Sunday, December 5, 2010

“I am going to Guatemala...wanna come along?"

How often do you think I had heard that before? So obviously I answered “YES!!” all the while hoping someone would remind me exactly where on the map Guatemala really was. So the plan was made… 4 of us would set off from different parts of the U.S. meet at Guatemala City (with the best flight deals from the U.S.) and spend one week in mid-November, travelling around Guatemala.

Making the plan two months in advance gave at least two of us (relatively more enthusiastic ones?) enough time to learn basic espanol, a wise investment of time, we found out, within the first few hours of setting foot in Guatemala. This book ( with its funny illustrations, proved rather useful. Knowing some slang exclusive to Guatemala ( also helped in places. For the rest, we used common sense and charades.

The beauty of visiting a place like Guatemala, is that there is something for everyone to enjoy… a lot of nature and outdoory stuff, centuries of history and a very interesting mixture of different cultures. Our plan for this trip was a bit of everything. The first two days we planned to spend in Antigua, a city with heavy Spanish influence and some very imposing Spanish-style ancient cathedrals. There is a central park in Antigua, around which all activities happen. Cobbled stone roads lead to the surrounding cathedrals, museums, public libraries, ruins of old churches and ancient buildings, all coexisting with modern stores and fancy restaurants and bars. The central park itself always seemed to have some local band playing and it was heartening to see tourists and locals just hanging around and in no hurry to get anywhere. We never stayed out after 8pm…when according to local legend, this nice sleepy city turns into some shady dark place or something.

Before we set off, we had decided not to try random street-food in Guatemala. That can’t be safe, so sticking to reasonably crowded restaurants was our plan. But in some places, the street-food was simply too tempting. We were brave enough to try street-food outside Iglesia Merced in Antigua, though our “sin carne?” to confirm that the food was vegetarian and their “Si. sin carne” must have meant different things. We later found out that the yummy vegetarian food we had tucked into was in fact minced-pork! In most medium-range restaurants, the average price of a meal was about 30 to 50 Quetzales and we always managed to find completely vegetarian pasta/pizza (the strict vegetarian in our group had pasta growing out of his ears by the end of the trip). Having eaten south-Indian food all my life, I thought I had eaten pretty much everything that could be made with plantains. But the Guatemalan traditional platter came with this interesting variation of deep-fried ripe plantains that was quite tasty. When it came to hard liquor, the local speciality recommended to us was a rum called Zacapa (although expensive, it was totally worth that one shot we managed to buy). For all other times, we lived off Salvavidas Aqua pura, a safe brand for purified water, recommended to us.

In one of our walks around Antigua, a casual chat with a local guy on the street led us to Casa Santo Domingo. This is a building from the late 1500s (now a modern hotel with impressive landscaping) which houses one of the nicest museums in Antigua. We saw some really nice murals and paintings in here, very elaborate silver altar decorations and some Spanish style jewellery in here. The public museum near the central park was also worth a visit and had some interesting displays of the basic history of Antigua, its conquest by the Spaniards and a limited but nice collection of weaponry.

Early in the morning of Day 2, we set off by mini-van for a 1 hour drive to the base of volcan de pacaya from where the plan was to hike up the volcano with an elevation gain of ~4000ft in ~2 and a half km. This climb can either be done by foot or on horse-back (70 Quetsales). At the start of the hike we were automatically assigned a guide (one guide for a group of ~20 people) who hiked all along with us, appropriately pointing to the various volcanoes and lakes that are visible along the climb. Maize fields along the mountain side along with crusted volcanic rock and ash add to the view, making it rather scenic and worth the climb. A good hour or so into the hike finally led us to the mouth of the volcano where you could start to feel the heat under the rock. At places the steam-vents are exposed and we found out the hard way that trying to stick your head or hand into it is not such a great idea… it is hot enough to burn your eyelashes (makes for cool war-wounds though!).

Day 3 and 4 were spent near Lake Atitlan. A 3 hour drive in a mini-van (8 Quetzales) took us from Antigua to Panajachel from where we took a steam-boat to go to the villages around the lake. Although it was cheaper to go by ourselves and not have a dedicated guide, we chose to have one. Our guide- Humberto was the best thing that happened to us in Atitlan. There are guides and then there are GUIDES. Humberto was the latter. He was very well organized, eager to show us places, eager to talk and seemed to give a reasonably fair account of Guatemala to us (somewhat contrary to some guides I have heard about in Rajastathan…who simply make up things about the fortresses there and make random claims like the longest wall in the world is in Rajasthan, the oldest fortress is there too and so on…sigh!). In fact, Humberto showed us places we wouldn’t have seen by ourselves. In the tour into the Mayan villages around Lake Atitlan, he took us to some traditional Mayan homes with their steam-baths and foot-looms and hand-looms. Women in the family, spanning about 4 generations all knew to weave cloth the traditional way. Humberto also showed us an interesting ritual for Maximon (a compromise saint between Spanish and Mayan cultures) whom people worship with cigars and alcohol and all things nice. For every confession made to Saint Maximon, the worshipper had to take a swig of local alcohol (I found this quite interesting… what a simple and effective way to forget your problems!). Apparently women also worship in the same way (claims Humberto), but I saw no evidence of that. All the women I saw were hard at work. We also saw many little kids selling stuff in the village stores, but they mostly spoke to us in English with the cutest accent (it is heart-breaking to walk away from them when they look at you and say “want to buy something?”). Humberto reassured us that most of these kids do receive basic education and at least some policies exist, that entitle them to free education up to a level. Of course, photos/videos in all these places came with an average fee of 10 Quetzales, which we thought was a small price to pay for enjoying these little titbits of Mayan life.

Day 5 onwards …in another post, maybe.

[[On a side-note: Being ultra squeamish about using public loos and not blessed with a certain pointing-device, one of the primary areas of research for me before the trip was Guatemalan loos. Most of what I read was pretty scary, so I ended up carrying these awesome inventions called toilet-seat covers (if you don’t know where to buy these, steal them from some airport like I did). These served me well and I came back from Guatemala rather pleased with their system of not flushing down wads of toilet paper down old sewage systems and quite frankly impressed with how clean even the touristy places were.]]