Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Guatemalan Adventure

I started writing this blog in my head while hiking 3000M up the dark, rocky side of a volcano, seemingly always trailing 5M behind my albino, Guatemalan, billy goat of a guide. But let me start at the beginning.

I did not fly myself to Guatemala; I went commercial mailing tube. So, this is a non-traditional flying post. However, my grandmother always said that a trip not remembered in words is a trip soon forgotten, and this is a trip I definitely want to remember.

I went to Guatemala primarily to visit a 16 year old child, Lesly, who I have been sponsoring through Children International the past few years. I also sponsor a little boy, Erick, in Ecuador, who I hope to meet one day soon. I trade letters with them several times a year, and I get a new picture every Christmas. It has been an incredibly rewarding experience. If you can spare $22/month, I strongly recommend it. You can learn more at

Most travel books don't have a lot of good things to say about Guatemala City. In fact, they recommend getting out of the city as quickly as possible. While I heeded the book's advice and kept to the grounds of my hotel after dark, I think the criticism is somewhat outdated. Uniformed officers patrol most streets, and the airport was well-organized with official taxi drivers easy to find. Speaking passable (if somewhat broken) Spanish definitely helped, though.

I connected through Houston and was in Guatemala City by 2:30 on Saturday. After a quick change at my hotel, I hired a cab to take me to a local park with famous views of an active volcano, Mount Pacaya (above). The driver, Edwin, waited for me while I wandered around the park for a half hour.

After Edwin dropped me off, I walked back to check out a public square we had passed en route to the park. I wandered around for a while, but headed back as dusk was starting to fall. When I got to the hotel, I was disappointed to learn that the advertised tour to a western highland village market was not going to go the following day (Sunday). So, I went back outside and asked Edwin what it would cost for him to be my tour guide for the day. We agreed on $150. At Edwin's insistence, we also agreed to start our adventure at 7 a.m.

Our first stop was in Chichicostenango. Famous for a twice-weekly market, it was incredible. Most of the vendors wore traditional clothing, stood less than five feet tall, and were selling an incredible array of vegetables, fruit, textiles, jade, masks, etc. The stalls were crammed together and the narrow walkways were packed with Guatemalans and a handful of tourists. As I stopped to try and steal an occasional photo, it was not uncommon to feel a hand on my back, pushing me forward so I would stop blocking the path. Stopping to bargain with a vendor seemed to be the only generally accepted reason to stop. We did manage to pause to watch a marriage procession that ended at the below church, however.

Later, Edwin and I checked out another church, perched on the side of a mountain. It was nearly deserted. Edwin paid his respects to God, while I enjoyed the wafts of pine-scented smoke drifting in from the devotion being performed at the doorway.

Guatemalans are fairly camera-shy, or perhaps I should say, camera-adverse. I had decided to carry my larger camera, which I was grateful for, as the best time to photograph the goings on was from up above (like on the steps of the church) where my presence was either not noticed, or was ignored.

I didn't end up buying a mask, but the variety was amazing. After lunch and a couple hours in the marketplace, we decided to continue our trek to Lake Atitlan. Most of our trip was a slow, winding route through the mountains.

We were up in the clouds for a while, but as we descended towards the lake the temperature warmed considerably and my first views were breath-taking.

Lake Atitlan is surrounded by three volcanoes and has been described as the most beautiful lake on earth. I definitely found the praise worthy.

At this particular lookout we were met by a handful of children selling colorful animals made of string. After paying them about the equivalent of 25 cents each to take their photo, I bought a few parrots. Children are mighty persuasive salespeople!

After we parked our car, we wandered down to the water to walk along the shore. Edwin was quickly approached by a number of men, asking if we wanted a boat tour of the lake. I could tell that Edwin was enamoured with the idea, so I agreed.

Although I've been on more exciting boat rides, I was pleased we had decided to go, as it allowed me to take photos of the people walking along the shore without offending them with the presence of my camera.

From the very old, to the very young, the balancing of large items on heads was most impressive.

Edwin dropped me off at my hotel just as dusk was falling. It wasn't long before I was asleep, with my alarm set for another early day. Children's International was sending a translator and a driver to pick me up at 8.

Danalita and our driver were waiting for me when I got downstairs. I soon learned that we would be going to Chimaltenango. Edwin and I had passed through it en route to Chichicostenango, but I did not know where, exactly, Lesly lived. As we arrived, I wondered if I would recognize Lesly in the crowd of children and adults. Of course, I recognized her instantly; she looked just like her most recent picture, only happier.

After seeing the medical and dental facilities, we left for Lesly's house. There I got to meet her two younger brothers, Kevin and Brian, as well as her grandmother and various nieces and nephews. I had taken gifts for Lesly, the boys and her Mum. The boys were particularly smitten with their Nike soccer balls.

I told Kevin that I also had a brother named Kevin (in truth, that similarity is what caused me to select Lesly for sponsorship), which prompted a large, shy grin. Kevin then whispered something to Lesly. Lesly asked me if Kevin could give me a hug. It was a very touching moment. Brian, prompted by his little brother's gumption, also stepped forward for a hug. I joked to Lesly that I was going to start crying if we didn't stop with all the hugging!

Our first stop was a mall, where Lesly picked out a new pair of jeans and a shirt. Afterwards, we had lunch at McDonald's (Lesly's choice!). From there, our translator suggested we travel to the Tecpan ruins, located about a half hour's drive away. After we arrived, I eavesdropped on a tour being given in English, and learned that locals still occasionally made sacrifices to pagan Gods.

As we came around the back of one of the alters, there was a ritual in progress. The irony of the chicken, machette and Coke laying together was not lost on any of us. We watched for about forty-five minutes as a father repeatedly blessed his son (who, our translator learned, had made a miraculous recovery from an illness), prayed, and prepared the sacrificial site with sand, candles, bread, eggs, and some type of perfume. We left, thankfully, before the chicken was added to the growing fire.

Wary of the growing hour, our translator had suggested we head back to Chimaltenango. I said goodbye to Lesly with a bit of a heavy heart; the day had passed too quickly. Still, we had spoken of her coming to visit me once she has turned 18, and I loved seeing the look on her face as her universe expanded at the idea.

I arrived back at the hotel around 4, and promptly called Edwin. He had told me the previous day that the best time to climb the "stairs" at Mount Pacaya was at night to see the lava. While I didn't want to do it in the pitch black, I figured we would be there by 5, I'd be up the mountain by 6, and down by 7, which was when night truly fell on Guatemala City. As they say, the best laid plans of mice and men...

It was nearly 6 by the time I was ready to head up the mountain with my guide, Frances. I was the only tourist still wanting to go, so it was just to be the two of us. He set off in the lead. Nimber and quick, I was soon cursing Edwin's definition of "stairs" - a sandy, rocky trail 3000M seemingly straight up the volcano. I kept up with my guide the first 1000M, but then had to beg a few seconds rest every 20M or so. The air seemed to grow thinner as darkness fell in earnest.

When we finally arrived at the top, I was greeted by what seemed like the absence of light, and was barely able to make out the crater below us and the volcano peak above. Seeing the look on my face, my guide promptly informed me, "No lava today." If my legs hadn't of felt like rubber, I might have kicked him.

I sat down to take a few photographs on the off chance that my camera could pick out more than the naked eye on a delayed shutter speed. All too soon, however, there was little to do but start back down the mountain. As I slipped and slid, I wondered if anyone had every decided to simply sit and wait for morning light. I lost my footing for real at one point, but the mountain was so steep, I just sort of sat down and slid for a bit. My guide slowed the pace a bit after that, though.

Although the view had been pitiful, I did have an elated "I climbed a mountain today" feel upon reaching the bottom. Sweaty and tired, Edwin insisted on crouching down and taking the above photo with the mountain behind us .... What? Don't tell me you can't see it!

I slept well Monday night and packed slowly on Tuesday morning. After one last stop at a store to spend my remaining Guatemalan currency, it was off to the airport. As I looked at the city disappearing beneath me, something told me I would return. Lesly and I had spoken of renting a car and exploring more of the country together in a few years. With Lesly living only a few hours from Honduras and El Salvador, there is certainly much exploring to be done.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home