Guatemala communities – old and new

The community of San Pablo is a few hundred meters above the lake . There are no tourists whatsoever and its Mayan life,very similar to  as it was for the last few hundred years. Down to San Marco at the lake (Atitlan) , a 10 minute tuctuc ride from San Pablo, the town is owned by expats and  tourists, filled with  healthfood stores and yoga studios. We love the European bread we can buy here and we found a great restaurant in San Marco , best Guate-French food at the lake. And the Tourists and Expats help attract money  to the lake communities .

Our campground is just outside San Marco , a beautiful spot above the lake. An adventurous Frenchmen , Pierre , built Pasaj cap cottages and campground on his steep but prime located property. We find community and friends there, the daily happy hour at the communal table brings together cottage dwellers and overlanders. Next to us is a lively kindergarten developing with a Canadian family and some  friends with a daughter we have met a few times before , in Belize.

But for 2 weeks we are volunteering in San Pablo at the Guatemalan Housing Alliance  and get a prime view into the mayan life and culture. We are working with the most poorly housed families and build new floors, new roofs and new houses. This  small, but focused organization doing great work and we love to work with  our project manager Patricia and builder Jorge. Here is why we recommend donating and volunteering for this organization :

    • 100 % of donation goes to building or scholarships ( admin overhead is payed by a foundation )
    • Families have to contribute before they get something (help 2 other houses get build , pay 25% of roof or floor cost)
    • Patricia, the director, is super flexible and accommodates any type of help and schedule
    • Houses are built only if the title of the property is in the womens name ( prevents the common case of husbands finding new girlfriends and sending former women and kids to the street)
  • The combination of a monetary donation and volunteering made sense to us, to be able to acquire building materials and pay the construction foreman in addition to lending a hand

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This opened our eyes to both ,the strong and proud community the Mayan pueblos enjoy and the dire poverty most of them live in. When Susanne asked what they need most , we instantly got a list from rice, corn,sugar, coffee and medical supplies. It becomes clear why even a minimum wage worker in the US is rich compared to the salaries payed here in Guatemala. Living on a few US dollars a day is not enough to sustain a family.

But as a tourist its also important to support the local crafts . The weaving collective in the next village ,San Juan , has a nice program demonstrating the dying and spinning of the wool and weaving of traditional cloth . I always feel bad if tourists brag with how low they negotiated the prices down at the market…. Its not fair to pay barely 10 dollars for beautiful  hand made blankets and clothes, which take month to make. The collective has fixed prices in their crafts store and they are still very affordable.

The traditional dying techniques are especially fascinating and I feel I now can always recognize the beautiful natural colors from the blaring colored stuff from China.

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Lake Atitlan is an amazing environment, not sure how to describe it , but we get tightly wrapped in its magic. Some of our Pasaj Cap community, we meet again in Antigua , where Norm is playing his cornet (trumpet ) in a local jazz club. Cheers to new, old and indigenous communities.

Lake Atitlan

The Hotel Tzanjuyu on Lake Atitlan seems to be right out of a story from Garcia Marquez. The former glory has faded the beautiful gardens have grown into the path and stucco falls off the walls . We are camping on the former lawn above the lake which has transformed into an uneven grassy field, barely kept green by the gardeners . We keep wondering whats the story of this magical place,which claims to be the first touristic hotel in Guatemala opened in  1885,  where now we are the only guests after our overlander friends and another camper  have left.   It’s not helping, that the hotel manager seems to be trained to treat every customer request by presenting the long list of rules. img_20180114_094624-18034108909973988728.jpg

We are in Panajachel , just called Pana , the busy tourist settlement and starting point for boat shuttles around the lake . With  the 3 towering vulcanoes around the lake always in view, we enjoy the buzzling town and mix of Ladinos , Mayas and Expats.

Our youngest daughter and her boyfriend have arrived again to meet us and we take a ride with a chicken bus up the hill to the governing town of the departemento, Solola.

Its one of a few towns where men also wear traditional clothing. The central plaza, high above Lake Atitlan is busy this Sunday with people strolling by and sitting on the benches in the shade.

One morning we wake up to Marimba music and find a traditional Mayan ceremony unfolding ,right next to our camp. A circle of flower peddles is created at the beach with stacked firewood in the middle. As the ceremony develops ,Man and woman add different colored jackets to their traditional clothing , light the fire and walk around the flower circle . For westerners like us its a difficult concept , that in order to have a successful harvest and a happy life , you need to work with the nature spirits and catholic saints , which where embraced by Mayans as powerful symbols.

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Some say ,Lake Atitlan is the most beautiful lake in the world , but its not just the setting that entices us ,but the little towns around the shore and the transport by boat shuttle (launcha)  from village to village .

On the side opposite  to Pana, ,  we study the traditional and modern agricultural methods arround the lake . A finca sitting at 2800 m , grows our winter vegetables all year round  , like sweet peas and broccoli. Down at the Lake in San lucas toliman, the mesoamerican    permaculture institute is bringing traditional Mayan techniques together with a seedbank and instructional permaculture gardens . The hotel Toliman , where we spend a night has an exceptional beautiful application of permaculture gardens , which is providing most of the food for the attached restaurant.

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Accessing and getting arround the Lake with our truck is still a challenge . With the steep vulcanoes and frequent mudslides , the roads are still a challenge . On our way to San Pedro ,on the far side of the lake, we ask for  a police escort , to get us through an especially bad road . The small and steep unpaved areas of the  road, require really slow driving , which invites robberies by armed and masked fellows .

We are relieved to drive down the vulcanoe into San Pedro and on to San Marcos ,towards  the beautiful grounds of a frenchman , which will be our home for the next few weeks.

Guatemala – Maya and Mountains

I wake up and hear steps outside. Somebody is walking arround the camper. Guatemala generally does not have camp grounds and RV parks. So we ended up in a public park next to a lagoon near San Cristobal Verapaz. When I opened the Velcro window I see a cow walking close by and feel relieved. While people are mostly friendly and welcoming , I do feel a bit on the edge,if we are not sleeping in a secured parking area. The difference between rich and poor is just so extreme here that the historical social unrest seems deeply embedded in Guatemala.Just that evening we talked to Udo from Germany who drove by in his Porsche with his wife ,originally from San Christobal where they still own a hotel. In Coban we walked through the glizzy mall ,just like in the bay area. While 10 minutes outside town , Mayan families live of a few dollars a day . Women with water, vegetable bags or laundry walk alongside the steep roads. Man and boys walk with large bundles of wood on the back and a rope arround the forehead to help with the head to balance the heavy load. The veggies, live chickens and fruit,needs to be brought to the village on market days,and small pickups are filled with people and goods. The major highways we have been driving suddenly loose pavement, stop at a river to use a ferry or had been washed away in last rains and must be surrounded offroad. Our first week in Guatemala we had spent at lake Peten Itza (in Flores and El Remate ) and Tikal, the impressive Mayan city in the jungle. Now in the Coban area in the highlands, we visit the beautiful mountain town of Lanquin and the natural limestone pools in Semuc Champey. The roads become so steep and narrow ,that we also take a collectivo, small 4×4 trucks where you stand on the back in a metal cage to hold on for dear life.But what a reward , natural swimming pools and waterfalls along a deeply cut gorge. We are exhausted every night from our adventures….all the impressions, nature and our attempts to have conversations in Spanish. Life is good!

Belize – Cayes, Jungle and Garifuna

The Border agent took his time , checking every paper , comparing numbers and names, again and again . It seems like a left over from the colonial era , when entering into Belize, that self importance of the government agent issuing our visa and car import.

Previously called British Honduras, it was not until 1981 that the country gained full independence. It does have a different feel then Mexico , the more colonial style houses blackened from mold and the mix of cultures and languages.

We spent a day walking through Belize City, while our truck is in the shop to have a driveshaft bearings replaced. With the exception of the tourist area where most visitors come through to take the ferry to the outlying islands,   its a dirty, uninviting and dark city. The beauty is in these Cayes and the second larges coral reef in the world a few miles boat ride out from the mainland.

We quickly move into the inland jungles and visit a baboon sanctuary ,. It a community effort to save a large privately owned stretch of land to save the habitat for the howler monkeys along the River. One of the moms comes by with her baby clawed to her belly .

Howler monkey

The mountains around Belmopan, the new capital of Belize, and especially along the Humming bird Highway contain more jungle experiences and we stop to take a swim at the Blue Hole national park.

In Hopkins, a small town further south , we have a  beach house for the christmas holidays and our two younger kids come by to visit.  To get out of our 40 sqft camper into a house is especially nice, when the occasional tropical showers come down.  

Walking through the small town, while signing with our deaf son, gets us introduced to the one deaf young man in town, who is so happy to have someone speaking his language. Connections are instantly made. Additionally we hired some local guides for fishing and snorkeling and in no time we are well known in the village. The Garifuna drumming session we are invited too gets everyone dancing.

 

In the cute little town of Placencia, an hour further south,  we take a trip down the monkey river and see manatees , krokodiles and many howler monkeys.

After dropping our kids off again ,one at the airport ,the other one at the border to guatemala. This is where we spent new years in the town of San

Ignazio .

The town has a lively market , with products including fruits, veggies and meat from the nearby Mennonite farms .  These religious german immigrants to Belize really change the land around San Ignazio into clean, orderly farming communities with many businesses supporting most of Belize from tractors to imported goods. As Germans and Europeans we feel ambivalent, about this inherited  programming, we like the beauty , cleanliness and product availability , but  the area also feels like a foreign object in this Caribbean country with its laid back attitude. It heightens our awareness of our differences ,even when walking around town or at the beach, our steps are determined and goal oriented to reach the  next location, while the locals walk with an effortlessness, presence and enjoyment,even in the rain, that is foreign to us.

We also discover some smaller Mayan ruins there,  Xunatunich , which really surprises us,with its height and beauty.  This prepares us for our next destination , one of the  oldest  maya cities, Tikal in Guatemala.

 

 

From Tulum into Belize

The location of Tulum, the pre-Columbian Mayan walled city, definitely wins the “most beautiful” award  for Mayan ruines we have visited so far. While its a relatively short walk through this archaeological site , the location above the cliffs and perfect white sand beaches is spectacular.

Its also one of the best preserved and some of the fresco details and colors  are still 

visible.

 

 

Our informal campsite before Tulum, allows for camping in the palm trees next to the beach restaurant.  We spend a few days at this quiet beach next to truckcamper with a palapa hut built on the bed . Until one morning a creaw of people in white vans arrives and sets up for photo shoots. We learn that the next JCrew catalogue is being produced here around the palapa truck .

The changing room and basecamp is setup right next to our truck so we decide its a good day to move on.

Tulum Chamico's
Chamico’s

We come by Lake Bacalar , with striking blue color and water clarity, partly the result of having a white limestone bottom. Great place to swim and  get the Kayak out to explore the 42 km long lake.

The city at the lake Bacalar , is a friendly place and hangout for other overlanders and backpacking tourists from the americas and europe. There happen to be a free concert on the old fort and we are very impressed by the quality and beauty of the place and the music of the cuban string quartet with flute.

Back at the coast before the belizean border we keep running into other overlanding folks and spent some nice evenings and days  together.Maria from Esslingen, near where Susanne grew up in germany,   even bakes some bread for us in her Sprinter and we are in heaven.

Other entertainment includes watching the Pelicans, in their ever amazing dives  and long hikes along the beaches .

The Caribbean in Mexico

The closest thing to time travel is a flight out of snowy Germany to the beaches of the carrabean. After a 2 week break in Germany we landed in Cancun with our down jackets and long pants and the moisture and heat feels surreal. We pull our camper out of storage and Susanne uses it to give the loft bed a makeover.

2014 Hawk camper

We hurry out of Cancun , which is strictly separated into the Hotelzone ,where the tourists are, and the otherwise mexican Cancun . We have some of the best beaches all to ourselfs, just an hour north on Isla Blanca….the payment is miles of bad road.
Between Cancun and Tulum , the mangrove swamps and dense dschungel, makes it difficult to access the beautiful beaches. Overall it’s much more build up with hotels and Disney like theme parks, then we have encountered anywhere else in Mexico. But between the town’s and hotels are some of the best beaches to be found with the white sand and clear jade blue waters of the carrabean.

Riviera Maya

We find a laid back little town of Puerto Morelos , where the corall reefs are close to shore ,which provides for beautiful snorkling. We can walk along the beach to town from our RV park. During dinner we have some Mexican Christmas singers stop by. Definitely feels weird after coming from the Weihnachts markets in Germany! Puerto Morelos Altensteig Weihnachts markt

Gulf of Mexico to Cancun

Our travels have accelerated substantially due to a family emergency in Germany. We booked a flight out of Cancun on Nov 21 and have to spent more time driving every day. Spoiled with all the beautiful beaches we have seen , the gulf of Mexico, which we reach below Veracruz , is a disappointment. Swampy , flooded areas, private beaches along brown waters . We camp at a Restaurant with a dock to an inland bay near Frontera and a large protected Biosphera area.Many houses are partially in the water and only with rubber boots or boat accessible.

The word spreads quickly that the Gringos in the casa rotanda spend the night in the parking lot. We chat with the kids and an old man brings us coconuts as a gift.

The Restaurant as we find out as the night develops has many purposes, community hangout for the younger adultos, a family drags a matrace in and sleeps there and the TV runs all night. It was not a quiet night ,but we felt save there and accepted by the small community. The coast arround Villahermosa has large oil facilities and the beaches look pretty deserted. But we love the cities, like Campeche with a wall from the 17 century arround the historic Centro. Lifely streetlife, good food and kids and adults playing in the plaza. CampecheFurther inland there are many Cenotes , the underground water reservoirs that form naturally in the calcium based ground.

The big attraction near Cancun is Chichen Itza , the pre Columbian Toltec and Mayan city with one of the most famous pyramids. It defies our common history to see the culture, city life , astronomic observatories ,and huge courts for ballgames from more then thousand years ago. Every year during the Solstices , the sun shines exactly along one of the sides of the largest pyramid and the giant snake along the edge is lightened up. What precision and calculation necessary to build this!

Cold nights and Butterflies

The Mariposa Monarca , the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve is a World Heritage Site containing most of the over-wintering sites of the eastern population of the monarch butterfly. Its late when we get to the entrance on 10600 feet. We ask a farmer if we can spent the night in the cow pasture.Susanne is conversing with the Farmers daughter, she is impressed by our casa rotanda.

In the morning we got thick frost and wonder why the Mariposa’s (butterflies) pick such a cold spot to recreate. After an unsuccessful attempt to find them ourselfs we get a guide and … Mariposa Monarca biosphere

What an experience , but impossile to transmit by photo. Afer flying for 2500 miles from Canada and northern USA the Monarchs raise a new generation here to make the trip back in March or April. The most complex migration pattern imaginable,we still trying to figure out which generation will come back next year. The tree in the back of the picture is not dying but overloaded with Monarchs ,which are everywhere arround you. There are 15000 volunteers helping to monitor and count the population.

The landscape reminds of the italien Alps , small mountain village clinging to the steep mountains. Next,we are trying to avoid Mexico City by taking the northern loop through the mountains . We find the equivalent of a state park and spent a quiet, cold night , still on 9000 feet.

The next day we come down the mountain and decide to spent a night in a hotel in Cordoba , to enjoy a shower and deal with the lack of available camping option. Lovely , lively city and we seem to be the only tourists around . The morning view out the window reveals Mexico’s highest mountain , Pico de Orizaba (Citlaltépetl), a stratovolcano on the boundary between the states of Puebla and Veracruz, 5636m high.

Mexico is a really beautiful country, we both did not expect this green , lush multifaceted country, with smiling friendly people.

Nayrit coast and lake chapala

11/11 Down the coast from Mazatlan we are trying to avoid San Blas , the moscito capital of the West coast. But it’s getting dark and some of the coastal areas have been hit by the tropical storms this summer, and no camping to be found. We are glad to find a beautiful RV park south of San Blas,where the coast is rocky ….no bugs😊 I am interested to experience the expat communities in Mexico with full and part time residents from the US and Canada. The town of Rincon de Guabitos is one example. La Penja is the Mexican town where we stayed in a cute ” Little Rig ” RV park run by a Canadian couple . A small stream separates la penja and Rincon , where the Gringos live and the two world don’t seem to mix much. A better example is lake chapala our next stop (see 11/13 in the where we are page). We love the pleasant climate with the cooler nights on almost 5000ft as well, and the town of Ajijic has become an example for expats integration . They are working together and have built community groups to better work together. The local Argentinian restaurant is a favorite for both groups. We even find an emerging cohousing group and got entuthiastically invited in by the resident owners. They have studied the cohousing project where we live in Nevada City and are eager to exchange experiences

Off to the mainland

Well I was planning to do this elaborate write-up of music and technology and power…. Forget it . Bottom line the 2 nights we did barely sleep was because of amplified music , pretty much all night. The kind where your stomage vibrates , no fun … So avoid Cabo San Lucas public beach camping and also check if there is a music festival happening next to you ( in la Paz they tuned their amplifiers between midnight and 2pm for the next day reggae festival) .

Cabo san luca

So , we left very early from Cabo up the coast to Cabo pulmo. This strech of beach is protected and one of the few coral reefs on the Pacific. I was wondering why all the Google maps wanted us to go inland to drive there , but I insisted on the coastal road . Ok, so glad I have a high clearance pickup…. Very Sandy , very steep, one lane narrow and sudden river crossings 2 or 3 feet deep … We felt accomplished to arrive at a beautiful beach with restrooms and camped right at the beach.

From there we went inland to a waterfall we heard about , see pics , was great

From there up the coast back to la Paz it gets more snowbird and Canadian again . Los barrilos is a relaxing little town with kite servers and atv driving Canadians . Susanne felt good to have a day without dust and wifi at the pool.

From there back to La Paz , after completing the circle arround the tip of Baja. We had a reservation for the ferry to Mazatlan.

We had chosen the tmz ferry , half the price of the Baja ferries, but mostly truckers and a bit rough arround the edges.

We scored a spot on the upper deck , popped the roof and slept in our camper . Even had new friends over for a beer , Sandra and Markus from Switzerland , who are on the road with an old VW bus for 3.5 years.

Arriving in Mazatlan we toured the old town , with an impressive public market, but where eager to head south out of big city.