A Travellerspoint blog

Guatemala

Wandering Around And Seeing Stuff

Wrapping up our trip in Antigua Guatemala and the Western Highlands, by Mirren and Fraser

sunny 24 °C

Our three weeks in Antigua have been very busy compared to most of the other stays on our trip. Here are some of the highlights:

Ailsa and Daddy went on a street food tour. The rest of us skipped it in case they had to eat yucky things. They didn't and said everything tasted really good!

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Daddy went to a cooking class when my mom took us into Guatemala City to pick Grandma Cable up at the airport.

We went to see an organic farm and had lunch there. It was up on top of a hill overlooking the town and we had a great view.

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Ailsa and Daddy went to see an organic co-op coffee farm on one of the volcanos nearby. She got to ride a bicycle to power the machine to remove the shells from the beans. She also got to drink her first cup of coffee. They didn't add sugar or milk, but she said it was 'still okay'.

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We went to Chichicastenango to the largest market in Central America. It was really busy! We got to buy some souvenirs to bring home to our new house.

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To celebrate Ailsa's 11th birthday we went to Lake Atitlan and rented a boat for the day to cruise around the lakeside villages. We saw some old churches but here they mix Catholicicsm with the Mayan traditions. We were taken to a vigil that was set up in a local's house. The Mayans give offerings of cigars and liquor. We paid to go in and see the display. It is a big honour to have the vigil in your family's home. In one of the villages Ailsa and I got our hair braided with a long embroidered thread that the local woman wear.

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We went to the weaving museum and learned about the messages and symbols that you can see in the weavings if you look close enough. Each village weaves different patterns and we were shown how to tell which village a Mayan woman comes from by what her outfit looks like. We also saw a display of back-strap looming.

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We went to some other museums and galleries but they were kind of boring. Our most favourite thing that we did in Antigua was to visit a church that had been ruined in an earthquake. We got to climb over all the boulders and broken down columns. My mom said that they would probably not let kids crawl all over a broken down place like this in Canada. We made a film when we were there with our new friends Lucia and Matteo from Peterborough. We pretended Fraser was an evil mastermind trying to destroy the earth and we had to find his secret plans before it was too late. We had lots of fun watching the clips over and over again. Here is a clip where Fraser is trying to look really evil.

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We head to the airport with Grandma Cable to fly home to Canada tomorrow morning. Daddy is staying on holiday for another two weeks before he has to go back to work. He is going to take more cooking classes in Mexico. We now have to think about our favourite places and activities on the whole trip. Lots to thinks about and big decisions to make....

Posted by Salsa Sojourns 21:48 Archived in Guatemala Comments (1)

Semana Santa

Easter Parades in Antigua Guatemala, by Ailsa

sunny 24 °C

Welcome to Antigua! We arrived during the week before Easter, known as Semana Santa in this part of the world. These are the largest Easter celebrations outside of Rome and the largest religious celebrations in the Americas. We were told that over 1,000,000 people come to Antigua each year to see the Easter parades. At home we do Easter egg hunts and the Easter Bunny visits but it is much more about Jesus here. We had to watch some videos online to remember all the details about the Easter Story (Fraser's favourite was a Lego one). They told the Christian story of Jesus being crucified and then coming back to life a few days later.

Nearly all of the people in Guatemala are Catholic (a specific type of Christian). Easter is the most important Catholic celebration, more important than Christmas. It celebrates the death of Jesus and when he rises from the dead. The celebration in Antigua includes three major parts; the vigils, processions and alfombras (carpets).

Vigils are held in all the churches with grand alfombras (carpets) and scenes from the last days of Jesus' life, like the Last Supper. They are very detailed and display lots of statues and vegetables and fruits and are changed every day.

The Processions are parades where the local men (Cucuruchos) and women (Cargadoras) carry floats called andas. To represent the time up until Christ was put on the cross, the men men wear purple robes and white coverings on their heads while the women wear white blouses and black veils. The purple represents that they feel bad for their sins (when they did something wrong). Several other members of the procession dress as Roman soldiers to act out the story.

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After 3pm on Good Friday afternoon, the parades change to show the time after Jesus died. The processions switch to wearing all black, both men and women. This represents grieving. The andas are made of wood and can weigh hundreds to thousands of pounds. They carry the religious statues from the local churches. The largest showed Jesus in a glass coffin and needed 100 carriers who switched every block. They would each take 2 or 3 turns. That parade was 10 hours long and needed over 3000 men to carry the anda! There were also bands playing a slow type of funeral music, and a lot of people spreading Frankincense so that we could hardly see through the smoke.

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In front of the procession people make carpets called alfombras. They take a very long time to make and are really detailed with dyed sawdust and flowers. The carpet designers built up beams so they can walk above the patterns and fill stencils with spoonfuls of colourful sawdust one at a time. Some of the alfombras looked like real carpets. Some had pictures of animals, flowers and religious symbols. People spend hours designing these only to have the procession destroy the carpet as they walk across in a matter of minutes.

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We watched a few processions until Good Friday and then helped make an alfombra with other kids in the neighbourhood. First we used wooden beams to form the outline and spread sawdust to create a level background on top of the cobble street. We also used stencils and dyed sawdust to create images for the carpet. Since there were lots of kids there was no organized design and we all just had fun spreading different colours of sawdust around. I put a special Canadian flag in one corner as a symbol of our family.

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During the week we saw three different parades. One was Jesus carrying the cross, one had Christ on the cross and the most important one was Jesus' body after he had died. We made the alfombra for the last and most important procession that went right by our Casa and we climbed onto the roof to watch it pass. There was so much incense that we could barely breath!

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My favourite part of Semana Santa was looking at the intricate alfombras and watching the efforts of the men and women as they swayed with the effort of carrying the huge floats. We also loved playing with the neighbourhood kids. Grandma Cable arrived the day before Good Friday to spend two weeks with us. It is so nice to spend Easter with family! Today we spent Easter Sunday going for a walk and listening to the music, church bells and fireworks of celebrations around the city. I think we will always remember this week and how much work the people of Antigua put into their amazing Easter celebrations.

Posted by Salsa Sojourns 17:32 Archived in Guatemala Comments (4)

El Corazón de Pitahaya

Visiting the families of Project Harvest, by Ailsa

sunny 26 °C

When we started planning our trip two years ago we wanted to find a charity to help in Central America. The Fergus-Elora Rotary Club, which my dad is in, started to support a charity that we really liked too, so we picked that one. The charity we chose was called Project Harvest and it helps people with not enough food to start their own vegetable gardens. The money raised helps people to buy seeds and to build special containers to catch rain water in the rainy season and stores it for them to use in the dry season.

For my 10th birthday last March I decided to ask my friends for donations to Project Harvest instead of gifts. They were all so generous and we raised lots of money together. Thank you to my friends! We also gave Project Harvest donations to some of our family at Christmas instead of gifts. My family and I drove down to Hamilton just after my birthday and gave the money to Project Harvest at their yearly musical concert fundraiser. There was traditional Guatemalan food and dancing and we had lots of fun. They were very grateful for my birthday money. They even put a picture of Mirren and me in their newsletter. I will put a link to this at the end of my post in case you want to learn more about the charity.

We planned our trip so that we would have a few days to visit the communities that have worked with Project Harvest. The towns are in an area called Chiquimula, Guatemala. It is about an hour drive from where we were staying in Copan, Honduras. So, we left our bags there and headed back into Guatemala for a few days without all our heavy stuff. We got to know a border guard pretty well because we crossed the border so many times in a few days. She was grumpy to begin with, I think because our Spanish is not very good, but she finally smiled at us the last time!

People from the local Rotary club that are helping to run the project picked us up in Chiquimula and gave us a tour of the area. They took us to one of their other projects (supported by other Canadian Rotary clubs) which is building more classrooms at an elementary school out in the mountains. They were also building bathrooms for the school kids to use. Here is a picture of Mirren and me inside one of the new classrooms. Their old school only had two rooms for one hundred kids. It will be so much better for them.

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The second day the Rotary people took us to the Project Harvest community, Pitahaya, and the ladies showed us their gardens. They were very proud of them! I would have been proud too if it was my garden! The earth all around was very rocky and very dry. It took them 20 days to dig the hole in the earth to build the container to catch the rain water. It was 15.75 cubic meters and held enough water to water their veggies for the whole dry season. The ground in their gardens was dark brown and much softer because they used a lot of composted stuff and watered it daily. Their veggies were much bigger than the ones we grow at home in Canada. Some gardens were shared between two or three families so they all had to help build them and pitch in with the gardening too.

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If they had extra veggies they would sell them at the local market. The families now had chickens and pigs too. Before Project Harvest started several years ago the kids back then were not able to grow properly or learn as easily. We met one little girl who was so tiny because her mom didn't have enough healthy food when she was growing in her mom's tummy and she didn't have enough food when she was a little kid. The mothers all said their kids are much healthier now. And the little babies on their laps were all happy looking.

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My dad had emailed the Chiquimula Rotary club before our trip to say we would be visiting and asked if we could maybe see the project to take photos for his Rotary club back home. I couldn't believe it but the Project Harvest leader down here knew my name and kept saying how thankful they all were for my help. She spoke in Spanish and called me corazón which means 'heart'. The families gave us a delicious lunch and gave me a thank you card and a beautiful tapestry that they had stitched themselves! I totally wasn't expecting that at all!! I left there feeling like I had really made a difference to their lives. They were doing well now and I think they had just needed a bit of help to get started. I was so glad that the little bit of money that my friends and I had raised had made such a big difference. That was such an amazing feeling!

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You can click to see more information about Project Harvest or go to this website, http://projectharvest.org
We can tell you that donations are making a big difference!

The kids we met in Pitahaya were all so friendly. We had parked in front of their school when we went to visit the gardens and when we walked back to the truck to head back home it was recess time and they all ran to the fence to look at us. They invited us into their school yard and I got to play basketball with them. I play basketball at home in Canada (Go Phoenix U11 Team!) so I kind of knew what I was doing. They cheered when my first basket went in. When I missed my second basket they all just went 'ohh' at the same time. It was sooooo funny! There were about 100 kids and they had a nice play area but they only had two old balls to play with. The teacher my mom spoke to told her that they could use some pencils and other stuff. It really made me think about how full my own pencil case is at home... Me and Mirren are planning to raise some money to send some balls and school supplies to this school, just so you know we might ask you to come to our yard sale or lemonade stand! :)

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From our family:
We would like to thank the Rotary Club of Chiquimula de la Sierra for helping organize these visits and touring us through the communities, especially Veronica and Abelardo. You are facilitating such worthwhile projects! We also send a huge 'thank you' to Isaura and the Project Harvest community leaders; Elvia, Gloria, Maria Elena, Roberta and Santa. You opened your gardens, your community and your hearts to show us how we have so much in common and how even the smallest gesture can grow into something significant.

Para nuestros amigos en español:
Nos gustaría dar las gracias al Club Rotario de Chiquimula de la Sierra por ayudar a organizar estas visitas y nos paseábamos por las comunidades, en especial Verónica y Abelardo. Usted está facilitando este tipo de proyectos que valen la pena! También enviamos un enorme 'gracias' a Isaura y los líderes de la comunidad Proyecto Cosecha; Elvia, Gloria, María Elena, Roberta y Santa. Ha abierto sus jardines, su comunidad y sus corazones para mostrarnos cómo tenemos tanto en común y cómo incluso el gesto más pequeño puede convertirse en algo significativo.

Posted by Salsa Sojourns 16:24 Archived in Guatemala Comments (8)

...THIS is why we travel!

The Guatemala Highlands, by Shona

sunny 27 °C

The few days that followed our visit to Tikal were rough. Ironically, as we travelled higher into the rainy Guatemalan Highlands things started to go downhill. Despite rockslide remnants that sprung up behind switchback corners, our easily distracted kamikaze minibus driver somehow delivered us safely to our next destination. We were some of the lucky passengers... others hung to the roof rails in the rain! But the tarp that covered the bags on the roof of the van didn't work very well and we arrived in the crossroads mountain town of Coban, Guatemala with bags full of wet clothes. It was cold. Not 'Canada in January' cold, but the temperature inched toward freezing at night, our things were all wet and there was no heating in our hotel. We huddled under blankets and tried to stay warm while our clothes were at the laundromat but things began to unravel... Mirren was inconsolable after seeing a run-over dog. Ailsa threw teenager-worthy stink-eyes in everyone's direction. Fraser refused to stop bouncing. Norm and I began to bicker with each other. We all started to show signs of homesickness and/or boredom. Something weird was going on... this did not feel like the first part of our trip.

At dinner Norm tried to order a local dish but it was not available so he took a chance on the unknown menu item listed just below. When our meal arrived he quickly declared his inedible. Not possible, I thought. I have witnessed him eat unmentionables at Dim Sum in Chinatown and fried ginea pig in Peru. The man can literally eat any meat... But not this dish. He said he thought he saw an eyeball in it. The kids rolled their eyes and told him not to be rude or to waste food (ooh, karma!) but when we got back to the freezing hotel that night a Google search showed he had unfortunately ordered pig head and menudo (intestine) soup. Yup, it was official. Our travelling luck had run out. We had lost our mojo.

As soon as all our things had dried out we decided to get out of Dodge! If we changed things up, we reasoned, then maybe our luck would improve. We headed out to the legendary picturesque river spot called Semuc Champey which the guidebooks called the prettiest spot in Guatemala. At this point in our travels we wanted 'pretty'.

The long journey there was an adventure in itself, the last part of which was a 9km, one hour long, bone-jarring upright ride in the back of a truck. The kids loved that! In our last minute scramble to change our plans we had booked accommodation at the Utopia Eco Lodge. I know, I know... the name itself was a red flag. It's like naming a baby boy Caesar or Napoleon or even Fabio!! Such high expectations from the name alone... Utopia! Besides, this 'Eco lodge' was going to cost us a mere $6 each for the night. I braced myself for disappointment.

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How wrong I was to doubt this place. It was amazing! The young international volunteer staff could not have been more welcoming. There were vistas to view, board games to play and other travellers to chat with. But the best part of the lodge was that it was an hour-long tube ride down river from Semuc Champey. Yes please! We quickly found our little cabin, threw down our bags, hopped into the back of the pick-up truck again and bumped our way to the park entrance.

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Semuc Champey is unbelievably stunning! I have never seen anything as beautiful! We had the most amazing day there and then floated home on our tubes in time for a delicious family-style vegetarian dinner. Not surprisingly Norm did not complain about the lack of meat! :)

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What a perfect day. And I got to spend it with my most favourite people in the world. Floating along in my tube I tried to freeze the moment in my mind as we meandered over gentle rapids back to Utopia. Ailsa, soon to be 11 years old, and Norm and I were witnessing her final few months of real childhood. Mirren, 9 years old, and so curious and compassionate. And Fraser, six years old, and desperately trying to keep up with his sisters. What a gift to be able to spend these precious days together. Maybe we hadn't lost our mojo or our travelling luck - only our perspective. As it turned out, 'Utopia' was the perfect name for this spot... THIS is why we travel!

Posted by Salsa Sojourns 11:54 Archived in Guatemala Comments (6)

I ❤️ (The Mayan) New York

Tikal, by Norm

sunny 25 °C

We have met several types of travellers so far. They range from users of 5 star hotels doing excursions with all the bells and whistles, to those on the cheapest budget, some needing to work along the way to cover their travel costs, and all types in between. Along the way, we have learned that since we travel with our kids in tow a combination of these travelling styles works best for us. Also, our best sightseeing tours have definitely occurred first thing in the morning after staying nearby and getting our sightseeing all finished before the tour buses even arrive.

That was the case in Tikal. The Mayan City is deep in the jungle of northern Guatemala. The nearest small town is over an hour away.
We stayed at the lovely Tikal Inn on the national park property which allowed us to do both the sunset and sunrise tours. We saw most of the park with nobody else in sight!

Tikal is frequently described as the Mayan New York, the city of skyscrapers, while Copan (later in the trip in Honduras) is more artistic and is known as the Mayan Paris. Many of the towering structures at Tikal can be very carefully climbed (Ailsa's spectacular head-first tumble miraculously turned out fine and we were actually able to laugh about it minutes later), allowing for beautiful sight lines, especially during quiet times without the tour bus crowds. There are 6 main temples and several pyramids, residential and administration buildings. The Gran Plaza has 2 temples on opposite sides that are lined up such that one temple's shadow completely covers the other temple on each Equinox. On our sunset tour were able to relax and watch darkness set in and the wildlife emerge. The pairs of parrots taking flight were especially impressive.

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We had to wake up early for the sunrise tour departure at 4am, but this was not an issue as some howler monkeys decided to declare the nearby forest canopy as their property at 2:30am, ensuring everyone heard and was already awake. We climbed Temple IV (which was also the lookout post for the rebel base in the original Star Wars movie -cool!) to watch the sun rise over the Gran Plaza and Temple III.

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As we strolled back to the hotel for breakfast and a swim in the pool our guide pointed out many of the native flora and fauna. The ceiba tree is the national tree and is fiercely protected. All the ones we saw were immense as shown in the picture of the kids around the trunk. He offered us a black pepper leaf to chew, an old Mayan dental remedy with an anaesthetic similar to xylocaine. Mirren could not feel her tongue for half an hour after that. She was later looking for another leaf when she noticed a wiggly tooth!

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As we left the park, the tour buses were just unloading, and we were gearing up for one of the most difficult travel days of the trip so far. Away we go!

Posted by Salsa Sojourns 15:04 Archived in Guatemala Comments (1)

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