Emily’s Reflection

Over the last two years I have lead a total of three trips to Guatemala. Each one is very different with their own crazy adventures. I am always amazed by how much I learn about Guatemalan culture because of the people on the trip. My last trip may have been the craziest one so far. It started on New Years Eve.

Monday Dec. 31st (Antigua)

Christmas tree in Guatemala

Christmas tree in Guatemala

I woke up early Monday to get ready to pick up the group with my cousin Wilmar. We took the first group (Amelia, Katie and Chris) to Antigua Guatemala where we spent New Years Eve. Amelia had been to Guatemala the year before, but she loved it so much she came again! Katie had studied abroad in Costa Rica for a semester so she had been to Central America before but it was her first time in Guatemala. Chris is Gabby’s uncle and he had never been to Latin America and did not know any Spanish. On our way from the airport to Antigua we went through Guatemala City.

Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua, Guatemala

Guatemala City is the largest city in Central America and it has become very modernized over the last decade. Many people, like Chris, have an image of Latin America as a poor country that does not have the luxuries we are used to in developed countries. He was astounded by the wealth he saw in the city; shopping malls, brand new cars, billboards for name brand clothing, etc. I was surprised by how astounded he was with how modernized Guatemala City was.

We arrive in  the city of Antigua after about an hours drive from the airport. Antigua is famous for the preserved Spanish Colonial architecture (it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site). It is a hot spot weekend destinations for Guatemalans because it is so close to the city and there are a lot of concerts and cultural events.

Celebrating new years!

Celebrating new years!

It is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Central America and is always filled with foreign tourists. I love the city of Antigua with the colonial architecture, the people, the food and the beautiful views of the surrounding volcanos and mountains.

386580_10151163138026507_877132561_nAt midnight we found a spot in the city square to watch the fireworks go off. I love watching fireworks and I am never disappointed in Guatemala because they love it just as much. It was definitely a different experience for the group because people would just set fireworks off where ever, safety was not the biggest concern. The Guatemalans found it funny that we were so scared of the fireworks because for them its normal to have fireworks so close to you. The first night was a long night, but I was happy that everyone had a good time. We went back to sleep because the next day we had a long drive ahead of us.

Tuesday Jan. 1st (Antigua)

I was woken up at 7 in the morning because our transportation had gotten the schedule mixed up.

Relaxing after a long day.

Relaxing after a long day.

Lets just say I was not a happy camper. I could not go back to sleep so I went to get my complimentary breakfast which was delicious! I love my platanos fritos (con azucar y crema), frijoles, queso fresco y juevos. Guatemalan breakfast is always a nice change from what I usually have in the United States. Being in charge of the group is very tiring, you have to be the first one up and the last one to go to bed. Good thing I love traveling and planning the trip! I woke up the rest of the group so they could take advantage and be able to get some souvenir shopping and pictures taken in Antigua before our long car ride. We had an 8 hour drive ahead of us to Lanquín, Guatemala that day.

Shopping at the market

Shopping at the market

It was our first trip where I had arranged transportation instead of having my cousin Wilmar drive us because we were a big group. I think it was a bit hard some to be in the van cramped for 8 hours, but you get what you pay for! Traveling on a budget is no fun but I prefer it than not being able to travel at all. It was a new experience for the group and something they would have to get used to because that’s how we travelled for the entire trip! The reason we were taking such a long drive is because we were headed to Semuc Champey, a natural monument in the highlands of Guatemala. We arrived really late to our hotel so we all went to bed to get an early start in the morning.

Wednesday Jan. 2nd- Thursday Jan. 3rd (Lanquín/Semuc Champey)

We woke up early Wednesday morning to take advantage of the day before it started to rain. That’s the one thing about Guatemala, rain comes when you least expect it!

Our hostel, El Retiro.

Our hostel, El Retiro.

Map of languages in Guatemala (left). Altaverapaz, Guatemala (right)

Map of languages in Guatemala (left). Altaverapaz, Guatemala (right)

View of the pools of Semuc Champey.

View of the pools of Semuc Champey.

Amelia, Gabby and Chris enjoying the breeze on the way to Semuc Champey!

Amelia, Gabby and Chris enjoying the breeze on the way to Semuc Champey!

Mountain views.

Mountain views.

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Road built by the community.

I had an interesting conversation to our driver who was telling me about the politics of the mayor. The mayor had been in office for over 10 years and it was known that he stole a lot of the money that was supposed to help improve the community. He was very corrupt, all the people in power were his close friends and family. Before each reelection he would go to the very poor communities and give everyone free food and other gifts to bribe them into voting for him. After such a long time of not doing anything the people wanted him out of office, but to report all the bad that he had done over the years a group of at least 10 citizens had to go to the capital with a petition of at least 500 people. This was not an easy task and it took them years to get enough signatures and get enough money to go to the capital. They are hoping that with the new president, Otto Perez Molina, will finally do something. Since he came into office he has become known to the people as a leader who does not allow corruption and has removed many government officials. I really enjoyed my time in Lanquín, I hope as it becomes a more popular destination that it is able to keep it’s charm. After the secluded Semuc Champey we headed to Flores, Guatemala to visit Tikal National Park and visit the famous Mayan Ruins!

Friday Jan. 4th- Sunday Jan. 6th (Flores/Tikal)

Flores and Tikal Guatemala in Peten.

Flores and Tikal Guatemala in Peten.

The group in front of the Jaguar Temple.

The group in front of the Jaguar Temple.

All King's Day Parade in Flores.

All King’s Day Parade in Flores.

Boat tour of Flores.

Boat tour of Flores.

Oscar, a friend we made while we were in Petén was kind enough to take us on a tour around the lake. He was very well informed about the area and was known by a lot of the locals. He worked at the small airport with his brother Kelvin. Oscar took us to San Andre, a small town on the lakefront away from the city of Flores and Santa Elena. It was a cute little town of fisherman and farmers. It was a nice afternoon swimming in the lake before the rain started. The countryside was beautiful as well, there were a lot of farms right outside of the city. That night Oscar and Kelvin took us out dancing, I’m not much of a dancer but Angel and Amelia sure are! It was a lot of fun and a great time for us to practice our Spanish, Oscar and Kelvin really made our days in Flores very enjoyable and memorable. Gracias hermanos! 🙂 Our last day in Flores we were woken up really early in the morning by a parade for Día de los Reyes (All Kings Day). It was really cool but we all hated being woken up so early! Even though we were all sleepy being woken up so early gave us a great opportunity to spend our last day exploring Flores before heading back to the city. We took an overnight bus to Guatemala City, we left at 10pm and arrived at 6am. It was a long ride but we finally had a “luxury” roomy bus so we slept through the night.Boat tour of Flores.

Monday Jan. 7th- Tuesday Jan. 8th (Monterrico)

After such a long and adventurous week traveling around Guatemala seeing ruins, jungle, lakes, cities and pueblos we finally made it to the beach! Monterrico is a small beach town about 3 hours away from Guatemala City on the Pacific coast. We ended up taking a ‘chicken bus’ out of the city and then using the local transport to get to our hotel. I have been on a few ‘chicken buses’ in Guatemala but I don’t think it has ever been as crowded as it was that day. The buses are the most common and affordable form of transportation for Guatemalans.

chicken buses.

chicken buses.

They are privately owned buses that don’t run on their own schedule so it can be very confusing to figure out what bus goes where if you don’t speak Spanish. The trip to Monterrico was one of the times that where we all realized that there was no such thing as personal space, people were literally on top of each other. It was a little uncomfortable, but at the same time I think it was important for everyone to see how life is like for most people in Guatemala everyday. Discomfort is not something they even think about, there were people holding onto the bus on the outside to catch a ride. The bus ride took about 2 hours and cost $3 for each of us. Halfway there we had to get off the chicken bus and take a local bus…..also known as a van that people used as a bus.

Relaxing.

Relaxing in our hotel.

I had to haggle with the driver to take us to our hotel since it was still about an hour from where the chicken bus had left us. It definitely is not as easy to travel in Guatemala because there is no government owned or any privately owned organized form of transportation. Traveling on a budget can get very creative in times like these! We were all so happy to finally make it to our hotel and it was so much better than anyone expected. We had our own house on the beach with a kitchen, outside patio and a pool. We were only steps away from the beach, it was amazing! I have to admit, it was nice to finally relax on our adventure and to find the sun. It had been rainy and cold in Petén and now in the south it was hot and humid. We used this time to relax, reflect and swim.

View from our room.

View from our room.

The sand in Monterrico is black and the waves are pretty strong so we could only swim in high tide. Lucky for me Katie is a lifeguard because I am not the best of swimmers. Since we had our own kitchen in the late afternoon we walked around the town looking for food to cook and to check out the area. Monterrico is a tourist town, but not a typical one that American tourists would expect. It is more of a community than a tourist attraction, which a few members of my group noticed. We spent a lot of time at the beach and the pool to escape the intense heat, but in the evening we went to a sea turtle conservation project that was near our hotel.

Sea turtles

Sea turtles

The conservation was a project by the University of San Carlos, the oldest university in Guatemala. We talked to the man in charge about the project and we learned a lot about the environment and the sea turtles which was very interesting. He advised us to take a early morning tour of the nearby swamp, which was a protected national park, where we could see more wildlife. That day at sunset we helped release some of the baby turtles. It was amazing being able to be part of that, and seeing all the turtles following their fate. Sadly only a few of the baby turtles we released would make it to adulthood. Hopefully my turtle will make it!

Sunset

Sunset

The following day we woke up before sunrise to take a tour of the swamp. It was 4 in the morning and fisherman were coming back from their expeditions. The town was quietly coming to life. There were a total of 10 of us who went on the boat tour and saw the sunrise. It was beautiful seeing nature being reserved as it was. We saw the herons, flying fish and many other types of animals on our tour. We were surrounded by mountains in the background, we could see the volcanos of water and fire (which are in Antigua, 4 hours away!). I always wish I could spend more time in Monterrico, it’s hard to say goodbye to the beautiful scenery and delicious sea food.

Wednesday Jan. 9th- Friday Jan. 11th (El Chupadero)

The last few days of our trip we finally made it to our partner school and to my grandparents house. I always like ending our trip with going to the school. I feel like spending time learning about the culture and lifestyle of Guatemala helps students better understand the lives of the students and small town living. El Chupadero is about 1.5 hours away from the city. It is a small village that relies on agriculture for its livelihood. The closest town, Nueva Santa Rosa, is about 20 minutes away from El Chupadero. During our stay my grandparents host us in their home. They live in a big house, where my mom, aunts and uncles grew up. I love going to my grandparents because it is a very different vibe than the cities, it’s very homey. It is a country home, lots of farm animals, wood stove, limited water accessibility, etc. It can be hard for some people to get adjusted too, it is a different way of living. It always interesting to see how students react but I find that all of them like the feeling of being with family and being welcomed.
We visited our partner school in El Chupadero early the next morning. The
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