Oh yes, I’d be happy to. One of my favorite adventures occurred last summer when I went to Guatemala for a couple weeks. It had been a couple years since I went abroad, and I was super excited about it! Turned out that Guatemala is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been!
Remember how I’ve said working in Milwaukee didn’t work out? Guatemala is related to the job to which I am referring. Being out of the office to travel was the part I loved though. Anyway, my former coworker did a fantastic job planning our trip, working with a tour company to develop the schedule and book hotels for everyone; I went to Guatemala with eight adoptive families from the US and Canada to guide them through exploring their birth country.
Just in case you weren’t aware, Guatemala is a smallish country in Central America next to Mexico and El Salvador. The country has kind of a big roundish bottom area and a rectangle at the top. The bottom half is super mountainous and the top half is a subtropical rainforest. Guatemala City, the capital city, is in the bottom half of Guatemala, almost in the center.
G City is a fairly urban place with wide avenues and lots of statues. Diverse economic conditions around the hills and valleys of the city. Just like Bogotá, Colombia, you could be driving past nice buildings, round the hillside and see a shanty town. It occurred to me that it may have been the first time some of the families on the trip had ever seen such poverty. And it’s an interesting thought for adoptees to think, “That could have been me.” All part of visiting the birth country I guess. (Perhaps I will dedicate an entire post to homeland travel later, as you’ll notice comments about it are basically absent in this post.) We saw a couple great museums and ate some deeeelish food! I’d recommend Kakao for fantastic Guatemalan food (kak’ik, jocón, pepián, tamales, etc). Some of us went to the zoo, which was totally awesome, captivated animals aside. After a few days we loaded up the bus and carried on.
A peace statue in Guatemala City
We headed to Panajachel, a ways west of G City on Lake Atitlán. The road to Pana was very cuuurvy, definitely a good day for Dramamine. I was excited to see the volcanoes that line the lake and see more of rural Guatemala. We had an ace of a bus driver; he managed a big tour bus in very very very narrow rural streets. Once you get out of the big city where there is a mix of people; most people in Central Guatemala are Maya. My Anthro Sense (similar to Spidey Sense) was tingling all over. There are over 20 languages spoken in Guatemala by over 20 different Spanish descendent and indigenous groups. In case you’re wondering, Maya refers to the people, while Mayan refers to the languages. Our female guide, who became a great friend, explained that you can tell what town or area of Guatemala a Maya woman is from by the pattern on her skirt. How fascinating!! I’d never been to a country where people still dressed traditionally. I mean, in China, most people wore very Western clothes, hardly anyone wore the beautiful silk garments in daily life. And on the Native American reservation, the only time anyone wore leather and beading was to perform at a powwow. *Sorry for the blur in the photo below!
Maya woman from Solola…I think.
So as we entered the Atitlán valley we stopped to try something absolutely crazy – one of the most memorable activities of the trip was zip-lining at Reserva Atitlán!! I knew I had to do it. Face my fear of, well, dying, and just do it. Most of the kids and a lot of the parents on the trip decided to take the plunge too. The rest of the group continued up the mountain on a hike. The guides pointed out a spider monkey and a coati as we scaled the mountain to the jump-off point. I was almost last in line because I wanted to “let” the kids all go first. Ha. Anyway, they strapped me in (we’d donned harnesses at the bottom of the mountain) and explained how to stop. Here’s the scene: I’m standing on a wooden platform. The cable above me stretches out into the void. Haha. I am hooked to the cable and staring out across the tops of the trees to the landing site eight seconds away on the side of another mountain. The guide man says, Okay, go! A million things flash through my mind but one thing I remember thinking was, “Don’t swear too loud, there are little kids on the other side!”
There were eight zip-line cables that took us down the mountain. The first few that were over the canopy were the most exciting, but it was still fun to go zooming through the trees on the last ones. It was one of the days you remember how alive you are and how much fun that is.
The rest of our time in Pana included shopping and boating to a couple little tiny towns around the lake. The first town we toured was San Pedro La Laguna, where we visited an artist’s studio and gallery and a women’s textile cooperative. Both were fantastic examples of people using their talents and native knowledge of their area to provide for their families. Generally I believe that people should stay true to themselves. Like, these people should be careful not to be exploited or depend too heavily on tourist groups for their income, but at the same time, no one is really coercing them to do so. They own their own business or share their income with the group they work with. So I guess I should just relax.
Naturally dyed fibers near Lake Atitlán
Our last group stop in Guatemala was Antigua, a Spanish colonial town not far away from G City. Antigua has a gorgeous town plaza, cute cafes, lots of good restaurants, and great scenery. The town is nestled between a few mountains and volcanoes.
Antigua, Guatemala from Sky Cafe
Green is everywhere – trees, grass, mountains! And speaking of green, I wanted to share information about an amazing organization – As Green As It Gets. Here’s their mission, pulled from their website – http://www.asgreenasitgets.org/:
“AGAIG provides coffee farmers and local businesses with training and support that enable them to create profitable, marketable products, thereby allowing them to improve their quality of life and help their communities in an environmentally and economically sustainable way.
Our goal, at its simplest, is to help those in poverty by enabling them to increase their income by engaging in well-paying economic activity. This activity is most beneficial when it is environmentally and economically sustainable – viable in the long-term without damaging to the environment. It should also be mindful of the community’s needs and give back through better-paying jobs or access to services and infrastructure.”
Two coffee farmers gave our group tours of their plots of land, and we planted a few coffee trees with them. Each guide took us to his home. Our guide’s home was a humble place but very nice at the same time. He showed us how he sorts and cleans the beans. Then his wife and daughter roasted the beans and ground them for us to sample as brewed coffee. His family made a delicious meal for us too. The kids even got to help make the tortillas!
Farmer’s family making tortillas in Ciudad Vieja
What struck me most about Guatemala were the people. If anyone needs a lesson in resiliency, they need to go to Guatemala. The country was ripped apart by a bloody civil war, which was actually in the news recently.
The people have forged ahead though. They’re creating cooperatives and schools to share information and goods. Women are collecting and weaving these amazing textiles of fibers dyed naturally. Families are farming. People are conscious of their environment and thinking about sustainability. It’s a beautiful thing. Chapines (plural for chapin, a person from Guatemala as they call themselves) are tough.
My other favorite place was an afterschool program in Jocotenango, just north of Antigua, called Los Patojos (The Youngsters). The school’s creator, Juan Pablo Romero Fuentes, grew up in Joco and knew that young people needed a safe place to learn and express themselves. The kids learn all kinds of study skills, art, break-dancing, and other awesome things! their current project is developing the field across the road from the center into a soccer field.
A Los Patojos kid doing something fancy
Neither group asked me to promote them, but please consider checking out their websites, Liking them on Facebook, or making a donation to each group! I’m passionate about helping people help themselves. Chapines already know how to help themselves; they’re already geniuses about their country, but sometimes a little word of mouth is really helpful.
After twelve days, the trip was officially over and a few families chose to return to the US. The rest of us, about five families and yours truly, journeyed on to Flores, Guatemala to visit Tikal. Quick archaeology/history lesson: The ancient city of Tikal was inhabited for a several hundred years before it was abruptly abandoned about a thousand years ago. The ancient Maya left behind tons of artifacts and magnificent temples. Currently, excavations are still underway (to some extent because exposing the limestone speeds its deterioration) but only about 10 percent of the entire city has actually been uncovered. Our group stayed at the Jungle Lodge in the Tikal park. It was totally awesome! The bugs were supersized which was really creepy, but we saw spider monkeys playing in the trees above us while we swam in the pool. *Okay so the photo below was taking at a wildlife rehab center, and it’s a howler monkey, but you get the point. MONKEYS!!!
Howler monkey in Tikal area
Carlos, our fantastic guide, finagled a deal that got us a van ride into the park, which NEVER happens. At this point we were all exhausted, and the intense heat/humidity zapped all our energy, so we were extreeeemely grateful for the ride. Anyway, we walked up a bazillion stairs to the top of Temple IV. Talk about a view!
View of Tikal temples from Temple IV
It’s pretty humbling to be in the presence of the Ancients. I know our guide explained how archaeologists think the Maya constructed the temples, but I’ve forgotten now. However they did it, it’s amazing. The stones are massive, as big as cars. And the Maya were particularly good with science. They built their main plaza with acoustics in mind. If you stand in the middle of the plaza and clap, you can hear it echo around the basin. It’s said to sound like the call of a quetzal, a gorgeous little green and red bird that graces the Guatemalan money named for it (quetzales). It’s pretty rare to actually see a quetzal, but we did see a rare parrot! And more monkeys. Okay I’ll be extra honest, I really couldn’t wait to go to Tikal because I really, truly, super duper wanted to see a monkey in the wild. I took Primate Behavior in college, in Iowa, where the only native primates are us. And we’re not really native to Iowa anyway!
I truly loved my 17 days in Guatemala. I’d go back in a heartbeat. Someday I’ll go there to volunteer at Los Patojos I think. Stay with my friend and her husband in Antigua and work for food in their pastry shop! Soak up the sun in the cool mountain air. What a life!