Thursday, September 20, 2007

Chichicastenango Market

Every tourist that comes to Guatemala is told that the Chichi Market is a 'must see'.

Chichicastenango is a small town in the highlands area that has the largest 'indigenous' market in all of Guatemala. Held twice a week, it attracts native Mayan traders from highland villages for miles around. Stalls and blankets are set up on the plaza and the streets around it.

This is supposedly "the place" to buy local handicrafts like as textiles, masks and carvings, and jade jewelry.

We spent the night before Market Day in Antigua, and had booked spots on a 'shuttle van' that was going to Chichi early Saturday morning. Dave had done a great job of negotiating for the shuttle van ride. We wanted to essentially move from Antigua to Panajachel with a stop at Chichi for a few hours. That wouldn't be too tricky, because on Market Day, all the tour operators go TO Chichi in the morning and AWAY in the afternoon... except for all our luggage... what to do with it while we're in the market. He talked with several tour companies and finally booked us 4 slots on a van that was going from Antigua to Chichi and then on to Pana, with all our luggage.

Pickup time at the hotel was 7am. As the crow flies, Chichi's not that far from Antigua, but... you know our old drunken crow. It was close to a 2 hour drive, with a short stop for breakfast in between. All the van drivers line up on this one street, a block from the market. On the corner was a really nice hotel, with a beautiful courtyard and grounds. Dorothy and I made a potty stop while the guys took pictures of the parrots and an old guy playing an instrument made of gourds.

As we walked out of the hotel, we were immediately surrounded by people selling handicrafts... beautiful woven cloth, wooden carvings, jade and stone carvings, old coins. We ultimately had to wade past them to get to the market (which was the same thing 100 times over). Alleys and alleys of people selling beautiful things... none of which we had space for on the boat (or at home, for that matter). We quickly learned that if you walk away, the price drops immediatly by at least 25%. And as a rule of thumb, if you do some negotiating, you can get everything for 25-30% of the original asking price. It was fun negotiating and we did eventually buy a few things--"Christmas gifts".

Dave was intrigued by the old coins and some of the old stone carvings. After seeing the same thing in several stalls, we realized the coins are replicas and the 'old stone carvings' were probably new last week and rubbed with dirt to make it look old. But it was fun looking and dreaming about possessing valuable antiquities.

We had lunch in a nice restaurant that had a balcony over the main street, and showed each other the stuff that we'd bought. Even though we had had no intention of buying anything, we'd all bought a few things.

The restaurant was a nice break from the closeness of the market and being bugged by young and old to buy their stuff.
However, INSIDE the restaurant was a nice lady selling her stuff (probably someone's mother).

Ron took this great picture of her.

We met back at the shuttle bus at 2pm and were on our way to Panajachel and the lake Atitlan area.

See the rest of our Chichicastenango Photos

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Pacaya Volcano Hike

See all of our Pacaya Hike pics here: Picaya Volcano Hike Album

There are many volcanos in Guatemala. Almost every town in the Highlands has one or two within sight. Dave and I originally had plans to hike several of them.

However, we have a friend here who's business is to take wealthy clients on guided 'adventure hikes'. He is an experienced mountaineer and has done treks all over the world, including some serious high-altitude treks to places in the Andes and the Himalayas. He had just finished exploring Guatemala in preparation for guiding a group of clients. We sat down with him with a map and our Lonely Planet and got lots of good info. But the best piece of advice was... for your first hike, go hike Pacaya.

The main reason was twofold: (a) Pacaya is the shortest hike (the road gets closer to the top than any other) and (b) Pacaya is still oozing lava so it's more than just pretty scenery when you get to the top.

So, when we got to Antigua, and every tour company (there are 3 or 4 on nearly every street it seems) was hawking 'Pacaya Volcano Hikes', we signed up immediately. The price for a guided hike seems to run between $5 to $35 US per person. We chose a $8pp hike. The $5 version was a school bus sized bus where the $8 version was a mini-bus. The $35 hike was mainly for custom groups and an English-speaking guide. Our $8 hike was a good choice. We had a small group, a good van driver, and a very good guide, though neither guide nor driver spoke much English. Unfortunately we don't know exactly what tour company it was. It was booked through the Yellow House hotel (right next to Posada Don Quixote on the north side of town).

The mini-van picked us up at our hotel at 6am. The normal tours went at 6am or 2pm. We'd been advised to take the morning tour because the afternoon tour in the rainy season is subject to sometimes violent thunderstorms. We were in such a hurry to make use of our short time in Antigua that we neglected to check the weather forecast when we booked the trip. When we walked out the door of the hotel, we could see signs of rain and there was a pretty heavy fog. "It will burn off." we said optimistically.

Pacaya is actually closer to Guat City. You can't see Pacaya from Antigua because it's behind another mountain. But as the crow flies, it is not that far... maybe 20 miles. However, the winding roads and traffic turned the 20 mile drive into an hour and a half.

When we finally got up the mountain, we were dropped at a little store where the road ended, so we could go to the bathroom, and buy snacks and coffee. Also, this was where we met the guide and where the small boys of the town sold hiking sticks. Dorothy and I bought one for 5Q each (about 75 center), and blessed our good judgement the whole trip. There were a couple of guys with horses standing around too, offering to take anyone up on the horse. (we never asked them the price, I was determined to make it on my own 2 feet...)

We finally started up the mountain about 10 am. Our group included about 10 people and a guide. It was a mixed group... some college kids and a few of us retirees. The guide had a hard time keeping the group together because a few of the kids kept going ahead and a few of us wanted a more leisurely pace. The guide's job was to get us up and down safely in a limited time, so he was hustling us along, as well as yelling at the young guys to quit going too far ahead. Left, the slower folks.

The trail was not bad at had been terraced a little and there was at least one rest stop with a hut, a 'you are here' sign, and an overlook.

One or two of the horse guys followed us out of the village. Every time one of us looked tired (almost all the time) the boy would say "Taxi?"

We soon left the nice trail and started up what can only be termed a goat track. This was where Ron decided that it would be very risky for him to take his knees up the mountain. He's had several knee surgeries and felt it would be stupid to blow out a knee while he's on a boat in Guatemala. And he wouldn't consider getting up on a horse. So he went back to the village to wait for us.

Weatherwise, the trip up wasn't too bad. It wasn't raining (yet), just misting a little. But physically it was pretty grueling for us yachties. We all vowed to make time to get out walking when we got back to the boats. It was mostly scrambling up a dirt path at at 30-45 degree incline. (Think about a fast walk up a set of stairs for an hour).

When we got to the top it was pretty neat. We had been all hot and sweaty and shedding clothes, but the wind was blowing here, so we started putting our jackets back on. Though it was misty and cloudy we could see some of the valley below. We took a bunch of group shots, rested a little, and I thought that we'd probably be heading back down from there. But after a short rest, we headed further and started going down again at a fairly steep incline (but not back down the trail we came).

As we were going down, I says to myself "Self, I hope we don't have to walk back up this path." (We did)

Down a bit and around a corner, and there was the lava field (an expanse of grey rock). We were actually in the crater of the volcano! Cool! We could see some people through the mist across the lava field and then, "OH!, look, there's lava over there!" So we followed the guide, scrambling across the hardened lava. The guide told us (in Spanish) that it had been flowing where we walked in the last 7 months.

We ended up walking right up to the slowly flowing lava. The guides carried walkie talkies and seemed to have been scouting where the lava was oozing today. You could actualy see it flowing, but it was oozing, not rolling along. I was taking too many pictures to notice, but Dorothy said it had flowed forward about a foot during the half hour we were there. Our guide had a bag of marshmellows and a stick and roasted them over the lava. The hardened rock we were standing on was still warm and steaming from the heat of the volcano. I'm sure it was somewhat dangerous being out there, but the only reports I'd heard about tourist deaths were due to lightning strikes and falling off a cliff, and not due to lava flow.

While we were up in the crater, it started raining in earnest. It was still windy and pretty cold, but there was heat coming from the lava. My camera steamed up on the INSIDE, and eventually quit working. Fortunately the camera Dave had was the waterproof one that "the girls" gave me, and it was fine. (Dorothy's camera had gone back down with Ron).

After 15 minutes of playing around near the lava, the guide rounded us up and marched us back up the side of the crater (argh!) and back down the mountain the way we had come. Only this time, it rained all the way down.

Going down wasn't as physically exerting as going up, but it's really hard on the knees, and on some leg muscles that apparently rarely get used on a boat. And the dirt track had turned really muddy. Our guide was great, stopping to help us over the really gooey spots. Until one... when
the group was too strung out and us slower folks were lagging behind (Dorothy and I because we were tired, Dave because he was trying to keep his white sneakers clean).

Bottom line, on one muddy incline I grabbed a tree branch to help me down, it broke, and I slipped on my backside, covering my pants with mud. Everyone thought it was pretty amusing, especially Jose the guide, who frankly laughed his ass off when we saw me. I didn't mind. I was only worried that the van driver wouldn't let me back inside his nice van!

We did finally make it to the bottom. I was standing in the downspout trying to rinse the mud off, when some nice Guatemalan lady showed me to a sink behind the store where I could rinse off. With Dave's help I was able to get enough off to get into the van without covering everything with mud.

We made it back into Antigua by about 1:30. It took us several days for our legs to recover from the hike. It wasn't until 3 days later when we did the hot tub at Casa Del Mundo that my legs finally felt better.

We all joked about the plans to do several more volcanos on this trip... but no one seriously considered doing another one.

See all our Pacaya Hike pics here: Picaya Volcano Hike Album

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Antigua, Guatemala

See our Antigua photos: Antigua Guatemala

First, getting there...We purchased 50Q ($7) tickets on the Litegua Express bus from the Rio Dulce. This is not a 'chicken bus'... we had reserved seats and (theoretically) air conditioning. It is basically a Greyhound-level bus, clean and well maintained.

The trip to Guatemala City is supposed to take about 4 hours, but ours lasted more like 5 1/2... We made reasonably good time until just outside Guatemala City, where there was a horrendous traffic jam (I am told this is a normal situation).

The 'crow flies' distance between the Rio and Guat City is only about 120 miles. But it is a 2-lane road going through mountainous region, so the crow flies like a drunken sailor, and the top driving speed is more like 45mph instead of 60.

Most of Guatemala's goods come and go by sea, and the road to Guatemala City is also the main road from the sea port of Puerto Barrios. So there is lots of very heavily laden truck traffic on this winding hilly 2-lane road. Bottom line, it was a long but interesting trip through the countryside. Left, a "chicken bus".

The second leg of our trip to Antigua was via chartered shuttle (minivan) from Guat City to Antigua. The van was waiting for us when the bus arrived, so we hopped right on and continued on to Antigua. This trip also cost 50Q per person. It only took us an hour to get to Antigua. The van driver dropped us right at our hotel. (This was pretty important because I totally overpacked, and we had to lug my big heavy dufflebag everywhere (not on rollers, unfortunately)).

We had scoped out hotels in Antigua from the Lonely Planet guide and had 4-5 picked out that were in the upper end of the 'budget' category. We had the van drop us at the one that sounded the best (Posada Juma Ocag). Unfortunately they only had 1 room available (we were looking for 2). So Dave and Ron left Dorothy and I in their tiny lobby with the luggage and went out looking at the other places. They finally found a hotel (one not on our list) that had 2 rooms available (Posada Don Quixote). Ron and Dorothy insisted on a room with a private bath. Dave wanted to do the 'shared bath' option (it's cheaper).

The Don Quixote was a typical Antigua budget hotel... an old house that had been turned into a small hotel with 6 or 7 rooms. It was OK. Our room faced the street, which was a little noisy during the day but quieted down at night. We had a big room and our bathroom was not far down the hall and was clean and had hot water. The sheets were clean but low-end, and the pillows were lumpy. Dave liked the bed. But, the cost was only $16 per night.

The next 2 nights we were able to get rooms in the Juma Ocag--we really liked this place. The Juma Ocag rooms were all double with a private bath, but otherwise similar to the Don Quixote. However, the grounds of the Juma Ocag were more charming, and it was closer to the center of town. Our rooms there cost only $15/night. Dave and I came back for one more night a few days later, when Ron and Dorothy had to fly back to the states. We'd highly recommend this place for budget travelers, but get there relatively early in the day, as they seemed to stay full every night.

We booked a Volcano hike for the next day. (more about the hike in another post).

We really liked Antigua and in fact spent several more days there than we originally planned. A short history: Antigua was the capital of Guatemala from the mid 1500's to 1773. It is in a valley in the 'Highlands' of Guatemala, surrounded by mountains, several of which are still active volcanos. The volcanos are pretty well-behaved, but earthquakes are fairly common. A big earthquake in the 1773 caused so much damage that the King of Spain decreed that the seat of government move off the fault line to the current site of Guatemala City. He made the church move and forbade any commerce to continue there, so apparently everyone packed up everything that was movable and moved to the new city, leaving behind the ruins of the old city. Henceforth the old city was known as Antigua (old) Guatemala.

But not quite everyone left. Squatters moved in and occupied the ruins for a long time. It gradually became fashionable for the upper class Guatemalans to weekend in Antigua. It has long been known as a tourist destination, and "the" place to go do Spanish language study. With the tourist money has come an unusual interest (for Guatemala) in keeping the city clean and organized. They banned the market that normally exists in the square, to a new place on the edge of the town... thereby making the square beautiful and clean, and diverting commerical traffic away from the square area.

Anyway, we loved Antigua and would go back in a heartbeat. If you want to do some serious "immersion" Spanish language study, this is one good place to do it. You can get here from Ft. Lauderdale (Spirit Airlines and several others) for a few hundred dollars, and then study Spanish 4-6 hours per day and stay with a local family for about $150/week. And from Antigua you can get all over Guatemala for very little money.

See more Antigua photos here:

Antigua Guatemala

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Felix: Another Non-Event

Well thank goodness for us that Felix spent his fury on the coast of Nicaragua.

We awoke this morning to very dark skies, but still not much wind. We were ready to do lots of hurricane prep but had thankfully waited to see what the final track would be. Once it hit the coast of Nicaragua, we figured we'd be OK.

Again, that's why we're here in the Rio Dulce during hurricane season.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Hello Hurricane Felix

Sorry we couldn't post any updates while we were traveling inland. We did take lots of photos and have lots of 'stories', but we couldn't get wifi from any of our budget hotels, and we were too busy to spend a lot of time in internet cafe's.

We are back on the boat as of last night and watching Hurricane Felix very closely.

We have a lot to catch up on, but I promise some posts and pictures on our Guatemalan inland adventures soon, as well as periodic status reports on how we're doing with respect to the hurricane.

Thanks to everyone who has emailed me warnings about the storm!