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What we learned from the cemetery in Xela, Guatemala

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Ceremonies surrounding death in Central America are as intensely sorrowful as vibrantly cheerful. There is a relationship with death which balances a process of deep mourning followed by colorful celebration. It begins with a dramatically slow funeral procession with hundreds of people dressed in black following a hearse as it winds through town from the church to the cemetery. The scene forces even unrelated bystanders to contemplate the sadness of death, if only for a few minutes.

Yet cemeteries are vibrant places where celebrations like the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) see floods of people celebrating the dead among freshly painted and decorated pink, turquoise, mint green and bright yellow graves. These jovial events can be so casual that between family picnics and kite-flying on top of the graves, the dead below seem to play second fiddle to a good old fashioned family day out (we say ‘seem to’, as in reality, there are quite a few tears in remembrance of family and friends as well.)

The style of burial, like so many aspects of life in general in Central America, has shifted from the sprawling decadence of large scale mausoleums to compact slabs of cement. One hundred years ago, families buried their loved ones in grand mausoleums in the shape of Roman-style buildings, gothic tombs or even Egyptian pyramids. While following generations moved away from such grandeur, the tombstones remained beautifully ornate and the surrounding space was roomy enough for eternity.

Today, the most recent plots in Xela’s cemetery resemble apartment blocks, where anywhere from 6 up to 30 people are buried, bound to spend eternity in their own cramped ‘apartment’.

Maybe this results from financial hardship (death is costly) or perhaps out of decreasing space. It could also be cultural result that hinges on a slowly growing middle and working class who demand that cemetery plots are no longer reserved only for the rich and their immense mausoleums.

A more major difference in the cemeteries of Guatemala can be found toward the back, where the Maya population traditionally buries their dead. Here, dirt graves marked by wooden crosses with the name and birthday scribbled sloppily in permanent marker fill rows and rows of unkempt land.

The festivities also take place here, on top of these piles of dirt that children play, vendors sell ice cream, and families picnic next to knocked-down signs which try to warn families of the dangers of eating with unwashed hands in this particular section of the cemetery. There is surely no area of the famous Parisian Père Lachaise cemetery (our favorite cemetery in the world so far), or any other U.S. or European cemetery, with graves like these, no matter how poor the family of the deceased.

Even more shocking was the mass grave in the Xela cemetery. Exploring beyond these dirt graves lead to a mass grave where bodies are moved when surviving family members who could not afford to buy a plot do not pay the rent. The mass grave is also where hundreds of bodies were buried in 2010 after the torrential rains and mudslides killed and displaced countless villagers in the countryside.

Visiting one of Guatemala’s colorful cemeteries is a learning experience like no other. Especially larger cemeteries like that of Xela or Chichicastenango are reflective of the wider community in general, but in such a definite way. It is here, scrambling between the dichotomy of dirt graves and majestic mausoleums that things like the extreme class differences, treatment of the poor, and the country’s history and culture (in the form of festive celebration and mourning) become abundantly clear.

More photos of the fascinating cemetery of Quetzaltenango in our Flickr slideshow:

[flickrslideshow acct_name=”Globetrottergirls” id=”72157625425037093″]



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Goodbye 2010: Our year of travel in pictures

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An amazing year is coming to an end – our first as full-time travelers! Rather than rattle off a list of everywhere we’ve been, check out our year in pictures, from the pre-trip ‘planning’ phase to the rather unexpected place where we are ringing in the New Year!

In January we made the semi-spontaneous decision to become digital nomads and to leave London, where we had been living since 2007.

In February, we packed up our apartment and Dani drove a few boxes to her hometown of Erfurt in Germany, where she stored our stuff and said goodbye to friends and family.

Jess did the same in March, home in chilly Chicago.

In April, we met again in Britain and spent one last ‘stay-cation’ in the seaside town of Brighton, before starting off the trip of a lifetime:

We started our adventure in Las Vegas, of all places…

…before heading to San Francisco up the Pacific Coast Highway in May, the first of many road trips to come.

June saw us exploring the Arizona desert during our Tucson house-sit, then the canyons (Antelope, Canyon de Chelly and the Grand Canyon) in the north during one last road trip in the U.S.

We stopped in Los Angeles again in July…

…and from there we flew into Mexico City, where we started our Mexican adventure.

We spent August exploring Southern Mexico from Oaxaca to the Pacific Coast, San Cristobal, Palenque and the Yucatan.

In September we discovered the beautiful beaches of Belize

…and in October we began our two-month tour of Guatemala, which included Mayan villages, market towns, volcano climbing, the colonial town of Antigua and Lake Atitlan.

In November, we took a 2-week detour to El Salvador, where we found some rough Pacific beaches, hiked a volcano crater and visited colonial towns like  Suchitoto (pictured) and those on the Ruta de las Flores.

In December, we headed to Honduras, where we finished the ‘Maya trail’ by visiting the last of the series of Maya ruins at Copan. We’re ringing in the New Year at Lake Yojoa, before heading to Nicaragua to start of 2011!

Happy travels to all fellow travelers and happy New Year to all our readers out there!

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The seven main villages surrounding Lake Atitlán, Guatemala

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“Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but (Lake) Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.” Aldous Huxley on Guatemala’s Lake Atitlán

Lake Atitlán has been described as the most beautiful lake in the world, considered a dangerous beauty one could lose themselves in. No matter which village you visit, the views are stunning – the sprawling lake,  green mountains and the looming giant of the San Pedro Volcano. Seated on a kayak in the middle of the lake, you can even see the famously ever-erupting Volcan Fuego, also visible from equally far away Antigua.

In our two weeks at Lake Atitlán, we explored several lakeside villages and found it surprising just how different the communities are. Lake Atitlán is mandatory on any Guatemala itinerary, but for those who are short on time or just want to find where you might ‘fit’, read on for a breakdown of the towns surrounding the lake.

Panajachel – Buy souvenirs and eat Gringo food

Panajachel is easily accessible from Antigua or Guatemala City, most buses and shuttles end up here and all the boats to Lake Atitlán’s surrounding villages leave from Pana’s docks. As a result, Pana receives loads of tourists of all kinds – Guatemalan day-trippers, package tour groups and backpackers all pass through here. The original village is located up on the hill, whereas the main street towards the docks, Calle Santander, seems to be constructed exclusively for tourists. One market stall lines up next to another, and there are plenty of restaurants and hotels, including an all-inclusive resort right by the lake.

For a more authentic experience, stay somewhere in the ‘old’ town centre, where there is a daily market. If you are not staying there, make the hike up there to visit the local market and to get a glimpse of everyday Mayan life. The Saturday artisan market, spreading from the top of Calle Santander down to the docks, brings bus loads of tour groups through Pana on weekends. Rumor has it that Guatemala souvenirs here in Pana are the cheapest in the country.

You can eat any international cuisine, rent kayaks, hike to the nearby village of Santa Catarina Palopo or visit the famous Sunday market in Solola – located on top of the mountain and the spot for breathtaking vistas.

Where to eat: Bombay (excellent international cuisine), any of the restaurants right by the lake for cheap breakfast and stunning views, Café Moka at the south end of Calle Santander has a great selection of coffees and cakes, plus free wi-fi.

Where to stay: Hospedaje Garcia is right off Calle Santander and has supercheap clean rooms with wi-fi, but shared bathrooms (double room US$10.00), Mario’s Rooms is on the main street, a bit more expensive (double room US$20.00) but the rooms are nice, it comes with a small breakfast and has wi-fi, Hospedaje Jere is close to the lake and has the cheapest rooms with private bathroom (double room US$12.50)

San Pedro – Chill out, learn Spanish and eat gringo food

A 45 minute trip across the lake brings you to San Pedro. All the ingredients for a super chill out spot come together in San Pedro. There is international food galore (it is both cheap and mouth-watering), bars readily serve up cheap booze during long happy hours, there are plenty of places for a cheap massage, hot pools and spas to relax, and no one looks down their nose at those who wish to hang out in a hammock all day long.There is enough to do for the more active backpackers – climb volcano San Pedro, go on a horseback ride, kayak around the lake, learn Spanish at one of the highly recommended Spanish schools, spend an afternoon in the gorgeous town center (pictured below) or hike to the neighboring village San Juan. San Pedro is a great place if you want to get some work done too. The large semi-permanent foreigner population has ensured that San Pedro has the best wi-fi at the lake – at hostels, bars and restaurants everywhere.

Where to eat: D’noz (excellent international food), Hummus Ya (Israeli), Buddha Bar (Asian cuisine), Jarachik (great wi-fi).

Where to stay: Jarachik (cheap & wi-fi downstairs), Hotel El Amanecer Sak’cari (beautiful – read our full review here, but note that the hotel has been upgraded since our visit), Gran Sueno (cheap & right by the lake).

san pedro la laguna hotels

San Marcos – Meditate, do yoga, eat gringo food

The village of San Marcos, located on the northern shore of the lake, is a place to meditate, refresh your energy and, if you know how, cleanse your aura. The local Mayan inhabitants live high up in the village, separated from the hippies foreigners, who stay in the hotels around the dock.

Should a friendly looking foreigner not respond to your attempt at conversation, do not think them rude. They are currently taking part in their ‘silent week’, part of the programme over at Piramides meditation centre reportedly the best of many such medi-yoga spots.

For those whose auras need no cleansing,  hike up to the Indian’s Nose mountain summit for unparalleled  views over the lake, sunbathe at ‘the rocks’ or have a picnic at the ‘sacred place’ which also offers excellent vistas, but is not as high up as the Indian’s Nose.

Where to eat: Fe (yummy food), Hotel Paco Real (free wi-fi), Il Giardino (vegetarian).

Where to stay: Hotel Paco Real (free wi-fi), La Paz (cheap, with Maya sauna), Aaculaax (for the atmosphere), Jinava Bay (right on the lake, fantastic views, wifi)

Note: There is no ATM in San Marcos, so make sure to bring enough cash.

Santiago – visit Maximon, buy souvenirs

The town of Santiago is the largest and most ‘native’ of all the towns around the lake. Located on Atitlán’s southern shore, Santiago is best known for being home to Maximon, Guatemala’s folk saint. As soon as you get off the boat, the local children will offer to bring you to Maximon’s house (he moves house every year). Make sure to bring donations: rum, cigarettes or simply cash are favorite offerings of Maximon.

In addition to the favored saint, Santiago offers great views of volcano San Pedro if you make your way up the hill to the church which sits on the end of a big, empty square. The church inside is lined with wooden saints who are dressed in new handmade clothes every year.

Most of the Maya in Santiago, including the men, still wear their traditional clothes. Though hotel space is limited, floods of daytrippers make for central souvenir market stalls on the main street starting at the dock.

Where to eat: El Pescador is a big restaurant with good food, there are two cheap taco stands on the main street.

Where to stay: Posada de Santiago is a little bit out of town but has been repeatedly recommended (stone cottages right by the lake), Eco-Hotel Bambu, Hotel Tzutuhil (cheap, hot water, TV, views)

Santa Cruz – dive, hang out under the radar

Santa Cruz is a small village between Jaibalito and San Marcos, and can only be reached by boat, which keeps visitor numbers low. A few hotels dot the shore, and the main village stretches up the hill behind them. There’s not much to do except hang out, relax or hike in the surrounding hills. Santa Cruz has the only PADI dive center on the lake  for those who choose to dive Lake Atitlán. Hotel Isla Verde offers salsa classes on Fridays and daily movie nights.

Where to eat: La Cabanita Café (breakfasts, pies and cakes), La Toscana (pizzas and sweets)

Where to stay: La Iguana Perdida, Arca de Noe, Hotel Isla Verde – all three right at the lakefront

Note: There are no ATMs in Santa Cruz, make sure to bring enough cash with you.lake atitlan hostels

Jaibalito – find solitude

Other than a couple of hotels, the village of Jaibalito offers nothing for visitors. This makes it, along with San Juan, the most authentic (if not poorest) of Lake Atitlán’s villages. One hotel has a computer with internet (Posada Jaibalito), but there is no wi-fi. Mentioning you would like to go to Jaibalito at any of the docks usually means a trip to the popular and moderately luxurious La Casa del Mundo hotel near to Jaibalito. Secluded from the village (and everything else) the hotel has its own dock, and comes with a restaurant, hot pool, lake-view rooms and terraces to hang out.

Where to eat: Posada Jaibalito has great cheap food.

Where to stay: La Casa del Mundo has its own dock. Vulcano Lodge is on the Jaibalito lake shore and has excellent reviews. Posada Jaibalito is the cheapest option right in the village.

Note: Jaibalito does not have an ATM either, cash only.

Santa Catarina Palopo – explore and hike off the tourist track

Santa Catarina is only four kilometers south of Panajachel and makes a great day hike from Pana. There are several trinket vendors on the road down from the village square to the lake shore, and a few shops in town, but other than this is a town for locals and a great way to see exciting vibrant Lake life. From here, take a hike to San Antonio Palopo, six kilometers to the south and famous for its traditional clothes (especially of the men) and hot springs or hop in a pickup back to Pana. Where to eat: There are several restaurants right at the lakeshore

Where to stay: Casa Palopo, Villa Santa Catarina

 

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Please don’t go to Todos Santos…

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Please don’t go to Todos Santos…not because I’d like to keep this town for myself. I’d like to keep the town for the people who live there. The Mayan village of Todos Santos Cuchumatan is well hidden in the Northern Highlands of Guatemala, and if it weren’t for the town’s famous Dia de Todos Santos (All Saints Day) horse race, word about the village may never have spread at all.
Although Todos Santos sits a mere 40 kilometers from the major transport hub of Huehuetenango, it is not a place you would happen to pass through. Those 40 kilometers turn into a three-hour trip winding over and through the 3500m Cuchumatanes mountain pass (the country’s highest), a racing trip through high altitude flatland, and an hour descent on a gravel dirt road with plunging cliffs below.
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Coming from touristy places like Antigua or Lake Atitlan or San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico, arriving in Todos Santos can be a shock, and equally surprised Mayan faces stare back at you. There are no advertisements, no guys with a clipboard working on commission to get you into certain hotels, and definitely no organized tours of any kind. Asking for a hotel is fine, but make sure to do it in Spanish. The locals speak the Mayan language Mam and Spanish is their second language, too, so no English here.
There are actually quite a few hotels for such an off the beaten path destination, though most seem to exist almost exclusively for the famous Todos Santos Fiesta on 1 November, a spectacle that draws people from near and far.
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The Fiesta is actually a drunken horse race during which the men in village race between two points, binge-drinking at each turn, all day long. The goal is to stay on the horse all day, and the winner – if you can call it that – is the one who stays on the longest.
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While seeing the men’s colorful indigenous outfits fly in the wind while they race sounds like fun, several injuries, some deadly, occur each year, and at the end of the race the streets are lined with men so drunk they can no longer stand. The horses must also be scared out their mind. Even so, hundreds of tourists, both Guatemalan and international, flood the town to take part in the debauchery each year.
Should your visit not coincide with the fiesta, there is honestly not much to do in a remote village that caters in no way to tourists. The town itself is not as pretty as Antigua or other Guatemalan towns, and the mountains, while incredibly high, are not as remarkable as others like around Lanquin and Semuc Champey.
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A visit to Todos Santos is about absorbing authentic village life. Todos Santos is one of the very few places left in Guatemala where both the men and women wear their full indigenous clothing. The men wear red and white striped pants (with an extra black pair of ‘shorts’ over the pants to indicate they are married), blue button-down shirts, and straw hats with blue ribbons. Marimba music fills the streets on market days, and people young and old congregate in central park and along the streets. The lack of tourism in the village means you can sit, uninterrupted and people-watch, without street vendors trying to sell you scarves, hackey sacks, bookmarks, and tablecloths ‘for your mother, for Chriiiismaaaas’.
The rhythm of daily life in Todos Santos is much like it must have been centuries before. There are no American fast food chains, malls or multiplex cinemas. Also absent are the foreigner-friendly cafés with movie nights, and forget about finding a curry or a sub sandwich. Instead, men work the fields, boys and girls carry firewood, pigs line up in backyards and chickens and turkeys race through the little alleys while women weave in front of their wooden houses with the colorful painted doors, or do laundry in the pila (stone basins where washing is traditionally done by hand).
When you do get hungry, there are a few ‘comedores’ in houses on the main roads. They are almost always empty, and though it might feel like trespassing to walk in to someone’s house, as long as there is a sign out front, go right on in. A nice Mayan lady will greet you and ask you what you want. There are no menus, just rice, beans, tortillas and whatever meat is on the stove.
Think you’d rather go to the store to pick something up? No supermarkets here. There are several ‘tiendas’, little shops that sell drinks, chips, cookies and basic grocery items. Otherwise, everything else is bought at the weekly market. Luckily the prices have all remained local, so there is little need to hit the ATM for some cash, especially since there are no ATMs in town.
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As hidden away as this mountain village is, however, the 21st century has managed to weave itself into the local fabric. There are two small internet cafes in town (Wi-fi? Fugeddaboutit!) Teenage boys wear Megadeath T-shirts under their traditional clothes and crowd around hi-tech video games set up during the annual fun fair, throwing their Quetzeles into car-racing or shoot-em-up games just as teenage boys do in arcades all over the world. Eminem CDs flood market stalls, and his music competes with traditional Marima blaring out through loud speakers. (Eminem is huge in Todos Santos). Cheetos bags and Coca Cola bottles litter the ground and cell phone reception towers mar the verdant mountain landscape.
Should you not follow our advice and go to Todos Santos, make sure to spend at least a few days there. Stroll around town long enough and the locals will talk your ear off. Learn about their families, their daily lives, and their Maya culture. Unlike other places in Guatemala that require security guards for safety against thieves, you are free to roam and hike through the mountains surrounding Todos Santos, since no one is hiding in wait to rob gringos here.
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Visit the villages and catch glimpses of a lifestyle that have otherwise been replaced by the hustle, the 9-5, and pandering to tourists. Spend time in the main plaza with families eating ice-cream, ancianos (elderly people) chatting the day away, and the Mayan teenagers stealing flirtatious glances at each other. Eat homemade fare in a comedor and listen to the sounds of the Mam language.  Take it all in, for who knows how long it will last.
Our arrival on that seemingly never-ending bumpy chicken bus ride to Todos Santos made us pray for a paved road. On our way out, however, seeing Todos Santos getting smaller and smaller and finally fading away in the distance, we could only hope the road  should never be paved. We hope that the people could just continue their life the way it is, not letting 21st century innovation erase their traditions, and hordes of tour groups never descend on Todos Santos as they do in Chichi and Pana. That’s why we ask you, please don’t go to Todos Santos (which you really should) – and if you do go, please do so quietly and keep it to yourself…
[flickrslideshow acct_name=”Globetrottergirls” id=”72157625550974604″]
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Polaroid of the week: Semuc Champey, Guatemala

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Semuc Champey is a series of natural ponds 300m (985ft) above the Cahabon river in the region of Verapaz in Guatemala. The  natural limestone bridge above the rushing rapids below houses cascading pools connected by several mini-waterfalls. Depending on sunlight, season and time of the day, the color of the fresh mountain spring water in the pools varies between bright turquoise and dark green. Some say this is one of the most beautiful natural spots in all of Guatemala. Visitors to Semuc Champey can hike an hour up to a look out point to see the entire range of ponds and the surrounding tropical forests and make their way down for a swim in the pools afterwards.

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Pacaya: The day I became a volcano climber

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It’s not like I woke up one morning with the burning desire to climb one of the world’s most active volcanoes. In a country like Guatemala, however, where over 30 volcanoes all but define the  national landscape, opportunities to climb both dormant and active volcanoes are everywhere. Even not-so adventurous visitors can become volcano climbers here thanks to the countless deals pushed by infinite travel agencies.  This is how I found myself packed into a shuttle with ten fellow climbers, a mix of Canadians, Americans, Dutch and British tourists one recent afternoon, as we set off to hike the famous Pacaya volcano.

Pacaya is the most climbed of Guatemala’s active volcanoes, thanks to a combination of its close proximity to tourist-hub Antigua and the relatively easy 2550m climb. The nearby (inactive) Volcano de Agua and Volcano San Pedro at Lake Atitlan, both popular with climbers, soar 1000 meters higher into the air.

We arrive 90 minutes later to the village of San Vicente, the start of the volcano trail. Within nanoseconds local children engulf the mini-van, trying their best to sell home-made walking sticks for the climb ahead. I decide to invest the 3Q ($0.38) for the stick, mostly for the way back down in the dark. There are two climb times at Pacaya, leaving either at 8am or 2pm. I chose the afternoon climb to experience sunset on the summit and see the lava glowing in the dark.

At this point, we are still far from the top; Pacaya’s peak still out of sight. We won’t actually be hiking straight up Pacaya, starting first at the base of Chino, one of the three summits that make up the Pacaya volcano complex (they are: Cerro Chino (2260 m), Cerro Chiquito (2460 m) and Cerro Grande (2560 m). The path leads first to Chino’s crater and then transfers over onto the path to Cerro Grande, the highest summit.

Stick in hand, I begin the hike near the back of the pack, with six horses trotting directly behind me. Their owners hope to serve as taxis for those who can not make the climb alone. Since I don’t think of myself as much of a mountain climber, I feel a little pressure with the thundering hooves in my ears. The hike starts off easy enough, though the paved path quickly disappears and pretty soon we find ourselves walking through dark volcanic ash. We push ahead, and soon after we get the first glimpse of Pacaya’s peak spouting steam in the distance. This is the first time that I realize that despite the countless package deals,  this hike involves some serious potential danger. Pacaya has erupted around 20 times since 1565, and has been continuously active since the mid-1960s. The last major eruption, on 28 May 2010, killed a journalist who, ignoring all warnings, climbed Pacaya to get the first images of the eruption. Even on guided hikes, climbers have been injured by falling ash and hot lava streams. Continuing our uphill climb, I silently plead with the volcano not to wake up during today’s climb.

The path gets steeper and steeper until eventually, clearly unneeded, the horses stay behind. We make our way through a patch of trees which still show signs of the most recent eruption. Plants are partially covered in ash, treetops are burnt, and the normally abundant wildlife – birds, pumas, wild cats, snakes and other animals – have deserted the area, taking with them all signs of life.

We emerge now above the tree line and reach the first stop – the rim of the Cerro Chino crater, 300 meters below Pacaya’s peak. We circle the rim and descend onto what is now the side of Pacaya itself, with views of Volcano Agua and Volcano de Fuego and the double summit of Volcano Acatenango. I am happy to be climbing in November, as it is dry season and the sky is clear of clouds so that the entire landscape can be seen far into the distance.

Finally on Pacaya, the hike leads directly into the sunset. The winds, which can be quite cold, are not very strong. Rough, sharp volcanic rocks crunch beneath our feet. Quite suddenly, the penetrating smell of sulfur invades my nose, and we reach a field of steaming soil. We have arrived at the summit.

We will not actually climb to the very top, an undertaking far too dangerous considering the volcano’s activity. Instead, as the setting sun dyes the clear sky pink and orange, our guide leads us to a two meter-wide gorge where we see glowing hot lava. He tosses a tree branch into the gap. It  sets on fire immediately, before even falling in, from the heat of the lava below. This is a perfect spot to roast marshmallows, but I take a step back from the edge, just in case. As I do, the powerful heat pops the lens cap off my camera. It really is incredibly hot.

Heading to slightly higher and cooler ground, we sit down to take in the breathtaking views of the surrounding volcanoes in the changing light of the descending sun. Something about sitting on top of one myself makes me feel more in awe of the many other volcanoes around me.

Despite the steep uphill walk, the 90-minute hike did not feel strenuous, even for the less active members of the group. The way down, in the dark and on an unlit path, proves more of a challenge. Those with a flashlight are definitely better off, though my trusty walking stick saves me a few times from sliding down in the loose ash.

As make our final descent back to the village, the kids swarm us again, and I give back the walking stick, feeling proud of my accomplishment. I watched the sunset at 2500m, next to the boiling hot lava and steaming soil of an active volcano, something I never expected of myself before the trip began.

When to go:
There are two guided climbs per day: one leaving Antigua at 6am, and one leaving at 2pm. The afternoon tour is usually the better one, as it brings you to the summit at sunset, whereas the morning tour reaches the top around lunch time, when it is mostly covered in clouds.

What to bring:
Wear proper hiking boots, not sandals. For afternoon climbers, bring a flashlight for the descent. Bring a jacket, water, sunglasses and a snack – Marshmallows can be toasted over the lava for some S’mores action.

Cost:
Guided tours from Antigua are around Q55 ($6.90), plus entrance to the national park Q50 ($6). Tours are available at every travel agency in Antigua but all feed in to only a few actual tours, so shop around for the best price.

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Polaroid of the week: Maximón

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Maximón is one of Guatemala’s most popular Mayan folk saints, worshipped in the Western Highlands.  Some believe Maximón, also known as San Simón, to be an incarnation of the Mayan god of sexuality, while others think he was a Spanish priest. An effigy of Maximón in the town of Santiago Atitán is celebrated year round. The well dressed wooden figure wears a silk scarf and a hat and often has a lit cigar in his mouth, as keeping Maximón in a good mood is key. He is guarded by two men who occasionally feed him rum or other alcoholic spirits, and worshippers offer up money, booze or cigarrettes in exchange for good health, good crops or marriage counselling. The effigy is moved from house to house throughout the town, and the homeowner’s number one responsibility is to care for Maximón while he stays with them.

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From the farm to your cup – A tour of Antigua’s Finca Filadelfia

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We have to admit something. Don’t be alarmed, but…okay here it goes.

We are addicts. We are both absolutely addicted to…coffee. You could call us caffeine junkies. A day without coffee, even just the thought of it, is unbearable. We especially love the the rich, delicious Guatemalan coffee from Starbucks. Given the fact that we are currently in Guatemala, you may be under the impression that we have now arrived at our Mecca, the holy land itself. Let us assure you that this is most certainly not the case.

Since arriving in Central America, we have been struggling to find the same quality coffee available back home. With the exception of a very limited number of cafes in tourist havens, the brown watery liquid impostors come nowhere near what we would call a good cup of joe.

So when we heard about Finca Filadelfia, a coffee farm near Antigua that apparently makes some of the best coffee in all of Guatemala, we decided to take a tour of the farm and learn how high quality coffee is grown and processed, plus how to serve it up right.

Located between Jocotenango and San Felipe de Jesús, just ten minutes outside of Antigua, the 700 acre Finca Filadelfia is a medium-sized coffee plantation, one of the 120,000 in the country. It seems the entire world must be as coffee crazy as we are, since all the coffee grown on all the plantations here makes up a mere 3% of global coffee production.


Our tour around the finca (finca means farm or plantation in Spanish) begins by hopping up into an enormous army-like Jeep with four other coffee-lovers and our English-speaking guide Josue. We drive to our first stop, where Josue shows us tiny beginnings of coffee plants, thousands of them lined up in a space the size of a football field. We learn that there are two kinds of coffee – Robust and Arabic. Because Arabic plants in Guatemalan soil would require pesticides to kill insect infestation, the coffee grown in Guatemala uses the Arabic plants on Robust roots. So, how does that work, we wonder. Do they tape the plants from one type onto the roots of the other? That must take ages, impossible. Yet this is exactly how it is done, and at an impressive speed.

Six Guatemalan women work to tape together 1,300 plants per day at the finca. They must precisely slice millimeter-thin roots, wrapping, winding and taping them together before planting them. This work must be done by women, Josue explains, not because of their smaller, more delicate hands or a superior work ethic. The chemicals on a man’s hand actually somehow cause a much lower success rate – only 17% of plants joined by men survive, compared to 96% of the women’s work. Girl power!

Once the bushes are planted, it takes five years before yielding coffee berries, and after that, one coffee bush produces coffee only every three years. Put into perspective that is only 32 cups, or one pack of fresh roasted goodness, every three years. We spent a few minutes hunting for ripe berries and tasting them (sweet, bitter), and then hopped back in the monster Jeep for an adventurous and very up close ride through the plantation before heading to the processing area of the finca.

When the fruits ripen to a bright red, they are handpicked by coffee pickers who deposit them into baskets around their waists, carrying up to 25 pounds at a time until deposited at the processing area. This is done five times every day.

The actual coffee beans must be then extracted from the fruit and fermented. This is the first step that is not done by hand. A giant machine, similar to a kind of mill, squeezes and pops the beans out of the fruit.

The coffee beans are then rinsed and laid to dry until the coffee master (what an awesome job title) decides that they are properly dried and ready to be roasted. The coffee master knows the beans are ready when they are a certain shade of gold and make the crisp sound of cornflakes when you let them sift through your hand.  At this point, the beans are still far from the roasting machine.

First, there are still two remaining shells around the beans, both of which must be removed by different machines (which, Dani noted with glee, where made in Germany).


Then, the beans are loaded into a conveyor belt where, again, Guatemalan women hand separate beans according to their size, a la I Love Lucy. Small and large are used to produce less quality coffee or instant. Medium sized beans are the only ones used for the high quality export coffee.

That’s right, almost all the best coffee is exported, hence our struggle to get our hands on the good stuff while we are here. In fact, Finca Filadelfia exports 80 % of its coffee, only 20 % are sold within the country, or on their website.

Finally, the beans are ready for roasting, which takes place in giant vats in the final, most wonderful smelling room of all. After the tour, Josue leads us to the café restaurant and treats us to a coffee, any way we like and we chat away over espressos, cappuccinos, and good old cups of strong coffee. Heaven!

Any wild guess which company buys up one-fourth of the entire global coffee population?

You got it. Starbucks. Now when will they open one within a 100 miles of here…

More pictures of Finca Filadelfia:

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Polaroid of the week: Mermaid fountain in Antigua, Guatemala

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Antigua’s Central Park is home to a quite unusual fountain – four mermaids on each side of the fountain are spraying streams of water out of their breasts. The fountain, ‘Fuente de las Sirenas’ in Spanish, was built by Diego de Porres in 1738, who took his inspiration for the fountain from the Neptune Fountain in Bologna, Italy.

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Organized Mayan Village Trips: Tourism or Trespassing?

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Two shiny new Ford transporter vans stop along the side of a white cement road and nearly 30 passengers pile out and reformulate into the small groups everyone came with. Dani and I stand off to the side and observe with some shock the other tourists in the group. A group of Brazilians (both female and male) in tank-tops, short-shorts and movie-star sunglasses and several girls in short-ish skirts. Before you start thinking Dani and I to be very prude (standing there in our long pants, closed toe shoes and jackets), we should explain that our tour was taking place in traditional Mayan villages outside of San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico. The agency had mentioned that we should wear appropriate clothes out of respect to the villagers – advice apparently very few of us chose to heed.

The tour is one of the most common tours available in San Cristobal, offered by all major tour operators in town. You visit San Juan Chamula, the largest Tzotzil Maya community in Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas, and the nearby Tzotzil village Zinacantan. In addition to the (apparently optional) modest clothing request, the agency had also made clear that photographs of the Mayans were strictly prohibited without their permission. We strolled through the village at 8.30am, trying to soak up what life must be like in these Mayan villages. Others seemed to have less interest. A well-off Mexican family seemed utterly bored, and the father was attached to his cell phone – rudely working through the entire tour. Several very loud conversations were taking place in Spanish, English German, Portuguese and Dutch and few were engaging in any way with the tour.

Our discomfort with our disrespectful fellow tourists only worsened when it became clear just how much the people of the village, especially the elders, did not really want us there. San Juan Chamula, known locally as Chamula, is essentially a ‘showcase’ village, a designated ‘tourist friendly’ spot with busloads of tourists shuffling through its streets and magnificent church each day, their Canons and Nikons worth a local families’ annual wage dangling carelessly from their necks. We were constantly being Sshhhh-ed away from taking pictures if there was any chance of a family member being photographed.

Following the trail of the ancient Maya

Dani and I were trying to be anything but disrespectful, as we are fascinated with the Maya people and culture, an interest which has grown along the Mayan trail we have been following for some time.

Learning about the Maya, both past and present, has been one of the most interesting aspects of our travels so far. Some of the different groups of Maya people in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador today live a very simple, rural life. Others have adapted to city life while maintaining their culture and language. One method of survival for the hundreds of Mayan groups throughout what this large area known formerly as Mesoamerica is to manufacture and sell their traditional, brightly-colored woven goods to tourists – hand-made blankets, bracelets, shirts and pants, as well as new adaptations such as water bottle holders, wallets, and placemats.

This is often the only side of Mayan life we as visitors have the chance to see, and the conversation with Mayans in places like San Cristobal in Mexico or Antigua and Chichicastenango in Guatemala can easily be limited to the attempted sale and purchase of these goods. This is why we were so eager to take part in the tour in San Cristobal, to learn more and see the indigenous Maya in their ‘authentic’ home environment.

Despite the feeling that we were intruding on the village, we had an excellent guide, Alejandro, who was able to provide a strong introduction into the culture and traditions of the Tzotzil Maya. He especially covered the blending of Mayan and Spanish religions including the background of the Mayan cross and the adoption of Jesus as the main religious figure. He did this in Spanish, then in English, all while shouting out ‘Hellos’ and ‘Good Days’ to the villagers in their native language. A tall, handsome academic, Alejandro obviously commanded a level of respect in the village, the girls followed and giggled with him, the men shook his hands and he made everyone feel at ease.

The highlight of the tour for Dani and I was the trip into the church. A bouncer of sorts at a small wooden door in the front of the church was enforcing a one group in, one group out policy to keep numbers inside low, so we waited for a group of French tourists to exit with their guide before our group of 28 half-naked camera-toting Europeans were allowed inside.

Once inside, we tried to put the discomfort behind us and take in our surroundings. Pine needles were strewn about, completely covering the floor, and walking on them was more like hiking than any organized religious experience. A thick fog of incense smoke filled our noses as we carefully moved around spots where pine needles had been cleared to make way for dozens, even hundreds of thin white candles. Instead of rows of wooden benches, Mayan families sat cross-legged on the floor in front of these patches of candles, chanting, kneeling and praying. The sky outside dark gray and inside some of the windows were closed or covered, so that the church was dark inside, lit primarily by these hundreds of dancing flames on the floor. All the while, several tour guides struggled in raised whispers to explain the scene to the groups of tourists. It was difficult to reconcile the conflicting feelings of taking part of a private, religious Mayan experience and yet being terribly disrespectful intruders.

At the home of Tzotzil Mayas

Later, in Zinacantan, Alejandro took us to the home of Dona Antonia and her family, a ‘showcase house’, for a (manufactured) glimpse of daily Mayan family life: they demonstrate weaving, we watched the girls make tortillas, tasted a fresh tortilla filled with home-made cheese and beans, and peeked into a typical Maya house and bedroom. Then the typical bargaining began, as people bought several handicrafts items. Here we felt more comfortable as Dona Antonia really welcomed visitors into the home, pictures were encouraged and the concept of tourism was understood and welcomed. It was clear that this particular family was reaping the benefits of the tour groups. However, despite being friendly and welcome, it was hard not wonder how much they really like being snapped by hundreds of cameras on a daily basis and having noisy foreigners traipsing through the property seven days a week?

Another way of experiencing Maya culture

While in Mexico, the Maya experience was distanced and pre-packaged, but in Guatemala intermingling with the indigenous Maya groups is part of the everyday experience. Suddenly you are surrounded by hundreds of indigenous women, men and children, central parks and city streets bursting with the colors of their traditional clothes. Mayan villages are everywhere, and in areas well on the beaten path, around Lake Atitlan and Chichicastenango for example, visitors are welcome any time. Contrary to the Mayans in Mexico, the Mayans in Guatemala seem much more accessible. That church in Chamula, Mexico was the only Mayan church we saw during our 12 weeks in Mexico, and yet in Guatemala we have passed through countless entrances and walked upon pine needles and around the candles on the floor, free of bouncers and tour groups.

As long as they are asked, Guatemala’s indigenous are much more open to having their picture taken, especially if you slip one or two quetzals ($0.10-0.15) in their hands after. Does this mean that the Mayans in Guatemala, with their tourist-friendly markets and openness to photography, are just more open to selling their culture for a profit?Not quite.  Profiting from tourism can hardly be looked down upon in Central America where tourism is a major part of what fuels the national economy. A visit to Todos Santos Cuchumatan, a Maya village in the far northern part of Guatemala’s Western Highlands will quickly reassure you that the Mayan way of life is still in full swing far, far away from the tourist trail.  Because there are almost no tourists (save for the famous Day of the Dead horse race on 1 November) we were not surrounded by street vendors asking us to buy (“A table cloth for your mother, come, buy it!”). Instead, the two of us were examined with the same curiosity and interest that we had for them. We had chats with people, felt comfortable just sitting in the park and watching life go by. Walking through nearby villages, just the two of us, brought us to women weaving on their front porches and men harvesting corn. These were not showcase villages, and the moments of everyday life captured in our minds and on camera were as authentic as they come. The villagers didn’t expect us, but greeted us with a smile. If they didn’t want us to take their picture, they politely refused, rather than that embarrassing ‘Sshhing’ we were met with in the supposedly ‘tourist friendly’ village in Mexico.

To take the tour or not take the tour, that is the question. During our time in Todos Santos, we felt authentically immersed and very comfortable, but we realised at that time just how much we learned about the Mayans during our tour with Alejandro. Do we recommend taking an organized tour of Mayan villages? Would we do the tour again if we could do it all over again?

Now that we have been in Guatemala, we would not do the tours in Chiapas. In Guatemala the Maya communities are much more accessible and open, and you can visit with feeling like you are tresspassing on private property. While we did learn a lot from Alejandro on our tour, we would recommend looking for more authentic ways to learn about Mayan culture. The Mayans in Guatemala are very proud of their culture and happy to talk to visitors. For some real fun, have a chat with the child vendors. Though they may not have their facts straight (someone told us about how Hernan Cortes was only recently in Guatemala), these kids are happy to tell you about their culture and their daily lives, innocently and honestly giving you a better glimpse into Mayan life than some tour guides do.

Other ways to learn about the Maya culture:

  1. Go off the beaten path and visit predominantly Mayan villages/towns like Todos Santos in Guatemala.
  2. Take Spanish classes and find a teacher with knowledge of the Mayan community to ask questions and learn. Teachers are always relieved to get off topic, especially when they can justify the conversation as a learning experience. Around Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, many of the teachers are Mayans themselves and can give you a great education on their culture.
  3. Homestay – Stay with a Mayan family. Even if you do not wish to sign up for Spanish classes, many schools will book you a homestay with a Mayan family for a very reasonable price (less than $100.00 per week for accommodation including three meals).
  4. Engage. It’s difficult to get many of the Mayan in the tourist centres to have a real conversation with you as selling tends to be their primary objective. But if and when possible, ask and try to learn fro them where you can.

Have you done village tours? How do you feel in these situations? Have you had more ‘authentic’ experiences with Mayans in Mexico? Would you recommend any tours or how about alternatives to a more ‘authentic’ experience? We would love to hear it in the comments below.

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