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Run for dear life

70 °F
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November 1st is known as the Day of the Dead or All Souls' Day in many Latin American countries. In Guatemala some cities hold major celebrations. Santiago is one of them. People gather in the main cemetery in the city, build giant kites and fly them in the cemetery. I headed to Santiago with a few friends early morning. And by early I mean early that I didn't even have a chance to grab breakfast. An hour later we're in Santiago. The driver stops right around the corner from the main street leading to the cemetery. We walk to the main street and the first thing I see was Fri-Pollo. I've had many discussions bout fried chicken with my teacher. All started when I asked about Pollo Campero which is everywhere in Guate. Turns out that Pollo Campero used to have the best fried chicken in Guate until they switched over from organic locally grown chicken to industrial hormone-grown ones. According to my teacher this is when Pollo Campero lost it's popularity with some people. The chicken tasted different. So now some people prefer Fri-Pollo and other smaller ones. Well for the sake of research I decided to have 2 pieces of fried chicken and fries for breakfast from Fri-Pollo. One of the best breakfasts I've had since I got there!

We continued up the street and saw tons of arts and crafts vendors on the side and many food stands. Some looked very good and some looked pretty dirty with flies everywhere. And just as we reached the cemetery there were guys dressed in blue and red, Domino's Pizza! It was very strange seeing Domino's there. It just didn't fit in with the rest.

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Just outside the cemetery entrance there was a large kite propped up where you can stand in front of it and take a picture with it. The kite was so beautifully decorated with many colors, images and symbols. This is me pretending to fly one.

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As we stepped in we saw a ton of people in the cemetery. There were so many kites in all different sizes. There were six gigantic kites made out of bamboo frame. We got there when they were making them. Once they were done making them they hoisted them up and the sight of these kites standing up was amazing.

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Throughout the day baby kites and bigger kites were flying everywhere. The bigger ones were more of a challenge. A few kids hold the kite up and others run with the rope through the crowd and stepping on tombs along the way. It didn't seem quite respectful of the dead but I suppose the entire celebration was to honor the dead. Some of these tombs were beautifully decorated with yellow flowers. And some were used as diaper trays!

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Some of these kites take off and a minute or two later come crashing down onto people. You can always tell there's a kite that's about to crash the minute you hear everyone hold their breath and then you hear and see a scurry of people running for dear life. I decided to go near where the action was happening and as expected one kite almost crashed onto us and I had to run for dear life. FUN!

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Unfortunately the wind wasn't strong enough to fly the giant kites. It was kinda confusing because once you see these kites in real life you cannot imagine how they could fly. We weren't sure if they actually fly them or not but then some people were saying that they have seen them flown on TV so who knows!

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We then decided to do what the locals do. Climb one of those tomb structures and hang out at the top to watch everything that's going on. A Guatemalan was having a difficult time flying her kite so she decided to give it to me. After a few failed attempts I managed to fly it so I joined in on the action.

A few hours later we were all hungry so we called it a day and headed back to the main street. The street was so packed with people and it was pretty difficult to get through. We found a place on the side with a grill facing the street so you can see what they're serving. Grilled meat, SOLD! At that point the flies covering the meat didn't even matter. I went to the bathroom before we got our food and right next to the bathroom there was the sink where they wash the dishes. Two big buckets; a sink with soap water and a second with "clean" water. Dunk, dunk, wipe and the plate is good to go!

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Posted by nawaf 14:34 Archived in Guatemala Tagged events Comments (1)

Choco-la-tay

sunny 75 °F
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Kris and I have been planning on going to Semuc Champey for some time now. I read about this lodge near Champey called El Retiro in Lanquin. It's a famous backpacker lodge that is very affordable. I contacted Josue at the lodge and he told me it won't be a problem staying there for the weekend. As others found out about our plans they joined us one by one and before I know it we had a group of 10 people. I must have contacted Josue 4 times to update my reservation.

I was going to arrange for a shuttle to take all 10 of us but as the group grew in size the school found out about our plans. They offered us their shuttle and after negotiating with them the bus was gonna cost an extra $2.5 per person but we get a private bus leaving when we want and returning when we want. Deal!

The trip was pretty painful. It took us 7-8 hours to get to Lanquin. The last hour of the ride was on a dirt road. Bumpy, narrow and extremely poor visibility. By the time we got there it was pretty dark we didn't even notice that we had arrived! Josue was asleep by then so we check in with someone else and we found out that instead of paying $4.38 a night per person we were gonna pay $3.13. Sweet!

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The place was amazing. We got a 10-bed cabin so we had our private dorm style bunk beds cabin. We all claimed our beds as quick as we could. I claimed a top bunk. We were all happy with the cabin. It even had a hammock outside! On the other side of the lodge there was nothing but darkness so we couldn't tell if it was the side of the mountain, a jungle or just thick brush.

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Kris came up to us and pointed out that the beds we infested with bedbugs. No one seemed to mind. I guess for $3 you really can't expect much. We headed over to the restaurant/lounge and we pretty much hung out, played cards and chilled. We had to be ready for the Semuc Champey tour by 9am the next morning. So we eventually made it back to the room. Kris brought along his guitar so him and Alisha played a bit before we all went to sleep.

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The next morning we all rush out to the restaurant. On the way to the restaurant we noticed that our lodge sits on the river bank. It was beautiful. The river and the side of the mountain facing our cabin. We grab our take away lunch and then we all pack into 2 pick up trucks headed to Champey. The road was bumpy and the trucks were full. There were so many other people with us on the tour. Mostly people in the early to late 20s.

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We get to the first stop which was the Lanquin caves and the waterfall. We started by taking turns on a really long swing attached to a giant tree on the river side. The guide tells you when to jump off and you drop 10 feet in the air before hitting the water! As soon as I hit the water I had to swim to the side as fast as possible so not to get carried away by the rapid waters. I went on the swing 3 times it was so cool.

After the swing we headed over to the caves. We each got a candle and entered the cave one by one. The entire time we were either submerged half way or swimming across holding the candle up because it was deep. The cave was very dark and you can barely see anything with a candle. There were parts of the cave where we had to put out the candle, bite on the end and climb the rocks while fighting the gushing water. There was a spot where we can climb the rocks and then jump into a round natural pool in the dark. We must have spent a couple of hours in the caves.

We got out and then we headed over the the waterfall. The waterfall was gorgeous. We swam across the river and got to one side of it where we climbed up the uncomfortable rocky and sharp side of the fall. Once we got up there there was a flat rock where we can lie down while the water falls on us. We climbed behind the waterfall and back out and then we climbed the other side of the waterfall. It was 20 meters above water. I was the first one to get there. The guide looks at me and says this is where we jump into the water. 20 meters!!! I was so excited and jumped off without hesitation. What a drop! it felt like I was in the air for a few minutes! Ok I'm exaggerating but it was a pretty high jump! As soon as I resurfaced I headed straight back to the spot where I can climb up and jump again. A few of jump twice while the rest waited and watched everyone else on the riverbank.

I swam back and the guide said we weren't yet done with activities there. We were each handed a tube and went up the river and tubed all the way back to the point where we arrived in the morning. I of course wanted a bit of more excitement so I decided to take my tube and go to the rapids at the top of the river so I can pick up some more speed. I push myself off and find myself in the middle of the rapids. Within seconds I was off my tube and just hanging on to it so I don't lose it. Half of the way tubing I was trying to get back in my tube but the water was so fast it was nearly impossible. At some point I was facing backwards holding on to my tube and next thing you know i hit this giant rick with my back! My body bent over backwards on the rock not the best feeling in the world! After that I was just hoping I don't hit another invisible rock. Eventually I made it back on the tube about 2 minutes before I had to get off! Great!

Once we were all there we asked if we could jump off the bridge that was nearby. Josue said that normally he would let us do that but some drunk guy jumped off the wrong side head first, hit a rock and died. So out of respect (not safety) they were gonna stop people from jumping off for some time.

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The whole time there there were these little girls selling chocolates. "Choco-la-tay", "Choco-la-tay", "Choco-la-tay". Some people finally caved in and bought some chocolates. They were flavored chocolates and the flavor was so potent. I liked it in small quantities but many did not like it at all.

Now that we did pretty much everything we could do at that location it was time to pack in the truck again and head over to the natural cascaded pools of Semuc Champey. We must have spent 2 hours just swimming in the pools and exploring different jumping spots. We knew there was a hiking trail that overlooks all the pools but it was a steep hike up the mountain about 35 minutes each way. We were too lazy to go up. So we continued to swim.

It started to get cold about an hour before we had to be back on the truck so we decided to get out and just walk around. We found out there were 3 other giant pools that we didn't even know about. We all wished we had more time there. We bumped into this guy who just made it down from the vista point. He showed us the pictures and the minute we saw them we all decided that it was definitely worth the climb. He warned us that it is not an easy climb. He was right. It was a killer climb and it felt like the trail was never going to end. But it was all worth it when we reached the top. The view was just astonishing. Unfortunately we didn't have much time to hang out there so we took a few pictures and headed down. We barely made it on the truck.

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Posted by nawaf 15:43 Archived in Guatemala Tagged ecotourism Comments (0)

Shticks!

overcast 60 °F
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On Wednesday I decided to climb Volcan Pacaya. The tour was arranged by the school. Usually I don't go with the school since it is cheaper to arrange those trips on my own but this one was cheap enough and we got a private microbus for our group of friends. The volcano is about 45 min away we got to the base and we get surrounded by kids holding hiking "shticks". They were selling a pair for less than a dollar. I didn't buy one but Hannah had an extra one and she was kind enough to offer it to me. I'm glad I took it.

The climb was not terribly difficult but it wasn't easy either. We walked up the narrow trail surrounded by trees and stray dogs! Half way up the guide pointed out a tree that has giant leafs that we can use to wipe our sweat. It was pretty cool. The leafs were very absorbent! About two thirds of the way up our guide told us that this was our last chance to grab branches to use for roasting marshmallows.

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Beyond that point there was not a single tree just black sand and rocks. That's when our climb got a bit more difficult. It felt like we were walking on snow. Every step was so heavy! We make it to the top and before we know it we were walking on giant plates of hardened lava. When I stomped on these plates I could hear an echo. It must have been hollow under these plates.

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We made it to the tip of the mountain where lava was spewing out and it got so hot. I stood at a spot about 20 feet away from the lava and the heat was unbearable. every couple of minutes there was a blast of scorching hot air. It felt like my face was melting. I wanted a picture closer to the lava so I get as close as 6 feet away from the lava. I couldn't last more than 30 seconds in that spot. That was enough to burn a couple of my fingers! Luke gave it a try and he burnt his leg hairs. He was wearing shorts which I guess wasn't the best idea.

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I poked the lava with my hiking stick and the end of the stick just exploded in flames. It was wild! No one was able to stand there long so decided to step away and looked for a spot where we can roast marshmallows. The rocks were black but you can find these gray holes which indicated hot spots. After eating 6 or 7 marshmallows it got old and it was getting dark too so it was time to head back.

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On the way back Joe and I decided to run through the sandy part. It was like flying where with every jump we were in the air for a few seconds since it was pretty steep. By the time we got to the end of the sandy part our shoes were filled with black sand! and at that moment it was pretty dark. The rest of our way back was pretty much walking in complete darkness. In some parts even flashlights were useless since the fog was so dense and light didn't travel far.

At the base the same kids were waiting for us. They wanted their shticks back. Even though we bought these shticks it was nice to know that they will be reused!

Posted by nawaf 12:59 Archived in Guatemala Tagged ecotourism Comments (1)

Speedy

sunny 85 °F
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Sender's main job in Monterrico is to work with Sea Turtles. They walk up and down the beach every night looking for mama turtles who are making their way up the beach to lay their eggs. They lay around 100 eggs on average an then make it back to the water. Sender and his colleagues collect these eggs and bring them to the protected hatchery where they rebury the eggs and nurse them right after they hatch. These guys are directly competing with locals who are also cruising the beach every night looking for eggs. The locals sell the eggs to people who are looking for a natural source of aphrodisiac! They believe these eggs have some enhancing power to their late night activities! Sender told me that sometimes they buy the eggs from them and try to educate them about the importance of preserving wildlife for generations to come. I joined him one night during one of his cruises. We walked for 2 hours in the dark. I couldn't see where I was going but he said light scares mama turtles away. Unfortunately we didn't see any that evening.

Saturday afternoon there was a big event around 6pm where for Q10 ($1.25) you can sponsor a baby turtle and release him out to sea. There were tons of people on the beach and I wanted my own baby turtle. I named mine Speedy. At the moment when everyone released the turtles there were so many little ones making their way to the water. Some of them get stuck in a sand hole but all of them were resilient enough and made it. It was more like get close enough until a giant wave comes and gobbles them all up. Speedy made me proud!

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I took this picture shortly after.. the sunset was breathtaking!

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Posted by nawaf 14:31 Archived in Guatemala Tagged ecotourism Comments (0)

Reflecting on glass

sunny 75 °F
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Apparently it was the turtle festival that week in Monterrico. The night we arrived there was a stage set up on the street and a DJ spinning all kinds of music, merengue, reggaeton, dance and pop. Everyone was dancing on the street. It was great. We met a couple of local people, Chipi and Roberto. It was pretty cool being able to somewhat communicate with them. They just wanted to see us dance with everyone. The rest of the weekend we couldn't get rid of Chipi!!

That night we danced until 1am. The next morning we had to get up to get to the boat dock by 5am to catch the sunrise boat ride through the mangroves. 4 hours of sleep on an uncomfortable bed with a mosquito net that has giant holes. Needless to say I didn't get much sleep.

By 5am Richard and I were on the main street waiting for Sender. We bumped into Venice and the other Richard, also from the Netherlands. Sender never showed up. I guess it was a rough night for him! So we ended up going with the other guide. All 4 of us got on a boat and we set off on a 2-hour quite ride through the swamps. The boat was a narrow long boat and the guy that steers it stand at the back with a pretty long stick like a Gondola! No motor no engine just the sound of the jungle waking up!

Along the way the guide pointed out different flowers, creatures, birds and plants. You can hear the swamps as we float on glass. The view of the volcanoes at a distance reflecting on the water was breathtaking! At some point the guide headed towards the thick brush and to my surprise he took us through the brush! It felt like I was in that movie "Anaconda". Trees and branches everywhere, leaves and plants around and under the boat.

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The entire time we were cruising no one said a word! I guess some were just tired. For me It was definitely time to absorb the beauty of nature and reflect! It's amazing how sometimes you find yourself in a situation where your state of mind just transforms and wanders a bit further than usual!

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Posted by nawaf 15:58 Archived in Guatemala Tagged ecotourism Comments (0)

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