Friday, December 25, 2015

Semuc Champey and Greengos Hotel

Places that get a lot of hype sometimes have a hard time living up to the expectations travellers have of them. I feel bad for these places, because they probably are, or at least were amazing before they were altered by some force, inherently changing what made the place so awesome to begin with. That force likely being tourism.

I can imagine what visiting Semuc Champy would have been like for those few backpackers that made the onerous journey out to the middle of nowhere Guatemala, down countless unpaved mountain roads in the thick, humid tropical air to these perfect turquoise pools just begging to be swam in. It would have been pure bliss. A travel discovery you would brag about to everyone you met. And that's probably exactly what happened. Word got out, hostels opened, shuttles added Lanquin to their itineraries, they hiked the admission price to be almost double that of nationals.... Now everyone comes to Semuc Champy. Young, old, package tourists and independent travellers. Not that any roads have been paved... unfortunately.

But now that poor Semuc Champey is in the lime light and the turquoise pools are full of tourists, people stop in and leave saying, ' Well, its not that impressive....' But they're wrong.

Many backpackers are on a mission to jam pack their days with as much of Lonely Planet's recommendations as possible. I can't even count how many people we've met this month alone, rushing from one 'highlight' to the next, claiming to see entire countries in the span of a week.

If you stay in Lanquin (which is 45 minutes from Semuc Champey) and go with everyone else on your hostel's daily tour, cramming in both the caves near Champey and the actual pools into one day, then of course you're going to be experiencing Semuc Champey with everyone else. Of course it will be crowded and you'll completely lose out on the area's spectacular natural charms. You're on a tourist train expecting a private experience.  And if that's what you were expecting, you're going to be disappointed.

Before writing it off, why don't you give Semuc Champy a real shot of actually meeting your expectations and living up to its claim of being one of the most beautiful places in Guatemala?

First- Stay somewhere nearby, no more than a ten minute walk away. We recommend Greengos Hotel or El Portal.

Second- Give the area 3 nights, at least. Relax. Not only are these spots gorgeous, but the hostels here are in spectacular settings. Enjoy a drink on one of their terraces, try the Shakshuka at Greengos, make some new friends, listen to the river rushing outside your bedroom window. Go to Semuc Champy one day and the caves the next. Don't worry. Tikal will be there tomorrow.

Third- Get up (it doesn't even have to be that early) and go straight to Semuc Champey. Beat the crowds and if you're lucky, have the whole place to yourself. If you don't love Semuc Champey's pools after that, well you're crazy, but at least you gave it a fair chance to woo you.

We arrived at Greengos late November in the pouring rain. Greengos is a welcoming, social hostel with lots of colour and character. It's located on its very own picturesque little river and serves amazing food. But back to the rain. It had been raining hard for a few days, we were told. There was so much water that the river right beside the pools of Semuc Champey had overflown into the pools turning the usually clear, turquoise water an opaque brown colour. Even the river at the hostel was raging and brown. Although the attraction didn't close as a result of its muddy state, Semuc Champey was free to all visitors. “You don't want it to be free,” Greengo's manager told us. Its not the real Semuc Champey when its free. So we crossed our fingers that the next day, we would have to pay admission (that was a weird wish to make) and that the river would have calmed itself enough to stay on it's own side of the rope barrier.

It was a slow morning for us, with a little more rain when we headed out on the 10 minute walk from Greengos to Semuc Champey. It was free. We were a little disappointed, but its hard to be that sad when you just saved 100 Quetzals. The first pool we came across was brown and muddy. It was hard to see what all the fuss was about, even trying to imagine the terrassed pools their usual bright colour. But, as we followed the arrows to the more popular swimming pools, the water became clearer and had a tinge of turquoise, more like I was expecting. It was a bit murky, but there were other people swimming, so I hopped in. It was refreshing and, despite the other tourists, a beautiful place for a dip. The river that flows at the top of Semuc was still brown and muddy and very angry. Usually, these 2 bodies of water are separate, but with all the rain, the division was blurred and the raging river just about met the pools before disappearing down a waterfalls into the earth. This overflow of the river is the reason that the pools were less turquoise and clear, as they were being contaminated by he murky brown overflow water from the river. As the day went on and the river decided to keep to its own side of the rocks, the pools became more and more clear.  

Because swimming is one of my all-time favourite pastimes, we decided to check up Semuc Champey the next day as well. If we had to pay the second day, it would be a 2 for1 deal, and we would hopefully get to see the natural pools in all their turquoise wonder. We ate breakfast (the amazing Isreali dish of Shakshuka, which I could not get enough of) and were at the pools by 9:30am. There was an entrance fee! Hooray! And, there was not another soul insight. It was absolutely spectacular. Other than a couple policemen and a few fake lifeguards wearing life jackets, we didn't see another person for 2 whole hours. I was all by myself swimming the now perfectly clear waters in the most amazing natural setting. I jumped off the small waterfalls, sat at the edge of the pool looking down on the terraced water, swam back and forth through the narrow channel between the main pool and the river junction.... all by my lonesome. And then, I did it all over again. Not for the first time on this trip I wished I had a GoPro to be able to capture the memories to revisit later.  It was one of the most amazing travel experiences I've ever had.

Word of Mouth: Staying near Semuc Champey worked perfectly for us. However, if that's not your style, we also heard great things about El Retiro which is on the outskirts of Lanquin. They have one day tour for Q180 that include both Semuc and the caves, which everyone who did said the tours was fun and a good value. They also have Q50 all you can eat buffet dinners.

Where we stayed: Greengos Hotel, 170Q for a private room in the top of an a-frame cabin. The room was basic, but clean with lots of air (screen windows) and light. The bathroom was communal, but always clean and there were hot showers in the afternoon. They also have dorms and private rooms with en-suites and porches over the river.  The food was a bit on the expensive side (as you would imagine in the middle of no where) but delicious!

And,ps,  Merry Christmas!!!

Coban to Lanquin to Semuc Champey

The minibus ride from Coban- Lanquin was our shortest in 3 days, but it was rough. Very little of the road is paved and its very narrow and mountainous. All down the 'road' you can see evidence of landslides and fallen boulders. It takes about 2.5-3 hours, the beginning and end being gloriously paved. We were charged Q30 per person. Oh, and, it was spectacularly scenic.

Finding out about the bus schedule was difficult. We now know only one thing for sure: a minibus left Coban for Lanquin at 9am from the corner of 3 Calle and 3 Avendia. Well, maybe two things: we also know that there is a pupusa stand on the corner at which you can buy breakfast. (Q5 per pupusa)

Just outside of Lanquin our minibus was met with a pickup truck that was going to Semuc Champey and a plethora of guides looking to be of assistance. In hindsight they were helpful, although I was incredibly suspicious of everything they said at the time. Its hard not to be. The pickup was going 'directo' to Semuc Champey (apparently) and cost Q25pp. This is, according to our hostel, the correct price (for tourists at least). It was raining cats and dogs and didn't look like it was going to clear up anytime soon, so into the back of this pickup truck we begrudgingly climbed. The 'directo' part turned out to be a lie. The road down to Semuc Champey is insanely bad. Unpaved, slippery, muddy and at that point, flooded. The truck bounced around like a kernel in a popcorn maker. It was very unenjoyable. Add to this the pouring rain. We're standing in the back of a pickup truck, jostling about, in a downpour. There is no doubt in my mind that a drown rat was in better shape than myself and my backpack were after 5 minutes. Everything we own (aka our bags) was getting soaked and our hands were slipping all over the wet rails as we tried to hold on. Finally, after 40 minutes (or a lifetime) I saw a sign that said “Semuc Champey 2kms” pointing to the right. I was very happy to see this sign, signalling the end to this most uncomfortable of journeys. And then we bumped right on past it, continuing on straight. NOOO!! And so on we went, in the wrong direction, in a torrential downpour on a road that was becoming increasingly non existent. Another 15 minutes on and we came to an empty clearing where we dropped off a big white bucket of something, turned around, and continued back towards Semuc Champey. Sigh. I hope that we had just delivered a bucket of liquid gold to a village of starving children because, otherwise, that detour most certainly didn't enhance my day, let alone further my endearment to Guatemala. 

When you're soaked, you're soaked, I suppose. You thankfully can't get more wet once you're drenched, and drenched we were. Right down to our skivvies. I dreaded opening our bags. It wasn't until we were finally dropped off at Greengos (after 1.5 hours and a whopping  total of 11kms), and greeted by a smiling English speaker that finally exhaled and smiled. It was still raining, but we had made it and were safely in a land where we could actually communicate with people (ie, The hotel staff), hang all our wet clothes and eat some warm yummy food.

Definitely in hindsight, I would have skipped Nebaj and Coban all together and taken a shuttle from Xela all the way to Lanquin. Sure, it would have been long, and maybe even involved a night in Antigua, but it would have likely been the better option for us.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Xela to Nebaj by Chicken Bus

Getting from Xela to Nebaj by chicken bus is super easy. Don't get me wrong, its a long day, but its easy and the scenery is spectacular.

We took the minibus (Q1.25pp) from near Parque Central to the Mall (Pradera) instead of the actual terminal stop. It is 2 stops later on the same route. You'll get out by a Pollo Campenaro and a Pizza Hut. The terminal (aka bus parking lot) is straight down the street to your right. We liked this option better because it saved us walking through the busy market with our bags. Why the 'terminal' stop is a large obstacle away from the actual terminal makes absolutely no sense. But, then again, many things in Guatemala make little sense.

From Xela we took a bus to Santa Cruz del Quiche (called just Quiche by most). It was easy to find the right bus in Xela by just asking people that were standing near buses. They'll always point you in the right direction. Our bus left at 9am. It took about 2.5 hours to get to Quiche (Q25pp).

From Quiche there were direct buses to Nebaj. Both of the big and minibus variety. The connection time was pleasantly short and that bus took about 2.5 hours as well. (Q 20pp).

We left Xela at 9am and were in Nebaj just after 2pm. So it was just over 5 hours, not including the minivan from Central Xela. We recommend grabbing a delicious bagel (Cheddar Pimento was our favourite) and maybe a cookie or two for the journey! They open at 6am for your convenience.

We referenced this helpful blog before we went:

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Nebaj to Coban by Chicken Bus

Nebaj was home to our worst experience in Guatemala so far. Its too bad, because I'm sure we would have eventually found our way back to Nebaj in the future before this incident took place. Now, I'm of the opinion, that with so many wonderful places to go in Guatemala, why go back to Nebaj and risk dealing with scam artists again. The weather was horrible when we were there, it rained constantly, and I'm sure what is normally a beautiful view, was hidden under a thick blanket of clouds. I would have like to have gone back and explored the hiking opportunities.

The issue started on a rainy morning as we were trying to leave town. A greedy evil “guide” decided that he should take over our transport arrangements and did his very best to convince us that we had to go somewhere with him for some other bus, and to convince the people around us that we were rude gringos who were arguing over the price (which we weren't). Well truth be told, I'm not sure exactly what rumors he was spreading about us, because he was doing so in Spanish, but 'Quetzal' was every other word. Quetzal is both the name of the Guatemalan currency, and its national bird, and I'm pretty sure he wasn't discussing wildlife. It was a long, super frustrating hour in which the “guide” refused to let anyone else talk to us, and those people, being spineless, went along with it. We finally figured out the right Spanish words to be able to ask the only people who would give us honest information, the actual people on the bus. It turned out that we had been right all along and the schmucks of the Nebaj minibus mafia were just trying to make our lives painful (and apparently give their town a bad name).

So, hard fought, here's what we know to be true as far as getting from Nebaj to Coban by public transit. Unless you catch the rumored 5am direct bus to Coban, you'll have to do a few transfers. In theory, its another long, but easy day. Get on a minibus that is going to Santa Cruz del Quiche. They leave from the corner of 5 Calle and ... one block behind the church. Don't listen to anyone telling you that this is wrong. All you want is a ride back down the hill from Nebaj to the main road. It shouldn't be difficult. You want to get off at the Cunen Junction (Union is the Spanish word for junction) it takes about 45 minutes and is Q15pp. From this intersection, cross the street to where you see a little bus shelter. Flag any bus that passes eastward, as its likely going to Upsantan, and so are you (Q15pp). Upsantan is maybe a 1.5 hour ride. Once in Upsantan mini buses go to Coban (Q30pp). We had to wait a little while for the transfer, but it was less than an hour. The ride itself was about 2.5 hours from Upsantan to Coban.

Recap: Total travel time: 6 hours
Nebaj- Cunen Junction
Cunen Junction – Upsantan
Upsantan- Coban

Thursday, December 17, 2015


We loved Xela. The weather was cool and enjoyable, there were lots of great food options, cafes, views and enough day trips to keep you entertained for a week (at least). Most travellers come to Xela to learn Spanish. There are lots and lots of Spanish schools. We spent 5 nights in Xela and went on day trips to Fuentes Georginas, San Andres Xecul and San Francisco de Alto

Other than our three day trips, we wandered around the easily navigable centre, ate lots of good food, and enjoyed the spectacular views from our hostel's terrace. Nim Sut Hostel, as they claim, certainly does have the best view in Xela. We would highly recommend staying there. It was mid November when we were there, and very quiet, but I can imagine it gets busy in the high season. The owners, Christopher and Gloria, an American/Guatemalan couple are super helpful, friendly and obviously care a lot about their business. Gloria has lots of good information, suggestions and arrange any activity or shuttle you're interested in. And, she does it all with a genuine smile! Sitting and chatting with Christopher on the terrace was always enjoyable! We stayed in room 5, which we thought to be the best room in the hostel. On the top floor, our huge window had an amazing view of the mountains, cathedral and town. The room was large with a double bed and a single one. It was cozy at night, comfortable and quiet. The bathroom was shared with one other room. There are other private rooms too, a couple dorms and at least one room with a private bathroom. You could use the massive, fully stocked kitchen, there was free water refills, wifi and quick laundry services. The location was perfect, only a block from Parque Central and 2 blocks from our favourite watering hole, Bajo La Luna. Everything was kept neat, tidy and clean. There always seemed to be someone sweeping something. But, really, its Gloria, Christopher and the very impressive view that make this hostel so special.

Our favourite place for a drink and later eats was Bajo la Luna. (It doesn't open until 7pm) Jose, the owner is friendly, imaginative and a great chef. His chickpea burger and fries were super tasty, and everything that came out of his kitchen looked and smelled delicious. Fridays he does a little kitchen experimentation and adds a mystery dish to the menu. He was serving pulled pork burritos in addition to his menu options the night we were there. But its the atmosphere at Bajo La Luna that kept us coming back. Small and intimate with just enough details it was a great place to spend the evening with friends, or making new ones. The drink prices were reasonable, especially on Wednesday when wine is 20% off. Jose even let us sample some local fruit liquor from neighbouring Saljaca that I had been reading about! Cheers to the bartender!

Our go-to breakfast spot was Maya Cafe, we literally ate there every morning. There were lots of breakfast options but we also got a version of a Tipico breakfast. J would get the Chapin which was Q20 ($2.60USD) and came with 2 eggs, beans, rice and tortillas and my favourite was the Maya D (Q23/ $3USD) which came with 2 eggs, fried plantains, beans, a chunk of cheese, a little hashbrown and tortillas. Nothing in Guatemala is not accompanied by corn tortillas! All breakfasts include a thermos of coffee, a milky porridge starter, a basket of bread and 2 sugar cookies. We were seriously stuffed at the end of it, and rarely had to eat a second full meal. Lunch here is also a great option, with lots of local choices for around Q25 all accompanied by fruit juice, soup, and, you guessed it, tortillas.

Our favourite cafe was Cafe Armonia. The coffee was delectable and roasted right on sight. It was possibly the best coffee we had in Guatemala. I would have loved to buy some beans to bring home, but the thought of carrying them around for another month forced the coffee to be, unfortunately, just a really lovely memory.

Artesano was our place for bagels. Real bagels, not just bread baked in circular form! When we were going on day trips and wanted to bring some snacks we'd hop in grab a couple Pimento Cheddar bagels and a cookie or 2. We were never disappointed. Xelapan is a popular bakery chain with a shop conveniently located right in Parque Central. More of a traditional Guatemalan bakery with lots of buns full of cheese, beans, chocolate and such, we stopped into Xelapan more than once for a bready snack.

I fell in love with Chocobananas in Guatemala. A frozen banana fully dipped into chocolate right before your eyes, chocobananas were my #1 favourite snack in Xela. There are a few places to buy these yummy treats, but my preference was for the ones at Chocodelicio on a side street at the bottom of the square very close to Maya Cafe. She'll even sprinkle peanut pieces or sprinkles on yours, if you fancy. (Q5/ 65cent s US) If you aren't a banana fan, fear not, you could also choose to have frozen watermelon, pineapple, coconut or a strawberry skewer dipped into the chocolate!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

San Francisco El Alto

San Francisco El Alto is mountain town not far from Xela, Guatemala that is known for its Friday markets. It was our second huge market this week, and in all honesty, it was a little busy for us. Pushing and squeezing past every stall, and most certainly, if we had had anything in our pockets, we would have been relieved of it in the first 15 minutes. But the colours and bustle are just so attractive, I can't help myself. I hear the word 'market' and I'm instinctively grabbing for my camera. While it was a fun morning out, and I loved capturing the colours, I think our feelings about this market are a sign that maybe we're a bit market-ed out. At least for the next few weeks...

How to get there from Xela: Go to Minerva Bus Station. (hint: if you take the mini bus that leaves from Central Park area to the Mall stop (Pradera) instead of the Terminal stop, you don't have to walk through the busy market to get to your bus. Its maybe a tiny bit longer of a walk, but way less stressful than trying to navigate the market with any bags/money/cameras.) There's direct buses right to San Fransico El Alto. Easy. It takes about an hour, and considering you're only going 17kms, its a long ride!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Fuentes Georginas

Fuentes Georginas is a natural hot spring in a spectacular setting, close to Xela in the Guatemalan
Highlands. We took a shuttle for Q115 ($15USD), which included the price of admission to the pools and a return ride home. Our hostel, Nim Sut, arranged it so it was a super easy, and not all that expensive of a day trip.

Generally, J hates hot springs just as much as he hates beaches and cuddly kittens. But, even he agrees that Fuentes Georginas was an exceptionally beautiful spot and a nice way to soak the day away. Our shuttle picked us up at the hostel at 9am. It was a perfect, clear, sunny day and the ride up the mountain was breathtaking. I wasn't expecting the transport to be such a highlight. After passing the town of Zunil the hot springs themselves are another 8km up a crazy, narrow mountain road with endless sharp turns and blind corners. The road winded its way up the mountain steadily, mostly as close to the edge of the cliff as physically possible.

We arrived at Fuentes Georginas about 10am and rented a locker (Q15, $2USD) for the day. There were only 2 shuttle options to go back to Xela. Either noon or 5pm. We thought that noon was a bit early, so we opted for the 5pm shuttle. Make sure you discuss this with your hostel before you go, especially if your Spanish skills are lacking. We had thought that there were multiple shuttles back to Xela and didn't find out until we got to Fuentes Georginas that there were only the two. It ended up being a bit more confusing and required a few more phone calls than if we had just known what the options were to begin with. Either way, it all turned out OK in the end.

Thankfully we were already wearing our bathing suits since the change rooms were dark, dank and wet. There are 3 main pools that are increasingly cooler as you move down. The air up in the mountains is fresh and cool, so it wasn't hard to stay in the hottest pool the majority of the time. Two walls of the hottest pool are natural rock. Hot water filters directly from the rocks into the pool, so the water closest to the back is noticeably hotter. There are cool little rock grottos you can sit in and on, so you can choose how deep you want to be in the hot water.

Thick greenery and ferns surround the pools and climb the steep rock wall all around you. The mist rolled in late morning giving the whole area a very mystical feeling. It felt right out of Jurassic park and you could almost envision a Pterodactyl swooping in and plucking one of the screaming children from the pool. Or maybe that was just a fantasy we were having. Which brings me to my next point: Fuentes Georginas is not tranquil. Sure, the surroundings are, and you get the sense that it should be a serene, contemplative experience. But, it is not. There were few other foreign tourists there, but there were a lot of Guatemalan tourists, and tranquility isn't really their thing. Coming from a culture where setting fireworks off on someones front door at 5am is an encouraged way to wish them a Happy Birthday, its not really all that surprising. Dance music pumps from the restaurant, people are yelling, children are frolicking and jumping and splashing, babies are being dragged through the 100 degree water, and groups of teenagers horse playing and young couples are canoodling. It was definitely most quiet before 11am and there were other times throughout the day that were much quieter than others, but I'm assuming it all depends on the day. This action-packed experience shouldn't keep you from going, but its much better to be expecting it to be a social experience and not a quiet, private one.

The secret private pool near the entrance
There is one fantastic exception that we came across. Right before the parking lot, and where our
shuttle was parked is another seemingly secret hot spring pool. Hot water flows from its rock walls, and while it may not be quite as hot as the hottest pool up in the complex- it is crystal clear and there was absolutely no one there. And, it has its own, beautiful private setting in which to enjoy it! If its the serene, peaceful, intimate hot spring experience that you're craving, check out this pool! It has its own change rooms and sitting area with tables and white wrought iron chairs. I know I just said it, but I need to say it again: the hot water was clean and clear. You could see all the way to the bottom throughout the whole pool. It, unfortunately, just made me wonder why the water in the other pools wasn't clear- at all. It is also unfortunate that I already knew the answer to that, but I was in denial.  There were A LOT of particles floating in the other pools, which I, of course like to pretend are little bits of nature, but seeing as there was absolutely nothing floating in this secret pool forced me to accept the reality that J has been peddling the whole time. Hot Springs (that have people in them) are gross. The water is opaque possibly as a result of some grossness and the floaties- are definitely other people's dead skin. There, I said it. Maybe J's hatred of hot, dirty water had a teensy bit of merit. So, while I was sitting there all day, thinking about what a win it was for me to convince J to come to the hot springs, as much as it pains me to admit it, in the end, the victory was all his....

White Nosed Coatis lurking around the springs
If you want a real stomach turner, imagine this scene we witnessed. A woman with a small neon green bucket (that she mostly wore on her head) dipping the bucket into the skin filled water and then, just when you think she's maybe going to pour it over her shoulders- she DRINKS it. And THEN, she passes the bucket around to all her friends, who all take turns sipping the hot, chunky water. Ok, I can't write about it anymore, its too disturbing to see in print.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

San Andres Xecul

The church San Andres Xecul is possibly the most impressively colourful and wonderfully bizarre
church that we have ever seen. There's an unavoidable 'wow' moment when you first lay eyes on it, even if you've seen all the pictures and are expecting the bright yellow church facade with technicolor saints and angels sitting on ledges and clinging to vines. Its certainly worth the short bus ride from Xela. Add in the luck of it being market day in Salcaja (the town on the way to San Andres) and you're in for a colourful morning indeed. Salcaja is also home to Central America's first Catholic Church, in case that helps next you hunker down for a rowdy game of Trival Pursuit. Also, since we're on the topic- Salcaja produces some pretty delicious (homemade) liquors from local fruits which you can taste in Xela at the wonderful Bajo La Luna Bar.  But, back to San Andres Xecul... When you're in San Andres Xecul make sure you walk up to the top of town to El Calvario for spectacular views over the valley and village below. El Calvario is a small chapel only about 15 min up through town and you don't have to worry about missing it, seeing as its also painted bright yellow. Making this village even more endearing is the fact that they have a tightrope strung from the top of their church and a pole in the middle of their square for their yearly Tightrope Festival! Because, why not?

How to get there: Go to the bus stop in Xela on Avenida Independencia, its at the roundabout where
Monumento a la Marimba is.  There are buses that go directly to San Andres Xecul, seemingly randomly. If one happens to be leaving when you're there, lucky you- hop on! More likely you'll catch one of the super frequent buses heading north (we took the one towards Totonicapan, or Toto as everyone seems to call it).  You want to get off at the Moreria crossroads. Or just tell the bus guy you want to go to San Andres Xecul and he'll tell you when to get off. Cross the road and you'll see pickup trucks and hear guys yelling "San Andres". That's your que. Hop in the pick up with everyone else and you're off to the races! The pickup ride is Q2. Its all very easy, even if you're Spanish is as limited as ours.  There are buses that leave San Andres Xecul to go back to Xela from right beside the church.

Monday, December 07, 2015

How many people can you fit in a minivan?

33, it turns out.

The minivan in question, was, in its defense, a rather large minivan, with 4 rows of seats going three quarters the width of the van. Probably, the van was made to sit 12. To fit 33 people into this van required a bit of maneuvering, some elbows and a compete sacrifice of personal space. Children were strapped to mother's backs so that they were squished between the mother and the seat. Babies are probably softer than seat backs anyways! People were crouched on every square inch of floor space. The sliding door was wide open and people clung a bar installed on the inside of the van, their bums catching the breeze as we sped down the highway. Then there were children crammed onto everyone's lap. There were children sitting on children, sitting on children. And although I didn't verify it, or include them in my official count, I'm pretty sure there were children strapped to the roof. Not that over-cramming is an unusual experience on Latin American buses. Yesterday I rode the bus for 2 hours with only half a cheek on an old green vinyl school bus seat....

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Chichi's Veggie Market

Here's a selection of photos from one of my favourite kind of markets: the Veggie Variety! Probably these photos would be better not in collage form, but I'm sure you get the gist of it!

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Chichi, Guatemala's Market Town

The tongue twisting town of Chichicastenango is thankfully known as Chichi to pretty much
everyone. Although, imagining bus drivers yelling "Chichicastenango, Chichicastenango, Chichicastenango!!!" out the open bus door is an entertaining thought indeed.

Chichi is home to what may arguably be Guatemala's most touristy massive market. The market is held Thursday and Sundays and attracts backpackers, fancy tour groups, day trippers, national tourists and locals from the surrounding mountain villages. We arrived the day before the market so we could hit the market before the tour buses arrived. It was almost immediately apparent that Chichi relies heavily on tourism for survival. Randoms asked for money in exchange for directions, everyone followed 'Hola, Amigo!' greeting with: 'Come into my shop' and no one was particularly friendly without making their ulterior motives obvious. We were ready to leave almost as soon as we got there, but really, I suppose, what did we expect? It was actually worst the day before the market. It reminded me of when we were in Kathamandu in low season  (August) and got super harassed by hawkers. When we returned in October during high season, we barley noticed it. With more tourists, the attention really gets spread around better and wasn't so overwhelming.

But, Chichi grew on us like a fungus. We found a few good places to eat, our hostel had a nice view
Our cemetery view
and the market itself made for a fun day. Funnily enough, the view from our hostel was not just of the beautiful surrounding hills, but a cemetery. Probably the most cheerful cemetery we've ever laid eyes on. It was comprised of little brightly coloured houses, their luminosity highlighted by the dark green backdrop, and when we were very lucky, a ray of sunshine. The only bad thing about being so close to the cemetery was that locals seem to like setting massively loud fireworks off there. One morning, without exaggeration, all at the very same time, which happened to be 5am, there were fireworks, barking dogs, a car alarm,  roosters crowing AND a honking contest. So, that was some sort of record for us.. The most fascinating part of Chichi for me was the church, Iglesia de Santa Tomas. While its a Catholic church, the Mayan religion is woven right into the fabric of the belief of the villagers, and this is most apparent inside the church. By almost all accounts it looks like a traditional Catholic Church in Latin America. Its whitewashed and set above the main town square. Inside there are wooden pews, an altar at the front and paintings of saints on the walls. But, there are also large stone slabs lining the church's centre aisle covered in thin burning candles. These candles are lit in remembrance of passed loved ones. Food and flower offerings are scattered at the churches entrance and spiritual leaders chant magical words to stone plaques in-bedded in the walls. It was a very interesting experience and our first with the Mayan faith.

When all was said and done, Chichi provided some great photo opportunities and the beautiful array of colours and textures brightened the gloomy skies.

Where We Stayed: Posado El Telephono- with a fresh coat of paint, less rickety stairs, a few well thought-out sitting areas, and the general fixing of things that are broken,  this hostel could be really nice. It is in a great location and has a really nice view from it's terrace. As it is, its super cheap (Q60, $8USD, private room with shared bathroom) with friendly owners. Everything is very simple, but pretty clean.

Where We Ate: 
Comidas Tipico El Centro- I wish we had found this restaurant sooner. Its on the second floor of the shopping centre, you can see the sign above the street on 5a Av, north of the plaza. Great value, excellent food and friendly service made up for its plain atmosphere.
Restaurant y Cafe Pop Wuj- On the expensive side but good food, friendly service and right on the main plaza. Its on the second level with mini balconies looking out on the plaza.
Cafe LaNeveria- Good coffee and insanely decadent frozen coffees, made with icecream, chocolate sauce and whipcream- just what you need to re-energize half way through your market day bargaining adventure

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Panajachel, Lake Atitlan

Panajachel is the resort town of Lago de Atitlan. Less crass than San Pedro but much busier than all
the other lakeside tourist towns, Pana, as it's known, has a beautiful view, excellent shopping and lots of food and sleeping options. Its easy to spend a day strolling around town, bargaining for colourful souvenirs and enjoying some lakeside cervezas (although look out for the insane tip amount that some fancy restaurants automatically add to your bill).

We highly recommend eating at Chero's Bar- an absolutely delicious pupusaria with a cozy atmosphere. Pupusas are Q10 ($1.30 USD) and a litre of cold Brahva beer is Q23 ($3 USD). Unbeatable. Try the cheese and garlic! Totally worth the garlic breath!

When you're done there, hop across the street to Dina's Chocolates. Watch out for tuktuks! As someone who has eaten a lot of chocolate, I can confidently say that this homemade, organic chocolate that is sweetened with honey instead of sugar, is some of the BEST chocolate I've ever had. Move over Lindt! The dark chocolate and salt bar is heaven in your mouth. Its expensive but worth it. (Q20, $2.60USD per bar). Dina's has a ton of different mouth watering flavours: dark, milk and white with cinnamon, mint, various nuts, coconut, Mayan chili pepper, peanut butter... I wonder if they have a points card...

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Santa Cruz La Laguna & La Iguana Perdida

Wanting to get a more well-rounded impression of life on Lake Atitlan, and not quite ready to move on, we moved 2 villages over to Santa Cruz La Laguna. After a rough but beautiful 10 min boat commute from San Marcos we arrived at the Santa Cruz dock and pretty much stepped right into our next night's accommodation at La Iguana Perdida.

Santa Cruz is a much smaller village and the traveller scene is pretty much contained to a couple wonderful hangouts. Most notably, there's the super fancy and expensive, although very attractive Hotel Isla Verde, and the fun, relaxed, rustic La Iguana Perdida.

The story of La Iguana Perdida is quite captivating starring a young British woman travelling around Lake Atitlan in the 90s, falling in love with the area, buying land and then falling in love with a fellow traveller. (That's the Coles notes version, of course). And twenty years later, La Iguana Perdida, although bigger and with electricity still maintains the same focus as it did in its infancy-
Our Cabin the first night
travellers meeting other travellers and enjoying the spectacular lake side setting while forging friendships and sharing experiences. The shared family style dinner (Q60) plays into this theme well. The three courses are exceedingly delicious and the happy hour directly preceding dinner really lubricates the social aspect of the meal. So intent on this social outcome, La Iguana Perdida doesn't have WiFi. And while this was super inconvenient for us at the time, as we didn't realize it before arriving and were trying to organize a new apartment back in Canada which required a lot of paperwork and back and forth, we do truly appreciate the idea of being disconnected from our phones and connected to real people. This isn't to say that La Iguana Perdida is completely disconnected though, if that's a deal breaker for you. They do have computers with internet access that you can use for a small fee.

Just up the hill (ok ALL the way up THE hill) and perhaps benefiting enormously from La Iguana Perdida's lack of WiFi is CECAP restaurant and training centre. With a gorgeous view, an excellent cause and free WiFi, the restaurant/cafe at CECAP is run by students who are learning to take traditional Guatemalan dishes to international tourism standards. The food and drinks are delicious and supporting people from a small community to learn useful skills is always a good way to spend money. There is a small shop out front with women sewing high
quality purses, scarves and other such handicrafts.

Our first night at Iguna Perdida we stayed in Arriba Payaso 6 which was the top floor of an adorable A- frame cabin at the back of the beautifully landscaped property. It was airy and comfortable with a bright Mayan woven blanket and well thought out with places for bags and plugs right at the bedside. (Q130, approx $17USD). As this room was booked for the other 2 nights we stayed we moved to Room A (Q100, $13USD) in a 4 room cabin at the front of the property. The room was large and had big windows with nice views over the lake. Sheets of something that looked like maybe woven bamboo covered the walls and ceiling, along with a colourful wall hanging. It felt very rustic. Again, the space was designed with travellers in mind, having a place to put bags and hang towels. The bad thing about this room was that the walls were VERY thin. Sometimes (well, probably most of the time) you just don't want to hear what's happening in the next room- believe me. We also happened to have a very interesting visitor in our room one night- a scorpion! It was the first time I had ever seen a scorpion, so I can check that off the list of critters I never want to see in my bedroom again. The staff were quick to assure us that these scorpions aren't poisonous and that getting stung is akin to a bee sting- so I felt a little better, but still made J check every inch of the bed before getting in and curling up arbitrarily in the corner that I thought the scorpion would like to visit least. In reality, I do realize that critters are a part of everyday life and there isn't much you could do to avoid them sneaking inside. And I know that they're more scared of you then you are of them, blah blah blah. And, in his defence Scott the Scorpion of Room A did scurry out of sight as soon as we flicked the light on never to be seen again- but still. Scott- can't you just live outside? Or in the noisy neighbour's room at least? Please.

Anyways, after your good night's sleep (neighbour and scorpion nightmares dependent) there are
some great walks from Santa Cruz. We walked both directions along the shore and found great views and interesting slice of life tidbits. Left, with your back to the lake is a crazy boardwalk that leads to Hotel Isla Verde in about 10 mins. This used to be a lakeside path before Stan the Storm ruined it. You can stop in here for a drink and WiFi on their awesome patio. From there you can follow signs to the next village of Jaibilito (about 30 mins). The hike isn't very long, or particularly difficult but offers wide, unobstructed views. From Jaibilito you can keep going all the way to San Marcos (we hear this is about another 2.5 hrs). We got distracted in Jaibilito with fresh lemonade at the charming (and shockingly cheap) Posado Jaibilito and ended up just taking a boat back to Santa Cruz (Q5).

Right along the shoreline (with your back to the lake) a narrow path winds through well kept estates and coffee plants and local farmers back down to the water. Keep going and you'll come to a forested area with trees that have exposed roots wrapping around rocks, Siem Reap style. It seems out of place, but is super beautiful and the walk is an easy way to stretch your legs after an afternoon of hammock lounging at La Iguana Perdida. Just make sure you make it back for Happy Hour at 6pm!

La Iguana Perdida is also the only place on the lake that offers scuba diving. High Altitude diving, as Santa Cruz is at 1833m! I suppose a positive from the lake's rising levels is that there are now bars and houses at the bottom of the lake that you can dive to and through. Although we didn't partake in the diving, it did sound like an awesome way to spend even more time on the lake. And, with the water being 22degrees Celcius, you wouldn't even need a hood or gloves like the diving we're used to!

We just happened to be at La Iguana Perdida for Open Mike Night. A fun filled night of songs and bad jokes fueled by free shots of tequila for entertainers. Needless to say, J was in his element and all his campfire sing-a-long practicing was put to good use. If you can make it, Open Mike Night is definitely an extra good night to be staying at The Iguana. I feel like we hit the jackpot with our Lake Atitlan accommodation.. which is probably why we ended up staying on the lake a week when we had originally only scheduled a couple days.... and don't regret it at all.