If you wanna know what I’ve been up since leaving New York and hightailing it down to Guatemala, read on.
So I certainly have not done as much blogging as I had forecasted in earlier entries, but I’ve found myself busy with a mix of Spanish classes, some volunteering, and mostly exploring (and, let’s be real, partying) in San Pedro and on Lake Atitlan with a fantastically merry crew of traveler friends. Central America seems to attract lots of different kinds of travelers, from straight up hippies to cycle tourists to college grads on a travel spree before settling down into a 9 – 5, and I’ve been really lucky to be surrounded by a bunch of smart and interesting people from all over the world.
Plans have shifted and changed as they seem to for many viajeros…I originally planned on staying in San Pedro til the summer as a base for traveling to other parts of Central America, but after six weeks here I’m itching to get out and experience some more places, as well as finally put my much improved Spanish to good use. It’s also the start of the rainy season here and while the storms on Lake Atitlan are spectacular, I’m not about to hang around for that!
Entonces, next I’m off to San Cristobal des las Casas and Oaxaca, Mexico (city, state and beaches) on Sunday. Then I’ll head back down through Guatemala to Nicaragua where I’ll bring this trip to an end in late June.
Due to distractions in many forms as well as bad internet I’ve been more out of touch with people back home than I am usually. So below you can find the highlights of my month and a half in San Pedro!
Hiking the San Pedro Volcano
Gave absolutely no thought to the fact that I would literally be climbing a volcano when I signed on to wake up at 3am to climb a volcano. It was hard. Very hard. We started the climb in the town of San Pedro and I was already exhausted by the time we reached the base of the volcano. Essentially was like doing a stairclimber on full resistance through a forest for three hours up, and then non-stop squats for three hours down. Totally worth it though, as you can see from the views below. We lucked out with no clouds that day (or eruptions) and made it to the top just in time to watch the sun rise. I did feel on top of the world walking back into the town and looking back up at the volcano in the distance, knowing that I’d just been all the way up there!
*Tip* for anyone climbing a volcano: Rouse yourself from your slumber in the middle of the night to climb it for the sunrise. Not just for the general aesthetics, but because you’re hiking uphill in the cool darkness! As we were coming down we passed groups of hikers who’d opted for more sleep and they looked much less enthusiastic in the morning heat and way more sweaty.
My 25th Birthday
Qué memorable! A week before my quarter-century celebración, I just so happened to meet Scottish Iain, Belgian Ian, and Swedish Johan who accompanied me to San Marcos, the hippy-permaculture enclave on the other side of the lake from San Pedro on my birthday eve. San Marcos is the kind of town where guys and girls in harem pants and dreads do yoga, attend bogus cacao ceremonies (see below), and talk about almond cheese and the goddamn corporations. You know, people like this chick
There is also a beautiful nature reserve with a trampolin (not a water trampoline as I had so hoped, but simply a wooden platform off of which to hurl yourself into the lake). Still don’t know how many feet or meters or whatever you want to measure its height with, but it was high and I was terrified but I did it!! I half face-planted in front of everyone and watching later it in slo-motion was hilariously humiliating, but I’m “chuffed” with myself anyway. The boys were much more graceful, naturally.
But it was my birthday dinner was icing on the cake that day! I’ve been staying at a hotel that’s owned by a large, extended family, the Navichocs, so I invited them all up to the fifth floor roof top for cake. Vincenta, one of the moms, took me to the local cake lady the day before, who prepared me a gigantic, American-style birthday cake fit for about 20 people. After the savory meal of fried chicken and french fries, we celebrated with the entire Navichoc family, from the abuela to the smallest cousins visiting from “la ciudad” (Guatemala City) and even some random neighborhood kids up on the roof where we danced and ate cake. Despues, major parting with my favorite lads. It was everything I could have wanted for a birthday and more!
The Cacao Ceremony
The analysis of the Cacao Ceremony in San Marcos (where else?) remained a topic of conversation for days. Basically, this straggly, string bean of a gringo named Keith
holds a weekly Cacao Ceremony where attendees imbibe high-quality cacao that is intended to induce a spiritual journey, helping drinkers to look deeper into themselves and analyze any deep-seeded problems stemming from childhood or not getting asked to Senior Prom. It’s basically group therapy for the Namaste crowd. I went with Iain and Johan, and I’ll admit, I probably went in with more of a closed mind than either of them (if you know me well, you know my views on religion and belief in higher beings), but as a chocolate fanatic, I was 100% open to tripping on the stuff. I was honestly interested to see if maybe I was wrong about the whole thing being a whole nutty-dutty, hippy-dippy load of mierda.
Well, it was. This Keith guy, a white man from the USA who has somehow mysteriously been granted Mayan spiritual powers by the cacao gods, makes quite a good living off of getting a bunch of hippies to drink liquid cacao and then laugh and cry at the same time. Lots of weird noises, nonsense chatter, and general cultish vibe. We left when Keith started telling one down-on-her-luck hippy that her blood family just doesn’t understand her but her spiritual, cacao-drinking family does. I don’t know, if other people want to take part in this stuff, be my guest, but I couldn’t stick around for that. Besides, I quite honestly have a much more spiritual experience eating a Kinder Bueno than I do drinking a whole cup of bitter, lukewarm cacao 🙂
For an almost word-for-word cacao ceremony experience from your own home, I strongly suggest reading this article by Ailsa Ross, a Scottish traveler with an uncanny ability to paraphrase Keith’s longwinded diatribes on absolutely nothing at all.
An attempt at a trip to visit Maximón in Santiago de Atitlan
My brother had sent me a Vice article about Maximón (pronounced Ma-shi-MOHN), a Guatemalan folk saint who has been worshipped by the Mayans for centuries. They haven’t quite figured out if he’s a saint, the devil, or a sort of mash up of pre-colonial Mayan beliefs and Catholicism, and there are many different theories on who he is and where his legend comes from. The Catholics associated him with Judas and still hang his figure in the streets before Good Friday (if you don’t know this, seeing a fake man hanging by a noose from a building is really creepy). There are several shrines to him around Guatemala and one of them is in Santiago de Atitlan, a large city in a laguna about a half hour boat ride from San Pedro.
All effigies of Maximón portray him as a light-skinned guy with dark hair donning Western-style clothes of the colonial era. The “patron saint of gamblers and drunkards”, petitioners to any of his shrines must bring him booze, cigarettes, cigars and other vices. So mi amigos y yo hit up the tienda for Quetzalteca (a viciously strong Guatemalan liquor produced in Quetzaltenango) and loosies, then set out to Santiago to pay the shrine a visit.
But alas, Maximón was sleeping that afternoon. Yes, the idol was sleeping and unavailable for visitation. Womp. So while we didn’t get to pour liquor down Maximón’s throat, we did get to check out the dingy, eclectic shrine and feel glad that we hadn’t taken the chicken buses all the way to the other one in San Andres Itzapa for Maximón to be having a siesta there too. But we had a fun day in Santiago anyway, it’s very different from San Pedro in that the people are still very traditional (even the men wear the traditional costumes whereas in San Pedro it’s mostly just the women) and there’s a large market teeming with indigenous products like Bob Marley imitation hats.
Kayaking around Lake Atitlan
This trip was the brainchild of Lauren, an Outdoor Minded blogger from New Jersey, Iain, my Scottish cycle tourist cycling from Colombia to Canada, and Tom, half of The Dirty Two, an Australian duo biking from San Francisco to Patagonia. While I hadn’t kayaked since the good ol’ summers at Camp Kippewa, I was in for the 30-mile (50k) trip around the lake.
We set out early on a Monday morning and the weather was NOT on our side – the guy who sold us the kayaks predicted it would be choppy between 10 and 1, and he was right. Not only was it a cloudy day, but the waves were pummeling us in our kayaks! A big shout out to Iain because without him correcting my strokes (my left arm paddles 10x harder than my right, apparently), I would have paddled in circles for two days and eventually capsized all on my lonesome.
(Photo curtesy of Lauren Rains)
It ended up being my first real legit camping trip, ie, not on a camping ground, no trailers next to our tent, etc, and we camped out on a tiny stretch of beach somewhere in between Panajachel and San Lucas Toliman. It was great! Lauren and I were unable to hold out on our natural American impulse to make s’mores, which we so kindly introduced to the Aussie and the Scotsman. They were a hit, obviously, because they’re s’mores. Next morning we whipped up some make-shift pancakes (or panqueques as they call them here) and were back on the lake. I cannot tell you how good it felt five hours later to paddle back into San Pedro..my neck was sore, my arms were killing me, my bum was numb, but it was oh-so satisfying.
Other highlights include vastly improving my Spanish gracias to the efforts of my amazing Spanish teacher Teresa, seeing the Semana Santa celebrations in San Pedro and San Juan, meeting a guy who introduces himself as “Sheep Fucker”, taking the chicken buses to Chichicastenango, and coming in second or third at both San Pedro pub quizzes. The only reason we’ve never come in first is because there is a group of ancient professional ex-pats who beast these quizzes for a living. Curses!
So all in all, it’s been a great six weeks in San Pedro full of lots of Spanish language learning, hiking and swimming, and living it up with my travel pals. Hope that Mexico proves just as fantástico…