July 2000: Guatemala in my opinion is one of the most interesting countries in Central America. It has rainforests, indigenous cultures that still practice their traditions, colonial architecture, pyramids and some of the best and most accessible volcanoes anywhere in the world. All of this is made all the more accessible given how cheap the cost of travel is in Guatemala too. I have been blessed to have had the opportunity to travel to Guatemala multiple times over the last few decades, so I will post about a few of my adventures here starting with my first one in 2000. In 2000, I had a friend who was stationed in Zacapa, Guatemala in the Peace Corp. He invited me out to stay with him for a few weeks, so I joined him and when we weren’t in Zacapa, we traveled around Guatemala, Honduras and Belize.

 

 

 

Map of the route I traveled in Gatemala

Held at Gunpoint by Police

My reception to Guatemala was not a warm one. Within the first hour of arriving, I was in a taxi ride with my Peace Corps friend to a hotel in Guatemala City, we were pulled over by a police car. The police aggressively removed us from the taxi with the driver and stood us up against the vehicle with their guns drawn, which included one sawed off shot gun. In a tirade of angry Spanish verbal commands that I didn’t understand, we stood helplessly with our hands up in the air doing our best to try and de-escalate the situation. The police then turned their attention to the taxi driver, pushed him to the ground and started kicking him. Next, they demanded to search our luggage and inspect our passports. As one of them searched our luggage, I kept a close eye on him in case he tried to plant drugs, which I was sure he would do in order to demand a bribe from us. Tim, who spoke fluent Spanish spoke with the second cop who was inspecting our passports. Tim presented his Peace Corps diplomatic passport and when the officer saw diplomat on the cover, he froze, and his demeanor changed. Tim explained that were just trying to get to our hotel across the street, a peace Corps hotel, where govt workers stay from the USA and that we wanted no trouble. The officers apologized and explained our taxi driver ran a red light, and they immediately left the scene. I have no doubt that Tim’s diplomatic passport saved the day and that if it weren’t for that passport, we were going to be robbed by the police. Guatemala, a country that just ended its civil war that saw 200,000 people die only 14 years ago, was a country rife with guns and people desensitized to violence living in poverty and violence was rife. Violence was a way of life for many in Guatemala’s after the war and many foreigners were robbed or worse. Tim and fellow passengers would be robbed at gun point by bandits on a road years later. Luckily for them no one was harmed. This was especially true in the neighborhood of our hotel in Guatemala City, which was surrounded by barbed wire and barricades. That night we went to sleep listening to the distant sounds of gun shots.  This was my introduction to Guatemala.

 

 

 

Tim and I

Luckily the trip would only get better from then on out and I would have a blast living with Tim in Zacapa, meeting his friends and co-workers and seeing what he does in the Peace Corps with helping to create small businesses. I’ll never forget one of the scariest travels sleeping experiences I had was in Zacapa, when I slept on the floor of Tims room on a blanket and he slept in the bed. He lived in a humble Guatemalan house, which means many multi-legged trespassers are free to go as they like at night and the ground is their preferred path, where I was sleeping. One night, it was hot, and I was without my shirt on, and I felt wither a giant spider or a scorpion crawling up my leg. It was pitch black and I couldn’t see it, but I dare not move thinking whatever it was would just go away on its own. But it didn’t. The large mysterious creature continued to crawl up my leg to my chest and all the way to my neck before I decided enough is enough and I jumped up flinging it to the wall. I jumped into my buddy’s bed and found a flashlight and scoured the room for the vile insect. But it disappeared under the gaps between the floorboards and walls. From that night on in Zacapa, my buddy and I were sharing a bed.

 

Tim giving some village kids pens and notebooks as gifts

A friendly farmer near Zacapa

Mayan Highlands

For the rest of my trip in Guatemala, Tim and I traveled by public bus around the country. We visited Antigua, Pacaya Volcano and some of the highland villages around lake Atitlan where we visited the indigenous Mayan villages. The Mayan people in their traditional dress, especially practice a hybrid of Mayan and Catholic beliefs and this belief system is evident in many of the cultural practices and decorations. At the time of my visit, there were a lot of taboos with photography of the Mayan people from foreigners and we were careful about where we pointed our cameras and also about obtaining permission. One foreign man a few months prior to my visit, took a photo of a Mayan child and was immediately accused by the village of trying to kidnap the boy and a mob of people viciously attacked the foreigner and killed him with machetes. One example of this was when we visited the shrine to a Mayan saint called Maximom, basically a 4-foot-tall Mr. Potato Head looking creating with a cowboy hat and adorned with offerings of vice such as cigarettes, beer, dirt magazines, and money.  Maximom is the product of merging Catholicism and Mayan beliefs together. At the end of each borrowing period, usually a year, Maximom will move to a new family and my understanding is all of the offerings are kept by the family.

 

Lake Atitlan

Mayan Market

Mayan Market

Maximom The Saint of Vices

Mayan Pyramids of the Peten

After visiting the highlands, Tim and I traveled across the country on a long grueling 20-hour bus ride to the Petén jungles of the north where most of the Mayn pyramids are located. The pyramids of the north are special because unlike many of their counterparts in Mexico because the jungle is left largely undisturbed around them with all of its nature allowed to flourish. In addition to feeling like Indiana Jones, hiking through overgrown jungle to visit the pyramids, you are also surrounded by wildlife such as howler monkeys, spider monkeys and Kunumunde-racoon like creature. At the time of or visit, some people were even sleeping overnight on top of the pyramids, but we sadly missed out on this opportunity. From the Peten we traveled to Cay Caulker, in Belize.

Tikal Pyramids

Me feeding a wild Kudamundi in Tikal

Tim and I with some fellow travelers on top of pyramids of Tikal

Volcanos Trekking

October 2007: In my 2nd trip to Guatemala, my focus was on the volcanos. Along with a group of my closest friends, Dan, Tim, and Steve, we climbed and camped on top of two volcanoes, Pacaya and Fuego) over the course of a three day-weekend trip to Guatemala.  Pacaya Volcano was far more active during this trip compared to when I first visited Guatemala. During my first trip, I could climb to the crater and peer inside and see a faint glow of lava red. Now it was far too dangerous to do this, and lava was bursting out of one of the vents from the side of the volcano but slow enough to safely approach it and poke a stick into the lava. We camped on Pacaya with a killer view from our campsite and visit the lava runs at night. It was an amazing experience walking over sharp, dried lava rock that formed a crust over moving currents of lava below. Even though the rock was dry, it was still searing hot and burnt the rubber off of our shoes. This is definitely one of those activities that would be banned in the USA as every step we took was a gamble that could see a thin bit of lava crust give way leaving you plunging into the hot molten lava below.  Then later that night as we walked back to our tents our guide encountered a skunk and was sprayed. This meant that we all had some skunk stink attached to us and since we were all sleeping in one giant tent this didn’t bode well for sleeping.

Dan, Tim, Me, and Steve at the beginning of a climb

Pacaya Volcano

Row of Volcanoes

Us Guys Relaxing to Red Wine at Our Campsite on Pacaya Volcano

Dan poking the lava

The group in front of the lava

The 2nd volcano we climbed and camped next to on its ridge was Fuego. For more about the climb of Fuego, the most accessible and best volcano to observe an active eruption in the world, click here.

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