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Trip Report HOPEFULIST'S 2010 TRAVELOGUE: Yucatán, Chiapas, & Lake Atitlán, Guatemala

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ANOTHER GREAT ADVENTURE IN LATIN AMERICA!
Again, we loved everyplace we stayed and everything we did, no regrets. This one was actually 3 separate adventures:
:: 2 weeks on México’s Yucatán Peninsula with my husband fishing, diving, exploring Maya ruins and a variety of towns (Tulum, Valladolid, San Felipe, and Isla Mujeres), and snorkeling in cenotes and with sea turtles and whalesharks;
:: 2 weeks studying Spanish in San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico with a small group in tow, living with a host family and exploring area water features, Maya ruins, and indigenous villages; and
:: 1 week in San Pedro La Laguna, Sololá, Guatemala, visiting the families of my Beca Project students and making plans for the project for the upcoming year.

I posted daily during the trip to a PHOTO BLOG:
http://2010latinamericaadventures.blogspot.com

You can view hundreds of additional photos from the trip on my FLICKR SITE: http://www.flickr.com/photos/staceyholeman/collections

This travelogue will have additional specifics and links. I’ve decided to post in a string on a single thread and, as always, you can ignore the whole thing, scan for the bits that interest you, or read it word for word if you have strong eyes - it’s long!

PACKING NOTES
I still stand by my packing list (#14 in the CA Lonely Planet FAQ list: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/thread.jspa?threadID=828622 ) as it served me well again, with the addition of a couple of techy items most travelers wouldn‘t care about. I left my silk travel sheet at home and missed it the last week, would have liked my waterproof hiking shoes during 3 days of Hurricane Alex rains in San Cristóbal (but was happy not to lug them around the other 5 weeks), and preferred my half-sized bath towel to the backpacker model I’ve packed around for years. I enjoyed having my little netbook (tiny laptop) for photo sorting and sharing, blogging, and communication during 2 family crises back home; I packed along a couple of thumb drives which I used to back up my photos after sorting. I may shop this winter for a waterproof backpack or messenger bag.

WEATHER
In a nutshell, the weather was predictable for the season everywhere we visited with extra rain from (what became) Hurricane Alex at the end of the Yucatán trip and beginning of Chiapas - a few soggy days but it didn‘t slow us down. It was hot in the Yucatán - 90s and muggy - but didn’t spoil our fun; we were happy to have air conditioning at every stop and the occasional pool in addition to the water time we built in fishing, snorkeling, and diving. San Cristobal was in the high 60s/low 70s and Lake Atitlan was 70s/low 80s with near daily afternoon showers both places.

In the Yucatán, traveling in June had advantages that outweighed the heat and hurricane risk: it was low season which meant lower lodging prices, better availability, and fewer other travelers (and often individual attention) for activities and tours. Note that July and August are big months for Mexican vacationers so the low season appears to end with June.

HEALTH and SAFETY
There were a few mosquitos in Tulum Pueblo evenings and mornings but easy to avoid; in the jungly areas repellent was in order (we like Ultrathon and Sawyer’s controlled release deet products and have a few clothing products that ward off bugs). We drank only purified water which was generally provided to us by our lodging, tour, or study providers and ate a combination of self prepared, restaurant, and home cooked meals. I ate something bad (street fruit even though I peeled it myself? - not sure) in Chiapas and the antibiotics I’d packed along saved the day; I do not take them lightly but think they were necessary in this case. Otherwise - no problems.

In general we felt safe and our experiences were positive; in fact, they were mostly incredible. We had a few scary minutes when we exited the Ek Balam ruins and our car and driver weren’t there. Along he came, sorry to have kept us waiting, apparently oblivious to the fact that we were wondering if he’d taken off with all of our stuff. Because we’d been warned on the México branch of the Thorntree Forum we were (barely) able to escape the scams at the Pemex station in Tulum, otherwise people were friendly and helpful everywhere we went.

MONEY
I’ve listed costs in whatever denomination we paid them. Exchange rate in México was effectively 12 pesos = $1US, slightly more at the banks. We used Santander ATMs in Mexico which didn’t charge a fee since we have Bank of America accounts. In Guatemala the exchange rate was 8 quetzales = $1US. We paid with a combination of Paypal, personal checks (the school in San Cristóbal), travelers checques (Mexidivers) and cash; we carried additional travelers checques and charge cards for backup but didn’t use them.

CHAPTER 1: 2 WEEKS EXPLORING THE YUCATAN WITH MY HUSBAND, MIKE

Best advice (other than pack really light and don’t try to do too much) is to buy the Can Do Maps http://www.cancunmap.com for the areas you want to see; imo they’re more complete and up to date than the guidebooks in terms of lodging and tours and they’re easy to pack around and reference as needed.

TULUM
Portland > Phoenix > Cancun flights on US Airways were fine, hour delay out of Phoenix waiting for connecting passengers. We took a free shuttle from Terminal 3 to Terminal 2 and ADO buses from there to Playa del Carmen (106 pesos each) and on to Tulum (42 pesos - less for 2nd class but we wanted quick and ac) where we walked the few blocks to our hotel, Posada Luna del Sur http://sites.google.com/site/posadalunadelsur/welcome - highly recommended. Pretty, clean, friendly, helpful, with a large, well appointed room (ac, tv, fridge but no micro, nice patio outside our room, secure), $72US including tax, low season; check out the Trip Advisor posts http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g150813-d477460-Reviews-Posada_Luna_del_Sur-Tulum_Yucatan_Peninsula.html . There’s an honor bar, places to eat and lounge, a laptop for customer use and wifi on the rooftop terrace; I could pick up a little wifi on our patio but not in our room, #5 on the ground floor.

We liked staying on the south edge of town, shopping in the nearby grocery and local fruit stands for breakfasts and lunches, eating at places the locals frequent, within walking distance of the tourist-driven restaurants and shops but a bit south of the main drag; in nearly a week we just ate out 5 times. We had a great breakfast at Azafran - fruit/yogurt crepes for me for 45p, eggs w/ great salsa, mashed potatoes, wheat/seedy toast for Mike for 60p; we also bought a loaf of the bread which we ate through the week for 40p. We thought Charlie’s was good for dinner but not incredible - 95p for Mike’s chile rellenos and 80p for my vegies and potatoes, both w/ typical Mexican side dishes. At Don Cafeto’s we splurged on the combination seafood platter (310p for both) which could have fed 4, lots of leftovers for the next night: fish, shrimp, octopus, and squid prepared with sweet peppers and onions and served in a huge frying pan on the table with lots of good vegies, chips and salsa, rice, and tortillas; nice ambiance on the sidewalk with live music. I enjoyed the locals place called Camello Cocterleria y Pescaderia on the south end of town; a large serving of shrimp tacos with chips and salsa and tortillas was 45p. Our last night we watched the sun set and enjoyed a pizza at Zama’s on the beach, about 90p.

We rented a car (a little manual Hyundai Atos from Hertz, about $200US for the week) so my husband could access fishing flats in the Boca Paila area; it took him a few days to figure out the tides and the flies but he ended up catching (and releasing) some nice bonefish.

I dove 2 days. I was happy with my dive shops which specialized in the 2 types of diving I wanted - reef and cenote. I could be spoiled by the individual attention I received. The Mexidiver http://www.mexidivers.com shop, ($90US for 2 tanks) is across the road from the beach, so you walk across the sand, into the water, and into the boat. We visited the sites of La Ballena and Eagle Ray; it was just the dive master Nicolas and me and, though it wasn’t the most fabulous diving I’ve experienced, it was a satisfying mix of varied topography and a good variety of fish including butterfly fish, angels, grunts, jacks, schoolmasters, goat fish, damsels, basslets, trumpet fish, trunk fish, and wrasse. Highlights were 3 different types of moray eels including a really enormous green one and 2 beautiful spotted eagle rays that flew slowly past as we rose to the surface on the final dive. Unfortunately, we also saw 3 lion fish which are beautiful but are native to the Pacific and have no predators in the Caribbean; some apparently escaped when a hurricane devastated a large aquarium a few years back. They are very poisonous and devour young indigenous reef fish like there’s no tomorrow.

Another day I dove with Richie from Xibalba dive shop http://www.xibalbadivecenter.com/diving.asp?LID=en $110US for 2 tanks including entrance fees to 2 cenotes. It was AMAZING - gorgeous light and blues and greens, curious cave formations, spooky dark places, and a halocline, the line where the salt water (below) and fresh water (above) mix, causing a blurry layer you can barely see in that looks like a separate water surface from above and from below - fascinating! We did 2 dives, Gran Cenote and Calaveras (Temple of Doom) Cenote. Here’s a cool website: http://www.grancenote.com/photos.htm that will give you an idea of what it was like.

Mike and I snorkeled in several cenotes within a 10 minute drive of Tulum. The 1st was Dos Ojos (2 Eyes) Cenote; look around for the 3rd “eye” - we liked it best. We enjoyed the jungly hike despite the heat and near 100% humidity, snorkeling in the cool (cold at 1st!) water, swimming with the small fish and around interesting cave formations, the view of the world from inside, and the swallows and gorgeous motmots (my favorite type of bird) nesting in the stalagtites. Casa Cenote is a canal-like open cenote lined with mangroves. We crossed the road to the beach and snorkeled there, too; there was a decent representation of Caribbean reef fish but the visibility was poor - like diluted milk from the fine sand.

One morning we visited the Tulum Maya ruins, arriving shortly after they opened at 8am - highly recommended in order to beat the heat and the crowds. We pulled our little rental car into a practically empty lot and wandered in as venders were unlocking. When we walked out an hour and a half later (still early in the day!) the lot was nearly half full with vans and huge buses from Cancun and Playa del Carmen and there were easily a hundred people in line for the bathroom. Although we understand the rationale, we didn’t like that you can’t climb on the ruins or explore inside; most of the buildings you can’t even touch; it was hard to “feel” the place with so many roped off areas. We liked the gorgeous blue sky and picturesque clouds, beautiful grounds and interesting buildings and perimeter wall, nice grassy areas, incredible setting overlooking the sea, and lots of big lizards (really big).

One afternoon we headed to Akumal, about 14 miles north of Tulum, to go snorkeling in Turtle Bay in 5-10 feet of water. Sea turtles were EVERYWHERE - too many to count! We snorkeled for about 2 hours and took lots of photos. I will never forget sharing that time with Mike and dozens of those beautiful, peaceful creatures.

Next post, Valladolid...

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    Hi Stacey,
    I have enjoyed reading your trip reports and your blogs. I loved keeping up with your trip, it was almost like I was there with you. Unfortunately no LA trip for me this year so it was great reading about your travels.

    Keep the posts coming.

    Thanks,
    Carla

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    VALLADOLID
    2 hours on another ADO bus (74p each) found us in Valladolid where we stayed at Hotel Zaci, just around the corner from the station: 300p for a clean room with 2 double beds, tv (nice to have during the World Cup!), wood furniture, stencil decorations, and hot water. The staff was helpful (Spanish only); we used the wifi in the entry area and enjoyed the nice pool. It’s just a few blocks from the lovely, shaded zocalo and the 1700’s cathedral and 4 or 5 blocks from a large grocery and the public market (opposite directions). The streets and sidewalks were new and the buildings freshly painted and colorful - a pretty town. We liked how lived in and tranquil it felt.

    We ate 1breakfast and 2 lunches in our room and dinner out both nights. The 1st night we loved Cafe Itali@ on the Candelaria park - great pasta (55p each) and ambiance. We would have eaten there again the 2nd night but it was closed (Monday) so we wound up at Las Campañas on the zocalo, decent food (~70p each, nearly every item on the menu had cheese as a main ingredient), nice live guitar music, and good people watching.

    The day in between we headed 1st thing to Chichén Itzá (51p each) via a colectivo (25p each) which left from near the bus station (25p each). We loved beating the heat and beating the crowds plus the venders inside the park were just setting up and were friendly rather than pushy. Frankly, we weren’t terribly impressed with the ruins and part of that, again, was our inability to connect with the ruins physically like we’ve enjoyed in other countries.

    Back in Valladolid we caught a colectivo in front of Hotel Maria Guadalupe a block south of Hotel Zaci to Dzitnup where we swam in 2 cenotes, Dzitnup (sometimes referred to as Xkeken) which was packed - lots of swimmers and photo snappers enjoying the cool lighting and interesting cave formations. The 2nd one, Samula or Sakmu’ulja, was quieter and we loved the big old tree growing by the small ceiling opening with roots reaching down toward the water. Both were incredibly cool and refreshing, a nice escape from the heat (27p each for each cenote).

    Our final morning we headed to Meson de Marques for coffee and juice (39p for both) - beautiful setting in the courtyard of an historic hotel on the zocalo. We’d arranged transportation north through Rodolfo of Rudy Tours (on 40th between 37th and 39th, 985.102.5262) - personable and knowledgeable; he and a driver picked us up right on time at our hotel ($100US). First stop was the ruins of Ek Balam (31p each) which we loved - the massive Acropolis is a huge temple 135’ high, more than 1/3rd again as high as El Castillo at Chichén Itzá and offers not only incredible views but gorgeous angel sculptures and excellent birding - more motmots! There was a nice small ball court and lots of buildings to climb and explore.

    When we got back to the parking lot - NO CAR! We asked around to no avail and calmed ourselves for 5-10 sweaty minutes before they reappeared, sorry to have kept us waiting but apparently unaware we might fear they’d taken off with all our belongings. Memorable.

    SAN FELIPE
    We pointed our noses north again, passing through agricultural land including some planted with blue agave for tequila and arriving in the small fishing village of San Felipe just over an hour later. Severely damaged by a hurricane a few years ago, the town has been rebuilt and the community pride is obvious - lots of bright new paint, new playgrounds, clean streets. Our hotel, Hotel San Felipe de Jesus (650p), sits right on the Gulf of México, a bit funky and all around great; they cater to fly fisherman hunting tarpon, a new adventure for Mike. Our room, #8, had 3 beds, hot water, and views of both sunsets and sunrises; it was on the top floor with steps in the room leading to a balcony on the roof. We ate our 1st dinner at Restaurant El Popular Vaselina (if for no other reason than the name is simply charming) and enjoyed a wonderful mixed seafood ceviche with conch, shrimp, and octopus - one 90p serving was plenty for us both. We liked the simple, reasonably priced meals at the hotel also.

    Mike had a marvelous day of guided tarpon fishing with excellent guide Carlos ($250) while I spent the day with Marcos ($125) on a birding tour which included lots of cranes, egrets, storks, eagles, and thousands of flamingos. We also stopped at several beaches and interesting water features and did some snorkeling. A spendy few days but well spent and memorable.

    The morning we moved on, the owner, Jesciel, drove us 45 minutes to Tizimin where we extracted money from an ATM to pay him in cash (credit cards, checks, and traveler's checques not accepted and no banks in San Felipe) and where we could catch a ride east to Cancun. The cost of the taxi (500p) amounted to only $10US more than a combination 1st class bus to Cancun (not leaving for hours) and taxi to the dock, so we rode in an air conditioned taxi for 2 and a half hours, stopping at roadside stands for bananas and treats and landing at the ferry dock ready to head to Isla Mujeres.

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    ISLA MUJERES
    The next Isla Mujeres (140p each round trip) ferry was leaving in 10 minutes, newish, comfortable boat, quick 20 minute trip. We’d called ahead so were met at the dock by Juanita who with her husband, Candelario Chim, owns the apartment we rented for 3 nights: candeapartment(at)hotmail.com. She walked us the 3 or 4 blocks from the dock. The apartment ($45US/night), which sat above a corner laundry business was terrific - well located, comfortable, and well appointed with a full kitchen, cable tv, ac in the bedroom, an in room safe, a balcony for people watching, and every pastel color known to man. It was a block from the sea walk along the eastern beach, a block from the zocalo, and a block from a large grocery store where we bought fruit, vegies, bread and pastries, hot sauce, coffee, pasta, eggs, cheese, potatoes, beer, limes, and other staples. We enjoyed cooking our own meals and our only restaurant meal out was at Cazuelas, just up the block, where Mike had their trademark cazuela (a quiche/omelette sort of egg dish) and I had fruit and yogurt crepes(150p/both).

    The main reason Mike and I decided to visit Isla Mujeres is because in the summer whale sharks congregate to the north of the island. The world’s largest species of fish, whale sharks are filter feeders and can grow to lengths of more than 40 feet. You can read more about them on wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whale_shark . I’m sorry that I can’t give contact info for the provider we used as I’d asked Candelario to set it up for us and we were picked up at our apartment and driven to the dock. The cost was $125US each which we’d read was the minimum set by the tourist industry, though others on our boat paid more. The cost included sandwiches, ceviche and drinks and an additional snorkeling stop.

    As often as I’ve dreamed of seeing whale sharks, I don’t think I ever expected to do so and with rough seas the morning of our adventure (and my stomach not dealing especially well with the waves despite dramamine) the odds of finding a fish or 2 - even a really big sort - seemed akin to the proverbial needle in the haystack.

    Low and behold after about 3 hours at sea and with all eyes on multiple boats searching for dark fins above the waves - there they were!!! There were 3 other couples on our boat; Capitan Luis would maneuver the boat in place and we’d enter the water 2 at a time with guide Beto, sometimes seeing more than one shark at once; one of the sharks Mike and I snorkeled with was especially large. The boat would circle around and pick us up and the next 2 swimmers would take a turn. We each had 4 opportunities to snorkel with the sharks before heading back to Isla. Enroute we experienced a thunder and lightning show and torrential rain (thanks to Tropical Storm Alex) and bagged the snorkeling stop but the success of our adventure minimized the inconvenience. I feel incredibly honored to have shared the sea with these beautiful beings and I know Mike feels the same way.

    We knew that 3 days wouldn’t do Isla Mujeres justice and it didn’t; aside from a few walks to the beach and along the pedestrian street, Hidalgo, and a weak attempt at snorkeling from shore off Playa Norte, we mostly just hung out and enjoyed the slightly cooler, though rainy, weather our 2nd full day. I think we’ll head back to Isla someday (flights from the NW US drop below $400 RT sometimes, so a fairly cheap get-away) to explore other parts of the island and for more opportunities to snorkel and dive.

    Our 2 weeks over, we sorted and packed, walked to the dock, and ferried to Cancun where we hired a taxi ($23US, the posted rate + tip) to take us to the airport. Despite Tropical Storm Alex which caused significant flight cancellations and delays, neither Mike’s trip home nor my flight to Mérida were affected.

    We loved all our lodging and destination choices and have wonderful memories from our time in México, together and apart. It was a good balance of adventure, relaxation, water time, and inland explorations. HAPPY TRAILS!

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    ISLA MUJERES
    The next Isla Mujeres (140p each round trip) ferry was leaving in 10 minutes, newish, comfortable boat, quick 20 minute trip. We’d called ahead so were met at the dock by Juanita who with her husband, Candelario Chim, owns the apartment we rented for 3 nights: candeapartment(at)hotmail.com. She walked us the 3 or 4 blocks from the dock. The apartment ($45US/night), which sat above a corner laundry business was terrific - well located, comfortable, and well appointed with a full kitchen, cable tv, ac in the bedroom, an in room safe, a balcony for people watching, and every pastel color known to man. It was a block from the sea walk along the eastern beach, a block from the zocalo, and a block from a large grocery store where we bought fruit, vegies, bread and pastries, hot sauce, coffee, pasta, eggs, cheese, potatoes, beer, limes, and other staples. We enjoyed cooking our own meals and our only restaurant meal out was at Cazuelas, just up the block, where Mike had their trademark cazuela (a quiche/omelette sort of egg dish) and I had fruit and yogurt crepes(150p/both).

    The main reason Mike and I decided to visit Isla Mujeres is because in the summer whale sharks congregate to the north of the island. The world’s largest species of fish, whale sharks are filter feeders and can grow to lengths of more than 40 feet. You can read more about them on wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whale_shark . I’m sorry that I can’t give contact info for the provider we used as I’d asked Candelario to set it up for us and we were picked up at our apartment and driven to the dock. The cost was $125US each which we’d read was the minimum set by the tourist industry, though others on our boat paid more. The cost included sandwiches, ceviche and drinks and an additional snorkeling stop.

    As often as I’ve dreamed of seeing whale sharks, I don’t think I ever expected to do so and with rough seas the morning of our adventure (and my stomach not dealing especially well with the waves despite dramamine) the odds of finding a fish or 2 - even a really big sort - seemed akin to the proverbial needle in the haystack.

    Low and behold after about 3 hours at sea and with all eyes on multiple boats searching for dark fins above the waves - there they were!!! There were 3 other couples on our boat; Capitan Luis would maneuver the boat in place and we’d enter the water 2 at a time with guide Beto, sometimes seeing more than one shark at once; one of the sharks Mike and I snorkeled with was especially large. The boat would circle around and pick us up and the next 2 swimmers would take a turn. We each had 4 opportunities to snorkel with the sharks before heading back to Isla. Enroute we experienced a thunder and lightning show and torrential rain (thanks to Tropical Storm Alex) and bagged the snorkeling stop but the success of our adventure minimized the inconvenience. I feel incredibly honored to have shared the sea with these beautiful beings and I know Mike feels the same way.

    We knew that 3 days wouldn’t do Isla Mujeres justice and it didn’t; aside from a few walks to the beach and along the pedestrian street, Hidalgo, and a weak attempt at snorkeling from shore off Playa Norte, we mostly just hung out and enjoyed the slightly cooler, though rainy, weather our 2nd full day. I think we’ll head back to Isla someday (flights from the NW US drop below $400 RT sometimes, so a fairly cheap get-away) to explore other parts of the island and for more opportunities to snorkel and dive.

    Our 2 weeks over, we sorted and packed, walked to the dock, and ferried to Cancun where we hired a taxi ($23US, the posted rate + tip) to take us to the airport. Despite Tropical Storm Alex which caused significant flight cancellations and delays, neither Mike’s trip home nor my flight to Mérida were affected.

    We loved all our lodging and destination choices and have wonderful memories from our time in México, together and apart. It was a good balance of adventure, relaxation, water time, and inland explorations. HAPPY TRAILS!

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    MÉRIDA
    I liked Mérida immediately - all the airport workers were laughing and talking and my taxi driver was very friendly and helpful (tickets must be purchased at the taxi kiosk, 155p to Centro). He dropped me off at my hotel, Las Arecas http://lasarecas.com/ - 300p with ceiling fans, 400p with ac which I was happy to have. From the outside it's quite plain but inside it's like taking a step back in time to a more beautiful, restful era - lots of light, antique furniture, cheery blue paint, lovely garden areas and spacious rooms; there’s a full kitchen for guest use which I used for dinner and breakfast. The elderly owner, Raul, and his elderly German Shephard showed me my rooms and left me there alone - they live elsewhere and there were no other guests.

    After settling in I left with map in hand to visit as many churches as I could before darkness fell. Mérida is much larger than Valladolid and not as polished and painted, but has a friendly feel and I was impressed with the variety of churches and neighborhoods in the central area. After dark there was live music in nearly every park area - from jazz to Mexican ranchera to rock.

    In the morning I visited a few more churches and the wonderful Archaeological Museum before saying a surprisingly sad goodbye to Raul and Las Arecas and heading to the airport. I had originally booked my flights to overnight in Mérida Saturday night and fly on to Tuxtla Gutierrez Sunday afternoon (as opposed to staying in Cancun or overnighting in México City) but Mexicana canceled the Mérida > Tuxtla flight so I had to fly Mérida > México City > Tuxtla on Sunday. I spent the extra travel time devouring the excellent new Moon Chiapas: http://www.amazon.com/Moon-Chiapas-Handbooks-Liza-Prado/dp/1598802429

    SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS
    At the airport in Tuxtla Gutierrez I met 3 of my 4 group members and we were whisked onward to our host families in San Cristóbal de las Casas in a prearranged shuttle ($33US each). I lived for 2 weeks with a wonderful couple named Hector and Isabel; their household included 2 Maya girls who helped with housework and with the family business (a torta and hamburger place just outside of town at a large prep school) and a very endearing daschund puppy. Isabel is a really fabulous cook, Hector has a large circle of helpful friends and wide understanding of the area, and they both loved to talk (Spanish only) - perfect hosts. The house had lots of cheery bright pink paint and my room was comfortable. I walked through an outside area to a small half bath or into the house to use the shower, a bit of a challenge with Hurricane Alex’s torrential rain the 1st 3 or 4 days.

    Our Spanish school, Instituto Jovel http://www.institutojovel.com/ (typical of the area, about $350US/week for 3 hours/day of private instruction plus full room and board, more than twice what most Guatemalan schools charge) was really beautiful - well located with lots of nice outdoor and indoor spaces, beautiful plants, interesting sculptures, and lovely views from the top floor. There were 5 educators from the NW US including me, some in group classes, some with private instruction which I greatly prefer. We each had 2 teachers/day and some of us switched teachers the 2nd week when we chose to switch to afternoon lessons. Remarkably, every teacher was excellent and all of us loved our hosts - highly recommended.

    We really packed a lot of cultural exploration into our free time; it’s easy to step away from the touristy (though beautiful) core to the local markets and tiny streets with friendly locals going about their business. Although activities aren’t including in the school’s tuition, they had lots of great, really cheap options including salsa dance lessons, jewelry making, movie evenings, and cooking classes. They helped me arrange a private cooking class for our group which included shopping for the ingredients at the local market and hours of preparation - in addition to happy memories, a delicious pozole soup and guacamole were the result.

    Another day we visited the home of Sebastian, a friend of my host, Hector, and purchased handcrafted amber jewelry at incredibly low prices.

    We also spent an evening at a spiritual ceremony which included a traditional Maya temascal (sweat bath). It was an incredible experience. After, as we shared tea and fruit with the leaders, I set my camera’s timer to take a picture of us and the resulting photo has a spirit in it - check out my blog to see for yourself. How phenomenal to participate in a spiritual ceremony and have a spirit show up in your group photo?

    We visited most of the town’s museums (typically $2-3US each) and liked them all including the museums of Amber, Jade, and Coffee (which had a really macabre gallery of death and assassination paintings). The Maya Medicine Museum is a bit of a hike north of town but worth the effort; there’s an herbal pharmacy and garden areas as well as dioramas and informational videos and guide packets in a variety of languages.

    I visited Na Bolom http://www.nabolom.org/index_en.html one morning with my teacher who had worked there for 8 years, a really fabulous personal tour of this place with an historical focus on the Lacandón Maya; it’s housed in the home of the archaeologist/photographer couple Franz and Gertrude Duby Blom and the work continues with ongoing research and support including an onsite medical facility. In addition to the museum and displayed rooms of the home there’s a nice gift shop, a large research garden area with sculptures and cultural displays, and a small hotel. I enjoyed meeting the Blom’s elderly daughter who is still active in the enterprise and I have to admit that the ride there and back on my teacher’s motor scooter was part of the fun.

    We also visited a large private collection of regional dress in the home of local legend Sergio Castro, by appointment only 967.678.4289, ask for directions as it isn’t signed on the street and the guidebooks don’t list a house number. His tour was very informative, interrupted periodically by clients who came for his healing arts.

    If you’re a shopper you’d find San Cristóbal heavenly; in addition to the huge artisan market the streets in the central area are lined with book stores, jewelry and clothing places, and local handicraft shops. Here are a few of my favorites; I’m not going to bother with directions or addresses but would be happy to answer questions if anyone wants more detail: the Zapatista movement’s Nemi Zapata, Sna Jolobil weaver’s cooperative, the Taller Lañatera paper craft stores, El Encuentro for local textiles and clothing, El Mercado de Dulces y Artesanias for mountains of local sweets and local artesan work. There’s a motorized trolley tour that leaves from there and does an interesting hour long circuit of the town’s highlights with Spanish explanations: El Coleto Tranvía Turística (55p).

    Most visitors hit the large artisan market by the Santo Domingo temple without realizing that a block or 2 to the east is an enormous locals market with gorgeous, interesting, and occasionally grisly displays of fresh produce, sweets, sundries, herbal medicines, dried fish, and pigs’ heads. Several of us wanted to purchase copal and other incense and found the most endearing vender in the dark, narrow candle alley. It was the kind of memorable shopping experience that might happen just a few times in a lifetime. We asked our questions, made our selections, paid, said our goodbyes and walked away. A minute later, I felt a tap on my shoulder and found the abuelita (little grandmother) behind me; she wanted to give us little regalos (gifts), and ushered us back to her stall. She carefully poured the crystals of a different type of incense onto bits of paper and wrapped them up for each of us. Incense: 10 pesos, incense holder: 10 pesos, shopping experience: priceless.

    If you love churches, heaven again. The iconic yellow cathedral, built in 1528, is just one of dozens of churches in San Cristóbal. There seemed to be celebrations at one or another most nights, with fireworks and streets lined with papel picado banners. The beautiful sanctuaries provide a welcome respite from the busy market and tourist areas, a place for reflection and gratitude.

    Although we missed many of the regions attractions due to time constraints, we were really happy with our tour of the local villages of San Juan Chamula and Zinacantán with Cesar from Alex y Raul Tours which offers daily trips. Show up at the big cross in front of the yellow cathedral by 9:15 in the morning (180p or about $15US each) if you’re interested; they’ll find you. The 2 towns share the tzotzil Maya dialect but are very different culturally. Chamula’s church lacks pews and priests (other than for baptisms) and the floors are lined with worshippers quietly setting about rituals that involve specifically colored candles, specific numbers of eggs, incense, and the occasional sacrificial chicken. Visitors are allowed but no cameras - a powerful experience. We visited the home and altar of a local religious leader and had a few minutes to explore the central market. The local dress includes skirts for the women and tunics for the men woven from black wool which is picked to look like bear fur. Although the churches in both towns are a balance of Catholic and Maya faiths, the church is Zinacantán was more Catholic; a sign at the entrance stated that killing chickens in the church was not allowed. The local dress includes vibrantly colored huipiles and wraps. We visited a local home for weaving and tortilla making demonstrations. A fascinating day, well spent.

    Over the weekend we visited the ruins of Toniná and Palenque, a highlight of our time in Chiapas. We hired a private driver since the overnight tours to Palenque don’t stop at Toniná). The Toniná ruins (41p) are beautiful, tiered up a hill a half hour off the highway, and rarely visited. There are some wonderful friezes and rooms to explore and the museum is very nice. We beat the heat with a stop at Agua Azul (35p each) which was beautiful despite the heavy rains having muted the famous colors.

    In Palenque we stayed at Hotel Xibalba http://www.hotelxibalba.com/ in Cañada barrio which offered a big, clean, simple room with tv and ac for 650p/triple. In the morning we visited Palenque (51p) and were blown away; I’ve visited more than a dozen Maya ruins in 4 countries and still found it remarkable. It has it all - huge temples, jungle trails with waterfalls and enormous trees, gorgeous friezes and sculptures, great access to the whole place, and a beautiful museum. As we exited the museum we were treated to a family of howler monkeys feeding in the trees above the entrance - icing on the cake.

    Back on the road to San Cristóbal we had a nice lunch (45-60p for our choices) and cooled off with a swim by the beautiful Misol Ha waterfall. With road construction and seemingly hundreds of topes (speed bumps) it was a long ride (7 hours?) each way.

    San Cristóbal is a beautiful place, rich with culture and color and local attractions. That, combined with our excellent Spanish teachers and homestays made for a remarkable 2 weeks. On reflection, the highlight was sharing the above with 4 strong, intelligent, interesting women who started as strangers and quickly became treasured friends. At the end of 2 weeks we hugged each other goodbye and I repacked and headed to Guatemala.

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    I'm really enjoying your travelogue! Your experience with the whale sharks sounds just amazing! I'm looking forward to reading more and also checking out your pictures! Thanks for sharing and also for so many great details!

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    Sounds like you had a memorable trip. Although I have travelled extensively, I have not been to Mexico. I really enjoyed reading your report and appreciated the details you included, especially about the logistics of travel from one place to another. Thanks for taking the time to post.

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    Wow, Hopefulist ~~ anyone reading this is going to want to pack up and go! Wonderful, enthusiastic trip report with excellent detail economically presented. I really admire your style. Thanks!

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    GUATEMALA
    I purchased my shuttle ticket to Panajachel, Guatemala (300p one way) from the Chincultik agency http://www.chiapasturistico.com/lagaritatour/index.htm on Guadelupe near the intersection of Cristóbal Colon and booked a room for the following Saturday night at their hotel, Casa Margarita (since I’d be returning for 1 night before my flights home). A beautiful tourist bus picked me up at my host family’s house at 8am and we headed out on the construction and tope lined highway. Billed as 8 hours, the trip actually took more than 10 hours altogether, with stops at the the México and Guatemala immigration offices (no fees) and a change to 2 smaller, typical Guatemala-type shuttle vans. Beautiful scenery but too darn long to be sitting in a van. I was happy I’d booked a room at Mario’s Rooms in Panajachel instead of planning to cross on the lancha to San Pedro that evening.

    Mario’s Rooms (7762 2370, dial 011 502 first if calling from the US) is a safe, well-located place (right on Santander) with small, clean rooms, huge in-room safes, hot water, free internet/wifi and purified water, and for 120 quetzales (about $15) including breakfast. After checking in I hit the ATM across the street, grabbed a light dinner at Deli Llama de Fuego (20q for a bagel with cream cheese - expect to be pestered by venders), and headed to bed.

    After a good night’s sleep I hopped on a tuktuk (10q) to the Panajachel Reserve http://www.atitlan.com/resnat.htm ($5) which I’d missed on all my previous visits to Pana - terrific! Nice trails, beautiful waterfalls, a great, green, intense jungle feel, and monkeys which I watched from a viewing platform for more than an hour; 1 young male was a real ham and I took hundreds of photos. There’s also a butterfly enclosure but it was too chilly 1st thing in the morning for much action there.

    I packed up and walked down to the dock where I hopped on a boat to San Pedro La Laguna just as it was pulling out (25q) - a safe, interesting trip with amiable fellow passengers, all locals. In San Pedro I just headed in to Nick’s Place for a smoothie, time for sorting photos on my little netbook, and the World Cup final between Holland and Spain. Right before the end of the (fairly tedious) game I left to watch the end at a little CD stand where a small crowd had gathered to watch on a small tv. Incredible uproar when Spain scored - watch out for those firecrackers!

    I headed from there to the Cooperativa www.cooperativeschoolsanpedro.com Spanish school to meet up with my dear friend Mynor - it felt like a homecoming - register for a week of classes (though you’ll see that wasn’t my main goal in contracting their time this trip), and connect with my host family for the week.

    My family, parented by Felipe and Rosa, was warm, welcoming, fun, and busy - 4 clone-like boys aged 3, 5, 7, and 9 and several children of the family’s grown daughters thrown in. Lots of time to practice my Spanish and lots of activity - I was happier than ever before to have my little collection of cards and travel games including my favorites, Yahtzee and Pass the Pigs, and the ever popular Travel Twister.

    A little background on my special connection to San Pedro and the Cooperativa:
    I’ve studied there and had remarkable experiences in 2007 and again in 2009 with a group of 15 in tow. The school is extremely civic minded with important social projects including support of marginalized local families. A visit in 2009 to take food to several of the local families the school helps support led me to start the Beca Project, a scholarship and social project nonprofit focused on San Pedro; you can read more on the About Us page of our website http://www.becaproject.org/about-us . We now have 12 students with sponsorship through secondary school and my week with Mynor and Lorenzo, the school’s director, bought us time to plan for additional students and the inclusion of school and family support and building projects for the coming year.

    Every morning Mynor and I visited 2 or 3 of the Beca students’ homes; as we walked we talked about our Beca Project plans and dreams for the next year. The families were all so very warm and gracious, and so grateful for the help which is seen as a gift for the whole family and not just the student. Many of their homes wouldn’t even be considered houses in the US. The students have learned to speak Spanish in school but Mynor had to translate between the Tzutujil of the parents and my Spanish. I shared photos of my family and letters and photos from their sponsors. I gave each student a small blank book for drawing and writing about their dreams and plans for the future and we talked about their grades, their favorite subjects, and their career aspirations.

    Thursday afternoon I stopped by to say hi to my host from 2007, Alejandra, and headed to the market where I heard voices calling my name - my host from last year, Mikaela, and her daughter Julisa! I had a nice dinner at their house that night in celebration of their son’s birthday. The father, José, has an art gallery and a project to teach local kids how to paint and to help them paint murals. You can check it out at paintmyfuture.org http://www.paintmyfuture.org/

    On Friday Mynor and I visited the home of Florinda to take the family some provisions and talk about the construction project the Cooperativa is spearheading; they have raised about 65% of the ~$9000 they need to construct a new home for Florinda’s family which includes a husband and 6 kids. If you’re interested, you can watch a You Tube video about the project made by someone who was studying at the Cooperativa last year: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=En9Owe3wmhw . We’re hoping to have the funds for them to start building in November and they have 8 other families selected and homes designed in addition to this one.

    Mynor and I walked to the school that most of the Beca kids attend, toured around a bit, and took photos of the group. Most of the photos we get of the kids and their families are really serious. I learned that week that if I say, "uno, dos, tres" in a goofy way before I snap the photo, I get smiles.

    In advance of my trip I had asked if school staff would prepare a meal for the students and their families if I paid for the food - a big job with more than 60 people to feed. The dinner was a great success - every family attended, a father who is typically out of the picture joined us, and a mother I’ve only seen worried and serious beamed the whole time. Mynor, Lorenzo, and I each spoke briefly and food was served. Delicious! I was really humbled by the gratitude and the hugs I received from nearly every single person there, even the shy ones - a wonderful, warm group of people.

    This was one of the most powerful, emotional weeks of my life. We accomplished everything we’d set out to do and the personal connections were just amazing. I’ll head back next year so I left feeling satisfied, grateful, and happy instead of sad. After more than 5 weeks on the road, it was time to be home.

    My shuttle back to San Cristóbal (125q, purchased at the little unnamed agency that looks like it’s made of logs near the big blue Bethel school) left San Pedro at about 8:30am by road, changing into a different van when we got to the highway and into the comfortable big tourist bus from last week at the border (again, no fees) - 9+ hours of windy roads and spectacular views.

    I enjoyed one last evening of live music and people watching in the park, had a double scoop of mango sorbet for dinner, and stayed at Casa Margarita http://www.chiapasturistico.com/casamargarita/index.htm just a few blocks from the zocalo where $35US bought a night in a little gabled room on the 3rd floor (when I heard fireworks, I just needed to step outside my door and onto the rooftop terrace to watch them), tiny but spotless, a nice bathroom, tv (which I didn't use), and a safe; there was wifi in the courtyard and lobby and a nice onsite restaurant.

    I taxied to the bus station (20p) and took an ADO van (130p, purchased in advance at Ticket Bus on Guadalupe) to the airport in Tuxtla Gutierrez. Security was a breeze and they bumped me to 1st class -sweet! Unfortunately, the flight was delayed and once we landed in México City I had to race for 45 minutes with all my luggage (carry-on pack and day pack, way too full with gifts and souvenirs) to be told my flight was closed. Gratefully they took pity on me and let me on anyway - whew! Flights to Phoenix and Portland were uneventful and then I was with family and then I was home.

    Every year is a trip of a lifetime for me. Every year I love where we stay and what we do and the time I share with whoever I’m with at the time. Partly that’s good research and careful planning ahead, partly it’s traveling with an open mind and a sense of humor, and partly it’s because I’m just a lucky duck. Let me know if I can answer questions - HAPPY TRAILS!

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    I loved your descriptions of Merida and San Cristobal, two of my favorite places. As many times as I've been to Merida and as much as I like churches, it seems you found many more than I did. I will have to be more determined next time. And the crafts market at San Domingo church in S.C. is my favorite!

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    Nope! My husband and I are both teachers so we have summers off for travel (since we gave up working summers at other jobs years ago). We use an airmiles credit card to pay for everything from electricity to groceries to college tuition and travel cheaply, often living and eating with local families for $10-12 per day. I also started a small business to help fund my travel addiction.

    I do feel exceptionally lucky to be able to travel so much, but it's not due to wealth but to desire and priorities that don't include other expensive hobbies or lifestyle choices.Happy trails!

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    hopefulist, I loved seeing this trip report come up!

    Yes, it's possible to travel cheaply in Mexico (and I presume even more in Guatemala) with the right choices, and you will not sacrifice health or comfort, although possibly luxury. In fact, I'm pretty sure it is often cheaper, day-by-day, than staying at home, with fairly straightforward choices.

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