Me gusta Guatemala, me gustas tu

There is a song by Manu Chao called ‘Me gustas tu‘ that -Monica once told me- is used by many people to learn words in Spanish. One of the lines in this song is ‘Me gusta Guatemala, me gustas tu’, and I’d get a change to experience that for myself this year. Monica visits her family every year and when deciding on our vacation plans for this year, we came to the conclusion that it would be a great idea to visit Guatemala together. I’d get to meet Monica’s family and friends in Guatemala and see the beauty of Monica’s country. However when it’s summer in Europe, Guatemala has it’s rain season. So we had to wait a while and on October 23 I finally started on an incredible journey…

On Sunday October 23 I headed to Barcelona, where I got to see Monica’s new apartment and enjoy a little time in Barcelona before the grand adventure was to start. On Monday Monica still had to work, so I was on my own for the day checking out the new neighborhood. In the evening we had a last dinner in a lovely restaurant before the last luggage checks and we were ready!

Rotterdam from the plane, the Erasmusbrug well in sight

Tuesday morning we got up early and found that it was raining in Barcelona. We made it to the airport in time and a little while later we were on our way. A stop in Madrid where getting from one terminal to another turned out to  a bit of a journey of it’s own, but we made that in time too and then we were finally on our way to Guatemala! Although Iberia does it’s best to simulate a night during the flight, I wasn’t the least bit tired (we left at 10:00!!!) and watched four movies along the flight. And then finally, finally we arrived at the Guatemala Airport where Monica’s sister Maria was waiting for us to bring us to the family.

Casa Batllo in Barcelona remains an impressive building

During the ride I got my first glimpse of Guatemala. In Guatemala City you’ll find clowns, jugglers and other entertainers at crossroads, vendors selling goods in the middle of the road and (and that shocked me a bit at first sight) several guards with shotguns at banks, malls and also at car-dealerships. And at the guard-houses in residential parks. Police and military are not overtly present, but you’ll notice them when they’re there and they do not look like to be messed with! But all in all mostly the scenery stood out. Lots of cultural richness, so many fresh bright colors everywhere in buildings and clothing and volcanoes in the background just about everywhere.

After a short ride we arrived at the residential park where Monica’s family lives and I finally got to meet the family in real. In honor of our arrival there was a small dinner with some of Monica’s uncles and aunts, cousins and friends and of course her father, mother, brother and sister. It was also my first real test in Spanish, but luckily several members of the family speak English so all in all we got along really well and I managed not to make a complete fool of myself.

We spent the night at the house of Monica’s godparents and quite a remarkable house that was as well. The next morning we had a bit of time before we went to Antigua, so we first went for a short walk to the cemetery. A lovely park with a peaceful feeling and gorgeous gardens.

The ride from Guatemala City to Antigua isn’t too long. The two cities are really close together, which makes Antigua also very popular as a weekend-visit for the residents of Guatemala City. And it is easy to see why: Antigua is a beautiful small city surrounded by volcanoes. It is renowned for it’s Spanish colonial style architecture and structures. It used to be Guatemala’s capital until 1773, when an Earthquake demolished the city. Many buildings have now been restored, but also some of the ruins remain. The houses in Antigua are painted in various bright colors, the Mayans are a wonderful colorful people and the whole place just brings a smile to my face. Maria drops us of a little out of the center with friends of Monica with whom we’ll stay for the next two days. Monica’s family will join us in the evening.

Arrived in Antigua, the Vulcan de Agua is hidden in clouds

We meet hosts Fernando and Beatriz and Monica can catch up a bit before Fernando drops us off in the center and I finally get my first real taste and smell of Antigua. We visit the an old ruin of  a cathedral, walk in some of the streets and finally take a seat in the central park just to sit there for a while and watch the people there.

Our second day in Antigua is a memorable one as we visit the ruins of an old convent. While I’m taking some photos there a Mayan family waves at me so I can include them in the photo. A little while later we meet the whole family. I have to speak a little Dutch as they’re very curious to the sound of a foreign language and in turn they speak their native Mayan language to me and they’re very curious about my size as I’m towering over them a bit. They’re even more surprised that I’m not the tallest man in the Netherlands. And we eventually also take a group photo… we’ve made friends with the Mayans already, a lovely start to the vacation! Today we also try some typical delicacies such as caramelized orange, sugary figs and what not. It tastes incredibly good, but they are a bit of  a handful to eat. Also we get some Champurradas: big, sweet cookies that you dip in coffee.

Our new Mayan friends

It’s a busy day today as we also visit the Finca Fidelfia coffee plantation. Monica and I take the English tour, the rest of the family takes the Spanish tour. We get a full trip along the plantation and see the whole process from the small saplings of the coffee-plants all the way to picking the berries, taking the seeds, drying and washing and eventually the roasting of the beans. As we sit in the restaurant to drink a pure espresso (or American coffee) from the plantation, I notice a news-clipping about the Maya-exposition that was on display in the Drents Museum in Assen earlier this year (that Monica and I visited too).

Getting all the details about coffee, I couldn’t be happier :)

In the evening we have a dinner with the family and some friends of Monica that visited. In the restaurant they’re playing Marimba with a group dancing in the center of the restaurant. Immediately on our arrival Monica is swept away by one of the dancers to join in the dancing (me being eternally grateful they didn’t pick me! ).

On our third day in Antigua Monica and I visit the Museum-hotel “Casa Santo Domingo”, a famous location to celebrate events and they also have gardens where they keep parrots. Although we don’t have the time for all the activities, we could have visited many workshops there, including making chocolate, candles and such. We do however visit an art-gallery and take a look at the parrots and the gardens.

A parrot doing pull ups, he was a bit of a show-off

Then it’s time to take the car that will bring us to their second location a little out of Antigua and into the mountains where their restaurant “El Tenedor de Cerro” (The fork of the Hill) is located with another amazing view over the valley and to the volcanoes. And also there is another gallery where they were showing a large set of paintings inspired by Don Quichot.

In the past few days we’ve used tuktuks to get around and they’re fantastic. You absolutely have to use these when in Guatemala. Small motorized rickshaws and every tuktuk is personalized by it’s owner. So you get them in a fairly basic versions, some painted and all the way to heavily pimped and bling-bling tuktuks. And they’re not only in the cities and villages, but they also pop up on the main roads between cities sometimes. You cannot have visited Guatemala without going on a ride in a tuktuk, you simply just can’t!

Tuktuks, these things are awesome

In the evening we explore the nightlife in Antigua with a few of Monica’s friends. Several bars and beers later we end the night in really good spirits :) Many of the bars and restaurants in Antigua offer terraces on the roofs so you can enjoy a beer (such as the Guatemalan beer Gallo!!!) or a dinner with a backdrop of volcanoes. Of course it’s also a stunning sight in the sunset.

During our last day in Antigua we start with a brunch with the family in a flower-center. The gardens and dining-area look amazing, such wonderful flowers everywhere. A delicious and beautiful start of the day. Afterwards we arranged our last little things and purchases at the markets in Antigua (funnily enough as Antigua is such a touristic location many of the Mayans learn their phrases in many languages. One of them asked where I came from and promptly started speaking Dutch. I had to translate a few items as well so she could use them for the next set of Dutchies. If a Mayan tries to sell you a ‘rugzak’ it’s probably because of me). And then we shared a lunch together with Fernando and Beatriz as a token of gratitude for hosting us in their flat during the first two days in Antigua.

A lovely Mayan called Maria
A lovely Mayan called Maria

Also on this last day in Antigua the Volcan de Agua is finally fully in sight. There’s not one cloud in the area and it looks really impressive. Actually even more impressive is the Volcan de Fuego, a little further away which has started puffing out smoke during the day. It’s really a fantastic sight in the evening as the sun sets and then suddenly… it erupts! There’s an actual stream of lava going down the volcano and you can see the mouth of the volcano spewing. I’m in awe, saying that this is the most impressive bit of nature I’ve ever seen. Monica finds this quite comical as it’s more or less normal for the Guatemalans. However for a Dutchie it’s a really impressive sight.

An active volcano and so close you can see the lava streaming down

Back in the main square they’re about to send out lots and lots of wish-balloons! Tonight they celebrate one more anniversary of Antigua’s declaration as an UNESCO World Heritage Site. They prepare and send out paper balloons with a flame underneath them and to make the whole event a bit more symbolical the wind sends them all towards the volcano. It truly is an amazing sight and I cannon believe our luck that we get to witness all of this.

Countless of wish balloons up in the air and way in the back the active Vulcan de Fuego

After a few lovely days in Antigua it was now time for our next stop. At the impossible time of three in the morning we got up to be able to make it on time to the airport. Here a propeller plane brought us to Flores, from where we were driven to the Westin Camino Real Tikal hotel in Peten where we’ll stay for the next two days.

Although we flew early, the view from the plane was amazing
Although we flew early, the view from the plane was amazing

The first day is a relaxing day enjoying a bit of time-off: we took a boat from the hotel that showed us a bit of the lake Peten Itzá where our hotel was placed and from the lake we get a good view of the location that the Mayans called the crocodile-island as it’s shaped like a crocodile’s head. In the afternoon we walk a bit near the hotel in the ‘jungle’, we relax in hammocks, lay at the shore and in the evening enjoyed some time in a Jacuzzi that the hotel has outdoors surrounded by the jungle.

The crocodile's head
The crocodile’s head
Captaining the boat
Captaining the boat

But actually the second day is the real reason why we came to the hotel. Early in the morning we were picked up together with one other hotel-guest and were driven to Tikal National Park! On the way our guide told a little about the flora and fauna and showed the lay out of the Mayan temple area on a large scale model. And then we finally arrived. This was going be a truly memorable day. Walking through the jungle with incredible plants, trees and a spider-monkey here and there the park consists of many temples and other buildings and ruins from the Mayan era.

Our first view of a temple, it feels just like Indiana Jones

Our guide Luis explained the meaning of the buildings, the offering stones and how the Mayans played their ballgames. Many of the buildings are still covered by earth and  plants, but due to the layout of the temples, where many buildings are set up as twin buildings, much is already known of the still covered temples and also covered in earth the buildings are better preserved then when they’re uncovered.

This Spider-Monkey was such a poser :)
This Spider-Monkey was such a poser :)

We were allowed to climb several temples giving great views over the jungle and the park. Especially popular among sci-fi fans is temple IV, from where you can see Temples II and III looking out over the forest. This view is also used in ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ where the location is used to portray the planet “Yavin 4”. Our guide told us that new scenes were (to be) shot for an upcoming Star Wars film :)

On top of Temple 4
On top of Temple 4

It’s truly amazing walking around in this location, hearing the history and seeing some of the wildlife and our guide Luis did a superb job. We ended the tour with a lunch at the restaurant in the park and then we returned to the hotel. After refreshing ourselves a bit we first headed down to the shore to watch the sun go down over the lake and then the lovely hotel opened the games-room for us in the evening where we played our version of snooker/pool until it was time to go to bed because the next morning we had to be up well on time once again.

Back at the hotel with our guide Luis
Back at the hotel with our guide Luis

It’s November first  and at four in the morning we got up, were driven to the airport and flew back to Guatemala City where a van picked us up to drive us all the way to the next location: Panajachel at the shores of Lago de Atitlan (or Lake Atitlan) where we’d stay for 4 more days. Today is All Saints Day and that means kites. More accurately: kite festivals, with huge kites. We see many along the way.

Flying back from Flores and the view is still magical
Flying back from Flores and the view is still magical
On the road to Atitlan, we see a huge kite-festival
On the road to Atitlan, we see a huge kite-festival

I’ve already seen a bit of travel in Guatemala by now, but as this is a long ride I get to see quite a bit more. So here is some information on Guatemalan traffic: Although people drive on the right side of the road, passing can be done on either side, so you have to be well aware of traffic. The roads aren’t as well  maintained as in the Netherlands, so holes and cracks in the road are far more common. There are loads and loads of Toyota pick-up trucks transporting goods, people and even the odd horse.

Stop horsing around!

Also on every road (both in cities as on the roads between cities) you will find cyclists and pedestrians going up and down the road. And motors carrying wide loads. It’s… interesting :) And of course you’ll see many colorful chicken-buses. Luckily it didn’t happen too much on the main roads, but in the cities you’ll also find people crossing the street whenever it suits them. Quite scary as I saw a few narrow escapes on the way. I’m sure it’s pretty normal when you grow up here in Guatemala, but coming from the Netherlands I’m happy I haven’t taken my Alfa along for traveling here!

Bling-bling chromed Chicken bus, I still think I should travel on one of them, for the experience

Unfortunately this day it was also the time that I got “Travelers’ Diarrhea” which would more or less affect the rest of the vacation. A huge shame as I love, love LOVE the Guatemalan cuisine. During the trip to Lake Atitlan all was fine, but once we got to the hotel it started going downhill. As luck would have it though, in the evening it wasn’t too bad and we headed to a local cemetery to see a bit of the ‘Dia de los Muertos‘. It’s impressive to see how death is experienced and ‘celebrated’ in different cultures. Where Dutch cemeteries are dignified and bleak (boring), here in Guatemala graves are colorful, decorated with drawings and artifacts in memory of the diseased. And on this special day all graves are decorated with fresh flowers, many of the graves get a fresh layer of paint and it feels like a true celebration.

The next day the illness hits hard and I’m in bed with fever and feeling incredibly tired for pretty much most of the day. The next day it’s going a bit better. We visit a local doctor for advice and Monica and her family do what they can to make me feel better.

Poor old me, sick in a hammock

By the third day I’m finally doing  better and we can walk around Panajachel. Which is good as the hotel hosts a large group or Guatemalans in for a work-outing, lots of noise all over the hotel today. We visit the center looking at the many sales booths and stalls where the Mayans sell their wares and we visit the local church. For what it’s worth I’m extremely happy to be able to walk around again for a bit, however much like in Antigua also here the tuktuk is a great way to get around!

Her headdress is wound around her head about 24 times, it looks fantastic
Her headdress is wound around her head about 24 times, it looks fantastic

And by the fourth day I’m finally doing so well that we decide to take a boat over the lake to visit Santiago de Atitlan (and the hotel is overrun by bridesmades as they are arranging a huge wedding today). Unfortunately we cannot stay too long on the other side as our captain advises us to return before the Xocomil hits. The Xocomil (roughly translated it means ‘the wind that carried away sin’) is a phenomena where the wind goes two ways (the warm winds from the Pacific meeting the colder winds from the North) and which results in the water moving two ways in the lake. But still the boat ride was fantastic. I sat in the front with the wind in my face and it felt awesome. Monica and her family -not all to fond of boats- sat in the back hoping and praying to get to the other side soon.

Santiago is a gorgeous place. Arriving on water I finally got a closer and better view of the volcanoes that I had so far only seen on the other side of the lake. In Santiago there are many more Mayas selling goods, but we also visit a foods-market and here, for the first time since I left the Netherlands, I hear two Dutch girls walking over that same market. Seriously… no matter where I go, there will always be a fellow Dutchie along somewhere :D

Back to Panajachel over rough waters, the view is gorgeous
Back to Panajachel over rough waters, the view is gorgeous

We visit the local church where two Mayans are performing a traditional Mayan prayer giving thanks for crops. Unfortunately we can’t stay too much longer as the Xocomil will come soon. We head back over the water, which is now rougher then it was in the morning, so my ass took a beating sitting in front again. Back in Panajachel it is clear to see in the lake that the Xocomil is affecting the lake. We say goodbye to the family for now who will return to Guatemala City and Monica and I spend the remainder of our last day in Panajachel. We end the afternoon in Sunset cafe with a beautiful view over the lake and watch nightfall set in.

Looking over the lake from our hotel Jardines del Lago

The next morning I feel better and better and we have our few last hours in Panajachel before we too head back to Guatemala City.

A lovely old Mayan woman in Panajachel
A lovely old Mayan woman in Panajachel

We made a stop to pick up a chess-set I saw there on our arrival at Atitlan and a little while later we stop for a lunch-break. Although I’ve been nagging Monica that I really would like to go on a Chicken-bus ride for the experience, I have to say that on this ride I came to see Monica’s point of view. The stunts that the drivers of the Chicken-busses pull on the road are just nuts. Passing at high speed on the right side half on the road and half of, tilting over nearly 40 degrees is nothing to them.

The views of the Guatemalan landscape with the rolling mountains and volcanoes on the way is honestly indescribably beautiful, I could not take my eyes of it. I tried some photos on the way, but there were some ‘miradors’ along the road where I really want to make a stop next time we’re in Guatemala.

Country side views from the road
Country side views from the road

For our last two days in the city Monica has arranged that we could stay in the hotel where she worked for several years before she moved to Barcelona. We stayed in the insanely luxurious Westin Camino Real hotel in the highest possible floor (just under the top floor) and I have to be honest: even though we certainly haven’t had bad hotels so far… to spend the last two nights in a super comfortable bed is a superb way to end our vacation and also Monica can catch up with some of her old colleagues that still work there.

The Westin Camino Real, our hotel in Guatemala City

In the evening Maria picked us up to show us a bit of Guatemala City and we end up visiting the shopping area where the Christmas tree has just been revealed with loads and loads of fireworks. As Guatemala City doesn’t have parks and open spaces such as Barcelona has and it’s dangerous to just head out in Guatemala City (especially for a naive tourist such as me), the people go to malls, where there are stores, restaurants, bowling arenas and cinema’s. A new one in a grand style has just been modeled to look like a pueblo in the city.  It’s an impressively expensive looking area where we eat our dinner in one of the restaurants.

Christmas decorations and a buried giant

The next day we had a bit of luck.  On Sundays due to an  initiative called ‘steps and pedals’ (to promote sport and healthy living) a good part of the main road through Guatemala City is blocked from cars and we were lucky enough that that part runs directly by the hotel. We were able to walk down a stretch of the road in peace and with many people and some police and military on the scene so it was really safe to do so.

The size of this Christmas tree? See the little maintenance cart on it’s right side? This thing is huge

And after a lovely morning walk we were ready for a big barbecue with the family. More or less 60 family members and friends of Monica had assembled at her parents place and we had a super afternoon together. I got to explain a bit about the Netherlands such as our hagelslag, wooden clogs and our holidays and I got introduced to a few more family members, sometimes in broken Spanish and sometimes more in English. And then, one by one, they started leaving until just we were left. On our way back to the hotel Maria showed us a little more of the central part of Guatemala City where the government palace is at the square. It’s an impressive building in the history center of the city, but as it’s nightfall already we cannot do to much here now… Next time then!

And then suddenly it’s Monday, out last day in Guatemala. We spend the morning preparing the luggage, making last arrangements for the flight, relaxing at the hotel-pool and then have a little time left for a really short round around the hotel.

The view from our hotel room
The view from our hotel room

Monica’s family joins us at the airport where we spend the remaining hours together until we really have to pass through customs and board the plane. I have a my first negative experience in Guatemala at customs when an over-eager young customs worker decides that I do not really need so many batteries for my camera and I have to leave four of them behind. And she went through literally every opening, pocket, pouch and box I had in my backpack. I don’t mind thoroughness but this was ridiculous.

Taking off from the the airport at the end of the afternoon and it’s dark already!

The flight back made an extra stop in El Salvador and from there to Madrid we managed to sleep quite a bit, so we arrived in Madrid much  refreshed. The flight to Barcelona was a short stretch after this and by the end of the afternoon we were back in the apartment. We celebrated the trip and our return in Barcelona with a great dinner in Velodromo and didn’t make it too late that night as Monica had to go back to work the next day.

I only closed my eyes for a bit and we’re back over Spain!

I on the other hand had the remainder of the week off and Wednesday was my last full day in Barcelona. I wandered the streets and on the morning the world was in shock about the unexpected election of Trump I visited the exposition ‘Yo Queria Ser Fotografo’. Monica and I met for lunch and then in the afternoon I walked around a bit more until Monica came back from work. In the evening we had a dinner in a fantastic Italian restaurant and then it was time to close my luggage one last time. Which by the way was no easy task.

The trip back to Assen was hard, leaving Monica in Barcelona… And considering it’s bloody cold back in the Netherlands I really didn’t want to go back. 

I’m really, really sorry the journey is over, but after the experiences I’ve had I long to go back. There is so much more to see there. So now I can fully agree with Manu Chau: “Me gusta Guatemala, me gustas tu!’. Many, many thanks to Monica’s family and our friends in Guatemala for taking me into the fold, taking us into their homes and making me feel so welcome. And also especially to Maria for taking so much time to drive us around and showing such beautiful places, you were super!

After so many flights to and from Barcelona I finally got a view of all of Barcelona

To all Guatemalans, to my new family and friends and especially to Monica: Gracias!

As the amount of photos of this trip is rather large, I’ve divided them in a few groups. To see the sets, click on of the following links:
1. Before going to Guatemala
2. Antigua
3. Tikal
4, Lago de Atitlan
5. Guatemala City
6. Back to Barcelona