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Published: April 30th 2019
Lonely Planet's introduction to Guatemala states: "Travel here - once fraught with danger and discomfort - is now characterized by ease; you can do pretty much whatever you want, and your experience will only be limited by your imagination and time". To which Ali chirped up "and your wallet" because shock/horror Guatemala is not quite the economico destination it once was... This initiated a novel thought: could I possibly write a blog without my incessant carping about costs; could I pen something without my wearying unwearying usage of "prices", "expensive", "cheap", "budget", etc..? I am going to try...
However, with repetitious limited vocabularies in mind, I conceived this playful sentence that incorporates all twenty of the obvious individual's most commonly employed words/phrases (they being in capitals)... I, your DANGEROUSly STUPID, WEAK LOSER of a POLITICALLY INCORRECT, FAKE NEWS-deploying non-CLASSY president who typifies the DEEP-STATE SWAMP am TREMENDOUSly OUT-OF-CONTROL and our TERRIFIC MILITARY and their SMART VETERANS must now recognise that I am AMAZINGly BAD, really very BAD, at WINNING respect and that it is TOUGH cheese if you ever really believed I'd MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.
Guatemala along with El
Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua is a member of the Central America-4 free mobility agreement (CA-4), an arrangement akin to that of Schengen in Europe (something those hard Brexiteers care not a jot for). As a tourist, entering any of these countries entitles you to move freely among the others for a period of three months; there again on entering a second member country your passport is stamped afresh for three further months. This is all well and good unless you happen to want to stay for longer than three months in any one country where upon you must exit the collective (and go to Mexico or Belize for example) in order to re-enter your long-stay country and then be given permission to stay for three further months. Phew.... In other words, regardless of your flitting among the four countries you cannot stay longer than three months, in total, in one unless you exit and re-enter the pact... Maybe? I guess we'll cross that channel tunnel
bridge if we come to it.
Once across the border in the really quite pleasant Melchor de Mencos we located the necessary collectivo bus, scuttled around town to squeeze in a few
more passengers and were soon heading westwards into Guatemala's north, bound for the town of Flores. Immediately we were struck by the abundance of grass (green in colouration), rivers and streams (with flowing water), cattle in fields, the profusion of horses - many of them bearing Stetson-totting ranchers, as well as a stunning species of apparently bark-less grey tree.
Santa Elena sits on the southern shore of Lago de Paten Itza and from its margin extends a causeway of some several hundred yards that links the domed little island of Flores to the mainland, aerially giving the latter the appearance of a polyp (of the kind you'd prefer not have in your bowel rather than that colonist member of a coral). Across the causeway buzz an incessant stream of tuk-tuks; indeed Guatemala must challenge Thailand or India as the most motor rickshaw infested country on earth. Much to my chagrin this was how we arrived: it was very hot; we knew it was only 1.5km to Flores but, true-to-form, LP gave no hint of how to navigate your way there from the bus terminal (let alone from the rather tatty market somewhere amidst Santa Elena where we
were dropped); and... Ali kinda insisted (even after I'd consulted the compass).
With knowledge it was an easy walk, something we'd definitely be doing upon leaving.
Flores is quaint, diminutively with some of its namesake's Greek Isle feel (although, sadly, without taramasalata, stifado, or kleftiko...). Its promenade-ringed periphery, dotted with wooden piers from which boats shuttle across the water and old men fish for pescado blanco (some kind of bass) takes barely twenty minutes to amble around.
This fringe is tourist orientated in terms of eateries and hotels/hostels (although there are no tat shops) and that's where you'll find them, but it is also where we located a great locals' hotel (Hotel La Camoa
) and duly decamped. Nevertheless, wander up the steep, radiating, age-polished stone lanes and paths to Flores' centre and it's a very different scene. Up top it is charming with a tiny plaza, mini white-walled, twin-domed cathedral, several basic eateries and.... a recessed basketball court. OK, so the latter sits somewhat awkwardly, but in the evening, armed with a hunk of cake, we would often wander up the dimly-lit lanes that still emit both the warmth of the
day and a gentle safe ambience, grab a coffee and sit courtside among the residents cheering on their children's (mainly girls) teams by moonlight. Along with the very well attended cathedral it functions as a wonderful focus for the community.
The evening also sees a gaggle of food vendors assemble at the mid-way point along the causeway. These white-clad ladies stand behind a continuous line of tables and serve up all manner of pre-prepared yummies. Most notable among these are the tostadas, small crispy poppadom-like tortillas that they load with your choice of toppings before drizzling with a thin tomato sauce and a sprinkling of powdered local cheese. There is a minced chicken that I adored, whilst Ali couldn't get enough of beetroot- and noodle-based variants. This is also where you stock up with carrot, upside-down, chocolate, or cheese cakes ahead of the evening's sporting events.
Meanwhile I'd been eyeing the water itself. Much of the lake and its breaching causeway are bordered by rushes with an additional band of filamentous weed that extends no more than ten metres out, limited by the steady drop-off. It all felt rather carpy and they get everywhere,
don't they? We took an excursion to another of Santa Elena's markets and found a hardware store that sold line, something approximating to leads and bent structures described as hooks. For a rod/reel I'd use an empty 1L water bottle; bait would be that carp crowd pleaser sweet corn, although not in my usual profligate quantities. Long story short: we tried and we caught - the wrong type of fish; obviously there were no carp here after all, well... in this neck-of-the-woods, well... that I was tempting.
Most visitors don't loiter that long in Flores, even those that venture a little further afield to - say - Jorge's rope swing, a little sleepy enclave on the lake's northern shore with attractions such as... rope swings. We didn't make it there and still managed to while away the best part of a week.
A mere several hours southeast lies Finca Ixobel
(Finca meaning estate or ranch). Ixobel
was started back in the 70s by a couple of intrepid Americans who had been looking for a suitable spot to farm in a remote and unspoilt region of Central America. Whilst they were developing their land random
travellers would turn up seeking a place to pitch a tent or park up their vehicle. Thus the project grew into an ecological resort with all manner of cabanas and tree houses dotted among the pine forest and patches of jungle. There is an oasis-like pond amidst the bush, fed by a natural spring, that you can swim in and laze around; plus there's a nice walk up into the hills that provides an excellent viewpoint for sunsets that sink beyond the furthest forested crest. The husband of the founding team died a number of years ago but his wife and daughter are still in residence overseeing the operation run, on a day-to-day basis, by people from the local village. Being somewhat isolated you are largely tied to eating at their restaurant but, fortunately, portions are so large (and the food so good) that Ali and I were happy and able to merely split meals. Not only that but we did find the tiny, extremely welcoming, nearby little village that has a shop selling beer at standard, bargain (OK, I failed), rates.
Whilst Ali and I sit on our high horses, looking down our long noses, at
immoderate (to our minds lazy) modern supposed backpackers, here we received a wake-up call in the shape of a twenty year old Swiss lad, Thomas. During the day we'd gathered a pile of fallen wood and were now, in the frog-serenaded dark, sat, pond-side, rums to hand, around a roaring fire pit when he emerged from the blackness and enquired if he could join us. We directed him to a safe tree stump perch, away from the stream of leaf-cutter ants winding between us. At his exalted age he has already bummed passage across the Med, subsequently crewed across the Atlantic, has cycled between Patagonia and Colombia and was now travelling around Central America, due any day to link up with a yacht on which he'd help crew from Livingston (Guatemala) to French Polynesia. Sure, all this impressed us; but what blew us away was that he also almost never stays in accommodation: he merely hangs his hammock in any discrete location he comes across. Yes, he often gets moved on; rarely has he been threatened; and never - long may it remain so - has he been robbed. So much for our budget backpacking...
In front of our
raised hut was a small tree about which we regularly saw metallic green and purple hummingbirds. Whilst trying to take a photograph I noticed one particular bird repeatedly returning to the same spot and, zooming in, I sighted the - little bigger than an egg cup - nest, and there-in sat a maturish chick.
Another lazy afternoon saw us chilling in the palapa-shaded, pond-side hammocks playing only our second game of Scrabble thus far on this trip, the board perched on a stump between us. It has to be said that Ali was winning when I reached for my beer and.... tipped the board. She'll never let me hear the end of it.
Sandwiched between southern Belize and northern Honduras lies the afore-mentioned Livingston, Guatemala's steamy entry to the Caribbean sea. To get there you head to Rio Dulce at the east end of Lago de Izabal and then along the jungle-hugged river to the coastal garifuna enclave. This stretch of water is known to be among the safest places in the whole Caribbean to park up your yacht during hurricane season and consequently it bears numerous ex-pat retreats. Fortunately it is also still
home to many local communities and dug-outs bearing net-throwing or gill-net-setting locals still outnumber flash gits in their out-boarded dinghys.
On arrival in the once frontier town of Rio Dulce - knowing we were about to stay at another isolated Finca (without any hope of locating a friendly local shop and about to be totally at our host's mercy for all) - we bought spirits, more cigarettes, mixers.... and a stockpile of beers.
A first note: fried chicken and chips are extremely popular in Guatemala. Along Rio Dulce's narrow dusty "high-street" (only street), indifferent to the crawling lorries (about to drop supplies), weaving tuk-tuks and multitude of milling people, are countless vendors with woks to the rear and glass display/holding cabinets to the fore bearing said pollo y papas. Vigilance is everything here: you want to hit one as soon as a new piping-hot batch emerges.
We were a tad pissed at the prices (heck, I'd already blown it) listed for the journey down river, but we were assured that it was a scenic journey, indeed one of some beauty... and... we were without options. We climbed into the motorboat, all
big packs were piled into the nose whilst day packs, and in our case additional plastic bags full of beer cans, sat between legs. More and more bodies were wedged into the rows of seating; really this crowding was going to severely limit photographic opportunities. And then off we set. Fuck... this was a scenic ride? We reared in the water, the nose at some thirty degrees to the horizontal, ploughing into the cross-wakes. In open, choppier, water we merely accelerated and as we did so the plastic hull under our feet undulated violently. Alarmingly. The beers were not happy, they were not bouncing, they were being sonicated. Within five minutes their limiting bags were shredding and up onto my (camera-retired) lap they went as we crashed onwards. Even ignoring the spray I was feeling increasingly damp - in my nether regions - and a beery odour was definitely magnifying. Finally, thankfully, photo-less*, we reached Finca Tatin
- our stop. I climbed out onto the dock to reveal a groin sodden pair of shorts. The remaining passengers turned their heads: surely the ride hadn't been that scary...
*Actually this isn't entirely true as Ali did grab a
quick snap of a floating dental clinic (run by a Canadian charity) as we paused to drop off a passenger.
Instantly we were greeted by a member of staff who ushered us from the quay-side, along the planked walkways leading through the jungle and into the stunning, open-sided, sprawling wood and thatch communal areas. It is certainly a beautiful setting. We were told to sit as there were many rules and instructions that he needed to impart. I gestured towards my shorts - could I not possibly change first?
We were shown to our hut. Winding up through the vegetation we passed gorgeous secluded cabanas enveloped by greenery with cozy private seating areas. And then we reached ours, one of four boxes strung out in a line, without so much as a chair, let alone a hammock, between them. Using the word "wall" to describe the partitions between these hutches would be magnanimous in the extreme; using the phrase "peevishly shoddy", merely apt. On the plus side only one beer had burst.
Dutifully and promptly we returned to be led through the regulations and pricings associated with the many tours and facilities available.
Everything, we were informed, was exactly as detailed in the manuals; there were no exceptions. Extras (pretty much everything, even down to a glass of drinking water) must be entered on your honesty sheet; please don't tarry in this matter, you wouldn't want to forget something. This wasn't feeling very tranquillo, more bootcamp. The set dinner must be eaten "family style" at 7pm, do not be late, and if dinner is not required then notice must be provided before 3pm. Arrrgghhhh.... We cracked some beers that were eyed covetously by those equally less monied (yet less forward-thinking) incumbents similarly not prepared to pay the bar's exorbitant tarifs.
We did, grudgingly, succumb to hiring a two-man kayak with which we paddled our way downstream to Livingston, a fairly pretty two hour journey between limestone cliffs and leaning epiphyte-loaded trees further burdened with vigilant egrets. Then, as we neared town and the salt air encrusted our faces, fishing boats, both floating and scuttled, were bedecked with masses of indifferent pelicans and seagulls.
Livingston does indeed have a Caribbean vibe and, away from the touristy high street (where I was assured - twice - that I could
procure some excellent hashish), very pleasant it is too with dusty lanes, pink bougainvillea-trailing walls and giant red hibiscus. We were wishing we'd gone there directly.
I won't linger on Tatin as our list of complaints only depresses. That said, if you do have valid grievances then stick to your guns because whilst the Argentinian/Nicaraguan management (loitering uselessly, inaccessibly, next door with their impressive yachts) may be shite the on-site local staff are totally reasonable (when seriously reasoned with). The general consensus from Tatin returnees was that it certainly isn't what it once was. Our advice would be to target a different operation on the river or be old school and stay in Livingston instead (the hashish smelled great).
It was time to head westwards to Semuc Champey, or, more specifically, to its nearest town of Lanquin. This was once a very much out-of-the-way destination, although now shuttle buses from all directions head there. Semuc's fame is a 300m long limestone bridge - a geological term as you will not find a "bridge", rather a tiered pavement with each level home to a brilliantly blue/green pool that spills into the next. The view from
the mirador, looking down on all, really is quite spectacular.
Lanquin squats on and tumbles down a hill 9km from its lure site, whilst most accommodation options are... sighhhh... essentially Fincas (set apart enclaves - here horribly targeted to young party-orientated foreigners) that lie either on Lanquin's outskirts or on the approach to Semuc itself. We spent one night in such an entrapment, hated it, and the next day hiked into town. Here there are three hostels (all fine, although over priced) and the single, diamond, hotel Rabin Itzam
(cheaper than all and still prepared to bargain further). We were later informed that the hotel's name has nothing to do with Judaism but instead is local dialect for the (visual impression of the) reclining lady atop the far hills.
Our balconied room at Rabin
overlooked coyote corner, the coyotes - so described to us by a local business man - being Jack-the-lad touts who pounce on any tourist that, having wandered into town, must surely be requiring a ride to Semuc, an alternative excursion or a shuttle onwards. On learning we were English our presence was invariably greeted with "luvly jubbly". Only Fools and
Horses quotes aside it does have to be said that the nature of their "work" has forged a strong grasp of English. Anyway, after a few days in residence they largely gave up on us although we were quizzed on why we would choose to stay in the local hotel and what was so special about the, apparently only recently opened, little eatery we frequented so often (nothing escaped their attention). Seriously, did it really serve a full Gautemalan breakfast for only 15Q? They cook a carbonara? And what might a carbonara be? Other balconies and terraces on the premises - pretty much our personal domains given the lack of guests (outside the few Guatemalans at weekends and fleeting visits by a solo Argentinian girl and an old-hand, aged, bunch of French) - hung over the tiny evangelical church (not as vocal as some), looked towards the local school, provided views of several other streets and their vendors as well as beyond to the distant gringo encampments in the valleys below. They made for excellent people watching.
Our hosts were delightful, particularly dad who was a very jolly soul. I say dad, this was somewhat uncertain as
rarely have we met a more camp individual. Dad may have been camp but even he was astonished to witness my behaviour one afternoon... It was handwashing day and Ali and I stood side-by-side at the for purpose sinks scrubbing and rinsing. Mum and daughter halted mid chores to gawp at the bizarre spectacle of a man doing washing. This had to be seen and dad was duly summoned to come and join in their barely concealed mirth.
Actually this leads rather nicely into Guatemalan skirts (part A). Mum and daughter had numerous examples - typical of the region - drying alongside our raggamuffin attire and these demanded a closer inspection. Maybe ten feet in width they are made in the manner of a curtain with a strung hem that when worn is drawn-in to create multiple folds. The resultant effect is not dissimilar to a pleated ankle-length lampshade, one with a black background but flecked with bright colours. These are typically matched with a flouncy blouse; whilst almost all women still wear their long ebony hair tied back into a single pony or plait. There again many of the youngest women now sport jeans. Meanwhile, the
elder men are very macho in jeans, cotton shirts - a stunning indigo colouration being very common (no doubt a locally acquired dye akin to the cochenille that we saw much of in Mexico, although probably not similarly insect-derived), curly-toed boots and, not infrequently, a stetson. Like the young girls, the lads clothing is often indiscernible from youths in Europe or the U.S, with the addition of... curly-toed boots.
Given our tight pockets it is extremely rare that we ever frequent bars, not that this prevents us from checking out interesting looking examples - typically those seediest joints that just might squeeze into our budget (and throw up some characters). Lanquin had such a hidden boozer where we were warmly welcomed into the subterranean barely lit den and beckoned to join one particularly debauched party. What were we to do? Another alcoholic notable was The Mirador
an elevated bar on the outskirts of town that, surreally, served beer for shop prices... Where was their mark-up? Actually, often, this applied equally to their staff (singular): where was she? We, the only clientele we ever witnessed, were simply left to fend for ourselves.
The afternoon before
our departure there was a great commotion in the streets below: a protest march that consisted of all the town's children bearing banners and chanting slogans. Their gripe? The lack of teachers at the school that limited their daily lessons. It was only later that we reflected upon this and regretted not having approached the principal to volunteer ourselves in whatever roles might have been of use. We really could have stayed on for several months because Lanquin is, quite inexplicably, extremely endearing.
Next up our most eagerly anticipated destination of the trip thus far, the legendary Lago de Atitlan.
Once - 85,000 years ago - this area was home to a single super volcano that, in a moment of pique, blew its top. It spewed ash as far as Florida and Panama, ejected more than 150 times the amount of rock as Mt. St. Helens' eruption back in 1980 and left swathes of Guatemala buried 200m deep in its fallout; indeed such was its force that the whole structure collapsed into its magma chamber and left a rather large hole: eight by eighteen kilometers to be precise, that now, somewhat more chilled, is
home to Atitlan's rather pretty lake. The current three baby volcanos, very kindly, sprouted around 20,000 years later to leave us with the stunning setting we are presented with today. Oh, and for some geological reason, on a sunny day, the lake itself is still - even with the developments of recent decades around its periphery - gorgeously, limpidly, emerald in colouration.
The gringo shuttle bus (apparently the only option) wound through Panajachel's (Pana's) streets shortly after dark and deposited us all at the dock, most aboard seeking to catch the day's final launches headed across the lake to San Pedro or San Marcus. We, however, had opted to initially stay in Pana, primarily as this most touristy of the lake's towns provides the best viewing point for the triad of volcanoes on the opposite, southern, shore: volcans San Pedro, Toliman and Atitlan. Our plan was to find a cheap place for the night and, in the morning, gauge whether a longer stay was merited. Initial enquiries at hostels threw up universal, unbudging, offers of 150Q per night. Thus, with Ali minding the packs, I headed into the shadowy rat-run passageways to the north western quarter of
town, down which even tuk-tuks have to squeeze. Here proprietors were far more prepared to bargain and eventually I beat down a rather desperate, though ultimately very grateful, young lad to a more reasonable 100Q. David's Hospadaje D'Reyes
has only been in operation for a year - it was previously the family home - and it is struggling amidst severe competition. We were his only guests. The rooms are spotless; really, they are immaculate: the sumptuous beds, downy pillows and crisp bedding, a dream. Having dumped our stuff and eaten at a great little roadside barbeque we returned with a few beers and enquired (an oversight on my part for not having confirmed this previously) if there was a roof terrace? He apologised, there was not. I gestured towards the stairs leading up to the roof. Could I take a look? Sure enough there was a semi-covered area, even provisioned with a table and chairs. Yes, his mum's chickens were also in residence and there was no lighting but this would suit our purposes just fine, short term. Hence, over the next two days, we spoke with David at length about hostels, what we believe potential punters seek and what,
to our minds, constitutes needless (certainly in an infant business) expenditure: he did have a roof terrace and a minimal investment in lighting and more tables/chairs would make it a real selling point. Please do not remodel any more rooms until you are filling those already - beautifully - in place. Compromise on prices is good: a small profit is better than none at all; whilst many small profits magnify.
Obviously, having already been in residence for two nights, we found Pana to be more than just a kitsch touristic slum. And so what did we do? We deserted him. Several further serendipitous meanders northwards we had found and duly haggled (for a multiple night's stay) an amazing alternative in Hospedaje Eli
. For even less we had gained a well appointed guest-use kitchen (without a doubt the biggest saving any backpacker can exploit), whilst the premises themselves were a plant-filled oasis. Ali now walked the streets in dread of bumping into David who we'd led to believe we were San Pedro bound.
Once again we were typically the only guests in residence and we made ourselves thoroughly at home. Culinary improvisations included beef stroganoff,
carbonara, spicy chorizo pasta and chicken (no name) curry.
On Sunday afternoon we joined the locals (and hoards of Guatemalan day trippers) in watching a five-a-side tournament (the Red Sparrows would have walked it) literally on the lake side - the ball(s) probably thought it was a water polo competition. Whilst mingling and wandering among the revellers we crossed a dry riverbed and came across a most entrepreneurial young man who had constructed his own fairground side-shows, essentially from flotsam. I paid my 2Q and tried the "knock the stack of cans down with an almost spherical ball" challenge but, not surprisingly, was defeated by the less than flat playing field. Another man sat before a set of bathroom scales. Ali hopped on and, for her 1Q, discovered - if they were remotely accurate - that she seriously needs to add a few pounds: breakfast egg consumption was immediately upped to three each and lunch was added to the daily menu.
Then one day in waltzed an Argentinian couple - artisanal jewelry makers - who, the cheek of it, liked to cook. This was most inconvenient. Their names are Pablo and Mirella and by day two
we were firm friends and took to alternating in cooking our joint meals. Pablo's understated "chicken and rice", lying somewhere between risotto and biryani, was dynamite. It also materialised that they are rather fine dancers, not of tango, but the northern dance zamba. Samba? No, zamba. Our blank expressions initiated a clearing of furniture and a demonstration of the sexy yet restrained courtship dance that had elements of both a medieval court and a loved-up bull fight. They were later to perform another variant complete with "the pink cape". Ali cried.
Eventually we did migrate across the water to San Pedro where we'd be sharing an Air-B&B with our German chums Lutz and Caro whom we'd met in Tulum, Mexico. And a charming, sleepy, back alleyway located apartment it was. They were here for two weeks of Spanish classes, whilst we'd merely continue our chilling.
If Lutz and Caro spend less than $50 in a day it is apparently known as an "Andy and Ali day". That said, they mostly refer to us as the boozy Bells. In my father's parlance "we resemble that comment".
Together as "Boaty McBoatface" we competed
in a pub quiz and were disappointed to finish a tawdry fourth: there being a serious dearth of molecular biology or robotics questions. However, we do now know that LeBron James won three NBA titles...
Pablo and Mirella came across for a day trip armed with a most aromatic brownie that made our subsequent trek to and around San Juan all the more interesting, if somewhat disorientated. San Juan is far less touristy than Pana or San Pedro and the locals are amazingly welcoming; everyone bids you Buenas and we were constantly thanked for coming to visit their town. It was no hardship (calves aside - it is mighty steep) as the town, known both for its painters and weavers, is a very pleasant place to wander.
Here we discovered frozen bananas dipped in molten chocolate that creates a scrummier version of the choc-ice.
Of course being Argentinian our companions were able to hold real conversations with the people we encountered. It just so happened that our joint visit fell on April 2nd, a date known to all Central and South Americans for the day back in 1982 when the Argentinian
army landed in the Malvinas. Indeed it is a national holiday in Argentina - not that Pablo or Mirella had mentioned anything. Several locals, though certainly not hostile to us Brits, were intrigued that the Argentinians had chosen such friends.
Back in San Pedro, Caro had organised, through the language school, a pre-dawn trip up to "Indian nose" (the less than PC name given to a particular peak on the skyline that is said to resemble a Mayan proboscis) to view sunrise over the lake. Ali and I had considered an independent (way cheaper) ascent, but robberies of unescorted walkers by machete brandishing local bandidos are not uncommon. This is also the site where the young English girl apparently fell to her death in March after a similar lone climb. At this point there had been no rain in Atitlan all year. We are the kiss of death (or the harbingers of life) as, retiring early before our 3a.m. rise, in rolled a serious thunderstorm and torrential rain. Sure enough on awaking conditions were little better; it had stopped raining but dense low clouds remained. It was a great view, but hardly the stunning vista we'd hoped
for. Accompanied we didn't get robbed, and therein lies a thought... It is an easy - well maintained - walk; people do look after it and rightly there should be some contribution to the community, but equally it is an unstated fact that the locals ignore (some have said encourage) robberies if you are not paying for a guide because this fear maintains a cushty, inflated, little earner.
Additional excursions saw us take launches across to San Marcos that does have a very pretty bougainvillea-formed tunnel up from the dock to town, but is - to our minds - a yoga/reiki/holistic medicinal/vegan/bizarrely-clad-travellers hell; and to Santa Cruz, that whilst less touristy is no San Juan.
Meanwhile our waistlines were expanding. Lutz and Caro made their own dough and then miraculously, given the stuttering oven, produced a succession of magnificent pizzas. Not content with these superlatives several nights later Caro created the most scrummy meatballs that while a German recipe reminded me of my Turkish uncle Mustapha's. It has to be said that the kitchen could have been better equipped. Fortunately there was "the pan"; this was essentially an aluminium tin that acted as (inverted)
a pizza stone, a frying pan, a lid for boiling water in a pot and... a plate (really, there were only three plates provided)... There was no end to its utility. We all remember it fondly.
We returned, after several boozy afternoons revising (you won't catch us out on moons in our solar system nor the third member of Apollo XI who didn't get to step on our's for that matter), for another quiz night and were duly dumped by our Germans for two of their compatriots - a maximum of four being allowed per team. Ali and I, flying alone, again came a poor fourth, but at least we had beaten the combined might of the huns. That said, respect indeed to the Germans given the number of questions where they have to translate multiple times and the German name - of a novel say - may not even be the same as the English title.
What we are missing - where are they - are Israelis, or indeed any other card-loving individuals. Consequently we're having to make a conscious effort to stay on top of our Yaniv game.
week together with Lutz and Caro was coming to an end; they were moving to a home-stay to practice their Spanish, whilst we were due to push on to Antigua. Prices, especially in Guatemala's most stunning Unesco-listed city, were escalating as Semana Santa (Easter: the biggest celebration of the year here in Central America) approached. Then, on a wander to the very outskirts of town, looking for a promising fishing spot, we happened upon Hotel Villa del Lago
. Slap bang on the lake, with a magnificent kitchen, rooms with chaired and hammocked balconies literally hanging over the water, and a grassy bank right on it, surely this was well above our means. A casual enquiry threw up an alternative to our onward plans. Initially we were offered 150Q for a room; this was way cheaper than expected but still we baulked and asked if a longer stay might reduce this price? Yes, it would. We didn't negotiate then and instead departed to consider our options, fairly confident that we might knock this down significantly. Mum seemed the negotiating type. Unable to make a decision: it was twelve days before the end of the festive season, and that did seem like
a long, long - further - time to remain idly static. But what a setting... and prices would surely crash in Antigua post Semana... We left our plans up to mum and returned with an unconditional price in mind: 100Q and we'd stay, any more and we'd be Antigua bound. Total ambivalence is almost impossible to fake; we, truly undecided, had it. Mum liked not 100Q and countered with 120. We thanked her and turned to leave. She shrugged and nodded; OK, 100. Lutz and Caro would now be ahead of us... and providing us with reconnaissance.
The lake frontage before del Lago
bears a dozen or so large ribbed stone tablets, each raised a foot or so proud of the water creating a horizontal table. These the local ladies (and Ali) assemble at for handwashing. Many of the women do this topless which does make some sense as they are waist-deep in the water, plus it appears common practice to have a bath yourself when finished with the clothes. Ali, keen not to scare the local children, retained her top. In addition there are some large boulders from which bathers (washing purposes) and swimmers (pleasure purposes)
seemingly constantly jump or dive off into the water. None of this was aiding my quest for a 2019 (pre-Simon) carp. We do know they are in the lake - we'd seen the partial corpse of one in the market - but swathes of soap suds and crashing bodies precluded the possibility of catching one on our doorstep. Nevertheless, somewhat down the bank I did try, twice. And failed, twice. Thus far I had purchased five cans of corn in my quest for a Guatemalan Cyprinus carpio
, the equivalent price of a decent room: carp are definitely cheaper in the US. There is also a local fisherman who lays several gill nets directly in front of us and in the dozen or so times that I've seen him lift these never has he caught a fish larger than my palm. That said, maybe his nets (their mesh size) are uniformly not designed for catching larger specimens - my eyesight is not proficient enough to discern. Possibly for good reason as, that one sectioned carp aside (that might have weighed 4lbs), no fish we've witnessed in the markets (all percids or bass) can have exceeded 2lbs in weight. The lake really
does appear to only hold small specimens - bizarre for its size - and according to some it is getting progressively worse with the gradual increase in pollution (boat fuel, farming run-off, washing soap and - no doubt - a sizeable amount of effluent) and the accompanying algal blooms. This doesn't stop us all swimming in it though - without, to date, stomach bugs or ear infections...
Women handwashing brings to mind Guatemalan skirts (part B). Again, in these parts, they still employ a great length of material; but, rather than being gathered by a drawstring, here they are loosely wrapped around the waist and then the slack taken up by creating two forward, pleat forming, folds with the assembly maintained by a broad cummerbund-like belt. To my eye (yes, thankyou Eric Morley) these are far more flattering. They do still wear flouncy blouses though.
So what did we do with our additional twelve days lake-side? We broadened our cooking repertoires, walked, lazed, read, swam, played cards and scrabble, did a few crosswords and... drank... And then there were the Semana Santa celebrations with their processions and alfombras (temporary street-laid carpets made from dyed
sawdust, chopped green vegetation, fruit and flowers) that we followed and viewed, respectively, both in San Pedro and San Juan.
Semana (Easter) aside it was also, equally, Passover and, wouldn't you know it, we were suddenly joined by a large Jewish congregation: four of whom were staying either side of us. Yaniv was, surely, on the cards. Errrr... no. Only one guy was actually Israeli, the other members of the extended collective being American (mainly), British and Australian, knowing not how to play God's game. Atitlan (San Pedro) is seemingly a Passover go-to, it having a very much geared-up scene. We duly cocked-up on several occasions: Ali, seeing flies buzzing around a lush-looking pot of cumin-infused veggie soup duly covered it with a random - clean - lid. Obviously, in hindsight, and with subsequent information, this was non-kosher. Our neighbouring guys (and two rather stunning sisters) were travelling with all their own cooking equipment, as is, by their faith, necessary. I, during a random conversation about food (it was late and we had all been drinking), nodded to their requirement for halal meat. Really? Still... they were a lovely, forgiving of ignorance, bunch. And whilst we discretely
aided - no lighting of fire being allowed - a fellow smoker to do such they taught us a new card game: Cambio. Given its name (and likely origin) it probably won't aid us in further infiltrating Judaist circles, but it is a good game.
With rainy season beginning to encroach we needed to see a man about a volcano, a more distant and far more recalcitrant example named - justly - Fuego.
Volcan Fuego and its less feisty neighbour Volcan Acatenango lie a mere 15 km to the west of Antigua. Amazingly Lonely Planet
mentions neither: climbing the latter to view the erupting former is, for our money, the single must-do in Guatemala; hell, it's the most spectacular show in all of Central America. And this has been the case since 2002 when Fuego started on its current activity cycle. On June 3rd 2018 such was its outburst that 159 people from nearby communities were killed, 300 further were injured and the runway at Guatemala city's international airport - some 40km away - was covered in ash; the lava flow itself spread 2km. Currently it erupts every twenty minutes or so. During the
day each thunderous rumble is accompanied by a huge plume of smoke. At night however, the full pyrotechnics become visible with magma shooting hundreds of feet into the air and the pyroclastic larva flows visible as they pour over the caldera's rim.
Antigua itself is a beautiful city, much like Oaxaca and San Christobal in Mexico it is all cobbled streets, pastel coloured houses with terracotta tiled roofs, intermingled with crumbling old colonial churches. With a little effort we found a basic hostel (El Viajera) with a sweet, somewhat scatty, lady proprietor who requested our - now cut-off - 100Q for a private room. The kitchen wasn't the best (Ali was promptly on a clean-up campaign) but the shady garden compensated. One boon was our host's price for the overnight Acatenango ascent that was 50Q cheaper than any others we'd been offered or heard of. Checking the weather forecast - visibility is all - we booked for the following day.
Our small party of eight trekkers was made up with young couples from Italy and Argentina, plus a French guy and an Indian, Rishi, who would become known as Mr. Malady. All were a
good twenty years younger than us. This gave rise to a modicum of concern as we'd hate to be the dwardlers: everyone who has performed the climb describes it as a killer. It is only six hours up to camp, but it is seriously up and almost exclusively on trails of loose scree; plus everyone needs to carry their own water (4L is recommended), food (provided), additional energy-boosting snacks, and cold weather gear for overnight as at 3400m camp gets mighty chilly. The 4am final push to the summit at 3900m sees temperatures drop to well below zero. Finally the winter wear gear from our out-sized packs would see an outing: the thermals, fleeces, puffer jackets, wind-cheaters, neckerchiefs, hats and gloves were far more suited to need than the assemblage of freebie loans our companions were provided with. For once we didn't look like the homeless contingent. Scarily, several of our new chums were hiking up in plimsolls or trainers and even our el-cheapo Mexican boots Heading beach wards..... barefoot....
were going to provide far more traction and support.
Rishi had misunderstood instructions and set off with some 6L of water and another litre of orange juice; his rucksack was
immense. We immediately advised that he jettison several litres. He didn't and he struggled majorly. Fitness wise we needn't have worried as Ali and I were always on the heel of Nestor our guide and the three of us were constantly waiting for the pack... and then Rishi... to catch us up. It was hard but nothing compared to the agonies involved with climbing Mt. Rinjani Bed bugs, viruses and a buggered back...
and on having traversed four distinct elevational zones we rounded a bend to catch our first glimpse of Fuego just as it emitted a deep rumble and a rolling plume of grey smoke. Wow...
Having settled into camp with its magnificent view of the periodically belching Fuego before us we wandered around to a viewing point for sunset. Predictably, given our recent bad luck on excursions, in rolled some cloud. This was to worsen as darkness descended. We could hear the eruptions, but see nothing. The forecast was for clear skies from 1am so after a rather good pasta dinner huddled around the fire we all retired for a few hours sleep. Nevertheless, particularly large eruptions invariably saw someone peek outside the tent to check on visibility. Sure enough at
a little after 11pm one of our crowd yelled and soon everyone was out to view the spectacle: the sky was beautifully clear, packed with stars and an amazing view of the milky way; meanwhile from atop Fuego magma was shooting into the air, flaming boulders spat soaring through the sky whilst larva cascaded down its slopes. Each new explosion was met with sighs and cheers. What an experience; it was breathtaking. Never before have I so regretted not having a really good camera - our point and shoot was totally out of its depth.
After an hour of wonderment we all retired again knowing that at 4am we were due to make the half a mile slog up the scree to Acatenango's summit (3900m) for sunrise. Dahhh, we needn't have bothered. Up top we were greeted with a freezing howling gale; really, the power of it made standing difficult and being blown off more than a remote possibility. To add insult to injury the swirling cloud was so thick that you struggled to see your feet much less Fuego or the rising sun. Most climbers gave up without summiting, but not Rishi who finally emerged, gloveless:
"I can't seem to be able to let go of my climbing staff". We were happy to just make it down and back to camp safely.
It did clear again around breakfast time, although now, in the light, the performance was once again limited to smoke.
The descent back to the road for our pick-up was messy. Ali and I were slipping majorly, but for those without boots it was bruising in the extreme. We pushed on and then waited for the others at the lower checkpoint. Twenty minutes later there was still no sign of Rishi or Nestor - no doubt Rishi's slick shoes were proving a problem - so the rest of us headed on down. Then several hundred yards from the bottom Nestor, running, came hurtling past us. Rishi had fallen badly, sprained his ankle and was in need of a horse to bring him down... He was lucky it was only a sprain. Thus we waited, eyelids drooping, for our calamitous mounted Indian to join us.
Eleven hours of serious trekking in twenty four had certainly left us stiff, but it had so been worth it.
Back once again in Antigua we began to really appreciate its appeal and found ourselves staying on for a further five days. It radiates a wonderful peaceful ambience after dark. And the supermarket sells litre tetra-packs of Argentinian wine for little more than $2...
Oh, and a last aside... In Mexico tortillas were rolled, by hand or by machine. Here in Guatemala you can hear a tortilla in preparation as they are invariably made by hand, the dough literally clapped, mid-air from one to the other. We like that.
Guatemala hasn't quite won our hearts the way Mexico did and we're struggling to fathom quite why this is the case. There hasn't been a single destination in almost six weeks that we didn't enjoy (Finca Tatin's meanness aside); the people are, once again, welcoming and kind; whilst the experiences have been varied and unique. It is a wonderful country but we were ready to move on: next up, El Salvador.
Tot: 0.131s; Tpl: 0.035s; cc: 12; qc: 33; dbt: 0.0086s; 1; m:saturn w:www (18.104.22.168); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.5mb