Hobbling Around Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua is the most popular town amongst tourists in Guatemala. For many, it’s probably the first place they visit in Guatemala after landing at the airport in Guatemala City, as it’s only an hour away.

I saved Antigua for the end of my trip. This works out well, since I now have a freshly-sprained ankle from the day before. Antigua isn’t too big or busy, so getting around by foot is manageable for me.

I walk around with a walking stick, hobbling as I walk. I notice a lot of stares from locals as I’m walking around; I must be an interesting sight. A beneficial side effect is that less people approach me to try to sell me things.

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Antigua is popular for its beauty – the Spanish Baroque architecture, the ruins of colonial churches, the mild climate, make for a town that many tourists can enjoy. It’s also safe, and maybe this is thanks to armed police with shotguns every other block.

Below is the Santa Catalina arch, the icon of Antigua.

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La Merced church. The clouds look amazing here. Though I couldn’t capture it with my camera, three volcanoes command the horizon around Antigua.

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Random shots of buildings.

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Below is the entry to the market – where I bought gifts for friends and family back home.IMG_5005

Antigua is modern, but the architectural style is well-preserved. A great example of this is seeing American fast-food chains blending into the environment.

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The most gorgeous McDonald’s ever.
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Yes. This is the inside of a McDonald’s.

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Many expats also live here, mostly from their mid-20s to 30s. As a result there are a lot of classes for learning Spanish; and conversely, there are many classes for locals to learn English. In this respect, its a melting pot between different cultures.

My favorite place in Antigua is Cafe Samsara – hip, progressive, healthy. I wouldn’t be surprised to find it in San Francisco! The place has a great vibe – there are books about philosophy, consciousness, meditation. The food is also great – I had a kale crepe (in Guatemala!). Along with it I had a warm drink – milk, turmeric, maple syrup, and sesame oil drops. It tasted good, and its good for you!

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I had to try another drink that caught my eye. Amaranth Atole. I’ve never had this before. My epicurean-vocabulary isn’t good enough to describe its taste, but this is a drink I will try to replicate in my kitchen back home. (Recipe from Epicurious here)

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My two evenings in Antigua were mostly quiet. I stayed in my hostel room, giving my sprained ankle a break – and thankful I could walk around as much as I did.

I felt like I had done a lot over the two weeks I stayed in Guatemala – seeing the ancient ruins of Tikal, hiking San Pedro volcano, spiritual adventures in San Marcos. I found the trip to be stimulating on multiple levels – intellectual, physical, and spiritual. I needed this, and I would leave Guatemala fulfilled. Limping, but fulfilled.

A part of me is already looking forward to the next Christmas break – I think it will be good tradition to take advantage of the holidays to go explore other South American countries – during this time there are affordable flights from back home (California), and good weather in the southern hemisphere. And so much waiting to be explored!

Yoga Forest, Cacao, & a Scorpion

– Friday –

I check out of Circles Cafe and prepare to head to Yoga Forest where I will be doing a 3-day yoga retreat. There is no road to Yoga Forest; one has to find it through a trail. I was given directions to find the first trail marker, a rock with “Yoga Forest” written on it. Once I find this rock, I begin to follow the trail into the forest.

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Following the trail is easy, thanks to the pretty painted rocks along the way; walking in the intense Guatemalan sun is a bit harder, especially with my 20 lb. backpack.

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I’m delighted when I find the door to Yoga Forest about 20 minutes later. It’s made of branches, and gives it a “natural” feel, blending in with the environment around it.
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I’m slightly dismayed when I open the door and find 50 steep steps up. Almost there…

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Once I reach the top, I’m greeted by Emily, who checks me into my cabin, Cabana Rama. I’ll be sharing this Cabana with three others; no one else is here yet. There’s two floors; the second floor kind of feels like a tree house since you need to climb a ladder to get to your bed.  In front of the bed is entirely windows, for the scene is epic: a view of Lake Atitlan and volcanos in the distance; I feel overwhelmed by the beauty.

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Yoga Forest is ecologically-friendly. To give you an idea of what this means:

  • No electricity from the grid – each cabana has a solar panel to power a small light at night. No electricity also means no fridge – so only fresh food!
  • No electricity also means no WiFi – though the point is to disconnect while you’re here
  • No flushing toilets – which means you have to be open to using compost toilets
  • The stoves are are powered by wood
  • When the sun heats up the water tank enough, you can have a warm shower. Another plus is being able to shower under the sun while naked – a rare treat (can you see the showerhead in the picture below?)

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After settling in, I have a light salad for lunch. I meet Phil. He tells me how he has done Vipassana and other kinds of meditation (which I had done the previous year in Thailand – ten days of silence). Unlike me however, he continued a strong practice, and meditates two hours a day – an hour in the morning, and another hour in the evening. He describes how the first year he had to take care of the practice, to be disciplined;  and now the practice takes care of him. I’m impressed by Phil, because while I know a handful of people who have done Vipassana, the challenge of meditating two hours per day is an even more extraordinary feat after ten days of silence.

After my conversation with Phil I attend a relaxing yin yoga class from the shala (a giant platform with a thatched roof where we do yoga & meditation). And yes, it has a scenic view of Lake Atitlan.

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The remainder of the afternoon I spend meditating and reading a book by Thich Nhat Hanh. In the evening, another person checks into my cabana. I find out Melanie is from Oakland, right next door to me back home! As we talk, a woman comes from the next cabana overhearing our conversation. It turns out she also lives in the Bay Area, and lives only two blocks from me in San Francisco! These encounters remind me what I love about the Bay Area – the people – who love to travel to all parts of the world.

That evening I get to know more people over dinner, where we all collectively make pizza in wood-burning ovens.

— Saturday —

I spend Saturday doing what I came here for – yoga and meditation. I wake up at 5:45am, meditating in the shala for an hour with a small group. Afterwards, I do yoga for an hour with a larger group. I spend the remainder of the day meditating on my own, reflecting on 2014, and reading. A quiet, introspective day.

A highlight came during dinner, when a new arrival, Jason checked in. He had just done a 12-day trek through a jungle in Guatemala to see El Mirador – another large Mayan temple shrouded in the rain forest. Many of us gather around him as he tells us of his adventures through the jungle. What a challenge! I imagine the difficulty of carrying all your food and water for 12 days, avoiding certain creatures (snakes) and parasites (ticks).

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Later I learn that Jason is from Marin – another fellow from the Bay Area.

– Sunday –

Today would be  a big day. Bigger than I had planned.

After doing yoga in the morning, I prepare to go down to town to participate and learn about this Cacao Ceremony I’ve been curious about.

I arrive at Keith’s place at Noon – they are still setting up when I arrive (Keith is the cacao shaman). While I wait, I end up having a deep conversation with an older Italian woman.

The cacao ceremony is ready. I take a seat in Keith’s patio on a cushion. I look around, there’s about 30 of us, people are overflowing from the patio to Keith’s front yard. Keith said he has expected a larger crowd since its right after New Year’s. And here it is, the moment I’ve been waiting for. I’m handed a cup of hot cacao – just raw cacao in hot water. We are invited to add sugar or hot pepper; sugar for taste, hot pepper to give it a warming quality. I add both. It’s served warm, not hot. It tastes a little bitter, but not an issue if you like dark chocolate. The texture is a little clumpy.

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As I sip my hot cacao, Keith is slouched in his chair, giving us an introduction to cacao. He kind of looks like Dumbledore with his white beard, though not as reverent. I can’t quite tell how old he is, maybe 60-70? His wife silently helps to prepare the cacao, her long gray hair tied back. Keith describes how his wife is the strength, and he is the mouth. And indeed, he does all the talking.

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Keith begins telling us about how he became a cacao shaman. It started with the cacao spirit that spoke to him in his dreams. It was telling him to go find cacao. Later, he then drove a pickup truck, being navigated by the cacao spirit, turn-by-turn. He would be led to a location where he would haul back 600 lbs. of fine cacao, which he would then dry and roast for these ceremonies. That was the early days. Now he has distributors he calls, and goes through six tons of chocolate every year. You can learn about Keith’s story in this 2-minute video below.

While Keith is a Western cacao shaman, there are local Mayan cacao shamans, but they are private and isolated. It also helps that cacao shaman are a lot less popular than the shamans from Peru who brew ayahuasca, an hallucinogen. Thus we know a lot less about cacao shaman and ceremonies. Keith explains the cacao would not give us hallucinations, but it would be increasing the blood flow to our brains by 30%; cacao is the only natural substance that can do this. It was up to us what do with this increased blood flow to our brains – as Keith said, “Cacao opens the door, but doesn’t push you through it.” So if we cling to our rationale mind, we would just feel the buzz; for others who walked through the door, this would be an exercise of inner reflection.

As Keith continues his talk, I began to feel the head rush about 20 minutes after finishing my cup of cacao. I imagine my sahasrara chakra opening at the crown of my head. It was a bit overwhelming at first to feel so much more blood flowing in my head; a sensation I haven’t felt before. I look around at others. A couple to my left had their eyes closed, solidly meditating. Three of Keith’s students sit against the wall; based on their expressions it seems like they are high, in a trance.

As Keith continues his spiritual talk into the second hour, a few people cry. What Keith is doing here is creating an environment of vulnerability, and I expected that for some, this was a rare moment where the emotions bottled up inside were free to come out and express themselves, in the form of tears.

Unfortunately for me, my buzz didn’t last more than 30 minutes, and as it wore off, I felt the onset of a headache. I apparently didn’t get the memo that cacao dehydrates you so it’s important to drink a lot of water. Regardless, I sit there for 3.5 hours, listening. I didn’t feel any deep emotions arise, or any new introspective thoughts. I had opened and walked through my door when I had done my ten-day silent retreat in Thailand last year. Also for the past few months especially, I have already been doing a lot of introspection on my own.

I wasn’t sure when this cacao ceremony would end.  Keith just kept talking; the format is unstructured. Around 4pm I decide to leave – but not before I buy 5 lbs. of this cacao. I definitely want to try “cacao meditation” back home.

I begin my walk back up to Yoga Forest, and the headache makes the hike more challenging, causing me to walk slower and take more breaks. Eventually I arrive back to my room. I find some Tylenol in my backpack – Tylenol that I had bought in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, about a year ago. After briefly reliving some memories from Phnom Penh, I take the 2 pills down with some water and climb up the ladder to my bed for a short nap.

I wake up around 6pm, having napped for a bit. It’s almost dinner time. I feel happy that my headache is gone. I put on my shoes, take my headlamp, and begin to walk to the kitchen area.

Five seconds later I roll my ankle and find myself in a lot of pain. As I lay on the grass, I fear that I might have broken a bone or torn a ligament. Here I was in this remote area, far from a paved road, far from any medical help. After a few minutes the pain subsided enough so that I could inspect my ankle – I tapped around the bone, moved my ankle in circles. No excruciating pain. I feel lucky, I don’t think I broke anything. So I hobble over to the kitchen, looking for ice – oh yea, but there is no ice here! Because there’s no fridge. My friends advise me to keep my ankle elevated.

Later in the evening I prepare for bed – I climb up the ladder, I crawl over to my bed, to find a nice black scorpion on my pillow.

Shit. What to do? There are two others asleep in the room…should I wake them up? No, no need to wake them up in panic. I want to grab the scorpion with my hand, but that seems like a bad idea; I then thought about using a t-shirt, but can it pinch me through that? The scorpion begins to approach the edge of my pillow…think fast Ankur! We don’t want this thing loose around the cabin. Wait, who is this “we”? No time to be introspective. Focus!

So I quickly open the window next to my bed and throw the pillow out. I then hobble down the ladder, out to the grass, and carefully lift the pillow. It’d be lame if I got bit by the scorpion now, but I need visual confirmation that its not in the cabin. And there is the scorpion, struggling to crawl though the grass. After staring at it for a minute, I decide to leave the pillow outside for the night, not wanting to imagine the scorpion crawling on my pillow.

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I go back into the cabin with my red headlamp on. I hobble back up the ladder, crawl to bed, and I then notice a giant spider on the window.

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Shit. Spiders move fast, so I couldn’t catch it and throw it out the window, I’d have to whack it. And as I began to contemplate how I would go about doing this, I again looked more closely at the window and feel relieved; the spider is outside the window. *Deep sigh*

Finally I prepare for bed, scanning the cabin with my headlamp, looking for any other critters to deal with. All clear. Now I can rest and let my ankle heal.

– Monday –

On Monday morning I wake up around 7:00am, rather than 5:45 am, having skipped yoga and meditation because of my sprained ankle. It’s quite swollen, my foot looks fluffy.

I meet my fellow cabin mates for breakfast, and tell them how there was a scorpion in our cabin last night. “Oh yea, I saw a few scorpions in Nicaragua. I have bad luck with running into scorpions, maybe it’s because my husband is a Scorpio”, Terry jokes. Her daughter also seems pretty chill about it. I was expecting them to be a bit more freaked out, but they were nonchalant. Terry commended me for handling it all quietly without waking them up.

Today is my last day at Yoga Forest, and I am faced with the idea of either walking with my 20 lb. backpack down the hill with my sprained ankle, or asking someone to help carry my backpack. I decide against the idea of trying to rough it out and do it myself – one more roll and my ankle sprain would definitely be more serious. It was already difficult to walk. So I ask for help. I was given a wooden walking stick. A local man who works at Yoga Forest is heading down to town soon, and will help to help carry my backpack.

After I bid my friends farewell, I walk down the trail with the local man, feeling bad about him having to carry my backpack. Now 5 lbs. heavier since I had bought cacao yesterday. I wish I knew more spanish to be able to chit-chat with him, but we end up having a fairly quiet 20-minute hike.

Eventually, slowly, we reach the dock. The local man bids me farewell after I carefully get into the boat. I’m grateful for his help.

I begin my three-hour journey to Antigua, the last place I will be visiting in Guatemala before heading back home.