Alex and I met in line to get our passports stamped and then headed into the chaos of taxi drivers and loved ones searching for family members. Among the endless offers for a taxi, we found Alex's colleague, Virginia, a wonderful woman with a sense of humor and personality that won't let anyone stop smiling. We headed back to the home base in Guatemala City for lunch and jokes and then Alex and I jumped on a bus to Coban, only 5 hours away.
I found myself slipping right back into the backpacker lifestyle – a lifestyle that is not nearly the same as tourism, or traveling – a lifestyle that I dearly love. We got off the bus in the dark and had very rough directions to our hostel. We got lost. We got found. And, we ended up chatting with other travelers and making friends from around the world. It was awesome!
We slept for a few hours and then hired a guide to take us to Semuc Champey, 3 hours and 2 buses away. When we arrived, we found one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen.
A raging mountain river tunneled under about 200 meters of land, on top of which, tiny streams filled the most gorgeous mountain pools, ever.
The water was slightly tinted blue and was as clear as any fairytale lake. Beyond that, the perfect mountain air was complimented by the perfect water temperature, in which we swam and explored! It was absolutely perfect!
Unfortunately, we only had a couple hours there. This will be a regret until I return. Back on our buses, all the way to Coban. Met another wonderful backpacker, and then went to sleep for our early bus to Flores. This bus was only for tourists so we took the opportunity to meet some wonderful new people and share some great stories from the road.
Once in Flores, we found all the hotels to be booked because of some city holiday. Eventually, well after dark, with the help of the owner of the bus/tour company, we found places to sleep. Alex and I shared a hotel with Nick and Raha, a couple from NYC on holiday break from their studies. We decided to explore Tikal together the following morning and grabbed a couple hours of sleep before our bus picked us up at 4:30.
Tikal was fantastic! We arrived early enough that it wasn't saturated with tourists. We went directly for the tallest temple we could climb, and ascended to front row seats as we watched the awakening of a tropical forest.
We practically had the moment to ourselves. It was really special, and so I busted out a bottle of local booze made from hibiscus and thanked the Mayans for creating something so spectacular in such a spectacular environment.
The four of us spent the day exploring temple after complex after shrine after sacrificial altar! The structures weren't as profound as the pyramids in Egypt, but the magnitude of the site did manage to blow me away. It was so vast and complex!
The heat of the day got to us so we returned to Flores where Nick and Raha found a better hotel with a pool and a warm-tub. Alex and I joined them for some soaking and conversations before we caught our overnight bus back to Guatemala City.
The first bus we got on was awesome! As good as any first class European bus! Plus, we sat next to a cute Argentinian gal and a cute Bulgarian gal who I had met at Tikal and got a chance to speak in Bulgarian! The bus was spacious, clean, and the Argentinian said we would get served food! It was so comfortable - for about 15 minutes - when we made our first stop and the bus driver kicked us off the bus... Evidently, the clown that sold us the tickets used a weird receipt from one bus company, but was actually for another. When “our” bus finally came, it was overcrowded, smelly, dirty, foodless, and an unintelligible movie blared loudly and kept me from sleeping... So it goes. This is just part of the backpacker lifestyle.
We arrived back to Guatemala City around 6 in the morning and slept for a couple hours before departing on another bus ride. Alex had to check out a school for their teen volunteer program that was in a village about two hours away, and Virginia said it was okay if I tagged along. It was really great to see what Alex does for work – and it appears that he's very good at it – but it was more impressive to see what his organization does. I encourage anyone looking for a short-term, international volunteer stint to check out Cross Cultural Solutions. After work was finished, we checked out another Mayan site and headed home through a very remote and bustling Guatemalan village.
In a very short time, we managed to spend hours upon hours on buses. It's certainly not comfortable travel, but it is so insightful to see the countryside and how people are living – especially in Guatemala. I was told to expect a very colorful culture here, but my expectations were far short of reality. From the window, I saw the most hardworking, laborious people I've seen in any country. All of their faces told a story, and the character of the rural population was incredibly beautiful. While we were on foot in some of these communities, I was also shocked to see quick, superficial scenes of the local life of the most conservative Latin American country. In other countries, kids will approach you and ask for money or food, without shame. Here, they just casually walked near to us and stood there, hoping that Alex would share some of his Japanese peanuts. Despite the heavy tourism, locals still look upon foreigners with intense curiosity. I like to think it's because I'm super pretty, but people were staring at Alex, too. Smiles were nearly always returned - as were my plentiful and corny Spanish greetings. All while working with great hardship. I've never seen older or younger people working with anywhere near the same intensity. Very impressive and humbling at the same time.
My final day was spent alone, as Alex had a project to work on. I decided to try my luck with the famous chicken buses and take a day trip to the old capital, Antigua. They told me the chicken bus wasn't going to be very full at the time of day I was departing, and I was the second person on the bus so I believed them. A few more people got on as we left the station, but not many at all. These chicken buses are incredible! Old school buses from the USA that have been mechanically renewed, and artistically improved. Each one is different, with heaps and heaps of style and character.
Lots of bright colors, shiny chrome and stainless steel, dedications to Jesus, and rockin music! As we pulled out of the station, our bus was rockin the Spanish version of YMCA – and as the driver negotiated traffic, he danced their version of YMCA! It was amazing! I want my own chicken bus, badly! We ended up driving quite slowly for 30 minutes, picking up person after person. It wasn't long until there were three people to every seat, and shoulder to shoulder folks in the aisle. Is this what not too full looks like?
By now, I'm used to being stared at, as people are very curious. I love this opportunity to say hello and practice my Spanish – and make them smile with my sexy accent. I nodded at one guy who was staring at me on the bus and he shyly said hello. When I got off the bus, he approached me to ask about my story – why I was there, where I lived, what I was doing, etc. It felt quite out of character and beyond the typical stares, but I indulged as I prefer to share experiences with other people.
More of my pictures are here: Here! But my experience has been very touristy. If you're curious about the wonders of Guatemala, I encourage you to explore my dear friend, Rainbow's, blog about her work with the indigenous populations: Here!