VOLACANOS, LAKES AND RUINS
We waited for one and a half years to enter Guatemala. When we were locked down in Belize for almost 90 days every single day we had been waiting for news that borders are opening. It didn’t happen. We waited 15 months more and here we are, in the land of eternal spring as they say. We watched some documentary about Guatemala on Netflix which was pretty nice but it doesn’t do justice to the beauty and diversity of this small country. Honestly, we were not expecting a country that impressive, full of natural wonders and friendly people, rich in history and tradition and with something to explore and do around every corner.
We entered Guatemala via La Mesilla, a small border post that looks more like a traditional market than a border. Only the barricade in the middle of the market indicates the border amongst an endless flow of people passing left and right. Our first stop was somewhere in the mountains, in an abandoned gravel pit that local kids use as a playground. Quite contrary to Chiapas the local Mayas are very welcoming, the kids entertained us all afternoon and included Rouletout in their playground.
From there we continued through narrow valleys passed Huehuetenango and climbed up to 2700m ASL where we stopped at one of the many hot springs that you may find all over Guatemala. Interestingly these hot springs are used by all neighbouring villages as a hot shower. We thought by 17:00 it will be less crowded, but no! Everybody comes after work to take a shower before heading home.
Our goal was Quetzaltenango (also called Xela) and more specifically Cerro Quemado which is one of the major climbing spots in Guatemala. What we didn’t know is that it is also a religious mourning place and a real “emotional bomb". When we arrived in the small village at the foot of the mountain we were a bit shocked, it was noisy, dirty and extremely crowded. Never mind, we found a place to park and started hiking up one of the numerous trails full of colourful, grieving people crying loud, some moving almost in trance (it is so deep and dark) on the mountain. Interestingly, they are going up there with a smile on their face, but once at their grieving spot the ceremony starts.
First we were a bit shy with our camera. In some parts of Mexico you shouldn’t take pictures of locals and the grieving ceremonies are obviously very personal. But soon we realised that they love to tea pictures - whole families posed with and without us, always with a smile on their face.
The climbing spot is pretty amazing, with incredible rock that even has friction when wet. Some people are throwing rubbish and flowers from the top of the cliff and one local explained that sometimes they throw themselves too. Down in the village they are playing Che Guevara songs from huge speakers and between all this chaos we were climbing on amazing crimps and enjoying the view over one of the most fertile regions on the planet.
At night we heard the sound of somewhat regular explosions. First we had no idea, is it a thunderstorm, fire works or mining? It actually is erupting volcanos of which Guatemala has several, but more on that later.
While in Xela we also climbed Volcan Santa Maria. In order to enjoy the view from the top at sunrise, we started our hike at 2 in the morning. Not being sure that we can find the path at night we hired Geronimo, a relatively old and experienced guide who gave us many interesting insights on the way up as he is also working for the team of geologists monitoring the relatively young Santiaguito that formed on the flank of Santa Maria and is very active. The views from the top were truly breathtaking, the chain of volcanoes in sight extends from the border with Mexico all the way into El Salvador with two very active volcanos erupting more or less constantly.
Before we headed in direction of Atitlan, we made a quick detour to Chicabal. A steep and narrow cobble road brought us almost to the top of this extinct volcano, famous for its incredible crater lake. We were so impressed that we stayed two nights and hiked up to the rim of the crater and down to the lake more than once.
On the winding road to Atitlan we saw many street sellers selling kites. Kites are really important in Guatemala, everyone is playing with them, young and old. The lady selling street food is playing when she has no customers, the tuktuk driver, the mechanic and of course the kids who sometimes assemble them from rubbish. Kites are everywhere and you won’t see many power-lines without kites hanging off them ;-).
Playing seems to be an important activity in general. When we found our amazing spot at lake Atitlan it didn’t take long for the first family to arrive and start a soccer game. And when we say family, we mean it. The grandmother in traditional costume is the goalie while the grand daughter plays the forward, no one is at the sideline.
Lake Atitlan is beautiful, from our spot we saw three volcanos. We toured around the lake with our motorbike, we visited the villages and markets using the small ferry boats and enjoyed the scenery. An interesting change from Mexico is the preparation of tortillas and pupusas. At almost every corner women are preparing fresh tortillas, throwing them from right hand to left hand with a characteristic “chata chata sound” - all while they are chatting and laughing.
Time passed quickly and after almost two weeks we decided to move on. Our next destination was famous Volcan Acatenango. With almost 4000m ASL it is a bit higher than Santa Maria but more importantly, it offers an unbelievable view on the very active Volcan de Fuego, less than 3km away.
We left Rouletout at the small village and hiked up to the night-camp of ASOAVA where we put up tents and had dinner. It was cold, humid and the fog was so dense that we hardly saw the sparse trees in front of us. We only heard the constant rumbling and regular eruptions but all night and also in the morning Fuego didn’t reveal himself. On the way down already we decided to come back, but first we decided to go climbing again - this time in Amatitlan just south of Guatemala City.
We already had realised it before, Guatemalans get up really early! They are starting the day at 4 o’clock in the morning, sometimes with fire crackers but at least with music. This was okay for Berna but Ulf suffered a little bit. People walk to work, into the fields, to school and even the climbers start early. We had parked just at the base of the cliff at the lake Amatitlan when before 5 in the morning we received a WhatsApp message from a local climber with a picture of our truck - they were already here, even though they had to drive for an hour! We met a great team of local climbers that showed us around and made us climb all the classics, we had pupusas (the national dish of El Salvador) and enjoyed the fish restaurants at the lake. We also met Wilma & George, who own a big house at the lake and were so friendly to hook us up to their electricity, did our laundry and helped with whatever we needed at this less than perfect spot to camp. Unfortunately the heat and the orientation of the cliff made the climbing an early morning activity only and soon we decided to visit one more volcano, another active one just a bit further south, Volcan Pacaya.
While not as regularly active as other volcanoes in Guatemela, the interesting aspect of Pacaya is, that you can hike across very recent lava fields, some of them still smoking hot and steaming. At one point they were even selling lava pizza at one spot, but not when we were there… When looking down in the dark green fields just interrupted by still black lava fields you start to understand why some of the vegetables in Guatemala are so big, so big that it’s hard to recognise some of them. Carrots are huge and smelling from far, onions are the size of melons and every square meter of land - no matter how steep - is used to grow something. The volcanic soil is so fertile that simply everything grows, all year round and vegetable export to eg El Salvador are big business.
The harder it is to understand that the food is not as tasty as in Mexico. Soups are very popular and we enjoyed pupusas and some of the cheese but we missed the variety and spices of Mexico. In some places food portions are also quite small so that we often ordered an extra plate after a long day hiking.
After Pacaya we decided to check out the famous black beaches on the Pacific coast. As so many times in Guatemala we got stuck on the small roads in town. Cars and tuktuks are just everywhere and sometimes it is just impossible for us to pass. Good thing that everybody is also a traffic and parking direction man and that nobody get’s angry. In Esquintla the locals had to find the car keys of half a dozen cars to move them out of our way, re-directing on-coming traffic and yelling left and right - no big deal, 40 minutes later we were able to move again and unblock the road. Even 8 year olds help you finding the way through crazy busy villages, seems like every day is market day - and of course the market always blocks the only big road through town…
The beaches on the Pacific are really special, dark grey to black volcanic sand, crazy big waves and wild mangrove forests. We relaxed a bit and then decided to head back to Acatenango, but not without another surprise. Our road simply ended in a small village on the shores of a river. There were ferry boats for cars and bikes but we couldn’t see anything for our size. It wouldn’t be Guatemala if someone didn’t show up with a solution. There is one ferry that carries the Coca Cola truck to the village and this is good for us they guaranteed. It took a while to find the captain and off we went, slowly sliding through the mangroves along the river on our private ferry.
Back at Acatenango this time Fuego didn’t hide. Berna decided to stay in the village and missed the spectacular eruptions that show red lava and big clouds of smoke - with very little sleep we hiked up to the last few hundred meters to the summit at 4 in the morning to experience a spectacular sunrise with erupting Fuego, Volcán Agua and many more summits in view. It is a scenery you just don’t want to leave.
A big advantage of Guatemala is, that it is a really small country. Visiting volcanos, the ocean, hot springs or crystal clear rivers - all can be done within a day’s drive. Our next drive brought us to Jutiapa, not far from the border with El Salvador, a newly developed climbing spot. Fernando, the owner of a huge ranch, welcomed us on his land and after some digging and tree cutting we had a great sport for the next few days. We climbed on the steep rock of Jutiapa, visited Volcan Ipala, or better said the huge crater lake and shopped in the small villages. People are extremely friendly. When you go to the store they give all their effort and if you don’t buy anything, not a problem, they will say yo bye bye with a smile on their face.
The last and longer stretch in Guatemala brought us to the north. Driving through cloud forests we reached Semuc Champey on extremely tiny and rough roads. Semuc Champey is a huge natural limestone bridge with crystal clear water flowing above and below it, full of ponds that invite you to swim. We stayed a couple of nights, hiked and enjoyed the cool water and dark green forests. The river is the source of life in this area. You can see naked women cleaning their kids, dresses, dishes, and themselves. On the first day Berna was running after me saying “don’t look, go inside“, thinking that the woman would be ashamed, but shortly thereafter she brought us fresh oranges (still being half naked). Later in the afternoon a man came next to us and got naked to wash himself while explaining hiking options in the area, quite a difference compared to Mexico.
The road we took from Semuc Champey in direction of Flores was not the best choice. It led us through tiny but crowded villages and over high mountains, we had a flat tire but in the end we made it down into the lowlands of Petén. We stopped in beautiful Flores, a colonial town on lake Petén Itzá where we stayed for a while. From there it is just a short distance to the world famous Maya ruins of Tikal and the less well known ones of Yaxha - almost at the border with Belize where we were stuck two years ago. The area is again full of people with colourful traditional costumes but always mixed with people wearing modern dresses, even within the same family.
Our next stop was Rio Dulce, located between the huge lakes Izabal and El Golfete. Famous for its hurricane proof marinas we used this busy and dirty place for some repairs and enhancements and to explore the beautiful nature around the river. We visited the Garifuna (descendants of African slaves) community in (quite run down) Livingstone on the Caribbean coast and soon headed to the border with El Salvador.
After 18 months of waiting we stayed two months in Guatemala. Almost everyday was precious. Bye bye Guatemala and beautiful and friendly Guatemalan people!