From Antigua to Atitlan to Xela and Cabañas.

Atitlan market

I ended up leaving Antigua the next day. Not because I did´nt like it after all, but I was trying to fit in a volcano visit (which i felt i had to do as they´re everywhere in this region) along with a possible visit elsewhere into my schedule before starting my volunteering.

I took an early morning bus to Lago de Atitlan, which is supposed to be one of the most beautiful lakes around. It´s situated higher in the mountains, a welcome change of weather, and I wanted to rest before hiking on my knee, which was still not entirely painless after a few days. The 7am bus was the only direct one there, and was one of the infamous ´chicken buses´. These are re-used American school buses, that are totally pimped out, multicoloured paint and christmas lights on the outside, used for all transport by the locals. It was a nice and bumpy ride, with often 3 people squeezing onto benches that are supposed to hold 2 people, and all 3 seem to be on the plump side (I don´t know if i´ve gotten too used to skinny Japanese, but I find that there´s a lot of fat people here, though people here are short too whereas belize they were tall and wide!). On top of which, the bus driver looked like he was one of the village people, with a big sombrero-cowboy style hat, his aviator sunglasses and a nice moustache to match.

One of the other many reasons I went to the lake on this day was that it was market day in a town called Solola, just above the lake. Markets are supposed to be very interesting in the Western region of Guatemala as a lot of local tribes still wear their traditional dress. And it was true! The women wore these beautiful garments, the base colour of which was black adn then they´d embroidered all of these multicoloured patterns on top. Very special. It´s quite interesting as all the different villages around the lake have slightly different outfits, like another had these white blouses that had emroidered patterns near the top. They´re all beautiful, but taking something like that out of context and just wouldn´t fit in at home – you´d look like you were still wearing something from 40 years ago. what a shame!

I then took a boat to a little town on the lake called Santa Cruz, because I´d heard the hostel there is really cheap and really relaxed. I did not like taking the boats, because there, along with the taxis and the tuk-tuks, they rip you off as a foreigner. In the chicken buses, I pay the same as the locals, about 30 quetzales for a 3 hour bus ride (depending on where you go – this is about 3 euros). It was a pretty amazing place, called ´la iguana perdida´ and it was just the rest i needed!

I met a group of 2 Australians and a Dutch girl there, and I moved on with them to the next village on the lake – San Pedro. We only took a boat halfway there and ended up taking a tuktuk the rest of the way to get a good view of the lake. It was a good idea, but entering San Pedro gave us a rather unpleasant view of the town, which changed once we explored it a little more. Our hostel for the night was quite depressing, albeit with a very friendly atmosphere between the guests, and the next day we checked into one which was slightly more expensive, but unmentionably better. Rain for the rest of the afternoon limited our activities (from now on, I´ll be encountering a lot of afternoon showers as the rainy season is in full progress), and the evening saw a lot of alcohol, which meant we spent the rest of the next day loungeing around. Good thing there was a lot of rain that day!

After the second night in San Pedro, we parted ways, with one of the Australians and the Dutch girl staying behind for Spanish classes, and the other Australian had to move on to Mexico. I had, after a lot of debate, decided to go to another city called Quetzaltenango (or Xela) as there´s a very active volcano there.

Xela is a lovely city! It has a lot of colonial architecture, but in contrast to Antigua, has much more of a Greek influence for some reason, and they´re not as pretentious about as they are in Antigua. But like Antigua, there are many Spanish schools meaning there´s plenty of foreigners around (not that i minded!). And they too had an earthquake, but more recent – in 1902 – so most of the older architecture is vestiges of what it once used to be. It´s a pretty good indication of what would happen in Europe if there ever was a big earthquake! I took a stroll around town and went to check out some tourist offices to see if there was a tour going to see Santiaguito (a volcano that erupts about every hour). No luck! This is one of the problems of travelling alone – most tours require at least 2 people. And going by yourself was too dangerous (this is still Guatemala, after all. The US havent given up the search for some of the drug lords out here).

Before giving up, I thought I´d try a hike that I could do by myself, from which you could also see a bit of that volcano and the 2 others in the region. The next morning, when I wanted to set out, the rainy season meant the clouds were way too low to have anything of a good view. After some back and forths I decided not to go, and walked around a little more. It was very interesting, because the outskirts of the city had a big american influence (there was a taco bell, wendy´s, walmart, you name it!) whereas the inner city still had small tiendas run by small families.

I ran to try and catch a nicer bus, but i was too late by 15 minutes, and I ended up on another chicken bus for the next 4 hours to Guatemala City, after which I had to take a taxi to a different bus stop.
The bus ride wasn´t too bad, i got a window seat meaning i could safely guard my stop, but about an hour in it started to pour down with rain and an hour later i realised my big bag was ON TOP of the bus. SHIT! They had put a rain cover on my things, so when I got to Guatemala City my bag was dry – what a relief!
When the taxi arrived at the other bus stop i was literally BOMBARDED by BUS drivers who wanted me to take their bus! They were reaching for my stuff inside the taxi and I had to forcefully tell them to stop whilst I paid for the taxi. I got out and the first person who was able to grab my big bag from the trunk got my service.
3 hours later, and I arrived in a small town called Santa Cruz, to start my volunteering for the next 3 weeks.

It was much warmer here than in Xela! Being in the mountais, when it rained and in the evening it got pretty chilly in the city and on the bus ride meaning i even used my hoody when i wasn´t using my raincoat. But here, rain or no rain, it´s very hot. In April, they reached 46 degrees C apparently. The place I´m volunteering at is called Cabañas, which is reasonably big, but there is a town with a drug family about 2 towns away, so the people here don´t like to let me walk around too freely, makes sense really!

I´m working at a little organisation called ASIVESCA (Ill put up a blog post explaining exactly what they do when I next have time). The woman in charge of the NGO (Annie) is really sweet, and she speaks great English, so she helps me out a lot (her family is also lovely). But she also likes me to practice my Spanish, and at times I have had a big headache keeping up with it all, along with the midday heat. Mornings after rain is the only time it´s a comfortable temperature here. But I feel I am remembering a lot of Spanish, and I´m getting my tenses back a little… give me 2 weeks ha!
I´m staying at some friend´s of Annie´s, and it´s quite lush – I have my own bathroom and everything! And they keep trying to feed me! They have a little girl, who seems to want to copy everything I do.
The first day I was here, wednesday, I joined a meeting of various reserve owners in this area, which they hold once a month and they brainstorm ideas for raising money for the reserves and developing opportunities for tourism (their organisation is called ALLIANZA). Yesterday Annie explained what ASIVESCA does in detail, and we kept a little library she has here open for the day. I was fed by Annie´s mother-in-law both for lunch and for dinner – luxury! A staple here are black beans (frijoles) which they eat at every meal (in bean form, soup form or pureed with tortillas) it seems. I don´t think i´ll want to see them again after I finish off here! But I also ate cow´s tongue, which was quite pleasant. They eat their main meal here at midday, and in the evening they only eat a little as they go to bed aorund 9 and go to work at about 5. But the odd thing is that often for dinner they will have some black beans, and then some coffee with sweet bread. Why coffee for dinner?

The landscape here is beautiful. You have vast green hills that surround the basin that Cabañas and some other villages are set in. They have long dry spells, which is why it´s known for as a semi-arid region, but after a few days of rain everything turns green. They have a river that flows through, but a storm called Agatha hit last year, with lots of rains, so much that many houses were flooded, along with roads and bridges, and the river has been moved covering people´s farm land. The river seems to move a lot. Because it´s so hot and dry they have over 40 species of endemic cactuses, and they have some beautiful birds here too like several species of motmot, hopefully i can grab a good picture at some point.

There are a lot of blackflies and mosquitoes though, of which I am not a fan!

Today we went to plant some trees in a reserve and climbed up to a mirador overlooking the valley. Ive put up a few pictures already, I´ll be taking more over the next few weeks. Tomorrow and Sunday I´m heading off to a different village for some Spanish lessons, and next week it´s all library time with some computer classes I have to teach too!

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