Friday, April 13, 2012

One Last Viaje

I spent the last ten days on a wonderful trip throughout Honduras and Guatemala and sadly this will probably be my last one! Here are some of the main happenings of our trip:

  • Going to the Mayan ruins of Copán. These are the southernmost of the Mayan empire and are almost to the border of Guatemala.  We went with our Director of Operations here who studied archeology in Mexico so he taught us a lot about the ancient civilization. There is a game they would play (a picture of the field is below) and the winners were sacrificed to the gods. It was an honor to die! Crazy. They believed in a trio of the underworld, earth, and a heaven but all were neither good nor bad. It’s always amazing to me how despite how different ancient civilizations are, there are repeatedly the same themes as well.  The collapse of the empire, which was once one of the most powerful in the region, is still unknown today.

Kate and Daniel in the field where the Mayans played the game that would determine their fates

At the Copán Ruins

  • We then went to the infamous large and sprawling Guatemala City. While known to be very dangerous, it also has a lot of history and sites to see! We went to one of the nicest malls I have even been to (culture shock!) and then took a tour of the city the next day. We got to go the National Bank and the Central Market where I had some delicious street food.

  • From there, it was back to Antigua (I was also here in December). Antigua is known to have one of the best Semana Santa celebrations in Central America. One night, we were out walking through all the street vendors and just stumbled on one of the Holy Week processions. According to a local, they had been walking for nine hours by the time we saw them! All of the locals dress in long robes and some carry the platform typically with a scene of Jesus and Mary and there is a marching band that typically follows. The music and the whole thing in general gave me goose bumps! It was really fascinating to see how they celebrate and we happened to run into three processions throughout our trip. On top of that, we got some cheap, good street food! Grilled corn on the cob and pupusas! Yum!

Enjoying street food at the Semana Santa celebration in Antigua

One of the Semana Santa processions in Antigua

  • After Antigua, Kate (my travel buddy and new volunteer here) and I decided to go onto Xela in order to conquer the highest mountain in Central America named Tajumulco (literally meaning “into the clouds” in the Mayan local language).  The bus ride there was probably the most crowded I have been on in Central America. We got on our chicken bus (basically pimped out school buses that are infamous in Guatemala) and it was packed! There were already three to every seat so Kate and I were forced to stand meaning we had to brace ourselves from not falling. It was a workout as I was using muscles I didn’t know I had to make sure I wouldn’t collapse on the people sitting in the seats by me. The ride was three hours and the bus drove extremely fast through mountain roads, people were getting sick and the breaks were smoking. At one point, we stopped while the driver ran to get a bucket of water to pour on the engine as the bus was overheating. Never have I been so glad to get to my destination!

  •  Upon arriving, we went to the Quetzaltrekkers office to get our gear and prepare for the trip. Quetzaltrekkers (a link is attached) is a company that guides hikes in Nicaragua and Guatemala and they donate all of their profits from their site in Guatemala to a school for street kids in Xela. The guides are all volunteers and live in a house near the office. Check out the link! Seeing as Kate and I literally had nothing that would be adequate for the trip, they let us rent everything (coats, sleeping bags, backpack) for free and we would definitely need all of it! 

Our eclectic group  on the mountain

  • The next day, we left at 6am and took a chicken bus about two hours to a little town where we ate a yummy breakfast at a comedor. We then continued on in another chicken bus to the town at the base of volcano and began our ascent. Our group consisted of a Hungarian mathematician who has been traveling the world for four years, a Norwegian poker player, our superhuman Guatemalan guide (seriously I don’t think he even sweats), our two Quetzaltrekkers guides, and Kate and I. Two of the other group members had to go back due to altitude sickness. Starting out was a little rough; I forgot how I always like the idea of backpacking but when you have a heavy backpack on your back while you’re climbing up a mountain…. well that’s a different story. We arrived at the base of the volcano in about four hours and had a delicious lunch with trail mix, hummus, corn and black bean salsa, spinach and bean salad and PB and J sandwiches. It was seriously all the food I miss from the US! After lunch, the temperature began to drop and drop fast! So we set up the tents and went in our warm sleeping bags and spent the rest of the afternoon trying to keep warm in our tents.

  • That night, sleep for me was almost nonexistent as every time I moved positions, I would get even colder and then would revert to my previous uncomfortable pose. I slept with a down jacket and a hat and gloves on.  Never have I been so ready to get out of bed at 4 am! We were woken up and told that the sky was clear for the sunrise, so we began the last hike up to the summit. And that was when I got altitude sick (I know putting my Colorado roots to shame!). It wasn’t too bad, but I was dizzy and very nauseous. Nonetheless, we made it to the top and set up our sleeping bags, snuggled in and watched the beautiful sunrise and I knew it was all worth it! It was breathtaking. I feel like I could see everything, with Mexico on one side and Guatemala on the other! There were also a ton of locals who hiked it (some barefoot naturally) as it is a very spiritual place and they did ceremonies for Holy Week. We made it back to camp to a breakfast of oatmeal and granola and descended the mountain, returned in chicken bus to Xela, and went to bed promptly at 8 pm. I was sore for a few days after but also extremely content!

The view of the sunrise

Kate and I attempting to snuggle in and stay warm on top of the mountain

The view looking towards Mexico, with the shadow of Tajumulco in the foreground

  •  The next day, we decided to go to Lake Atitlan but only went to one little town known as Pana, which was extremely touristy! Not really wanting to deal with the hoards of Semana Santa tourists, we walked around, got rained on, and decided to head back to Antigua so we could haul it back to Honduras.  Knowing it was a risk as it was Good Friday and the busiest day of the year in Antigua (you have to make reservations months in advance for a room), we decided to chance it anyway. As the bus for Honduras leaves at 4am, we figured we could just find a place to kill time until 4am if needed!

Relaxing  at the lake

  •  Right after arriving in Antigua and going into numerous hotels asking for rooms and being rejected by all, we were getting a little worried. So I said to Kate, “By the grace of God, let there be an available room.”, somewhat joking but seeing as it was Holy Week and all, I was hoping maybe the Big Man would be on our side. Sure enough right after I said that, we hear a Guatemalan across the street ask “Are you looking for a room?” We just looked at each other and started laughing but went over to talk to him and it turns out his friend was taking advantage of the loads of tourists in town and was renting out rooms in his little compound. We were a little skeptical but he seemed trustworthy and we were so grateful for a place to sleep that at that point, we didn’t care! So we got to spend the last night in Antigua, eating street food, seeing the “alfombras” which are carpets they make on the cobblestone streets from sand or sawdust in beautiful colors, and we got to see one more procession. Things seriously could not have worked out better and I just couldn’t stop smiling and laughing the whole night.

One of the many carpets on the streets for Semana Santa
  • We left at 4am the next day and spent the next two days on buses to get back to the frontera. We are now home safe and sound, the University of Cincinnati Family Medicine brigade is here, and I am trying to enjoy every minute of what little I have left (less than two months!) as I know it will fly by!

·    One last thing, just a little plug, but Shoulder to Shoulder was featured on this Foundation Beyond Belief website, check it out!

Miss you all! Hope this finds you well! Stay in touch!

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