100% travel today. Car to the airport, planes to Dallas-Fort Worth and San Francisco, airporter bus to the north bay, and car to my dad’s house in Sonoma. En route I ate the best donut ever in Guatemala City (brand name: “American Doughnut”) and my first salad in two weeks. I am so happy to eat salad again.
Julie and I each caught five hours of winks on the overnight bus and then grabbed a taxi to Hotel San Pablo, our hostel for the evening. The nice older lady who runs the place (with her husband and one-footed parrot, Paco) let us store our bags and then dropped us at the pickup spot for the “chicken bus” to Antigua. These buses are fast and furious, and they only cost 8 quetzales (one dollar) for a one-hour ride. We spent a few hours wandering around Antigua.
We enjoyed endless tourist watching (there’s tons of them) and such luxuries as espresso drinks and a genuine supermercado. After taking the chicken bus back, we spent 20 minutes talking with a middle-aged guy on the street who claimed to have helped a girl from Colorado after she was robbed in Guatemala City. He told us that he had friends in high places–literally, in Colorado. At least I think he made that joke.
Guatemala in general, and Flores in particular, is plagued by a never-ending stream of firecracker explosions. Apparently it’s a custom to be woken up by firecrackers on your birthday. This morning I woke early and walked around the island, and at 7am I found the asshole who was shooting mortar firecrackers into the sky. I suspected a kid, and it was a full-grown man. Alas.
Today was a kick-back and blog catch-up day. In the afternoon, the homies enjoyed some large frosty beverages on the roof of our hostel.
And we snapped the obligatory sunset shot.
Julie and I hopped an 8-hour night bus back to Guate (Guatemala city). We purchased the tickets from a somewhat sketchy travel agent at the hostel, and at midnight a guy told Julie that he had a reservation for her seat—and he did. Jules chatted up the bus driver and made all well. Guatemala City hooo!
At 7am we dined on our last Guatemalan desayuno típico (typical breakfast) of eggs, beans, and tortillas and bolted back toward Flores as fast as our little mules could carry us. We tipped the guides, ate shrimp tacos with guacamole for lunch, checked into our 3rd-floor hostel rooms, and promptly showered ten days of accumulated sweat, grime, and vaporized mule poo off our bodies. That felt damn good.
David Evitt, our friend and former camper & co-worker from Deer Crossing Camp, found us in Flores. He’s working for two years on a low-cost, sustainable stove project with other engineers in Western Guatemala. He, Vince, and Jim planned their route for the next week (Julie and I need to get back soon to run the Unschool Adventures South America trip).
A spontaneous Flores parade appeared. To mark our return, assuredly.
Sunset from the roof top terrace.
And the rest of the day was spent…eating more food that wasn’t beans, eggs, tortillas, canned tuna, canned sardines, and white rice. Here is me enjoying my third ice cream of the day.
I counted roughly 30 total mosquito bites over the course of the trip–let’s hope none of them were malarial!
This morning we caught up on our cheap reads. Vince blasted through “Fault Line”,
and Jim admired his jungle hero.
We rode and hiked a few short hours to our last ruins site, La Florida. There weren’t many ruins, but we did find one giant-ass ceiba tree.
The ceiba is the national tree of Guatemala (which apparently means “land of the trees” as well). When it’s young, the ceiba is covered with nasty spikes on the trunk and tops of the branches, which made virtually all the ceibas we found unsuitable for tree climbing. This old man, on the other hand, had zero spikes. Like a fine wine, the ceiba gets better with age. Julie represented.
One of my favorite pics from the trip: our equipo with guide assistant Juan Carlos.
This was a tough tree to scale: our anchor saddles were roughly 80 feet up. Everyone gave the Big Shot a few tries until we finally got a successful shot. Jim demonstrated proper Big Shot form.
We snapped a few epic tree-top photos, but I’ll upload those later because they’re on other cameras. After the incident with the leaf bug, I didn’t feel like subjecting my camera to an 80-foot “whoops”. Two green parrots squawked at us on their sunset fly-by.
The other big highlight of the day happened back at the campground. We ran into another North American, a middle school science teacher from Davis, CA, named Mike Reed. Mike was the quintessential nutty professor. He had apparently visited the Mayan ruins in El Petén twice a year for the last six years, found multiple artifacts and undiscovered ruins, and participated in some sort of academic feud with Richard Hansen, the professor who originated the Mayan Petén research thirty years ago. Mike traveled with an assistant named “Hiro” who looked and spoke like Mr. Miyagi from the Karate Kid and force-fed canned peaches to Mike in an effort to get him moving (they were only stopping at our site for a brief respite). Walfre and Mike had worked together before, and Mike said that we were very lucky to have him as a guide. Mike also showed us pictures from his travels in the rainy season, when he would literally be swimming the same bajos (low areas of the jungle) that we had been hiking. He didn’t take anti-malarials in the dry season (now), which gave me relief (since I’m not either), but his story about almost stepping on a six-foot-long Barbara Armarilla (the most deadly snake in Guatemala) gave me pause.
Early this morning the temperature dropped to around 60 – thank god – and subsequently deposited a load of dewey moisture on all our stuff. Jim had a surprise visit from the duende (i.e. Vince, Julie, and me) who hid his climbing gear 15 feet up a tree. Jim relieved his frustration by borrowing Walfre’s machete and hacking his way through the jungle back to Tintal.
Hack it, Jim, hack it!
Jim gave us his life story on the hike back, which I found fascinating. At Deer Crossing Camp we would only get it in snippits. He lived out of his car, or in a tent, or out of a trailer for many years before starting his current, stable life.
Ticks jumped all over our pants as we hiked through dense undergrowth on the way back. Permethrin is supposed to kill ticks, too, but it didn’t. Back at Tintal we caught up on our reading. I read two and a half books (1984, Fault Line, and Narziss and Goldmund) during this trip.
We ran into one small group of tourists headed for Mirador. Two were dentists from Slovenia. They said that we had very nice teeth. We stayed up late talking about pornography, technology, and Jim’s parenting concerns.
All the other tourists had left, so when we took off, Mirador was a ghost town.
We hiked and rode to Nakbé, a less-visited ruin site 3 hours southeast of Mirador. We set up hammocks on the top of the big “Lizard” pyramid. Jim got the best spot.
The highlight of the day was learning about the Guatemalen legend of the duende, a dwarf that wears a sombrero and steals your cigarettes and hides your stuff when you’re not looking. He looks like a child sometimes, or he can take the form of people that you know. We got as many different descriptions of the duende as the number of guides & guards we asked.
Other important business of the day included journaling and pedicures on top of the pyramid.
Also, harassing the “ant lion” creatures that build craters and wait for a hapless ant to walk by. We fed this one a spider that was crawling on me.
Obligatory sunset shots.
Today was a kick-back day at Mirador. I hung around in my hammock (45 feet up in the air) until noon reading Jim’s high-action thriller, “Fault Line”. A family of spider monkeys swung past the tree and checked me out. What’s up, distant cousins. Later that afternoon we explored the inner depths of one of the ruins after Jim got special permission from the guard.
I took a long-needed ducha (shower) in the fine Mirador facilities.
Black plastic and a bucket: that’s all you need.
The rest of the day I hung around camp brainstorming about college alternatives. Local wild (but protected) pavos (turkeys) pecked nearby.
Jim joined us in the Strangler Fig hotel this night. Four hammocks in one tree = difficult but impressive! A cool wind picked up and rocked us to sleep like babies.
La Danta is the largest pyramid in the Americas, and today we climbed it. This monumental achievement took exactly: 15 minutes.
A trail of jungle ants crossed the path to the pyramid. Ancient Mayan spirits, perhaps?
Reconstructed steps guided our way. If you’ve seen Mel Gibson’s Apocolypto, you’ll easily imagine the severed heads of defeated combatants tumbling down these.
The top of el Dante. This is the most uncovered rock that we saw the entire trip. All the other ruins just look like hills, and you take the guide’s word that there’s actually something underneath them.
Just near the top, Jim and I ran into a pack of wild boar-like pigs with black mohawks. They took one look at us and bolted. Later, the campground guard told us that a jaguar had killed the leader of their pack, and thus they didn’t know where to forage and were venturing ever-closer to tourist-land.
The view from the top. More jungla, what do you know! To spice it up I experimented with color isolation settings.
Our group with Walfre.
On the way back from the ruins we scoped out trees for climbing and found another huge Strangler Fig. Jim wanted to sleep on El Dante, so Julie, Vince and I set up our Strangler Fig hotel without him. Julie climbed up what happened to become the most important branch, and she did most of the work of tying the hammocks. She didn’t mind.
We got tuna sandwiches delivered to us for dinner. Vincey loves his atún con vegetales.
I read the Sherril Tree catalog and gawked at all the fancy devices that might have saved us time (like a $600 single-attachment tree portaledge) so we wouldn’t be rigging complicated tree hammocks at night.
But in the end I was happy to just be sleeping in a tree.
On a final note: permethrin (the anti-mosquito chemical) is a joke. Five mosquitos bit right through my permethrin-soaked socks while I climbed.
A green leaf bug greeted me this morning. While experimenting with manual focus on my snazzy new Canon (to capture this shot), the bug leaped at me and I dropped the camera. Nature strikes back. Luckily my camera is a champ and survived with only a scuff mark.
Julie felt much better, ready for the Mirador trek.
Vince and Jim enjoyed a good night’s sleep in the trees.
Today we walked, walked, walked. Others rode, but I preferred to walk. Mules aren’t my cup of tea, for no particular reason. Here’s what I mostly saw.
Seven hours later we ran into our first manicured Mayan ruin site.
We climbed Mirador’s second-highest pyramid, El Jaguar, for sunset. The international tourist horde joined us.
I taught them to play SET.
Over dinner we conversed with a 9-year-old homeschooling boy who is traveling around Central America with his dad for 3 months. Honestly, what an irresponsible thing to do. How will this child learn anything?
We started our hike to the ruins of El Mirador this morning, but Julie threw up twice and didn’t feel up to a 7-hour hike. Luckily we had a flexible itinerary and decided to just take another day at Tintal. We climbed the pyrámida that we missed yesterday with its epicly steep stairs (characteristic of all Mayan ruins, we soon discovered).
Walfre pointed out all the other ruins in the distance, a.k.a. little green lumps.
We talked Mayan history on the pyramid. I noticed that the jungle is flaaaaaaaaaat.
Back at camp, Jim and Vince were jonesing to sleep in a tree. They found two medium-sized trees near the camp and rigged up the hammocks.
I spent my lazy afternoon brainstorming for Zero Tuition College (or whatever it will become). A sunset on the pyramid sealed the deal.
I celebrated the new year somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean by going to bed at 9pm (which is pretty late for the intrepid jungle explorer, especially when the sun sets at 6).
Today we explored the Mayan ruins of Tintal. A pack of howler monkeys greeted us with, you guessed it, some serious howling. (I have a video of this which I’ll get up later.)
We found a sweet “Strangler Fig” tree to climb. This tree sprouts from the ground and wraps itself around other trees like a constricting vine.
I used the Big Shot (a badass $140 slingshot for tree climbing) to put a throw line into the Strangler.
Then I prepared to climb.
We got high.
Vince got realllly high, using our special “Spider rig” technique which lets you move between nearby (10-15 feet away) with ease. On the hike back to camp I spotted a little feral pig. That night we met a few of the other, much larger tourist groups in Tintal, which included Germans, Italians, Swiss, Beligiums, Guatemalans, and Australians.
The first day of our 10-day jungle trek started at 5am with Walfre (our guide) picking us up in his sweet Toyota.
Along the way we bought cigarettes with which to “bribe” the guards at each ruins site. (This turned out to be more of a nicety than a bribe.) We also stopped for breakfast at a comedor típica. I peeked into the kitchen.
Vince played ¨Welcome to the Jungle¨on his iPod as we drove farther into the endless green canopy. Bienvenidos a la jungla became our trip slogan.
We picked up our guide’s assistant, Juan Carlos (blue shirt on the left), and the muleskinner, Miguel, in the village of Carmelita. Loaded gear and people on the mullas and off we went.
Tourist’s route. At least they’re honest about it. I read that Guatemala gets 60% of its income from tourism.
Jim fell in love with the pimienta plant, a.k.a. allspice. His mule was also named Pimienta.
Other highlights of the day included:
- Getting my first mosquito bite. Malaria, hooo!
- Falling off the mule after it ran me into multiple low branches. Jim fell off too as his mule hit a mud pocket.
- Checking out some authentico chicle trees.
After 5 hours of walking and riding we reached our first ruins site, Tintal. We set up our hammocks, trying to avoid the mule poo everywhere. My sweet hammock is on the right.
maxin relaxin shooting some b-ball outside of school…eh…okay, that Fresh Prince of Bel Air reference failed. Anyways, today we had a super relaxing day touristy Flores and less touristy Santa Elena (next town over).
Walking tour of Flores
Helping Vince find a zapataria (since his shoes were “stolen” upon arrival, a.k.a. forgotten at home)
Exploring the bustling Santa Elena market
Taking a tuk-tuk taxi back to Flores (see Julie in the mirror)
Hanging out and eating at a Mayan restaurant (Jim drew a figure out of a German-language Mayan ruins photobook)
…and enjoying a happy hour by the lake. No photos for that!
Tomorrow we meet our guide Walfre at 6am to head out for a 9-day expedition to El Mirador. I’ll catch up on blogging (and postdate my entries) on Dec 8th. Saludos!
Seven AM, the hostel manager told us. Seven AM is the only bus from Guatemala City to Flores. So after a scant few hours of sleep we dutifully got up at five-thirty, which is three-thirty west coast time, and hopped a taxi to the bus station only to discover that the bus in fact leaves at 10 AM. Ahh, travel. How I’ve missed you.
Luckily we found the bus terminal “restaurant” which the manager also assured us about:
To her credit, the single woman managing the restaurant whipped us up some awesome eggs with refried black beans, fresh tortillas, and a side of cream. $2.50.
The rest of our day was spent on the 9-hour bus ride from Guatemala City to the northern island city of Flores. When we thankfully stepped off the bus, the weather was a perfect 68 degrees with a cool breeze. The island is mostly filled with gringos and apparently well-off Guatemalan families.
Our hostel dropped our reservation so we stayed at another next door. A few more doors down we dined on some lasagna, burritos, and a fresh local fish for yours truly.
Make sure to check out yesterday’s updated post for pictures of our travel crew!
Today I flew from San Francisco to Guatemala City via Dallas. On the planes I cracked into a faded paperback copy of 1984 and brainstormed assignments for the Zero Tuition College experiment. We found a driver from the lovely, centrally located, and utterly uninhabited Hostal Volcanes waiting for us outside the airport, and now we’re gearing up for an early morning departure to the bus station and 8-hour bus ride to Flores, Guatemala.
In a later post I’ll explain just what I’m doing in Guatemala and tell you more about my three travel partners. I’m taking pretty pictures but unfortunately I won’t be able to upload them until later!
### UPDATE Dec 28
As promised, here are photos of my travel partners! I snapped these in SFO airport.
Here’s Vince with his family
and Julie with her bags
and Jim hiding out all stealthfully by the gate
We’re all friends, former campers, and former co-workers from Deer Crossing Summer Camp in the California High Sierra near Lake Tahoe. We all learned how to tree climb there beginning in 2006, and since 2007 Jim had been scheming up a Guatemala tree climbing adventure. Many were invited but only a few came, and that’s our rock-solid crew. Don’t we look good together?
We’ll be climbing tree and exploring the Mayan ruins of El Mirador while in Guatemala for two weeks. If you haven’t heard of Mirador, look it up on Wikipedia, because it’s pretty awesome.