On January 3rd, 2016 we packed our things in our hostel in Antigua. After gathering all of our belongings into our backpacks, we went out to the street to await our van to take us to Lago de Atitlán (Lake Atitlán)! This was super exciting for us as it was an internet picture of Lake Atitlán that drew us to Guatemala in the first place. We were excited to see the lake in person. But first we had to get there. We had purchased tickets in Antigua for a van ride to San Marcos la Laguna (San Marcos at the lake). We were told the ride from Antigua would be about 3 hours. Whenever the van showed up. As we were waiting, we debated on going back to Fernando's for a coffee. But I talked Rob out of it in case we missed the van. We definitely would have had time as the van showed up about an hour late. We piled our gear on top, and piled our bodies inside and hit the road. Apparently we were the last passengers for pick up. Rob got shotgun while I had to ride in the middle between him and the driver. We were again glued to the windows, watching everything as it passed us by.
Originally, when we'd arrived in Antigua, we had felt as if we'd stepped back in time in some ways. There is a lot of old architecture and cobblestone streets. It doesn't seem that there is an abundance of money there, but the people get by. In short, it was a bit of a shock to us. By the third day, we had begun to get used to it though. We felt safe and pretty comfortable there. But, as we inched closer and closer to the lake, we wondered what had we gotten ourselves into with this trip. The small, single-story city blocks enclosed by brick and cement that comprise Antigua central gave way to standalone single family homes that were fashioned from cinder blocks and corrugated sheet metal and were mostly open to the air. Along the drive, these slowly became more scarce and were replaced instead with open landscapes dotted with sheet-metal-and-stick lean-tos.
Our van crested a mountain ridge and we caught the briefest glimpse of the lake. Our worries were quelled for the moment as our excitement skyrocketed. We made it! Our driver began a very long, very slow, very twisty descent down to the lake. The road was laden with giant potholes and was washed out all over the place. The shoulders were nearly vertical on both sides with scant guardrail. I noted that a good mechanic could probably do very well for himself here just replacing brakes. Our lives were fully in our driver's hands through these countless switchbacks. Before each turn, he laid on the horn as a warning for any approaching vehicles. He was laser-focused and we averaged maybe 5mph for the last 2-3 miles down to San Pablo la Laguna. Our van driver informed us that we would be getting out here as he was continuing with the remaining passengers to San Pedro center. He hailed us a tuk-tuk (imagine a quasi-enclosed, motorized tricycle) driver and we climbed in with our backpacks. We asked our driver if he knew how to get to Castro's in San Marcos. "Si." We were in luck and on our way to our house on the lake!
Because there are no street addresses in San Marcos, our landmark to find our temporary new home as told us by our host Castro was a "multi-colored flag hanging in a tree 50m before the burned-out truck". For months we had tried to imagine this scene. What if we walk right past it? Will we notice? What if the truck gets removed? What if someone else's truck breaks down somewhere else? Is this truck destined to be there permanently? The questions vanished when we found it, though; it was quite obvious. Our tuk-tuk driver parked on the side of the road and pointed to the trail up the mountain side as our destination. Following Castro's instructions, we went up the path and through the gate. Then up the trail into the woods. We felt like we were on a jungle safari now, as all we could see everywhere was green; we were deep in the thicket. "Turn right at the path" (this would have us now walking across the hill rather than straight up it. We appreciated this change) and follow it down a ways...suddenly we were in front of the house!
We walked up to the house and found a woman cleaning. Rob communicated with her that we were looking for Castro. The lady walked through a path near the house and came back shortly with a man who introduced himself as Karsten (aka Castro). He welcomed us to the house and stated that it wasn't quite ready for us as we were a little early. This was fine with us as we were very hungry. Karsten gave us a quick tour of the house and a key. We locked up our valuables in the safe and left our bags so we could go get some food while the house was being prepared. We walked back down the path to the dirt road and made our way into San Marcos center.
It was about a twenty minute walk into town from our house. The views of the lake along the walk were amazing. Our stomachs were getting angry at us so we ate at the first place we could find when we got into town; Los Abrazos (the hugs). When we walked into the building we first saw information for the travel opportunities that could be arranged on site. Next, we saw the restaurant dining area which looks as if it is in the living room of the family's home. We sat down and ordered our meals. I got tacos and Rob ordered a burrito. The experience was pleasant although maybe slightly slow but we didn't mind. Rob even had the opportunity to translate for a lady that came in looking to rent an apartment from the restaurant owner. This was totally pushing the limits of my Spanish speaking skills. I hope I got the proper message across. When it came time to pay, we realized we only had large bills with us. The meal cost much less than our smallest bill and the restaurant could not make change for us. They suggested that we go break the bill at another business and come back to settle our tab. So that is what we did.
We left Los Abrazos without paying in search of a place that we could make some change. We wanted to get some things to bring back to the house for preparing our own meals anyway. There was a roadside stand that seemed to sell a bit of everything including eggs and veggies. We stopped here and gathered some things to make our own breakfast. We learned that eggs are sold as singles and do not come in a carton. We ordered a dozen eggs and received a queer look from the store attendant (maybe it's more typical to buy them one or two at a time?) and we got them handed to us loose in a plastic bag. This was frightening. What if the eggs broke on our trek back to the house?! I had brought a reusable compact grocery bag in my purse that I put the eggs and other items in. This seemed to work well for extra strength and protection. After we got our change, we quickly went back to Los Abrazos to pay our bill before exploring the town.
San Marcos la Laguna is a small village. It is known around the lake for it's holistic and spiritual vibe. There are several yoga, meditation, and massage centers. We wandered the narrow paths off from the main road and made our way to the dock. This is where locals and visitors can take a boat to any of the other lakeside villages for a small fee. There are several children who seem to hang around the docks and gather around tourists when they arrive via boat. They ask where you are going and offer to show you around the town (generally in English, and this seems to be about the extent of their English vocabulary). We were very well versed in "No, gracias!" in short order. After checking out the water tempurature (it was warm) we wandered back through other paths to the main road. The town seemed to be organized exactly how we had read that it would be. Businesses/hostels/tourist spots were located closest to the water, this is where the "gringos" (expats and hippies, mostly) lived and frequented. Further into town and up the hillsides is where most of the indigenous Mayan families resided.
The walk back to the house was pleasant and offered generous views of the lake again and surrounding volcanoes. We offered pleasantries to all the passersby with a friendly "Buenos dias!" Everyone we met was in good spirits. How could you be anything but happy when you're in a place so beautiful with such amazing weather?! Before we knew it we were back at the burned out truck and our signal to start our hike up the mountainside to the house. This week was definitely good for our calves! We arrived to a house that seemed like it was fit for a king and queen with its outrageous view. The hostel in Antigua was comfortable for us but this house raised everything to the next level.
After appreciating the view from the house we started to unpack our things. We were going to be here for a whole week so we figured we should make ourselves feel at home in this paradise. Karsten stopped by as we were settling in to greet us again and ask us if we needed anything. He provided us with phone numbers of local men who could provide us with tuk-tuk and/or guide service. He also showed us where we could refill our filtered drinking water vessel and gave us a quick rundown of the area. It was safe to walk in the area but we were getting into the high tourist season and there was a small chance of being held up by machete in certain areas outside town. Karsten said that we likely wouldn't have any issues (especially with Rob's big muscles) but to be safe we should carry only small amounts of cash and give it away if threatened rather than risk injury. We asked him about places to eat/things to do and he recommended Maya Moon (further up the road away from San Marcos) for drinks and/or food as well as a good swimming spot. It was safe to walk there on the road and further past Maya Moon to Tzununa. But, he stated that to continue on past Tzununa to Jaibalito he would recommend a guide for safety. We thanked Karsten for his information and finished settling into the house as he left. He lived down a short path from the house so if we needed anything he was nearby. For anyone checking out the area we highly recommend renting this property.
When we were in town we had picked up some rum (Ron Botran) and Coke so we cracked into this and sat to enjoy the view on the deck with each other. We each had brought a book with us as well as a deck of cards so we took the opportunity to relax and enjoy the quiet while reading followed by a game of cards. Eventually we decided that we wanted to venture out before dark to check out Maya Moon. We locked up our valuables and the house and hiked our way down the mountainside to the road and turned left to head towards Tzununa. We followed the dirt road and continued to marvel at the views. About ten minutes later we found ourselves in front of the gate for Maya Moon. The property was on the lake side of the road so we entered the door to the property and started following the path to the restaurant. This "path" was more like a neverending set of switchbacks and stairs. It took us about another five minutes (it sounds like a short period of time as you're reading this, but when it is nonstop stairs, it may well be forever) to make our way down to the base of the mountain where we found the bar/restaurant next to the waterfront.
The bar was close to the lake and had several small tables to sit and enjoy the view. We grabbed a couple drinks from the bar and ordered the special of the night which was a spicy noodle dish. As the sun started to set we could begin to clearly see Volcan En Fuego (that's its name, which translates to volcano in/on fire) erupting against the night sky off in the distance. There was a couple nearby that had binoculars to get a closer view. We began chatting with them (in English, thankfully; it's exhausting translating 24/7) and borrowed the binoculars to see the magnified eruption. It was neat to see the lava spewing out of the top of the mountain and then trickling down the sides. We enjoyed our dinner and drinks and then decided to go back to the house. It was after dark now but we had brought a flashlight with us to help navigate. The walk back up the stairs to the road seemed like it took forever. The walk on the road gave our legs a little bit of a break before making the hike uphill again. We fell asleep shortly after arriving home in what Mandy liked to refer to as "the princess bed" because it was enclosed in mosquito netting.
The next day we got up and ready at a leisurely pace. We went down to docks at Maya Moon to get a water taxi to Panajachel ("pan-uh-ha-SHELL", though I liked to say it "Pan-uh-JAY-CHEL" just for fun). We arrived in what seemed like a bustling metropolis as compared to San Marcos. Pana had a lot more people and a lot more activity. We wanted to go ziplining but didn't really know where we were supposed to be going so we set off walking. After about 10-15 minutes, we realized we were going in the wrong direction! We turned around and headed out of town up the hill instead. It's a pretty steep hike (as is all the hiking around the lake) but as the road makes a sharp switchback after a short distance, there is an outstanding view of the lake. Conveniently, it is at this switchback where we were turning off the road, so we got to go back downhill.
We arrived at Reserva Natural Atitlán (natural reserve) and arranged to go ziplining! We waited for sufficient guests to arrive to form a group for a tour, then we geared up and I translated safety instructions for Mandy and a couple others in our group. Our tour guides were Carlos and Baldo and neither spoke a word of English. Communicating with them was...interesting. I tried my best to chat with them as we hiked up the notch. They were quite friendly and laughed a lot the whole tour; we got the impression they very much enjoyed their work. We saw a monkey on our hike up to the beginning of the course! There were a few hanging bridges that we crossed along the way, one of them providing an excellent view of a nearby waterfall. The hanging bridges had a two person limit so we took our time moving slowly across them. Once we reached the top our guides split up. Carlos ziplined down to the next landing and Baldo stayed behind with the group. We were generally in the front of the group and eagerly hopped off the ledge as instructed, hand braking when we got the flag to slow down from Carlos. When the cable was clear for the next person to zip, Carlos would radio up to Baldo and say "Libre, Baldo!" (literally, "Free, Baldo!" meaning the zipline was clear) to let him know the next person could go. This became a catchphrase for the rest of our trip, just because it was fun to say. We ziplined back down across the notch over coffee fields, forests, and a river. The views of the lake were even more impressive up here. We got all the way back down and we did an obstacle course. That was fun, but difficult.
We left the nature reserve in search of food as we were quite hungry. We stopped to take a couple pictures along the way. Once we were back in town we looked for some good food. We found a spot that was completely deserted of any patrons, so we thought that it must be legit. The menu looked like it offered authentic Guatemalan fare, and we had discovered that the tiny hole in the wall restaurants offer the best food. We wandered in and were promptly waited on by a woman who may have had a glass eye. She was very friendly and seemed to be the only person working in the restaurant. She seated us, took our orders, served the food, and probably cooked it as well, though we can't be sure. We both ordered the daily special which consisted of steak strips, peppers, onion, rice, guacamole, potato, and fresh tortillas. And picante of course. The lunch was satisfying and filled our bellies.
After lunch, we found a grocery store to stock up on supplies for the house. We got some chicken meat, and a bag of rice, and a few miscellaneous items. The rice was interesting because it was sold in zipper-lock style bags with hand-written labels stating what type of rice was inside. We took our goods and headed back to the docks to catch a water taxi back to San Marcos. There were many vendors gathered selling various crafts and similar items along the path toward the docks. We got some bracelets. Then we made our way back to the house to drop off the groceries. We cooked up dinner that night and had a lazy night in, reading and relaxing.
The next day we got up at our leisure and made breakfast. We thoroughly enjoyed waking up in this house and looking out at the spectacular view. After breakfast we went to San Marcos center. We stopped at a cafe, Circles, to get a coffee and enjoy the patio area. The service was extremely slow (perhaps this was an abnormal day but we only visited there once so it's hard to say). We didn't mind the wait as we enjoyed lounging around and chatting with some of the hippie gringo patrons. An old traveler man started chatting with us and was quite taken by Rob. He made several comments about how beautiful of a man Rob is! After we enjoyed our coffees we made for the docks again. This time we caught a water taxi that was headed to San Pedro. It's a very short ride; you can see both towns from one another across the lake. We hiked up, up, up several blocks in San Pedro, just to see what we could find.
We stopped by a bank to exchange some of our larger bills into smaller bills that we could use more easily at the small shops. At every bank we saw in Guatemala there was an armed guard at the door, which was interesting. We left the bank and continued wandering through the upper streets of San Pedro. We found some sweet architecture here in San Pedro. And some street puppies. It was somewhat sad to see them, but they appeared content. There were several businesses that had food and water bowls out for them on the sidewalks. We started walking back downhill towards the lake and dock areas. The closer you get to the lake the more gringos you see. It is an interesting intermingling of cultures around the lake.
We stopped into a random shop to check out the textiles. I found a pair of pants that I liked and the lady was insistent that I take them. She kept dropping her price. I wasn't ready to commit so I told her that I would return when I decided if I wanted them. She set them aside for me until the next day. At this point we were starting to get hungry and decided to stop and get lunch. We found a restaurant near the docks looking out over the lake. We stopped in here and took a table on the deck closest to the water. The restaurants were fairly open to the streets/walking paths in Guatemala. However, this was the only restaurant that we ate at where people came up to us trying to sell us things. A small boy came up to Rob and I and wanted to shine Rob's sneakers:
"Limpio tus zapatos?" (Do you want me to shine your shoes?)
"No, gracias. No es posible." (No thank you. It's not possible.) (I showed him I was wearing cloth sneakers.)
"Es posible con agua." (It's possible with water.) (This boy was quite persistent.)
"No, gracias." (No, thank you.)
"I'm hungry. I need un quetzal to eat." He suddenly switched to English, which was odd. But we felt so guilty, eating in front of him, so we scrounged in our pockets and found a quetzal to give the boy. He seemed satisfied and disappeared.
It wasn't long after the boy left that a woman approached our table carrying a basket on her head. She was selling banana bread and we had shown our vulnerability. She offered us 2 loaves for 15Q. We politely declined. She listed all her flavors, regular banana, chocolate, coconut, vanilla, and more. Again, we politely declined. She insisted that we take two loaves. Two for 10Q she said. We figured we weren't getting out of the situation without bread and it smelled amazing. We gave her 10Q for a loaf of banana and chocolate banana bread. It was still warm when she handed it to us. It was probably the best banana bread we've ever had. Well worth the $1.14 we paid. After the lady left we enjoyed our lunch without anymore visitors. Lunch was okay here. But it was an American style restaurant and was not as delicious as the Guatemalan fare we'd had at other locations.
After lunch we hopped back on a water taxi to take us to San Marcos. We enjoyed the rest of the afternoon at the house relaxing. For dinner we had leftovers from the night before and paired this with the banana bread which we grilled slightly. We enjoyed spending evenings out on the deck reading or playing cards and staring at the lights of villages across the lake.
The next morning we woke up knowing it was halfway through our week at the lake. It was a lazy morning and we were enjoying the laidback lifestyle of this vacation. I was standing on the deck enjoying the views of the lake early in the morning when Rob decided that we should take a photo together with the volcanoes in the background. It was something that we had been meaning to do but Rob wanted to wait for the lighting to be right. Rob set the camera up on self-timer and asked if I was ready. I was but I was trying to position myself and be prepared for which side he was going to stand on for the picture when he got down on one knee. I'll spare you all the sappy details of the proposal but it was perfect and of course I said yes! Rob had actually put the camera on video mode to capture the proposal. Rob admitted that he had been carrying the ring around with him throughout the trip as he didn't know when the right moment would present itself. I was shocked the had taken it ziplining with us. What if he dropped it?!?! But he didn't! After the proposal we decided to actually take a picture of ourselves with the amazing backdrop and we both had huge smiles on our faces. I don't know if the lighting was quite right after all, but now I think he was using that as an excuse just until he was ready for the proposal!
We decided that we should celebrate our engagement for the day. There was a hotel/restaurant/bar/pool in a nearby village so we threw on our swimsuits and set off to Maya Moon to catch a water taxi. The restaurant was called Club Ven Acá (Come here) and was located in Jaibalito but only accessible by boat directly to the restaurant's dock. After arriving at the dock we made our way up to the patio area of the large building and were seated by the hostess in the bar area. We both decided that the only proper way to celebrate our engagement was with burgers and beers.
After we enjoyed our lunch it was time to lounge by the pool. The pool was free to use with the purchase of a meal but the hot tub was an additional charge. The weather was nice enough to enjoy the pool and bypass on the hot tub anyway. The pool was an infinity style right over the lake with a swim up bar. We decided to splurge on the occasion and have a few drinks in celebration. It felt like we were on a tropical vacation, lounging by the pool without a care in the world. Oh, wait, we were!
Eventually we were fully relaxed and ready to get out of the sun so we flagged down a water taxi to take us back to the dock at Maya Moon. We walked back up to our house and decided that we should call our families to share the news with them. Everyone was delighted to hear the happy news and that we were alive and well in Guatemala. We continued the day's celebrations with a relaxing afternoon at the house and pizza for dinner in San Marcos at Fe (Faith) restaurant. As we were leaving the restaurant for the night, a small boy saw us with our container of leftover food. He approached us while reaching for the food and asking, "Por mi? Tengo hambre." (For me? I'm hungry.) He looked sincere so we gave him the leftover food telling him it was pizza and he ran off quickly with the food. We made the walk back to the house after dark offering greetings to the passersby. Buenos noches!
The next morning, we had decided we would go to Santiago. We caught a water taxi and found out we had to transfer in San Pedro. We didn't have any detailed plans of what to do in Santiago, so we just wandered around the streets somewhat aimlessly. We like to see where our feet take us sometimes, foreign places are full of wonderful surprises to be had in this manner. We stopped in for lunch at Comedor Brendy. The food was pretty great there. It had a vibe of place that would be popular for locals, though it was mostly empty while we were there.
We took back to our feet and meandered through the streets some more, sort of making our way loosely back towards the docks. We were enjoying cooking some of our own meals, and the money saved by doing so was a nice bonus, so we decided to make tacos with the freshest ingredients we could find. We walked past a couple women on the sidewalk next to a cooking device. They were clapping their hands next to it, in sweltering heat. We stopped for a moment and stepped back to investigate. They weren't actually clapping, they were stretching a dough between their hands and making perfect flat circles and tossing them onto the cooking surface. These were, of course, corn flour tortillas. We wanted to buy a handful or so, so I chatted with the elder of the women to ask how much it would cost. I don't know what happened. I got confused and then frustrated with the language barrier. I just wanted to get out of that situation, so we paid and walked away with like 18 tortillas. Like I said, I don't know what happened. They were cheap enough, and delicious, so it really didn't matter to us. After a moment to process what had transpired and once we were out of earshot we definitely had a good "WTF" sort of laugh as we made our way back to the boats.
We figured out which boat was going back toward San Pedro and paid a random man that was standing nearby. Although we had broken some larger bills earlier in the week, we had used up most of the small stuff that we had by this point. The total fare was 40Q for both of us. The smallest bill we had that we could pay with was 100Q. I tried to explain to the man that was the smallest I had, and expected change, but he stalked off briskly and told us to get on the boat. I was so confused that I just obliged. Downtrodden at our loss, we got a couple seats in the nearly-full taxi and waited for the final seats to fill in. We had been trying so hard to be safe and to avoid being robbed up to this point. I was so upset with myself at letting the man leave with our 60Q that I was going to let it ruin my day. As the water taxi fired up and was about to push off the dock, a small, unfamiliar boy ran up shouting, "¡Señor! ¡Señor su cambio!" (Sir, your change) while he waved some cash at me. I snatched it from him with a "Muchas gracias amigo!" We were instantly elated and rode across the lake with big smiles on. Apparently the whole situation was only a misunderstanding on our part, and we hadn't actually been we ripped off! We made the transfer in San Pedro again to get back to San Marcos.
We stopped and bought some vegetables on our way to our house. There's a house that seemed to be always selling fresh produce each day, right in town. Then we made way for home so we could relax a little before we started making dinner. TACOS! After dinner, we got into bed early. We would have a very early morning.
We woke up at 3:30am so we could walk into San Marcos in the pitch black, using only our flashlight to guide us. We found Luis and he hailed us a tuk-tuk from the pool. He told the driver our destination, but it was too early for translating. We just got in the back and sat obediently, quietly. Trying to turn our brains on, and to stay warm. It gets rather chilly in the evenings. Our tuk-tuk driver bombed up dirt roads through the pitch black, with only a wimpy yellowed headlight to light the way. If we had been awake enough to process it, it may have been terrifying at the time. We were constantly climbing in elevation. Eventually, our ears popped. We wound our way through a small sleeping village and then back out onto dirt roads. We came into another town and our driver slowed to a stop in the middle of the road next to a couple other tuk-tuks. He shut down his engine and we hopped out, sufficiently lost. We hadn't the slightest clue where we were. After introducing ourselves around to the handful of people in the road, we all started walking together, except the drivers, who left.
We followed a tiny dirt trail into a backyard, perhaps. And across a very small farm. A local man was guiding us on our sunrise hike. We didn't catch his name. He wore jeans and fancy dress shoes. So, as the walk turned into a hike, we were somewhat surprised. The trail took a sharp left and climbed diagonally across the hill, where it cut back right. And again. And again. We lost count of the switchbacks, yet we were thankful for them. The hill we climbed was nearly vertical, it would have been impossible without zigging and zagging until our legs fell off! Finally, when we couldn't handle another step, the trail flattened out! It wasn't a very long climb, but it was very steep. By the time we got to the top, there were several others already up there, with whom we had not begun the hike. Everyone was milling about the bald peak of la Nariz India (Indian nose) trying to find a place to comfortably calm their heart rates and wait for the sun to come up over Lake Atitlán. The morning was pristine, and we enjoyed what was perhaps the best-looking sunrise of our lives. The views of the lake were the best we had; it was completely beautiful. We watched the sleepy towns wake up, and we warmed a bit in the morning light before we wound our way back down the hill. Once we got out onto the street again, our tuk-tuk driver was waiting to bring us back to San Marcos.
We walked back to the house from the center of town to exchange our hiking clothes for swimwear, and to grab our towels. Then we turned around and went back to town to get some lunch. On our way to lunch, we passed a man with a machete on the sidewalk. For a few quetzales, he'd swing his machete a few times and open up a coconut and stick a straw in. We took our cocos to a restaurant, and got seated. I made my way over to the bar to see what was available to sweeten the coconut milk. I asked the bartender to please pour in a splash of malibu for each of us. He laughed at the request, and happily topped us off. We sat back down and ordered some sandwiches that we weren't crazy about.
After lunch, we set out to find a trail we'd read about. It took us some walking to find it; for a while we weren't quite sure we were going the right way. We followed several tiny alleys between houses and hostels and other restaurants, like some weird jungle maze past tiny hidden beaches. Eventually, the path opened up and we saw a sign marking Cerro Tzankujil. We had been pining for this place for a few days, as most of the waterfront in San Marcos seems to be private property. However, the nature reserve at Tzankujil has a few places to get in the water and it's deep enough for swimming, and! it's not dirty or dangerous due to water taxi traffic. The most exciting part for me was that there was some high jumps into the water. But first, we had to wander through the beautiful tropical gardens in the reserve, following a gravel walking path. We found the first cliff and I hopped into the water. It was perfect! I scrambled up the rocks to the top and did it again. And again. Until I started getting worn out. Then we continued further along the path, enjoying the gardens to the next cliff. The big kahuna. This one was a deck built out from the rock face and probably 30 feet or so tall. I knew I couldn't look first, so I just walked off the edge. It's a long drop! One was enough for me. We found a spot for Mandy to get into the water more gently as she's not good with heights. A family of 7 or 8 who had been swimming nearby somehow flagged down a water taxi to get picked up from the reserve. We're pretty sure this is not a standard stop. Somehow they all managed to get onto the boat from a large rock without getting wet or squished, and without the boat once touching the rocks! It was an intense few moments, to be sure. After they left, we had a little cove to ourselves, so we paddled ourselves around until we'd had our fill of swimming. We got out and dried off, and continued following the path, not really sure what else this place had to offer. As we wandered, we slowly climbed up a small hill. At the summit, there was a small cluster of houses or something, which was odd, but we didn't see any people around. There was a gigantic cactus up there so we took a picture with it. We came back down along a different path and eventually found ourselves back at the entrance/exit.
We decided to eat at Posada Schumann (Hostel of Schumann) because of its awesome location right by the docks. And also because it was on the way as we headed back toward town and our house. However, it took forever for any staff to come out to us. Perhaps they didn't know we were there, but there was no notification system that we were aware of. We just walked in from the sidewalk and found a table, but there was nobody there at the time.
We got to watch the young boys hanging out on the docks waiting for the gringos to come in. This was neat because generally they're right in your face trying to sell you things or get handouts. It was much less annoying when we got to watch them from a distance, and we realized they actually offer a useful service directing people where to go and organizing the water taxi routes. The water taxis are very loosely managed, if you haven't gathered that yet. The boats have no indication on them of where they're going. It seems that they just head to whichever destination is most popular at that particular moment. If 20 passengers want to go to San Pedro, then they go. If there are only 5 people at the docks, the boat will wait for more people. The boys on the docks help coordinate who is going where, and they collect money for the taxi captains. So while they can be a nuisance, they generally seem to be working pretty hard, especially for their ages.
We finished up with our meal and decided it was time to head back to the house. It was our last night at the lake so we wanted to make sure we had everything packed and ready to go for the morning. We strolled leisurely back to the house, knowing this would be the last time we would be making our way to it.
We awoke the next morning and made breakfast per usual. We gathered all of our belongings and stuffed all of our gear and souvenirs into our backpacks. We made the walk into San Marcos smiling and waving at everyone we encountered along the way. We already knew we would miss the friendly atmosphere around the lake. Once we got into the center of town we waited for the van that would take us back to Antigua. We had arranged an early ride to Antigua so we could spend a few hours there again and then we planned to catch a different van to the airport. We again enjoyed looking out at the foreign land through our windows for the duration of the ride.
The ride seemed to go by quickly and soon enough we were back in Antigua. Our drop off point was at a hostel close to Fernando's. We were allowed to drop our bags here to be secured in a room while we wandered Antigua waiting for our next ride. It was lunch time. The only logical place we could think of to go was Gloria's to get more of those amazing tacos! Again, we were blown away by how good they were. And the fresh juice that came with them was strawberry-pineapple this time. We strongly believe a trip to Antigua is incomplete without stopping at Gloria's. Holy crap, it's just SO GOOD.
After lunch we wandered the streets enjoying the lively atmosphere. We had a completely different perspective of the city after driving through the highland villages and visiting the lake. Antigua now seemed like a wealthy bustling metropolis as opposed to our initial impression.
Before we headed back to catch our van we stopped by Fernando's for coffees. And also to pick up coffee beans to bring home. This is another must-do in this amazing city. We bought as many packages of coffee that we thought we could fit in our bags. We knew once we ran out, it would suck to go back to store-bought coffee in America. We paid for our things and left, making our way back to our bags and catch our van to the airport.
We boarded our van at 6pm. The van had various other stops throughout the city to pick up other passengers. We were a few blocks away from our origination point when we were informed that we were on the wrong van. With the language barrier we couldn't quite figure out what was going on. But we grabbed our bags and made our way back the pick-up point as we were told. It seemed that the process was very disorganized. Soon, we boarded another bus. And very soon after that it was like déjà vu when we were told we were supposed to be on a different van. This time we got out and grabbed our bags and waited at that location. A coordinator from the van service was with us. Finally, we got on a third van. And thankfully, the final van. Again we stopped at different locations to pick up other passengers. Only Rob and I were going to the airport it seemed. We got to Guatemala City and dropped off some passengers at other stops. Eventually, we saw the airport entrance sign approaching. And passing. We were about to let the driver know that we needed to go there when he pulled to the side of the road and got out to give us our bags. Apparently, we weren't getting dropped off at the airport, but sort of close by to it. It was hotter in Guatemala City than Antigua and near the Lake, even though it was evening. We walked up the road, carrying all our worldly belongings on our backs, to the airport entrance and began the final steps to getting home.
Our airport experience was pretty uneventful. Since it was evening, there weren't very many people around. I think ours was the only flight going out within several hours. It seemed everyone there was at our gate. We got a final drink in the airport bar. A local beer, Moza, because who knows if we'll ever have one again. The flight was pretty rough most of the way, unfortunately. It was the first time we'd been actually somewhat nervous due to turbulence. We had a transfer in New York, and finally landed in Boston around 7am on 1/10/16, a Sunday. We were greeted with dreary, rainy weather, and cold. But it was preferable to snow! We arranged an Uber to get us home. We'd been so long out of Ipswich, we were excited to be home. And we needed to catch a nap before we were prepared to drive to pick up Loki from our friends! He was so excited to see us when we finally got to him.
We decided to spend the precious few years we have on this Earth being adventurous and exploring the globe, even if some areas may be considered unsafe. Where is safe? Where is unsafe? I suppose there is not a correct answer to those questions. All I know is that travelling and learning about new areas, people, foods, and cultures gives us amazing experiences and memories. We are determined to see as much of the world as we can while we are able.
We said: "We’re going to Guatemala.”
They said: “Why?”
This was the most common response that we received when we told friends and family of our plan to visit the central American country. The unknown instills many emotions in people. We felt curious and excited when we saw a picture of an eco-lodge situated on beautiful Lake Atitlan a year ago. We were instantly intrigued. We decided then that we would someday make a trip to visit Guatemala and see this amazing lake. After about a year, we had accrued enough vacation time. We spent that waiting period conducting research on traveling in the area. To comfort ourselves, as well as our friends and families, we worked to prepare ourselves as much as possible for the experience, so we read accounts of fellow travelers, travel alerts, and CDC websites.
During the few months prior to the trip we solidified our accommodations through AirBNB and obtained the recommended vaccinations for visiting the country. The night before our departure we drove to the lakes region of New Hampshire to drop Loki off with some friends. We would miss him but we knew that he was going to have an excellent time with Kerri and Theo and his canine friend Bambi. Finally, on 12/31/15 we got an early morning ride to the airport and awaited our flight to Guatemala City. It was about a six hour flight in total with one layover in Atlanta.
Flying into Guatemala City afforded us an amazing bird's-eye perspective of the alien landscape. It was different than anywhere I’d been before with several small dips and valleys, and many of the communities organized on the high plateaus. Having never been outside the US or Canada I expected some level of a culture shock once I arrived. It was honestly just a bit overwhelming trying to navigate through customs and get out of the airport. The process itself was quite easy, however. We stuck together and made use of Rob’s small Spanish vocabulary and basically followed the crowd. However, I don’t speak the language and am not a huge fan of crowds, so upon exiting the airport I stuck close to Rob and followed his lead.
Once we made it through customs I desperately needed to use the restroom. I was frantically searching for a ladies room with none to be found. There were several kiosks for people to get taxis, shuttles, and buses etc. so we stopped to ask where to find the restroom and get transportation. We decided to take a cab to Antigua which was about one hour away. The restrooms were located outside the building so we made a detour there first. The ladies room of course was closed so I waited patiently while Rob disappeared into the men’s room. It was when I was by myself that a man came up to me and started speaking Spanish. I tried to tell him that I didn’t know Spanish and finally he said “I’m the guy.” I found our taxi driver! Or he found us. Either way, as soon as Rob came back out we hopped in his cab and started our Guatemalan adventure.
The weather was amazing as we left Guatemala City. Dry and in the 80s. We were mesmerized by our surroundings. Lots of people, "chicken buses" loaded with luggage on top, we even saw a man on top of a bus while it was driving down the road. Since neither of us are fluent in Spanish, conversing with our driver was hard, so we mostly just stared out the taxi windows, absorbing everything we could as it whipped by.
As we approached the former central American capital city, our driver began trying to extract from us exactly where in the city we wanted him to abandon us. We were able to remember and communicate a nearby landmark, "Hotel Santo Domingo", when our actual street name didn't seem to register. A very short walk later had us standing in front of a nondescript door to the hostel Casa del Sol. A door on which the other side of was our temporary home; our solace in this crazy foreign place; our safe space, home base. A door which was locked and to which we had no key. Fortunately, we had been given special instructions by the Airbnb owner on how to get the key from a keybox.
Finally, we were inside! And there were English-speakers here! We got up to our tiny room and threw down all our belongings and crashed on our bed for a while. We were super excited, exhausted, and overwhelmed. We needed to regroup before heading back out beyond the wall. Once we were comfortable, we set out on foot. If our primary mission was lunch, then objective zero was to absorb as much scenery, architecture, flora, and fauna as we could along the way. Our feet carried us to Cafe Condesa (countess) where we devoured the most delicious fresh fruit platter we'd ever had.
Our hunger sated, and our bodies rested, it was time to get lost! We checked out parque central (central park) just outside the cafe. We walked all over the tiny, adorable city. We explored miscellaneous alleys and side streets. We picked random places that seemed intriguing and hopped in for a closer look. We had such a great time. Everyone was super friendly, even if we could only communicate at a very basic level!
It is important to note that it was new year's eve, so the streets were extra busy. Calle del Arco (street of the arch) was packed with artisans, vendors, and performers. We admired local crafts (and of course collected some of our favorite pieces!). As night rolled in, we made our way back to parque central. Everyone packs into the park and there's fireworks exploding and flashing lights and music and all sorts of things happening. We counted down to January 1, 2016 and then headed towards our bed. We were slightly uncomfortable around a bunch of foreign people with explosives and alcohol, but mostly we were exhausted from a long day of travel.
Fernando's Kaffee on at Calle Camposeco and 7a Avenida Norte is a must-see for all you coffee drinkers. There are so many delicious options here, we had to visit it twice. Maybe three times? A popular Guatemalan coffee variation includes a special type of chocolate made for this purpose. It dissolves easily into the drink to make a rich mocha drink that is amazing. I stuck to cafe Americano which has since ruined all other coffee for me. The seating area is very relaxing here. One of the days we sat out here there was a woman making fabrics and selling them. The colors used are incredibly vibrant. Also note there is a cat that likes to hang out at Fernando's, and you will likely meet Fernando himself if you stop in here. He's super friendly and will make his presence known. We decided to forego making our own breakfast one day and stopped here for traditional Guatemalan breakfast with eggs, beans, and fresh tortillas.
One evening we went to Habibi's Lounge to partake in some hookah action. Well, when we arrived, the doors were open into the lobby and the gentleman at the entrance greeted us. I think we asked if we could come in to smoke a hookah (at least that's what I meant to say!). He seemed very flustered, told us no, and disappeared beyond the walls of the lobby. We felt so awkward that we left. When we walked by again a while later, all the hookahs that had previously been on display in the lobby were gone, as was the host. We were a little bummed, but had to laugh at how strange the whole encounter was.
We stopped at Gloria's kitchen for lunch one day. We think it was on 3a Calle Poniente between Alameda de Santa Lucia and 7a Avenida Norte. When we first walked in, we were a little disoriented. The kitchen/register/counter is all immediately next to the doorway. It's super hot; there is no ventilation hood or any sort of safety equipment like we're used to seeing at home. There were just two ladies and one young boy working there. I ordered two tacos for Mandy and a burrito for myself. We paid and took a seat as far from the heat of the kitchen as we could find. Looking around the restaurant further lowered our expectations; the roof of the establishment was a makeshift array of burlap and plastic sheeting, held loosely in place by miscellaneous rough-sewn lumber. The boy brought us a couple glasses of fresh juice that we certainly didn't order. He said it was piña. Pineapple. Freshly squeezed. We tasted it hesitantly, and it was delicious! I'm sure it was my error somehow, but when the food arrived, we ended up with two plates of tacos. So 6 tacos. And a burrito. It was so much food but we didn't even care because it was all so amazing. And it was all only about $5US! We devoured everything and vowed to return.
As we were walking around aimlessly one afternoon, we reached an intersection somewhere near central park. As we tried to decide which way to go, a woman approached us. She was selling fruits. We weren't particularly hungry, but we bought a bag of freshly-sliced mango for 1Q (about 13 cents) anyways. It was unbelievably good. We learned that food just tastes remarkably better when it hasn't traveled far.
If you're looking for souvenirs, Nim Po't is a great place to check out. They stock all sorts of art and crafts made (almost always by hand) in Guatemala and nearby countries. The great part about shopping here for us was that they accept major credit/debit cards. We had exchanged for an amount of Quetzales through our bank before we left home and we were hoping not to have to get any more because it's more expensive to exchange currency in Guatemala. So we took the opportunity to get some small gifts for family and friends back home, without putting a dent in our cash-on-hand.
As a recommendation from our AirBNB host we found outselves at Café No Sé (Café I don't know) on 1a Avenida Sur. This was convenient as it was right down the street from where we were saying. And they had happy hour!! This bar is known for it's Ilegal Mezcal which had been traditionally smuggled into Guatemala from Mexico. Mezcal is made from agave. It is similar to tequila (made from blue agave specifically). We each took a shot, with a couple that we had met from Chicago who were on their honeymoon. Rob enjoyed it. I on the other hand, passed on the second round. Another evening we made our way to Terrace Hostel. Here we sat on the rooftop bar and watched Volcan En Fuego erupt. It felt surreal to be drinking a cocktail on a rooftop while watching lava flow down the sides of a mountain in the distance.
We spent a total of 3 nights and most of 4 days in Antigua. We tried to explore as much of the city of possible during this time. There is amazing architecture around the city and several ruins from the old colonial capital. Rob was interested in all of the vehicles that we saw that are not available or differ slightly from what is seen in the US.
So then we went to Lake Atitlan.
"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to."
- Bilbo Baggins
We're just an adventure-loving couple with a puppy looking to share our stories with the world.