Sunday, February 25, 2007

One more reason we love our neighborhood

We missed the worst of the winter weather while we were in Guatemala but got one last snow when we came back. One more reason we love our neighborhood: the middle school down the street has a huge sledding hill, and tons of people come out to play. We hooked up with some friends who were taking their baby sledding and took some runs down the hill ourselves!

Monday, February 12, 2007

Rio Dulce

From Chicacnab, we hiked down the mountain in time to catch a 7 AM truck carrying workers into the nearest town, caught a microbus back to Coban, then hopped on a microbus and then a chicken bus for an extremely bumpy 5+ hour ride to the town of El Estor. The scenery was almost worth the spine-jarring ride: transitioning from highlands back to the lowland jungle, via lots of banana plantations. From El Estor we made a day of a couple of out-of the way attractions:

The Boqueron Canyon, which consists of a really lovely 15-minute canoe into a refreshingly cool canyon...

...and the hot spring waterfall at Finca Paraiso. The steamy hot water was a special treat for Elizabeth, who had picked up a sinus infection in the cold nights of Chicacnab.

Traffic was extremely sparse along this road, so we were grateful to discover that the other two people at the waterfall with us had a truck and were headed our way. They had driven down from Montana, and were among a handful of older travellers we met who travel every winter for 3 or 4 months at a time. Something to aspire to!

The next day we took a boat down the Rio Dulce to a place called Finca Tatin. Ah, Finca Tatin. We could have stayed a lot longer if we'd had the time. In fact, one of the guys managing the place had come to spend one night and was still there two months later. We kayaked over to a nature preserve, explored little tributaries lined with mangroves, watched the birds (toucans, woodpeckers, kingfishers, hummingbirds) and the butterflies (including a couple of blue morphos), and the fiddler crabs (all over the place) and still had plenty of time for sitting in hammocks and jumping off the rope swing into the river. Each day we watched the kids go by in their dugout canoes on their way to and from school, and watched guys fishing with nets in the river. To top it all off, the food was really, really good, and the other travellers were good company.

Saturday, February 10, 2007


In Coban we hooked up with a sustainable development organization called Proyecto Eco-Quetzal, which is trying to use eco-tourism as an incentive for families not to turn the prime habitat of the resplendent quetzal, Guatemala's national bird (and namesake of its currency), into farmland. We traveled a few hours over increasingly bumpy and windy roads, then hiked the last 2 hours to the tiny "village" of Chicacnab.

The family we stayed with are basically subsistence farming, with a little extra income from hosting visitors a few times a year and a few cows that they raise to sell. There is no electricity in the area, and the mother spends what seemed to us like a huge part of the day grinding corn by hand to make tortillas.

There were three teenagers who were our main companions and guides for our 2-night stay. The boys were huge soccer fans. They jumped on the newspaper we brought with us and devoured the sports news. They also got us to play soccer with them -- but even 3 against 2 (with their sister as our goalie) they kicked our butts. Queq'chi is the native language in this area, so we were all speaking Spanish as our second language. Matt had fun trying to learn a little Queq'chi and teaching the kids a little English, including useful phrases like "gimme five."

We didn't see any quetzals, but there was amazing scenery nonetheless: wide open vistas of mountainous farmland and patches of dense, lush cloud forest full of orchids and bromeliads. Plus the stars at night were amazing.

Thursday, February 08, 2007


From the steamy Peten we went to cooler Alta Verapaz, the "high true peace", which is a mountainous, coffee-growing region. The town of Chisec, promised by our guidebook to be a quaint town with some gorgeous lakes, turned out to be ugly with a bustling frontier-like atmosphere -- perhaps because their main plaza had recently been completely filled in with market stalls. The lakes weren't any nicer than what we had left behind, and Elizabeth managed to get attacked by a nest of fire ants. What's more, the ATM didn't work (this turned out to be a recurring problem on this trip) and we spent a night in fear that we weren't going to have enough cash to pay for the hotel we were staying in or get out of town. Once the cash crisis was resolved, we headed to the larger but much more relaxing town of Coban, which turned out to be a nice place to spend a few days while we prepared for the next leg of our journey.

We enjoyed the market in Coban, which is a major agricultural center. The women and girls in this region dress more traditionally than in Peten, with skirts and loose shirts known as guipils. They're also very adept at carrying large loads on their heads.

Traditional religious practices are also still common, right alongside Catholicism (and, increasingly, evangelical Protestantism). One afternoon we walked up to a church on a hill overlooking town that has many indigenous altars along the stairs you climb to reach it. Even in the church, people leave little offerings of coins and chicken feathers on the back of the box that holds the crucifix.

One of the things that makes Coban so pleasant is that there's a national park right on the edge of town. The forest here is closer to cloud forest than tropical jungle, the highlight being these enormous tree ferns. Also lots of leafcutter ants.

We spent our last afternoon in Coban on a tour of a coffee cooperative outside of town. Work-life wise, this community-owned farm is a major step up from the brutal coffee fincas of the past. However, at the end of the day workers still carry 90-lb bags of coffee on their backs to the processing area. Think of these guys the next time you're trying to decide whether it's worth a little extra to buy fair trade coffee.

Monday, February 05, 2007


It turns out that 6:00 AM on a Monday in the end of January is not a popular time to visit Tikal. Lucky for us -- when we got to the main plaza there were only four other people there, and we got to enjoy the animals and the mist wafting around the temples in relative solitude. A particular highlight was watching the oro pendulas fly in and out of their hanging nests, watching their yellow tails flash and listening to their eerie songs.

A little later we went to an area called the Lost World, where we'd had good luck seeing toucans before. Sure enough, animals are creatures of habit, and they didn't disappoint. A magical thing about the ruins is that when you climb the temples, you are in (or sometimes above) the tree canopy, at eye level with the birds. This time we had the added treat of being up above a spider monkey.

We climbed the tallest temple (IV, 212 feet) and watched a rainstorm come across the jungle...when the rain was past we climbed the scariest temple (V), which was basically like climbing 190 feet up a series of ladders. Then it was time to go back and swim in Lago Peten Itza one last time.

Sunday, February 04, 2007


After we got back from the Bio-Itza reserve, we took a trip with Jose and Aderito to the ruins of Yaxha. It's smaller than Tikal and much harder to get to. As a result, there were very few people there, despite its recent claim to fame is as the setting of season eleven of Survivor.
We had an excellent view of a family of monkeys......and Matt earned himself the nickname Cazador de Mariposas for his attempts to photograph the many butterflies.
Sorry mom, but riding in the back of a pickup is a very typical method of transport in Guatemala.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

San Jose and Lago Peten Itza

We spent a week back in San Jose, Guatemala, living with the same family we stayed with four years ago, with a view of beautiful Lago Peten Itza from our bedroom. The lake is undergoing a lot of changes -- the waterfront in San Jose has been paved and they are constructing a waterslide, of all things, much taller than any of the buildings in San Jose. Meanwhile, further along the shore, there are still docks with thatched huts where people bathe and wash their clothes. Either way it's pretty close to paradise to be able to go swimming every afternoon at the end of January.

The food was excellent, and included making bollitos. We still haven't nailed down the exact difference between bollitos and tamales. The end result in a bollito is a little less fine and sweet, maybe, and these had fresh black beans mixed in with the dough.

The language school in San Jose, Bio-Itza, uses proceeds from the school to support a nature reserve. Getting there involves several kilometers of very muddy road. On this trip we got stuck twice and lost a taillight. It's amazing people don't fly out the back of the truck.