San Marcos La Laguna

As I prepare to leave San Pedro, I decide to check out one last place for breakfast – Zulu Cafe & Hostel, which offers a beautiful view of Lake Atitlan. I have Shakshouka for breakfast (Israeli eggs with tomatoes) – so simple but so good!
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Afterward I head to the lancha (Spanish for “dock”) and embark on a 20-minute boat ride to the other side of the lake.

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As soon as I get off the boat, I begin to feel the tranquil vibe of San Marcos. I check into a hostel – Circles Cafe. The owner, Becky, has cheerful vibe. The hostel is new and beautiful, its lush greenery reminds me of Bali.

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I meet a couple, Will and Laura, who are also staying here for the night. Laura tells me about a yoga class she is going to in an hour, to which I reply “great!”, eager to practice. First hour on the island and I’m already going to a yoga class. I’m loving San Marcos already.

An hour later I meet Will and Laura in front of Kaivalya Yoga – and we all stare at the locked door. It seems that yoga is cancelled due to a three-day spiritual festival around new year’s called “Cosmic Convergence”, and most of the spiritual community in town has gone there – which happens to be at another town in Lake Atitlan. Someone does come unlock the door for us, so we can walk around and see the place. It would have been lovely to do yoga here with an amazing view of the lake!

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Laura tells me about an area called the “Trampolina”, which is a wooden platform built on the edge of the cliffs. I decide I will go watch the sunset from there. On the way I check out Hotel Aaculux. It’s serene and quiet.

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I reach the trampolina, revering the sun set behind the volcanoes surrounding Lake Atitlan. Simultaneously, I watch people jump off the platform to the lake (its about 20-fee to free fall). If only I was a strong swimmer, I would have done the same!IMG_4889 IMG_4891

Later that night I go to hostel Del Lago (the most happening place in San Marcos in the evenings), and attend my first drum circle. Will and Laura are already there when I arrive. For an hour, I sit around the campfire with twenty others, and lose myself in the process of making sound through the drum.

Afterwards Will, Laura, and I, all head back to our hostel, conversing about a variety of topics, talking for two hours non-stop. We don’t stay up too late though, hoping to check out the 9am yoga class at Del Lago tomorrow. Which happens to be New Year’s Eve!

New Year’s Eve

Laura and I head to Del Lago at 9am – to find a beautiful platform over the lake. Unfortunately, the yoga instructor cancelled the class. Dammit, 0 for 2. A handful of us stay anyway, and practice yoga on our own for a bit.

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After I’m done, Laura and I head over to Keith’s home, a man who is famous here for his cacao ceremony. A few people have recommended this cacao ceremony to me, but beyond, “It’s great, you should check it out!”, I don’t know anything more about it. So I’m very curious. Arriving at Keith’s door, I find that the gate is locked; I figure he must be at this Cosmic event also. I feel a bit annoyed – why no sign or information? When will he be back? When are the ceremonies normally? I’ll have to come back later and check again…the old-fashioned method, where information is not at your fingertips.

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Afterwards Laura and I head back to our hostel. After having breakfast together, Laura and Will leave for San Pedro. I’m sad to see them leave, since they are cool people that I would have enjoyed spending more time with. I spend the remainder of the day reading books I had brought with me, and doing some reflection on 2014.

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There’s always so much to see and discover. I walked back to Keith’s place, and I found someone standing out front. I asked him about the Cacao Ceremony, and he told me it happens every Sunday and Wednesday at 12:30pm. Yes! I will be back on Sunday!

I walk a bit further and find another beautiful dock.

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New Year’s Eve itself turns out to be low key. I mostly spend it alone, first walking to Del Lago hostel. There weren’t many people there, the crowd mostly younger than 21.

I head to an area where the locals are playing loud music – but no one is really dancing, though people are hanging around. At midnight there are fireworks – but not in San Marcos. Instead I watch fireworks happen on the other side of the lake at San Pedro. Bummer. Oh, and I’m by myself. This is the less glamorous side of backpacking and traveling solo. I try not to feel alone and enjoy my solitude – but New Year’s Eve is one of the tougher moments to be solo.

By the way, the local kids in the region seem to sporadically ignite loud fireworks (M-80s) throughout the day, and bottle-rocket fireworks at night. This happened for a majority of my stay in Guatemala – the kids start at Christmas Eve, and go until January 2nd. As a result I mostly became immune to the M-80’s bomb-like sounds throughout the day.

New Year’s Day

I wake up in the morning to go to a yoga class, not knowing whether it would be cancelled or not. And…the third time is the charm! It is an interesting yoga session – the experience of practicing while being in a spiritual town, intermixed in the context of the Guatemalan culture. In this case, it’s doing yoga while local Guatemalan kids are popping M-80s in the background; as I attempt to practice silence within, my mind begins to drift among thoughts; the sudden explosions bring me back to the present moment.

After yoga class I walk around, admiring different places. Below is a garden at Las Piramides, a meditation center.

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There are flyers throughout town, advertising free meditation classes or courses one can take; these flyers exemplify the energy of San Marcos. If I had more time here, I’d try to take a course on Reiki.

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I spend the rest of the morning and afternoon writing in my gratitude journal, my travel journal, reading, and talking with random people, having a deep and long conversation with one of them.

This would be my last night in town. I am excited for tomorrow, when I will head up to the hills of San Marcos where I will be staying at Yoga Forest for a three-day yoga & meditation retreat.

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San Pedro La Laguna, Lake Atitlan

After completing my adventure at Tikal, I take an overnight bus to Guatemala City, a shuttle to Antigua, another shuttle to Panajachel, and a boat ride, to arrive at San Pedro – a 16-hour journey.

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I chose to skip seeing many other sites in Guatemala, wanting to spend most of my time around Lake Atitlan. What is special about this lake?

The lake basin is volcanic in origin, filling an enormous caldera formed in an eruption 84,000 years ago. It’s 5,125 ft. above sea level.  It’s surrounded by three volcanos, with the last eruption in 1853. One traveler I met described this as “an area literally opening up to the heart of the earth”, giving the lake its spiritual ambiance (mostly in the town of San Marcos).

Aside from the geological significance, there is a lot to explore – ten towns surround the lake; I would be exploring at two of them.

San Pedro

The first town I decide to stay at is San Pedro La Laguna, a laid-back town popular with backpackers and tourists, having a reputation for being the party town among all the others.

Upon a friend’s recommendation, I check into a hostel called Casa Felipe, which used to be called “Yo Mama’s Casa” at some point in time. I chose this hostel primarily because it has more of a laid back vibe vs. being a loud, obnoxious party hostel. The hostel itself is simple and pretty (and cheap, 30 quetzals a night which is about $4).

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After I check-in, I see a circle of people hanging out in the patio (mostly in their early 20s), rolling their own cigarettes, listening to music. For my next two days here, it seemed that these people would always be hanging out in the patio. I learn that some had been staying here for 2 weeks, just hanging out. As a result I wasn’t surprised when I asked the group if anyone wanted to hike San Pedro Volcano with me, and no one was up for it.

I venture out for lunch after my 16-hour journey. I find a restaurant called “Shanti Shanti”, whose name lures me in. And with a name like that I would be shocked if they didn’t have vegetarian food. I ordered the fajitas, and initially I was surprised to have such a healthy serving of guacamole – before remembering that I’m in a part of the world where avocados are abundant. Excellent…

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I explore the town after lunch.

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Later in the day I book a volcano hike with two American girls from my hostel who had just checked in – Miranda and Gabby. They are eager to do a volcano hike. All our tour operator told us is that the hike would take 7 hours – begin at 6am, back at 1pm.

Hiking the Volcano

I wake up at 5:20am. Along with the two girls, a Canadian guy, Jacob, would also be joining us. We meet up with our tour guide to begin our hike.

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The trail reveals itself to be difficult early one – it’s steep. Unlike most trails I’ve done in places like California, the trail here doesn’t bother with switchbacks – it just goes straight up. As a result, its more strenuous.

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About a third of the way up, Gabby decides to give up, her face red from all the exertion. I learn that she’s never really hiked before, and here she is trying to hike up a strenuous volcano trail.

The remaining three of us continue up. Time passes slowly, as we split up, and I walk alone. There is a stretch of the trail where at first I see a lot of white scraps of paper – but then I see it’s actually white leaves!

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About another third of the way up, I met some other friendly hikers, Becky and Jamie, from the UK. We joked about how we are all having a difficult time, it must be the altitude, right?

I learn that Becky had quit her job back in Oxford and had just moved to Antigua, Guatemala. From there she is planning on working for an NGO. Overall it seems she will be staying in Guatemala for at least six months. I admire her adventurous spirit. Her friend Jamie is visiting Becky for two weeks, and he jokes how he would soon be back in London, sitting at his desk, and feeling sad when he would be remembering adventures like going up this volcano. The last third of the hike went by quickly thanks to good conversation and laughs.

Eventually we reached the peak to enjoy a panoramic view of Lake Atitlan. In the distance (far far away) we could see another volcano, actually spewing out smoke. A well-earned view after 5,100 ft. of elevation gain at an average 37% grade.

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After we make our way back down came the moment to say goodbye to Becky and Jamie. I ponder whether I should invite them to connect with me on Facebook – in that moment I felt it was perhaps sweeter to not do so. In hindsight, I should have since we had a good connection and energy.

I rest the remainder of the day, feeling quite beat from the volcano hike. My energy level is down as well because of a minor cold. I check my Jawbone app for the number of steps I took, and I am astounded – 60,000+ steps!

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In the evening I go to Buddha Bar with people from the hostel and enjoy live music from a band in the region, who perform Spanish hip-hop music.

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I don’t stay out too late, wanting to rest up and prepare to leave San Pedro – tomorrow I would leave for the spiritual town of San Marcos.

Christmas in Flores, Guatemala

Why Guatemala?

I originally didn’t have any plans to travel anywhere for 2014, having backpacked for 5 months in 2013. As the end of the year approached however, a part of me was hungry, needing an adventure. Where should I go?

My friend Amit had been spending some time in Guatemala, particularly in a spiritual town called San Marcos, located in the region of Lake Atitlan. He wrote a very positive blog post about how magical San Marcos is. I was intrigued. Initial research quickly led to a decision, being inspired by:

  1. Ancient ruins – I love ancient architecture, and Guatemala has a popular site called Tikal, which contains ancient Mayan temples.
  2. Volcanoes – Having done a volcano hike in Bali, and being inspired by numerous volcanoes  throughout Indonesia, I was looking forward to exploring one of Guatemala’s volcanoes.
  3. San Marcos – A small town known for yoga and meditation, seemed like it would be a good place for me to spend a few days and do a yoga retreat on my own. Spiritual rejuvenation.
  4. Lake Atitlan – The lake basin is volcanic in origin, filling an enormous caldera formed in an eruption 84,000 years ago. It’s also 5,125 ft. above sea level. That sounds epic to me!

I booked a ticket for a two-week vacation, leaving on Christmas Eve. Learning from my previous backpacking trip, I decided to create an itinerary that focused more on traveling slowly, rather than creating a checklist of all the “must see” things in Guatemala and then trying to compress seeing it all in two weeks. It was a difficult exercise to decide what l would skip and possibly miss out on; simultaneously, I felt gratitude for even being able to go at all.

Another concern I had was that I was going over the holiday season – Christmas and New Year’s. Would it be packed with tourists since this would be the high season? I was mostly nervous about not being able to book rooms in advance – online reservations weren’t possible – and ending up having to stay in undesirable hostels. I reminded myself that it would all be easier once I was there, and to give up control of wanting to plan it all out now. Sometimes the beauty of such style of travel is being serendipitous. Just live and let things fall into place.

Just Live

Tikal

I landed in Guatemala City on the Christmas Day, and from there I took a small plane from there to Flores. The plane was mostly filled with retired Americans on vacation.

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Flores is a popular place to stay when visiting Tikal, as it’s a small and charming island located 1.5 hours from the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal.

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When I arrived at my hostel, I debated between booking a sunrise tour (that leaves at 3am) or a sunset tour (leaves at Noon). A part of me wanted to be optimistic about seeing sunrise, but speaking to others at the hostel who had gone described it being too foggy to see anything. So I booked the sunset tour, reminding myself not to overanalyze such things as I tend to do. Just live.

The next day I embarked for the sunset tour for Tikal. Here are some quick facts about Tikal:

  • Tikal was the ancient Mayan capital which used to be one of the most powerful kingdoms in its time
  • An area of 6.2 square miles contains about 3,000 structures, but most haven’t been excavated. Most attention is given to the six temple pyramids
  • The tallest temple is about 230 feet high, completed around 700 AD.
  • Up to 90,000 people may have lived in this area

Upon initially arriving in Tikal, I saw my first exotic creature of the jungle – a wild turkey. The turkey is beautiful, and I could have mistaken it for a peacock.

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As our tour guide led us into the jungle, he told us we would possibly see other jungle creatures, specifically spider monkeys, howler monkeys, wild turkeys, maybe tarantulas, or a jaguar. It didn’t take long to spot spider monkeys and howler monkeys, easily attracting the attention of tourists as they swung around trees (or even walked around).

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I didn’t learn much from the tour guide as I would have hoped – how were these temples built? When were they built? What function did they serve? His explanations around the various sites usually concluded in “Nobody really knows, it’s all a mystery of the Maya.” Thus I mostly focused on appreciating the aesthetics of the temples and other structures, and the sites of the jungle. In my head I made a note to google for a National Geographic documentary about Tikal to learn more about it.

Below is the Lost World Pyramid; part of a larger ceremonial complex.

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View from the top of the steps.

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The Great Plaza, containing two great pyramid-temples on the east and west side, an two acroplis’ on the north and south side.

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Temple I, 154 ft. high. Tourists are not allowed to use the stairs to get to the top – I imagine it would be quite scary and difficult to do so, given how steep and narrow the stairs are.

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Being in Tikal also took me back to an area I was about a year ago – Ankgor Wat. While a part of me didn’t want to compare Tikal to Angkor Wat, emotionally, I feel spiritually connected and mesmerized by Ankgor Wat, its roots being in Hinduism and Buddhism. Just on a visceral level however, Ankgor Wat is on a grand scale, needing 3 days to see it all; Tikal can be seen in about 4 hours.

I stood admiring Temple I, its long staircase to the top. The shape of it reminded me of Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai, Thailand (picture below) – another favorite temple of mine.

Towards the end of our tour, I watched the sunset behind the mountains in the distance, admiring the vast jungle, hiding many of the secrets of the Mayan civilization that used to live here.

Sunset photo from the top of Temple IV.

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Next stop: Lake Atitlan