Posts Tagged ‘guatemala’

Guatemala diaries: Tikal the jewel of the country

April 5, 2013

452457474491486454Camino Real was a beautifully spread-out hotel. I had to take a lot of steps to go through the pool area and get to the rooms. My husband found himself all bitten by something on the river and goes to sleep after taking an anti-histamine. I have the evening all to myself. I roam the grounds and go around looking for the Canadians since this is my last chance to see them.I find them up on the terrace looking at stars! The constellations are bright and incredible. They explain that we are far away from city lights and also closer to the southern hemisphere. It is magical to see Orion’s belt, The Pleiades, the big and little Dipper. I see another side of the Canadians: they know a lot about astronomy and are good teachers. Being totally geeky, I love all this. It is almost 8pm, I eat something in the restaurant and go to bed after a long conversation with the two of them. I shall miss these guys who have gone through so much in life and have been friends from grade school. I shall miss their wry humor, their different accents, their intelligence and most of all their kindness to us. We exchange emails and bid our goodbyes.

The next morning after breakfast, we find that Bugs is not there, but a new guide, El Sabio.  He speaks flawless English and is very knowledgable about the Tikal area. He tells us that he lived in the US for many years when he was younger. Cara and Steve are still with us and we drive to the grounds of Tikal. El Sabio talks about environmental degradation in Guatemala but also about efforts being made to counteract it.  He reminds me of the young man I met in Amatique, but is more animated and articulate about his love and passion for his country.

El Sabio shows us first the grand scale thinking of the Mayans when they built Tikal. The plan is immense and the presence of waterways to keep their city functioning is foremost in their minds. Of course heirarchy is important and the more powerful among them, like royalty and noblemen live closer to the sources of water and transportation. We walk around to look at the pyramids and I am overwhelmed by their gigantic pyramids and the arrangement of each one of them. Climbing on top leads you to see the positioning of other pyramids. Mathematical calculations in laying out this city was  an integral part of the planning for the Mayans. We see the mighty Ceiba tree that is so revered by the Mayans here. We also see some ocellated turkeys that are colorful and very tame around us.

I am glad we waited till the end to see this magnificent site. We have lunch at the park with hundreds of people under a shaded area. El Sabio first drops Cara and Steve back at the hotel, more goodbyes… Then we go to Flores airport and take the tiniest plane with no flight attendants  for a one-hour ride back to Guatemala city. The vacation is almost over.

Guatemala Diaries: going north to El Peten

April 5, 2013

442443446441Breakfast at  the Catamaran is quite lovely. There is not a lot of variety which makes me savor the dishes more. I find I am attracted to their dark brown big cookies that they call Polveroso. I can see why, they powder in my mouth. We realize Arty will leave us today and we will have a new guide to get us to Tikal in El Peten.  Arty and the boatman place all our luggage on the bigger boat and we sit on the benches to get off at a point where the bus will pick us up.  We have spent the past two days on water!  Soon we arrive where the bus will be waiting for us.  Arty looks uneasy and once the bus comes and we get in,he tells us that there were wild dogs near the dock area and he did not want us to linger.  Arty and Manuel get off in the middle of an intersection and we bid our goodbyes to them. The new guide is ready for us in the bus. Let’s call him Bugs Bunny. Bugs is eager to please and goes into the history of El Peten, the northern region of Guatemala. I am too sleepy to listen and catch snatches of his talk, when suddenly he points out the Belize border which is high up on a hill with flags.

Bugs drones on and on.  The poor fellow must be so tired talking to a quiet bus.  We finally arrive at a shopping mall and see a Chinese Restaurant. We all want that today. The food is actually very good. ( I remember teaching English as a Second language and asking my students who came from Central  American countries about their favorite food and they would invariably say:”Chinese food.”)  Bugs and the driver eat with us, asking for tortillas to go with their rice and chicken dish. Only in Guatemala can you have your tortillas with Chinese food. But in India they make Chinese food with Indian spices and if my Indian friends come to the US they would be thoroughly disappointed with Chinese food there. And everyone who goes to China says the food there is totally different from all of this.

We finish our lunch and get back to the van in the mall. We see an armed guard and I am completely unnerved by this experience. Why do they need a man with a gun in a mall?

We get to Flores and know we are close to Tikal which we will see tomorrow.  Paco and Juanita leave us at a hotel there and we hug them European-style( hug, kiss one cheek, hug, kiss the other cheek) I shall miss them, they were so full of energy, especially Juanita. We go through a wooded area on a dirt road and see a hotel called Gringo Perdido which looks quite lovely from the road.  We keep going passing several hotels and arrive at Camino Real, Tikal.

Guatemala diaries: Rio Dulce contd.

April 3, 2013

379356( My second post carries the first  half of this trip) We get off at Livingston.  I see Cacao plants for the first time here.Then Arty tells us about the food in this area which is very good and points at the menu on a van.348350‘Garifuna food is great” he states.So how come we never got to try it? As we walk near the port area we see a washing area that reminds me of how we used to wash in India before we had washing machines there. Here they seem to use oval-shaped concrete basins to wash and then rinse clothes.  We walk along and see them selling spices that go with rum and listen to music in a small cafe where we have some good coffee. The Canadians find some good rum here and take a couple of swigs perhaps to deaden their senses before getting back for the ride on the river??  I am not so scared to get back on the boat to a place called Aguas calientes. Apparently, you  can dip in a hot spring and also go to a sauna.  We get to the place and are not too impressed with the not-too clean pool they call a hot spring. The water is certainly warm but not worth going in so most of us decide to sit down at the little restaurant there and have some pan de coco ( coc0nut bread) and talk to the woman who has a little boy there.  Suddenly we see schoolchildren rowing boats on the river. “They are returning from school!” I am shocked and ashamed of my fear of the water to see small kids rowing boats on their own. The woman shyly states that she plies a boat here all the time. We wait for the Canadians to return from the sauna which they say was more like a cave.  We are now ready to go to lunch further down.  We will be going through El Golfete, the broader part of Rio Dulce and will take 45 minutes to get to lunch.  Arty places the order as the boatman takes us there. We see a big restaurant where the owner has his own fish farm and we have a splendid meal of fish, rice and veggies. I have never seen my husband attack a fish with such gusto!! Then we get frozen choco-bananas for dessert. Some of us wash it all down with the local brew Gallo. Arty tells us that tonight we are going to stay at a hotel right in the middle of the river.

Guatemala diaries:Amatique bay resort

April 3, 2013

286345As the driver takes us to the hotel, Arty warns us that it is far from Puerto Barrios and would take at least half an hour to get there. My heart sinks because I am waiting to hear from my son if the money has been sent. Chicago has had a major snowstorm and he is having trouble going outside his house. Just our luck. This means if we do not hear from him we might have to wait till we get to El Peten where Tikal is . That would be the final place, otherwise we have to ask someone in our group to lend us money. We walk into the hotel which is very beautiful; each separate cottage will be a room for each of us.( We do not take any pictures because we are fretting about not hearing from our son.) We check in and wait;no calls. I want to go for dinner, when suddenly Arty calls and says that my son called his number and I have to go into the city to pick up the money in 1 hour! I get one of our friends from the bus to come with me in the taxi that takes me to a mall in Puerto Barrios. Talk about a  swanky mall in a dodgy city. We walk from bank to bank till we find the right one ( I feel like I’m in a Woody Allen movie) and get in by 6:15, only 45 mins to get it all to work. I am the first one in line but the nasty woman recognizes a friend in the line and takes him in first. I want to scream but I do not want to alienate her. She is flirting with the guy!  He finishes his business with her, giving her a lovely smile and takes his own sweet time to leave the chair. I walk in , start talking in spanish and give her my name and my son’s name. She gives me a paper with the amount in quetzales and says I have to now stand in line at another place there! Luckily there is only one person ahead and now the time is 6:55. Why do I need so much drama in my life?  I get the money and we leave, oh that was close!

It takes another 45 mins to get back. It is 8pm in the night and I am glad we resolved this problem and glad that I had someone else in the taxi with me. We eat at the restaurant and I plan to go bird-watching the next morning to give me something special to do.”Yeah, only you would think of getting up early as a gift” is my husband’s retort. Before going to bed, I send a thank you note to my darling son who saved us.

The next morning, I really get to appreciate the beauty of our resort. And the gentleman who takes me ( the other 3 individuals were too chicken to get up at 6am) is a sweet, well-mannered young man who talks about the beauty of nature and you can see he loves his country. We spend an hour looking at the different flora in the wild and come back to learn the names of certain birds I had seen in my travels so far in Guatemala. ” That is a Moctezuma, a black bird with a yellow fork-like tail, this one is of course a macaw, you must have seen it in Copan” he says as we go through the list of some birds I remember seeing. We share coffee and I depart for breakfast. I have an Amatique Sunrise for breakfast. It is actually very good, reminding me of the food at Wishbone Restaurant in Chicago( a flour tortilla, wrapped in black beans, spice, tomatoes and onions and drizzled with sauce and cheese). Arty hustles us all to leave and we put all our bags in the van and follow him to take the boat to Rio Dulce.

Guatemala diaries: on to Quirigua and Puerto Barrios

April 3, 2013

314320The next morning we decide to go to Cafe Welchez for coffee and Arty joins us. We go back to the hotel to have breakfast which is pretty simple and tasty. I am not hungry since I am nervous about making sure we are financially OK once we reach Puerto Barrios.  The others are already sitting in the bus so we hurry and put in our luggage and join the rest .  We stop on the way to Quirigua for lunch and see rows and rows of coffee being dried close to heavy-laden mango trees. We pick up some beans and they have a thin membrane covering the seed that looks almost light brown in color. Arty tells us to hurry since there is a football game starting soon and the crowds will be in to watch the game there. We order our food and start watching the game. Barcelona leads; Paco and Juanita start dancing with joy. Actually the crowd is also cheering Barcelona; apparently Milan is not popular here.

We leave just in time to get to Quirigua.  This reminds me of Copan; however, here the structures are made of sandstone and tells the story of the deceitful leader who captures the king of Copan and becomes the new king: a story of intrigue, deception and killings. There are several zoomorphs, representing mythical animals. Quite impressive.326330We leave Quirigua and finally find ourselves in the port area: Puerto Barrios. This place is considered to be a little ‘dodgy’ being a port town and has a very interesting demographic mix. There are a lot of Afro-caribbean people as well as Indians from India who mixed with the local population and are called ‘coolies”.  We see a ‘Tajmahal-like’  cemetery indicating the presence of Indians here.  We move on to get to our hotel, Amatique Bay Resort.344

Guatemala diaries: back to Gautemala city

March 30, 2013

167244I remember the movie Sliding doors.  It deals with parellel worlds and the woman has a chance to relive experiences and discovers something by going home earlier.  Sometimes I wonder if I could have changed that moment by taking the wallet from my husband sooner. But now all I can do is to take our passports and think of what needs to be done immediately. My husband and I decide to go to the hotel and hope to make some phone calls to the credit card companies and maybe email our son to send some money to us. Fortunately for us, we had some money in my purse, the passports were still there. Simba, Hedda and Jennie do not wish to leave us alone even though we want them to finish the sights in Antigua.” Oh, No, this is terrible, we would feel awful to leave you alone, let’s go back together.”  Once we get to the hotel, I can see my husband being his efficient self calling to cancel all credit cards. Meanwhile, I am able to reach my son through the magic of technology( all you youngsters will never realize how amazing life is today with androids, i-phones etc. Greetings! I come from the age of no computers and am still marvelling at our exponential discoveries with micro-electronics, nanatechnology  and all the rest of it.)  He assures me that he will send the money and we decide to pick it up at Puerto Barrios ( in 2 days) 

We finally urge the three of them to go sight-seeing and I eat something in the dining room.  Casa Santo Domingo staff have been stellar throughout all this, letting us use their phones without a murmur and even helping us dial through. We have to send a letter of thanks to the manager letting him/her know what a classy staff they have there.  Meanwhile, our bags are patiently waiting for us.

By all this time, Simba comes back and we are ready to get back to Guatemala city.  It is a quiet ride back and we thank Simba for all his help and bid goodbye to all 3 of them at Hotel Barcelo. Then we get back to our hotel and send some emails and go to bed to get up really early for the next phase of our trip, onwards to Copan, Honduras with the new guide , Arty.

Guatemala diaries: part of the procession in Antigua

March 29, 2013

180204172That night was so lovely eating in that dining room in Casa Santo Domingo. I think about it the next morning as we go in for breakfast. What a blast we had! Last night these mariachi guys sang to us moving from table to table and made me feel  like giggling. The soup was heavenly and the waiters were dressed in purple while the hostess was dressed like a nun.

The same attires invite us for breakfast and I wonder at the reminders around us of a Catholic country. I feel a little uneasy, not because I am non-Catholic but I would feel equally uneasy with a Hindu religious theme surrounding me in a hotel. Separation of church and hotel is important to me I guess. After all the hoopla for breakfast, we pack our bags and wait for Simba. He comes very late and that is the first strange thing that happens today. “Why so late?” we say together. ” Too much traffic today, they have a big procession in the main square, lots of crowds” he says wearily. Semanas santa, they start their parades long before Easter here.

Simba is like the Nike ad; he just does it and does not say what is going to happen next. Now I wonder, maybe things would have been different that day if I had known we would be walking into crowds, the procession would take so long, etc, etc. But that is just me, Epimethius, worrying after the event. 

“Antigua used to be the capital of Guatemala, but then they had earthquakes and had to move to capital to Gautemala City,” Simba informs us, I can see this city being the jewel of the country with its colonial-style architecture and beautiful cobblestoned streets.

We first walk down the cobblestoned road avoiding the cars and see a black statue holding a cross in a park. “That’s Bethancourt, he was one of the first to start helping the poor. I will show you the famous hospital he started further down.”  We are admiring the streets, the buildings and then he shows us the fountain square. I am struck by the new gas station across from this ancient  european-looking square. No wonder my brother loved Antigua, it is so charming…..the old ruins intermingling with the brightly colored houses, the cobblestones, the sunny weather, the festive atmosphere.

Now we see more and more people and the vendors selling food.”Corvates, corvates!” they yell and I wonder why they are talking bow-ties and then I see them, honey-dipped deep fried batter that looks like bow-ties! Ices, colored candy, little games for children and vendors yelling are all around us.  Soon we see a procession far, far away moving slowly. Simba warns us to be careful with our  purses and I am close to a barred wooden door, looking at the procession. We have finally stopped to watch after seeing rows and rows of beautifully decorated sawdust and vegetable creations on the road. The procession will walk over all this hard work, and that is the creators’ penitence! Of course I get it, I went to a Catholic school and remember the nuns talking about sacrifice and all that. Most religions have this self-effacing part, like the fasts Hindus keep to ‘purify’ themselves.

The procession comes closer, first we see people dressed as Roman soldiers, then the purple -robed Nazarenes, the place is filled with them. They all avoid stepping on the decorations. Finally, the big tableau comes into view, carried by several people, quite a sight.  As the procession walks over the decorations and we are getting to slowly leave, my husband says, “My wallet’s gone!”223227237241

Guatemala diaries: Antigua & Casa Santo Domingo

March 29, 2013

148It is about 3 in the afternoon and we are approaching a beautiful yellow and white filigreed church of the Merceds. We are struck by the intricate workmanship. There are some people hanging outside and I get a little distracted when a young gentleman approaches me speaking  clear, unaccented English, ” Excuse me but are you from India? I love your country; I lived there for a few years!”  I am delighted to meet  him and his wife joins him to add, ” I studied in Calcutta in 1998!”  We talk, laugh and I leave excited to meet someone like that in Antigua. Simba urges me to go in and look at something in the front. I enter the Merced church, I am continually amazed by the statues of Christ with stigmata; parishioners are attending a service and I quietly walk to the front to see this magnificent colored carpet of many colors and surrounded by vegetables of all kinds. ” Simba what a beautiful carpet !” I exclaim and he corrects me, ” No, it is not a carpet it is a design made with colored sawdust!” I think of kolam / rangoli in India and marvel at it by going back in again. By this time it is getting darker in the late afternoon and Simba decides to drop us off at our hotel, Casa Santo Domingo. Hedda and Jennie want us to be dropped off first because they say that they are dying to see this hotel of ours. Well, the lobby is grand and has many statues and the passage area to the dining room looks wierd with holes in the stone walls. Apparently it was a Dominican Monks’ monastery. It looks grand and has a whole museum area that is closed by the time I discover it. 154159156The hotel room looks inviting and I feel like taking a nap before dinner.

Guatemala diaries: Antigua we are there!

March 28, 2013

At Santiago de Atitlan , the streets are narrow and people’s residences are at the back. Squashes and flowers and dogs abound on the narrow passages to the back and the houses are very modest. As we walk the streets, I see young children playing football so I have to ask them who their hero is. They mention someone from Honduras. We had been told that in Honduras, football was not a sport, but a religion.

Walking down the cobble-stoned streets we see more shops and lovely hats for the grand-kiddos. They look liked the bowler hats that Bolivian women wear. More hurried bargaining and purchases later, we sit in the boat to go back.  Half-way through Lake Atitlan, the boat stops. Oh No!  The driver is joking about lack of petrol, what!! He is able to start the boat and we reach our old hotel in one piece. Too much drama for me….

Simba is loquacious as he drives us closer to Antigua, he talks about Chimaltenango, Quetzaltenango ( we did not go that far west) and as we reach Cocotenango  we have to ask about  the meaning of the ‘tenango’ piece that was added to all these places ( Chichicastenango as well) ” Ahaa! ” says Simba,” Tenango just means ‘the place of” in Mayan.”  Of course! Think of  ‘nagar’,   or ‘pettai’ or ‘halli’ in India and ‘ville’ say in the USA. Makes sense.  

So then of course we learn that the ‘Chimal’ refers to  trees so it’s the place with trees and  Quetzaltenango is the place with quetzales, the beautiful bird of Guate that is getting endangered due to excessive hunting and then my favorite, Chichicastenango:124141142 supposed to be the place of stinging nettles. Don’t believe the last one, my sweet sweet Chichi  did not have anything unpleasant for me!  Well then I started thinking about names in general. Greenland is hardly green, a desolate patch of loneliness and ice for miles and Iceland is a gorgeous place with geysers and beautiful scenery even if it is cold. And then we have a place in Chicago called Downer’s Grove, seriously??

While Simba is chattering we get back on the Pan-American highway but the road keeps winding and I close my eyes and listen.  How much more of this? I have a dread of big white lights in buses, cold chocolate milk, because as a child, feeling motion-sickness was always linked with those two things. So as I felt woozy, I had to think about them and feel worse. Soon we are on less tortuous terrain and stop at Chirijuyu near Chimaltenango, for lunch.  And what do I eat there? More thick tortillas made fresh, an excellent bean soup and yes, chocolate milk!  My stomach feels like cement ( those tortillas are small but thick) as we get closer to Antigua.

Guatemala diaries: Hotel Atitlan to lake Atitlan

March 27, 2013

113116109The gift shop at the hotel is truly amazing( the prices are amazing too but we are assured that the quality is top notch) Of course the great shopper husband goes a little crazy buying for our grandsons and other family members. I have a good time chattering away with the saleswoman in Spanish. I notice that Spanish expressions like”Hijole” are not common in Guate, I have to curb my Mexican spanish here(and forget my chilango spanish too!) What excites me is the fact that people are forgiving when I make mistakes  and are so gracious when I speak the language. We leave the gift shop and I meet the Spanish couple from the gardens; they are also touring the country from Barcelona. Paco and Juaquina are thrilled to continue talking in Spanish having great trouble articulating in English with the other tourists in their group. We go to our room that is  charming and sit down to journal. There is one thing that is a bother though; we keep moving every morning to a different hotel and this particular one is so lovely with the gardens, I would have loved an extra day here.

That evening we go to Santander street in a ‘tuk-tuk” where the guy speaks impeccable English. ” Lived in Chicago for a few years, but had to leave……” he says, I understand why. The shops are exciting and we bargain and buy more little outfits for the grandchildren.  Meanwhile it is time to meet the women, Jennie and Hedda from our group at Bombay Cafe. We go in expecting great food and I order something that is supposed to be an authentic Guatemalan dish, called vegetarian version of pepian. I am thoroughly disappointed with uncooked vegetables and a fairly OK tamale. This means I will not trust everything Lonely Planet tells me.  We keep going out to do more shopping and I tell myself ‘no mas!’ 

Next morning, our packed bags are put in the van and we are hustled to the dock area in the hotel garden. Slowly I get into the boat and we have others besides the four of us. There is Simba, another tour guide, Arty and his 6 tour group; Paco Pena ( he does look like the famous Spanish musician) and his wife are part of that group. Simba tells us that after Antigua, Arty will be our guide and he will depart. I will miss the gentle lion.

Arty is a chatterbox; the moment he finds out that I speak Spanish, he keeps me busy talking. I enjoy the scenery and feel glad that I am not seasick. Well this is a lake, and I should be fine. What a beautiful place! We are surrounded by mountains and some of them are volcanoes. I breathe in the cool air and admire the blue water and greyish -blue mountains all around.  Soon, Hedda decides to steer the boat and my husband is vowing that I do it when we are returning. You are crazy ! I am barely OK sitting in a boat and he expects me to steer it?? The boat ride is not too long and we see women washing clothes near the shoreline, white-billed ducks called pato de poc  and get down at Santiago de Atitlan.