Category Archives: Central America

Killer Kayaking: Beauty and Peril on Lake Atitlán

Nov 6, 2012

Just before nine a.m., Dale and I visit the vague square of dirt next to the Hotel Aaculaax, where a sign advertises kayak rentals. It will cost us 25 quetzales (three dollars) per kayak per hour. Neither kayak is high quality. Dale’s is one of those tippy toy-kayaks in which the paddler sits perched on top with nowhere to press his knees or rest his back. Mine allows my butt to fit inside, but is so shallow my knees poke out. Dale must envy my apparent ability to rest my back against the lip of my kayak. But in fact, this offers no support, only a thin hard line of fiberglass digging into the scar from my recent back-surgery.

We shrug it off. Third-world rentals: what do we expect? Surely we can stand anything for an hour or two.

This is a tippy toy-kayak in which the paddler sits perched on top. (This is not Dale, however. I often don’t carry a camera when kayaking.)

Our paddle in the volcanic caldera of Lake Atitlán is tranquil at first. We round the lush hill called Cerro Tzankujil and skirt the pretty cove on the other side, enjoying a closer look at the homes of expats and Guatemala City weekenders. The houses are painted brightly as flowers, complementing the tropical scenery, though the owners would surely get kicked out of any Home Owners Association in America.

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Invaders in Paradise: Nature versus Us at Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan

November 5, 2012

As Dale starts the shower, built into the natural rock of a hillside above Lake Atitlán, a natural visitor drops in on him. A mouse falls from an unseen crevice overhead to land at his feet with a plop. The mouse is stunned for a moment, so Dale puts a bucket over him and calls me in to meet his new friend. When he lifts the bucket, the mouse lies very still, understandably leery of the giants chuckling overhead. We put the bucket back over him while we discuss what to do with him.

The mouse is stunned for a moment, unable to move, so Dale puts a bucket over him and calls me in to meet his visitor.

Our discussion is interrupted by a loud, wet kerplop, as a hairball falls before our eyes and lands next to the bucket hiding our captive.

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The Dying Lake and the Trampoline – What’s Living in Guatemala’s Lake Atitlán?

Nov 4, 2012

Today when my husband, Dale, and I leave our hotel, instead of turning left toward town, we turn right along the shoreline of Lake Atitlán. After only fifty feet, we spot the sign for the Reserva Natural del Cerro Tzankujil (Nature Reserve of Tzankujil Hill). A stone stairway leads to a loop trail, featuring a series of miradores, or viewpoints, amid tangled jungle and hanging flowers. It costs 15 quetzales, about two bucks each, to enter. The young guy who sells us our tickets says if we follow the loop to the left, we’ll see the trampolín first. We decide to turn right and save trampoline-jumping for last.

At the Reserva Natural del Cerro Tzankujil, a stone stairway leads to a loop trail featuring a series of miradores, or viewpoints.

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Lake Atitlán Sings the Blues – Guatemala at the End of Mayan Days (Part 12)

November 2, 2012

“Aldous Huxley called Lake Atitlán ‘the most beautiful lake in the world’…until he went to the next lake,” Dale says. We’ve seen photos of the serene aqua caldera: formed by ancient volcanic eruptions, filled by centuries of natural springs and heavenly rains, and encircled by mountains — including three quiet volcanoes birthed by their violent parent. But photos are all about best behavior. We’ve accepted that Atitlán might not say “cheese” when we arrive.

Aldous Huxley called Lake Atitlán “the most beautiful lake in the world.”

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Giant Kites Among the Spirits – Guatemala at the End of Mayan Days (Part 11)

Nov 1, 2012

When death is always near, the living learn to laugh with it, to touch heaven and assure themselves it’s waiting. That’s my guess at why the Mayan town of Sumpango celebrates the Day of the Dead with a Festival de Barriletes Gigantes, or Festival of Giant Kites.

The Mayan town of Sumpango celebrates the Day of the Dead with a Festival de Barriletes Gigantes, or Festival of Giant Kites.

In 1976 a 7.5 earthquake killed 23,000 people in Guatemala, 244 of them in Sumpango, which was leveled. Three years later Sumpango held its first kite festival. Guatemala’s 36-year civil war raged on until 1996, but the giant kites kept flying. Each year, Sumpango’s young kite makers compete to see how close they can get to God, how long their kites can stay in heaven, and how much beauty they can fit into these messages to the spirits. Tradition has it that all souls return on November 1, and that these kites deliver prayers to the dead.

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Laughing on the Day of the Dead – Guatemala at the End of Mayan Days (Part 10)

Nov 1, 2012

By the time we arrive at the Sumpango cemetery at 9:00 a.m., it’s already packed. Food vendors gather at the entrance, selling delicious grilled elote, or corn-on-the-cob, and jocotes en miel, small round fruits soaked in syrup until they have a similar consistency to stewed prunes, only tastier. Our guide Cesar and his college-age daughter Rocio will spend much of the day explaining that the Día De Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is all about feasting.

Food vendors gather at the cemetery entrance, selling delicious grilled elote, or corn-on-the-cob, and jocotes en miel, small round fruits soaked in syrup.

Inside the cemetery, an explosion of color and activity swarms over and around the graves and tombs of the dead. Hundreds of people gather in clutches of nuclear and extended families, attending to low humps of earth and tiny, brightly painted houses where the departed lie buried: patriarchs who passed away in old age, spouses taken in their prime, and children stolen before their time.

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Spelunking in the Caves of Semuc Champey – Guatemala at the End of Mayan Days (Part 9)

October 30, 2012

When I realize that Dale and I are the only travelers over forty standing at the mouth of Semuc Champey’s K’anba Caves, I suck-in my one-piece swimsuit. I feel more confident when I don my headlamp. Except for our Guatemalan guide, everyone else in our group of about a dozen has to carry candles. That will prove awkward in several places where swimming and climbing are required. But I’ll admit, although my headlamp is handy, there’s something mysterious about the shadows of the others splashing through water under the bobbing glow of candlelight. It feels as if we’re part of a Victorian expedition…except for the bikinis.

It feels as if we’re part of a Victorian expedition…except for the bikinis. (photo courtesy of Jill Packham, third from the left)

We wade and swim through water that varies from ankle-deep to who-knows? We scramble over rocks, climb ladders, and haul ourselves up ropes. When I can’t touch bottom, my frightened heart tries to drown me – not because I can’t swim, but because I’m uncertain how long it might be before bottom returns.

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