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Friday, August 17, 2007

Guatemala, Part I of II

Hey, this is Matt the Web Dude again. You may have read my post about my honeymoon trip to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand back in December. For our 1 year anniversary this past June, my wife Jenn and I took a 5 day trip to Guatemala followed by a 5 day trip to Belize.

This is Part I of II of our Guatemala experience.

We departed from JFK at 8 a.m. for Guatemala via Miami and landed in Guatemala City on May 30, 2007 at 12:15 p.m.. However, our destination that day was a small town called Jaibalito located on the shore of Lago de Atitlán (Lake Atitlán), a 4 hour bus ride away. So after much confusing communication with the frenzied taxi drivers at the supermarket-looking airport, we finally hopped in a taxi and drove 5 miles to this dirty old bus station in the heart of the city. We were about to attempt to take a "chicken bus", an American Blue Bird school bus, to our destination. By the way, I noticed that on almost every block there is a security guard weilding a shotgun on the sidewalk. I suppose that really is an effective way to deter crime.

Our bus was supposed to leave at 2 p.m. but after 2 hours of waiting we were informed that the police had put a padlock on the bus door because the bus company had not paid their license fee. But at around 3 p.m. they somehow secured another bus for us. The only stipulation was that we had to lie down in the seats for the first 10 minutes so the police didn't see us. Once we got outside the city limits, we were allowed to sit up - and our 4 hour journey from Hell began. I had no idea what I was getting into. For the next 4 hours we made God knows how many stops to pick up anyone who hailed the bus or asked to be dropped off. We were 3 to a seat and some crouched in the aisles. All our stuff was (hopefully) strapped to the roof of the bus. No air conditioning. No bathroom. No bathroom stops. Crazy driver passing cars around blind curves or blind curves ahead - if he didn't make it past the car in front, well, we were 3 vehicles to the road just like we were 3 to a seat. And a lot of times we were on the side of a mountain. Not to mention the questionable safety of the bus itself - apparently when North Americans deem their school buses no longer safe for their children, they’re shipped to Central America. Grrrrrreat. I suppose for all of those reasons our entire trip cost us about $2 each.

So we arrived in the main town of Panajachel on Lake Atitlan at about 7:15 p.m. - just in time to catch the very last "La Lancha" or water taxi for the night to take us several miles along the lake to our hotel, La Casa Del Mundo, in El Jaibalito, perched on a cliff and only accessible by foot or by water. We were stunned by how nice the place looked
as we pulled up to their dock, even at night. After climbing the 100 stairs to get to the reception area, we literally dropped our bags and had a nice meal before heading to bed. I slept like a dog on horse tranquilizers.
The next day we woke up bright and early and climbed the stairs down to the dining area for some huevos rancheros and breakfast burritos with great Guatemalan cafe con leche. Then we decided to take a little hike to the next town over called Santa Cruz. To do this we had to first climb all of Casa Del Mundo's stairs up to the very top. From there we carefully navigated a rough, narrow, staggered dirt trail along the mountainside. We had heard that in several places in Guatemala there have been attacks on trails such as these, but that this particular trail had been safe for several years. So I think it took about an hour to reach Santa Cruz - it was a nice little scenic walk - just too bad the weather was so overcast. On a clear day you can actually see the 3 volcanoes that dominate the landscape across the lake. Unfortunately we were there during the rainy season and never saw them due to so much fog. However, I did find a web page made by some people that did a similar hike on a clear day right here. When we arrived at Santa Cruz, we stopped for a beer and hung out for about an hour, then watched some local boys fishing and swimming on the dock while waiting for the Lancha to take us back to the hotel. That night we had a great meal at the same table with all the other guests staying at the hotel and got to meet some very interesting people. Many of them were doctors who were there to treat and educate the locals. One of these doctors in particular, Dave, was a 27 year old who just finished his residency practicing Internal Medicine from Washington. It took a while for me to notice that he had a problem with his left hand and when he got up to go to the bathroom it became obvious that he had some form of cerebral palsy. And surprisingly when we announced that we had decided to go on a long hike the next day, and asked if anyone wanted to come with us, he was the only taker. I was skeptical but impressed with his resolve, despite his disability. We said goodnight and headed off to bed.
In the morning, Dave was already having breakfast in the dining room when we arrived. After eating we caught a Lancha across the lake to a town called San Pedro. Here we met up with our guide and started walking. Our destination was the a mountain called Cerro Cristalino of which the peak is known as Nariz del Indio (Indian Nose) because it looks like the profile of an Indian with the peak as the nose. We were told that the entire hike would take 4-5 hours. After 15 minutes we entered the town of San Juan, which had a very quiet, local, indigenous feel and our
guide confirmed that tourists do not stay there so much as walk through it as we were. But just as it was everywhere, everyone was very friendly, and saying "Hola" was always warmly reciprocated. Just outside San Juan we started to ascend the base of the mountain and quickly came across a statue of the Virgin Mary standing next to a large white cross which eerily had a large black raven perched on it. As we continued upward and onward we continued to get a better and better view of San Juan, San Pedro and most of the western half of the lake. And then the trail started to get more and more difficult: rocky, steep, sometimes very narrow, sometimes with large step-ups, wet rocks and mud and occasionally hugging the side of a cliff. Jenn and I found it to be challenging and quite a workout.
At this point Dave was struggling a bit so our guide fashioned a walking stick out of a live tree limb for him. I made a point to stay behind him just in case he slipped and fell, which he did, at least twice. Once I was able to grab him before he fell but another time he fell pretty hard but got up and kept moving. When he walked, his left foot touched down on the toes and his right leg quickly jumped ahead. He stepped up with his right leg then pulled his left leg up to meet the right one. The right side of his body clearly dominated his movements - and it was obvious when you compared the size of the calf muscle in his right leg versus the left. I asked him about it and he said it had something to do with a blood vessel blockage in his right brain during fetal development which caused hemiparesis in the left side of his body. He explained that it's always been that way, and it always will, but it won't get worse, and it is what it is, and he's never known anything different. And I thought to myself, here's this young doctor, with cerebral palsy, who's travelling alone in Guatemala and hiking up the side of a mountain on a trail that I find to be difficult. It was a realization that filled me with respect and admiration for Dave. It was inspiring to say the least.
After about 4 hours or maybe even more, we started to level out and I thought we had reached the top (at this point it was so hard to tell because there was so much fog there was no longer a view of anything at all). But then our guide, as he pointed up, said, "Okay, it's this way - just 15 minutes more to the nose." We looked at each other and collectively decided that we'd rather start heading back down because of how long it took us to get up there - to get to the nose and back would be another 30 minutes at least - maybe 45 at our pace. But we were also concerned about going back down the way we came since it was pretty treacherous - going down would be twice as difficult especially for Dave. So our guide said there was a much easier way - flatter and broader trail. So that's what we went with. He guided us through some maize fields and eventually through a village and out onto a windy, paved road that switched back and forth down the side of the mountain. After about a mile of this I finally asked our guide how much further it was to San Pedro and he said, "Oh it's probably about 15 kilometers." Say what? Our collective jaws dropped. That's over 9 miles! There was no way that was going to happen at this point. So we sat down on the side of the road and waited for a ride (you can pretty much catch a ride from anyone willing to pick you up and it's
common practice to pay a few dollars for your transportation). We got dropped off in San Juan and hoofed it back to San Pedro as it started to pour, heavily. It rained so hard that literally the street leading out of San Pedro to the lake was a 1-foot deep raging river. We had to find an ATM so we could pay our guide, so we ended up having to walk upstream in the street 4-5 blocks looking for one. That was fun. Really. All in all a very memorable day.
That night we had another great meal with everyone together at La Casa Del Mundo, shared some local rum, and went to bed. The next day we were leaving to go to Flores, Guatemala to see the ancient ruins of Tikal. More on that in Part II - stay tuned.


Blogger DSL said...

Thanks Matt for this posting of the trip you and Jenn took. You guys have the most interesting adventures! We all look forward to Part II. Debbie
(Note: Matt has a whole bunch of commitments over the next few weeks so it will be awhile for part II.)

12:19 PM  

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