Archive for June, 2008


I am not a night owl. Anyone who knows me, knows this. My bedtime is roughly 10- 11pm, depending on how productive I was during the day.

So, to sign up for a hike that *begins* at 11pm might sound a little crazy for me. But I did it anyway.

The full-moon hike up Volcán Santa María outside of Xela only happens once a month (duh), so it was definitely full (40 people all together signed up through Quetzaltrekkers).  We met at the Quetzaltrekkers office just below my hotel room at 11 pm to arrange gear and nosh on a delicious vegan stew and bread.

My gear: big backpack, sleeping bag, extra sweatshirt, hat, gloves, three liters of water, my camera, and an egg sandwich (provided by Quetzaltrekkers).

We divided ourselves into the “slower” group and the “faster” group– I put myself in the faster group, following the advice of the guides the day before to be at the back of the second group and last up the mountain.  The slower group left about a half hour before the faster group to get a head start, and we stood around chatting for a while.

There were a LOT of medical students.  They were… nice.  I had met some of them the week before, when I translated a menu for them at a restaurant.

Finally, we all boarded a pickup bound for the base of the volcano. 20 minutes later, we were on the pitch-dark trail.

I quickly found myself at the back of the pack (with a guide carrying a MUCH heavier pack than I), as the (male) med students sprinted on ahead. They were carrying neither sleeping bags nor water. One of them had his iPod on, and said that he’d only use it “IF the trail got hard.”

Proceeding slowly and steadily over the rocks and roots and mud, squinting in the dimming light of my headlamp (batteries running low…), I stuck with the back group for the first half or so of the trail.  Then we got into the endless switchbacks. 

I pretty much have one speed when hiking.  I can’t go faster, and I can’t really go slower.  I’ll rest when I want to, I’ll eat when I want to, and that’s that. I can go at that pace for HOURS though. And so, I did. 4.5 hours, in fact.

I passed the group I started with. I passed the tail end of the “slow” group. I caught up to the main bunch of the “slow” group.  And then I caught the med students, just below the top of the mountain. 

I admit, I did use my iPod. La 5a Estación and Julietta Venegas accompianied me to the top, on the lowest volume setting that I could hear over the swish of my rainpants.

We arrived at the summit at around 4:30 in the morning, with a half-hour before sunrise. I started out huddled in my (gross, sweaty) cotton t-shirt layered with a lightweight longsleeved polypro top, a midweight fleece, another heavier fleece, and my rainjacket (longundies and rainpants on the bottom), plus gloves and hat. Then I got in my sleeping bag. That was not sufficient, and I started jumping up and down, still in my sleeping bag (rated to -5 degrees F, thankyouverymuch). That was not sufficient either, and I found myself shaking uncontrolably.

Sunrise, as (hopefully) evidenced by the previous post, was stunning.

We hung around at the top until about 6:30, and I seriously thought I was going to die of the cold. Thankfully, the guides boiled some water for hot beverages (I mixed some instant coffee with hot chocolate) and that helped a lot.

We set off down the same trail we had hiked up, taking about half the time to descend as we did to climb.  We all piled into a chickenbus for the ride back to Xela, and arrived just before 11am.

Rather than go to sleep, I showered and ran out to get some errands done before meeting a friend at 2pm.  Adreneline all the way.


Sunrise Over Xelajú

Narrative coming later; enjoy the pictures for now 😉

Siete Cruces

Now that I’m back in Xela, I’ve promised myself that I won’t be a slug, going from coffee shop to coffee shop all day. On my list: some hiking, some meeting with potential ”contacts,” some scoping out potential field sites. And more reading.

I wanted to go to the hot springs about 45 minutes away (where my mom and I visited last year) but didn’t want to take a tourist shuttle there. Nor did I really have the energy/motivation to take chicken buses.

So, I registered for a day-hike with Quetzaltrekkers, a non-profit charity hiking organization with their offices in the hotel I’m staying in. I first learned about them three years ago, from a girl I went hiking with in Perú. All profits from the hikes go to benefit Escuela de la Calle, and a student dorm. All of their guides are volunteers, and live off of the tips they receive. I really wish I had the three months needed to volunteer-guide with them, but alas. Somehow I don’t think I could bill that as research.

So I showed up at their office, right below my room, at 5:30 in the morning, after waking up to firecrackers and roosters a half- hour earlier. As it turned out, I was their only client.

Normally, they require three clients in order to run this hike– but for some reason, my guides decided to run it anyway. Sweet! It would just be me, Ziggy (Canadian, returning home in a month to attend law school) and Yehron (Israeli, returning home in a month to get his Master’s in Media and Culture).

We started out in a pickup to Xecum, a small town just outside of Xela. We stopped there for breakfast: fried egg sandwiches, guacamole, and bananas. Please note the lack of coffee. Not that I’m complaining, it should just be noted.

The first part of our hike went through temperate forest, uphill for about an hour and a half or so. Soon we came to a gorgeous cypress forest, where we stopped for a break and to take some pictures. Whaddaya know, the guides are in to taking pictures too.

Cypress Forest-- Siete Cruces hike

After one more long-ish uphill section, we came out on a mirador (lookout point), where Ziggy and Yehron were very pleased to see that it was clear. I was pretty psyched too, but I didn’t know that it might not be clear. It was so clear, in fact, we could see all the way to Lake Atitlán (a three-day hike away, in case anyone wants to try… I do, but it’ll have to wait until next summer).

View towards the lake, Siete Cruces trek

You can see the lake waaaaay off in the distance, just left of center of the photo, next to the peaks (ahem, volcanoes). The exposure is a bit dark, but I was trying to compensate for the incredibly bright clouds… will have to adjust the balance when I get home 😛

We sat and devoured an entire kilo of trail mix (trail mix!!!!!!). Ziggy and Yehron marveled at how usually that much trail mix feeds 8 people. Clearly, they don’t know me.

They also marveled at what good time we were making. So, we loitered and took some more pictures, before moving on to attack the ridge section.

The Ridge, Siete Cruces Trek

This is a view of the ridge, essentially three hours worth of steep uphill followed by steep downhill; lather, rinse, repeat.

In all masochistic honesty, it was my favorite section. The variety (switching it up between climbing and descending), plus the views, kept it interesting– and kept you on your toes.

The path we followed along the ridge was actually a road marking the boundary between the municipality of Zunil (in the department of Quetzaltenango) and the municipality of Ixtahuacán (i think– in the department of Sololá). How interesting that they use a road to mark a borderland. Along the road, at varying intervals, were crosses. Seven of them, in fact. Hence the name, ”Siete Cruces” (seven crosses).

If I had my handy point-and-shoot that fits in my pocket rather than my slightly cumbersome DSLR which mostly stayed in my backpack, I would have taken pictures of all the crosses. Next time.

At the end of the ridge, just below Pico Zunil (Zunil Peak– the high point way to the left in that photo), we stopped for lunch under some nice pine trees. We were a half hour ahead of time, which made the guides (mostly Yehron) laugh. They told me they were glad that the one time they only had one client, it wasn’t a slow client. Aw, thanks guys!

We devoured a lunch of homemade peanut butter (YUM), homemade jelly (blackberry– also YUM), leftovers that Yehron had made (a lentil-rice-veg mixture that was quite tasty), some more guacamole, and a tomato- cucumber- onion salad. I ate a lot, I admit.

The guys took half- hour naps to make up for… saved time… and I sat and wrote for a bit. The spot was very pretty, and shaded, and would have made a great camping spot.

Following lunch, it was all downhill. No, really. We descended for about 3 hours through cloud forest (beautiful!) and bamboo forest (slippery!!) and over a very few flat-ish sections.

Through the bamboo forest, we started counting how many times each of us fell on the incredibly slippery mud. Ziggy, leading the group, fell 4.5 times. Yehron, pulling up the rear, fell 3.5 times. I fell 19.5 times.

On the 19.5th time, I landed on my elbow and dislocated my shoulder.

I knew what had happened literally as soon as my elbow hit the ground… maybe even a split second before contact, I swear. And, unable to do anything else, I swore. Profusely.

The first time you dislocate your shoulder (or any joint, I presume) it hurts like &%$”!. I mean, really. It hurts. A lot. In the USofA, we’re lucky and you can go to the ER and they’ll drug you up and ease your joint back in to place and give you some very strong prescription pain killers to take home.

Hopefully, you don’t dislocate whatever joint it is a second time… because then you are more likely to do it again… and again… and again. The likelihood of doing it again increases each time, until you can pop it in and out at will.

The good news is, it hurts slightly less each time, too! Remembering what I had learned from the last time, I pulled my wrist out in front of me to relieve the pressure on the bundle of nerves now being crushed by my out- of- place joint.

Lo and behold, that did the trick and my shoulder popped back into place. Woo hoo!

I think the guys were a little worried at first– and I felt bad, because I could just imagine the bureaucratic paperwork they’d make you fill out at home. Luckily, I don’t think they had to do anything extra, since I was pretty much good as normal.

We only had a few more minutes until we reached the hot springs, where we sat and soaked for a blissful hour before catching another pickup back to Xela at 6pm. I think the sulfur’s curative effects will help. My shoulder didn’t really hurt last night, but it’s definitely a bit sore today.

I’ll be fine, as long as I don’t do something stupid like go traipsing up a mountain under the full moon to see the sunrise, or something like that.


A nice place to visit…

But I don’t think I would ever live in Monterrico, Guatemala. Funny, because I feel like I could live just about anywhere else in Guatemala (Mom, stop cringing).

It’s not that I don’t like beaches. I do. And I love the ocean. One of my favorite places ever is the Olympic Peninsula, WA, where sand and seawater abound. It’s just…

I don’t think I could live in a place where, even after applying three different chemicals (SPF 30, DEET 25%, and Deodorant with Aluminum) to my skin twice a day, after showering– twice a day, I still end up sunburned, bug-bitten, and smelly. YUCK.

Three Chemicals a Day, Monterrico

That said, Monterrico is a lovely place to take a vacation. And I had a lovely little… vacation.

From the time I left Xela (where I had developed the rather self-destructive routine of sleeping in, eating a big breakfast, and proceeding to tour the city’s coffee shops through the rest of the day) I felt like a total tourist. Not that I feel like an “insider” otherwise… but at least otherwise I have a general handle on how things work. Generally.

First, I was herded on to a Pullman (first class) bus, after insisting to the ayudante that I wanted a Chicken Bus (camioneta). I had to repeat no fewer than 5 times that yes, Escuintla is where I was headed, not Guatemala. And no, I would not be connecting to Antigua there but rather to Taxisco. Yes, Taxisco. Right past Escuintla. You haven’t heard of it? Taxisco! The cheese capital of Guatemala!

The micro driver in Taxisco refused to speak to me, resorting instead to gestures all the while I was repeating back to him (in Spanish) what I thought he was trying to say. Then he tried to charge me double for the bus fare. Oh, it was a joke? Ha ha, so funny.

Needless to say, I was a tad frustrated.

Seven hours later, I arrived in Monterrico dripping with sweat (and those who know me realize that that’s no euphemism) and really frickin’ hungry. My hotel was really nice (Café del Sol), with incredibly friendly management. I settled down to a chicken sandwich (on whole wheat bread!!!) and a mind-blowing papaya licuado (smoothie).

Took a cold (and much needed) shower, trained the fan on me, and fell asleep. I think the mosquito netting over my bed was mostly for decoration, but I attempted to arrange it in a way that would actually be… effective.

Woke up with minimal bites. Off to a good start.

I had a big breakfast (french toast!! delicious) and headed off down the black sand beach to take pictures and find the sea turtle reserve. I have to say, the pictures in Monterrico are my favorites so far from this trip.. I’m having a difficult time getting the ones I want to upload, but I’ll try again tomorrow.

I found the smaller sea turtle reserve run by USAC (University of San Carlos) and took a tour. By the time I left, my legs had been feasted on by the mosquitoes in spite of my DEET applications. I started back down the beach, and stopped for a water at another hotel.

While I was sitting and admiring the view from an adirondak chair (yeah, it’s rough, but someone has to do it…) a guy about my age came and sat down next to me. He was Austrian, traveling alone (so he implied) but had met up with a bunch of other lone travelers in Antigua (warning bells). They had rented a car and drove down to Monterrico together. He invited me along on a mystery tour that he and his group were taking later in the day. Cool!

I swear he was hitting on me, but then his girlfriend came and sat down with us. Traveling alone??

So I met up with his group after lunch; the group consisted of four Canadians (three guys and a girl), one Brit (girlfriend of Austrian guy), a girl from Denmark (?) and a girl from the Netherlands. I was the only American, and they made several comments to that extent.  We went hiking (with a guide) to this pretty little waterfall. Lovely. Went for a dip, took some pictures, all was good.

They were headed back to Antigua on Sunday, and offered me a ride as far as I’d like. I said that I would definitely take them up on their offer. I met them again for dinner at the place across the street from their restaurant. Probably the best meal I’ve had in Guatemala (for real).

Next morning, I wake up with red, bumpy, itchy feet. Oh, lovely. I believe it’s from dinner the night before….

Nasty foot

Apologies for the gross photo. It has been minimized, a la National Geographic, for your safety. Please view previous post for pretty photos.

I got up extra-early to take an “eco-tour” of the mangrove swamp (5 am). It’s really beautiful, and very interesting. I was the only one on the tour, so I got to chat with the guide. We saw a river otter!! Very exciting. I took a lot of pictures (see previous post, or

After the mangrove tour, I have breakfast at the hotel again: granola, fruit salad, yogurt, coffee, and papaya juice. Have I mentioned the papaya juice? No, not the licuado, the juice. Fresh squeezed. How do I know this? There are bits of seed in it. And chunks of papaya. Holy….. amazing. Just amazing.

I head off down the beach again, fully intending to reach the sea turtle reserve in the next town over. I walk for about an hour, and then turn back. I stop for a licuado at the place where the group I met is staying. The Canadian girl is at the bar, and I say hi, but she doesn’t make eye contact. Hm.

After my licuado, I head to get something substantial for lunch, and then sit and read/ write at my hotel for a while. I go back to the same restaurant for dinner… yes, it was that good.

Next morning, I get up and have an early breakfast. The group told me to meet them at 8 am at their hotel (across town from mine). I crossed the main street just in time to see them drive off. Without me. 15 minutes early. WTF?!

I had the strangest feeling that would happen…

I wasn’t angry so much as kind of hurt. I mean… sure I was the only American in the group. That doesn’t mean… well… I don’t know. They made a big deal out of that.  Maybe they could tell that I wasn’t “one of them”… not here on vacation, not here for the beaches (didn’t even have a swimsuit)…. Maybe they were mad that I spoke Spanish (and they didn’t). Did I seem too… snobby?? Wah.

Oh, well. I had originally planned to take the bus anyway, so it wasn’t too big of a deal.

One lancha, a local bus, a chicken bus, a pullman bus, and another chicken bus (6 hours in all) later, I’m back in lovely Xela (until Friday). In closing, a view from the balcony restaurant above the central plaza, where I sipped some wine last night.

Parque Centro América, Quetzaltenango (Xelajú)

Mangroves (and Black Sand) in Monterrico

Finally found a fast enough connection to upload my photos– here is a selection of the ones I took in Monterrico on the beach and during the “Sunrise Mangrove Ecotour.” FYI: I took my favorite pictures so far this trip in Monterrico.

For more (new from other parts too), see: I’m working on cleaning up the duplicates and getting rid of the ones I really didn’t like (and didn’t mean to upload).

Mangrove Ecotour, Monterrico

Mangroves at Sunrise, Monterrico

Mangrove Swamp, Monterrico

Mangrove Plants, Monterrico

Lily pad 1, Monterrico

Lilly pad 2, Monterrico

Lilly pad 3, Monterrico

Lily pad 5, Monterrico

Caimanes, CECON-USAC Reserve, Monterrico

Away from the resorts, Monterrico

Palo (en color), Monterrico

Sand, Sea, Sky, Monterrico

So I liked the lilly pads….


I feel like I should include some links for the (wonderful) businesses I’ve patronized so far, as well as offer a few recommendations for fellow travelers. The blog software keeps track of what search terms people use to find my blog, and quite a few of them are travel- related. So here are highlights:

Antigua: Earthlodge – Super-friendly out of town alternative to the Antigua party-hardy scene. Really delicious vegetarian meals available.

San Mateo Ixtatán: Ixtatán Foundation (Fundación Ixtateca)– Development org. that runs a high school in San Mateo. Friendly gringos can also provide local info.

Nebaj: El Descanso (operated by– Tasty restaurant, and can arrange local guides for a range of outdoor pursuits. The guides are very recommended (at least, Nico was friendly and knowledgeable).

Todos Santos Cuchumatán: Hispanomaya– Highly recommendable Spanish and Mam (Maya) language school. Will arrange homestays as well.  Friendly gringo coordinator can provide lots of excellent tourist info and will guide hikes. All proceeds go to scholarships for local kids.

Xela: Entremundos– Will hook anyone up with a volunteer position at an organization of their interest. Also publishes a very informative, bi-monthly, bilingual magazine on human rights, environment, and other social issues in Guatemala.


I’ve been reading the news paper every morning, which is a treat because where I lived before (San Mateo Ixtatán) there was no newspaper delivery. It’s interesting to see what things are reported on, and how they’re discussed. The most “balanced” newspaper seems to be the Prensa Libre, which seems to have ties to the New York Times (based on the translated edition of the Times included on Sundays, as well as a number of smaller translated articles by Times contributors during the week).

Nevertheless, the newspaper tends to be quite sensationalist. It’s not nearly as bad as Nuestro Diario, (website is coming soon) who’s slogan “Noticias como son” (News as it is) reminds me a little of Fox News’s “Fair and Balanced”. The photos on the cover are consistently huge shots of dead people in the capital, with big, bold, tabloid-esq headlines.

I tried to find a copy of the article from Prensa Libre about the protest in Nebaj, but the original article is not online for some reason (the date, if you’d like to look for it, would have been 25 May, Sunday). Here is a follow-up article:

My guide on the hike from Nebaj to Todos Santos read it and commented, “Cómo lo reportaron, cabrones.” Apparently, he did not like the article. Indeed, the author took the side of the police, emphasizing that it had all been over a “supposed” kidnapper, and pointing out the “potential” additional damage that might have been done by the crowd. It should be noted, however, that the crowd stopped of their own volition (or… because of rain). Additional police didn’t show up until the next day, and the police stationed there ran for it on Saturday night. So it’s not like “gee, lucky the police stopped them.”

The newspaper as a whole is a great way to learn an ample crime-related vocabulary. I have picked up such words as fallo (verdict), redada (catch or haul, as of criminals), and disparo (gunshot). I guess it’s not all that different than in the States, eh?

One thing I find very interesting, though, is the coverage of immigration issues in the United States. Recently, la Prensa profiled a group of Guatemalan immigrants arrested in Iowa after their employer turned them in.

I have a really hard time with articles such as this, as well as with casual conversation on the issue, because both forums tend to oversimplify an extremely complicated topic. So I’m going to go ahead and oversimplify it here.

Everyone I’ve talked to about immigration to the US (note: unless otherwise stated, “immigration” refers to the illegal variety) thinks it’s great. Going to the US is easy, they can’t wait to do it themselves. And once there, jobs are abundant, the pay is awesome, and you have access to all sorts of luxury items you can’t get (or can’t afford) here in Guate. Who cares that there’s no healthcare? There isn’t any here, either!

As for deportations, the sliding US economy, and the dangers of actually getting into the US: puh-lease. Scare tactics. Deportations are unfair and a violation of human rights; the US economy is booming (relative to just about anywhere in Central America); “unemployment” is a myth cooked up by greedy capitalists to keep the money and jobs for themselves; and the dangers of getting into the US are overblown– thousands of people do it every day.

The Prensa article certainly favors this interpretation. They emphasize the helpless situation of the immigrants in question, and the poor treatment they received at the hands of authorities. No mention is made that they were, in fact, violating a federal law by working with falsified documentation. One woman is cited as saying “my only crime is that I didn’t have a paper,” implying that she doesn’t quite grasp how seriously the US government takes those papers.

I really don’t blame them for this interpretation: I don’t agree with current immigration policies in the US. I have little doubt that these workers’ human rights were violated. They likely were not provided with adequate representation, based on the speed of the incident (the time from arrest to verdict was about 24 hours).

Furthermore, they are being forced to pay for their “accommodations” while they serve a 2-year jail term before being deported. They have no savings (most are thousands of dollars in debt) and can’t work. How are they supposed to pay?? A handful of women were released conditionally to care for their children; they can’t work either, and the government won’t deport them before they serve their sentence.

They have no means of financial support and no family networks in the US. Adding insult to injury, their family members in Guatemala are now left high and dry. The largest sector of the Guatemalan economy is not bananas, not coffee, not tourism. It is remittance money sent from family members working in the US. Without that money, the Guatemalan economy is sent into a tailspin.

Nevertheless, these people were breaking the US law. They knew that going in, and should have been prepared for the consequences. If the consequences are unjust, that suggests to me that there is a serious problem with the law.

I don’t believe that undocumented workers should be treated as federal criminals. I think, instead, the corporations that hire workers either without documentation or with falsified papers should be the ones fined, arrested, or closed down. Regardless of whether they plead ignorant of the situation. Eliminate the demand for cheap labor, and you’ll eliminate the supply of cheap (undocumented) labor.

Furthermore, the consequences for workers breaking said law should not be in violation of human rights. The US could benefit by taking a cue from the European Union on a lot of issues (ahem: agriculture, trade, environmental regulations), not least of which is immigration.

In a parallel article in la Prensa, certain aspects of EU immigration policy were laid out. It should be noted that the EU faces a challenge similar to that of the USA’s in regards to undocumented workers. However, in the EU an undocumented worker cannot be detained for more than 18 months before deportation. The undocumented worker is provided with translation services and “adequate” representation. They’re not forced to pay for food and shelter (deemed basic necessities for survival, go figure).

Gosh, that must cost a lot for the governments, eh? Here’s an idea: don’t detain them. Send them home to their families, if you don’t want them in your country.

I’m quite guilty of over-simplifying things myself. You could pull out all sorts of things on this issue, like how nation-states become defined in the first place, what processes form the need to police something as arbitrary as borders and the concept of “national sovereignty”, how certain policies get labeled “capitalist” and “socialist” in the public sphere, how issues like “immigration” get co-opted by various interest groups, blah blah blah.

I mean… I come from a very conservative- capitalist family, and am a bit of a black sheep, politically speaking. If you stop to think about it, though, the current US immigration policy is quite socialistic– controlling the labor force and whatnot. If you really want capitalism to reign supreme, folks, open up the borders. Put your free-trade policies to the test in regards to labor. While you’re at it, get rid of the subsidies for your domestic products and your taxes on imports. How’d ya like them apples?

Edit: This post started out as a commentary on the newspaper I’ve been reading every morning. I really intended it to be something of a rundown of headlines I found interesting. I guess I’m just frustrated by the (near constant) discussion about immigration to the US. I should have gone in to more of the reasons Guatemalans might risk going to the US to work, but that’s another post. This one is way too long already.