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Published: August 6th 2018
We both really like this picture
Well we just found out that Nikkie was expecting (yes this blog is 2.5 years old so we do have a toddler running around as of the writing of this blog), end of April was on us, and I had a rough 3 month stretch at work so it was time to get out of dodge. South/ Central America is always pretty cheap during this time. We could have picked any of the Caribbean islands and yet tickets to Guatemala came up as really cheap so I started researching. Not the safest of countries, in fact really dangerous from what I read, but Nikkie was sort of ok with doing it. I kept reading and delayed buying tickets. Rough neighborhoods, neighborhoods in Guatemala City to avoid at all costs, reading reports not to drive anywhere during night time because you will get pulled over and mugged, etc. What to do? People at work thought we were crazy. I thought we were crazy. Do we dare go? Do we dare rent a car? After going back and forth for weeks I finally pulled the trigger and bought tickets a week or so before our vacation time. My reasoning was yes there are
The famous or infamous chicken buses
neighborhoods to avoid at all costs (which big cities does not have those?) and yes Guatemala is the gate-way for drug trafficking to Mexico and then the US, but most of the bad stuff and/ or dangerous things happen close to the Mexican border and on this trip that was not our intended destination.
We flew in, got to the rental car company where we were immediately greeted with a guard with a HHUUUGGEEEE gun. Wow. Really? After quite a while of issues we had our car (I'll explain in the recommendations section below). No hub caps, completely tinted windows all around and even the windshield was tinted half-way down. No turning back now. First thing we always do is find an ATM and get cash. An hour later and still no luck after stopping at probably 10 ATMs. Finally we decided to just hit the road and figure it out later (that is kind of our motto and how we roll). We did quickly discover that cash will be needed here and credit cards will only take us so far. We stopped probably 30 minutes into our drive to get a smoothie or something cold as it was
This road was not on Google Maps
pretty hot. No credit cards accepted. Nikkie even took dollars and exchanged it at the little local exchange (I think I calculated something like a 15% commission 😊). Oh well. We did finally figure out the ATM issue, but I honestly can't remember if it was just the ATM's in the area or the fact that we did not tell our bank we are leaving the country.
Regardless we were on our way to SANTIAGO ATITLAN. This was still prior to the T-Mobile unlimited international free wireless days. Nikkie is an excellent navigator with Google maps so we made our way there slowly. We were honestly amazed at the agriculture and the magnitude of it, but then again this is a third world country so this is how people live and survive. The roads were not terrible (a common complaint of visitors to Central American countries). Some towns were pretty heavily populated and the "chicken buses" were pretty incredible - old school buses converted into regular transportation buses and beautifully, sometimes comically, decorated in bright colors and different themes. In a couple of the smaller towns we saw some small parades and even stopped at a couple small corner
The views were pretty spectacular
stores (these can barely qualify as a store since they are no bigger than a small bathroom). Regardless we stopped since they generally had some good locally baked delicacies and these were simply so cheap that it was totally worth it to just try the local fare.
At some point we got to a fork in the road - well more like a river in the road. The paved road stopped, turned into gravel and ran straight into and through a stream. Google maps did not recognize this as a road. Just call us trailblazers. On we went and finally found the main road. The town is situated right on LAKE ATITLAN. A massive lake and probably one of the prettiest out there. High cliffs in some areas with incredible lookouts and low towns in others right on the lake. The lake is the heartbeat of the area - pretty much everyone depends on it for their livelihood. In one of our books we have a drive that includes CIRCLING LAGO ATITLAN, visiting small towns, VILLAGES AND VOLCANOES, and driving through other areas close to and around the lake. SANTIAGO ATITLAN was on the complete opposite side of the
lake from the direction we were coming from so it was some slow going in the lake area. We finally made it to POSADA DE SANTIAGO
. A really nice inn with rooms spread all over the grounds, a hammock in front of each room, beautiful wood carvings, and a hot tub across the street on the lake side. The town itself is fairly dead at night so we just hung out and enjoyed the scenery.
The VOLCANOES AT LAKE ATITLAN just rises in front of you as the locals go about their business in their canoes/ boats on the lake. You watch life drift by slowly and realize what an important life source this lake is to the locals. You also sort of sit there and envy these locals as they go about life in such a spectacular setting with what seems like a very care-free attitude, but most likely they have stresses and worries just like the rest of us. The volcanoes form these perfect cones and during the quiet times they make a perfect reflection in the lake waters. Especially at night and early in the morning this is a pretty incredible sight.
We had dinner and
Posada De Santiago
Even the door and the detail of it was pretty incredible
breakfast at the RESTAURANT AT POSADA DE SANTIAGO. Dinner was:
- limonada soda and ginger beer (very spicy, but really good)
- guac and blue corn chips (good)
- plantains, beans, eggs and soft cheese, crema, blue corn tortillas (Nikkie had some pretty bad morning sickness at this point so this was comfort food)
- local fish, vegetables, brown rice and a sauce (really good)
- locally grown and locally roasted coffee (so good) and fresh juice (fresh juice is always good)
- blue corn pancake (unusual but that's what mama wanted)
- fresh fruit (apple, cantaloupe, banana, papaya, watermelon, pineapple w/ lime-yogurt dressing)
- French toast w/ local bread and fresh fruit and fresh honey
Both meals were really good considering the other dining options (most likely very limited) in the area. We loved the fact that everything was pretty much as fresh as can be and especially at these little local hotel restaurants people just seem to be that much friendlier.
The walk to town from the hotel was pretty easy. In general I think the town is not overly busy but the TOWN OF SANTIAGO ATITLAN FOR MARKET ON FRIDAYS AND SUNDAYS is
Posada De Santiago
Just hanging out after a long flight and drive
why we were here. It was bustling. Our first sight was a pick-up truck dumping a load of avocados to be sold. And then mayhem. Everything is in the shade under tents - at first you are hit by the astonishingly bright colors of chilis, bananas, mangos, avocados, strawberries followed by all the smells of dried fish and fresh tortillas and the sounds of people doing business. Walking row after row of narrow walkways between stalls/ vendors while fighting your way through the people is one of those magical experiences in any foreign country.
We found the WHITEWASHED PARISH CHURCH which has some incredible WOODEN STATUES. Looking at these statues it is pretty incredible seeing the detail and trying to fathom the time and expense it must have taken to create these life-like statues. There is a huge plaza in front of the church where individuals peddle small necklaces and other items. This really is the only time we were somewhat harassed. There was one lady especially that just would not leave us alone. We walked away and she would follow. I went back for some pictures of the cross and the volcano in the background and she was
A lone fisherman in front of an active volcano
back at it. I wanted to just buy something to get her to go away, but I don't think we even had cash at this point (I think we found an ATM shortly after contacting our bank and letting them know we are out of the country).
We walked around more and one of the definite striking futures of especially this town is the WOMEN WEARING COLORFUL BLOUSES (HUIPILES). Everywhere you look there are these incredibly COLORFUL DRESSES around you with all the colors of the rainbow. I think each town has its own distinct colors/ patterns. One of the striking things we saw walking into town was that there was hundreds of women sitting next to the lake for laundry day - soaping and scrubbing, soaping and scrubbing these incredibly colorful dresses. We think life is hard and even for myself it was the biggest inconvenience having to go to a laundromat for 6 months to wash my clothes. These women would probably give up a lot to be able to 1) have access to a laundromat and 2) have the financial means to afford it. The whole scene just kind of takes you back in time to
It is pretty peaceful out here
what doing laundry was like. Since these women wear these colorful dresses it also goes without saying that the market itself was filled with these colorful HANDWOVEN TEXTILES. We walked around and NIkkie finally stopped at one of the ladies and bought a little baby carrier garment. It was pretty cool watching the interaction and how they tried to teach/ show Nikkie how to put on the little baby-carrier.
If you have followed our blogs at this point in time you might go - what about the food Divan? I won't disappoint. I get giddy when visiting places like this because there is street food everywhere. Closer to lunch time we found a little vendor who has all these kinds of meats so you kind of pick out what you want and they grill it right there on the street cart. They have a little building that can house about 2 to 3 plastic tables and that is where you plomp yourself down with a bottle of the internationally recognized drink - Coca Cola. It just tastes different here (for the better). I ordered various types of sausage (chicken/meat) and various cuts of meat which was all served with
The morning calmness
some guacamole, salsa, a bean paste, pasta, tortillas, and black beans. I love this stuff. I was in my happy place. I tried the beans but that was about as far as I went with that. Nikkie luckily was all too happy to help me finish the beans since it is her pregnancy comfort food. Nikkie, bless her heart, is 3 months pregnant sitting on a street corner in a little town in the middle of nowhere Guatemala eating street food. Love my wife. Everywhere you walk there are people making fresh tortillas on what looks like an oil drum. I also found a little vendor selling beef in a banana leave in a red tomato sauce which was pretty good. On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a little corner store and got some frozen fruit on a stick dipped in chocolate. It was pretty hot and there was a couple girls hanging out with their mom so we bought them some as well. It's pretty amazing how their faces just lit up at this unexpected surprise.
Lastly we took a quick tuk-tuk ride to what is locally known as the MAXIMON SHRINE. Not sure
Posada De Santiago
Breakfast is served
about how this originated (there are several tales), but MAXIMON is fairly prominent in various Guatemalan towns where he is worshipped by worshippers bringing mostly money, cigarettes and liquor. When we first heard about the types of offerings from the tuk-tuk driver we figured there is more to the story. The dressed-up figure goes to a new house every year and the "host" obviously gains substantially from this endeavor since they get to keep the money, cigarettes and liquor. So per the tuk-tuk driver competition is pretty fierce every year to be the host since there are some pretty substantial economic gains to be had. Lots of incense burning, two guys sitting around collecting the fees and protecting Maximon. We were charged something like 4 USD to enter and observe everything. Nothing impressive and really not anything to go out of your way to witness. Something to do and something that most would probably consider pretty odd.
We saw a lot in less than 24 hours but it was time to move on to the other side of the lake. So around the lake we made it again to the much more commercialized and touristy PANAJACHEL. We got to
First sight of all the chillis
the HOTEL ATITLAN
early in the afternoon after another gorgeous drive going up and down the roads along the lake. The hotel is beautiful, the grounds even more so and the views from the hotel would be incredibly hard to beat. We settled in quickly and hung out by the pool for most of the afternoon admiring the multiple volcanoes from the pool while sipping on margaritas and limonada sodas.
Our options for dinner was hotel food, touristy town food or street food. Which one do you think we picked? Bingo! We found a little corner tent where a lady was grilling, placed our order, order a couple cold cokes and sat down on the little plastic chairs. We again went with the variety of meats and sausages with added grilled green onions, grilled potato, guacamole, and salsa. Again an absolutely delicious meal. At night they also come out with more carts doing various fruits and juices and the shops/ stalls are open until pretty late.
The next morning we had a pretty good buffet at the hotel that included fruits, fish, black beans, juices, tortillas, eggs w/ tomatoes, cereals, yogurt, granola, coffee and pretty much whatever else your
heart desires. We walked a short distance from the hotel to the NATURE RESERVE OF SAN BUENAVENTURA. A little reserve that runs up the hill. We paid the entrance fee and started making our way up the mountain. We really did not see too many animals except the occasional bird here and there. There was some really pretty views across the lake from certain points along the hike. We found a couple waterfalls and suspension bridges along the walk. Back down at the bottom there was a structure with tons of butterflies. A serene little sanctuary observing these gorgeous creatures.
After our outdoor activity we made our way back into town. We walked around through the little stores in town and stopped at the Panacafe de Guatemala for a latte which just hit the spot. Nikkie got chili rellenos with tortillas and vegetable rice from a street card. It was cold and not the greatest. We also saw a lady with a baby on her back grilling corn. We bought a couple pieces of corn to support her, but it was not the greatest. It was cold and not really tasteful. I stopped at a little stand and got
Dried fish from the lake
a torta. It's a grilled sandwich w/ tomato, ham, and cheese and then at the end they add a bunch of tomato sauce and mayonnaise. A pretty messy affair, but really good. Good
- at the end of the day we were really happy we came to Guatemala. Despite everything we read we loved the country and its people.
- we loved the little towns, the markets, the goods on sale, and the hustle and bustle Bad
- Guatemala City was not the greatest experience (nothing bad, but just does not look like the greatest city from our very limited time spent there) and probably not a place I would recommend spending a lot of time in
- driving to the lake did take a really long time. The entire way is 2-lane roads, there are lots of little towns which takes a really long time to get through and the speed limits are pretty low. From our perspective this is honestly not a bad thing because it gives you time to take it all in, but I can see where this could be a negative for most people.
- people are pretty poor so in some of
the towns you will get harassed to buy things. Again in the big picture them trying to sell you something is a whole lot better than them just straight-up begging. Advice
- this honestly was the first time we had cash issues in a foreign country. Our preferred method of getting cash in foreign countries are the ATM's. I've just found that the conversion rates are fairly favorable and the fees are not terrible. One thing you need to do though (and this generally goes for credit cards too) is let the company know that you will be travelling internationally otherwise you may have issues using the card and getting cash
- the only other piece of advice is also more of a general piece of advice, but it did happen to us here. Generally when you rent a car in a foreign country you need insurance. I would highly recommend this. Some credit cards will provide you insurance against theft and any damage to the car up to a certain amount (lately I use this, but make sure to get an e-mail from the company stating you have this coverage so you can show it at the rental
Supporting the local economy
agency). We have this on our Citi credit card. Some agencies you book through will provide third party liability insurance up to a certain amount (for those times you hit someone else or the accident is your fault). So through these 2 methods most of the time you should be covered. In this case because it was such a high risk country (in my eyes) I bought the insurance offered by Orbitz. When we showed up at the rental agency with the voucher they said we don't accept this and you can only use our insurance. This was the only time I ran into this issue. I have heard horror stories about people being forced to buy the insurance of the rental agency otherwise they don't get a car (which pretty much happened here). So be warned.
And that is the end of the first part of our Guatemalan adventure. The four things we crossed off included lake Atitlan, circling lago Atitlan, villages and volcanoes, and Maximon. So 300 down and 5,481 to go.
Til' next time from the land of lagos and constant smoke
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