Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Guatemala...Here We Come!

Lake Atitlan (photo courtesy of
In less than a week, my love and I will be boarding a plane at 7:00am in frosty Newark, New Jersey and traveling over 3,000 miles to Lake Atitlan located in the sunny but rugged mountains of Guatemala. It is difficult to even summon the words to express my feelings about taking such a venture. I have traveled outside the country once - count 'em...once. In 2004, during my junior year of college, I traveled to Ballyvaughn, Ireland on a school trip for 3 weeks. Although, we were allowed to roam the village and countryside largely unchaperoned, I was almost always accompanied by fellow students and knew that we were under the care of our professors. I have hiked thousands of miles on trail and road throughout the United States, largely solo, but have always felt uncertain to travel alone internationally. Now I have a partner who has traveled to more countries than I can what are we waiting for... time to expand my U.S. tramping to international tramping!

The volcanos of Lake Atitlan as viewed from San Marcos la Laguna (photo courtesy of

Lake Atitlan is steeped in lore, a supposed vortex of energy that influenced its first Mayan inhabitants. Ruins of the Mayan culture have been found not only beneath the waters of the lake but scattered throughout its mountainsides that now serve as land for it coffee plantations and avocado groves. Here, native plants abound, about which I know very little, and monkeys swing from the treetops. The lake is surrounded by 3 volcanoes with roughly seven small villages (not counting the even smaller ones in between) that are inhabited largely by indigenous people as well as large handfuls of hippies that have sought this locale out as a refuge from the norm.

Tuk-Tuk - these act as taxis through the villages of Lake Atitlan (photo courtesy of

There is no main road that encircles the lake, but rather a smattering of roads scattered throughout the more populous villages. The primary modes of transporation are tuk-tuks - three-wheeled motorized carts that act as taxis, motorboats that ferry tourists and locals between villages surrounding the lake, and of course foot travel. Some villages are connected only by water transport and dirt trails. Colorful school buses, termed chicken buses, carry folks from larger cities in Guatemala such as Guatemala City, which we will be flying into, 80 miles but mind you a 3 hour ride, to the lake.

Chicken bus - these serve as city buses that travel from hubs of travel to the lake
(photo courtesy of MayotoMaya.wordpress)

We will be staying in the village of San Marcos in an Air B&B rental dubbed Casa de Bambu. It is costing us a mere $140 for the entire week given that the exchange rate is seven quetzals to one american dollar. Sharing our home with us will be two resident pit bulls that are reportedly sweet as pie and will be tended to by the gardener. This will be our jumping off point for visiting the surrounding villages and of course some hiking while we are here. 

Casa de Bambu (photo courtesy of Air B&B)
San Pedro Volcano is reportedly one hell of a climb, reaching nearly 10,000 feet in elevation with a beginning elevation of 6,000. This elevation is reached over the course of a few miles. This kind of elevation rivals the climb to Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Eep. But how many opportunities will we have to climb a volcano in Guatemala? Needless to say, we will not be doing this on our first day there. A guide to lead you to the top is suggested and from what we have read the procedure is to go into the village and ask for Pedro. Hmm...Pedro must be a well-known guy. I am hoping Pedro can also introduce me to the native flora here as well. There may not be any spring green beings growing here in Northeastern PA but in Guatemala they are sure to be plentiful with 70 degree temps and longer daylight hours!

San Pedro Volcano (photo courtesy of Google images)

But for me this trip represents more than just a flight to a temperate and exotic land...

When I was a child, the countries that I saw on maps were largely just different colored shapes on a projector with names that I could not pronounce. As I got older, I would wonder at the pictures of people in National Geographic adorned in far more colorful clothes than we Americans ever dare to wear. In college I met other young people who had gone to Europe for a semester or to Africa for Peace Corps or perhaps practiced massage in the Carribean - how did they manage to take such a leap? Moving from Pennsylvania to North Carolina seemed mighty tremendous to me. I had friends from Uzbekistan and Kenya and Ethiopia whose stories of their homeland I now don't even remember because I don't think there was anywhere in my brain for them to stick, no relative experiences.

I remember the very first time I was faced with such sudden awareness of the was alarming. The first night that I was in Ireland, I stepped outside the little cottage that we were renting into the blackness of the night - the village had a population of only 300 and we were on the edge of town - and looked up at the stars. I didn't recognize a single constellation. It was then that I realized just how far I was from home. Here I was, after what had only been 5 hours on an airplane, but an entire ocean away, on another continent, looking at a sky that no one I loved back home was seeing. I sat down on the damp grass in an effort to simply ground myself. It terrifying, breath-taking, and tremendously freeing.

Perhaps my inexperience in traveling coupled with the brief but raw sensation of what it felt like to be somewhere completely unknown is one of the reasons I began long-distance hiking. Before I hiked the Appalachian Trail, besides the Tristate area and North Carolina in which I lived, I had been to Illinois, Florida, and South Carolina, not counting the states we had driven through on the interstate to get there. Once I delved into the world of hiking...I listened to tales from international hikers of trails in far away lands that traversed mountain ranges in countries that I didn't even know had mountains. At home, I would research the next trail to hike and inevitably come across long distance treks in Europe, New Zealand, China...and although my eyes had never laid eyes on such beauty...almost immediately discount them because I didn't know how to deal with the airports, the customs, the transportation, the money exchange, all the signs in languages I didn't understand. But I had learned this most important fact through hiking the Appalachian Trail - there was nothing that compared to suddenly finding one's self completely out of one's a town where I knew no one and no one knew me...coming upon a vista that until that moment I had never even knew existed but that from that moment forward would be forever imprinted upon my mind...the experience of not knowing where I might find myself at the end of the day or even what I might see, feel, hear, from moment to moment. The wonder of the unknown, that although I wandered, firmly planted me in the present moment.

This is the same feeling that I have now been struck with on many a long distance trek or travel - from my moonlit tent on Springer Mountain on the AT in Georgia, to the thick of a forest on the MST in North Carolina's Nanatahala National Forest where the insects and frogs were nearly deafening, to the arid red rock cliffs of Utah after driving 3 hours out on a dirt road past nothing but mesas and tough grass, to gazing down the length of Nevada's Route 50 (aka the Loneliest Road in the Country) where the road was ever shaped like an acute triangle but we never seemed to reach its tiny point, to the beaches of Northern California where I tread over smooth stones of every color and looked out an ocean I had never in my life seen, to the rock-strewn green mountains of the FLT where I had no service for weeks. This is the presence of mind, the wonder, the freedom, that I have fallen in love with and continue to structure my life around. To me, this is living and I have now been graced with a partner who values living as much as I do.

And so I look forward to finding my love and I smacked in the face with the present, with the beauty as well as discomfort, in the middle of the mountains in a land I had not even googled until a couple of months ago but of which we now dream. we come!

.....and after that....just one day after we arrive home...onwards to Asheville for two weeks! So begins the adventuring...