Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Seeing Red

Le presente mi esposo, Ben!
I love this photo! It is what could have been if he had only been born in the pueblo of San Antonio Palopo.

Pana, Pana, Pana

Yes, we went back again! One might think we are becoming Lago Atitlan junkies...sort of like those Euro & American hippies who have set up shop on the streets of Panajachel. There's sun, fun, and of course the lake....we can't seem to stay away. Really, Lago Atitlan is a great, easy place to get away to for the weekend. It's only two and a half hour via direct chicken bus (20Q) and there is tons to do. This time we had an agenda....Christmas shopping! We haven't really purchased much during our time here in Guatemala because we haven't wanted to haul it around with us, but our departure date is soon approaching and Pana has the best shopping around!

We weren't quite prepared for the change in the climate at the lake! The last time we visited (about a month ago) the weather was warm and we dressed the part. This time it was quite windy, and downright uncomfortable in the evenings....at least the afternoons were still warm!
We took a side trip (in pickup) to San Antonio Palopo to do some shopping at the women's co-operative that we visited with the school during our first excursion to the lake. There we spent some time chatting with the women and appreciating their work. We also put together a little holiday surprise, but I can't tell you about it....yet!

We also got to spend a few hours hiking around the Reserva Natural Atitlan (also known as the Biosphere), just a few miles outside the center of Panajachel. Now home to a giant eyesore of a hotel, this place used to be the biggest coffee plantation at the lake. We hiked over swing bridges, past waterfalls, and visited a butterfly enclosure. We even got to see a spider monkey swinging from the trees above us!

Look out ladies! He's got legs and he knows how to use 'em!

Mom, this one isn't for you....it's a long way down!

Our friend the Spider Monkey!

...and the other spider monkey!

Chicken Bus of the Week #6

The chicken bus of this week is not a chicken bus at all, but it's just as crazy! Tuk tuks are a fun three-wheeled form of transportation that are popular in small tourist towns, like Panajachel and Copan, Honduras. Although they are generally red, they are usually decked out with bling, like flames and names, just like the chicken buses. While these little guys are much easier to flag down than a taxi, the ride isn't quite as comfortable, especially on the rough cobblestone streets here in Guatemala. Expect a bumpy ride!

Monday, November 24, 2008

From Freezing to Frying

Since Xela is pretty darn cold these days, last weekend we took a trip to la playa (beach) in Monterrico. It only took us 6 hours to get there.....in a mini-bus (fun, fun, fun). Monterrico is supposedly the most beautiful beach in Southern Guatemala (on the Pacific). With a giant black beach, a picturesque setting, and scorching temps, it definitely was more appealing than our rainy days in Honduras!

We woke early Saturday for a row boat tour of the canal and mangroves where we also got to watch the sunrise. We spent the day lounging on the beach (ouch! the black sand was incredibly hot) reading books, and sipping drinks in hammocks at a local beach hangout, Johnny's Place. Unfortunately there wasn't much swimming to be done, as the water was really strong and the undertow was quite nasty! That evening we took part in the releasing of newly born sea turtles into the sea (sponsored by a local hatchery). Yea! I got to check off one of the things on my life list of things I must do (rescue a baby sea turtle, swim with manatees, go whale watching, etc....the list is long)!

Sunrise on the canal

Must buy hammock!

We hope they made it, but their chances are slim.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Spanglish 101

Spanglish. You know what I'm talking about. It's those annoying half-Spanish, half-English words that Gringos oh so often use when on vacation in places like (excuse me) Cancun or Cabo. Well, unfortunately I have fallen victim to it. Over the past 2 months, my brain has been crammed with so much new information that sometimes it has to reject things....hence the situations when I go searching for a word (something I know I should know) and out comes this ridiculous version. It always makes perfect sense to me - and often it makes sense to anyone else who is also fluent in Spanglish (Ben). Here are a few of the unfortunate slip-ups that are now a part of my Spanglish vocabulary. I've taken the courtesy of defining them for those of you who aren't familiar with the language!

estretchar (verb): the feeling that comes over your body when you are really tired and restless and you need to do something about it.
Necessito estretchar para despertar despues de cinco horas de clases. (I need to stretch to wake up after 5 hours of classes.)

requestar (verb): the act of asking politely or formally for something.
Por favor, yo quiero requestar una mesa por dos personas para cena esta noche. (I would like to request a table for 2 for dinner tonight, please.)

dangeroso/a (adjective): too much, over the top, obviously seeking attention
Ese mujer que esta vestido en ropa muy apretada y tacones muy altas parece dangerosa. (That woman that is dressed in very tight clothes and very high heels looks like she is trying too hard for attention).

The afore listed definitions are a work in progress. Please excuse any errors made in Spanish phrases.

Chicken Bus of the Week #5

There is something to be said about traveling by chicken bus. Always entertaining, you´ll never have a dull moment aboard. My 3 most memorable moments on chicken buses include:

1. A man trying to sell foot cream to remove warts (complete with nasty photos) to the entire bus. He put his special cream in everyone´s lap, but when he came to me I told him "I don´t have warts and don´t need it!"

2. Returning from Laguna Chicabal via chicken bus in the rain and literally hanging out the back of the moving bus because it was that full (not a good experience)

3. Chatting with a young girl and her mom in Spanish during our return trip from Xocomil waterpark. After much conversation she wanted my phone number. I tried all my tricks in Spanish to avoid giving it to her, but in the end her language skills trumped mine. Now I have to field calls from a Guatemalan child!

There have probably been funnier experiences but right now I´m tired....recovering from a long weekend of travel....not in chicken bus!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Vale la pena

Sunday morning we woke up early to climb Volcano Santa Maria with some other students and our faithful guide, Miguel (El Perro). Things started off a little rough, as we forgot one of the students back at the school….poor Chris! While Enrique went back to get him, we began our 3 and a half hour climb. It was hard, I’m not going to lie, but definitely vale la pena (worthwhile). Having not been to a pilates class in 2 months, I’m not in the same shape I once was in, I do have the hills of Xela on my side since I climb them everyday!

A beautiful sunny afternoon atop Santa Maria

The hard part was the most of hike was really quite steep, much steeper than the trails we hike in Colorado. When we reached the top we were pretty surprised to see that there were at least 100 other people up there, most Guatemalans and many indigenous people.
At the cima (peak) -12,375 ft.- we relaxed in the sun and watched the smoke eruptions from Santiagito, which occur every 20 minutes like clockwork. It was a bit cloudy so the view wasn’t completely clear, but still pretty amazing. Plus, it was great to experience it with a new group of friends and of course El Perro!
That's Xela below us!

Santiagito has smoke "eruptions" every 20 mintues

Our group of climbers

Our guide Miguel has climbed Santa Maria at least 100 times!

A different kind of Sunday morning religious experience

Ben thinks this hike was harder than some of the 14ers in Colorado, so I feel proud of myself. I keep reminding myself of that when I want to complain about my legs aching!

Are we still in Guatemala?

We’d heard it was great, but didn’t know if we should believe it until we experienced it ourselves. Finally on Saturday we went to Xocomil waterpark! Think Water World, but better, cleaner, and with a lot more adults! Still craving the sunshine (by the way, rainy season is over in Xela and the sun shines everyday) we hopped a chicken bus with our friend Shelley, to Retalhuleu (Reu for short) and 2 hours later we were flying down waterslides! It was so much fun we’re already planning our next trip back with more ICA friends!

Yes, I really am that white!

One of the kids!

Back in the saddle again

Our travel plans had included a visit to Livingston, Guatemala and Rio Dulce before returning back to Xela, but considering that both places were on the water……..we had certainly learned our lesson by now! Not quite ready to return to Xela, we decided to check out the capitol for a few days.

We love Guatemala City. Well, I love it. Ben likes it, but love is a pretty strong word. Finally I’m back in my comfort zone (at least in Zone 10). We checked into Otelito, a minimalistic Zen hotel in the Zona Viva late Monday night and set out to get a real meal (we had been surviving on hard cookies and chips all day). Applebees? It has to be good – and oh boy it was! The manager quickly spotted us (the only white people in the restaurant) and bee-lined for us. It turns out he was from New Zealand and had lived in Guatemala for most of his life……and he was dying to speak English! He was super nice to us and gave us a lot of tips for our visit in the city and even his phone number if we needed anything. Things are looking up!

Tuesday we entertained ourselves with a walking tour in Zone 1 that included Parque Concordia, Placio Nactional, Mercado Central, and the cathedral…..all while basking in the sun! In the afternoon we visited Museo Miraflores with local artifacts and indigenous textiles and Miraflores shopping mall. That evening we had dinner while watching election coverage with all the Guatemalans in the restaurant. They were just as excited as we were about Obama’s big win!

Placio Nacional

Will we ever learn?

After our disappointment in Roatan we were still desperate for some beach time so we decided to give Tela, Honduras a try. Everything we had heard and read indicated there was supposed to be a great, clean beach with kayak trips to local mangroves. Just up our alley.

We arrived late Saturday night and checked into Villas Telamar, a giant beach-like resort (again, the only place we could find without a gross humid feeling). Yuri, a really nice, young Honduran guy who had lived in the US for 15 years, walked us through the dark streets to the place where we would be staying. The complex appeared huge with tons of houses on stilts, just like a beach neighborhood in the Outerbanks.

The next morning we awoke to a little sun, so we walked down to the beach to check it out. Wow – not a soul in sight and we quickly could see why. The beach was huge with beautiful white sand, but it was disgustingly dirty with piles of raked up trash up and down the shoreline! Guess we won’t be hanging out here. We headed over to the hotel’s restaurant to have some breakfast to find ourselves as the only guests. Upon questioning the waitress we learned that there were only 4 rooms rented in the entire place! Wow.
Later that morning we strolled into town to check out the market and inquire about the kayak tours. Well, the market took about 2 minutes and we were disappointed to learn that there is a minimum of 4 people required for a kayak tour and we were the only tourists in town. Boo! At least we had spotted an internet café to check our email. While inside the café, it began to pour outside and within 15 minutes the streets were flooded with at least 8 inches of water. Great – how we’re going to get back?

After spending the afternoon catching up on movies, later that evening we ventured out another time for dinner. Pay close attention because this is the 1 positive experience we had in 4 days! Our shrimp dinners at Cesar Mariscos were fabulous….over priced…but fabulous!

With obviously nothing much happening in Tela, we decided to leave and purchased our tickets (on Hedman Alas of course) for a 12 hour ride to Guatemala City the following morning.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Roatan or Bust.....What a Bust!

When we finally arrived in La Ceiba, Honduras we hopped a taxi (and an expensive one I might add) to the ferry dock, only to find out there was no ferry service that day. Why? Apparently the sea had been rough from some recent storms. Well we had come all that way, and we weren’t turning around, so we had 2 choices: #1 - spend the night in La Ceiba and see if the ferry would run the next day or #2 - head to the airport. Determined to get to our destination, #2 was the obvious choice.

$50 a person later (note: Lonely Planet is wrong as it states flights cost $21 from La Ceiba to Roatan) we boarded a plane bound for Roatan. This however was not your typical island-hopping, beverage service only plane. If you’ve ever wondered where United’s retired planes end up, we feel pretty comfortable saying they are in Honduras. Dirty, smelly, and downright scary, by the grace of God we somehow made it to Roatan in under 20 minutes. Once we collected our luggage, we grabbed a cab and shared a $15 ride to West End with some other gringos we met during our 2 hours stuck in the mud with Hedman Alas (see yesterday's blog for details).

Apparently not so spruced up during the off-season, we weren’t so impressed with the accommodations we encountered in West End on Half Moon Bay, so we headed over to West Bay (another $10 cab ride for 3 miles). We ended up at the only place that seemed somewhat reasonable, a smallish all-inclusive, Italian haven of a resort. Good enough for 1 night – it was getting late and our meals were included. Morning came and no signs of sun. What the heck? According to Lonely Planet (error #2) there should only be a few random days of sun during the month of October. Well, it didn’t look like we would be using that free-kayak service at the hotel anytime soon and the all-inclusive food wasn’t so good, so we checked out and returned to West End (where the action is supposed to be) to try to find an acceptable place to stay.

Definitely not even close to a Holiday Inn, we ended up at the cleanest, least humid smelling hotel we visited, a short walk from town. Still no sun. Maybe a walk around town was what we needed……..or maybe not, as it turned out dodging mud puddles should be a sport in West End. Hoping to be able to get dive certified, we stopped by a local dive shop to inquire about trips. Well it seems that even money can’t buy you fun when there is rain in Roatan. We pretty much got a straight up “no” on the diving, as it seems it wasn’t really worth their time to teach us (a couple of the only tourists in town). Plus we were told that even if we did go out the water was too murky to see more than 5 feet in front of you. Guess we won’t be diving.

Don't what the animals?

Hmmm……what to do now? Forever optimistic, Ben turns to our faithful companion Lonely Planet (never mind the fact that we’ve been deceived twice already). Ah-ha! There’s an Iguana Reserve on the other side of the island and they even have the rare white-faced monkey. Say no more, of course I was in. Feeling a bit ripped off by the taxis on the island we hopped on the public mini-bus and 1 hour later were dropped off by a sign for the Iguana Farm. We hiked about 20 minutes down a dirt lane, following teaser signs the whole way, and ended up at a house. Weird, we thought it was supposed to be more farm? As we wandered down the drive macaws sqwacked at us from a nearby cage. A young girl sitting at a table in the garage looked like she might be able to help us, but before we could say “hola” a man came out of the house, looked at us, yelled at the girl, they both disappeared and we were left standing alone. A few minutes later (after she had fed the chickens without acknowledging us) the girl promptly told us it was $8/person to enter, but that we would be seeing any iguanas as they don’t come down from the trees when it is rainy. (Error #3 Lonely Planet – “around 3000 iguanas live here, some as long as 5 feet”). If we wanted to pay $4/person we could still see the monkeys, since the iguanas weren’t around. Suckers we are, of course we paid – afterall we had come all that way. Well we should have turned around right then and there because the rare monkeys turned out to be 3 sad, emaciated-looking monkeys living in tiny cages. A few turtles living in a pool of nasty water later, and we were out. Wow – things aren’t getting better.

Poor monkeys in sad little cages.

Help me, Gringos!

That night was Halloween and we gave it another go. We went out to an expensive (no surprise there) disappointing Thai dinner with intentions of hitting up a public Halloween party we had heard about afterwards. Well on our way to the party we got stuck in a downpour. Drenched to the bone, with our pants stuck to our legs, we gave up on the idea of going out and headed back to our room where we promptly went to bed. The next morning we gave it another go, checking out another hotel (where Temptation Island was filmed) but upon learning we would be the only guests in the hotel we gave up, headed to the ferry dock and boarded the first ferry out of Roatan.

Final thoughts:
Roatan = Ripoff (at least based on our experience)
Lonely Planet lies (at least in the Guatemala book)

The only photo we have with sunshine.

First Class Travel

Another early morning, we left Copan at 5:30 am via Hedman Alas bound for La Ceiba, Honduras, where the plan was to catch a ferry to the bay island of Roatan. With only 5 passengers on board, we had our choice of seats and we quickly settled back into sleep.

After about 10 minutes we awoke to find the bus wasn’t moving. We can’t seriously be there yet? Looking out the window it didn’t take long to figure out we were stuck in the mud. No big deal, right? We’ll just back up and try it again. Um……no. That didn’t work. Uh-oh, now what? The driver addressed us about the situation saying the road had been washed out and he exited, leaving us shut in the bus.

This is no joke – for 2 hours we sat on the bus, watching out the window as pickup trucks full of people tried to get around us using some rocks thrown down by local men to gain traction. School children wandered by, people on their way to market, the police stopped to watch, for a while 2 horses and a pig found interest in the situation, even our guide from the bird park came to see the spectacle that was Hedman Alas, stuck in the middle of the only road out of town!

During the 2 hours, a crowd of at least 50 people that we could see from our window (we were still locked in the bus with no more information from the driver) had gathered. Little did these poor people know that there were only 5 people on the entire bus! Three attempts from an 18-wheeler to pull us out were unsuccessful, but finally on the 4th try, we were free! Back on our way – 2 hours behind schedule! The photos below show the progression of activity happening outside our window.

What is that smell?

Early Tuesday morning we huffed ourselves to the bus station in Antigua to begin our long journey to Honduras. Since we both agreed that travel by chicken bus was not even an option (can you imagine 12 plus hours squished amongst strangers for days at a time?) we splurged for Hedman Alas, the “first class” bus that services Honduras. Though definitely better than chicken bus, Hedman Alas didn’t exactly live up to the hype. Our ride was comfortable enough, with blankets (if you requested one), snacks (a package of cookies and a juice box), movies, and reclining seats. The biggest problem we had was the smell coming from the bathroom……but not what you’re thinking. These buses use the strongest smelling air fresheners imaginable – probably not even available for purchase in the US, these suckers could make you high in seconds! Lucky me, I was nauseas with a migraine the entire ride to Copan.

When we finally arrived we were pleasantly surprised with the town. So quaint and charming, Copan may just have been the highlight of our entire trip. We stumbled across a great little hotel (definitely a step up from a backpackers place, but not crazy expensive) that is too new to be in any of our guide books. The staff there was fabulous and lucky for us we ended up being their only guests, so we got all their attention! I just about died and went to heaven when I got a look at the brand new, spotlessly clean, free-flowing hot water shower. If you’ve been following our blog you’ve seen what we showered in for our first 5 weeks in Guatemala. Enough said. So, if you’re planning a trip to Copan Ruinas, Yat B’alam is a must stay.

Copan is a small town best know for Mayan ruins that are about a 15-minute walk outside of the center. Archeologists believe that settlers began moving into the area near Rio Copan around 1400BC to take advantage of the areas rich agricultural potential, but didn’t begin construction of the city until 100AD. Near the end of Copan’s “heyday” the popluation grew at an unprecedented rate. This in turn greatly strained the agricultural resources of Copan and thus began the downfall. No longer agriculturally self-sufficient, food had to be imported from other areas. Deforestation became a problem as the urban core expanded and forced agricultural and residential areas into the surrounding valley. Although the Copan valley was not abandoned overnight, as it is thought that agriculturalists may have continued to live there for another 200 years, but by 1200AD the royal city of Copan became reclaimed by the jungle.

Aside from the ruins Copan is best known for, there are some other attractions worth checking out, including a bird park and butterfly sanctuary. We spent an afternoon taking a tour of Macaw Mountain Bird Park and Nature Reserve where we interacted with macaws, parakeets, parrots, toucans, hawks and owls. Although we have never really been “bird-people” this place was pretty cool – another must see.