Feb 27 – This morning we rose early to catch the pickup truck back to Lanquín. I managed to finagle myself into the cab seat next to the driver while Jim and eleven others stood in the back, but it was still a pretty thrilling ride. In Lanquín, we were separated by destination to board the mini-buses. Unfortunately , there were 32 people traveling to Flores, and only one 15 passenger bus going there. After much hand waving and histrionics, a second bus was obtained, and two extra seats were added to the aisle of our bus. It all worked out, but we got a late start and were packed cheek to jowl for the whole day. I sat with two girls from Israel, and Jim was sandwiched behind me between a young man from Stuttgart and an older woman from France.
It will take nine hours for the 97 mile ride to Flores. For such a small country, it sure takes a long time to cross it! Flores, in the department (province) of Petén, will be the northernmost part of our adventure, where we plan to visit the Mayan ruins at Tikal.
The driver stopped every three hours so we could eat and stretch our legs. It is now officially 🥵 hot. Then we got an extra, unexpected break. We pulled into a queue of cars, buses and trucks sitting idle. The driver indicated that we could get out and roam around, as we had to wait our turn for the ferry. It was only a little spit of water, but there was no bridge, so we waited for this ferry, powered by two outboard motors, that could take about six vehicles across at a time.
I felt badly for the trucks of cattle, squished together (so they wouldn’t fall over) in the hot sun. After half an hour’s wait, it was our turn.
We arrived by 6pm. All the kids headed off to the two hostels on Flores island. We are the only ones staying at Casa de Grethel, which is just across the water on the peninsula, and only accessible by boat. We knew to call our host, and he came and picked us up in his little skiff. He will ferry us back and forth for free as long as we are here.
A view of Flores island from our restaurant on the pier
Feb 28 – After a leisurely breakfast, we took the skiff over to explore Flores island. Here’s the view of our hotel from the water. They call the little pier “the beach” as you can jump in the water to swim there. This is on our list of things to do.
Flores island is itty bitty, filled with hotels, hostels, tourist agents and restaurants to serve the people who come to see the ruins at Tikal, which is a 90 minute drive from here.
In our walk around the island, we found pretty flowers:
Interestingly colorful painted buildings:
Some wall art:
Some wall art in progress:And a church!
We found the ATM, a place to eat lunch, and the panderia (bakery) for tomorrow’s breakfast. On our way back to the dock, we passed a masseuse with a cute mascot:
Feb 25 – After our strenuous adventure yesterday, today was a day to relax. We took a morning walk up the road and along the river. Beautiful flowers and mountain views.
We encountered natives on foot who asked where we were going. Just walking, was our reply. I imagine they don’t often just walk – if they set out, they have a destination in mind.
Spent some time in our hammock overlooking the river, reading and snoozing. Watched a bunch of kids tubing down on the current, drinking beer at 10 in the morning (you get a free beer when you sign up for the tubing), hooting as they floated past the women washing laundry in the river. What a world of contrasts we live in.
Nice lunch, and a swim in the afternoon. All days should be like this one.
Feb 26 – Ditto the exciting events of yesterday. We are very relaxed here.
What is the plant below? I’ve never seen a pod like this on a tree.
This is the nicest place we’ve stayed, with a resort atmosphere and ample friendly staff, 100% Guatemaya, as it proudly says on the sign. We don’t miss not knowing the news of the world for a few days. Viva Semuc Champey!
Feb 23 – We walked to the bus station in Cobán, where we were accosted by different bus drivers, all eager to take us to Lanquín. Jim picked the guy with the bus idling in front, as it looked like it was ready to depart. As soon as we got on, the driver jumped in, parked the bus and turned off the motor, telling us we’d leave in an hour. Gotcha!
He was a very nice driver, and we spent the hour teaching each other words in English and Maya, using Spanish as our bridge. There are 23 different Mayan languages, and more than 95 dialects – I have no idea which language we were practicing. I wish I could remember even one Mayan word to share with you, but vocabulary doesn’t stick for me unless I can hear it and see it repeatedly. It had lots of x and guttural sounds – nothing at all like Spanish. He said he had twin girls, and took out his phone to show me a picture of just one little girl. Two, he said, just like that one. (Ha!)
This ride took only two hours to cover the 32 miles to Lanquín, nicely paved until the last half hour, when the road turned to dirt and got bumpy. We were the only gringos. The bus stopped frequently for natives with big bundles waiting at the side of the road – ladies with bags of watermelon, baskets of produce, men with sacks of corn meal and rice. A mattress was added to the roof of the bus. Unlike the dry dusty route to Cobán, we are traveling up and down lush, green mountains. This is the jungle.
As we approached Lanquín, a guy speaking rapid English got on and told us we had to come with him right now if we wanted to get to our hostal at Semuc Champey, which was another 7 miles down the bumpy dirt road. Our plan was to have lunch in Lanquín before tackling the last leg of the journey. The tout was very pushy – you want lunch? Here’s a nice place. I tell you this for free. Eat, and then we go. What do you want?
We managed to have a nice enough lunch (chicken, rice and mixed vegetables) then the guy came back and told us he was leaving in five minutes. Unlike other places where lots of drivers vie for your business, he appeared to be the only game in town. He flung our packs into the back of a pickup truck, then indicated that WE were to get in the back as well! Not what I was expecting!
We stood up in the back, clutching the bars and holding on for dear life as the truck jounced through potholes in the dirt road and careened down the mountain. Forty five minutes to ride the seven miles to Semuc Champey – longest roller coaster ride ever!
The last bit was going over a bridge with a surface of wooden boards, several of which were missing. Will ours be the truck that doesn’t make it? This ain’t Disneyland.
Finally, we arrived at Hostal El Portal Champey, where we were given our own little thatched roof hut with a hammock overlooking the Rio Cahabon, where little boys jump from a big rock. There is a pool and a restaurant here. No WiFi, no hot water, and electricity only from 6 to 10 pm, when they turn the generator on. Perfect weather. Heaven!
Feb 24 – I must say that last night was the best sleepI’ve had in weeks. So quiet! Most of the young partying travelers stay in Lanquín and only come here for one day. Our place is more like a resort, catering to families and even some oldsters like us from all around the world. So many languages heard in the restaurant!
We looked at the group tour itinerary on the wall at reception:
10:00 Climb mountain
11:00 Swim in crystal pools
13:00 Hike to waterfall
14:00 Explore underwater caves
15:00 Tube down river
I wore myself out just typing that. We’re here for four days – we can take it slow (and definitely skip the underwater caves). Today we will walk two minutes down to the Semuc Champey national park, and see what all the fuss is about.Semuc Champey means “where the river hides under the stones” in Mayan. The entrance fee is prettypricey for this country, about $7.50 US per person. The trails are well marked, and there is no reason to hire a guide, although several offered their services.
While the morning was relatively cool, we tackled the mountain hike up to the scenic overlook. It’s supposed to take 30 minutes. The path up alternates between rock scrabbling and steep steps. It took me almost an hour, moving uphill in first gear. We met a family with two young girls, Arwen and Caterina. The dad, David, had good English and talked to Jim for a while. He was familiar with Tidewater, Virginia! As Jim got farther and farther ahead of me, David called out to him, “Jim! You are forgetting something! Jim, where is your wife?”
I finally reached the overlook, and it was indeed pretty spectacular – deep blue pools, rimmed with white stone, and lots of people taking advantage of the cool water. Now to climb back down so we can jump in!
After another hour, we are down at water level. The pools are surrounded by jagged, slippery limestone, impossible to walk barefoot. There was a changing area, and we put on our bathing suits and removed our boots. Jim had flip flops, which just skidded out on the slippery rock. I had better luck with my Keen sandals. We finally got to the edge and jumped in. Pure heaven – cool and deep and perfect for a noon swim. We stayed in for about an hour, thinking of the folks on the tour who did not have this luxury of time.
We got dressed and ate our sandwiches for lunch, then hiked the rest of the trail. What a beautiful place.
After walking home and taking a swim in the pool, we went back down the road to the native comida we saw this morning. Women grilling chicken and pork on an open air stove and slapping out tortillas, children selling homemade chocolate wrapped in foil, dogs and pigs staying nearby to catch any scraps that might be tossed their way.
We met a guy from Switzerland and his girlfriend from Indonesia, who were traveling across the country by motorbike. Yikes! They said the going was slow due to the unpaved roads, and I totally understood.
I am writing without benefit of WiFi. I’ll post when we return to civilization. More tomorrow.
Feb 22 – Today we walked around town, caught up on laundry and ran errands – traveling is hard work! We read up on our next destination, Semuc Champey, and visited the ATM after reading that there is no place to get money there, and credit cards are not accepted.
Friday is the day for the flower market on the main street.
Plenty of other stuff on offer too.
Of course we stopped into the Catedral Cobán, which looked much like the other churches we’ve seen here, except no one was praying inside.
This church had a good variety of lady statues:
It also boasted some very sad Jesuses.
Cobán’s version of the Liberty Bell? There was no story to be read about this bell, so I guess we’ll never know.
For those who wonder why we visit so many Catholic churches:
a) pretty much every town has one
b) it is usually the most notable building in the center of town
c) it is usually open and welcomes you inside
d) in a town without a museum, it may be the only place you can visit
e) whatever the language, we understand the story
In the interest of equal time, here is the church of the Seventh Day Adventists. It was pretty, but not open.
A round town square
Feb 23 – This morning we will catch the bus for the two to three hour ride to Lanquin, then on to Semuc Champey. We will be staying at a hostel with no hot water, no WiFi, and daily electricity for only four hours in the evening. Will we live to tell the tale? Tune in next week to find out!
Feb 20 – We got up early to wait for the bus that will take us the 75 miles from Panajachel to Cobán. The Trip is advertised to take nine hours at a minimum. We sat on Calle Santander, watching the shopkeepers set up their stalls for the day.
The tuk-tuks were out in force, trawling for fares.
We were the last ones on the bus, so Jim got to sit up front with the driver. I was not so lucky, squeezing behind him into a tiny seat with a hump where the legroom should be.
There is no highway north, so the bus followed local roads through dusty little towns, and bumpy dirt road roads through the mountains. It felt like we never went more than 20 mph or got past second gear.
The driver stopped every three hours so we could stretch our legs and answer calls of nature. The place we stopped for lunch served grilled sausages and cheese tacos – pretty good!
We stopped several times due to road construction, which allowed all the young smokers to jump off the bus for a quick cigarette. Why do young people smoke? Our driver knew his way around every pothole and speed bump. He says he does this route every day for 15 days, back and forth, 12 hours a day, before he gets a day off.
By 5pm we reached Cobán, a good sized city that is not on the tourist trail. We were the only ones to get off the bus here – the kids are all headed straight to the caves and pools of Semuc Champey. We are staying at Casa Serena, a lovely B & B on the outskirts of town. We have hot and cold water – it’s the first time we’ve seen two knobs on the faucet for a while!
Feb 21 – Roosters! Jim picked this hotel for its advertised quiet, but no one informed the roosters next door, who kept up an all-night competition. Don’t they know they’re supposed to crow after the sun comes up?
The breakfast offered at our place was a little pricey, so we set out for a desayuno tipico in town. The woman running the comida offered us only one option, so we said yes. I asked for coffee with milk, but she had no milk. She offered café something-I-did-not-catch, so we said okay to that too. The coffee was sweet and thick with spices and some sort of grain stirred in. Very good! The breakfast was good too – scrambled eggs, black beans with crema (sort of like mayonnaise? sour cream?), a white cheese and tortillas fresh off the grill.
We are here in Cobán to see the orchid farm, which is several miles out of town, so we took a taxi – no Uber here. The Orquigonia was founded in 2008, and is trying to collect all the varieties of orchids that grow in Guatemala. So far they have collected 450 varieties out of the 4000 possible. Our guide Fernando took us on a private tour.
Most of the orchids native to Guatemala are miniature – Fernando gave us each a magnifying glass so we could see them properly. He told us there are three kinds, orchids that grow from the rock, from the tree or from the ground.
This one is called the dancing octopus:
So many colors!
I saw a huge fern – Fernando said that the part we call the fiddlehead, they call the monkey’s tail.
We traded English vs. Spanish names for things – I wish my horticultural knowledge was deeper, and that my Spanish was better. A lovely, quiet, shady way to spend a hot day.
Feb 17 – Our plan was to take the lancha across the lake from San Pedro to Panajachel, then hop on a bus for the nine hour drive to Cobán. Unfortunately, the Guatemalan equivalent of Montezuma’s Revenge caught up with us, so we are spending a few extra days in Panajachel while Jim recovers, eating a bland diet of white rice and boiled potatoes, before attempting the long road trip north.
Here’s the local supermarket, where we stocked up on rice and potatoes. Don’t know what the occasion was, but there was a barker, plenty of loud music, and a dancing mascot.
As you definitely don’t want the details of our recuperation, I’ll share that we completed all our souvenir shopping by strolling Calle Santander and bargaining hard for presents for the grandkids. (Historically, they are underwhelmed by whatever we bring home.) I saw a lovely scarf, and was proud of getting the price down from 60 quetzales to 33, until we walked to the next shop where the same scarf was displayed for 25. I’m embarrassed to report that later in the afternoon, we saw it for 10! I am a very bad haggler.
Eliese and Janice – look at this lovely quilt:
Our other plan was to take all the goodies we purchased to the post office and ship them home so we wouldn’t have to lug them around for the next several weeks. Guess what? Guatemala hasn’t had a postal service in three years! Any service, anywhere in the entire country, since 2016! From what we can gather, the private company contract for the country’s mail services ended in 2016, and the government declined to renew or renegotiate it. So, no mail within or out of the country, period.
Ever resourceful, we googled other options and found a DHL Express office in town. The cost to ship home our paltry little box of cheap souvenirs would be over $120 US! A fellow blogger related his solution when faced with this issue – he took a bus to El Salvador, stayed overnight at a hotel, shipped his box from there and then bused back to Guatemala, saving considerable money over what the DHL charges would have been. Bravo for his resourcefulness, but I think we’re just going to lug our trinkets around. Our grandkids better appreciate them!
Feb 9 – When we awoke this morning we still had no electricity thanks to last night’s wind storm, but it didn’t affect us too much: the stove runs on propane, so the coffee was hot and the breakfast was delicious as always. The plants and chairs up on the terrace all blew over, but these things are easily fixed.
After breakfast, our host Sara let us know that the booking we thought we had made for four additional days at Casa Kaktus did not go through properly (it showed up in March instead of February – this has happened before on booking.com), and we would have to leave, as they are all booked up. Drat! She suggested we try La Casa Rosa, a regular hotel right on the lake that might have a room. Unfortunately, there is no other place in Santa Cruz that has a kitchen that guests can use. And we just bought four nights worth of groceries! Sara graciously offered to let us continue to use the kitchen, even though we would not be sleeping there. So nice.
La Casa Rosa is run by a native family, and is a lovely place, with lush gardens and seating right on the lake. We secured a room with a private bath. We’ll miss the camaraderie of Casa Kaktus and the daily breakfasts, but I think we’ll be okay.
Remember our little dinner party last night? When Jim was slicing vegetables for his spaghetti sauce, he sliced his thumb pretty badly. He bandaged it up and carried on bravely, but when he took the bandage off this morning it started bleeding again like crazy. Our host Ever tried to butterfly bandage it, but suggested we go to the clinic up in town to have it seen to properly. Jim pooh-poohed the idea, saying he was fine.
We settled our stuff at La Casa Rosa, then walked up the big hill to the Mayan town for lunch. A chicken joined us for part of the journey.More delicious native food at the CECAP restaurant, Cafe Sabor Cruceño, where the workers are all native and the profits go the education and skills training of the local community. After our meal, Jim thought it might be a good idea to check out the clinic after all.
We walked in, and the building appeared empty. We hallooed, and a man walked out of an office. Are you open today? (It is Saturday.) Of course, he replied. Come in – I am the doctor. He unwrapped Jim’s thumb, cleaned the wound and declared that sutures were needed. He and Jim kept up a genial conversation in Spanish while he worked. The doctor is 27 years old, educated in Guatemala at the University in Quetzaltenango. He is not married. Yes, he would like to visit the US someday, but doubts that he could get a visa. Yes, the clinic is open seven days a week.
Before too long, the sutures were in, Jim was given a tetanus shot, a week’s worth of antibiotics, and some extra strength acetaminophen for pain. How much did we pay for this excellent care? You guessed it – when they say free clinic, they mean it.
We relaxed at our new home for the rest of the afternoon, then walked back to Casa Kaktus to heat up our leftover spaghetti, and catch up with Monica and Mary. And the electricity came back on!
We returned to La Casa Rosa to sit at the lakeshore and watch the sunset.
Not the way we planned to spend the day, but very nice nonetheless.
Feb 10 – Jim spent a restless night and was in considerable pain this morning as his thumb starts to heal, so today we will stay local and take only a short walk to visit the Enchanted Forest here in Santa Cruz.
We walked along the lakeshore for a while.
Then uphill into the trees.
The path meandered past several grand houses in the hills, all behind walls and locked gates. When we could go no further, we turned around and walked back down.
We passed some native women in their traditional dress. Ever told us that all the women dress traditionally here, and there is no traditional attire for the men.
As we came back to the shore, we saw some native wooden boats.
This place has been changed drastically by the coming of the tourists in the last twenty years. I hope we don’t ruin it.
Feb 12 – We continued our exploration of Lake Atitlán today by bidding adios to Santa Cruz.
The view from our room at La Casa Rosa
After breakfast, we packed up our things and walked to the dock, to board a lancha for San Pedro. Unlike the lanchas heading toward Panajachel, which come along every five minutes, we had to wait for one heading the other way. Once it came, we sat inside while the pilot waited and called for additional passengers. The native woman sitting next to me was impatient to get going, drumming her fingers and knocking on the side of the boat. She must really want to get there!
After stopping at all the other waterfront haciendas, and San Marcos, which is known as the place where the hippies hang out (are there really hippies anymore?), we reached San Pedro la Laguna.
From this side of the lake, the view is not as spectacular, as the volcanos are hidden from view by other mountains. This looks like a more established town, with cinderblock buildings rising several stories. We are staying at El Delfin, a regular hotel. Here is the view from our hotel balcony – a little grittier, and the WiFi isn’t so good, but the shower has plenty of hot water.
A short walk from our hotel is the Museo Tzunun Ya. Tzunun Ya is the Mayan name for this town. When the Spaniards came along, they built churches and renamed all the towns after saints, but the people still practice their Mayan rituals here.At the museum, we received a guided tour from a lovely native woman who spoke slowly so that my poor Spanish could keep up. She told us about the four points of the earth, with Grandmother Moon and Grandfather Sun watching over us.
Our guide explained the Mayan calendar, and gave us our own number and symbol based on the date of our birth. My number is 4, Tz’ikin, the quetzal bird, and Jim’s is 1, Keme, the lord of death. Kind of like a horoscope, I think, and also helps you decide on an auspicious day to start a new project.
A woman selling trinkets on the street, Maribel, has befriended us, calling out our names whenever she spies us walking down the street. She has a seven year old daughter who sits with her. I think there may be trinkets in our future.
Feb 14 – Happy Valentines Day, a holiday that is totally not a thing here. The next festival here will be the Mayan new year. Our hotel gave us a swan heart today.
We walked up the hill to see the Iglesia San Pedro (church of St. Peter).
Inside, we admired the green hangings fluttering in the breeze.
Outside, we looked at the statue of San Pedro, with his keys to the pearly gates and his chicken. Did you know Saint Peter had a chicken?
Down the street was the much more elaborate First Baptist Church.
Lots of missionary evangelical influence here.
I wonder how the power company keeps all these lines straight?
There are no hills to hike here, but the town is pretty vertical, so we are still getting our daily workout.
Feb 8 – We are running low on quetzales, and Santa Cruz has no ATM, so today we took the public lancha (motorboat) back to Panajachel (Pana-ha-SHELL, or just call it Pana like the locals do). We’ve befriended Canadian sisters Monica and Mary from British Columbia, and Jim offered to cook supper for them, so we will go to the market and see if there are ingredients on offer that will make a meal.
As we approached the dock, a boat was just pulling away, but the pilot called out “Pana?” and when we nodded in the affirmative, he pulled back in so we could hop on. I sat next to an American retired couple who purchased a house here several years ago so they could winter here and summer in Maine. Now, that sounds like a perfect life.
Panajachel has all the hustle of a city, with touts approaching at every turn offering taxi rides, food and souvenirs.
During our search for an ATM, I spied these little cuties. Photographed from the back only, of course.
We were told that every town has its own design for traditional clothing. Ladies from Santa Cruz use blue and green thread, and the triangles represent the volcanoes.
Everywhere we walked a little knot of locals followed us, offering key chains and pencils as well as the more expensive woven, carved and leather goods. When we sat down in a restaurant to eat lunch, they followed us in!
We weren’t buying souvenirs today, so after finding the ATM, we looked for what other things of interest Panajachel had to offer. We found the church of course, Iglesia San Francisco.
As soon as we stepped inside, we heard this god-awful wailing. I feared we had stumbled into a funeral, but as my eyes adjusted, I could see a parade of people crawling on their knees, from the back of the church, down the hard tiled center aisle toward the altar, presumably exhorting the Lord with lamentations and prayer. What a racket!
We sat quietly in a pew, then watched as each person reached the altar, than started the long journey back up the aisle, on their knees, crawling backwards, still wailing. That was enough for me.
We’ve seen this form of penance before, at pilgrimage sites like Lourdes and Fatima. This was the first time we’ve seen it in a local church.
As we were about to leave, the caretaker of the church approached Jim and asked if we wanted to see the side chapels. He unlocked the gates and let us in.
Then he asked if we wanted to see upstairs. We gamely climbed into the choir loft, which was just a dusty space devoid of organ or pews.
Then he showed us another circular stone stair that led up to the bell tower. From the narrow step I was standing on, I would have to leap across empty space to access the other stair – no thanks! Of course, long-legged Jim was up for the challenge. Do you know what was up there? A bell!
That was enough excitement for one day. We found a modern supermarket, Jim bought provisions for the next few days, and we took the lancha back home to Santa Cruz.
Jim set to work in the big kitchen, managing to slice his thumb in addition to the mushrooms, peppers, onion, garlic and chorizo that went into his super spaghetti sauce. With fresh garlic bread, cold cervesa, and the good company of Monica and Mary, it was a meal that couldn’t be beat!
After supper, it started to get windy, than really windy. At about 8pm the town lost electricity, and we prepared for bed by candlelight. I wonder how long the battery in my iPad will last?
Feb 7 – The next village over on Lake Atitlán is Jaibolito (highball-ito). We were told that it’s about a 45 minute walk along the lake, so we will explore it today. We set out at mid-morning of another beautiful day, spying some paddle boarders on the calm water.
Here’s the end of our lakeshore walk. Time to head up into the hills!
Some big bamboo:
Can you see the swimmers down below? The water is so blue!
Up some more – there’s the town, nestled in the hills.
Not there yet – this reminds me of a Bernstein Bears book that Lexi and Emma used to read: Up the hill, around the lake, through the rocks and over the bridge.
Jaibolito is a tiny village of about 700 souls that is not accessible by road, so it is not as touristy as the other towns. From here we can see Volcán Atitlán, which is next to the volcano we can see from our terrace in Santa Cruz.
The native Mayans speak a language called Kaqchickel that does not sound at all like Spanish – sort of guttural. I asked twice how to say ‘thank you’, which you should always be able to say to folks, but couldn’t get the word to stick in my head. The kids here learn Spanish as a second language. When I tried speaking in Spanish to some of the school children (what is your name? how old are you?), I received blank stares in return. We were told that the native people do not like to have their pictures taken, so as cute as the kids were, I refrained from snapping them, even when I was tagged in their game and presumably “it”. Here is some wall art instead.
Missionary influence is evident here, with several small evangelical and charismatic churches, none of which were open.There is a fancy resort down by the water, and several restaurants, but we prefer to support the local economy when we can. We found a little comida and ordered a simple lunch of chicken, vegetables and rice. Our Lemon Crush came with ice, which gave me pause for the first time on this journey – would the ice be made with filtered water up here in this untouristy place? We drank up, and happy to say, all was well.
We looked in the tiny food market, and Jim got some tomatoes to add to our supper, but there wasn’t much on offer. Then it was back down the hill toward home. Watch your step – one foot wrong, and down the cliff you’ll go!
Here are some houses on the lake that I’d like to live in: