We ended up staying at Lake Atitlan for five days. It was hard to leave a nice campground like that. Plus Francie found a girlfriend! The owner at the campground had rescued a beautiful four month old boxer called Darlie. She was down to the van every morning sitting outside waiting for Francie to come out and play.I got myself a haircut too and it was that bad I had to get Jimmy to try and fix it for me. The hairdresser was about twelve and for $5 she literally cut my hair right across the back and then diagonally down the front before I could say anything. It took all of about twenty seconds. I should have just got Jimmy to cut it for me in the first place. We also took a day away from each other too. Not that we are killing each other or anything but itís probably healthy to get a bit of space once every three months. So Jimmy stayed at the campground and I went off on a tour of the villages around the lakes and volcanoes by boat. It was nice and relaxing on the boat and then we had an hour in each of the three villages we stopped at to walk and around and explore. The villages were all on the same lake but yet each village had its own traditional costume. This is one of the things we loved about Guatemala. What else would a woman do on a day off on her own but shop. So I ended up buying more paintings and cushion covers to match the tablecloth and placemats we got in Chichi. Jimmy says we are going to have a very Guatemalan dining room some day.
When we finally left Panajachel we headed for Antigua. We were only on the road about 45 minutes when we heard an awful noise coming from the engine. We pulled in and Jimmy popped the hood to investigate. One of the hoses going into the cooling system had snapped off. I walked up to the next house and asked about a mechanic. They said there was one about 3km back. We drove back and found the mechanic in a small village. As bad as our Spanish is we still manage to communicate in these situations with the help of charades and a dictionary. An hour later and $7,Macgyver the mechanic had glued a smaller hose to the existing one and we were back on the road.
We got to Antigua that afternoon and headed straight for an Irish bar called OíReillyís we had read about. The two owners were from Waterford but had sold the bar to a Danish lad and gone home because they drank more than their customers. We went in for a beer and to ask if we could stay on the street outside. The owner said it was too dangerous and to go to a parking lot down the street. We ended up driving around to four different parking lots and none of them would let us sleep in the van. All the time a 3ft nothing Guatemala man was running alongside the van and insisting on helping us find a place. At first, we thought he was a chancer but he actually turned out to be a nice man and we eventually let him into the van. He directed us down a narrow side street and we pulled up outside a guesthouse. He knocked on the door and the lady of the house came out. We were wondering where he was planning to let us park as there didnít seem to be a parking lot beside the house.It turned out the doors going into her front room and kitchen were like garage doors. So she was going to move all her furniture and let us park in the front room! The van was too high to go in which was a shame as it would have been so funny. It was nearly 9pm at this stage so we ended up having to pay for parking in one of the parking lots and then pay for a room at the guesthouse. The woman didnít mind Francie staying with us. This was the first time in eight months that we had to stay in hotel. We only stayed in Antigua for two days because of the parking situation. It is a beautiful town and very touristy with lots of things to do. There was even a Burger King there so we treated ourselves to a couple of hamburgers. The food in Guatemala is not as good as Mexico. The street food here is basically fried chicken and chips but the vegetables and fruit are great so thatís really all we had been eating.
There is a place called Tikal in the north of Guatemala that is famous for its Mayan ruins. Everyone had said it was something we had to do in Guatemala but itís easy for those travelling on public transport to get there. For us it would have meant probably three days of driving to get there and then we would have had to backtrack all the way back down. We had already decided to skip Belize as we heard it is very expensive and it would have meant a lot of backtracking as well as there is no road from the south of Belize into Honduras. Plus our friends in El Salvador were leaving soon so we wanted to meet up with them before they left. Instead we decided to get off the beaten track and head to the Pacific Coast where Scott and Sarah had been living and we are so glad we did. The road from Antigua to Monterrico was excellent but once we started to head for Hawaii it turned into a dusty sandy road. Scott and Sarah had told us there was nothing there except a few houses and shops and the turtle project and they werenít lying. We drove through the village of Hawaii in about two minutes. We kept driving down alongside the beach for a little bit and stopped at a tienda (a small shop) as they had room for parking beside it. We asked the owner if we could park there for one night and he said no problem. We ended up staying there for five days!
The kids in the village were so gorgeous and friendly and were the main reason we stayed there for so long. Our van became the sports club and cinema central for the week. Jimmy set up the volley ball net so everyday and night we had about sixteen kids down at the van playing volleyball, badminton, soccer and we even introduced to them to hurling. Every night the kids piled into the van and we put on Finding Nemo for them on the DVD player. It was the only DVD we had that was in Spanish also so they didnít mind watching the same movie every night. At 9am in the morning we had kids knocking on the van window to find out what time we were showing Finding Nemo! The beach was right across the road and as soon as we left to go for a swim all the kids followed. The waves were actually really dangerous. Jimmy got a fright at one stage as he was pulled out about 15ft in 5 seconds. The kids werenít a bit scared though and we were terrified watching them ducking under the waves. They collected shells, painted them and then made chains out of them and hung them all over the van for us. Every day the kids appeared at the van with fresh fish for us. The woman in the tienda even cooked them for us the first day we were there. Behind the tienda there were about 3 other houses. The kids brought us down to one of the houses where a woman was cooking bread in a brick oven, the best bread I have ever tasted. They also had a makeshift shower in a cement cubicle out the back which they let us use every day. We were getting so comfortable there that I think the man of the house thought we were never going to leave! We walked down to the turtle project one of the days. Sarah and Scott are gone home for Christmas so we knew they wouldnít be there but there was another English guy there who showed us around. Itís the end of the season for the sea turtles so we didnít get to see any. He told us because itís not illegal in Guatemala for them to take the turtle eggs that they literally have to patrol the beach every day and night and ask the people to donate 10% of what they take back to the project. Most of the volunteers end up buying most of the eggs out of their own money. It so amazing that these turtles, if they do manage to hatch and survive, can travel as far as Japan but after 7 years they know to come back to this beach in Guatemala to lay their eggs and do so every 2 years after that. They can live up to 90 years of age as well. He told us bit by bit the people in the village are learning that if they want to continue selling turtle eggs they have to give some back to the project or these animals will become extinct. The project itself was very basic with just one brick building where 14 volunteers were living. They had a few different hatcheries for the turtle eggs and as soon as the eggs hatch they let the turtles back into the ocean. They are not paid for their work so they are solely relying on donations. Most volunteers only stay a few weeks so we really admire Scott and Sarah who have dedicated six years of their lives to this.
After five days at the beach we decided we better make a move. The kids were all sad when we were leaving and all came out to wave us goodbye. We drove back as far as Monterrico and according to our map there was a road that would bring us towards the border at El Salvador without having to backtrack. We followed the road until it came to a dead end at a river. A man there said we needed to get a ferry so we asked him where it was. He pointed at a rickety old wooden boat that we thought had been abandoned there. There was no way we were driving our house on to this thing. Then he said we could go on the metal boat which was down a bit and didnít look any sturdier than the wooden one. We were going to leave until we saw a lorry pull onto the boat. The boat didnít sink so we said what the hell letís go for it. After we got over the initial scare that the boat might sink it was actually a pleasant trip up the river and we were dropped off at the main road the other side. We were at the El Salvador border within two hours (go to El Salvador blog).
So thatís our experience in Guatemala. Itís an amazing country and is up there with one of our favorites. The people and the way they have kept their Mayan traditions and culture alive are brilliant. We heard stories coming in from Mexico that Guatemala was so dangerous and that there were tourists kidnapped and killed every day. I am so glad we didnít listen to any of these stories. We had a wonderful time there and the worst that happened was the kids showered us with shells and fish!
November 7th, 2008 Ė Guatemala
We arrived into Guatemala on October 25th. The border crossing was very simple. First on the Mexican side we had to go to immigration and hand in our Mexican tourist permits and get our passports stamped. Next we drove through no manís land for a few miles until we arrived slap bang into the town of La Mesilla in Guatemala. It was a Saturday and market day so the place was thronged with stalls and people. The streets were tiny and we were just about able to make our way through. The official border wasnít very apparent so we were just driving through slowly trying to figure out where to go with our documents. Then a Guatemalan official stepped in front of the van in the middle of the street and motioned us to stop. He sprayed the wheels of the van with a disinfectant on the street and charged us $5. He barely even looked at Francieís paperwork and just kept a copy of his vaccination cert. Next we parked and went to the immigration office. They gave us a 90 day visa with no charge. We went to the building next door to get the vehicle permit for $6 and that was it, we were through in less than thirty minutes into Central America.
Only ten minutes driving in Guatemala and we already loved the country. We drove through really lush green countryside and everyone we passed had a smile on their face waving at us. The first major town was Huehuetenango where we spent the first night at a gas station. We knew there was no campgrounds there but had hoped to maybe get parking at a hotel. The streets were so narrow that most hotels didnít have any parking at all.
The next day we headed up the mountains to Todos Santos Cuchumatan where we had organized to live with a Mam family for a week to learn Spanish before the big festival started. The road up there was unpaved and in really bad condition with potholes the size of craters. It took us about 2 hrs at 10mph to get there. When we drove into the town I thought we had arrived on a movie set for some crazy Guatemalan film. Every man and boy was wearing these red and white striped pants. Their jackets were white, pink, purple and red-striped with beautifully colored, and intricately embroidered, collars and cuffs. And to top it off their straw hats were wrapped with a blue band. The women wore long navy blue skirts with thin, light blue, vertical stripes and their tops were amazing colorful and also embroidered tied with a red and white waistband. It was unreal to see an entire village dressed in these costumes.The town itself is only about 2km long and there really isnít a whole lot there. Because it is 3,800m above sea level it is very cold most of the time. A fog drifts in every afternoon and smothers the place in a cold, damp blanket. We managed to park on the main street and find the school. Lucas, the school co-coordinator who I had been emailing, had arranged parking for us about a minute walk from the school. The streets were so narrow though we had to do a loop around the town and come in the back roads to get into the parking spot. Then he brought us to the family where we stayed for the week. It was about a 10 minute walk through really dirty, muddy streets. The woman of the house, Bacilia, has 10 children and the older kids are in America working. She also is rearing two of her grandkids. With the money they send home she has built a brick house but there is nothing in it. Our room was white-washed with a concrete floor, no insulation, curtains or carpet. The bed was literally just the base of a bed with no mattress and a couple of skimpy blankets. It was absolutely freezing at night time so we had to bring our duvet and long johns up from the van. The kitchen was a galvanized shack on the roof of the building. All the meals were cooked over an open fire. There was a little table and 2 chairs for us in the corner but the family just sat around the fire every night eating straight from their laps. Every dinner consisted of eggs and some kind of vegetable, either potato, cauliflower and beans with a stack of tortillas. We had spaghetti one morning for breakfast and mostly rice for lunch. We only got meat once during the week and that was a bit of chicken in a soup. Everything was really tasty though and we really enjoyed it. Francie was allowed to stay in the room with us and the kids loved him. Actually most of the kids in the town loved him; most knew his name by the time we were leaving.
The week went by pretty quick. In the mornings we went on guided hikes up to other villages in the mountains which were brilliant. One village literally just consisted of about 12 wood and mud houses scattered up on the top of a mountain with not even a road into it. Each house had a vegetable plot and a few chickens, sheep or pigs. There was a school also but that was it. In the afternoons from 2pm -7pm we had our Spanish lessons at the school. Our teacher Hugo was really nice. He didnít speak any English which at first we thought was strange but it actually was a great way to learn as we were forced to start speaking Spanish right away. We werenít fluent by the end of the week but at least now we have the basics and can understand a lot more of what people are saying. The electricity went three evenings in a row and we had to light a few candles to finish the lessons. Francie was allowed to come to school with us! Hugo loved him and even called his son to come down and see him. We had to go to his house one evening also so the rest of his family could see him. As a lot of people were arriving for the festival and accommodation was scarce we agreed to move back into the van for the weekend. Before we left our family we bought some hair bands and combs for the girls and a ball and hair gel for the little boy. We gave Bacilia a bag of groceries with rice, sugar, soup, ketchup, mayonnaise and hot sauce. We noticed the hot sauce was a luxury as every night when Bacilia turned away the kids came straight over to sneak some on their food. I brought the accordion up as well and played a few tunes for them.
We met some great people during the week at the school. Linda, a Dutch girl, is travelling on her own through Central and South America. Joey, a school teacher from Michigan, is travelling by land to Paraguay to write about the new government there. Tim, a writer from Australia, travelling around Mexico and Guatemala for a few months. We met an English couple called Sarah and Scott who just came up for the weekend for the festival. They have been living in Guatemala for six years on the Pacific coast working on a project to save sea turtles for $4/day. The locals just keep eating and selling the eggs. So Sarah and Scott have taught them that if they keep doing what they are doing that the turtles will finally become extinct. The locals now have to give a percentage of the eggs back to them so they can put them in a hatchery. It was amazing to listen to their stories and they are such a nice couple. The night before the festival a group of thirty arrived at the school for the weekend. Their guide was a girl called Jackie from Galway! And there was another Irish couple, Paddy and Mairead, in the group as well. The others were Dutch, French, English and Israeli. We had a big session that night with everyone and the accordion and bodhran were dragged out for a few tunes.
Before the session took off, a local man came to the school to speak to us about the race and its history.It has been going on for about 200 years. When the Spanish conquistadores arrived on horses the Mam people had never seen horses before. They had to ask their spiritual leader if it was ok to ride the horses and they were told only if it was made into a spiritual race. And so they came up with this annual fiesta. The race consists of several teams and each team has a first, second and third captain and a person they call the monkey. The captains have to get the horses and the monkey makes sure there is plenty of drink and music. The night before the race the men stay up drinking and partying in the first captainís house until about 5am. As there is a chance that they could die in the race this is seen as a sort of farewell party. Then they go to the race track with their horses and perform a spiritual Mam ritual by blessing and praying the men and horses with incense and candles. They then have breakfast with their families and drink some more before the race begins at 8am. There isnít an actual race track. It is just a strip of road outside the town about 200m long fenced off. They are obviously completely loaded after drinking all night. They donít drink beer but a drink something like poteen. And then they basically race from one end of the road to the other all day long while drinking some more at each end. There is no actual winner. It is merely a test of endurance; once they fall off the horse they are disqualified. Apparently years ago there were up to 200 horses in the race but because it is so expensive now to pay for a horse and all the drink there are only about 25 every year. It can cost up to $300 just for the horse which is a serious amount of money for these people. Their music consists of an instrument called a marimba. Itís like a wooden xylophone that takes three people to play as it is so big. Most people in the town canít afford to own one so they have to rent them for the festival also.
After reading about this festival for 2 years and really looking forward to it, we slept it out for the start of the race! The session the night before went on until 3am and if that wasnít enough myself and Jimmy went wandering around the town looking to gate crash one of the horse race parties. Instead we ended up at a wake for a young local man who had been stabbed the night before by some enemies; weíre not sure what the full story was. We donated some money to the guy outside the door and were then invited in. So it was nearly 6am by the time we went to bed. We were getting ready to leave for the race at about 10.30am when Paddy and Mairead showed up at the van. We ended up having a few drinks with them and watching an episode of Father Ted. They have been travelling for 17 months and were missing a bit of home. Then Sarah and Scott showed up. Then Joey and Tim and a few others we met the night before. Before we knew it, there was a full blown party in the van with 10 people and the dog and the Pogues blaring out the window. It was mighty craic. Everyone else had already been to the race except us so we eventually had to kick everyone out at 2pm and we all headed to the race. It was complete mayhem. Nothing could have prepared us for it. The whole town was shit-faced except for the women. There were men playing marimbas on every corner and people dancing. The men on the horses were gone beyond drunk but were just plain delirious. Some of the men actually had their eyes closed and were barely hanging onto the horse. We saw one guy fall off and he was dragged off the road just in time before the other horses came back down. An old tradition years ago was to tie roosters by the legs along a rope. The men had to try grabbing the roosters as they galloped along and then kill it, spray the blood everywhere and have it for dinner that night if they survived! They donít do this anymore but some of the men were holding roosters as they were racing. Our friend Joey managed to pay some-one for a horse and ran in the race for a few laps. Jimmy wore the red and white trousers and I had my traditional pants but that was as far as our participation went. The race went on until 5pm and luckily no-one died, although there were going to be some serious hangovers.
Everyone ended up back in our van again for some more beverages. Because of the local drunkenness they actually banned alcohol in Todos Santos five months ago. The people were allowed drink for the festival but it was illegal to be caught selling it. We had our own stash that we brought with us but it was quickly dwindling. At 8pm that night we all headed to the main hall in the town where they were having a big disco. It was brilliant craic dancing with the locals. My weirdo magnet must have been turned on high as I was surrounded by a bunch of lads twisted out of their heads but insisting they could dance. We stayed a few hours and then it was back to the van again until all hours of the morning. The next day was Day of the Dead in Guatemala, literally. The whole town goes to their familyís graves at the cemetery and decorates them with flowers and ribbons. There are loads of marimbas playing and basically everyone spends the whole day drinking again. We were knackered from the last two days so we only went down to the cemetery for a sneak peak. We had a few visitors to the van during the day but other than that we were very quiet. It had been a brilliant week and experience in Todos Santos and one of our favorite parts of the trip so far.
We finally left Todos Santos and were kind of sad to say goodbye. Scott, Sarah and Joey ended up getting a lift with us to the next town called Xela. There were no campgrounds so we got parking on the street outside the hostel the lads were staying at. We all treated ourselves to some good ole pizza and beer that night. It was nice to be back to some kind of civilization. While out walking Francie that evening I got talking to an old man that thought he was gorgeous. I asked him if there was a mechanic nearby and he walked me right to this manís garage. The mechanic came the next morning to where we were parked with his tools and installed new front brake pads, checked the back ones and the engine all for $70. While we were waiting for him to do the work, Mairead and Paddy stuck their heads out of a window in the hostel and shouted down to us, they had arrived late the night before. Tim turned up too, it was a like a Todos Santos reunion. As it was Election Day back in the US there was a big election party that night at a bar down the street. We met an American couple who are cycling to Argentina on a tandem bike! It has taking them 2 months to just cycle to here from San Diego. Xela is a really nice city and we had a couple of good days there. We finally found a place to get insurance for the van. There was no office at the border when we arrived and we hadnít been able to find a place since. We were able to get 3 months insurance for all of Central America except Panama for $140. We found out after that itís not compulsory to have insurance but we decided itís better to have it.
Both of us had been feeling sick since we left Todos Santos probably a mixture of the cold and the festivities. We heard about these thermal hot baths outside Xela and headed out that way for a little TLC. The baths are actually on the slopes of the extinct Volcano Zunil about 3,500m high. The drive up there was beautiful. We passed nothing but vegetable farms on the way with the whole family out working and the women dressed in traditional clothes carrying a million things on their heads. We had been to hot baths before in Canada and the water was just pumped into a swimming pool, so we expected the same here. It wasnít though. The water just flows naturally down the side of the mountain into a rocky swimming hole at 66F. We were allowed park up there for the night and had all three baths to ourselves, it was heaven. There was so good that we got up at 6am the following morning to take advantage of them and left feeling 100% again.
Our next stop was a town called Chichicastenango where we had been told the biggest market in Central America is held on Thursdays. We always regretted not buying enough souvenirs in Asia so we said we wouldnít do it this time. The market was huge with hundreds of stalls selling all handmade and hand-woven handicrafts. We got some fabulous stuff like tablecloths, placemats, candle holders, wall hangings and Mayan masks. They vendors love to haggle over the prices so we got some great bargains. We got parking for the night in a parking lot in the town. We met Sarah and Scott at the market and told them where we were parked. They stopped by that evening and we cooked dinner for them and had a few beers.
We arrived in Panajachel yesterday and not only did we find a campground at long last but the best one yet. Itís right on Lake Atitlan with stunning views of the three volcanoes surrounding the lake. Thereís also a swimming pool, showers and plenty of space for Francie to run. We are going to spend a few days here as we probably wonít get a campground again in a hurry. After that we are going to Antigua and then maybe to Sarah and Scottís place at the beach. Their work sounds so interesting it would be cool to see some sea turtles. So until next time, slanÖÖÖ.