Sunday, May 31, 2015

Lake Atítlan

After the volcano hike, I packed up my hiking shoes, some purchased souvenirs and clothes that I hadn't worn the whole first month and shipped them back to the U.S.  It definitely lightened my load though I still seemed to have very full bags. 

I used the Guatemalan post office and it was about $100 - all in small denomination stamps that covered at least one side of the box :). And, since I'm writing this so late, I can tell you it arrived exactly on time and undamaged!
(the big one on the floor)

I then waited and waited for a shuttle that finally came and I was off to the lake. For some towns on the lake, the only way there is via boat. So I was dropped at the dock in one of the bigger towns and headed down to catch a little "ferry". They only run during daylight, so your dinner options were limited. I had three choices, my hostel, the one next door or the local lady down the street. She was the cheapest of course, but not much variety - a little meat, rice and beans. I did that one night and ate at my hostel the rest. It was a nice, communal dinner that you reserved by 3pm that day. A couple nights the staff hosted some activities like wine and cheese night, open mic (without an actual mic), trivia night (we won!) and a group BBQ. It was fun to meet all the other travelers and hear about what they were doing. I met some interesting people and even ran into one of my Volcano hiker buddies again!

One night, going to play pool after dinner, I stepped into the dark room and felt something like a pine needle jab into my foot. Ow! Turn on the lights and it was a scorpion. A scorpion!! I've never seen one in nature before. It was like slow motion. Aren't those poisonous? Can't they kill you? Oh my god. One guy stabbed it with a dart in case we needed it for identification while another girl ran to tell the staff. Apparently the Guatemalan scorpions are more like bee stings and not super harmful. I was still nervous but the pain did wear off and I woke up the next morning :). My mom is just finding out about that one as she reads this now.....sorry ;). 

I spent one morning kayaking with a guide. There are some neat houses and hotels along the waterfront. He gave me a little history and of course there's a legend about a lake monster :). He also got me to jump in off a rock. I only went about half as high as he did (and wanted me to go) but even that took me a while to work up the courage to jump. It was a fun day. 

There was a trail to hike to the next town over (otherwise you have to take the boat) and I visited there twice. They had a bar on the water that also had a pool. They had amazing fish tacos and I got to practice some Spanish with the bartender. I just needed to be sober enough for the walk home and not to fall off the cliff ;). No worries, I was fine, lol. 

I also visited a couple other local towns, one to check out the market and another to see local artists' products. I ended up buying a very colorful picture of birds. The lady who sold it to me was also a Lina and her husband was the artist. I didn't have enough cash, so her daughters escorted me to the ATM and back so she could stay with her little one and they were sure to get the sale ;).  

The lake is super relaxing and a must see if you're ever in Guatemala. I stayed at the Iguana Perdida and highly recommend it. 

Saturday, May 30, 2015

City Tour in Antigua

Before I take off to see the rest of Guatemala, I never really told you much about Antigua, where I spent a month.

I like to take city tours when I get somewhere new. It helps you get your bearings and provides some highlights to help you decide what you want to go back to. If it can be a walking tour, even better.

There were only about seven of us, so a nice small group. We met our guide who I guessed to be around my age, maybe slightly older. He had an interesting backstory, one American parent and one Austrian. He grew up in several places, I think in Africa and Central America, went to school in New Mexico and returning to Antigua, which has been his home for a while. He had a PhD in something like anthropology or archeology, in which he studied the Mayans. The Mayans are the indigenous people in parts of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and potentially I'm missing other areas. I say all this because we got more than a city tour but also background on the Mayans, historic Antigua and current day Guatemala. 

We started our tour in one of the government buildings that overlooks the main square or park. Always Agua Volcano is to the south. Antigua is a Unesco World Heritage site. It is the best preserved Spanish Colonial city in Guatemala, maybe all of Central America, maybe of all Spanish colonies. When the Spanish first came to Antigua, they found this beautiful area and decided to settle here and make it their capital. What they didn't contemplate was the impact of the environment, surrounded by volcanos and on top of a section where I think two or three tectonic plates meet. 

Needless to say that they built a beautiful town that was then destroyed by some big earthquakes. Some of it was rebuilt. Some of the damage was really only on second stories and above. But after one particularly disastrous earthquake, they finally moved the capital to what is now Guatemala City. So throughout Antigua there are lots of ruins to see. 

This is the main cathedral where the support exists but the domes would never be built again. The current building code requires walls to be 6' wide - I did not make a mistake, that's feet not inches. Often there are no windows or very small windows so as not to impact the structural integrity of the building. Luckily, no earthquakes while I was there :).

The Spanish brought Catholicism with them but also had to incorporate some elements or rather highlight elements that the Mayans could relate to. For example, blood had significant meaning in the Mayan culture. The wooden crucifixes like the one below were made to show more blood than what you might see in European ones. 

We learned a little about Mayan culture and they had their own calendar, pretty different from ours. You could look up your birthday to see what day your were born on and what symbolized that - which for me sounded similar to finding out which Chinese year you were born in. I'm May 13, but I forget now what the symbol was for that day...oops. Anyone read Mayan? :)

The Mayan used plaster in their building which required very hot fires and lots of fires. He told us that the Mayan were the first destroyers of the forest. The amount of wood needed to plaster their cities and temples was ridiculous. So it makes me a little hopeful that we won't destroy the earth either. Below is a plaster decoration from one of the Mayan sites. I believe it is a jaguar/panther decorated. It is so heavy that they had to cut it in half to move it into the museum. They believe the Mayans built/sculpted it in place. It was also painted in bright colors which were just faintly visible to me and not really seen in the picture (maybe a little in the second pic).

This was an old fountain from Spanish colonial days that was still fairly in tact and working. In the background is Fuego volcano with its mini eruption cloud. 

These are ruins from an old monastery. There were something like 80 monasteries or nunneries (I think there's a more official name than nunnery but can't recall). Antigua was the center of Catholicism in the Americas. Every order had their own church, school and monastery. They've made one of the more significant monasteries into the poshest hotel in Antigua and there are services held here. It was pretty impressive looking. 

Even today Antigua is known for its religious fervor. There are a very high percentage of practicing Catholics and the Holy Week (leading up to Easter) celebrations are one of the most well known in the world. I want to go back for Easter one day. Every day a different church has a procession in town where they carry the wooden 'floats' that are crazy heavy. Some take 80 up to 200 people to carry them. Often the people carry in shifts. And they pay to carry these! On top of that, they make these beautiful carpets of flowers and plants which are laid in the street to be walked upon and trampled. I cannot imagine the effort. During the Lenten season, different churches will host different celebrations, such as when Jesus walked on water. Sometimes the line to get into the church to see the decorations will be hours. The city has a normal population of about 40,000 and increases to 500,000 during Holy Week. It is ridiculous and I'd love to see it :). 

This is an example from the church just down the street from where I stayed. They kicked off the Lenten week with the first celebration and I was thoroughly impressed with the transformation in the church. 

Antigua is the single largest contribution to government income from tourism. So it can be a bit touristy in areas. But I stayed in a little 'suburb' just a twenty minute walk from town and you lose the tourism. So it is easily escaped if you're willing to explore a little. If you're in Guatemala, Antigua deserves a visit. 

*Not to be confused with Antigua the island/nation and former (I think former) Dutch colony. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The blogger returns

Welcome to summer!! :) I've officially started the road trip to National Parks of the West.  I've updated my calendar a bit and am currently on my second and third parks (they're so close, I visited each yesterday for a sneak peek and will explore more in the next few days). I just left Big Bend National Park in the southwest corner of Texas. A friend is a new Law Enforcement Park Ranger there and it was neat to see a little behind the scenes action. 

Now that I'm back to camping with no internet or human entertainment, some blog updates are long overdue. I also no longer hold any hope of being a travel writer or blogger because it is clearly not my thing ;). 

I figured I'd do a quick roundup of what's been going on in the gap year and then share more of the details. I left off back in late February with my awesome volcano overnight hike. From there, I spent a week at Lake Atitlan relaxing with other backpackers, kayaking and hiking. Next up was Semuc Champey, which included a bout of illness, swimming in a cave and exploring amazing pools of water on top of the river. I then headed to Flores for more lakeside relaxing and a trip to Tikal (Mayan ruins). The next adventure was across the border in Belize where I went to another cave, saw more ruins and spent a week on an island that was golf cart only. 

By the time I returned home, it was late March and winter was over (for the most part). I wasn't home too long before my parents and I traveled to Ireland. It was the first overseas trip for my dad and his new passport and the longest time for the three of us together in a long time ;) (maybe ever). I had a quick respite at home before joining some friends in Acapulco and then home to prepare for this summer road trip. 

I started in late April and headed to Memphis to stay with a friend for a week. Then down to Texas and I flew from Houston to Romania to join more friends for a May birthday holiday hike in the Carpathian Mountains. Three of six of us had our May birthdays on that trip :)! I visited friends in Houston before heading out to Big Bend and kick off the National Parks tour I've developed. I don't expect to be home until Labor Day -ish. 

If you have any "must see" suggestions for me or want to fly out and meet me somewhere, just drop me a note :). Although I dropped my iPhone a couple days ago and it might be a week before I can get that back up and running. So I'm running off my iPad and free wifi for now.