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.

 

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.