Guatemalan Highlands to Caribbean Lowlands

Published: July 31st 2016
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Dear All

Greetings from a rather unusual place this time. I am writing this one from window seat number 41, on the “Litegua” bus service from Guatemala City to Rio Dulce. I’ve never written one from a bus seat before, but the plan was to write this one up when I’d arrived nice and early in Rio Dulce and upload onto my blog. However, the bus will be getting into Rio Dulce a little later than they’d told me in the travel agency where I booked the ticket – we arrive at 7pm, as opposed to 4pm as they’d said. Ah well, it does mean I get to spend part of the bus journey writing this up, which may make it go a bit quicker…! I plan to upload it onto my blog hopefully this evening, but if not, tomorrow morning.

So, these last few days have just been absolutely amazing – it is refreshing to see that even after 72 countries, there are still places on this beautiful planet which can cause the jaw to drop and keep me remembering that no matter how much you travel, there are still some amazing places out there.

I believe I last wrote after having just arrived at the stunningly-situated Hotel Isla Verde, on a very peaceful bay on the breathtaking Lake Atitlan. I spent a wonderful two nights there, not least because of the hotel and my cabin-room, with its amazing view out over the lake through lush vegetation and the sounds of birds and all manner of wildlife. The shower was also a new experience, the bathroom being open to the elements, and still having that amazing vista whilst showering was just incredible, and felt very natural.

My full day at the hotel I spent doing an independent tour of the small Mayan villages which surround the lake: taking in San Marcos La Laguna, San Juan La Laguna, and finally San Pedro La Laguna. They were all indeed very different, and each had its unique charm and appeal in its own way. First off was a short 20-minute boat ride to San Marcos, described as the new-age spiritual place in the Lonely Planet. Straight off the boat I happened upon Las Piramides Meditation Centre, a spiritual retreat where guests stay in pyramidal-shaped cabins, oriented towards the four cardinal points. Many visit either for a month-long lunar meditation course which begins every full moon, or a three-month long solar course from one of the equinoxes to the next solstice. The meditation it offers seems to combine a number of spiritualities and religions, as well as incorporating local Maya beliefs, traditions and practices. I must admit I was a bit sceptical about visiting such a place, but definitely felt a wonderful vibe whilst there. Indeed, I happened upon a fantastic gentleman from England called James, and we ended up talking for two hours about deep, spiritual things such as dreams, visions, angels and many other amazing topics – it was most refreshing, and actually quite lovely to meet such a kindred in such a distant, unique and isolated place. James had a number of amazing stories to tell, and I related him mine, which continued to encourage me that there really is something there, out there, in control, and we have only to let it be and allow ourselves to let go of trying to control things for ourselves. I, along with many others, call this being “God”, it was wonderful confirmation for my own spiritual journey.

James and I soon parted ways, and I left on a very positive spiritual high, wandering in awe around the rest of the village, taking in its new-age vibe, and feeling much at peace with myself and the people there.

Next up, another short 20-minute boat ride to nearby San Juan La Laguna, an altogether more local affair, more like a few touristy shops and hotels alongside a Mayan village. It was nice in its own way, and the fantastic owner of the Hotel Pa Muelle let me bring in a take-away coffee from a nearby café and enjoy it on the hotel’s stunning rooftop, admiring the wonderful vista over the lake from its western shore.

And finally, onto San Pedro La Laguna, the African-drumming/fire-twirling place as mentioned in the Lonely Planet. Certainly, it was a backpacker hotspot, with bars galore, one in which you could jump off about 5 metres into the lake itself, the activity being taken advantage of by a group of inebriated young Irish guys. Not particularly my scene or cup of tea whilst travelling, I aimed to seek out the village’s local museum instead, the Museo Tz’unun ‘Ya (the apostrophe in the Mayan language, incidentally, seems to be pronounced as a cross between the apostrophe’d glottal stop in Arabic, and the throat clicking sound they make in the Xhosa language of South Africa). I read that in this museum, you can find out your Mayan “nahual”, with its associated animal protector, based on your birth date. There are 20 nahual corresponding to the 20 days in the Mayan calendar, and depending on which day you are born, you are said to have certain characteristics. I found that I have the nahual of K’At, whose animal protector is the Spider, and when the two ladies there explained to me the characteristics of this person, it was as if they knew me inside out – it was completely spot on. Paraphrasing the information they gave me, K’At people are generally calm and peaceful most of the time, but can become annoyed or angry with certain types of people – true dat! What’s more, they are "community problem solvers", who are able to bring together different points of view into one single bundle, and return that bundle to the community as a solution. They can transform the profane into the sacred through their fire and their ordered words. They are passionate, with fire in their hearts and hands, are wise, artistic, gardeners, collectors and distributors. Indeed, they enjoy collecting items from various places that they go to – so much so that if they were to become a priest or shaman, their “altar” would contain many artefacts from wherever they pass. They are also fertile people, and help others to grow, two-fold, three-fold, sometimes four-fold. This aspect is really nice, and I do hope I can give, but I also like lots of time alone, hence the travelling alone, perhaps in order to build up such energy in order to be able to give it. One amazing thing that I acquired from my conversation with James is that in order to allow the free flow of karma, you must be able to receive just as you give – by not accepting that you can receive actually prevents the flow of karma, and can damage you in the long term – very interesting. It was a wonderful experience, having one’s personality and characteristics seemingly confirmed, I believe it helps us to accept ourselves for who we are, and once we are able to do that, we then can accept others also for who they are. And that not
San Juan La LagunaSan Juan La LagunaSan Juan La Laguna

Lake Atitlan
everyone is like me, not everyone is a K’At, we all have our own unique characteristics and traits, and many others also try to get by as best they can as they are also.

Anyway, perhaps a bit deep, perhaps a bit too spiritual for a travel blog, but it does really summarise the amazing, deeply spiritual, time I had on Lake Atitlan, and the wonderful experiences, memories and words I can take away with me. I am very grateful for it.

As well as the spiritual experiences, Lake Atitlan as mentioned was just a stunning place to visit, and I recommend anyone a visit there if they plan a trip in Central America.

So, Thursday morning, I said a sad goodbye to Atitlan, and took another shuttle service to my next destination, Antigua, the old and one-time capital city of Guatemala. This time there were 11 of us plus the driver, all squashed into one shuttle minibus, along with our luggage, for a journey of 2.5 hours. Still, the shuttle buses that run here for tourists seem a far better cry than the local transportation option referred to, even by the locals, as “chicken buses”. These
View from Hotel Pa MuelleView from Hotel Pa MuelleView from Hotel Pa Muelle

San Juan La Laguna, Lake Atitlan
are actually those yellow school buses you see in American films, imported to Guatemala, and seriously pimped up with a powerful engine and multi-coloured adornments and decorations, making each one quite nice to look at, but probably a nightmare to travel in. Apparently tall people don’t do very well in them, and as usual in such countries, there’s always an assistant to the driver, hanging off any available railing or window, simultaneously calling out the bus’s destination to one and all, directing the driver, and collecting passengers’ fares – no easy task when there’s squashed standing room only. So, faced with the option of those, or the tourist minibus shuttles operated by travel agencies for three, four or five times the price, which also get there in half the time, I go always for the latter.

Having said that, I was not impressed with the shuttle I took this morning, particularly its driver (despite today being “El Dia de los Pilotos” or “Drivers’ Day” here in Guatemala), which confirms to me the point that whilst most Guatemalans are super-friendly, extremely helpful, and just nice nice people, there have been a few times where I’ve not trusted what has been
Tuk-Tuk Ride to San Pedro La Laguna, Lake AtitlanTuk-Tuk Ride to San Pedro La Laguna, Lake AtitlanTuk-Tuk Ride to San Pedro La Laguna, Lake Atitlan

I think they're imported directly from India, there was a sign inside this one written in Hindi...!
said to me. I will relate more on this below.

For now, and as mentioned, my next stop on Thursday was Antigua, and I checked into the wonderfully peaceful and super-friendly Posada Landivar. I found deciding upon a place to stay in Antigua rather challenging. Being a tourist-hub in Guatemala, many places are of the “party hostel” type catering to the gap-year student type, definitely the kind of place I run a mile from. There were also a number of higher-end, boutique-type hotels which at around $50 or so per night, were a little over my price range for such a place to stay (I’d splash out like that on a jungle- or eco-lodge for sure, but not a squat terraced house in the middle of a city). Any hotel that did look appealing to me often had in its TripAdvisor reviews comments like “noisy”, “large tour groups” and “bring earplugs”. So it was quite something to happen upon the Posada Landivar, on TripAdvisor but not in the Lonely Planet – a homely, cosy place, not far from the central square in town, owned by a very friendly, peaceful family, with all the luxuries including private bathroom, WiFi and
Museo Tz'unun 'Ya, San Pedro La Laguna, Lake AtitlanMuseo Tz'unun 'Ya, San Pedro La Laguna, Lake AtitlanMuseo Tz'unun 'Ya, San Pedro La Laguna, Lake Atitlan

Where I found out my Mayan nahual (animal protector) is the Spider.
breakfast included. I got a windowless room, but I wasn’t complaining as I’d realised by then that that was actually a good thing in these parts – they were in fact the first two nights in Guatemala when I wasn’t rudely awoken at one or two points in the middle of the night by dogs barking. Stray dogs are ubiquitous here, often quite placid and in their own world during the day, but from the constant barking at night from all directions, not so after dark. It was a lovely little posada, with only two other rooms occupied whilst I was there, and afforded me some good rest.

And yesterday, along with Lake Atitlan, was the second of my experiences which could invigorate any seasoned traveller who may think he has just about done everything. I joined a tour group off to climb the nearby and highly-active volcano called Pacaya. The Guatemalan highlands, along with much of the highland regions of Central America, lies along a particularly active plate boundary, mainly between the Caribbean and Cocos plates. Earthquakes and eruptions are commonplace around here, and just Thursday evening, upon arriving in Antigua, the nearby volcano called Fuego was apparently spewing lava and ash during the night – a fiery spectacle according to a couple of English gap-year guys I met on this tour (who actually knew one of the sons of the owner of the school I work at!), who saw it when they returned from some form of drinking activity at 2am. Unfortunately, though also fortunately, I was fast asleep at this time, so I missed it myself. But we did see a plume of ash rising and smoking from the volcano as we climbed nearby Pacaya. It was a steep and tiring hour up the mountainside, but once there, we were treated to a stunning, black and desolate landscape up there, almost like from another planet. The volcano had last erupted in 2014, and the lava flow had since dried creating a huge expanse of black volcanic rock. At the same time, steam was rising from the top of the volcano, and we actually toasted marshmallows at one of a number of hotspots rising out of the volcanic basalt rock. It was a wonderful, breathtaking experience, and I have uploaded a number of photos here on this blog entry.

Most of the rest of my time in Antigua I spent wandering around the old streets – laid out in a grid-pattern along cobble-stoned roads. Antigua was actually founded in 1543, and until the end of the 18th century it was actually the epicentre of Spanish colonial power throughout the whole of Central America. However, in 1773, the city was devastated by a terrible earthquake, which left most of its colonial buildings, churches, monasteries and convents in ruin. The Spanish subsequently moved their capital city to the present-day site of Guatemala City, although they were not to escape from terrible earthquakes there either, the most recent of which in 1976 killed 23,000 and left around a million people homeless. What remains today in Antigua is a beautiful city, combining more latterly built colonial houses and buildings with the ruins left behind by the 1773 earthquake. It was fascinating in particular to see these structures, situated almost on every street corner, still standing, still in ruins, but open to visitors, giving them a real insight into what life must have been like in this once powerful colonial city, particularly in its functioning as a religious centre and place from which the message of Christianity would have been spread throughout the region.

Antigua was lovely, Pacaya Volcan mesmerising, and Lake Atitlan spiritually impacting and stunning.

In a nutshell, having a wonderful time on my travels so far!

That is, and as mentioned, until a bit of stress came my way this morning, as mentioned earlier and as I will now relate. From Antigua, I had booked through a travel agency a shuttle to Guatemala City, which was to take me directly to a 1pm First Class bus leaving the Litegua bus company office in the north part of Guatemala City to Rio Dulce, my next destination.

However, the shuttle got stuck in traffic – apparently, the end of the month is always a busy time on Guatemalan roads, as the people have just got paid, and as it’s the weekend, apparently many people are off to celebrate somewhere. Indeed, just outside Guatemala City, it seemed like the whole of Guatemala City was on the move. What should have taken one hour actually took one-and-a-half hours. I asked the driver whether I’d make the 1pm bus, and he said probably not, and I’d be looking at a bus at around 3.30pm or 4pm or so. This concerned me, that he didn’t seem too bothered that I’d miss my connection, and after dropping off the shuttle’s other passenger at Guatemala City airport, he seemed in no hurry to get me to the bus office in time for my bus. In fact, once I realised he wasn’t heading there, he told me we were off to pick up a lady for the return journey to Antigua. I explained quite firmly that it would be better if he were to drop me off in time for my bus, and then pick up said lady on his way back – he was having none of it, which caused me to state my case more forcibly. If ever the point of people causing me to become annoyed, being a K’At, were true, it would be at this time. We arrived at the Holiday Inn where the lady was staying, but she was not there – I could have smacked him good and proper and called him a number of bad words I knew in Spanish, but instead I asked his name and told him I’d be making a complaint, retrieved my belongings and the money he was to use to pay for my ticket to Rio Dulce, and hopped in a taxi.

The taxi driver was wonderful, a superbly calming rotund gentleman who kept my nerves at bay as we ploughed on through the Guatemala City traffic, to arrive finally at the Litegua office with 15 minutes to spare. I thanked the taxi driver with an extra ten Quetzales (£1) as a tip (Happy Drivers’ Day!), quickly bought my ticket, bought a sandwich for lunch, went to the loo, had my bags checked by a security guard (that happens a lot in these parts) and boarded with 5 minutes to spare before departure – what relief!! Relief because I found out that not only was the shuttle driver a fool, he also lied about the next bus – it was at 5pm, and wouldn’t arrive in Rio Dulce until 11pm that night – not my favourite time of day to be arriving in a new place.

So here I am, hugely relieved, breathing out and giving praises for having got here, on this bus, and enjoying this wonderful journey to my next destination. It is a nice, comfortable, air-conditioned bus, with a toilet in the back (which I hope is open, I may be needing it soon), and a Hollywood movie on show, which the two gentlemen seated two seats in front of me seem to be enjoying no end, what with the raucous laughter coming from that direction. Looking out the window, the landscape is stunning, as we descend out of the Guatemalan highlands and into the tropical lowlands of the north-east and north of the country. The driver is really speeding along now, having escaped the Guatemala City traffic in which it took me most of this blog to write, though he seems to be crunching the gears somewhat…! I will sign out shortly to enjoy the view and the journey, and am looking forward to the next few days which I plan to spend in and around the Rio Dulce region of the north-east of Guatemala: tropical jungle and Caribbean coast. Look forward also to writing more in my next!

So until the next time, wishing everyone all the very best, y muchos saludos desde Guatemala!


PS Literally a Post Script, arrived safely in Rio Dulce at 7.30pm and checked into the fantastic jungle/marina lodge of Hacienda Tijax – it
English Students, AntiguaEnglish Students, AntiguaEnglish Students, Antigua

"Talk to me in English please, I need to practice"
is blowing a proper thunderstorm out there at the moment, and I’m enjoying a beer and a spaghetti al pesto in the Hacienda’s restaurant – perfect 😊

Additional photos below
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2nd August 2016

Ah Antigua!
When I saw that you'd posted a blog from Rio Dulce, I thought I'd missed your blog on Antigua. We really enjoyed finding out about our Maya calendar signs too, a nice way to get an insight into a different calendar. :) Sorry to hear about your transport stress...stressing about being late/missing connections is my absolute least favourite thing about travel.
2nd August 2016

Ah - I understand now too, lol! I generally write a blog update every 3-5 days when I travel, so I often cover two or three places in one go :) Yep, the near-missed connection was stressful, but indeed a part of travel - it helped me reflect more on my nahual characteristics too though, that was good - lol :)
7th August 2016

Jaw dropping beauty
Always good to find a new location that speaks to you. Nothing better than wandering those lovely Mayan villages. Loved haring about your animal protector. I'm so glad you made it on time to the bus station. Those can be trying times. Ah the joys of travel.
7th August 2016

Thank you! Thanks for reading my blog too :) Sounds like you've been to Guatemala too - I agree, magical country, wonderful people!

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