“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Friday, April 30, 2010

Guatemala and Hurricane Stan

We spent ten days in Guatemala, never saw the sun. We arrived in country the same day as Hurricane Stan and experienced the country through a wet prism of torrential rain, flooding, landslides and cold weather (yes, you can see your breath in Central America). We planned for a week of mountain climbing, kayaking, biking and hiking but Stan had different ideas.

We stayed in the historic town of Antigua in Guatemala’s central highlands. Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage site and deservedly so. Its colonial churches of Spanish Baroque architecture are backdropped against a ring of volcanic mountains, picturesque to the extreme.
We found our home in a small bar on Norte Calle, just south of the St Madrid Cathedral. The bar buzzed with a lively crowd of Irish, English, German and New Zealand expats and tourists and the Australian bartender was quick with a joke and a beer and we found ourselves returning nightly for a dry place for conversation and beers .

Our days were wet but that didn’t keep us from enjoying the country. We picked up bikes and pedaled along the Pan-American Highway which snakes through the highlands and the lush jungles of Central America. In Guatemala, as in the rest of Central America, it is the main artery for commerce and travel but we found it surprisingly deserted the day we rode it. That’s what biblical flooding and blinding rainstorms will do to traffic. The weather and the seemingly endless uphill tarmac were brutal and we struggled up the highway. Last night’s beer didn’t help.

But we pressed on, pedaling through the mists and fog until we happened on an open roadside pavilion. Exhausted and in need of a break we stopped and were greeted by a delightful Guatemalan family. A bevy of little kids gathered around us, undoubtedly wondering what these crazy Gringos were doing riding bikes in the rain. The kids were happy and laughing and they recharged our batteries. That, and the fact that we had reached the apex of the highway over the mountain and it was all downhill from now on, made for a great finish to a grueling ride. We coasted downhill for miles, descending out of the clouds to clear views of lovely Lake Atitlan, situated in a caldera among three volcanos. The lake was blue and glassy, a pleasant change from what we had been through so far. We cruised into the village of Panajachel on the shores of the lake.

Panajachel was in the midst of their annual village festival, complete with greased pole climbs, dancers in native costume and a thriving marketplace and we spent the afternoon enjoying the festivities before catching a launcha across the lake to a guesthouse perched gloriously on the lakeside cliffs. After a hot meal we drank wine and shared a communal hot tub overlooking the lake with other guests.

The next day we set out at dawn, choosing to hike the lake perimeter back into Panajachel. Rain drenched us again, and we trekked through villages and fields of fifteen foot high corn along a barely discernible footpath through the jungle. We hiked quietly through a village adorned with Anti-American graffiti as we practiced our fake Aussie accents. We encountered native children who scampered away in panic at the sight of us in their midst. I don’t think they had ever seen Gringos before. This was definitely off the beaten path. We stumbled into Panajachel and caught a truck ride back to Antigua just as another torrential storm set in. The road became a dangerous quagmire and we dodged desk-sized boulders and muddy landslides ripping down the mountainsides and across the road.

The unremitting bad weather changed our plans. We were to take a kayak trip through the coastal mangroves but the flooding made that impossible. We retreated to Antigua and reassessed our itinerary. We had planned to climb Acatenango, a 13,045 foot volcanic peak but I opted out. My friend Ed stuck to the plan.

I caught a plane to the Yucatan Peninsula to see Tikal, Ed hired a guide and took on the mountain. My idea was better. Tikal is amazing, one of the largest archaeological sites of pre-Columbian Maya civilization. It is a huge complex of ruins rising spectacularly out of the jungle. I enjoyed two days of DRY hiking and exploration.

Ed spent two days huddled with his guide, rain, and fog in a climbing hut on the side of Acatenango. He never saw the peak, never even made it above tree line.

We left Guatemala as we came in, wet. With the exception of my two days at Tikal, we were rained on—heavily—daily. But we loved the country, the people and the experiences. Not a typical tourist trip, exactly what we wanted.

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