Fighting spiders and trinket vendors on Lago Atitlan

With much regret we said goodbye to the Castillo family that we have been staying with for the last three weeks on Monday morning and drove to Lago Atitlan. This lake has been called one of the most beautiful in the world and is ringed with small towns of varying different characters as well as many dramatic volcanoes. A couple of years ago, Sergio sold televisions to the owner of a hotel in the town of Panajachel on the lake, and he kindly called ahead to guarantee us a reasonable price at the hotel. The warm breezes at Lago Atitlan were a welcome break from the cold fog of Xela, and Panajachel felt like a beach town. Colorful open-air restaurants perch on the lakefront while rows of vendors hawk handcrafted Guatemalan items alongside tourist trap trinkets. I think you can buy the same beads and rasta hats in any tourist town between here and Bangkok.

We spent an uneventful afternoon and evening eyeing the crafts, eating, and chasing off the many children pestering us to buy trinkets from them. These children will cling to your side without feeling the least bit rejected as you repeat the word ¨no¨ to them. Ignoring them doesn´t help; we tried that tactic and ended up having a boy standing at our table paging through our guidebook as we ate dinner. It breaks your heart to see these kids try to make money for thier family, but a guide in San Cristobal, Mexico told us that giving money to these kids encourages them to stay out of school.

That night we were awakened by a terrific windstorm that whipped the avocados off the trees onto our car and set off our alarm. The gusty winds continued the next day, so rather than braving a boat across the lake we decided to drive to another small village on the lake. A bump and dusty ride on gravel roads through farms and small villages followed by a road that put highway 1 in California to shame with its steep grade and crazy curves brought us to the town of San Marcos de la Laguna. This town is a hippy Mecca and is known for its yoga, massage, and meditation workshops. Small paths wind through the jungly forest and along the lake side connecting most of the restaurants and schools by foot. We thought we found an ideal place to stay on the lake; it had parking, killer views, and was cheap. Little did we know that the rooms also came pre-infested with huge spiders. As soon as the sun went down, we came back to the room and found large spiders clinging to the walls of the room. The closer we looked, the more we could see, making us wonder how many more were lurking in the shadows. After unsuccessfully trying to kill a few of them, we decided to sleep in the car.

Taking the chicken bus to a Mayan festival

After the morning fog on Saturday burned off (see our art film on mornings in Xela here), we met up with four friends to spend the day at the indigenous village San Andres Xecul (shea-kool) for its annual festival.

After meeting Ben, Krista, Kelsey and Tom outside our Spanish language school ICA in Quetzaltenango, we walked north to find a ‘chicken bus’ that could take us to Xecul. It turns out that old school buses don’t die, they just get shipped to Guatemala and converted for use as public transportation. The conversion process includes a custom paint job, a booming sound system and pimped out accessories such as an air horn and a Mercedes logo mounted on the grill.

Bus drivers work in tandem with an ayudante, or helper. The ayudante seems to magically float on, around, and on top of the chicken bus. At one moment he is collecting our 3 Quetzales (0.40 USD) fare, the next he is weaving his way through the throngs of people to hang out the front door and shout out the bus destination. As the bus slowly winds through small towns, the ayudante will jump out and ply the streets for more customers, then run and jump back onto the moving bus a few blocks later to squeeze people into the seats and aisle to maximize the amount of passengers the bus can carry. If you get on the bus with more chickens than can fit on your lap, the ayudante will lug your package to the top of the bus, then swing into the bus through the back emergency exit door as the bus rolls down the road.

Walking several dusty blocks to the chaotic central bus station of Xela, buses sped past us honking as the ayudante hung precariously from the open door shouting the bus destination. As our group of six tall, fair foreigners arrived in the central bus terminal, we were immediately swarmed with people offering rides. Every bus is named, usually after the driver’s daughter or mother, and the bus we boarded for the trip was named Graciella. Men and children selling sweets, ice cream, and what looked like jello shots made their way through the bus shouting their wares and prices. The bus was packed full, with three people to a seat and standing room only in the aisle, but as usual the ayudante somehow made his way through to collect the fares. After a bumpy 20 minute ride we arrived at the dusty crossroads of Morales, and the ayudante waved us off the bus toward a waiting bus for San Andres Xecul. This bus sped up through fields and farms to the deforested hills surrounding Xecul, blaring its horn at every passing vehicle.

We arrived in Xecul as the marimba orchestra was testing the decibal limits of the band’s wall of speakers. Vendors crowded the narrow streets selling baskets, sugar cane, sweet bread, handmade candies, and the typical assortment of cheap trinkets found at many county fairs in the US. We headed uphill to the hallucinogenic church dome that poked above the surrounding cement buildling. Painted circus red, yellow, and blue and adorned with grinning cherubs, dancing tigers, and climbing vines, this church faced the central plaza and ground zero for the fair.

Rickety faded amusement park rides that I imagine had their heyday in the US in the 1940s were set up in the central square, and filled with shouting children wearing multicolored traditional clothing of the local indigenous people. This was a green fair: all of these rides were hand powered by men heaving levers or simply pushing the rides to keep them moving. After losing a couple of quetzales trying to land a coin on plates floating in a kiddie pool to win a soda, we headed to the church to see if the décor inside matched the outside. Neon lights illuminated the central altar, and hundreds of candles were burning as women prayed and children sat quietly. While we could still feel the pumping bass of the marimba band coming from outside, the relatively quiet church was a welcome break.

Back in the central plaza, following a speech of mixed Spanish and K’iche (the local Mayan language) and some earsplitting fireworks, a crowd gathered around a roped-off area. Three men adorned in sparkling costumes and wearing freaky masks (we think they represented Spanish conquistadors) began to dance haltingly back and forth as the crowd watched. Larger groups of dancers dressed in black and white bedazzled monkey costumes, or yellow and black spotted tiger costumes made their way into the roped-off area and danced as a group. They jumped forwards and backwards, hoping from one foot to the other, facing each of the 4 cardinal directions, before bowing to the crowd. Over and over, individual dancers faced the crowd, shook their rattle and beat their whip on the ground, then stood still while cupping their hand to their ear. After watching for about an hour, we headed back down the hill to catch another chaotic yet entertaining bus back to Xela (click here for a video of our day in Xecul). While we enjoyed the chicken bus experience, it made us appreciate having a our own car for transportation. We couldn’t imagine riding for 6 hours packed into the back of cramped school bus on the way to Tikal.

Saturday evening Shirly and Sergio dropped the kids off with their parents so the four of us could explore Xela’s nightlife. This is our last weekend in Xela, and we are very sad to be leaving our Guatemalan family. We shared two pitchers of cerveza mixta, another Guatemalan specialty made from a combination of the light lager of Gallo and a darker porter called Moza, at Cantina Tecun. This bar is the oldest in Guatemala, and serves up some mean pizza. Sergio and Shirly wished us luck on our travels, and told us that whenever we returned to Xela we would have a home with them. They also gave us a bottle of an indigenous alcohol called Quetzalteca and a tablecloth. In our halting Spanish we thanked them for welcoming us into their home and family. As the night continued and the litros of Cabro disappeared, we listened to live music in a small bar as all of the locals shouted the words along with the singer. We leave the Castillos on Monday for two weeks of travel through Guatemala to visit Lago Atitlan, Chichicastenango, Antigua, and Tikal.

(Shirly and Sergio with cereza mixta, Chris and Kristin much later in the night with a litro of Cabro)

Just another weekend sitting in hot springs and working on the farm

It was bone-chilling cold in Quetzaltenango (Xela) this week, so on Friday afternoon we headed to the Fuentes Georginas, a natural hot spring high in the mountains.  A bumpy ride on a retired American school bus took us through the outskirts of Xela and into the surrounding farms and countryside.  We passed small produce markets of brilliant fruits and vegetables, women in brightly colored dresses tending the fields, and people carrying unbelievably heavy loads of wood on their backs.  The road narrowed to one lane as we climbed higher into the mountains, and when we smelled sulfur we knew we were close.  The hot springs are nestled in a narrow green valley shrouded in fog.  The hot water, naturally heated by the surrounding volcanic activity, pours out of cracks in the rocks into three pools of varying temperature.  The hottest pool became unbearable after about 10 minutes of soaking, so we retreated downstream to a pool that soaked away the cold that had permeated our bones from our unheated bedroom and icebox classes (see video of our trip and the hot springs here).  In addition to relaxing in the hot springs with our friends Tom and Kelsy (, we also brought our friend Ron Botran.  Chris picked him up at the local liquor store during our morning break from classes.

(Relaxing in the hot springs; Chris getting our friend Ron ready for the trip)

Saturday morning we woke up early to join a volunteer project hosted by ICA, our language school.  For the last 15 years, the school has sponsored a reforestation effort in the surrounding mountains.  This project’s mission is to raise a hundred thousand trees of local species such as alder, cypress, pine, and eucalyptus every year.  Deforestation in Guatemala is a problem as 60% of Guatemalans still use wood for heating and cooking.  We walked about 2 miles to a nursery on the outskirts of Xela with great views of the erupting volcano.  It felt strange to walk in a city past internet cafes and clothing stores, while goats are herded down the street. On the tree farm working with friendly Laura, her son Julio, and another farmer named Carlos, we hoed, weeded, and raked until our hands blistered and our backs ached.  Chris was especially brave and helped me pick the transparent finger-sized worms out of the freshly turned dirt.  We felt totally beat after only working 4 hours, but we were quickly reminded of how lucky we are when we passed city block sized gravel pits where all work was done by hand with wheelbarrows and shovels.  I think another trip to the Fuentes Georginas with Ron may be in our near future.  

Beer with Santa, a chicken, and the Castillos

Through our Spanish language school, we’re staying in Xela with a great family. They really make an effort to show us their day-to-day life and help us understand Guatemalan culture. Tuesday night they drove us to the centro commercial (mall) so their kids, Oscar and Alfonso, could say hello to Santa Claus. Except for the people speaking Spanish and the security guards armed with shotguns, we could have been in any mall in the United States. After the exciting visit with Santa, the kids raced around the Guatemalan equivalent of a Walmart, pulling toys and dulces (desserts or sweets) off the shelves. Inspired by a package of marshmallows, I figured it was time to introduce the to an American specialty and bought some Rice Krispies and marshmallows. On the way home we drove by the giant arbol de navidad (Christmas tree). We assumed the 3 story artificial Christmas tree was paid for by Gallo, the Guatemalan beer, because of the huge illuminated Gallo sign rotating on the top of the tree instead of a star. Beer and Christmas is such a great combination. We were close to running away when we saw a man emerge from the tree through a hidden door sporting full black combat gear and a shotgun, but Sergio pointed out that he was just a security guard protecting the tree from vandalism.

(Gallo tree and the Castillo family)
Wednesday afternoon Shirly took us to the market where each day she buys all of her groceries. This was a world apart from the centro commercial we visited earlier. Most people in Xela buy the majority of their food in this open air market where the foods are fresh and less expensive. We made our way past stalls where men hawked pirated CDs and DVDs, knock-off Columbia and Nike jackets, and piles of shoes, socks, underwear, and clothes. Past the clothes vendors we shuffled through the crowds in the meat market where slightly bloody stands were covered in headless plucked chickens, and decorated with strings of fresh sausages and huge pieces of cow. We even saw some hooves (we’re not sure from what animal). Stepping back outside, huge cloth containers brimmed with beans, dried chilies, herbs, rice, and pastas. Women in indigenous dress sold small quantities of beautiful fresh vegetables, handmade cheeses wrapped in banana leaves, bread, and many fruits we didn’t recognize. This market put any farmers’ market (or Whole Foods) in the US to shame, both in variety and price. I think I counted over 10 different varieties of peppers alone. On our walk home we had a great view of Volcan Santiaguito as it spewed a huge plume of smoke into the sky. Later that evening Shirly and Sergio treated us to home made Micheladas, a popular drink in Mexico and Central America. An unusual combination of clamato juice, Worcestershire sauce, beer (Gallo of course), lime, and salt, this drink is typically consumed with bocaditos, or finger foods. The Castillos served us a can of tuna marinated in a spicy tomato sauce spread on saltines. Sergio especially enjoys Micheladas, and we talked about our lives while we listened to a CD of 1960s Guatemalan protest music. During some of Guatemala’s dark times in the 60s and 70s, people would be killed for singing or listening to this music:

‘No basta rezar hace falta muchas cosas para conseguire la paz,
Porque tambien reza el pilote para ir a bombardear a los ninos de Vietnam.’

It is not enough to pray for many things, we need to work for peace,
Because the pilot who bombs the children in Vietnam also prays.

Spending so much time with the Castillos has helped our Spanish just as much as the intensive Spanish classes we have been taking for the last two weeks.

Earth, wind, and fire (and god) on Santa Maria Volcano

This morning we awoke at 4:30 am to catch a 5 am bus. We arranged a guided trip through Adrenalina Tours to climb inactive Volcan Santa Maria, the volcano we can see from our bedroom window. Xela is at 2335 m (7780 ft) elevation, so it is chilly in the mornings and evenings, and we were warned that it is cold on the volcano. We bundled up in our warm clothes, gloves, hats, and long underwear, and started the hike under a half moon. After an hour, the sun rose and we were shedding clothes, throwing them in our day packs. However, as we continued to near the peak of Santa Maria at 3772 m (12,573 ft), a cold wind started blowing and a dense fog settled over the mountain trail.

 Three hours later at the summit, gusts of wind and clouds whipped over the peak, and we quickly sought shelter behind some rocks to put on every available layer of clothing. Crowds of people, many in the colorful traditional clothing we see in Xela, had camped on the volcano in standard tents as well as crudely built shelters made of plastic sheets barely held together with ropes and rocks. They were crying, singing, and praying while huddled in the rocks to keep warm. From what we could understand from our guide Yolanda, this volcano is a highly spiritual place for indigenous people of this area. At the top of Volcan Santa Maria, we had a spectacular view of the surrounding mountain ranges and the 2488 m tall active Volcan Santiaguito. This volcano is considered to be the ‘hijo’ or son of Santa Maria, and erupts about every 45 to 60 minutes.

After watching for 10 minutes, a stream of smoke erupted from Santiaguito, and we watched the growing cloud billow high into the sky. After 20 minutes of miserable cold and shivering, we couldn’t take the arctic winds anymore, and begged our guide to lead us back down Santa Maria. By the time we were halfway down, it was sunny and warm again, so we could better enjoy the views of the mountains around us, the farms and towns below us, and the wildflowers that grew on each side of the trail. Chris finally regained feeling in his numb hands and pathetically complained about frostbite. Streams of people continued past us climbing to the peak, many of them grandmothers carrying children on their backs or bundles on their heads, wearing beautiful indigenous hand-woven dresses, and hiking in heels and flimsy sandals. They really put us to shame as we battled the elements decked out in expensive Gortex jackets, nylon pants, fleece gloves, and hiking boots. (Click here to see a video of our day on the volcano)