Day 1 – 6 El Mirador
I actually landed in Guatemala late the day before and spent a night in a hotel close to the airport. I have heard and read a lot about the country’s capital being unsafe and I got a glimpse of it. The neighborhood in which I stayed was completely locked up. The gate was secured by guards with heavy firearms, there were fences everywhere, not really the Care Bears World. Maybe a little bit too much? Anyway, there are many places higher on my priority list so I’ll pass this time.
I have booked my flight to the North of the country for the following morning, to the city of Flores. On landing, the sun is here to welcome our arrival and temperature is 30°C at 8am. Great!!! That’s exactly what I was looking for coming to Guatemala. Neil, the owner of the hostel, picks me up to take me to his little paradise. He is a very friendly Belicean who moved to Guatemala living the good life with his wife. The centre of Flores is actually a small island on the lake Péten Itza. But my bed awaits in the small town of San Miguel, across the lake. After a 5 minutes boat ride (called “lancha”), I step back in time, to what life seemed to be like in the 1950s. Pigs, chickens and other animals are free in the street, people live in cabans made of recycled material and the tourism doesn’t seem to have made its way here. Neil explains me that it is so isolated (the only access is via the boat), that is hasn’t been able to develop as quickly as in the mainland. We then reach the hostel and the landscape is literally amazing. It is built on a hill surrounding the lake you have a 180° view over the lake and Flores Island. Fantastic, this is like paradise!
My bag dropped, I head back to the city centre, my camera in hand. The streets are extremely colourful, all houses painted in different tones. The contrasts are stunning. Even at 10 in the morning, the sun was burning hot! It also meant that the light was very harsh and the shadows very pronounced which isn’t great for photography. I still managed to get the one below from a hill on the island, looking across the lake and the little town of San Miguel.
Late morning, I stop my exploration to have some lunch in the restaurant lakeside. I stayed there for a couple of hours sipping cold soda and enjoying the view. What else would you want to do? This is what life is all about here. And what about a beer at the hostel terrace? That also sounds great! Unfortunately by the ti,e I got back, the beautiful white clouds had turned into uniform dark grey sky and the rain started to fall shortly after. Not much to do or see in these conditions.
I ordered some food at around 6:30pm. I was so tired and jetlagged that I fell asleep on the table The lady had to wake me up when she brought the dinner. The rain stopped, the sky started to clear out and the sun was coming down. Good conditions for a nice sunset shot.
A bit frustrated by not being able to make most of the day, I go to the bed in the small bungalows realatively early. I have to wake up at 3:30 tomorrow and start the 5-days trek to El Mirador, lost Mayan complex in the Péten jungle. I can’t wait to see a bit more action! (…and hopefully a wild jaguar…)
The first part of the journey is a 3-hour ride in a 4WD on very bumpy road. We are going towards a small village, the last before the jungle where the community Carmelita is living. The people here are responsible for the land and provide guides to take tourists through the deep jungle. Of course, groups are never large for this type of expedition and only 3 of us took part to this adventure: François and Kine. At our arrival, I have mixed feelings. Some people are extremely welcoming and take us to have some breakfast in a very basic comedor. But we walk next to a large group of men completely wasted at 9 in the morning. One of them even seemed completely passed out! Hopefully our guide isn’t one of them… The breakfast was very traditional with scrambled eggs, roasted banana, tortillas and a sort of black puree that I couldn’t recognise. It is actually blackbeans mashed up called “frijoles”. Berkkk! At first bite I thought it was going to come out straight away. It made me feel terrible. I wanted to be polite and respectful but yet it was physically impossible to eat this. Even with loads of tortilla and eggs to mask the taste. I had to leave most of it in the plate as we got called to load the donkeys. Yes that’s right, donkeys! A dozen of them to take our bags, food, water, kitchenware and everything that we would need during these 5 days. We also meet our guide Miguel. He is a very short and skinny Guatemalan and, luckily, sober. Ouf! His wife also accompanies us to look after the camp and prepare our meals.
The expedition crew all packed up, we start our journey to the heart of the Mayan jungle. I realised after a couple of hours that this trek would be more painful than expected. The ground was unequal with larges holes in the dray and hard terrain. They are caused by the donkeys during the wet season when the path is muddy. “But what was he expecting?”, you must think. Well, I imagined myself a machete in the hand, cutting lianas and small trees to make my way through the jungle. Like Indiana Jones! 🙂 But instead we were on a highway, very painful for the feet, lot less heroic. The spider monkeys join our lunch break. These local primates have extremely long arms, legs and tales to jump from a branch to another. They are really agitated animals, handing onto branches and shaking them hard! At least they stay on pose so I have to time a few good photos.
The path gets a little bit narrower as we got deeper into the jungle. We walk passed many Mayan tombs which, buried under some 1500 years of ground, leaves and trees, look like tiny little hills. Apart from the fact that all of them had been open by tomb robbers in search for valuable artefacts. A few hours later, I noticed that the hills were slighly bigger (a lot bigger actually). We had actually entered another lost Mayan city called “El Tintal”. The surrounding hills were not tombs but buried temples and palaces. I was extremely surprised to find such an important archeological site completely unexcavated. And it’s pretty obvious it’s here! But unfortunately it is very isolated and resources are not important enough to explore all sites in the country. We stood on a very wide plane surface which used to be a Mayan football pitch. Their ball game is not very well understood but the rules seem to be keeping the ball from the ground without using their feet, legs, hands, arms and head… Hip and chest only? It seems so.
At this time, the spider monkeys granted us of their company again, and showed the same agitation as their comrades earlier. I was taking my camera out to capture another few photos when I heard a branch cracking above me, which hit the ground a few meters away. So I moved a dozen meters and the monkeys followed, breaking more branches, touching ground clsoer and closer to us. They’re fucking attacking us!!! And they can be pretty accurate these little basterds! Miguel explained to me that they are a very aggressive species and we better get out of the area as soon as possible. We are chased away by monkeys…
Luckily they don’t follow us and we can reach a large edifice, in peace. It is called Henequén and used to be a Mayan brewery. We can still find the remains of ceramic drums in the surroundings. Miguel attaches the donkeys to a tree and tells us to climb and that he would join us in 5 minutes. What a steep climb! The steps are high and quite a large number of them. It is completely exhausted that I reach the top, but God the view is breathtaking. We are above the jungle canopy and we can see tree tops until the horizon. No sign of civilization!
But 15 minutes later, Miguel still hasn’t joined us. Nevermind, let’s climb down and meet him and his wife. But as I approach where we left them, I realise that they’re gone. No trace of them, of the donkeys or anything. I look around to see if they have moved somewhere else but they’ve simply disappeared. It sounds extrem but I started to imagine the worst “Miguel heard voices just before we went up and seemed scared. What if he told us to climb to protect us from illeagal loggers and they got kidnapped?” “What if they’ve just left us?” “Would we be able to find our way back to the community?” Haha, I laughed! Come on, let’s be serious! They can’t be far. As I understood the camp was supposingly very close (maybe a couple of kilometers), so I walked in that direction to try and find it while my comrades stayed and waited at the bottom of the edifice. As it used the be a Mayan city, this area of the forest is quite clear so I have no difficulty to find the path. A few minutes pass and I see nothing. All the questions are getting louder and louder in my head and my heart rate is increasing. I don’t want to believe it! Is this really happening? And as I was considering walking back, I finally saw Miguel appear on the path between the trees, with a bowl of watermelon. “Que te pasa?”, he said. “No pareces bien!”. So I explained him the story and he just literally laughed at me. And I laughed with him cause I felt pretty stupid. 🙂
We decided to head back to the camp, rest, have some dinner and we’ll climb back up later for the sunset. I was surprised that the camp was relatively elaborate compared to where we were. There was 2 wooden buildings whith tables and chairs, stowage and cooking station. The wood was already burning underneath it. The lady had prepared the refreshing drink, which was nice but would have been excellent if chilled. But hey, that’s not something we can expect in the middle of the jungle with temparetures reaching 40°C.
Back at the top of the temple (yes, a temple!), I am a bit disappointed with the sunset. There are loads of clouds and the sun disappeared quickly, way before it got it’s orangish colour. Well, I’m sure we’ll se a few others so we climb back. If there was still some light above the jungle canopy, underneath it is very dark. We need to find our way back to the light of our torches. At the camp, hot tea is waiting for us. They prepared it from some berries called “pimienta” that they’ve collected today from a jungle tree. It tastes fabulous. Suddenly, Miguel calls us to show womething. He’s found a tarentula next to the camp, about 7-8 cm. As I sit back on my chair to finish my tea, François looks at me very calmly and says “Be careful behind you above your shoulder!” I look back and there a scorpion standing there. And of course, we later found a snake in the gravel just next to the camp. You can imagine my reaction when I realised the zip of the tent was not going all the way and the bottom couldn’t be closed… Anything could enter via that strip. It is with the thought of that scoprion and all its babies that I fall asleep.
As usual, I get up before the sun as I am still jetlagged and because we are going to climb the temple again for the sunrise. Only this time we are a bit luckier.
Back in camp, we take our first breakfast in the jungle. Even then, the mashed frijoles are in my plate… I try to eat but I still can’t. I know it’s going to be a long day, 7-8 hours walk to El Mirador but the eggs will do. We pack up, load the donkeys and off we go for the 2nd day of the expedition. It is very quiet. I was expecting the wildlife to be a lot more active in the morning but we didn’t hear a sound other than our own. The path was a lot narrower than yesterday but still as unequal. Late morning, we enter the El Mirador National Park marking our progress through the very dense forest. Later on, a very loud and raucous sound disturbed the nature tranquility. I had read about this animal producing a dinosaur noise, the howler monkey. When a few of them decide to get active at the same time, they concert is very impressive. I read later on that this species of monkey was considered to be one the loudest animal on earth.
We know we were approaching the end of our journey as we reached the first excavated Mayan edifice called “La Muerta”. It used to be a residential complex but had been turned into tumbs, hence its name. As we were looking around, I spotted a hole on the side and entered the mortal chamber. The first one was easy to observe as the day light was reaching its walls. At the back, there was a small tunnel leading to the second chamber. It was so small that I had to crawl and both my shoulders were touching the walls. It would probably be easy to get stuck in here. It is now pitch black and full of bats. I feel a bit like Indiana Jones exploring old ruins at the light of the torch. Miguel who was just behind me, indicates to put my teeshirt over my nose as the bat shit generates toxic gas. There are also remains and blood of insects hunted by the new tenants.
Only an hour later, we reach the camp at the archeological site. Even though, it is mid afternoon, the energy level is relatively low and we remain in camp to rest for a bit. It is only an hour before sunset that we head to the closest pyramid to watch the sunset, EL Tigre.
Again, nothing was excavated in this area and only one of the two small structures on the main platform of the pyramid had been uncovered. A lot of archeological work was going on here but none of them was present. They are working 4 months per year. At that peace, it might take them 50 years to excavate the entire site. Anyway, the sunset was worth it this time.
There was a few fireflies with us on the way back down to the camp. Of course, we were also expecting the more dangerous wildlife that we observed yesterday. But it didn’t show up the way we thought. After dinner, François decided to walk around the camp and only 5 minutes later, screamed as something stang him. He was wearing flip flops… Because it’s imposible to see in the drak, you never know what’s at your feet. It could be a branch, a mosquito or a snake. Miguel had a look, saw no blood, concluded it wasn’t a snake and sat him on a camp bench. A few minutes later, a snake came out of a hole in the ground and passed a few centimers from his foot. It could have been real this time. Only Miguel remained very relax and explained that this species wasn’t venimous. But still, how would we know!
Day 4 is dedicated to the exploration of the site. We start early to reach the top of La Danta (map above) before sunrise. The walk is actually longer than stated. After 30 minutes, you only reach the bottom of the structure. Its height of 72m, base surface of 180,000 square meters and volume of 2,800,000 cubic meters make La Danta one of the largest pyramid in the world. Reaching its top using the very high steps built by the Mayas will take you another 30 minutes.
Out of breathe, it is inside the cloud that we clim above the jungle canopy. The visibility is no logner than 10 meters and we’re all disappointed by the conditions. It takes a good hour for the sun to pierce but still the clouds are very dense. I use this time to explore the pyramid, climb down its walls, walk around it. The steps are so high and steep. How where the Mayas climbing these walls? I asked Miguel and he justified it with the average height of the Mayas being more than 2 meters. Of course, knowing that the locals in this region of the world are relatively short, I found it hard to believe. And in fact, I later found that they were about 1.5m tall on average… (I also found that crossed eyes and large foreheads were signs of utmost beauty. A prominent forehead dwarf with pronounced strabismus would be the top Maya’s model.) Anyway, despite the bad conditions, I found a good view point on one of the adjacent pyramid from which I could take nice shots. All I had to do was to wait for the sun to come up and light up the pyramid. So as my companions left the site to go back to the camp, I decided to stay at La Danta to get a nice picture. But after half an hour I thought it would take a while and a park ranger confirmed that the sun would be in position in 3 or 4 hours. I might as well have breakfast at the camp and come back later. Walking alone is actually excellent for seeing wildlife. Nobody talked, I walked silently and got to see a lot of the forest inhabitants: squirrels, wild boars and deers… Very exotic! But still no sign of the big cat. On the way back to the complex a couple of hours later, a howler monkey gave his presence away.
Back at the top of La Danta, the clouds were gone, the sky was blue and the sun was shining. I spent 4 hours sitting on my little pyramid, taking a few photos but just enjoying the peace of the deep jungle and yes, hoping that a jaguar would show up. But they can smell humans from long distances and I can tell you that after 3 days in the forest and no shower facilities, mine was pretty strong.
At the beginning of the afternoon, the walk back to the camp was a lot more quiet. The sun was at its highest and so was the temperature. I guess all animals are hiding away from these conditions. We went to visit the rest of the El Mirador site. There are many ohter complexes such as El Jaguar, El Leone and a palace probably built for the city top society members. I noticed a small wooden doors around the back which made me really curious. Apparently it leads inside the building where archeologists have find many Mayan masks. I was already dreaming about entering this, finding the way with a torch, exploring the edifice and making discoveries like Indiana Jones. 🙂
The expedition (Miguel, François,Kine and myself) in front of a sculpted mask.
For dinner, we had frijoles. This was the first time they were serving it for another meal than breakfast. I guess we had eaten all the nice stuff and only left was the food the easiest to preserve. Why does it have to be this? Pasta would do as well!
And breakfast of Day 5, that’s all we had. Frijoles and nothing else. This was going to be the hardest day of all, 7 hours walk, 25 kilometers, tiredness from the previous 3 days and I would have to start the journey with an empty stomach. It might not sound that bad but there I thought, “shit, I might collapse on the way!” But I didn’t. And by the way, the alarm this morning was a group of howler monkeys passing in the trees above the camp. When you know how loud can a single one be, I was still surprised by the noise produced by 20 of them just above my head.
I soon realised that this day was going to be even harder than I thought. My feet were covered in blisters from the first 2 days and that was extremely painful. The guide proposed to have a break a couple of time but we declined. Making a stop was a relief but restarting was a punishment. We walked like this, at a fairly fast pace, for 4 hours until lunch break. We had done so well that the camp of El Tintal was only a couple of hours away. At one point, Miguel stopped and I ended up at the front of the expedition. As nobody is walking in front of you, your view is only the jungle, the sounds are only the jungle and the feeling of being alone is stronger and exhilarating. The arrival at the camp was a relief. It meant an end (at least for today), to the suffering. I took my shoes off and, oh, that’s like an orgasm. I took two basins, filled them with brown water collected in a nearby swamp and bathed my feet. I hadn’t even noticed that the camp was extremely busy as a group of 30 people arrived to start archeologic work on the site for the next month.
As the evening approached, I started to feel a little bit sad. The journey was coming to its end. One more night in the jungle and tomorrow would be a short day back to the civilisation. I know it’s weird to think that, despite the pain, I am going to miss this. It was such an incredible experience. Trekking through the forest for days, sleeping in camps in the middle of it, in order to reach what is probably the largest Mayan City yet to be explored… that’s an extremely rewarding effort. Hopefully I can spot a jaguar tomorrow and I would be in heaven. The sunset that night had something special. Nobody talked, we all knew it was the last one, and I enjoyed every single second of it. I can’t describe it but I felt like I was sharing a moment with nature and I was in communion with it, after 4 days of efforts. I am sitting above one of the lungs of our planet and I think it makes me grateful. That evening, no animal came out and I went to bed looking forward to the last portion of our adventure.
Last day of this 5-day expedition, we all agree on a later start (still up by 6am). We don’t need to rush. We are only 4 hours away and we should arrive by late morning. Miguel offers two alternative routes: the one we took to get here (jungle highway) and a much smaller path a lot less frequented but a little bit longer. We go for the second one definitely. At this point I don’t admit it to anyone but I hope to increase our chances to encounter a jaguar or a puma. We very soon realised what Miguel meant by “a lot less frequented”. There was a lot more branches to cut on the way and there was absolutely no human footprint. I ended up again leading the expedition, determined to spot a wild cat. I led at the faster pace I could, to increase the gap between us and make sure the effort was intense enough so they don’t talk. I kept looking around me, next to ponds where they could come to drink or hunt, on inclined trees where they could warm up under the early morning sun or on the path which they probably use to travel quicker. But the jungle is very dense and seeing through it is impossible. The odds were on our side but we would also need some luck to make my dream come true.
After an hour, I heard Miguel yelling my name: “Guillermo! Guillermo!”. He wanted me to slow down and wait of his wife whom, by the way, he kept calling “cocinera” (= the cook). He explained that jaguars and pumas frequently use these paths to move through the jungle. “I knew it!” He also told us a story about a group of chicleros (people collecting the resin from a certain type of tree to make chewing gums) who came to this very jungle accompanied by a woman with her baby. As they went to work, they left the mother and her child at the camp. At their return, they found the baby crying and the woman dead, attacked by a jaguar. The animal had only eaten her breasts as it was looking for milk. Sad story… I asked Kine if she wanted to be first but she didn’t want to :s
So I stayed at the front and Miguel just behind me. But not for long. I was looking at the floor but didn’t see the snake until I almost stepped on it. Luckily for me, it got scared and escaped into a bush. I would say it was 2 or 3cm in diameter and probably 80cm to 1m long. At this point I think Miguel realised it was a bit dangerous and asked me to stay behind. And I’m glad he did. About an hour later, he suddenly stopped and reversed back into me. “Que pasa?”, I said. He showed me the snake that he also almost stepped on. Only this time the reptile wouldn’t move. So he decided to smoke a cigarette… Really? Is that the appropriate time for a break? But he actually blew the smoke to the snake… but nothing happened. It seemed asleep. So he took a branch and tried to move its head to wake him up. Then he tried to throw it back into the woods. The reaction was immediate. The snake took a defensive position, opening its mouth and making the typical whistling noise. WOW! Miguel got it to crawl a bit further with more branch hits and cigarette smoke and the path was free.
The last hour was relatively hard. My legs were weak. I felt immense pleasure when we came out of the forest and reached the land of Carmelita. The last few hundred meters back to the main house were extremely satisfying. It was all finished and we will have be able to relax for the rest of the day: having a shower, drinking chilled water, sleeping on a mattress. These things don’t seem like much but the ones you miss the most when you are outside civilisation are the basics. At this point, I caught myself thinking of the next trekk at the Lake Atitlan. Slighly shorter distance but in three days, with steep ascents and carrying all our supplies ourselves. I anticipate it’s going to be more difficult. Back at the house, I enjoyed a cold drink (that felt so good!), had some nice chicken and NO FUCKING FRIJOLES!!! The car taking us back to Flores is ready so it is time to say goodbye and thank you to the locals for this amazing adventure.
Back in Flores, I head straight to Chal Tun Ha hostel in San Miguel. I can’t wait for having a cold beer on the terrace overlooking the lake. And it was truly amazing. The most basic things in life can sometimes be the most pleasant. I love this place so much! Neil and his wife are so friendly and helpful, the view is breathtaking. In short, it’s a small piece of paradise. The plan for the rest of the day? A well deserved rest.
Day 7 – 8 Flores & Tikal National Park
On day 7, I naturally wake up at 5am so I can watch the sunrise over Flores. And by 6:30m, I’m in Flores town to capture the photos I couldn’t get on the first day. The light is very soft and brigthen the vivid colours of the painted houses.
The tuktuks are already wandering the main street.
Whereas the adjacent streets are deserted.
By 8am, the sun is already high enough to create large areas of shadows so it’s time to head back to the hostel. The rest of the morning is spent planning the next 3 days, starting with Tikal National Park in the afternoon. The Mayas arrived here in 700BC and developped the city to a size similar to the one that reamins today until AD 250. I had become an important cultural and religious centre in the region. From then, the rulers of Tikal became extremely belligerant, constantly attacking their neighbours of El Mirador, El Tinal, Uaxactun, Calakmul, etc. Its association with the city of Teotihuacán in present Mexico made Tikal the dominant kingdom in El Péten. By AD 550, its population was over 100,000 inhabitants. The king Jasaw Chan K’awiil I also called Ah Cacao took the throne in 682 and is responsible for building the temples that remain today. Around 900, the city declined misteriously, as did the entire Mayan civilisation. Although, the local population always knew of its presence, it is not until 1848 that the Guatemalan government sent an expedition to the site, leading to its exploration by archeologists over the next century. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
Arrived at the park, I drop my bags at the camp site and head to Templo IV to watch the sunset. As I start walking, some guards offer me a lift to the Gran Plaza, centre of the Mayan city. This is staggering! Unlike El Mirador, the entire city has been excavated and all the pyramids are uncovered. This allows to realise the importance of the work carried out here, the symbol of the temples and the ceremonies that were ran around them. Below are a couple of view of the Templo Gran Jaguar.
As the sun comes down, I need to hurry up and get to Temple IV which is probably another 30 minutes walk away. At the top, a large group tourists is already sat. It gives a great view over the jungle canopy and the Tikal temples. From up there we can see (left to right) Templo del Gran Jaguar, Templo II and Templo III.
Back at the Gran Plaza, I spend some time taking some shots with the colourful sky. I wish I could still be at the top of Templo IV but the park guards wouldn’t let me.
And soon another guard came to me at the plaza to tell me that I should be out of the park by now. Hozever, he offered me a private night tour of the park for a small tip. 🙂 I think it must be quite an experience to visit Mayan ruins under the stars and might have considered it if I didn’t have to get up at 3am to go watch the sunrise.
Atfer a night spent in a sauna, I cross again the park in the drak to reach the temple by 4am. Unfortunately, there are very think clouds all around and there is purely no sunrise. A shame. But as always in Guatemala, the sun appears and the sky clears an hour later. I can explore the park under pleasant weather.
Templo VI is unique as its back is covered by Mayan glyphs.
I encounter a small animal called “pisote” on the way.
Templo V is Tikal’s second tallest structure and unlike the other ones, rounded corners.
El Mundo Perido is constituted of 38 structures. It is a vast ceremonial complex largely influenced by Teotihuacan architecture style.
One of the smaller pyramids in the complex.
Templo IV through the trees.
Templo II, at the other extremity of the Gran Plaza.
The Gran Plaza, Templo del Gran Jaguar on the right and Templo I on the left.
For comparison, the pyramid of La Danta at El Mirador is so large that it could entirely cover the plaza of Tikal with both its temples and the acropolis behind.
View of the Templo del Gran Jaguar from the top of Templo II.
This marks the end of the first half of my trip in Guatemala, spent in the north part of the country. It is a region very rich in history and wilderness. Some areas are so remote that reaching them only make the trip more rewarding. I have heard of many large scale plans to facilitate access to a few sites burried deep in the jungle. May they never be born as they would very quickly destroy this area of true wilderness. This area of the world produces much of the oxygen we breathe and we must preserve it from illegal loggers despite their commercial value.
“Imagine if trees gave off wifi signals, we would be planting so many trees and we’d probably save the planet too… Too bad they only produce the oxygen we breathe!”
Now it’s time to head back to the south of the country. I spend the night in a bus taking me to Guatemala City. I will summarise the journey very briefly: a sit at the first row of the top floor, a windscreen completely cracked, no seatbelt, a driver with a particular liking for racing other cars with the confidence of Michael Schumacher and 483km of sinuous roads. Despite being aware of my chances not to make it, I managed to sleep all the way and we arrived in the bus terminal of GC slighly ahead of schedule. Straight away, I take another transport to a town called Chichicastenango.
Day 9 Chichicastenango
At my arrival I stop at a guesthouse called Posada del Arco. The room is lovely, well decorated with Mayan artifacts, balcony with view over the small garden and a large double bed. It will be a very relaxing stay after the first week spent camping in the jungle. Of course the family didn’t have a restaurant to serve meals but happily invited me in their kitchen to cook a nice breakfast. They’ve made me try so many different things from local teas and coffees to fresh fruits and nuts. The father was really curious about the western culture and also shared details about his own. He is K’iche’, the local population descendant from the Mayas, coming from a remote village and used to come to the market to sell goods by foot. Unlike msot Guatemalan, he had the chance to go and live abroad. It made him so much more open minded and aware about politics and economics affecting Guatemala and Central America. As surprising as it sounds, the town doesn’t have telephone lines and internet. There is a trial ongoing about ownership of land which stop providers to install the equipment. It’s been open for years and doesn’t seem to approach an end, but that didn’t seem to bother them at all. After an hour long chat I take my camera with a telephoto lense to capture spontaneous shots of the local people. Markets always give such amazing picture opportunities.
I knew I was reaching the city centre as the stalls were in the streets, completely packed. I also felt like a giant as I was at least 2 heads taller than everyone around me.
I was amazed by the brightness of the colours in traditional Guatemalan clothing. For some reason, this applies only to women. I saw only a few men with traditional clothes, all others wearing common tee shirts and trousers.
Unlike in many other touristic countries, a polite “No, Gracias” with a nice smile is enough for sellers to understand you’re not interested to buy their product. This was particualrly true for this woman, selling flower on the church stairs. She was completely immobile, contrasting with the surround bustle.
Alright, this girl did try hard to sell me the small dolls she’s made, which I ended up buying against a portrait.
Wandering around, I manage to capture moments of the local life.
I had to buy something in those vivid colours… and I couldn’t resist buying a hamock. The traditional 2 minutes negotiation, final price at 150 quetzales and the deal is closed. I don’t know where I’m going to put it in my flat but I found it beautiful 🙂
A well deserved relaxing lunch after several hours of exploration.
I can observe the trading from a balcony above the fresh fruit and vegetable market.
Even the younger ones do business 🙂
Or simply wander around, curious about the various products on the tables.
The activity from the morning has dropped and the streets are less busy. It means that the proportion seller/buyer increases. A lady came to me with bracelets and kept dropping the price as I was telling her I didn’t want them. She was so desperate. She begged me to buy those as they needed the money to live and feed her children. I had read about the women having to sell at ridiculous cost their handmade products so they could eat. I wasn’t feeling terribly good buying her bracelets at the low price she offered but I had no more cash to give her :s
Now the streets are much more quiet and it’s time to head home.
I enjoyed the peaceful garden of Posada El Arco, the first hot shower since the start of my trip and relaxed for a few hours. I actually felt bored so I went back down to look for some company with my hosts. They invited me for dinner in their kitchen again, offering various local vegetables, fruits, teas or coffees to try. During our talks, Don Pedro explained to me that he belongs to the K’iche’ ethnic group, descendant of the Mayan civilisation. They speak a dialect called the same and live in the highlands of Guatemala. His wife is of Spanish origin, the conquistadors her ancestors. I wish I had more time to spend with them to understand their way of living and their culture. I was sharing my travel plans, my next destination the city of Quetzaltenango (known as Xela), second largest of Guatemala and situated at 2,300 meters altitude. Don Pedro was also palnning on going there, so he kindly offered me a ride in the morning. After several nights spend camping in the jungle or in the front row of a crazy bus, I went to bed at 8pm to enjoy my first night in a comfortable bed and get maximum rest. I need it!
Day 10 Quetzaltenango
We arrived in Xela an hour before lunch and they dropped me off in front of my hostel. According to my travel guide (Lonely Planet as always), there doesn’t seem to be much to do. All sights are located around the “parqueo central”.
Below is the view across the park with the “Pasaje Enriquez” in the background, built in 1900.
All that remains from the old church is the front wall. The new one was built just behind.
The flags of Guatemala and the province are floating high.
I was glad I had only half a day to spend in Xela. There is not much to see, not much to do. I was already looking forward to the morning to start the second trekk: reaching the Lake Atitlan through the volcano ranges.
Day 11-13 Xela – Lake Atitlan
As I thought, this trekk would have one significant difference to the first one: we will carry our bag ourselves. No donkey to help take the load off us! And that was quite a challenge. In my bag I had
– clothes for 3 days
– food for 3 days
– water for 3 days
– sleeping bag and mat
– all my camera kit of course
I’m not sure what the weight was but I’m sure it was heavy. That’s as far as my hostel room that I realised how challenging this would be. First, I could barely lift my bagpack to put it on my shoulders. Second my back and shoulders were in pain after 500 meters on my way to the starting point of expedition. How am I going to walk 45km and up to 3,050m with this weight on my back?
Anyway, I managed to reach the bus stop where we hoped on a chicken bus to get out of Xela. Now we are in a small village and we start the serious hike. The first portion is the steepest as we go straight to the highest point of the trekk at 3,050m. No need to tell you that this was both physically and mentally challenging. My legs weren’t used to carrying such a load and my arse was in a pain I had never known before… We stop for views over Santiaguito and Santa Maria volcanoes, the first so active that it erupts every 45 minutes. Passed the wooded slope, we walk through corn fields.
We reach the first village inside the clouds. And apparently, it’s like this all the time, or almost.
I am amazed by the fact that people are leaving at such heights, in such conditions. But I know it’s not by choice. Our guide from Quetzaltrekkers explained that the families don’t have enough money to pay for the bus their children would need to take to go to school. They support these families by helping the kids to get education (the money we paid was actually a donation). One of the girl from the village we are crossing actually had the chance to go to school thanks to the help of Quetzaltrekkers and she graduated from college. No need to say she first the first of her area, making proud and giving hope to the entire community.
We head back down soon after through rainforest, still inside the clouds. It’s quite chilly.
We encounter many locals logging wood from the forest. This is a massive problem in this area of the world. Often illegally, loggers destroy the forests in an alarming pace, destroying entire ecosystems and the habitat of endangered species. The problem is that we don’t even know what we are losing. What is the true impact of deforestation on our environment? Some people even say it’s already too late to save the planet… There is no apparent solution to solve the problem as the locals rely heavily on this resource to feed their families and survive. Often I’m thinking that I should try to see as much of the world while it’s still possible.
Soon after, we reached a wide dirt road which tool us to the village where we are going to spend our night. I started to rain a little but but I couldn’t be bothered to put my rain gear on. I have to admit that I was a bit fed up with the day because of the bad weather, the fog and the absence of nice views. I just wanted to finish it as quickly as possible. And just like the rest of the day, we reached the village inside the cloud. We were hosted by a lady who had built a small annex to her house for the trekkers. She showed us the way to the public “tamascal”, the Guatemalan version of the sauna inherited from the Mayas. It is a small hut made of stone, up to hip height, in which they make a food fire to heat up a large amount of stones. You thend have two buckets of water, one hot and one cold, which you can mix to wash yourselfp up or throw onto the stones to create steam. It is very relaxing after a long day of efforts, invigorating! We had a quick dinner and then played some games with the rest of the group (Yes, Yes, No!, I can see you the moon!, I hate…!). The first one was actually great fun. The idea is to make somone believe that we have invented a story. He will try to discover it by asking questions to which answers can only be “yes” or “no”. But the trick is that there is no story and the answers will follow the same pattern “Yes”, “Yes”, “No, again and again. It created such an improbably story, complete madness 🙂
In the morning, the sky had cleared and the view from our room door was impressive.
We actually come from the top of the ridge, on the right of the image, walked along it until the far left and then hiked down into the valley. Anyway, geared up and ready, we stop next door at the neighboor’s house for breakfast and head off for the longest day of the trekk. Seeing us crossing the village, all the kids seemed really excited, waving and greeting us with big smiles. We then walked passed the school and the children literally ran towards us. They loved photos. I was taking my camera up and they would immediately pose in front of it (but not putting a single smile). The second I took my camera down to look at the picture on the screen, they jumped allover me to take a look.
The three boys were a lot more shy and stayed in the background. I am not quite sure if it was because they don’t want to join or if they are too reserved to ask. But when I go to speak to them they seem quite happy to pose for the camera, although it doesn’t look like it 🙂 I reckon they’re brothers, they look very much alike. What do you think?
Batteries refilled, we continue our expedition towards to lake atitlan. Next stop? Record Hill!!!
There is a portion of a climb which is so steep that (apparently), you just want to get it done. So they’ve created the challenge to climb this portion as quickly as possible. The record is at 9 minutes something but completing it under 13 minutes is already a good effort. So I start in second position, a couple of minutes after the first guide, at a very steady pace. I realise after a 300 meters and it deserves its name. I am already out of breathe and my thighs are burning. Anyway, pain is secondary and I keep pushing. My bag is now feeling so much heavier, it feels like I’m carrying another person on my back! And it gets worse and worse at every step until I can’t continue any further… My legs are not only painful but they can barely carry me anymore, my heart beat has reached the roof and my lungs are burning like they’ve never been burning before. I have to take a break. And it feels so good… Air is flowing into my lungs, oxygen is going into my muscles, I just want to lay down to recover. But unfortunately, I have to keep going, I have to complete the second half. But 10 steps are enough to put me back into the red zone and I have to make so many breaks that I start to wonder whether I’m even going to be able to finish this climb. And to add to the mental difficulty, I am overtaken by the two girls who started 3 minutes after me (they have tiny, light backpacks but still). Attempting to set a record is no longer the objective, only finishing matters. Finally I see the three already arrived a couple of hundread meters away… this is finally over. For me it was 18 minutes of never ending pain!
But recover is quick. Water, nuts and we’re back on the trail. We reached another village around lunch time. People are working under the burning mid day sun, in the dust and often carrying heavy stuff (wood, tools, bricks, food, etc.). Despite the conditions, they also greet us as we walk pass them. They could be seeing us as tourists, only lucky to be born in Western Europe. But that’s not the case at all and I am amazed by the friendliness of the Guatemalans. This makes all the pain and weight go away in the blink of an eye. We can stop for lunch soon after and relax under the shade of a cliff. But that didn’t last long. All of a sudden, the sun disappeared behing thick dark clouds and big drops of rain started to fall. There is no point to hand around here for too long then so we put our ponchos on and start again. The ground was made slippery by the water. Later, two young tree loggers (less than 15 years old) had to stop their chain saw to let us pass. They not only take the trees down but they also cut the trunk in perfectly accurate, 3-meter long boards with no tool but their chain saw. I have never tried but I can imagine that it’s not too easy.
As the trail widens, the rain gets heavier. The dust turns into mud. One by one, we find ourselves arse on the ground with more or less damage. Even the locals stop their activities and head back to their village. Down into a valley, we encounter a few rivers which I just cross without trying to keep my feet dry. My shoes are already so wet that it won’t make a big difference. Suddenly, a very loud cracking sound breaks the monotony of the moment. The thunder joins the party. It’s proper apocalyptic weather! And amazingly, it’s not enough to take the smile off the face of the Guatemalans. Maybe they’re having a laugh about the western tourists having to hike under such water. The two young boys that we saw in the forest cutting wood wqlked by my side and start discussing. They’re big fan of football, particularly Barcelona and they’re actually cousins. I was also right about their age. I can’t remember exactly but I think the oldest was 16 and the youngest 13. Now there is a river splitting the trail in 2. The rainwater flowing downhill has created a 1-meter wide torrent! I guess that’s one of the first storm of the monsoon season and what a storm! However, it is not affecting my motivation whatsoever. It actually added some interest to the trekk and I’m really enjoying all of it. My physical condition is directly linked to my mental state. If I’m enjoying the moment, I don’t feel the load, the effort or the pain. On the other hand, if I’m bored or fed up, the load feels heavier and the physical effort more painful.
Atfer a couple of kilometers in a narrower path, filled with 15 centimers of water, we reach the final ascend of the day. Imagine a corn field, on a steep slope with the path “zigzaguing” across it. In normal conditions, they call it the “cornfield of death”. Today, the path is a muddy river. There is absolutely no way I can find grip to climb up. One step forward and I slide back 3 meters lower. This is so much effort! Reaching the top, the thunder has probably reached its maximum force. The moral in the team is pretty down but I’m having so much fun! The only concern I start to have at this point is for the following morning. We are supposed to get up early so we can watch the sun rise over the Lake Atitlan. So hopefully the sky will have cleared. But these storms never last long anyway, and the best sunrise or sunset always after storms. So we should be OK. Only a last 20 minutes and we reach the village of Xiprian where lives Don Pedro, our host for the night. And I saw a man with traditional clothes, riding his donkey and wearing a sombrero on the road passing us… that was the perfect cliché of the Mexican far west 🙂 And then a big 4×4 went passed him even faster, showing the contrast of modern Guatemala.
Soon we arrive at the house of Don Pedro, who welcomed us arms open. He shows us where we can dry our wet clothes so I straight away take my shoes and socks off. But since I had chosen camera gear over clothes, I don’t have any other dry change. So I am kindly invited inside the house to sit next to the fire and warm up. From there I could observe the family members from my chair in the corner. The mother was cooking (for us) next to me, the children were playing around me, one of the little boys was actually studying english so I could help him a little bit. After that, nobody really stayed up long. We had dinner and one by one went to sleep on the floor of the hall.
This day was so rich, eventful, exciting! Definitely one of the best of my trip! And I am really looking forward to tomorrow and reach lake Atitlan before the sun rise. After such a storm, the landscape can only be clear and breathtaking…
… well it wasn’t! It’s 3:30am and Sandra, our guide wakes us up as planned. But she’s got bad news, it’s still raining. The debate is whether it’s worth getting up and going up there, given the fact that it’s probably going to be cloudy. OF COURSE IT IS WORTH! If it is still raining and we can’t see the sun rise, then we would arrive earlier to our end destination. On the other hand, the sunrise could be amazing anyway or even the sky can clear by the time we get to the lookout point! Have we come all the way to here to give up now and potentially miss the most amazing view of this trekk? And for what? To stay in bed a few more hours? This is driving me maaaad! But some people in the group were equally reasonable and the majority decided to go anyway.
Despite a (very) few drops and some grumpy hikers, it all went well. Two policemen joined us just before the final climb to prevent unwanted encounters (robberies have happened several times in the past). I look up the sky and see some shades, which means the light is coming through. And finally we reach the top of the volcano, freeing the view over the lake Atitlan, beautiful!
We are at the right spot to observe the volcano Pacaya in eruption, throwing ashes into the sky evenery 10 minutes.
A couple of hours later, we make our way down to San Juan la Laguna. I spend a lot of time talking with the policemen, in spanish but also in english. They are trying really hard to learn the laguage. As we enter town, time to say goodbye and our group stops in a coffee roasting plant for a freshly roasted, freshly brewed coffee. (I brought some back if you’d like to try 😉 ) Then we hopped on a tuktuk to San Pedro for the moment we have all been waiting for: a cold beer next to the water… Fantastic moment! It’s amazing how going through challenging and demanding situations helps people to bond people quickly. I felt like I knew everyone for a lot more than 3 days and definitely felt nostalgic of leaving them. But they’re going in one direction, and I’m going to another across the lake. On the boat, I am feeling really good about the trekk. It was challenging and I’m even happier I did it with such a heavy bag that I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it at the start.
It takes me to the next stop of my journey, Santa Cruz. I stay at the hostel La Iguana Perdida because they have a dive shop here and I am planning on doing a couple of dives in the lake tomorrow. Apparently the water level has been rising at 1m per year since 2009, so there should be some fun things to see under the surface. But for now, it’s rest, rest and rest. A nice lunch, a shower (believe me, it’s rare enough to be highly appreciated) and a little bit of travel writing (worth noting that it is the first time I am up to date with my diary) before a long night sleep.
Day 14 Lake Atitlan
7am. Probably the latest time I wake up since the start of my trip in Guatemala. I can barely see the opposite shore of the lake, inside the cloud. As this is going to be a rainy day, I might as well be under water. Altitude diving is different than sea diving, because of the lower pressure from the atmosphere. Here at 1560m, it’s only 0.85 bar instead of 1 bar at sea level. As we went down, we stopped at a depth of 16m. Above this limit, visibility is OK, 3 or 4 meters. Below it, I can’t even see the tips of my fingers… Anyway there was a lot to see anyway. As the level of the lake is rising constantly, a lot of things have been swallowed: gardens, trees, pools, houses, bars and patios. There is even one where the water tap is still working (as so does the light switch which is a bit dangerous). There a few fishes but not many. In 1958, the local authorities introduced the black bass into the lake to develop sport fishing and attract tourists. But this species is extremely invasive and ate all the other fishes in the lake. They also fed from the eggs of a bird, the Atitlan Grebe, which used to nest on the water. Only found at the lake of the same name, this bird species is now extinct since 1991. There is also a lot of geothermal activity. The sand is hot in some places, hot water comes out of underwater chimneys. my dive instructor even brought an egg down so we could cook it in the boiling water from the earth. I even swam through an old tamascal, like the one I saw a few days ago. I am wondering if people still own their land underwater and whether they’re going to be owners again if the water level ever decreases. When we come out, the sun pierces through the cloud and helps to warm up. But not for very long.
In the afternoon, I have a lot more time to relax again. So I book a massage, to look after my body which hasn’t let me down so far even with the challenges I’ve put it through. And it did so much good. I felt so much better afterwards, my muscles a lot more relaxed. But there is not much more to do. The view is rubbish because of the weather and I’m not really motivated to go out and explore the surroundings. I am already thinking that the end of my trip is approaching. I’ve experienced so much, it’s been exceeding my expections by far. And I have yet to visit one of the most interesting cities, Antigua.
Day 15 (and last) Antigua
After a long drive by boat and shuttle, I arrive in Antigua “a las once y media”. Right, first thing to do… big lunch, pepian de pollo, guacamole and other local dishes. I want to really enjoy my last day in Guatemala. Once my stomach full, I go out to explore the city supposed to be “the” most attractive of the country. There are churches, cathedrals and other religious buildings everywhere. The Spanish really left their print here. But the Spanish Conquista isn’t the only important event to have shaped today’s Antigua. The surroundings volcanoes played their part too. Many of the historical edifices still bear the marks of the many earthquakes and eruptions: roofs have fallen, walls are cracked from top to bottom and ruins remain in the centre of the town. But despite being taken to the ground many times, the old Guatemalan capital has always managed to resuscitate. Time after time, walls were repaired, buildings were rebuilt. What we see today is a unique harmony between colonial history and strong cultural background.
Looking at the Iglesia y Convento de Nuestra Senora de la Merced, I am approached by a lady selling hand made scarves. She doesn’t take no for an answer and sits on the pavement next to me. Surprisingly, I am not feeling annoyed at all but quite curious about this woman. So we start a conversation about where I am from, what she does, where she lives. Her name is Maribel. Of course then she offers me one of her scarves again, telling me the story of it:
” Mira, son las piramides de los Mayas y aqui es el Quetzal, simbolo de Guatemala. Un regalito para tu Mama! Te lo vendo por 300 quetzales”, she says.
(Look, these are the pyramids of the Mayas and here is the Quetzal, symbol of Guatemala. A small gift for your Mummy! You can have it for 300 quetzales)
So I reply (smiling as always 🙂 ) “no, gracias. No puedo pagar 300 quetzales.”
Always ready with a reply, she taught me what negotiation was… To me… A buyer!
“Estamos en la calle, puedes negociar, yo digo 300, tu dices 250 y concordamos a un precio en el medio!” (You can negotiate, I say 300, you say 200 and we agree on a price in the middle!)
All of that was done in such a friendly way that I accept the play. And I felt like helping her out as well, so there we start:
Me: “OK, lo compro por 200 quetzales” (OK, I buy it for 200 quetzales)
Her: “250 Quetzales”
OK, I buy it! I didn’t want to do like other tourists and force her to sell what she made at a ridiculous price so didn’t push further. We continued talking about how long she takes to make her products. The one I bought is 3 days of work. Then every month, they come down to Antigua, her and other women from the village, for 3 days to sell their goods. Also she’s a Kaqchikel, as everyone in this region. Similar to the K’iche’, the Kaqchikel are another ethnical group descendant of the Mayas. While she was talking, a little girl ran into her dress to hide. This is Lily, her niece of 3 years old. She didn’t say but showed me with her fingers. But now it’s time to go and they kindly accept for me to take a portrait of them.
And of Lily and her mother.
Various monuments are located around the Parque Central. Below is the Cathedral de San Jose.
The Arco de Santa Catalina is a landmark of Antigua and an icon of its rich heritage.
It certainly has been photographed a few times…
And to fonish, a view of the Iglesia y Convento de Nuestra Senora de la Merced where I met Maribel and her niece.
Unfortunately, that’s it. It’s over. I’ve reached the end of my trip around Guatemala. The taxi driver picks me up from the hostel at 4am to take me to the airport. He only can talk about how insecure he fells, how dangerous it is to be out on the road at this time. Come on man! It seems to me that he was exagerating. There is no one out there, what can happen? Well we did eventually drive passed a car which had gone straight into the wall. But that’s not insecurity, that’s an unfortunate accident which can happen anywhere to anyone. All I can say about Guatemala’s security is, just be careful. Like you would be while travelling in any country really. It’s the last country on the Panamerican Highway before Mexico, so I guess it doesn’t help. But I never felt under threat, that someone was following me or paying too much attention to my camera gear. And I can tell I catch the eye with my big yellow bag, tripod strapped to it and my camera around my neck. The people I’ve met were all fantastic: Miguel, our guide to El Mirador; Neil, the owner of the hostel in Flores; Don Pedro, the host of the Posada in Chichi, Maribel and her family, the street vendors of Antigua. They’re so helpful, kind, open minded, joyful, I could use many more adjectives to describe them that I still wounld’t be able to explain it to you fully. The country has got an amazing history which I could feel and touch. The Mayan ruins, endless jungles, altitude lake or volcanoe ranges are great images of Guatemala, the Guatemalans make it a wonderful story.