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Trip Report HOPEFULIST IN GUATEMALA, 2009

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Hi, all -
Finally, here's my Guatemala 2009 travelogue, also posted on the Thorntree Forum:
http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/thread.jspa?threadID=1819363 Enjoy!

Another summer come and gone, another wonderful visit to Central America to share with you. This trip was divided into 2 distinct parts, about 2 and a half weeks each: studying Spanish in Guatemala with a group in tow (15 of us in all, ages 13 to 65) and visiting favorite old haunts and new spots in Belize with various family members. I’ll post the Guatemala travelogue here and the Belize part in a separate thread and you can find it [here|http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/thread.jspa?messageID=16184025]. It’s shockingly long but since it’s your choice to read it or not I won’t apologize for that. My photo collections can be found in the link in my signature line at the bottom and [here|http://liveandlearninguatemala.blogspot.com/] is a blog of the trip with about 5 photos per daily post.

Being responsible for the planning, activities, and movement of a group can have its ups and downs but this time around it was up a strangely large percentage of the time, even for a dyed-in-the-wool Guatemala lover like myself. The schools were great, and homestays, too, for the most part. In addition to wonderful activities sponsored by the schools, the communities themselves seemed to bend over backwards to give us rare and wonderful cultural experiences. And with the exception of an ill-timed thunderstorm the afternoon part of our group made an attempt at Pacaya, the weather was remarkable, too.

Several group members had rolling stomachs at one time or another (2 took cipro) and 1 a really bad cold for a few days, otherwise it was an uneventful trip healthwise. I haven’t had a sick day traveling (other than the obnoxious boat crossing to Utila last year) since I started taking probiotics and digestive enzymes when I travel, then cayenne capsules if I feel rumbly to nip it in the bud.

With normal travel precautions we had a safe, relatively stress free trip. I realize bad things happen sometimes but they didn’t happen to us and I doubt they will next time I’m in Guatemala (and there will be a next time). It was a little disconcerting one evening in San Pedro when a drunk taxi driver followed our group on foot, trying to drum up business, otherwise nothing to note.

It was cost effective (between chicken bus and tourist shuttle expense) and incredibly convenient to hire one company for our major ground transportation needs and I chose [Adrenalina Tours|http://adrenalinatours.com/] based on cost and the responsiveness of the main guy, Patrick (and after asking around on the forums). They provided a “Coaster” van sufficient for 15-17 people and our luggage and the drivers were prompt, flexible, safe, and good company. Having a private vehicle meant we could stop enroute (sometimes for several hours) and we had some amazing experiences taking advantage of that. Adrenalina also set up the flights and hotel for our Tikal extension. Gratefully the flights went off without a hitch. There was a communication blip with the Tikal Inn but half an hour and the fact I hadn’t yet made the final payment to Adrenalina made the problem go away. I’d use Adrenalina for the transportation again but book the hotel myself.

I arrived several days ahead of the group and enjoyed another stay at [Casa Cristina|http://casa-cristina.com/], $25-30 for a small, clean double with real hot water (not the proverbial death heads), free purified water and internet (including wireless in some areas), and friendly, helpful staff around the clock. The location is great - in the block between La Merced and Fernando’s coffee shop (where I enjoyed one of the best buffet breakfasts of my life and ordered many a fruit smoothy during the week so I could use their fast wireless in the peaceful little courtyard). The rest of my pre-homestay meals were at Comedor Típico Antigüeño (cheap - $2 for chicken with tortillas - and delicious) and from street vendors (I chose the most popular looking ones with the hottest food, all delicious).

We studied the first week at the [Academia Antigüeña|http://www.spanishacademyantiguena.com/], about $180 each for a week of homestays and 20 hours of 1-on-1 instruction. The school has grown and we were surprised to find more than 30 students studying there. That said, all but 1 of us were thrilled with our teachers and our progress; the 1 unthrilled person talked to me, I talked to the director, Julio, and a prompt change was made. As with many/most schools in Antigua, our homestays mostly had 2 to 4 students. Again with only 1 exception the families were fun and interactive and the food delicious and plentiful. When the school found out one family was eating separately from the students they refunded the students’ money even though the family had already been paid. I really truly loved my family and would stay with them again in a heartbeat. Although the school was full and neighboring rooftops were used for instruction, we loved the school and our study places. The school provided daily activities which we enjoyed but which left those who attended all of them too little time to explore the town of Antigua itself. Normally we walked to the bus station and took a chicken bus both ways, though a shuttle was provided once. In addition to several salsa classes and a hike up to the Cerro de la Cruz viewpoint and monuments, the provided activities included:

:: A visit to the organic macademia nut farm, Valhalla, which included an interesting, brief tour plus food and skin product samples; some of us enjoyed the facial massages offered on a donation basis and bought products for souvenirs or for our host families.

:: A cultural presentation in the village of San Antonio Aguas Calientes where we enjoyed the presentation about their textiles and 4 of us were chosen to enact a traditional Maya wedding. They also prepared and served delicious caldo pollo (chicken soup) and fresh tortillas and allowed interested visitors a chance to help in the preparation. I purchased 5 meters of the most beautiful falda (wrapped skirt) fabric I’ve ever seen, the one I wore as the blushing middle-aged bride.

:: A tour of a local jade factory and museum with deep discounts for those so inclined.

:: In the village of San Juan del Obispo, a nun-guided tour of the home of Francisco Marroquin which houses a convent, church, and museum. The grounds are really lovely and the village has a peaceful parque central and old church.

At my request (many of us were especially interested in coffee and/or traditional music) the school arranged for a visit to the village of Jocotenango where there are nice coffee and Maya music museums with tours and a nice gift shop. Again, the grounds were beautiful and I especially loved the church there.

As fortune would have it we were there during the celebration of Santiago, Antigua’s patron saint. There were several parades, 1st a horse-drawn carriage and flatbed float display of old timers without families or money to support them, all dressed up and waving to the crowd and another day a 4 hour event that included representation by every school for miles around - bands, dress-ups, replicas of area buildings and geologic features, and strange death reaper-like sign carriers ahead of each school’s contingent. There were also extra music and dance events including flamenco guitarists, a massive free concert featuring some of Guatemala’s most popular pop and rock groups (Malecote Trebol Shop and Vientos en Contra among others), traditional Maya music, a marimba fiesta, a Mexican Ranchero group, conquestador dancers, and a surprising and amazing cross-dress dance exhibition.

As a group we also celebrated a birthday on the rooftop terrace of one of our homes and had a delicious meal out at La Fonda de Calle Real nearest the parque central. Several group members hiked Pacaya twice, 1st when a thunderstorm sent them packing and successfully the following afternoon. I spent a few hours at the Hermano Pedro hospital and orphanage and especially enjoyed the catacombs of the cathedral, the round tower at Las Capuchinas, and San Jerónimo; Casa Poponoe and the museums at Santo Domingo were other group favorites.

One of my personal highlights was meeting a wonderful 85-year-old man, Benjamin, who frequented the ice cream shop next to the school. My 1st day in Antigua I offered to buy him ice cream if he’d help me practice Spanish and most days I spent hours there, learning about his life, religion, philosophies (“it’s important to applaud people’s efforts, it makes them feel strong and special”), and hearing some of Antigua’s most famous ghost stories. It was days before I realized he was the father of the school’s director, Julio, who was also my teacher.

After the parade on Saturday, July 25th, Adrenalina whisked us away to Chichicastenango. Enroute we planned a picnic at the ruins of Iximché where, unbelievably, there was a huge Maya gathering which included hundreds of other picnickers and traditional music and dance presentations. Though we were the only gringos in sight we were warmly welcomed, another unforgettable experience.

We spent the night at Hospedaje Girón (no internet, phone 7756.1156, add 011.502 in front if you’re calling from the US, no English spoken, $15/double with hot water (death heads, and they warned us it might have low pressure if everyone showered at once but it wasn’t a problem). Again, a great location on the back side of the commercial building, just a few blocks from Comedor Tipico where we enjoyed a cheap (20Q, about $2.50), delicious traditional meal and alternately hilarious and poignant reliving of our 1st week’s adventures.

That evening and the following morning we took in the market set-up, activities on the church steps, the glorious produce market in the commercial building, and even did a little shopping including some really phenomenal, creative masks. I was happy to get a few new photos (a darling baby with his finger crammed up his nose - some things are universal - and women talking and laughing as they set up their wares) and to reconnect with the lovely old couple I met 2 years ago when they needed a little extra help setting up their stall, Lucia and Thomas; I just have a thing about old people, especially small ones.

Just in the nick of time Adrenalina whisked us away again - around 9:30am, before the hoards of day trippers made the scene. We stopped for lunch at [Corazon del Bosque|http://www.corazondelbosque.com/Portal/Home.aspx] (Interamerican Highway at Km 145), a cultural and environmental center in the municipality of Santa Lucía Utatlán. There are lots of trails, a reputation as a great birding site, and camping and cabins for individuals or groups. We hiked up the hill to take part in a Maya spiritual ceremony (that’s a book in itself), were served a traditional meal that included rabbit, and some of us tried out their temascales (traditional Maya saunas); total cost was just under $15 each.

From there we headed down the incredibly steep, rain-soaked roads to San Pedro La Laguna, grateful to be in a well-maintained, safely driven minibus instead of a chicken bus. We went straight to my beloved [Cooperativa School|http://cooperativeschoolsanpedro.com/] ($150 for homestays and 20 hours 1-on-1 instruction) where the director Lorenzo greeted us warmly and sent us off in ones and twos with friendly homestay family members. After settling in we met at Nick’s Place (no homestay meals at either school on Sundays) where we enjoyed everything from whole fish to pizza and another round of memory roulette.

In San Pedro fortune smiled on us again. The school garden was lovelier than ever, the lake more mysterious, surrounding villages quaint and interesting, and our teachers and homestays pretty remarkable, overall. Though the area around the dock is built-up touristy and attracts a bit of a druggy crowd, the upper, traditional part of town is friendly and, well, traditional. My homestay was tucked back in a rabbit warren of narrow walkways, modest and perfect - friendly parents and kids, great food, good conversation. The father is an artist with some important community projects and the school, also, is deeply devoted to helping area families in need. The school provided salsa lessons, a showing of the Spanish version of the gutwrenching movie ‘Imagining Argentina’, and a presentation about the Maya calendar and philosophies. On Friday each of us traveled with our teacher to the homes of the 2 families s/he has chosen to support; I want to call my visit life changing but it’s too soon to tell if I can live up to that.

I studied in the afternoons and 1 morning I hopped on a pick-up heading to San Juan (about 25 cents each way, leaving from the square by the church near the top of town) to visit several women’s weaving cooperatives and the beautiful, colorful cemetery.

Another morning a group of us crossed to Santiago Atitlán, where I was able to find the same guide my friend Sylvia and I trooped around with 2 years ago (yes, another small old person - the guide, not Syl). We visited saint of tobacco, alcohol, and prostitutes, Maximón (he moves every year, this house was more festive and less macabre than the last one) and enjoyed a small carnival in the parque central. Enjoyed watching, I should say, as wild horses couldn’t get me on one of those wildly whipping ferris wheels loaded with screaming kids in traditional attire; when a school bell rang the place was deserted in 30 seconds. There seemed to be fewer little kid touts on the street this visit, which hopefully means more of them are in school.

There was no school for kids in San Pedro that week due to the annual Olimpiad. Most mornings I watched my host kids play basketball or soccer, where, like the parades in Antigua, the other spectators are as interesting as the action we’re there to watch. Highlights were the moms clustering around the carnecería (meat shop), bargaining for the freshest chicken while they watched the basketball game over their shoulders and the coaches doing what coaches do but in traditional wrapped skirts while the old timers in their traditional traje (otherwise known as jammy bottoms) held down the fort by the municipal building. There was also a grand finale Friday night complete with fireworks, aerobic dance groups from age 3 through high school, and lots of trophies.

I volunteered a few mornings again at Somos Hijos del Lago, a program for individuals with disabilities, and was pleased to see it appeared better funded and organized than 2 years ago. I also found a couple of nice old guys who had their favorite people-watching spots staked out (yes, small, and yes, wearing jammy bottoms); they were game for a few minutes of conversation each time I passed. I was touched by the tradition of young girls kissing the hand of the old gentlemen as they passed by.

Saturday, August 1st, we said our goodbyes to our families and San Pedro and headed across the lake to Panajachel with Captain Leo at the helm (about $2.50 each); you might recognize him in the future as the guy in the Nike University of Oregon hat a member of our group gave him as we disembarked - quite a hit. We left our bags at the Adrenalina office in Pana and spent about 4 hours shopping and dining. I purchased a few items from the same old woman I bought huipiles from last trip and had a stunning moment when I very nearly fed my unwanted fried potatoes to a street dog before realizing there was a hungry woman seated next to me on the curb - I’ll never forget that.

Enroute to Antigua we had a show and tell session of purchases in the bus (my prize was the perfect weaving for couch pillows) and I realized with a jolt of sadness that it was our last day as a group of 15. In Antigua I met up with Benjamin for one last mango ice cream cone and then our group ate a lovely meal out at [La Escudilla|http://www.la-escudilla.com/es/escudilla.htm], about a block from the parque central. We stayed at [Posada La Merced|http://www.merced-landivar.com/] ($20 each since we had more than 12 of us including a light continental breakfast) and were pleased with the choice, just around the corner from the Academia Antigüeña in one direction and Casa Cristina (which is too small to house a group that size) in the other; Fernando’s coffee place was close enough that their wifi password gave me free internet in my room.

Sunday morning we headed to the airport, by then a group of 13 flying into Flores and shuttling to Tikal. [The Tikal Inn|http://tikalinn.com/] (not sure of the cost as it was part of the total package I bought from Adrenalina) was gorgeous, rooms clean and spacious, great hot water, beautiful, perfect pool. We entered the park at 3:30 where we saved a couple of bucks each by paying in quetzales (150) instead of $20. I was treated to Tikal through the eyes of 1st time visitors and we were all treated to an amazing howler monkey show before heading to dinner at one of the comedores.

Tikal Inn graciously provided boxed breakfasts (subbed for the onsite breakfast the package included) and we met at 5:30 for an early tour of the ruins with quite possibly our luckiest luck of the trip, archaeologist guide Roxy Ortiz (thanks for the recommendation, photogirl1980!). We were absolutely spellbound for more than 4 hours with her personality and her knowledge of nature as well as history; we peeked in underground stone caches and saw glyphs and sculptures I had no idea were there. We were also treated to a rare sighting of emerald toucanettes, a spider monkey that scrambled across the top of the great temple in El Mundo Perdido and waved at us (I’m not kidding - there were lots of witnesses), a whole troup of spider monkeys launching themselves one at a time across a 20 foot opening in the trees across from us, a horrendous downpour and the subsequent steamy jungle smells and views from the top of Temple IV, and a truly huge tarantula which I got to hold (and I have a photo to prove it). After moving out of our rooms and another quick dip in the pool, Roxy joined us for lunch before we headed south to Flores for the night.

Due to road construction in Flores (still a mess but showing signs of the beauty ahead) we had to lug our bags a few blocks to our hotel, [La Mesa de Los Mayas|http://www.guatemalastory.com/hotels/index.php?id=5&ciudadid=flores&dollar1=1] (about $10-15 each in doubles and triples with welcomed air conditioning). It was very nice and had a nice restaurant and there was an internet place right across the street. The next morning most of the group was shuttled to the airport for the early flight back to GUA to meet up with their international flights home. Five of us hugged them goodbye, hit a bakery for breakfast, and hopped into our last Adrenalina van which shuttled us to Belize.

I was joyous to be in Guatemala again, proud and grateful to have such a wonderful group to travel with, and pleased with my plans and the providers. Such a beautiful experience and so very many memories to treasure. HAPPY TRAILS!

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