Thursday, January 29, 2009

San Antonio Agua Calientes

San Antonio Agua Calientes is a mainly Mayan town, very close to Antigua (a 20-30 minute and 3Q bus ride by la camioneta, or chicken bus - or, a 15 minute hitchhike by pickup truck which I did, although this is possibly not the brightest idea). You can tell you're arriving in town after going through Ciudad Vieja, turning off the highway, and seeing a very-Americanized "Welcome to San Antonio Agua Calientes" sign in classic green and yellow. The town itself is off-the-beaten-tourist track, and does not have much to see except for the Mayan culture and lifestyle. (On a side note, while there we saw five casket shops... hmm...) There is a very good Mayan market in the Parque Central which sells beautiful hand-woven Mayan goods and features many women at work; the precision of the stitching is otherworldly. Catch the bus back to Antigua on a different road up-the-hill from where you get off; ask the helpful locals if you get lost!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Panajachel and Lago de Atitlan

To see the Lago de Atitlan, Panajachel is a must-go; however, I found the city itself utterly forgettable. The lake, however, is a must-see; possibly one of the most beautiful lakes I have seen, save for the 4000m high lakes in Tibet. The lake is ringed by volcanoes and has a beautiful blue tinge (although whether raw sewage contributes to this or not, I am not sure). While there, we did not go to the other towns surrounding the lake, as my friend suggested that they were forgettable; the main reason to go to the lake is to see the lake itself. However, water taxis were offering 25Q p/p one way to the other towns. Apparently, there is a very difficult-to-get 10Q local price, but we were not able to secure it. There is also a public boat that goes on the coastline of the lake from the Panajachel dock which costs 10Q p/p and is worthwhile, if only to see the beautiful houses of the Guatemalan elite. These houses are built into the mountains and accessible only by boat.

Otherwise, it is possible to swim in the lake as my host father attempted, although the water is pretty frigid and of questionable quality. There are food stands along the road bordering the cost (fries and chicken for 15Q), and enough restaurants to satisfy any need. The road to Panajachel was undergoing construction as of Jan. 2009, so book more than the allotted 2 1/2 hour time from Antigua. A minivan with twelve people inside (my host family + guests) is also an interesting, alternative way to travel!

Note: pictures courtesy D.A.

Houses built into the mountains

Panajachel pier, for transit to lackside towns

Volcan San Pedro across the lake (3020m)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Monterrico, Guatemala - beach town

Monterrico is a pretty sleepy costal Pacific beach town, about a 2 1/2 hour drive from Antigua by shuttle bus. Although it seemed pretty off-the-beaten-track at the time of writing for the usual tourist, there is definitely enough going on for a day-trip from Antigua, or for an overnight in town. We chose the day-trip option; as of Jan. 2009, shuttles leave Antigua at 8AM ($10-12 US O/W), and leave Monterrico at 4PM (60Q, ~$7.5 US O/W). Do not buy the round-trip in Antigua, as you can get it cheaper in Monterrico from at least two sources; also check on the schedule, as we went on a Saturday. You'll get a bit better rate with USD than with Quetzals in Antigua.

Once in town, you'll notice how much the surroundings have changed; descending from 1500m to sea level makes quite a difference in the flora and fauna. The beach is known for turtles, but unfortunately the season in January isn't correct; as a consequence, while we were there we saw very very few tourists. The Tortugario Monterrico Visitor's Center was interesting for its live turtles, crocodiles, and iguanas, although the new prices - 40Q for tourists - makes it a bit expensive for its content. See if you can get in for the Guatemalan 10Q price, however.

At the Tortugario, it is definitely worth booking a boat tour of the mangrove forest. It is a very reasonable price - 50Q per person - and is much more worthwhile. The Tortugario staff will deliver you to a very well trained villager who will take you and/or a friend around the mangrove forest for about an hour and a half and explain the surroundings (though in Spanish only). Bring sunblock! The mangroves held a contrast I found quite fascinating. On one hand, passing by every ten minutes or so were mini-barges dragging the cars of the Guatemalan wealthy from La Avellana to Monterrico. On the other was the village of Agua Dulce, a place two kilometers deep in the mangroves, accessible only by boat and with no electricity or fresh water.

Finally, the beach is a must-see. Although it admittedly is not the nicest beach, it is a black-sand beach of volcanic origin, perfect for sunbathing. The Pacific becomes deep quickly, but is the warmest water I have been in, at least compared to beaches in the Caribbean, Hawaiian, Northern Asian and Northern American coasts.

Cost: 370Q, including transportation, Tortugario admission and tour, beach, beach snacks and water, and lunch.

Note: Pictures courtesy D. A

Monterrico beach entrance

Baby turtles

Car barge in the mangroves

Monterrico pier

Black sand beach looking north

Friday, January 23, 2009

Parramos, Guatemala

A bit of introduction about el pueblo in which I am living. Parramos is a small village, about 2000m(+/- 500?) nestled between the towns of Antigua and Chimaltenango in Guatemala. This town is empathetically not a tourist destination, and as far as I know is not yet on Lonely Planet. As my host family says, it's muy tranquilo, in contrast to the touristic and un-Guatemalan Antigua and the dangerous Guatemala City (nicknamed here as Guate). My Spanish professor tells me it's 70% Mayan and 30% Mixed/Ladino, which makes for an interesting demographic.

Parramos will be my jumping-off point for Guatemalan adventures as well as my home for learning Spanish in a trial-by-fire of sorts. The homestay cost here is cheaper than Antigua (390Q, or $50/wk as of January 2009), as well as the classes with a private tutor (500Q, or $64/wk as of January 2009 for 20 hours M-F). Yet, Antigua is only a 30-minute and 3Q ride on the Chicken bus, the converted school buses which run everywhere on the continent. Parramos is a commuter town, with its residents on one hand catering to the touristy Antigua and the larger village of Chimaltengango. Although it does not have the tourist venues, fast food restaurants, and views of Antigua, it also lacks the chaos a tourist hub brings. Of course, night-time in Guatemala is a different matter... the locals do not recommend venturing outside after 9:30PM latest.

Parramos' Parque Central

One of the many churches in the town

The main road, Antigua to Chimaltenango

Another view across the Parque Central, with (active) Volcan Acatenango and Fuego (3976m) in background

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Back to traveling - planning for Central America

I've recently decided to learn some Spanish to help in my medical studies. After comparing tuition ($200 per course in the States, + room + board) I think it is more cost- and time- effective to travel abroad to pick up some language skills instead. From mid-January to March I will be in Guatemala, and will try to learn enough Spanish to backpack to Panama by myself. I'll keep the blog maintained while I'm there! And of course, contact me if you're interested in joining my little jaunt.

X61, goodbye. EEE PC 4G, hello!