Tag Archives: Guatemala

Finding Yourself in Lake Atitlán

During my grad class in Antigua, Guatemala, we headed out on a weekend trip to Lake Atitlán.  This sacred lake of the Mayans is the deepest in Central America at over 1,000 feet and is surrounded by volcanoes.  The only word as you first see it, descending the hill to the town of Panajachel, is breathtaking.  100_0425We settled into cabanas for a night in this hippie town on the shore of the lake before our real destination—San Pedro—the next day.  I was not a huge fan of Panajachel as I felt it was a little “touristy”.  Don’t confuse this to mean Cancún or anything!  I just mean that there were too many English signs for my liking and too many American twenty-somethings sitting on sidewalks “finding themselves” and letting their dreadlocks blow in the wind off the lake.  An enjoyable night was spent walking the town and finding a spot lakeside to sip Gallo, my Guatemalan beer of choice, and watch the sun go down.

Bright and early the next morning our group of Spanish teachers headed down to the pier to jump on a boat that carried us across Lake Atitlán, bound for San Pedro La Laguna.  Just before boarding, I was able to take a couple great shots of the volcanoes across the lake.  It is such a talent of mine to time the clouds just right so it appears that I am experiencing a volcanic eruption.

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Upon arrival to San Pedro, we hiked up the road to where our coordinator had booked our rooms for the night.  After staying in the adorable cabanas in Panajachel, we figured we would have more of the same in San Pedro.  Not quite.  We came upon a rundown place a few blocks up the hill and all looked at each other when the coordinator said this was it.  As my friends and I went into our room, we were in disbelief.  It was by far the worst room I had ever been in—dark, a non-secure door, and the bathroom was the worst with no toilet seat and no door!  I tried to compose myself by thinking, “calm down—this is an adventure and only one night,” but after congregating with the other teachers over lunch in the same rundown area, we started to get leery of San Pedro and decided to return to the hotel and revolt against our excursion coordinator.

Luckily for us, the revolt was a success and we threw our luggage into the back of a pickup truck and all piled in and we were off to another section of San Pedro, which despite its roughness, 100_0467became known as “the nice part of San Pedro”.  There our coordinator found us rooms at a lovely little inn for $15 a night, making me wonder what the other rooms had cost.

Once we got the room situation under control, we continued on with our plan, which was to walk to a neighboring village and visit a cooperative of women weavers. 100_0459 These women were amazing and showed us how they made all their own dyes from plants and were responsible for making and selling all of their work, enabling the women to support themselves.  It was a fantastic idea and we all left with many purchases.  I still use my cloth napkins made by Nacha (on the right).

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I really don’t know how it happened, but as we were leaving the weavers, a pickup truck appeared and we were told it was going to drive us back to San Pedro.  We were having the real Latin American experience!  Standing in the back of a pickup truck TWICE in one day!  All I needed was a machine gun and I could have been mistaken for a local.  My favorite part of that ride, not counting the curves and hard braking, was when our driver made a turn instead of following the way we had walked from our hotel.  All I can say is What a bunch of teachers!  We started banging on the roof to get his attention—yes, that’s right, we teachers who had been in San Pedro all of three hours were telling this man who lived there how to get back to town.  Nice.  Luckily for us, he did not kick us all out of the truck, but rather yelled out that this was a different way back.  Satisfied, we shut up for the rest of the ride and enjoyed our trip through the side roads. 100_0452

That night we went out to dinner and more Gallos in the nice part of San Pedro.  After dinner and using the worst bathroom I’ve seen in all my travels, we joined up with some younger teachers from our group that had befriended some locals and some hippies at the bar next door.  I began to suspect their new friends had had more than Gallos judging from the herbal scent of them so it was easy to decline the offer when they started talking about some festival in the next village that we would get to by boat.  No gracias.  I was too old for that kind of adventure and I only wanted to make my way back to my luxury $15 room.

If you ever decide to go off and “find yourself”, Lake Atitlán seems like the place to do it.  And if you get lost on the way to yourself, maybe some teachers will tell you where to go.

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Watch Where You Stand at Tikal

During the SSAST program of THE Ohio State University in Antigua, Guatemala, our group of Spanish teachers took a weekend excursion to the Petén region in the north of Guatemala to see the famous Mayan ruins of Tikal.  After our plane landed in Flores, we hopped on a bus that brought us to our hotel just outside the park entrance of the ruins.  The Hotel Tikal Inn www.tikalinn.com was the former residence of some of the archaeologists who had worked to restore the Tikal ruins.  Nestled into the jungle that surrounds the whole area, it is a beautiful place with excellent opportunities to see wildlife right outside your room.100_0302

Going from Antigua where it was a temperate mountain climate to Tikal was quite a change.  The heat and humidity of the jungle in July was shocking.  We had been told to wear long pants and sleeves as protection against insects and sun so most of us were a hot mess when we got there.  The pool was a welcome sight and we all jumped in within an hour of arrival.  100_0295Unfortunately our pool time was cut short by a sudden thunderstorm that we enjoyed from the pool, staying in the water a little longer than we should have despite the nearby bolts of lightning.  I blame the empty bottles of Gallo beer on the table next to the pool…

The next morning we left the hotel early to visit the ruins.  I have visited many ruins in Mexico—Tenochtitlán, Uxmal, Teotihuacán, Chichén Itzá, Cobá, and Tulum—but this was my first visit to one in Central America.  The jungle setting was comparable to Cobá—a series of pyramids and temples peeking out of a sea of broccoli.100_0310  As we entered the site of Tikal, the howler monkeys in the trees were making quite a ruckus.  We had been warned to be watchful of our purses and possessions as they were capable of relieving people of their goods.  Luckily I had no interactions with them, minus listening to their morning howls.

Wandering around the ruins, I noticed that many of the temples and pyramids were closed off to people so that the steps could not be climbed—more out of concern for the structure rather than the safety of the people climbing.  However, some pyramids had wooden scaffolding constructed adjacent to the temples that people could climb and still see the views from the top.  I ascended one of these that was quite high and found myself with a temporary case of acrophobia at the top, making me summon help from strangers for any photo ops. 100_0309

The next temple did not seem so high, so I ventured up the wooden structure, but half way up I heard a terrible scream and saw a crowd gathering at the base of the tree next to the temple.  100_0303My options were to continue climbing or go back down to see what was going on by the tree.  I chose to keep climbing and I was glad I did.  After I came down, I went over by the base of the tree where a small crowd still remained, some of the people pointing up the tree trunk.  I saw one of the members of my SSAST group and asked her if she knew what had happened and as I heard the story, was VERY thankful that I was not involved.

The woman screaming had been standing under the tree when a huge yellow snake about six feet long fell from one of the tree branches.  Right on her.  As I was not there, I assume after her scream she passed out and was immediately rushed to a therapist and then home to cut down every tree in her yard as she would be unable to ever stand beneath a tree again.  This is my theory of what happened, but my classmate went on to tell me about how the snake fell on the lady, fell to the ground, and then slithered quickly back toward the tree and up the trunk where it was now curled in a high branch with onlookers still pointing at it.  Eww.

I wandered over to the trunk with the other pointers and was able to catch a glimpse of the serpent in question.  That poor woman.  I don’t know what happened to her, other than my own theory that I just shared.  I knew I was glad it was not me.  As I made my way back to the bus to return to the airport in Flores, I made sure I stayed away from trees and kept my gaze upward to be sure I was safe.  My long sleeves and pants may have protected me from mosquitoes, but there is nothing that can protect a person from a falling snake.

Shocking Sights in Antigua, Guatemala

As part of The Ohio State University’s SSAST program, I spent three weeks in Antigua, Guatemala, possibly the most beautiful colonial city in Central America.

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Prior to my departure I made the mistake of clicking on a website documenting reported crimes against foreigners in Antigua and besides completely freaking out my husband Russell, it put me on heightened alert while there.  Luckily I never felt any fear of crime while there, leading me to the conclusion that a little vigilance is all you need to stay safe in Antigua.

I settled into my homestay with Ana, Luis, and their family 100_0520

above their pastry shop—La Casa de Los Pasteles.  Whereas the view of the front left a lot to be desired,100_0389

the view from the catwalk outside my bedroom door made up for it.  100_0319

This family, like most in Antigua, made extra money by renting out bedrooms to foreign students so while I was there the whole family was staying in one bedroom while the other rooms were rented out to two American students, a Canadian volunteer worker, and a Korean student.  Meal times were very international.

On the first morning, imagine my shock (pun intended) when I opened the shower curtain to find this showerhead.  100_0522That’s ONE way to heat the water, I suppose, but the 6th grade science student in me knew that water and electric current were not a good combination.  That paired with the fact that my 5’10” frame made me the tallest person in the house made me more than a bit nervous about turning on the water.  During the majority of my stay I exercised caution by crouching down in the shower until the final week when in a moment of indiscretion, my hand went a bit high when rinsing my hair and I hit the showerhead.  The shock that went down to my elbow was an excellent lesson on the conductivity of water.

During my time in Antigua, we made weekend excursions to the Mayan ruins of Tikal and to Lake Atitlán.  On weekdays I would spend my mornings in my grad class and my afternoons working on my final project or going on local excursions.  On one of our free afternoons some classmates and I signed up for a class at the Antigua Cooking School.  Our instructor Melitza was awesome!  100_0344

She demonstrated how to make subaník, a Mayan stew, and escabeche, a vegetable dish, while we made tortillas, tamales, and a plantain cake filled with Guatemalan chocolate at our work stations.  The feast of all of our creations that ended the class was simply amazing.

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Another afternoon we ventured to the neighboring village of San Andrés Itzapa to see the famous shrine of Maximón, also known as San Simón.  This controversial character of legend, not condoned by the Catholic Church, has become a locally-canonized figure that Mayans pray to for a variety of intentions.  The shrine is a room filled with tables of burning, colorful candles, walls filled with plaques thanking Maximón for answering prayers, and most importantly—a statue of Maximón on an altar of sorts with an offering area filled with his favorite things: booze, cigarettes and cigars, cash, and even Playboys.

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I wondered if these things magically vanished every night……….another miracle of Maximón!  Or perhaps with some help from the patrons of the adjoining cantina.

Several shops near the shrine sold goods like small bottles of alcohol that looked like Scope, incense, and candles of many different colors—the colors depending on the intention of the prayers.  There were even black candles for black magic and intentions toward one’s enemies.  Of course I had to get one of these along with the other ten candles I bought and lit in the shrine.  Gracias, Maximón.  My plaque is on its way.

On our last night in Antigua, we enjoyed a fantastic farewell dinner at the restaurant of the beautiful Casa Santo Domingo hotel www.casasantodomingo.com .  I had the chef’s incredible tasting menu that included a tray of desserts delivered by the chef. 100_0578This is the place to stay and dine  if you visit Antigua.

Later that night  I was awakened by an earthquake tremor around 2 a.m.  At first I thought one of the many “chicken busses”100_0361

that normally passed by had hit our house, but found out from Luis in the morning that it was just one of the regular tremors that shakes the place up.  I guess that is to be expected in a city surrounded by three volcanoes.  As they say, “Location, location, location”.    Antigua is a must-see for anyone with an interest in Mayan culture, colonial architecture, or super-cheap language schools.  And then there’s the views……….