Guatemala Two: Lagos and Lagatijas

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Ever been to Lago Atitlan? If not, you’ll just have to take Aldous Huxley’s word for it. The Brave New World author famously described the Guatemalan lake as “too much of a good thing”.

“Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes,” he points out.

You rather get the feeling that Huxley would have been happier at Windermere. Certainly Atitlan didn’t have very many teashops, and there is definitely no pencil museum. The Lake District it ain’t.

However, we chose it as a place to celebrate New Year because it looked very pretty. What we didn’t realise is that lots of hippies – or ‘rainbow children’, if you want the local lingo, also choose to celebrate New Year there as part of a ‘Cosmic Convergence’ festival that involves a lot more dance music than we’d usually go for at New Year.

Hippies like Atitlan because they believe it is a vortex energy field, like the Egyptian pyramids. As a result they’ve pretty much colonised various towns on the edge of the lake, which now have an odd two-storey feel – hippies on the bottom and Mayans further up in the hills (sensible Mayans – the lake level is rising at a rapid rate). It’s not always the easiest of co-existences, either – many of the Mayans are evangelical Christians who aren’t always that delighted by the dance music and ‘energy vortex’ stuff.

Anyhow, enough scene setting. We chose to stay in Santiago de Atitlan, the biggest and arguably least touristy settlement round the lake. Here the inhabitants are largely Mayan, speak their own language and still wear their own traditional dress. They have tuktuks, which are fab, and very, very loud fireworks.

We even chose a slightly less budget hotel – the Tiosh Abaj, which had clearly been very chic about thirty years ago. Beautiful gardens, a nice pool and big clean rooms were somewhat offset by the world’s dodgiest wifi (difficult when you’re suddenly inundated with work) and the fact that they were very proud of their new sound system, which played frenetic music at any point at which we didn’t ask them to turn it down.

So what did we do at Lago Atitlan? We took boat rides, and marvelled at the pretty volcanoes. We had a slightly odd, but wonderful ‘thermal bath’ overlooking the lake. The girls swum and played on the lake edge while I swore at the wifi router. They also did some schoolwork (sorry girls, but we have to keep up a bit). We ate at the fabulous Largatijas (lizards) restaurant, a tiny shack where they made great food and made us most welcome. And on New Year’s Eve, we went out for a proper posh meal during which Clover and Daisy fell asleep on their chairs during the third course (of six). It was only about eight thirty! As a result, we didn’t manage to see in the Guatemalan New Year (well, we woke up because it sounded like a war – all those fireworks) but completely failed to get out of bed.

A damp squib, you might think, but actually I relish the days we had relaxing at Tiosh Abaj. It was warm and sunny, and the girls enjoyed playing with their dolls. We watched hummingbirds in the trees and spent far too long talking to Jeffrey the turtle (probably not his real name), who was not tremendously responsive but very funny. We skyped friends and family when we could make the wifi work. The biggest stress, predictably, was trying to get away again where late boats, tricky border crossings, and terrible traffic assured we weren’t back in San Cristobal until stupidly late. It’s good to be back. Happy 2016.

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Guatemala I: I’ll be home for Christmas (but only in my dreams)

 

Damn you, advertising industry! Perhaps if those in the business of selling everything under the sun didn’t expend quite so much of their energy on depicting the perfect family Christmas, we wouldn’t have such high expectations.

Perhaps ‘high’ is the wrong word. I’ve never been away for Christmas before, and really consider it should be spent sitting on Mum and Dad’s sofa, fighting over the best Quality Street in the tin and watching Dad find pound coins in his Christmas pudding (he’s a magician, that man). In short, our Christmas needs are few, but homely – and those are the most difficult things to find when away from home.

One of the stipulations of a round-the-world ticket is that you can’t just go home for a couple of weeks, so we always knew we’d have to deal with Christmas far, far away from Mum and Dad’s sofa. In fact, we couldn’t even spend it in our house in Mexico, as someone with far deeper pockets than us had decided to take it for the Christmas period. So we packed up (leaving the bulky stuff with friends) and took the shuttle bus from San Cristobal to Antigua, Guatemala – a journey that we were assured would take between eight and ten hours.

Never trust a travel agent, especially a Mexican one. I won’t dwell too much on the particulars of the journey, except to say that the minibus was populated by the usual traveller types including ‘man with beard who cannot stop swearing’, ‘gap year student who describes his various stomach ailments in excruciating detail’ and ‘woman who eats granola out of a bag and spends the whole time reading a meditation text whilst sitting in the lotus position’ (tricky in a minibus). I’m sure they have their own comments to make about us, too, especially since I’m sure I gave all of them my Christmas cold over the THIRTEEN HOURS we spent in that bus (sorry chaps, you’ll have your voices back in, oooh, about a week and a half…). However, our girls are stars when it comes to travelling – and after 36 hours on an Indian train, we ought to be able to cope with a little discomfort.

What can I say about Antigua? Described as “the most charming colonial city in the Americas’, it is like a bit of Disneyland plonked down in the Guatemalan highlands. If you’ve seen our pictures of San Cristobal, it is similar, without the ‘edge’ (no Zapatistas/no graffiti/far more tourist-oriented) and full of Americans who come down for the holidays. It was pretty strange to have crossed over from Mexico to a country that is nominally poorer and yet to find somewhere so developed. Every building is beautiful, every street cobbled, every corner filled with picturesque Mayans selling handicrafts. The fairylights were breathtaking, the food fantastic, and the prices correspondingly high. And then there are the volcanoes hanging over the city – including Fuego, puffing clouds of ash almost every day, just to heighten the fairytale atmosphere.

So yes, Antigua is beautiful, and a good place to find Christmas comfort. Imported tea? Tick. The only mince pies in Central America? Probably – and, since these are vital of course for Santa’s visit on the 25th –- this was just as well. Antigua is also expensive, which is how we came to be staying in a hostel-type affair, with some very loud German boys, a comedy night watchman, and the worst breakfasts known to mankind (and that includes those from Myanmar). At least by day three we’d persuaded the duena to let us cook our own.

The Christmas run up was always going to be different, but thankfully we had some things planned. We very much enjoyed a chocolate making course (with thanks to Grandmere), at the Choco Museo, where we ground cacao beans, learned the history of chocolate, and made three different types of hot chocolate drinks and our own flavoured chocolates under the tutelage of ‘proud Mayan’ Pablo.

We enjoyed hanging round the central park chatting to the locals (particularly Hortensia, Pablo and Pablo – are you sensing a name theme here?) who were just terribly excited to see photographs of trains. The girls fed the pigeons and chased them, and we visited many of city’s seriously picturesque ruins – Antigua is seriously affected by earthquakes and volcanoes, to the point that it reminded me of that bit in Monty Python’s Holy Grail movie where the king keeps building castles that sank into the swamp. The ruins are very photogenic, and good for hide and seek – and because Antigua is so tourist oriented they also have clean bathrooms (useful for the Clover/diarrhoea related incident that I shan’t go into any further).

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Does Santa come even in Guatemala? Turns out he does, despite the night watchman’s incredulity when we helped the girls sellotape their stockings to the chiminea. “But Santa’s not going to come, is he?” he remarked morosely as we took the girls up to bed… But of course we proved him wrong, though we couldn’t find a glass for Santa’s traditional sherry (or any sherry for that matter) so Santa had to swig wine, classily, out of the bottle.

Christmas lunch was at local classy restaurant Panza Verde, which doesn’t usually allow children. Paul convinced Clover that she had to pretend to be a very short brain surgeon, and Daisy, a civil engineer, so they were a little worried. Fortunately all were charming, and the turkey stunning, and the new Ever After High dollies from Santa got a table of their own, and some beautiful starched napery to sleep in. Extra cranberry sauce ensured that the girls ate a very grown up Christmas dinner, with no roast potatoes or Christmas pudding.

Continuing with a traditional theme, we introduced the girls to (travel) Monopoly, and obviously they had chocolate coins for breakfast, just as they would at home.

So yes, as the Grinch found out in that famous Dr Seuss Book, Christmas did “come just the same”, despite the strangeness of location and distance from home. But that’s not to say that everyone found it easy. There was a lot of Skyping, a few tears from both girls on Christmas Eve, and a lot of grumpiness from me when the computer trackpad on the Mac broke on Christmas afternoon. In my defence the Mac is my workhorse and I had deadlines to meet (not to mention a pressing need to watch Netflix).

In the end we saw off the Christmas Day grumps with a trip to (ahem) McDonalds, where the children wolfed down mcnuggets far faster than they had roast turkey, and we wondered at a city where even the golden arches is a colonial marvel. Finished the day off watching fireworks explode over the city, and two girls asleep in their new pyjamas. All in all, Christmas abroad was quite kind to us, but we did feel very far away, and missed friends and family lots.

Went to bed reflecting that Christmas far from home is hard enough when you have a home to go to, and profoundly grateful for it, and made a sobering donation to a couple of the Syria refugee appeals. Christmas is a time for home and hearth, after all, and so many don’t have one.