I was fortunate enough to have last week off from school (along with the rest of Latin America) for Semana Santa. Em took the week off and we headed to Guatemala for some R&R, exploring, and quality time with MC and Katy (our close friends from home).
MC flew into San José after spending a week in Nosara, Costa Rica with some college friends. While we love to explore some of the more exciting places in Costa Rica when we have visitors, it’s also always fun to be able to show people “our space.” We were able to show her our apartment and get a morning hike in (one of our favorites) before our flight later in the evening on Saturday.
We took a 1.5 hour flight from SJO to Guatemala City where we met Katy who had spent 10 hours on a few different, highly turbulent planes. Needless to say our group of three was in better spirits than poor Katy. However, Katy is truly one of the most energetic and optimistic people I’ve ever met so she recovered quickly. We spent the night at an airbnb in Guat City then heading to Lake Atítlan bright and early Sunday morning (a 2.5 hour bus ride with our hilarious driver, Melvin).
Over the course of our time in Guatemala we asked the question, “Where is the most beautiful place you’ve ever been?” The question came up because most of us were thinking the answer was right where we were – in Lake Atítlan. The lake is surrounded by volcanos, the water is beautiful, and the sunsets are out-of-this-world. The part of the lake where we stayed was quiet and you could only reach it by water taxi. The anti-social part of myself (thanks, Dad) was loving it. We also asked this question while treading water and looking at the volcanos with the sun in our face – it was hard to be unbiased.
I also want to recognize how lucky and how privileged I am to even be having the conversation about the most beautiful places we’ve traveled. I really couldn’t decide – Zion National Park (Utah), Iceland, Northern Italy, and New Hampshire were really up there too. But the beauty of Lake Atítlan definitely gave those a run for their money.
The only way to get around once you’re in each of the little towns is to take a Tuk-Tuk or to walk along the boardwalks/trails along the shoreline. We spent a lot of our time exploring these little paths. Each property owner is responsible for having a path through their waterfront property much like New Englanders are responsible for keeping their sidewalk clear of snow (although I imagine building the boardworks are more fulfilling than shoveling). I can always manage to find a way to bring the conversation back to NH – just wait.
We stayed in the village of Santa Cruz on Lake Atítlan. Once you arrive via water taxi (~20 minutes from where you get dropped off via car) there around 2-3 restaurants right there and that’s about it. It was perfect. After a 5 minute walk along the boardwalk we arrived in paradise. Seriously – if you ever go to Lake Atítlan – stay at this airbnb. It was rated #1 most unique airbnb in 2014 and it was even better than expected. First of all – look where we got to eat breakfast every morning.
Katy and I jumped in the lake every morning when we woke up. It reminded me of being a little kid. I felt like a little kid while we were there – especially being around Katy (love you!). I can’t wait to jump in Rust Pond every morning this summer – that’s a real goal.
The best part of our stay was spending time with our host, Jeanne. She is a kick-ass, retired ex-pat from New York who built a paradise in paradise. We spent many hours laughing and chatting. We all truly feel like she is part of our family (Love you, Frijolita!).
Perhaps the most spectacular part of the property is Jeanne’s commitment to landscaping and her garden. Check out some of these pics we snapped from our daily walk through the gardens. Check out the most serene shower of all-time.
On our first full day in heaven we went on a 3 hour walk/hike from Santa Cruz to San Marcos – a hippie town on another part of the lake. The journey took us along the shore and above the lake and through some tiny and beautiful towns in-between Santa Cruz and San Marcos.
So it was really hot on the hike. Like really hot and in the direct sun. Em and I were tyring to be responsible and made sure to pack 2 L of water for the way there. About 20 minutes into the trek she dropped it and we watched it roll under barbed wire and about 50 feet down a steep slope. Huge props for her retrieval efforts.
Once we arrived in San Marcos we found some cliff jumping that everyone was talking about. It was 8 m high. MC led us off (look at that form). By the end Katy and Em both went. There was a 0% chance that I was going to do it. I found a little baby cliff (about 3 m high) and jumped. I’m still calling it a win.
After our (their) adrenaline rush for the day we explored San Marcos for some food. Highlights include MC overhearing the following conversation: Person 1: “I love your earring – where did you get it?” Person 2 (picture the best stoner voice you can imagine: “I traded it for a pancake.” Welcome to San Marcos.
The scene was different than anything we had seen up until that point and the colors and artwork were stunning.
On our 2nd full day we took it a little bit easier and took a water taxi to San Juan – an artist town past San Marcos. This little dude (below) weighed down the front of our boat much like the cinder block we used in our 10 HP rowboat in Freedom (it’s the ITALIA!).
We found a spot for lunch where we were the only people there (probably better for everyone). We spoke terrible Spanish and, once again, people were very patient and taught us a lot about Guatemalan culture.
We also enjoyed some lunch time Gallos (cervezas). You know you’re getting old when you stand up after 2 Gallos and start to look like these next 2 pictures.
It’s also important to mention that after this lunch we thought it would be a good idea to split up, all run in different directions and go explore parts of the town solo, without having a phone or a plan on how to meet up. We all somehow met back at the dock with a variety of items – highlights include a custom fit poncho, 13 Gallos, and a shall. Great idea.
We explored the town some more and made some stops in on a couple different shops with handmade textiles. We learned a lot about the incredible weaving process including which plants are used to create dyes for the different color strings. For example, the thread below was dyed with beets. We had an extra carry on for the flight home after all our purchases…
While we were there we had some spectacular meals. One night we walked up the steepest hill I’d climbed in my life (until the volcano 2 days later) and arrived at the home of a family Jeanne knew. Nom nom nom.
Our last night in Atítlan we went to Isla Verde which might be one of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life. Having this view didn’t hurt. Nor did the fact that tequilla shots were 10 Q ($1.29).
That night we took a midnight swim under a full moon and laughed and chatted for hours with Jeanne. We knew we were leaving the next day but wanted to soak in every minute.
The next morning we reluctantly packed our things and took a water taxi back to Pana and then a shuttle to Antigua. There are so many places to explore in the world but we all agreed that Atítlan is somewhere we’d come back to in a heartbeart.
We arrived in Antigua with some time to explore, have a good meal, and rest up for the big trek the following day. Antigua is home to one of the world’s big Semana Santa celebrations so we saw a lot of processions and a few alfombras (rugs on the street made of plants and other material). Thursday was the biggest day of celebration and that was when we were on the mountain but we definitely got a feel for this really neat colonial city.
There were also plenty of tourists. One of which Katy overheard giving this prima sound bite to a Spanish speaking vender, “Hola. Any chance you’ve seen a chico with a man bun?” WTF?! He was totally American – sigh.
We all went to bed nervous as we anticipated our volcano hike the next day. We knew the stats – 7.5 km and 1300 m of elevation gain. Sidenote: Em wanted me to put the elevation gain in cm to really drive home the point. Love you babe – 130,000 centimeters. Now if that doesn’t sound high I don’t know what does. It might not sound like a lot. But then factor in the 40-lb packs. We hike a fair amount in Costa Rica. I was not prepared for what was ahead of me. It didn’t help that the first hour of the hike involved 45 degree inclines (not an exaggeration) in deep sand and loose rock. I am not too proud to admit that I had a few melt downs. Luckily they let us stop for a long lunch which gave me time to fix my face about the whole thing. Hands down this hike was the hardest physical thing I have ever done.
We finally made it to the top. I felt proud of myself until this horse arrived with all our food for the next 3 meals and some of the other people on our hike’s stuff – I spent a good 10 minutes petting her. Thank you for your service.
This might look like your normal camp site. But then you look and see the top of a volcano. And that those are clouds…
Once we reached the top we forgot all the pain of the last 5-6 hours and were in awe of our surroundings.
We were also able to pack into our tents and get down to some serious laughing.So we climbed Acatenango volcano which is right next down to El Fuego – an active volcano. We were really lucky that it was in an active stretch – it was going off at least every 20 minutes if not every 20 seconds. It was neat when we arrived – we could see smoke and a little bit of magma – cool right?
But then it got dark – and THIS happened. This is the view from our tent. And it was LOUD. Em and I sat straight up, unzipped the tent, and looked out about 10 times over the course of the night. One time I was dead asleep and when it went off I was panicking that lava was actually coming toward us. Em was having Tsunami dreams. Neither were happening but it was legit. Mother nature – you win.
The next morning we were woken up at 3:45 for a sunrise hike to El Fuego. Yes – we hiked toward the active volcano. When we arrived we felt like we were on top of the world with a 360 degree view where we could see at least 10 volcanos. I know all the pictures look the same but I can’t decide which is the most beautiful. We got there a little late so it was no longer dark and we couldn’t see the bright orange lava coming toward us – probably for the best.
Here we are on top of the world (thanks, full moon, for your perfect placement).
Once we trekked back to camp we had breakfast, laid down, and all started to feel the effects of the altitude and dehydration. Camp was at 3500 meters (~11,500 feet). We packed our stuff, learned that we didn’t need to carry our tents down (YAY), and booked it. The way down was much easier than the way up (ain’t that always the way?).
The hike truly was a once in a lifetime experience. I am so glad we did it and also positive that I will never do it again. But you should. Seriously. You can do it once. I promise. I’ll cheer you on. From the bottom.
It was a magical week with some of the most fun-loving, kind, and athletic (they crushed the volcano) people we know. It was so fun to explore a new place with some of the best. I feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to travel like we do and to see some of these hidden wonders of the world.
As I write this I also reflect on the fact that tomorrow marks the 1-year anniversary of my back surgery. I’m definitely not 100% (and that’s my own fault for not stretching enough – I’m trying to get serious about it again – I promise) but the fact that we just did what we did makes me grateful for modern medicine and for our health. If you told me a year ago we did what we just did I wouldn’t have been able to imagine it.
Next post with include some highlights from visits from my Colby clan (Jax and Greg a few weeks ago and T this week) – so stay turned. Thank you everyone for visiting us and for reminding us that the world is actually smaller than we think.