The last of our real adventures - for a while...

Trip Start Oct 01, 2002
Trip End Aug 08, 2005

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Flag of Guatemala  ,
Monday, December 13, 2004

Hi Everyone,

It seems a while since our last log and we seem to have done quite a lot since then so here´s the latest..

We are almost at the end of our Guatemalan travels and at the end of what seems like our last real adventurous travels, well, for a while at least! By adventurous we generally mean a combination of uncomfortable, infuriating and stressful along with the good reasons like the people, the culture and the sights. A good example of this is Guatemala´s infamous ´chicken buses´. We´ve mentioned them before as they are also the ex US school buses used in Honduras, except here they have better paint jobs and the ´comfy´ seats have been taken out to cram twice as many uncomfy ones in. We climb aboard ushered quickly in by the conductor (usually about 12 years old and by which time the bus has already started moving) and we´re still not sure if it´s going to the right place. Then we see that not only is there nowhere to sit but there´s nowhere to go, not just no spare seats but no space fullstop. The seats, big enough for 2 are actually shared by three (not including the numerous kids piled on top) with the local on the end half hanging off the seat and completely blocking the 6 inch wide aisle which doesn´t stop anyone from fighting to get to the back of the bus. Large women with cloth bundles and children strapped to their backs squeeze down through the narrow gap where the aisle should have been and then there`s us with big heavy backpacks (too untrusting or maybe too knowing to have them go on the roof) staring in disbelief as to where the conductor wants us to move to. Later on in the journey he too squeezes along the bus collecting fares and demands about 3 times the right price from us for a journey to a town that although he´d said we were going there, we now weren´t but he´d charge us the fare to get there anyway! There´s also the food vendors who clamber aboard pushing and shoving their way through the crowds, shouting their wares as if we couldn´t have seen or heard them from outside anyway. That´s typical cheap travel for us but it has to be experienced just a few more times before we no longer get the chance.

It was just this sort of thing that lead to us standing on a street corner for hours waiting for a supposed direct bus instead of the three usual buses that a 37km journey here requires. It also lead to Kev´s wallet being pickpocketed (nothing much was ever kept in it, but typically it probably had the most money in it that it ever had). Again we saw the guy and Kev gave chase but he disappeared into thin air behind the doors of a brothel, when Kev went in he was nowhere to be seen.

Thankfully, Guatemala isn´t all like this and it´s been really quite nice. We crossed the border from Honduras on November 22nd after a night with beer and card games in a nice but mosquito ridden hostel in Omoa. We were travelling with a Belgian guy, Dirk, and had an interesting chat on a bus with a Belizean yacht owner who we may yet get back in touch with someday should we ever fancy our own charter around the Caribbean! After a long but scenic boat ride, we reached the Guatemalan town of Livingston, another Garifuna (African) village which was a little more poplular with tourists than those in Honduras but it had a nice feel to it - in between the rain storms. We decided to charter a boat and it´s captain to take us down the river, the Rio Dulce, the next day because we didn´t fancy the rushed 2 hour tours on offer. Luckily with the help of Dirk´s sales pitch we managed to convince some others to do the same thing and it turned out to be a very pleasant, relaxed 6 hour trip exploring forested canals, lily ponds and a nature reserve. Unfortunately, the only wildlife we saw were spiders, a squirrel and armies of leaf cutter ants marching in their thousands along ´highways´ carved through the forests. There were no elusive manatees, the walrus like creatures which some say gave rise to the stories of mermaids, but it was a nice trip and with enough people, doing it ourselves cost us the same as the two hour tourist boats.

The town of Rio Dulce where we got off was a bit rough but we had a nice meal on an island hideaway that Dirk found. The next morning we set off on the long trip to Antigua via Guatemala city where we walked around the most dodgy part of town trying to find the chicken bus to Antigua. A Dutch girl who was with us, and who´d been in Guatemala for 6 months, was terrified as she´d heard too many armed hold up stories to feel at ease and she thought we were mad but it was fine. Antigua was nice enough, a small town with brightly painted, crumbling one story buildings, cobbled streets and a volcano looming overhead. We only stayed a couple of days before we headed to the south coast for the weekend, to the town of Monterrico. It sits alongside a sleepy mangrove nature reverve on a black volcanic sandy beach, where strong waves crash ashore. We were met by probably our youngest yet hotel tout, a 10 yr old boy who we were quite impressed to be able to hold a conversation in Spanish with! Relaxing on the beach was nice but we were really there to visit the turtle project and it´s Saturday sunset release of baby Leatherback turtles into the sea. Adult turtles return to the same beach where they are born to lay their eggs and despite the tourists, Monterrico is frequently visited as a nesting sight. Unfortunately turtle eggs are a delicacy here and egg collectors sell them to restaurants but in an effort of conservation they have an agreement to give 20% to the sanctuary where they are successfully hatched and each Saturday, visiting tourists can sponsor and release a baby turtle. At sunset we were handed a dark (darker than the rest) little Leatherback turtle who was incredibly strong and eager to run into the sea a few metres away. We named him Monty (after the town) wished him luck and watched him run with all the others into the waves, it was really quite cute!

After another night in Antigua we headed north all the way up to Flores and the ancient Mayan city ruins of Tikal, hidden for centuries deep in the jungle where howler monkeys swung from the trees and then errupted in to a chorus of monsterous cries. Once we eventually arrived at the park (the 5 am bus broke down) it was a bit late for sunrise, so we followed the howls into the jungle and spent all day exploring the thousand year old temples, complexes and pyramids rising above the tree canopy with toucans and parrots flying around and tarantulas hiding in the bushes, although we only saw a couple of dead ones! It was a tiring day and we had a lazy day the next before we embarked on the long full day return journey to Antigua, again via Guatemala city but this time we took a taxi not wishing to push our luck.

We spent another couple of days in Antigua before we set off again, this time for Chichicastenango, a market town famed for it´s Sunday market. It took 3 chicken buses to get there and we then had our usual indecision about hostels before we embarked on a night time wander around the stalls, watching the local Mayans arrive with bundles of goods, poles and taupaulins to construct their stalls and lay out their goods before the whole family slept by the stall. In the morning the market had grown and was a wonderful sight of tightly packed colourful stalls in a winding market maze where indigenous women in their traditional dress sat on the steps of the old church and burnt offerings at the door. The church is Catholic in theory but is still the site of traditional Mayan rituals, the steps of which are used in much the same way today as the steps of the ancient pyramids were used hundreds of years ago. It was really atmospheric and there was a nice, friendly vibe, the children selling their little worry dolls or offering shoe shines and of course there was the fun of shopping itself. We had a great day although we were locked out of our hostel just as it got dark and cold so Kev played football in the street with the kids and we were let in soon enough.

The market had all but disappeared the next morning as we waited hours for the direct bus to Panajachel on Lake Atitlan. Anyway, three buses and 5 and half hours later we`d successfully covered the 37kms and were hanging out on the lake`s shore. The lake has been a tourist hangout for years with plenty of good cafes and a beautiful location, with tree covered dormant volcanoes looming overhead. The next day we hopped on a small motorboat and headed across the lake to San Pedro La Laguna, a more traditionnal town mixed in with cool tourists hangouts where the locals are really friendly. We planned to stay as long as we liked it and if not just move on to the next lakeside town. Needless to stay we didn`t move ourselves or our backpacks for 5 days, we were too busy enjoying doing nothing in the sunshine and loving the fantastic laid back feel of the place. We made some really good friends there and relaxed, chilled out by the pier, wandered through the coffee plantations and corn fields and ate in the plentiful cheap but good cafes. The area is abundant in small coffee plantations all over the place and an intense acrid smell hangs in the air in the places where the beans are picked, soaked and laid out to dry before being packed into sacks.

We found a really nice and cheap place to stay and spent the evenings in a café ran by a Zimbabwean guy, Jack and his crazy Canadian assistant, Daniel. Of course there had to be a kitty cat to complete the picture and Sian was happy. The only thing that ever disturbed the peace and quiet was the random sound of fireworks which culminated in a spectacular display one evening as the locals enjoyed a fiesta to `burn the devils'. We did manage to leave the town one day when we visited the lakeside village of San Marcos, it was dull in comparison but still, the ride back along the lakeshore in the back of a pickup was nice.

Well now we`re back in Antigua booked on a 4 am shuttle to take us to the airport for our flight to Dallas.

Until next time,
Kev and Mud Brick (We also discovered that this was the special meaning of Sian`s name in the local Mayan dialect of Tz`utuhil !)
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