It has been awhile since I have truly traveled “abroad”, gone sight-seeing, and immersed myself in a different culture. While I went to Montreal last summer, that hardly compares to what I experienced in Guatemala. Truth be told, I thought I would return from my Guatemala trip exhausted and with thoughts of “oh thank goodness America! I missed you!” I had no such feelings. I could have stayed. Maybe it was because we stayed at 5-star hotels and ate at classy restaurants, but I had a wonderful time and did not miss any of my American luxuries I have become accustomed to And there were toilet seats everywhere I went (after my trip to Italy several years back, I do not take those babies for granted). During my week, I met so many family I had not met before and got to spend time with others I barely knew; I ate great food, travelled perilous roads, experienced Semana Santa (Holy Week) in all its glory, and so much more. I will try to be brief, but no promises. Before I get to it, let me begin with a brief introduction of the cast: I traveled to Guatemala with my mom, dad, sister (Jacquelyn), and grandmother (we call her Abue…short for abuela). We stayed at my great uncle (Virgilio)’s apartment, who lives across the hall from his daughter, Bellita – one of my mom’s cousins (together, they have the whole floor of the building). I’ll start with them, since they picked us up at the airport and I’ll introduce others as they enter the picture. I give you fair warning that this family tree is confusing and extensive and I am not sure I have everything correct. Mainly, I just call everyone my cousin. 😛
Arrival, Sun, Good Food, and Saúl
We arrived around lunch time on Saturday and encountered a quite hectic and ridiculous airport situation. After somehow managing to find our bags and make it to the exit, we were met by Bellita (mom’s cousin) and Virgilio (Abue’s brother), and, after Virgilio confused me with my mom (this is starting to become a regular thing…sigh), we made the short trip from the airport to Virgilio’s apartment in Guatemala City. We didn’t have much going on that day, so we were able to have lunch and lounge by the pool and just enjoy each other’s company. We caught up, swapped stories, and chilled. In the evening, more family showed up: My mom’s cousin, Alfonso; his wife, Betty; their daughter, Elizabeth; and her daughter, Erica. They would accompany us for the next several days to make one big giant family hoard traveling around Guatemala. It was awesome. That night, we went to Saúl, a restaurant right around the corner from the apartment. It is a chain with locations all over the city (I don’t know about outside of Guatemala), and I’m not really sure what kind of restaurant you would call them. I think it’s fair to say that their specialty is crepes, though I would not say they are a French restaurant. All I know is, they were very modern-chic, and very delicious. Very delicious.
Tecpán, Iximche, and La Via Dolorosa
Sunday morning, we woke up and headed to a place about an hour outside of Guatemala City called Tecpán. There, we ate brunch at this beautiful little oasis of a restaurant, Hacienda Real. I think it may be the best brunch I have ever had. If not, it was pretty darn close. I had eggs, plátanos fritos (fried plantains), and tortillas, smothered in tomato salsa and topped with avocado. It was fabulous. …It would have made a wonderful hangover cure as well…just saying. And there were so many drinks, I didn’t know where to begin. One of these drinks, they call “mush”, which is basically watery oatmeal. That may not sound appealing, but it was. Yum. After brunch, we walked around the little shops in the courtyard outside the restaurant, my sister bought a dress and I saw my first Guatemalan Alfombra (carpet, in Spanish). I will explain these further later.
From brunch, we headed to Iximche, where we took a tour of the ruins there. This was a former capitol of Guatemala, I believe. It may have been the first capitol, but there were so many, I cannot remember. Maybe it was the second…The ruins were not much to see, because they were very old and all the excavating was basically done by one archaeologist, and when he died, whatever was not uncovered, remained that way. While the ruins were mainly stone walls, and a few structures here and there, the history the guide told us was very cool. On top of this, it was a beautiful day.
We returned to Guatemala City and that evening, we went to see a musical portrayal of the Creation, all the way to the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It was called La Via Dolorosa. The literal translation is, “the painful path”, but the best we could interpret it as was the stations of the cross.
Antigua, Guatemala…and the Jesus cake
Antigua is a beautiful little town about an hour outside of Guatemala City. I learned a lot about its history on a walking tour we took, but I never was very good at history, so let’s suffice it to say Antigua is an old city. Monday morning, all 11 of us headed to Antigua. There, we arrived at Casa Santo Domingo Hotel/Museo, which is a beautiful resort built over ruins. So, walking through the resort you are literally walking through history. Since we were such a large group an Alfonso and his family were staying in nearby San Lucas, it took us a little time to round up the troops. Once we did though, we headed to a cocoa farm and had a very delicious lunch on the plantation. It would have been nice to take a tour and see how coffee is made, but time did not allow because we had booked a walking tour of Antigua for that afternoon. In case you do not know (I did not, before this trip), Guatemala has some of the best coffee in the world. And let me tell you – it was delicioso! I drank so much coffee on this trip. But it was so hard to turn down – it is so good!
After lunch, we headed back to the hotel to check in so we could get settled before our walking tour. When it came time for our tour, we started out walking past some Alfombras. These are “carpets” people make in the streets out of sawdust or various flowers and other greens (even fruits, veggies, and berries). The carpets are then passed over (aka, destroyed) by Semana Santa processions. It is crazy how much work people put in for these beautiful carpets that only last a few hours! It was really cool and interesting walking the streets of Antigua and witnessing entire families outside, enjoying their afternoon, playing music, drinking beers, and creating these elaborate and beautiful carpets in such a civilized, organized manner. Even little kids were out there working so diligently and efficiently! My sister and I joked that if this was the US, we would all be fighting constantly and everyone would be doing their utmost to get out of working on it. We asked the tour guides if it was weird if we took pictures and she said that no, not at all – they consider it an honor that you like and admire their works. We visited various points throughout the city, including a church called La Merced, which everyone says looks like a cake. Inside, was a very elaborate alfombra, along with a Jesus cake. Seeing as this is primarily a baking blog, it is a no-brainer that I would be fascinated, albeit slightly creeped out, by this…interesting…edible depiction of Jesus.
Sidenote: Apparently, a very eager and persistent potential thief lurked around us as we entered the church and continued as soon as we exited. My dad had to give him the serious death stare to ward him off. My mom, sister, and dad all noticed, but I was clueless. Moral of this story: Be more observant and do not feel “bad” being suspicious of suspicious people because I feel like I am being over-critical or prejudiced. When you are a tourist, you are an easy target and assuming the worst will keep you safe!
After the church, we walked around the courtyard, saw the rest of the city, and got to see a procession. Apparently, people pay to be able to carry the “floats” for a portion of the procession. The people that carry it the final length into the church or procession’s end pay the most. It is their sacrifice to suffer like Jesus did (the floats are uber heavy!).
El Volcan Pacaya
The next morning, we woke up bright and early to hike a volcano. Best decision ever. I need to introduce some more people here: I went on the hike with my dad and sister, Alfonso (mom’s cousin), Erica (Alfonso’s granddaughter and my cousin, basically), Alfonso (Alfonso’s son, haha – we call him Alfonsito, to minimize confusion), and Jenny (I THINK my mom’s cousin’s wife, perhaps? – that cousin is not in this story because I think I met him briefly for 5 seconds but do not even remember his name!). That’s it. 6 people. 1 volcano. Endless adventure.
Ok, so, after our driver got lost at least 4 times on the way there (and twice on the way back) and almost arrested because his papers weren’t in order, or something, we arrived at the based of Pacaya, one of the many active volcanos in Guatemala. The climb was surprisingly steep, which explained the Guatemalan boys that followed us a good chunk of the way on horseback, hoping we would drop and need to be taken up the rest of the way on horseback.
We did not surrender, and they eventually gave up (suspiciously enough, right when the path became easier for a little while). Alfonso said the boys looked so defeated and sad when he told them we would definitely NOT be needing the horses. We are TOUGH. We joked they were eying the two old guys at this point – my dad Alfonso (it whittled down to 2 horses at the end, before they too finally gave up and went back down the mountain). After the long hike up the mountain, we got some pretty spectacular views of the volcano.
We could clearly see the massive lava flow from the eruption in February, and the smaller flow from the eruption just last month.
We hiked down to the crater where there was still scalding hot lava (not red hot and flowing though – you win some, you lose some), so we had to be sure to follow the guide’s path to avoid melting our shoes! No joke!
Across the lava, there was a little shop with lava jewelry and the volcano dogs. The guys at the shop (and by shop, I mean hut) explained that the dogs sense the vibrations of an eruption far sooner than humans, and they will start freaking out, signaling that it is time to high-tail it out of there! Crazy!
This is the only shop located on a volcano, they claim. Who knows if that is true, but it was cool. After chatting with the shop guys and buying some jewelry, we roasted marshmallows and hot dogs over the lava. This was the coolest thing ever. I have never had a more delicious and satisfying roasted marshmallow. I didn’t touch the hot dogs, since I rarely eat hot dogs in the US, but, it was a nice treat for the doggies. 🙂
This hike was quite treacherous, but I am so glad I did it because it was so much fun and so worth it at the top. Plus, I burned like 20 million calories, which never hurts a diet. 🙂
When we got back from the hike, Jacquelyn, my dad, and I lounged at the pool for awhile, and then we met up with my mom for dinner at a very nice restaurant.
The treacherous road from Antigua to Santiago Atitlan
Day 5 began with a fabulous brunch at the hotel, where we met my mom’s cousin Junior (I honestly don’t even remember his real name), his wife Annie, and their two daughters, Nethanya and Lael. They were all very nice and awesome. We didn’t spend much time with them at this point, but we did later on. Just wait. Jacquelyn and I quickly packed up our things and went to further explore our hotel until it was time to go. My parents and Abue and even Bellita joined us and we explored the crypts and chapel and the chocolate shop (which we purchase an obscene amount of chocolate from for the trip up to Lake Atitlan).
Brief sidenote: My great uncle Virgilio founded a bunch of schools in Guatemala and is well known and respected in Guatemala and, I believe within his church. All the details, I do not know, but he is super cool, and I guess I will just have to go back so he can tell me the whole story in his own words. On our way to Lago Atitlan, we took a pit stop at one of these schools, where we met up with the rest of the motley crew making the trek to the lake: Me, mom, dad, Jacquelyn, Abue, Virgilio, Bellita, Alfonso, Betty, Alfonsito, Elizabeth, and Erica.
We then travelled about 2 to 3 hours (I don’t really know how long it took) to Santiago Atitlan – a town on the far side of Lake Atitlan. We got in close to dusk and had a very extended meal. After much food and laughter and good times, we all turned in early to make the most of the next morning…which began – after much negotiating of the youngins versus the oldies – at 8:30am.
Santiago Atitlan, Panajachel, and the most treacherous journey yet – the return to Guatemala City
A private boat awaited us the next morning to take us on a little trip (about 25 minutes) across the lake to a town called Panajachel, where we ate a delicious breakfast at a resort near the water (I love buffets) and (finally!) got to do some shopping. By this point, my dad was uber sick – we think from the strain of the volcano hike wearing him down – so he stayed behind with the older men (Alfonso and Virgilio) while the ladies went off shopping. Erica and Alfonsito went off in search of bike rentals, and when they zoomed by us a while later, we figured they’d found them. 😛 We demolished the outdoor market and literally spent every last quetzal we had. Jacquelyn and I were scrounging for change as we spent our last 70 (combined) quetzals on 2 pairs of sunglasses. (Note: It was Jacquelyn’s second pair she bought at the market, since she decided she didn’t really like the first pair, haha. Such a diva.) The town was very nice and interesting and we probably could have spent a whole lot more time there, but, we boarded another boat around 12:30 to return to our van to begin the long drive back to Guatemala City. The return journey on the boat took much longer because the waves get choppier later in the day.
The drive started with a stop to look at blankets in another little market, where both my sister and Bellita bought beautiful bedspreads. Then, things really got excited. On the drive back, my dad was looking at a map and Virgilio was talking and Alfonso was driving and somehow it gets decided to take a “shortcut”. Virgilio tells the story differently (he says he fell asleep and woke up to find we had taken a different return route!). I’m pretty sure I recall Vigrilio being the one encouraging the “shortcut”. Either way; poor decision. This “shortcut” led us down more perilous and curvy roads, and to a section of road that was missing, with no bridge in sight!
We had to stop and assess the situation (which included watching a bunch of other cars and people cross the river) before deeming it safe for our van to make the cross. When that van returned to Guatemala City, it was not in the best shape; that’s for sure! It was squeaking and creaking and moaning and groaning the rest of our stay. But it got the job done a comfortably transported my entire extended family across some of the mountainous terrain of Guatemala.
That night, when we returned to Guatemala City (or, rather, San Lucas, outside of the city, where Alfonso and crew were staying), we had to say goodbye to Betty, Alfonso, Alfonsito, Elizabeth, and Erica. It was sad because we had such a great time with them, and who knows when the next time we will see them will be. Moreover, they drove ten hours from Belize to Guatemala to spend the week with us! They were fun and super nice and it was really good to be able to get to know them.
Lounging by the pool and dinner at Junior’s
Day 7 was Good Friday, so, naturally, in Guatemala City, everything was closed. This was fine with us though, because everyone was happy to sleep in and relax and enjoy an afternoon by the pool. I even got a run in!
That evening, we went to Junior and Annie’s house. And, to clarify “we”, I mean my mom, dad, and sister, Abue, Bellita, Virgilio, and Liza. We met Liza earlier in the week, but she just enters the story here, because our interactions had been so brief previously. She is…oh geez…what is she? My cousin. She is really I think Bellita’s sister’s (Becky’s) daughter, or, I guess, then, my mom’s cousin’s daughter? So again, I go back to simply calling her my cousin. She spent most years of her life living in the US, if I remember correctly, and then a few years back, decided to move to Guatemala. That takes guts and I admire her for that! She is lucky to have a job that let’s her work pretty much anywhere. I like Liza; she is cool, and wears heels…which I approve of, and wish I was better at doing.
Anywho, Junior and Annie live in a beautiful gated community high up in Guatemala City…we probably rose 1000 feet from Bellita and Virgilio’s building to their place (not really, but it was a climb!). They have two daughters, who I mentioned earlier, Nethanya and Lael, who are 13 and 15, respectively. They also have two dogs who are adorable: a big golden and a little poodle. When we got to their house, we were given hugs, wine, and snacks – all things I love. Junior is a wine-lover and connoisseur, and so his wine choice was splendid and made me realize I need to have more expensive tastes! They also had fascinating artwork all over the house, including paintings, sculptures, and musical instruments! We chatted and hung out until dinner was ready, and then, it was absolutely fantastic. Junior made steak and grilled fruits and veggies (grilled pineapple is the bessssst). We also had rice, and, if I am forgetting anything, it is NOT because it was not delicious! For dessert, Lael (the older daughter) made apple streusel and we ate it with vanilla ice cream, of course! Then, we finished off with some more Guatemalan coffee, because how can you resist the coffee here?!?!
One last shopping trip and Cayalá
Our last full day in Guatemala consisted of shopping, eating, and more eating. And more shopping. We headed to the Mercado de Artesanias around 10am to make the most of our day. We spent the next several hours buying everything from paintings, to table cloths, to wine bottle holders, and bags. It was awesome.
After that, the men and Liza met up with us and we went to Cayalá, a fancy upscale outdoor kind of shopping mall. We ate lunch for the second time this trip and Saúl (soooo good), and then walked around the mall, which had many ritzy stores, as well as zip-lining, a rock climbing wall, and even a little pool with paddle boats!
Oh yeah…and there was a beautiful KitchenAid store there with a giant stand mixer out front. Of course, I had to take a picture with it. Imagine how many cookies I could make with this thing!
That evening, we had one last delicious meal at a restaurant where Junior is friends with the owner. And we went all out. I’m pretty sure we ordered every appetizer, and I KNOW we ordered every dessert. If was magical. And delicious. And then we had a major photo shoot. Some of those pictures I already showed.
We left Guatemala on Easter Sunday. It was sad to leave, because we had such a good time and getting to know family was so wonderful. I am very grateful to my mom’s cousin, Bellita, who pretty much planned the whole trip for us. We really got to do so much and see so much of Guatemala in such a short time! I really hope I can find my way back there soon. If only I had more vacation days…and endless funds…
…And that’s all she wrote… 🙂