Guatemala: A Journey Full of Journeys

In the bus

Proudly, I can say that I’ve started my Latin American trip without any plan and without doing any research neither on the Internet nor in any guide. My whole idea was to show up in a place, meet with the locals and with other travellers, and decide what to do on the spot.

Less proudly, communicating with the locals turned out being harder than I hoped for—reaching level 8 in Spanish at Duolinguo and adding a touch of French-nish didn’t cut it.

Antigua

I needed to start my trip from somewhere. That was an easy one, an Italian friend decided to hit Guatemala for 2 weeks during Christmas, so would I. Antigua was the meeting point.

17 December 2013

The plane flew over Guatemala City just when the sun was setting. Quite a beautiful introduction to the volcanoes scenery all around. But it also meant that I had to reach Antigua by night.

I still remember the day when I was in the plane in direction to Australia for the first time. It was on the 9th of February 2009. There was a French girl sitting next to me who was returning to Australia. I’m not sure what was her reason but she did her best to try to freak me out. Beware of the deadly spiders, they like to hide under the toilet seats because they fancy humidity. They also like hiding in the grass so don’t walk barefoot. Always double–check your bed and your shoes before getting in. There’s ton of shark attacks happening, don’t swim. I’m not even talking about the many lethal jellyfishes. And the list went on and on.

Many couldn’t help themselves at telling me similar stuff about Guatemala but regarding violence this time. Don’t travel in chicken buses—the local transport system—and Don’t go out by night were in the top 2 of the list.

To leave them the benefit of the doubt, and because I was exhausted after this long travel, I thought that I’d play it safe for my first move. As I was about to grab a minibus to Antigua for 80 quetzals—the local currency—, which is about 8 € or $10 USD, a Dutch girl sitting next to me in the plane offered me to jump in her private shuttle for free. Her mum already organized and paid for it in advance because she was scared that her daughter would take a chicken bus instead. It made me a bit uncomfortable not to pay anything and so I decided to give her 100 quetzals to thank her. I didn’t have any smaller change anyways, and she didn’t neither.

When the driver dropped me after leaving the girl at her hostel, he stared at me insistently. He raised his hand, the palm slightly facing up. I hastened myself to grab it and shook it while thanking him with a warm ¡Muchas gracias!. For some reasons it didn’t seem to be enough for him to stop staring at me weirdly.

Only then I understood that he was expecting a small tip. Without any idea of the actual value of the currency, I gave him 50 quetzals. Only later I realized that with an average Guatemalan wage of 80 quetzals per day, I’ve been more than kind. But more importantly, I’ve beautifully played the role of a naive tourist and this had to change.

Before the conclusion of this fiasco, I agreed on a dinner with the Dutch girl to a place recommended by our shuttle driver. I decided to pick her up at her hostel to make sure that she wouldn’t get into troubles because of the don’t get out by night thing.

The receptionist at my hostel kindly gave me a map and drawed the direction. It was only a few blocks away and would be quite straightforward if only she had pointed me to the correct destination.

Instead I’ve been turning around for 30 min and ended up getting lost in a totally different area with either non–existant street names or names that wouldn’t match with the ones on the map.

This first exploration of Antigua by night left me sceptical. There was no much light in the streets, making them quite dark. Not many pedestrians were walking neither. At an almost regular interval, cars were driving by at a much reduced speed because of the paved road. And all those cars had their windows covered with a black tint to the windows.[1]

All this plus some extra loud firecrackers banging here and there in the streets—due to pre–Christmas celebrations that sounded more like Bagdad to me—left me with a slightly sketchy feeling.

I finally managed to find my way back to my hostel, looked myself at the address of her hostel on Internet, and made it there in no time.

20 December 2013

I met a lovely French couple the day before and signed in with them for a trip to the volcano Pacaya. The goal was to get to the summit for sunset.

We left at around 2 p.m., drove for about 1.5 hour and started our gentle climb. Because we were allowed to stay up there for only a short period of time, our guide made us climb slowly to make sure that we would arrive at the right moment.

Despite having our entire group refusing to climb with one of the many horses offered at the start, a few of them followed us anyways. Just in case someone changed their mind or wanted to give up. You know, a bit like a broom wagon.

When the last ascent of the summit was at our reach, we had to stop there. Climbing to the top was forbidden due to the volcano being currently active. Indeed it was continuously smoking and rumbling every 3–4 minutes.

So we just sat down there, with a nice view over other volcanoes around, and waited for the sunset. It was beautiful.

Sunset over the Volcano Pacaya, GuatemalaView on Flickr

But it wasn’t enough for our guide. He got disappointed because he hoped that we would see the red color of the lava from the volcano vent when the dark set, which didn’t happen.

We had to go back down in the dark, with a few headlamps helping with the bumpy ground. I didn’t feel the need for turning on mine, until I figured out that it wouldn’t be the best timing to injure myself just before my Italian friend would arrive in town.

So I turned on my light for the time of a very small run downhill, for the fun of it, and that’s when a deep crack sound rang out from my right ankle. Done.

When we almost returned to our starting point, our guide stopped us and pointed back at the volcano. It was red. We could see rocks erupting from it.

22 December 2013

So far my frustration of not speaking Spanish was already quite high. I mean, what’s the point of going into a country if we can’t even speak with the locals? But something that I’ve never been looking forward to is heading back to any sort of school. This has just never been a good fit for me. I’m more of the type to learn things by myself. I hoped to catch up over time.

I was fortunate enough to have been assisted in this regard by the French couple for the previous few days, who both have a great level of Spanish, and I would now be able to rely on my Italian friend who just arrived and who is perfectly fluent.

San Pedro La Laguna

24 December 2013

We booked the day before one of the only place available to us on HostelWorld. Not a good idea. The hostel was rather expensive for the average price and it didn’t rhyme with better quality.

When walking in the streets, we’ve asked some guys staying at a Spanish school if they knew any better accomodation around. We’ve been pointed towards one named Hotel Peneleu.

We went to check it out. It was way cheaper, way cleaner, and the view was quite something so we booked it for the next night. Note to self: do not solely rely on the Internet.

Sunrise over San Pedro La LagunaView on Flickr

On the way to that hostel, we’ve found a group of kids playing in the street. They were having a lot of fun, and they doubled up in energy and excitement when we’ve asked them if we could take them in photo. Such a great moment. They loved the photos so much that they went on for another round.

Kids playing in the streetView on Flickr

Then their mum showed up to give them some piece of advices by telling them to accept being taken in photos only in exchange of money.

The time was for Christmas celebrations. With many selling weed and mushrooms in the streets, and all those gringos—foreigners—buying them only to end up wandering in the streets completely stoned, we thought that there would be some sort of party happening.

After scanning the streets, we ended up stumbling upon where all the locals were gathering: on the place in front of the church. Not really our cup of tea.

So we kept searching and we found a nice hostel where this time all the tourists were regrouped. Not really what we were looking for neither but in lack of a better choice, we stayed.

The music was there even though not in its best form. The general dynamism wasn’t at its best neither. And to be a real party pooper, I chose to be wise and not to dance much due to my sprained ankle.

But faith decided otherwise. The DJ set a track of Daft Punk, Get Lucky. If there’s one thing I like to dance on, it has to be Daft Punk tracks. And so I went full on in the centre of the dance floor, battling with other guys.

I was on fire. So much that it took me a few tracks to realize that I only manage to worsen the condition of my ankle.

25 December 2013

On the other side of the lake is the Indian Nose. A small mountain whose silouhette looks like a profile of looking upwards. Our destination for today. We thought that we would try it on our own without going through a tour or a guide.

So we first jumped in the boat, direction San Marcos. From there we had a small lunch in one of the very few places available, and we looked for a tuk–tuk. We knew that we could drive up to a place named Santa Clara, and from there only 40 min of climb would be separating us from the viewpoint.

We looked for a tuk—tuk, tried to negotiate the price to what we’ve previously been told by the restaurant owner, and... it didn’t work out. The old man was camping on his position and so were we. So we took a ride to San Pablo instead in the hope to find better deals over there.

When arrived, the negotiation started again with the old man but didn’t go any further until a younger and more intrepid tuk–tuk driver accosted us with his vehicle. He got us a better deal, we changed ship.

That driver was definitely more sporty too. The not so stable–looking 3–wheeled machine and the bumpy, steep and curvy mountain road seemed to be like just another video game to him. And for us too, it was fun! Especially since we made it in one piece to our destination.

There a guy ran out of his house to stop us. He couldn’t help himself from smiling when he was talking, like if he could smell the good deal. He told us that he was a sort of custom for the Indian Nose land, that we had to pay a fee to get there, and that he would have to come with us. We’ve heard about the 150 quetzals fee so it sounded fine.

We went on with the plan, started a walk towards a first lookout, and from there he tried to convince us to not go to the summit because it wouldn’t be worth it. The view would be the same. We insisted to keep going. He left us and finished walking the way up with our tuk—tuk driver who felt like joining us.

Out tuk-tuk driverView on Flickrour tuk–tuk driver, a cool dude

Arrived at the summit, there was a group of other gringos waiting for their guides to come back with some extra gear. Their tour included a camping overnight. And there were also some locals trying to get more money from us. I could barely understand half of what they were saying, which was enough to make me unhappy about the situation. But I couldn’t reply to them, my friend had to do all the job.

It wasn’t so much a matter of money, they were asking only 25 quetzals per person, or around $3 USD. It was more a question of principles. We already paid an entry fee and didn’t want to pay every single person asking us for money. Especially without any document supporting their arguments. The situation got worse, they became more agressive and threatened us to call the police while letting us know that we would run into troubles on the way back. Or something like that.

God raysView on Flickr

Our tuk–tuk driver started to wonder why the hell he followed us up there and begged us to pay the fee to avoid any problem. But instead we decided to wait until the guides of the other group came back from their extra climb. That’s how we learned that we actually were on a private land. A different one from the previous lookout. And that yes, they require visitors to pay. Well, only gringos have to pay, not the locals.

After a quick evaluation between taking a risk—as low as it might have been, if we consider that they were hopefully bluffing—of losing our gear and whatnot versus spending $3 USD, we opted for the latter.[2] And here we were, in for another epic tuk—tuk ride. Downhill this time.

Actually the ride wasn’t sensational enough to finish the day. The driver—should I say pilot?—did a quick stop in San Pablo to pick up a friend of his and to let him drive all the way to San Pedro. He was around 8 years old. Eight freakin years old! At his age, I wasn’t even playing at Colin McRae Rally yet.

A way too young tuk-tuk driver practisinga way too young tuk-tuk driver practising

Semuc Champey

26 December 2013

With that previous experience, I thought that we would be immunized against any sort of ride. I was wrong.

It all started normally. We got in the shuttle at 7 a.m., direction Antigua for a lunch stop. We took the opportunity to rush back towards our favorite lunch place, where not many gringos dare going to eat: the market place! Most cheap, authentic and possibly yummy food!

We couldn’t pass by Antigua without stopping to our second addiction in town: the banana bread shop. The delicious flavour of bananas can already be smelled from the street. When you’re around, there’s no stopping the urge of buying some. Best. Banana bread. Ever!

Of course, they did things well by being located next door from the chocolate museum. A banana bread sandwich with a row of 80% salty chocolate equals to pure awesomeness.

Banana bread with chocolate

Back on track! Two shuttles left at 2 p.m. in direction of Semuc Champey. Somewhere half–way our shuttle decided to stop and turn around. The other one had a mechanical issue so we ran to the rescue. And ran again after picking up some cooling liquid.

Tire in the middle of the roadView on Flickrkilling some time

Apparently every Guatemalan driver is also a mechanic. I found the front seats unmounted to allow them to dig through the layers of the engine. It took some time but eventually they got it sorted and we were back on track.

At 1 a.m. we arrived at a place named Lanquín and for some yet unknown reasons we changed vehicles. From almost comfortable and warm seats, we’ve been thrown into the back of a truck with no rooftop or whatsoever and no other way to sit than a single thin wood board. But sitting wasn’t our best bet.

We immediately rushed into the jungle in a fashion very similar to water rafting. Sitting down on that board would have only resulted in a good petrissage of our bum. The one viable option was to stand up and and hold on tight to the metallic armature surrounding the truck. It was either that or being ejected out in the jungle. And it started to rain. Lightly but consistently.

An hour later, we finally made it to our hostel and went on to sleep straight into our huts. They had a rooftop but no walls, it was a bit like sleeping in the outdoors. It felt great!

27 December 2013

After a short night, we went on with the main reason of our stay: a tour going through a viewpoint, the natural pools, and the exploration of a cave with a candle.

But before heading for the tour, our guide has been pushing hard for everyone to order their lunch meal straight away so they would be ready for when we’d come back. We were not really attracted by the menu and the prices but since we had no idea of the surroundings—arriving at 2 a.m. didn’t help—, and since he’s been so insistent, we followed the mass and ordered ours.

Getting to the viewpoint required a little climb. It was written difícil, but it wasn’t. What’s sure is that the view was worth it.

Semuc Champey, GuatemalaView on Flickr

And then onto the river and the pools. Not carrying any swimsuit with me, I had to borrow one from a local. It was actually a thick sport short. The water was clear, and us, gringos, were mostly invading the place. I felt bad for the locals living around there.

River passing through Semuc Champey, GuatemalaView on Flickr

This and a serie of small activities in the pools took us the entire morning. When heading back to the place we were staying at, which is also where the tour operates, we realized that there were actually plenty of locals selling real, authentic looking, food.

Anger grew in me. I already didn’t like this guide for some reasons but now I truly had a grudge against him. He deliberately hid this information from us. Instead of distributing our money to the poor locals in the need, we had to spend it in his stupid company. But now we knew.

The lunch with its ridiculously terrible (quantity × quality) / price ratio finished, we had to get rid of all our gear and clothes. Only the swimming suit and the flip–flops had to remain. Flip–what? Alright, my minimalist gear didn’t include any of these. I was the only one. Barefoot it would be then.

Here I was, walking like a penguin for about 5 minutes on a relatively painful ground. Fortunately my feet are slightly trained with a small barefoot running experience and other “shaolin-like” trainings on sharp rocks that I happened to do once because I’ve got such stupid ideas sometimes.

The barefoot community grew when they all been asked to leave their flip–flops at the entrance of the cave. There, we’ve been given a candle each. A bit like the Olympic Games torch, my goal was to get it through without it shutting off. I’ll save you from any sort of uncontrollable suspense by letting you know that I’ve miserably failed on the way back.

The cave exploration was not so interesting for its sight. It was rather ugly. The cool side had more to do with its adventurous aspect. We had to go through a few fun obstacles and endure walking or swimming in the dark knowing that at some point we’ll hit an underwater sharp rock that will cut our skin. I definitely didn’t fail that bit, it happened.

Flores

28 December 2013

Departing at 7 a.m. from Semuc Champey back to Lanquín, I couldn’t wait to add some brand new bruises by banging again the armature at the back of the truck. My wish has been fullfiled with the help of a new driver, very keen to overtake all the other trucks in his path.

Of course, it was just the begin of the journey. We jumped in a shuttle in direction to Coban where we had to pick up some new passengers. The issue? The shuttle was overbooked. No worries, I though, this is the kind of non–issue for a group of adventurous travellers anyways. Right? Except that it ended up being one.

The shuttle dropped us all at a McDonald’s—do they think that we exclusively eat in shit places or that we want to contribute to them?—and then drove away. At its return, the 3 new passengers were finally sitting in the then empty shuttle after having waited for 2 hours outside.

Coincidentally, they were a group of 1 Peruvian and 2 Guatemalans brothers that we previously met in an other shuttle from Antigua to Lanquín. We had the occasion to discuss quite a bit with them, especially when we all had to wait for the cooling system of a shuttle to be fixed during the previous trip.

My friend and I happily greeted them. As for the others, they welcomed them in their own way: Why did they take our seats?, We were there before, We’re tourists and they’re Guatemalans, and so on. Except that they were humans like us, they were tourists like us, they paid like us, and they’ve been told to seat there. A long infantile battle started.

Being the last one to enter into the shuttle, I could only see the final outcome. The 3 of them were stacked on top of each others in the most uncomfortable way possible. All this when there was an empty space on the floor at the front of the bus. I wondered how could we have lost any value of solidarity and become so selfish in our “developed” countries of gringos. So I went for that spot on the floor and gave away my seat. It made me feel pretty happy.

A few hours later, a Brazilian girl had requested a stop for an urgent need. For some reasons the driver didn’t stop where there were signs of civilization and possible toilets around but ended up pulling somewhere with not much around. So she went for it anyways and came back crying. She had been bitten by a dog while doing her thing.

I picked up my SAS Survival Guide Handbook and checked for any hint of what to do in this scenario. We requested for another stop next to some habitations. I told her to thouroughly wash her wound to remove any trace of saliva, then I gave her an antiseptic to apply.

On her way back from the restrooms, she called me. I asked her how deep the wound was and how it went. The bite being at the back of the leg, she couldn’t do much and asked me to apply the antiseptic. So I executed myself and did it without thinking. Then I let her know about the small probability of rabies and told her to check with a doctor within the next few days.

For the next hour, I hated myself. I’m not a doctor but I have been through a 2–day outdoor first–aid course in New Zealand the year before. I should have known better. I kept thinking of what I should have done instead. Wash my hands, not get in direct contact with the blood of the victim, clean her wound, apply a compress and a strap to avoid infection. I pretty much did it all wrong. I was fairly relaxed and collected but I simply didn’t activate any of my brain cells. How could I forget all these basic steps when it finally mattered? This was unacceptable.

I’m not even talking of the probability of contracting rabies myself by applying some antiseptic on one of my own wound after having been in contact with her blood and not having washed my hands inbetween. I guess it would have been a good lesson.

To you, Brazilian girl: even though you haven’t been so nice with my 3 friends, I sincerely hope that you’ve recovered well.

Bus crossing the riverView on Flickr

29 December 2013

Sleeping is overrated. We woke up at 2 a.m. to get into a tour that would take us to the Tikal Mayan ruins just in time for sunset. Of course the shuttle showed up 30 min late but we arrived on time and started our walk through the ruins in the dark.

Our sunset spot was a tall pyramid overlooking the jungle. Before climbing it, our guide gave us a quick briefing, asking us to respect the silence once at the top so everyone could enjoy the melody of the jungle.

It did work. Almost. Nobody was talking, only the crowd of cameras were frenetically making noises.

I sometimes wish that digital cameras had a newbie detection algorithm. Maybe they could signal to their owner things like: No magic here, if it looks bad with your own eyes, it won’t look any better on a photo, Nope, that small bird still won’t stand out from the tree in a photo, or Don’t mistake my flash with Superman’s laser beams, I won’t light up your subject at 5 km away.

On our watch the sun was supposed to be there but the thick layer of clouds decided otherwise. It didn’t stop the howler monkeys to shine in the surrounding jungle through their impressively loud voice. Surreal atmosphere.

Mayan ruin in Tikal, Guatemalanope, we didn’t climb that one

Rio Dulce

30 December 2013

To not change with the good habits, the night was yet another time short. We woke up at 4.15 a.m., skipped any sort of breakfast and reached the bus terminal in Santa Elena with our Peruvian and Guatemalan friends.

After spending my last 7 quetzals into a bottle of orange juice, we jumped into the coach that didn’t seem to be of the latest generation. Most of its windows have been hit by rock impacts, probably during a street manifestation that didn’t turn so well.

But we were happy, the coach wasn’t as crowded as we thought it would be and we could easily secure ourselves a seat each. It even was comfortable and the 4 hour drive to Rio Dulce for only 65 quetzals sounded like a great deal.

This was until the coach stopped to get more passengers. Over and over again. Quickly all the seats were taken and the unlucky ones had to stand up in the middle row with their alive chicken and other marchandises.

It reached a point where there really wasn’t any space left. I could feel the leg of someone compressed against my shoulder. I couldn’t take it anymore when he started to rub his willy against me. After a few minutes, I sighed. Loudly. He giggled and gave me a break by stepping back.

Against any logic, the density of people didn’t seem to be enough to dissuade the coach manager to always take more passengers in. When the persons standing up couldn’t figure out anymore how to free up some space, the manager walked to the back and started to place each person himself in a way that made them stacked up like tetris blocks. The coach did become a real tin box of sardines. With the sweat juice that comes with it.

To make it always more challenging, someone decided to showcase all the tracks that he had on his phone. Some sort of music from the 70s with the exact same rythmn played by an accordeon on each single of his tracks. I started to get a pretty badass headache.

Meanwhile some chicks escaped from their box and were partying a bit everywhere in the bus while singing a cute pew pew song.

I thought that I would finally breathe when we reached our destination but I was wrong. The loud truck engines and the dense traffic honking like if they were playing a contest of the most annoying driver only managed to make me regret my dear coach.

My first proper intake of food and sugar of the day didn’t help to get rid of my growing headache. I had to skip the tour planned to a castle in the middle of the lake and say goodbye to my new friends.

Boat filled with friends

When I reached my hostel by boat, in the middle of some sort of jungle, I realized that what was a simple headache turned into an illness. It was around 2 p.m. when I felt asleep, covering myself in many layers to sweat the shit out of me. When I woke up a few hours later, I was still too weak but a honey bear crawling in the hostel cheered me with his presence.

Livingston

31 December 2013

Wait, did we change continent? Livingston is only accessible by boat, and when we reached the quay the first impression was that black Africans took control of the place.

It was supposed to be the place where to spend New Year Eve but we did struggle once again at finding any partying going on. We gathered with a few other gringos and went on a mission but for the first time in my life, I missed the countdown. Not that I care much anyways.

It’s only later that we finally found some African sound with a few guests dancing in a very... sexual manner.

Kid throwing firecrackers in the street, Livingstone, GuatemalaView on Flickrthrowing some more firecrackers...

Antigua, the Return of the Vengeance

2 January 2014

Back to Antigua to close the loop.

The most terrible thing so far has been for me to not be able to directly interact with the locals. I’ve only been a mere passive spectactor when my Italian friend did speak to them. This has been beyond frustration to the point that I decided to overcome my hate for school and take Spanish classes in Antigua. I decided not to leave until I could communicate properly. It would be worthless to keep travelling like this anyways.

View of volcano from Antigua, GuatemalaView on Flickr

Banana bread, how I’ve missed you!

Random Facts

  • going into local places where no many gringos usually go is quite an experience. It sums up to dozen of people staring and amically laughing at you, while wondering what the fuck you’re doing there.
  • the toilet paper? Please don’t throw it in the toilets but in the bin. It might block the toilets and you reallly don’t want that.
  • clothes don’t dry in a humid environment
  • Guatemalans love showing-off the same 3–bit Christmas song everywhere. My ears bled. A lot.
  • the pre–Christmas banging firecrackers celebrations actually never ended. They did survive to both Christmas and New Year Eve, to the days and the nights. -d id you ever see a place where the toilet paper is only available before entering the toilets? I did. Hopefully you’re not on diarrhea, otherwise good luck at anticipating the amount of paper that you’ll need without wasting any.
  • I’m sure that a kid has more chances of being shot dead at his school in the USA than ending up injured at all in Guatemala.