Sunday, May 16th; Quetzaltenango to Chichicastenango
Sunday is the best day to visit the local market in Chichicastenango. It's one of the country's largest and certainly worth braving the stinky trucks and tumulos (the speed bumps are the same, only the name has changed). We found a young fellow (actually, he found us) to guide us through the maze. Centered in the town between the church of the living and the church of the dead, it's large enough to justify a guide, particularly since many of the vendors speak Mayan, not Spanish.
The churches serve two religions, simultaneously. When we passed through the church of the living, a long line of proud parents held their babies for baptism, while Mayans lit white candles (for men) and yellow candles (for women), sticking them to stones on the floor running the length of the building. Nothing was happening in the church of the dead.
Mayan weavings, ceremonial masks, wood carvings, flowers, fruits, vegetables, grains, chickens, pigs, you name it; they were all for sale. Narrow aisles made for lots of pushing and shoving. Four foot tall Mayans, carrying a basket of turkeys on their head, aren't shy about pushing and shoving six foot Gringos around.
On to Panajachel on Lake Atitlan after lunch.
Monday, May 17th
Lake Atitlan deserves the reputation it has for being a beauty spot. From a clear morning to a rainy afternoon, the scene changes completely many times through the day, as the sun moves over clouds forming and dissipating around the volcanos surrounding the lake. We took a boat tour from Panajachel to three villages on the south side of the lake; with an hour stop in each, we were gone for six hours.
Radio Sembrador Comunitario, the local FM radio station in San Pedro La Laguna, had its studio right on the main street in the first village. The door was open so we considered that an invitation, walked in and introduced ourselves to the DJ, Antonio Garcia. Between songs, played from a boom-box into the transmitter that sat atop the mixing console, he announced to all that the city had visitors from California. Fame, at last!
The street vendors couldn't compete with the previous day's market on the basis of their wares, but they made up for it in persistence. One told Elsa she wasn't her friend because she didn't buy a shawl.
Tuesday, May 18th
Drove a full 70 miles today, arriving in Antigua without actually realizing it. The woman we stopped to ask for directions was totally puzzled by the gringos who asked how to get where they already were.
The Posada Don Rodrigo Hotel was arranged for us at the partner hotel in Panajachel. Clearly one of the finest hotels in town, it boasted a history of hundreds of years. Our room overlooked the cobble-stone street leading from the Arch to the central park.
Met the Belgian couple at 7:00 PM in the park, as arranged the day before in Atitlan, and went to the travel office we persuaded earlier to stay open an extra 15 minutes to allow us to book a volcano tour for 5:50 AM the next morning.
Wednesday, May 19th: Antigua Guatemala
The tour guide said wear long pants and bring some water.. so how hard could the trail be? The first hour of walking took the group up into the clouds. So much water condensed on my glasses that I couldn't wear them. It didn't matter because the visibility was so low, there was nothing to see. The trail rose above the tree line and turned from soil to volcanic rock. The wind picked up, whipping the group, many of whom were far enough ahead to be lost to view in the fog. The last 30 minutes of hiking was up a steep slope on small pebbles of volcanic rock. Each step up pushed the pebbles down by half a step, slowing progress.
Approaching the rim, the clouds parted for a moment, revealing the valley below and other volcanos on the horizon. At the top, the wind sucked sulfur vapors from the crater, turning the ground yellow and choking those who breathed in too deeply. Every minute or two, the wind, strong enough to rip my cap off, shifted enough to clear the sky completely for a magnificent view another nearby volcano.
The trip down through the sand-like pebbles was worse than the trip up. Each step down pushed the pebbles down by two steps, resulting in a walk that was much like surfing down the mountain. I took off my shoes at the first opportunity and poured a hand-full of volcanic rock out of each.
I was ready for a hot shower and a nap after the six hour trip was finished. Elsa went for a tour of the town; she was too clever to be taken in by the chance to walk up the side of a volcano.
We ventured out in the evening for the best meal of the trip at "Panza Verde." Campari, Perrier, thick, juicy steaks done to a turn... highly recommended!
Thursday, May 20th
Departed Antigua early to avoid the morning crunch going through Guatemala City... no such luck. Few signs indicated we were on the right road. A taxi driver, hailed in the adjacent lane, told us to follow him... we passed a few Quetzals back to him after he stopped and told us to turn right at the next light to be on the right road to Puerto Barrios. Stuck in heavy traffic again, we bought some mini-banannas from a street vendor. About two inches long, and twenty to the bunch, they look just like real bananas, and taste just as good.
The AAA map clearly marked the route as a toll road, but that was clearly a mistake. The road wasn't bad, but trucks delivering cargo to and from Guatemala's Caribbean ports clogged the winding road. We came upon a complete blockage of the road about an hour out of town. Truck and car drivers, stopped in the impassable lane, were chatting with each other. We waited until the heat and boredom became unbearable and followed a local driver down the wrong side of the road, planning on pleading insanity if anybody asked us what we were doing. We passed a hundred cars and trucks, arriving at the head of the line, where there were a few police cars, but no sign of an accident. Cutting in, we were on our way with only an hour lost.
Arrived in Puerto Barrios, checked into the Mar Brisas Hotel, and headed for the Firestone Mega-Center tire store we passed a few miles back to have the wheel alignment checked. Fernando put six people to work immediately, checking tire balance, re-repairing the tire fixed in Oaxaca, and aligning the front-end, promising to have the job finished in half an hour. Back to the hotel, we thought, for a dip in the pool in no time at all... Two hours later, the Jeep drove like new again, but it was dark and raining...
Friday, May 21st: On the Road to Tikal
Puerto Barrios was just as the book described, rather forgettable... a town that time (and money) passed by. The road out, however, was OK. A few morning showers drenched us, but passed quickly on the straight road leading north from Rio Dulce.
A flock of 25 or 30 vultures, fighting over the remains of an animal killed on the road, were stirred into flight by a car in the other lane, but quickly returned to their work as it passed. Those circling above were likely to be disappointed as the remains disappeared very quickly.
An agricultural inspection station, set up in the middle of the road in the middle of nowhere, caught us by surprise. We were asked to fork over all fruit and produce. A lady opened the doors and poked around a bit, but missed the bananas under the map carefully tossed over them.
We arrived at our day's destination earlier than anyone predicted, for the very first time. We ate lunch at Flores, a city on a small island on Lake Peten-Itza. The Peten Esplendido Hotel, hoping to attract our business, offered a free paddle-boat ride and we were unable to turn them down. We crossed the lake, back to Flores, where some kids were lounging on a boat which had been turned into a restaurant. They tied our boat to the restaurant and brought two bottles of beer to us from the bar, for a nice tip. We paddled off, cervesas in hand, back to the hotel.
Saturday, May 22nd: Tikal At Last
Tikal didn't disappoint. The ruins cover a lot of ground and require lots of walking over tree roots and rough stone walkways. Climbing on the restored sections isn't permitted, but wood steps, aligned almost vertically, take you to the top of Temple 5, providing a rewarding view of the complex and thousands of square miles of green jungle.
After the tour buses left at 4:00 PM, we returned to the park in search of monkeys. Just listen for rustling high in the trees, we were told, and, sure enough, there they were... skinny little fellows, leaping from tree to tree, as high up as they could find branches strong enough to support themselves, using their tails as well as hands and feet. A mother carried a youngster on her back. The dense foliage made photos difficult.
A fellow we met at lunch suggested we take a 15 minute walk into the jungle to a tree-house. With sunset approaching, we started off along a road which got narrower as we walked. A sign directing us to the "Mirador" pointed to an even narrower path which was elevated a foot or so above swampy ground by sticks nailed to boards. A set of 50 ladder-like stairs led up into a tree. At the top was a platform ideally perched for a sunset view looking over the ruins of Tikal, except for mosquitos so vicious they left blood running down your leg when they bit you.