Guatemala 2018

I first visited Guatemala in 2016, a vacation to meet the family of Monica and to see a bit of her country. And as I have not visited the country or family last year it was high time to meet her (and my) Guatemalan family again. The start however wasn’t without it’s fair share of obstacles, but that wasn’t going to stop us from having a fantastic time!

To begin with it already kind of went downhill a week before I was off to Barcelona to go to Monica and travel to Guatemala from there together. On a fairly normal cycling ride in the Netherlands I crashed into a tree and was quite badly injured (the Bianchi made it through the crash without any problems). And not even having recovered from that the next problem showed up: as I finally set of to Barcelona on Saturday I got a message that due to strikes at AirFrance the flight on Tuesday to Guatemala was cancelled.

Red moon over the Pacific OCean

Eventually we arranged to go to Guatemala two days later. That gave me some time to rest and let my injuries heal a bit and also to visit some hospitals to do some checks and see if the journey was even at all possible. Luckily the problems were not too severe. All systems go!

Passing birds over the Pacific Ocean

But first to enjoy a Catalan holiday in Barcelona. On April 23 it’s Sant Jordi Day,  one of the most important celebrations in Cataluña. Sant Jordi is the patron of lovers, there is the legend of Sant Jordi (Saint George) and the dragon and it also coincides with World Book Day, the date that both Shakespeare and Cervantes have passed away. On this day traditionally men give a rose to their loves and the women a book to theirs. Nowadays things are a bit more modern and books and roses exchange in every direction. By the end of the day we had several books and roses and I had a few lovely radiographies and a CAT-scan of my pelvis.

For the rest in Barcelona we didn’t do much. I make it sound lightly, but my injuries, especially the swelling in my back, were really quite painful. Sitting up, lying down and wearing jeans were just extremely painful. But with proper medication and applying creams on April 26 we then finally did fly to Guatemala. With good care of Monica and the KLM crew the flight was not as bad as it could have been, and after a long, long travel-time we finally reached Guatemala!

Our original plan was to immediately go to Antigua for a few days before going to the Pacific with the family. However as we had lost two days in our new travel plans, we now stayed a day with Monica’s parents before going to the Pacific with the family. That was really good for my pains to recover a bit from the flight and besides: the garden, maintained by Monica’s mother, is absolutely a joy to spend the day in. She also found a water/honey mixture to lure colibries into her garden and while we were taking the breakfast in the morning, several colibries were doing the same in the garden. In the late afternoon we fired up the BBQ and ended a lovely day ‘at home’.

The next day we traveled to Iztapa, where we were housed in a huge house of a family friend Elvira with bedrooms to spare, a balcony with a balcony on top of that, swimming pool and a rancho. Coconut-trees and lime-trees in the garden and mango trees close by. I think I just got a slice of heaven.

The ocean was less the 5 minutes from the house. Black sand on the beach, warm water washing over our feet and fantastic views. But though the ocean was warm, it was also treacherous and fierce. The waves hit the coast hard and the current pulling back to the ocean was strong… very strong. But the sunsets! Oh my did those look magical. We didn’t do very much in the days, but with fantastic weather, the sounds of the ocean and a pool nearby that was more then enough.

We BBQ’d in the evening and enjoyed the weather. And in the end of the day as the sun was slowly setting we had a bit of a walk along the beach. Mother and Elvira were so caught up in their conversation that they completely missed the rendezvous and walked straight on for more than an hour and got lost. After a spectacular beach-ride on the back of a fisherman’s motorcycle they were returned to us while we waved our phones with flashlights on the now dark beach to indicate where they had to go.

After three days of absolute bliss we reluctantly said goodbye to the family and Pacific Ocean and were driven to the East-side of Guatemala: The Caribbean sea and the Atlantic. The drive was long but offered gorgeous views to a changing landscape and when we got close to our destination the scenery was ever so much greener. The mountains were spectacularly green and there were loads and loads of banana trees and almost as many Chiquita-trucks. By the end of the afternoon we arrived at our new destination: Amatique Bay Resort.

The resort is grand and has a beach area, swimming-pools, a marina, a huge slice of forest, a restaurant, a turtle-pool, an iguana pit and a butterfly-garden… well, a garden, but no butterflies as a hotel guest (not us!!!) was smart enough not to close the door and the butterflies flew off.

It’s a beautiful location but if you’re itching to get a bit more active after three days of relaxing on the other side of Guatemala, you’re going to have to leave the resort and head for an expedition.

The first day we stayed at the resort, took in the location, sit at the beach, relaxed in the hammocks and took it slowly. The weather was great and there is enough to explore on the resort ground to keep you busy for a day.

A good Chapin (Guatemalan local) breakfast

The second day was for more action. We took a taxi to Puerto Barrios from where you can take a boat that will bring you to Livingston. Monica had already warned me that Livingston in itself isn’t that spectaculair. It has some nice restaurants and a lot of tourist-shops just like everywhere else, it’s mostly interesting as a port into the Rio Dulce. From Livingston you can have guided tours in the most wonderful and beautiful forest area. We however had plans to go down the Rio Dulce a day later to our next hotel, so today we’d only explore Livingston this day.

Livingston isn’t big, but it is very colourful

And this is where it gets a bit foggy… a little bit mysterious. You see, as I was taking an espresso in a café, we were introduced to Philip -Polo- Flores, a local Garifuna who told us about the history and state of Livingston and himself. How the Garifunan are more and more pushed back by the Mayans. How he’s been in the Netherlands, what he’s doing here. How politics go, friends of him trying to help in the area… it all sounds very convincing. He even showed us a photocopied clipping of a Lonely Planet guide that said that if you really want a good tour of Livingston, you have to seek out Philip Flores. We’d hit the jackpot!

With Philip Flores
The other side of Livingston

Philip offered to show us ‘the other side’  of Livingston, the area the tourists don’t see and we took him up on his offer, talking about the current situations here and there and observing that there really is a difference between the happy touristy part of Livingston and the poorer ‘other side of the bridge’. We made our way back to the main street and after a small donation to Philip Flores’ milk-project for the orphans, we headed back.

Heading back to Amatique Bay Resort, the views are fantastic

Later that day, once we were back at the resort it turned out our Lonely Planed didn’t mention Philip. And searching the Internet revealed some stories of how Philip and some other local guides have a rather different take on the history of Livingston. Were we ripped off? I don’t think so. Philip might have livened up his stories here and there, but there’s no arguing that there is a very obvious difference between the two parts of Livingston and for a town where the Garifuna are supposed to live, there’s hardly anyone but Mayans to be seen in the commercial zone and that is a bit odd.

What are you looking at?
Sunset at Amatique Bay Resort

The boat ride back to Puerto Barrios was much like the ride in the morning (great for me, less fun for those that don’t like boat rides to much). Just for good measure we decided to take a road-bound taxi to our next hotel the next day. A last night at the resort, seeing a few glow-worms buzzing around (haven’t seen them since my stay in New York, in Central Park back in 2012) and enjoying the restaurant. We said goodbye to the people working there and to Carlos Cordon, the photographer we met at the resort with whom we also had some great conversations.

The Tortugal hotel, now doesn’t that look inviting?
The hotel grounds

The following day we traveled to the next hotel: Tortugal at Rio Dulce, after a two hour taxi-ride we were taken to the hotel by a short boat-ride. It is a great way to arrive at the hotel as the view to the hotel from the river is beautiful. We’d only stay here for one night and so after the check-in we arranged a boat-tour over Rio Dulce and Lago de Izabal (the two lakes are connected). Captain Willy picked us up at the hotel and took us to the Rio Dulce. Passing the island of birds and to a side-way with a small island owned by a very very rich government person with parrots and monkeys all everywhere. It all looked amazing, I can quite well imagine living here for a while!

Conquering the waves

After a round on Rio Dulce we headed to Izabal to have a close look at Castillo de San Felipe de Lara, a Spanish colonial fort built in the 1600’s. An impressive fort at a good location. Then again according to Wikipedia in it’s time the fort has been raided and looted again and again, so maybe it’s not such a good location after all. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see the nearby waterfalls that are in the rivers leading to Izabal, but we’ll save that for next time.

Castillo de San Felipe de Lara

After a quick short look at lake Izabal we went back to the hotel where we rested a bit and explored the hotel grounds. With the restaurant facing the lake, the rest of the hotel is rooted in the forest behind it. The bungalows are surrounded by trees and there is a path to a parking area that feels like you’re walking in the thick of the swampy jungle. It’s really really nice there and there are loads of domestic animals roaming the grounds. In the morning you can use the canoes that are at the hotel (only in the morning as the lake is more quiet then), there’s hammocks, chairs and seats everywhere, a great view to the lake and in all it’s just about perfect.

We were lucky in that the one night we’d stay at the hotel, they had their weekly ‘movie-night’. Tourists and immigrants (Americans, Canadians and Europeans) living there on boats gathered in the evening for a dinner and a movie after. Tonight’s gem was ‘Wait Till Dark’, a 1967 movie starring Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman stuck in an apartment being terrorized by gangsters looking for drugs. The movie is simply awful, but so much it’s fun to watch it in a group. And with popcorn, some beers and a great group at the hotel, it was really good fun.

A bit further on the hotel grounds
Family visit to Tortugal

The next morning we were up early and bright and then headed back to Guatemala City. A long ride, but with a really interesting stop on the way. Passing forests filled with rubber trees again and endless rows of banana trees we stopped at archaeological park Quirigua where our driver Beatriz turned out to also be a great guide and explained all about the history of the location.

History set in stone. The new emperor shown in the mouth of a jaguar
The Stela that is featured on the 10ct coint

The park is one of the major testimonies of the Mayan civilization. The Mayans at that site recorded their important events in huge monoliths, known as Stelas. The largest one is about 15 meters tall with 5 meters still buried in the ground. That monolith also is featured on the 10ct coin of Guatemala. The site is really impressive, not only for the Stelas but also for the location. It’s absolutely gorgeous there and you can also find several Ceiba’s, the Guatemalan national tree. The trees are huge and to this day they are still used by Mayans to have their rituals and it’s said that hugging a Ceiba gives good luck. So… we hugged the Ceiba :)

A Ceiba with vines hanging from the branches

After the tour we had to be on our way again and unfortunately not much later we got stuck in traffic, as a 10 year long road-construction site jams up here pretty much all the time. It took a long long time but eventually we got out that bit as well and finally made it to Guatemala City by nightfall and were installed in the lovely 14 story high apartment of Maria (Monica’s sister).

Well and truly stuck

As we had missed our stay in Antigua at the beginning of our visit, the family took us to a lunch and a walk in Antigua on Sunday. And we were there in the absolute right time: every year on the first Sunday of May there is a procession hed there. All the churches in the area gather in Antigua and walk through the streets (which are decorated with lots and lots of flowers) with chanting and music and Mayans in gorgeous traditional costumes. It’s a very impressive sight and I introduced a Dutch saying that I’m hoping will catch on in Guatemala… It would make me proud if it will grow to be my legacy: “Caerse con la nariz en la mantequilla” or ‘To fall with your nose in the butter‘ meaning to arrive somewhere at exactly the right time. As luck would have it, I was able to use the phrase a few more times before we left.

The procession starts
Too cute

After watching the procession for some time we went to the central square where marimba was played, people were dancing and a market was held selling -among many other things- deliciously prepared sweet potato. We met some friends there and then all went to have a good lunch in one of the restaurants. Not too much as we’d also were going to have a great dinner at the family home. With a few more  family members and friends coming along that was the perfect ending to a great day.

On Monday Maria had taken the day off and together with two friends we all headed into the historical center of Guatemala City. Me in clothes that didn’t shout “Hi, I’m a tourist, please come rob me“, however with my length I’m still obviously not Guatemalan. We started with a good lunch and coffee and then headed for our walk passing an old cinema, several churches and the first Guatemalan hotel, we then went to Municipalidad de Guatemala, located in a part of an old bank. That turned out to be very interesting!

A map of zone 1, the historical centre of Guatemala City
The oldest hotel of Guatemala City

They have guides there that will tell you about the very interesting history about the building. The original owners were a banker and a very rich wife. The lady being in fact richer then the banker she had her own private bedroom and bathroom and it was much more luxurious then the bankers. The building and especially the imported French bathrooms are impressive and it’s great to hear about the history. Also I got to know more about pila’s, the wash-basins in Guatemala.

Indoor pila, a washing basin for laundry and dishes

After the guided tour in the house and before going any further into the city we then had a stop tasting the specialty beer of El Portal -one of the oldest bars in the city- allowing a bit of rest for our feet and hearing a bit more Marimba.

A great memory of our visit to El Portal!

We then headed to the National Palace of Culture, where at the entrance you can find ‘point zero’, the location from where all kilometer-signs at the roads are starting from. Inside is as impressive building with lush architecture, design and are depicting the history of Guatemala, both Mayan and Hispanic. Coincidentally the Indian Vice President was visiting the country and was to visit the palace as well (remember? Nose in Butter) and for the event the best of the best of Marimba bands is practicing in an incredible hall (the acoustic was impressive, the decorations even more so) while we were on tour in the palace. It also explained all the security-people we saw walking around.

The tour finished after we visited the Mercado Central, an important market in central Guatemala City. It is made up of three layers downwards. You first enter the level that sells the same stuff you find at all the touristic stalls. The second layer down is filled with herbs, spices, fruits and flowers. We buy some fruits for along the day and then go down to the lowest level. Here you can find just about everything else. There’s lots and lots of stuff here and it’s fantastic just walking around here.

Heading upstairs again on the tourist level we encounter our friends of the Indian security again, but this time they’re packed with bags. It turns out the vice president’s wife (or daughter) is stocking up on souvenirs too :) Before we go back we have a lunch at El Adobe and the visit to the center is really over. Time to head back home.

We have one last evening with the family and then our visit was over already, the days really have flown by. In the evening we take in our last views over Guatemala.

Guatemala City in the early morning

The next day we headed to the airport where we ran into some more unexpected problems. AirFrance was on strike again and had rearranged our flights to Ibera, but they had forgotten to rebook our flight from Guatemala to Mexico so for a moment it seemed we had a few more days of vacation. After a few phone-calls however we were back on track. At the information-desk we met Pedro Manuel (a former guard at a shopping centre) who went from not knowing that that was any language except for Spanish to speaking 10 languages learning from books and tourists in just a few years. A newspaper did an article about him, the Guatemalan airport saw that and figured that having someone at the information-desk that is able to speak with tourists in many languages is actually really handy and now Pedro is living his dream! Once again: we fell with our noses in butter!

Flying over Guatemala

As we taxied on the Guatemalan airport we saw the Indian airplane with a n impressively large formal guard seeing off the Vice President. And than that was that, we were off to Mexico. I have to say that flying over Mexico City is really impressive, that city is huge! After a short stay at the Mexican airport, we were on our way back to Spain and a day after our arrival I had to get back to the Netherlands. It was too short, really it was. So… just a thought… how would Christmas as Guatemala be?

A view over Mexico City (a small part of it)

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