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Trip Report Guatemala Trip Report Feb. 7 - 14, read it and sleep

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I am rather embarassed to post this, it is so dull. I am not a good enough writer to put our experiences into a story that is fun to read! Here goes...

February 7 – 14, 2009


Exchange rate about 7.8 Quetzales to one dollar

Flights: Mexicana round trip LAX-GUA w/stop in Mexico City $573.00 total
TACA round trip GUA-Flores $421.00 total

Hotels: Flores – Hotel Santana 1 night $50
Tikal – Hotel Tikal Inn 2 nights, incl. dinner
& breakfast & beer $318
Antigua – Hotel Aurora 2 nights incl. breakfast $140
Panajachel – Hotel Dos Mundos 2 nights incl. breakfast $144

Cash out of ATMs in local currency $800

Paid cash for: Meals, misc. shopping, Flores hotel, Pana hotel, $30 boat tour, $45 shuttle Pana-GUA, $48 bedspreads, $28 taxi GUA-Antigua, $65 taxi Antigua-Pana, $16 Pacaya
Hike, $80 Tikal entrance ($20/day/person)

Total trip cost: $2252 approx.

Food (not too exciting, we were being careful):

Tikal Inn – breakfast and dinner included, basic steak, soups, eggs, beans.
Hotel Aurora – continental breakfast included, pretty blah.
Dos Mundos – full breakfast included, choice of continental or full, quite good.
Flores – dinner at Raices restaurant on the lake, grilled meat, potatoes, chicken soup,
guacamole, beans, beers - $18
breakfast at hotel just OK, eggs, beans, “ham”, plantains, fruit, coffee, coke - $14
Antigua – chicken nugget and fries and drinks at Pollo Campero - $8
La Fonda de Calle Real – pepian stew, chile rellenos, beers – 145Q, pretty good.
Frida’s – tortilla soup & strangely spiced beans, beers – 181Q, just OK
Domino’s pizza – the usual, not expensive
Panajachel – lunch at one of the open air places overlooking the docks, 30Q/person for
soup, pickled vegs and grilled mystery chicken piece. Too salty, chicken from
unidentifiable part of bird. Served by a 10 year old boy in a crisp white shirt.
Pana Rock – OK steak, fun place to be, live music, forgot the price.
Guajimbo’s – more grilled meat, beans and tortillas, a sandwich with a tomato on it that perhaps made me a bit sick, begging dogs with sad eyes, grizzled old woman wanting us to buy an onion, children wanting us to buy whatever they were selling. Don’t sit at a table right on the street. Forgot the price.
Santiago – the best fresh squeezed OJ in the world from a lady on the street with a basket of oranges and a juice squeezer. Get it to go in a plastic bag with a straw, 5Q.

Impressions: Kind, helpful, friendly people, too bad their country is so poor and broken down. Of all the dozens of people we spoke to, one driver was silently rude, and one guy selling bedspreads flipped us off, said F you, called us loco and called me a bitch when we wouldn’t succumb to his hard sell. Everyone greets each other with a Buenos Dias or Tardes and a smile, even the clueless gringos. Car and bus and motorcycle exhaust is absolutely horrendous, no getting away from it unless you are hiking in Tikal. Driving is a freeforall, signals and stop signs and lines in the road are rare outside of Guatemala City. Vehicles and pedestrians just seem to go where they need to go on the bumpy packed streets, but everyone seems to know how to do it.

Our Mexicana flight was an early one, left LA at 6:45 am. We had an hour and 20 minutes stop in Mexico City, which was just barely enough time, because we had to go through the immigration lines. They have a pretty good system which moves lots of people fairly quickly, but 2 hours would have been more comfortable. In retospect, we wish we would have paid $521 each for the nonstop from LA that left at midnight. The Guatemala City airport is brand new and was almost empty, immigration just took a few minutes. We looked about confusedly trying to figure out how to get over to TACA departures, and our first introduction to the friendly local people was an airport official who personally escorted us out the door, across the street and up an elevator to the TACA desks. Got our 5:25 flight to Flores, no problem, arrived at dusk and exited to a large group of clamoring taxi drivers. Went with the first guy, all of 20Q per person to our hotel. No English spoken at all at the hotel.

Flores is not much, set on an island in Lago Peten, kind of poor little ramshackle town with lumpy streets, LOTS of motorcycles and tuk-tuks zooming around, it looked better in the light the next morning.

Next morning walked around the hilly tiny town in a warm light rain, it was Sunday and pretty quiet. People were at mass at the church at the center of town and they even had a Jehovah Witness hall next to our hotel.

Shuttle van came to collect us at 10:00 for the hour ride to Tikal, driver kind of a jerk, started driving away with the door not closed and Mike and luggage almost falling out. We were 11 people plus the driver crammed in an aging minivan with an exhaust leak. The bumpy road to Tikal passes through dirt poor farming villages with outhouses, pigs in the road, stray dogs and the scrawniest horses I have ever seen. The landscape was hilly and kind of green, cleared for farms, but as soon as we enterered the Tikal protected zone the jungle and tall trees got thick.

Tikal is very beautiful, our hotel is a 2 minute walk to the entrance kiosk, $20 per person per day. The visitor center is minimal, the little museum not really worth it, but it is cheap and takes only a few minutes to see some carvings and photos of Tikal in the 1890’s before the excavation. The trails are a little confusing, even with the map we bought at the entrance. The signage isn’t great, and surrounded by jungle, we had no reference points. We left our luggage at the hotel desk, where I was very glad to have the hotel guy ask whether I wanted him to speak English or Spanish, got some snacks at the visitor center, then headed into the park to hike as much as we could during the afternoon. It is huge, you don’t see any large ruins until maybe a 15 min. walk in, then suddenly the back of Temple I looms over a grassy area. We were looking at one high up monkey and a brilliantly colored turkey, they are everywhere and look like peacocks, and didn’t notice at first the giant grey temple!

There was a light rain making the temple rocks extremely slippery. Three of the temples have wooden stairways up to the platform areas,the one at Temple V is as steep as a ladder and very scary. Temples II and IV have staircases to the top platforms that are not nearly as hairy. No bugs, barely any mosquitoes, leaf cutter ant trails are fun to watch.

Back at our hotel, the entire porch was taken up by a group of middle age gringos evidently being taught how to live a dharmic lifestyle. I guess they have reached middle age not knowing how to exist properly. Mike goes off for a run, I stayed in the rather dark room (electricity doesn’t come on until 6:00 pm) and had to listen to some nonsense as they had their lesson right outside our room. Really wanted to pull a John Belushi on them, but don’t have the nerve. Mike on his run saw an agouti and a coati.

Full moon that night, so we wandered out into the dirt area that fronts the hotel driveways. Some guy sidled up to us and in Spanish asked if we wanted to see the templos in the moonlight. We would have been asking for trouble, either from him or from the armed guards who patrol the park in the evening.

Slept in a bit late the next morning, 6:20, lots of noisy birds but no screaming monkeys yet. Went for a run and ran into the park a little ways, paid our $40 and got our tickets for the day. After breakfast we spent the entire day in the park, about 9 to 5, with only a lunch break at one of the comedores. We made it to every ruin group in the entire park, some twice. About 3:30 the tour groups leave, and we had large chunks of the park completely to ourselves, the gran plaza was especially nice with only a handful of people. The weather was just partly cloudy, only a little sun, but no rain. The first trail we took was the long straight one that goes off to the left, way out to Temple 6. We were completely by ourselves when two groups of monkeys on opposite sides of the trails began screeching at each other! Must have been 15-20 minutes of noise as we stood still, recording the sounds, couldn’t see much of the actual monkeys, mainly movement high in the treebranches.

Saw several monkeys during the day, way high up in the trees giving us sore necks to look at them, one a mother and baby. Saw many screechy birds, no toucans, one big red one, and dozens of the gorgeous turkeys, one agouti, one coati, a couple of lines of leafcutter ants.

Went back to hotel happy and sweaty, electricity came on at 6:10 but the water didn’t get hot enough for a shower until 6:30. Terrible shower, like a hosepipe dumping straight down.

I was a little worried about our shuttle driving coming to collect us the next morning for our 8:30 flight back to Guat. City, but there he was at 6:00, had to go get the manager from the kitchen to check us out. Nice driver, somewhat new van. Takes an hour from Tikal to the Flores airport. We missed our breakfast at the Tikal Inn, so we got some decent coffee and muffins at the airport. Flight left right on time, only 30 minutes long, nice new little airport. No ATM there even though the driver said there was.

As we exited the GUA airport, a funny old man “helped” us to find and ATM and a taxi for a tip, taxi to Antigua 220Q or about $28. The ride to Antigua involved a small amount of Guat. City traffic and truck exhaust, passing through a crowded part of Chimaltenango, I think it was, which was heavy with car repair and tire shops, up up up a steep mountain then down down down the other side into Antigua. Rather frightening steep downhill road, with escape ramps for out of control trucks and speed bumps.

Antigua is a typical Spanish colonial town with cobblestone streets laid out in a grid. Our hotel, the Hotel Aurora, is lovely, has amazing sound proof windows which we are glad to have, our window opens right onto the street. No toilet paper allowed in the toilet, clogs the old pipes. Wandering around town we saw a funeral, with the hearse driving slowly down the street and the mourners walking behind, singing. Visited the “supermarket” to get some water and food for the Pacaya hike, which was kind of a 2 story warehouse building with crowded shelves full of items closely fitted in wherever they could. Looked at the Las Capuchinas ruined monastery, kinda picturesque, hardly anyone else there. Cervezas at Mono Loco, a gringo bar with a bartender kid from Minnesota.

Up early for our 6:00 pick up for the hike up Pacaya, made an easy reservation yesterday with Ruta Maya on the square for $8/person, includes the ride, park entrance fee and a guide. Another full minivan with 14 people, driver drove way too fast and scary. There’s a tiny village at the trailhead where you can buy snacks and coffee. A small group of oldish people were mounted on the miserable scrawny horses, ready to ride up rather than walk. Our guide was a small girl in her 20s. Part of the trail is quite steep, through a pretty forest, but we walked VERY slowly. One woman was quite pokey, and one got on a horse at the first steep uphill, but everyone else was fairly fit. Thick dust along the trail and cinders at the top, shoes got filthy. Just before the top we could see the summit cone of Pacaya emitting a cloud of steam or fumes, backlit by the sun, very pretty. We scrambled across the sharp lava scree kind of uphill and sideways to the active lava, so even though there were hot lava balls ranging in size from basketballs to Smart cars tumbling down, we weren’t in their path. We watched the lava for nearly an hour, you could get just about as close as you dared to, the cooled lava that we climbed over was rather steep and consisted of piled up lava balls. The active spots of lava made crunchy noises as the hot stuff pushed out, cooled and broke off.

Spent the afternoon walking over to the Santa Domingo monastery and the beautiful hotel there, and sat in the square and people watched. The groups of kids in their uniforms from expensive private schools were a contrast to the shoeshine boys with their stained hands and little equipment boxes. I happened to be wearing a pair of shoes that needed a shine badly, so a neatly dressed boy of about 14 with slicked back hair made my shoes look new; he put the polish on with his bare hands, used the brush and shine rag and the whole process. He charged 5Q, we gave him 20Q, I wanted to take him home. Like all the other local people we talked to he was polite, asked us our names and where we were from.

Feb. 12, time to head to Panajachel. We were scheduled on a 12:30 shuttle, but we were tired of Antigua and wanted to go. An earlier shuttle wasn’t available, so we got a taxi for 500Q. This was fun, only took 2 hours, we got to talk to each other in my miserable Spanish, of course he asked what we thought of Obama and told us that his friend thinks Bush was the antichrist! He gave us a travelog of the villages we passed through, which were farming towns with all the women in the various villages wearing their particular blouse style. Lots of laundry is done by hand at public lavanderias, one village looked like it didn’t have running water, women were filling jugs from a public tap. The road was not for the carsick, up and down and all around and narrow and lumpy and speed bumps in the villages and passing uphill on blind corners. As we approached Lake Atitlan we passed a viewpoint overlooking the lake that the shuttles don’t pass, a beautiful high up view of the entire lake and the surrounding volcanoes.

Got to Hotel Dos Mundos about 10:30, they let us check in! Nice and quiet, pretty gardens, clean and comfortable except for the hard beds, which we found everywhere, and a shower that didn’t drain. The beds were covered in these beautiful woven spreads that are sold all over town, we ended up buying a couple. Had to cram then in our carry-on backpacks flying home, but they are lovely and we’re glad to have them.

Pana was REALLY crowded. After talking to some other gringoes, I wish we had stayed at Casa Del Mundo or one of the other hotels attached to a small village. The hard sell here was really bad, if you smiled and even looked at a pretty object it was laid on. At lunch a cute girl approached and started just chatting with us in Spanish, then wanted me to buy a necklace, after first resisting I bought it just to shut her up, then she stayed on a while asking us our ages, telling us how many grandparents she had and how old they are, the importance of an education, and how she goes to school on Sundays. She was 18, looked 12, she was adorable and I wanted to take her home.

We took a tuk tuk to the Atitlan Nature Reserve – an expensive 20Q ride instead of 5Q. We found it rather dull, we saw one sleepy monkey and a dried up waterfall and the forest looked somehow ratty. Our driver was a friendly guy who came back for us in an hour, and tried to talk to me about setting up a lake tour, but my Spanish was too poor to fully understand, so I said no. We also went down to the shore where the boats to the smaller villages go, thinking there might be signs up with timetable and prices or something so we could figure out our lake adventure for the next day. Nothing, just people and small lanchas, my Spanish is no way good enough for this so we went back to the hotel and asked the Engligh speaking girl to fix us up on a boat ride. All done, 3 villages for $15 for both of us, San Pedro, Santiago and San Antonio de Palopo.

Lunch at one of the wooden open air places overlooking the docks, we were the only people there. We wandered about the shops, trying to look uninterested which wasn’t easy because the textiles are so gorgeous. While shopping for bedspreads, we encountered the only $*%&hole on the entire trip. Sunset Café for sundowner beers was a rip off, expensive and we had to hound them for our bill. This was the only time we had lousy service in a bar or restaurant, everywhere else was prompt and polite. Dinner and live music at Pana Rock, quite fun.

8:30 a.m. pick up in the morning for our boat ride. Met a hotel employee who rode alongside us on his bicycle, guiding us down to the dock as we walked along. We were going to take a taxi to the Solola market, but forgot. I think we got the slowest boat on the lake, it certainly wasn’t one of the little lanchas. The water was glassy calm, sunny day, even saw a puff of smoke from Volcan Antigua. Passengers were us and about 8 other Americanos, and one single Asian man. The boat stopped about an hour in San Pedro and Santiago, a half hour in San Antonio, and we were back at Pana about 3:30.

San Pedro: Looked ramshackle on approach from the water, women were doing laundry in the lake, spreading things on the rocks to dry. The best part was the local market uphill in the center of town, people selling delicious looking vegetables. In this town the women all wore short sleeved puffy blouses, made out of colorful rather sheer material without embroidery. No one trying to sell us anything, hooray, we could just look and be ignored!

Santiago: Hard sell right off the dock, “ Maximon, Maximon?”. Perhaps we missed out on something fascinating, but we didn’t want to see Maximon. We learned that it helped to walk quickly uphill away from the dock as if we knew where we were going. Bought two neat little carved wooden puzzle boxes. Didn’t care too much for this town, a bit too much pressure to buy something or be guided somewhere.

San Antonio de Palopo – as our boat left Santiago, a woman carrying a baby and 3 young girls boarded the boat with their fabrics for sale. They were all dressed itdentically in beautiful bright blue woven blouses and their hair wound up in a long blue woven ribbon.
After the usual attempt to get the passengers to buy something, anything (the girls swarmed the single Asian guy when he bought one thing), they settled down in to being young girls, and we enjoyed watching them play with their colored pencils, a frog balloon that squeaked, and unwinding and rewrapping their long hair in the blue bands. The blouses also serve as pockets, the girls would drop money or their toys straight down their fronts, then stick their hands down their shirts to pull things out! Smiles all around once the selling was done, it was enjoyable to just be around these people from a completely different culture and admire the new baby. Turns out that San Antonio is their home village, because as we arrived, ALL the women we saw had the same blue blouses. I bought one of them, don’t know what I’ll do with it, plus a table runner of the same fabric and some woven bracelets. This town seemed completely traditional, not much selling, no other gringos there except for our boat. There were just a few small shops with beautiful things, a shop with looms set up on display, and a place with lovely blue pottery. We could see some adobe walls mixed in with the cinderblock and yards with loads of corn cobs set out flat to dry. Liked this town the best. If we go back to Atitlan, we’d like to say in a place like Hotel Dos Mundos, and only visit the small villages. I thought we’d be better off staying somewhere busy and visiting the remote places, but we wish we had done it the other way around.

The journey home the last day was no fun, took way too long to travel all the way from Pana, over the windy bumpy mountain roads, back to the airport and fly home. Total travel time starting with the 9:30 pick up at the Pana hotel until we reached our house was 17 hours!

We stopped in Antigua to let some people off. Don’t go to Antigua on a Saturday, the town was PACKED. It was Valentine’s Day, perhaps that had an effect. Guatemala City had some pretty bad mid-day traffic, but we got to the airport about 1:30 for our 4:30 flight. Stopped in Mexico City again, another tight time frame for immigration, then we stopped AGAIN in Mazatlan. Our ticket did not show this stop, but I guess because the flight number didn’t change and we didn’t change planes, they didn’t have to. We had to disembark with our stuff, stay in a waiting room for 20 minutes as we had our passports looked at, then got back on the plane.

Back home to a freezing house and lots of memories.

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