The Hockey Song


Unlike yesterday this day is promising to be a full day indeed. First out is a guided tour of the town that starts at central square. We learn some interesting facts about the town, like that it’s laid out like a grid with 7×7 square blocks and that you have a very specific division where the church is at the north, the military in the east, the merchants in the south and the political branch in the west end of the square. It definitely feels like someone sat down at a table and just drew how the town should look and then was like “Here, it’s all done, go build it!”

We make a stop at the repeatedly earthquaked cathedral that, in preparation for some Christian festival thing, features a rather cool sawdust mat. It’s basically a really intricate pattern made of carefully laid out colored sawdust, a lot like the mandalas you might have seen Buddhist monks make out of sand. Something I’m recognizing is that even if buildings may look rather uniform and boring from the outside, they very often feature fabulous garden atriums on the inside. So if you find yourself in Antigua, it may pay off to just try and walk inside of a building if you can find an entrance that isn’t obviously private.

Another stop is a gorgeous yellow church decked out like a Scanian Spettekaka, the similarity is uncanny! =D It has an even larger sawdust mat inside but aside from that it’s pretty boring. Next up is an old cloister, remodeled into a five star hotel and restaurant. Now if I were to stay at a five star hotel, this would be what I would go for! Very cozy and subdued, not the usual gaudiness you see at these places. The tour is rounded off at one of those usual jade places where it’s just a very obvious tourist trap. Oh well, it’s not like I’m surprised or anything…

We go for lunch at a place decorated like an old timey grocery store with a rather eclectic menu. I go for a rabbit stew but sortof regret this choice when I actually get the food since it’s almost only bones and very little meat. The afternoon has yet another tour, this time it’s a coffee plantation. We’re picked up in some military surplus-looking vehicles and taken to the plantation which is surprisingly centrally located. The bulk of the coffee plants aren’t really here though, but on the surrounding hills, there are some in the middle of the estate though and it’s rather curiously grown. See, the plants need some shade so you mix the coffee plants in with some higher trees and other bushes. The result really doesn’t look anything like a plantation, I was more expecting a vineyard type of deal with row upon orderly row of plants, this looks more like a patch of brushland.

We learn that since the Arabica strain (which is the one that is considered the most desirable, Robusta being the other) of coffee has a rather puny root system, what they do is that they grow one Arabica and one Robusta plant and then they graft the Arabica plant onto the Robusta root, problem solved! We get to walk around and pick some berries, which we are encouraged to taste. They actually taste very nice, sortof like passion fruit and the flowers smell like Lily of the Valley! The hand picked berries are dumped into a water tank where the ripe ones will sink to the bottom and go into the peeler machine. They are left to ferment a while before being spread out in the sun to dry. After all that it’s just the roasting left and we of course get to taste a freshly made espresso in the end. A very interesting tour, all things considered, especially if you’re a bit of a coffee nerd like I am.

Back at the hotel Johan and I discover a market right next door. Now, it’s not that were totally blind or anything, the market entrance is really just a hole in the wall! Inside is a sprawling maze of small stores selling little handicraft items. Sure, it’s a bit touristy, but in a good way! It’s actually rather nice quality and a wide array of goods and just a treat browse among all the pastel colored blankets and hammocks. I decide I want a bedspread and fortunately for me I run into our tour leader Karina who really enjoys haggling (I’m perfectly atrocious at it and almost have to walk out red-faced several times in the process). She ends up getting us a really good deal for the blankets in the end and I’m really happy with my garishly green bedspread!

Come dinner time a bunch of us end up at the Rainbow Café ( featured in Lonely Planet). It just so happened that tonight was open mike night and I get it into my head that I should go up and sing the Soviet national anthem. Taking the decision was easy enough, but it left plenty of time to fret over it (and making sure I had the correct starting note to sing the entire song without having it be too high or low for my voice). My “competition” turns out to be pretty good, which didn’t exactly help. When it finally comes to my turn I’ve more or less come to terms with my nervousness and I grab the microphone and present my number as the “Hockey Song” (a reference to that it was pretty much the only song you heard whenever there were the World Hockey Championships on TV when I grew up in the 80’s). This greatly delights the loud table of Americans up front. Their demeanor goes from drunken bravado to weirded out confusion once I start singing however, something I’m rather pleased with. I get a free drink for my efforts (plus bragging rights of course) and we go back to the hotel to round off another evening with some more lobby hangout.

City tour: 115 quet
Lunch: 110 quet
Mints: 22 quet
Coffee plantation tour: 150 quet
Chocolate beans: 90 quet
Bedspread: 150 quet
Dinner: 100 quet

Antigua


We get to sleep in all the way to noon before we pack up and leave for the former Guatemalan capital Antigua. It’s a rather long and uneventful drive and we don’t arrive until just before dusk. Antigua is very unlike all the towns we’ve seen so far, it’s very orderly, with wide, cobblestoned, streets and comparably heavy traffic (although the poor cars probably would prefer that they’d skipped the cobble stones, their suspension is complaining loudly). We go out for a walk around town before the sun sets and one thing we notice is that there seems to be a sizable population of “white” people here  (based on the fact that they don’t look very touristy).

The whole city center consists of, rather large, square blocks with wide streets which I personally find confusing to navigate. The blocks all blend together and you forget where you’ve been much easier. It’s still a rather pretty city though, with lots of primary colors, flowers and beautiful, innovative windows. The locals seem to be shorter on average, so there is probably a higher percentage of Mayan descendants around here. We end up eating at a modern fusion kitchen restaurant, good, but ultimately harmless food. The remainder of the evening is spent hanging out in the hotel lobby, listening to music and just relaxing.

Snacks: 15 quet
Dinner: 200 quet

Lakehopping


The day starts with a boat ride across lake Atitlan (roughly the size of lake Garda in Italy) to San Juan. Apparently the water level is higher than normal, because walking in on the jetty you can see a lot of partially submerged buildings.

Johan and I walk around the little village, taking pictures of pretty windows and doors. The buildings feature cool hand painted ads and between in them are small patches where they grow coffee and grapes. Turning a corner we find two damsels in distress. It’s J1 and J2 who have lost their way and just return from powering through a patch of greens. We point them in the right direction and go do some more door- and window hunting.

Back in the center of town we meet up, waiting for the guide to return so that we can walk to the next village. Jessica and Julia will have none of that, they grab a Tuk-Tuk and with a ‘So long, suckers!’ they go on ahead to San Pedro. The rest of us walk the one and a half kilometer there. The guide points out Avocado trees on the way and as we come to the outskirts of the village there is coffee laid out to dry. Our guide promises to take us to a good coffee roastery in town, which sounds really great!

Turns out to not so much be a roastery as a regular café though, and our self-proclaimed coffee lover of a guide orders a Sprite… Me, Johan and Lina order Espresso though and it actually is excellent. This village is a bit bigger with lots of narrow alleys and cozy buildings. There’s supposed to be a noteworthy church around here, but have no luck finding it. We do find a woman selling Mango, cut into the shape of a flower however, very nice!

Time is running out and we give up on the church and take a Tuk-Tuk back to the boat since we’re not exactly sure where we are anymore. As it’s time to go however, we’re still missing Julia and Jessica. We figure that they’re just late but when half an hour passes and they’re still not showing up. Someone gets the bright idea to go look for them at the other harbor in town. Sure enough, they’d been sitting there all along, being just as annoyed as we were. 😀

Next stop is Santiago, which is more or less just a guantlet of stores all selling the same touristy crap. We have lunch at a nice place where I get a rather awesome-looking Margarita and a very odd interpretation of Filét Mignon. We don’t have that much time around here, but it’s no big deal since it’s not all that interesting anyway. Among the more peculiar sights include a guy wearing an Osama Bin Laden t-shirt.

Since we don’t leave until the afternoon the next day we decide to have a little party tonight. Johan, me and Daniel go for a booze run and end up with all sorts of liquer as well as a rather stylish Sponge Bob flask to mix in. This is our first proper party and it starts off a bit stiff, but as soon as we move it to the restaurant and Jenny and Isa show off their gangsta rap skills we’re good to go.

Even though we aren’t very loud, the other guests complain to management and we’re thrown out around midnight. We move the party down to the beach and sit there watching the volcano Tolimán burn (we asked the guide earlier about the lava and he just laughed and said it was just farmers clearing forest to get more farmland, dammit…).

Pineapple: 5 quet
Ice cream: 5 quet
Mango: 2 quet
Lunch: 90 quet
Dinner: 100 quet
Booze: 120 quet

The Crack of Doom


With yesterday’s excellent sandwiches still on our minds we find our way back to the same place for breakfast. Today we return back to Guatemala, heading for lake Atitlan up in the highlands. It’s a long winding road with very nice views. Passing through the capital Guatemala City I remember reading about this place. It’s not a very nice town and through the middle of it runs a huge fissure with a river at the bottom. So what do you do with a convenient bottomless pit in the middle of town? You throw all your trash down there of course! This was what I had read about, all the poor people who make a living scavenging among the toxic rubble at the bottom of the crack…

Leaving the depressing capital behind we continue on excellent roads and make good headway. The road side is usually steep clay walls dotted withdrainage pipes, I imagine they would have a lot of landslides if they didn’t. We make a lunch stop at a roadside restaurant with excellent food and an equally excellently annoying mariachi band playing at full blast the entire meal.

Nearing our destination in the late afternoon we have to drive through a village with very narrow streets. This is where our driver Hugo really gets to show off his skills when successfully navigating our huge bus with mere centimeters clearence on each side! The road snakes down to the beautiful lake with the sinking sun and old volcanos framing the view.

Being so high up it’s rather chilly here and for the first time we get to break out our warmer clothes. We go down to the shore to watch the sunset and a comically inept water skier. The town, Panajachel, isn’t very big and pretty soon we have a good handle of what’s in it, so we find a restaurant and sit down for some dinner, beer and stories.

When it gets fully dark we get an unexpected treat, there is red lava showing on the side on one of the volcanoes! We make sure to take a bunch of really long exposure pictures of it before going to bed, very exciting!

Breakfast: 100 hon
Snacks before lunch: 42 quet
Lunch: 150 quet
Latte: 12 quet
Beer and snacks: 52 quet

Mayan Adventure


Even though we ordered breakfast last evening, the staff manage to botch the entire breakfast service in an impressive manner. Most of us do not get any breakfast at all and the ones who do get breakfast don’t get their complete orders. But we don’t have time to wait around for it to be sorted out as we are scheduled for a trip to the Tikal Maya ruins which are nearby. Along the way there we pick up a guide who speaks excellent English and as a bonus is an actual scientist working with the Mayan heritage, awesome! J1 (Jessica) and I talk about music and it turns out she’s pretty well listened and she convinces me to give Kanye West a try.

We arrive at the Tikal site and after a walkthrough of what there is to see we start towards the first site. On the way we see lots of really cute South American Coatis (or Näsbjörnar if you’re Swedish) rummaging around in the undergrowth. We learn that the vegetation around here doesn’t get very old, the trees don’t get much older than 250 years for instance, making it really hard to determine the age of a lot of the things found around here. Another interesting fact is that maize cannot grow on it’s own but needs human assistance, raising the question of how they actually did it way back then.

The first pyramid isn’t very large, maybe 20 m, and climb-friendly so we all go up and look around. We also learn that all the structures were painted red with the steps in blue back then and the reason they know the age of the pyramids is that they’ve carbon dated the paint. Far from all the structures in Tikal have been excavated and only some of them restored as opposed to just clearing away the vegetation. The area is pretty large and the walk to the next one is almost fifteen minutes through jungle. It’s worth it though since this was the largest man-made structure in the world prior to the first sky scrapers being built. From up top the view is amazing and actually the very same as can be seen when the Imperial shuttles are first landing on the Ewok moon Endor in The Return of the Jedi!

Next up is another set of temples that they used to keep their famous calendar in shape and naturally our guide explains all about what a sham the 2012 hysteria is. Last stop is the courtyard, which is the main event in Tikal with two very large temples and some smaller on the side. We get 45 minutes of free time to climb around here which I utilize fully. This place is really awesome and now I’m no longer as sorry that I missed Chichen Itza (which I didn’t mind much to begin with since it seems much more touristy and also because the cenotes diving was something I wouldn’t have missed for the world).

On the way out there is a bunch of souvenir shops and I buy another football jersey plus one with the local beer brand Gallo. Back in town we go out for dinner to that island where people were robbed a few years back. We’re a large enough group to not be very worried, and find a nice place with a live band and good food. They also have old school chewing gum, the kind made out of sap from the the gum tree and was put out of the market some time back in the fifties when they invented synthetic gum. We each buy a glob but the taste isn’t very good, still fun though and something to treat friends to back home.

We take the long way home to see some more of the town before buying breakfast at the supermarket, the hotel had their chance and lost it already. As we leave the supermarket the staff has already closed up and pulled down the iron curtain. It’s kind of interesting to see the clerk checking the eye slit before opening the door to let me out, it says something about what kind of country we’re in.

Gallo shirt: 60 quet
Football jersey: 100 quet
Quetsal: 15 quet
Food box: 70 quet
Guide tip: 20 quet
Dinner: 120 quet
Gum: 10 quet
Breakfast next day: 63 quet

Bye Bye Belize


Today we’re leaving the paradise island and on the boat back to the mainland the words “Pass my Aloe Vera to that red guy over there” are heard as a bottle of salvation makes its way to Johan. Back in port we hop on the bus and begin our journey to Guatemala. Before leaving Belize City we pass a somewhat odd graveyard where the graves extend all the way out to the divider in the middle of the road!Lizard The landscape gets interesting as we leave town for the countryside, hardly two trees are the same type and you can see the mountains faintly in the background. Johan is something of a bird guy and since he’s sitting next to me today we keep an eye out for them. I don’t manage to see many but Johan spots both a Parrot and a Toucan on the way.

As we come up on the border we get stopped by a police man for not paying our road tax, as soon as that is settled though we get to go on to the border. At the border there are lots of money changers and I get to get rid of my leftover pesos that I’d almost given up hope exchanging.Humbug I think I get an okay rate since the guy has an ID card and everything showing that he’s a licensed money changer. But next time I go on a trip with lot of currency juggling I’ll bring a note of what exchange rates to expect since the brain tends to not work very well on vacation.

On the other side of the border you need to wait some more and we take the opportunity to get some food. Karina warns us about an ATM in town that people have been skimmed at before. Since Åsa and I are both nerds we decide to use the time we have here to try and find the ATM in question and see if there is any skimming equipment attached to it. After asking the locals, using a lot of gestures, for the location of the ATM (the word is “cajero” by the way, rather useful when you’re a tourist) we head up a hill to a gas station. The ATM turns out to be rather well protected though with a thick piece of plexi glass around the card slot, so there is little risk for skimming.

The Guatemalan currency, the Quetsal (named after the bird), is roughly 1 to 1 with the sek, making it easy for our vacationing brains. Guatemala is the first cheap country we’ve come across so far and we get lunch for two for under 30 Quetsals.My palm leaf hat As we get deeper into Guatemala we also get higher up. The vegetation is thicker and greener and there are lots of cozy little villages to look at on the way. Our goal is a town called Santa Elena (the one in Peten province) and we arrive just before nightfall.

The hotel is really nice but we’re told not to wander around on our own in town since it has happened to other groups that they’ve been robbed. So when it comes to dinner time we’re a rather large group heading out. Too large in fact, we’re so many that we can’t really decide and Åsa and I make a break for it and eat dinner at some food court in a mall nearby. Malls are kind of fun to just wander around in when you’re in a country you don’t know much about so we do just that and look at what the price levels are and so on. It seems for instance, that cameras and other technical goods are about the same level as in Sweden, while food, candy and booze is significantly cheaper.

Expenses:
Exit fee: 40 blz
Sandwich + beer: 30 quet
Snacks and beer: 24 quet
Dinner: 55 quet
Candy: 62 quet