Adventures and Reflections with El Partido de Tres In Colombia

As I scanned the hectic intersection near the India Catalina Monument in Cartagena, looking for a bus to take me to the airport, I noticed that one of the raised medians at this intersection was packed with motorcyclists, soliciting rides around town by way of a chorus of shouts — “Mototaxi! Mototaxi! Mototaxi!” Having seen that mototaxis do not seem to be governed by the same traffic laws as other vehicles in Colombia, I realized one of these traffic-weaving, sidewalk-hopping machines might just be the fastest way to get to the airport. Therefore, after a few minutes of negotiating, I found myself darting through the roads and freeways of Cartagena, racing towards the airport to meet my next set of travel companions: Justin and Isaiah.

After roughly four months traveling through Latin America accompanied by various companions (from old friends, to my brother, to fellow Spanish school students, to friends I have met along the way, to people I wished I did not meet along the way), I have grown comfortable adjusting to the various travel styles and interests of whomever I am with. However, this next set of travel companions added a new twist: my friend Justin is in a wheelchair, having been paralyzed from the chest down nearly two years ago in a skiing accident out in California. I was equal parts nervous and excited to be joining him on his first foray outside of the United States since this accident. Naturally, Justin, never one to shy away from challenges, chose the developing country of Colombia, a nation that has only recently emerged from decades of violence instigated by aggressive drug cartels, a fierce left-wing armed resistance, and right-wing paramilitary vigilantes. During this time, it is safe to say the country was not particularly focused on wheelchair-accessibility. However, over the next 16 days, as we made our way from Cartagena to Medellín to the mountain town of Jardín, I would be pleasantly surprised and impressed by how much we could do together, by the generosity and kindness of the Colombian people, and by Justin’s unflappability in the face of various situations involving hilariously inadequate accessibility.  What follows are the adventures and experiences of this party of three in Colombia, or, in the beautiful Spanish (which we spoke fluently throughout the trip), this is the story of “El Partido de Tres.”

January 11 – 16: Cartagena, Colombia

We spent our first two nights in Cartagena in the Hotel Fegali, a quaint bed and breakfast in the neighborhood of Getsemaní in Cartagena. The owner, Jorge, a grey-mustachioed man in his 50’s or 60’s who was usually stylishly adorned in a white, v-neck t-shirt with jean shorts and flip-flops, was a kind, spastically attentive host that did everything in his power to make sure we were taken care of…to a fault. Jorge’s hospitality went so far as to include surprise “pop-ins” to our room to make sure that we had clean towels, that the air-conditioning was off/on, that Justin could make it to the dining room for breakfast at the table — which he insisted really was a better experience than eating alone in the room, or, God forbid, eating no breakfast at all. On our second night in Jorge’s spot, however, El Partido-Jorge relations hit a nadir when we were coming back into the hotel after a late night out. It was 2:30 am, and I was repeatedly pressing on the doorbell to wake Jorge (Jorge did not trust us with a key of our own), while Justin was attempting to muscle himself up a step to bring himself even with the door. However, as Jorge approached the door, Justin lost his balance and fell out of his chair onto the street, prompting Jorge to burst through the doorway to try and drag Justin up off the ground. Isaiah and I tried to reassure Jorge that Justin was okay (as evidenced by Justin’s laughter), but a worried Jorge, still shaken from witnessing the fall, could only muster a stern warning to us — breakfast ends at 9:30 am sharp, a mere 7 hours from that moment. Jorge’s shaking head indicated to us that he did not believe we could make this deadline.

Interestingly enough, Justin was not the first person to fall at a doorway our second evening in Cartagena. That honor, in fact, belonged to me. Several hours earlier, we had veered a few blocks off of the gringo-filled bar scene of Getsemaní to explore a street that looked decidedly more authentic. As we strolled the street, our ears caught the sounds of Latin music spilling out into the street from an open doorway. I glimpsed inside the open doorway to see a bar filled with locals, many of them dancing and singing. The scene was too tempting to resist, so we decided to go inside. However, the approach into the bar involved scaling one sizable step through which Isaiah and I would need to lift Justin. As I was backing over the step and pulling Justin up from the back of his wheelchair (Isaiah had the front), I buckled under Justin’s weight and tumbled butt-first through the door and onto the floor of the bar, causing five Colombian men to rush to the rescue. After these men helped us to successfully overcome my literal shaky knees, Justin rolled into the heart of the bar where, within seconds, roughly a dozen Colombians were dancing in a circle around him. Justin promptly responded by spinning in his chair while rhythmically moving his arms, shoulders, head, and flowing brown hair to the reggaeton pumping through the bar’s speakers. Over an hour of dancing there followed by another half an hour of hobnobbing with some more locals at a young Colombiana’s birthday street party on the way back to the hotel left Justin with the momentum that had him muscling up Jorge’s front step that would, only seconds later, lead to his fall. (Enthusiasm cometh before the fall. Or something like that.)

On our third day in Cartagena, sadly, we moved on from Jorge’s spot. However, this was not before successfully repairing relations with our newfound Cartagenian father figure who was pleasantly surprised both to see Isaiah make it up in time for breakfast and to see us pay for room in full. Our next location was an oasis of wheelchair-accessibility and chilled-out rooftop vibes in the middle of the Old City of Cartagena: The Townhouse Boutique Hotel and Rooftop. The Townhouse was run by a friendly quartet, comprised of two Brits, a New Yorker, and a Peruvian (the chef), who were all eager to please given they had opened up the hotel less than a month before our arrival. The positive energy they put off would lead us to spend several hours a day on the rooftop (which conveniently also had gorgeous views of the Old City), where we would meet other travelers, trade our most ridiculous travel stories, cool-off in the rooftop pool, and sip on delicious cocktails. When not on the rooftop, we cruised the bars and restaurants of Old City and Getsemaní, befriending other travelers and becoming honorary locals at La Malagana (known for their fish tacos) and Casa Venita (known, to us at least, for their ridiculously kind waitress Wendy).

Unfortunately, our two days at the Townhouse were cut short a day shy of our flight to Medellín as the hotel closed down for a week to perform some renovations. Therefore, our last night in Cartagena was spent, depressingly, in a cramped room in the Hampton Inn, an experience over which the hospitality professional Isaiah could only shake his head and left all three of us ready to head to Medellín. However, before we could call our trip to Cartagena officially complete, Justin tried out his freewheel on the sands of a Cartagena beach. The freewheel, a third wheel that affixes to the front of his wheelchair to give it greater “off-road” capabilities (think of it as four-wheel drive drive for a wheelchair), allowed Justin to effectively balance his weight as he rolled through the bumpy, sandy terrain to the ocean’s edge where we conducted a successful Justin Beach Model Shoot (photos are currently being considered by several freewheel manufacturers for their next ad campaign).

January 17 – 24: Medellín, Colombia

Our voyage to Medellín was largely without incident — the highlight of which was our airline allowing us to cut the 4 million person baggage check line in the departing airport (Barranquilla) because of Justin’s wheelchair (Justin’s initial response to the offer — “No, we’re okay!” — was interrupted by Isaiah saying, “We actually WILL take the favor. Thank you very much, kind airline!”). In Medellín, we found ourselves in a classy, business-traveler friendly Hotel San Fernando Plaza. Although the hotel itself was basically a part of an American-style mall that had been plopped into the middle of Medellín (albeit with Colombian-owned stores and restaurants), the hotel was near where all the cool kids hang-out in Medellín, El Poblado. El Poblado is an upscale, trendy, hip, and generally safe area of Medellín that attracts the bulk of Western tourists, as well as some wealthier Colombians. Over the next week, the three of us would use this location as our base of operations for exploring the city.

The first night in Medellín, we met up with some friends I made during my time in Guatemala who happened to now be traveling through Colombia. After a delicious pizza dinner (pizza, for some reason, is ubiquitous in Colombia), we headed to La Octava, a dive bar that distinguishes itself by the grown-up sized ballpit located in the back of the bar. Upon seeing this masterpiece of bar ingenuity, Isaiah and I dove in and found that the pit not only was large in width and breadth (maybe 8 feet wide and 15 feet long), but also in depth (nearly 5 feet!). As we played with boyish enthusiasm in this pit of joy (throwing balls in the air, bellyflopping, chucking balls at innocent yet cute bystanders), I made a grave miscalculation in my own fitness to pull-off a selfie amidst the chaos…and dropped my phone deep into the pit’s abyss. Terror overcame me, worsened when the two Colombian girls beside me in the pit told me that no one…ever…had recovered their smartphone from the bottom of the pit. I looked at Isaiah, who was on the other side of the pit, and yelled to him, “Dude! My phone! Is at the bottom!” Isaiah responded calmly with ROTC-inspired rationale, “It must be here. We can find it! Let’s divide the pit into quadrants…and dive for it!” We started on either side of the pit and methodically moved through the first quadrant, “swimming” through the pit with our heads submerged and our hands running across the bottom. When I would come up for (better) air, I couldn’t see Isaiah but could see a ripple move through the balls on the surface, indicating his position. By identifying his progress in this way, I was able to stay in my lane and, thus, we worked through the pit with dangerous efficiency. After nearly 15-minutes and with the bevy of pitside onlookers mostly shaking their heads at what they perceived to be the Sisyphean nature of our efforts, Isaiah shot up from the midst of the pit, right arm raised high, and yelled at the top of his lungs, “YOUR PHONE!!” And there it was, my phone held high in his right-hand, a huge grin on Isaiah’s face. I yelped with joy, “Amazing!….I love you!” as cheers and applause rose up through the bar. We then proceeded to dance in the ballpit for one full American ’90’s pop-rock song (likely played ironically by the bar at our expense) before carefully climbing out of the pit. Needless to say, this high stakes rescue mission proved to be the highlight of our first night in Medellín.

The next few days, El Partido explored the nature, restaurants, and bars of Medellín, caught up in the energy of a city that makes it difficult to turn in for the night before 3 am. One evening, we scaled to the top of Nutibara Hill to watch the sun set over this massive, sprawling city that is roughly the size of Chicago, the tranquility of the scene causing our conversation to turn personally reflective. Another afternoon, Justin and I tested the wheelchair accessibility of the surprisingly modern metro system, which includes a cable car that took us out of the city into the green, vast Parque Arví  located in the mountains above Medellín. The metro passed the test for accessibility, although there was a laughably slow electronic platform to carry Justin up and down the stairs outside of the El Poblado Metro Station. The platform was slow enough, in fact, that  a locally elderly man descending down on the platform shouted to us “¡Como una tortuga!” as we stood waiting for the platform at the bottom of a metro station staircase. We also tested out Justin’s freewheel again, this time in the hills south of Medellin, in Parque El Salado, where Justin flawlessly executed a wheelchair river crossing that solicited a much more heartfelt round of cheers from the audience of onlookers than the one Isaiah and I had received a few nights before in the ballpit. On the way back from this adventure, we shared empanadas with a mother and her curious daughter of nine years old who quizzed us in Spanish on what life was like in the United States and told us of her ambitions to learn French and English. And each night, we sampled the Medellín nightlife with other travelers we had met along the way.

On Sunday the 21st, Isaiah returned to the U.S. — unfortunately, painfully sick from the unavoidable, ubiquitous Latin American-itis that has struck each of my guests down in Latin America — leaving El Partido down to just two (“dos”), Justin and I. We mourned Isaiah’s departure over plates of a massive, typical Colombian meal at Mondongos. Each plate included a fried plantain, an arepa (a small, firm tortilla that is typical in Colombia), a bowl of beans, a bowl of mondongo soup (a meat and vegetable soup), a scoop of ground beef, a scoop of rice, a fried egg, half an avocado, and a banana. It was enough food for each of our nonexistent pet horses. (There are pictures below to convince the unbelievers.) That evening, exhausted from the nonstop nature of our traveling and full of heavy food, I crashed early while Justin, man of boundless energy, went out for the evening with with a new friend of ours — Anna from Germany whom we had met the night of the infamous ballpit rescue mission.

With Isaiah gone, we changed sleeping locations from San Fernando Plaza to the Soul “Lifestyle” Apartamentos, a short-term rental apartment complex in El Poblado managed by a cheerful, smiley, metrosexual Canadian named James who seemed to put off the “Lifestyle” vibes this new, luxury apartment complex was going for. Coincidentally, two other friends we had met in our travels (Eleanor from Australia and Kate from Canada) happened to be staying in the same building after having to vacate their AirBnB after finding a webcam creepily pointed at their room. The four of us, along with Anna from Germany, dove right into the Soul “Lifestyle” by grilling on the rooftop one evening. The BBQ came complete with grilled meat, grilled vegetables, and, towards the end of dinner, an older gentlemen from the States named Craig who proceeded to direct the conversation towards a topic more to his liking — himself. This beautiful rooftop BBQ would wrap up our week in Medellín as Justin and I would depart on our next adventure the proceeding day: Jardín and the mountains of Colombia.

January 24 – 26: Jardín, Colombia

Three and a half hours from bustling Medellín is Jardín, a quaint town perched high in the Colombian Andes that features a vibrant central square lined with busy outdoor cafes, a beautiful church, and surprisingly few tourists. To reach it, Justin and I navigated our way through the Medellín bus terminal to our means of transportation: a large, public van that proved to be quite simple for Justin to hop into while stashing his chair in the back. The winding ride up to Jardín, however, was quite a bit more difficult — not just for a top-heavy Justin (the weight of his head combined with his paralyzed midsection caused him to slide in his seat as we hit bumps and turns on the route) but also for the other passengers, many of which made full use of the vomit bags that the driver passed back upon request.  And once in Jardín, our journey was not yet finished as our hostel required a roughly 25 minute climb up out of town on a bumpy dirt road. Despite the rough journey, upon our arrival at Hostel Patio Bonito we knew we had found a special spot. We were greeted by the owner Juan (a young man from Bogota in his late 20’s), his girlfriend Emma (from Belgium), a miniature three-week old cat named Yahtzee (named after Juan and Emma’s favorite board game), Pete (a friend of Emma’s who had been volunteering at the hostel for a month and whose primary responsibility seemed to be keeping guests thoroughly caffeinated with local coffee), a German Shepherd named Rasta (all bark, no bite), Antonio the donkey (known as the “clock” given his habit of bleating roughly once an hour), and some roaming peacocks. The hostel itself was better defined as a mountain farm, with its variety of animals, crops (mandarins and bananas), and its location on the side of a mountain that provided stunning views of the surrounding coffee farms from its porch (hence “Patio Bonito”). We would spend the rest of our first day soaking in the magic of the place by drinking fresh coffee (purchased from the plantation next door), playing with Yahtzee, enjoying a BBQ dinner grilled by Juan, and gazing up at a clear, night sky densely cluttered with bright stars.

Initially only planning to stay one night in Patio Bonito, Justin and I decided to stay on for two given the idyllic location, surprising wheelchair accessibility (the porch’s hammocks were a pleasantly surprising addition to Justin’s “doable” list), and pleasant company. On the second day, we even went so far as to explore a dirt road up into the mountains above Jardín (at the advice of Andrew, the amicable Canadian and Jardín enthusiast that we met at a cafe in town). We reached the terminus of our journey, when Justin, veering to his right to avoid a tuk-tuk speeding past him, toppled out of his chair onto the road. (Luckily, I had the camera rolling to capture the theatrics of the fall.) Unscathed and in good humor, Justin looked further down the steep, rocky road and suggested that this might be a good place to turn around and face the picturesque sunset coloring the sky above the road back into town. I agreed, and we returned to Jardín and a surprisingly delicious pizza dinner at Cafe Europa, one of the few locations in town targeting Western backpackers. After dinner, our way back to Patio Bonito allowed Justin to add another item to the “doable” list: tuk-tuk riding. Antonio, the tuk-tuk driver, kept us distracted from the uncomfortable bouncing and careening of his vehicle up the winding, dirt road by peppering us with facts about his family, stories about climbing in the Sierra Los Nevados, and his enthusiastic endorsements of our hostel (“¡Patio Bonito! ¡Que lindo! ¡Que lindo!”).

January 26-27: Medellín, Colombia

After our second night in Jardiín, Justin and I made our way back to Medellín for one last night out in El Poblado before Justin’s flight out the following day. We met up with Kate and Eleanor for Justin’s farewell dinner complete with Argentinian steaks, red wine, and a poetry reading (the poem was kindly printed out in English by our colorful server who claimed to have worked in each of NYC’s Michelin three-star restaurants before landing in Medellín and the slightly less prestigious La Pampa Parrilla Argentina). We spent the rest of the night dancing to the mix of reggaeton and American pop beats at Vintrash, a crowded club filled equally with backpackers and locals, where at one point Kate looked over to me as Justin rolled away from the dance floor to grab a drink and perfectly captured my sentiment with a matter of fact, “You are going to miss him.”

And the next afternoon, El Partido officially abandoned for the foreseeable future with Justin’s departure for the airport and mine for the bus terminal. In only a few hours, I would be in a hostel in the mountain town of Manizales, prepping for a three day trek into the Sierra Los Nevados, while Justin would be gearing up to get back to his routine in his Denver, Colorado, apartment. However, during those few hours in transit, we would both be suspended in that “in-between time” that traveling so beautifully affords. A time where the mind dances to and fro between thoughts of reflection and expectation as the body is physically transported from the past to the future.

As is so often the case when writing about my travels, I find that just summarizing the facts of who, what, when, where, and why only partially capture the experience. And in many cases, it feels as if my written account only expresses the hollow shell of a much fuller, more vibrant experience. The richness is found a few levels deeper than the mere facts of the day, although where I find this deeper, more rewarding side of the story can vary. For instance, in my solo travels, I have at times, unexpectedly, felt a sense of belonging in foreign places surrounded by people from a variety of different countries I have only recently met. Going from a feeling of amicable camaraderie with new companions to a deeper sense of belonging is difficult to pin-down in a narrative arc, but it has been one of the more rewarding experiences I have had in my travels.
In my time with Isaiah and Justin I experienced something different but equally rewarding. By committing to spend nearly most of our time together for 2+ weeks, in addition to having time to do a lot of things together, we had ample time to allow for meaningful thoughts and conversations to bubble up. One conversation that will stick with me is Isaiah and I’s discussion over breakfast prompted by David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” commencement address (yes, we read this over breakfast), where we agreed with Foster-Wallace’s argument that real freedom is found in choosing to live unselfishly and marveled at the literary skill at which he brought this point home (if you have ~15 minutes, the linked transcript is well-worth the read). We talked about how difficult making that choice daily can be and some tactics around how to get there. However, Isaiah pointed out a flaw behind Foster-Wallace’s anecdote of how spiritually draining a normal routine of, say, going to the grocery store may be — there are many people who would love to have an ordinary, uneventful daily routine where they have the opportunity to make healthy choices regarding their inner monologue. Isaiah’s point made me recognize and be grateful for the relative privilege we both had to be discussing how to best deal with life…when life gets boring.
Another conversation that stands out to me is hearing about Justin’s reaction to the book and movie Me Before You. (Spoiler alert: The story involves a young man who is paralyzed from the neck down and decides to commit suicide a year after his accident even though he and his caretaker have a romance of sorts.) Justin’s response to the main character’s decision to commit suicide was visceral: the character made a narrow, uniformed choice on life, where he overemphasized his new limitations over what he could still experience and what limits could be questioned or stretched. Justin’s passionate argument for life gave me a glimpse into his own conviction of how profoundly worth it life is, even with a loss of some his physical ability, and put a fine point on one of the primary challenges of living in his post-injury world: Staying grateful for what he can do, while maintaining a spirit that constantly challenges and tests assumptions behind his “limits,” and, through that process, having the wisdom to acknowledge that although some of his limits are, in fact, real and final, others are merely vestiges of fearful, faulty thinking that can be steamrolled with a healthy dose of grit and gumption. Justin has been intensely focused on fighting — and winning — this battle since his injury, and it was my pleasure to join him as he dove headlong into this challenge for 16 days in Colombia.

Dos Bandidos in Colombia: Ten Days on the Caribbean Coast

A south Florida wedding in late December left me only a two and a half hour flight from the coasts of Colombia, a destination that foreign travelers through Latin America I have met consistently rave about. Given my lack of any set deadlines or New Year’s plans, I found this distance too close to resist and booked a flight to Cartagena directly after the wedding. I also convinced another attendee of the wedding and one of my oldest and best friends, Cabell Rosanelli, to make the trek down with me to this crown jewel of Latin American tourism. And as is the case with any great team, we had a name to rally behind on this audacious journey. We were Dos Bandidos, “Two Bandits” with little regard for the law and a strong inclination for swashbuckling adventure. Below is our story.

Day 1 – Sunday, December 31, 2017 – Cartagena

We arrived in Cartagena late in the afternoon on New Year’s Eve with little clue on what one does in Cartagena on New Year’s Eve. After checking into our hotel in Bocagrande, a skinny peninsula that extends southwest from central Cartagena into the Caribbean covered with numerous oceanside high rises, we made our way to the beating heart of Cartagena: the Old City. The Old City is what remains (and plenty does) of the walled Spanish city built in the 16th and 17th centuries. Once inside the walls, we quickly found out what goes on in Cartagena for New Year’s — nearly all of the streets are closed to auto traffic and each block is transformed into a street restaurant, complete with seating and live music or a DJ. And these street restaurants, would go from empty (around 7 pm) to packed with local families enjoying a New Year’s Eve Dinner together (around 10 pm) to Latin music dance parties (around 12 am – ??). Cabell and I did not have a reservation, so we ducked inside an open restaurant for an early dinner (8 pm is early for NYE here apparently) before strolling the streets of Cartagena with local beers in hand (with no open container laws and Colombian beers priced at about a dollar a pop, this was an obvious move) doing our best to blend in with the locals (our gringo-fied Spanish and questionable Latin dance moves did not appear to fool many). Exhausted from travel, we made it back to the hotel a little after 2 am, noticing that the citywide party in Cartagena showed no signs of flagging even as we trudged home well past midnight.

Day 2 – Monday, January 1, 2018 – Cartagena

Having attended a wedding on the 29th and then enjoyed a Colombian-style New’s Eve on the 31st, Los Dos Bandidos need most of the first day of 2018 convalescing. We did find some delicious Colombian cold brew coffee at Juan Valdez Cafe (the Colombian Starbucks) and spent some more time meandering the city streets and visiting the Fort San Felipe de Barajas, which offered some beautiful views of the city. After dinner in the Old City, we finished the evening at Cafe Havana, drinking mojitos and shouting over the live Cuban band before retreating back to our Bocagrande hotel.

Day 3 – Tuesday, January 2 – Cartagena and Minca

Dos Bandidos were on the move this day! We scheduled a shuttle to pick us up from our hotel in Bocagrande at 10 am. This pick-up never happened, which was not particularly surprising to me as I have found things often do not quite as one plans in Latin America. (In fact, I usually expect for things not to go as planned, so when they do, I am pleasantly surprised. Could this be a some kind of life lesson in happiness?). To continue our journey, Dos Bandidos ended up at a local bus station to board a shuttle bound for Santa Marta that, despite its shoddy appearance, beamed passengers a workable wifi network. (Colombia must have found some kind of loophole in modern technological adoption given that I have never had this luxury on a bus in the United States.) A four-hour ride brought us to the outskirts of Santa Marta where we took a taxi up the several miles and nearly 2000 feet of elevation gain to Minca, a backpacker crossroads in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Luckily for us, our taxi driver was attempting to set a landspeed record to Minca from Santa Marta, as evidenced by his need to make several multi-car, left-lane passes into oncoming traffic on turns that wound us through the mountains into Minca. From Minca, Dos Bandidos braved the pouring rain and hiked nearly an hour to our hostel (Mundo Nuevo), a surprisingly hard trek, as the 1.5 mile journey featured an elevation gain of roughly 1300 feet (400 meters). Our hosts kindly greeted us with fresh juice, a dinner, and a warm bed.

Day 4 – Wednesday, January 3 – Minca

Dos Bandidos began their day with a hearty breakfast at the hostel followed by an up-tempo hour and a half roundtrip hike to a mirador (“lookout”) that looked out onto Santa Marta, the sea beyond, and the surrounding mountains and jungle. After lunch and a nap, we then tackled the mountain roads and paths of Minca on mountain bikes, which we rented from the hostel. Luz, the main front desk operator at the hostel who spoke very little English and prefaced her responses to our broken Spanish with playful smiles, let on that very few guests actually rent these bikes given the intense climb back up to the hostel and, when tallying up our final costs for the hostel, she would compensate us for our pains by striking the bike rental line item from our bill, declaring it her “gift” to us.

After our four hour mountain bike ride which included a trip to the nearby hotspot of local Colombian tourism — the waterfalls and swimming holes of Pozo Azul — Dos Bandidos finished their day splitting a bottle of wine with Harriet at Mundo Nuevo, our new British friend who works in potentially the most British job you can imagine — advisor to Prince Charles.

Day 5 – Thursday, January 4 – Minca and Casa Santa Elena

Today, we set out from Mundo Nuevo on a new challenge — climbing Cerro Kennedy, a 3100 meter (10,170 ft) peak found roughly 15-20 miles east of Minca. We had heard rumors of a hostel, named Casa Santa Elena, that was a relatively short hike from the summit, at which we should be able to spend the night. However, given that the hostel did not have a webpage or phone number that we could contact (despite repeated attempts by Luz at Mundo Nuevo), we headed out from Minca, hoping for the best. The way to Santa Elena first involved a 18 km (~11 mile) motorcycle taxi ride up to the trailhead to Santa Elena, but the first few mototaxi drivers in Minca we inquired about getting a ride to the hostel trailhead had not even heard of Casa Santa Elena. (One even replied, “I do not know this woman!”) However, we did eventually find two trustworthy-seeming drivers who claimed to know of this fabled Casa Santa Elena, and shlepped us up over the mostly dirt roads (which at times were nearly impassably muddy) for nearly an hour to at a junction with a small stone path, which indicated “3km to Santa Elena.” From there, we headed up and, within an hour, arrived upon our “hostl.” However, Casa Santa Elena, situated on a beautiful ridge overlooking the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, is more accurately described as a farm that has sleeping space for travelers. Despite the fact that our accommodations for the night were decidedly light on amenities, we were extremely pleased with the set-up as Anna, the farm caretaker and cook, and Jonathan (pronounced “Yon-a-thon”), her grandson and our guide up Cerro Kennedy, provided delicious food and entertaining company (Anna gave several long, rambling dialogues 100% in Spanish and Jonathan challenged me to a game of cards and then balloon volleyball). Dos Bandidos, thus, would contentedly close their eyes early as a hard, driving rain beat down on the tin roof above the farmhouse.

Day 6 – Friday, January 5 – Cerro Kennedy and Santa Marta

The day got off to an extremely inauspicious start for Los Bandidos as Cabell came down with a stomach bug that had him rising several times early in the morning to head to the bathroom. Although his stomach felt more settled by the time we left for the hike up to the top of Cerro Kennedy, Cabell was forced to turn back after only a few minutes on the trail given his weakened states. Jonathan, our guide, and I pushed own, accompanied by Seús, the consensus “favorito perro” among the inhabitants of Casa Santa Elena. It took Jonathan and I nearly 2 hours to reach the top of Cerro Kennedy, which we did mostly in silence that was punctured from time-to-time by Jonathan offering me freshly picked berries from the trail or describing the owners of the neighboring fincas (most of which were also family members). When we reached the top, the view was largely obscured, but, after a few minutes, the sky cleared enough for us to see all the way out to the tallest peaks in Colombia — Pico Cristóbal Colón and Pico Simón Bolívar (5775 meters/18,700 feet) — both snowcapped and flocked by banks of clouds. Oddly enough, we left Seús on top to fend for himself as he had found a number of other dogs to play with on the peak (the peak of Cerro Kennedy is actually an active army base so there is quite a bit of activity). Jonathan assured me that his grandfather would retrieve Seús the next morning when he climbed up to the army base to sell his cheese. Jonathan and I returned to Santa Elena to find my fellow bandido strong enough to continue the descent off the mountain, so, after lunch, Dos Bandidos headed down to the road to catch mototaxis to take us back to Minca and then, from Minca, a taxi into Santa Marta, our home for the evening.

Day 7 – Saturday, January 6 – Santa Marta

Initially, Los Bandidos had planned to tackle the four-day, three-night journey through the jungle to Ciudad Perdida (“The Lost City”), the ruins of a recently-discovered ancient city built by the native Tayrona people. However, given Cabell’s weakened state, we decided to hold off on this trek in favor of exploring the Santa Marta area. The city of Santa Marta is the oldest Spanish colonial settlement in Colombia, founded in 1525 by the conquistador Rodrigo de Bastidas. Although Cartagena, founded in 1533, quickly surpassed Santa Marta as the most important Spanish Caribbean port in Colombia, Santa Marta still retains much of its colonial character, particularly in the city’s historic district between Parque San Bolivar and Parque Los Novios. Cabell and I spent most of the day exploring in and around this area, commenting on how gringo-friendly it appeared despite its relative lack of gringos. “Underrated” was the word that consistently came to mind as we cruised this city for which travel guides set rather low expectations. We had probably our best meal of the trip at El Balcon de Ouza, a Mediterranean seafood restaurant, that, like Santa Marta, defied expectations. We ended our night on a hopping Santa Marta rooftop bar, sipping Club Colombia Doradas (which had proven itself to be the top national beer), and listening to the DJ expertly pull off the classic gringo bait-and-switch — lure them in with mixes of Justin Bieber, Maroon 5, and Beyoncé, slide in a Despacito, mix in Shakira, and, then, all of the sudden, you’re listening exclusively to heavy reggaeton, salsa, and merengue.

Day 8 – Sunday, January 7 – Santa Marta and Palomino

Dos Bandidos set new tracks on this day, as we ventured further east along the Caribbean Coast to the “vacant” beaches of Palomino. However, we soon found that this “undiscovered” paradise is now sitting firmly on the “discovered” side of the ledger as freshly-built hostels and restaurants crowd the mile-long road leading from the main road to the beach. We spent the afternoon finding our hostel (which took about 35 minutes too long), exploring the beaches of Palomino, and drinking some delicious lemonade at a restaurant (Sua) with laughably slow service (even for Latin America standards). Over dinner, we sat at the same table as a mother and her two teenage daughters from Bogotá who initially engaged us by cackling at our horrendous Spanish. Despite this discouraging start, we proceeded to have a very friendly Spanglish conversation with them, that covered American and British pop music, their impressions of Bogotá, what the older daughter was studying in college (international business), and our travels plans.

Day 9 – Monday, January 8 – Palomino

Having missed our four-day jungle trek due to unforeseen circumstances, Los Bandidos were eager to get out into the jungly Sierra Madre de Santa Marta, one of the highest coastal mountain ranges in the world. Therefore, we hired a guide to lead us on an 8-hour trek through these mountains that rise just off the coast in Palomino. Our guide, Jesús, was a nineteen-year-old local who, hilariously, guided us through the mountains on his horse while we walked. Jesús led us up a trail that followed the Río Palomino, passed through the indigenous village of Seywiaka, and then cut over to follow the Arroyo (“stream”) Mamaice. After about two hours, he stopped us in a beautiful spot to eat our breakfast by the Mamaice, during which time he disappeared to “find a friend” nearby. Along the trail, we met a lone Colombian man from Medellín who stopped with us for breakfast. Cabell and I did our best to determine if this man was a narcotraficante with intimate connections to the Medellín cartel (my recent Narcos binge inspired me to do my best Agent Murphy impression). However, he refused to admit that he had any “negocios” to attend to in the location deep in the Santa Marta mountains to which he was headed. We ended up spending nearly two hours at this spot, as Jesús certainly had his own business to attend to — he left us for about half an hour to visit a nearby friend then came back and spent another 30-minute taking a bath in the stream.

From our breakfast spot, the path branched off from the Mamaice and climbed up to the top of a ridge that offered breathtaking vistas of the surrounding mountains, jungle, and eventually, as the trail made its way back to Palomino, the Caribbean Sea. We arrived back in Palomino by mid-afternoon and spent the majority of the rest of the day engaged in heated card game of rummy (after my hot start, Cabell proceeded to bring on the fire and fury and bury me at our beachside dinner).

Day 10 – Tuesday, January 9 – Palomino and Santa Marta

The last full day of Los Bandidos’ expedition began on the beaches of Palomino for one last swim before we headed back to Santa Marta. By late afternoon, we were comfortably settled in Santa Marta, engaged in a game of rummy on the rooftop of our hotel. As the game wore on and Cabell’s lead grew, the trip’s last rays of natural light filtered down to us through a brilliant Caribbean sunset. The beauty of the moment prompted Cabell to walk to the edge of the roof to snap a couple photos while a silent prayer of gratitude bubbled up within me. Cabell returned to finish me off, but I was able able to hold off my inevitable defeat until darkness nearly enveloped us both. We spent the last few hours together reflecting on the trip over dinner and making tentative plans for the next Bandidos’ expedition, which, we agreed, must include us sitting on the tops of some high mountains. The next morning Cabell left early, and it was everything I could do to muster a “safe travels, brother” as he vacated the hotel, bound for the U.S. and his own next adventure in Richmond.


Signing off from Guatemala with the Country’s Top Entrepreneurs

Richmond, Virginia, United States

And just like that, my three month stay in Guatemala, bookended by two weeks in Chiapas, Mexico is over. Moments after returning to the United States, I found myself in the Atlanta airport, munching on a Chik-fil-A Chicken Sandwich (they are in short supply in Guatemala) and converting US dollars to Guatemalan quetzals in my head (“Really? I just spent nearly 40 quetzals on this?”). Contemplating the deliciousness of my chicken sandwich despite its high quetzalian price, my thoughts drifted back to Lake Atitlán and the tastiest food I experienced there: a bag of popcorn bought off of a roving street vendor, known fondly to my friends and I as “The Popcorn Lady.” This local Guatemalan would boldly venture into the bars of San Pedro late at night, capitalizing on the inebriated gringos and their lowered inhibitions with a laundry hamper full of popcorn bags for sales at an impossibly low price of 5Q a bag (a little less than $1 USD). Night-after-night, I marveled at this enterprising Guatemalteca as she exploited this golden market opportunity, and my view of her began to shift from that of friendly street vendor to plucky entrepreneur, providing a top-notch product to a segment of the San Pedro community rife with spare cash and a willingness to spend it (specifically: drunk Americans, Europeans, and Australians). This experience with “The Popcorn Lady” led me to begin taking note of other entrepreneurs in Guatemala who were making the most of the limited opportunities offered in a country with a national poverty rate around 60% and a per capita GDP of less than $8,000. As my observations of these go-getters accumulated, I began nominating “Entrepreneurs of the Week” for particularly exemplary examples of business ingenuity. And now, looking back on the nearly three months I spent in the country, these individuals flood back into my memory, and so, while they are still fresh in my mind, I would like to highlight a few of my favorite Guatemalan entrepreneurs that, at one time another, were recipients of the esteemed “Entrepreneur of the Week” award.

Jorge and His Rope Swing

Roughly a 30 minute canoe ride from the island town of Flores in El Lago Peten Itzá lives Jorge, his family, and his famous lakeside rope swing. Jorge charges visitors 10Q (~$1.50 USD) for access to his twenty-foot high rope swing and his accompanying lakeside hangout that includes hammocks and a diving platform (about 15-20 feet high). Further demonstrating his enterprising spirit, Jorge, having noticed that his steady stream of visitors are often hungry and thirsty after their boat ride across the water, also sells modestly-priced hot food and drinks (a delicious plate of his nachos for 25Q goes great with a cold Gallo for 15Q). This humble tourist attraction has improbably climbed up to TripAdvisor’s #2 spot on “Things to Do in Flores,” a popping tourist destination given its proximity to the world-renowned Mayan ruins of Tikal, roughly a 1 hour drive away. Quite refreshingly, Jorge fully embraces the tropical island vibes of the Flores area by waiting on customers without the unnecessary encumbrances of a shirt or shoes.

Photo cred:

Miguel, Coffee Plantation Owner and Lakeside Sunrise View Facilitator

Miguel is the owner of a coffee plantation situated on the ridge of Indian Nose, a popular hike for tourists looking for a brilliant view of Lake Atitlán, particularly at sunrise. Miguel is in a fierce competition for customers with the owners of the viewpoint from the top of Indian Nose (Miguel’s property does not quite reach the top but offers views from the summit ridge). However, Miguel is holding his own in a number of ways. First, he undercuts the competition on price by charging about 50Q less than what it would cost to reach the top for only a marginally better view of the lake. Second, at his highest viewpoint, Miguel provides his customers some luxury via a few hand-crafted benches and cups of freshly-brewed coffee from his plantation. Finally, Miguel effectively employs the disinformation strategy in sales know as FUD (“fear, uncertainty, and doubt”) by labeling the owners of the top of the ridge as “bandidos” that will “steal your money.” Given some TripAdvisor reviews that suggest robberies have occurred in the area, I find this strategy of Miguel’s especially compelling. Fight on, Miguel, fight on!

Enjoying Miguel’s coffee from his beautiful viewpoint

Keith, the Chocolate Shaman

Keith may be the most controversial member of this list, given he is originally from Pennsylvania and one of the goals of the “The Entrepreneur of the Week Award” is to elevate the locally-run enterprises. However, given Keith’s incredibly unique entrepreneurial play — that of chocolate shaman — I must give the man his due. Keith and his cacao ceremonies have attracted a devoted following in the Lake Atitlán village of San Marcos La Laguna, and although I admittedly never attended one of these ceremonies, I heard quite a bit about his business proposition from some of his customers and I found it be utterly brilliant. Keith charges each attendee of his biweekly cacao ceremony 200Q (~$30 USD), which comes with a cup of hot cocoa and a 4-6 hour service, replete with spiritual revelations conjured up through the cacao (at Keith’s urging) and Keith’s long meandering monologues about whatever he chooses to expound on that day (one of the more exciting monologues I heard about focused on aliens and how they influence our daily lives). Keith works on Wednesdays and Sundays (the days on which he holds ceremonies,) and, thus, has five days off to brew cacao and enjoy his sizable profits. It really is a wonder that more kids don’t want to be chocolate shamans when they grow-up!

Screen Shot 2017-12-14 at 3.48.10 PM
Photo cred:

The Popcorn Lady of San Pedro La Laguna

And of course, we must end with “The Popcorn Lady” of San Pedro La Laguna. She produces some of the most delicious popcorn you will ever taste. A perfect balance of salty and sweet, her popcorn is best washed down by the Cuba Libre, Gallo, or shot of mezcal that is sure to be in your hand as you are frequenting one of the bars on the “The Popcorn Lady’s” route. Throughout my time in San Pedro, I was never able to down her irresistible calls of “¡Poporopos! ¡Poporopos!” (Guatemalan for popcorn) and, at a price of 5Q/bag, who could?!


And with this homage to some of the most interesting and enterprising individuals I met throughout my time in Guatemala, I am closing out my tales from Central America as the holidays have blown me back to States. However, the travel bug has not been quite cleared from my system as I will be flying down to Colombia for the month of January and I’m sure some tales from there will find there way to the pages of this blog.

Palenque, Roberto Barrios Falls, and Alien Rumors in Chiapas, Mexico

Palenque, Mexico

The road from San Cristóbal de Las Casas to the Palenque ruins is a tortuously winding, pot-holed affair that left me nauseous and then relieved once we arrived at our first stop along the road — a Mexican breakfast buffet that came complete with tortilla chips and chicken enchiladas (which, sadly, I have been lacking as part of my breakfasts these past 31 years). Along the way to Palenque, my tour stopped at two waterfalls: Agua Azul (the name means “blue water” in Spanish but, that day, the water was bizarrely a murky brown due to a mysterious project going on upstream) and Misol-Ha (featuring a bat-filled cave behind the waterfall that I ventured into for a cool ten pesos — or roughly 50 American cents). Including these two stops, it took us nearly eight hours to reach Palenque, a major city of the Ancient Maya which, along with much of the Mayan civilization, strangely disappeared in the 10th century A.D. (My favorite theory: The Mayans were descendants of aliens and simply returned to their home planet. The more plausible theory: Draught due to deforestation caused them to abandon their cities and scatter in the search of a more hospitable environment).

Only 4% of the Palenque ruins have been excavated but that small area is quite impressive. The main excavated ruins area is relatively compact and organized into three major groups (Templo de las Inscripciones and El Palacio Grupo, Grupo de las Cruces, and Grupo Norte). You can easily see all of the major buildings in less than two hours, including the time needed to climb up the buildings still open for public scampering. Upon entering the park, you are almost immediately greeted by the iconic Templo de las Inscripciones, a Mayan pyramid that rises nearly 90 feet over eight tiers above the green, manicured grass and, under which, the most powerful king in Palenque’s history (Pakal), is buried. The royal palace sits adjacent to the Templo de las Inscripciones and provides a number of different ancient rooms, passages, and, restored for your viewing pleasure, toilets to explore. Mind-blowingly enough, there are also a number of preserved carvings depicting scenes from Palenque circa the 7th and 8th centuries that are decidedly trippy in nature — many have hypothesized that these scenes are likely inspired by the psychedelic mushrooms that grow in and around Palenque (after observing these carvings myself, I found this logic pretty airtight — see pictures below). Beyond the palace, is the Gropo de las Cruces, three temples that back into the jungle and are the work of the Pakal’s son, Kan B’alam II, whose street name was a much more intimidating Jaguar Serpent II. Each of these are scalable, provide beautiful vistas of the ruins below and valley beyond, and are replete with the requisite mind-bending carvings. The final group is the Gropo Norte, which seem to be the red-headed stepchild of Palenque as most tours ignore these beautiful buildings in favor of the slightly more impressive Palacio and Cruces Grupos. And I can see why — after only two hours exploring the other two sets of ruins, I already had a well-developed sense of Mayan ruin snobbery, as evidenced by the “mehh, I’ve seen better” I muttered under my breath as I walked by.

I had arrived in Palenque via an insanely itineraried one-day tour that left San Cristóbal at 4:30 am and would return at approximately 10 pm. However, in a moment of sanity, I decided to stay the night near the Palenque ruins instead of taking a six-hour bus back to San Cristóbal. I found a spot to stay just outside the ruins in El Panchan. My accommodations were in a place ironically named “The Jungle Palace,” which is basically just a set of shabby cabanas in the jungle. However, the price of 120 pesos/night/cabana (~$6 American) was hard to beat and Don Mucho’s Restaurant nearby promised live music and cheap beer, so I took the bait and spent the next two nights there.

The next day, after the first night in my “palatial” cabana, I ventured to Roberto Barrios Falls, a set of ten different blue waterfalls and crystal clear pools, a 35-minute drive from Palenque. I went via a guided trip to this spot that is decidedly off the main tourist route and found myself in a group composed primarily of Mexicans, an interesting change from Guatemala where I didn’t meet a single local tourist (a per capita GDP of 3x in Mexico certainly explains much of this disparity). Our guide was refreshingly unencumbered by trifling worries like customer safety and liability as he nonchalantly walked us up, over, and through a number of the slippery falls to show us underwater caves, rocks to slide down on top of empty 2-liter soda bottles, and harrowing jumps. (When the “landing pools” were a bit on the shallow side, he told us you were were fine as long as you “made like a bomba” when you hit the water. Thus, several times I tucked my feet upon impact to “make like a bomba” and avoid a debilitating injury.) My favorite co-touree was a short, smiley Mexican lady in her 40’s who did every single jump, cave, and slide while speaking a rapid-fire Mexican Spanish to which I could only reply “Si, si, si!” After one particularly unintelligible request from her, I found myself traipsing across a waterfall to join her for a photo in the middle of one of the pools. The man who took the photo from the bank looked over to me after I returned to dry land and, in what little English he knew, laughingly remarked to me, “This lady…crazy!”

I ended my last night in the Palenque area at Don Mucho’s, which, as promised, offered live music and cheap beers. I was joined by two Irish I had met in my hostel at San Cristóbal; this brother and sister were traveling through Latin America together for several months together with their other brother and his girlfriend. We chatted at length about recent Irish history and politics as they are from Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, which is still part of the UK. (Fun fact I learned: The impetus for the Irish independence movement and civil war was the result of England reneging on their promise to grant Ireland self-rule for their support during World War I — which is still a sore subject for the Irish.) And, of course, the conversation did at one point turn to Donald J. Trump, the specter that follows every traveling American around. They asked me the simple, justified question of “Why?” which I hear from almost all other international travelers, who are universally flabbergasted at the onslaught of disturbing news and tweets generated by this man who, to them, represents the epitome of close-mindedness and hate. However, I have learned to steer clear of this rabbit-hole and, after assuring them that I was asking the same question myself, moved on to more hopeful topics…like 2020.


San Cristóbal de Las Casas: Cocodrilos, Controversial Catholics, and a Clandestine Army

San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Mexico

I have finally ventured beyond my Latin American home-away-from home — Guatemala — and into the southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas, a region that was actually once a part of Guatemala. My first destination: San Cristóbal de Las Casas, the cultural capital of Chiapas and center of the Zapatista movement, a left-wing political and military group standing up for indigenous rights. This group is still technically at war with the Mexican government, but fortunately for me (and other visitors), after an armed resistance in the 1990’s, the Zapatistas have moved from violent to peaceful tactics that are focused on civil resistance, enhanced cooperation with other global left-wing movements, and the development of a vast array of hipster-friendly coffees shops in San Cristóbal.

I arrived in San Cristóbal this past Thursday evening after a ten hour journey from Lake Atitlán, and, exhausted after the trip, laid low that night. I spent most of Friday, my first full day in the city, taking a free walking tour of the town in order to get a better feel for this artsy hub of Mexican counter-culture. A youthful, lanky Mexican named JP led the relaxed, five-hour amble through the town’s two main “walking streets” (i.e. closed to auto traffic), Real de Guadalupe and 20th de Noviembre. JP, despite having only lived in San Cristóbal for six months, provided the other two tourers (Laura, an Aussie, and Eva, an Irishwomen) and I a wealth of information on the city’s history, culture, art, and top dining and nightlife spots. JP, who would joke several times about how people come to San Cristóbal for vacation then end up never leaving (which would be repeated by several others “locals” I would meet around town), would solidify the quality of his recommendations by proving himself as a man about town — I would bump into him three times over the next few days at different separate spots he had recommended. My favorite recommendation of his was La Abuelita, a local Mexican eatery near Guadalupe Church where I would improbably eat my favorite rendition of three separate Mexican staples: refried beans, chicken enchiladas, and a chile relleno. (For all those doubters out there, Mexican food is, in fact, better in Mexico.) My second favorite tip of JP’s was his observation that the festival of the Virgin Guadalupe was in full swing in San Cristobal, as later the next night, I would find myself stuck in the throngs of a parade marching the streets of the city, chanting “¡Viva la Virgen!” Having learned the legend of Guadalupe from JP, I was able to enthusiastically join the locals in this chant, which, without context, is certifiably creepy.

After spending the majority of my second day in Zapatista coffeeshops, contemplating whether or not the Zapatista Army may have the need for a 31-year-old white male with an intimate knowledge of online programmatic advertising, I sprang back into action the next day with a boat tour of Sumidero Canyon, about an hour drive from San Cristóbal. At a sprightly 35 million years old, this canyon is a contemporary of the Grand Canyon of the United States and a point of pride for Chiapas, as a particular view of its expanse is represented on their state seal (which also curiously includes what looks like a lion tickling a palm tree). My boat for the tour was stocked full of two dozen gringos who would all nod in collective false comprehension when our Spanish language-only guide gave a bit of information on the impressive number of canyon features and wildlife we passed on our way through the canyon. The showstoppers were the crocodiles (one swimming, one sunbathing — both visibly annoyed at the gawking tourists), the spider monkeys (we were close enough to these playful branch-swingers that if one missed a jump from one tree to another, it would have fallen into our boat cruising along the riverbank), and a canyon-side waterfall shaped like a Christmas tree (which is cool…I think?). At each of these highlights, my boat neighbor (Cam, a recent university graduate from Quebec) and I would snap photos then turn to each other and comment at the relative absurdity of this exercise, “Welp, ya really can’t capture that, can ya?” After several hours in this canyon with walls that reach up to 1,000 meters (~3,300 feet) above the water at its highest points, we returned to the boat dock to finish the tour exploring the nearby pueblo of Chiapa de Corzo.

Today, my fourth and final day here in San Cristobal was highlighted by a horseback ride up to the indigenous community of San Juan Chamula, which is best known for its main church — Iglesia de San Juan — that combines Catholicism with traditional Mayan pagan worship. Although I did not witness it in my walk through the church (it was relatively quiet when I was inside), the pagan rituals include chicken sacrifices and drinking Coca-Cola or “pox” (a local liquor) in order to induce burps that release evil spirits. (I will be sure to reference this ritual the next time anyone looks at me in disgust after a shameless belch.) Unsurprisingly, this rebel church is only loosely connected to the official Catholic church given its drift aways from Catholic rituals — the only contact it has with Catholicism is a priest that visits once a month for baptisms and the icons of Catholic saints that line the perimeter of the church. Aside from the church, there is not much else to see in Chumula other than some innovative fashion so after about an hour, my fellow horsemen and horsewomen jumped back on our steeds to gallop back to the environs of San Cristóbal.

Despite greatly enjoying my time in San Cristóbal, I have politely turned down the Zapatista’s invitation to join their movement (although I did let them know that I would reach back out this time next year if my job hunt back in the homeland is not going well). So tomorrow, I am off to Palenque, the site of a major Mayan ruin that, sadly, was not used as a filming site for any Star Wars movies. And then, it is back to Guatemala City for my return flight to the United States on December 12th, just over three months since I departed on this random adventure.


Dos Hermanos in Guatemala: From the Underwater River of Semuc Champey to the Slopes of the Angry Volcán Fuego

Antigua, Guatemala

Over the last ten days, my meanders through Guatemala were enhanced with the addition of my younger brother and regular partner-in-adventure, John Wesley Andrews. He arrived in Guatemala City from the States known as “Wes,” but since “w” does not really exist in Spanish (it’s true!), he would take on a number of different names that were more pronounceable for Guatemaltecos, including “Huest,” “Huas,” and “Uees.” Unfortunately, given his relatively short stint in the Guate, the inevitable Hispanic alter-egos corresponding to each of Wes’s new names lacked the incubation period necessary to develop into full-blown personalities. (On the other hand, “Ricardo,” the Hispanic version of yours truly, has come into his own as a native Guatemalteco over his two and a half months here. Ricardo is best known for his new, interpretative form of salsa that prioritizes sensual hip-shaking over proper step-taking and his unnecessarily long and deep rolls of the letter “r”, which occur irrespective of the language he is speaking.)

Wes and I’s first destination in Guatemala was Semuc Champey (“Where the river hides under the earth” in the Mayan dialect of Q’eqchi’), a natural limestone bridge over the Cahabòn River in central Guatemala. A number of natural infinity pools filled with turquoise water sit atop this bridge, making it both friendly for swimming and snapping breathtaking photos. The distance between Antigua (our starting point) and Semuc was a relatively modest 200 miles. However, our trip between the two locations, via a tourist shuttle, was a tortuously long 11 hours. If you are doing the math at home, yes, your division is correct: this is an average of a laughably slow 18 miles/hour. And yes, we took a bus with a gasoline-powered engine, not a horse carriage. A combination of winding mountain roads, speed bumps as we passed through countless villages, massive potholes, unpaved roads, a local funeral procession, and road construction contributed to this snail’s pace (in fact, we may have seen some actual snails scoot by us during our journey). However, after experiencing the beauty of the area, Wes and I would agree that this trip was “vale la pena” (English: “worth the trouble”).

For our two full days and three nights in the area, we stayed at Utopia Hostel, located on the Cahabón River, a walkable three kilometers from the turquoise pools of Semuc. The hostel has the added benefit of being downstream from the pools, meaning it is possible to finish your day at the pools by tubing down the river back to the hostel. We spent the majority of both days swimming in the pools and exploring the area surrounding the pools, which happens to include a massive cave network that we spelunked through with a local guide (ours was named Manuel who enthusiastically led us through the caves with occasional high-pitched yelps of “aiaiaiai!”). The area around Semuc Champey is also surrounded by dozens of local children selling chocolate and beer (yes, children sell beer here) at cut-rate prices. In fact, as we were tubing down the river back to Utopia on our second day, a Guatemalan boy of roughly thirteen years old floated by holding out a Brahva (the cheapest of the Guatemalan national beers) saying, “You want beer? You get now. You pay at hostel.” I, of course, could not turn down this entrepreneurial spirit and accepted his kind offer.

From Semuc, Wes (“Huest”) and I made our to what has become my home base of sorts in Guatemala — the banks of Lake Atitlán. The initial plan was to conquer various lakeside volcanoes, embark on kayak journeys of ambitious lengths, and to delve deep into the local cultures of a number of different lakeside villages. Alas, the germs and bacteria of Guatemala had other plans as Wes went down with stomach “trouble” (a euphemism), and I went down with a vicious cold. Therefore, we spent most of our two and a half days at the lake convalescing at and around our hostel in Santa Cruz (La Iguana Perdida). The highlight was the massive Thanksgiving dinner put on by the hostel where I had the honor of introducing this venerable American tradition to two Irish, four Aussies, and an Englishman. The Irishman was especially surprised to learn that Thanksgiving was not actually the day Columbus discovered America. (Wes sadly missed this event due to stomach “trouble.”)

After our relaxing few days at the lake, my brother and I headed to Antigua to take on the most talked-about single attraction in Guatemala among backpackers: climbing Volcán Acatenango and observing the neighboring active volcano (Fuego). Having heard multiple people describe this as potentially the “best thing they had ever done,” I was somewhat skeptical going in that any tourist attraction could be that good. However, our experience would back up this enthusiasm.

Volcán Acatenango is the third highest volcano in Central America at 3,976 meters (13,045 ft) and is the sister volcano to Volcán Fuego, one of Guatemala’s three active volcanoes (the others are Pacaya and Santiaguito). It is possible to hike up and down the volcano in a day, but the more popular option is to stay on the slopes of the volcano overnight in order to watch the spectacular eruptions of Fuego from one of the various campsites on the slopes of Acatenango. A number of different tourist agencies in nearby Antigua provide gear and a guide for an overnight trip for reasonable prices (most run for 350 quetzals or a little less than $50), so, for simplicity’s sake, my brother and I chose this option.

Our trip up the volcano began inauspiciously. After our guiding company had loaded all the clients into a bus, they drove us to their headquarters to pass out the food we would need for the trek. After this food was passed out, one of the clients, a vegetarian, startled everyone by angrily screaming towards the front of the bus, “ONLY rice? ONLY pasta? ONLY lettuce? No sauce! This is not three meals! This is three ONE-HALF meals!” Looking around to see who else was ready take up arms against the oppressive guiding company, he found his cause was generating little support from the masses. In fact, even after the meat eaters noticed that their ration only included an additional cold chicken leg on top of the “only rice, only pasta, and only lettuce” allowance of the vegetarians, no one else could seem to muster the indignation necessary to protest this company that was providing two guides, three (“half”) meals, transportation to and from the volcano, tents, sleeping bags, and a prime campsite from which to view an erupting volcano for roughly $50/person. Making little headway, the indignant customer stormed off the bus and back to Antigua, the land of three full meals per day. Fortunately, this dramatic exit occurred before the angry protester learned that sauce for the pasta was provided at the campsite. And we were all more than happy that he did not receive this information as it may have tempted him to continue on with the trek and discover additional injustices that the guiding company may be waging against his personhood. (“No car to the top? ONLY my feet? ONLY my lungs? ONLY this stick? This is not a tour, this is a ONE-HALF tour!”)

Having dispensed of the deadweight, the still-sizable group, now of eighteen customers and two guides, continued onto the trailhead where our main guide, Fernando, began steadily leading us up the steep trail. The trail would rise roughly 1500 meters (5000 feet) over 8 km (5 miles) and end at our campsite situated several hundred meters below the summit, providing a clear view of the neighboring Volcán Fuego. (At 3,763 meters/12,364 feet, its peak is slightly lower than that of Acatenango’s.) Fernando was on his way up Acatenango for the 598th time, which was probably the reason for the random, unprovoked fits of hysterical laughter that he would issue from the front of the group from time-to-time (his only explanation for the laughing — “I am a very happy man!” — which was always followed by a few more peals of manic laughter or his token phrase “Bery good, bery good, bery gooood!”). Despite having potentially ceded some sanity to the thin air of Acatenango, Fernando did lead us up in exactly five hours, the ascent time he quoted at the outset of our climb. Once at base camp, he also informed us that if four souls were brave enough, he could lead them off of Acatenango and onto Fuego for an even closer view of the eruptions after dark. I glanced at my brother after learning this and his eyes told me all I needed to know: we were going up Fuego.

We found two others to provide Fernando with the requisite four (Cameron from Canada and Fabian from Germany), and then, after scarfing down some pasta, we headed towards Fuego with headlamps and flashlights guiding our way. After a roughly 25 minute descent to the saddle and a 45 minute ascent up the slopes of Fuego, we found ourselves at the foot of the exposed ridge that climbs up to Fuego’s peak, staring through thick ash falling like snow and breathing in Fuego’s sulfurous odors. We were only four hundred meters below the summit but well beyond where we saw the most powerful eruptions throwing lava. We were entranced as every few minutes, bright orange chunks of lava would spray out from the top of the cone into the night sky — a natural fireworks display — and thick smoke would billow up and then ascend above the specks of lava into a dark, mushroom-shaped cloud. After the spraying lava reached its zenith, it would fall down onto the sides of the mountain and begin rapidly sliding down its slopes. The more powerful the eruption, the further we would see the lava cascade down. Each eruption was accompanied by a thunderous boom, the volume of the boom corresponding to the intensity of the eruption. (Early the next morning, one boom was so loud it would wake-up the campsite, causing many of us to unzip our tents and witness lava flows sliding well over halfway down the slopes of the mountain.) After nearly an hour on the ridge of Fuego, the five of us turned around and worked our way back to the campsite to catch some shuteye before our predawn wake-up call.

At approximately 4:15 am the next morning, Fernando announced to the bleary-eyed group that we were headed to the top, which was followed by a few of his characteristic manic peals of laughter. The trudge to the summit took an hour and, there, we were greeted with a spectacular, slowly brightening 360 degree view of Guatemala: to the east were Antigua and Volcán Agua, with the smoking cone of Volcán Pacaya (the second of Guatemala’s three active volcanoes) peaking out behind it; a bit further to the north were the sprawling lights of Guatemala City; to the northwest was Volcan Atitlán with the blue waters of Lake Atitlán spilling out below it; even further northwest were the peaks of Santa María and then, barely visible, Volcán Tajumulco the highest peak in Guatemala and all of Central America; and, finally, to the south, was the erupting Fuego with the Pacific coast and ocean beyond. We snapped as many photos as our frozen fingers could bear, whooped as the sun rose, then made record time back to camp by sliding down the volcanic sand that comprises much of the surface of Acatenango’s summit cone. After a quick breakfast and much-needed cups of coffee, we descended the volcano quickly enough to be back at our Antiguan hostel before noon.

Wes and I spent the rest of the day in Antigua doing our best not to fall asleep for the night debilitatingly early and rehashing some of the highlights of our ten days together. And then, sadly, yesterday morning, we parted ways as his flight back to D.C. left Guatemala City airport in the afternoon. It is bizarre to think that this morning, he sat down for his desk job at a software company in suburban northern Virginia, less than 48 hours after having stared a highly active Central American volcano in the face.

Reflecting on the Acatenango experience, it certainly met the ridiculously high expectations set by the multiple backpackers I met who told me that this may have been the best thing they have ever done. Having now lived on the planet over thirty years, it is rare where I experience anything that feels new, unique, and fresh enough to inspire genuine wonder within me. It is a feeling I experienced quite often in my childhood, such as the first time I felt the weightlessness airplane wheels just leaving the runway give you or the first time I saw how green the outfield grass of a Major League Baseball stadium looks as you emerge out of the concessions area into the stands. However, as I stood and watched with fascination as lava sprayed out of Fuego and spilled down its slopes while the roar of the eruption’s seismic blast thundered out across the valley, I realized I had forgotten what true wonder feels like because, in that moment, I experienced it again. I felt just like a kid, simply amazed at the magnificence of the world around me. And quite fittingly, the guy with whom I shared most of my childhood, stood beside me.


A Dock in El Remate and Mid-Trip Reflections

El Remate, Guatemala

I may have found the most beautiful spot in all of Guatemala: a dock on Lago Petén Itzá across from the Hotel Mon Ami in El Remate. The dock juts roughly 15 meters into the depths of the eastern end of Lago Petén Itza and clears the water by only a few inches, giving someone standing near the end of the dock the sensation of standing on top of the lake as they peer across its glassy surface. From this perch, I observed several sunsets, a couple torrential tropical downpours (the end of the dock is sheltered from the rain by a tin roof), and one awe-inspiring rainbow this past week. Amidst the beauty of this spot and the general sublimity of El Remate, including the Cerro Cahuí Nature Preserve, I had some time alone this past week to reflect on my 2+ months in Guatemala so far. For much of this time, I found my thoughts drifting over moments I have shared with other travelers and a few stick out.

Back in September in San Pedro, my friend Ryan from Manchester, England, declared to me from behind kind eyes, “One really ought to offer complements like this more often, but we rarely do this for one another.” This was after he expressed his desire to tell Nadine before they parted ways ways that she is one of the genuinely funniest people he has ever met. Which is true — both that we ought to complement each more often and that our friend Nadine is hilarious. I never knew whether Ryan delivered this complement, but I know how Nadine would have responded: by insisting that her jokes really are much funnier in her native Swiss German. Despite this oft-expressed sentiment of hers, it did not stop her from providing my friends from the San Pedro School and I a near constant stream of wise cracks, witticisms, and playful jabs. Nadine speaks clear English with a bit of a Swiss German accent, which would cause me, from time-to-time, to interrupt her in order to clarify a word or two. After one of these interjections of mine, Nadine responded in playful frustration, “Reechard, what I said was very close. You really must use your imagination with me! Otherwise this will not work.”

Imagination is certainly something that my host family in San Pedro had to employ when learning how to interact with my other friend named Ryan in San Pedro. This Ryan, from Australia, moved in with my host family during our third week of Spanish classes. Ryan had spent a year and a half in Mexico as a dive instructor, and, between this time and his several weeks of class so far, had managed, against all odds, to learn absolutely no Spanish. However, he did insist with the host family that he was fluent in several Mayan dialects and would declare after every meal, almost as if to make fun of the very existence of the Spanish language, “muy deliciososososoooo!” Not knowing what exactly to do with this thirty-one year old man that seemed to mock the fact that the language of the household was Spanish, my host family took to calling him “el niño pequeño” (the little boy). (From what I understand now, el niño pequeno has progressed quite a bit in his Spanish.)

I have always been a bit skeptical of the idea that you can fundamentally change who you are or come to huge life revelations simply by traveling the world. However, there have been a few moments here where an interaction with another human has shifted my perspective in a real way. For instance, I was chatting with Dieske, a Dutch woman I met during my hectic first week in Guatemala, and she was describing how she would have to decide whether or not to go back to teaching full-time when she returned to Amsterdam. I asked her if she liked teaching, and she responded, “Well, yes, in fact, I do. When I was teaching back in Amsterdam, every afternoon after I finished teaching a class, I felt a little bit in love.” This description was striking, as I had never heard someone compare their day-to-day work so directly to the feelings of romantic love. I rather liked this description, as a person’s relationship with his or her day-to-day work is one of the most significant relationships in life, and one ought to feel at least “a little bit” of love in it. I was encouraged that Dieske’s sentiment was not just the idealistic dream of an eager university student but reflective of a reality that she has experienced. This moment caused me to pause as I recognized that my hopes for my day-to-day work when I returned to the States fell short of what Dieske expressed, and although not exactly life-altering, this interaction has nudged my thinking on the topic away from cynicism and towards hope.

It is interesting that the snapshots of genuine human interaction are the moments that already seem to stick out to me the most in my memory, but they are the most difficult to recapture in photographs or my daily travel journal that records the events of the day. And I think I like it this way — it’s almost as if my mind knows that these are moments that it alone is responsible for capturing, storing, and keeping sacred in memory.

Dos Guapos Dos: Guatemala Edition

Flores, Guatemala

This past week, my daily routine of Spanish classes came to an abrupt and welcome end as Newman Granger, a lifelong friend and proven Central American traveler (resume: three previous trips to Costa Rica) joined me for a veritable Tour de Guatemala. (This is the second trip we have taken together in Latin America, the first being in Costa Rica, thus “Dos Guapos Dos.”) I met Newman at Aurora International Airport on Saturday morning, and — as I have found is often true when reuniting with old friends — his arrival felt oddly ordinary despite the unique, foreign location. From the airport, we shuttled into Antigua to embark on 36 hours of meandering through the beautiful colonial streets, sampling a half dozen cafes for their various preparations of Guatemalan coffee, and munching through the eclectic restaurant scene. After sleeping and eating for three weeks with a working-class family in Quetzaltenango, the Western-friendly food and accommodations in Antigua felt downright luxurious. The highlight was likely our first night’s dinner at Angie Angie, which featured delicious pasta, live music, a well-stoked fire in the open-air back patio, and a gooey chocolate brownie with ice cream for dessert. The only real downside to this dinner was the fact that I am not interested in a romantic relationship with Newman; otherwise, I am sure that the the amorous setting and Coldplay covers would would have sealed the deal.

In Antigua, Newman and I wasted little time delving into conversation topics that we would discuss throughout our nine days together, including politics (the current political situation and state of political dialogue in the United States is something that we can discuss ad nauseam), history (Virginians really can never get enough of this topic), travel stories and future travel plans (it was great to hear more details about Newman’s trip to Kilimanjaro this past summer, and then even greater still to hear this trip described to Daytona, then to Hannah, then to Maud, then again to Anna, then to Tory, then to a German woman I forgot the name of, then to a local shopkeeper, then to a cleaning lady, then to a rabbit wandering around our hostel*), funny stories from our shared past (having known each other for 25 years, there is plenty of material to draw on), religion and spirituality (Newman kicked off one of these discussions by asking a question with the appropriate amount of subtly — 0% — owed to one of your best friends: “Wait, so what exactly are your religious beliefs?”), the craft of writing (a Mark Twain quote recited by Newman captures a main takeaway that may even apply to this blog post: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”), business (maybe we should start one, sell it, then travel?), family, past relationships, and ideas about each of our futures. It would have been interesting to chart the exact correlation between conversation topic and caffeine consumption, but, if I had to guess, “business” and the “future” were likely the topics most positively correlated to our blood-caffeine (is that called “BCC”?) levels.

From Antigua, Newman and I made our way to beautiful Lake Atitlán for three nights, starting Monday. The first night we stayed in Santa Cruz at the hip, low-key La Iguana Perdida Hostel, nestled against the banks of the lake. In the course of our twenty-four hours there, we swam, enjoyed a family style dinner with other guests of the hostel, sweated through a three-hour hike to the top of a mirador overlooking Santa Cruz and the lake, and relaxed while reading on the porch of the hostel. We continued on from Santa Cruz to the relative hustle-and-bustle of San Pedro La Laguna, my September home, to find, unsurprisingly, nothing had really changed. Our hotel, Mikaso, provided adequate accommodations, but, more importantly, an outdoor hot tub that gave us a delicious shvitz under the stars both of our nights there. I showed Newman around my San Pedro haunts (Café Idea Connection, Sublime, Sababa, Hostel Fé, and Clover Restaurant) which were largely empty, as they had been back in September. However, the month prior, with my San Pedro School compañeros, scheduled classes, and meals with my host family, I had found the low-season vibes to be charming; however, this time around, with Newman and I looking for some social life, the place, missing many of the faces that had become familiar, struck me as more of a ghost town. Therefore, we spent the duration of our third day at Lake Atitlán in the nearby town of San Marcos, exploring the nature preserve, perfecting our jumping form into the lake off of the 8-meter high dock in the preserve, and venturing to the secluded Yoga Forest, a 25-minute hike above town, for a scenic yoga session.

Thursday marked the halfway point for Newman’s trip, and as we traveled from San Pedro to Antigua and then on to Guatemala City airport, we marveled at the amount of ground we had covered together in just four days. Also, we noted how Newman’s devoted watching of Narcos had given him a few choice Spanish phrases that allowed him to more effectively communicate in the language. For example, while ordering from a waiter or waitress, Newman’s exclamations of “muyyy, muyyyy import-TANT-tay” would reassure our server that, yes, their job was indeed important. However, Newman’s frequent quoting of Pablo Escobar — “¿Plata o plomo?”– was largely unhelpful, as we never really had to confront the gut-wrenching choice between silver or lead.

From Guatemala City airport, we took a flight into Flores, our launching off point for our exploration of Tikal, the ruins site of a famous ancient Mayan city, and, possibly more important to two Star Wars buffs like Newman and I, the filming location for the Rebel base on Yavin IV from the original Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope. Thursday night we arrived in Flores, a beautiful island town in Lago Petén Itza that features Spanish colonial architecture and a hopping bar and restaurant scene for tourists. Exhausted from a full-day of travel, all we could muster for the evening was dinner at our hostel (Los Amigos) before crashing for the evening. We had the entire next day to explore the Flores area, so we decided to rent a canoe from the hostel, which came complete with straw hats, wooden paddles, and a small plastic bucket for bailing out water in case we started to sink (this must have been in lieu of the lifejackets we were never offered). The highlight of our lake expedition was our stop at Jorge’s Rope Swing, where a local guy has set-up a row swing on his lakeside property, charges admission for its use, and then sells nachos, beers, and soda to visitors. This enterprising Guatemalan’s swing has climbed to the #2 position on “Things to Do In Flores” on TripAdvisor, which speaks both to the quality of the experience he has created and to the lack of actual things to do in Flores. (I can say this with authority after swinging on Jorge’s rope, eating his nachos, drinking his beers, and then trying to find actual other things to do in Flores.)

On Saturday, we headed for Tikal and our accommodations for the evening — the Jungle Lodge. After finding the Jungle Lodge to be mostly empty and realizing that our initial plan to watch the sunrise from the park would likely be disappointing given the heavy cloud cover we had experienced in the area each morning , we decided to coordinate a sunset tour of the park instead. Our guide for this tour was Samuel, a Guatemalan from Flores that spoke slow and clear English, largely for dramatic effect, as he described the rich history of Tikal and the Mayan people. (Quick summary of Tikal history: Tikal was located in the geographical center of the Mayan civilization and was one of the most powerful Mayan city-states during the height of Mayan civilization, known as the “Classic Period,” which lasted from roughly 250-950 AD. Sometime in the 900’s, Tikal was abandoned due to drought and famine and was never repopulated. Thus, when the Spanish arrived in the 1500’s, the site was empty, and was not “rediscovered” until the mid-19th century when a Guatemalan-led expedition mapped the site for future exploration and excavation.) Samuel led us up to the top of Temple IV, the tallest building in Tikal (70 meters/230 feet) for sunset, and, after a few minutes on the relatively crowded east-facing side of the temple, told us to quietly follow him as he led us, with a few acrobatic moves, around some scaffolding to reach the “off-limits” west side of the temple to get a glimpse of the sinking sun. Once there, he said we would stick around until well after dark to listen to the growing “jungle sounds,” but as the dusk fell and darkness began to envelope us on top of Temple IV, Samuel embarked on a monologue about his Mayan heritage and his own aspirations to be a Mayan shaman which would “probably happen in two or three years.” This monologue drowned out most of the growing “jungle sounds” filtering up to us. When the stars began to emerge above us and all other visitors had left, Samuel led us down the stairs off the temple, mentioning that “it would be better that we not hold the railing” which prompted an obvious “Why?” from one of the members of the group, as we all struggled to maintain our balances without the help of the railing. “Scorpions,” replied Samuel.

The walk out of the park took roughly 15-20 minutes and, at the exit, were greeted by a tarantula (not a scorpion). An excited Samuel scooped up the tarantula, turned it belly-side up to show us its fangs, then asked which of us would like to hold it. Unsurprisingly, none of us accepted despite Samuel’s insistence that it was “safe” while holding out the tarantula toward us in anticipation that one of us would offer our arm for the giant spider. After Samuel dropped the tarantula, Newman and I said goodbye to the quirky yet endearing Samuel and proceeded to have a leisurely dinner of mediocre food at the Jungle Lodge before bed.

Sunday, we arose to a steady rain (decision to do the sunset tour vindicated!), so we took our time at breakfast before heading out to explore the park for the morning. The rain had mostly cleared by the time we entered, but it left a picturesque mist that clung to many of the ruins. We spent the next several hours exploring the temples, palaces, residences, and religious monuments of the Ancient Maya before heading back to Flores mid-day, satisfied at the impressive additions to our iPhone camera rolls. As we pulled out of the park and headed home, I let my imagination wander to a galaxy far, far away, where Newman and I bumped into Luke Skywalker and some of his Rebel friends on the route home, who insisted that we turn the shuttle around and head for the Rebel base as X-wings, prepped for the impending assault on the Death Star, awaited us.

Our last afternoon together, Newman and I jumped into the steam room at Los Amigos for our fifth and final shvitz together before he headed off (some quick shvitz accounting: two hot tub sessions in San Pedro and three steam room sessions in Flores insured that we stayed properly shvitzed during our time together). The delicious Masala chai served by the hostel’s wait staff into the rest area outside of the steam room topped off this high quality steam experience, which proved to be the highlight of our stay in Los Amigos Hostel. We finished our time in Guatemala together by chatting for a few hours with two other travelers in the common area of Los Amigos, Anna and Sarah, who were about to embark on a tortuous twelve-hour, overnight bus ride to Antigua, and then dining at the lakeside restaurant of Raices, where our attention was occasionally distracted from our rehash of the prior week’s events by the magic tricks an elderly Belgian tourist was performing for a Guatemalan boy at the neighboring table.

As Newman heads back to the States and I have a few days to catch my breath before my brother arrives in Guatemala for 10 days (Dos Guapos to Dos Hermanos), I will have some time to do reflect and be introspective. In my time here, I actually have had less time alone than I had initially thought as I have been surprisingly quite busy with school and generally surrounded by people. This has been overwhelmingly positive, but I am looking forward to a few days to be mostly alone, enjoy the beauty of this part of the world, allow my mind to wander, and finish a book or two. When I left the States over two months ago, I did not have any expectations that I would have a specific revelation or develop a concrete next life step while here. I figured this adventure would, quite simply, be an interesting life experience and offer a bit more perspective before I take my next life step. When I left New York, there was this sense that my life was not completely in touch with what I care about most and conflicting, strong desires were making the decision of what to do next a bit confusing. (For example, I wanted to have more career momentum but I wanted “career momentum” to have less of a pull on my life. Also, I wanted more time time to spend with people I care about but I wanted other people’s opinion of me and what I do next to have less influence over me.) New York, in a lot of ways, turned up the volume on these internal conflicts that, I acknowledge, I may spend my entire life working on without ever completely resolving. However, some time away certainly has allowed me to turn the volume down and free my mind up. The point of this rambling conclusion is that a visit from an old friend with a thoughtful soul has helped to nudge me in the direction of taking some time for productive introspective while I am down here. Although this will largely take place off the pages of this blog (God invented journals for a reason), I will, from time-to-time, share with readers any insights or feelings that bubble up that I think may be worth sharing.

* = In reference to Newman’s Kili story, in all fairness, he patiently listed countless times to my rendition of the “what are you doing and what have you been doing with your life for the last 2+ months” spiel that I explained to each of the characters mentioned above. I.e. “I was living in NYC, wanted to move and find a different job, figured traveling would be cool before getting a job, now I’m in Guatemala, no specific future plans, but have general life goals, yes, blahblahlbahbleedeeblahblah…”



Goodbye, Xelajú

Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

I ended my third and final week of Spanish class at PLQ on Friday (seventh overall including my time at San Pedro School), and for a moment on my last day of class, I believed that I had reached a true Spanish language breakthrough. The moment came during the weekly “Que Pasó in Guatemala” roundtable where students and teachers meet for an hour to discuss Guatemalan current events — in Spanish, of course. Amaro, a school coordinator who was leading the conference, kicked things off by asking if students had anything they would like to discuss. The several seconds of painful silence that ensued proved too difficult for my extroversion to handle, so I piped up and said “La economía de Guatemala.” Amaro turned his gaze towards me and asked, “What about the economy?” I mentioned that I had read an article about the state of the Guatemalan economy earlier that week in the Prensa Libre and thought we could, maybe, discuss that. Amaro replied that he had not read that article, so it would be great if I could explain in detail what I knew about the current state of the Guatemalan economy. At this point, considering the entire exchange was occurring in Spanish, I realized I was probably in over my head. However, I could not think of a better way out of the situation other than to dive headfirst into these murky, Spanish language waters. I began speaking and was surprised by how quickly and easily the words tumbled out of my mouth. Over the course of two, maybe three minutes, I summarized the general state of the Guatemalan economy, rattled off several factors that were barriers to Guatemalan economic growth, and offered commentary on each factor. At the end of this impromptu speech, I let out a long breath of self-satisfaction and thought to myself, “Wow. Just wow! I am great at Spanish, basically fluent. Everyone here just must be so impressed!” However, it was only then that I noticed the silence. And then the confused look on Amaro’s face. And then the blank expressions on the faces of the other students and teachers in the room. I then asked Amaro, hopefully, “Do you understand?” Amaro’s confused look then changed into one of amusement, and he replied with a chuckle, “Umm…a little bit,” indicating that his incomprehension was due more to the ridiculous version of Spanish I had just spoken rather than my superior technical knowledge of Guatemalan economics. Amaro’s in-depth, follow-up spiel on Guatemalan economics — accompanied by head bobs of comprehension all around the room — confirmed that my “breakthrough” was not in Spanish, but, rather, in my own, unique language that sits somewhere in the great abyss between English and Spanish.

Despite this somewhat humiliating experience, PLQ still allowed me to graduate Friday evening at the weekly graduation dinner. Every Friday evening, PLQ hosts this graduation dinner for all students and teachers. The dinner has been one of the highlights of each week here as it includes piles of food (students and teachers alternate weeks that they bring food), an authentic Guatemalan mariachi band — made up of PLQ teachers and friends — to lead us in rousing communist anthems, and plenty of Gallo and Cabro (the Guatemalan national beers). All departing students are invited to give a speech or sing a song, so, given it was my last dinner, I once again risked public humiliation and stood up in front of forty of my new best friends to deliver a short speech that was, thankfully for the listeners, prepared beforehand as to align more closely with the actual Spanish language than the speech I had given earlier in the day. Two other students who have become my compañeras in adventure, Marije and Jasmine, also delivered well-prepared speeches. However, another speech stole the show. It was delivered by Ron, a Catholic missionary in his 60’s or 70’s from New Jersey, who quickly had become a fan favorite among the students given his cheerful, grandfatherly demeanor and his enthusiastic participation in all student activities (including soccer, post-soccer beers, volcanic baths, and chicken bus rides). In his speech, Ron described his misadventure this past Wednesday during a school trip to Zunil, a local pueblo built into a mountainside near Xela. During the trip, Ron got separated from the group on the way back from the cemetery, which is located at the highest point in town. Ron walked all the way down the mountain alone, and when he did not find the rest of the group at the bottom, took a tuc-tuc back up the mountain. However, during this ride, he missed seeing the group coming back down the mountain and then, seeing that the rest of the group was not at the top either, in a panic, ran back down the mountain into the arms of a worried group of students that immediately began cheering his return. Ron could barely contain his delight in recounting this story in his first-year Spanish at dinner, and as peals of laughter rolled through the students and teachers, Ron went off script to describe the current size of his corazón.

In addition to the graduation dinner and Spanish language speeches, my final week in Xela also included a trip to Volcano Chicabal — a nearby volcano that features a lake on top and a drunk, blabbering local at the bottom — and Zunil — the local pueblo mentioned above whose cemetery was a colorful, spirited site to behold on Día de Los Muertos on November 1st. Finally, I played hooky from class for a few hours on Monday to take to the streets to to witness Stage 8 of the Vuelta de Guatemala and root on Manuel Rodas, Some of the pictures below capture these last few days in the Guatemalan Highlands.

As my time in Xela (Xelajú in full Mayan form) has come to a close, I am looking forward to transitioning from a “dedicated” student to a wandering, Central American traveler, doing my best to convince locals that, despite physical evidence to the contrary, I know a bit of Spanish and would prefer the Spanish as opposed to English version of the menu, please.

Next up, New York City comes to Guatemala for a nine days in the form of one of my best friends and travel companions, Newman Granger.





Bumping My Head on the Roof of Central America: Volcán Tajumulco, Saúl, and Saúl

Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

Another week of Spanish school here at PLQ in Quetzaltenango is in the books, and I can now add a new teacher to the list: Saúl. Saúl, a single Guatemalan man in his mid-50’s, brings a unique, freewheeling style to teaching, which, at the very least, must keep himself entertained throughout the 20+ hours per week he spends having conversations with people who have anywhere from a two to eight-year-old’s grasp of his native language. To break-up the five hour sessions, Saúl included numerous spontaneous walks to wi-fi friendly areas of the school in order to look-up historical facts about Guatemala, comb through images of paintings (Saúl is a big Andy Warhol fan after I introduced him to this great American), listen to songs in Spanish (highlighted by “De Que Sirve Querer by Malacates Trebol Shop — the Maroon 5 of Guatemala), and poke around on Facebook. In addition to our Internet browsing sessions, Saúl also provided a bevy of unsolicited advice on how to win the hearts of my female classmates, a personal guitar solo and serenade (he gave me the lyric sheet so I could sing along with him — to which I am only slightly embarrassed to say that I did), a slow clap after I finished each grammar exercise, and a laundry list of ridiculous personal stories and anecdotes that blurred the lines between fact and fiction. Some stories, as they grew in absurdity, clearly were completely made-up. For example, one morning as I walked into class, Saúl was standing with his backed turned to the classroom, gazing out the door into the courtyard. When I asked him how he was doing, he remained with his back turned and dramatically responded that that he felt particularly “alive,” more “alive” than he had ever him. Then, spinning around, he explained that this deep feeling of vitality was because of strong connections he made with spirits in the cemetery the night before. When I pressed him on some more details, he explained that he had encountered the spirit of Marilyn Monroe, who had given him a 45 second kiss. This kiss was the best he had ever had. However, Saúl’s voice took on a somber tone as he described how he became suspicious of Marilyn after she told him he was preferable to John F. Kennedy, who was too in love with Jackie to give Marilyn his full attention. With such a beautiful woman throwing herself at him, Saúl wisely became suspicious and consulted the spirit of Dracula, who tipped him off to the fact that she was likely a vampire and wanted him for his blood. I could see traces of what looked like genuine fear in Saúl’s eyes right before his head kicked back as a deep laugh rolled out of him; after a few bellowing guffaws, his head dropped back to eye-level, and he leaned over to offer a high five and a fist pound which I took, laughing. This story, of course, was completely made up. However, this was just one of many stories, and others left more questions than answers. Is he really a clown every Sunday at church? Has he really had relationships with three different women in the United States that all ended because he could not bring himself to leave his beloved Guatemala? Did he really serenade his New Zealand girlfriend over his flip phone for her birthday this past Monday morning? For these stories, the truth remains, and will forever remain to me, a mystery.

After my week with Saúl, the teacher, I would bizarrely spent the rest of the weekend with another Guatemalan man named Saùl, my guide up Volcán Tajumulco. Volcán Tajumulco, standing at 4,220 meters (13,845 feet), is the tallest peak in Central America and has been on my “to do” list since I got to Guatemala nearly two months ago. With only one weekend left in the Xela area (the typical launching off point for Tajumulco treks), I made a point to book a trip with the Guatemalan guiding outfit, Adrenalina Tours, for an overnight ascent. Three other brave students — Marije from the Netherlands, Anna from Montana, and Jasmine from Colorado — enthusiastically signed on as well (teacher Saúl, of course, offered me several high fives across his teaching table after I revealed the male – female ratio of my upcoming trek).

The trek up Tajumulco began on Saturday morning in a quite, private shuttle ride from our school in Xela that was interrupted rudely by the chaos of Minerva Bus Stop, a crowded, hectic chicken bus stop across town. As soon as we stopped, Saúl (the guide) dumped sleeping bags, tents, food, and other supplies in the middle of the street, barking orders in Spanish about who should pack what while simultaneously negotiating our travel arrangements with the ayudantes that had swarmed our shuttle, lobbying us for our business. (Ayundantes are assistant chicken bus pilots that frenetically herd people and supplies on and off of these buses.) In a matter of minutes, our backpacks and supplies were on top of a chicken bus headed to the town of San Marcos, with us improbably inside. This chicken bus was particularly crowded — each seat was packed with three people that were spilling into an aisle that itself was full of standing riders. (As chicken buses are just former American school buses, I recalled that three to a seat is bus-packing arrangement that I grew out of sometime around 3rd grade.) This nearly two hour journey could not have been over soon enough, and the next chicken bus, which took us on a winding, mountain road for a little less than an hour before reaching the trailhead, mercifully was not packed to the brim.

The 9 kilometer (~6 mile) hike up Tajumulco started at an altitude of roughly 3000 meters (~9,900 feet) in the pueblo named, appropriately enough, Tajumulco. After spending a few minutes adjusting our packs, our five person party began ascending a cobble-stoned road through the beautiful, green countryside of San Marcos (the Guatemalan state in which Tajumulco lies). As we ascended, the road turned into a dirt trail, sweeping vistas opened behind us, and thick, grey clouds ominously obscured the higher reaches of the trail in front of us. Saúl set a slow, plodding steady pace up front (“despacio”,”despacio”). After about an hour, he paused as a light rain was beginning to fall. Saúl has mastered how to configure two large sheets of plastic over his pack and head, respectively, to keep the rain off, and he used this brief pause to school us in this art. Saúl’s lesson was well-timed as only moments after the plastic was in place, the light rain turned hard and steady, which would keep our heads fixed down on the trail immediately in front of us for the remainder of the climb. We arrived at the campground, 200 meters below the summit, a little after 2 pm, registering a little over three and a half hours for the hike up. The campsite itself was half-flooded and surprisingly busy — by nightfall, there would be a dozen or more tents crowded together in the dry spots of the campground. The clientele was primarily Guatemaltecan, so the campsite buzzed with Spanish. One exception was the English couple camping beside us that was led by Saúl’s friend, Carlos. Carlos, a friendly Guatemalteco that knew quite a bit more English than Saúl, paid us a visit during dinner in Saùl’s tent (the menu: heaps and heaps of spaghetti) and suggested that we mix our cheap, horrendous-tasting Guatemalan rum, known as Quetzalteca (approximate price per liter: $3), with hot tea. Against all odds, this mix actually tasted worse than Quetzalteca on its own; as Anna and Marije did their best not to spit the hideous concoction all over the tent, I offered Saúl a cup. He declined on the grounds that he is an Evangelical Pastor, his wide grin belying this claim. Laughing, I then handed Carlos cup. He took a sip, smiled, and proclaimed, “¡Es perfecto!”

Anna, Marije, Jasmine, and I were hunkered down in our tent for the night by 7:30 pm, hoping to catch a full-night’s rest before our 4 am wake-up call and summit push. The cold air (temperatures approached freezing overnight) and hard ground prevented this, and most of us had already been awake for hours when Saúl chirped an “¡Hola!” from his neighboring tent promptly at 4 am. We dressed quickly and made it to the frigid, windy summit a little after 5 am, with little more than a dull glow on the eastern horizon. For the next hour, Saúl huddled under his NYC Post-Marathon warming blanket (purchased at a secondhand store in Xela) while the four of us tried a variety of warming tactics to stave off the cold wind. As sunrise approached, clouds and mist obscured the horizon and views of the valleys below, and we braced ourselves for disappointment. However, just after 6 am, the mist and clouds lifted enough to expose the summit — an incredibly interesting martian-like landscape — and the stunning views of the surrounding volcanoes, mountains, and countryside. From the top of Central America, howls and whoops lifted into the air as the now relatively crowded summit of Tajumulco came alive. Over the next few hours, the five of us would explore the summit, the volcanic crater behind the summit, and the peak of Tajumulco’s sister volcano, Concepción, snapping one incredible photo after another. The ample dose of cloud cover added to the beauty, providing spectacular cloud formations that billowed up from the lower elevations and cascaded between mountain ridges.

By 8:30 am, we were headed back down the volcano, racing to beat a rain that would never come. Instead, the race was for the 10:30 am chicken bus which arrived at the trailhead just as were sprinting down the last few meters of the trail, waving and yelling “¡Espera! ¡Espera!” Unfortunately, this would not be the last race we would encounter on our journey home. Shortly after boarding the connection in San Marcos back to Xela, we found the road home blocked off for Guatemala’s premier cycling event, the Tour of Guatemala. For the next 45 minutes, our chicken bus took a meandering detour throughout the surroundings of San Marcos like a chicken with its proverbial head cut off, picking up Guatemaltecos from the side of the road until the bus was, like the previous morning, bursting at the seams. Once the bus finally found its way, we had a bumpy, two hour ride across 30 miles of road before the four of us arrived back in Xela, exhausted but satisfied with having reached the roof of Central America.