
(4) Man when they have hills here they arenīt half steep. I quickly learnt the locals trick of zig zagging up and down the hills to take the edge off the burning calves feeling.

(5) Man when it rains here it doesnīt half chuck down. The rain just sweeps in and pounds it down for ― hour, causing mini flash floods. I spent plenty of time watching it from the dry confines of inside and plenty times getting soaked to the skin in it.

(6) San Jose and San Andreas are right next to each other but seem a world apart as San Jose is so nice and letīs put it this way - San Andreas ainīt. I am told this is because they have different mayors and the one in San Andreas is a lazy arse and the one in San Jose does a sterling job.
I donīt know how he does it (drug money probably...) but they have just built a football stadium (which has the best view ever) and must hold nearly 2,000 people - the same as the village itself! Plus they are building a Water Park!
(7) The door I walked through into my familyīs house had a jigsaw of Eileen Donan Castle proudly hung above the door frame. The family had no idea itīs in Scotland. Regardless, this instantly made me feel at home, though the scary mammoth mouse head in the corner of my room was rather disconcerting.
(8) The father of my family was murdered 10 years ago. Or at least I think he was murdered as the person who told me dragged his thumb across his neck when telling me.
That didnīt seem to indicate to me that it was death by natural causes.
(9) When I say my family they spoke no English thatīs actually a lie as the youngest son - Jimmy - loves īlucha libreī or rather WWE wrestling so could recite all the names of the wrestlers. We therefore spent many, many hours communicating through the global language which is WWE.
Jon - he is a big fan of Shaun Michaels and DeGeneration X - as you are I am sure.
(10) The typical Guatemalan build I would describe as stocky. Or as the literal Spanish translation says...short and robust. Being chubby, or even fat, is for some people an ideal shape as it shows they have more than enough money to survive on.
(11) Donīt rely on ATMs in Guatemala as there arenīt that many and most of them seem to be empty of money. Not exactly meeting there intended purpose.
I heard an interesting rumour this was because they were changing the design of notes and so were letting the current notes run out, however I doubt that. I just donīt think they can be arsed to fill them.
(12) I decided to start my own photography business while I was here and called it īFoto Allanī - rather snappy name I think. I took many portrait photos however I am especially proud of the photo of this little charmer on the right
plus the BEST EVER marriage photo, and I do mean EVER!

Now itīs not everyday you get the opportunity to capture the happy moment of identical twins marrying another set of identical twins! Did I hear anyone say...swingers?
(13) Mi espanyol is no muy mal ahora (translated - my Spanish is not very bad now). Though my grammar still remains shocking...
After 3 weeks itīs actually better than I thought it would be. I can read and understand a fair bit. However, understanding others is very difficult - they talk too fast. After another 6 months I am hopeful it will be passable.
(14) Ricky Martin is coming to Flores however I am going to miss it as I will be in Belize. Damn you Emily for visiting me, I hope you appreciate the sacrifices I am making for you ...
(15) Lots of shops have armed security guards which is a little disconcerting, however I have not seen any trouble or heard of any, therefore I am assuming it is (sadly a necessary) deterrent.
Also it seems easy for people to get guns as there are gun shops which masquerade as being for animal hunting. However, last time I checked a pistol was not the best weapon to shoot a bird!?
You often see people walking around with a pistol stuck in their jeans. Clearly the Wild West is still alive.
(16) Nearly all the tourists I have met are from the US, with some from other Latin American countries and a smattering from elsewhere. Makes a change to Asia where they seemed to all be Israeli or Dutch.
(17) Apparently the locals in San Jose have a mixed view of tourists as there are a few ex-visitors from the US who (presumably unbeknown to them) have their own ready made Guatemalan family (minus of course the absent father).... You can actually see this from time to time and in fact one little girl just walked past and is way too pale to be Guatemalan - probably of Minnesotan descent. 
(18) You might recognize one of the guys from my El Mirador trip - Aaron. As you can see he is missing part of one of his arms. Heīs the guy who when out hiking in the middle of nowhere got his arm trapped by a boulder and had to saw his arm loose - ouch!
I think he appeared in at least one of the īManīs Lawī Miller Lite adverts and he has a book out. Undoubtedly he is a really interesting however he did say one really odd thing.
He told one of the girls how he was a īliving inspiration to othersī. Ok in part he maybe is however who says something like that about themselves?
(19) Meeting a few locals in the early afternoon who started speaking to me and offered me some Scotch whisky. I thought I was pouring one of them a large measure and me a small one but the sneaky git switched the cups and I had to neck a treble. After this we got on famously, however they kept asking me to get them a job in the US or Scotland.
At one time all 4 of them asked me if they could work for me! Nice guys, however I donīt at this moment have a great deal of need for 4 welders...
(20) Like most Guatemalan homes my family has bars on the windows which double for ornamental and security purposes. They also have garlic cloves on each window sill, though I am not sure if this is to ward off burglars or vampires. Perhaps both.
(21) I donīt know much about horses, however boy do the Guatemalans know an extremely persuasive method of calming a horse down simply involving a small piece of wood and a nostril...
(22) To catch small fish, some locals use the rare (or for me at least) method of electrocution! They drop some electric coils into the water with some pieces of tortilla for bait and presumably zap them every so often. Being more than aware of the physics of water and electricity mixing I did not hang around to see this for my own eyes...
(23) A common method of transport for locals is by īChicken busī, presumably as you can also bring chickens on them too, though I have not seen any yet. They are old US school buses which have been jazzed up in an extremely colourful mode (though this one is a little tame by comparison). BTW my first Spanish teacher is the one second from the right.
(24) Continuing with the theme of chickens - my family used to have a few of them, however when the eldest son graduated from high school last October they had a big party and ate them all. They havenīt been able to afford to replace them, so as a parting gift I gave them enough money to fill their chicken coop.
I had hoped they were going to buy them before I left however apparently there is a man who comes around selling chickens and roosters once a week. But he comes on a Wednesday and I left on the Tuesday!
(25) Jungle Tip #1 - Do not leave your underwear hanging up to dry anywhere ants may be able to climb too.
I did and then actually experienced īants in my pantsī and they were the biting variety too. I got 3 bites on a especially private area...
(26) When you get fillings in Guatemalan they seem to be mostly gold fillings. It is like walking around and meeting Goldie every 5 yards! Puts a smile on my face every time.
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