A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: oangel99

Volcan Santa Maria

a/k/a The Big Climb

all seasons in one day
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As I mentioned when in my first post, on my first weekend in Xela (elevation 7,733 feet) I somehow got myself talked into climbing 12,000 foot Volcan Santa Maria. Even better, I agreed to it despite the fact that I would have to be ready for the bus to said volcano by 4:30 AM.

We began our ascent at about 5:00 AM in the hopes of reaching the summit before the clouds rolled in (midday) and obstructed our view of the city below.
I was suprisily chipper, considering the hour...

Of course, I had no idea what I was in for.

The "trail" was spotted (frequently) with horse droppings, which compounded the treacherousness of the rocky, muddy path we followed.
(Locals harvest leña or firewood from the forests around the volcano).

Before we had hiked for even 10 minutes, one of our group decided there was no way she was going to make it so she had one of the guides drive her back to the city. However, beliving the assurances of my friends about how "doable" this hike was, I forged ahead. (I so wasn't going to be that lady...) Of course, with little time to acclimate to the elevation, I quickly fell to the back of the group, huffing and puffing as I slowly made my way to the first rest stop. Sadly, being the last of the group means that you also get the shortest rest breaks so after only 5 minutes we were back on the trail.

The view was beautiful. I was too tired to lift my arms and take many photos of my hike (and besides, my camera could never do it justice), but it was amazing to be that high above the city.

We climbed...

and we climbed...

and we climbed some more.

All the while, local men, women and children of all ages kept passing me by, patting my arm reassuringly and reminding me "poco a poco." I smiled in between wheezes and struggled on. Eventually Martine, the guide that had taken the first deserter home, caught up with our group (that is to say, caught up with me). While the other guide kept assuring us that the top was only about 30 minutes further, even at my "pace", Martine provided the more realistic figure of another 2,000 feet to the top. Mind you, as with all roads in Guatemala, the trail was a series of U-turns, rather than a straight line, which would eventually reach the top.

This was the moment of truth... continue on with my friends or begin an early descent.

With tingling in my fingers (surely an early sign of hypoxia), legs of lead and a bladder that needed deflating, I decided not dragging myself to the top sounded like the safer, slightly less painful option.

Erica, one of the girls that had convinced me to go on the climb in the first place, volunteered to head down with me (no doubt, partly out of guilt ;) ).
After a snack of bread and Trader Joes Dried Mango Slices, a desperately needed bathroom break (thank you Charmine Basic Rolls To-Go!) and about 15 minutes of sitting on my butt, I was ready to make my way down.
Of course, the aspects of the trail that made it treacherous to climb, were just as dangerous on the descent. And then, surpirse, surpise, it started to rain. By the time I reached the bottom, I looked like this:

To be honest, the trip down, wasn't all bad. Now that I could breathe again, I was able to take more pictures...
Triump at the Top-ish
Above the clouds, anway...
Xela is down there somewhere...
Erica and I with the Ent

Who knows, maybe I'll have to make another date with Maria before I leave...

Posted by oangel99 15:45 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

Semuq Champey and Antigua

Lazy rivers, adventures in not swimming, clear blue pools and a memorable visit from Montezuma

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Well it would seem that poco a poco is proving to be a very fitting title for my blog, as it now also refers to the fact that I am only able to write updates "little by little." A lot has been happening in my little neck of the world, but I've been moving along too quickly to make time to sit and write it all down, although I have been taking plenty of pictures.

This past weekend I visited beautiful Semuq Champey with some of my escuela (school) buddies, where a couple of my Seattle friends were also waiting for me. The drive was LONG... 10 hours in a private shuttle from Xela to Lanquin where we caught a pickup to our hotel another 11km/1 hour away, along an unlit dirt road. By the time we arrived we were a bit too tired to appreciate the rustic accommodations and 10 pm curfew (i.e. when the generators were turned off). The next morning, however, we woke up at 5:30 am to sunshine, close humidity and chirping birds, ready to start our day.

We started off with a tour of the Kan'ba caves, a 2 hour adventure necessitating wading and, at times, swimming through pitch black caves, past bats and over waterfalls with nothing but a candle and a guide. After the first, small pool I realized that if one is a bad swimmer during daylight hours, in swimming pools with advertised depths and with two free hands, one should probably not attempt to swim with one hand holding a candle in pitch black caves through pools of unknown depth... while trying not to hyperventilate from the freakiness of all of the above. Luckily, the guide noticed my bad impression of a drowning rat and offered to help me through the rest of the tour. So, every time we got to an area that required swimming, I would put my hands on his (muscular) shoulders and paddle my legs to the other side. (I must admit that I had developed a bit of a crush oh my salvavida (life guard), Sebastian, by the end of the tour.) In the end, I was very glad that he offered to help me through the pools rather than leaving me behind to shiver in the dark with my candle which, I hoped, would not go out, as I had suggested. It was an amazing adventure gliding past stalactites/mites, walking through an underground waterfall and climbing a ladder over it and vicariously jumping into a deep pool from a small cliff while watching my friends actually make the plunge. After the caves, we all floated on inner tubes back to our hotel. After a quick lunch, we headed out to visit Semuq Champey National Park.


I had heard from my friends about how beautiful this place was, and I had even looked a photos online, but when I arrived, I really could not believe such an amazingly beautiful place existed. This rushing river
dives underground to form this...
I spent the rest of my day lounging in clear blue pools, trying to get my leg tan to catch up with my shoulders. Needless to say, swimming was still out of the question, despite the fact that it was daylight and I could see the bottom.

The next day, we woke up early to catch the 7:00 am shuttle to Antigua, where I decided to spend the night with my friends from Seattle and one other girl from my school in Xela. Antigua is a quaint, clean, colonial-inspired town, surprisingly/mysteriously absent of stray dogs (or not so mysteriously if rumors about the local business association's efforts to keep Antigua tourist friendly are to be believed). Antigua is well known for it's wide variety of gastronomic opportunities from around the world, including the Middle East and Asia. My friends told me about a place very close to our hotel that offered buffalo steak and suckling pig. Feeling a little protein deprived, I jumped at the chance for some carne, but sadly, neither of those options was still on the menu, which instead offered various types of brats including a curry sausage dish that was described as...
It's a German sausage cocked or fried from the grill. Most of the times cut in mouth size pieces...

I opted for the schnitzel, which, I fear, I will never eat again. During the meal, I remember thinking how I was eating so much more than I usually do at my host family's home, but it was so tasty that I had to finish every bite. So, naturally, as I was uncomfortably waddling down the street with my friends, back to our respective hotels, I assumed that my discomfort was caused by filling my stomach to a point it had not experienced in about a month and not anything more sinister. When we returned to our hotel, we learned that the water in the whole city was out for a indeterminate length of time. No matter. I figured I would take my fit to burst tummy to bed and take a shower in the morning. However, I was less ambivalent about the water situation about an hour later when I woke up with an urgent need to visit the shared toilets in the hotel - it would appear that Señor Moctezuma had finally decided to pay me a visit in a very violent and persistent way. Suffice it to say it was THE worst night of my Guatemalan vacation. In between "visits" to the bathroom, I would lie curled in the fetal position on my bed, trying to sleep, but really waiting for Señor's next call. At about 6 am, I decided I needed to get back to Xela as soon as possible so I called a local tour/shuttle operator, which thankfully has a 24 hour number, and arranged transport on a shuttle leaving for Xela at 8 am. My friend Cate graciously walked me to their office, good thing too, since Señor decided I should leave an offering on the streets of Antigua before quitting the city, and even picked up some much needed antibiotics and anti-nausea pills for me (of all the weekends to forget the Pepto, not that it would have done all that much good during the worst of it when nothing would stay down, including water and gatorade). I was very thankful for the time conscious (and super cute, unfortunately) shuttle driver who got me back to Xela by 11:30 am. I was in bed by noon and didn't wake up until my host mom called me to dinner at 7:30 pm.

I was happy to be able to cross Antigua off my list of places to see, and although I feel much better now, and and am excited to be able to cinch my belt a couple notches tighter (only one notch left!), I don't think I will be returning to the scene of the crime (i.e. the severe violation of my person) any time soon.

Posted by oangel99 13:30 Archived in Guatemala Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

El Mercado de Chichicastenango

The Market at Chichicastenango

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On Sunday, I visited the famous market at Chichicastenango with some of my fellow students at Migel Angel Asturias Spanish School. Our guide was Martine, the same guide from the Volcan Sanata Maria climb (that I still need to write about. :/)

We met up at the school at 6:00 AM for the two hour drive west through twisting moutain roads and past landslides from weeks past. (Don't worry mom and dad, no landslides this time, just bliding fog on the return trip.) We arrived in Chichicastenango just in time for breakfast at Hotel Santo Tomas, which seemed like an oasis compared to the bustling dusty market town it sits in.
The courtyard garden was ringed with perches for red and green parrots.


This one's a biter

This one's a biter

I feasted on a ham and cheese omlette with toast, fresh fruit (peeled of course), fresh squeezed orange juice and some much needed coffee. After breakfast, and a pit stop in the hotel's immaculate bathrooms (a true luxury here where most toilets are missing their seats), we weaved our way through the market on our way to the museum of ceremonial masks. After a 10 minute hike (not trip with Martine would be complete without a brisk hike), we arrived at the top of small hill above the museum where some locals were participating in a religious ceremony. (My spanish is not good enough to know what they were saying and some of it was in Ki'iche, a Mayan language.)
From the hill we could also see a colorful cemetery on an opposite hill.
View of a cemetery from the Museum of Cermonial Masks

View of a cemetery from the Museum of Cermonial Masks

After we descended, we stopped in the museum which was really just a room filled with antique masks...
...and San Simon a Guatemalan god that is represented by statues or mannequins in various districts. Believers make offerings in the form of food, beer, liquor, cigars and even coca-cola.
San Simon

San Simon

After we completed the culutural aspect of our outing, we headed back to the market for shopping and to learn the fine art of haggling. I learned that it works best if you really aren't interested in the item you're inquiring about. I asked a vendor (who looked alot like Buddy Hackett) about a carved wooden maske and he said it cost Q400, which I simply didn't have on me. So he wanted to know how much I could offer for it. Unfotunately, I could only offer Q50, which I felt was utterly unfair. I didn't really need the item, I just wanted to price it for my reference. He kept bringing the price down from his original of Q400, but I really wasn't interested so I walked away. Later one of the girls in my group told me he would sell it to me for Q50! (About $6.25, down from $50!!!)
Unlike the little markets in Xela, where the locals go for their produce, sunglasses and clothing needs, the market at Chichi is much more geared to the foreign traveller, for better or worse. Women with handmade textiles and children selling worry dolls and colorful, woven bookmarks will surround you as you walk from booth to booth and even follow you back to your tour bus, trying to secure a sale. It was pretty easy to say "no gracias" to the adults, but the children, some that looked as young as 4, took much more effort to resist. In the end, I was able to walk away having only spent Q150, or about $20. (I can't tell you what I got, or that would spoil the surprise for the recipients.)

Posted by oangel99 09:12 Archived in Guatemala Tagged shopping Comments (0)

Puebla and Oaxaca Photos

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Finally found a computer that would let me do all the internets stuff I wanna do at a reasonable speed so now I can upload my photos and get caught up on this whole blog thing.

Before leaving Puebla, I stopped by a store that sells and makes the pottery that Puebla is (apparently) famous for and visited the catedral in the center of town.

This was the day of the Mexico v. France game so the zocalo (center of town) had big screen tvs and tents set up so the whole town could watch.

Puebla Catedral

Do you think she's biased towards Mexico?

After my very brief stay in Puebla, I traveled by bus to Oaxaca. (Acutally, I spent so much time wandering around Puebla that I missed the bus I intended to take and had to wait in the bus station for 2 hours. :/)

Benito Juarez welcoming visitors to Oaxaca de Juarez, Mexico.

After a long day of traveling, I wanted a nice juicy hamburger...
...but the restaurant had run out of bread so I had to use some leftover sweet bread from Puebla.
I'm not sure what the bologna is all about.

The next morning I breakfasted on a delicious meal of eggs and chorizo. Yum!

Hostel Buddies Karina and Lisa playing pool. (I lost the first game to Karina.)

My room was in this little hacienda at La Villada Inn

View of Oaxaca from La Villada Inn. Unfortunately, the day was overcast so I never did get the gorgeous vistas advertised on their website.

Posted by oangel99 11:45 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

My first 9 days

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Since I know some of you haven't been able to follow my adventures via my facebook page, here's a little recap of the first 9 days of my trip (with photos)!.

Day 1 - The good, the bad and the painful
So the day started out with me getting to the airport 55 minutes before my flight. Yeah, not the best idea, but I was able to sweet talk my way to the front of the baggage and security lines and I made it to my gate in plenty of time for my flight, especially since my flight was a little delayed. I was worried that I might have to run to catch my connecting flight, but was pleasantly surprised when I stepped of the jetway and saw my next gate right in front of me. (win!) My flight was pretty quiet, I napped (it was really difficult to sleep the night before since I couldn't stop thinking "holy crap! I'm going to Mexico tomorrow!!!") When I encountered a friendly bathroom attendant in the Mexico City Airport, I felt sure my good travel karma would last, and then things went kinda down hill...

The bad...
-I got swindled out of my pesos by an ATM... twice

The painful...
-Twisted my ankle and fell to my knees on the textured concrete floor of the airport with my 40 lb backpack strapped to my back, along with my other two bags, while on the phone filing a claim with Chase for the aforementioned swindled funds.

All in all, it was a... relatively ok start to my trip, I guess. I mean, at least I have my luggage, the plane didn't crash, I didn't get abducted and am not now being held for ransom, I haven't been asked to be a drug mule. etc. I made it to my hostel (Hostal Santo Domingo) in Puebla safe and sound. Considering how busy it is on these streets, I'm glad I decided to avoid Mexico City for the present. I'd like the advantage of being able to understand all the hubbub... bub.

I asked the guy at the front desk of my hostel for a restaurant recommedation for dinner the first night and he suggested I go to the Flor something, which he said serves really good local dishes and is close by. So I headed out and found La Flor de Puebla, a bakery (panaderia). Inside were tons of carts filled with different types of bread. Not exactly my idea of dinner, but when in Rome, right?

I made my selections and returned to my hostel. When I told the guy about the great breads I picked up he laughed at me. Apparently, he had told me to go to La Florcita (the little flower) which is one door down from La Flor de Puebla. :/ In any case, I enjoyed my feast of bread and went to La Florcita for an excellent torta (kind of like panini) lunch the next day.

I also spent a couple of hours in a shop that sells the pottery that Puebla is famous for.

Days 2 - 5 = whoa
I’m sure there are some highly relevant quotes about change out there, but I’m paying for internet access by the hour so I’m not going to bother to look them up. :P Suffice it to say the past few days have been an exercise in my ability to deal with many, frequent changes.

Days 2-5 have been an adventure, to say the least. I traveled by first class bus from Puebla to Oaxaca (4 hours) on Thursday afternoon, then traveled overnight on Friday evening to Tapachula, arriving at about 7 am. I took a quick taxi ride (5 mins) to the pickup area for combis (basically a mini van) to Ciudad Hidalgo on the Mex/Guate border (50 minutes), then took a tricicolo (sp?, a cart pushed by a bicycle in back) to the border, across the border, and to the “bus station” in Ciudad Tecun Uman (about an hour) where I boarded a chicken bus (sans chickens) to Xela. My handy tour book says the trip from Ciudad Tecun Uman to Xela is supposed to take 3.5 hours, but my ride was closer to 5 hours. I finally arrived in Xela at about 2 pm local time (an hour behind Mexico because they don’t observe daylight savings, so basically Mountain Time). All in all, my trip from Oaxaca to Xela took about 21 hours and I have traveled about 980 miles in total since I arrived in Mexico City on Wednesday. Whew!

So now I’m chilling in an internet café and trying to quickly adjust to my new surroundings.

Quetzaltenango is a large, bustling (it doesn't seem so bustling now that I've been here for almost two weeks) town 7,661 feet above sea level. My first impressions were definitely marred by exhaustion, general crankiness, the crowded confusion of the chicken bus drop off area, and the weather, which no doubt was trying to ensure a smooth adjustment from typical Seattle weather (it has literally rained at some point every day of my trip).

My host family is very gracious and accomodating. Within the household is a mother, father, two daughters and the mother’s parents. One of the daughters is almost three and is therefore very curious about the stranger in the household and frequently wanders into my room. It is nice, however, to have someone whose language skills are somewhat more comparable to my own. :)

Things seem pretty separated between students and the family (two other students will be staying at the house for a time.) There are student rooms and a student bathroom, which is far nicer than the bathroom the family uses for themselves. I am unsure of what the other living areas look like.

Other than meals, I rarely see the family, which is fine for me at the moment as every encounter is a serious exercise and challenge to my language skills. It’s not that I don’t want to interact with my host family, but it can be quite exhausting trying to have a conversation for extended periods. The mother amd father usually try to engage me in light conversation during meals, adopting the louder, slower voice that one often uses with “foreigners.” I appreciate the practice. The rest of the family eats elsewhere.

I will begin my classes tomorrow afternoon from 2-7. I’ll begin with an exam to test my level of Spanish proficiency (nada) so that my instructor knows where to begin. After that my progress will be tested weekly to assess my strengths and areas for remediation. The guy I spoke with at the school estimates that I should be proficient enough to begin volunteering in 4-5 weeks.

Day 6 - Smooth Sailin'
Last night, two high school students joined our homestay family. They are part of a larger group of students visiting from Vermont for the week. The two girls staying with my family have each been studying Spanish for over 5 years, so they can converse a little more easily with the family, giving me the opportunity to listen and learn (a/k/a letting me off the hook). :)

The weather here is so much like Seattle - shifting from cloudy to sunny to rainy within hours or sometimes moments of each other. According to my house mother, Tropical Storm Agatha did not do much damage to their home because Zone 1, where there house is located, is higher up than the other Zones in the area. I'm also sad to report that the hot springs that my friend, Cate, told me about were destroyed by Agatha.

Day 7 - "Time for school, time for school!!!"
The first day of class was good, but a lot of work. I learned my alphabet (yeah, it's different and has some additional sounds), numbers to the thousands, days of the week, months of the year, greetings and farewells, mini conversations and even started conjugating verbs. Not bad for my first 4.5 hours (she let me go a little early since it was the first day). I even got home work.

My tutor for this week, Helen, is muy simpatico (nice), but challenging. Each week we get a new tutor. I understand from the other two girls staying with my family this week that I should watch out for Norma Uno (there are two). She's a super tough cookie. :/

I'm starting to develop a pretty relaxed daily routine, which is a nice change after my first year of nursing school. I get up at about 7:15 to have breakfast with the other homestay girls who have class at 8:00. Then I spend a couple of hours enjoying my tea, reading, watching world cup and (more recently) practicing my lessons from the day before. Then it's time for my daily coffee/internet fix (i.e. the Seattleite Special) at Cafetera.net. While it's not the cheapest for internet (at a whopping $0.63/hour as opposed to some places that only charge $0.50/hr), the Cafe Americano con Leche ($1.50), heaping with foam is worth the extra Quetzal. At around 1:00 pm we gather for a quick lunch at the homestay before my 2:00 class. By the end of class, I'm starved and can't wait to rush back home for dinner (usually yummy leftovers from lunch). Evenings are pretty quiet with most of the family disappearing soon after dinner. I think I could get used to this...

Day 8-9
I tried to post an update yesterday, but without a shower and my daily cafe americano con leche, I just couldn't do it. Apparently, from time to time the water and or electricity will go out. Yesterday we experienced both: loss of water in the morning and loss of electricity at night. Good thing I brought a flashlight with me and my host family provided me with a candle in my room.

Today I am feeling much better and up to the task of posting an update.

Lessons are proceeding very well. It's amazing how much you can learn in only 5 hours per day. I'm feeling more and more confident about my language/communications skills every day. I'm having a lot of fun with my instructor this week, Helen. She apparently has a sweet tooth and likes junk food in general, so we're going to go to Wendy's for lunch on Friday. (Don't hate!)

On most days of the week, the school organizes some type of (optional) activity for the students. On Tuesday, we visted the Trama Textiles women's weaving cooperative (www.tramatextiles.org). The co-op was started over 20 years ago by women who had lost their husbands in the Guatemalan civil war and needed a way to support their families. The co-op is made up of women from over 14 districts in Guatemala. Each district has it's own style and pattern of textiles. The women create the textiles (fabrics, clothing, bags, etc.) in their villages and representatives bring the finished products to Trama to sell at the prices determined by the producers themselves. Trama returns 100% of the proceeds to the producers and they offer weaving classes to pay the costs of operating the co-op in town. In addition to picking up a few gifts for people back home, I'm definitely going to try my hand at backstrap weaving. Lessons cost about $4/hour and are conducted one on one, at your own pace, and whenever you have time.

Well, that's all the updating/photo uploading I can do right now. It is, unfortunately, a painfully slow process and I need to head to the market for guacamole fixings before my weaving class!

Stay tuned...

Posted by oangel99 08:43 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

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