October 2009

We returned to our boat on the Rio Dulce River in Guatemala in early October after visiting with family and friends for two months in the United States .  We even had an opportunity to connect with cruising friends Ray and Sandy from Summer Wind whom we had not seen in about 18 months and Oscar and Graciela from Zenitude whom we had hadn’t seen in about one year.  We found the boat in good condition and after a week on the boat we were ready to explore more of Guatemala .

Mayan womanA bus took us to the colonial capital city of Antigua, Guatemala.  The city was founded in the mid-1500s and is filled with beautiful Spanish colonial architecture and surrounded by three volcanoes.  It served as the capital city until the mid-1770’s when the town was heavily damaged by an earthquake.  Volcan Fuego (fire) continues to spit out big plumes of smoke on the horizon almost every day.

Antigua is one of the major tourist destinations in Guatemala .  It is filled with small quaint inns and hotels with beautiful garden courtyards, more than 30 colonial churches, and wonderful shops to buy handmade Mayan artwork.   Mayan men and women from near-by villages come into the city to work or sell their goods.  Most Mayan women wear their traditional dress with colorful blouses and hand-woven wrap skirts, carrying heavy goods on their heads and a young child wrapped to their bodies.

We had a wonderful time walking around the city and hiking in some of the beautiful rain forests that surround the city.  The highlight of our visit was a hike up the active Pacaya volcano which reaches more than 8,700 feet.  The volcano was dormant for more than a century before it erupted in 1965.  Activity has continued at the volcano with daily lava flows and an occasional formation of a lava river that overflows down the slopes of the volcano.


Mayan woman carrying baby and bananas

Hiking up the volcanoAs our tour bus stopped, we were swarmed by young children all wanting to rent us hiking sticks.  We quickly bargained with a couple of the children and were both soon using wonderful hiking sticks for about $0.30 each.  Our group of ten was followed by about five horses and their caretakers as we started up the very steep slope.  The horse caretakers were constantly asking “Taxi, lady?  Taxi, amigo?” as we huffed and puffed up the trail.  They were hoping that some or all of us would get too tired to continue on foot and decide to pay the additional $10 to ride the horse up the volcano.  Only one person in our group accepted a horse ride and soon all the other horses and caretakers turned back down the volcano.  At one point during our hike we came upon a group of cows that were being driven up the volcano to graze for the day. The hiking path was a single file of cows driven by cowboy on horseback, our volcano guide, our gringo tour group of ten, a skinny “volcano dog”, followed by 6 “taxi-horses” and their caretakers.

Hiking across lava fieldAfter hiking for a strenuous half hour we exit the trees and brush and look out over a gray, desolate ash and lava field.  The terrain looks like pictures of the moon and photos of the ash look like black and white photos.  We see lava rivers that ran down the volcano as recently as two years ago.  Hiking in the ash is like hiking up a sand dune.  Soon the powdery ash is replaced by jagged palm-sized lava rocks.  As we got higher, the rocks were warm to the touch.  Near the endpoint of the hike we were stepping over cracks in the surface where hot air periodically gushes up.  Everything is hot to the touch and some people roasted marshmallows over the hot rocks.  Our guide locates a red hot lava flow and we stand within 10 feet of the lava flow.

Hiking across the lava field

John near hot lava

Take a look at the video of the flowing lava at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9XkO71r7-eA.  (You may have to cut and paste the link in your internet browser).

We left Antigua and traveled 2.5 hours by mini-van to beautiful Lake Atitlan also surrounded by volcanoes.  Lake Atitlan is located in the Highlands area of Guatemala where the Mayan people migrated after evacuating the Northern areas of Guatemala like Tikal (see July 2009).  Steep hillsides are covered in planted crops of corn, squash, cabbage, and other vegetables.  We passed beautiful roadside markets piled with colorful vegetables and fresh flowers.   The lake is surrounded by more than 10 traditional Mayan villages, and all the Mayan women are dressed in the traditional dress which is different for each village.

Our shuttle bus dropped us in Panajachel, the major tourist area.  Some of the villages are accessed by roads, but several can only be reached by boat.  We opted to stay outside Panajachel and took one of the numerous ferry boats to San Marcos, about the mid-point on the North shore of the lake.  The boat is packed with native Mayan families and their market purchases.  Purchases and goods are piled on top of the ferry boat to accommodate passengers below.  Each Mayan village has a different native dress and it is easy to identify the women and young girls who live in the different villages on the boat by looking at their dress.   A few older Mayan men are dressed in traditional costumes, but we are told that younger Mayan men fear discrimination in trying to find work if they wear the traditional clothes.

Sunrise on Atitlan


In San Marcos , Carmen, a 12- year old Mayan boy, shows us around the village until we find a suitable room.  Carmen speaks some English and is very patient.  After visiting three small inns, we agree on a room and pay Carmen a fee for his services.  On Sunday afternoon, we enjoy watching a soccer game and walking around the small village.  We are warned about the loud speakers that broadcast evangelical messages from some of the churches on Sunday and about the loud fireworks set off by the Catholic Church to announce that Mass has started.  The evening is chilly and we enjoyed dinner by the fire in a restaurant run by a British couple.

Sunrise on Lake Atitlan

 Casa del Mundo

After hiking around San Marcos and finding the large hillside rocks where you can dive into the lake, we enjoy a wonderful vegetarian lunch before taking another boat transport to La Casa del Mundo (House of the World) near the village of Jaibalito .  This beautiful lakeside hotel and café is built up the steep lake hillside and offers fabulous views of the lake.  The resort had been highly recommended and we decided to treat ourselves to a couple of nights at the hotel.  We relaxed by the lake and hiked to Jaibilito and Santa Cruz .  On the hiking paths between the small villages it was common to meet young Mayan boys (8 – 12) carrying loads of wood for cooking or rocks on their backs in hand-made carriers.  We wondered how many young boys in the U.S. would be willing and/or able to do these tasks.

Casa del Mundo

Mayans hauling wood


We returned again to the Rio Dulce after our eight-day trip just in time to attend a benefit dinner to help feed starving people in the Jutiapa area of Central Guatemala which has been devastated by the worst drought in 30 years.   Villages in this area rely on farming and have lost most of their crops to the drought.  The benefit was a huge success and raised enough money to  purchase 600 lbs of rice, 600 lbs of beans, and 1300 lbs of maize.

As the end of the month neared, we were busy preparing the boat to leave the marina and the river to return to the ocean.   Our bilges are full of provisions and if the weather cooperates, we are hoping to cross the bar at the river entrance back into the Caribbean Sea by mid-November.

Young Mayans hauling wood


Volcano Agua (in foreground) and volcano Fuego spitting out smoke