Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Cross-country Guatemala: Rio Dulce to La Antigua

It is difficult to leave Guatemala. Just as difficult as keeping yourself from falling in love with Guatemala. This little piece of tierra firma contains all that is life on planet earth. Among the most beautiful scenery and landscape, some of the most pristine rainforest and jungle, rivers, streams and water bodies, cultures and colours, foods and smells, breathtaking Maya sites, moments of tranquil silence and spiritual contemplation - there are also many, many problems, blemishes and imperfections.

Where there is natural beauty there is also destruction. With wealth comes poverty. Happiness and grief. Health and sickness. Abundance and waste. Kindness and cruelty. Equality and discrimination. Pride and shame.
Lonely parrot in Livingston, Guatemala

The fishing boats prepare for tomorrow´s catch, Livingston
Our beautiful room in Livingston at the Garden Gatehouse
Just like the human spirit, Guatemala contains chaos as much as it contains serenity. To truly fall in love, one must become aware of flaws as well as beauty, because without the flaws, it just doesn´t function and it isn´t living. You cannot love something that is perfect, nor someone who reflects perfection because perfection represents death, death of the human spirit and of nature itself. Each day you must decide whether today is the day you love it, or the day you hate it. Either way you stick by it because the ups make the downs possible, and the downs make you appreciate the ups.

Entonces, todavia estamos aqui. [So, we are still here]

We caught a ride on the back of a tractor to get to Finca Paraiso near El Estor
The miraculous hot waterfalls of Finca Paraiso, hot water pours upstream of the waterfall from a spring in the mountain and this waterfall meets a cold water river from the rain catchment

Just amazing, the top is the hot water and the bottom is cold water

A natural wonder visited by many tourists coming from Rio Dulce which is around one hour away by bus, we took a boat through Lago Izabal courtesy of our dear Afghani friends

We ended our week of study in Rio Dulce, our heads hurting from an uptake of enormous amounts of information. Ileana is a wonderful teacher, disgustingly knowledgable in both Spanish and English, she pushed us hard. And good on her, in that one week we progressed a huge deal, learning a whole second half of the Spanish language which is used for ideas and intentions - subjuntivo. A perfect example of this would be to say "I hope that you call me tomorrow when you return home". "Call me" and "you return" would be conjugated as subjuntivos because they only exist in the mind, you cannot be certain that either is or will be taking place. Hence we have a whole second set of conjugated verbs which makes up roughly half of the Spanish language. We resisted at first claiming that we wouldn´t need it yet, however being the clever and competent teacher that she is, she pointed to the fact that not knowing subjuntivo was causing 50% of all our lingual errors. She was correct.

Peering over the rooftops of Antigua, the volcano Pacaya looms over the stone town
Waiting to catch the 8am bus from Rio Dulce to Antigua, shortly after a sad farewell to the gang at Xalaja, we treated ourselves to a warm breakfast of bean panini from a street vendor. As we happily munched our breakfast treats, I noticed a guy pushing a tall wooden cart filled with freshly baked goods. I shot across the street and purchased two sweet buns and a small tear-apart number they call francesa. Now we had our munchies for the five hour bus ride. The only stop before the bus change in Guatemala city was at a little roadside service place. Hordes of locals here were selling all kinds of fresh fruits and even some small chocolate muffins. We really slept poorly the night before following our farewell night with the Afghani´s (Basir and his cousing Ali from Toronto) where we played poker and drank shots of tequila, a great combination no doubt. A few hours before the gambling and shooting started, I re-designed Basir´s vacation home in Rio Dulce in just two hours, he was more than happy about this. The tequila was quite pure and clean leaving little headache, but we only caught three hours sleep, leading us to the deicion that eating a bag-full of already skinned mandarins at the rest stop might just give us the vitamin boost we so badly needed.

The courtyard of the Spanish embassy in Antigua, there´s a lovely cafe here too

The town´s poor gather in a protest walk, many of these people survive on what little they manage to sell at Antigua´s market (one of the neatest in the world maybe) - the municipality aims to reduce the area of the market to free up more commercial space

A horse drawn cart for romantic rides through Antigua rides through our view of Parque Central, don´t they have these in Venice and Rome too?
The ride through this line of Guatemala takes you from a very tropical and wet carribean coast, through a dry and hilly desert region, to climb up toward Guatemala city with magnificent views over the ever changing landscape. The weather was changing too, the air quickly becoming crisp and cool. We experienced all this through sleepy eyelids, finding it near impossible to stay away on the reasonably comfortable ride. Colette woke me just in time to see Guatemala city as we dove further and further into the civic chaos. Zona 6 was when I first become aware that we were indeed entering something which we hadn´t experienced in nearly 5 months, a real metropolitan city. Zona 1 in the centre of Guatemala city is the oldest and most beautiful part we saw, the bus station where we changed buses was right smack bang in the middle of all of this. Despite only spending and hour or so on buses zipping and crawling through Guatemala city, I was very happy to have seen it and we spent this part of the ride very wide eyed at all the civic existence which radiated around us.

The Burger King was here, even big corporations play by the civic aesthetic rules in Antigua

McHappy? Ronald enjoys the sunshine in one of the town´s nicest courtyards with views to Pacaya, the courtyard is only a part of the MacDonald´s that exists is ridiculously fancy for what it is, and people sure go here for some reason

Once you exit Guatemala city heading toward Antigua, the bus ends up hurling down an extremely steep and windy, albeit well surfaced, road. Every second turns boasts a safety stopping ramp which, take my word for it, look extremely used. Lucky, I thought. We entered Antigua, a small, short and wonderfully mosaic collection of stone buildings. After insisting to be dropped off at the "bus station" instead of the Parque Central, we ended up walking the 12 or so blocks West to the part of town we planned on staying in. Great thing too as we got to see a big part of Antigua and what was even better, we ran into our friend Hila from Isreal whom we met in Rio Dulce, just two blocks before we hit the park. Impossible had we been dropped off at the centre, since neither of us seemed to remember her saying she would be in Antigua this week.

Notice the motorbike parking sign? It´s a little tile forming part of the sidewalk in Antigua

What about the Universal Access signs? Yes, in Antigua you can get just about anywhere in a your face first world!
It was her last day in Guatemala, and it was Valentine´s Day after all, so we insisted on her joining us for a lovely dinner at an Argentine restaurant. The place was gorgeous, full of colour and life as you might expect, and the tapas were tounge melting treats of Argentine/Italian origins. The hosts were really joyful and spoke quick fire spanish to us, really testing our newly acquired knowledge. We got lucky with our decision to draw the night out with little bites and plenty of good Argentinian Malbec because sometime during the night a really talented fellow got up with his guitar and sang some really lovely tunes. We called it a night when we ran out of money and kissed and hugged Hila farewell, promising to visit Isreal sometime in the future. Look out bank account, here we come!

Our rooftop, we did yoga with views of three volcanos this morning

Pretty things come in threes, Colette´s wonderful photo on top of our lodging

Learning how to jugle, in a nice office
Antigua is a like a good rash. You scratch it because it feels good and the more you scratch the deeper you get, but you just can´t stop thinking about it and hence scratching some more. The town has it all, in swats and heaps. Delicious restaurants, wickedly good coffee, bakeries, street vendors, handicrafts, markets, scenery, weather, art, history, gardens gardens gardens, courtyards which make you feel like you are living a poem - and all beautifully arranged on a canvas of colonial antiquity brigthened with flashes of indigenous character. No other city or town in the world has played the civic design card as well, even the street signs are part of the beautifully arranged tiled sidewalks and building facades. World Heritage foundation would surely be proud of this little number and they truly belong on the top of that list for Heritage towns.

This lovely stone courtyard resides inside one of Antigua´s oldest cathedrals dating back to the 16th century...and I swear I have seen this in a computer game, Marko?

It pays to be pious, these guys are remembered by being carved into this amazing wooden door

Jumping from sheer grace, we take a stroll through one of the strictest ex-nunneries ever...apparently it was so isolated even the food had to go through a steel turnstyle similar to a prison cell´s
Ofcourse there are also hoards, and hoards of tourists, Yankee missionaries and other such ignorant folk...including us two dazed mongrels, who at times truly look like we belong back in the bush with our extensive wardrobe of putrid greown (grey and brown) one choice pants, nasty ass cracker backpacker sandals that have seen better days and not many tops to choose from. I feel somewhere between homeless and tourist. We dine well and speak to people with some sense of dignity, but man do we look poorly dressed. We were clever when we first arrived in finding two heavier sweater like garments for the cold weather just within hours of arriving, because it really gets chilly here right now.

Wonderful colour, captured in paint...Colette really wants the middle one

One of the many merchants of the region´s handicrafts, these amazing goods are handmade in the many villages near and far of the country´s capital

In stark contrast to his dress, we were surprised to find this gentleman quite cold and unresponsive
Our touristic non-existence was gratefully broken yesterday when we walked into the only surf-shop in town (Global Surf Guatemala). Yes there really is one. They sell surf stuff and take people on learn-to-surf tours into El Salvador. Turns out that one of the owners is a rather warm and interesting Isreali fellow named Ori (why are there so many Isreali´s here?), within minutes of meeting him he invited us to coffee, to which we happily obliged. After a few hours of excellent conversation with Ori, he decided to treat us to a non-tourist experience for a dinner at his house that evening. Great! We bought some banana bread for desert and two bottles of cheap and good Chilean red, and off we were to his place just South outside of Antigua in what you might call the suburbs. We made a great and simple home-style red sauce pasta and were joined for dinner by his good friend from England named Jessica. We had a great evening with all kinds of engaging conversation topped off with some excellent inspiring videos on You Tube...and if you haven´t yet seen these then you must (list at the end).

One of many stunning courtyards that abound in Antigua
All in all, we still hope to make it to San Marco on the side of Lago Atitlan for another week of Spanish lessons...but with so many indulgences and the general waft of delicious Guatemala-ness, one just cannot be certain of their future.

You Tube must watch list:
+ Flute and human beatbox which transcends human limitations, Nathan Lee and Beardyman
+ The world´s most ingenious busker from the UK, DubFX (don´t miss "Love Someone")
+ Bass playing which just isn´t possible from Victor Wooten and (don´t miss part 2!)
+ Voice soloist Bobby Mcferrin most famous for "being happy" (he does a Bach celo solo too)


  1. Love the update as always my dearest but not quite nearest.

    Hope you guys are well. Write me back in Spanish! I'll google translate :) Bibi*

  2. Ah muchas gracias Bibi, me gusta mucho escribir para ustedes.

    Estamos bien, todo es bien aqui. Esperamos que todo esta bien con tigo tambien?

    Disfruta traducir lo a Ingles.

    Adios, que te vaya bien
    x Vicente Garcia