Personal Blog - our trip to Lake Atitlan + Antigua, Guatemala

April 14, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

Last month I accompanied my husband on his business trip and was pretty MIA for about 10 days.  So  I thought it would be good to share a little personal blog of those photos with you guys! This was Story's 4th annual business trip to Guatemala, and the 1st time I managed to get childcare coverage and tag along! We flew into Guatemala City, spent the night in a hotel there, and early the next morning took a taxi to Lake Atitlan. The plan was to have a few days to relax together in this magical mystic Lake before he needed to start work for the conference.  

Lake Atitlan is surrounded by volcanoes and the Maya people built various villages along its perimeter. The main mode of transportation between the villages is by boat across the lake. When our taxi dropped us off at the entrance to the "main" village, Panajachel, we wheeled our suitcases through the cobblestoned streets until we found the docks, and a private boat transported us and our luggage to our hotel's private dock. Sounds relaxing and luxurious, right?  Well, there was a 350 stair climb awaiting us to get from the dock to the actual hotel:

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We obviously took several breaks on the long way up.  And when we saw that one of the hotel bellman, who was maybe 5 feet tall, tops, but had superhero strength, was quickly catching up to us while carrying all 3 (!!!) of our suitcases up those stairs *on his back*- we were pretty darn embarrassed. That was the motivation we needed to get our lazy butts in gear and huff and puff our way up to the top, haha! Fortunately, the view from our room was well worth a 3-hour taxi, a 10-minute walk, a 20-minute boat ride, and a 350 stair climb: 

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Nice as the view was, there was still *no* way I was going to be convinced to climb those 350 steps again, (this is my vacation after all).  So when we were ready to venture out of our remote hotel and into some of the surrounding villages, we thought we'd try "the back way".  This entails taking a tuktuk ride down the steep and narrow dirt road down to the public dock instead, where we board one of the public boats that come by each village about every 30 minutes.  

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The photos above show the public Dock at Tzununu.  Those kids had been bathing in the lake, and the eldest, who I'm guessing is no more than 7, is carrying his baby sister after helping her bathe. She was toddling about ok, but had some trouble getting down from a ledge and started to cry so he just picked her up instead.  It was really interesting to see how mature, self-sufficient, and nurturing this young child was.  When he saw me lift my camera he instinctively turned both their faces away. We later found out from our hotel owner that many Maya people believe that when a camera takes a picture of their face, it keeps a part of their soul.    

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One thing that will strike any visitor to these lands is the traditional dress still so prevalent amongst the Maya women. Most of the men have lost their customary  breech-clout pants (though we saw a couple) but almost all the females, from toddlers up through grandmothers, still wear their traditional hand-woven garments with pride. I found it to be a rather interesting juxtaposition - these traditionally dressed young women tucking their smart phones into their handwoven waistbands walking hand-in-hand with their very modernly dressed male counterparts.  Maybe their resistance to the more affordable "made in china" clothing that is starting to pop up in stores around the area is due to the fact that these women often painstakingly make their entire wardrobe by hand using back-strap looms.  I was told it takes about 5 hours of weaving to make a single placemat. I cannot imagine how long these women have spent tirelessly weaving their entire wardrobes. We were fortunate enough to receive a demonstration at a sort of co-op which empowers local women by employing them and selling their woven goods in their store and also exporting them to other countries around the world. We saw a demonstration of the cotton being hand-pulled and finger-spun into threads, then died using only grinds from local plants and insects. The died thread is dried and arranged onto a spindle, with the length and width of the various sticks determining the length and width of the fabric to be made. It is then transferred onto a backstrap-loom, which uses sticks and straps worn around one's waist to create tension. Patterns are then woven in by separating and intersecting individual threads of cotton.  The process is beautifully intricate, organic and refined but painfully laborious. 

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Boat rides are the main form of transportation between the villages of the Lake, and in the public boats people are always packed like sardines (and in serious danger of sinking). There is a definite look of unease amongst most tourists, but the locals continue to play games on their phones like it aint no thang. In this first photo Story and I got to sit in the back next to the captain, which I liked because I knew if anything happened I could jump off and swim to shore.  In the next photo I had been asked (two separate times) to move more towards the middle to make room for more passengers coming aboard. I was sandwiched between two people on either side of me, and several rows of people both in front and behind me.  At this time it was past sunset and since this was the last public boat ride back, it was even more over capacity than usual. People were even sitting on the roof (you can see a leg dangling down on the left). Our "windows" were mere inches from the water level, and the boat was pounding hard and fast against the water as it sped along. One large bounce could have sent gallons of water pouring into the boat.  Story was out at the front of the boat, so I wasn't worried about him. But I was pretty sure I was going to die...  

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The tuktuk ride from the public dock back up the volcano to get to our hotel is another interesting adventure. Several times we need to get off because the hill is just too steep and the tuktuk would give up and start rolling backwards. We had a couple different drivers, but our usual tuktuk guy was named Augustine. He's 17 and lives with his mom, dad, and 3 siblings in the green house pictured below. You can also see the village store, "tienda"; the white building in the background. (and some of the neighborhood chickens). 

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We arrived back at our hotel to amazing views once again. But as I sat on our balcony admiring the landscape I couldn't help wonder about the villagers below us. Did they have electricity? Running water? What were they doing right now?  I later learned that they do have electricity, but no running water. They used to be generally very satisfied with life, some of the happiest people in the world, according to Global Census Surveys.  But with increasing globalization and tourism they are becoming more aware of everything they don't have. They see the white tourists and believe them to be wealthy beyond imagine, which, of course, we are....when you consider we earn more in a week then they do all year. 

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As I'm pondering all of these realities, I kind of realized that I'm no longer as keen on third world travel as I was in my youth. This sounds like a terrible thing to say - so hear me out. My problem is that I cannot simply shut off my brain and enjoy myself - I worry too much about the extreme poverty all around me. And although people tell me that I am helping the economy with my tourism, the guilt of comparing my own situation with that of the locals just eats away at me. I want to save them all, adopt them all, help them all... and I can't. I have a really hard time enjoying myself. I cried.

On the one hand it is so refreshing to regain that perspective and be so harshly reminded of just how blessed we are, and how fortunate I am to have been born into the family/country/social standing I was. But... I have seen this poverty before. I have traveled in Nicaragua, and rural parts of Mexico. We spent 10 days in Sri Lanka a couple years ago as well.  I know that's not much and there is so much more to see, (I have never even been to Africa) however... I am 35 years old now, I have two young children, my own business to run, and my husband has a high-stress sales job and is part owner of a restaurant on top of that... we are *busy* people. We don't get a lot of vacation time. We do not get to travel much anymore and I've kind of decided I want to *enjoy* my limited vacation. I would love to set up some amazing volunteering trips, or connect with a good NGO somewhere. When my children are older, I want to take us all to Africa or India and create something wonderful with our time. But not when I'm on vacation.  When I'm on vacation  I want to come back refreshed and energized and feeling like I've just gotten a bit of well-deserved pampering.  When I left Lake Atitlan I felt emotionally down, and drained, and guilty staying in a resort fancier than they would ever be able to afford if they worked their entire lives and never spent a penny.  I felt almost dirty.  And mostly I felt helpless to affect any real change for these people.  People who earn less in a week than I just paid for my steak dinner.  People who deserve so much more. 

So I guess you could say I was somewhat relieved to be leaving the gorgeous views of Lake Atitlan, where my heart felt heavy with despair, and head into the beautiful colonial city of Antigua, whose vibrant colored buildings and rich architectural details offered a welcome distraction from the economic state of affairs.  

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In the city of Antigua, the Maya people are more accustomed to tourists and will sometimes even oblige for a photo. I could not resist stopping and asking this adorable little girl's father if I could take a photo of her. She slays me with her traditional dress, little pigtails and bashful smile. 

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Story had to work at a conference during our stay in Antigua so I was alone quite a bit, wandering around the city taking pictures, but one afternoon we did manage to grab a late lunch with one of his colleagues on a rooftop with some great views.  After that we took a stroll to a cigar shoppe where his colleague bought some cubans for their men's fishing trip the next day.  We also made our way to the other side of town to check out the market where all the locals shop. This massive bazaar was filled with everything you could need - from clothing to electronics, florals, vegetables, fish, live chickens and much much more. It was sensory overload in there and my photos cannot even begin to do it justice... 2017-04-14_00352017-04-14_0035 2017-04-14_00372017-04-14_0037

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After the market we made our way back to the hotel, with just enough time for me to grab some photos before sunset. The parrot's name is Frank. Just kidding. I have no idea what his name is, but I named him Frank in my head. He lives on the tree just outside our hotel room and was a good little greeter. Our hotel, the Casa Santo Domingo, was built on the ruins of the Santo Domingo Monastery and is a beautiful example of architectural genius. The old ruins are mixed in seamlessly with the new walls and the hotel has modern conveniences with unparalleled authentic old-world charm.  Also, all the trellises are covered in this beautiful floral vine-type of plant that I wish I had gotten the name of. It was mesmerizing. 

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Another day of sightseeing brought these photos of Parque Central, more church ruins, the 17th Century golden-colored "Arco de Santa Catalina", random doorways I thought looked cool, and thankfully, more portraits of Maya women and children.  I cannot get enough of those outfits! Especially on the little baby girls!  Be still, my heart. 

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The morning of our departure we were able to catch some of the famous processions related to Semana Santa (the Holy Week leading up to Easter) even though it was still only March 26 and Easter isn't until April 16 this year. Anyways, for this event, locals adorn the ground with intricate "carpets" made from died sawdust and/or colorful plants and food stuffs, upon which hundreds of men in purple robes march while carrying extremely heavy wooden floats on their backs.  The floats bear large wooden figures of Jesus and the cross. The men slowly meander through the city's cobblestone streets all day (from like 11am-5pm!!).  And get this - they actually have to pay for the honor of doing the carrying! There is even one group of women dressed in black who carry a float of the Virgin Mary.  These things must weigh a ton! 

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On our way out of town I passed, for what must have been the dozenth time, the most beautiful green wall.  Every time I passed it I wished I had a lovely bride with me because her white dress would "pop" so beautifully against that jewel tone green. And on this last day, I couldn't resist any longer. Since I didn't have a bride, I put myself in white and struck a pose. Thanks, hubby, for taking this pic for me and making my vision a reality. Although I still reflect on my trip with some sadness, I am left with the overwhelming idea that Guatemala is a wonderful country whose people are as vibrant as the colors of their clothing, and the buildings of their beautiful colonial cities. People who may be painfully poor, but whose hearts are rich with gratitude.  

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