Awestruck in Antigua, Senses in San Pedro and Xela

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

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Flag of Guatemala  ,
Sunday, February 25, 2007

After the fun games at the border and a 3 hour mini van ride with what seemed to be half the Guatemalan population we effectively flew through Flores on our way to a 10 hour bus trip south towards Antigua. We were meant to visit Tikal but we were too pooped.

Regardless, I would recommend a short visit to Flores and Tikal. Flores is a little pretty (and I mean little) island with cobbled streets and a bridge attaching it to the mainland. Tikal is the most important Mayan site in Guatemala (should have really gone as I was in the area for 3 weeks...whoops...ah well).

After 10 hours on a bus to Guatemala City I was looking forward to the short shuttle to Antigua. However, our shuttle bus crashed on the way to get us (better than with us in it I suppose...) so it took another 2 hours before they could send a replacement.

The south of Guatemala is at a much higher altitiude than the North and has lots of volcanoes (some of them active) and Antigua is easily the country´s number one tourist destination. It is a World Heritage site (yes another one) and is a beautiful colonial town with low colourful houses, cobbled streets and virtually surrounded by volcanoes.

One of which we could see from our bedroom.

The place has a great feeling about it, it is also small and you can walk across the whole city/town in about 30-40 minutes. After wandering around to get our bearings we stumbled onto religious celebrations in the main square. Like a lot of Central and South America, Guatemala is a devout catholic country and the time leading up from Lent to Easter or Santa Semana, as it is called in these parts, is full of celebrations. I would be lying if I said I knew exactly what the celebrations were for as I am not all that hot on that kind of stuff. But it was mighty impressive.

A popular day trip from Antigua is to visit an active volcano. Having never seen an active volcano we decided to hike up Volcano Pacaya. With the altitude the 1.5 hour hike was tougher than expected and a few folk decided to take the horse ´taxis´ after coughing up their iron lungs.

Approaching the lava flow it started to get crazy hot, with some people´s shoe soles starting to melt, which mixed with the smell of my smouldering leg hairs produced a rather funky odour. In hindsight, we were allowed to get dangerously close to the lava flow especially considering that everyone was trying to balance on the least burny, burny areas.

If you go, go late in the day as it is cloudy in the morning and by midday it will be sweltering - even ignoring the lava. Also the sunset from the top is spectacular.

Looking for a different experience and more water we headed towards Panajachel on the banks of Lake Aitlian, which involved descending a long way through majorily windy and steep mountain roads. Spectacular but not scary, though we did see one burnt out car which hadn´t quite made its intended turn.

Panajachel is not all that impressive and just a large tourist town on a big lake. So we followed a Norwegian guy we´d met on a bumpy, bumpy boat ride across to a village on the other side - San Pedro la Laguna. It´s a hippy joint on the banks of the lake with lots of Spanish schools (as there is all over Southern Guatemala) and a great setting overlooking the lake with plenty places to hang out. Apart from tourism the only other obvious industry was coffee bean processing.

Lake Aitilan is pretty big - it took 40 minutes to get across to San Pedro - is enclosed by volcanoes with a handful of villages sitting on hillsides around the lake. Many of which you can only access by boat. Making it picturesque and Emily thinks it looks a bit like Italy.

We stayed 4 days there and could have easily stayed longer. It is one of those places which is so relaxing that you could spend weeks there without realising it and never wanting to leave. Apparently lots of people go visit other places then feel the pull and return.

There is not a huge amount of things to do there however it just has a certain something which makes you want to stay longer and longer. Maybe it is the poker addiction which Emily and I seemed to foster in our hostel´s cool courtyard. But I think it is more than that.

Don´t get me wrong we didn´t just laze around ALL the time. We were semi productive and one day went kayaking on the lake.

Another day we went to Chichistanengo. Bit of a tongue twister but it has nothing on the Welsh village of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. Now THAT is a tongue twister.

Chi-Chi (as us locals call it) is famous for it´s market and so we went there in search of souveniers...and a Guatemalan baby for Emily. She especially liked this one as it was wrapped To-Go.

Lamentably we returned without a bundle of joy for Emily and so decided to head off to the city of Xela. The trip there turned out to be nuts. We missed the last direct bus to Xela. This was at 8am, how can the last direct bus be so early? Anyway it looked like we were facing a 2 hour wait to get a bus from which we could connect to Xela. But after speaking to a woman who was also going to Xela we decided to join her on her choice of transport - a pick up.

After a couple of miles of standing up and enjoying the view we arrived at the next village, paid the driver a few shekels and hopped onto another pick up which took us to the next village. This was a process we repeated 4 times until we got to the highway and were rammed into a jam packed bus with a destination of Xela.

A wacky trip without doubt and one that was extremely memorable.

Xela is the second largest city in Guatemala and at first glance not that great. However, it grew on me and it was a bit like a shabby, larger version of Antigua with it´s colourful buildings and cobbled streets. Like Antigua it also seemed to be big on religious celebrations.

This time they were odd. Wandering around the town were lots of young men dressed up in what looked like vibrant coloured KKK outfits and selling t-shirts and mugs in celebration of some saint called - San Carlos.

When it got dark they then gathered for a torchlight procession ending up in the main square where they all rushed into a plaza started to dance and mosh. Then later they crowded onto a temportary stage and sung for a couple of hours. We were totally and utterly bemused but we were entertained so that made a good Friday night.

On Saturday night the celebrations continued. This time in the form of fireworks being fired off for about an hour in the centre of central plaza as people wandered around. Can anyone say health and safety?

Close to Xela is a small town Zulin which is famous for it´s nearby thermal baths and the Mayans worshipping a saint called San Simon.

Now again this is totally bizarre. San Simon is a wooden stick which is dressed up in some really odd get ups that are changed from time to time. Sometimes he is dressed up in a neon full length ski suit and for our visit he was decked up in a trilby, Elvis lamb chops and Elvis shades. The locals worship him and also apparently feed him whisky which he promptly pees into a bowl below his seat...

There is a Saint Simon in Chicago who is equally revered and we all know dresses similar and has similar drink holding capacities...

The thermal volcanic baths high up above Zulin were not odd at all and really rather pleasant as I spent a couple of hours played volleyball in the baths and generally getting all wrinkly.

Now this was the end of my time in Guatemala and all that was left to do was to get somewhat lost finding the bus station, saying a sad goodbye to Emily and being conned on the way to the Mexican border crossing...

I got told to go on a certain bus and after being assured that it was going directly to where I wanted to go (even though it was not included on the front of the bus) I got on. 4 hours later and after being charged more than the maximum price on the ticket we got to another border crossing.

Sounds okay but this is the one I did not want to use as the tourist information office in Xela had said it was dangerous. Regardless the bus driver told me he was not going any further and he was off to feed his rotund belly. Undoubtedly with the extra fare I had given him to go to a destination he had no intention of ever taking me...fortunately no harm was done as I crossed without incidence, other than getting fleeced on exchanging my money. Something I am now starting to get used to...

My other memories of my second foray into Guatemala were:

(1) In San Pedro one bar runs free salsa dancing. I do not have the rhythmn of the South Americans (well not yet) though I am sure all I need is practice and I will soon get my snake hips into the groove.

(2) Emily trying to ask for the bill in Spanish and instead asked for the ´bridge´. Emily I give you an E for effort and a T for nice try.

(3) There is an amazing hotel in Antigua which incorporates the ruins of an old monastery - Casa Santa Domingo. It is not cheap at $250+ per night however it is truly amazing and much better value than the $300+ Mercer used to pay for me to stay in the suburbs of Detroit.

(4) Emily nearly peering herself when I asked for a hot dog by translating it literally into Spanish i.e. caliente perro. This was much to the initial bemusement followed by amusement of our waitress.

(5) Meeting 3 Dutch girls who, when out and about, wanted some orange juice so 2 very eager women started to make them some - though they never directly asked them for it. When one of them gave a lower price the other OJ vendor had a hissy fit and threw the orange juice she´d made over one of the Dutch girls and drenched her. Whoops.

(6) People talk about a Gringo Trail in Latin America and we saw evidence of it in San Pedro. In a space of about 1 hour we saw 7 people get off boats at the local jetty who we had seen in other places. Small world - yes it is.

(6) In the South there are many more people (mostly women) wearing traditional dress than in the North and it´s really colourful too.

On the bus back from Zulin we passed through a village where the left hand side of the road was jam packed with women in traditional dress and on the other side of the road lots of men dressed in cowboy hats. No idea why.

(7) Emily had a habit of falling over and I only pushed her once. It was a good one too as she got a rather fetching scraped knee...

(8) In San Pedro, having to duck and weave for about 50m through a coffee bean plantation to get to the other side of the village - as there was no other easy way to get there.

(9) Emily going into a bar in Xela at about 3ish and it was full of locals singing. Returning to the same bar after 8pm they were still singing.

(10) Quite a few people would wander around with US flags or towels wrapped around their shoulders. Apparently this is to signify that they have family members working in the States. We even saw a statue in a church which was similarily dressed.

(11) Going to a great cafe in Xela called La Luna. It is also doubles as a chococolate museum (of all things) and has incredible hot chocolate.

(12) In Xela there is a monthly newsletter produced by English speaking ex-pats. There was an interesting article about how ridiculous people who are travelling for a long time often are as they HATE to say they are on vacation/holiday. No instead they are ´travelling´.

I know I have been guilty of saying this before. The truth is I am on holiday/vacation. It might not be a normal one but I am not working and I am seeing other places. So I am on holiday and that is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact it it pretty damn good, you should try it sometime!

(13) On the local buses at each stop vendors getting on and trying to sell food, toothpaste, pens and name it. On Sundays, preachers will also get on and recite parts of the bible to the ´congregation´ and then gather donations before hopping off. One particularly memorable moment was a blind kid and his brother who got on and sang for everyone on the bus for 10 minutes. For every second of this he had the biggest smile on his face. It was great.
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