How the Guatemalan mountains stole our hearts

How the Guatemalan mountains stole our hearts
 Heading towards Xela on the mountain HWY

Heading towards Xela on the mountain HWY

 Matty with the locals that helped us with the van

Matty with the locals that helped us with the van

We crossed the border to Guatemala on November 1st, 2016, exactly 1 year after crossing the border to Mexico. Day of the dead, our favorite holiday to keep heading South. We were planning to spend 2 weeks in Guatemala, not knowing or expecting this country would steal our hearts.

Somehow we thought the mountain HWY would be more scenic and decided to take HWY 1 on our way to Quetzaltenango. It was breathtaking, mountains, cold fresh air, moody clouds and a lot of uphill roads, and I mean a lot. The last 20kms to the top of the HWY was straight up, no break, Matty was stressing and so was the van. It came to a point where Matty was stepping all the way down on the gas pedal and Beast would not move anymore. We stopped at a small town, it was getting late and of course, it was also a Holiday so we weren't sure if we would find a mechanic or any help at all. Luckily someone pointed us in the right direction and a mechanic's house was just 2 blocks away from where the van was parked. He wasn't home when I knocked but we waited and sure enough he came back and checked the van. The problem was the gas pump overheated after so many miles going straight up, and it just needed to cool down, and we were wondering why there were so many cars sitting on the shoulder when we were driving up...duh. So we waited, while feeling relieved and very grateful for the local's help.

It got dark on us as we cruised through San Marcos, a big town right before Xela, and since our golden rule is not to drive at night, we had to find a place to park. We found a little restaurant on the HWY with a very flat parking lot, it was already closed but we asked if we could park it for the night. The people working there called the owner who I spoke with on the phone and he gave us green light. We were feeling good about it all, since the day had been very long but nothing really bad happened, we were also very hungry! I was going to make a pretty plain meal of rice and beans since we had zero veggies but I decided to ask the ladies at the restaurant if they would sell me some, they wouldn't, they gave me veggies and bread for free, they wouldn't let me pay... And so, our first day in Guate was filled with welcoming, helpful, open hearted Chapines that had our backs without knowing us, and that felt at the time like a very good sign. 

 On the road that took us to Fuentes Georginas

On the road that took us to Fuentes Georginas

We didn't spend much time in Quetzaltenango, instead we headed for some hot springs named 'Fuentes Georginas'. More uphill roads between valleys and clouds, it seemed like we haven't been in in the mountains in ages, and even though the surf is always pulling us to the coast, it just felt so right to be there.

 Early morning dip at Fuentes Georginas. Photo: Matty Liot

Early morning dip at Fuentes Georginas. Photo: Matty Liot

Everybody told us to go to Lake Atitlan, it's one of the most beautiful places on Earth they said, so we headed that direction. The highway was smooth, modern and well maintained, we were pleasantly surprised about it. But the road starts to change as you get closer to the lake. We decided to go to the mellowest town around the lake, San Marcos La Laguna. The last bit going down hill was pretty steep, our breaks started smoking, and again we had to give Beast a break. After 30 minutes of so of cooling down we kept going, now we were on the switch backs, a lot of them and pretty tight, we were trying to take our time but you can only go so slow when you have the huge Guatemalan chicken buses driving down the road crazy fast, I don't know how they do it! At this point Matty was constantly questioning why did we decide to come here, he was losing it, I was trying to tell him how Lake Atitlan is a World Heritage site, and that we needed to come see it since we didn't know when would we ever be in the area again, but it wasn't doing it for him. The last 10kms were a painful, rocky, dusty road with a couple of huge boulders(the size of the van) on the side. Sometimes it just needs to get worse before it gets better. It was almost sunset when we finally made it to Pierre's place in Pasajcap, a little piece of heaven on Earth.

 First view of Lake Atitlan

First view of Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan is an energy vortex, apparently many people come to visit planning on short stays and they end up renting a place for months or even moving here for a good part of the year, we were no exception. Originally we thought we'd stay 5 days, but how can you drive such a crazy road down to the lake and leave so soon...we dreaded the idea of driving it up again, so we ended up staying 5 1/2 weeks. This is not the first time this happens to us, when we love a place, the thought is, well what's the rush anyways...

 Home is where you park it / laundry day. Photo: Matty Liot

Home is where you park it / laundry day. Photo: Matty Liot

 Happy in Lake Atitlan

Happy in Lake Atitlan

Pasajcap was the perfect place for us, a very private, flat parking spot, facilities, dock on the lake, sauna, fruit trees, really nice neighbors, and Pierre, Domingo and Diego, who took care of all of us. We were all a tight little family for some weeks.

We spent so much time in Atitlan that we actually saw the change of the seasons. Our arrival coincided with the end of the rains but we still got to enjoy some evening showers, that were refreshing, and pretty. The Jocote trees still had all their leaves and fruits, the locals love this tangy, little red fruit and we learned to love it also. Diego, the care taker bought the harvest from Pierre, the owner, so we'd see his family picking up the fruits almost every morning, till there was none left.

 Jocotes

Jocotes

As the weeks went by we got to learn more about the Mayan culture, which is still very present in Guatemala and more even in Atitlan. The most we learned was from Diego and his wife Elena, who's names in Sutujil are Ateco and Shtanlen. They taught us that there's several Mayan languages around the lake, each village has it's own, Mam, Quiché, Cachiquel, Sutujil being some of them, some villagers also speak Spanish but not everybody. I would say the locals are very discrete in the way they speak to each other but we asked Diego to teach us some basic words, like good morning-zacaré, goodbye-quibaná, see you tomorrow-chuakj chek. Sutujil doesn't sound like anything else.

Mayan women wear traditional shirts called 'huipiles', they are colorful, hand sewn, and embroidered with beautiful patterns or drawings. The older teach the younger, and its a tradition that is passed on from generation to generation. Each village has different styles that separates them from each other. I saw Elena working on some of her own and asked her if she could work on my favorite shirt, she was happy to do it.

 Diego and Elena taking a break in a quiet morning

Diego and Elena taking a break in a quiet morning

 My custom made favorite shirt ready

My custom made favorite shirt ready

 Detail of birds drawings

Detail of birds drawings

 Bin of embroidery tools

Bin of embroidery tools

We took lanchas(boats) to the other towns. Panajachel was the busiest one, and further away from San Marcos, it was also the town where you could find anything and everything, all is for sale in Pana. We visited San Pedro, and San Juan a few times, being the last one my most favorite town of all. Plenty to do and explore around the lake. There are trails to the top of volcanoes with magnificent views, a variety of restaurants with live music, a ton of holistic workshops, perma-culture farms, and just a beautiful rainbow of inspiring human beings working in projects that involve the community. If you ever plan on visiting the area and would like to volunteer, this are 2 organizations I highly recommend:

- Guatemala Housing Alliance, helping alleviate some of the worst housing deficiencies so prevalent in the Guatemalan highlands.

- Atitlan Organics, learn permaculture farming and a more sustainable way of living in Tzununa.

 Barbies wearing traditional clothes for sale in Panajachel

Barbies wearing traditional clothes for sale in Panajachel

 Colorful art in San Pedro La Laguna

Colorful art in San Pedro La Laguna

 Sunday BBQ with over-lander friends

Sunday BBQ with over-lander friends

 Our friends Jim and Rhonda volunteering helping build a local's house

Our friends Jim and Rhonda volunteering helping build a local's house

We tried to leave several times but for one or another reason we wouldn't. I read somewhere that there's a Mayan belief that the lake is a sacred, living being, and that the sky and earth are joined by an umbilical cord called 'ri muxux ulueu caj' that is connected to earth in the middle of the lake, and of course that explained why the pull to stay there was so strong.

Thanksgiving was just around the corner and there wasn't a better place to spend it than there. Pierre offered his house and we were surrounded by an international group of friends, with a wonderful pot-lock happening and with plenty to be grateful for. I can think of so many reasons I was thankful for at the time, sunrises, sunsets and all the different moods of the Atitlan skies, Matty's gigs that produced some income and kept him playing music, witnessing volcano activity, time to read, swimming in the lake, spending time with friends, I guess the list is long but very simple.

Eventually we started to feel the itch to surf again so we considered the idea of leaving, it was sad just to think about it but we knew that the time was upon us being that our visas for Guatemala/El Sal/Honduras/Nica was only for 90 days and we had already been in Guatemala for over a month. So we finally packed the van and drove out of Pasajcap, we had seen so many over landers come and go, now it was our turn. We did our rounds and said goodbye to everybody, I am pretty sure it was already mid December, it was time to go to Antigua.

Antigua is an old colonial city, surrounded by volcanoes, although it seems there's always a volcano around in Guatemala. We parked at the tourist police parking lot for free, available only for 5 days. It's a busy city with lots of churches, old buildings, cobble stone streets, and tourists from all over the world. We walked around and explored town, and were delighted to find a few options of vegan restaurants, which of course we had to try. There's also plenty of live music and the bars are some of the coolest we've been to. Have you seen that t-shirt saying 'Donald eres un pendejo' well it comes from Bar Nose, home of Ilegal Mezcal, and the best music scene in town, just so you get the idea of how epic Antigua is.

 The cathedral at sunset. Photo: Matty Liot

The cathedral at sunset. Photo: Matty Liot

But the part that the draw the most attention to me wasn't in any of the touristic areas, it was in the market, a huge market with vegetables and fruits of all sizes and colors, and all the items you can think are for sale at any of the stores you've been to. The market is alive every day, hundreds of people roaming around, selling and buying, all the colors and smells surrounding every step of the way. The bus stop is right next to it, and just in case you didn't know, school buses come to Guatemala for a second chance, but what a chance, the monotonous yellow becomes a rainbow of colors, each of them with a different, eccentric personality. 

It was close to Christmas and we decided to head for the coast, we drove to El Paredón beach. Our good friends Crystal and Colin were there so we joined them and spent Christmas together. Our search for waves in Guatemala wasn't too successful so it was getting to be time for another border crossing. 

Guatemala and its highlands stole our hearts from the begining, this country is a palette of colors, and you can see it everywhere, in the clothing, the food, the markets, the buses, the sky, the clouds. It was the first time in years that we were away from the ocean for this long and it didn't matter. Waking up in the mountains felt like a blessing every morning. I had never spent time by a lake, let alone swim in its waters every day and it was magical. There is something very special about the Mayan people, their traditions, and how even with the strong influence of the church they have been able to keep their culture. As we see more of Central America I see how there's many things we share, Mexicans, Chapines, Peruvians, but at the same time I see the uniqueness in each of us. I recognize more of the facial details and ways of speaking that are different country to country, and I embrace all those beautiful differences that make us so unique.