Monday, December 10, 2007

Guatemala, Nov 30th to Dec 9th

Friday night, Chrissy and I headed to Antigua. It is a beautiful colonial town, perfectly restored, impossibly cute, with towering volcanoes surrounding it on all sides. The feel is really international, just like in San Cristobal de las Casas, and I can see why people fall in love with it. It’s a perfect place to relax and eat and drink to your heart’s content. We met a bunch of people Friday and stayed at Cynthia’s. Saturday was a beautiful day, and in the evening I went to climb Volcan Pacaya, an active volcano whose last major eruption was in 2000. We climbed in the dark and as we neared thesummit the sky turned red; as we came out of the forest towards the viewpoint, we could see 7 flows of lava streaming down the mountain, bright red. I was really impressed, more than I thought I would be, and we traversed the recently hardened lava to get as close as we safely could.

Sunday morning I headed early to Panajachel to get to San Marcos La Laguna on Lago Atitlan. Lago Atitlan is considered one of the most beautiful lakes in the world according to various guidebooks, and it is true that it is breathtakingly beautiful. Surrounded on all sides by volcanoes, with small villages scattered around its shores, it is peaceful and idyllic. I chose to stay in San Marcos, which is considered to be the hotbed of hippies on a spiritual path; lots of yoga, massage, reiki, spas etc. I was at Hotel La Paz, with a nice common area and vegetarian restaurant, and daily yoga. On Sunday I visited San Pedro La Laguna, which is just one town away yet the feel is completely different. It is known for its abundant drug availability and usage, and as soon as you come off the boat people come to offer you marijuana and cocaine. I stramgely felt that there was no mixing of the Guatemalans and foreigners in San Pedro, and overall, I found it to be a really sad place. However, I know quite a few people that really love it so who knows.

I met a Japanese woman from Nagano who has a Japanese restaurant in San Marcos. I went for some veggie tempura which made me super happy.

On Monday, I did some yoga before going to Santiago Atitlan, the second largest town on the lake after Panajachel. There is a strong indigenous tradition in Santiago, and it was nice to walk around the streets and see all the clothes and colors. In the afternoon I went back to San Marcos and went back to the Japanese restaurant. I was a bit tight on my budget because I had opted to stay in San Marcos rather than San Pedro, which meant that overall my accommodation and food was more expensive. Thus I went to just have Miso Soup so that my budget wouldn’t be broken. I had my soup, and stayed chatting with the woman, Seiko, for awhile. She originally came to Guatemala in 2000 for a 2 year volunteer project and after returning to Japan for awhile, returned to Guatemala and had lived in Flores for 2 years running a Japanese restaurant. She came to San Marcos 4 months ago to try out something new. I think that both of us were so excited and almost relieved to speak Japanese that we spent hours chatting without realizing it. It was the first time since Octavio in Mexico City that I had spoken Japanese and I finally realized that I really missed it. As I was getting ready to leave to eat my real meal somewhere cheaper, all of a sudden, a group of 6 tourists and another couple came in. Seiko panicked, as she is the only person there and has to cook and serve; I offered to stay and help her out, saying I could chop vegetables and stir things and bring drinks out etc. She hesitated but when I assured her that there was really nowhere else I needed to be, she obliged and it was wonderful. For the next hour and a half we worked together and it was so nice. Preparing curry and sushi and onigiri and miso soup and tofu salad and hot sake just made me so nostalgic and definitely gave me a warm fuzzy feeling. After all that cooking was taken care of, she treated me to an enormous meal of miso soup, curry, chicken cooked in ginger and soy, and a watermelon shake. Yum. She even packed up some onigiri, rice balls, to take with me for breakfast the next day since I would be heading out early. What a gift to have met her, discussing Latin America from a Japanese perspective.

Tuesday was an early start and I got the boat to Panajachel at around 6.30am. In Pana I immediately got a connection in a pickup with about 20 people jammed in the back, standing up around the round baskets that people bring to and from the markets. I was headed to Solola, just 20 minutes up the road. Solola has a nice big local market on Tuesday and Friday, and the action was great. Different clothes, sights, smells, sounds, and people were all over the central plaza. After wandering around and having a quick meal, I got on a bus to Los Encuentros, another 20 or 30 minutes up the road. Los Encuentros means the meetings, and this is a major intersection for changing buses. I didn’t have to wait long to catch a bus to Huehuetenango, about 3 hours northwest of the lake. Unfortunately, the bus was very crowded and I couldn’t get a seat, so it was 3 hours standing in an uncomfortable bus on very windy, poor-condition roads. Ahh well. In Huehue as it is called, I waited an hour to catch the bus to Todos Santos Cuchumatan.

The road to Todos Santos is beautiful, perhaps the prettiest mountain scenery I saw in Guatemala. Todos Santos itself is a small, dusty town but it is a good representation of Mayan highland living. The vast majority of the population wears traditional dress, and the clothes of the men are striking. Their pants are red with thin white stripes, they wear white, blue, and purple button-down shirts, and broad-rimmed hats that have blue ribbon wrapped around them. I’ve travelled a lot but I don’t know if I’ve ever been anywhere where I was struck by how the people dressed the same like in Todos Santos. Unfortunately, I felt really uncomfortable in the town because as far as I understand, they’re not so keen on foreigners. Actually, in 2000, a Japanese tourist was killed because he was photographing children without asking permission; at the time, there were rumors of child-sacrificing Satanists. My camera didn’t leave the hotel room.

I left Todos Santos the next morning as I didn’t feel there was any real reason to stick around, and 4 hours later after a connection in Huehue, I arrived in Xela, Guatemala’s second largest city. The official name of Xela is Quetzaltenango bus most people simply call it Xelaju or Xela, its Mayan name. Half the city is indigenous which is really interesting, and overall it feels like a calm, functioning, orderly city. I liked it. I arrived at Hostal Don Diego where there was an established group of long-term residents, from Spain, Holland, U.S., Sweden, and Canada. I took it easy on Wednesday because Tuesday had been a really tough travel day.

Thursday I went to Zunil, a highland town about 30 minutes from Xela, and got a pickup to Fuentes Georginas. These hot springs are the most popular in Guatemala, and I truly loved it. It was my first real onsen/rotenburo experience since leaving Japan, and the surroundings of the cloudforest and views over the vally were gorgeous. I was also the only foreign tourist there, and it was really nice to see local families coming to enjoy the springs and the nature surrounding it. I walked back down to Zunil, which was a great idea, as this walk was my favorite that I did in Guatemala. The land is largely agricultural, and the neatly organized plots of land with different vegetables growing was so picturesque, especially with the mountain fog blowing in and out, revealing different vistas every minute.

Friday morning I awoke early, at 6, to go with Luciana, a very sweet Swiss girl, to the Friday market in San Francisco El Alto. It took about an hour on the bus to get to the largest market in Guatemala. We were early enough to not see a single other tourist, and we wandered through the crowded alleyways of fabric, clothes, shoes, electronics, food, and animals. What a great experience. As usual, markets tire me out so we didn’t stay long but we certainly got a taste of the real market life in Guatemala rather than the tourist ones set up in the most visited places. We got back to Xela, I took a nap, and headed to Antigua.

I was back in Antigua around 6pm, and hung out at Cynthia’s for awhile. Rudy and I went to Kabuki, a Japanese restaurant where I had Agedashi tofu and Tonkatsu. Yummmm. We then headed over to Estudio 35 where there was a goodbye party for a British girl who had been living in Guatemala. It was a good vibe, lots of friendly people, liberal alcohol consumption, and was exactly what I needed. The evening turned longer as Hugo, Pampa, Aurora, Jonas, and I went back to Cynthia’s where there was more fiesta, and when we finally made it back to Guatemala City it was nearly 6am.

Saturday was our exploring Guatemala City day, to Zona 10 and Zona 1, we checked out the National Palace, Central Park, Central Mercado, and generally just wandered around. In the evening, we went to Cuatro Grados in Zona 4, a great insight into the real Guatemala. It’s a new nightlife district, only begun just 6 years ago, but it’s a great vibe, lots of young people, restaurants, bars, street performers and vendors, and rarely a tourist to be seen. Really different from Antigua, really worth checking out.

And so that’s been my trip to Guatemala!

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