Now that we’re in Honduras, I thought I should write somethng about the 2 weeks we spent in Guatemala.
It started out with a tight border crossing at Mesilla. By tight I mean that even though you might think that a border crossing would have a 2 lane road to get through, in Mesilla you literally drive through a market with stalls overflowing into the narrow road and people having to move things out of the way for a truck to squeak by. Had we not been warned by our friends Marcus & Julie, we never would have proceeded the right way because it didn’t look passable. But once the locals moved the stack of shoe boxes, the man with the umbrella cart pushed his wares aside and the locals who were eating ice cream in the street moved over, we could pass and head to the immigration office. Then they filled in the gap where we’d just passed, like waves filling a stern wake. We’ve learned to just not ask why. We wished we’d had the dash camera on because it would’ve been funny to watch that footage. From there, things generally made sense and we got checked in after about an hour. The friendly official showed me a big smile and said welcome to Guatemala which made me feel good. The funny thing was, we ran into Sylvia, a German backpacker who we hiked with at Ixta volcano. That always amazes me. By improbable coincidence, we end up crossing a border on the same day at the same time.
After such a smooth crossing once we got past the umbrellas, we figured the rest of the day we were home free. Well, the first 60km of road was filled with huge potholes, we got stuck in a 2 hour traffic jam for some ungodly reason and we ended up in a hotel parking lot with nothing pretty to look at. Well one good thing about having a camper is when you close your door you’re home! And its beautiful in here! The next morning, we went into the hotel for a nice buffet breakfast and hit the road for Lake Atitlan on full stomachs. Since we’re really trying to move south with intention and because driving down here is so stressful, we’ve decided to try to hit a few sights in each country of things that we’re most interested in and leave the rest. Well maybe not in Costa Rica because that will be new to us. Jon & I had fond memories of Lake Atitlan from 15 years ago (even though we got giardia there) when we left Evergreen in the Rio Dulce and traveled by bus to go to spanish school.
Along the way, we stopped for a night at Chichicastanengo, which has I think the largest Mayan market in the country. We walked the town, swung in to the colorful cemetery, visited the market the next morning to take in the scene and then rolled out to get to San Marcos on Lake Atitlan. The campground was like an oasis and we remembered how it can feel to get overwhelmed by all the “culture” and need a clean, quietish place to collect ourselves. We find Guatemala beats Mexico for fumes and trash. You can’t get away from fumes or dust. If there isn’t any around, someone will make some so there is. Meanwhile, the countryside is steep and beautiful in its natural state and its hard to look out over it and know that most often you can’t really access it in the way you would like to. Back at the market…it was interesting to watch the Mayan women crowded around the stalls that sell fabric or patterns because they make their own colorful clothing and learn to do it at a very young age. Babies too! The Mayan women seem close to each other, like they stick together.
We were really looking forward to getting to the lake and there’s an extremely popular overlander’s campground there run by a French guy named Pierre. It was a long drive to get there, the last couple of hours down a very steep road with many hairpin turns and little towns with low wires that called for all of our attention. But we made it down there and through a couple of “community tolls” and entered into another oasis except this one was top notch with beautiful landscaping, full of birds, a dock and a lovely lawn to sit out on. The whole time we were there, we had a version of Woody Woodpecker going on because there was this bird that sounded just like him! We really enjoyed our time there and it was good to find a gem of a place. At Lake Atitlan, you get around by water taxi. The water is crystal clear and good for swimming. We visited Reserva Atitlan that Jon & I actually went to last time we were there which is full of pretty foliage and a butterfly garden. It’s still a beautiful place and the butterflies were a big hit with us. Jon & I took the packrafts out one morning and on another day we hiked along the shore on an old Mayan trail that’s now improved for tourists. We were all excited to hike up San Pedro volcano like Sylvia was doing but she wrote and said her hike got cut short because a tourist was assaulted. That’s 0 for 2 in the volcano department since we couldn’t do Ixta volcano either.
I remember that feeling we used to get that your emotions are like a yo-yo down here. Sometimes you feel like you’re walled in to whatever is nice with the roughness just on the other side which can feel claustrophobic but then at others you discover something truly special and you rejoice inside that you stuck it out to find it. Meanwhile, we all remark that we’ve been met with nothing but kindness here often with big smiles and a warm welcome.
Feeling rested and ready to move on, we headed up and away from the lake to Antigua via a back road with utility lines so low we brushed a few with our roof. That was a first but I’m sure it won’t be the last! The tourist police in Antigua occupy an old estate site and they allow travelers to park inside thier guarded walls for free. This worked out great because we could be right in the city and have our truck safe & sound too. Well we can definitely say that Antigua has grown a bunch but mainly it’s because there are a lot of fumes from more traffic. We hired the same tour company as last time to drive us to the outskirts of the city to mountain bike back in. It was fun but not as much as last time mainly because of fumes and traffic! Our guide even got a flat tire so we spent some time waiting for him to get that fixed too. It was nice to be out biking but it was nowhere near the calibre we’ve gotten used to.
We had fun touring the streets though and hiking up to a viewpoint and visiting all of the museums of the Casa Santo Domingo Hotel. It started as a monastery back in the 1500’s, then suffered through the Santa Marta earthquake in 1773 that resulted in Central America’s capital being moved from Antigua to Guatemala City. Many years later it was restored to what it is today, a fancy hotel with 6 little museums set in many of the preserved walls of the original structure. One of the art museums was especially interesting in that it took ancient Mayan art pieces and set them next to more modern glass art pieces from Europe, namely France & Sweden that express the same idea. We particularly liked these glass pieces from Europe!!
On a recommendation from Marcus & Julie, we treated ourselves to a delicious western style dinner of filet mignon at a nice restaurant which we could do since after all this is Guatemala! And before dinner, we took in the sunset at a rooftop bar. There are a lot of those in Antigua. That was our night out on the town.
When we were in Antigua years ago, we climbed up Picaya volcano on a tour and at that time, it was spewing orange lava right at our feet. Standing on a BBQ, it was quite a rush to smell our shoes melting and behold all that creepy slow moving lava so close. Well they changed those rules for obvious reasons and then the volcano erupted a few years ago and now it doesn’t have any lava anymore. But Ivan read that the new hottie is Acatenango volcano and its even better because you look over to Volcan Fuego which erupts every few minutes spewing out a plume of ash and molten rock. We were pretty excited to get up high out of the fumes of Antigua to camp in cooler air and even more excited to backpack up Acatenango volcano.
We got settled in to a small campground where we just barely fit and got packed up to start the hike from there. The owner offered us a little cabin at the basecamp at a little over 12,000 feet so we didn’t have to bring our tent which was great since we wouldn’t have to worry if it rained because we’d have an indoor space. It only took about 4 hours to reach the basecamp but it was quite steep. We were up in the clouds so we couldn’t see Fuego at first even though we could hear it booming not too far away.
Out little red cabin was cute and it was one of 3 on a sliver of cliff looking out to Fuego, unlike the larger tents just below us, meant for tour groups. We found out when we got there that sure, you can fit 3 into a cabin- but you won’t have any room in there for anything else but the 3 cots! We laughed a lot but then we have been lined up in the huts together in Spain while backpacking in the Pyrenes so we could do it again- no problem!
We spent the afternoon and evening hanging out in our chairs looking over to the spectacle of Fuego and down to the string of backpackers arriving to their big communal tents. It’s funny how much this natural feature that just is, attracts all of this infrastructure (as basic as it is) and it feels good to know there are so many people willing to put in the effort to get up to see it. We made friends with our other cabin neighbors and really enjoyed their company. We met Benson, a British guy who is biking the entire PanAm for a pediatric cardiology charity. He actually started up in Deadhorse, Alaska right about the time we were up there last summer and he’ll most likely arrive to Argentina before we get there even though he’s on a bicycle. He calls himself “The Biking Viking” and he’s got a Youtube channel that he’s trying to build up. Really interesting! Our time up there was enriched by getting to know his story and hanging out. While I’d love to hike the Pacific Crest Trail and I’d love to do a long distance bike ride, I’d never want to subject myself to the traffic down here so his perseverance for that is something I don’t have.
By day the volcano vents in grunts and groans and puffs out a lot of dark gray ash but then once it gets dark, the ash shows its orange ball of fire which is what makes Fuego so spectacular. Fiery rocks are shot way up into the air and fall on the flanks of the mountain. But once it got dark and the temps fell for the night, it wasn’t the most comfortable to park oneself out there in the wind to see it for long periods. And at times, the clouds would roll through and we couldn’t see anything.
After a rather sleepless night crammed into our cozy cabin, we got up before sunrise and watched the light fill in, taking pictures of the beautiful volcano. It was fun to have our coffee looking out to something so unique even if it was really cold up there. Then we packed up and headed uphill to the summit of Acatenango at over 13,000ft before hiking out and back to our waiting trucks. This volcano attracts a lot of people and we couldn’t believe how many were going up as we were headed down. What a great trip and we all came back feeling like this was a gem of a place to visit. And we got a good quad workout on the way down. It was a good closure to our time in Guatemala.
We started working our way downhill some more toward the Honduran border to cross to Copanas Ruinas, another place Jon & I had bused to years ago. Coming down out of the mountains, the heat hit us like a wall and the most comfortable place to be was in the truck cab driving. Since we couldn’t make it the whole way in a day, we swung in to a hotel that allows camping and we could use the pool. Before we left the US, we were going back and forth about whether to change out our AC air conditioner in the habitat for a 12V one but in the end we decided to stick with what we have. While we can the run the AC for a little bit on our batteries, we’ve now decided it isn’t a good idea so we only use it when we plug in which is not our usual preference. Better to stay at higher elevations and not need it. We think we’ve now decided to swap it out for a 12V one that we could run off our batteries but of course now it is much more difficult to get!
The border was relatively easy as both countries are in one building so you can clear out and then in again in one mildly air conditioned room. It’s so funny how some countries require numerous copies of everything you’ve got and some don’t require any. Honduras likes copies.
We wanted to visit another extensive Mayan ruin site- Copan, and there were a couple other interesting spots as well. Unesco protected Copan isn’t as large as Tikal and it doesn’t have the howler monkeys like Yaxchilan, but it’s full of massive trees and macaws. Thanks to the Macaw Recovery center, the area’s macaw population has recovered from overharvesting for the pet trade and now they are all over squawking and dropping small branches on our trucks. We enjoyed the ruins in the morning and then the bird center in the afternoon. They even had a few toucans. Since we’d only ever seen them from afar, it was great to be able to be up close and really study them and their quiet personality. I think they’re quite shy. We closed the place down and so the owner (we suspect) a nice man from Tenesssee, offered to drive us back into town with his staff. So we got to ride local style all standing up in the back of a truck. The only difference was we had to hold on and the staff did not- they keep their balance automatically.
Jon & I also walked to a sunflower farm one afternoon. It was a pretty place with fields of sunflowers in various stages of height, colorful palapas, a corn maze and just the kind of quiet that we don’t get that often. It would be the first evening that they got rain since mid February so the clouds were building but it held off until we were back home again.
Yesterday, we did a long driving day in AC to the La Ceiba vicinity. We plan to do a half day of white water rafting on the famous Cangrejal River, a hike in Pico Bonito NP and then we have made plans to spend a week in Utila scuba diving. We’ve been talking about diving together for over a year now and we’re finally in a great & economical place to do it. Ivan needs to take his class and we found out that PADI rules changed and with an Open Water certification you can only dive to 60 feet. So even though we sailed and dove all over the world to deeper depths with our own onboard compressor, we now are relegated to diving with shops since we no longer have our boat and that means we need the Advanced course! So, off we go for a week on Utila. If we had to justify it we could say it’s Ivan’s birthday present because you only turn 50 once and it’s our anniversary present because we’re only going to be married for 29 years once. Either way, we can’t wait to jump in with the fish and just live to dive for a bit.
2 Replies to “Guatemala”
Totally awesome! It was so nice to see so many familiar things in Guatemala thru your eyes, plus things we missed! Hope your diving in Utility is as good as ours was. One of many stunning, gorgeous underwater places we had the privilege to visit! It’s awesome what you’re doing!
How things change over the years… Great post! Especially the volcano hike and cabin.
I would hold off swapping your AC unit as in South America it’s easy to get to high elevations and not be hot. As a matter of fact, during the six months we’ve been in Colombia, wearing warm clothes far outweighs the few days we’ve worn shorts, T-shirts, and flip flops. Oh, and the rain has been awful as well. I haven’t seen a blue sky in many months. 🙁