Monday, December 29, 2014

Hubby's Mom Comes to Guate

Chops, me and Suegrita

When we got assigned to Guatemala we played a little guessing game to name the people we thought were most likely to come visit us: among our adventurous friends we guessed Hubby's Mom (we'll call her Suegrita which means "little mother-in-law") was a likely candidate. And she did! We just spent a lovely week with her and rejoiced in being able to share our favorite highlights of Guate and even the Fireworks Spectacular on Christmas Eve.

Day 1: Suegrita arrives in Guate on Sunday afternoon, she's tired from the journey but after a quick change and a repack at our place we whisk her away to Antigua for a night in one of the coolest hotels in the world: Casa Santo Domingo (or CSD as the diplomats like to call it). The ruins of an 18th century convent were restored and transformed into a high end hotel/museum/art gallery/garden/paradise. They light 1,000 candles on a normal night, 3,000 more if there happens to be a wedding taking place. We were there on a wedding night, which I think is not rare. We walked down to the arch for dinner at one of our favorite restaurants in Antigua, Los Tres Tiempos. Suegrita and I had the mahi-mahi cooked garifuna style in coconut milk and served with a plantain tamale. After dinner Suegrita crashed out and hubby and I partook in a late-night sauna and pool session.

 The ruins by candle light at CSD

 The lovely room with a little balcony over looking the garden at CSD

Pascuas floating in a little pool at CSD

Day 2: Breakfast at Cafe Condesa and shopping for more ceramic knobs to match the ones we gave her for Christmas last year since it turns out her buffet needs 10 knobs instead of 8. The ceramic lady is all out of the design we want but she tells us they came from a town on Lake Atitlan called San Antonio Palopó. Change of plans now: we're going on a ceramic quest since Hubster and I have always wanted to check out that town. So on the drive to the lake we call and cancel the reservations we had in San Juan and make a last-minute booking at Hotel Las Terrazas del Lago in San Antonio. A lunch of blue corn tortillas, guacamol and carnitas at our favorite little road house near Rincon Suizo fills our bellies on the way. We make it to the lake around 4 with plenty of time to tour the 3 ceramic workshops in town. We show the photos of the knobs on Suegrita's camera to the workshops wondering if they know where we can pick up some more knobs with that design and one of the ladies smiles proudly and says that is her design and she can whip up a few more for us con gusto! Suegrita is amazed at having found a match and the artist herself! After a fish dinner we retire from the buggy outdoor table. Fireworks blast through the night which keep the dogs barking but not loud enough to drown out the loud marimba music a few houses over.

Zoila painting Suegrita's knobs in her workshop

Ceramics drying on the roof in San Antonio Palopó

A kiln in a ceramics workshop

Ceramic mugs in the blue/white/green style of the lake

The painters have an inspiring view and lots of fresh air

The little cayukos of San Antonio Palopó

Our hotel cook making fresh corn tortillas for us

Hotel Terrazas del Lago

Day 3: We awoke to a gorgeous clear morning with eggs, beans, tortillas and coffee for breakfast. We toured a weaving co-op and got a full explanation of the technique and colors they use for the deep blue designs San Antonio is known for. After filling our bags with ceramics and textiles we climb the narrow, pedestrian-only lanes to the white church on the hill and get a lovely view. Back to Panajachel for lunch and then a quick boat ride over to Casa del Mundo. We relax, journal, read and enjoy the tranquility before a delicious family style dinner of squash soup, asian salad, red curry and fruit empanadas.

Suegrita and a weaver share their knowledge, Suegrita does quite a bit of her own weaving back home in Nueva York

Tejadoras in their workshop

Chops and his Mom take a few photos in the church

Relaxing before dinner at Casa del Mundo

A lovely view of the lake from Casa del Mundo

Day 4: Christmas Eve!!! Hubster and I get our sweat on during a morning trail run to Santa Cruz then cool off with a dip in the lake. We devour our breakfast burritos and fruit plates which feels like enough food to last us the rest of the day. The drive back to the city is fast even with a stop for Christmas flowers along the way and an adventurous and educating stop at Walmart for pillow stuffing and socks. Once back at home we unpack, relax and fancy up the apartment for the Holiday. Christmas tamales, black beans and salad for dinner with fruit ponche and some bubbly. After one present each we fight to stay awake with a few games of Labyrinth. At midnight we ride the elevator up to the roof to see the show: the most fireworks you will ever see in your life. A 360-degree view of big, colorful, loud fireworks being set off by every man, woman and child from the streets of the city. It's pretty amazing.

Christmas with our little sheepito friend

Our Christmas table set with our candles from Casa Santo Domingo our our new table cloth from San Antonio Palopó

Watching the Christmas Eve Fireworks from our roof

Day 5: Merry Christmas!!! A mellow day at home, we enjoy shakshuka for breakfast and open the rest of our gifts including the stockings Suegrita brought us from New York. Hubster and his Mom work on making some pillows from the textiles we've collected. A few more games of Labyrinth, a couple long phone calls and Skype sessions with family and it's already time to have dinner and pack for the next leg of the trip, the jungle! After a big meal of stuffed squash, roasted brussels sprouts and mashed camote we are full and content and feeling the Christmas glow.

Day 6: The alarm goes off at 3:45am for our early flight to Petén. The streets are empty and so is the terminal at the Hincapie side of the airfield. Within an hour the waiting room is full and one person starts to check us in slowly. By take off time we still aren't all checked in, I suppose they run TAG airlines on Chapin time which is to say unorganized, late and looking like this is the first time they've ever done this. Oh well, we'll get there when we get there. But the morning is clear and gorgeous and we get an amazing view of the volcanoes as our little prop plane takes off. We also get a little snack box of mixed nuts, cookies and apple juice which Hubster says totally makes up for the late departure and the lack of organization. In Flores our guide Francisco meets us with a nice shuttle van and driver to take us to Tikal for the day. We stop for breakfast at a little comedor in the park and then spend the day walking, listening to his stories about the history and the plants and animals of the area, taking photos, watching monkeys and parrots, exploring the ruins, climbing the temples, and feeling slightly nervous when he identifies and moves a Fer-de-Lance (the 3rd most poisonous snake in the world) out from under a log bench and into the jungle. He's a great guide, if a little prone to go off on tangents and not answer questions, he has a lifetime of experience to share. One of the coolest Planet Earth moments we saw was this wave of Army Ants flooding the forest near the trail which caused the insects to flee, the birds to go after the insects, and a little hawk to chase the birds. Here was the food chain from bottom to top all right in front of us at once! Around 3 we leave the ruins for lunch at the same little comedor and see a Pizote finally. Back to Flores, Hotel Casa Amelia has the perfect rooftop terrace to watch the sun go down over the lake. After showers we walk down the street to a colorful little restaurant called San Telmo where Suegrita and I sip mojitos and we chow down on some tasty salads. After a little shopping and a stroll along the water front we are off to bed.

The TAG planes ready to take off with Volcán de Agua in the background

Suegrita inspects the snack box

A little hawk in the jungle hunting the birds who were hunting the insects who were escaping from the Army Ants

On top of Temple IV

Temple IV through the trees

Francisco moves the fer-de-lance like it ain't no thang

Suegrita swings on a vine

Famous Tikal shot

Chops and Suegrita enjoy the view

Francisco explains that twice a year the shadows of these 2 temples bow to each other

Flores at sunset

Day 7: I'm up early with the birds and the sunrise so I can enjoy a quiet cup of coffee and a few pages of my book. I can hear hubby grunting and jumping around in the room, he comes out later all sweaty and proud of himself for squeezing in a workout. Suegrita finds her way to the terrace and journals for a bit. Breakfast at the same little restaurant is delicious, especially the carrot/orange/ginger/mint juice. We pack up and leave our bags at the front desk for the day and go with the first captain we see to take us on a boat tour of the lake. His name is Alejandro, he's 16, has his own little lancha named Paola, and is quite enthusiastic about his lake kingdom. We stop at the little island with a museum on it and look at some dusty but very interesting Mayan artifacts from the area. Also a collection of old radios, a collection of money from other countries and a sketchy looking x-ray machine that makes us want to run away when the museum guide does a demo. The museum guide offers us cocos frios and we can't resist. Next stop is a mirador on a peninsula across from Flores, it's a hill that looks quite natural at first but then we quickly realize we are walking over more Mayan ruins, probably a big temple that would be as impressive as the pyramids we saw in Tikal if it were unearthed and restored. We stop at an enticing little sand beach, then Alejandro lets Chops and I drive the boat on the way to the horse statue and tree carved with a Mayan face in it. Next stop is ARCAS a little wildlife sanctuary where they take in injured or rescued wild animals, try to rehabilitate them for release and if not possible then care for them for the rest of their days. Lots of animal poachers in this area stealing babies from the jungle to sell to bad people. At the refuge we see some spider monkeys who are too tame to release but too wild to keep as pets, an ocelot that lost a front leg in an animal trafficking accident, and 2 caimans that were rescued from an illegal private zoo in Guatemala City but can't be released because caimans are not native to Guate. Also lots and lots of birds including some crazy looking ones that are as big as peacocks but all black and make crazy grunting noises, a bunch of red and green macaws, and lots of parrots including a cute little one who tried to get our attention with its limited vocabulary of "hola". We left a donation with the caretaker and headed back to Flores on the little boat Paola. It was a lovely day for a boat ride, a slow boat ride since the tiny motor was only 2 horsepower and we moved just a little slower than 3 miles per hour. Back on the island we had plenty of time for a leisurely lunch at Il Terrazo where the smoothies were excellent and so was the food. After a breezy Tuk Tuk ride to the airport we watched the sun set on the air strip and sighed at the disorganization of TAG airlines once again as we boarded our plane an hour late.

Boat ride for me and 2 friends!

Hotel Casa Amelia is the white and green one

Skull found at Yaxhá, those dots on the teeth are decorative insets of obsidian that they drilled in

Jade beads, a decorative tool and a little face

Looking at grinding stones, used for corn, chocolate and who knows what else

Suegrita loves her coco frio

View of Flores from the mirador on top of the ruins

Up in the tree house mirador

Captain Chops

Horse statue that Alejandro was pretty stoked to show us

The little pigs playing in the mud captured our interest more than the horse statue

This poor girl lost her front leg so she'll stay in this cage for the rest of her days eating chicken thighs twice a day and wishing the dang parrots would shut up

Green macaws aren't native to Guate, they were rescued from an illegal private zoo in the city

Caimans, they get a half a chicken twice a week and lay in wait watching those dang parrots

Said parrots are so loud I have absolutely no idea why anyone would ever think they make a good pet

Amazing salad at Il Terrazo

Tuk Tuk ride!

Our planes are here, maybe we can get on them?

Day 8: Suegrita's flight wasn't until 1:30pm so we had a leisurely morning of breakfast at Saul's, grocery shopping at La Torre for ponche, black beans and coffee for her to bring home and then a quick walk near the embassy so she could be a proud Mom and see where we worked.

Now I know where Chops gets his adventurous spirit and his love of travel from. His sweet Mama. We had such a wonderful week with her! She won't come visit us in Baghdad, but perhaps Jerusalem will entice her over for another visit in a couple years.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

El Paredon on the Pacific Coast

As we were bumping down a sandy trail/road, splashing through be puddles, dodging cattle and passing No Trespassing signs we were glad to be following our friends. If someone had just given us driving directions and expected us to follow them we would have turned around long ago thinking we had made a wrong turn. But after a few miles we actually made it to El Paredon on the Pacific Coast of Guatemala, about a 2 hour drive from the city and a world away.

After the cars were unpacked and we were settled in at Pelicanos Hotel it was time to order up some cervezas and ceviche and begin the relaxing 3 day weekend at the beach. Thank you Columbus!

A tiny little town, if you can even call 2 hotels and a couple tienditas a town, El Paredon is a few miles north of Puerto San Jose. The black sand beach here sees a few nesting sea turtles, locals, surfers and a bunch of seabirds. There are 2 hotels that I know of, a backpacker style hostel called Paredon Surf House, and a nicer hotel with 6 sweet little bungalow rooms called Pelicanos Hotel. It wasn't hard to fill up Pelicanos with a big group of friends and honestly Hubby and I have agreed this is the best way to "do the beach" in Guate. There really isn't much to do here besides lay around the pool and that's all we wanted to do anyways since it is so freakin' hot and I get burned after 5 minutes (literally 5 minutes) in the sun.

Dallas is trying to guess "Who Am I" he's JK Rowling. He got close "the lady who wrote about the kid who rides on a broom!"

Food is good (lots of seafood and meat), rooms have AC and big lizards that drop poop from the rafters, outdoor-style showers with plants living in them, a really nice pool with a big shade cloth strung over it, lots of deck chairs and a nice open front so the breeze can blow through. Rooms were 100 bucks per night so Hubs and I felt like we really splurged. We might stay at the hostel next time since it's cheaper (Q250 for a palapa which is like 30 bucks). One night we ate dinner over at the hostel, they served 3 courses for Q80 (about $10) outside at a big communal table by the pool with lights strung up, it was nice! Amazing blended mojitos.

One of the highlights but also something that makes my heart hurt even thinking about it right now was doing the "baby sea turtle release". At about 5:30 just as the sun was setting, a guy from the Tortuguero in Paredon came by the hotel with a bucket of baby sea turtles. He sold them for Q25 ($3) each, the routine was to hold it for a few seconds and place it on the sand so it could crawl out into the surf. The poor little guys had hatched the day before and been struggling and paddling in the bucket for the last 24 hours or so, which may just about guarantee their demise because they won't have enough energy to make it through the surf and out into the ocean to find food before they are completely exhausted. I don't know, it's good to support ecotourism projects but not so good to force baby turtles to overstay their time on land just so tourists can set them free on Saturday night when they get to town. It pains me to see these little baby endangered turtles and wonder if they will make it or if their species will even be here in 10 years. Seriously, we really suck at taking care of this planet.

But on a happier note, we had a great weekend and we actually got in the ocean a few times since the waves north of the Port are way mellower, still a mean riptide, but totally frolicable. The best part was early morning runs on the beach, chillin' with friends in the pool, laughing and eating and drinking and playin' games with some of our favorite peeps in Guate. And the GIANT frogs/toads that came out at night to catch bugs under the lights and the crabs that fought with them.

Check it. The frogs are huge in these parts.

Here is the bungalow we stayed in, it was super nice