Sunday, December 29, 2013

How To Climb A Volcano With Kids - Mt Pacaya

The email said, "So is anyone interesting in climbing Mt Pacaya, kid friendly (e.g., slowly with lots of breaks and maybe some burros!) the Saturday after Xmas, December 28?  Of course, non-kidded adults are welcome too!"

"We're in!" was our reply. 

Of course we wanted to climb Mt Pacaya, a classic climb right outside Guatemala City, kids or no kids, we couldn't pass it up.

So we met the group of 24 people, aged a few months to Grandpa and everyone in between. We left at 7:30am (a very reasonable hour to leave for a climb) and drove in a caravan of 6 cars towards the mountain. An easy hour drive later and we picked up 2 guides for Q300, a couple burros for Q100 each, and we were on our way up the trail.

Here's what we learned:
1. Kids love hiking! As long as there are other kids to hang out with.
2. Get a couple burros and let the kids take turns riding them up the mountain. The ones who beg to get on a burro will like it for a while but even horses get old, at which point the ones who were too shy to get on at first are ready for a turn once they see the others survived it.
3. Let the adults take turns carrying the little ones up the mountain, the kid-less adults think it's a fun novelty and the kids will love talking to someone new, even if "talking" means shrieking, poking things in their ears, and giggling when the grownup says funny things.
4. Make sure there are cool things to see along the way, like fruit sellers, volcano-chuchos, lava shooting out the top of the volcano, dirty lava sandboxes to play in, steam vents you can climb in, and trees that grow leaves soft enough to use as toilet paper.
5. Some kids are fast, some kids are slow, and the same goes for the grownups so it all seems to even out in the long run. Plus, it means the grownups get to take lots of breaks, "for the kids" and not feel like wimps!
6. Everyone loves a post-hike meal, including a big "jirafa" of beer (so many tiny bubbles...).

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Tikal / Yaxhá / Flores / Quiriguá - The Guate Bucket List Gets Shorter

Day One

The alarm clock woke us up at 5am on Thursday morning as usual, but today instead of work, we met a van full of 4 other colleagues downstairs, loaded up our weekend packs, and set off into the early morning darkness of Guatemala City on the road out of town. Breakfast at McDonalds (I know, we said we'd never eat there again the last time...) revealed a Guatemalan twist on their menu: refried black beans! So we gobbled down some surprisingly adequate breakfast burritos "sin tocino" and sipped cups of hot coffee we imagined might actually be Guatemalan. 

Three hours down the road we made a stop at the Quiriguá Ruins which are known for having the tallest stone sculpture found in the New World. It was a tall, limestone obelisque carved with faces and animals with it's own palapa roof to protect it and surrounded by a big open lawn with about a dozen other beautiful big stelae. We spent about an hour wandering the park, exploring the first ruins we've been to in Guatemala. If this was just the beginning, we were getting really excited about seeing Tikal.

Lunch in Rio Dulce about halfway through the drive was an adventure. We went in search of a Mexican restaurant that got good reviews, but after stopping to ask directions from a local guy spray-painting a big Christmas tree green, a cop, a tortilla maker, an old lady sweeping off her front step, and a tour hustler, we realized the Mexican place might not exist anymore. So instead we ended up at an open-air seafood place on stilts over the water. It was a hole-in-the-wall as in I have no idea how we ever found it, but at the end of a long stretch of boardwalk following some unspecific signs, we found an amazing view of the Rio Dulce to gaze at as we ate. Rosita's it was called and Chops and I both ordered limonadas and Peruvian Ceviche which were epic! The burgers and fries our friends ordered? Not so good. Confirming again that you should always go with what the specialty of the house even if it's raw fish.  

Back on the road we concluded that we prefer our cows in trucks rather than walking down the middle of the highway. And we decided that hiring a Guatemalan to drive us in a borrowed van was both a good idea and incredibly sketchy. None of us had to drive so we could chat and sleep and eat... but Guatemalan roads are crazy and sometimes it's hard to put your life in someone else's hands.

After a long nine hours in the van, we were ready for Flores, and Flores was ready for us. What a cute little island town! Flores sits in the middle of Lago de Petén Itzá and has a sleepy Mediterranean feel. It's touristy, sure, but the locals love it too so there were plenty of cheap street food vendors, both fancy and down-home restaurants, cute hotels and backpacker hostels to choose from, plus a really lovely promenade along the waterfront for great people watching. We had reservations at Hotel Casa Amelia, a 4-story-tall, green-and-white house with an open restaurant on the ground floor. The roof-top terrace overlooked the waterfront and had the perfect setup for BYO happy hour and after dinner drinks. We took advantage of the terrace every night we were there. 

Day Two

We spent a leisurely morning strolling the cobblestone streets and boat-lined shores of Flores. Then with lunch-to-go we met our guide Josué Castillo and hopped in the van at about 1pm to go out to see the ruins of Yaxhá (say Yawk-sha!). After an hour and a half of crazy pothole-filled roads in our low-clearance van we decided to ditch it a few miles short of the park at a particularly muddy section and got a ride from the Yaxhá park guards in the back of their 4x4 truck. We felt a little rushed to see the park since the drive took a long time, but we saw the highlights. We climbed a few temples, got a pretty good explanation from our guide, saw our first Howler AND Spider monkeys including a few adorable baby monkeys, saw lots of trails of little leaf-carrier ants working away to bring fungus-growing food back to their nest like a million little green sailboats, and finished the tour with sunset on top of the temple named Structure 216. The sunset was stunning as it reflected its blue, orange and pink colors into crocodile-filled Lago Yaxhá below. As we gazed out over unbroken, sun-warmed rain forest stretching into the distance as far as we could see, our guide told us we were lucky to have clear skies, it was cloudy yesterday, and just an hour before sunset today it was raining on us.

Day Three

Let me start out by saying that 2:30am is way too early to wake up, unless you're on your way to see the sunrise at Tikal on Winter Solstice. We left Flores at 3am, arrived at the Tikal entrance at 4:30am and met our guide Roxanda Ortíz, the most amazing tour guide I've had maybe in the whole world. For the 5 hours that we spent with her that morning she took us on a fascinating journey back in time when Tikal was inhabited by the Maya, and all the way up to present day with a behind-the-scenes tour of the restoration work they're currently doing at the park. She's an archaeologist who also guides, and she explains things like the college professor you wish you'd had. Not only was she an encyclopedia on everything Maya, but she grew up in the area so she knew the present-day culture and knew a ton about plants and animals from her time spent rehabilitating baby animals rescued from poachers.

We had read on the internet that on December 21st, Winter Solstice, if you sit on top of Temple IV you will see the sun rise directly over Temple III, leading us to believe the Maya had built it like that. Not true. It just happens to work out that way but Temples IV and III are actually from the Classic Era and weren't built in any kind of solar alignment. Oh well, it was still amazing! As the rain forest woke up under the rising sun, the mist layer floated windlessly over the trees while the monkeys and birds all called to each other. The parrots were squawking, the cicadas were buzzing, and the gathering of about 3 dozen tourists sat in silence and enjoyed the spectacular scene unfolding before them. Just as the bright ball of fire rose up into view, the mist broke and three temples emerged out of the canopy! Truly stunning. Some wept, some laughed, some took pictures and all were entranced.

The rest of the day was just as enjoyable. The temples of Tikal did not disappoint, there were so many structures in the park that after 6 hours we had not seen them all. Some of temples we could climb, some had a wooden staircase built on their flanks to make it easier, and others were just green pyramids in the forest still covered in trees and moss.

I was blown away by the amount of wildlife we saw, Petén is as good as I remember Costa Rica being! On our way to the Grand Plaza we saw a little Paca sniffing along the trail, it looked like a gigantic gray guinea pig. At the Grand Plaza there was a flock of Ocellated Turkeys which are as colorful as peacocks. We saw not one but two little Silver Foxes, Spider Monkeys, Howler Monkeys, Parrots and 2 species of Toucans. And there was a huge pack of Pizotes roaming around the park that we saw 3 different times. Pizotes are like a cross between a raccoon, a meerkat, and a monkey. They run around on the ground in packs rooting out bugs and other delicious morsels while their long striped tails stick straight up in the air. Adorable!

One unfortunate soul in our party had a GI bug that kept him within sight of a bathroom all morning so the rest of the group went home with him around 11am for naps and Gatorade. Chops and I couldn't bear to leave, so we stayed to wander the trails and climb the ruins and our wonderfully agreeable driver came back to get us at 3pm.

Our last night in Flores we watched the sunset over the lake, did a little shopping for hats, magnets and futbol jerseys, and had a delicious dinner at a restaurant named La Luna that was recommended for its excellent "Pescado Blanco del Lago" plate. A whole fried lake fish with garlic, served with rice and salad. It was bien boney and probably pretty heavy on the heavy metals but it was caught that day and as delicious as fish gets. One last round of drinks on the roof and we crashed after a long day of exploring.

Day Four

Breakfast at 7am, hit the road at 8am, lunch in Rio Dulce at Hacienda Tijax at 12pm, home at 6.
Damn that's a long drive, even if you aren't the one driving...

What an amazing trip! I would do it again in a heartbeat. But next time I would spend the night in Rio Dulce to break up the drive a bit, hire Roxy for any and all tours,  and I would definitely spend one night in Flores and one night at a hotel in Tikal Park to make sunrise and sunset easier to see without having to do the hour-long drive from Flores in the dark.