About Rachel Denning
Rachel Denning is an unassuming mother of five who never really did any international traveling until she had four children. After a second honeymoon to Playa del Carmen, Mexico, she and her husband decided to sell most of their belongings and move their family abroad.
Driving from the United States to Panama, they settled in Costa Rica for a year, until the U.S. financial market crash in 2008, when they lost their location independent income. Returning to the United States to look for work, they knew they'd be back 'out' again, having been officially bitten by the travel bug!
Despite adjustments to living a simpler life (or perhaps because of it), they were able to save enough money to move to the Dominican Republic in 2009. After six months they came back to the States once more, where they were offered employment working with a non-profit organization in India.
They spent five months living in Tamil Nadu, then returned to the States once more (to Alaska) so they could have baby number five - Atlas.
From there, they set out in April of 2011 to drive, in a veggie powered truck, from Alaska to Argentina, visiting every continental country in North and South America.
Travel is a part of their life now, and they can't imagine doing anything else. Rachel photographs and writes about their incredible family travel adventures on their website, and they also have resources that encourage others to live a deliberate life.
Latest Posts by Rachel Denning
It’s 3:42 a.m.
The bombs are bursting in air, along with firecrackers and rockets, and music is playing over a loud speaker, while a man yells into a microphone in Spanish.
I nudge my husband. “Are you awake?”
“Yes,” he grumbles.
We get up to embark upon a day of celebration of motherhood. Incomprehensibly, how they celebrate in Guatemala is by waking up mother’s with fireworks and blaring music, before dawn begins to crack. How this honor mothers, I do not know…
The music and fireworks continue until I finally pull myself out of bed at 5:45 a.m. to study. Greg has already been up for almost two hours.
But it was the day before that most families in town actually celebrated the holiday, because May 10th this year fell on a Friday… and Friday is market day.
For this reason, the local school held their Mothers Day program on Thursday, so more mothers would be able to attend, instead of being gone making the trip to Solola to shop at the mercado.
The daughter of our guardian here at The Homestead — Marina — invited us to attend the program with her, her mother and her grandmother. We accepted.
Their family lives on the 2 acres of The Homestead. We were told to meet them at their house at 8:30 a.m but when we arrived, Grandma was still washing her hair.
Finally at 9 a.m. we were ready to go, including momma with baby on her back.
It was such a beautiful day, I was inclined to walk, but we decided to drive because we thought we were running late. It’s a good thing we did. It was far.
When we finally arrived at the school, we heard children yell, “The gringoes have arrived!” I guess they’ve heard about our recent move into the area.
They weren’t ready to begin the program (we later discovered we were actually an hour early, but Marina was excited to introduce us to her friends.) So we spent our time playing basketball, talking to the kids, and taking pictures. (I took lots of pictures.)
The kids were very fascinated with the camera, but had mixed reactions. Some wanted their picture taken, others ran away or hid if I lifted it to my face to take a shot (one little teeny girl even started crying.) We’ve heard before that some of the older generation believes having their picture taken steals their soul. Maybe some of the kids believe it?
Aren’t they beautiful?
The girls really wanted a picture taken with Aaliyah.
This kid knew a few words in English.
An impromptu portrait session began. I took more than a dozen individual photos of the kids. Here’s a couple.
She was so serious…
But then I got her personality to come out. Her name is Sofia.
They asked me lots of questions. “Where are we from?” “What kind of food do we eat?” “Where did I buy my camera?” “How much did it cost?” They had a hard time understanding that it was from Amazon.com…
Some of the classrooms…
This is where they keep the toothbrushes… interesting. This tells you something. (Many of the kids have rotted teeth already.)
The older grades are learning English. Kaqchikel and Spanish are also taught.
The toy section… notice that one of the toys is a toilet brush… ???
This beautiful lady was fixing her hair.
This is how many of the indigenous women wear their hair.
They’re finally getting set up for the program to start.
The M.C. said some nice words, about how mothers do everything for us (including wiping our boogers), and are filled with unconditional love for their children. He said some funny things about how fathers get up after their wives, and go to bed before them, and the mothers do all the hard work in the house.
Each of the grades did a dance.
I had mixed feelings about this, especially because these beautiful girls changed out of their traditional traje into their ‘costumes’ (Western clothing — the girl in the skirt borrowed her clothes from Kyah), then did a dance which is essentially shaking their bodies to hip-hop music with lyrics such as “I love your body, come with me to bed,” and “Condom star, hey sexy lady.” Hmmm… pretty sad. I even teared up thinking about the destruction of culture and tradition due to ‘Western’ influence.
After the performances (which lasted quite a while… every song seemed to be ten minutes long), the mothers were called up and presented with cards, then given gifts, and finally we ate lunch.
Many of them were carrying babies on their backs
These pots were HUGE!
It was lots of fun.
A beach sunset in Guatemala.
Of course, this was our accommodation as usual… nothing beats camping on the beach!
And dogs too.
My favorite — young coconut. You can scoop it like yogurt.
This was good for breakfast too.
Playing in the waves…
Watching and learning from the fisherman…
Practicing the ukulele…
Exploring the town (that didn’t take long)…
Watching the sunsets…
Cooking and eating, of course. (We were like a swarm of locust on any food placed on the table. Our hosts had never seen anything like it)…
To maintain oneself on this earth is not a hardship, but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely. — Thoreau
The post The 2nd Annual Unconventional Family Convention — On the Beach in Guatemala appeared first on Discover Share Inspire.
We just celebrated 12 years of marriage and to commemorate the joyful event, we stayed the night at La Casa Del Mundo on the shores of Lake Atitlan. I love this place. Excellent food, quaint and very comfortable lodgings, delightful gardens and unbeatable views (from every room.)
Taking the boat from Panajachel toward Santa Cruz, we asked to be dropped of at the hotel dock (expect to pay no more than Q10 or 15 per person.)
This is the view from the dockside cabana.
Then we climbed the steps up to the office. La Casa Del Mundo is built right on the side of the mountain which juts out of the Lago, and contains plenty of rock stairs. Be prepared to climb!
Greg checked in at the oficina which is also the cafe. Isn’t it lovely?
Then we chilled at the Descanzo located below the cafe.
These are their ‘World Famous Smoothies’. Make sure to get the orange juice, banana, strawberry (fresa), berry (mora) mix. It’s not on the menu, but they’ll make it upon request. (Smoothies are Q18 each.)
They served our lunch here as well. I ordered the Nacho Grande (Q40) and Greg got the Chicken Burritos (Q38). Both were excellent.
After eating, we were shown to our room.
First up the stairs that lead out of the oficina/cafe.
Then up more stairs to our lodgings – Number 10 (they must have known it was our anniversary, which is the 10th of March. ). This room was Q490 a night.
The view from our balcony.
Isn’t it so cute? I could just take it home with me.
Inside it looks like this…
We… ahem… relaxed together for a bit, then spent time in our favorite activities — reading and discussing great ideas (and now we could do it without a million interruptions by kids, thanks to our great friends who babysat for us.)
My current read is Walden by Thoreau, and Greg is reading Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. We shared our favorite parts, and philosophized, theorized, moralized and pontificated on ‘the world as we see it’.
Too many people are living ‘lives of quiet desperation’, and what they call ‘resignation is confirmed desperation.’
“It appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left… The incessant anxiety and strain of some is a well-nigh incurable form of disease…We thoroughly deny the possibility of change. This is the only way, we say; but there are as many was as there can be drawn radii from one centre.”
“It is so possible to live as to gain all the advantage (enjoyment) of life, and none of the disadvantage.”
How passionately we believe this! It burns inside, so that we want to shout it to the world!
Too many are ‘endeavoring to solve the problem of living by a formula more complicated than the problem itself… we are all poor, surrounded by luxuries… Our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed in them.’
Soon it’s time for dinner. Cena (dinner) is served family style, with a single multi-course meal (with a vegetarian option). Tonights dinner is tomato soup, chicken chimichurri, vegetables, rice and cheesecake for dessert. (Dinner is Q90 per person.)
The table is set up family style, and by the time dinner is served (6:30pm), the only light is by candle.
During dinner we chat with Germans and Americans, sharing travel stories and other fascinations. After finishing our cheesecake, we head back to our room, and by 8:30 pm Greg is fast asleep. Walden kept me awake until almost 10pm.
In the morning before breakfast (which is served from 8:30 to 11:30 am), we go for a little hike into the village ‘next door’, Jaibalito. (Just FYI, the hotel suggests that guests do not hike along the trail from the hotel to Jaibalito or Santa Cruz without a local guide, but we knew better. )
We walked down the trail and then into the streets of town…
Past kids going to school…
And this old man who was hiking up into the woods. Where was he going and what was he doing??
We did a loop in the canyon above town, then came out on a trail through the Vulcano Lodge, which looked like another nice place to stay.
We hiked back to the hotel, then explored the grounds before going in to eat.
There you can see the hotel boat dock.
And this lovely place is lakeside next to the dock
If you want, they’ll fill the hot tub for you. It’s an additional Q230 for that experience.
Here you can see how much the lake level has risen in the past few years. The lake level has gone up at least 1 meter (3 feet) just since we have lived here the past year.
It’s been one year since we first crossed the border from Belize, stopped off in Tikal, and then descended from the Guatemalan highlands to the lakeside town of Panajachel (all the while hoping our brakes wouldn’t go out on that steep, windy road that drops down from Solola.) Just a few days ago, we officially celebrated our ‘Pana-versary’, one full-year living on the shores of Lake Atitlan, a comparatively long time to be in one place for a nomadic, wandering family like ours.
I arise while it’s still dark, and spend time studying before my kids wake up. The roosters are already crowing, but most of the street dogs are silent, a welcome repose.
After a morning snack (Atlas, 2, asks for food as soon as he gets up), Greg and I take our morning hike, leaving the kids to work on their chores and to get breakfast going. We walk down our street, passing bushes and trees blooming in purples, pinks, magenta and orange, then cut off the road to the left, up a trail that climbs the mountain to the onion fields above.
The hike leaves me out of breath (not hard, since I’m not in great shape… but I’m working on it). Greg and I use this time to discuss ideas and formulate future plans. Once we reach the fields, we pause for a moment to gaze at the towering volcano of Toliman as it looms over the lake. During this time of year, the sky is hazy, because the corn fields are being burnt, in preparation for a new seeds to be sown, but the view is still breathtaking (or maybe it’s just the hike.)
As we begin our descent, we wish a ‘Buenos dias’ to the men and women on their morning commute — climbing up to the foot-access-only fields where they’ll spend the day working.
Back at home, our maid has arrived and is washing dishes and cleaning up. We share breakfast with our kids, then get clean using our ‘suicide shower’ (so named because of it’s illogical combination of electricity and water), the only source of hot water in our house.
The neighbors have already begun their familiar pat, pat, pat as they form masa into tortillas. The corn grinder is also in full operation, making it’s usual whir, whir, whir, sound, and runs much of the day, grinding more feed corn to be made into a never ending round of tortillas.
In need of groceries, we walk down our street toward town, until we find a tuc tuc to give us a ride (we’re on the ‘outskirts’ of Pana, so there are fewer tucs out our way.) Carrying our own grocery bags, we do the ‘easy’ shopping first at stores like Despensa and Chalos (buying bread and milk, maybe cheese or yogurt), before we walk toward the centro (where the market is located) to buy the ‘heavy’ stuff.
Living in Pana you do a lot of walking, especially around town while you’re doing errands. There’s the pacas where we buy nice clothes for cheap (think thrift store). We get school supplies at the libreria, and doo dads at the 3 quet store (even toothbrushes and tupperware). Dropping in at the tailors, we pick up clothing that was mended. Then maybe we’ll run across the street to the biblioteca where we’re allowed to check out 3 books each (only 2 for kids).
Now at the market, we stop for lunch before making purchases. We get the usual (and probably the only options) — caldo or guisado with vegetables, rice, and tortillas, only $2.00 a plate.
Bellies full, we choose our fruits and veggies from our ‘usual’ lady. Loading up our bags to overflowing with watermelon, papaya, melon, carrots, onions, broccoli, and zucchini, we strong arm them onto our shoulders, then haul them up the stairs and outside to the street. Here we pick up five pounds of strawberries from our strawberry lady, maybe grab some kale and fresh coconuts, then catch a tuc to lug our purchases to the house.
At home, the clothes have been washed and hung on the line, and we unpack groceries. Sometimes, we’ll catch a pickup to Patanatic so we can work on the self-reliance project. Or we might install smoke-reducing stoves.
Once a week, we go out for dinner with friends, usually at a restaurant on Santander such as Lazzeronis, Guajimbos, Patio or the Deli. I’m wearing my usually hoodie to keep me warm, since the temp will drop to a ‘chilly’ 59 degrees. This is known as the ‘land of the eternal spring’ here at Lake Atitlan.
Occasionally, we’ll branch out to other parts of Guatemala:
- visit Xocomil, Guatemala’s largest water park
- hike to the top of the highest mountain in Central America
- relax in the hot springs
- do a mandatory border run (every 90 days)
If there’s one thing Guatemala’s got, it’s culture. Although it is the ‘land of the Mayans’, there are not as many ruins here as in Mexico, although one of the best (Tikal) is here in Guatemala.
Many men, woman and children still wear the traditional clothing, especially around the lake and in the mountains and highlands.
Hand-weaved huipils (blouses), cortes (skirts) and faja (belt) for women, and the traditional traje for men (which includes colorful pants with a mismatched and equally colorful ‘skirt’ or ‘apron’ around the waist.) You can tell what city or town a woman is from by the design of her huipil, corte and head dress.
For many Guatemalans, Spanish is their second language — with an indigenous Mayan language such as kaqchikel or K’iche as their first (over 21 Mayan languages are still spoken in Guatemala). Many of the people speak at least three or four languages, including Spanish.
Guatemala has a literacy rate of about 50-69%. Between 30-50% of the population over age 15 cannot read or write. This is in a large measure due to the focus of average families on the need to survive, since many of them live hand-to-mouth. The United Nations ranked Guatemala 131 out of 187 countries in the 2011 Human Development Index (which compares life expectancy, education and standards of living for countries worldwide.)
In fact, Guatemala is ranked as the most malnourished country in Central America, and the fourth most in the world. The staple of the Guatemalan diet is corn — in the form of tortillas, atol (a corn drink or soup), chuchichos (corn tamales) and more. There’s not a lot of variety.
Poor nutrition leads to inability to learn or to focus. Poverty leads to children dropping out of school to help on the farm or to get a job, which leads to perpetuation of the problem in the next generation. It’s a vicious cycle.
The Guatemalans are religious (traditionally Catholic, thanks to the Spanish Conquest), and celebrate holidays such as Dia de los Muertos (which honors their ancestors and those who have died), and Semana Santa (Holy Week), which remembers the suffering of Christ before he was crucified.
The major form of transportation for most Guatemalan people is walking, bicycle, motorcycle, tuc tuc or bike taxis, or ‘chicken bus’. Some own cars, but not many. Day or night, you’ll find people out on the streets, walking, talking, selling or shopping. It’s a very social place.
As a people, the Guatemalans are wonderful, kind, and hard-working. They value family relationships and they work very hard to provide for their families. They are also very happy. No matter how heavy the load on their back, they’ll still smile, or stop to talk to you. They’re incredibly strong, and perform human feats I never thought possible (like riding a bike with one hand along a cobblestone street with three passengers hanging on to their neck; or riding on the back of a motorcycle, without holding on, while nursing a baby in one arm and carrying a toddler in the other!)
Men and woman have their roles, and they stick to them. You’ll rarely see a man carrying a baby, (or anything on his head.) Women work in the markets, take care of children, cook and clean. Men do manual labor, or drive tucs. They both run family owned shops, or work in the fields. And they are both tough, very, very tough.
Many of the people are descendants of the Mayans, but there’s also some diversity. The big city (Guatemala) is vibrant and progressive. And on the Caribbean coast you’ll find the Garifuna culture (African descent).
While there is a socioeconomic range that exists in Guatemala, it’s not as diverse as Mexico. There’s not as much wealth here as in other places in the world, though it still exists.
Overall, the Guatemalans are more reserved, quiet and soft-spoken. While they enjoy music, they don’t blast it as loud, or as often as the Mexicans. When it’s time to have fun, they enjoy their fiestas.
Although Guatemala is small, it offers a diverse terrain. From the jungles of Tikal, the cloud forests and mountain highlands to the beaches, lakes and rivers, and volcanoes, there’s a lot here in this tiny country the same size as the U.S. state of Tennessee.
Surprisingly, we haven’t discovered a lot of wildlife here. Most of the animals are domesticated, although we have heard about coyotes (that’s a funny story!), and we’ve seen some squirrels and birds… but that’s about it. (Not a whole lot, especially when we think about all the wildlife in Costa Rica.)
Safety & Visas
In the past, Guatemala endured a violent civil war and may have not been a safe place to visit. But today, this country is heavily protected by police and a very safe place. We frequently see policia patrolling the highways, streets and neighborhoods, and they are always very friendly and protective of foreigners. While theft can and does occur, we’ve never felt unsafe, even walking the streets at night here in Panajachel. The overall atmosphere is friendly and harmless.
If you’re a foreigner, Guatemala will give you a 90 day visa when you arrive (part of the CA4, which includes El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua). When that 90 days is up, you have to renew the visa (if you don’t leave the country), along with vehicle permits, if you drive in.
Technically, you’re supposed to leave the country for 3 days (going to either Mexico or Belize, since the countries in the CA4 don’t count for renewing visas). But, if you talk to the right people, and have Q100 per passport, then you can get renewed without the 72-hour departure.
I’ve also heard you can renew visas and vehicle permits in Guatemala City, but we don’t have any personal experience with that.
There are some meals that are quite tasty — caldo (a beef or chicken broth with vegetables), guisado (a beef or chicken stew), dobladas (meat & veggies fried in masa - a corn flour dough), pollo encebollado (chicken in onions), asados (grilled chicken, beef or pork – usually with green onions) and pupusas (which are actually Salvadoranian.)
There are also some things I’m just not fond of… chuchitos (a kind of tamale made from corn flour and wrapped in corn husks), tamales (made from rice flour and wrapped in ‘banana’ leaves, and usually mushy), fried chicken and french fries (okay, this is good when I’m craving something unhealthy). And the corn tortillas. The staple in Guatemala is corn tortillas, and while I loved the corn tortillas in Mexico (we would heat them plain, hot, and fresh off the fire), the tortillas in Guatemala have cal in them (crushed limestone) and aren’t as delicious…at least to me.
To be fair, there are a lot of dishes I haven’t tried. Since we’ve spent most of our time at Lake Atitlan, we’ve only tasted what they have to offer around here. Other destinations in the country offer different fare — like iguana stew (something our friends tried when we visited Xocomil)
While I may not rave about the tipica Guatemalan food like I did Mexican food, don’t worry, we’re not going hungry. There’s still plenty of good things to eat, not to mention all the fresh fruits and vegetables! Mangoes, bananas, papaya, pineapple, watermelon, melon, strawberries, apples, lychee, zucchini, carrots, broccoli, plus things you’ve never even heard of before — and so much more — much of it local and cheap, cheap, cheap.
Cost of Living
Just like many places you travel to, you can live inexpensively in Guatemala, and you could also live expensively. It all depends on you.
Just here in Panajachel, you can rent a house for $200 a month, up to (I think the highest I heard) $7000 a month. It all depends on what you’re looking for, and what sort of lifestyle you’re after.
Here’s a sample of what you might spend in Guatemala:
- Mangoes (first because they’re my favorite) – 3/$0.65 (when they’re in season)
- Watermelon – $1.30
- Papaya – $1.68
- Bananas – $0.77/dozen
- Carrots – $0.78/dozen
- Zucchini – $0.26/each
- Eggs – $4.38/30
- Milk (in a 1 liter bag) – $1.00
- Apples – $1.16/lb imported; $0.39/lb local (when in season)
- Pears – $1.16/lb imported
- Can of tuna – $1.98
- Black beans (dry, 1lb) – $0.65
- Tortilla chips – $2.10
- Loaf of whole wheat bread – $2.97
- Diapers – $7.74 to $11.61
- Pack of 80 wipes (Huggies) – $1.94
- Diesel – $4.25/gallon
- Dinner for two – $5 to $18 (depending on what kind of food you want)
- Dinner for seven – $14 (because we usually eat at the market, or get pupusas, where you spend $2.00 a plate)
Cost of living comes down to what your lifestyle is about. If you’ll be continuing your diet from ‘home’, with imported foods, and living in a pricey expat neighborhood, you’ll spend a lot more. It’s all up to you.
In fact I had butterflies when we started this morning (you can see me talk more about it in the video below). Would we be able to make it? Would we make it before losing our way in the twilight? How far were we actually going? (We weren’t exactly sure.) Where is the trail? We set off slightly blind, except that we could see our goal, Tajumulco, towering above us.
Passing through the town of San Marcos near the Guatemala/Mexico border, we asked a local man for directions to the mountain. We knew there was a road that would take us nearer the summit, thereby reducing our overall hiking time. Since we have five little ones, we thought that would be best.
He showed us the turn off, and we followed the well made (although bumpy) cobblestone road through high mountain villages that reminded my hubby of his time in Peru.
The route was one lane without much space on either side, but we finally found a place to park our rig, near where the road began to wind back down into the valley below. From there, we weren’t quite sure where to go. Was there a trail from here? Where was it? (We’d tried to do our homework, but there was a lack of information. Mostly we just looked closely at Google Maps). We find a path and start following it. It’s not heading up, but around the foothills instead. It would eventually lead where we wanted to go, right?
The trail is fairly easy, and the kids are doing well, except for Kyah who started feeling queasy almost as soon as we began (she blamed it on that chunk of coconut she ate when we were starting out.) She is plodding along slowly behind, with a bottle of peppermint essential oil to her nose.
The alpine weather is fickle, switching intermittently from cloudy, breezy and cool (and requiring a jacket or two) to warm and summery and causing perspiration. The clouds paint lovely pictures on the mountains and the pale blue sky, and when they occasionally clear, we catch a glimpse of the mountain valley far below.
After an hour or so it’s time for a lunch (and potty) break. Greg expresses doubts about being on the right trail, and if we’re heading in the right direction. There had been a possible turn off back there. Should we have taken it? Already having traveled this far, we’d lose time back tracking. We decide to continue on and just see where this trail leads. If we haven’t reached the peak by 2:00 pm, we’ll turn back, to make sure we’re off before dark. I’m feeling fairly good, but I pace myself (and take pictures of the flowers), and stay behind with Kyah, who isn’t feeling any better.
The air is getting thinner. Greg estimates we’re at least 3650 m (12,000 ft). Our aim is the ridge we can see above us. From there we’ll gain some perspective, and see if we’re even on the right mountain.
And so we come back to where we began. Right foot. Left. Deep breath. Make it to that stump. Just a little bit further. Kyah’s legs are shaking, her breath shallow.
Parker reaches the ridge first.
“It’s the top!” he exclaims.
“Can you see the volcano?” Greg asks.
Disappointment. Maybe this is the wrong mountain, and we’re not even close.
It’s confirmed when Kyah and I finally reach the others. This is only the top of a ridge, a saddle back between two peaks, which are shrouded in clouds.
I’d had visions of a spectacular view from the top of Central America. Now, it’s 1:30 pm, and we can’t even see the top (nor do we know how close it is). For the safety of our family, we’ll have to head back down, disappointed.
I had visions of something like this (photo courtesy of Guat360.com)
Greg and the boys decide to ‘see what they can see’ by climbing to the top of the cloud covered peak above us. (He takes my camera in case he gets a glimpse of the top.) The girls, Atlas and I rest. I lay down on tufts of alpine grass, lightheaded, and now feeling sick to my stomach. Kyah sits quietly. The clouds grow thick, and I begin to shiver. Aaliyah huddles close, and asks if we can go back now. I’m definitely ready.
“As soon as daddy comes back,” I tell her.
He comes back, but he’s alone. He looks a little worried.
“Where’s the boys?” I ask.
“I left them up there. I don’t think it’s the top, but it is a summit. There’s campfire rings and litter, and there’s a trail off the back side (the side we’re actually parked on.) I think it’s our best bet for actually getting off this mountain. If we go this way (pointing to the descent before us), we could run into a cliff and have to turn back. And we can’t go back the way we came, it will take too long.”
We must go up before we go down. Greg carries Atlas and everything he can (the boys left their packs with us.) He helps Aaliyah while I clamber slowly with Kyah.
We don’t make it very far before Kyah is vomiting. Her body heaves violently, and when she’s done she can’t stand up without help, she’s so weak.
“You’re so tough, Kyah,” I tell her. “We can do this, just one step at a time.”
I speak out loud and help and encourage her with every step. We reach the final upward climb, which requires bouldering to get on top of the large stone which stands in our way. Using both hands, I pull myself up. Will she be able to do this in her weakened condition, without falling down the rocky ridge behind her?
Giving her my hand, I help pull her up. This is it! No more climbing! It should be downhill from here.
Parker’s butt is exposed to the frigid wind when we rejoin the boys, waiting for me to bring toilet paper (oh wait, I wasn’t supposed to tell that part.) I recollect my camera and snap a triumph shot.
When the clouds part, we catch a peek of her behind us — Tajumulco. So close and yet so far!
Photo courtesy of SummitPost.org
We’re close enough that I’m tempted to go for it… but it would easily take another hour, and then we for sure would not make it off this mountain before dark. So we content ourselves with climbing to the second highest point in Central America. At least for today.
Down, down, down without an end in sight, sliding on inches thick of pine needles. In a moment of ‘tender mercy’, the clouds part, and I catch a glimpse of the road far below. The sound of Latin music drifts up from the aldea (town) nestled in the foothills — the same aldea that is directly below where we parked. We are headed in the right direction!
As the sun sinks lower and the temperature drops, we make it back to ‘Big Red’. We congratulate each other on a job well done, and reminisce on our last big outdoor family triumph, hiking five miles in Capitol Reef National Park. (That time we did get caught in the dark.)
Clambering in, we crank up the heat and begin our drive down the mountain, enjoying the view from the top of Central America.
Oh yeah, and the dead coyotes hanging at the local tienda. There’s always something unexpected in Guatemala.
After a fun filled an exciting day at Xocomil, Guatemala’s largest water park, we camped for the night en route to the Mexico border (where we were headed to renew our Guatemalan tourist visas which are only good for 90 days.) As we drove home to Panajachel, we stopped over at Fuentes Georginas, an incredible set of hot springs outside of Xela (between Xela and Reu).
The road turning off from the main highway leading to the hot springs is 8 km long, and a little bumpy, but the scenery was spectacular.
Entrance to the park is Q50 for adults and Q15 for kids. I think they charge a little bit for parking as well. They have cabanas on site where you could stay the night, and they also allow overnight parking for overlanders. There are three separate hot springs. The first is by the entrance/driveway to the park. It is carved into the rock, with a trickle of (hot!) water which flows into it, leaving a green streak on the cliffs. It was nice.
But then we hiked down the sendero (path) to the ‘natural’ hot springs in the valley below. Since we’re up at a higher altitude, the sun was already getting low in the sky, and we were wet, it was quite a chilly little hike. Brrr!
This pool was near a river/waterfall and the setting was absolutely idyllic… something you dream about when you think of exotic travel. It felt so warm and cozy, especially after our frosty trek into the valley.
But the day was waning and we still needed to drive the 3 hours back to Panajachel… so we reluctantly left. Before going, we checked out the last pools — they were located at the ‘back’ of the park, past the cabanas, and next to a restaurant. It had changing rooms and bathrooms available, and was built in a traditional piscina (pool) style.
There were three pools to lounge in, each with varying degrees of heat. The first one (behind my boys in the picture below) was TOO hot, even for me (and I like my water hot). It was pretty much scalding, burn your foot off hot.
A swarm of men rush toward our vehicle and begin clamoring all over it — stepping onto the side rails, holding onto the roof rack and yelling at us in Spanish.
Greg and I look at each other, eyes wide, wondering what in the heck is happening? Fear fills my heart and I just want to escape… but where, and how?
Over the next hour I kept myself and my children sequestered in the confines of our vehicle, afraid for my life to step out, as my husband navigates the labyrinth of border crossing fees and paperwork.
This was my first real border crossing experience.
It was on our very first road trip from the United States to Costa Rica (2007). We’d spent four weeks driving through Mexico, and although we’d been extremely nervous crossing the Mexico/US border for the first time, really, it had been a piece of cake.
Now we were approaching Guatemala as we were ‘attacked’. Our inexperience and ignorance resulted in a lot of fear. So much so that our new formed opinion of Guatemala was that it was ‘scary’. (It also tainted every other border crossing for the rest of our trip, where I kept me and my kids locked in while Greg handled all the paperwork.)
The border towns were sketchy, the people were aggressive… surely they’re not safe. It took me a few more years of travel before I began to see that border towns were not as scary as I’d made them out to be.
But on this first ‘rodeo’, despite the waning day, we were so spooked we hightailed it to Guatemala City (a 5+ hour drive), even ‘risking’ driving at night, wagering that it would be the only place we could find a safe and decent hotel.
The experience spooked us so much that we only spent two days in Guatemala. TWO DAYS!! We missed out on so much beauty, culture and ‘safe’ places to see.
Fast forward five years later, and I’m at the Mexico/Guatemala border once again (this time from the Guatemalan side). I’ve come with my husband and our five kids to renew our vehicle permit.
(Even though we’ve been in the country for 10 months, and the visa is only good for 90 days, my husband has previously gone alone to renew visas and permits — yes, you can do this. It’s only Q100 per passport, IF you talk to the right people.) We didn’t cross this border before, because we came to Guatemala via Belize (that was a really easy border crossing).
So here we are on the Guatemalan side of this border. Then in the morning we drove to El Carmen, our preferred border for renewals. This time, there’s no fear, no nervousness, no hiding out in a locked vehicle. We park and my husband heads off to take care of business while the kids and I explore and look for breakfast.
Naturally, I should be more comfortable. I have more knowledge, and more travel experience. I know that the guys who ‘attack’ you are just trying to do their jobs — help you navigate the border maze so they can earn a propina (tip). I’ve learned that just because a border is busy and loud and looks run down doesn’t mean it’s ‘scary’ — it just is. This is the livelihood for countless people.
I’ve learned that there’s not much to really be afraid of, except for your own ignorance and fear.
So now, surviving the border is more a matter of keeping children entertained during the untold amount of time you’ll be there (borders can be a notoriously long and boring process, with many archaic requirements… like that you need to walk across the bridge and make copies of your paperwork before we can continue).
Here’s how we managed this time:
Gratefully, there was a public toilet available. Handling potty breaks can be one of the biggest challenges (of traveling with kids in general). It’s not pretty (or very clean), but it’s a toilet. Hurray! (Of course you should ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS carry your own toilet paper.)
Of course, there’s no running water to wash, so my doTERRA OnGuard homemade hand sanitizer is a MUST! (Studies have shown that OnGuard kills 99% of all bacteria, even MRSA).
We also happen to find a very nice place to hangout, shaded and with tables! This is not a common occurrence, but it sure is nice when it happens.
So after eating our breakfast…
We do some people watching (fascinating to see that here they used these motorcycle powered… things… for transportation, where in Panajachel it’s mainly tuc tucs.
Kyah practices her photography (she took these two photos below)…
She reluctantly agrees, and in thanks we buy a bunch of fruit from her.
But it wasn’t a normal bathroom, and so this little girl refuses to use it. Greg drives away in exasperation, and tells her she’ll have to hold it until we arrive at the hot springs (there was nowhere else to stop anyway.)
“You need to learn use a bathroom when you have one to use, no matter how bad it is!” Greg exclaims. (This whole ‘potty thing’ is one of his BIGGEST pet peeves.)
Well, she didn’t make it. By the time we arrive she’s crying and squeezing so hard she can’t even move. When she does, she messes her pants, and as I calmly clean her off in the bathroom at Fuentes Georginas, I casually point out the lesson.
“Next time, you’ll use a bathroom when you have one, even if it’s yucky, right?”
They learn, even if it’s the hard way…
What are some of your best/worst border crossing experiences?
When you think of ‘Christmas’, you probably have a vision in your mind of what that includes. Maybe it’s snow, a Christmas tree, presents, egg nog and Christmas carols. How do others celebrate around the world?
Travel offers a new point of view. It shows you that what’s ‘normal’ for you is completely foreign to someone else. It teaches you a new ‘normal’ — they way it’s ‘always’ been for hundreds of thousands of people — for generations.
When you have that sort of mind-expanding realization, you’ll begin to understand why travel is so addicting.
Last year we were almost homeless but then celebrated at Laguna Bacalar Mexico. We remember wondering ‘where in the world’ we would be for Christmas in 2012. We would have never guessed that it would be so close to Mexico.)
Because we’ve already been in Pana for so long (can you believe it, 10 months now!) we know what Pana is ‘usually’ like. Now we got to see her in all her festive glory.
I thought I would share it with you with a nice little photo tour of the city. This year, Guatemala.
Pana’s has a good-sized daily market, but on Sundays (and sometimes Wednesdays?) market size increases.
For the Christmas season, the everyday market is bigger and better — with vendors filling up adjacent streets and offering imported items you can’t usually find.
Gift baskets are wrapped and ready to be given away.
Look at this baby sitting in the apples
This mossy stuff, and strings of orange fruit (anyone know what it is?) are a popular holiday item.
Mandarins are in season — 10Q for a dozen. Aaliyah is buying herself one.
Grapes are an imported specialty item.
This is the lady we usually buy our vegetables from.
Lots of spices…
Chocolate is a regular item, but I actually bought some this time… for chocolate fondue!
There’s usually flowers at the market, but these Gerber daisies are special for the Christmas season.
And the poinsettias (which grow naturally in Guatemala — there’s poinsettia trees all around town).
This is colored sawdust… used for decorating. It’s the same thing they use in many of the ‘carpets’ for Semana Santa (Holy Week).
This is the ‘pig lady’ where Greg buys menudo (pig innards) for our dog, Epic, and where he ordered 47 lbs of meat for our Christmas feast (there was 21 kids and 9 adults). There’s actually a really funny story about this… maybe I’ll tell it sometime
This is one of the kids favorite stores — the 3 Quet store (aka the $0.40 store). They were buying Christmas gifts for each other. (It was so CROWDED in the store, between people and ALL THE STUFF!!!)
Another 3 Quet store (there’s a dozen of them in town).
A Santa piñata
Fireworks are a BIG deal for Christmas in Guatemala. It looked like a U.S. Fourth of July with all the firework stands around town (of course you’ll never see these fireworks for sale in the United States)
Everybody loves fireworks for Christmas!
More grapes, this time for sale in front of the liberia (paper store).
More fireworks, apples, marshmallows and cookies.
On Christmas Eve, many stores put these pine needles on the floor and out in front of their shops. It’s something they also do for Semana Santa. I’ve heard it represents the palm leaves that they laid before Christ as he rode into Jerusalem.
The Christmas tree in the town square. This is the second one they put up this December. The first one burnt down!
Even Santander, Panajachel’s tourist street, got into the Christmas spirit… just a little bit.
Panajachel has lots of colorful people. I saw some familiar faces around town, and some new ones as well.
I’ve seen this cute little lady many times before.
I actually saw this man at a party on Christmas Eve.
Pana has it’s regular panhandlers, but I’ve never seen this woman before.
This is how most of the traditional women carry their babies.
Wow! Look at that herd of gringos! Hey, do I know them???