Tuesday, May 15, 2007


Our last activity in San Cristobal was a horseback ride to San Juan Chamula, which is a Mayan village just outside of the city. We thought it might be one of those nose-to-tail-mosey-down-the-trail affairs but it was actually really cool. We took a collectivo to a field in the middle of town and they had 3 horses saddled there, one for our guide and two for us. We mounted up and rode the horses through the edge of town (including some busy traffic areas) and then up into the hills. We were permitted to ride a fast or as slow as we wanted to. Our guide seemed to like trotting speed but Matthew and I preferred (as seems logical) to either walk or gallop (easier on the rear!). He let us gallop ahead of him and we were really clipping along on the dirt road. We rode through several villages that were very humble. Lots of Maya were washing their clothes in the creeks that flowed through. At one point a dog ran out in the street and was chasing Michelle’s horse. She charged on at full speed but the dog suck right to the horse’s front hooves for several yards. Eventually he gave up. It was pretty exciting!

We arrived at San Juan Chamula and spent an hour in the town. There is a really bizarre church there that was built to be Catholic but is now far from it. The place was filled with smoke and the floor was covered in pine needles. There were little groups of Maya people kneeling in front of rows of candles and chanting loudly in front of statues of saints. They offer bottles of soda (supposed to chase away evil spirits) and we even saw one guy sacrificing a chicken. It was really, really strange. The ride back to San Cristobal was nice. Our guide took us on a trail through a wooded area and we passed some Maya boys herding their sheep. The horses were actually pretty responsive except towards the end. They seemed to get crabby and tired and Michelle’s would kick every time she tried to get it to go faster. So after that great adventure, we were very sore, our butts especially. The saddles were wooden with a thin piece of leather "padding" so we took a pretty good beating. The experience was well worth the pain though!

The next stop was over the border into Guatemala, in Quetzaltenango (a.k.a. Xela). This area was very mountainous and covered in pine forests which didn’t look all that different from the scenery we are used to at home. We liked the perfectly cone shaped volcanoes that are visible from most places in Western Guatemala. Quetzaltenango was our first taste of Guatemala chaos. Guatemala was way more hectic than Mexico. The bus "terminal" is basically a big line of old US yellow school buses that pull through a garbage landfill (there is a street under there somewhere!--see picture to the left) and pick up passengers. It was most disgusting place we visited, aside from a few public bathrooms. There is little organization. You just ask around for which bus is going where you want to go and people tell you where to get on.

We did have some wickedly good hot chocolate in Quetzaltenango. A place called Café Luna serves chocolate, melted in milk and topped with whipped cream and cinnamon. Michelle also got her first taste of pupusas, a Salvadorian food that Matthew had on his mission and loved. They are little corn pancakes with cheese, meat or beans inside and topped with some pickled cabbage and hot sauce—pretty good!

Our biggest adventure in Quetzaltenango was trying to leave. The morning we made our attempt we got on a bus around 7 a.m. and made it about 10km out of town when everyone had to turn around and return because a teacher's strike had blocked the road using people and concrete barricades. It was lucky that we made it back into town because the return road was blocked after we passed through so had it taken longer we would have been stuck in the middle somewhere! Anyway, we got back to the bus terminal and another bus said that they were going another way so we jumped on that bus but the other way they were going to go was blocked too so we had to get off of that bus after it had driven for about 20 mins and take a taxi back to our hotel. It was a pretty wild experience! The chicken buses here go about 90 mph whenever they can and they pass on the highway (or streets through town) very precariously. For some reason they seem to always pick the blind corners to attempt passing. This is all with the baggage guys climbing in and out of the buses while we are going down the road!

Once we left Quetzaltenango we went to Panajachel on Lake Atitlan. This is a large lake that is surrounded by volcanoes so you get the effect that you are in a big bowl. It is very beautiful there and the weather was just about perfect. We sprung for a hotel room with cable TV, the first we had seen since being at home. It was nice to kick back and watch a few movies in the evening. We took a boat trip to Santiago de Atitlan across the lake to check out their market day. The boat ride was very pleasant on the way to Santiago as the water was perfectly calm but on the way back the wind kicked up and we had some pretty sweaty palms as the launcha smashed over one big wave after another. Some of the Guatemalans in the boat even thought the fiberglass was flexing a little more than it should. We also took a day trip to Chichicastenango, which is known for hosting Central America's largest Maya crafts market. It definitely lived up to its reputation. We saw tons of weaving, painted masks, jewelry, machetes, pottery, etc. The weaving is one of the notable crafts that the Maya women do, so we bought a brightly colored handmade piece for a souvenir.

Antigua is known for its churches. It used to be the capital of Guatemala but in 1790 was hit by a huge earthquake that nearly leveled the entire city. The capital was subsequently moved to Guatemala City. After the capital moved a lot of the churches remained in ruin because there weren’t enough people to fund their rebuilding. It was interesting to walk around and see so many great buildings just laying in ruin, yet they still maintained their charm.

While in Antigua we took a tour to Volcan Pacaya, which is one of the three active volcanoes in Guatemala. We hiked with a group up to the spot where lava was issuing and the smell of melting shoe rubber was in the air. Like in Hawaii, people are permitted to go as close to the lava as they want. The heat was really intense and there were even some hikers that were roasting marshmallows over the cooling lava. We were a little more conservative than some in our group but Matthew still got some great shots of the lava flowing. (more pics in the slide show) This time we had a tripod so our photos are better than those we took in Hawaii. The volcano hike is always a winner. There is nothing quite like watching liquid rock!

On our way from Antigua to Cobán, we made a quick stop over in Guatemala City to change buses. Guatemala City is supposed to be one of the most dangerous cities in Central America so we didn’t linger long. Our cab driver dropped us right in front of the bus station and told us to go directly inside and keep a good eye on our baggage. We followed his instructions and left unscathed. The bus trip to Cobán was reminiscent of the one we discussed earlier between Palenque and San Cristobal de Las Casas—constant turns. Luckily we were well armed with Mexican Dramamine so it was much more pleasant. Cobán was a nice city, though it is situated in the middle of nowhere. We took a day trip to Semuc Champey (which in one of the Maya languages means “river that goes underground”) and the Lanquin Caves. Semuc Champey was absolutely beautiful! It is a river that flows underground for about 300 meters and a dozen pools have formed on the land bridge over the river. The pools are crystal clear, a beautiful blue color and the water is the perfect temperature for swimming. There were even lots of little fish in each of the pools. We spent four hours swimming from pool to pool on this beautiful river in the middle of the jungle. Unfortunately we don’t have any pictures of it because it is a high theft area and since we would be swimming we didn’t want to get the camera stolen. I found this picture on the internet so you can get an idea of the beauty.

The Lanquin Caves were very large but not largely impressive. They have suffered a lot of damage at the hands of the locals so they weren’t like the pristine protected caves you see in the US. It looks like there have been lots of fires burned inside them, so the cave formations are covered in black soot and many of the more delicate formations have been broken off. The highlight of it was the large colony of bats that live in the cave. You can here them squeaking and see them flying around the whole time in the cave. Michelle only came out with two bites on her neck.

Flores was our next destination. It is a town in northern Guatemala on an island in the middle of Lake Peten-Itza which we used as a base from which to explore Tikal. Flores was nice…nice and hot, so we spent every afternoon on the docks of the lake swimming with the local boys and some fellow travelers.

Tikal was the highlight of the trip. It is the site of a ruined Maya city hidden in the deep jungle. We decided to take the “Sunrise Tour” and felt like it was well worth it. We left the hostel at 3:30 a.m., drove the hour to Tikal National Park, and then we walked 20 mins or so and climbed one of the temples from which we watched the sunrise. There was so much fog and cloud cover that we didn’t actually see the sunrise (which is not uncommon) but it was wonderful to be in the jungle just as it was waking up. We could hear howler monkeys in the distance, fabulous green Amazon parrots were flying all over the place and several other birds were joining in singing. It was really magnificent. In addition to the impressive pyramids we were able to see three toucans, several howler monkeys, a spider monkey and tons of green parrots. This site was our favorite because not only did it have incredible architecture, but the setting and the wildlife made it even more mystical. It was absolutely incredible!

From Flores we took a direct bus to San Salvador, El Salvador to catch our flight back to the US. The bus ride took 11 hours and had no A/C and this annoying hole in the ceiling that let the sun beat down on you, but we made it safe and sound. In San Salvador, we enjoyed more pupusas right on the street so Matthew was able to live one of his dreams that he’s had since eating pupusas in Australia on his mission.

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