Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

Guat’s News?

on October 10, 2013

My trip to Guatemala began with the 8am boat from Caye Caulker to Belize City which was meant to connect with a 9.30am ‘express bus’ directly from the boat terminal to Flores across the border. Of course, being in Central America, we got to the terminal and were told the bus actually left at 10am, then at 10am were told ’Ten more minutes’ by several different people until at 11am the bus arrived. We then loaded our bags and sat sweating in the bus on the super droopy, dusty old seats til it finally left at 11.30 and the ‘window A/C’ kicked in. Eating a piece of milk cake smothered in caramel and sprinkles from the Caye Caulker cake man for breakfast was probably the highlight of my morning.

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At the border, Belize had the least enthusiastic immigration staff I’ve ever met. No hello, smile or eye contact, just a general look and tone of boredom as they checked each person through with the minimum amount of words they could. On the Guatemalan side, seeing a dog sleeping in front of the immigration counter made me smile, til a local came and kicked it and it ran away! 😦

I took the bus with a cool couple, Kerre from Texas and Alex from Finland. Once we arrived in Flores, a tiny island on Lake Petén Itzá not far from the border in the north of Guatemala, we were flogged by the bus company for tours and onward bus tickets. Flores is a popular jumping off point for the Mayan ruins at Tikal, and tours leave either at 3am or 4.30am so we kinda had to book that in at the time, but we got upsold for our next 2 bus tickets as well…That evening was spent wandering around the cute little island, discovering that Guatemala had tuk-tuks, randomly running into Kerre and Alex for dinner and getting to bed nice and early.

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Unfortunately with the early tours, nights in hostels in Flores aren’t the most restful. Someone in my dorm who was probably going on the 3am tour had an annoyingly jaunty piano accordion tune as their alarm, which went off at 2.30am and kept ringing and ringing and ringing! I was ready to kill… if I could have been bothered getting out of my top bunk. I did seriously contemplate throwing something at the inconsiderate *#$%$  but then  they finally turned it off.

I was up again at 4.15, and went out to sit on the front step to wait for my pick up. At 5am I was getting concerned I’d been fleeced by the tour company and they’d forgotten me, but a few minutes later 3 vans showed up. It was a couple of hours to Tikal, but I didn’t manage to catch too much more sleep as the drive was pretty bumpy resulting in my head just smashing repeatedly against the window if I tried! We had a big obnoxious group as we entered the site, but thankfully our guide was really good and listening to his wealth of knowledge helped make up for the incessant talking and giggling of several extremely annoying members of our party.

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Tikal was a very important Maya site until the decline of the entire civilisation, then it was swallowed by the jungle. The site is really spectacular, as it has the second tallest structures of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica- some of the temples are so tall, the tops can actually be seen above the ancient trees. The sheer area is enormous too, and many parts of the city have not even been excavated yet. You can’t climb many of the giant temples anymore as some people actually died falling down them because they are so steep and slippery, but we did climb one big one, Temple 4 and some of the smaller ones in an area called The Lost World.

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Because the ruins of Tikal are set deep in the jungle, despite the normal humidity of the area, it was nice and cool in the morning. We walked around on green and shady jungle trails and were also able to spot quite a bit of native wildlife, including  coatis (a cute furry 4-legged critter with a long tail), agoutis (big members of the rodent family- they look like a giant guinea pig), spider monkeys and even held a big hairy tarantula!

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One of my favourite areas of the site was called the acropolis. It used to be a residential area of the city so there were lots of small rooms to poke around in, but it was high up, so had amazing views over both the Gran Plaza and over the jungle.

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Our tour got back by 2 and I napped in a rooftop hammock overlooking the lake as the afternoon rain rolled by. Tough life! That evening it had cleared up and I hit some local food stalls by the lake and had my whole dinner and a drink for like $3!

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Kerre, Alex and I had another mammoth travel day from Flores to Lanquin- a small town in central Guatemala (east of Coban on the map above) just outside Semuc Champey, famous for its beautiful pools. It was meant to take 8 hours on the express shuttle, but was more like 10 with only 2 stops the whole way! When we arrived though, it was worth the trip, the views over the hills coming in were stunning.

El Retiro was a gorgeous hostel, right on the blue and icy cold river (which had quite a strong current!). There are some nearby caves in Lanquin that are home to many bats, and in the evening, they all fly out down the river to feed. It was about this time that we’d decided to go for a swim, and it was pretty crazy seeing so many bats flying at you! I felt like they were all going to fly right into my face, but not one did! Great echolocation little guys…

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The tour out to Semuc Champey the next day was definitely a highlight of the trip so far (thanks to Peter for all the pics from his intact waterproof camera!). We left in the morning- 15 of us piled in the back of a pick-up truck and a lucky 3 inside the cabin. We had to hang on for dear life for about 45 minutes so as not to fly out the back or into any of the metal bars, at the same time watching for overhead branches that might just smack you in the face. Our first stop was Grutas K’anba- we were instructed to get down to our bathers and either sneakers or nothing on our feet in prep for our cave adventure. At the cave entrance we were handed a candle each and helped each other light them before we entered the cold water in the bottom of the cave. These candles were to be our only source of light for the next 2 hours!

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The water was only knee deep at first but soon became too deep to stand. We were swimming either with one arm to paddle and the other out of the water holding the candle or with the candle in our mouths for several metres. There was some clambering up and down rocky parts, some bits with ladders to help and other parts just wading through shallower water as we travelled deeper into the cave. We came to a small waterfall which we rappelled up (ie- hauled ourselves up a vertical rockface with our candle in our mouth through the torrent of water splashing down on us) which was exciting! Relighting the candle after being drenched took some time, but luckily I hadn’t bitten right through my candle like poor Peter had!

The end of the journey was a small cavern with two pools which our guide got us to ‘light up’ by sticking several candles with wax around the walls. Then it was time for more adrenalin raising activities- a jump from a high ledge into the small pool below- aiming carefully in the dim light so as not to hit any of the rocks close to the sides! It took me a while to work up the nerve to do it, but I made it- it was terrifying!

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On the way out of the cavern was a small waterslide which we rode down with our arms high in the air to try and save our newly re-lit candles from going under. One other new adventure on the way out was dropping through a hole of gushing water with no idea what awaited on the other side. You  popped out into a small pool below where your candle then got handed through. It was an altogether incredible experience, I’ve never done anything like it.

The next activity for the afternoon was a giant rope swing into the river, which looked like fairly harmless fun, but you couldn’t actually control your fall very well when you came off, so many of us face-planted and belly-whacked into the river and came up winded, feeling like we’d smacked into a wall which was pretty rubbish! We got a small break from all the adrenalin by tubing down the river for a little way, before coming to a big bridge where of course we were invited to jump! When I first looked down, I was like ’NO WAY!’ It must have been at least 10 metres above the river and looked far too high for me, but after watching a few people go ahead of me I got FOMO and went for it. It was actually much better than the swing, because at least you could control your fall!

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After lunch we entered the Semuc Champey park and endured a hot and humid half hour hike up to the mirador (lookout) which gave us a spectacular view of the pools from above, and enough motivation to hike back down for a swim in the cool blue water to get out of the humidity for a bit!

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There were more jumps from these pools- some of the guides were climbing up tall trees and leaping from branches over hanging the pools, but I was spent! Too much adrenalin for one day! So I settled for a free fish spa in the shallower part of the pool (if you sat still enough, the fish just came and nibbled at your feet… People do actually pay for this you know! :-p) The pools were beautiful, refreshing and relaxing, but unfortunately the 45min ride back in the pick-up undid much of it! I ached all over and felt like I’d been hit by a bus on our return but what a day!

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The next day I had wanted to go to Antigua but with my stupid open ticket from Flores, hadn’t got to call in time after Semuc and the bus was full. I woke early and tried to weasel my way onto the bus with Kerre and Alex (who had cleverly called before Semuc) but despite my pleas of ‘Solo una persona pequena!’ (‘Only one small person!’), the lady was adamant the bus was full, so I stayed an extra day in Lanquin. Not a bad place to get stuck really! Our last evening got fairly rowdy with beer pong and drinking jenga which led to several people having to jump in the river, drink ‘mystery drinks’ or shots, take their underwear off without removing their pants or fashion hats out of various clothing items….

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Was again a bit rough for another long day of travel to Antigua after that, but pretty much slept the whole 9 hours. Someone was sure looking out for me because the place we stopped for lunch pretty much only sold burgers! Interestingly our bus dropped us on the side of a random street in Antigua, but luckily my friend Steve from Canada had been before and could orientate me!

Antigua used to be the Spanish capital of the whole of Central America, though why the Spanish picked the location at the bottom of an active volcano I am not sure… The city was destroyed several times from volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, the biggest of which in 1773 caused the Spanish to eventually move their capital to its present location in Guatemala City in 1776. Antigua was eventually restored and now remains a beautiful colonial town with ruins of many ancient churches and covents from the 1700s.

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That evening, Steve and I met up with Kerre and Alex again for dinner at a (literally) hole-in-the-wall comedor- you walked into this little shop and then passed through a small doorway out the back into a dining room with 2 meal options! It was great food, but perched next to me was a life-sized cardboard cut-out of a mustachio’d man which kept making me jump and feel like someone was watching me!

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The following day, Alex had booked a tour to the nearby active Pacaya volcano for the two of us. We took a big yellow chicken bus (old school bus from the US) which you can sure tell wasn’t made for adults!

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When we arrived at the start of the trail to the volcano, we were accosted by kids offering us walking sticks and horses. A few people got horses, but it was actually not a very steep climb and as our group was so massive, we were walking at a very leisurely (read: snail’s) pace. We passed some lookouts over the 3 big volcanoes outside Antigua- Fuego (fire), Agua (water) and Acatango. As we approached Pacaya, It was awesome to see the volcano’s surrounds, black and desolate, juxtaposed with the green of the surrounding landscape. You could also see the old lava flows approaching the nearby town- brave people living there!

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Eventually we reached Pacaya’s Zona de Riesgo (Risk Area), and once our ginormous group had reassembled we of course proceeded to walk straight past the sign and ‘stop’ light (hey, this is Guatemala right?).

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In this area, the ground was very hot and letting off steam in places. We didn’t see any lava as people have in previous years (I think the last time it erupted was 2010), but the steam was hot enough to roast some marshmallows on! It was tedious going with such a large group, but I was still glad to have seen an active volcano.

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The couple of days remaining in Antigua I spent exploring the town. I poked around the market, saw the most magnificent MacDonald’s restaurant I’ve ever seen (where Ronald MacDonald lazes on a bench overlooking the fountain in the tree-lined courtyard), discovered the ruins of a beautiful old capuchin convent from the 1700s and tried the ‘best coffee in Antigua’ at café barista on the plaza (pretty good!).

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One highlight was walking up a hill on the outskirts of town called Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross). There is obviously a big cross up there, and beautiful views over the city, but it’s not meant to be in a very safe area so it is recommended to go with a tourist police guide. There was meant to be a guide at 10, and so I went with 2 guys from the hostel, Josh from the US (who I’d met previously in Caye Caulker) and Leigh from Australia. We were a little late and couldn’t see a guide anywhere, so started to walk up thinking they wouldn’t be far ahead. We didn’t come across a guided group but it wasn’t a very long walk and there were armed security guards on the way up so it was all good! I’d think it is more of a problem going up for sunset and walking back in the dark perhaps… Anyway, there were loads of people at the top, and the views were definitely worth the short climb!

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On Sunday afternoon, I was off to San Pedro, a popular village on the shores of the stunning Lake Atitlan. It was 4 hours on a shuttle from Antigua accompanied by a fantastic range of 90s power ballads. San Pedro is well known for its Spanish schools, so I went there to study for another week with a homestay.

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On arrival at my school, La Co-operativa, I met my host dad Armando- he thought it was pretty hilarious that my name was Amanda, and said our names are almost the same! It was about a 10 minute walk across town to Armando’s house, where I met the rest of the family- his wife, Maria, and daughters Elenita (who is 9 years old) and Brenda (who is 4). The family were all very sweet and showed me to my big room with a double bed (a lot more then I was expecting!). The house itself was a reasonable size, made of concrete with 4 large rooms, a bathroom and a separate kitchen. Armando works in construction and Maria is a housewife, but the money from the homestays also supplements the family’s income.

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I started my classes on Monday, but had scheduled my 3 hours of class a day in the afternoon, as that’s when it had been tending to rain. Unfortunately the house was being renovated to add a second storey, so regardless I woke to the sweet sounds of drilling and banging overhead at 6am every day!

On my first day of school, I met my teacher, Ruben, who spoke to me in Spanish for a little while and then gave me a written test to see where I was at and what we should work on that week. The test was a bit scary! Showed me I had retained some things, but had also forgotten a fair bit of my grammar! 3 hours of class each day actually went really fast, next time I think the perfect amount of study per day would be around 4 hours- when I did 6 in Ensenada it was super exhausting.

My mornings were often spent helping Maria to prepare meals- chopping veggies, patting out thick tortillas by hand from the huge ball of masa (corn dough) which was prepared everyday, or pressing masa on the table between sheets of plastic with a small chopping board, filling it with potatoes and capsicum and frying it to make empanadas. The thick corn tortillas typical to Guatemala hadn’t really taken my fancy thus far during my stay, but Maria’s, fresh off the plancha (hot plate) tasted awesome!

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One morning I booked a trip to climb the nearby Volcán San Pedro which looms over the village. It’s about 3000m above sea level and was a tough walk! We (myself and 2 French Canadian girls) left town at 6am with our 18 year old guide Kenneth, picked up his 15 year old brother as we passed their house and then reached the volcano. It has apparently never erupted, so I guess it is really just a mountain, but volcano makes it sound a lot more exciting, doesn’t it? It was 3 hours of straight uphill climbing- we were dying and wishing for a bit of flat, but Kenneth and his brother were breathing normally and not even cracking a sweat the whole way! They actually looked quite amused at our exhaustion… The climb was rewarded with stunning morning views across the lake as we ascended and from the top. I was so tired I actually fell asleep on a rock at the top for a bit!

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On my last day at school I went with Ruben and his morning student Sonia to visit 2 local families. La Co-operativa  puts 10% of all the school fees back into the community which is great. As part of this they help support 28 families in need in San Pedro with food donations every fortnight, so we were going to deliver the food and meet them. The first family we met was Magdalena’s- she had 9 children, 2 grandchildren, and no husband. She worked as a weaver, spending 2-3 days to complete each tablecloth with her backstrap loom but then only getting ~30 Quetzales (~$4) for each one. So $1-2 income per day to feed all those people! Some of her older children work instead of going to school to help the family which is tough, though one of the girls works during the day as a nanny then still goes to night school. Their house consisted of 3 buildings- the kitchen which was I guess the common area and then 2 dormitories where they slept. It had dirt floors and walls of corn cane, which let water in if there is rain and wind.

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The second family was Pedro’s. Pedro is blind because of a work accident about 17 years ago, so he can no longer work. His wife Cecilia doesn’t work either. We also met their daughter Susan who no longer lives at home. She was married off at 17, and now at 28 has 3 kids of her own! We gave each family a package containing 6 eggs, rice, beans, sugar, oil, and detergent, which isn’t a lot but they were so grateful for it and said it really makes a difference for them. We had to speak to them via Ruben as they only spoke a Maya dialect and didn’t understand Spanish.

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Poverty is a huge problem in Guatemala (as in other parts of Mexico and Central America) and it was quite sad to see the hardships these families experienced on a day to day basis, and to see the cycle being propagated by the kids needing to drop out of school to go and work to help support their families. Ruben said education rates are actually higher in San Pedro than in the other lakeside villages because the tourism brings more money into the community and they have more public schools- apparently about 90% of kids finish primary school vs 30% in other villages. I’m sure the rates are lower for high school and only families with money can afford to send their kids to the city to get a tertiary education. Armando and Maria are doing pretty well for themselves and really value education so have Elenita in a private school which is great. Brenda starts next year.

On my last night, we celebrated Brenda’s 5th birthday. We had a big family dinner, with chicken, rice and tortillas, and then a giant cake for Brenda. The family sang ‘Ya queremos pastel!’ (We want cake!) and clapped to the tune of happy birthday, and then we did the mordida, where the birthday person takes a bite straight out of the cake (and in the process gets a lot of it on their face).

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It was a fun evening with Brenda wearing the birthday crown I’d bought her all night, and their little cousin Lorenzo wanting photo after photo taken! But he was very photogenic…

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Afterward, I went across town to the Buddha Bar, where I watched a game of AFL and had a beer while The Cat Empire blared over the speakers and got a little twinge of homesickness! Next day I had an early start, but Maria still managed to feed me before I left! I took a 7.30am shuttle back to Antigua to connect with the service for Copan in Honduras. 13 hours later I checked into my hostel in Copan!

So try and get myself a little more up to speed with these blogs I’ll just skim over the highlights reel of my two whirlwind weeks in Honduras and Nicaragua. The Mayan ruins at Copan are famous for their art, and the many sculptures there didn’t disappoint. It was a beautiful serene site compared to many of the overrun bigger sites.

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Diving the reef off the bay island of Utila was beautiful, and visiting the nearby Water Caye was also really nice. On my last night in Honduras I was blessed to have been very well looked after by my friend Ricky’s lovely family in Tegucigalpa before heading to Nicaragua.

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In Nicaragua, volcano boarding Cerro Negro just outside León was incredible- literally sliding down the side of an active volcano on a little piece of wood with only a pair of dodgy old plastic goggles and what appears to be a prison jumpsuit for protection. It’s listed as the #2 thing to do on CNN’s thrill seekers bucket list- tick!

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The other main event from my time in Nicaragua was climbing another still active volcano, Volcán Concepción on Lake Nicaragua’s Isla Ometepe, an island created by two volcanoes which have joined together. It was a challenging but awesome hike with incredible views over the island and across the lake to the mainland- except from the top where we were shrouded in clouds! I was quite sad to rush through Central America, but don’t regret any of the time spent in Mexico and am looking forward to the next part of my adventure with my good friends Laura and Hugo back up in the US. I’ll definitely be back again one day… 🙂

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