Sunday, November 17, 2019

Guatemala - September / October 2019

All Pictures are at the Bottom of this post!

Today I am off to Guatemala. This will be my fifth country visited this year and 67th country/territory in my lifetime. My goal is 259, which means I must live a lot longer than expected, or I must increase the pace. For a complete list of what countries/territories have visited CLICK HERE.

Why Guatemala? Margarite has been studying Spanish for the last year. To accelerate her learning she has decided to take a three-week immersion Spanish Class. She learned one of the best places to take these classes is Antigua, Guatemala. Who would have thought?

Joining us on this trip will be Rosalita. No, not the Rosalita that Bruce Springsteen sings about, this is the REAL Rosalita. More on Rosalita as the trip progresses.

While the ladies are in class, I will be exploring Antigua and the surrounding areas. This will be one of my first trips where I stay in one city for an extended period (longer than a week) of time. Sure we will do weekend excursions, but Monday through Friday will be in Antigua. Lucky for me, I already speak fluent Spanish along with most other languages. Otherwise, I would also be in Spanish class instead of having fun.

After we arrive in Guatemala City, we will be heading to Nuevo Reto, which means New Challenge in Spanish. Nuevo Reto is a youth transition home. They provide educational sponsorship, food assistance, and vocational training (carpentry, sewing, crafts, etc.) to children in the community and offer a weekly community meal to those children and their families. Lucky for us today is Friday the day of the weekly community meal.

Over the last month, we have collected and purchased school supplies, clothing, shoes, etc.. all much-needed items that we will be delivering. This will be the first drop off of donated items. On Wednesday, we will be visiting the Backyard School to make our second drop off.

We are bringing well over 300 pounds of stuff. I hope we do not go over our baggage limit.

There are too many people that made this project possible to thank everyone, though there are two, I would like to mention that really took some stress off of us.

The first is Jennifer, she is with Guatemala Service Projects Inc. Guatemala Service Projects Inc has done a lot of great work in Guatemala. Jennifer pointed us in the right direction. Finding organizations that will benefit is not an easy task, especially when you are doing it from thousands of miles away.

The second thank you goes to the Adams Family. I want to thank them for two reasons, first for their ability to come through in the clutch. When we found out that Nuevo Reto was in desperate need of school backpacks, we went into panic mode. Where do we get 20 backpacks on short notice? No worries, within hours the Adams Family had 25 backpacks, most of them brand-new on our front porch, simply amazing. The second reason I want to thank the Adams Family (even though they spell it differently). The Addams Family was one of my favorite shows growing up. Uncle Fester was the best. I love writing, “The Adams Family” so I thank you guys for having a great last name.

We have now spent five days in Guatemala and we absolutely love it. The people, the landscape, the weather, everything is perfect. The ladies might disagree on the weather, the mornings are beautiful (while they are in class), in the afternoon there are periodic rain showers, you might say torrential rain showers.

Once we landed Pastor Jacob picked us up and took us to Nuevo Reto. Once at Nuevo Reto, we got a tour and learned about the organization, and of course, we delivered all the goodies. As you can see they were very appreciative.

Our first full day in Guatemala, we booked a tour with our good friend Esteban. Esteban was born and raised in Guatemala City, while he has a degree in economics and a full-time job in the business world. Esteban loves the history of Guatemala and the Mayan Culture so much that on the weekends he gives tours to friends and family that come and visit.

Some of the sites we visited, Kaminaljuyu, which is a Mayan ruin in the middle of Guatemala City, Museo Nacional De Arqueologia & Etnologia, and Palacio Nacional. Palacio Nacional was closed. Fortunately, Estaeban’s got a private tour of the Palacio Nacional. We also visited the relief map which is an outside topographically map of Guatemala built to scale. The relief map gave us a great
understanding of the size of the volcanic mountains. One of the last sites visited was the Catedral Metropolitana which we were told is the only Catholic Church that had to be exorcised, the cross has three crossbars on it to keep the demons away.

After our tour, Esteban drove us to Antigua. We will be spending the next three weeks in Antigua. As we approached Antigua, we could see the volcanoes in the background.

Our first day in Antigua, Rosalita set up a village ATV tour with Simoon Tours, our Guide FoFo was great. See short video, yes those are chicken busses trying to run us off the road. We visited a textile market, where we learned how each village had its own color of clothing. Next was a wine factory and the highlight was a chocolate factory. Margarite was very happy there was no dairy in the chocolate. We saw many churches and other historic sites. We got a good understanding of the area. Antigua is situated about 40 miles south of Guatemala City surrounded by volcanoes.

The first day of school, at least for the ladies, their classes are at San Jose el Viejo - which is also where we are staying, an absolutely beautiful compound. For me, it is all about fun and play, as the ladies studied, I went for a run exploring the center of Antigua discovering great things to do over the next few weeks. After school, we did a walking tour of the village. I showed the ladies some of the sites I discovered in the morning.

A little tease. We hope to find a chicken bus factory that we can visit in the next few days. That is it for now.

In the mornings, while the ladies continue to Spanish classes, I continue to explore Antigua and the
surrounding areas. My running has been sluggish, which has been a bit discouraging until I realized we are at 5,000 feet in elevation.

Today, October 1st is Children’s Day in Guatemala. I am not sure of the significance of Children's Day, but I am sure you can Google it and find out. Nuevo Reto, the school we visited Friday, used children’s day to give some of the kids the shoes we donated. I think you can tell from the pictures these were very special gifts for these kids.

After Spanish class, our goal was to find a chicken bus factory. What is a chicken bus, you might ask? While there are public buses in Guatemala, most are limited to larger cities like Guatemala City. To fill this gap, Guatemalan entrepreneurs buy used school buses from the United States and convert them into buses used for public transport. Why are they called Chicken Buses? Many times riders will use the buses to get to the market. It would not be unusual on the return trip for a rider to have a live chicken with them.

To get a better understanding of the School Bus journey from the United States to Guatemala, where it becomes a Chicken Bus. I highly recommend the movie “La Camioneta: The Journey of One American School Bus”. I think you can find it on Amazon Prime.

We were told that we could find a Chicken Bus Factory in the town of San Miguel Duenas. San Miguel Duenas just a few kilometers from Antigua. We called for an Uber, and Martin quickly showed up. Uber, works a little differently in Guatemala then it does in the United States. Once the
Uber shows up, you tell the driver you will pay cash, and you book him for a certain amount of time. The driver cancels the ride and at the end of your time, you pay the driver directly. This way, the driver makes more money (no cut for Uber), and you pay a little less.

Martin took us to San Miguel Duenas. He was determined to find a Chicken Bus Factory. You need to understand these are not tourist attractions with signs. These are working garages that are typically behind cinder block walls, with large gates. After stopping and banging on many of these gates, we found a helpful gentleman, he explained it was siesta time, and we should come back after 3:00 PM.

This was not an issue, as we planned to visit the Macadamia Nut Farm Valhalla Experimental Station. We arrived and immediately got a tour of the farm one of the highlights was getting a demonstration of the machine that takes the outer layer of skin off the Macadamia Nut.
Watch the few second video, notice the name of the machine.

After the tour, we had some Macadamia Nut Pancakes at the restaurant, everything was safe for Margarite since the pancakes are made with Macadamia Nut Flour, and the butter is Macadamia Nut Butter, no Gluten and no Dairy.

As soon as we were done at the Macadamia Farm we continued our search for a Chicken Bus Factory. We went to the gate where the man had told us they were on siesta until 3:00 PM. He gave us directions to where we might find a Chicken Bus Factory. Yes, we were running around like chickens with their heads cut off.

Luckily Martin is persistent, and we found a Chicken Bus Factory. Taller Renton, the owner of the factory gave us a tour. If this was in the United States, and three foreigners show up with an Uber driver, asking if they could have a tour of an Auto Garage. You know the place you get your car repaired. Oh, and the foreigners all have cameras. Taller could not have been more hospitable, probably like a garage owner in the United States. He had eight buses in all different stages of repair. Taller explained his shop repairs and reconditions existing Chicken Buses. Taller does not take the original School Buses and convert them into Chicken Buses.

Rosalita, was so happy we found a Chicken Bus Factory, she danced a Jig. Watch the 8 seconds long video.

We spent at least an hour with Taller. We learned Taller had many workers, a body guy, a welder, an engine mechanic, even a seamstress to repair the seats, but the artist who paints the buses is Taller. He showed us pictures of many of the buses he had painted over the years, works of art.

After taking up way to much of Taller’s time, we headed back to Antigua. Martin had been driving us around for four hours he asked us if 60Q ($7.20) is ok. We gave him 100Q ($12.00). No wonder Uber is losing billions and billions of dollars.

Today Rosalita decided to take a full day of Spanish. After the morning class, Margarite and I headed to The Backyard School. The Backyard School is located in San Bartolome Milpas Altas, only about five kilometers away, but straight up the volcano on a very windy road. It took about 30 minutes to cover the five kilometers. We are delivering the second batch of School Supplies, Clothes, and Shoes that many of you donated. The Back Yard School is a non-profit, after-school program. They teach many of the subjects you would expect, English, Math, Science, as well as particle class like sewing and cooking. Not to say English, Math, and Science are not practical classes.

As I mentioned October 1st is children’s day, but since we (special guests) were coming on October 2nd, the school allowed two days for children’s day this year. For this extra day, many of the kids wore costumes as kids might wear on Halloween. Even some of the teachers got dressed up.

The highlight of the day was giving away Team Gracie T-shirts, Gracie Tapp, who is a young lady, who has been battling leukemia for most of her young life. She wanted us to find young kids that had some of the same traits as her, Beautiful, Brave, and Strong. We now have a Team Gracie group of kids in Guatemala.

We had dinner at Wild Restaurant in Antigua - Margarite is gluten intolerant what a pleasure going to a restaurant where everything on the menu is gluten-free and a gluten lover like me would never know it. The location for us was perfect just a couple blocks from the main square. Service and food were great. Price was a little high for Antigua standards, but still very inexpensive.

Again, today Rosalita took a full day of Spanish, being here just one week she wanted to get the most out of her class time. In the afternoon, Margarite and I decided to take a chocolate-making class. The class was at Choco Museo, the class was for two hours. We learned about the fruit that the beans come from, the process that turns it into chocolate. We roasted the beans, shelled them, and finally made chocolate bars out of the finished chocolate. The best part for Margarite, there was no milk in this chocolate!!! Watch the 28-second video of the chocolate making.

We had a great dinner at Taqueria Doña Lupita, fantastic food, 100Q ($12.00) for all three of us.

We have now been in Guatemala for eight days, six of which have been in Antigua Guatemala. As I mentioned this is the first trip where I am staying in one place for three weeks, except for a few day
trips and maybe a weekend trip. I am getting into a normal routine. I do some type of activity on my own in the mornings and then join up with the ladies once they are done, class. I even joined a gym, Gimnasio LaFabrica, this has given me a great way to meet people. Even Creepy Pat works out at Gimnasio LaFabrica.

Once the ladies were done class, we grabbed Audrey. I am not sure I mentioned Audrey before, Audrey is 83 years old and spends the summer just outside Fargo, N.D. and the winters in Antigua Guatemala. Audrey is a neighbor of ours, and a blast to hang with. She is a widow, who along with her deceased husband raised five children. Audrey has traveled the world and even toured the United States on the back of a Harley-Davidson Motorcycle. When I asked her if she liked riding the motorcycle, she said, “No, but the only other option was to stay home, and that was not really an option.” After raising her children she spent a few years as a policewoman for the Fargo Police department. After the police assignment, she spent 20 years as a county prison guard. Yes, she has on occasion strip search male prisoners, and if a prisoner cursed in front of her, they lost all privileges. It sounds like Audrey ran a tight ship.

Why do I mention Audrey? This afternoon we are heading up into the hillside to visit Tenedor del Cerro, to get to Tenedor del Cerro you need to go to Hotel Casa Santo Domingo. Hotel Casa Santo Domingo is one and a half kilometers from our apartment. Once at the hotel you take a shuttle up into the hills, where you will find Tenedor del Cerro. Rather than walk the one and a half kilometers to Hotel Casa Santo Domingo, I wanted to take a Tuk Tuk. A Tuk Tuk is a type of taxi, think of an enclosed three-wheel motorcycle, with barely enough power to get out of its own way. A Tuk Tuk can carry three people, four if you squeeze. Margarite and Rosalita refused to join me in the Tuk Tuk, but Audrey was all in.

Tenedor del Cerro is a restaurant, but the grounds are a living art exhibit. The art rotates throughout the year. For those of you that know the Grounds for Sculpture, it is very similar. We toured the grounds before having a light dinner and then heading back to town. Tomorrow is Margarite and Rosalita's first full day off since starting school, and we have an exciting day planned.

Today we will hike Volcán Pacaya. Much like the rest of Central America, Guatemala is scattered with volcanoes. One of the most adrenaline-filled things to do is hike an active volcano. One of the best volcanos to hike is Volcán Pacaya, which is within easy reach from Antigua Guatemala. This hike does not require a guide, but we decided to hire Rolando to take us. Rolando is a long-time friend and local to Antigua. Rolando knows the volcanoes in this area like the back of his hand. Rolando was well worth the cost for our first volcano hike in Guatemala. Rosalita’s teacher Luis will be joining us too. Volcán Pacaya is highly active and regularly throws smoke and lava into the air. The best time of the day to go on this hike is in the afternoon. The reason is you reach the highest point at sunset, this allows you to enjoy a show of smoke and explosions before heading back down in the dark. With that said, being the rainy season, we decided to do the hike early in the morning to avoid the afternoon rain showers.

We departed Antigua at 5:00 AM starting the hike slightly before 6:00 AM. With the sun just rising, we could see the glow of the lava even though the mountain was still a good distance away. This hike is not a strenuous hike, though some in our party thought it was difficult. The hike was a total of seven hours, including two hours of driving as well as a break to roast marshmallows and a break for lunch. The highlight was roasting the marshmallows on the lava fields, yes you walk on hot lava and simply put a marshmallow on a stick and lower it to the grounded where it is quickly roasted, Watch the video.

The during the hike the volcano was puffing smoke, many times causing perfect smoke rings. The volcano was also spewing lava and rocks into the air. I have hiked a lot of volcanoes throughout the world, though this was the first one that was active. It definitely is a different feel, knowing at anytime this volcano could have a massive eruption.

When we arrived back in Antigua, we took a siesta, before heading to Restaurant at Caoba Farms. Recommended by Ana and boy was she correct. We have been in Antigua a week and this was the best meal we have had and we have not had a bad meal. This is not just a restaurant, there are different activities each day. We went on a Saturday. We arrived at 2:30 PM for a late lunch. You can walk to Caoba Farms from anywhere in Antigua, at most 2 kilometers. Directions: Walk all the way down on 5a. Avenida Sur, towards "Volcán de Agua" past Panza Verde and Escallonia. The cobblestones will turn into a dirt road, stay on the main road and you will cross a small bridge right before getting to the entrance which is on the left side of the road. There are small signs pointing you in the right direction.

On our arrival, there was a small market set up in the entryway of the restaurant. There were vendors from the area selling food products and Crafts, Jewelry, Chocolate, gluten-free products, etc.. There was even live music. I had the buffalo burger, Margarite had a large salad, and our Rosalita had a pizza, plus we ordered the freaky garlic fries to share. Everything was perfect. The service was great.

Alex the owner started the farm about 16 years ago. He was one of the first organic farmers in the area. Once competition came in, he decided instead of servicing restaurants with his farm products, he would open his own restaurant. What a great idea, the open-air atmosphere is very welcoming.

After our lunch, we took a self-guided tour of the farm. It is a truly sustainable restaurant/farm. We did ask if the water is safe. We found out they have 6 reverse osmosis water filters for the water, to both clean the vegetables and to make their drinking water and drinks. NO ONE has ever gotten a food/water born illness from eating or drinking at Coaba Farms. Though Alex did explain a few friends from the states did drink a bit too much alcohol and got sick, but that was not the restaurant's fault. They have a well-stocked bar. Alex was nice enough to sit with us for about 15 minutes giving us the history of his farm. This was not something special for us, we noticed the entire time we were there (about 2 hours) he was roaming from table to table making sure each guest was being taken care of. You do not want to miss this gem in Antigua.

Sleep came very easy tonight.

Margarite picked up a cold from someone! She decided rest was the best remedy for her, as Spanish class would resume on Monday, and she needed to be well by then. Rosalita and I walked the streets of Antigua eating our way through the town. By late-afternoon, Margarite was feeling better, and we decided on a drink at the rooftop bar called Sky Bar Cafe, recommended by Jennifer. From Sky Bar Cafe you can see much of Antigua, We had a great dinner at Hector’s Bistro, recommended by Erin.

Today is a sad day as Rosalita departed, with Margarite still recovering from her cold, I am sure we will have a lazy afternoon.

This may be my last update, tomorrow I mountain bike down an active volcano. It should be interesting, can I outrun the lava?

Before I talk about the mountain bike trip, I want to mention some restaurants we have enjoyed.

Ni-Fu Ni-Fa is an Argentinean restaurant just across from our apartment. A bit on the pricey side for Antigua Guatemala but inexpensive compared to U.S. prices. The food was excellent, being an Argentinean Restaurant, guess what we had? Yes, steak. They bring the different cuts of meat to your table, and you pick what you would like and how you would like it cooked. Margarite and I decided to get the Cowboy. This is a premium cut of meat that should be split between two people. I like my steak rare, and Margarite likes her’s medium-rare. No problem, they grill the steak in the kitchen and then bring it out on a small grill. They sliced the steak, which was perfect for me, still bleeding. Since Margarite wanted hers with a little less blood, they kept it on the grill at our table until it was cooked to perfection for Margarite. The dinner came with an extensive salad bar, as well as a large assortment of Argentinean wines.

Fridas is a Mexican restaurant. The pricing is very reasonable, and the food and service are excellent. Located a few blocks north of the main plaza on 5th Avenue.

I booked the mountain bike ride with Old Town Tours. The cost was minimal compared to the value. We drove about 30 minutes up the volcano. David, my guide explained the different options we had for the ride. I was the only one on the tour, so I got to pick what route we would take. It was obvious from David’s descriptions what route he wanted me to pick. “This is the route I would take a sissy on, this is the route a real mountain biker would take.” DUG which route do you prefer? The good news no crashes, and I survived. This one-minute video is a summary of the two-hour ride.

We did make a few stops on the way down. One cool stop was at a Catholic Church. At this church, they mix the rituals of the Mayan people and the rituals of the Catholic Church. We watched a Mayan gentleman setting up his circle of items to burn, while another man was already burning his sacrifices. Things such as candles, cigars, sugar, etc...

The ride ended back in Antigua, though 80% of the ride was downhill, when we did go uphill, we went straight uphill. This was NOT an EASY ride. It was time for a nap.

Margarite decided to take full-day Spanish classes this week. This meant she would be going to class until Three o’clock. For Wednesday, I scheduled a walking tour of Antigua for 3:30 PM. We have been here ten days and know much of the town but thought we might find some hidden gems. The tour was just OK. Most of what we learned we already knew. We just got a little more detail. The raining season is almost over, but we did get a huge down poor right when the tour started. Most of the cobblestone streets turned into small rivers. Luckily, we were at a church and just waited for the storm to pass, maybe 15 minutes.

With Margarite in class for most of the day, I have more time to explore. Today I wanted to find a Shuco hotdog. A Shuco hotdog is a famous style of Guatemalan Hot dog. Unfortunately or fortunately, I struck out.

However, I did find a Chevere hotdog. To the uneducated eye, the Guatemalan Chevere and Shuco hotdogs are just exotic hotdogs, but to a Guatemalan, these two hotdogs are very different.

For starters, the Chevere hotdog is based on the Chevere brand style of preparation which is as follows: steamed bread bun, add one or two steamed hotdog links (salchicha we call them in Guatemala), cover it with raw grated cabbage and top it with mayonnaise, ketchup and mustard, some people add Picamas green chile sauce.

On the other hand, the Guatemalan Shuco hotdog comes with guacamole (avocado sauce), boiled cabbage, mayonnaise, tomato sauce, mustard, hot sauce, and one or more of the following grilled meats: chorizo (Guatemalan red sausage), longaniza (Guatemalan white sausage), salchicha (normal hot dog sausage), ham, bacon, pepperoni, german ham and sausages, chicken breast, beef steak fajitas, or polish sausages. Next week I will continue my search for a Shuco, but I was very happy with my Chevere hot dog.

This afternoon (Thursday) we did a cooking class at La Tortilla Cooking School Guatemala. La Tortilla Cooking School Guatemala was a few minute walk from our apartment, what a great experience, the entire class was taught in Spanish. Margarite realized how much her Spanish has improved over the last two weeks. There were only three times where I had to explain what the cooking instructor was saying. We made a Beet Salad, Rice, and Chicken Pepian. Chicken Pepian which is the national dish of Guatemala. Chicken Pepian is chicken in spicy squash and sesame sauce, in our case, we also added potatoes. For dessert, we first boiled and mashed plantains, then we made them into balls filled with chocolate before frying them in sunflower oil. Everything was fantastic.

This afternoon (Friday) Martin, our Uber driver, is picking us up at 12:15 to take us to Lake Atitlán (Yes, Margarite is skipping afternoon class), where we will spend the weekend, with our friends Holly, Bob, and Carlos. We will be staying at Hotel y Cafe La Casa del Mundo. Built into the cliffside, the only way to get to the hotel is by boat. We booked the top floor, 85 stairs from the dock to our room. I am glad we are in shape.

What a great weekend in Lake Atitlán. To our surprise, Holly arranged for the Cinco Amigos to get together, which is five friends for those of you who’s Spanish skills are a little rusty. More on the Cinco Amigos in a minute. It is only about 80 kilometers from Antigua Guatemala to Panajachel, but with traffic and road conditions (rock slides), it can take two to three hours to cover the 80 kilometers. Martin did an excellent job of getting us safely to Panajachel.

Lake Atitlán is a crater lake, meaning it was formed after a volcano erupted and blew the top of the volcano off, leaving a big crater. Over time that crater filled with water, mostly from rain. Lake Atitlán is a cross between a Large Lake Tahoe and a Large Lake Como, maybe 40 years ago, before both became well know places to live and visit.

Several towns sit on the lake, Panajachel being one of them. Panajachel is one of the few that has a major road system leading to it. Most of the other villages are easier to access from the water.

Once in Panajachel, we took a public boat (think of a bus, except on the water) to our hotel, Hotel y Cafe La Casa del Mundo. The boat ride was maybe 20 minutes. The water was fairly rough, (Margarite would say VERY rough) and the rain was just starting. In fact, the water was too severe for the boat to dock at our hotel. Instead, the captain dropped us off at a larger dock further down the lake, and we hiked back to our hotel.

The hotel was nicer than the pictures. It has been literally forever since we had seen Holly and Bob and even longer than forever since we had seen the Cinco Amigos at the same time. Holly arraigned a private boat for the evening. Cuatro of the Cinco Amigos picked us up at about six o’clock. They also had Pancho, a German Sheppard with them. We all headed to the Blind Lemons which is in San Marcos about a 15-minute boat ride. The Blind Lemon was built by Carlos Funk, the Quinto Amigo. Now that the gang is back together I can give you a rundown of the Cinco Amigos.

#1 Bob - The band leader, fairly sure he is EX-CIA.
#2 Holly - The real band leader, but to protect Bob’s ego we tell everybody he is the bandleader. We are fairly sure Holly was Bob’s handler when he was in the CIA.
#3 Gaby - The most stable of the bunch, she is an architect from Guatemala City.
#4 Jochen - He is the idea guy, a civil engineer by education, and a restaurateur by experience.
#5 Carlos Funk, we are fairly sure that Carlos is in the witness protection program. We are also certain he picked his name for the program, as he loves playing the blues on his many guitars. I doubt it is a coincidence that his last name is Funk, and he is into music.

That rounds out the Cinco Amigos.

Gaby and Jochen are the parents of Pancho and have spent the last two years building a Glamping Lodge and Restaurant, that is opening next week. The name of their place is called Picnic.

A commercial: If you are on the East Coast of the United States on Friday, November 22nd, 2019, come out to the Quakertown Train Station Carlos will be playing there. Watch a short video (20 seconds) of Carlos playing for us at the Blind Lemons, you can see the entire Cinco Amigos gang in the video. If you want to hear more of Carlos’s music just Google “Carlos Funk.”

After a great evening of catching up with the Cinco Amigos, having an awesome meal at the Blind Lemons, and listening to Carlos play for us, we took the boat back to our hotel.

The Hotel y Cafe La Casa del Mundo bills itself as a Hotel / Hostel, but there is nothing hostel about it, except maybe the lower than average price. It is not that often I post pictures of our food, but I wanted you to see the breakfast we got for about $5.00.

We rented Kayaks and paddled over to Bob and Holly’s place. Gaby and Jochen had invited us to get a tour of Picnic. Bob and Holly thought it best if they guided us there since it was not that easy to find.

What an architectural feat of magic, built mostly of wood, right into the side of the mountain. They have two of the Glamping Suites complete, both with private baths, looking over the lake. They have a full restaurant and kitchen. A natural stream runs on the edge of the property, where they have created natural pools for the guest to relax in. I am bummed, I forget to take pictures of Picnic, but I did get one of their views.

After touring Picnic, Bob and Holly took us on a kayak tour of the lake. They showed us some land that they are in the process of buying. They plan to build a house on the land. After the kayak tour, we hung around the hotel enjoying the beautiful views.

Bob and Holly joined us for a family-style dinner at the hotel, another great meal. After dinner, we said our goodbyes, who knows when we will see the Cinco Amigos again.

Today we return to Antigua Guatemala. The easy way to get back to Panajachel is by boat, how often do we do things the easy way. The hard way to get back to Panajachel is to hike straight up the volcano, about 2,000 feet up. For this hike, we hired a guide, Andres. We do not mind doing things the hard way, but we have learned by experience, we should not do things the stupid way! Not hiring a guide would have been foolish.

We departed at 9:00 o’clock and reached the rim of the volcano at noon. We climbed two thousand feet in elevation and covered four miles in distance. A rather difficult hike, especially when you are starting at 5,000 feet in elevation and ending at 7,000 feet.

Once at the rim, we hiked another two miles to a small village where we caught a mini-bus to a large town known as Sololá.

From Sololá we took a chicken bus to Panajachel. Here is how I would describe the chicken bus ride. You need to remember we are in a School Bus that was sold to be used in Guatemala because it could not pass the safety inspections in the United States.

It is like getting on a roller coaster that has seats built for kids in elementary school. You must sit three per seat, but the seats can only hold two and a half butt cheeks. Yes, half a cheek has no support. The road is mostly hairpins turns, absolutely no straight-aways, descends from 7,000 feet to 5,000 feet in just a few miles.

The driver clearly makes his money on volume. The driver’s goal, get the most amount of people on that bus as quickly as possible. Once the bus is overfull, the driver gets that bus to Panajachel as quickly as possible. As the bus made each turn, it was a workout to stay in your seat, pulling several
G’s. On the right side of the road, had a sheer drop. You know the side we were on. Nevertheless, we lived to tell the story!!

Martin met us in Panajachel and got us back to Antigua in one piece.

Today, Margarite is back at School. I did some food shopping at the local market, before house hunting, yes we are thinking of spending more time in Guatemala, the land of eternal spring. More on that later.

Last week in Antigua Guatemala!

I think mentioned on Monday, Guatemala is the land of eternal spring. What is the saying “April Showers bring May Flowers,” it is April, on Tuesday and Wednesday it rained 48 hours straight, there were several extreme downpours! Yes, this is the raining season, but this much rain at one time we are told is very unusually.

The rain had little impact on Margarite, as she is in class full-time with Luis. For me, I caught up on a lot of reading. During one of the breaks in the rain, we did walk to the main square to keep from going stir crazy. We also stopped to chat with a woman that was weaving a scarf.

We had dinner last night at Por Que No? Cafe, where locals and tourists come to eat and meet. Owned by a husband and wife team, this small intimate restaurant at 2 Avenida Sur, 9 Calle Oriente, has awesome food and a great atmosphere. I had the roasted eggplant, and Margarite had the curry shrimp and eggplant. We both enjoyed our meals. The most interesting part, you need to take a very steep staircase. Some might even call it a ladder, to get to the seating area. The bar and open kitchen area on the ground level with the seating area above.

Finally, the sun is out, it is now Thursday. I booked a mountain bike ride, here is the name and description.

Pillars to Heaven (I almost ended up in Heaven, or maybe Hell) 

This is one of our favorite shop rides that heads to the eastern mountains above the Antigua valley. It's not an all-day epic ride, but worth its weight in gold. There are several ways to ride this ride and depending on how long and hard you want to ride we can suggest a route. The default ride grinds out of the Antigua valley either on a dirt road (easier) or farm jeep tracks (harder) up through a beautiful old-growth forest protected by an enormous farm. The trail down has some of the sweetest flow of any around guaranteed to leave you with an ear to ear grin.

Distance: 10 miles (15 kms.)
Ascent: 2145 ft. (650m)
Descent: feet 2145 ft. (650 m)
Start Elevation: 5115 feet (1598 m)
Max Elevation: 6775 feet (2052m)
End Elevation: 5115 feet (1598 m)
Max Gradient: 44%

You are reading correctly. The ride is only ten miles, should be easy. First, the guide did not give me the option of the dirt road (easier) or farm jeep tracks (harder). We took the farm jeep tracks. We climbed 2,145 feet in six kilometers (3.75 miles). The ride up is just under a half-mile of climbing in just under four miles. You are reading that correctly, 44 percent gradient. Ninety percent is straight up and down. Like a cliff, 44 percent is half of that, a very steep hill. At 5,000 feet, my lungs wanted to explode. Sure we have been at altitude for three weeks, but my lungs did not seem to remember that.

For the downhill part, the description says, “The trail down has some of the sweetest flow of any around, guaranteed to leave you with an ear to ear grin.” What it did not mention, as it had rained for two days straight, much of which was torrential downpours. This rain caused the sweetest flows to be rain washed out trails. The description also did not mention it was the beginning of the season. This means the trail had not been cleared of wild blueberry bushes, yes the ones with skin-penetrating stickers on them.

The killer corn was never mentioned, the cornstalks that somehow grew arms as you rode by. These stalks would tackle you any swallow your bike. You had to fight to get your bike back.

The last part of the description missing was the cliff. The cliff you had to jump or ride down at the end. That is where I crashed. It is not a good mountain bike ride unless I crash. Watch the video highlights of the ride, two and a half hours in just 47 seconds. I did come out of the crash better than the GoPro. I hope you enjoy the video.

After a long hot shower and scrubbing all the dirt and gravel out of my wounds, I met Audrey and Margarite for our truffle making class.

The class at 3:30 PM at the Choco Museo, this is the same place we had our chocolate making class two weeks earlier.

Our instructor, Orlando has been teaching the class for five years. Boy does he knows what he is doing. Audrey is our neighbor. Audrey had ridden the TukTuk with me two weeks ago when we went to Tenedor del Cerro. Audrey is a mother of five, ex-prison guard, ex-police detective, from Fargo North Dakota. We learned the movie, “Fargo,” is based on a case Audrey investigated when she was a detective in the Fargo.

Orlando was a great teacher, and we learned how to make chocolate truffles as well as chocolates with praline filling. The best part we got to eat what we made.

With Gaby teaching us how to make chocolate two weeks ago, and Orlando teaching us how to make truffles today. I think we are ready to open a chocolate shop.

Today is our last day in Antigua Guatemala. Margarite is now fluent in Spanish, almost at my level. Most of our conversations are in Spanish. This will be her last day of class. While Margarite is in class, I wandered Antigua, I spent the morning walking around town saying good-bye to many of our new friends. I also stopped at the Classic Barbara Shop for a hot towel straight razor shave. Last week, Ramon cut my hair and gave me a shave. Today he was booked so Leo filled in. What a way to finish the morning.

The views do not get tiring.

We have found some places to rent if we return in February, a few other cities have also been suggested to investigate, here is our current list. We are all ears to other suggestions.

Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala
Granada, Nicaragua
Mérida, Mexico
Somewhere, Panama

Why you might want to make a suggestion? We plan to rent a two or three-bedroom apartment/house, there will be room for visitors. If there is a place you might want to visit in Central America, let us know.

Tomorrow we leave Antigua Guatemala, the next four days we will be visiting, Semuc Champey, Tikal, and Flores. From Flores, we will fly back to Guatemala City, before returning to the United States.

Guatemala - The Last Hurray

What a long day. Cesar, our driver, picked us up at 8:30 AM for our drive from Antigua to Lanquin. The drive can take anywhere from seven to ten hours. It all depends on road conditions, and traffic. We planned to take a break in Coban for lunch, the halfway point. Why leave at 8:30 AM? The drive takes you directly through Guatemala City, leaving earlier will put you into the traffic congestion of the morning rush. By delaying an hour or two you actually reduce your travel time.

Luck was not with us, while we did sail through Guatemala City, we hit every other traffic jam, road work, as well as road closures for accidents. At 1:30 PM, five hours into our drive we were not even close to Coban. We decided to stop for lunch and get out of the van. The van was a luxury eight-passenger van. The van was currently, configured for six passengers with three sets of captain’s seats, plenty of room and comfort for the three of us. Cesar was an excellent driver with over 30 years of driving tourists throughout Guatemala. Before driving tourists, Cesar drove a truck. Though 70 years old, I would not have thought he was more than 50.

Lunch was nice, and very inexpensive, eight dollars for the three of us. Clearly, we are no longer in Antigua. In Antigua, the same lunch for three would have been at least 14 dollars. Yes, things are relatively inexpensive in Guatemala, even in the tourist areas.

As we continued our travels, our luck did not change. We arrived in Lanquin, close to 6:30 PM a long ten hours after we departed Antigua. The last ten kilometers was on a rocky dirt road with over ten percent inclines and declines and of course sheer drops on our side of the road. Even with losing the sunlight Cesar did a fantastic job getting us to the El Recreo Lodge.

We booked this part of the trip with Tristan from Terra Guatemala. Tristan set the expectations very low for the El Recreo Lodge, one or two stars. Lanquin is a small remote village, a population of only 7,000. You are not going to find many if any five-star resorts. We were very pleased with the accommodation at El Recreo Lodge. We were welcomed on our arrival with open arms. We received a fantastic dinner, and our room was very simple and spotless. I would love to know how they kept the room so clean in such a dusty (dirt road nearby) environment. Sleep came easy.

Today we go to Semuc Champey. We were scheduled to be picked up at 9:00 AM (in hindsight, and if you do this trip, we would suggest a pickup time closer to 7:00 AM). You need to take a rather sturdy 4x4 for the ten-kilometer drive from Lanquin to Semuc Champey. The drive is optional. You can hike it, which we had thought about, but since time was short, we opted for a guide and driver.

Our driver Juan and guide Hector showed up about 9:30 something about an accident, a truck going off the road. We did not think much about it as we had plenty of time.

Calling the road to Semuc Champey a road is being very liberal with the definition of "road". It was more like a trail cut through the jungle. At about five kilometers the sparse traffic came to a complete standstill. It was clear the vehicles and trucks in front of us had been sitting there for some time, most were hanging out playing music, some even eating their packed lunches. Some enterprising kids were selling snacks, water, and beer.

Not sure what was going on, we asked Hector if we could walk ahead and check out what was causing the delay? After walking about a kilometer, we saw a huge truck off the trail and into the Creek. At the point in time we got there, they had a tow truck trying to pull the truck out. It was clear this operation was going to take awhile.

Hector suggested we hike the remaining five kilometers to Semuc Champey. Hector is no more than four feet tall and has a very large low center of gravity (big belly). We thought how is this guy going to hike five kilometers up and down this steep trail.

Why sit in standstill traffic when we could be hiking? After 500 meters of very fast hiking, with Hector leading the way, Hector suggested we take a short cut. We all agreed. This was a big mistake.
We turned into the jungle and bushwhacked our way, many times it felt like we were going straight up or straight down the sides of these steep cliffs. The hike was beautiful and much better than sitting in traffic. Did I mention Hector was even faster bushwhacking through the jungle than he was hiking on the trail. We later found out Hector is a champion, “Freerunner”. If you do not know what a Freerunner is, google it. We were lucky to keep an eye on Hector as he made his way through the jungle, keeping up with him was impossible.

Once we arrived in Semuc Champey, Hector suggested we first explore the cave. The cave created and fed by a natural spring. Margarite decided to pass on this excursion, not sure if it was her aversion to tight spaces or crawling one kilometer underground in an area where earthquakes are a daily occurrence, maybe both.

Hector asked if we brought waterproof flashlights with us. When we answered in the negative, he simply said we will use candles.

I was interested to see how this would work, using candles to light our way in a water-filled cave. We spent well over an hour crawling, swimming, and climbing through the cave. Clearly, Hector’s minimal height helped him in some of the small parts of the cave. I felt like I was following Tattoo (Fantasy Island), combined with the Ever Ready Bunny. You need to watch the video to understand the experience.

After exploring the cave we did a quick tubing down the river.

Tubing video.

A local Mayan woman was grilling all kinds of food. For 50 Q ($6.00) you get a plate and could eat as much food as you wanted. The food was excellent. We ate plenty, but if we knew it would be our last meal of the day we might have eaten more.

Next, we hiked up to the overview, 500 meters up, to look down on the pools of Semuc Champey. Formed by the river above, with each pool being fed by springs below creating a unique place to visit.

For two reasons we decided not to swim in the pools, Hector was not a fan of the cleanliness of the water, plus it had been a long day, and we still had a long drive ahead of us. Longer than we knew at the time.

Semuc video

I need to give a shootout to Hector, he showed us a great day and turned what could have been a bad situation (truck wreck) into a fantastic opportunity (beautiful hike).

We departed El Recreo Lodge at 3:30 PM for what should have been a three hour, maybe four-hour drive. The first section of the steep gravel road was a breeze for Cesar. It was getting dark the night before when we traversed this section of the road. In the daylight, Cesar had no issues. Once on the paved road, we were making good time... until about 30 kilometers from Coban, traffic came to a dead stop. Most of the cars stopped in front of us looked like they had been there a while. I walked the 700 meters to see what the issue was. All I saw were hundreds of people most of them standing in the street. There was yellow caution tape as well as half a dozen police officers. To me, it looked like some type of protest. I thought maybe I finally found the caravan.

As I watched, the police signaled they were going to let traffic through. At least one way, luckily for us, it was our way. I rushed back to the van. Cesar said he thinks it was an accident, and someone died. As we approached, we saw an overturned ATV, along with a body with its head covered. We assumed he was dead. Unfortunately or fortunately, I did not have my camera handy. We thought we were having a bad day, not as dreadful of a day, as the dead guy in the ATV.

It was smooth sailing until maybe 15 kilometers from Coban. Again, traffic came to a complete standstill. This time the road was being repaved. We sat for about an hour.

We finally got to Cuevas de Candelaria Lodge just before 9:00 PM, three hours past our planned arrival. I guess no dinner tonight.

Cuevas de Candelaria Lodge is a beautiful lodge, with eight rooms you get extreme personal service. The grounds are perfectly manicured with beautiful vegetation.

At 9:00 AM, our guide met us for our tour of the grounds and cave. This cave is actually on the property of the Lodge. Cuevas is Cave in Spanish.

This cave was much drier than the cave we toured yesterday at Semuc Champey and grander. The cave was made mostly of limestone, with huge columns formed by stalagmites and stalactites.

After the cave tour and some lunch, we were on the road again. We have a four-hour drive to Tikal a historic Mayan City. That is assuming, no overturned truck, no repaving of roads, and no dead guy laying by an overturned ATV.

All went well, we did come to a dead-end in the road. Not exactly a dead end. There was a very wide river separating us from where we wanted to go. Luckily someone with a boat created a ferry service until the bridge is built! We arrived at the Tikal Jungle Lodge at 4:30 PM.

Today we will tour the Mayan City of Tikal. We decided to take the sunrise tour. I am not sure why it is called the sunrise tour. Tikal is in a rainforest. It is not often you see a sunrise, more like a morning fog or heavy mist.

We woke at 3:30 AM and departed for a 45-minute walk to the Mayan Ruins. Once there we climbed one of the temples, the one that faced east. From 5:00 AM until 6:00 AM, we listened to the animal's wake and the sounds they make as well as watched the fog burn off. As we had expected, not much of a sunrise but still a very enjoyable experience.

We then spent a few hours touring Tikal before heading back to the Jungle Lodge to relax before heading to Flores.

Final thoughts:

After spending three and a half weeks in Guatemala, I can tell you first hand it is a beautiful country with welcoming friendly people. If you are looking for a fun, interesting vacation, I highly recommend Guatemala.

That is it, at least until December, when I am heading to Costa Rica.



All Pictures