Category Archives: 2012 Guatemala Explorer
On the first day in Antigua, ¨the land of eternal spring¨ we began our tour of the many historical sites and learned about the city and its past. We spent the rest of the day getting to know the colorful town which was very earthy and Spanish influenced. We walked on the cobble stone streets and went into the known market next door, which was like a never ending maze. The store was filled with the traditional items such as colorful blankets, textiles, key chains, and the very special worry dolls, but also surprising ones such as their fuzzy slippers. Bargaining in those markets can be a bit over whelming, but overall it was definitely a memorable cultural experience. The next day we hiked the active Pacaya volcano. Due to the high altitude causing exhaustion, a friend and I hopped on a horse and enjoyed the view from up top. Once we reached our destination, we actually roasted colorful marshmallows in a volcano pit, how cool? The next day we also visited a coffee farm, in which we were educated on how the farmers picked, processed, and roasted the coffee. Not to mention that Guatemala is known for their amazing coffee. Then we went to a Jade factory where we learned about the exquisite and pricey Jades. Before departing Antigua we had our last chance to frolic around town, while some of us relaxed at the Mayan spa, others of us experienced the bakeries at Cookie Ext., and sampled tropical fruit drinks, while sitting at the central park listening to live music. I loved seeing the women hand weave their clothes, textiles, and unique paintings. Antigua is definitely tourist’s ideal charm vacay destination.
Home stay Part 1
When we were asked to describe this portion of the home stay in one word, three came to mind, eggs, beans, and tortillas. After four hours of an anxious bus ride to the village, we nervously got off the bus; we were immediately greeted with hugs from our home stay mothers. Their smiles were comforting for the ones who were afraid of staying in a stranger’s home for ten days. We excitingly walked to our homes, and our first impressions were ones of surprise. The lifestyle here was so different then what we had expected. We missed the simplest things back home such as having a flushing toilet and a shower head of hot water. Those became the least of our worries as we had to report at work at eight A.M sharp, which was a community service project, painting the local school a mandarin color. Our leader David jokingly referred to the orange color saying, ¨In the summer when it feels like and oven it will look like one to.¨ After work we did various activities like played basketball with the local teenagers of the town (who we of course beat!) Spending time in the home stay and learning about the locals made us appreciate their culture, that was so different from ours but we had grown to love. Their traditional outfits and sounds of roosters and dogs at sunrise were going to be missed for three days as we made our next adventure at Lake Atitlan.
Para-Para-Paradise. Not a moment went by without Lake Atitlan taking our breath away. Our spacious glass windows in our hotel rooms overlooked the clear, mesmerizing, dazzling blue lake and its perfect surroundings. We began our adventure with 350 steps down to the dock for our day to kayak. Kayaking was so peaceful, yet some us managed to get back to the dock while struggling others had to be rescued by a man in a Speedo. We took advantage of our remaining time at the lake by jumping off boats, swimming in lakes, and entering a state of peace. Good times must always come to an end, and our stay at the lake did. We left sadly, but we had our home stay families to look forward too.
Part 2 home stay
Part two of our home stay began and was definitely more comfortable this time around. Really getting to know our families was something we all valued. Many of our home stay fathers were hard workers with a low salary, but made sure to let us know that they were willing to do any work as long as they were coming home to a loving family. Being told, ¨take care of your selves¨, by the little kids as we left for work in the morning was so touching. After playing a game of a sort of sport, came the best part of the night which was gathering around a bonfire, roasting marshmallows, and singing our favorite hits. It was definitely a good way to spend our remaining nights at the home stay. Participant Clara mentioned about the home stay experience, ¨What at first seemed an impossible task, connecting with my host family, came to life in the second half of the home stay where I truly felt like I was in my own home, the best was returning home from work and smelling tortillas and saw the smiling faces of my family.¨ As days went by, it was needless to say that our host families were becoming out second families. As thanks four our hard work of completing the school, a fiesta was held in which we dressed in the Guatemalan traditional outfits. We stuffed ourselves with our last tortillas with guacamole, beans, and salsa, while listening and making our touching final goodbye speeches that even put some of us into tears.
Though leaving the home stay on a bittersweet note, we once again had a refreshing view of a crisp lake from our hotel- La Cason de La Isla. This particular colonial town was definitely smaller than the others and we wanted to stay here forever. Our hotel was filled with artwork and we even had a stone pool where we spent acting like kids again, playing the game of Marco Polo. Even these dinners could not have been more relaxing, eating over the music of Bob Marley. Spending the next day hiking the Tikal ruins was like a dream. We were surrounded by this century old pyramids that luckily we got to climb and once we reached the top we took pictures, took in the view, and some even took advantage of the peace and mediated. On our last day on the tropical island, we took a peaceful boat ride to a museum, where we drank real refreshing coconut water. After our thirst was quenched in the humid weather, the water taxi took us to a unique beach, which had no sand but a lot of skin eating fish. Though the fishes freaked most of us out of the water, they managed to take off the dead skin on our feet. Our relaxing floating on the beach made it hard to leave, but we had an excited activity ahead! The water taxi took us to a primate reserve, which was a rehabilitation center for animals that were confiscated while being illegally trafficked. After learning fun facts about the animals and their senses, we actually got to see the animals in action. We were able to hear the loud singing voices of the tropical birds, the growls of the ocelots, and the funny squeaks of the spider monkeys. The monkeys definitely wanted our individual attention; they put on a mock circus show for us by jumping over great lengths, swinging by their strong tales, and even putting out their hands out to shake with a huge smile. The monkeys kept us smiling as they played a rough but sweet game of tug a war with a stick, of course the small monkeys won! Coming back exhausted we strolled around to deferent stores for one last night before heading to our hotels for dinner and last night.
Today is the day we all have been trying to escape. Sadly, our trip has come to an end and we will all spend our summers in different way, but share a similar experience. With the bitter sweet fact that we all live in separate states, we all made the promise to never lose touch of each other or this experience. As Maggie Alderman made a point saying, ¨This was truly a once in a time experience that we all were fortunate enough to be a part of, and I hope and know that I will remain close with everyone of the trip for the rest of my life.¨ We all have agreed that through the worst and best moments of the trip, it rounded up to be an influential life-changing and magical summer of our lives. As St. Augustine once said, ¨The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.¨
-Nahal, 2012 Guatemala Explorer Journalism Fellow
Our final days in Santa Clara la Laguna seemed to fly by in a mandarin-orange blur as we hurried to finish our service project in time for last Friday´s inauguration ceremony for the new-and-improved school. The students put in a few early mornings and a couple of late afternoons to ensure they would be presenting the community with a project to be proud of, and their efforts paid off. Host families, the school administration, local students, and grateful community members all showed up at the school on Friday to see what we had accomplished.
In addition to the project, both the local students and our own team were asked to put together a presentation that would showcase our cultures. The students from the community reenacted a classic Mayan ball game in which the winner is sacrificed in the end (Dramatization. Do not attempt at home). Another group demonstrated Mayan basket-weaving techniques. As America is a mish-mash of different cultures, we settled on one unifying theme: a choreographed dance to Miley Cyrus´ ¨Party in the USA.¨ After all, what is America if not pop culture and cheerleading pyramid formations?
The following morning the students had the opportunity to visit one of Central America´s highest ziplines. A few of the students had to quickly overcome their fear of heights, but I think all would agree that it was well worth it. The zipline tour provided us with breathtaking views of Lake Atitlan and the surrounding villages and volcanoes.
That night the students and their host families gathered to say their final goodbyes. The students and families alike took turns thanking each other for the experience before we all sat down for one final meal and a few (loud) fireworks. From there, it was back home to pack for our 9am departure from Santa Clara.
Sunday was largely a day of relaxation in Antigua, as our flight to Flores was on Monday. Situated on an island on Lake Petén Itzá in the northern region of Guatemala, the city of Flores dates back hundreds of years to the height of the Mayan empire. As the lake has no rivers to drain it during times of heavy rains, the city has been flooded and rebuilt many times. Today it has a quaint, tropical feel. Our hotel is located directly on the waterfront, and Petén’s waters are the perfect temperature for swimming (though full of tiny fish that are not too shy to nibble on your feet.)
After a night of rest and marco-polo in the hotel pool, we climbed aboard our bus Tuesday morning for one of the most exciting parts of our trip: Tikal. This Mayan megacity was once home to over 1,000 people, and to date only 20% of it has been excavated. Here we hiked through dense jungle home to spider monkeys, toucans, and a plethora of insects in order to reach the enormous, partially-excavated Temple 4. From the top of Temple 4 we had spectacular views of miles of jungle, punctuated by the occasional stone peak of a temple or pyramid. Our tour of Tikal ended in the best-excavated square in the city, situated around the beautiful Temple of the Jaguar. This was an unforgettable experience for the entire group, despite the sweltering heat and swarms of mosquitos.
Wanting to pack as much adventure into our final days as possible, Wednesday we took a boat tour around the lake to a small island where we drank coconut water straight from the source. Afterwards, the tour guide took us to a local beach where the waters were clear and perfect for swimming. The students then took a tour of the ARCAS primate reserve, where they had the opportunity to see a number of wild animals that the organization rehabilitates and protects.
Our stay in Flores will be short and sweet, as tomorrow we head back to Antigua for our last hurrah before flying home this Friday. It has been a pleasure for both of us leaders to watch these students interact and grow over the last three weeks. Sunburns and stomach issues aside, the students have made new lifelong friends (and families!), learned a lot of new Spanish vocabulary, and had an unforgettable adventure. We will be sad to see them go, but confident we are sending them home to you with valuable life experience.
Caitlin and David
Check out these new photos and video from our trip!
The initial introduction of students and host families is always the most nerve-wracking part of our trip, and this year was no exception. Living with strangers will induce a serious case of stomach butterflies even when language barriers and cultural differences aren’t involved. Yet our host families were ready and waiting for our arrival last Wednesday with open arms and enough of their special cornmeal drink to feed a small army. Nervous introductions completed, our host families took the kids to the houses that they would call home for the next two weeks.
In their new homes, the students have had the opportunity to see how the rest of the world lives.
Mattresses tend to be foam (and not of the ¨memory¨ variety) placed over wooden slats. As most families can’t afford the luxury of refrigeration, meals tend to consist of non-perishables (read:
beans, eggs, and un montón de tortillas). Showers tend to be cold, and toilets are flushed by dumping buckets of water into the bowl. Yet, in keeping with Walking Tree’s motto, it is important to note that none of these things are bad – just different.
All of the students have been provided with a pile of blankets to keep them warm at night and all of their food is produced locally, organically, and by hand (you really can’t get any greener than that). And while showers are cold, many of the families have Mayan saunas called ¨temescales¨ that they are happy to heat up when it comes time to scrub off the dirt and paint of a hard day’s work. Not wanting to waste a moment of time, we hit the ground running on our service project last Thursday morning. The project, which consists of painting a local school inside and out and repairing its shabby roof, has been five years in the making, Needless to say, the teachers, students, and community of Santa Clara have been excited to see this project come to fruition. While mandarin orange and rust red may not exactly seem like the most obvious choice of colors for a center of learning, bright colors are always in style in Guatemala.
After four days of work, the students had their first (much deserved) time of rest this weekend
when we packed our bags and headed to Lake Atitlan. Here we stayed in a beautiful eco-lodge overlooking the massive lake, which is ringed by a number of beautiful volcanoes. Our first day
here consisted primarily of sunbathing and jumping off the dock into the warm, emerald green water of the lake. On the second day, we took a lancha (a water taxi of sorts) to the nearby town of Panajachel where we rented kayaks and spent two hours exploring the lake and swimming along the lush shores. While some students had navigation issues, I’m happy to report that no kayaks were capsized in the making of this adventure.
As is the case with all good things, our time at Lake Atitlan had to come to an end. The students are now once again at home with their host families, and are on track to finish the service project this Saturday. Check back soon, because there is more to come!
Caitlin & David
Check out these new photos and video from our trip!
¡Buenas tardes desde Antigua!
After three full days of exploring the town and the neighboring pueblos, it’s hard to imagine life anywhere else! We’ve grown accustomed to the cobblestone streets, the colorful buildings, and the contrasting blend of decaying ruins and restored facades that preserve Antigua as it was in the 1700s. Getting to know the city has helped us get to know each other, and our adventurous group has quickly started to feel like a family (did we really all meet just a few days ago??!)
We began with a quick introduction/orientation on Sunday morning on the sunny rooftop of our hotel, overlooking the other rooftops of Antigua and with an excellent vista of the surrounding volcanos. While having some almuerzo at a local cafe, the clouds rolled in and we discovered that Guatemala’s invierno (rainy season) consists of a passing shower (or downpour) most afternoons. Sadly, Sunday’s showers didn’t pass very quickly, and our tour of the city, although fascinating, was a bit soggy. Undeterred by the damp conditions, our fearless group learned all about Antigua’s colorful history: from its ancient Mayan past to its 200-plus years as the Spanish Colonial capital to the World Heritage Site that it is today. Knowing about the many earthquakes, battles, volcanic eruptions and restorations that give the city such character makes it even more fun for our group to explore its eclectic calles and realize the significance of its structures.
Perhaps the most significant structures in Guatemala’s past are its volcanos, and we had the amazing privilege of seeing one up close while hiking Volcán Pacaya on Monday. After a rather steep 2-kilometer trek through dense rainforest, the path cleared into a vast expanse of dark volcanic soil, the temperature dropped a few degrees and we entered an entirely different world. Lush patches of vibrant green dotted the charcoal landscape and the astounding view of neighboring volcanos and villages extended for miles. Trekking over the next hill, we found ourselves on what felt like a different planet: a dark, rocky, uneven landscape scattered with steaming fissures (there were even a couple we could climb into–kind of like a personal sauna!) The eery, steaming landscape and the prodigious and erratic rock formations created a prehistoric atmosphere, and it’s almost surprising that we didn’t get attacked by a velociraptor. Some fissures were hot enough to roast marshmallows, and that’s exactly what we did! Luckily we brought some Chikis, a local brand of cookies consisting of a graham cracker half-coated in chocolate…and just like that, we were making s’mores atop an active volcano!
After the arduous hike and other-worldly experience of volcano land, we were brought back to earth on Tuesday with a tour of some of the neighboring pueblos, and enlivened with our tour of a finca de café (coffee farm). We learned about how the coffee trees grow, how the cherries are harvested, and how the beans are separated, washed, dried and made ready for roasting. (And yes, some perks of the tour included free samples of delicious café!)
We’ve done so much in such a short amount of time, and today we had a relaxing morning to let it all percolate. After an easy three-hour bus ride this afternoon, we’ve arrived in our host village of Santa Clara de la Laguna, which will be our home for the next ten days. Everyone is settling in with their host families, and tomorrow we start our service project! ¡Hasta pronto!
The Guatemala Explorer Familia
Caitlin, David & Valarie