Part IX: Guatemala – Top, middle or bottom?

From the Peten district in Northern Guatemala, we headed south to Lanquin. This was our first taste of Guatemalan shuttles…the minivans that service the routes so bumpy that a normal bus would baulk at the mere idea of it. It is eight hours south, and not entirely paved…charged iPods and open minds at the ready.

Around half way, we are stopped by a local blockade created by teachers protesting for fairer pay and benefits. Not knowing how long we’ll be waylaid for, we are forced into a roadside cafe while one of the locals tries to argue our case saying that we should be allowed through since we pay additional tourist taxes. The emphatic response is “Si intenta pasar, nos prendió fuego.” Basically, they threaten to set themselves on fire if anyone dares pass…not on my watch thanks.

A little over an hour later, the police arrive and the blockade is removed both peacefully and quickly. Not wishing to get stuck again, the driver of our shuttle sets off before we have even got back on. We all leap into the moving vehicle like poorly qualified stunt doubles.

We arrive at Lanquin and check into Zephyr Lodge, a hostel uniquely set right on the hillside nearby the Cahabon river. The setting is stunning, here is the view from my room.

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Very welcome rains come along as we arrive, breaking the intense tropical heat of the previous days. The hostel is somewhat unprepared though, and as I meet a few other weary travellers, their tales are of soaked mattresses and dormitory leaks. Thankfully, no such travesty has befallen me.

Unfortunately, during the journey, it has become clear that a rather nasty head cold is hellbent on consuming me, so after a tactical chicken curry, I am fit for nothing but flopping into my thankfully dry bed.

Hibernation is the name of the game the next day as I desperately try to shake off the infection with extreme sleeping and movie watching.

Most backpackers who frequent Lanquin are magnetically drawn by the pull of Semuc Champey. Widely lauded as the most beautiful place in Guatemala, Semuc is a natural monument of a 300m limestone bridge under which the river gurgles and gushes. Sitting atop is a series of natural stepped pools joined by rocks smoothed by the flux created by centuries of current.

So, as soon as I have gathered enough strength, I head out there with a group from the hostel including the very lovely South African David and Sonia, English rose Suzanne, Dutch Chris and Clarissa and a handful of incredibly hungover Australians. We are loaded into this cattle cart for the punishing one hour drive.

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There is something brilliant though about being so close to the hills are you bounce down the road, knowing that health and safety would restrict you from ever being in this situation in your homeland.

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First, we visit the nearby Kam’ba caves where, armed only with a lit candle, we swim through the myriad of underground tunnels and paths against the current. This will serve to be an absolute Guatemalan highlight for me. We climb up slick rocks through torrential waterfalls, crawl through minute spaces to drop into the pitch black abyss below and reverse down rickety ladders avoiding the attack of sharp stalactites all the while dodging bat shit from the caves’ eaves.

With every step, there is the threat of a trip-altering slip, the limited lighting only adding to the adrenaline levels. It is absolutely brilliant fun though, a really unique experience. No photos I’m afraid due to significant lack of waterproof pouch for the Lumix (take note Santa…)

Afterwards, we wander along the water’s edge to a huge rope swing which delivers it’s powerless contents from a great height into the River Cahabon below.

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Some are braver than others, and as bravado builds we a treated to a visual display of human peacocking as each tattooed traveller tries to outdo the last with backflips and somersaults. Brave Suzanne is one of the only lasses who steps up to the mark, but due to missed footing from launch, we helplessly watch as she careers at top speed into the metal posts and is catapulted face first into the rocky shore below. It is a miracle that this fall doesn’t kill her. Her cuts and bruises are all treatable with the rudimentary first aid kit that the tour guide is carrying…luckily for him

There is more thrill seeking, although obviously not by Suzanne, as we walk towards Semuc. There is a bridge over the river with a 15m drop which is good for diving. Notably, far fewer take up this opportunity…

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We trek up the steep path in the relentless afternoon heat to the mirador looking out over Semuc. The reward is worth the 90 minute hardship.

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We are more than ready to cool down with a dip, so it is down down down to the pools.

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Once in the pools, over friendly fish nibble at our feet. The guide then takes us exploring the pools, each is connected by rocks either so smooth you can slide down them, or so sculpted you can dive from them. Some of the slides are of significant height and accompanied by a powerful rush of a waterfall’s deposit. Whilst the latter lubricates the way for you, for want of a much better word, it also reduces your control as you descend. It’s not long before another member of the group plunges into me forcing a quickened pace across the sharp rocks and a number of deeper-than-you’d-like war wounds. Here is the scariest one…

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Afterwards, we all pile breathlessly into the cattle carts, and head back to the hostel to celebrate survival with a few beers. David and Sonia have exquisite taste in music, so we end up debating the virtues of albums until well after the witching hour with new pals Alice and brother Andrew. I gratefully use my cold as an excuse to avoid the beer bongs the Australians bring back into play.

The next day, it is back into shuttle mode as it is time to head for Lago de Atitlan in the south west of the country. I connect at Antigua, the former capital, and make for Panajachel on the eastern side of the lake so I can meet up with Kim (off of both Peru and Panama chapters) as she is currently traversing the glorious triumvirate of Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize with G Adventures. I intercept at Panajachel to catch up on her news over shrimp fajitas and copious Gallo beers.

After her departure (don’t worry – she will show her face again in Vegas) I head into town and settle into the Pana Rock Cafe to watch the final Manchester derby of the season. The league has all but been clinched by Manchester United, so in this game we are going for glory only.

The bar is a little too red for my tastes…

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…but the scoreline of 2-1 is blue through and through! Another corker from Aguero too.

Lake Atitlan is a volcanic endorheic lake, surrounded by three volcanoes and flanked with an array of villages to visit. Following recommendations, I have decided to stay in San Marcos on the northern shore, so I wander down to the port on a street fringed with colourful market stalls aimed squarely at the high percentage of passing tourists and hop into a roofed skiff to head out on the lake’s choppy waters.

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Forty five minutes later, I arrive at San Marcos and check into Aaculaax where I am greeted with the loveliest Latin American abode to date. It’s more apartment than room, with a stunning view out over the lake. I even have my own kitchen.

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Atitlan translates in the local dialect as ‘on the water’ and it is incredibly tranquil. San Marcos particularly, has come to be a place of great spiritual significance to many, Mayans and travellers alike, so the village is awash with yoga classes, meditation groups and emotional therapies. This will be a great place to take some time to recuperate from my cold, and get centred before I take my leave from Latin America and dive back into the commercial cut and thrust of the US. So I sign up for daily morning yoga, evening meditation and a few shiatsu massages in between. With a kitchen, I can also cook for myself for the first time this year (cooking classes aside), so I nip to the local mercado to stock up the larder. You can’t beat a trip to the local supermarket for entertainment value.

It is a beautifully calm few days, and with such serene surroundings I am soon back to full health.

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A local shaman gave me the items on the left, and a local pharmacist gave me the items on the left. I will leave you to decide which you think got me back to rude health…

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The nearby market at Chichicastenango sounds like it could be a bountiful day trip, and I’m unwilling to leave Central America without a hammock, so I head due north west for market day. The market has been the most important trading centre for the Mayan world since Pre-Hispanic times.

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Three chicken buses and 10 quetzales later (about 80p) I arrive in the town known locally as ChiChi. The Spanish amongst you will know just how humorous this translates locally…

Stalls for the locals bear stunningly colourful fruit, homeware and clothing. For the tourists, tropically bright textiles, hand stitched tapestries, glistening jade jewellery and whittled wooden trinkets. Tamales grills smoke invitingly at every turn. I always find markets very intoxicating on the senses. However, past this, the idea of the wares are usually more inviting than the reality. It is not as fruitful a trip as I imagine, but I do manage to find a few toys and musical instruments for my nieces and nephew.

The 400 year-old Santo Tomas church is one of the two which watch over the bustling market streets. Locals perform Mayan rituals at its door, and burn incense and chickens as offering for their gods on one of its 18 steps, one for each of the months in the Mayan calendar.

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The market is a vibrant way to spend the day, but make sure you have brought enough Spanish to haggle (those of you who work with me will know how much I enjoyed that part) and arm yourself with a thick skin to deflect the constant barrage of hard selling.

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Then it is back on the chicken bus via Encuentros, Solola and Panajachel, bouncing to the rhythm of the driver’s merengue and the road’s potholes. The driver, as with every Guatemalan, wears his religion on his rear view mirror.

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But the stall of the day award has to go to this guy…

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…yes, he is actually selling rocks.

My spiritual time at the lake comes to an end when I shuttle onwards to Antigua, Guatemala’s former capital and jewel in their colonial crown. Here I am meeting fellow intrepid traveller Tree. We went to university together and back in 2009 I joined her for the Argentinian leg of her sabbatical, so it is payback time. She has recently moved to Miami, so it is only a hop skip and a jump over to Guatemala City.

We spend the first day getting to know the beautiful little town. There is music everywhere here. A brass band welcomes us into the town’s Parque Central which is lush and verdant despite the heat.

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Locals dance together in the park as the majestic cathedral looks on.

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Tuc tuc drivers and fruit vendors line the cobbled streets.

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And the streets follow the Central American format I have come to love, with all of the buildings painted different colours.

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We’re staying at The Terrace which, to quote my brother Paul, will be great…when it’s finished. Between the painting and the drilling, we check into our room and head upstairs to survey their roof terrace.

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It is a cracking bar with a view out toward the active volcano Fuego. I reckon this terrace sees a lot of action after dark with the happy hour backpacker crowd…

We even have our own personal hammock outside our room. This’ll do nicely.

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Once settled, we head out to the Choco Museum and sign up for a chocolate making class from bean to bar. Antigueno Alex takes us through Guatemala’s place in the global chocolate making market, then shows us how it was made when first discovered and enjoyed in Mayan times.

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We roast, peel, grind and mix to our heart’s content.

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First, we make tea with the husks…

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…then we make traditional Mayan hot chocolate with water, cardamom and chile which used to be drunk before Sir Hans Sloane had the dandy idea to use milk instead of water.

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Then it is down to business…time to create our own.

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It is a ridiculous amount of fun, and we giggle all the way home on our chocolate high. When we finally get our appetites back, we head out to dinner with our neighbours, the delectable Elaine and Dan who I met back in Flores.

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Glad rags on, they take us to a hidden gem of a restaurant called ¿Por Qué No?

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With only three tables in the upstairs eatery, we’re grateful Elaine and Dan had the foresight to book as we climb up the steep stairs clinging onto the rope for dear life.

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Once there, we are given a marker pen to make a contribution to the grafitti. We are surrounded by inspiring travel mantras scribbled on the table, walls and even lampshade. I settle for the opening lines of Max Ehrmann’s ‘Desiderata’ and a shameless plug for this here blog.

A stunning steak with red wine jus and a stealthy Malbec later, we head to La Palma to watch the locals (and Tree) cut some serious Salsa rug.

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The next day, we are up stupidly early and in the pub by 9am. Today, City take on Chelsea in the FA Cup semi final and this is a fixture I could not miss. It is a nail biter of a game with solid performances on both sides, marred only by an unnecessary Aguero challenge on David Luiz. Nevertheless, City are victors at 2-1 and it is off to Wembley for us for the final on 11th May.

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We celebrate by roasting chestnuts on an open fire…no wait, hang on, that should be toasting marshmallows on an open active volcano…

We head out to see Pacaya, the most accessible of Antigua’s active volcanoes with only an hour drive and a 90 minute uphill trek. The guide shows us the flora and fauna along the way, and shows us how the Mayans use them…apparently.

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When we reach the summit, we can feel the heat coursing from the rock below.

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When we, and the local dogs, have had our fill of marshmallows…

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…there are even boiling volcanic rock caves for us to climb into, testing our claustrophobia levels once and for all.

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It’s good to get out of town and get some fresh air in our lungs, but next time I have set my sights on Fuego, the perennially fiery big brother of Pacaya.

The rest of our time is spent shopping in the markets and eating Guatemalan delicacies.

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I finally find that hammock I have been looking for, and a bag, and a jade necklace, and…oh dear. Tree kindly carts my wares back to Miami, which will be my last stop on the world tour. And so I have one last night to enjoy Central America! But just how to do it?

My friend Angie’s brother in law Justin lives nearby Antigua, and I meet him and a couple of his pals for a milkshake in the afternoon. Julia, a fellow Scot from Pitlochry, and Helen, her pal from Uni, are great fun so we head out for dinner together to super flash Bistro Cinq.

Julia runs an amazing community project in El Paredon called La Choza Chula which reaches out to local children. It is basically a creative workshop, social enterprise and shop that encourages the kids to get creative. The work they are doing is stunning, they are definitely worth a follow on Choza Chula

Speaking of getting creative, this restaurant also supplies pencils and encourages you to create a limited edition artwork on your tablecloth with the best ones framed and mounted on the restaurants walls. Julia wastes no time on her entry…

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And so, the sun finally sets on my time in Latin America.

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After three wondrous months, it feels exceptionally sad to be leaving it behind. I know that untold adventures, ventures and misadventures await me, both home and away. But I still weep all the way to the airport…

And the soundtrack was:
Foals ‘Holy Fire’
Yeah Yeah Yeahs ‘Mosquito’
Yeasayer ‘Fragrant World’
The Lumineers ‘The Lumineers’
Vampire Weekend ‘Diane Young’
Charlie XCX ‘Stay Away’
Jurassic 5 ‘Quality Control’
We Are Scientists ‘With Love And Squalor’
Phoenix ‘Entertainment’

One thought on “Part IX: Guatemala – Top, middle or bottom?

  1. A—-M—-A—-Z—-I—-N—-G!

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