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Trip Report HOPEFULIST'S 2012 TRAVELOGUE: 6 weeks in Guatemala and Belize

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OK! It's time for my 2012 travelogue. This summer I split 6 weeks between Guatemala and Belize:

A quick overnight in Antigua, then 2 weeks studying at the Cooperativa Spanish School http://www.cooperativeschoolsanpedro.edu.gt while living with a local family in San Pedro La Laguna on Lake Atitlán. I had a group of educators in tow; 2 of them had (wonderful) teenagers along for the ride. The 1st week some of them studied in Antigua at the Academia Antigüeña http://spanishacademyantiguena.com , then joined us at the lake for the 2nd week; there were 17 of us in all.

We participated in the school's activities with add-ons I requested and/or organized including a hike to the peak of Nariz de Indio (Indian Nose - 10,000'+ elevation) and in the Panajachel Reserve with monkeys and blue morpho butterflies (~$7), visits to San Juan La Laguna, the Santiago fair, Chichicastenango, and the Iximché Maya site (~$6), an amazing evening with a local hero (and former host family dad of mine) who was abducted and tortured by the military during the genocide period and survived to tell the tale, visits to several local schools and the Cooperativa's Kamoon project houses - 1 new and 1 soon to be replaced, lovely traditional lunches complete with cooking lessons in the home of a local family, weaving demonstrations and lessons in the home of another family (in each case with additional local women participating - all Beca families, see below), and a powerful Maya spiritual ceremony.

After 2 weeks the group members headed home and I headed back to Antigua to meet another group as it flew in - Beca Project www.becaproject.org sponsors ready for a plunge into the cultural highlights of highland Guatemala and the lives of the families of their students. The Beca Project is a small nonprofit my husband and I started to provide scholarships and social assistance to San Pedro students who show promise but need financial support in order to continue their education beyond 6th grade. It's 1 of the loves of my life.

We stayed 3 nights at my favorite haunt in Antigua, Casa Cristina www.casa-cristina.com (~$25-35/double), and had 2 full days - enough for a wonderful fat tire bike tour with Luis from Don Quijote Cruisers http://www.donquijotecruisers.com ($25 each), a surprisingly terrific chocolate making class with Pablo at Choco Museo http://www.chocomuseo.com ($20 each), a locals bus trip to Jocotenango for that experience and Azotea, including the cool music video at Casa Kojom http://www.kojom.org , coffee at the Rainbow Cafe, brunch and chocolate at Fernando's http://fernandoskaffee.com , and lunch at the hidden away La Cancha among other local favorites, quick trips through the market and the parque central, stops at my favorite old places, San Jerónimo and Las Capuchinas (~$5 each), a ride in the back of a police pickup truck to Cerro de la Cruz and the hike back down, and a visit to the museumesque Nim Pot to pick up another pecadia (I think that's what they're called - little clay figures in a small clay pot shaped like fruit) for my husband.

We headed to San Pedro where we stayed at Hotel Mikaso http://www.mikasohotel.com (~$25-45/double), preparing some of our meals from beautiful market produce in the wonderful share kitchen, and enjoying the great location, lovely rooms and decks, and stunning views of the lake. We had several nice meals out including several at Café Atitlán which has a good, varied menu, wicked licuados (smoothies), strong wifi, and more beautiful views - a good environment for socializing or solitude as you see fit.

I hosted the Beca group through many of the cultural activities listed above plus shopping trips with the kids and emotional visits to the homes of the students. My beloved friend Mynor (a director/teacher at the Cooperativa School and Beca advisor) pulled all the activities together, led the way to every family visit, and provided translations between Spanish, English, and Tz'utujil - we would have been lost without him, both literally and figuratively.

The highlight of the week - and my year - was putting on the 3rd annual celebration with Beca Project students and families - a joyous affair with traditional dances and plays by the students and a delicious pepían lunch prepared and served by Cooperativa staff and some of their spouses; there were more than 200 in attendance. We spent the night at Mario's Rooms in Panajachel before heading our separate ways.

To start my 4th week I headed sola to Petén in northern Guatemala to hang with Roxy Ortiz www.tikalroxy.blogspot.com , a (really, truly) amazing archaeologist, naturalist, and friend. I stayed at Roxy's mom's place in El Remate, Hotel La Mansión del Pajaro Serpiente http://www.30minutesfromtikal.com and the Tikal Inn www.tikalinnsunrise.com which is managed by Roxy's brothers - both terrific imo (don't have current costs on those). We spent a few days visiting Maya sites - Uaxactún (~$6), sunset and sunrise tours of Tikal, and the gorgeous Yaxhá (~$10), highly recommended. Here's what Roxy says is the latest on the park fees at Tikal: the 150 quetzales (~$20) entrance fee to Tikal can still be stamped for the next day if purchased after 4pm if you're staying at 1 of the hotels in the park; it used to be 3pm and isn't automatically offered. You can only enter for the sunrise tour (we were at the gate by 4:30am) if you're staying in the park (so folks staying in Flores, don't let the tour agencies convince you otherwise) and the cost is an additional 100 quetzales (~$12). We were blessed with a rare, bright, sunny sunrise which is rare, though I enjoy the gold brightening misty sort, too.

Next Roxy and I headed together into Belize for a stay at the Trek Stop www.thetrekstop.com in San José Succotz (west of San Ignacio, ~$25/double for a largish cabin with shared bath) and to explore the beautiful, rarely visited Actun Halal and Actun Chapat http://www.actunchapatadventure.blogspot.com cave systems (a splurge at $90/each). After 'see you next time' hugs I headed to Punta Gorda in southern Belize where I stayed at Hickatee Cottages www.hickatee.com (beautiful setting, cute cottages, terrific hosts Ian and Kate, $75US/double); I participated in an evening of Garifuna drumming and explored their jungle trails, Punta Gorda town (an interesting Garifuna and Indian population mix - nearly devoid of tourists), some local villages, the Lubaantún Maya site ($10BZ = $5 US), and Fallen Stones Butterfly Farm (only an option if you're staying at Hickatee).

4 weeks to the day from the start of the trip my husband Mike flew down - yay! We spent the 1st full day together on a Cacao (chocolate) tour with Bruno Kuppinger to the jungle farm of Eladio Pop - a fantastic experience.

At this point Hurricane Ernesto forced evacuation of the cayes and blew our beautiful plans out of the water; we had intended to spend most of the week diving and flyfishing our brains out in the Sapodilla Cayes at Reef Conservation International www.reefci.com. We spent an extra night at Hickatee to regroup and headed earlier than planned to Placencia where we stayed at One World Rentals http://oneworldplacencia.com ($50US/double) in the heart of town - cute, clean, convenient apartment, complete with kitchen, air conditioning, and cable television - yay for the Olympics! We were very comfortable there and appreciated the advice and support of the owner, Claudia; there's a nice book exchange and laundry facilities. The village is cute but a bit overly touristy for my taste; we prepared most of our own meals (fresh fruit! shrimp!) and enjoyed John the Bakerman's shop for cinnamon buns and meat pies and sea food meals at Dawn's Grill N Go and Brenda's stand by the beach. Most of the dive shops weren't going out but I scraped together a group of 4 and Seahorse http://belizescuba.com dive shop took us to Laughing Bird Caye and the reef beyond for 2 tanks with a terrific lunch on the caye during the surface interval; the diving was good but not incredible imo; I enjoyed the group and the dive master; Devon, was excellent. I wouldn't choose Placencia if diving was my priority - too far to the reef. My husband loved his day of guided fishing with Wayne Castellanos from Monkey River - good success with bonefish and tarpon. We also went on an excellent tour up the Monkey River (birds, crocs, iguanas, howler monkeys, blue morpho butterflies, manatees, and a nice traditional lunch at Alice's Restaurant in Monkey River Town) with Jason Williams; let me know if you'd like contact information for Wayne or Jason.

We spent our final week as planned at Tranquility Bay Resort http://www.tranquilitybayresort.com ($99US/double, low season in the Budget Travelers Room) about 1/2 an hour by boat north of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. In the past I haven't dreamed of staying on Ambergris, considering myself to be more of a Caye Caulker sort of gal, but the combination of seclusion, exceptional customer service, beautiful cottages and beaches, and endless opportunities for unguided flyfishing and snorkeling from shore (including real treats like an octopus and hawksbill turtle) lured us in and will lure us back in the future with beloveds in tow; it feels like a private island. I dived 2 tanks with their onsite shop. Breakfasts off the menu are included in the cost; we prepared most of our own meals other than fabulous fish and lobster meals barbecued on the beach. If I hadn't been away from home for 6 weeks it would have been really tough to leave.

A few more notes...

Planning:
This was a complicated trip with lots of details and very little left for deciding on the fly - makes life easier when leading groups. I'm grateful for the people of the hotels, schools, and transportation agencies I've used over and over for their service and consistency and to the new places/people I tried this time around for living up to the standard of the reviews on Trip Advisor www.tripadvisor.com; as usual I loved every place I stayed and every tour and activity. I like Rough Guide and Moon Handbook for Guatemala and Fodor's Guide to Belize and Moon Belize, but barely needed them for planning this trip.

Packing:
My CA packing list is #14 in the Thorntree FAQ thread http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/thread.jspa?threadID=828622 and continues to serve me well. I pack along a Kindle and a little old Asus netbook for ease of blogging and photo sorting/backup. This year a checked a bag heading down because I was packing along gifts for Beca students and 2 laptops for the project donated by our daughter and her husband.

Money:
I save money from previous trips to get me started but this time also ordered quetzales online to be picked up at my bank (Bank of America). I paid deposits and in a few cases full payments in advance using Paypal or charge cards and paid the rest once there with cash or traveler's checks which continue to be a safe, easy way to go for me for the places that accept them. I set up a checking account with a credit union in my home town just for travel and accessed it using ATMs several places on Lake Atitlán and in Belize. I called the fraud alert departments associated with the cards before the trip to register where I'd be using them and emailed myself the traveler's check numbers.

Transportation:
In Guatemala I/we used mainly private shuttles provided by Adrenalina Tours www.adrenalinatours.com - excellent vehicles and drivers. We augmented with tuktuks, pickups, lanchas, bikes, colectivos, and local buses, and put miles of cobblestones under our feet. In Belize I/we used a combination of landrover, local buses, a taxi here or there, bikes, boats for diving and accessing Tranquility Bay, and flights provided by Tropic Air http://www.tropicair.com . No lost reservations, mishaps, near misses, or missed connections (despite what became a 15 minute layover in Houston, no thanks to United).

Weather:
It was a bit warmer and drier in the Guatemala highlands than on previous July visits - highs to the low 80s and only a few evenings of rain. It was predictably hot in the low lying parts; still and dry in Guatemala, humid but breezy in Belize, especially on the water which translates to cooler and no sandfly problems. Rain pounded down night after night in Punta Gorda, often more than 4 inches in hours; it meant waiting out or navigating around flooded roads a few times but no loss of fun. Although we didn't suffer rain or wind from Hurricane Ernesto, it had a huge and momentarily disappointing impact on our trip. Thanks to our flexible natures, gratitude in being together after a month apart, the natural beauty and wonderful people of Belize, and trip insurance (great idea during hurricane season) we still had an absolutely fabulous time.

Health and safety:
Despite eating recklessly for weeks in the humble homes of Beca families (impossible to say no to their generous offerings), I only paid a price once; although I am not cavalier about antibiotics they were in order and cleaned up the mess quickly. As usual, I had no safety scares, issues, close calls, or losses. A few bug bites, a bruised shin, scratches from a scared cat in the street, and some sort of sting on my neck while diving (likely jelly fish) were as bad as it got. I did my usual probiotic/enzyme/Emergen-C routine - let me know if you have an interest in my health and safety tips.

Blog:
You can check out my blog here: http://hopefulistinlatinamerica.blogspot.com . The most recent posts are on the top so you can either go through the trip backwards by clicking 'older posts' at the bottom or pick what interests you most from the archive on the right. I'll be uploading photos to my flickr collections http://www.flickr.com/photos/staceyholeman/collections soon so if the hundreds on the blog don't satisfy you, check back a week from now.

HAPPY TRAILS!

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