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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

The Only Gringos Between Nebaj and Todos Santos

Todos Santos, Guatemala

This past week I tackled a 60 kilometer trek through the Guatemalan Highlands that started in the remote Mayan town of Nebaj, wound its way through a diverse array of natural environments, and ended in Todos Santos, another remote Mayan town. The trek was led by Quetzaltrekkers, an all-volunteer non-profit in Quetzaltenango (“Xela”) that donates 100% of its profits to a local school and a home for street children in town. This organization sports a whopping five out of five “circles” on TripAdvisor, and it would do nothing to tarnish that reputation on this trek. The trek was six days long, including four days of hiking, three nights on the trail in local villages nestled in the Cuchamatanes Mountains (the highest non-volcanic mountain range in Central America), and two days of traveling to and from Xela. Joining me on the trek were three other alumni from San Pedro School (the “Eens” -> Eline, Nadine, and Antien), seven more clients hailing from across Europe and North America (Tom – England, Melanie – Switzerland, Ayala – Israel, Eitan – Israel, Max – Austria, Andrea – Venezuela/Miami, Michel – Quebec) and our four guides (Spencer – Portland, USA, Grace – New Zealand, Stéphany – Quebec, and Maria – Spain).

The first day of the trek, Tuesday, was spent mostly in transit from Xela to Nebaj, which involved a three hour ride in a chicken bus and then two hours packed into a private shuttle. We arrived in Nebaj mid-afternoon in time for a quick lunch at Popi’s Hostel — our home for the evening — and a stroll through the small town. Popi’s was a bit dark and dingy and featured a circuitous route to my bunk that required a walk through the trash room. However, despite its lack of accouterments, the food at Popi’s exceeded expectations (especially the apple pie) and provided an excellent venue for cards, beers, and a dinner that included a stop-in by a choir of local girls. These young Nebajans serenaded us with a variety of local classics such as “Twist ’n’ Shout,” “This Land is Your Land,” and “Love” by John Lennon. This mini-concert was quite adorable, but the balding American man in his 50’s or 60’s with gapped teeth, a portable keyboard, and a creepy smile was an odd choice to lead this choir. (The guys

Day 2, the first day of legitimate hiking, introduced the group to “Storytime with Spencer.” Spencer, the lead guide on the trip, has an extensive knowledge of the history of the people in the highlands, who are almost exclusively indigenous, and several times a day, he would stop to explain significant events that had occurred in and around the areas we were hiking through. For the most part, these stories covered the struggles the Mayans have faced since the Spanish – led by Pedro de Alvarado — arrived in Guatemala in 1524 and began subjugating the people to Spanish rule. Especially heartbreaking were the tales of violence the Guatemalan government carried out against the people in the Highlands in the 1970’s and 1980’s as it worked to root out guerrilla revolutionaries. These atrocities included kidnappings, murders, and the destruction of several towns through which we walked (that have since been rebuilt).

After hiking through several villages and a stop at, oddly enough, a cheese farm, we ended the night at the tiny pueblo of Xexocomb, where we would spend the night on the floor of the local school building. Before dinner, a few of the locals opened up their temazcals (Mayan sweat lodges) for us to bathe in. As my temezcal buddy (Tom) and I were waiting for our turn to sweat, we began chatting with one of the local boys whose primary line of questioning focused on whether or not England also has farm animals (yes, England has both chickens and goats). After temezcals, we enjoyed dinner served in couple of local families’ houses. These dinners, included, as is the norm here in Guatemala, heaps and heaps of tortillas. (I’m convinced the question “¿Mas tortillas?” is either rhetorical or a joke as this is always asked as a smiling Guatemalan is already dumping stacks of tortillas in front of you.) In the house where I ate, we were joined by a wall full of pictures of relatives that are illegally working in the United States; interestingly enough, all of these relatives are doing some kind of rapper pose in various suburban Texas parking lots. Although we never discovered the significance of these rapper poses, they certainly became a popular pose option for group pictures throughout the rest of the trek.

Day 3 began absurdly early — 3:30 am — as we raced the creeping dawn up 87 switchbacks and 600 vertical meters in order to make a sunrise breakfast. Shortly after arriving at the top, the partly cloudy skies greeted us with a brilliant sunrise, and as we munched on oatmeal and sipped on coffee, we commented on how the view was well worth the limited sleep. After breakfast, we ascended a few hundred more meters to reach the altiplano, the mountain plateau (~3000 meters high) that features coniferous trees scattered across rocky landscapes. As we hiked across this unique landscape, the group conversation took a several hour diversion into the world of riddles and brain teasers, which helped to keep our minds off the mounting fatigue in our legs.

Just about an hour from the day’s stopping point, Antien became the first of five in our group to fall sick with a fever and stomach bug. (She would be evacuated out to Todos Santos the next morning, where she would be joined early the next day by two other casualties). Each person that got sick had dinner at the same house in Xexocomb (we were divided into two separate houses), so this seemed to be the explanation. In addition to the trip’s first casualty, the last hour of the day’s hike also presented an ungodly muddy trail that descended to our mountain home for the evening. Although most of the us fell down at least once, the prize for best fall went to Nadine who began slipping, then sliding, then — carried by the weight of her backpack — falling into a headfirst roll off of the trail. As Nadine disappeared off the trail in front of them, Ayala and Michel, who were hiking directly behind her, had a curious split second where they were wondering whether or not Nadine had tumbled all the way down the mountain. However, these fears quickly dissipated as Nadine popped back onto the trail a second later, unscathed except for the mud that caked her pants.

After the muddy descent, we arrived at our local accommodations for the evening (an empty house), where we spent our time mostly trying to avoid a driving downpour that began shortly after we arrived and would end shortly after we went to sleep. However, during breaks in the rain, we squeezed in some friendly competitions in our “yard” that were closely observed by the 7 or 8 villagers (mostly children) that stared for hours unapologetically at this collection of gringos that had assembled in the middle of their humble pueblo. Only Carlos, age 11, was bold enough to join us in a game.

Day 4 began at a more “reasonable” time — 5:30 am — and we spent the first hour and a half hiking down to the river at the base of the valley below. Shortly after beginning this descent, a Guatemalan man walked into the road in front of us, halting our progress. Given the number of stories I have heard about robbers on hiking trails in Guatemala, I was relieved to hear his request: his digital watch did not show the correct time, but given its controls were in English, he had no idea how to adjust it. Spencer deftly set the watch to the appropriate time and informed the man, in his nearly fluent Spanish, how he could change the time in the future. I asked the man where he got the watch in my well-less-than-fluent Spanish to which the man, surprisingly, responded, “Alabama.” Long way to go for a watch.

After breakfast by the river, we ascended the ridge on the other side of the valley, serenaded by a lone speaker that blared some truly horrific-sounding music from the window of a house out across the valley. This cacophony played in the background even as we paused for a session of “Storytime with Spencer” that focused on how the U.S. CIA successfully organized a military coup to overthrow the popular Guatemalan president in 1954. (American motivations included the Guatemalan’s government’s socialist leanings and the fact that it was forcing the American-based United Fruit Company to sell a good chunk of its land in Guatemala back to the Guatemalan people. A highly recommended book on U.S. involvement can be found here.)

We kept ascending until lunch, which took place in an empty house under construction in a desolate-looking local town. This squatting was enthusiastically sanctioned by the pack of unsupervised local children, who claimed that this house was their “uncle’s” (local children gathering in packs to observe us at every stop was now becoming a token occurrence). Despite this dubious license to squat, we figured questions would only prolong the rumbling in our stomachs and took this claim at face value. As we finished up lunch, a local man in a pickup truck rolled up to drive us five kilometrers over a road to our next location. Amazingly, we fit all 13 people, 13 loaded packs, and the driver into the one pickup. Playing off of a tune from the first evening’s mini-concert, Eitan, crammed in the bed of the truck with eight others, began singing a song that would serve as this 20-minute cramped truck ride’s anthem — “This leg is my leg, this leg is your leg…” (sung, of course, to the tune of “This Land is Your Land”).

The final push on foot for the day was a walk over “Terror Hill” — whose peak sported fantastic views of the countryside below — and into another local village to meet a shuttle that would carry us to our night’s accommodations. The green, rolling hills of this last section of the day’s hike reminded me of parts of the English and Scottish countryside; however, I was quickly jolted back into the reality that I was in Guatemala, as, when we were walking through the street of this local village, three little niños poked their heads over a fence adjacent to the street and promptly proclaimed in unison “GRINGOS!” My fit of laughter provoked by this cute, fly-by racial epithet quickly turned into a fit of coughing as a truck sped by us on this unpaved road, filling my lungs with exhaust and dirt. Yes, I was, in fact, still in Guatemala.

We “slept in” on Day 5 to 6:30 am as all that remained was a climb up La Torre, the highest non-volcanic peak in Central America at 3870 meters (12,700 feet). We were guided up this peak by the previous night’s host, Don Jeronimo, a sixty-year-old ox of a Guatemalan man who did the hike in his full traditional Mayan regalia, pantalones and all (see picture below). At the top of La Torre, we celebrated our accomplishment by polishing off a few cheap, Brazilian beers — Don Jeronimo included. (These beers are known as Brahvas in Guatemala but Brahmas everywhere else, as “brahva” in Guatemala apparently means “gay.” In a practical marketing move, Brahma has tweaked its name in order to successfully sell beers into this country where machismo culture still thrives.)

We spent our final afternoon and evening in the town of Todos Santos, trying our best to remain inconspicuous as we snuck pictures of the men and boys decked out in their colorful, traditional outfits. (Literally all the men here still wear these eye-popping costumes.) After dinner, however, we quickly shattered this low-key profile when a Bluetooth speaker and some Quetzalteca (the local, cheap rum) led to an impromptu dance party and a limbo competition in the comedor of our hostel that, embarrassingly enough, was clearly visible from the street. Once again, the token niños showed up to stare and laugh at the funny gringos doing gringo things.

We awoke yesterday morning, with satisfyingly sore legs and less-satisfying sore heads, and hopped onto a private shuttle that carried us the four-hours without incident from Todos Santos to Xela. After a lunch at the Quetzaltrekker headquarters, we shared goodbyes before scattering off in different directions throughout Guatemala and Central America.

I Am in a Relationship with a Guatemalan Woman, but It’s Platonic

San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala

Today marks the end of my third week here in San Pedro La Laguna, and I am happy to report that I am in a relationship with a local Guatemalan woman. Recently, Chusita and I have been spending as many as 4 to 5 hours together every day, struggling through the language barrier together (she only speaks Spanish). My conversations with Chusita have been quite interesting, as we have covered such wide-ranging topics as technology’s effect on society, a trip I took to Peru 7 years ago, Guatemalan politics, American politics, my sports career, gossip about other students and teachers in San Pedro School, bacteria found in Guatemalan strawberries that can give you seizures (don’t worry, you usually get better!), the local football championship match last Sunday (it was a barn-burner), the existence of God, where I can find a sturdy notebook in town, how to pronounce Spanish words, how not to pronounce Spanish words (which usually sound suspiciously like the sounds that have just come out of my mouth), the Guatemalan Civil War, the American Civil War, San Pedro’s history, chicken bus schedules, natural disasters (i.e. earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, chicken bus schedules), and countless other topics. This woman, of course, is my teacher at San Pedro School, and, as the click-baity title to this post gave away, our relationship is platonic (she is happily married and I am happily seeing where the wind will carry me in Central America over the next few months). However, we have forged quite a bond through our daily conversations these past 3 weeks.

In general, we start our daily four-hour class with a 2.5 – 3 hour discussion of various topics in Spanish, punctuated by roughly 10-12 coffee, bathroom, and Facebook breaks (Chusita is a huge Facebook fan). The last hour or so, she checks my homework, and then she teaches me a bit of grammar. In our discussions, we speak for roughly the same amount of time. It is important to note, however, that Chusita’s experience with the Spanish language allows her to express a bit more during her time speaking. To give you a feel for this, I recorded one of our recent conversations — which was about healthcare — and translated it into English below:

Chusita: “The healthcare system in Guatemala is a complex web of interconnected interests, needs, and responsibilities between the people, publicly-funded providers, private providers, and the government. Although Guatemalans are technically guaranteed free healthcare, persistent government underfunding (only $97 per person annually) and rampant government corruption have severely limited the capacity of publicly-funded providers to provide even some of the most basic aspects of healthcare to citizens. Therefore, Guatemalans are often forced to find care from private providers (which is generally unaffordable for the average Guatemalan) or go without proper healthcare. Adding to this complexity is the fact that 80% of the doctors work in one location (Guatemala City) while nearly 20% of the population only speaks in their indigenous tongue (some dialect of Mayan), which often makes it difficult for doctors to communicate properly with patients. In summary, the healthcare system in Guatemala is close to a disaster and in severe need of reforms and repairs. How would you describe the healthcare system in the United States, Richard?”

[15 second pause as Richard stares at ground, thinking.]

Richard: “Chusita, my great teacher, the people of the Unites States like the health. They need the health of the body. But, it is very difficult for many people.”

[15 second pause as Richard stares at ground, thinking]

Richard: “The health is difficult in my country. The government wants health. The people wants health. The government creates law of the health. But many people do not like the law of the health.”

[15 second pause as Richard stares at ground, thinking]

Richard: “The reading of health is popular for some people, is not popular for others.”

Chusita: “Reading?”

Richard: “Law. Forgive me, Chusita.”

Chusita: “Everything is good. Continue.”

Richard: “Trump does not want the law of the health.”

Chusita: “Trump! He is very, very crazy, the people of Guatemala do not understand him. I have many friends in the United States that are nervous about this new DACA legislation…” [END OF DISCUSSION ON HEALTHCARE]

As you can see from above, there are a few great things about Chusita. One, she is incredibly patient and willing to listen to my rambling, incomprehensible monologues across a vast array of topics (I imagine conversations with her 5-year-old son have given her some great experience in this department). Also, she has some well thought-out, informed opinions on a vast array of topics which has made the experience of learning how to speak Spanish with her quite interesting as I have learned quite a bit outside of just Spanish. Finally, she’s absolutely on-board for the whole taking breaks thing, an essential aspect of any daily, four-hour one-on-one teaching marathon.

Sadly, I will only be spending one more week with Chusita as my travels will be carrying me up into the highlands of Guatemala. Until then, I look forward to learning a bit more from the most significant woman in my life down here in Guatemala.

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Chusita is the one on the left