Today was my first day in Central America! Although we didn’t have to leave Cleveland early in the morning, we did have to endure a 9 hour overnight layover in the Houston airport. We were going to get a hotel, but it was booked, so we spent the night at the airport, and therefore we didn’t sleep very well. Everything ran smoothly until we arrived at the airport in Guatemala City and discovered that one of our suitcases had been lost. Finally, after giving our contact information to the airline, we met Emily and her cousin Wilmar and we went to a mall. One of the most surprising things to me is the influence of American stores, brands, and fast food restaurants. So far I have seen Subway, McDonalds, Taco Bell, Sears, Walmart, and more, which I find surprising. This is part of why I find Latin America so interesting; there is so much American influence, yet the mixture of the American influence and indigenous cultures creates a very unique and interesting modern culture. After we ate and bought groceries and other stuff for the house, we drove to Emily and Wilmar’s grandparent’s house, which is in a very rural area. Soon I realized that I’ve never really spent much time in such a rural area, so this should be very interesting (in the best way, of course). We were all exhausted so we decided to nap, however, I found it somewhat hard to fall asleep because the animals outside were making noises. Because Emily’s grandparents’ essentially live on a farm, there are dogs, cats, roosters, ducks, and lots of other animals, in addition to everyone’s favorite-spiders. After my nap, we watched a movie and had dinner, and now we are looking at pictures from the beautiful drive here!
Today was an adventure! I got to sleep in until around 10 am, which is pretty late for people here. Soon after, we ate a very large breakfast of beans, platanos (fried plantains), and eggs, which was very good, but also very filling. Most of the day was based around planning out the rest of our trip because the school that we were going to visit won’t be open until next week. We decided that it would be a good idea to go to a place called Semuc Champey, which from what I understand consists of a group of natural pools. Soon we decided to drive into town (Nueva Santa Rosa) to find an Internet café so that we could look for hostels and other practical information about Semuc Champey. Driving into town is actually more of an adventure than it may seem because the only road going from the grandparents’ house to the town is a somewhat narrow, unpaved, dirt road.
After we got back from town we got to hike up part of the mountain that is across the street from their house where most of their coffee is grown. Unfortunately we didn’t see the workers picking any coffee beans because all of the beans on the lower part of the mountain had already been harvested. We did however get to see what remains of Emily’s grandparents’ first house, which has been reduced to a foundation and part of a wall. After climbing down the mountain, we went back to the house, and I got a couple pictures of their animals and plants. While we were doing this, the women began preparing lunch, and soon we asked if they could teach us how to make tortillas. By that point they had already made the dough, so all we had to do was shape them and put them on the stove. After lunch we left for Wilmar’s house in Guatemala city, because it is more convenient to drive to Semuc Champey from Wilmar’s house, rather than from the grandparents’ house. Tomorrow we have to leave early (I’ve heard the words 5am being tossed around?) because the roads will be bad. Good night!
As we had planned before, today we left for Semuc Champey before dawn because it is about an eight hour drive from Guatemala city. (I think it was around 6am.) We stopped at Burger King for breakfast on the way because we knew that food options outside Guatemala City would be limited. Although I hadn’t slept too well the night before, I tried to stay awake for the whole trip because we were driving through the mountains, and everything was beautiful! In a way, this part reminded me of my previous trip to Ecuador, because a lot of the driving we did there was also in the mountains. After about five hours of driving, we arrived in the town of Coban, where we had lunch at a small restaurant in a market. Although we didn’t spend much time in Coban, I found the atmosphere very interesting and vibrant. So far it seems that most rural areas have a much higher indigenous population than the cities, which is another reason why I found Coban so interesting. Most people walking around were dressed in colorful native dress, it seemed like you could buy anything under the sun, and even better, the shops were blasting music in Spanish that I love! (Mostly reggaeton and merengue.)
After lunch, we drove for about another hour and a half through the mountains towards Semuc Champey, which is quite literally in the middle of nowhere. By this time we had come across lots of places where the road had crumbled or fallen off the edge of the cliff because of flooding, and just as we thought the road couldn’t get any worse, it did. The last 21 kilometers to our hostel was an unpaved, gravel road. On top of that, it goes up and down the mountain and is really only wide enough for one car, although it is a two-way road. Once we got to the hostel, I realized that the surrounding area is even more indigenous than Coban. Unlike in Coban, some of the indigenous people in this area don’t even speak Spanish. Anyway, once we checked in, we decided to go on a tour of the caves. As it turns out, the caves had freezing cold water in them, and our only source of light was the candles that we were carrying. Although I love swimming, and I consider myself a pretty good swimmer, it was incredibly difficult to swim while wearing clothes, flip-flops, and holding a candle. Despite this challenge, I had lots of fun, and I think Wilmar, Emily, Farman, and Tyler did also. After we left the cave, we went tubing down the river to get back to our hostel, and this proved to be almost as difficult for us as the caves. At first, Tyler fell off the intertube, then Wilmar hit one of the rocks that was hidden underwater. When we got back to the hostel, we basically showered and ate dinner because by that point we were starving. Apparently, they turn off the little electricity that they have at 10pm, so after dinner, we basically went to sleep.
Since we went to bed so early last night, we were able to get up around 8am this morning. Once we woke up, we ate breakfast, then after a while we eventually left for the actual Semuc Champey park. (The hostel and the caves were outside the park.) First, we hiked up to the overlook, where you can see all the natural pools, the river and everything else. I think it was about a mile from the entrance to the overlook, but the trail is straight uphill, and the mud makes it slippery, so by the time you reach the top, it feels like more than a mile. After we took pictures we walked back down the mountain and swam in the pools. It was beautiful, although the water was freezing!
Anyway, we ended up spending more time at the pools than we had planned, so when we got back to the hostel, we showered, ate, and started the long trek back to Guatemala City. We got back around 11pm, and went to sleep.
Today is the last day of 2011, and our first day in Antigua! Today we left Guatemala City in the afternoon and drove to Antigua, which was about a 45 minute drive. Upon arriving in Antigua, we checked into our hostel, which is pretty nice, except that the mattresses aren’t very good. After we checked in, we walked around, Farman bought shoes, and then we had dinner at a restaurant called Monoloco (“crazy monkey” in english). Because New Years is HUGE here in Antigua, there are lots of tourists, and lots of crowds in general. It’s so important that there’s a schedule of events that include marimba players, parades, and various other things. The marimba is a traditional Guatemalan instrument that’s kind of like a giant xylophone, and it is played by multiple people at the same time.
Once we got back to the hotel, we took naps and rested so that we would have the energy for the New Years celebrations. After our nap, we headed out to the Parque Central (central park) for the New Years fireworks. They were so close, but they were incredibly cool, and they kind of reminded me of the 4th of July at home. It was interesting to experience a different kind of New Years celebration; there was no countdown to midnight, and no ball dropping like I usually watch on TV at home, just fireworks and sparklers at midnight. After the fireworks, we returned to the hostel and went to sleep.
First post of 2012! Today was a pretty laid back day. We slept in until about 10:30, which for Guatemala is really late. It’s so late that we missed breakfast, which ended at 10, and by the time we got to a restaurant they had also stopped serving breakfast. As we were standing on the sidewalk deciding where to eat, firecrackers went off in the street right by us! I was so startled that I ran into the restaurant, but once I figured out what was going on, I got a video. Wilmar explained to us that in Guatemala, the first twelve hours of the new year are celebrated with fireworks, firecrackers, sparklers, and other similar things. After we ate, we walked around Antigua and took more pictures and did more shopping. Most of the shopping we did was in markets selling indigenous textiles and arts and crafts, which are beautiful! As we were walking back to the hostel from the market, we witnessed many street performances including another marimba group and a mime!
In retrospect, I’m glad that I actually read the Antigua section in my guidebook because it is cool to experience the things that I read about. The history and culture tidbits that I learned about before arriving in Antigua helped me better appreciate the city and it’s history and importance. Although there are lots of tourists in Antigua (something I generally despise) it is still a beautiful town, and worth a visit. In other words, tourists come here for a reason and I’m excited to see what the rest of our stay here holds!
Today we left Antigua for Lake Atitlan, which truly is one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. When we first woke up, Emily, Tyler and I went to the market in Antigua to do some souvenir shopping. Tyler bought a blue hoodie, and I bought a purse, a pillow cover for my grandma and coffee for my dad. Although I really like the market because of all the colorful things they have, I hate haggling because it makes me feel mean. After we got back from the market we drove to Panajachel, which is the largest town near Lake Atitlan. There, we parked the car and took a boat to out hotel, which is called Isla Verde. It’s an eco hotel, and it’s really cool! It has the best beds we’ve slept in since leaving Emily’s grandparent’s house. Once we got settled in our room, we went downstairs and had a late lunch/early dinner and sat outside until after dark. After a while I got chilly, so I decided to go back up to our room. A couple minutes later as I was sitting on my bed, out of the corner of my eye, I saw what looked like a black bug walking across the floor. Although I wasn’t exactly sure, I thought at first that it was a scorpion, so I zipped up my suitcase, shook out my shoes and walked downstairs where Emily, Farman, and Tyler were. I told them that I had seen something that looked like a black bug in our room. We walked back upstairs, but we didn’t see anything immediately, so I’m not sure everyone believed me. After a while however, Tyler saw a couple baby scorpions and finally we saw the big scorpion crawling out from under the bed. None of us had ever seen a live scorpion before, so we were huddled together on the bed, scared out of our minds. Soon, we called the front desk and they sent someone up to take care of it, but by the time they got to our room, we couldn’t find it. Since there isn’t much to do after dinner in Lake Atitlan, we tried as hard as we could to forget the fact that there was a poisonous animal in our room, and went to sleep.
Like every other day in Guatemala, today was an adventure! We were originally debating between climbing a volcano or taking a tour of all the surrounding towns, however we ultimately decided that they were both too expensive for us. Instead, we decided to take the public boat to a town called San Marcos where we ate lunch. (By the time we figured out what to do it was already lunchtime.) After lunch, we hiked a little bit around San Marcos. Of course, since we weren’t exactly planning on hiking, I had decided to wear a dress and flip flops with my bathing suit underneath, since I hoped that swimming was involved in some way. I quickly found out that this was not at all the best clothing choice. After hiking for a while, we came across a wooden platform where you can jump off the cliff and into the lake. It’s about 45 feet high and it was so much fun that I jumped off of it twice! Wilmar had jumped off of it before and he did it again with us, while Emily and Farman got pictures of us from the area below. After jumping off a cliff, we decided to take another public boat to another town called San Pedro, which is one of the largest towns surrounding the lake. It’s an interesting place because it is part tourist village, part authentic village, the only thing is, the boats can’t sail after dark, so the last one leaves at 5pm and we missed it. Therefore we were forced to take a private boat, which was a lot more expensive. Today all of Guatemala experienced incredibly strong, damaging winds so the ride back was especially choppy. When we finally got back to the hotel, we we all staring so we walked to another hotel for dinner because it was cheaper and then we went to sleep.
Unfortunately, today we had to leave the beautiful Lake Atitlan. We woke up so early that we had to wait for the receptionist at the front desk, and breakfast had not yet started. After we finally checked out, we took a boat back to Panajachel (As you can tell, boats are the primary mode of transportation around the lake. There are roads that go from town to town, but boat travel is more efficient and common.) Since the car was far from the dock, we took a Tuk-Tuk from the boat to the car. Unfortunatly I don’t think I have a picture, but to paint a mental picture, a Tuk-Tuk is kind of a combination of a rickshaw and a golf cart, and in Guatemala they serve as taxis. Once we got back to the car, we drove back to Emily’s grandparent’s house which is about 4 hours away. Because we woke up so early that morning we all took naps, and by the time I woke up from mine, Emily, Tyler, and Farman had all left for Nueva Santa Rosa (the nearest town). Because there wasn’t much else to do, I took a walk around the neighborhood with Emily’s other cousin, Yelin (not sure about the spelling of her name, sorry) and we walked past the school and the local church. Afterwards, Emily called to say that they were at the market buying things for the local elementary school and that they needed a ride home, so I went with her cousins to pick them up. There were lots of us and lots of stuff, so on the way back I got to sit in the back of the pickup truck! After we got back to the house, we started preparing dinner, and then of course we ate dinner. Unfortunatly, I think I caught a cold at the lake, so after dinner I drank some hot tea to help my throat and then went to bed.
Today was a busy day, but it was great because we finally got to go to the elementary school, which was the point of our trip. It started like every other day here; we woke up later than everyone else (although 9:30 for us is pretty early) and ate breakfast. We were originally supposed to be at the school at 10am but, since we woke up later than planned, we didn’t get there until about 10:40. Upon arriving at the school, we were greeted by the principal and some of the teachers. Originally we were hoping to go to the school, meet the kids, and remodel their kitchen with money that we had raised throughout the semester. Unfortunately two things happened that prevented us from reaching our original goals; first of all, we realized that the kids are out of school for their vacation and won’t be back for another week or so, and second of all, we weren’t able to raise enough money this semester for the kitchen project. Instead, we were able to meet some of the staff because they go back this week, and we used the money that we did raise this past semester to buy things like toys, school supplies, basic medical equipment, soap and toilet paper, all of which we then donated to the school. Actually, we were able to meet one student; Emily’s younger cousin who is in 3rd grade!
The principal gave us a tour of the school and we got to see the new bathrooms which our organization Guate Bonita helped to buy and install over spring break last year. We got to see the classrooms, the kitchen, and the teacher’s office. During the tour we asked the principal about the Guatemalan education system, what the Guatemalan government does for the public schools, and other questions about the school itself. An interesting fact is that the government provides textbooks for the school, however there often aren’t enough for each student to have their own, so depending on class sizes students have to share. After the tour, we ate tostadas and cake with the staff and talked about possible projects we could raise money for next semester. Some of the possible projects were: building a fence around the school so that people don’t steal stuff while the school is on break, building a secure room for the same reason, or renovating the playground. We are going to talk about this at our next Guate Bonita meeting to see what our other members think.
After we left the school, we went back to Emily’s grandparent’s house for lunch, and then a family friend of theirs gave us a ride back to Guatemala city, where we are staying in a hostel for the night until our flight tomorrow afternoon. Hasta luego!
Unfortunately, today is the last day of our trip, and our flight home leaves at 3pm. After waking up and getting our stuff packed, we had breakfast at the hostel and then took a short tour of Guatemala city. On the tour, we went to yet another market, an old church, and a park all in Guatemala City of course. Out of the three, we spent the most time at the market and I bought a picture frame and a scarf. We also got to go in the church, which is one of the oldest in Guatemala, and surprisingly we were allowed to take pictures as long as the flash was off. Outside of the church is an old government building which is now being used as a museum. Although we didn’t get to go into the museum the outside area was just as entertaining. If I had to compare this park/square thing to places on other trips I’ve taken, I’d say it’s a mixture of Parque de Palomas in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Plaza de San Francisco in Quito, Ecuador. Needless to say, it reminded me of Parque de Palomas because of the multitude of birds and people playing with them. Unlike many areas in the United States, feeding the birds in this area seems to be encouraged and you can buy birdseed to give them. On the other hand, the general atmosphere an surrounding architecture reminds me of Plaza de San Francisco in Quito, Ecuador. Because we had to be at the airport at 1pm for our 3pm flight, the tour was relatively brief.
Our flight landed in Houston on time, but it still took us about 2 hours to get through passport control, customs, check in, and security. Currently I am in the Houston airport killing time during our 13 hour overnight layover, wishing I were still back in Guate!
Every time I travel internationally the subjects of authenticity and tourism come to mind. Clearly, I am very interested in cultures and personally I love experiencing culture shock. I would rather stay with a host family and have to try and adapt to their way of life than stay in an all-inclusive resort being catered to. I have often complained about things being too “touristy” and not authentic or cultural enough, mainly as a result of increased media and globalization. It sometimes seems as though, no matter where I go, someone else has seen that site before, or I could see it on the Travel Channel without getting out of bed.
This past trip to Guatemala surprised me in this way. Before I left the US, I realized that I knew very little about Guatemala beyond the basics, and for this reason I decided to seek out books about Guatemala’s recent history, issues, politics, etc. To my surprise and frustration, I was not able to find anything except a couple travel guides. Furthermore, I have witnessed the ignorance of fellow Americans regarding Guatemala; it is perceived as poor and turbulent (which are both accurate to a point) and little is known about the country, possibly because of the lack of media about it.
Yet once I boarded the plane from Houston to Guatemala City, I realized something; it was filled with American tourists heading to Antigua, many of whom had already visited multiple times. Unlike myself and others I had met before traveling, the people on the plane seemed to know lots about Guatemala. Honestly, at first I was a bit disappointed; I thought I had found a place that would be “mine” that had seen very few other American tourists. In my experience, capital cities tend to be more touristy and diverse than other cities, however as I found out on the plane, this does not seem to be the case in Guatemala.
Honestly, I did see more tourists in Guatemala than I expected, and more than I had hoped, especially in Antigua. Because I couldn’t find much information on Guatemala before I left, and also because of some Americans’ perceptions of Guatemala, I really didn’t expect there to be many tourists at all. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that some things are touristy for a reason; because they are beautiful, interesting things or places. Although there were lots of tourists in Antigua, I came to the conclusion that it is a beautiful colonial city that deserves the amount of tourists it sees. The same applies to Lake Atitlan; it is beautiful and deserves to be visited. Furthermore, the small villages surrounding Lake Atitlan, more so than Antigua, have been able to maintain much of their authentic indigenous culture. In some of the smaller villages the population speaks mainly their indigenous dialect , and may not speak much Spanish.
That being said, after getting back from Guatemala, I have come to the conclusion that although something may be “touristy” such as Antigua or Lake Atitlan, my experiences in these places were uniquely mine. Not too many other tourists can say that they’ve slept with multiple live scorpions in their room, nor can they relate to walking from our hotel to a restaurant at another hotel at night on a very uncertain and unstable path, nor can they say that they’ve lived my exact experiences in Antigua. If I were to say the word “Puchica” to a tourist, they wouldn’t know it unless they were very educated in Guatemalan slang. I doubt that very few tourists have experienced Guatemalan driving at its finest on all road terrains as we did with Wilmar, nor have they met the people that I was able to meet.
In short, this trip taught me that many “touristy” things or places are like that for a good reason and should not be missed simply because they are labeled as “touristy.” Of course, I do not believe that places that are not labeled as “touristy” should be avoided, or that they have nothing special to offer. They defiantly do, it’s just that they may not appeal to a wide audience. In such places (Nueva Santa Rosa for example) the more interesting part is not the architecture or anything visual, rather it is the atmosphere, the lifestyle, and the people that only some can appreciate. In retrospect, I have decided that the label “touristy” does not necessarily mean “bad” or “unimportant” or “overdone.” Although these places may be well represented on TV or in others’ tales, no one can have the same experiences as me, and in this way, these places become “uniquely mine” rather than “touristy.”