Lake Atitlan from the San Pedro Volcano

Lake Atitlan from the San Pedro Volcano
Lake Atitlan from the San Pedro Volcano

30 April 2012

Volcán Santa Maria

Krista and I hiked to the top of our third Guatemalan volcano yesterday. Though not as high in elevation as Volcán Tajulmulco, Volcán Santa Maria was a much more strenuous hike. The perfectly conical volcano dominates the southern horizon from Quetzaltenango, the city where we have been living for the last three weeks. The incline is much more drastic than the other volcanoes, and it reaches over 12,500 feet. On a typical day, the top has a clear view until about 10am or 10:30am and then the clouds obscure views, but yesterday happened to be the clearest day in over a month, so we had excellent views in every direction. 50 km northwest, we could see Volcán Tajulmuco, which we had climbed last weekend. About 80 km to the southeast, we could see a cluster of volcanoes surrounding Lake Atitlan and Antigua. One of these volcanoes was San Pedro, the first volcano we hiked in Guatemala. To the south and to the east, low clouds crept in from the Pacific Ocean, and 7 km to the north, we looked down to the city of Quetzaltenango.

However, the most dramatic view was peering straight down to the southwest. A few thousand feet below the peak of Volcán Santa Maria sits Volcán Santiagito, one of the ten most active volcanoes in the world.  Approximately every 30 or 40 minutes, Santiagito erupts, releasing a big cloud of gases that forms into something that looks like a giant gray broccoli. The sound of a volcanic eruption is scary enough, but the cloud of smoke is unlike anything I’ve seen before. You can see the cloud of smoke here.

We ate lunch at the summit of Santa Maria and saw two eruptions out of Santiagito. For five or ten minutes after each eruption, Santiagito continues to grumble as it releases more vapors and gases. I am so thankful that we had such a clear day to witness one of the more unique things I will ever see. I am even more thankful that I got to enjoy this with the love of my life.

29 April 2012

Making Chocolate from Scratch

Our afternoon activity yesterday was learning how to make chocolate. No other students joined us, so we had a private lesson. Cindy, our Guatemalan activity-coordinator at the school, makes and sells 300 pounds of chocolate a week!! We made one pound of chocolate – and that was tough work!

Here’s how we did it:

1. Buy 1 lb of cacao beans (Cindy bought them at the market, ~$3 USD/lb).

2. Separate the big beans from the small ones.

3. Toast the beans until dark brown, keeping the big ones separate because they take longer to toast.

4. Separate the shell of the bean from the cacao nibs.

5. “Moler” the beans: pass through a grinder x 3 times.

6. Thoroughly mix 1 lb of sugar for every 1 lb of beans.

7. Pass mixture through grinder again.

8. Enjoy with milk (hot or cold) or just eat it “straight-up.”

chocolate con leche: frio y caliente

The chocolate we made was very pure – only cocoa nibs and sugar. We sampled it before adding the sugar: 100% cacao. It was very bitter and acidic. With the sugar it was dark and delicious.

24 April 2012

Fuentes Georginas

Krista and I took an afternoon trip to Fuentes Georginas yesterday. These hot springs were set in the most idyllic scenery: strangely tropical for such a high elevation, but with cool mountain breezes, along with a dramatic wall of vines and ferns cascading around a steep but gentle waterfall. The three man-made pools differed in temperature, where the first was fed by piping hot natural sulfur water. The second pool was a combination of an overflow of the first pool along with a less steady stream of colder water. The third was an overflow of the second. Neither Krista nor I were able to put anything more than our toes into the first pool, but the second pool was perfect for soaking, and we spent nearly an hour taking in the scenery and speaking Spanish with our two travel companions: Eduardo, the brother of the woman who runs our school, and Janet, a student at our school from Germany. 

The trip to Fuentes Georginas included taking an hour-long chicken bus to the neighboring town of Zunil, where we needed to find a driver for the 30-minute drive up the volcano to the hot springs. Most people find a pick-up truck to jump in, and ask the driver to wait for an hour or an hour and a half until you are ready to head back down the hill. Eduardo found a friend with a car to drive us, which ended up being much appreciated as the drive down the hill in the back of a pick-up truck would have been quite chilly while being so wet. 

The entire experience was extremely refreshing, especially as it came one day after our hike to the highest peak in Central America. Our bodies needed to relax, and there was no better place than in the hot springs at Fuentes Georginas.

23 April 2012

The highest point in Central America!

Volcán Tajumulco, reaching to the height of 4220 meters (~13,900 feet), is the highest point in Central America. We climbed it this past weekend! David has climbed several mountains this high or higher in the U.S., but this was the highest mountain for Krista and the highest that we’ve climbed together! 

We left Xela early Saturday morning with the adventure company Quetzaltrekkers. After traveling for a few hours on a couple of different chicken buses, we arrived in Tuhichan to begin our hike. Our group consisted of 14 people: 11 participants and 3 guides. The majority of the group was American, though Spain, Australia, Canada, and Germany were also represented. An unusually high number of the group were (or are) guides of some sort. We had a spelunking guide from Canada, a NOLS sailing and backpacking instructor working in the Caribbean and Wyoming, an Australian hiking guide, and of course David was a rafting guide. We journeyed through farmland, open meadows, and sparsely wooded forests. Some dark clouds threatened from the sky, but we were blessed with the occasional glimpse of sun and it never actually rained (or snowed!). 

In the afternoon after hiking for a few hours, we set up camp at the saddle between two peaks of the volcano. The area was sheltered from the wind with a number of pine trees and the campsite even had three toilets.

Later that evening, we hiked up to the smaller peak – Serra Concepcion – for sunset. The setting sun brilliantly illuminated the clouds in the sky. 

The night was cold and we woke up to a covering of frost on the ground. It was around 5am when we began the ascent to the highest peak of Tajumulco. We viewed the sunrise from partway up the final climb.

At the top, we enjoyed views that (on a clear day) would extend as far as Mexico (north), the Pacific Ocean (west), and more volcanoes in Guatemala (to the east and south). An enchanting thick blanket of clouds filled the valleys below the volcano, making it barely possible to see to Mexico and impossible to see the ocean. The alternating pattern of clouds and smaller mountain peaks was beautiful. The crater of the volcano was also impressive. We hiked around the entire rim.

After returning to our campsite from the sunrise ascent to the peak, we enjoyed a delicious breakfast of oatmeal, packed up camp, and headed back down the mountain. It was a gorgeous trek with wonderfully interesting people. 

Of note, the organization we chose to hike with - Quetzaltrekkers - is a neat group formed several years ago with all volunteer guides and from which all profit from the treks (they lead several in the area) are used to support a couple of nonprofits that rescue and support former “street kids” of Xela (

18 April 2012

Afternoon Adventures

Each week our school schedules optional afternoon activities for its students. After a morning of class, we return to our house for lunch and then later meet up at school for that day’s activity. Last week we learned to make tortillas…

Cindy, teaching us how to make tortillas
David, enjoying a homemade tortilla with beans and fresh cheese
 And we went to Salcaja… where we visited one of the oldest churches in Central America (built in 1524) and tried two local liquors: Caldo de frutas (made from many fermented fruits) and Rompopo (made with rum, egg yolks, sugar, and spices)…

And we went salsa dancing (unfortunately we have no pictures, though it was lots of fun!).

This week we went to a multicultural event that was hosted by a local university and held in a nearby exhibition hall. We learned about the 23 Mayan cultures, languages, traditions, and foods.

Yesterday we visited San Andres Xecul. The main attraction of the town is their brightly colored Catholic church. It’s painted red, yellow, and blue and has neon lights on the inside. The town is built into a hill, which we climbed up to see a smaller church (also brightly colored).  


16 April 2012

El fin de semana

During the first week of classes at an evening activity hosted by our school, we met a bunch of students who are participating in a 6-month stint in Guatemala. Their time here includes studying Spanish, volunteering in clinics and at health education centers, and traveling around Guatemala and other parts of Central America. They are a “pre-health group” of 14 students consisting of 13 females and 1 male, all of whom are planning on applying to medical school or starting medical school this coming fall. There is even one girl here who is going to be a first-year student at Stanford’s med school in the fall!

Anyway, while we were eating dinner with this group of students at our school last week, a couple of them mentioned that they would be going to Lago de Atitlan for the weekend. They offered for us to come along. We were excited for the chance to visit somewhere we were hoping to go, as well as learn from some English-speaking friends about some of the intricacies of traveling within Guatemala.

Lake Atitlan, or Lago de Atitlan, is the largest body of water in Guatemala. The lake is 8km across from north to south and 18km from east to west; on average, it is 300m deep. According to our Lonely Planet guidebook, this huge lake is actually the crater of a very ancient volcano. The crater was formed 85,000 years ago through a massive eruption called Los Chocoyos. Ash from the eruption blew as far as what is now Florida and Panama! Thousands of years later, smaller volcanoes were formed. Volcan San Pedro, reaching 3020m above sea level, was the first to form, then came Volcan Atitlan and Volcan Toliman.

On midday Friday, Alex (a student living with us in our house and currently volunteering at one of the local medical clinics) met us at school to bring us along with him to catch a bus for the lake. “Minerva” – the bus station – is a long walk away or a short ride in a “mini-bus” from school. After opting for the mini-bus option, we shared a makeshift seat in something like a 15-passenger van that had been converted to transport closer to 20-passengers. After the short ride in the van, we dodged through hundreds of people and markets stalls, to reach the row of “chicken buses.”

What’s a “chicken bus”? Chicken buses (camionetas or parrillas to Guatemalans) are the most common form of transportation from city to city here. These buses are former American school buses that have been given another life, often with new colors and altered interiors. Once a school bus in the U.S. is ten years old or has reached 150,000 miles, it is auctioned off. They make unpredictable and frequent stops based on wherever the passengers are going along their stated routes. Our bus was “direct” to San Pedro, requiring no transfers to other buses, but certainly stopping many times along the way. It was painted green and white, had luggage racks hanging from both sides of the ceiling in the bus and along the entire top outside of the bus. The radio blared a mix of soft rock and fiesta-like Spanish songs. We were on our way!

After a 4-hour ride climbing hills, traversing gigantic speed bumps, winding around mountains, and dodging potholes, we eventually made the bumpy descent to San Pedro. On the other side of the lake, Panajachel is the major tourist town, perhaps because it is easier to access from Guatemala City and Antigua. San Pedro is a smaller lakeside town with both visiting tourists and a vibrant traditional culture. In addition to speaking Spanish, people here commonly speak two Mayan languages: Tz’utujil and Kaqchiquel. There are over 20 Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala, but most of the people who speak these languages also speak Spanish.

Hotel Tepepul Kaan, San Pedro
When we arrived in San Pedro, it was just starting to rain. Our friends, Alex and Cami, had been here before and wanted to swing by a fair-trade store to purchase some gifts. We followed them down a cobblestone street to the water, then up a little hill, and finally to the hotel they had stayed at last time. Hotel Tepepul Kaan is a cute three-story building with views of the lake, colored glass windows on the door of every room, and hammocks on the porch of each room.  While settling into our rooms, the rain really started coming down. We ventured out to Zoola, an Israeli-inspired restaurant. We sat outside on mats on the floor and a low-set table, while the rain poured down on the tent-like roof. The spot was wonderfully relaxing and the food was delicious (David had lasagna and Krista had ktzitzot – meatballs in a special tomato sauce). 
The rain let up a bit by the time we had finished dinner, so we wandered around town and found a travel agency that specializes in local adventures. We decided to hire a guide to take us up Volcan San Pedro the next morning.
Dominic, our guide, met us at our hotel at 6am. Together we took a tuktuk (3-wheeled mini-taxi) to the base of the volcano. The sun was rising and the early morning light was beautiful. We ascended the volcano via a well-maintained trail, weaving through coffee plants, small fields of corn, and jungle-like areas as well. On average, the trip to the top (3020m) takes 3.5 hours; we arrived in 2:20, just hiking along. The top was covered in clouds! Occasionally the sun broke through and we could glimpse another volcano or part of the lake in the distance, but most of the time we spent resting in the clouds. We did get to see the giant crater of the volcano. There were three distinct peaks in a triangle that formed a crater in the middle. Fortunately for us, this volcano is inactive, although there are still a handful of active volcanoes in Guatemala. It was crazy to think that thousands of years ago there were regular eruptions and hot lava flowing from Volcan San Pedro. The hike was our first time really exercising since we have been here and it felt so good to be drenched in sweat and feel our hearts pounding! Our guide also made our trip so satisfactory. We were able to practice lots of Spanish with him and shared with us about his family, his work, and his town (San Pedro). We could probably write an entire blog entry about our conversations with him.

After hiking, we spent the afternoon relaxing in the hammocks or on the rooftop of the hotel, eating yummy food, wandering around town, and trying to speak Spanish with whomever we met. 

We happened upon a cute café that was filled with books and games to borrow. We played a couple games of backgammon while sitting lakeside on a beautifully sunny afternoon. 

At night we went out with Alex and Cami for mojitos and nachos at Café Atitilan (with live music) and then dinner at a little French restaurant (with more live music across the street).

The next morning we jogged around town, went to breakfast, and meandered through their very large Sunday market and bought some bananas and freshly bakes bread for the bus ride. We enjoyed a couple of chocobananas and a chocomango before hopping on our bus back home. 

12 April 2012

Bienvenidos a Guatemala

In the airport
 We arrived to Guatemala City via Miami on Monday morning. We were picked up by a taxi at the airport. Then we took a a 4-hour bus ride to Xela. We were greeted at the bus station by someone from our school who then brought us "home."
In front of our school
 We are living with a family that lives 5 minutes away from the school. There is a mom, dad, and three children. The parents make and sell bread. The children are 9, 20, and 23. Everyone is very nice. The food is delicious.
David studying Spanish in the garden
We are studying Spanish for five hours every morning from 8am until 1pm. We each have our own instructor. David learns from Carmen. Krista learns from Claudia. We have snack at 11am. Each day there is different food. We are learning lots of Spanish. Soon we may begin blogging in Spanish!

These are simple sentences. This is how we think in Spanish.