Celebrating Day of the Dead/All Saints Day

Yesterday was a day that defined why I wanted to take this trip.  On our usual two-week vacations that are planned to the minute there's no room for spontaneity.  On this trip we have planned next to nothing so we can stay longer in places we like and move on from those that don't suit us.  We were meant to move to on to Honduras after our language classes finished but when we heard of the day of the dead celebrations in Santiago we knew we had to go. 

Arriving we walked through blocks of people selling everything from colored chicks (??????!!?!??!?), to every imaginable food, to everything you'd never think to buy at a festival like DVDs and dish soap.  It was already worth it to see all there was to purchase.  But then we arrived at the cemetery.  There were people already scattered throughout, kites already in the air, and some of the massive kites already raised.  We were with a friend we met at lunch one day (a guy from Seattle!) and we set off exploring taking more photos in one day than we have our whole trip.  The kites were beautiful, the people all dressed so nicely and sharing the day with their family; it is truly a celebration that doesn't exist anywhere else in the world and we were so lucky to take part in it. 

Eric took some awesome photos of them raising the kites.  Groups of around 100 guys would sprint all over (running on top of graves!) to help with each kite.  A few broke in half but as we left to catch our bus they were being repaired.  The party went into the night.   

The food we saw was also incredible, new-to-us, huge pots and pans, and smelled incredible.  We tasted what Matt suggested and we all thought safe, and thankfully we aren't sick yet!   

The day ended with a special invitation to share fiambre (the traditional dish eaten on the Day of the Dead) with the owners of our favorite bar and restaurant in Antigua: Porque No?.  After arriving back in Antigua we made our way to their friend's house to meet their friends and family over traditional shots of tequila.  Carolina made this amazing fiambre for us.  The dish had over 50 ingredients!!  It was the perfect end to this special day.   

Us with Carolina and the fiambre she made for us

Us with Carolina and the fiambre she made for us

Lake Atitlan

Spanish lessons ended on Friday morning and a few hours later we were seated in a 14 passenger van making the rounds of hotels to pick up other passengers traveling to Lake Atitlan, a few hours journey east into the highlands. We were traveling with two friends from our language school, our theory being we are safer in numbers and with all of our elementary Spanish combined we might just be able to get somewhere.

The van drove by some of the most beautiful scenery I've seen and some of the most depressing. We passed through the world's second hand market for after market car parts and then snaked our way through mountains with multiple volcanoes peaking through.

As we ascended to the lake we were greeted with stunning views over the expansive lake. Unfortunately there was a rough, very crowded, boat ride between us and our final destination in San Marcos. Making it finally to shore we weaved our way through the narrow alleys of the town to our hotel the Paco Real.

The city of San Marcos has an amazing vibe as it's on the lake but also inside of what feels like the jungle. The lake has been rising steadily for years and literally houses are underwater, and no more beaches remain. This has meant we have spent little time at the water which really surprised me. Instead we spent  Saturday feasting on a delicious breakfast at the nearby Hotel Paz and then hiking to find a hotel we had heard about in the next town over. Our Spanish isn't that great yet as we didn't find the hotel but did enjoy wandering through a very small village built into a steep hillside with stunning views. We never did find the hotel but enjoyed our time outside, able to walk around. Later in the afternoon we went to visit their national park which had some well maintained trails that weaved through the mountains and down to the lake again. It was well worth the 15Q entrance fee for the views and Karen even went swimming!

Dinner that night at our hotel the Paco Real was Eric's favorite and we spent the night playing spades (we won) and trading stories.  

Sunday I woke up early and enjoyed my coffee surrounded by incredible plants and animals.  I could hardly study I was so distracted by the beauty of the town and all the animal activity there was to observe.  Finishing my coffee and reluctant to leave, I went next door to Hotel Paz again and enjoyed a yoga, meditation sessions for 2 hours.  San Marcos is known to have a spiritual energy and thus has a lot of yoga, silent, moon, etc. retreats.  I'm not sure how much I believe in all these theories yet but as we travel and are in countries with different beliefs I do want to explore them along with the local meditation or yoga practices.  The two hour yoga was more focused on meditation and what a ripple of water can do. Robin, the instructor, talked about how much of our body is made from water and how a positive or negative drop from our mind can ripple throughout our subconscious.  It was an interesting discussion and I'm always for more positive so really enjoyed my time spent under the thatched roof in another incredible garden.

My lovely morning was continued as we made our way back to "Pana" the tourist hub to all the towns around the Lake.  It was noisy, filled with tuk tuk's and there was not one sight of plant life around.  It was hard to be yanked back to quickly to the reality of Guatemala's cities.  We made our way back that night by bus in heavy fog and rain, but arrived safely.  

If you ever have the opportunity to visit Lake Atitlan I would highly recommend the lake and the surrounding villages.  I wish we had spent more time there!   

 

As we want this blog to be helpful for those that might follow in our footsteps, A few things we were not expecting:
-Dogs to be everywhere, literally, skinny as can be, eating garbage as food
-Church to be broadcasted from a loud speaker starting around 7a Saturday and Sunday and different speeches throughout the day
-We were excited about no cars in the town, but this is surely because there would be no passage with the tiny alley ways. Any by tiny I mean tiny.  It was a bit discerning to be in what seemed like a maze with each turn and we didn't feel safe going out after dark.

-We were also warned of a lot of bandit activity in and around the lake towns.  For this reason we stuck to the main road on a Saturday, we were advised Sunday on any path would be unsafe.  Per the usual we asked around before making up our decision for where to go.

 

Antigua from Eric's Eyes.

Hello folks. This is my first blog post/attempt, so I hope you like it.

I wanted to write down my thoughts over our first week on this adventure. As you already know, we are studying Spanish in Antigua, Guatemala. Our school is regarded as one of the best for instruction and I would agree. Sarah and I are already off to a solid start learning how to conjugate verbs, learn new vocabulary and rehearse important conversations. Our classes are from 2-5 M-F, which allows us to study at the central park during the day. This leads me to the fun section of...

The top 5 things about Antigua, and the 5 things that nobody tells you about.

1)  Most importantly, the people of Antigua have been welcoming and pleasant to converse with. The city itself is beautiful and surrounded by massive volcanoes.  I'm thinking 1980 Mt. St. Helens in the back of my mind, but hey, if they don't care about it, why should I?

2) The traditional, (they say "typical") fare goes something like this. BBQ'd Carne (beef, chicken, pork or local sausages), side of rice or potato salad/mashed potatoes and mixed green salad, topped off with a clay mug of fresh limeade. Sarah and I went out to lunch yesterday with my teacher to such a place that cost us 20 Quetzales per person or about $8 for everyone. Typical lunch here is Fantastic! We we warned about the ensalada mista (mixed greens), but no problems yet......... Apparently they dunk fresh vegetables/fruit into a diluted mixture of water and Clorox. Who am I to tell them differently?

3) The people watching is fantastic! While Sarah and I are studying in the park, we play the game "Let's remember not to dress like that guy/girl" and "If I were to rob someone, I would start with that guy".

4) Everything is on a grid, but the numbering system could be improved. The city consists of 9 streets (Calles) and 9 avenues (Aviendas). All of which start with 1 and end with 9. Thus said, you could be searching for an ice cream (hellado) spot on the corner of 8th and 8th. Luckily the largest volcano is directly south, so its easy to keep ones bearings.

5) My 13 year old self had to add this to the top 5. It goes something like this. It's 6:50am on a Wednesday (Miercoles) Vamanos! Let's go light off some fireworks! There is no shortage of mild grade explosives throughout the city. I'm talking M80's 1/4 sticks of dynamite, not the "look how beautiful they are" type. There is no doubt in my mind that Guatemalans LOVE fireworks. We aren't exactly sure what motivates people to light them off, but it's sure to wake you up/keep you on edge/jump out of your seat.

View from "The Cross" overlooking Antigua

View from "The Cross" overlooking Antigua

Top 5 things to know

1) When people say that Antigua is safe, they are correct. The truth is that the second you cross 9th street or 9th avenue you are warned that it is very dangerous (pelligroso). It gives you the feeling that you are a shiny fish in a beautiful fish tank surrounded by cats. When we asked about hiking up to "the cross", we were warned to only go between 10am and 4pm. This is when the local police are standing guard (with shotguns) on the path. Sarah and I climbed up at 10:30am without any incident. I would highly recommend it, but please adhere to the armed guards schedule. Also, don't walk around town holding your ipad/iphone/macbook pro...Yes we saw this....and yes, they were Americanos. On the first day, Sarah and I asked which was the best route to climb the tallest volcano. Our question was met with very concerned eyes. "That mountain/trail is Muy Peligroso"!! I was busy calculating the odds of this whole mountain exploding and sweeping us away in a sea of lava. Apparently, that was of no concern, rather the banditos ambush hikers in hopes of a camera and whatever cash is on hand. For those of you who like to get outdoors in the US, cherish the fact that you can do so without worrying about getting mugged along the way. It's tough being surrounded by beautiful mountains and being told not to hike in them.

2) The roads/sidewalks will make your ankles strong or break them. Everything is a mix of cobble stone, concrete slabs and concrete manhole covers, which are seconds away from dropping you into a two foot hole. Be cautious and for the love of god, don't wear high heels. It's even tough to navigate with flip flops. Also, watch out for dog droppings. c  Unfortunately, you miss a lot of the beautiful architecture as your eyes must remain focused on the ground in front of you.

3) Things don't dry. This is no fault of Antigua's and takes some getting used to. Example: In my single years, I would put in a load of laundry on the weekend. I would then forget about the laundry for a few days.  When I returned to put it in the dryer, I was treated to an intoxicating aroma of moldy/stale wet clothes. This is  unfortunately they way our sheets/pillow cases smell. It isn't anyone's fault really, things just never get a chance to fully dry. Everything will be out hanging in the sun and then a torrential down pour will soak everything. It's a vicious cycle.

4) It is very confusing to know who and where your money goes to. There are multiple layers of middle men/brokers/tour guides and friendly people that "know a guy".  We have learned that it's best not to ask and just go with the flow. When the van shows up, you get in. 19 people in a 14 passenger van....no problem. This van takes you to a random street corner where a larger van is waiting. 44 people in a 35 passenger van?....no problem. Get in.  The unfortunate truth is that the person or group actually doing the work is at the bottom of paycheck hierarchy. For example: the six guides who actually guided us up the Pacaya volcano only made $6 of the roughly $200 paid to the tour company that "arranged" the trip.

5) Wear only running shoes, sandals or flip flops. If you wear black/brown leather shoes, you will get bombarded by shoe polishers ranging from 6-60 years old. They roam the streets and parks looking for dirty/dusty shoes so that they can point at them with a disconcerting look. "You are really in public with those things?" Luckily for us, they don't even glance in our direction. Thank you running shoes and flip flops!

I thought that I would add a picture of my dream car just for good measure. I saw two of these beauties.

I thought that I would add a picture of my dream car just for good measure. I saw two of these beauties.

Macadamia Farm - Valhalla

Sunday was an adventurous day for us.  We have gotten advice from pretty much everyone whether the "chicken buses" are safe for us to use for travel.  These beautiful buses are old converted US school buses that travel packed to the brim with people, and sometimes animals, all over the country.  We've been worried about the rumors of banditos holding up the buses and about theft on the buses themselves.  Eric's language teacher, and the Macadamia farm's website both encouraged us to try the buses so off we went with a few friends from our language school to give the bus a whirl. 

We arrived to a very crowded bus station on Sunday morning and asked around to find the correct bus.  Our bus hadn't yet arrived so we waited, admiring all the buses and how well taken care of they are.

When our bus arrived we did our best to tell them we wanted to go to the Macadamia farm and off we went.  About 20 minutes later we arrived to the farm (locals alerted us to our stop), quickly jumped off, and along we went for our breakfast and tour, proud of ourselves for making it there.  

Us with Miguel and Karen 

Us with Miguel and Karen 

The farm is all organic and has no electricity (Eric and I felt right at home after 2.5 months on Dinner Island!).  All of the flowers were gorgeous and the staff helpful and nice.  We first enjoyed a delicious breakfast of filling and rich macadamia nut pancakes for Eric and eggs and black beans for me.  It was the best food we've had yet!  We also enjoyed their organic coffee that is processed by their own staff, which was incredible compared to the watered down coffee our house mom serves at our school.  Needless to say it was a treat.  

We then went on a tour and learned about the 350,000 macadamia trees the founders of the farm have planted all over Guatemala to help combat all the pollution and to provide jobs for Guatemalans.  They run their farm without electricity and have made very ingenious machines to process the nuts in a way that doesn't pollute the environment.  One of the machines can process 2,000 pounds of nuts an hour!

Relaxing!

Relaxing!

After the tour was the best part - chocolate with macadamia nut samples and a mini facial using their products.  It was the most relaxed I have felt since we left on our trip and I bought the macadamia oil to replace my face lotion we left in Seattle.  

 

After we photographed all the bathrooms (they were stunning!), and the flowers, we headed off to wait for the chicken bus to take us back.  After waiting a few minutes, the bus arrived and we jumped on for the ride back to Antigua.  When we arrived back in the city we were relaxed and feeling empowered to have traveled on the buses with no incidents.  It was such a wonderful morning!  It went so well we might try the 2 hour journey to Lake Atitlan by chicken bus next weekend.  

 

I love a nice bathroom!  This one had flowers everywhere!

I love a nice bathroom!  This one had flowers everywhere!

Volcano Pacaya

Friday afternoon we ventured out of Antigua to go see and hike up one of the 3 volcanoes surrounding Antigua, the still-active volcano Pacaya. Our school had arranged for us to go on the tour and 5 of us went together. As we were waiting for the bus it started to pour. We were hopeful the rain would subside during the 2 hour bus ride before the hike.

The mini bus was crammed with 17 of us. Eric and I were lucky to be the front bench seat with the driver so he had some space for his legs. Let's be clear this could be called nothing close of roomy. Those in the back were tightly crammed facing both directions and it honestly looked a bit miserable.

As we flew along teetering roads with cliff drop-offs we got to see how Gatemala handles rain water, which isn't well at all. Roads became rivers, drains overflowed in all directions, and I saw some people wandering without shoes to avoid the ankle deep, brown water swirling quickly at their feet. It was an impressive amount of water handled terribly.

At one of the many rest stops

At one of the many rest stops

The road went from paved, to stone, and then finally to dirt as we weaved our way up the volcano. When we reached the hiking starting point 20 kids surrounded us trying to sell us ponchos and walking sticks. We bought our admission, avoided buying anything, and started off with our group from the car with our guide. 3 horses followed us to pick up those that didn't want to hike straight up anymore. The rain subsided as we walked and the clouds allowed some beautiful photos along the way. I was craving a workout but was disappointed by the slow pace but it was important our group stay together.

We we finally reached our stopping point out on a ledge with foliage on one side and the lava remains covering the volcano. The contrast was stunning. We waited for nightfall to see lava spewing from the volcano and it was incredible. We all watched cheering with each natural fireworks display. A lightening storm added to the natural beauty.

My headlamp was somehow out of batteries for the way down which meant an hour of following Eric and only a few falls down the steep terrain. Eric's mom Lynn raised him right as he held my hand and helped me down every step of the way.

The way back to Antigua that night was luckily uneventful in the dark and we reached our school in time for a late dinner that Ana had kept warm for us. We rewarded ourselves with vino tinto after dinner in our room and a few rounds of cribbage. Oh how our pace of Friday nights have changed!

These mini-adventures are a great way to get our feet wet traveling and build our confidence for other trips as we continue on in South America.

Antigua

And like that we are off traveling. It's been 5 days and for once on this trip I've felt we deserved the weekend!

From our arrival into Guatemala City to this day we have met the kindest people and have enjoyed exploring Antigua by morning with Spanish classes filling our afternoons.

We are staying at Ixchel Spanish School, recommended by our friend Grant. The school has been a great place to land. We have our own room and bathroom but share meals with our "house mom", Ana and her family, along with the others staying here. So far it's been a great group of 6 of us, all ages and from around the US. Ana helps us with our Spanish (it's amazing, truly how we can actually form sentences after only 3 days of lessons!) and she also shares the ins and outs of Antigua. We have asked endless questions of her and she continues to exhibit the patience Guatemalans are known for.

In the mornings we have spent hours people watching in the Parque Central while we furiously study our flash cards. We have also visited the Paseo de los Museos at the Casa Santo Domingo where we got to see bones, human freaking bones, in the corner. I kept saying how completely creepy I found it while Eric called it historical.

We also went to the outdoor market on the outskirts of town where we not only got to see stalls selling anything you can dream of but also the chicken bus depot. We didn't need anything from the market but enjoyed exploring and seeing all that was offered.

The chicken buses are something that both intrigue and scare me. They are old, converted school buses from the US that are reprinted and drive around the country. Their name comes from what's usually on board - chickens, and I've heard there will be other animals like goats as well. Every time they have rolled past us they have been packed to the brim with people and like clockwork we are left in a black cloud of exhaust as they pull away. People we have talked to have both encouraged us to take the buses (they are a tenth of the price) and told us to be no where near them. On Sunday we are going to a macadamia nut farm where they encourage chicken bus arrivals so we are going to take a test run before trying a longer trip. We are going with two others from our school so will have the benefit of others! Stay tuned!

We made it!

After 12 or so hours of relatively easy travel (I love you Ambien!) we made it to our language school in Antigua, Guatemala.  We are doing a semi-homestay, staying in our own room, with bathroom, but staying in a house-like setting that has other travelers as well.  We have been doing the meals with the group and have meet an eclectic group from around the US.   It's been fun to meet other people on the road and hear their stories but as usual we are itching to get out and try the local restaurants!  We traveled around this beautiful city a bit on our own today and can't wait to see more!

We are here for two more weeks until we have to pick our next destination!