How did you get here? Oh! You walked?: Xela to Lake Atitlan- our 3 day, 30 mile trek

24 06 2011

This is going to be a long blog post…so you might want to set a couple minutes aside before you try to take it all in.  This is our blog about our 3 day, 30 mile trek from Xela to Lake Atitlan:

I have set up this post so that my thoughts and Vanessa’s thoughts are seperate and then Brian and Pam have blessed us with their thoughts and summary of the entire trek (you can also find it on their blog).  Each of us tackled something a little diffrent and all of us added our own flavor, so, feel free to read it all or only parts of it but, please, endugle and enjoy.  Also, there is a small slideshow of pictures at the bottom…we have more pictures and will put the best ones up when we get back from the trip.

The trek was an experience of a lifetime for sure!

all 4 of us on the second day...not looking too bad?


When Brian brought up the idea of taking a trek during our trip I was a bit hesitant.  I do enjoy hiking. But do I really enjoy it enough to do it for 3 days straight, in the middle of nowhere Guatemala?  However, the more I thought about it the more the idea grew on me to the point that when it came between cutting the trek from our trip and cutting Tikal (ancient Mayan ruins) I voted to keep the trek. I think Brian put it best when he said something along the lines of “it will be so cool! We will be experiencing our vacation rather than just seeing it.” That sealed the deal for me and I was all in on the trek.

There are a handful of things that really stood out for me during the arduous trek.  The first thing is that it was hard.  Really hard.  I won’t forget sitting at our trip meeting Friday night, with Brian on my left Vanessa and Pam to my right, I scoped out the people that would be joining us.  That is how I thought about it to, like it was our trek and they we going to be tagging along.  Then, Eric, the trip leader took a deep breath and told the group the milage each day-12miles on the first two days and 5 or so on the final day.  Immediately, I balked at the distance but as I looked around  the circle for some affirmation of the craziness, I found stone cold determined faces, or at least that was the facade they were putting on, and I quickly realize that we were probably going to be tagging along with most of them.

The first day was super difficult.  I obviously knew that we had to walk 12miles, but that actually was a small part of what made it so challenging. The first day of hiking was filled with moments of awkwardness as everyone (there we 21 of us including the guides) jostled and tousled around with their placement in the group.  Where your a leader in the group? The friendly helper? The quiet, wise one? The Ranger Rick Super Camper, that knows everything about camping…and life? The inexperienced newbie that obviously has no idea what they are doing and has no place being out in the wilderness much less outside by themselves because they could not walk up a hill without falling and going down was a danger to anyone in the vicinity?

The group taking a break.

As the day wore on and feet, muscles, spirit and mood started to feel the miles tick by the sifting of people started to come to an end and the awkward conversations and comments started to become more real and genuine as true personalities emerged.  Lucky for the four of us, Brian was the only one that really took on one of these roles (the wise one) the rest of us pretty much just blended into the middle and were able to enjoy  everyone, which was just fine with me.

There was a staggering amount of breathtaking views and moments from the trek but two stand out in my mind.  The first took place on the first day.  The group had become spread out as we made our way up the most difficult hill of the entire trip, Eric had told us that when we stopped seeing trees and started seeing grass we had made it to the top.  With each step I stumbled my mind started to draw a vision of what awaited but when Brian and I emerged around a corner and I raised my head, the vivid green rolling hills dressed in gowns of mist struck out my kindergarden drawing and imprinted an everlasting image of true beauty.

made it to the top of the hill!

It was awe-inspiring to see the fields and crops spread out before us,  dabbled with a tree here and there, or a man tilling the soil and a women dressed in traditional Mayan clothing sauntering by balancing an impossibly heavy load on her head.  We meandered through the ghostlike village passing small huts/houses, stick fences and a school engulfed in a cloud of it’s own.  It was a rejuvenating moment where thoughts of acing feet and heavy backpacks was pushed far from the mind and the wonderment of where were and what we were doing bull rushed forward.

The second time that continually comes to the forefront when I think back was on the second day.  It was just before lunch and we were approaching a small village and we were told not to take pictures of any of the inhabitants because they believe that having a picture taken of them will steal part of their soul.  What a place!  The village was magnificent, was the parade of strangers passed through, children raced out their doors to stand, look up in wonderment and simply wave, a few even mustered the fleeting courage to call  “Hola!” as if the wold depended on them getting the words passed their lips. The adults in the community continued about their business but made sure to give a friendly, embracing smile and if the moment seemed right wish you luck on your travels or simply tell you to have a good day.  So, I hope this community never has another picture taken of it because walking through it, their soul was there, in every smile and ever word uttered.  Loved it!

The trek had come to an end.  We had made it to San Juan and the group had decided to take a quick trip to the next town over, San Pedro, to grab a celebratory beer before lunch.  It was a short ride, on the way over we packed 20 of us in a mini bus meant for 12.  That in itself was a terrible, terrible experience but I enjoyed it.  20 people that just got done walking 30 miles over 2.5 days that had not showered jammed into a space far too small…I almost threw-up on Vanessa. Anyway, on the way back it was decided that we were going to take tuk-tuks, which are basically small motorcycles with a bench for 2 average sized people or 3 small people to sit. We jammed Pam, Vanessa, and me in the back and Brian awkwardly half shared a seat with the 15ish year old driver, and half hung out the side holding on for dear life.  We laughed at Brian and enjoyed the experience but as we approached our return destination we caught up to another tuk-tuk filled the the brim with our comrades from the trek.  Our driver caught up with the other tuk-tuk and in that moment they became our nemesis.  The two tuk-tuks down shifted simultaneously, a devilish smirk spread across our drivers lips as he peered left at the competition and Vanessa’s words acted as the starting pistol as she yelled “RAPIDO! RAPIDO!”. The race was on!  Brians knuckles grew white as we dipped around curves and dove past pot holes.  Swerving  past stray dogs and onlookers, making precarious, gut instinct decisions only intensified the laughter emanating from the back seat, which in turn goaded the driver to go for the victory even more.  We pulled in front of our rivals and the trophy was all but in our hands when, as if it where planned, another tuk-tuk puttered out in front of us.  I driver daringly dipped to the right, looking for an opportunity to slip past, then zagged left hoping tor an opening but we were stifled and right then our opponents found the inch or so it took to zip by.  The giggles of joy echoed from their backseat off the storefronts pierced our drivers young, tender heart and all he could do as he eased on the brakes was shake his despondent head, but was we laughingly exited the sardine can on wheels and his rival browbeat him, he eeked out a smile that said “I am not going to live this down all day, but man was that fun!”- that smile said it for all of us.

Tuk-Tuk...ready ready to race!


Quetzaltrekkers has a pretty comprehensive site with information on all of the hikes they offer, and the difficulty level of all of the treks.

almost there...yeah right...

We chose the Lake Atitlan trek for a couple reasons. One, it was listed as moderately hard and that seemed do-able.  Two, it was a multi-day hike, and we all liked the prospect of staying in local villages.  Three, Quetzaltrekkers is a non-profit org that was both cheap and donated money to local schools.  I think we were all of the same mind when we signed up.  Soon we would learn that Quetzaltrekker’s idea of  a “moderate” hike was a little bit different from our idea of a moderate hike.

It would be fair to say we were mildly prepared for the trek.  We had our backpacks, we brought along our brand-name dry-fit shirts, our rain covers and jackets, and our head-lamps; in other words, we had the gear. What we weren’t quite prepared for was the amount of hiking we would do.  We knew it wouldn’t be an easy trek. We were hiking from one of the highest parts of Guatemala to a lake… Obviously there would be some down hills.  The uphills and the mileage were the biggest shockers to me.  12 miles a day with a heavy pack.  That would be the most I had ever done with a backpack.  It was also explained that on the first day, half of our hike would be a brutal uphill.  Great.

On the first day,  I had to remind myself a few times why I was going through this.  It was hard, and at times I had to scramble with my hands and feet to climb up.  It wouldn’t be the only uphill scrammble on the trek.  In fact, each day had a series of very steep and very difficult uphill climbs.  It was interesting because, it seemed to me that we were either going uphill or downhill the entire time.  There was very very rarely a middle ground.

V is tuckered out!

After we fought (hand and feet for some) to reach the 11,000 ft. region of the first day, we soon learned that we would be walking down that same mountain very shortly.  To keep the steep-muddy-downhill-hike fun, our group leader turned falling into a game.  If you fell and one had touched the ground, you got 1 point.  If you fell and 2 hands touched the ground, you got 2 points.  3 points were given for falling flat on your butt, 10 points for falling on your face, and if you fell on another person and knocked them over, then you got their points as well.  We were told there would be a prize at the end of day 2 for the winner.  I’m pretty competative, but I had little drive to win that prize.  It was hard hiking down what was essentially mud as slick as ice in parts, and trying to keep balanced with a 30 pound pack on.

At the end of the 1st day, I had earned a whopping 16 points… only one of which was a 1 pointer.  At one point we were hiking  in a field next to a cow, it was when the cow let out a loud “Moo” and I lifted my head to look, I landed my last 3 pointer for the day.  To my defense, we were still going downhill and it was still muddy when I fell.  I was sure that victory would be mine if I kept up my clumsiness on day 2.  Unfortunately for me, there was another girl who had some how managed over 30 points on the first day…  I guess she was also awarded some “style” p0ints for doing a barrel roll or two.  Oh well!  On day 2, I had around 29 points, still not enough to win the prize, which was to be the first to shower that night.  Somehow, I was both greatful and dissappointed not to win.

Our group leader and I think Quetzaltrekkers did a really good job of turning the hardest or most disheartening parts of the hike into a game.  On day 2 there was “record hill” in which we tried to climb it under the set record of 9 minutes and 30 seconds (I don’t see how that was possible until they told us an Austrian professional cross country runner set it).  The hill was hell and I felt like throwing up afterward, but the competition was there.  We were also given little insentives like, after this hill we can eat trail mix, lunch, etc.  They were truly trying to turn the most painful parts into something less painful or take our minds off of the pain.

tired but still smiling

Another motivation on the trek was the strange people with us.  They offered a form of both entertainment and motivation to me.  It helped knowing that people my age with less backpacking experience working hard, and it was quite wonderful to see the different types of people that had all come together to be in the same situation.  In addition to having strangers for motivation, the trekking company Quetzaltrekkers was amazingly prepared.  They had the meals, sleeping arrangements, and timing down to a science.

One of the things Quetzaltrekkers did best was the meals.  We ate super well while out.  The trail mix, a.k.a. hill motivation, was a mix of raisins, peanuts, and some wonderfully carmalized nut.  Supposedly they bought everything separate in the market, and mixed it all themselves before hand.  Lunch was homemade peanut butter and blackberry jelly sandwiches.  They had also made black bean hummus, guacamole, potato and basil salad, tomato-red pepper-corn salad, and potato chips.  I ate ravenously on the first day, and I didn’t want to get up to hike ever again… but everyone else mustered the courage, so I had to.  Dinner was pasta with home made pesto and left overs from lunch.  Carbs were our friends, for sure.

On day two, we ate at a local village restaurant.  We had rice, beans, eggs, tortillas, and coffee.  The guides bought tomatoes and bannanas for the hike.  We ate left overs from breakfast and dinner for lunch: pasta, tomato, beans, and rice… good thing I was burning tons of calories because I ate like my life depended on it.  Dinner was served by a local family and it was amazing: chicken with rice, beans, tortillas, tamales, salad, and hot tea.

On the last day we woke at 3:40 am, and hiked for about 30 minutes to a viewpoint of the lake.  While there, we ate homemade granola, oatmeal, blackberry jam, homemade cookies, and tea.  Once we made it to town, we had beers and lunch of chicken, rice, beans, and veggies.  We ate like it was our job, but Quetzaltrekkers kept the weight in our packs down, and did a really good job of feeding us meals made from home with love.  Yumm!

(Pam and Brian AND a summary of the entire trip)

I’m sitting in a comfortable bed in the “penthouse” of a beautiful hotel, watching a thunderstorm rip across the choppy waters of Lago Atitlan, trying to figure out how to accurately sum up the epic three-day trek that led us here from Xela. It was torrentially rainy; it was incredibly challenging; it was physically demanding; it was steep, muddy, slippery, and rugged. But it was also overwhelmingly beautiful – full of mind-blowing scenery and unique experiences. It was no doubt the highlight of our trip so far. For this entry, we decided to weave all four of our perspectives into one post – it might sound a little repetative in parts, but hopefully you´ll find it entertaining.

The trek really started Friday night when we showed up at the Quetzaltrekkers office for our pre-trip meeting. There were a bunch of plastic chairs in a circle, each with a piece of group gear on top – loaves of bread, a hot drinks bag, plastic containers of food, two “shit kits”, and a giant metal pot that no one wanted to claim. We were introduced to our head guide, Erik, paid our fee and sat down with our group of about 20 people to hear a run-down of the details of the trek. They gave us water bottles to fill then outfitted us with sleeping bags, pads and whatever else we needed from their stash of donated gear. Then we walked back to our hotel to pack and turn in early to make the 6:30 AM meeting time, but not before stopping at some street food stalls near the park for a glorious dinner of tacos, garnaches (crispy fried mini tortillas topped with ground beef and salsa) and a Mexican torta (sandwich with hot dog, ham and other meats with cheese, mayo, salsa and who knows what else, all chopped up with a paint scraper and grilled on a flattop.)

I can honestly say that I was very nervous about this trek as it grew
closer.  Mostly because I had not physically prepared myself as I have
done so in the past and partly because I was not sure what to expect of
the Guatemalan highlands. Regardless, I was going to have to be ready,
whether I liked it or not.

day before our trek, we arrived in Xela, late morning and as Brian
described above, hung out and explored the city all day
until our QuetzelTrekkers meeting at 6PM (that was the organization
thatwe chose to hike with because they are non profit and all proceeds
to orphaned and disadvantaged children in the city).   As soon
as we arrived at the “office” I began to feel a mix of excited
anticipation aswell as near paralyzing fear, because I knew that this
was going to be hardcore based on the looks of our leaders and fellow
hikers.  I calmed
down a bit as the meeting started, everyone was
introduced and our trek leader Erik (from Sweden) began to describe how
things were going to work.   Looking back on his speech, I really don’t
think that he fully prepared us for what lay ahead.  I mean, he told
us it was going to be hard, and I have done some pretty hard things
before, but this would prove to be one of the most physically and
mentally challenging trips I’ve ever been on.   Needless to say, it was
quite a restless night of sleep.

Day 1 – Saturday 6/18

The alarm rang early and we scrambled to shower and check out of the hotel, having to ring a bell to wake up the night worker so he could let us out the front gate, then having to bang on the window of a taxi to wake up the driver who was sleeping in the driver’s seat. The cab was tiny, we were stuffed like sardines and our bags were hanging out of the trunk as we tore down the cobblestone streets to Quetzaltrekkers.

Most of the group arrived when we did and we were treated with a pancake breakfast and had a little getting to know you session before being given another load of communal food and making the final adjustments to our packs. When everyone was ready, we hoisted our packs and embarked on a two mile walk through town to the bus station, drawing inquisitive looks from the locals going about their morning business. At the bus stop, our packs were tossed onto the roof of a chicken bus and we got in for a half hour ride to the base of the trek – a small village on the outskirts of Xela at the base of an impressive wall of rugged mountains. And it began.

The hike began with a steep climb that switchbacked up from the village and gave fabulous views of the Xela valley and surrounding mountains. We stopped for breaks every half hour or so and let the slower hikers catch up, each time Erik would describe the view or lead some sort of group icebreaker. After an intense two hours of steep climbing we arrived at a grassy meadow area at the top of the mountain. Strands of clouds drifted over the ridge tops and melted away; a fine mist hung in the air, barely heavy enough to fall as rain. A few men were farming cornfields and a small group of women in brightly colored clothes sat under a tree then set off barefoot on the muddy trail downhill. We put on rain gear and kept walking through a tiny village where in the fog I could barely make out a few buildings and a basketball court and soccer field. We climbed a hill and reached the highest point on the trek at 3,050 meters (just over 10,000 feet). Erik told us that this region is called “Alaska” because the nearby Panamerican Highway reaches its highest point here since Alaska.

The 5am alarm came quick and Miguel, Vanessa, Brian and I scrambled to
shower, pack and head out to find a taxi before our 6:30 breakfast at
the QT headquarters.  After a bit of a fiasco with a locked hotel door
and a sleeping taxi driver, we finally made it to the office and enjoyed

banana pancakes, fruit and coffee before heading out. Once breakfast
was over, we geared up and walked through the city for about a mile to
catch a chicken bus up to the base of our trek. The bus drove us
outsideof Xela and up a very steep, winding road to a small farming
which was nestled at the foothill of gentle, green
mountains. Our crew of about 17 trekkers plus 4 guides, was plopped on
the side of the road towards the end of town, which meant we had to
climb the remaining steephill to the start of the trek. Sadly, after
only 15 minutes of huffing
and puffing with my heavy backpack in
the scorching Guatemalan sun, I thought I should just give up right
then and there.

Thankfully, we stopped in a shaded grassy area to
regroup, pee and get to know each other better.  This couldn’t have
come at a better time as it gave me a
chance to slap the self
doubt right out of my head and psych myself up for the 12 miles that
lingered in front of me (even after I learned thatI was the second
oldest person there-sigh).  After the short break, it was time to climb
what was described as “the hardest part of the trek” =
two grueling
hours of uphill through the rocky, slick terrain. Our group soon formed
the classic three party split; the go getters, the middles and the
“I’ll take my sweet time-ers”. I’m sure you all can guess where I was.
I quickly made friends with two vibrant, funny chicks from Brooklyn,
Jessica and Diana, and the three of us decided to name ourselves “team
slow” much to the amusement of the poor guide Bryan, who got stuck
bringing up the rear :).  In short, this climb was a bitch and I was
very happy when we arrived at the “top”, which was when the clouds and
rain rolled in and we continued hiking through remote mountain
villages, an unending cloud forest and slippery, rocky trails.

It seemed like forever until we finally stopped for lunch under a giant
tree hugging the side of a cliff.  We were all starving at this point
and thoroughly enjoyed an unbelievable backpacker lunch of peanut
butterand jelly, tacos, chips and guacamole under the shelter of an old
spinytree amidst a rainy afternoon sky. After stuffing ourselves, we prepared
for the second half of Day 1, which consisted of hours of muddy,
slippery, downhill climbing and for me, that meant severe
anxiety attacks at every mini hill because I cannot do anything else but
agonize over every terrifying step.  Ridiculous, I know. Our guides did
make it quite fun by throwing in a points game; 1 point for slipping
and catching with one hand, 2 pts for two hands, 3 pts for landing on
your ass and so on… I’m proud to say that I ended the day with only
two points :).  That was infinitely better than Brian´s 9 (2 of which came from a two-hand fall into a thorn bush), Vanessa´s 18, or the hands-down leader Jess, who stopped counting at 33.

The rain had finally stopped for a little until just
when were heading up the road on our last hour and a downpour began. It
was amiserable uphill battle and I was very close to hitting my
breaking point (= burst into tears and throw a tantrum) when we got to
the village where we would spend the night.

So after a two-mile walk through Xela and 12 miles of rugged ups and downs, dries and wets, we finally ascended the last hill on the dirt road to the small Mayan village of Santa Caterina where we would spend the night.  We went into the shabby-looking “community center” that had a courtyard, running water and a small room where we unrolled our sleeping pads on the tile floor. At least it had a roof and a bathroom.

We dried out, layed down and filtered water while the guides prepped dinner.  We were also treated to a Temuscal, or Mayan sauna, which was described to us by the guides as part dog house, part pizza oven.  That description was pretty spot on as we´d soon find out after running across the village in the pouring rain in our swim suits and finding the little hut with smoke pouring out from the plastic sheet covering the door.  Each group of three was given about 15 minutes in the sauna, and although the fire started to go out on us, the time we did have was very enjoyable.  There was a wood fire with hot stones above it and two pails of water, one hot and one cold.  We through cold water on the stones to create some steam and dumped the hot water over our aching feet.  It felt pretty incredible.

Day 2 – Sunday 6/19

Lets just say that my body was less than
pleased with me as I tried to crawl out of my sleeping bag to begin
our second day of trekking. However, the delicious breakfast of beans,
rice and scrambled eggs prepared by local women took all the pain away
and we started our next 12+ miles with sun and bright blue skies. We crossed a river and were soon faced with “record hill” which was a steep, narrow bunch of switchbacks and a record of 9 minutes was once set by some guy.  I took more like 25:).

The morning began pretty pleasantly once my body recovered from the shock of being told it would have to hoist on a pack and walk for another 12 miles that day.  Breakfast was a delicious filling meal of scrambled eggs, rice, beans and fresh torillas, prepared over a wood fire by Mayan women in a tiny little comedor.  We walked out of the village on a nice gradually ascending dirt road then descended to a bridge where the climbing would begin.

The Quetzaltrekkers folks have come up with a wonderful way to get people to get through this section quickly…just like I do with middle schoolers, tell them it´s timed and make it a competition.  This was the infamous “Record Hill” – a grueling stretch of switchbacking uphill that was as steep as anything I´ve every climbed.  The record is an obscene 9 minutes by an Austrian cross country runner.  My quads and calves were screaming by the time I crested the last switchback in just under 15 minutes.

There was more steep, but pleasant climbing on the next sections, through cornfields that clung to precipitous slopes and the sound of local children shouting “hola!” rang through the valleys.

After that was more climbing, which was not too bad due to the spectacular views that surrounded us.  We climbed and climbed and climbed until we reached our highest point where we had a lunch of leftovers and basked in the sun until it was time to finish the next 6+ miles. This is where things got a little dicey.  I ended the next 45 minutes of downhill with a less than graceful tumble on all fours as I trotted towards the gathered group and of course around this time, a pleasant case of upset stomach set in and tormented me for the rest of the day.

It was also around this time that we strapped on our water shoes for a couple hours of interval river crossings. That’s when the absolute downpour started and spirits got a little low.  It was cold, muddy and wet and this stretch seemed to be cursed.  First, our guide Erik was stalked and attacked by a bee, who stung him 3 times (more to cone on that later) and then we somehow lost the middle guide Angela who was only 18. So, the rest if us trekked on with our fourth guide Frank while Erik and Bryan literally ran to find Angela.  I tried to remember how terrified Angela was feeling instead of feeling sorry for myself as I finished the dangerous, ridiculously muddy climb up to the road towards our home-stay.  We finally found our destination in the pouring rain and heard that Angela had been found. All was well and we had an fun filled night of beer, stories, bonfire and a chicken dinner in the comfort of the home of Don Pedro.

Pam described the final section of day two pretty accurately – it was definitely the low point of the trek, with the relentless rain, the monotonous river crossings, the blisters that began to form on my feet from my sandals, Erik getting stung by the mutant bee, and worst of all, Angela the guide getting separated from the group. Even after we reached the comfort of a roof, fresh fruit smoothie and warm fire at Don Pedro´s house, we were still a little uneasy until we´d heard the good news that she´d been found and was on her way back with the other two guides.

We spent the next few hours drying out and enjoying a few beers around the fire, knowing that the seriously hard days of the trek were behind us. After a wonderful chicken dinner we toasted marshmallows and relaxed around the fire, but quickly dropped off to sleep knowing that we had a ridiculously early wake up call so that we could catch the sunrise from an overlook the following morning.

Day 3- Monday 6/20

Our last day started at 3:40 AM when Erik turned the lights on and told us all that we had twenty minutes to pack up and be ready.  It was so stressful trying to navigate through the swarms of people who were also trying to get ready, that I didn’t even get to pee!!  With headlamps and packs on, we ventured out into the early morning cold and trekked up
the road for about an hour until we came to our sunrise viewing spot.

Our spot was just a little trail in from the road, nestled next to a corn field and from it, we could look down on Lake Atitlan and all of the sleepy towns that surround it.  The clouds were gently hovering above the lake and we watched the sunrise over the volcanoes in the distance.  The only downfall of the morning was that our guide Erik had to leave early on a chicken bus because his bee stings had left him swollen and unable to see out of one eye.

The view from the mirador was incredible.  We arrived in almost total darkness and could only see a faint outline of the volcanoes rising up from a bowl of clouds that covered the entire surface of the lake. Pinpricks of light lined the shore as we looked down on the sleeping towns that hung on the hills of the lake.  We unrolled sleeping pads and huddled together to wait the sunrise. The sky gradually lightened and revealed more and more of the spectacular scene with the sky transitioning through a range of indigos, purples, greys and pinks.

We had some oatmeal and coffee then strapped the packs on one more time to begin the 2+ hour downhill to the lakeside town of San Juan la Laguna.  We stopped for a snack of fresh pineapple and knew we were close when we could look down on the rooftops of the town and hear the drums from school marching band that was practicing in the town stadium. We followed the rhythmic pounding down the steep hillsides; soon mud gave way to cobblestone and foilage to cinderblock storefronts…we had done it.

After we had breakfast and the sky was much brighter, it was time to begin our 2 1/2 hour decent into the town of San Juan to end our trek.  The hike was very steep and sometimes slippery and my knees begged for mercy with each step. The views however, kept me entertained as I gazed over Lake Atitlan and reflected on all that I had just accomplished. We
finally made it into town and dropped our packs at our lunch spot. Since lunch was not ready yet, our guides came up with the brilliant idea of heading over to the next town to grab some beers.  We miraculously all packed into one mini bus and arrived in San Juan where we were greeted by a great deck bar with beautiful views of the lake and cold beer.

At this point we were all relieved to be done and deliriously giggly from the early morning wake up.  There was one girl, Clementine, who was very nice, but just completely out there! She entertained us as she pulled out random items such as loose trail mix, an avocado, twigs, rocks (etc) from her pocket that she collected on the trail. We were just waiting for her to pull a unicorn out to put us all over the edge! Lunch was also great and after we handed back all of our borrowed gear, exchanged contact info and hugged our new friends goodbye.

This was an experience that I will not soon forget.  Despite the fact that there were times I wanted to give up, cry and hit something or someone, the self discipline only made me stronger and the memories of fun times, beautiful people and breathtaking landscapes will forever be
etched in my mind.

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A Delicious Adventure with Chichi

20 06 2011

8:00 am came to early.  The four of us clamered into another van-bus and we were off from Panajachel to Chichicastenango.  The town of Chichicastenango has little to offer other than it boasts having the biggest market in Central America, and in a last minute decision, we decided it was worth a day trip.  The hour or so drive was made painful by an mindnumbingly annoying womn who looked uncanningly like Voldemort from Harry Potter.  But we made it in good time.  We had just about 5 hours to exlpore the market, and meet back up with the bus driver.

The first thing on all of our minds was eating some breakfast.  So, we just barely waded our way down the first steet of the market and found a small resturant.  We had just sat down when fireworks, known as bombettas started going off just out side.  Soon, a huge procession complete with men in full regelia carrying religious statues came into view.  The bombettas grew louder and the streets filled with smoke as the procession slowly moved past.  It’s difficult to find the right words to describe the reverence of this procession; it simply marked the start of market day, yet it was so intricate and amazing.

Market parade

After breakfast we jumped into exploring the market with both feet.  Vanessa was the only one that really wanted to buy something specific- a handsewn blanket. However, we quickly realized that there was a pretty good chance that we were going to get lost.  Brian noted that we started by a big yellow building, which was to be our landmark to relocate the minibus.

We started down what seemed like the main street that had side streets branching off…what we soon came to realize is all those side streets also had streets extending from them…all of them lined with stalls, or blankets covered in goods.  There was everything from traditional mayan clothing and blankets to freshly cut chiken heads, or even live baby chickens!

The central church

We wandered for hours and it seemed that we rarely crossed the same place twice.  As we became more daring we worked our way in to the the depths of the market where the aroma of food stalls called.  We meandered through the tight catacombs to reach what felt like the heart of the market.  We stopped walking and all looked at eachother in anticipation.  Pam was the first to say what we were all thinking…we were going to eat right there, where crates of live chickens were becoming fried chiken in a matter of minutes and the ash from the freshly stoked fires landed on our plates.

We trepidly chose a food stall that had meat sizzling over an open fire.  Vanessa, who has been the designated speaker for the entire trip, ordered 3 plates complete with meat, rice, tortillas and some sort of squash salad.  The meat was succulent, the rice delicious and the tortillas perfectly round (which we learned was near impossible to do at our cooking class in Antigua), it was a once in a life time meal!  I enjoyed looking around at each of our group and had to keep reminding myself where we actually were.

After lunch, V finally found the blanket she wanted and did her best job of bartering and we worked our way back to the shuttle.  All of us were tired and thankfully slept most of the way back so we didn’t have to hear the Skeletor-looking lady ramble on about whatever thought just came into her head.

It’s strange to think that we were so close to not visiting Chichi.  We casually added it to our itinerary at the last minute.  We are so lucky we did, because if it were not for this visit, we wouldn’t have seen one of the most interesting and intricate faces of Guatemala.


Check out Pam and Brian’s blog for more pictures and insights about our trip.

Lake Atitlan… Words Fail Me Now

17 06 2011

We talked to Pam and Brian countless times preparing for our trip, but the more and more we talked, the more we realized that it was going to be impossible for us to plan out every place to sleep or even every town to visit!  So, we kept a couple of chunks of time completely unplanned and decided that we would follow are follies and see what happens.

As our time in Antigua came to an end we approached one of the unplanned chunks of time.  Really, without much descussion we decided to head toward Lake Atitlan, more specifically, Panajachel (pana-hach-el).  And from there, we would take a day trip to Chichicastenango to visit the largest market in Guatemala, if not all of Central America!

We booked a shuttle to take us from Antigua to Panajachel and started on the second leg of our journey.  In our micro bus, we wound past crops of corn and towering pine trees, breezed by small villages and old ladies selling traditional Mayan clothes.  After climbing the Guatamalan hills for a while, we began to drop alititude very quickly as we made our way toward Lake Atitlan.  The switchbacks became monontinous until we rounded one corner that opened up a miraculous view.  Many have refered to Lake Atitlan as ¨one of the most beautiful lakes in the world,¨and at the moment I could see why.  The true blue water, spread out like a calm blanket, is dotted by 3 volacnaoes that jut up from the surreen water.

We continued to wind our way down to Panajachel, disembaked from our microbus and quickly found our hotel, Utz Jay, our home for the next two nights.  We dropped our stuff off and immediately made our way to the shores of the lake.  There, we shooed away a couple of guys trying to get us to take a boat ride, and we just sat.  We enjoyed looking out at the lake and basked in the moment of being in such a ridiculously amazing place with great friends.  The rest of the day passed quickly as we enjoyed drinks and food in town and anticipated our trip to the market the next morning.


Lake Atitlan

Guats Up? From Guatemala

17 06 2011

The gang sitting down to a self-made meal

My how the time has flown already! It feels like just yesterday that we landed in Guatemala City and were instantly greeted by Pam and Brian.  We have already explored the beautiful town of Antigua for four days!  How good it is to be around such good friends again! I just wish the time wasn’t going by so quickly.

We currently are on the road to another adventure in another part of  Guatemala, but it feels like I blinked my eyes and we were leaving Antigua.  I know that we did a lot,  I have the pictures to prove it, but I can’t believe the first leg of our Guatemalan adventure is over!

When we first arrived in Antigua we did all that we could to find our bearings.  We walked aimlessly through the streets and explored the clean and amazingly old buildings.   We got lost a few times trying to find a cheap place to eat… It turns out that it is a little more expensive to eat in Antigua than we had planned.

We have visited the local markets and various churches of Antigua and have tried to get a true feel for the place.   The town is beautiful.  It is pretty neat to see such old architecture and indigenous people with volcanos in the background.  The town itself is very quite.  There are hardly any animals, the people are all very quiet, and in a really bizzare fashion, people don’t use their horns when driving.  It took Miguel and I a few days to actually accept that we were in a Central American country.

While staying in Antigua we took a day trip to a volcano nearby. The volcano is called Pacaya and it is still active.   On Pacaya we roasted marshmallows in a lava crevasse and walked into a huge vocano cave… It was hot as hell but super cool.  The whole time on the hike we were followed by locals on horses.  They were offering a “natural” taxi ride to the top of the mountain.  As we laborously walked up hill, they would temptingly call out, “It only takes 10 minutes to the top if you take a horse, but 1 hour if you walk.  Taaaaxi.  Taaaaaxi natural!”  Although it was tempting, none of us could bring ourselves to be that lazy.  The hike was quite easy and quite nice, but we have now taken to calling out, “Taaaaxi natural” anytime one of us starts draging.

Eating a lava roasted marshmallow

Our view from the volcano

The gang in the volcano cave

After our day on Pacaya, we took a cooking class at a local restaurant called Cafe Flor.   The cooking school was called Frijol Feliz.  From a local Guatemalan man, we learned to make traditional chili rellenos, tortillas, guacamole, and a traditional dessert called rellanitos (a mix of sweet beans and fried plantains). We had a great tme (it didnt hurt that we had free drinks while we cooked).  After cooking we feasted on our meal.  We could hardly walk home we were so full, but it was all worth it.  It was a great time to be in the kitchen, learning new things, and drinking a few beers with my friends.

Top Chef Antigua

Rellenos. Yummm.

I would say the only downside to our trip in Antigua was our choice of hostel.  We stayed at a place called El Hostel.  The ammenaties were nice and our room was very spacious and decently cheap… but it was so so loud.  Our room (as did most in the place) shared a wall with the street.  In addition, we were directly across from a place called Cafe No Se which features nightly open mic music until 1 am, at which point, the musicians just play on the street.  It would seem, we picked the only noisy road in Antigua to sleep on.  The bad news for this hostel is there doesn’t seem like much they can do to remedy the situation.  The building is old and has an open courtyard in the middle which adds to the noise… and it seems that Cafe No Se has been around and will be around for quite some time.  Thank goodness Pam and Brian had the foresight to pack ear plugs.

All in all, Antigua was wonderful.  It is such a romantic and eerily clean town.  The locals are sweet, the food is good… what more can you ask for?


Antigua is for lovers

Guatemala here we come!-and Nicaragua too

11 06 2011

Living in Costa Rica has allowed Vanessa and I to travel more than ever before. Or at least travel to places we never thought we would see. We have been to Panama and all over Costa Rica but today we leave to visit a place that has been on V and I’s checklist for a long time… Guatemala.


We will be meeting our friends Pam and Brian at the airport in Guatemala City. We will be traveling around Guatemala for just under 2 weeks and then we will head south to Nicaragua for another week and a half or so! I am super excited for this trip. We have had a lot of great adventures with Pam and Brian and this one will be one for the record books. We hope to blog every couple of days during the adventure, so if you would like to keep track of our adventure check back frequently or you can just subscribe by clicking where it says “CLICK HERE TO FOLLOW THE FLAMES WE LIGHT AND RECEIVE NOTIFICATIONS OF NEW POSTS BY EMAIL” there on the right——>. We might even persuade either P or B to add a little of their flavor to the blog. It’s going to be great! Look for pictures, video and, hopefully, great stories.

Or you can follow Brian and Pam’s blog too!

Reflections on the Year: M&V

5 06 2011

Everything has Changed:  A Reflection of the Year Living Abroad

One year (well, 10 months).  I have changed. A lot.  It is simple to say; simple to write, but impossible to wrap my head around in its’ entirety.  It is hard to look past this past year and think of a more monumental year in my life.  Sure there was graduating both high school and college, there was getting married and a litany of other important times in my life but this has been an entire year of challenges, events and…change.  But with all this talk of metamorphosis I couldn’t tell you how I have changed, I just know I have.  My outlook on life: my marriage, myself, my family, my career – they are all different, all have been revolutionized.  How?  I don’t know.  What I do know is I like the change.  I needed it.  I have a life to live, and I feel like I am doing just that.  Living.



“Schooool’s out for Summa”:  A Reflection of the School Year

We have made it to June.  June marks the end of the school year and the beginning of the rainy season.  It seems like just a month ago I was coping with my first experience of being in a place where you could actually not see the sun for days on end.  As I sit in my dark house at 5:30, I wonder, how did this daily rain creep up again so quickly, and more importantly, can I continue calling June and July “summer” when it’s cold and raining everyday?  Probably not… so this leads me to my second question.  On the last day of school, would it be appropriate to sing the obligatory Alice Cooper song, “School’s out for summer!”?  Damn.  “School’s out for ‘green-season'” is just lame.

Green Season or not, this year has been so monumental to my growth as a teacher.  I can’t say I have ever had a year where I went through more changes than this year.  I have had to learn how to deal with the cultural differences, ie. names that I couldn’t pronounce, last minute schedule changes, and trying to start class on time when everyone else is on the dreaded “Tico-time”.  Also, Country Day has provided me with great liberties as a teacher.  I am able to teach for understanding and not for a standardized test.  I have had the opportunity to see the difference between a 32 student class to a 12 student class.  The expectation that every student has a laptop has also opened so many doors for my students and me.  It has all been so eye opening and I know I have improved as a teacher.

I think my opinion of my kids changed drastically as well.  I started the year with the expectation of these kids being something close to aliens.  In my head, they would sit quietly and absorb every ounce of information I had to give them.  They would all turn in their work on time, neatly labeled, and 100% correct.  Obviously, I let my imagination get the best of me and I failed to remember what I KNEW 11 year old kids to be: messy, needy, loud, awkward, and ridiculously sweet.  Once all of my stupid preconceptions were shattered, I began to have a great time with my kids!  They laugh at my jokes.  They read books.  And I mean, they REALLY read the books… at home!  They thank me after every class.  They turn their work in on time (most of them).  I have constantly set a higher and higher mark for them this year, and everyone of them has tried their very best to meet that mark.

Next year I will make the move to 8th grade language arts.  I will have the kids that Miguel had this year, and Miguel will have my kids.  I’m looking forward to it.  And I’m going to try my best to be realistic in my expectations this time!  But, first, I have to make it through this rainy season.


Missing our Karma…

29 05 2011

Karma-Sita. We miss you.


The way the dog trots out the front door
every morning
without a hat or an umbrella,
without any money
or the keys to her doghouse
never fails to fill the saucer of my heart
with milky admiration.

Who provides a finer example
of a life without encumbrance—
Thoreau in his curtainless hut
with a single plate, a single spoon?
Gandhi with his staff and his holy diapers?

Off she goes into the material world
with nothing but her brown coat
and her modest blue collar,
following only her wet nose,
the twin portals of her steady breathing,
followed only by the plume of her tail.

If only she did not shove the cat aside
every morning
and eat all his food
what a model of self-containment she
would be,
what a paragon of earthly detachment.
If only she were not so eager
for a rub behind the ears,
so acrobatic in her welcomes,
if only I were not her god.

-Billy Collins

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