We just got back from the first of what promises to be many land-based excursions into Central America, and possibly some of South America, using Lungta as our home base. We were gone two weeks on a whirlwind visit to Suchitoto, a town in western El Salvador, and a few highlights in Guatemala’s amazing Western Highlands. We saw a lot, learned a lot, and got back just in time for Keith and Wayne to catch their flight back to Boston.
Suchitoto is touted to be the artistic capital of the country, and home to a somewhat more sophisticated and sensitive population. A few people “on the dock” had gone birding there, reporting beautiful country. We followed their footsteps and ended up staying at a hostel run by the same guy who led their bird-watching tours. Sounds like quite a coincidence until you see how small this town is. It’s very cute, but to call it the “capital” of anything is an exaggeration. El Gringo hostel is written up in Lonely Planet, and the proprietor Robert is an influential force in the gringo tourist market here. Although he grew up in the States, his mother is El Salvadoran, and he returned to her homeland to find that it really called to him. He now has a family here and has made a real place for himself in the community. He graciously gave us a local perspective on the issues facing the region, some of the projects that he’s participated in to help address them, and useful info about a couple of waterfalls in the area that might appeal to us. We decided to go to the one called El Cubo, because it was relatively close to the hostel. We “just” had to walk down the street until it left town, keep on going down the hill until we hit the stream, and then turn upstream until we got there. Simple, right? The trail we took became barely visible as it meandered through the woods. By the time we dropped 500 feet into the bottom of the canyon and arrived at the stream we were much further downstream than expected. Our total time to get there was somewhere over an hour, although we’d been told that it would probably be around 30 minutes. Oops! The area was beautiful, although heavily littered with a variety of plastic obects. We all enjoyed the outdoors time. The waterfall at the end of the trail was in a box canyon, with steep cliffs on all sides, and only a small entrance through which we approached. The water was quite dark and murky; visibility was about 6 inches. There was a good bit of vegetation growing overhead so it was fairly dark and we were tickled when a flock (?) of dozens of small bats flew out of the entrance, startled at our noise. A bit later another, a smaller flock followed – and we all kicked ourselves for not being ready with a camera. You’ll have to take our word about them! There were two pools, with a 5 foot drop in between. Keith and Wayne clambered up to the main pool, and Kathy followed while Dan chose to explore downstream a while. After a short break we all put our shoes back on and made our way back downstream. We all kept our eyes peeled for a closer path back up the bank and took the first usable one. We made it back to the hostel in about half the time by cutting through a cow field. We were tired after our day’s hike, though, so we decided not to do the other waterfall which we had heard was likely to be dry.
Robert told us that we would not be able to catch a bus directly from Suchitoto into Guatemala, that we would need to return to San Salvador and get a regional bus from there. He also said that we would need to purchase a ticket a day in advance rather than immediately before leaving, so we’d need to spend another night in the big city. I guess we still have a lot to learn about traveling the world by bus! Given this additional information we decided not to spend a third day in Suchitoto, but to get started on the next part of our excursion. We hopped on a local bus back to San Salvador and made our way across town to the Occidente (west) bus station, where the Tica buses stop. We bought tickets for the next day and spent the night in a hotel next door which offered a discount for ticketed passengers (Meson de Maria). They even knocked on our doors early the next morning.
It was a four hour bus ride from San Salvador to Guatemala City, through spectacular green countryside. Much of Guatemala is covered with steep hills, making for twisty roads. These are the Western Highlands, and this is the main area that we wanted to explore on this trip. It turns out that the area is huge, and we only scratched the surface. We went to the major tourist destinations: Antigua, Chichicastenango, and Lake Atitlan. This was not a bad place to start – after all, there’s a reason that these are such popular places – but we want to spend more time in these same areas, going further afield. Dan and Kathy are both fascinated by the indigenous Mayan people who live throughout Guatemala. They have retained their language, clothing, and many other practices, unlike in El Salvador where it was dangerous just to be “too” short during the civil war. People learned to downplay that heritage or they were killed. We want to visit some of the outlying villages where they actually live, rather than just the places where they come to sell their wares to tourists.
In Guatemala City (Guate to “those who know”, and just “Guatemala” to many locals) we had a Couchsurfing host lined up, thanks to some dedicated internet time by Wayne and Keith. It turns out that there are not as many active Couchsurfing hosts in Central America as other places they have traveled, and it was more difficult to find hosts than they had expected. Axel is a really nice guy who offered to take us in for a couple of nights and then Esteban, a neighbor of his, offered up another bed to split the “burden”. Axel is a young professional in the financial world, while Esteban is a second-year medical student. We had heard a number of warnings about Guate being a dangerous city, so it worked out nicely that we had someone with local knowledge to show us around. Axel took us all to a nearby mall where we got yummy pita sandwiches from a stand, which we ate while sitting on a tall set of stairs with a beautiful nighttime view of the city. Dan & Kathy spent the night with Esteban, while Wayne & Keith stayed with Axel. We had a pleasant evening talking with Esteban, touching on some very important topics mostly related to the transition from youth to adulthood. Esteban lives with his older brother who is studying architecture but was out of town for a couple of weeks during his school break. Their parents are paying for their school and room & board, so although they live on their own, they are also still under the wings of their original family. He is in an exciting and also challenging time in his life, and the passions of the age were interesting to see afresh through Esteban’s eyes. He typically allows himself Fridays free from his studies, but Saturday he hits the grindstone again, so when we got up in the morning we joined the guys at Axel’s apartment.
Axel showed us a bit of the town that next day, in particular the big artisan market and the town square. There was a big protest brewing in town for that afternoon, and we saw people beginning to arrive at the square and set up banners. The mood was one of anticipation rather than fury, and a number of people had small children with them that were playing with the pigeons or running around the fountain. Later we heard that there were more than 50,000 people from around the country and even a few satellite protests at Guatemalan embassies around the world. The vice-president had resigned in a corruption scandal, but people want more fundamental change. There is a lot of inequity in the country between the haves and have-nots, and the rampant corruption among government officials serves to widen that gap. There is a big election coming up in September, and we saw lots of political billboards and other advertising everywhere we went. That evening we went to a Couchsurfing event at a bar downtown, an opportunity for local Couchsurfing members to meet one another, and also any visitors that happen to be in town. Roughly 20 people showed up, offering quite a test for our conversational Spanish, as well as everyone else’s conversational English! It was a pleasant evening, and we may have made another contact or two.
After breakfast the next morning, Axel was driving us to the bus station to head to Antigua, when he made a spontaneous decision to drive us all the way to Antigua. It’s about an hour and a half, so he was able to spend the afternoon with us before heading back to Guate in time to get enough sleep for work the next morning. We found a hostel to drop our bags and wandered the town for a short while together. Oddly, we got separated in the town square when a woman selling textiles stopped Kathy & Dan for a few minutes. By the time we got away, the others were nowhere to be seen. We had been heading towards the ruins of the original cathedral, just behind the current cathedral, so that’s where we headed to try to reconnect. We bought entrance tickets and strolled around the area for 10 or 15 minutes. The original cathedral was built in the mid-16th century but was destroyed by an earthquake a century later, then rebuilt and destroyed again in 1773. At this point, the government relocated the capital to where Guate is now, reconstructing as much of the original city as possible, even relocating important parts of important buildings, so the new buildings are not as ornate as they were originally. There are numerous ruins scattered around the city which still show the devastation of the 1773 earthquakes. Some of them have been excavated, a few restored, but many just abandoned. It was a little eerie, thinking of what it must have been like 250 years ago, when the ground shook loose huge blocks of stone from all the buildings. We checked back at the square and the car and the hostel, but couldn’t find the guys anywhere. It turned out that they were in the cathedral ruins when we were, tried unsuccessfully to catch our attention, and then disappeared into a crypt for a few minutes at the time we happened to leave. We ran into them again later that evening, after we went out for a bite to eat. Axel is a huge Brittney Spears fan, so he was delighted that the Billboard Awards were showing that night, and we watched the show on a tiny television in a small hostel room in the old capital city of Guatemala – dubbed in Spanish!
We absorbed the city over the next two days. One day Wayne and Keith took a tour to a volcano about 2 hours away and hiked to a lava flow where they were given marshmallows to roast. 🙂 We chose to spend that day in town; we hiked up a nearby hill with a spectacular overlook. As it turned out, this was a good choice because Dan got sick. His was the first in a series of fevers and malaise-y days to dog our group the rest of the trip. Another day the 4 of us took a shuttle from a fancy hotel with a wonderful grounds full of restored ruins up to a location on another nearby hill which has been developed into an interesting multi-use facility. They have commissioned a lot of art from mostly local artists, there’s an aviary, a zipline circuit, a chapel, some conference rooms, a playground, etc. Dan and Kathy both loved the town square, and spent a good bit of time just hanging out there watching life go by. There are lots of Mayan women walking around selling homemade products, mostly textiles. We had more tablecloths, scarves, and friendship bracelets offered to us than we could count! We bought a few items during our visit in Guatemala, and just plain gifted some money to several of the women who shared their stories with us. Life as a Mayan is difficult in Guatemala. They work hard to feed their families and have little support from the government in terms of education, healthcare or housing. There was a small protest in the town square one day, but we had a difficult time understanding exactly what was going on. There was a guy at a lectern with a microphone addressing a crowd of Mayan people, 80% women, but it didn’t seem to be much of a dialogue! The banners the women were holding mentioned government corruption, lack of services, high taxes, fees for the municipal market, etc.
The next day we got a bus to another town called Chichicastenango, or “Chichi” for short. This is a smaller town with little tourist presence, except for during a very well known market, held every Sunday and Thursday. Tourists come on tours from Guate, Antigua, and other places just for the market day. We had read that showing up the day before and watching some of the process of setting up the booths would be interesting, so we arrived on Wednesday afternoon. Kathy got feverish on the second half of the bus ride and was weak the rest of the afternoon. We sat on the steps of a church while Dan went off in search of a hotel, along with some assistance from a self-appointed local guide. Tomas was anxious to make himself indispensible, but offered a lot of information that was obvious. (This is a church, that is a restaurant.) He did help us to find a reasonably priced hotel, but became a bit of a nuisance the rest of our visit whenever we would hit the streets. He represented a few cafes and clothing stands as his own, but then didn’t seem to know when they would be open or would rush to make sure that the salesperson knew that he had brought us in. We loved strolling the streets and market and grabbing a meal at a stall for the locals in the food court. The next morning, we hiked up a nearby hill with a Mayan sacred place on it. It had a collection of stones, some of them carved into crosses, that were used for sacrifices to foster abundance in the coming season. Later we groaned a bit when we saw a bunch of people who were clearly tourists with huge telephoto lenses on their fancy cameras, standing head and shoulders above the market crowd. Fortunately we were ready to be on our way.
Wayne and Keith had identified another Couchsurfing host who lives near Lake Atitlan. Although we had not been able to find a date that worked for all of us, he was coming to Chichi and was happy to drive us the hour-long journey back to his town 5 miles from the lake. Dan and Keith rode in the back of the pickup. Esau already had Couchsurfing guests, two girls from Germany, so he couldn’t accommodate four more of us. However we spent the afternoon with all of them, enjoying brick-oven-baked pizza at his restaurant, before catching a local bus down to the town of Panajachel on the lake. We happened to meet an American woman who showed us to an inexpensive nearby hostel and we were in business!
The next morning we hopped on a small panga-like boat that is used for public transportation. These boats leave every 20 minutes and hop from one village to the next, covering about halfway around the lake counter-clockwise. It costs a little more than a dollar to go to the next town, and about $3 to go from the last town back to Panajachel, the largest town and economic center of the area. There are also a few towns on the other side of the lake that we didn’t get to this time, but we’re just saving things to do the next time. 🙂 We took the boat to the dock for the first town, Santa Cruz La Laguna, and then walked half a mile up a steep hill to the town itself. It was quite a trek! Then we looked around the town square, bought a few bags of water, and trekked up another half a mile. Santa Cruz is built on the slopes of a canyon and is incredibly vertical. We were wandering through a residential neighborhood, and came across a group of 4 or 5 women who were loading 4 cement blocks onto each of their backs and carrying them even further uphill! Dan and Keith couldn’t resist the challenge, so each of them picked up 2 blocks and joined the women. Wayne and Kathy were both still ill and it was all they could do to haul themselves up. 🙂 We went perhaps a quarter of a mile and reached a house that the family was building on an extension to – with an amazing view of the lake. They were appreciative of the help, and let us come in and look at the project. Then we headed back down the hill and turned towards the next town. Someone told us that it should take about 40 minutes, but again we took far longer than expected. I guess we’re out of practice or something. The path varied quite a bit, from a rough forest trail to the paved entrance to a fancy guesthouse, from flat across a schoolyard to steep rocky cliffside. It was actually quite a spectacular trail. Finally we arrived at the next town, Jaibalito, but didn’t have much energy left to really explore it. We picked up the next boat and hopped around to the 4th town, San Marcos La Laguna, where we got lunch at a really sweet little restaurant that actually had tofu and tempeh! This town is known for attracting spiritual, energetic sorts, and we saw lots of signs and flyers advertising massage, reiki, meditation, etc. We extended our lunch a bit to wait out a midafternoon thundershower, and then ventured back to the boat. Although there were a couple more towns on this side, the boat tours stop at 5pm, and we caught the penultimate boat back home. We spent the rest of the evening strolling the streets of Panajachel, which is very full of international tourists. It’s busy but upbeat, fun in small doses. 🙂
We were all moving slowly, mostly because of the lingering illness in our group, so we don’t have much to tell about our last day in Pana. We got a bus the next day back to Guate. One sobering moment occurred for all of us when we passed another local bus which had flipped on its side causing the roof to crumple. The police were there and passengers were already taken away, so we don’t know whether there were any (serious) injuries. Things like this cause one to ponder the fragility of life. Axel picked us up at the bus stop, and it turned out that he was sick too, so we just picked up a pizza on the way home (Domino’s, ugh!) and made a quiet night of it. The next morning we got a cab to the Tica bus terminal (which is completely under construction – it was absolutely ridiculous that they were already using the new location with all this heavy work being done all around!) and took the bus to San Salvador. We stayed in our now-“usual” hotel, the Villa Florencia. There was one glitch: they didn’t have any rooms with two beds and they didn’t want to rent a room with a single bed to Wayne and Keith. So we ended up with a room with three beds – for less than two rooms would have cost. That left a little bit of a bad taste in our mouth, but we got a good night’s sleep which was what it was all about! We enjoyed street food that evening and licuados (fruit smoothies) for breakfast, and then made our way by local bus back to Bahia del Sol. Keith and Wayne got right to packing, while we got to unpacking. 🙂
We were thrilled at the state of the boat when we returned. We’ve been concerned about the ability of our power system to be self-sustaining, mostly because of the constant large draw from our refrigeration. We recently installed a couple of timers (and relays!) on both the refrigerator and freezer circuits, preventing them from cycling for several hours each night. We wake up in the morning with a bit of water accumulated in the fridge from the melting of the day’s accumulated frost, but the frost comes from the moisture in the air which only enters when we open the fridge. If we don’t open the fridge during the day, then no additional frost/meltwater accumulates, and everything is fine. Our batteries were completely full, and the temperatures in the fridge and freezer were both in great shape. (Oddly, the next day the generator didn’t start. At first we thought we had a dead battery, but it turned out to be a connection problem, which isn’t directly attributable to being idle for two weeks.) This was a huge relief for us! Now we will feel more comfortable making longer excursions further and further afield over the next year. It’s good to be home – and it’s nice to know that we can head back out again without significant preparation!