Tag Archives: travel in Guatemala

The Manatee Whisperer At Lago Izabel

Lago IzabelWe caught the 6:00 AM collectivo to El Estor from Rio Dulce and met Don Benjamin at his boat at 6:45. He liked to be on the lake early in the morning. It was just the two of us this morning so there was no disagreement when he asked us why we had come to the lake; we had come to see the fresh water sea manatee that live in Lago Izabal. We agreed that the monkeys, water birds and any other critters would be great but we were there for the manatee.

A happy man -Capitan Benjamin at Lago Izabel near El Estor

A happy man -Capitan Benjamin at Lago Izabel near El Estor

El Estor is a quiet village that sits at the northwest end of Lago Izabal, the largest lake in Guatemala. And Don Benjamin had come recommended as a sort of “Whisperer” to the manatee. He had lived on the lake all his life and was reputed to be knowledgeable about their habits. He explained where we would go in the search for the manatee and where, in his judgment, we would be most likely to see them.Still Waters

The Boca de Pilochic Bio-reserve was established at the western end of the lake where the largest river, the Rio Pilochic feeds in from the highlands. In this warm, shallow end, with marshy fingers extending into the jungles, the fresh water sea manatee make their home. In this protected area, along with a handful of other sites, this endangered species breeds and preserves the population in the wild.

We slowly motored along the perimeter of the bays, among water lilies and aquatic plants that are the manatee’s food. We were the only craft on the lake as far I as could see.On the south shore of a bay we drifted into an inlet and tied off for coffee and a light snack. “Paciencia” was not a problem for us we told Don Benjamin – we would be patient. We had anticipated this trip for some time.

Cormorants

Cormorants

While looking for the manatee we saw and heard the deep growl of the howler monkeys; several families were in the trees adjacent to the lake. Some were feeding, some at rest. There were the water birds as well: egrets, herons, cormorants, perhaps kingfisher, all feeding in the shallows of the lake.

Manatees in a line at Lago Izabel

Manatees in a line at Lago Izabel

As the morning wore on and the sun rose in the sky Don Benjamin was smiling, saying the manatee liked the sun. Shortly after that we began to encounter the manatee in groups of a dozen or more. We would follow them as they swam in a line, just below the surface. It was not the cresting of the whales, but it was amazing to be within a few feet of this massive, timid and endangered species. As one group dove to deeper water we would swing around and pick up another group in short order.

Manatee below the lake surface

Manatee below the lake surface

The morning had been very tranquil, followed by a flourish of joy and activity with sightings of the manatee. It was close to noon when we returned to the dock and time to catch the bus back to Rio Dulce for the next leg of our trip to the Caribbean coast.Water front at Lago Izabel

By Richard and Anita, August, 2013

Adios La Antigua

La MercedWe’ll be leaving Antigua this week and heading to Rio Dulce and Livingston, Guatemala on the Caribbean coast and then into Belize again to renew visas. We’ve been here for over five months, much longer than the two month stay we had originally planned when we arrived to volunteer. Our lifestyle of slow travel came to a temporary stop when a chance meeting, our own flexible itinerary and a bit of serendipity landed us our first official housesitting gig for an additional three months.

La Catedral Ruins

La Catedral Ruins

What is it about Antigua that so captivates us?  Surrounded by three volcanos in the central highlands of Guatemala, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most popular tourist destinations in Guatemala.Santa Rosa ruins Founded in 1543 by Spanish Conquistadors the city was “the capital of the Spanish Empire in America” from the 16th to 18th centuries until, after a devastating series of earthquakes earlier in the 18th century, a major earthquake in 1773 destroyed most of the city and the Spanish moved their capital to Guatemala City.There are impressive and melancholy ruins of ancient churches everywhere one walks throughout the city as well as a multitude of beautiful Spanish colonial and baroque edifices still in use.

Fountain in Parque Central

Fountain in Parque Central

Antigua is a very compact city and it’s wonderful to be able to walk anywhere we want within thirty to forty minutes. However, the sidewalks can be uneven with little steps going up or down and very narrow in places forcing us to walk single file or even on the street. Traffic right of way and trying to cross a street can be a guessing game called “Pedestrian Beware!” since you can’t assume that the cars will actually stop for you. There are few street signs on the corners so, for those of us who are directionally dyslexic, finding and orienting yourself can be a bit of a challenge too. The streets are paved with cobblestones and, while picturesque, can be treacherous if you’re not paying attention.

Marimbas - Guatemalan traditional music

Marimbas – Guatemalan traditional music

And it’s hard sometimes to watch your feet when there are so many things to see. Most weeks have a celebration or procession and there’s always the live traditional band with trombones, tubas and huge drums playing in the late afternoon on Fridays at the Parque Central. Just sitting in a café or a bench in the park watching the people (tourists and locals) can provide colorful sights of interest and entertainment.

A couple in the park

A couple in the park

The Antiguans are quite indulgent so long as you are respectful. They realize that tourists are the life-blood of the city and work to accommodate their desires. In return, we maintain the attitude of guests in their country, educate ourselves as to their customs and remain appreciative of their patience. This is rather simple when they routinely, and with great tact, help us with our struggling Spanish.

We have been fortunate to have been in other colonial cities; but it may be a time before we encounter another with the charming mix that brings La Antigua prominence.beautiful smile

By Richard and Anita, August, 2013

Lago de Atitlan-Beyond Beautiful

Lago de AtitlanThe first view of Lake Atitlan is from just under the ridge where the winding road begins its descent into the valley. We are at 6000 feet in the highlands of western Guatemala, and the contrast of the various shades of green on the mountainsides and the deep, sapphire blue of the lake is quite startling. The lake fills a caldera, a volcanic depression, of enormous proportions which was formed 84,000 years ago.

Volcanos Toliman (left) and San Pedro (right)

Volcanos Toliman (left) and San Pedro (right)

On the southern rim of the lake, three volcanos, Toliman, Atitlan and San Pedro tower over the landscape. It shreds the boundary of picturesque. Aldous Huxley tersely noted, “It really is too much of a good thing.” In this, he was correct.Volcan San Pedro Panajachel, the town where we are staying, is similar to the other seven or eight villages spread around the lake; a few thousand people engaged in traditional crafts and tourism with the remainder in ancillary businesses or farming and fishing. However, Panajachel is unique. It is built on the ancient flood plain of the Rio Panajachel, which still feeds Lake Atitlan, and as a consequence it is built on the level. Santiago AtitlanThe remaining villages are built on the sides of the caldera and they are a vertical maze of streets, homes and shops. While people have lived around the lake since the pre-Classic era, the lake has flooded five times in recorded history. The latest iterations of Panajachel, San Marcos La Laguna, Santiago Atitlan and most of the towns date from the 1930’s.

WeavingWe set out one morning to visit some of the lake towns by boat, the easiest means of transport. San Juan La Laguna, a very small village on the eastern shore of Atitlan, is an artisan’s town with over 40 cooperatives, primarily women’ s “asociaciones”, devoted to the production and marketing of traditional native crafts. While the focus is primarily on weaving, other co-ops engage in wood working, pottery and painting.

Textiles and handicraftsThe quality and beauty of some of the woven pieces produced was truly phenomenal. The gradation of colors in the thread was enormous and all the dyes were produced by hand from organic materials: plants, minerals and insects.( At times the tyranny of a single suitcase seems unjust. That day was one of those times as we both were so tempted to make a purchase).

Maximon - sans arms and legs

Maximon – sans arms and legs

The highlight of Santiago Atitlan was the shrine of Maximón, a folk saint venerated in various forms by the Mayan people of several towns in the highlands. One of the legends holds that one day, while the men were away working, Maximón came to the village and slept with all the wives. When the men returned they were sorely aggrieved and cut off his arms and legs. And that is why the effigies you see of Maximón at the shrines are of short men often without arms. The worship of Maximón treats him not so much as a benevolent deity but rather as a bully whom one does not want to anger. His expensive tastes in alcohol and cigarettes indicate that he is a sinful human character, very different from the ascetic ideals of Christian sainthood. Devotees believe that prayers for revenge, or success at the expense of others, are likely to be granted. The veneration of Maximón is not approved by the Roman Catholic Church – geez, go figure…Hauling firewood By Richard and Anita, July, 2013

Where Can I Buy Chicken Feet?

El MercadoWe lived in the land that invented the supermarket and the one-stop shopping concept and we’re slowly beginning to realize what we’ve missed: the one-to-one human interaction of asking if a certain item is available and for how much, occasional bargaining and the adventure of the quest. Here, in Latin America, the options for shopping vary. The larger cities usually have some version of the western style supermarket.  TiendaEvery neighborhood, town and city has its tiendas: little shops similar to small and crowded convenience stores. There are also the family businesses; bakeries and tortilla shops, stationery stores, pharmacies , fruit and vegetable stands, etc. Many of these shops are actually “storefronts” with the business in the front and the family home in the rear behind a privacy barrier.El Mercado

And then there are the mercados, huge farmers type markets that are usually in a permanent location, sometimes covered and several square blocks in size. We enter into the narrow lanes of the mercado and are instantly assaulted by the calls from the vendors seeking our attention, entreating us to buy their goods, declaring absolutely the best quality and price.

??????????This competes with the blaring music and noisy discussions all around from the crowds of people in a riotous cacophony. Stalls are jammed side by side into every available space and goods hang from the tent type walls, corrugated tin ceilings and shelves packed with colorful goods.

MannequinsMannequins decked out in skinny jeans and t-shirts strut their stuff next to pirated cd’s and dvd’s and hardware tools. Piles of underwear and padded bras are sold next to stacks of eggs and handcrafted items such as traditional weavings, leather goods, jewelry, and pottery.El Mercado

Plastic ware and household goods share space with fruits, vegetables and flowers all in a tower of abundance. There are of course the usual mangos, bananas, tomatoes, avocados and more strange and exotic things that we’ve never seen and have to ask in our Spanglish “what is this?” and “how do I eat it?”.

An artful display of chicken feet and other parts

An artful display of chicken feet and other parts

The meat, poultry and fish stalls are areas that we prefer to visit earlier in the morning (especially before the fish smell begins to permeate the area). Hanging from the ceiling are strange-looking cuts of meat, paper covered counters with stacks of fish and large bowls of chicken feet and other parts all arrayed with careful attention like a flower arrangement. We’ve seen live chickens near the stalls a few times but are unsure if they’re sold live or butchered later. One early morning, before the Mercado opened, we saw a merchant with several piglets leashed together on ropes. Better not to guess…Piglets

And this is before we get to the biggest used clothing thrift store we’ve ever seen.Aisles and aisles of clothing, sold by different venders, arrayed on hangers, piled onto tables, spilling to the floor. Huge wobbling stacks of shirts, trousers and skirts, dresses , underwear and shoes .

La Paca, an enormous bargain extravaganza!

La Paca, an enormous bargain extravaganza!

We’ve dug through the piles of clothing a couple of times out of curiosity but it requires patience, perseverance , stamina and maybe even some desperation. Easy, convenient and one stop shopping it ain’t!

By Richard and Anita, July, 2013

Housesitting: The Right Place at the Right Time

Volcan Agua -view from house

Volcan Agua -view from house

We met Mike in March, a few days after we arrived in Antigua, at a local restaurant. After meeting him a second time a couple of days later he invited us to his house in Santa Ana, a little community contiguous to Antigua, the following Sunday to see the Lenten procession which the church in Santa Ana was sponsoring. Since we were anxious to learn about these processions and the whole Lenten experience, we gladly accepted.

La Iglesia (church) in Santa Ana

La Iglesia (church) in Santa Ana

The following Sunday we followed the Alfombra carpets laid out on the cobblestone roads and walked to his home. Sure enough we had an unobstructed view of the event. Centurians Mike’s is a beautifully renovated colonial house at the end of Calle Real, the route of the procession, so all of the marchers, the bands, the andus (the elaborate wooden platform holding the religious statues that the marchers carried) , the hawkers, everything and everybody trooped by his front door.

Mike and Dawn's Alfombra

Mike and Dawn’s Alfombra

Mike and his wife, Dawn, and friends had spent the early morning hours creating their own alfombra in front of their home, using a custom-made plywood stencil and colored sawdust. Their participation in this annual religious ritual endeared he and his wife to their neighbors and further tied them to the community.

During our visit we found out that Mike and Dawn split their time between two homes, one in Santa Ana and one in Canada. We discovered that they would soon be departing for their home in Canada and that they were looking for a “house-sitter” for the Santa Ana casa. After some discussions they extended an offer for us to care for their home after we finished our volunteer work commitment teaching English at the end of April. We decided to prolong our time in Antigua for an additional three months, accepted their offer and the deal was sealed.

La Casa CourtyardThe house-sitting has been a fantastic opportunity to further acquaint ourselves with the city of Antiqua, learn about the pulse of the small community of Santa Ana and spend more time exploring Guatemala. After living in fairly basic accommodations, we are thoroughly appreciating a pampered lifestyle. We have 1) a coffee pot ! 2) a hot water heater which provides a hot shower with full water pressure ! 3) good Wi-Fi ! 4) a washing machine ! 5) a kitchen where we can cook both comfort foods and experiment with some local cuisine 6) a home to spread out in!

2nd floor terrace

2nd floor terrace

Our contribution is to provide a visible, lived-in presence at the house, pay the monthly salary for a lovely lady who comes in and cleans daily (far less than what we would be paying for rent) and make sure that things operate in good order.

This experience has led us to enroll in an on-line international house-sitting website. So if the planets are aligned favorably, we may be able to care for another home, in another country, at another time. It sounds good in theory; don’t plan too concretely or too distant and be available to respond to opportunities when they present themselves. We shall see…Santa Ana-Antigua street

By Richard and Anita, June, 2013

Necessities, Conveniences and Luxuries

Woman going to the marketWe’ve discovered in our travels that there are few true necessities; however there are preferences. High on our list of things we desire are a clean living area, a private bath, internet access and a reasonable walking distance to stores, restaurants, transportation and the city center. Lower tier desires include a comfortable bed, a good shower and access to a refrigerator and kitchen.

suicide shower

An electric water heater aka a “suicide shower”

Showering has been both a source of frustration and a familiar comfort. In Mexico the water trickled out at a maddeningly slow rate and, finally, turned warm. While travelling through Villahermosa in the Mexican state of Tabasco, we were first introduced to the electric water heater wired directly to the shower head, [a.k.a. the “suicide shower”]. We’ve encountered these elsewhere in our travels as well. Evidently common throughout Central and South America, this device operates on water pressure: the slower the water pressure the hotter the water. Even this rudimentary gadget is not a standard feature in many homes due to the high cost of consumer electricity.Community laundry We’ve not seen a dishwasher or vacuum cleaner since we left the US but washing machines, a staple in most American homes, are a rarity even in middle class homes both because of the initial cost and the operating cost. Hand washing is a daily reality in many homes. TanquePilas, large, double-sink wash basins with a ridged bottom for scrubbing clothing, are found in many homes including several where we have stayed. Many cities and towns have common outdoor laundry wash basins called tanques which serve dual purposes: the local women do the laundry and socialize, too.  During our travels we’ve hauled our dirty clothing to nearby lavenderias [cost: about $5.50 a week] while hand washing the “fine dainties” in the sink at home.

La Botella

Purified Water for drinking & cooking

Stoves are usually powered by propane tanks and it is not uncommon to see only the countertop stoves which we had in our Mexico apartment and no oven. The oven at our homestay in Guatemala was filled with pots and pans and never used during our two month stay. South of the border purified water is available in large 5 gallon botellas which are delivered upon request for a very reasonable price, about $1.35 each here in Antiqua. However, even this may be out of reach for many of the local people who drink water from the city supply which is said to be “potable”: safe drinking water is a critical problem here in Guatemala especially in rural areas.Perfect Balance Getting around by shank’s mare introduced the concept of humans [namely us] as beasts of burden. A lot of timesVender hauling goods our purchases every day or two are decided by the amount that can be carried back to our home [canned goods, vegetables and fruits, 6 packs of toilet paper, cleaning supplies, 2 liter bottles of coke lite, etc.]. Often on heavy shopping days we’ve relented and taken a tuc-tuc back home. But for many of the local citizens, that is not a viable option.

A backpack, bananas and a ladder

A backpack, bananas and a ladder

By Anita and Richard, June, 2013

The Black Sand Beaches of Montericco

Black Sand and Blue WaterAt the beginning of June we headed out with our friend, Mario, for the coast of Guatemala. We made the three-hour trip from Antigua by chicken bus and shuttle van and even passed the active volcano Pacaya puffing out smoke on the way. We had been away from the sea for over four months and when we crested a slight rise on the sidewalk and saw the surf of the Pacific ocean we felt like we were back where we belonged.

Mangroves and the river to Monterico

Mangroves and the river to Monterico

Monterico is a small, sleepy, resort community that until Our captain2007 was not connected by road to the rest of the country. A ferry ride or water taxi was required to transport residents and visitors to the picturesque beach town and many locals still use it as an alternative to the more costly buses and shuttles. On our return trip to Antigua, we opted for the water option for the first leg of the journey (fee: 5 quetzales or $0.65 each).Passing a barge

The black sand beaches are still primarily the haunt of the citizens of Guatemala City who use it as a weekend get-away, although highway access has increased the expat tourist trade from Antigua, too. Even with this increase, the beaches are still are not crowdedBlack sand beach by western standards and, at times, appeared deserted. Beautiful as the beaches are they do have their drawbacks.  The black, volcanic sand absorbs heat making barefoot beach-combing after midmorning all but impossible. At all points the beach slopes downward at awkward angles indicating strong rip currents. While the water is warm most visitors spend their time at the fringe of the surf; only strong swimmers venture out beyond the breaking surf.

seafoodBut all of that belies the point. The main purpose of a visit to Monterrico is to relax, eat some fresh sea in the local restaurants, and enjoy the sights and sounds of the surf and the laid-back atmosphere of the town.

An embryonic sea turtle recovery program has increased the foreign tourist trade. A preserve, Tortuga Monterico, is located just a short walk from the town center. Here visitors are allowed to release young leatherback and ridley sea turtles into the Pacific; a practice unimaginable in the states whose approach is much more scientific. But the reality remains; the majority of the eggs laid by the sea turtles that nest on the miles of shoreline are still harvested and eaten by predators both human and animal. Eco-tourism has yet to make itself felt on these remote shores.

Abode on the river to Monterico

Abode on the river to Monterico

By Richard and Anita, June, 2013

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