Monday, April 25, 2011

Work and Woes

I feel like we haven’t made too many work posts so I thought I’d write about some of the good and not-so-good things going on.

I think around the one-year mark, you sometimes get into a little slump. In February, we started saying we’d been here for one year, which was true, but that meant really only 9 months in site. Then we just kept saying one year, one year, even now when it’s still not one full year that we’ve been in our actual site. It was like a countdown that wasn’t counting down, a little depressing, like time wasn’t moving. I think around now you start reflecting, thinking that you’re halfway done, wondering if you’ve achieved anything so far, thinking now you only have one year left and what you can accomplish in that time. The group before us is also heading out so people close to us are leaving. I, for one, started questioning if I’d had any positive effect on my women’s cooperative. I still haven’t even visited every individual women’s group in the organization, let along done anything to help most of them. Sales at the store seem about the same. Plus, we hadn’t had a board meeting in months because every time we scheduled one, no one would show up. I also had planned a bunch of teambuilding charlas with the groups, half of which fell through.

While February and March seemed busy, I can’t quite put my finger on why. We did have two week-long medical brigades which take up all your time. I finished up my Chemistry class and started an English class. For me at least, having regularly scheduled classes keeps me going. Even though at times half the students might not show up, you know that it’s something planned every week that you have to prepare for. It’s also improved my Spanish (and Nolan’s) a great deal. I’m looking forward to starting another chemistry class in a few months.

Things seemed to be picking up again after a visit from the new class of trainees. We had one wat/san and one business volunteer come to visit us as part of their training so they could shadow us for a few days. We showed them around town, took them to work with us and fed them the best baleadas in Honduras. It was nice to have some company and meet new people, and also to chat with them and share some of the wisdom we’ve gained in this past year.

Hearing some of their starry-eyed ideas and goals made me feel more positive and invigorated to get going with some new ideas in my own work. My women’s group had a meeting two weeks ago where they finally, FINALLY!, decided to elect a new member of the board to replace a woman who hadn’t participated in the organization in almost a year, but had never officially left. The group as a whole decided to replace the woman, and I pushed for an immediate vote of a new member which turned out awesome, as they elected a smart, well-informed and level-headed new woman to the board. We also had a discussion about loans, interest and artesania sales at the store. One women’s group that had taken out a loan was petitioning to not pay interest based on the fact that they sold products to the store and thought that would garner them favorable treatment. Normally not that vocal at meetings, I had to chime in on this one, explaining that the store and it’s sales was completely separate from the loan part of the organization and that everyone had to pay interest in order to 1) be fair and 2) grow the loan fund for future funding! I was afraid I’d be shot down, but several members of the assembly immediately voiced their agreement with me and backed my logic. It was like they wanted to say that themselves, but were too shy until I said it. It was a big step forward in getting them to realize the importance of keeping the two parts of the business separate and in reinforcing the importance of paying interest, which has been a continual problem. The women also decided to keep going with the chip bag purses we started months ago and we planned a few dates to do more training sessions. We also planned two more organizational management charlas for this coming week. Through talking with a supermarket manager, we came up with the idea to make advertisement flyers for one group that sells roses to distribute to store owners, banks and hotels. I’m hoping it will work out that people can call to make orders to the group in advance then pick them up at our artisan store in town. I’m also trying to get the group going on making a website and we’re in the initial phase of deciding what the website will contain. Things are looking up!

On a separate note, Nolan and I are starting a world map project at the school where we teach. The idea is to have the 8th graders draw and paint a 7x14 ft world map on the wall in their school courtyard, partly for their art credit and partly to help teach them about geography. I love love love maps so I’m really excited about this project. Nolan’s mom’s school in Michigan was able to raise money to donate to the project for paint and supplies so we’re hoping it’s going to be a great connection between the two classes. I just pitched the idea to the kids here a few weeks ago and they seemed interested. We hope to start painting the background as soon as we get the money in the mail. I also got roped into organizing an international potluck dinner event bringing together all the foreign workers in town and some key Honduran citizens to form an advisory committee for the school. Since the director of the school is not here at the moment, I get to be in charge of a powerpoint presentation explaining the school’s history, projects and future goals at the event, basically the main speaker, sort of ridiculous, but it feels nice that they think I’m capable and qualified for something like that.

I had a great “working” birthday a couple weeks ago. The girls at work gave me not one, but two sort-of surprise parties. They sang and we had tres leches cake at the office in the morning and they gave me some really beautiful roses. We then packed a picnic lunch to take with us up to two communities we were visiting. We stopped at a random spot to eat and they pulled out a huge pot of chop suey (a traditional birthday treat) which we tried to quickly wash down with more cake, singing and coke. It was really sweet that they remembered and went out of their way to make it a special day. Nolan helped me with teambuilding charlas in two different communities which were really well-received by the groups, and we arrived back in La Esperanza around sunset, covered in dust and stuffed with cake. I finished off a great day with Nolan making us delicious pasta carbonara and we splurged on an expensive ($18) bottle of wine. It’s strange to think this is already my second birthday here in Honduras, time flies.

Girls at work singing Happy Birthday

A second round of Happy Birthday at our picnic lunch

Chop suey...luckily the dogs helped us finish it off

The human knot

As if the first two weeks of April couldn’t already be packed enough, the day after my b-day, we headed out to Yuscaran on the other side of the country where I was set to give a presentation to the new training group about my work with artisan groups and a tutorial on how to make recycled chip bag purses. It ended up being a really lovely trip. Yuscaran is an old mining town perched on a mountain ledge with nice colonial architecture, cobblestone streets and some interesting tourist sites. The most famous thing in town is the aguardiente factory where they produce the most well-known brand of sugar cane liquor that bolos everywhere love. We got a quick but interesting tour that involved nearly being stung by hundreds of bees since the mixing containers are not covered. The town also has a great old mansion converted into a local history museum where we learned about the mining boom and Yuscaran’s famous families. We stayed at a great hotel where we randomly met a Canandian ex-pat goldsmith who now teaches paragliding in town, the most random but interesting guy. The presentation to the new group went well, they are of course anxious to know their sites and get out of training. It felt more than a little weird now being the experts and talking to a group of newbies, it made us feel old and accomplished sort of. All in all, it was a nice quick trip, all subsidized by PC of course, which always makes it a little better.

The guaro factory behind the police station, you can smell its pungent odor from any point in town

Nolan ready to perform a Mayan dance

Teaching the trainees how to make chip bag purses

We finished off April with a Semana Santa trip to Comayagua, but I’ll leave that for the next post.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Travel Recommendations for Guatemala and Belize

This is the first pure recommendation/review blog we’ve posted. We know it will not be a particularly enjoyable read for family and friends, but we hope it can be of help to fellow travelers and PCV’s who might be thinking about a trip to Guatemala or Belize. We’ve reviewed accommodations, restaurants and tour companies, plus added some other tips at the end. See our two previous blogs for a more detailed narrative of our activities and leave us a comment with any questions!

At the time, exchange rate was Q7.5 and BZ$2 to the US$.

Places we visited are circled in purple.

Maps courtesy of and


Name: Black Cat Hostel (Black Cat Inn is different)

Location: Antigua, Guatemala

Phone/Website/Email: (502) 78321229,,

Price: Q. 160 for a double with shared bathroom, Q.60 for a dorm bed, huge breakfast included

Review: This is a can’t-be-beat deal in pricey Antigua. The hostel is just two block s from the central park and nightlife spots and four blocks from the bus terminal. It has a hip and funky feel with a small bar/restaurant that serves delicious and affordable food (Q.40 for huge plate of nachos). Breakfast starts at 8 am and you can opt for anything from an omelet or breakfast sandwich, to bacon and eggs or a bagel. If you are leaving earlier, they will make you a good sandwich on homemade bread in lieu of breakfast, just ask the night before. It won’t be that quiet at night, and the bathrooms were a little grungy (but still with hot water), but all in all a solid place to stay.

Name: Black Cat Hostel

Location: Xela, Guatemala

Phone/Website/Email: (502) 77612091,,

Price: Q160 for a double with shared bathroom, Q.60 for a dorm bed, huge breakfast included

Review: Yes, this is the same chain as in Antigua and again for the same reasons above it’s an awesome place. The hostel is two blocks from the Parque Central which is the only really nice spot to be in town. It’s within 5 blocks of a bunch of restaurants, a grocery store, a movie theatre, a salsa club and the bus stop for busitos that go to the main bus terminal. The atmosphere was much quieter here than in Antigua, the room was bigger, the bathrooms cleaner and there was a pleasant open balcony that circled the second floor. Same breakfast/sandwich option and more pleasant staff to boot. They can also arrange a number of adventure tours which we did not use. Highly recommended.

Name: Hospedaje Doña Goya 1 and 2

Location: Flores, Guatemala

Phone/Website/Email: 502 7926-3538, no website,

Price: Q.100 for a double (two double beds actually) with fan, Q.140 for lake-view with fan, Q.200 for lake-view with air-con, all have private bath

Review: Another stellar value. Make sure you ask for a room in Doña Goya 2, same owner different building. It’s just a block down the street from Doña Goya 1 and was much nicer. Doña Goya 2 has three floors plus a thatch-roof covered balcony with hammocks and chairs that overlook the lake where you can have a beer and relax, so there is no reason to pay for a lake-view room. Air-con is almost a must in this humid region of the country, but we made do with a fan. Hot water was nice, but we didn’t need it. The non-air-con rooms have two sliding glass doors for entry closed with tiny padlocks, a little suspect, but we had no problems. It’s in a fine part of town; the island is so small that nowhere is really out of the way.

Name: Hi-Et Guesthouse

Location: San Ignacio, Belize

Phone/Website/Email: 501-824-2828, no website, no email

Price: BZ$40 for a double, one bed with private bath, BZ$50 for a double, two beds with private bath

Review: This place was a lovely set of two big houses right in the center of town for a great price. The cute little old man and his wife who own the place charmed us right into staying there. The room was freshly cleaned and had good ventilation plus a ceiling fan so it cooled off pretty well. Hot water was available but seemed to run out frequently. The house had balconies on either side for relaxing plus a fridge and plates/silverware available and a small book collection. They may have had laundry facilities available, but we didn’t use them. San Ignacio is small and this hotel was on the main road so nothing was more than a 5 minute walk away. The only problem was the cockroach in the bathroom that scurried away before we could kill it.

Name: Seaspray Hotel

Location: Placencia, Belize

Phone/Website/Email: 501-523-3148,,

Price: BZ$58 for a double with private bath, farthest from the beach

Review: You’re not going to find rooms much cheaper than this. Even though we had the room “farthest from the beach” it was still only a five second walk to get there. They had some nice lounge chairs in a palm-shaded spot on the beach, perfect for relaxing and swimming. Hot water was nice, but again we didn’t use it much since it was so hot. The room had a fan and fridge which was great for keeping our water and snacks cool. It was in a good spot, but Placencia is not that big. The front desk staff seemed a little ornery. It’s a great budget choice right on the beach, although we found a cockroach here too. Must be something about Belize…

Things to Do/Tour Companies

Name: Adrenalina Tours

Location: Xela and Antigua

Tours: They can do anything.

Review: We booked a shuttle with them from Antigua to Guatemala City and then through them an onward ticket on Linea Dorada to Flores. We figured the shuttle would be more reliable than a chicken bus because we really needed to catch the bus to Flores which leaves only 3 times daily. It was US$10 for the shuttle and US$25 for the bus (bus price is normal, they just call and reserve you a spot). I think the problem was we booked this trip in Xela and it was all taking place elsewhere. When we stopped in Antigua at the store to confirm our ride the night before, the guy at the office said very unreassuringly that he had no idea what would happen until the stores exchanged info at 6 pm that night at closing time. This didn’t leave us with much confidence. We convinced him to call the Xela store and then he said, again very unreassuringly, that everything would be fine. Our shuttle was late picking us up at the hostel and had somehow heard that there was only one of us. The driver rather rudely insisted it was our fault for telling them the wrong hostel and the wrong quantity, until we shut him up by showing him our original receipts which clearly said our hostel name and 2 people. Luckily there was still room in the bus and we weren’t delayed, so we arrived in Guate and caught our bus with no problems. I wouldn’t recommend this tour company because they did not seem very reliable/organized and were also rude on several occasions. There are plenty of other companies to choose from.

Name: Mayawalk

Location: San Ignacio, Belize

Tours: Ruins, cave tours, hiking etc

Review: We read a lot of reviews of this company saying that the owner would wander the streets accosting people and ushering them toward his shop. While he did badger us on the street as well, once we got to the shop and started chatting, he was actually a pretty decent guy. His tour company seemed like the only people who were really interested in our business. They explained a lot about the tours, gave upfront pricing with tax included and were able to change the time of their cave tubing tour for us to avoid the rush of cruise ship passengers. The van was air conditioned and they played a Planet Earth movie during the ride. The guide was laid back and knew a lot about wildlife and vegetation. The lunch was pretty skimpy, chicken curry with two tiny chunks of chicken, rice, beans and watermelon, but it was too hot to eat much anyway. The tubing was relaxing and the caves pretty awesome. We were the only group we saw that had to wear life jackets and helmets. This was probably a good, safe idea but sort of uncomfortable. Overall, it was an awesome trip and we ended up getting a Peace Corps discount of $8 each (the tour was $78 originally) because the owner is a fan (he was taught by PC teachers as a kid), so fellow PCV’s make sure you mention it. Prices are competitive with other tour companies in town.

Name: Chichicastenango Market Tour

Location: Chichicastenango, Guatemala

Tours: Chichi Market, Mayan Spiritual Sites near town

Review: Chichi has a famous Thursday and Sunday market where Mayan people from all over the area come to sell their artisan products, food, produce, flowers and more. We had heard it was worth it to get a guide at the local INGUAT tourism office, so that’s what we did. The INGUAT office is hard to find so you’ll just have to ask around once you’re in the market, it’s somewhere in the center. We didn’t have to arrange anything in advance, just showed up and the woman at the office called a guide who arrived in 5 minutes or less. He spoke in Spanish. We didn’t ask for the tour in English at the office so someone else might have been available. He didn’t really show us the market (which didn’t need much showing), but instead took us to the municipality, church and shrine Pascual Abaj on the hill outside of town to teach us more about Mayan spiritual practices, all of which was awesome. He also took us to an off-the-beaten-track mask shop where we bought a real wooden mask used in Mayan ceremonies. It was better than what we would have gotten in the market, and we bartered down the price, but it was still expensive and it was obvious the guide had a deal with the store owner to bring people by. The only shocker was at the end of the trip. The lady at the office had suggested Q.30-50 for a few hour tour. The guide at the end then asked for Q.250-300. We gave him Q.150 and he seemed a little upset. We weren’t really sure who was right. The tour was great, just negotiate the price beforehand.

Name: Tikal Mayan Ruins

Location: Tikal, Guatemala

Tours: N/A

Review: We didn’t actually get a tour at Tikal, but still have some suggestions. The park is expensive to enter for foreigners (Q.150), but it’s worth the price. You’ll have to buy a map from the guy next to the ticket office (Q.10 basic, Q.20 with animal guide) since there is just one map at the entrance to the site and from then on, signs just have the names of ruins without arrows or maps, not much wayfinding. The map was a little disappointing, it didn’t have info on all the ruins, gave only brief descriptions of the ones it did list, and was not really to scale so don’t take it too seriously. We heard guides were about $60 for any sized group, which is why we didn’t get one. If we could do it over again, we would probably get one since there is almost no signage or info once you get into the site to explain things to you about the ruins or Mayan history. We did well enough reading up on Tikal before and after our visit, but a guide would have been nice.

We recommend arriving early. We took the 5 am bus out of Flores (first bus) and were the first ones to enter the site that day. To actually catch the sunrise, you need to stay closer to Tikal, like in El Remate (30 mins away) or on site (camping or a hotel). The later you go the hotter it gets and the more overrun with people and tour groups. It’s nice to have it to yourself for awhile. You could spend a whole day or two exploring all the ruins, but will likely be exhausted after half a day. For it being such a huge tourist site, the visitor amenities were poor. The electricity was out when we visited, but somehow a restaurant still managed to serve up fancy food, although the drinks were as warm as we were and there was no ice. Buy drinks instead from the vendors at the art and food stalls near the parking lot or museum, they are cheaper and kept in icy coolers, much more refreshing. Cheaper food is available from some small comedors across the street from the visitor’s center. The museum at the visitors center is cheap enough (Q.10) that it’s worth a visit but don’t expect to be wowed. There are some interesting but faded images of the renovations that took place in the last half century and several dozen mostly illegible stellae. Bring your own toilet paper, snacks and plenty of water, especially if you arrive early, the bathroom and snack kiosks were either not open or in the case of the bathrooms, not stocked with t.p.

Name: Placencia Dive Shop

Location: Placencia, Belize

Tours: Snorkel on the barrier reef

Review: We took an all day (9-3) snorkeling tour to Laughing Bird Caye for US$63. I have mixed feelings about this dive shop. We picked it because the owner guy, Shawn, seemed pretty cool and friendly. As it turned out, he wasn’t exactly unreliable, but we were behind schedule all day and things were poorly organized, but maybe that’s just the laid-back Belizean beach bum way of living. The owner told us to arrive at 8:30 to leave at 9. We left at 10:15. No one else who worked for him in the shop seemed capable of doing anything while he was gone. He promised there would be a canopy on the boat, there was no canopy – this didn’t seem to bother anyone else, but the heat and sun were quite strong and for those us who burn easily, it was a horrible trip there and back. Once we made it to the caye, things were fine. The snorkeling guide we brought along was much better, showing us different sea creatures and pointing out cool objects as we swam. The lunch was pretty good, BBQ chicken, watermelon, and cheesy potatoes. We made a stop on the way back in so the owner could do some spearfishing. This was boring for most of us, but well-liked by the guys who participated. I think it was an okay tour. The owner is laid back and will do whatever you want, just ask. I prefer a little more organization, but it just depends on what you like.


(I won’t list everywhere we ate, just the best).

Name: El Paisaje

Location: Xela, Guatemala

Review: This is a Mediterranean tapas place located in the arcade just off the Parque Central. It had nice indoor and outdoor seating with heat lamps. We expected it to be expensive, as tapas usually is, but it was the opposite. The plates were cheap and huge. We ordered the Turkish meat kebabs (Q27) and hummus (Q35) and got four huge meat patties and a good sized bowl of hummus with a bunch of crostini, more than enough to eat for two people. Great value and tasty food.

Name: Utz Hua

Location: Xela, Guatemala

Review: Up two blocks from the Parque Central, this place serves traditional Mayan food, also at great prices. I had the bean soup (~Q30) and Nolan the longanizo (sausage) and tortillas (~Q30), both delicious. It all came with a free huge basket of tamalitos (plain tamales) that we couldn’t finish. They were great in the soup. The place also had some cute and cosy décor and good service.

Name: Frida’s

Location: Antigua, Guatemala

Review: In the hip bar district near the archway, Frida’s serves tasty Mexican food in a cool atmosphere. Mole enchiladas were great and you get free chips and salsa. Seems expensive, but so is everything in Antigua.

Name: Bagel Barn

Location: Antigua, Guatemala

Review: For those of us who have been without bagels for awhile, this place is worth a visit. They have a variety of flavors of bagels and cream cheese and a good sandwich menu. A combo with smoothie and a piece of cake will run about Q.50. Come in the morning before your bus to get bagels to go for Q.6 each and a cup of cream cheese Q.10.

Name: Mr Greedy’s

Location: San Ignacio, Belize

Review: Not in our guide book, but one of the only places that was consistently open and consistently good. Great, hearty breakfast sandwiches (~BZ$9) are ideal before an adventure tour. Dinner is solid with burgers, pasta and the like, plus full bar. Don’t miss the Italian fry doughnuts, a pile of sweet doughy triangles covered in cinnamon sugar for just BZ$3.

Name: Rumfish y Vino

Location: Placencia, Belize

Review: Pricey but delicious Mediterranean and ocean inspired dishes with a fun bar. Try the olive tapenade (BZ$13), Lebanese flatbread pizza (BZ$24) with grilled shrimp or the daily specials. The only downside is no beach view and very little breeze. Come early to get a seat, it fills up fast.

Other Tips

Buses: Basically anywhere in either country you can hire private shuttle buses to take you where you need to go. They will be faster but much more expensive than your normal bus service. If you’re okay with a chicken bus (big yellow school bus), take it to save money, chat with locals and get a real cultural experience. Just watch your belongings and you’ll be fine. Most people on the street are happy to help you find the bus you’re looking for if you get off to change.

Money: You can always change money at the borders from moneychangers who will bombard you. You won’t get the very best rate, but it’s worth it to change a little to make it to your next destination.

Water ferries: To get to Placencia you can go via land (ask bus drivers for help) or via water taxi from Independence where the James Bus stops (from Belize City via Belmopan and Dangriega). The water taxi is BZ$20 per person for a 15 minute ride through the mangroves, but leaves very infrequently so if you’re coming from far away, make sure you’re on an early bus. We saw ones leave at 12:00 noon and the next was at 4 pm. You can also take a ferry, or actually a small boat, from Placencia to Puerto Cortes, Honduras or vice versa. The two hour ride is pleasant enough. The boat leaves from Puerto Cortes Mondays and leaves Placencia on Fridays. The boat seemed to fill up, so buy a ticket in advance at the Placencia Tourism office. BZ$110 one way, plus you pay a BZ$7.50 environmental fee on board when leaving Belize.

Honduran PCVs: You can use your Banco Atlantida card for withdrawals at ATMs (L.30 charge plus the ATM bank charge), up to four withdrawals per month, or you can use it as a credit card for any type of purchases. Cards are mostly accepted only at nicer restaurants and nicer hotels. Always ask tour companies for a PC discount, especially in countries like Guatemala and Belize that have active PC programs. Twice daily shuttle buses run from Copan Ruinas to Antigua (6 hours) at 6 am and 12 noon from ViaVia Café. Try to book it in advance (can’t do it by phone) by getting to Copan a day early to reserve a spot since the buses fill up. $20 one way.

Friday, April 8, 2011

From Indiana Jones to Jacques Cousteau: Part 2

After a swift busito ride from Flores, we were at the border, ready to enter a new country. At customs entering Belize, the customs officer woman asked where we were going. Nicki went off in Spanish, “Pues, vivimos en Honduras y estamos viajando por Belize ahorita pero vamos a regresar a Honduras…. “ “Do you speak English?” she cut Nicki off with an annoyed look. “Oh, yes, sorry,” Nicki replied, not even noticing that the woman had asked the question in English in the first place. When you turn your Spanish brain on, it’s hard to turn it off again.

It wasn’t just the change of language that we noticed suddenly, the whole landscape was different. The houses were wooden, built up on tall poles like something you’d see in the Louisiana Bayou (not that we’ve been to the bayou, but it seems like what it would be like). There was still the jungly landscape carried over from Guatemala, but as we travelled in further, everything more or less flattened out and the vegetation de-densified into coastal lowlands. Oh, and it was hot, a sweltering somewhere-in-the-upper 90’s temperature with almost 100% humidity, enough to make us question our reasons for entering Belize in the first place.

Typical Belizean house

The other thing we noticed was that Belize is not exactly a “Latin American” country. To be sure, there are plenty of Latinos who speak Spanish, but a third of the population is of African descent and they speak sort of a Caribbean/Creole/English which to the untrained ear sounds like the most foreign language you have ever heard. It seemed like everyone also spoke “normal” English too, which they switch on when they talk to travelers. Belize is also not much of a country. With just 330,000 people, it’s smaller than many U.S. metropolitan areas, and driving along, most of the country seems appropriately deserted. The capital city, Belmopan, has a bus station with spots for 3 buses, smaller than ours here in La Esperanza.

Anyway, so back to the narrative… We hopped out of customs and into a cab, which ended up costing $15 for about a 15 minute ride into the small town of San Ignacio. Yet another change, things were expensive! We arrived in town and set out looking for a hotel, settling on a nice guesthouse downtown (the Hi-Et Guesthouse, haha) run by an adorable old couple. After a quick walking tour of town lasting about 10 minutes and some lunch, we set out to hike to a nearby Maya ruin, Cahal Pech. It was a long and sweaty 30 minute all uphill hike to the site which offered a nice view of San Ignacio and its environs. While not nearly as grand and polished as Tikal, Cahal Pech still had a lot to offer. For one, it had a great museum (which Tikal was lacking) explaining Mayan history, art, politics and architecture. We learned, for example, that Mayan temple steps are so steep probably because they were not meant to be walked up by any old civilian, but rather climbed up on ones hands and knees by only the highest priests in order to commune with the gods. Secondly, Cahal Pech had some more interesting maze-like multi-storied palaces that we amused ourselves in, noting the very distinct differences in temple construction and carved designs between it and Tikal just a few hours apart. There weren’t many dining or nightlife options in San Ignacio, and it seemed like most of the places in our travel book had shut down, so we had pizza for dinner and called it an early night.

Nicki on the main temple at Cahal Pech

Palace at Cahal Pech

Nolan practicing his Mayan ball game skills on the court

Enjoying a local Beliken stout beer after a hard day

We slept in, had a good breakfast, then showed up at the Mayawalk tour company at 11 am for our cave tubing adventure. We were bused in a nice air-conditioned van with a couple from the Netherlands to the Caves Branch river about an hour away, a popular spot for cave tubing. After a short hike in the jungle where we spotted a jaguar(!), we strapped on life jackets, helmets and headlamps, plunked our tubes into the river, and began our amazing trip. If you can imagine, it was like a lazy river, but through a giant cave! We floated gingerly along for over 2 hours, using our headlamps to illuminate the cave formations and our path through them, finally cooling ourselves down after too many days in the heat. At one point, a hole opened up to the surface and we disembarked from our tubes to take a quick swim in the blue pool formed just below the hole. At several points, the water was so shallow out butts would scrape along the bottom. We finally popped out of the caves into the sun and floated back to our starting point, minnows nipping at our submerged backs and legs. It was a really pleasant and relaxing day with good company and our guide had planned the trip so we missed the swarms of hundreds of cruise ship passengers who arrive daily.


Before entering the caves (behind us)

Nolan swimming in a cool blue pool

From San Ignacio the next day we caught a bus (or rather two buses and a water taxi) to the small peninsula of Placencia, our last stop and the jumping off point for trips to the Belize Barrier Reef, the second largest reef in the world. Placencia is a small, beach-goers haven with plenty of sun, sand, bars and overtanned ex-pats. It is home to some world-renowned resorts and to plenty of beachside shacks. We spent most of our first afternoon exploring the area and taking advantage of the cooling ocean breezes. We enjoyed some daiquiris and beer at a seaside bar with a live Garifuna (coastal ethnic group) drum and dance show.

Marañon, the fruit of the cashew - the cashew is growing out the bottom

Fun beach sign

The next day, we made plans for an all-day snorkel trip to Laughing Bird Caye, about 30 minutes by boat from Placencia. The day got off to a ‘Honduran’ start, i.e. about an hour late. We showed up at the dive shop and the owner wasn’t there. The guy he had left “in-charge” could barely manage his coffee, cigarette and bad jokes, let along 10 people in need of flipper fittings. No one knew what was going on and new people just kept showing up that wanted to come along, so the owner (who finally arrived) ended up having to get out his “bigger boat.” It hardly looked big, but more disconcerting lacked any type of shaded canopy as he had promised. Nicki was a little perturbed since she’s quick to burn, and ended up wrapping herself completely in a towel for the trip out to the caye.

The caye was more pleasant than expected, a very small, sandy and palm-tree laden island like something from a screensaver with BBQ grills, bathrooms, picnic tables and wide open ocean on all sides. We were quick to shake off the morning delays and hopped in the warm (almost hot really) water for our morning snorkel. It was some of the best snorkeling we’ve done. We saw your usual colorful parrotfish, angelfish and butterfly fish, along with some big barracudas, a very large crab, and a giant lobster, probably about 10 pounds! Belize is also famous for its conch, and we were able to watch dozens of the creatures drag their huge shells slowly along the ocean floor. After about an hour, we came out and had some BBQ chicken and cheese-whizzed scalloped potatoes for lunch as we relaxed on the caye. We headed out a second time after lunch and saw even more awesome marine life including more giant lobsters, spiky sea urchins and a sting ray with a 3-4 foot wingspan, not to mention the huge pelicans diving for their fish lunch all around us! We left the caye in the late afternoon, but had one more stop to make. The owner wanted to do a little spearfishing for his dinner, so we anchored ourselves in the middle of nowhere as he and some other passengers headed out with spears. I don’t think they caught much, but it was amusing at least to hear their garbled yells through their snorkels, “I just missed that one!”

Laughing Bird Caye from afar

Lunch-hunting pelican

Beautiful beach, just jump right in and snorkel

By the time we got back to the mainland, the sun was nearly setting and we were exhausted and salty. Following in the footsteps of Jacques Cousteau who explored parts of the reef system in the 1970’s, we had been amazed and intrigued by the delightful underwater life. Until of course we realized we were both horribly sunburned despite numerous sunscreen reapplications and wished we had only made one snorkeling swim for the day. Nevertheless, we lathered up with aloe and treated ourselves to a very fancy dinner to celebrate the end of our vacation. We enjoyed olive tapenade, grilled shrimp flatbread pizza and crispy fish and chips, spending more than we would in several days back in Honduras, but it was worth it.

To get back to Honduras, we took the once-weekly ‘ferry’ from Placencia to Puerto Cortes on the north coast. The two-hour ride crossing the Gulf of Honduras was smooth and uneventful, mostly. Leaving Belize, we stopped at immigration to get our passports stamped and pay exit fees and such. While there, we overheard the customs official saying the boat was waiting for someone to arrive with the police, a man from Namibia whose passport she held in an envelope. We were able to glance at the envelope which said, “Forbidden to Land in Belize.” Imagining all kinds of hardened, drug-toting criminals that might be joining us on the boat to be deported back to Honduras we were relieved to see an older, gentle-looking man, not in handcuffs, arrive and hop on. Of course we didn’t know what happened with the guy, but as soon as we stepped off the boat in Puerto Cortes, he was escorted away by police.

We actually felt quite relieved and happy to be back “home” on Honduran soil, a place where we have residency cards that speed up the immigration process, and where we can tell when people are trying to scam us. We made it back home safe and sound, our adventures leaving us exhausted and yearning for a real vacation once in awhile.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

From Indiana Jones to Jacques Cousteau: Backpacking Through Guatemala and Belize: Part 1

Everyone can relax, we have it on good authority from the son of a Mayan spiritual guide that the world will not end in December 2012.

Let’s go back to how we got there…..

Six hours after hopping on a bus from Copan, we were descending in the twilight into sparkling Antigua, Guatemala, shadowed even at night by the lone Volcan de Agua. Antigua felt like something from a European dream; classy boutiques, fine dining, quaint cobblestone streets and colorfully painted Spanish-style buildings. We splurged on real Italian pizza, traditional Mexican mole, and bagels with bacon cream cheese, admiring from afar the jade jewelry and five star resorts. It felt too real and posh to be Latin American, not to mention the unnerving quantity of foreigners. Still, it was a beautiful city with some interesting history. Originally known as Santiago de Los Caballeros (Saint James of the Knights), it served for 200 years as the capital of Guatemala. However, it was destroyed repeatedly by major earthquakes in 1717 and 1773 and rather than rebuild the city, they thought it would be better just to start anew and built Guatemala City an hour away (which still has earthquakes, volcanoes and sinkholes…great choice of location). Hence, the city became known as Antigua, so called because it was the old/antigua capital, and was left with ruins of ornate Baroque churches on every corner, really the only unique thing about the place. Despite its charm, or rather because of it, we found Antigua to be mostly a hippie backpacker haven and jumping off point for tours to other parts of the country.

Antigua's Central Park

Fountain in Central Park at night

At the ruins of the church on the Central Park

More ruins

Volcan de Agua behind an old archway used for nuns to cross the street

Instead of staying long in Antigua, we hopped on a bus to Xela (pronounced Shayla, also known as Quetzaltenango), the second largest city in the country and the site of more authentic Guatemalan culture. It would have been a pretty drive if not for mile after mile of dry, brown, depressing, overfarmed mountain slopes. Xela was dirty, gritty, noisy and certainly not posh, but it had a pleasant central park and nice museums with some great restaurants. The weirdest thing was the waiters who kept saying buen provecho (like bon appétit) every time they came to the table, even when no food was around. We took a free salsa class, ate tamalitos (mini tamales), saw a locally produced movie at a small theater and spent time learning about the history of famous local marimba music, world-renowned Guatemalan athletes, and antique copy machines. Some of the other random museum highlights included a theodolite (the instrument Nolan uses to do water surveys), and some pitifully taxidermied animals that were half decomposed.

Xela also has some interesting history. After Central America won its independence from Spain in 1821, it formed a unified federation of Central American states. As the republic began to crumble from civil war in 1838, the central Guatemala highlands formed a separate sixth state known as the Estado de Los Altos, of which Xela was the capital. The state faced fierce pressure from the rest of Guatemala to unify, resulting in many bloody battles, and eventually in the collapse of the Estado de Los Altos just 2 years after it was formed. The greatest lasting legacy of this state is the image of the legendary quetzal bird on the Guatemala flag, which was first featured on the Los Altos flag.

Dry hills on the way to Xela

We think these are popcorn balls, not really sure though....

Pre-cut veggies at the Xela market, how convenient!

Drinking local Cabro beer in Xela at a Texas BBQ restaurant, yum!

From Xela we took a day trip to the small town of Chichicastenango, taking the bus trip of a lifetime. While the main transportation route is a pleasantly paved five-lane super-highway, the roads wind around and up and down huge mountains constantly. It was a lot like being on that spinning ride at county fairs where you get flung into the person next to you, only since we were going around corners back and forth, you would get squished into someone on your right, then immediately thrown back to your left. We used all our arm muscles for two straight hours to keep ourselves from falling onto the Mayan woman sleeping next to us. We also decided that PCVs in Guatemala should all be issued knee-pads to wear on the bus since bracing yourself on the seat with your knees is absolutely necessary. It was then that we would witness the closest thing to an Indiana Jones move you will ever see in real life. Our bus ayudante on a chicken bus (big yellow school bus which they actually call “cheek-in buus”) stood in the front doorway, grabbed some unseen notch on the roof, stuck his foot on the window ledge and flung himself up and onto the roof in one smooth move. He clambered over the roof, adjusting and/or scaling luggage, only to somehow open the back door and swing himself in, all in less than a minute while we were still crazily careening through mountain curves. UNBELIEVABLE! At first we thought it was some strange magic trick, the disappearing ayudante, but we figured out it was a tactic used when the bus was full to collect fares in the back without marching up the jammed aisle twice.

Guatemalan bus culture will never cease to amaze us. Apparently it’s a rule that no one can be standing on a bus, unless every row has three to a seat. Sounds reasonable and safe until you realize you will never be on a bus that doesn’t have three to a seat, i.e. there will always be standing people in a modified aisle that is 8 inches wide at the most. Or rather usually two to a seat, then one large-assed man straddling the aisle with 1/8 butt cheek barely clinging to each side. The only good thing about the sardine-like configuration is that you can give your arms a rest from preventing your sideways sliding and just lean into the guys legs in the aisle with all your body weight and act like it’s no big deal. When there are just two people to a seat, beware, some tiny Mayan woman might accidentally sit down onto your lap without so much as a ‘permiso’ to indicate she had the intention of sitting. It’s like musical chairs, they start to walk by, then the music stops to they have to find a seat wherever they can, sidling in like an unwanted guest. Add in some sweat and miscellaneous body hair and you have the makings of a truly memorable Guatemalan ‘cheek-in bus’.

Anyway to get back to Chichi… As soon as we turned off the main highway and hopped on a busito, we were surrounded by people speaking a foreign language, Maya Quiche. This traditional Mayan language sounds nothing like Spanish, actually more like a Slavic dialect, and it was then we really felt we had entered a new cultural space. We arrived soon to the city center, jam-packed Thursdays and Sundays when the biweekly Mayan market takes place. We’d heard it was impossibly touristy, but were so glad we still made the trip. We hired an overpriced guide (the son of the Mayan shaman who gave us the insider info about the world not ending) to show us around, and he gave us great insight into Mayan spiritual practices. The main worship spot in town is a Catholic church built on the ruins of a Mayan shrine. The Mayans engage in their age-old spiritual practices right alongside modern Catholicism, a truly inspiring blending of religions. There are 150 men and 150 women Mayan spiritual guides at any given moment who are the only people allowed to give intercessions to the gods for others. They burn incense in lung-choking quantities and cover stone slab alters with white (for boys) and pink (for girls) rose petals and colored candles to ask for good health, safe trips, luck in love, bountiful harvest, or a good future for your kids, all in the midst of a traditional Catholic church with its own altars, shrines and prayer spaces.

Mayan women selling flowers on the church steps

Mayan woman weaving

Our guide also led us up a hill near town, the top of which is a scared Mayan site. It was here that the Maya people dug from the ground a shrine, called Pascual Abaj, which they now regularly worship by burning food, Coke, flowers, candles, seeds, plants and perfume and chanting in Maya Quiche. It was an amazing privilege to witness and explore these private and sacred ceremonies, and we felt like we gained some great insight into the Mayan culture that we would have missed without our guide. On the way down we stopped at an out-of-the-way antique shop (probably in cahoots with the guide) and were able to purchase an amazing jaguar/snake wood mask that had once been used in ceremonies. The market itself was nothing spectacular, just a maze of hundreds of vendors selling almost identical products and calling out, “hey, my friend, I give you good price.” The woven items are truly spectacular in their colors and designs, some detailed shawls taking months to complete as they are woven and then embroidered by the skilled hands of Mayan women. Because of the time involved, the prices are staggering, hundreds of dollars for some items, and rightfully so. All in all, the day in Chichi was memorable, and our bus ride home just as action-packed as Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Pascual Abaj shrine

Mask store

Textile shop at the market

Fancy urban bus in Guatemala City

Goats on the street in Guatemala City

From Xela we stopped back in Antigua briefly before catching a loathsome 9 hour bus from there to Flores, an almost-island town in the middle of a lake in northern Guatemala. The weather got progressively warmer and more humid as we dropped from 2300-meter-high Xela to sea-level, jungle-laden Flores. Barely 8 hours after we arrived in Flores, we were on a 5 am busito headed to the ruins of Tikal. We were the first people to enter the ruins site that day, and although we missed sunrise, it was worth it to get there early to beat the crowds and the heat. We started walking up into the dense jungle, without a clear sense of where we were going. The map was little help and we could see no ruins around us. All the sudden, we stepped out from behind the trees into a little clearing and the Temple of the Great Jaguar rose 47 startling meters in front of us! It was like stepping into a different world, a different time, channeling Indiana Jones yet again as if we were on one of his hair-raising archaeological adventures. We were completely alone, surrounded by screeching birds and roaring howler monkeys, surrounded on all sides by massive, beautiful stone temples rising from the jungle floor.

First people in Tikal for the day!

Temple of the Great Jaguar as we saw it for the first time, rising out of the jungle

Tikal is impressive because of the size of its temples, six in all, four over 45 meters (~150 feet ) tall, and most of which you can climb up on creaky wooden stairs (they don’t let you climb the steep steps in front, with good reason, people have died) then look out over the jungle for miles. The temples have lost most if not all of their decorative carvings and color, so you can only try to imagine what they looked like at the height of the civilization. What’s even more amazing is the fact that this incredibly important and powerful site was “lost” in the jungle for hundreds of years after the Maya people abandoned it and that only in the past 10-20 years archaeologists have completed digging out and renovating many of the grand monuments. Thousands more structures have yet to be recovered from the fast-growing jungle vegetation that covers them in soil and roots in no time. You sort of wish it just always looked the way it does now and that people found it intact, but everything you see has been restored. Also, because it was not near any body of water, Tikal had a very intricate system of water catchment ponds and canals that served nearly 100,000 people at its height.

Sign with Mayan language

Nolan hanging out - pretty steep steps!

View from Temple IV overlooking the area of the ruins - amazing view!

Hot and sweaty even at 7 am

The stairs we climbed to get to the top...

After five hours we were exhausted by Tikal, despite there being so much more to see, and headed back to Flores on the bus, missing almost entirely the busloads of khaki-short-wearing tourists and escout troops that were right on our heels. We spent the rest of the day relaxing in hammocks overlooking the lake surrounding Flores, catching up on some much needed sleep and drinking a gallon of water to replenish the bodily fluids we were sweating away and an unprecedented rate. After a delicious traditional Mayan chicken dinner, we fell into bed and slept away our last night in Guatemala.

Rooftop at our hotel in Flores

To be continued...