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Guatemala

Guatemala: Flores, Tikal, El Mirador & Departure

Magical Tikal, the tough and rewarding road to El Mirador, and a melancholy farewell to Guatemala...

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Flores & Tikal

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Tikal was at the top of my list for things to see in Central America.
The scenic island town of Flores is the closest centre to the site, though there are eco camps closer to the ruins.

Transport

I opted for a 45 min. flight from Antigua, rather than overnight bus.
I flew with TAG... really easy, and only $140
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They are a small operator who fly out of the mini/private hanger beyond Guatemala City's airport.

The flight was stunning!
Guatemala is gorgeous from a height... so mountainous, littered with volcanoes.... just marvellous!

Accomodation

Amigos is the premier hostel in Flores.
It's really friendly, very social and serves totally awesome, healthy food.
Perfect for weary trekkers. I downed countless smoothies.
The staff are super friendly and helpful, and speak English.
As an alternative to dorms, they have a building full of private rooms down the road,
I took that option, and it was perfect.

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Tikal

Tikal is a fascinating stop!!!
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We left the hostel at 4:30am for the hour or so drive to Tikal.
Of course, on these buses you meet lots of different people.
I was fascinated to meet a 67 year old lady who was backpacking Guatemala, in the same way that most youngsters do.
She was having the time of her life, full of energy and climbed all the hills/steps in line with rest of the group.... age is surely just a number.

There is a famous scene in Star Wars: A New Hope, where the Millennium Falcon dashes through a forest planet with what looks like Mayan Ruins...
George Lucas filmed that scene here....
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The ruins, are immense, and wonderfully excavated.
I joined a walking tour and it was really, very interesting!

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Definitely recommend Tikal for anyone coming to the region.

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Fancy another trek?

I met new friends from Iceland at Tikal, who were planning a trek to El Mirador.
I was still exhausted from Arcatenango, but they asked me to join anyway... why not!

El Mirador

The El Mirador trek is TOUGH.
5 days in the muddy jungle... 80kms, no solid paths.
Deep mud and mosquitoes unperturbed by deet!

At times it felt like tough mudder... unrelenting.

(We met this fella along the way)
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This trek isn't for the faint at heart and will test your patience, fitness, determination, and endurance.

Carmelita by Chicken Bus

The trek starts at Carmelita... roughly 5 hours drive from Flores.
We took old rickety Chicken buses both ways, which were far from comfortable...
This is compounded by the fact that most of the road isn't paved and really bumpy....
So, trekkers beware and bring a neck pillow and take anti-nausea tabs before you set off.

(View of the vast jungle from the top of some of the ruins)
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On the road back, the bus was full.
Families were transporting crops between farms, via the bus roof, or any available space within the bus.

As all of my trekking buddies slept, and I sat listening to music, a group of kids surrounded me and bombarded me with questions...

  • Where are you from?
  • How old are you?
  • Are you married?
  • Are you Catholic?
  • How do you say x in English?

The conversation progressed to an impromptu English/Spanish class in eye/spy format.
Some of the kids carried live chickens on their laps, and later just let them go do sit/roam on the floor.

The long errr jungle to El Mirador

We had mules carry our food and water.
Trekkers were responsible for carrying personal belongings (clothes, hiking water, etc)
It's essentially, two days trekking to the main site, then two days back.
Gumboots was the optimal footwear...

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Sleeping

Each night we stayed in dedicated camp sites, with tents and outdoor kitchen.

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Our guide Eric and his assistants cooked awesome food for us each night, and we were lucky enough to stay at his Mum's camp one night for her awesome cooking.

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Way out in the jungle, all of the starts are out, illuminating the sky... just gorgeous!

Ruins

The views from the top of the sites are totally worth it.

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The Mayan ruins haven't been fully excavated yet, which gives you a better view of age.

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Our local guide, knew his stuff!

He explained the history, architecture, building techniques and significance of all the sites.
It was an awesome trek, with a great group and awesome camaraderie...
Bye the end of it, we were all totally exhausted, yet almost triumphant after completing such an awesome experience!

Adieu Guatemala

Guatemala is an awesome country to travel in, especially for adventure sports, trekking and studying Spanish.
Guatemalan's are really welcoming, friendly, and sometimes boisterous.
It really was an amazing 6 weeks in Guatemala.

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I passed through Costa Rica and Panama next, en route to Colombia.

Posted by SkinnyFists 10:17 Archived in Guatemala Tagged volcanoes guatemala antigua arcatenango Comments (0)

Guatemala: Antigua & Climbing Volcano Arcatenango

semi-overcast 2 °C

Arcatenango

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Climbing Arcatenango is a must do for intrepid trekkers!
It's a full day/next morning climb to the top.
To the most amazing views, I've ever witnessed.
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It's a tough trek, and I'd definitely recommend some training, or warm up treks before taking it on.
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The Trek

We took off from Antigua in the morning and arrived at the base of the hill.
Thankfully there were kids selling beanies and gloves, because I wasn't well equipped.
We then took on the steep ascent, almost 2700 metres in 1 day!!
There were a few times of struggle where I had to channel that relentless Muay Thai training months ago...
...go hard, and there's no way home, so keep going hard

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We finally arrived at the camp, lower viewing point for dinner and rest.

The views from here were truly incredible.

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With Pacaya errupting right in front of us.
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You get a real sense of height too.

Below we could see right across Guatemala... and we could see the sun continue to set far across the horizon, Guatemala was already dark below.
Just magic!

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It was a cold night in the tents, with really crumby sleeping bags.
Everyone wished they had brought more clothes, or even hired a proper down sleeping bag.
Some opted to keep the fire going and slept by it.

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We rose again at 3:30 a.m to continue the climb to the top.... arriving just in time for sunrise.

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Views From The Top

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Volcano Fuerte decided to go off just as we arrived!!

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The descent was the toughest part of the trek!
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We had to carry the tents, sleeping bags, etc down; coupled with the slippery, muddy and steep terrain, lack of sleep etc...
most of the crew were running on elation from the sheer magnitude of what we had just seen and experience!!

What to Take

  • More water than you think you'll need
  • Toilet paper
  • More clothes than you think you'll need (it's freezing at night)
  • Down sleeping bag (the ones provided are very thin and non insulating) or thermals
  • Travel friendly food - museli bars, etc....
  • Pre conditioned legs!!
  • Trail runners or hikers with good trail grip.

Antigua

Antigua is a lovely, albeit mega touristy city.
It's a nice haven for before/after treks, has a lovely general atmosphere, and feels pretty safe.
You'll find yoga retreats, gyms, health food shops, boutique hotels and spas, etc ,etc.
I recharged here for two days after the climb, and readied for the next adventure in Flores.....

I did the El Mirador jungle trek next, and will publish shortly!

Posted by SkinnyFists 13:44 Archived in Guatemala Tagged volcanoes trekking guatemala arcatenango Comments (0)

Guatemala: Adventures and Spanish Study in Quetzaltenango

Three weeks of Spanish immersion plus adventures aplenty in the gorgeous Guatemalan mountains

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Time to learn Spanish

Whilst in roaming Mexico and Cuba, it became very apparent that my dozen after-work Spanish classes held me in no stead to travel properly, or engage people in Latin America.
Guatemala is well known to have many quality immersion programs and arguably the best schools in Central America.

I looked at two of the major cities:

  • Antigua - a tourist oriented UNESCO heritage town with plenty of English speakers, or
  • Xela - with less tourists, but an emergence of quality schools and better opportunity for immersion.

Within Xela there were many reputable schools to choose from.
I went with Celas Maya after prompt responses from their administrators and the ton of positive reviews on Tripadvisor.

I booked three weeks full time study (5 hours per day), with homestay arranged by the school.

Overall it was a super experience, not only because of the school - but the activities, active immersion, with the added bonus of Xela being a very interesting city.

The School

Celas Maya is located in Zona 1, the upscale area of town, very safe, etc etc.
The grounds are lovely; with the ornate building surrounding a lovely garden.

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Lessons are 1-1, where teachers / students sit at individual tables under the patio surrounding the garden.
It's a very peaceful place conducive to learning.

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The school is affiliated with universities around the world, and offers formal accreditation courses.
Medical professionals from the US were studying here as part of a requirement back home to practice in Spanish.

Teachers

The teachers here are great!!
Students have the option to change teachers each week. There are pros and cons to this approach.
I decided to work with my teacher, Yoli for the duration of my stay, as she's an ace teacher and also knew my strengths and weaknesses in learning and retention. She geared the syllabus and my homework accordingly.

By the end of the stay, we were great friends and I really appreciated her efforts, patience and persistence with me.

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Teaching Style

The style of teaching is pretty formal, and the 5 hours of class plus homework can be pretty gruelling, but I got into a rhythm.

Classes were a good mix of concept introduction, exercises, then putting learning into practice via conversation.
We spent a lot time talking to practice.

By the third week, we were having discussions around politics, culture, travel, etc.
Not only was this a great way to practice Spanish, but more or less it was a cultural exchange.

The contrast between bus conversations going in to Xela, and three weeks later leaving... was chalk and cheese!

Homestay

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I stayed with a lovely family, very close to the school.
They were very used to having students live in their enormous, and very interesting house.

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I had a massive bungalow, there the sons of the family grew up in, mostly to myself as they had now grown up.

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These guys had a perchance for 70's and 80's classic cars, and between the three of them had no less than eight cars scattered around the city.

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Living in the house really helped my Spanish as nobody spoke a word of English, and they weren't shy in correcting my Spanish at the dinner table.

Living in Xela

Xela is a very friendly city, untainted by tourism with many things to see and do.
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A tip for visitors needing a working, there is an awesome athletics field in Zona 3.

Restaurante Panorama

Atop one of the hills overlooking Xela is the superb Restaurante Panorama.
It's a nice workout walk to get up there, but the views are definitely worth it!

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Activities

Guatemala is a playground for the intrepid traveller!

Volcanoes

We climbed to an awesome view point to Santa Maria
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Mayan Culture

With a such a strong Mayan presence and culture, it was a great opportunity to learn about Mayan history and enduring culture and traditions.
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Fuentes Georginas

The hot volcanic springs sit atop the lofty mountains near Xela.
We ventured up and swam in the boiling pools.
Local people believe the naturally heated volcanic water has healing properties.

Todos Santos

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This was a highlight!
We drove for nerly 5 hours up through the mountains .....
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to Todos Santos, for the annual festival, which included a horse race/parade... a standing tradition for many hundreds of years.

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The town was abuzz with music and activity.
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The caballeros looked pretty worse for wear after a marathon beer sesh to celebrate another horse race, and baffingly returned to the track in the afternoon for more drunk-riding.

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Zaculeu

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On the way home we visited the marvellous Zaculeu ruins.
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These have been marvellously excavated and, unclike Chichen Itza in Mexico, visitors are allowed to climb them!
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Movies

Each week Celas Maya showed films in Spanish, usually pertaining to local culture or events.
I was fascinated by the film - When the Mountains Tremble
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/When_the_Mountains_Tremble
Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú's film detailing Guatemala's very torrid recent political past.
This film is a must for anyone coming to Guatemala, or interested in Latin American history and politics.

Festivities

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We celebrated birthdays and graduations.
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... with piñatas of course...
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I graduated along with several other students, celebrating with morning tea in the lovely garden, with obligatory speeches :-)
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Gracias Xela, Adieu

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Guatemala wasn't on my bucket list, but I'm so glad I stopped here.
Xela was an incredible experience, and recommended for anyone wanting to do Spanish immersion.

I went to Antigua to climb Acatenango next....

Posted by SkinnyFists 07:49 Archived in Guatemala Tagged volcanoes guatemala xela spanish_study todos_santos celas_maya Comments (0)

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