I spent about a month there in 1995, and I had a blast. No other country is as "Central American". I had been in Belize for a week, and met a couple of women (twin sisters; Jane and Lisa) who were headed back to Jane's home in Guatemala City. They invited me to come stay for the week; an offer I couldn't refuse. We decided to stop off at Tikal first! A flight to Guatemala City avoided a rough 12 hour bus ride, but next time I think I will give the bus a try.
Jane worked for the UN, and was leaving to take a new post in NYC. She and Lisa put together a big going-away party for about 70 UN officials. I got to dance with a lot of cool folks! The day they left, their chauffer dropped me off in Antigua.
Antigua is a great old city. I spent a couple weeks there trying to quickly learn some Spanish; it is one of the best places in the region for "total immersion" Spanish Schools. I lived with a local family, and spent 4 hours every morning at school working one-on-one with a tutor. We spoke only Spanish, and the family I lived with only know a couple words of English. Every noon I would walk home to my "family" and eat lunch, which was the biggest meal of the day. After lunch everyday two tutors from the school would lead an "excursion" to somewhere. One Monday we went to San Antonia Aguas Calientes, about 15 minutes away. The local craft there is weaving, and there we saw absolutely no other nonnatives. Everyday we went to a museum or some outlying village.
The city is surrounded by volcanoes, some of which are very active. The famous Volcan Pacaya erupts on a fairly regular basis, but is often quiet enough for the long hike up to the crater. Guards must be hired as escorts, for banditos regularly rob those who attempt the climb alone. After a long rocky hour-and-a-half bus ride to the center of a tiny village, the hike begins. Everyone carries a flashlight, for we will be up on the rim to watch the sunset. The climb takes two hours, and the final push up the steep cinder cone is arduous; with every step forward, one usually slides two steps backwards!. The wind howls incessantly, and ash gets in your eyes, inside every piece of clothing, and is later found in places unmentionable. The group of 15 or so climbers stretches out for several hundred meters, and the stragglers must keep up, or risk meeting up with the banditos! The summit rim is absolutely wild! Looks like a lunar landscape! The view in every direction is incredible. Some of us hike down into the crater, while others simply attempt to stay low to escape the wind. The ground is very warm, and provides welcome relief from the cold wind. Just after sunset, we all bury ourselves up to our necks in the buoyant cinder-like sand, and the ground is so warm that it feels like a sauna. Suddenly the fog moves in, and completely envelops the group. We must leave quickly, and attempt to stay closely together to discourage the bandits. We descend rapid in standing or sitting glissades, and the 45 minute climb up now becomes a five minute joyride down! We regroup at the bottom of the cone, but still have a long dark hike back to the bus. We are all sore and exhausted. The ride back to Antigua is cold and bumpy, and most of us doze from exhaustion. Our small group represented nine different countries, and many friends were made! Less than two weeks later as I rode along the Pacific Coast to Monterrico, I watched the Volcan Papaya in the midst of a full eruption! The scene was magnificent, but also a bit of a wakeup call!
No one visits Antigua Guatemala without the obligatory visit to Panajachel. Populated by old hippies from the 1960's, one finds more foreigners here than locals. The location is magnificent; on the shore of the Lago Atitlan, a deep and stunningly beautiful caldera (volcanic crater). I spent the day on a boat out cruising the lake, and stopped for a couple hours at the small village of Santiago Atitlan at the far end of the lake. A religious holiday and parade were being observed, and again I was the only non-native for a few hours. The next day was spent at the market at Chichicastenango. "Everyone" goes to Sunday market in "Chichi". Many bargains are to be had. All the locals for many miles pack up the goods they have made all week, and take them to market. Bartering is expected, and on the ride home everyone compares the day's "booty".
My favorite spot in Guatemala was the wild black sand beach on the Pacific Coast. I had gone to Panajachel and Chichi for the weekend with my school group, and we got back to town around supper time. The professors were preparing to drive the van to the coast to pick up 4 Kiwi students, and asked me if I wanted to go along for the ride. A new week of school was to begin the following morning, but I really wanted to see the "west coast". I had already spent a couple weeks on the "east coast" in Belize, where the water was calm and blue. I told the profs that if I went along for the ride, I would probably want to stay for a few days. They said "Sure, no problem, grab your stuff!". I had about 10 minutes to run home, pack all my stuff, and say "bye" to my "family". I was off to the beach to practice my new language skills!
Monterrico was awesome! The 4 Kiwis were waiting at the boat dock, and I said so long to everyone, then jumped on the boat. The 15 minute ride through the mangroves ended at the barrier island. Getting of the boat, I walked down the only street in town (sand!) to the beach. A beautiful sunset was in progress!! I took several pictures as I walked along the beach towards "Hotel El Baule Beach, a cozy 10 room hotel run by former Peace Corps Volunteer Nancy Garver." Rooms near the water were $5 a night for two beds, and the German guy (Danielle) I met walking along the beach and I decided to split a room. I stayed there three nights, and had an excellent time. I met many fun travelers, including Katrin and Beth (both current friends).
Beth met a little girl of about 10 years old that came to visit her every day. Three ladies (Aussies, I think) also became friends with all of us. One of the three had a birthday, and we had a surprise party for her. At midnight we surprised her with wine, a cake, and funny gifts. The night was fun! The real surprise was to be the next morning. We all planned to spend the morning in the Biotopo Monterrico-Hawaii, a 20 km nature preserve full of all kinds of cool tropical wildlife. Leatherback and Ridley turtles lay their eggs on the beach here. The boat ride (a big dugout canoe really) began before sunrise, and we were all a bit hungover and dragging. But the girls and I had arranged for the two ladies that run the hotel's outside cafe (on the beach, of course!) to prepare a big breakfast for everyone to celebrate their friends birthday. It was great. But there was one problem....
The little girl who had befriended Beth,,,, it was her birthday too. Only Beth and the little girl knew this, and the child thought the party, breakfast and piñata were for her. She was so happy,,,, till she found out it wasn't for her. But after some quick whispering amongst ourselves, we let her whack open the piñata, cut the cake, etc. She was so happy...
Beth continued to write to her family for awhile; the poor girl had about 10 siblings, and was from a real poor family. I first met Beth in the middle of the night. I was sleeping soundly, and Beth was in the next room. At two a.m., she was yelling at Ted; "It's gonna bite me,,, it's poisonous,,, Ted, do something!". Ted was saying "It's dead, go to sleep....". The next morning I found out that a scorpion had fallen out of the thatched ceiling and into her bed! Yikes!
Ted was a great guy. I hung out and talked with him for quite a while. He was retired, and lived (traveled) around Central America for most of his "golden years". He had a great attitude. He had a mail address in Miami, and had to return every now and then to stay legal. I wrote to him a couple of times, and I think Beth stayed in touch with him. Ted died last year of a heart attack. I always smile when I think of Ted!!!
I met Katrin (Danish) my last day
on the coast. She was a real fun person whom I've kept in
touch with. Me, her and Beth headed back to Antigua the next day.
I had to get back to school, Beth was headed home, and Katrin
was Northbound. Three days later I headed to Costa Rica!