Guatemala parte uno – quakes, a lake, and bellyaches…

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One of the reasons we decided to come travelling was because we wanted to see a different side of life, to go just beyond our comfort zone and then to keep going. We’d planned the trip to ease ourselves into it, starting in the States, moving into Mexico and then progressing into Central America, slowly extending our boundaries past familiarity into uncharted territory, at least for us; and here we were, on the threshold of adventure.

There’s something about crossing the border into a new country, a certain frisson as you stand there in the heat and humidity, waiting for your passport to be stamped, to admit you into a new world. This is particularly true for land crossings, as these often seem to be a law unto themselves and you’re never quite sure how long it will take, as you stand there smiling vacantly, trying to look like your passport photo.

We’d got a minibus from San Cristobal to the border, then had to carry our many bags out of Mexico and into Guatemala. This was one of those slightly chaotic borders, with money-changers waving thick wads of notes at you, and trucks and tuk-tuks (and every size of vehicle in between) weaving their way through the barriers, stalls, animals and people. The Guatemalan officials then asked for an unofficial fee of 10 Quetzales (the Guatemalan currency, 1 Quetzal equaling roughly £0.08) – however we didn’t have any Quetzales, so acted dumb until they waved us through. We didn’t really fancy changing money with one of the characters waving a stash of cash as thick as an encyclopedia at us. It seemed quite random, some people paid, others didn’t, though it did appear that people who’d been into Guatemala before weren’t coughing up!

Soon though we were on a new minibus, curving our way through spectacular scenery, lush green vegetation clinging to an endless array of hills and mountains. We’d decided to go first to Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second city and a relatively un-touristy place. The Spanish conquistadors named it Quetzaltenango and that’s the official name, but almost everyone calls it Xela, from it’s indigenous name of Xelaju, which can be confusing if you’re looking for it on a map. Like many Guatemalan places, it’s surrounded by mountains and volcanoes, but isn’t exactly what you would call picturesque. It does however, have a rather lovely hotel, Casa Renaissance, and a fabulous Indian restaurant, Sabor de la India, so we were more than happy to visit. We try to find Indian restaurants wherever we can, as you’re virtually assured of decent vegetarian food, and this was one of the best – so much so that we went twice in three days! There was also a Pizza Hut, which the girls were very pleased about, particularly as it had an indoor play!

However we’ll always remember Xela for what happened on our second day. If we were looking for Guatemala to shake things up a bit, nothing prepared us for this. We were sat in the hotel, chatting to an American/English/Canadian family who’d just arrived when a strange rumbling noise started. It was like a monumentally huge freight train was passing just outside, but we knew there were no train tracks anywhere nearby. Then the walls started shaking, rattling the pictures and ornaments as our unease grew. Just as realisation was starting to hit, the Dutch lady who ran the hostel called for us to stand in the courtyard, shouting “Earthquake”, and “This is a Big ONE!”

At this the girls started screaming and a surreal passage of time began. The walls continued to rattle. Pots and glasses tinkled a chilling tune. But most of all the floor moved. Really moved. We were stood on a solid, tiled floor and the whole place just moved in waves under our feet. Slow, menacing waves, like standing on a boat but feeling a vast, primeval force beneath us. And then, after what seemed like minutes, it stopped. First thoughts, relief; then more anxious moments, wondering if it was really over, or if there would be aftershocks. Then worried about how bad it might have been elsewhere – the power had gone off so we had no way of knowing how near the epicentre we were, or how big it had been.

Rach went out on the streets and found people in a state of near panic – everyone on their mobile phones, even though there was no coverage, and rumours spreading like crazy. It was all quite upsetting and we didn’t really know what to do with ourselves for the next hour or so until the power came back on. We then found out it was pretty bad, but not an absolutely major catastrophe; again, first thoughts, relief, then guilt as there had been quite a few fatalities. Then more guilt as it was impossible not to feel that we’d witnessed, and survived, an experience that was frightening, and exciting, for want of a better word.

The rest of the day was a bit weird after that. As soon as the power came back on we sent messages home in case it’d made the news and people were worried. (Though as our friend Vicky said, the only way it would have made the news back home was if Obama had mentioned it in his acceptance speech, after being re-elected president!). Meanwhile Jacco and Mareike (the hotel owners) surveyed the damaged to the hotel – a bit of plaster damage and a smshed chandelier, leaving glass all over the room next to ours. Then Mareike had an almighty row with a disgruntled former guest who acted like she owned the place (this added to the oddness). We then went out for lunch with the other family and witnessed just how slow and frustrating service can be in Guatemala (stranger, and yet stranger). Later on we went to a playground and got some shopping at the supermarket, then, back at the hotel we cooked tea – normal service had been resumed. It was only when we caught up with the news and read about the damage and numerous aftershocks that we got worried again, and it was an uneasy sleep that lay in wait for us that night.

The next day we decided to have a lazy day of doing nothing, to recover from yesterday and to catch up on things. We’d also more or less decided to go home for Christmas, which meant lots of research on flights. Casa Renaissance was a homely place to spend some time, and they had lots of films loaded on the computer so the day passed without incident – that is, until one of the girls had a major meltdown at bedtime. Perhaps it was the stress of yesterday, the stress of travelling or the stress of spending 24 hours a day together but this was quite a low point in our journey, and made our Christmas decision for us. Maybe we were asking too much of the girls. Maybe things just got magnified. Travelling does tend to compress a wealth of experiences into a short space of time, and it can overload your senses. Maybe we just needed a break, and at least we wouldn’t have to worry about booking somewhere over Christmas.

We needed cheering up, so what better then a trip to a water park the following day? Xocomil was built by several large businesses in Guatemala for their workers – a bit of their wage is deducted and they get free entry. It’s also open to the paying public so we decided to visit, well aware that we’d almost certainly be the only foreigners there. It’s also in the middle of nowhere and the only way to get there is by one of the legendary ‘chicken buses’. These are a Central American institution, old, retired US school buses shipped down and ‘renovated’. This renovation involves a major paint job, the addition of lots of chrome, and replacing the seats with longer benches. So, in a vehicle designed to fit 4 small American children in each row they now fit in a couple of families travelling with all their worldly goods, plus a few farmyard animals. The only concession to safety seems to be to add stickers saying that Jesus will protect us. These vehicles support a whole industry of spray painters and chrome fitters, and the owners try to outdo and out-bling each other. Each bus also has a girl’s name emblazoned across it. It’s definitely part of the Guatemalan experience travelling on one of these and on the way to the park it wasn’t too bad – we had almost a place and a half between the four of us, and even if the idea of personal space is an alien concept, it wasn’t so different to being on the northern line in London.

We then reached the park and paid our entry fee and walked in – and into a different world, so much so that we wondered if we’d missed passport control. This was a water park to rival any we’d been to before, with about twenty chutes, slides and rides, plus a couple of wave pools, all bathed in glorious sunshine. We also went to the theme park next door, which had recreations of Paris, Venice and Bavaria but not many rides. This was a bit of a let down after the water park but since both parks had cost us less for the four of us than one ticket to Disneyland we couldn’t really complain.

Xocomil Water Park - it's Guatemala, but not as we know it...

Xocomil Water Park – it’s Guatemala, but not as we know it…

We then had to get back to Xela and if we’d been feeling that we didn’t quite know what all the fuss was about chicken buses this changed on the way back. It was full when we got on and then got busier; Rach got about half a seat and had both girls on her knee, Pete had less and had an elderly Guatemalan gentleman on his knee. It then started raining, so all the windows were shut and the heat and humidity reached passing out levels. We were also climbing back up into the mountains, which was bad enough for the bus but the many trucks found it almost impossible to keep going at more than snail’s pace. Imagine a bus travelling at 2 km/h trying to overtake a truck travelling at 1 km/h in torrential rain round a blind corner going up a mountain. Now imagine cramming twice as many people as you thought possible onto the bus, and then squeezing in thirty more people, all carrying bags the size of hay bales. Now imagine this scene relocated into a sauna – there, now that’s a chicken bus journey!

However Pete did get chatting to the elderly gentleman, who’d lived in California for a while and was an entertaining companion – while the journey didn’t exactly fly by it did make it more pleasant, and we got back to Xela having seen two very different sides to Guatemala.

Chicken Buses, Guatemala

Chicken Buses, Guatemala

The next day we moved on to Lago Atitlan – an early German explorer called it ‘the most beautiful lake in the world’, and it is certainly very impressive, with three volcanoes standing watch over it.

Lago Atitlan - said to be the most beautiful lake in the world...

Lago Atitlan – said to be the most beautiful lake in the world…

Village life, unchanged.

Village life, unchanged.


We stayed in the town of Panajachel, which is not quite so picturesque, but does have a decent selection of cafes and a wide range of accommodation. We found a room with a double bed and two singles, which was a little bit grotty but the hotel was run by a friendly lady, and there was a beautiful garden with hummingbirds and a resident parrot.

We took a boat trip across the lake to Santiago Atitlan, where most of the people still wear traditional dress; down by the port it was a bit touristy but when you walked up to the town itseld there was a bustling market which was certainly not touristy – not unless you count endless stalls selling tomatoes as a must-see attraction.

Apparently while we were on the boat back to Panajachel there was another earthquake, though much smaller than the last one. We didn’t know about it until a couple of days later but had noticed that the water suddenly went very choppy for a few seconds, and then stopped. I don’t think this contributed to what happened to Kiah’s hair though…

Wavy hair, Lago Atitlan

Wavy hair, Lago Atitlan

Just in case you haven’t had enough lake photos, there’s some more, along with other Guatemala pictures in the accompanying post.

One of the reasons we decided to stay in Panajachel was because we’d followed the blog of a family who were living there. They’d travelled from Alaska and were eventually heading for Argentina, but had been in Pana for the last few months. The mum was called Rachel and they had a daughter called Kyah so it seemed like we really ought to try and meet up with them. We’d been in contact on Facebook and went later that day up to their house and had a great time – they were really friendly and welcoming, our kids had a fantastic time playing with their five children, and they even fed us for two nights running!

A bound of bravery for Tilly...

A bound of bravery for Tilly…

A jump of courage for Kiah...

A jump of courage for Kiah…

Their boys, Parker and Kimball had invented a game jumping from the roof of their bungalow onto the trampoline and eventually Tilly and Kiah plucked up the courage to leap into the unknown. Tilly, Kyah and Parker also went on an adventure to the supermarket, catching a tuk-tuk there and back (a little motorised rickshaw taxi) and buying some shopping. It was great for the girls to spend time with other children, and great for us to have some grown up conversation too.

We found the town a bit of a hassle though, and after one too many meals spent sat in a restaurant being pestered by people selling stuff we were ready to move on.

Our next destination was Antigua, and we were delighted to find that Kylie and Jez, who we’d met in Merida, were staying there – the girls had got on really well with them and it was great fun meeting up with them again, going out for a meal and having a couple of beers on the hostel roof terrace. They were heading in the opposite direction the next day but Kylie still found time to plait the girls’ hair.

Antigua is possibly the quintessential colonial city, and is a World Heritage Site. It’s chock full of cafes, restaurants and chocolate shops, and its streets are full of crumbling buildings and weathered charm.

Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua, Guatemala

The girls were also very keen to sample the chocolate museum, and went on a chocolate making workshop…

Chocolate wouldn't melt...

Chocolate wouldn’t melt…

We’re sure it was nothing to do with the lovely chocolates, but Kiah, and then Pete, started feeling rather under the weather over the next couple of days, with a temperature, stomach aches and dizzy spells. Consequently Antigua ended up being something of a mixed bag – beautiful to look at, but left us feeling ill, which somehow fitted in with it’s feel of bygone decadence.

And that was it for Guatemala for now. We managed a bit of shopping in the markets but it was time to move on. Having decided to go home for Christmas and then fly back out to South America we needed to fit a fair bit into the time we had left before our flight. Hence we decided to dip our collective toes briefly into El Salvador and Honduras, before coming back through Guatemala, on our way to Belize and then back to Mexico to catch a flight home.

We’d enjoyed Guatemala so far – who wouldn’t like crazy buses and volcanoes?

Chicken bus + volcano = Guatemala

Chicken bus + volcano = Guatemala

And in case anyone was wondering – yes, they do still have the vicious speed bumps in Guatemala, but they call them tumulos, instead of topes in Mexico…

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