Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Antigua Guatemala

Tyler and I spent our last day in Antigua Guatemala.  We decided to splurge for our a tour guide, a very nice man named Frederico.

The view of Fuego over the city's central park area:

Some of the beautiful colonial style buildings in Antigua and the traditional Spanish colonial courtyard, que son muy tranquilos.

Antigua hosts elaborate processionals each Sunday during Lent and particularly big ones during Semana Santa, or Holy Week (the week before Easter).  These are some of the floats (not sure if that's the right term - may be too similar to homecoming...) in the courtyard of a church.

La Merced, the most beautiful and well-known church in Antigua.  Interestingly, it's run by a very poor order of monks and much of the interior was donated by international donors, including one Jewish Israeli.

This floor mural is made completely from dyed wood shavings.

As we were nearing the end of our tour, walking down the street, we heard: "Tyler!  Rachel!" in a familiar voice.  It was Carmen!  She and Josh Knight, both classmates from UNC, were based in Antigua for a medical service trip.  We knew they were in Guatemala but had no idea where - such a small world!

Last dinner in Guatemala, also with some familiar gringos.  Ian (right) and Tyler worked together at the NIH. He and his medical school classmate Jane were both studying Spanish in Antigua so we were able to meet up for some Thai food - this meeting was actually on purpose, though, and a little complicated by our lack of GPS/cell phones.  

One more post will finish off the blog, which has been delayed months.  It's amazing how quickly old routines replace new ones once you're back home!


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Xela to Lago Atitlan: Part 3

The last day of our hike started at night.  Specifically at 4 am which, unbelievably, was 10 hours after I went to bed.  You do the math.

We wake up super early on Day 3 and start hiking under the stars. After about 40mins, we reach our mirador and get our first glimpse of the faintly-lit lake villages – 500m below us. The guides set about cooking breakfast and hot drinks and everyone gets comfortable for the approaching sunrise. The show kicks-off with the sun´s colorful rays creeping up from behind the distant Antigua volcanoes before illuminating the Atitlán volcanoes and finally the lake itself. If anything could make you forget your weary eyes and sore muscles, this sunrise is it!

Erruption #1 happened at this point:  Fuego, one of the active volcanos, was actively errupting in the distance so we could see red lava lit up atop the volcano against the dark sky.  Nunca he visto algo como ese.

The lake at sunrise with Fuego fuming to the right.

 My favorite picture of the morning.

Erruption #2 happened shortly before we began our final descent.  I'll leave out the details but I'll say that if I was naming a volcano, it would be called Entertoxigenic E. coli.

When the show is over, all that is left is a 2-3 hour descent down the famous ´Indian´s Nose´ trail. The steep trail offers impressive views of the blue lake all the way to the bottom at the lakeside village San Juan La Laguna. From there it is a short ride to San Pedro La Laguna for a delicious lakeside lunch and heartfelt farewells.


 The hostel/restaurant where we ended our hike was, of course, owned by Israelis, as if to tell us - get ready for your next big trip!  Their specialties are falafel, hamburgers, and thankfully for me, indoor plumbing.

 Tyler took a dip.  If he grows an extra arm, we'll know why.

 San Pedreo La Laguna

If you´ve opted to have your extra bags meet you at the lake, they´ll arrive at San Pedro just after lunch (about 1:30pm) and then you´re free to move on to San Marcos, Panajachel and beyond. Otherwise, those who want can return to Quetzaltenango with the guides in either the bus or the pickup truck.

Our bags met us at the lake and we proceded directly to our hotel, Casa Del Mundo, eager for a hot shower and more indoor plumbing.  Casa del Mundo is amazing, it's been built up (literally) over the years into the cliffs overlooking beautiful Lago Atitlan.  After a much-needed nap, we had a beer by the water, tested out the hammocks and the view, and then finished the evening with a delightful communal dinner.

 Our room


A brief interruption for a family picture

Me, Eli, Luis Grande, Luis Less Grande, and Ricky on my last day in Xela.

Xela to Lago Atitlan: Part 2

My posting rate has certainly slowed down since returning to real life.  By real life, I mean helping Cara with wedding to-dos, copious amounts of laundry, and feverishly catching up on Downton Abbey.  Here's the much-anticipated second installation of our trek with similar copying and editorializing about my GI tract as Parte Uno:

We wake at 6am and gather our things before heading to a local comedor for a big breakfast of eggs, rice and tortillas. Then it´s ‘packs on’ to start the morning´s hike out of Ixtahuacan along the spectacular Nahualá Valley. 

I woke up at 6 am (after having woken up at approximately 10pm, 12am, 2am, and 4am as well) feeling like I must have tread marks all over my face from the giant bulldozer than ran over my head.  I felt weak and was completely disinterested in food and water, a sure sign of illness for me.  My skin hurt. I told myself that if I made it through breakfast without vomiting that I was going to try to hike.  I kept down some rice and a tortilla somewhat tenuously.  As it turned out, another girl who had gotten sick overnight as well and a couple Canadian girls, one of whom started complaining about her back hurting within 4 minutes of beginning our hike, decided to bail and get a ride to our evening destination; I was very tempted to join then and for sure if Tyler hadn't been there, I would have.

When we reach the bottom of the valley, we take a break beside the river and contemplate the second and final major uphill climb of the trek, this time up the other side of the Nahualá valley. The first half of the climb has come to be known as Record Hill - current record: 9 minutes (in case you want to try and break it). Most of the group, however, is likely to climb up at a slightly more relaxed pace. Once at the top we can all wipe the sweat off our brows and enjoy our reward: a panoramic view of the expansive valley.

Fellow trekkers at the bottom of Record Hill.................and at the top.

The nice thing about hiking in Guatemala is that it is standard practice to estimate the length of the hike in time, not miles, and it always includes breaks.  As it turns out, for the first time in 5 weeks, I needed every second of every break.  Several of the guides and other hikers were riddle enthusiasts which, while my brain was nowhere close to being able to solve them, listening to other people ask ridiculous questions ("Was the cat an animal?"  "Were the lightbulbs wired conventionally?") to puzzle through them was a good distraction from my glycogen-less calf muscles.

"Record Hill" was even more hyped up by our guides than in the above description.  It's about a 1/2 mile section of trail that is pretty much straight up the side of a mountain.  Sitting at the bottom, I felt fevered and fed up with my inability to participate in the challenge-accepting that my fellow masochists were readying themselves for.  My amazing husband and I had a plan for him to go up briskly, drop his pack, and come back down to carry mine up the rest of the way.  So, I did what every good masochist would: popped an ibuprofen, started up the hill behind the record-attempters, insisted on putting one foot in front of the other, and refused to let my kind husband carry my pack for me.  Oddly enough, this combination of non-steroidals and self-abuse made me feel better and by the top,  I was housing Luna bars and offering riddles up to the rest of the group.*

We then pass through another highland-village, this one surrounded by acres of cornfields and filled with giggly children shouting ´Hola!´ at the funny-looking group of people walking past. We settle into a picnic lunch in the milpas on the other side of the village before hitting a steep, forested descent down to the Payatza River. 

Sadly, by lunchtime, my stunned pyloric sphincter and misdirected peristalsis made me feel ill once again.  I literally slept on a pile of branches in the shade while everyone else picnicked.  Tyler woke me, kindly still carrying all my water and group granola, and we started the last leg of our trek.  The scenery was my distraction in this time, fantastical like, as Tyler said, we were in James and the Giant Peach.

We spend the next 2 hours criss-crossing the forest-covered river before popping out in the village of Xiprian, where we spend the night. Here, Don Pedro and his family throw open the doors to their home, light up the wood-fire and cook us all a sumptuous meal. After roasting a couple of marshmallows with the kids, we once again unroll the sleeping mats and bunker down in the spare-room.

Needless to say, I was very relieved to arrive in Santa Catarina, where Don Pedro and his adorable family live.  We were greeting with chairs, licuados, and lots of smiles from the family.  I immediately plunked down a mat and my sleeping bag and took a nap in the 45 minutes before dinner.  I rallied briefly for dinner, which went down sluggishly and tasted better than it felt, but immediately passed out again afterward despite the fact that several people were still eating.  

 The crew at Don Pedro's home

Pineapple licuados...

Where we had dinner, where I slept immediately after dinner, and where everyone else went to sleep at a slightly more normal time.

Sadly, it meant that I slept through Don Pedro's grandchildren singing to us - luckily, Tyler captured it on video for our collective enjoyment:

The last segment of our hike featured two types of erruptions....more on that soon.


*That riddle I referenced: A man gets out of his car on a rainy day, walks into his apartment building, and takes the elevator all the way up to his apartment right away.  The next day is sunny, and when he arrives in his building, he has to wait in the lobby for awhile before he can go up to his apartment.  Why?

Friday, March 8, 2013

Xela to Lago Atitlan: Part 1

From Saturday to midday Monday, we hiked with an organization called Quetzaltrekkers from Xecam (a town fairly close to Xela) to Lago Atitlan, a total of 45 kilometers.  Quetzaltrekkers is a really neat organization whose history and mission are described well on their website (quetzaltrekkers.com).  What stood out to me about the whole organization is the dedication of the volunteer guides, who work for a minumum of 3 months, the foresight and organization that has come with many years of trekking in groups of various sizes and levels of experiences, and the long-term relationships that they have forged not only with local businesses in the pueblos we hiked through, but also the local families who recognize the groups of gringos traipsing through their towns and/or send their children to the affiliated school in Xela. 

They do a great job of describing the hike day by day on their website as well, so I've unabashedly copied and pasted it below in italics with some pictures and addendums/edits of my own. 

We meet at the office at 6:30am for a pancake breakfast before walking to the bus stop and taking a bus to the nearby village of Xecam – our starting point for the trek. There are only two major uphill climbs on the trek and we hit the first one straight off the bus! The ascent out of the Xela valley is as beautiful as it is sweaty with great views back down onto the city through gaps in the forest canopy.

A last look at the cathedral in Xela's Parque Central.

A break after the first big uphill stretch.

At the top of the hill we emerge, almost surreally, out of the forest and onto a high-altitude grass plain (known locally as Alaska). Passing through the highland village just over the rise, we hit our highest point on the trek at 3050m.

Molly and me in "Alaska"

From there, the rest of the day is downhill (literally, not figuratively). Descending through the cloud forest on the other side, we dodge goats and make way for Mayans carrying impossibly heavy loads of wood before breaking at a clearing in the middle of the forest to tuck in to a delicious QT-prepared lunch. 

How did they know there would be goats? 

I had fourths...maybe not such a good idea.

From lunch-spot, we continue our descent down to a dirt road hugging the side of the valley. At about 5pm we call into Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan, an isolated highland indigenous village with a town-hall that we call home for the night. There´s time to wash up in a local family´s temascal (a traditional Mayan sauna) while the guides serve up dinner and hot drinks. After a chat around the cook-pot, we unroll our sleeping mats and bags and get some well-deserved sleep. 

Nearly all of these things happened exactly as the website had forecasted.  The temascal was really neat - it's basically just a cement hut with a single wooden bench that is turned into a sauna by pouring cold water over fire-heated stones.  Notable details that they left out of the description are as follows:

1) Our guides will be awesome.  Lucas, Casey, and Julie are pictured above - Lucas was an occasionally snarky Czech fellow who was a fan of the pun "Czech mate," and I therefore liked him in spite of his snarkiness.  I was also really impressed with his ability to be sarcastic in 3 languages.  And I'm not being sarcastic.

2) The lunch food will be delicious.  When Tyler and I have gone backpacking, we eat a lot of trail mix, tuna with macaroni and cheese, peanut butter, etc.  Our guides had prepared a veritable feast, though: hummus, bread, guacamole, bean salad, roasted potato salad, and more.  I ate a LOT of it.

3) The lunch food might contain enterotoxigenic E. coli or other pathogens that will induce vomiting every two hours all night, even if you've been in Guatemala for 4 weeks already and thought you had passed the traveler's GI bug window.

4) A nice man named Rick will be available at 2 am to pass you toilet paper under the stall as you vomit.

5) If you are interested in doing anything other than urinating, you must pick the 1 toilet out of 3 that actually flushes when you pull the handle.
The town hall where we slept

The calm before the storm.

Next entry: Day 2 of the hike or "recordless rigor"