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Our biggest inland trip yet dominated the month of April. The first week of April we were busy preparing to leave for a month long exploration of Guatemala. We found a very nice local fellow to take care of the animals with the back up help of the other cruisers anchored nearby. We were a little nervous leaving the animals by themselves on the boat for such a length of time, but that is how we had to do it. We had finally eaten all of the food out of the fridge and were packed up and ready to go. We splurged and took a taxi for the hour long ride into San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. The other option was to take a combination of at least three buses and about as many hours into downtown San Salvador loaded up with a backpack and duffle bag each. We had to take so much stuff, some for the jungle hike, some schoolbooks for the kids, town clothes, hot weather and cold weather coverings... anyway, we spent the first night in a noisy hotel in a bit of a scary neighborhood, but it was close to the bus station for a 5:30am departure. The bus was first class, served food and beverages and even had a good movie! After crossing the border with no problem, we arrived in Guatemala City after only 5 1/2 hours on the bus. We arranged transport to Antigua and arrived a bit tired, but very excited to be there. Over the weekend we looked at several language schools as we wanted to begin a week long Spanish class and homestay on Monday. We picked a school based on the homestay situation, as we really wanted to be with a family with children. All the schools say that they have a family, but then when you actually went to check it out, it was a nice house, but just students staying there, no family. Anyway, we stayed with a wonderful family and we had two separate bedrooms which was also very nice. It was in a very good neighborhood O and we had a great time walking around and exploring Antigua between school sessions O. We happened upon a great restaurant where we were attracted by the beautiful music floating down out of an upstairs window. We had a delicious dinner of traditional Guatemalan food while listening to some authentic traditional music. It was a great introduction to Antigua and Guatemala. The day before school started we took a horse drawn carriage ride around town O, quite the luxury in a way, but the streets are all cobblestone and it is a pretty rough ride. Antigua has amazing street scenes, with the indigenous people all wearing the outfits of their village O. The women still wear the traditional attire, but the men wear western clothes. Each village uses different colors and patterns with the most beautiful colors and woven designs. On Monday morning we were up bright and early to begin our Spanish classes. Wow, did they pile on the information. We each had our own individual teacher and so we moved at our own pace O. It turns out that Antigua, Guatemala is known world wide for its inexpensive and good Spanish schools. (Well the rest of the world knows it, but it was a surprise to us!) Our second night in the house there was an earthquake of 4.6 which Dana thought was Fletcher shaking her bed. There is so much volcanic activity in the area that they are not uncommon. We ate three meals a day with the family that we were staying with and did a couple of outings during the week, but mostly we studied. We brought along the kids math books, so along with four hours of Spanish, they had math assignments everyday. We used the experiences that we had as a basis for discussion and marked it down for different subjects for their study plans for the weeks we were gone. Some weeks we had lots of Language Arts and others lots of Science and Social Studies. We will fill in the rest of the topics when we return to the boat, but at least we will be up to date in math! (Nancy hates to get behind in the school work). Some of the other activities that we did in Antigua were to do some local hikes, visit a macadamia nut farm to learn how they grow and process these organically, and use every bit of the plant for something. Another fun thing was a reunion with a very old friend of Nancy's. She has been living in Guatemala for many years and it was a very nice evening spent enjoying a meal together with some other friends.
The day after our classes were finished, we did an all day excursion to a very active volcano, Vulcan Pacaya. The day began at 6am as we were picked up by a shuttle to take us to the base of the volcano. It was a long, long way to the top, so we hired a horse to trade out O. Yes, we could have all made it no problem, but it was fun to have the horse! Well, we had the horse for the easy part of the hike, but the last half was straight up the side of the volcano itself and the horse waits for you at the bottom. It is a very frustrating and grueling hour long climb. The sides of the volcano are covered with loose volcanic rock, so for every step forward and up that you take, you slide back about two steps O. It is all worth it once you reach the top! You get to actually sit on the edge of the main caldera O and look at two new cones that have just formed inside of this. They are spewing sulfurous fumes O and every few minutes, molten lava sprays out O and rolls down the sides. You would never be able to get this close in the USA! It was quite cool at the top and very windy. Luckily the wind was blowing from behind us, so the fumes blew away. This also helped the lava to be blown away from us. At one point the wind stopped and the volcano erupted and several folks jumped up and backed off a bit. We stayed at the top for about an hour, it was really amazing! The hike down was another adventure. One the way up, you sort of switchback up the side, but, on the way down, you go a different way and straight down the shifting, sliding volcanic rock O. It is very much like skiing. We all had lots of fun shooshing down the side of the volcano. Everyone stopped at the bottom to get all of the rocks out of their shoes. What a fun and interesting day! Our final day in Antigua was spent visiting several of the 32 churches in Antigua O. They are all so beautiful and many are in ruins because of the war and all of the earthquakes. Many of the churches were built about 600 years ago. There is a lot of history in this town.
Monday morning we were up at 3:30 to catch our flight to Flores/Tikal area. The plane that we were on held about 29 seats O. It was a 45 minute flight as opposed to an overnight bus ride. We found an hotel for $10 per room, so we splurged and got seperate rooms for the kids and adults. Our room was on the end and had a private balcony overlooking the lake! Pretty nice. We made arrangements the next day to begin a 3 day hike through the jungle to Tikal. Some friends of ours had done this the year before and highly recommended it. The trip was interesting for many reasons, one of them being that the company that books the trip does not quite give you all of the information up front. The first day, we thought that we were going to be taken by jeep to the first archeological site of El Zotz. Well, when we got dropped off at the starting point, there was no jeep and it turned out that we were to walk 6 hours that first day! What a surprise. Nancy already had blisters on her feet from the volcano hike a couple days earlier, hum, this would be interesting. Many bandages and leaves were used. We again had hired one horse to rotate on and off. We understood that we would have the horse for the whole trip, but as it turned out, horses could not make the hike on the last day, as the jungle was too thick! So, all of our bags had to somehow get from the last camp to the destination of Tikal. (We are not going to go into detail about Tikal as there is plenty of info available.) We ended up hiring a Mayan fellow to act as our horse for the last day and carry most of our bags. Poor thing! Luckily, we had thinned out our bags and only brought what we would need on the hike, we had left the rest of the bags at the office of the travel agency. Other folks on the trail that we met had brought all of their stuff with them, they also thought that the horse was carrying everything for the whole duration. Of course none of us had back packs or anything appropriate to be hiking through the jungle with. While we were waiting, we kept ourselves occupied, trying to communicate with the locals and admiring a snake O that decided to cross the dirt road near us. After an hour of loading up the horses with food, water, hammocks, mosquito nets, tents and our bags, we began our walk. We walked out of a small village where all the local Mayans were amazed by Dana's blond hair O. We walked along a dirt road through the jungle O. Fletcher was disappointed that we were not in more closed in jungle, but we just told him to wait. By the end of the trip, he was completely satisfied. The kids and Nancy traded on and off the horse, Mike had decided that he wanted to do the whole trail on foot. We all made it with no major problems to the first camp where there were two other groups of hikers staying also. They have palm roofed open air structures for you to hang a hammock under. They set everything up and cook for you and bring you snacks and refreshments O. It was pretty nice. Mike and Nancy opted to sleep in a tent rather than the hammocks. After we rested our feet for a bit, we went on another hike to find the bat cave. Right at sunset, thousands of bats emerge from the caves in the side of a cliff. They all come out at the same time and it takes about an hour for them to all get out to feed, then about 4am they all return. It was a pretty amazing sight. The next morning after we were served breakfast, we hiked off for several hours to explore the nearby El Zotz site and to have some leisurely time to have lessons in traditional Mayan edible and medicinal plants. We also finally got to see monkeys in the wild O, which was one of Mike's dreams. We spent about 3 hours climbing these as yet uncovered ruins O. We went into tombs with interesting bats hanging from the ceiling. At the top of one of the mounds, we came face to face with a tribe of howler monkeys which we had been hearing all day. They were as surprised as we were. At the top on another mound, we could see the top of one of the temples in Tikal sticking out of the jungle O. It was a long way away and we were covering it all on foot in the next couple of days. A bit daunting to say the least. We returned to camp for lunch and a siesta. The guides packed up camp and off we went for about a 3 hour hike to the next camp O. This one was a bit rougher than the first, but it was fine. We had dinner of spaghetti and quickly fell asleep exhausted. Day three begins very early. This is the toughest day of the trip and mostly you are just trying to make tracks as quickly as possible through the jungle, over trees, under trees, through the brush along what is barely a path. If we did not have the guides, we would have been horribly lost within about 5 minutes. At one point, Nancy, who is usually very good about finding trails, went off for a moment and was instantly lost! Pretty humbling. The guides did not talk much this day, but they did take time to cut some vines O that they had told us about the day before. You cut this vine a certain way and water just pours out of it. It did have a bit of a green taste, but was really very fresh and satisfying. We were all pretty dirty and had leaves covering the rub spots on our feet as well as leaves around our heads to keep us cool. The guides said that we were going Mayan O. After about 5 1/2 hours we emerged from the jungle right at the base of Temple IV in Tikal O. It is truly an amazing sight! We had the guides take our bags out to the entrance of the park, (which was another 25 minute walk) so that we could explore a bit of the site before we went out for lunch and a rest. We climbed a ladder/stairway to the top of Temple IV for amazing views O of the other temples and an overview of the whole area and we were able to look back on the jungle from which we had emerged. Of course the pictures do not even come close to showing the majesty of this site, but it was truly awe inspiring to think of this amazing culture that was so sophisticated so long ago! There are only three places to stay right at the site, and they were all expensive. We got the cheapest room that we could find and it happened to be at a place with a pool. Boy did that feel good after three days in the hot jungle. We rested up and ate dinner at a place next door to the hotel before falling into bed and a sound sleep. The next morning we were up early to explore the site and some more of the temples and history O. We had a couple of guide books to refer to along the way. Nancy especially was totally exhausted from the prior three days activity. It was kind of hard to be excited about walking around the hot jungle some more. Just as she was getting re-energized, Mike began to fade. We spent a good part of the day inside the park and saw the major sites and attractions as well as climbing most of the temples. One (Temple V) was very scary, with a steep and long ladder and only a very small platform at the top. We also got to see some wildlife once we got to Tikal O. I think that the animals in the jungle were watching us, but not showing themselves. At Tikal the animals are more used to humans, so were not afraid to be sighted. We stopped back at the hotel for another refreshing swim before we boarded a bus to take us back to Flores and civilization.
Once back in Flores, we found another great hotel where we again got two rooms for about $20 total. Each room had its own hot shower and a TV! What fun to be so exhausted and have a nice room. We caught up on some of the school work from the prior week and just hung out in Flores for a couple of days. We did a big load of very dirty laundry from the trip. Everyday we did some adventure also and swam in the lake. One day we took a boat over to a small zoo and also to an animal rescue center. The zoo was fun, but not nearly as good as the rescue center. While at the zoo one wild monkey came out of the trees and ran right along the fence over peoples hands, he was pretty funny. We also got to see two jaguars here O, they are very beautiful. After the zoo, we had the boat driver take us to the animal rescue center that we had heard about from other friends. They take animals that were being smuggled out of the country and treat them for any injuries before they return them to the jungle. Some of the animals are too injured or have already had too much contact with humans and these they keep as educational tools . There are two young spider monkeys O in this category that you can go in and feed and hold. First Mike and Dana went in and then Nancy and Fletcher. One of the monkeys, Shushu, would not let go of Nancy, she just kept clinging and clinging. The other monkey was very jealous and kept jumping around, landing on Nancy's head and shoulders, but Shushu just hung on. It was very hard to want to pry her off and leave her. People can go volunteer here for any length of time and we could see that it would be a great experience. They had several other animals there including many macaws and three baby deer who were found after their mother was just killed. The next day we explored an extensive cave system O for a couple of hours. Supposedly there is a way out other then the way that you went in, but we never found it and we were slithering around on our bellies through many passages. We could feel fresh air coming through very small openings, but we never did find the other way out. At first the kids were freaked out by the total darkness when we turned the lights off, but soon became used to it. There were many amazing stalagtite and stalagmite structures and everything was drippy and wet. We emerged covered in mud! That afternoon we flew back to Antigua from Flores. We had a pretty bumpy flight back, with the plane full of medical folks who had come down for a couple of weeks of volunteer medical work. They come down every year, bringing their expertise, medicine and equipment. They said that there were over a thousand patients waiting for them the first day.
We spent a short night in Antigua before being picked up early by a shuttle to take us to Lake Atitlan for the final week of our Guatemala adventure. Up in this highland area, everyone wears the traditional clothing including the men. It is so amazing to just walk around the streets and look at all of the beautiful clothing. Everything is hand woven in the colors and patterns of their village. All of the people speak Mayan as their first language, and the more educated also speak Spanish. We had already made arrangements via email to begin another week of Spanish school the next day in a small village across the lake called San Pedro. We ended up rooming with the school director's family. They are a Mayan family and Mayan was spoken except when we were around and then they would use Spanish. The Mayan language is beautiful to listen to and we loved being able to hear it. It was a beautiful home right across the path from the school. They have three children and the kids got to play every day after school O. The school was so beautiful and very good O. We did the morning session and then had afternoons off to explore. One of the days, the little 5 year old girl took us all to the local swimming spot O where the kids all just strip down to their undies to swim.. We sure felt overdressed in our proper bathing suits. Another day we did an hour long walk along the shore to a very beautiful beach for a couple of hours of swimming and resting. We hiked back a different way and got to see a bit more of the area. At the school there are also activities arranged almost every afternoon. One of the teachers usually leads the activity. One day it was salsa dancing. This was our second experience with salsa, as we had another lesson at the school in Antigua. The kids actually had fun this time and Fletcher especially was really getting into it O. The next afternoon there was a conference on the history of the war in Guatemala and the process of the peace accords. Of course it is all in Spanish, but we could understand most of it. During the week we were also preparing for Dana's birthday on Sunday. The family we were staying with offered to have a fiesta for her and invite lots of kids over, Mike and Nancy went out and found supplies including a pinata with lots of candy to put inside, a cake, balloons and some wrapping paper for presents that we had bought along the way. Neither Dana nor Fletcher had any idea that this was going on! As we walked through town with the mother (Marina) of the house that we were staying in, we realized that she was a very important person here. It turns out that she is the first lawyer the village has ever had! We stored all of the supplies in her office so that none of the kids would find anything. So, here we were staying in the home of one of the most influential families in this village, and she was cooking us three meals a day and taking care of us and her family and running off to work in between! We felt honored to be in their home. After a few discussions with them, (in Spanish, of course) we felt comfortable enough to ask about their experiences during the war years. Yes, the guerrillas had been through these areas and then the military would come in and punish the villages even though they often did not willingly help the guerrillas. Marina, the mom, had witnessed several things and had to go into exile for awhile. Her sister had witnessed the torture and murder of a priest and was in exile in South America for many years until the peace accords were signed. She also had two brothers disappear, one returned after being tortured for several months and one has never been heard from again and there is no record of his death. It is amazing what these people have been through. We got to watch a movie called "Daughter of the Puma". This is about an indiginous girl who witnessed several atrocities, escaped on foot through the mountains to a refugee camp in Mexico and then went back into Guatemala to look for her brother who disappeared. We have let the kids watch several movies that we would never let them watch in the states, but we want them to understand what the people around us that we are living with have been through. We cover their eyes or send them from the room if things look like they are going to be too bad. Hopefully it is part of good and real education for them. Our final day of April was spent on the final preparations for Dana's birthday on May 1.
Please click to enlarge!
Scenes from Antigua, Guatemala: The location; our street; studying at school and home; some churches; in the Red Bar making travel plans; some of our favorite street scenes
The trip up Vulcan Pacaya, look how close we were to the lava!
Scenes from Flores: Our flight to Flores, Lake Peten Itza, an animal rescue center and zoo visit, and the cave adventure
The three day hike through the "jungla": waiting for the horses to be packed up for the trek; the first camp; exploring the El Zotz site, including some caves and tombs; some of the local fauna; our first sighting of Tikal and the miles that we still had to hike before we arrived; day two, along the way to camp two; camp two and going native on day three
We came out of the jungle at Temple IV at Tikal! Wow!! Scenes around Tikal, a Peten Turkey and Pizote
Spanish school and homestay at San Pedro, Lake Atitlan: The school setting; our homestay family; salsa dance class; swimming with local kids in the lake
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