Cruising with Soggy Paws
Soggy Paws is a 44' CSY Sailboat. In 2007, we set sail on a 10 year around the world cruise.
Tuesday, December 09, 2008
2008 Presentations
Sherry did a half hour presentation on the San Blas at the East Coast Sailing Association and Melbourne Yacht Club monthly meetings.

Dave did an extensive presentation on Cruising the Western Caribbean at the Seven Seas Cruising Association 2008 Gam.

Both presentations (and some useful cruising links) can now be found on our SSCA 2008 page.

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Sunday, August 03, 2008
Lots and Lots of Pics Posted

OK, all you armchair travelers, I have spent most of the last 3 days uploading all our photos from January to now to our Picasa photo album, including all of the San Blas. We have taken at least a few photos in every place we stopped.

Enjoy! Our Photo Album

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Saturday, December 29, 2007
Finca Ixobel and Christmas
The final stop on our Tikal Tour was Finca Ixobel. (Pronounced Ish-o-bell) In Spanish, (at least here in Guatemala), Finca means ‘ranch’. Finca Ixobel was originally a ranch but is now “an ecologically friendly hotel and campground” with a ranch to help support its activities. It happens to be halfway between Tikal and the Rio Dulce. We have heard about it from various cruisers. Since they have some interesting hikes and activities, we thought we’d stop in and stay for a couple of days.

We had originally planned to stay only for 2 nights, and arrive back on the boat on Christmas Eve (the 24th). But we were having a good time (especially Nicki), and they had a nice Christmas dinner planned, that we extended our stay through Christmas.

The day we got to Finca Ixobel was the employees Christmas Party, and of course the hotel guests were invited. Carole, the American owner of Finca Ixobel, put on a really nice buffet for everyone, there was a gift exchange, and a Marimba Band. We enjoyed participating a little bit their traditions. This was very much like any American company’s Christmas party… all the spouses were invited and everyone was dressed up and uncomfortable. But after awhile the punch was flowing and the music cranked up and it looked like everyone was having fun.

At 10pm the Marimba Band shut down and the party moved to Finca Ixobel’s bar, where a bonfire (outside of course) and a DJ had been set up. We stayed long enough to see the bonfire lit. But as soon as the DJ cranked up, we decided it was too loud and left Nicki with the young people. We could still hear the boom-boom-boom of the music pretty well in our room a half a mile away, though. We were apprehensive this would recur every night, but found that the DJ was a special thing for the Christmas Party.

Finca Ixobel has a nice setup for backpackers. You can actually camp there if you have your own equipment but they also have ‘tree houses’ with beds in them. These only cost $10/nite for 2 people.

They also encourage ‘volunteering’, where you agree to stay for at least 6 weeks and they feed and house you while you help out on the Finca. This arrangement provides a constant supply of enthusiastic young people with various linguistic skills to help run the hotel. It also makes the atmosphere a lot of fun for the hotel guests.

Nicki spent most of her leisure hours hanging out with various kids from all over the world. And it was Nicki who asked to extend our stay at Finca Ixobel through Christmas. Since all the friends we might normally have done Christmas dinner with were all in the States, it seemed a good alternative.

After hanging out with all the backpacker kids, Nicki got seriously bit by the backpacker bug. Before she left for home, she told me “Mom, maybe instead of working this summer, I’ll start in Mexico and backpack down meet up with you in Panama.” This was EXACTLY what I’d been hoping for when I invited Nicki to Guatemala. (I feel that life is way too short to spend it completely focused on “getting ahead”).

Our first activity was a nice relatively easy horseback ride around the ranch. We had a German couple join in our group and each had a 5-6 year old child in their lap on the ride. So we didn’t go very fast. But we did get up to a nice vantage point to see the ranch and the ‘pueblo’ (small town of people working at the ranch) nearby.

The next day, we went on an all day hike to see and swim in a large underground cave system. This was listed as a ‘strenuous’ hike… 2 hours hiking to get to the cave, then 2 hrs INSIDE the cave system, and 2 hours to get back. Seems a little much of both walking and caving, but Nicki and Dave were really excited about it.

As we started on the hike, the weather was great. The walk out was through a combination of farm area and some serious jungle. Our guide was a Guateman who spoke no English.

The first part of the walk was easy—on flat ground on dirt roads. However, we eventually left the roads and went into the jungle. We had to scramble up and down 3 fairly serious hills covered in dense jungle. (Fortunately we had a guide and somewhat of a path to follow).

At the mouth of the cave, we stashed all our non-waterproof stuff, including the packed lunch we brought with us. And we followed the guide into the ‘Underworld’. The water was cold enough to make us gasp as we waded in. We followed the guide through the darkness, wading, swimming, and sometimes scrambling over rocks. We had headlamps and flashlights, and the guide lit a candle and placed it along the rocks as we went deeper into the cave system.

I took lots of pics with my nifty waterproof camera, but unfortunately very few of them came out as well as we’d hoped. The foggy atmosphere in the cave caused ‘backscatter’ when using the flash, and it was too dark to take pics without the flash, and at least once or twice my lens got fogged up too. But we did get a few good pics.

One feature of the cave system is a 12 foot high cliff where you can jump off of into a dark pool below. The guide showed us where to aim with his flashlight, and then did the first jump. Dave, Nicki and I all jumped (Dave and Nicki twice). It was nuts.

It started drizzling while we were in the cave, and ended up pouring before we made it back to the Finca. So the trip back was long, muddy, and wet. But we had a blast.

The next 2 days we lounged around, read books (even Dave!) and recovered from the hiking.

Finally on Christmas Day, when Nicki was sleeping off a very late Christmas Eve with the other kids (partying til 5am!), Dave and did a short climb up the ‘pyramid’ hill near by. This ended up being very tough on the knees, basically straight up and straight down. It had finally stopped raining but was still kind of muddy. But the view was great. And we really needed the exercise after 2 days of lounging and eating.

We headed back to the boat on the 26th. Nicki left on the bus for Guatemala City on the 28th.

See all the Finca Ixobel pics


Saturday, December 22, 2007
Tikal Trip Day 3 - Winter Solstice Sunrise
3:30am… wakey wakey…
4:00am… waiting for the guide in the dark cool morning air
4:30am… STILL waiting for the guide

We saw lots of flashlight activity over by the entrance gate. But we had been told specifically to wait at the entrance to our hotel.

Nicki and Jane Waiting for Sunrise at Temple 4

Finally, at about 4:35am, I left Nicki and Jane at the waiting spot and went over to investigate. We certainly didn’t want to get left behind. Our tour was supposed to have picked up people in Flores at 3:30am and be picking us up between 4 and 4:30am, prior to entering the park.

I wandered among the milling groups of people trying to find someone in charge. The guides all had headlamps and had name tags. Not knowing who our guide was supposed to be, all I could do was ask for Tikal Travel and San Juan Tours. One guide told me that a guide had been looking for me, but had already gone in. He told me that he’d put me with someone else and we’d sort it all out after sunrise at Temple 4.

So I signaled back to Jane and Nicki to “abandon post, come here”… by flashing the red light on my headlamp on and off, as previously agreed. I got a couple of answering flashes back and soon they were by my side.

After buying tickets at the ticket booth (another $20 plus an extra $1.50 for entry before 6am), our little group stumbled off in the dark behind the non-English speaking guide. As we walked along, I was trying to get my GPS up, so I could figure out exactly what time sunrise was supposed to be. I hadn't thought to look it up, since we were supposed to have been picked up by an English-speaking guide and coddled a little. I thought it was 5:30-ish, but didn’t really know. I had taken a waypoint on Temple 4 the afternoon before, and using the ‘go-to’ function, I could tell it was going to take about 25 minutes to get there at the pace we were walking. And it was already 5:05am. Eek!

It was hard to read the screen in the dark, trying to walk fast, avoid the roots, hold the GPS still, at 5am (with Nicki saying “come on Mom, quit playing with your stupid GPS”). Also, walking through the heavy foliage, the GPS doesn’t receive the satellite signals very well, so it took a long time to get a lock. Just as we arrived at Temple 4, I finally got the sunrise information… oh… 6:22am. Oh. We have nearly an hour to wait.

Somehow, we were some of the first to arrive at the top of Temple 4, so got to pick our seats. No need to bribe the guide this time… the open area of Temple 4 is facing east. It was still full dark when we got up there. Nicki and I got set up in the front row, close to the rail. I set my ‘Gorilla Pod’ (a small tripod with bendable legs) up on the railing, and proceeded to take a picture every 5 minutes or so.

After the last group got settled at the top of Temple 4, one of the guides told us all to be really quiet and we could hear the sounds of the jungle awakening. Pretty soon we could hear several howler monkey groups calling out and answering back and forth. We could also hear all kinds of exotic birds, including macaws, toucans, flocks of parrots, and the distinctive cry of the oro pendulum. See ‘Movie of Howler Monkeys at Dawn’ in our Photo Album. (note, not much video, but lots of audio… warning, large file!)

Dawn at Temple 4

It slowly got light, but being a cool morning, we had heavy fog. Never saw the sunrise. Finally about 6:45, the spokesman for the guides gave a little talk about dawn at Tikal and some of the flora and fauna. Then they split us up among the various guides (this is where we ended up with the wrong guide, who’s tour ended at 8:30am instead of 11am).

Our guide was good. He spoke good English and knew where to go to find the animals (monkeys, toucans, etc). We started working our back back from Temple 4 toward the central part of the park, unfortunately covering areas that we had seen in our unguided walk yesterday.

Our Guide Calling the Monkeys

We had made plans to try to hook up with the guys at 7:00 in the Central Plaza. (Note: No cell phone coverage at Tikal, and we hadn’t thought about things like walkee-talkees, so we had to just wing it).

However, since we were covering areas of the park that we had covered yesterday, and I had my trusty GPS. So when the guide announced that the next stop was Temple 5, I knew I could find the Plaza, round up the guys (if they had gotten their lazy asses out of bed yet), and get us back with the group in Temple 5. I didn’t make it to the Plaza until about 7:20, and as I walked in from one side, there was Dave and Tom just getting there on the other side. Great timing!

After Temple 5, the guide headed straight for the Central Plaza. Oh well. After he gave us a briefing on the temples surrounding the Central Plaza, he announced that the tour was over.

What!? It’s only 8:30 and we booked a tour until 11am! It was only then that we found we’d been directed to go with the wrong guide, when the groups split up atop Temple 4.

Fortunately Tom’s 10Q map had made it back into the park with the guys. We spent the rest of the morning locating and walking to the several large outer temple complexes that we hadn’t gotten to the day before.

By 11:30 those of us that got up at 3:30am were feeling pretty tired. Not just sleepy tired but very footsore, so we headed out to catch the 12:30 shuttle to our next hotel.

We started looking for our shuttle about 10 til noon. There are 20 or so vans hanging out at the entrance to the park, waiting for groups coming out. When the guy had dropped us off the day before, Dave made it clear we’d be wanting to go back on the first (12:30) shuttle, and he said “I’ll be waiting right here.” Well, after each of us checking the parking lot over the next half hour, still no shuttle.

At 12:30, Dave finally used the hotel phone to call the company we booked the tour with (Tikal Travel). The guy said the shuttle should be there and just be patient. 5 minutes later, he called back and said “I’m coming to get you.”

It’s an hour trip from Flores to Tikal, so we went back to the Jaguar Inn for lunch and to wait for the van.

Long story short… our tour company, Tikal Travel, had subcontracted the tour and shuttle ride back to San Juan Tours. Somehow the whole thing was miscommunicated. Probably why we didn’t get picked up at the Tikal Inn in the morning as we’d been told, and why there was no shuttle driver looking for 5 gringoes and luggage at 12:30. To complicate things, the Tikal Travel operator is closed daily until 3pm (she teaches during the day), and of course, there’s no cell phone signal out at Tikal. The guy we’d gotten ahold of is Tikal Travel’s brother, who happens to have a van (and who charged us the normal fare after he picked us up at Tikal. Dave made several phone calls to Tikal Travel’s owner, who indicated it was San Juan Tours’ fault. She said she’d get them to give us partial refund, if we stopped by their office the next day. (we did and they wouldn’t). We felt really scammed by the whole thing. Not so much that an honest mistake was made, but that both operators refused to refund any money. We do not recommend either Tikal Travel or San Juan Tours, for any Tikal trips.

Anyway, eventually we got out of Tikal and on to El Remate, where La Casa de Don David awaited us. This turned out to be a really nice alternative to staying IN Tikal. It is located on the eastern shore of Lake Peten (the same lake that Flores is in), and is considerably closer to Tikal than Flores. It is well-run, has good food, and reasonable prices. We saw a spectacular sunset over the lake there.

Dave Relaxing at Casa de Don David

Tikal Trip Recap and Recommendations

After we finished it all, if we did it again, here is what we would do.

1. Go at a less busy time, and make less reservations ahead.

2. Avoid San Juan Travel and Tikal Travel at all costs. Their organization stunk, and they absolutely refused to give us any refund for services we did not get because they were so disorganized (we got neither the guide we paid for nor the trip back from Tikal).

3. Book 3 nights at Casa de Don David in El Remate vs any hotel in Flores or Tikal. Don David is 'muy tranquilo', reasonably close to Tikal, nice rooms, much better food, and well run. They will help with transportation to Tikal and away from the area when you are ready to leave.

4. Don't pre-book any tours to Tikal, but wait until you get to the front gate and negotiate your own deal directly with a guide. Make sure he speaks good English and is familiar with Tikal (perhaps ask other travelers for individual recommendations).

5. Skip the sunrise tour unless your just into listening for the animals in the jungle. I don’t think the sun is seen very often at dawn.

6. If you want to do sunrise or sunset, do it at Temple 5, not Temple 4. Temple 4 is really crowded these days at sunrise/sunset.

All of Our Tikal Photos.


Friday, December 21, 2007
Tikal Trip Day 2 - Tikal Inn, Sunset at Temple 4

In the morning, we had an hour to walk around the town of Flores before our shuttle bus was due. Very narrow streets and very touristy (mainly shops and restaurants). The most notable thing was the big Christmas tree in the square that was topped with a 'Gallo' ornament. Gallo is the local beer (pronounced guy-oh).

Our shuttle bus was on time at 10am. The drive only spoke Spanish so we put Dave (our designated speaker) up front with the driver.

We drove right past the 'new' airport at Santa Elena, which is also an army base. In addition to tanks and military jets, it is clear that this area has been discovered. It is rapidly turning into a major tourist destination—large hotels going up, big new airport addition, sparkling new tourist buses.

On the way to Tikal, our driver offered us a 'deal' on tickets into Tikal. He was offering to get us in for Q100 (about 1/3 off the normal price). He said it was a travel agent price. We wondered why the travel agent had not offered this option to us the day before. Long story short... it turned out to be somewhat of a scam. We did get into the park that afternoon on his discount ticket but we could not use it for entry the next day (which we had planned to do). On a regular ticket, if you go in after 3pm, you can also use your ticket for entry the next day. This was only one of several bad experiences we had with the arrangements with Tikal Travel and San Juan Tours (related agencies).

We got checked into the Tikal Inn, where Dave had already made reservations, left our bags in the lobby because our room wasn't ready yet, and went next door to the Jaguar Inn for lunch. It was an OK lunch, a little pricey and limited selections (but apparently the best available out at Tikal).

There are only 3 places to stay AT Tikal... Tikal Inn, Jaguar Inn, and the Jungle Lodge. The Jungle Lodge is the most expensive. Tikal is the middle one. The Jaguar Inn is the least expensive, and has a slightly better restaurant and common area atmosphere (and wifi/internet). None of the places has electricity during the day (except in the common areas).

When we finished lunch, our rooms were ready, so we unpacked our bags and equipped ourselves for major hiking. By 2pm we were at the Tikal Park entrance. We were disappointed to find that the museum, which used to be free, now charges an entry fee on top of the (just raised by 200%) park entry fee of 150Q ($20). In mute protest, we opted not to go into the museum.

One of the first things we encountered was the big Ceiba Tree. The Ceiba is also known in the Caribbean as the Kapok tree. In Guatemalan, the Mayans hold the Ceiba tree as sacred. It is known as the Tree of Life, because its roots go deep into the Underworld and its branches go way up in the sky. All we know is that it was one impressive tree, and we’re glad no one has cut it down.

The Girls at the Big Ceiba Tree

We had a guidebook that we had bought for $10, it had a map and some writeups, but it turned out to be mostly pictures and not that great. Tom and Jane had bought just a map for 10Q and we ended up using that as our primary map. The ‘traditional’ Tikal map is an archeologist sketch and is hard to read. Their map was a Disney World type map and much easier to figure out where we were and where we were trying to go. It clearly indicated which temples had been excavated and which were still ‘au natural’. The good map was a medium sized color fold-out map had a Gallo ad on the back. If you see it, buy it, it’s worth it.

On the way in to the Central Plaza, we went through a picnic area that had spider monkeys all over the trees. We saw a mommy with a baby on her back. Was hard to get good pics since they were so high up and under the dark canopy, but I think we got one or two good ones.

Also on the way in, the path passed what we termed a “looters tunnel”. There was no sign prohibiting entry, so of course we had to go in. Not much there, but fun to explore.

We eventually found the Central Plaza and all the surrounding temples. I have included a number of pics in the photo album and labeled them all. I won’t bore everyone here with the details. All I can say it is an amazing collection of structures rising up out of the jungle, dating from about 200 AD. There are thousands of ancient structures at Tikal and only a fraction of these have been excavated after decades of archaeological work. Most structures are still claimed by the jungle. If you’re interested in and overview of Tikal, check out the Wikipedia entry on Tikal.

Atop Temple 2 with Temple 1 in the background

Below, Climbing Temple 5

We climbed all over all the structures we could access in the Central Plaza and then located Temple 5 and climbed it. As the sun started to drop, we headed for Temple 4, reported to be the best sunset/sunrise viewing site.

When we got to Temple 4, we were dismayed to find that it was being reconstructed and all the west-facing spots were blocked off. We carefully hopped the fence so we could at least get to where we could see the sun go down. Pretty soon a gun-toting guard came by and told us we had to get back behind the fence. We pleaded with him in Spanish to let us stay where we could see the sun go down, and he eventually said he’d let us stay for 20Q ($2.65) per person.

Dave didn’t want to do bribes and was getting ready to climb back over the fence, but I wasn’t going without seeing the sun go down, so I whipped a 100Q note out of my pocket and gave it to the guide. Before the sun went down there were about 15 people hanging out on the prohibited side of Temple 4. The guards must fight for who gets to guard Temple 4 during sunset!

I did feel like a bad tourist. But then… I couldn’t believe that with the newly-increased $20 per person fee we paid to get in, there wasn’t some information passed out about having the west side of Temple 4 blocked off. They surely need a PR guy managing Tikal.

Anyway, we stayed for the sunset and then hiked out in the dark back to the hotel (about a half hour of hard walking). Got some great pics of the sunset, and then of the full moon rising over Temple 1 as we walked past.

Our dinner at Tikal Inn was mediocre, but we were hungry after all that hiking.

After a couple of drinks, Tom and Dave informed us that in order to take advantage of the free breakfast that comes with our room, they were going to skip sunrise and meet us in the park later. (WIMPS!)

Nicki, Jane, and I turned in early, as we had to be out at the curb at 4am the next morning for the sunrise tour.

Tikal Photo Album


Thursday, December 20, 2007
Tikal Trip Day 1 - Rio Dulce to Flores
We started the second half of our adventure with Nicki with a trip to Tikal, the largest 'open' ruins site in Guatemala.

Dave had been assigned the travel arrangements while I was off with Nicki in Antigua. He spent a lot of hours talking to other cruisers in the Rio about how to get there and where to go and stay. Most of the advice turned out well. Some of the problems we did have were associated with traveling during Christmas, which is a busy time in Guatemala.

In addition to Dave, Nicki, and I, we were also joined by another couple that were staying at Catamarans (the marina where we are now). Jane and Tom don't know much Spanish and thought it would be great to tag along with someone who did. We were happy to have them join us, as more people make better negotiating power when you are trying to negotiate group rates.

Our Motley Crew

Our first task was to get to Flores, the town near Tikal, where we planned to spend the night at a nice hotel on the lake. We were trying to get there by early afternoon, so we had time to look around the small island town of Flores, and maybe do something fun. But the normal bus that everyone takes doesn't leave the Rio until 3pm, so one of the 'old timers' on the river told us about a bus that passes thru between 10 and 11am (the Rapido del Sur bus). They don't have an office in Rio Dulce, you just flag them down as they pass through.

By 11:30, the bus still hadn't come (though people on the street told us it should be coming soon). However, as we were waiting at the Fuente del Norte bus station, we saw that the normal 2nd class buses that pass through once an hour (our backup plan) were totally jam packed. They already had people standing in the aisle before they arrived in Rio Dulce. We didn't really want to have to stand up all the way to Flores.

Dave Contemplating Bus Options

Fuente del Norte Bus Passing Thru - Jammed

So, 'Plan C' was hatched on the street. With 5 of us, it was almost reasonable to hire a private van to take us to Flores. We negotiated with one of the guys hustling travel arrangements in the street, for a private van for $150. So the price for step one of our trip increased from 50Q ($7) per person to $30 per person. But we had a direct door-to-door van all to ourselves and could stop if we wished.

After a quick lunch at Bruno's we finally got off at 1pm in the private van. On the way out of town, the van driver stopped at his house (a small wooden shack on the street in Fronteras) and picked up his 9 year old son and his 8 year old buddy. These two little guys amused Nicki and I all the way to Flores. They asked us a million questions about the English words for things. And asked Nicki if she had any 'niños' (kids), which Nicki thought was a real hoot.

The Island of Flores

We arrived in Flores about 4pm. Dave had already made reservations at the Casona de la Isla, and Tom and Jane were able to get a room there too. It was a really nice place with a pool, hot tub and nice view of the lake (see more pics in our photo album). We had arranged for one large room for the three of us, and our room was huge, with 3 double beds, a private bath with hot water, and a great view of the lake. (Later we found that 2 of the 3 beds were really sprung...)

Sherry & Nicki In Front of Casona de la Isla

The View from Our Room

We also noticed there was a travel agency, Tikal Travel, right across the street. Dave's original plan was to wait until we actually got to Tikal to get a guide and make arrangements for our planned sunset and sunrise trips into Tikal. However, the travel agency had a lady that spoke good English, and because it was 'busy season', we thought it might be better to book things ahead (this turned out to be a big mistake).

So we booked a shuttle van into Tikal for the next day, and then also booked a 'sunrise tour of Tikal' for the following day.

For the sunrise tour, the guide was to pick us up at the front of our hotel in Tikal at 4:30 am, and guide us into Temple IV to watch the sunrise, and then take us on a half-day guided tour of the rest of Tikal, and then we'd take the shuttle bus back into El Remate (halfway back from Tikal) for our next stop. The price for the round trip (35 miles each way) and the guided tour was 200Q ($26). Entry to Tikal for non-Guatemalans is now Q150 ($20) on top of that.

We had a fair dinner at La Luna restaurant down the street from the hotel. It was recommended in the Lonely Planet and also by friends. The décor was great, service was good, but the menu was so-so-- more European than Guatemalan, and a little on the expensive side for Guatemala.

Tikal Trip Photos


Sunday, December 16, 2007
Vulcan Pacaya Reprise
View of Fuego, Agua, and Santa Maria Volcanos from Pacaya
The volcano hike (my second one, Nicki's first) was really awsome. Unlike the steady drizzle and fog we encountered during the summer, we had a spectacular clear day. We could see everything for miles, once we got up on the mountain, including all 3 volcanos that surround Antigua (Santa Maria, Agua, and Fuego). The lava flow wasn't quite as good, however. On our trip before, the lava was oozing slowly on a relatively flat area. So we could walk right up to it and feel *relatively* safe. This time, the lava was flowing down quite a steep hill and randomly breaking off basketball-sized flaming boulders and flinging them downhill (right at us). I didn't feel quite safe like that, but the guide didn't seem too concerned (he could probably run faster than me!). We were also taking pictures of the lava right into the rising sun, so it was harder to get a good shot. The trip was a LOT dryer. After fully preparing for a wet trip, we saw nary a drop or hint of rain. It was still tough going up and down, but we went a lot faster... we were back in Antigua by noon. Anyway, Nicki and I both had a great time. We'll be feeling it tomorrow, but it was definitely worth it, even for a second time around. More photos on our Picasa Photo Album


Saturday Night in Antigua
We had a really nice dinner last night at La Pena del Sol Latino. They have great food and play live Andean (Peruvian) music several nights a week.

However, we left the restaurant in the middle of the first set, to get to bed early, because we had booked a 'Volcano Hike' and and had to get up at 5:30am to be ready for our pickup at 6am.

A good night's sleep was not in our future. First, it was Saturday night and our hotel, Casa Rustica, is very close to the central square. And apparently close to a disco... we had LOUD live music until 1am. Then after the music shut down, there were some fireworks set off, and that woke the roosters up.

It wasn't quiet until about 2am, and then we still had the random rooster going off.

At 4:15am, the guard in our hotel walked around banging on each door, trying to find the idiots who booked a 4am shuttle to somewhere, and didn't set their alarm. The noise also set the roosters off again. Whoever said that roosters only crow at sunrise just hasn't been around roosters much!

And, of course, we had to get ourselves up at 5:30am to go hike the volcano.

Nicki says it's a plot to keep her forever from getting a good night's sleep (she has just finished finals week at USF and is feeling quite sleep deprived).

I have promised her that TOMORROW she can sleep in.


Friday, December 14, 2007
On the Road Again

Daughter Nicki flies in today from Florida, on break from University of South Florida. We gave her the choice of going sailing or seeing Guatemala and she chose Guatemala.

So I am on my way this morning to pick her up in Guatemala City and take her to Antigua for a few days. Then we'll head back to the boat, pick up Dave and the 3 of us will finally get to Tikal.


Friday, November 02, 2007
Headed Home (a day in Guate City)
On Wednesday, Dave and I hopped on the morning Litegua bus to Guatemala City. It was an uneventful trip and I took advantage of the time to read a book. Dave marvels at my ability to read in a moving vehicle. But I've always done it. It's a great way to make the time pass.

We arrived in Guate about 2pm, at the Litegua bus station downtown, and negotiated for a taxi to take us to our hotel near the airport. We weren't sure what the far should be, but the taxi driver started at 90Q and we got him down to 60Q, so we probably got a reasonably fair fare.

Our hotel, a small family run hotel called Patricia's was recommended to us by a friend.

It turned out to be a family home, in the traditional Guatemalan style with a courtyard in the middle. The family rents out 6 rooms with shared bath, 3 in each leg of the "U". It was a very clean and fairly cheery place, and Patricia and her family were very nice. The beds were firm, the pillows NOT lumpy, the sheets good. There is free wifi. TV is shared, in the courtyard.

We'd recommend this as a budget hotel close to the airport. The cost was $12 U.S. pp, which includes one airport transfer and a continental breakfast. They also gave us a ride into town (Zone 10) for 25Q (about $3). They do NOT do dinner, but there is a small diner within walking distance featuring typical El Salvadoran food.

After we got settled in the hotel, Dave and I spent the afternoon poking around the Zona Viva (Zone 10) in Guatemala City. This is the area where most of the foreign embassies are located, and has several US-style shopping malls, plus numerous bars, restaurants, and hotels, all within a few blocks of each other. This is where most non-backpacker tourists stay in Guatemala, either coming or going. There is a nice-looking Holiday Inn and a few other upscale US hotels. But the low end of these hotels start at $75/nite, a price we'd never consider paying in Guatemala.

We strolled the malls and were amazed at the "stuff". You can truly get just about any U.S. goods here, at a price. Not outrageous, just what you'd expect to pay when adding shipping costs and government import taxes (12%). The largest store in the Rio Dulce is about the size of a typical 3BR home in the U.S., so everything is limited in selection and quantity. So we just gawked at all the stuff in these stores. And the malls they were in were typical huge malls... 3 levels with a large food court in each one.

We also walked a few blocks to check out the budget hotel that many of the cruisers use when coming to the city. Hotel Las Torres

It is located in Zone 10 and within walking distance of all the malls, restaurants and bars. We had received conflicting recommendations from our friends. One friend said it was great, and other said they wouldn't stay there again. Though we didn't get to see a room, because they were all full, it looked "entirely adequate".

The Las Torres is right across from the Holiday Inn and costs half the price. They advertise a room rate of $38.50, but tell them you're a boater on the Rio Dulce and give them a boat card to put on their wall, and you get a room rate of $25. The front desk guy says their wifi works "most of the time". I think we'll stay here on our way back through Guate just to experience it for ourselves.

Our plan was to eat while downtown and then catch a cab back to the hotel for an early night. We needed to get up at 4:30am to catch our 7am flight out to Ft. Lauderdale.

I have to confess that we ate in the mall food court, and then had an ice cream at McDonalds. The mall meal was good--at a New Orleans themed restaurant though with a Guatemalan flair.

We flagged down a taxi back to the U.S. Again he asked for almost double what it should have been and when Dave started pressing for a lower price, he whined about rush hour, etc. We settled on 30Q, but Dave gave him 35Q, because the traffic was bad and he turned out to be a nice guy.

It appeared that we were the only guests at Patricia's. We never saw another guest, and it was a nice quiet hotel, EXCEPT for the engine noises coming from the airport. The traffic dies down after dark and the only one that disturbed us was about 4am, some turbo prop revving up his engines.

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Monday, October 22, 2007
The People You Meet Traveling
I have been meaning to write for awhile about the amazing variety of people we have met while we've been traveling in Guatemala. Just on our trip last weekend, we met some really cool and different people:

  • Brian is a non-denominational, non-governmental social worker in the Dominican Republic. Brian is originally from South Africa, but now is a US citizen. He and his wife have been working together in Haiti and the DR for about 5 years. Though a big strong guy, he has a very gentle heart and a clear mission in life. Brian is in Guatemala studying Spanish so he can better interact with the people he is working with. Website

  • Adam is a newly commissioned lieutenant in the US Army Reserves. He was an Army sergeant, but just completed 6 months of officer training school, and is taking a break for a few months in Guatemala. He's studying Spanish and working as a bartender at the local sports bar.

  • William is a young man from Belgium, but is of Guatemalan origin. William was adopted from Guatemala as a baby, and has returned to get to know his country of birth. He's one of the most outgoing (and nice) people we met. Being Belgian, he grew up knowing French and Dutch. His English is pretty good, and he's learning Spanish.

  • Laurel and Darrin, a mid-life couple from California who are 9 months into a 15 month trip around the world. They've been backpacking for 9 months, and have been all over... Australia, Nepal, India, etc. From here they are headed to South America. Their $3,000 round-the-world airline ticket runs out in March... Website

  • Steve and Jacky are a mid-life couple from New Zealand, traveling in Mexico and Guatemala on a 6 week vacation. Jacky's stories of traveling in her younger days (3 days across Africa in the back of a fish truck) were incredible.

  • Kim, who is a 50-ish Korean man. His brother has lived in Guatemala for a number of years and Kim has come here to visit him. He studies Spanish in the school in Antigua during the week, and then goes to his brother's house in Guatemala City for the weekend.

  • John and Celine, a French Canadian couple. John is here for his 4th time. His Spanish is pretty good, but he's still expanding his vocabulary and increasing his fluency. He brought his wife Celine down here so she could learn and travel with him.

  • Hanneka, a Dutch woman. Here by herself, just hanging out in Guatemala, and learning Spanish and seeing the sights.

  • Suresh, who is a Canadian from Ontario. He has just completed his medical school entrance exams, and has a couple of months to wait before the results come back. So he's here studying Spanish and hanging out. He already knows Spanish much better than I do (from only 2 weeks and Spain, he said).

  • Lucy, a young girl about 21 who wasn't really interested in college. Her parents suggested she try a different tack and encouraged her to go to Guatemala to volunteer to do some social work up in the highlands of Guatemala. The prerequisite was 2 months of language school, which she finished last week. Lucy got on a bus for Xela last weekend to go up into the mountains until Christmas.

  • And of course the 'yachties'. To our amigos at the school, our life and plans are very exotic, too. They are interested in exactly how we are living (and how we can afford it.

Dave's Website

Memory Rose's Website

The common questions when you meet another student (in a bar, in the square, on a bus to somewhere, at the mid-morning break at the school).

- Where are you from?
- How long are you here for?
- Where have you been in Guatemala?
- Where are you going next?
- How can you afford to do this?

It is fun sharing life stories and tips about how to see more of Guatemala for less. And it is inspiring to meet other adventurous people like ourselves.

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Monday, October 15, 2007
Coban, Lanquin, Semuc Champey

We left the school at 1pm on Friday. There were 9 of us and luggage, plus we were picking up 3 more at the crossroads. Hmmm... could be a little tight in that van!

They had promised us an itinerary, but we never got one (and forgot to ask until we were underway). Maybe it was a plot to make us have to talk Spanish with our driver!

The driver, Carlos, seemed to only speak Spanish (but later I found out that he speaks English pretty well). I was worried that the fact that we were supposed to be picking Dave, Ron, and Dorothy up at El Rancho hadn't been properly communicated. So I worried the whole way until we actually had them in the bus that something wouldn't work out right. But it was no problem.

We didn't pick them up in El Rancho until about 4:30pm, and we still had about 2 hours to go to get to Coban. To fit all 12 people in, with luggage, we had to put Sue on the jump seat next to the driver, and Dorothy on the back jump seat next to the luggage. They swapped places on the way back and both ended up with sore bums.

It was a dark and rainy night and we were all glad that someone else was driving us. Carlos turned out to be a very good and careful driver. Most of the roads in Guatemala are still only 2 lanes. And they have no trains and no ports to speak of, so ALL the goods in the country move via truck. AND the roads are very mountainous, so one heavily laden truck going up a hill will essentially stall traffic to a crawl. So the other drivers just pass them anywhere, any way they can... on hills, on blind curves, etc. It is not uncommon to have 3 abreast on a 2 lane road. They are all crazy. It's nervewracking to just be in the passenger seat. But Carlos refused to pass unless he could do so safely.

The sleeping arrangements for our 2 nights in the hotel had been a little fuzzy. The normal student population (the backpackers) are used to dormitory style accommodations. But I wanted to spend at least the first night alone with Dave, so I asked for a private room for us and another for Ron and Dorothy. There were 2 other couples in the group and 4 single people. Once all the keys had been given out, it turned out that my friend Sue (who is married) ended up being paired with Kim, an older gentleman from Korea. He wasn't too keen about that and neither was Sue.

There were no more rooms to be had. So they shuffled things a little bit and they ended up putting her in with 2 other students (in a 3-bed room). I think the name of the hotel was Pasado Don Antonio, but it was somewhat unremarkable. We got there late, it was pouring rain and it continued to rain until we left in the morning.

The next morning we had breakfast in a Pollo Campero, which is a McDonalds-style fast food restaurant that specializes in chicken.

They are all over Guatemala, but so far we had refused to eat in one. But our driver, Carlos, picked this place because it was easy and relatively fast. It was not bad. Dave and I both got 'Plato Super Tipico' which included refried beans and fried plantains (and eggs, bacon, etc).

Once we left Coban for Lanquin, the paved road ended and we went the rest of the way on dirt roads. However, we saw regular mile markers (in kilometers, actually). We wondered whether someone would really go 265 Km on this road!!! I think it was only about 40 Km to our final destination, but it took us 2 hrs of driving to cover that distance. It had rained the night before and the roads were muddy and slippery, and we were going up and down hills on very rutted roads.

With the van so heavily loaded, Carlos had to get a running start before going up a hill. Once, we met another car coming our way, and we had to stop to let him pass, and then Carlos had to back down the road a quarter of a mile to get our running start again. We also had to shift a few people to the back, to put some more weight on the back wheels. We eventually made it.

The first stop on Saturday morning were the caves of Lanquin (lan-keen)... Las Cuevitas de Lanquin. This was a big series of caves with lights, etc. Our guide spoke only Spanish and took us through the cave pointing out formations that look like something else. (ie one rock looked like a monkey face, El Mono).

It was kind of uninspiring after our cave trip in Belize. Everyone was excited when Dave pointed out the bats hanging from the ceiling. The cave was lit, but they had told us to bring flashlights in case the lights go out. They say there are miles of caves that have not been explored.

After the caves, we piled back in the van for another 10 Km to get to our final destination, Semuc Champey and Hotel Las Marias. It was more bumpy slithery road, though small villages and at least one coffee plantation.

Las Marias is situated on the Rio Lanquin, right near Semuc Champey.

Semuc Champey is a series of waterfalls and pools, where the river goes (mostly) for awhile. The sight of the river falling into this big hole was an amazing site.

We got a chance to swim and climb around on the rocks in the pools.

Then Dave and I and Sue opted to walk back via the 'mirador' (overlook). It was a half hour climb up steep steps (both rock and wooden) to get there. But the view was worth it and we saw 3 toucans in the tree nearby. The picture at the beginning was taken from the mirador.

We met some of our friends from the La Union school who had also gone to Semuc Champey on a trip they organized themselves. They got to do the tubing trip in addition to the waterfalls trip.

At dinner the owner of the hotel and his buddies hauled out their Marimba and played some authentic Guatemalan music for us.

The trip back on Sunday was long. The only fun thing was our stop at Biotopo Quetzal, where we did an hour nature walk through the 'cloud forest'. There are supposed to be Quetzals (the Gaute national bird) there, but we didn't see any.

More pics here:
Coban, Lanquin, and Semuc Champey

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Language School, after Day 4
We've settled in to a weekday routine... up at 7am, breakfast on the table at 7:30 (made by our house mother Estela), and out the door to school at 7:45.

My teacher and I in school

It's about a 10 minute walk from our casa to the school. Each student/teacher pair gets a desk, and there are about 30 desks scattered around the school. We get a break from 10:00 to 10:30am. There is an old woman selling meat pies on the street at break. Or you can go next door to the internet cafe.

During the morning, one of the people from school comes by and describes the day's afternoon activity and asks if you want to participate (all in Spanish). Yesterday, it was a free Salsa/Merengua class. Today it was a visit to Mayan family house for a demonstration on weaving, a mock wedding, and some 'plata typica' (typical Mayan food), with, of course, an opportunity to buy some Mayan handicrafts (yep, bought another one).

Tomorrow the activity is a bicycle tour of Antigua. These are generally free or inexpensive. And they are all in Spanish.

School ends at 12 noon. Lunch (back at the casa) isn't til 1pm, so we have time to either check some email or lounge a bit before lunch. Most of the afternoon activities start at 2pm, so it's back to the school for that. We are usually back at the casa by 5pm, where Estela has dinner ready.

Then we study... an hour or two, perhaps interspersed with a little bit of TV. (CNN in English, sometimes a Spanish channel).

Every weekend the school also organizes a group tour for the weekend, to some place in Guatemala. This weekend the tour is to Coban, Lanquin, and Semuc Champey. This is an area of caves and rivers, where the attractions are rain forest, caves, tubing, and waterfalls. The cost for the trip, including transportation and hotel, is $85 pp. This is an area that Dave has been dying to visit. So when I heard that was where the trip was, I called him and asked if he wants to try to meet me. He researched the logistics of getting from the Rio Dulce, and said it was do-able. He also enlisted our friends Ron and Dorothy. So the three of them are going to catch the Litegua bus to El Rancho, where the road from Antigua/Guatemala City turns left to Coban.

Note: Coban is not Copan, which is a place of ruins in Honduras.

Our humble abode.

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Sunday, October 07, 2007
Off to Language School in Antigua
One of our cruising friends decided she was going off to language school in Antigua while her husband tore the boat apart to repair leaky fuel tanks. Since I had been wanting to do the same thing, and Dave kept saying he had too many projects to do to go off on anther trip, I volunteered to go along with Sue from Infini.<

Sue had done all the research and had picked the school already. I checked out the La Union website and agreed it looked like a good school. La Union website. The cost for 4 hours a day with a private tutor is $90 a week, and room and board in the 'student house' is another $83/week. Sue and I both signed up via a form on their website. Some schools require as much as a $75 registration fee, but La Union does not.

We left the Rio on the Litegua bus on Thursday and started school on Friday. We opted to take classes on Saturday (at least THIS Saturday), but we are taking today off. After 2 days of intense study, I have 'verbos irregularos' spilling out of my brain. I am learning, I just hope it sticks.

I would probably be learning more if I had opted to do a 'home stay' (stay with a family who won't speak any English to you). However, we both wanted the freedom of a less intimate setting. The student house has turned out to be kinda fun. It is typical of the low end hotels in Antigua, but kind of family style with communal meals. The accommodations are bare bones, but clean enough. (Sue bought a roll of paper towels today so she could clean up her bathroom a little better).

Our 'house mother', Estela, lives elsewhere, but comes in at 7am to make breakfast, and stays til 5pm. She does the cooking and the cleaning. Lunch is ready for us at 1pm, when we get out of school, and she makes dinner and leaves it for us when she leaves at 5pm. We are free to eat when we want by warming it in the microwave.

There are 6 rooms here. Most of the students are young Americans--just out of college. They seem to drink and party more than they study. One is actually working as a bartender in a local student hangout. Sue and I are the oldest. There's another older student who's an American, but who is originally from South Africa. Brian is currently living in the Dominican Republic and an aid worker with a non-governmental organization based in the DR. He desperately wants to learn Spanish, and studies
every night. We have had an interesting time talking around the dinner table. He has family in South Africa and New Zealand, some of whom are sailors. So he is curious about what we are doing and why (and how much it costs).

We plan to stay here in Antigua studying for 2 weeks, and then Sue will fly back to the States for awhile (while her husband Mike finishes the messy project), and I will go back to the Rio Dulce. If Dave and Mike can take a few days off from their 'projects' next weekend, we hope they'll meet us in Guatemala City for a day or so.

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

On our jaunt around the highlands, we got to looking at a map, and realized that there is a Mayan ruins site that is within an hour of the Rio Dulce. So once we'd recovered from our highlands trip, Sherry organized a day trip to Quirigua (kee-ree-gwa).

The first step was to announce on the morning net that I was putting together a trip for next week. We got an unexpected boost in interest when one of the 'old hands' on the river came on and said that Quirigua had the best stellae (carved stones) that he'd ever seen. Within an hour I had about 15 people on my list. The last few I had to tell that I wasn't sure I could fit them in. I wasn't sure if I could get more than a 12 person van.

We screwed around for a few days with Steve from Bruno's, trying to get a price for a trip to Quirigua. For whatever reason, he wasn't very interested in the business. Finally I gave up and asked our friend Russell from s/v Cookie's Cutter to call the van driver they'd used before. With Russ's help, we hired Edgar for Q600 ($80) for the day. He said it would be Q40 ($5.25) a head if we had 15 people. We asked him the max he could take and he said 17. (NOT!!)

I finally got 15 people confirmed and told them to meet at Bruno's at 8:30am on the appointed day. Everyone kept asking me questions that I couldn't answer (since I hadn't been there). I did a little research on the internet to better plan the trip. There wasn't much about Quirigua... it seems to be a short stop on the way from Copan to Tikal or Guat City for most tours. So I told everyone what I thought and that we'd be winging it.

A bunch of us at Tortugal were going, so we took the Tortugal launch over to town in the morning and had an early breakfast at Bruno's. While at breakfast, Ron got to talking with some backpackers who were looking for something to do for the day. We told them we were going to Quirgua and we could probably squeeze in 2 more. Fortunately they decided to go elsewhere, as there turned out NOT to be room for 17 in the van.

Edgar showed up on time. It was a decent van--not one of the top of the line Tourismo vans, but not bad. Pretty much what I'd expected for the price. With 15 of us, and almost no luggage, we were pretty crammed. If we did another trip in that van we would limit it to 12 or 13.

One guy brought a cooler, and it had to go on top. There wasn't enough room behind the back seat to even put backpacks. Edgar originally said we could have A/C for Q5 more per head, but I guess he was hot and turned the A/C on anyway.

Since I hadn't done the trip before, I had to guess at the plan... my guess was an hour's drive, about 2-3 hours there, lunch, and a drive back, and we'd be back by about 3pm. I ended up spot-on. I suggested everyone bring a bottle of water and a snack. Dorothy's idea of a snack turned out to be lunch for everyone (a bottle of wine, pate, cheese, crackers, etc, complete with a table cloth, wine glasses, and wooden bowls). I had NO IDEA she was lugging all that stuff around until she started unloading it.

Quirigua is a small place with big stones. There might be more unexcavated stuff in the jungle, but the part that's open to the public was pretty small. The interpretive center was all in Spanish, so a few of us who could read it, interpreted for the rest. There are no plaques around the stones, and no brochure. One part of the site was actively being excavated and was fenced off.

We managed to pick up an English speaking guide (who didn't know the place well) and his buddy, who did know the history, but spoke no english. Between the two of them, they did a pretty good job of guiding us thru the place. We all pitched in a couple of bucks a head to have them tag along with us.

It had rained hard the night before, and the grounds were kind of swampy. The mosquitos were brutal. The place was set in heavy jungle, so there wasn't a breath of air stirring. Fortunately there was a paved path with some shade over it. But most of the people who came with us didn't venture close to more than one or two of the stones. ("Seen one rock, seen them all").

We were finished looking at everything in about an hour and a half. Dorothy decided it was time for 'snacks' and sat down next to a ruin, in the shade, and started pulling stuff out of her backpack. Those of us that had perservered through the mosquitos, heat, humidity, and the climb up over the ruins, had a nice picnic lunch there.

The others had apparently had enough of old rocks and had headed back to the van--a cell phone call revealed that they were back at the van waiting for us. We promised them we'd finish off our wine and cheese and go to lunch with them.

Back in the parking lot, we did a little shopping... I bought a glasses case with Guatemalan weaving for $1.25.

Then it was off to Mariscos, a small town on the far side of Lake Izabel. Edgar wanted another Q10 a head to take us to Mariscos. After the drive there, I understand why--it was quite a ways off the main road (it was only 1/4" on the map!). You know how high gas is in the States? Well, it's higher here.

Anyway, it was a good fun day trip. Total cost, including lunch: $15 per person. (If you were booking the same trip through a gringo hotel, it would be $50-$75)

See all our Quirigua (and Mariscos) photos here:

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Santiago Atitlan
We hired a launcha from Casa del Mundo to take us across the lake one afternoon to Santiago Atitlan.

The Lake Atitlan fishing boats are a funny shape

It was a sleepy afternoon and we were apparently the only tourists in town. I was pretty much shopped out by then, but Ron and Dorothy wanted to stop in every shop, and Dave was on a mission for a specific gift for his cousin Bryan.

The main road in town leads up the hill to a large church and square. So we walked up the road to the church, looked around some, and came back down past all the shops again to the docks.

The church was a little run down, but still beautiful. Ron took a bunch of pics inside but I feel funny about snapping pictures in churches. But you can see some of his pics in my photo album.

Ron and Dorothy hadn't been buying anything on the way up (but Ron was having fun negotiating anyway). After our experience in Chichi, where we discovered the price comes WAY down when you start to walk away, Ron knew that you don't buy on the first look.

One of the interesting things we saw was a man working on an old loom. We learned later that the huilepuil's that the women wear are woven in 18" wide strips by the women on a 'backstrap loom'. The other weavings, for general cloth around the house and some of the men's clothes, are woven by men on a big loom.

On the way back down, Ron and Dorothy started buying a few things. The closer to the dock they got, the lower the prices got. Once they started buying, word got around among the women on the street that someone was buying, and everyone in town headed for Ron. By the time Ron arrived back at the dock, he was surrounded by a swarm of Mayan women all thrusting their goods on him. All were amazing pieces of workmanship, taking literally months to make. Being offered, at that time, for about $10-$20.

I still wasn't buying--I really don't like to be pressured to buy something. (Especially something I don't have a need for or room for on the boat). But I got some great pics of Ron.

I did end up buying one off Dorothy later, who bought her last one on the dock from a young girl, just because she felt sorry for her. Though we felt Dorothy had 'stolen' it at only $10, the girl was really happy about her end of the transaction. I saw her look of triumph as she got the money from Ron.

Our Santiago Pictures are here:

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Lake Atitlan and Casa Del Mundo
Friends on the Rio Dulce had highly recommended that we get out of Panajachel and visit Casa del Mundo, out on the lakeside.

We only booked one night ahead of time, but ended up staying 2 nights once we got there, because it was such a nice place. Booking ahead was interesting, because they want you to pay ahead of time. They don't accept Paypal, and there's a 6% surcharge if you pay by credit card (this is common in Guatemala). So, while we were in Antigua, we pulled cash out of an ATM machine, and went to their bank and deposited the money directly in their bank account.

To get to the Casa del Mundo, you have to take a water taxi. We had been warned that the price should only be Q10 (about $1.50) but many times they will charge the gringos 2 or 3 times that. Dave did the negotiating and we got the Q10 price.

We had so much luggage by this time (what we originally bought, plus all the trinkets we'd picked up at Chichi) that when a Tuk Tuk drove by as we came out of the hotel, we got the brilliant idea to hire it for about $2, load it up with all our luggage, and send Dave off to the dock with the luggage. Since we'd been to the water's edge the night before, and seen boats, we thought we knew where the dock was. The PROPER dock turned out to be a lot further away than we'd thought. We were double glad we weren't lugging all our luggage that way. Dave talked us in to the proper dock by cell phone.

Even though we were prepared for a really amazing place by our friends, we were still amazed by the Casa del Mundo.

Built by an American who married a Guatemalan woman, one bungalo at a time, it's a beautiful place. Each room is hanging on the cliffside with fantastic views. Even our budget room with shared bath (about $25 US) was nice (no lumpy pillows). And it is truly a world traveller's place. At the 'family style' dinner every night, we met travelers from all over the world. We sampled
their wood-fired jacuzzi, took kayaks out on the lake, and took a lancha across the river to Santiago Atitlan. The grounds were immaculate and bursting with all kinds of tropical vegetation.

Ron and Dorothy's room (about $55/nite) seemed to be the 'honeymoon suite'. It was way up on the hillside (about 3 flights of stairs up), a huge room with huge bed, and one whole wall was windows. It was really gorgeous (but with our old knees, quite a climb to get there).

Make sure you visit the photo album to see the rest of the pictures of the lake and grounds.

On the way out of Atitlan, we got a chance to stop at a beautiful overlook. There was a Mayan woman and her 2 daughters at the overlook. The woman was weaving (and selling cloth). Ron got them to pose for pictures (and I got to take a picture of he and Dave showing them the pictures).

Unfortunately Ron's camera was stolen in Guatemala city, so I don't have a copy of the great shot of the woman weaving.

Our Lake Atitilan Photos:

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After the Chichi market, we were driven in our shuttle van to Panajachel (pana-ha-shell).

Pana, as it's called by everyone who's been in Guatemala for more than a day, is one of the most touristy towns in Guatemala. It is the gateway to beautiful Lake Atitlan, and everyone goes there.

Because the Lonely Planet wasn't real high on Pana, we only planned to stay there overnight. After of our experience in Antigua--where we got to the hotel we'd chosen out of the book, late in the afternoon, and it was full--this time we eeny meeny'd from the choices in the Budget category in the Lonely Planet, and picked a hotel ahead of time, and booked it.

The LP guidebook says this about Hospedaje Tzutujil "Down a little alley set among the cornfields, this is one of the best budget deals in town, with clean modern rooms, balconies, and firm beds. Upstairs rooms have fantastic mountain views."

Well, they were right about the cornfields. The rooms weren't bad for $20 a night with a private bath and hot water. The view was so-so. There were no blankets in our room (Ron and Dorothy found theirs in the morning in the bedside table, but we didn't have any). The sheets were very low quality and the pillows were lumpy.

LP also didn't mention that there was a public basketball court next door (see last photo in the album). They played a lively game of basketball, with the whole town in attendance, until about midnight.

The next day, we visited a couple of other places in about the same price range, that had also been on our list. The one we'd come back to next time ended up being moved in the 2007 guide from LP's Budget category to the Moderate category (the price went up to $25/night), was the Hotel Utz Jay. It has very nice rooms, a jacuzzi, a small restaurant on site, a travel agency, and internet access. We didn't check the sheets and pillows, but I would assume they were better.

Note: If you don't like cheap sheets and lumpy pillows (they are endemic to the budget hotels), bring your own.

Lonely Planet says the Sunset Cafe was a 'don't miss'. However, we didn't see much sunset as the afternoon clouds were rolling across the river. But it was a nice view and a nice meal, and there was live music after dinner. (Dave and I were so tired after Chichi and a long day, we opted to head back to our room vs. staying for the music).

We actually did a little more shopping in the morning... I bought a really nice pair of sandals with Guatemalan cloth in the straps.

Next stop: 2 nights at the Hotel Casa del Mundo, on the side of Lake Atitlan.

Pictures of Panajachel

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Chichicastenango Market

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ron took this great picture of her.

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

See the rest of our Chichicastenango Photos

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Sunday, September 09, 2007
Pacaya Volcano Hike

See all of our Pacaya Hike pics here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See all our Pacaya Hike pics here:

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Saturday, September 08, 2007
Antigua, Guatemala
See our Antigua photos:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See more Antigua photos on our Picasa site:

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