Guatemala City, Zip-lining, Cayaking and Camping at Lago Atitlán and …. the most remote village ever in the Northern Highlands!

I arrived with in Guatemala City around 10 in the morning. Not only that I was delayed about 4 hours but also my bus stopped not at the bus station but at a mechanic in one of the slightly dubious outskirts of “Guate”, one of the most criminal cities in the world. I took a take a bus to the centre and – for the first time in my long journey – felt kind of uncomfortably observed all the time. Everyone in the bus was looking at me and even in the city centre I didn’t exactly feel safe walking around with my huge backpack.

One thing that shocked me a lot and that I can’t really get used to is the constant presence of fire weapons. In Guatemala (and some parts of Mexico) police drives around in huge pickup trucks, mostly with big machine guns mounted to the trucks. Policemen wear heavy weapons (AKs or M14s), bullet proof vests and often even storm masks. Additionally (and this I didn’t see in mexico) there are heavily armed guards with huge shotguns in front in front of even the smallest shops like shoe shops, bars or even internet cafés!

It seems to be the most normal thing here in Guatemala to be surrounded by automatic weapons and shotguns all the time but to me it still feels strange and slightly frightening.

I went for a quick stroll around the city, got myself a big big coffee to wake up from my rattling 6 hour ride and sat down in an internet café (another shotgun-guard in front of it, of course) to contact Dax, a friend of mine from Nicaragua whom I learned to know in Valencia, Spain. Dax studied a master en Cooperación al Desarollo (development aid) and is now working in an NGO in Guatemala, leading projects in the western highlands where they help the local indigenous tribes to enhance their agricultural productivity.

I met Dax around 4 in the afternoon, we took his 4×4 pickup truck to his home where I had a quick shower for the first time in about 4 days…

When I was done I proposed to Dax to go for a little weekend-trip to Lago Atitlán together, I had little intentions of staying in Guatemala city and wanted to get out into the highlands as soon as possible. To my relief and happiness Dax agreed immediately to my proposal immediately and we decided to take off right away because I was a little under time pressure: My cuban tutor, Lázaro was awaiting me San Salvador in three days already and to see as much as possible of Lago Atitlán we would have to hurry a little.

Lago Atitlán itself is about 2 hours from Guatemala City and makes a simply stunning poster child for Guatemala’s natural beauty. The volcano-ringed lake is surrounded by small villages and deals quite well with it’s high popularity within the tourist community. About everyone I had met on my journey so fat had advised me to go and see Lago Atitlán, not only for its spectacular nature and all kinds of adventurous activities like volcano hiking, canoeing or canopying (an activity where you slide on a metal zip-line from one mountain to the other) but also because the traditional values and customs of Guatemala’s indigenous peoples are strongest in the highlands: Maya dialects are the first language here, spanish makes a distant second place. On every road you see women and children in traditional fabric, carrying huge burdens of firewood, to be used for cooking and heating. Mules, horses and funny three-weeled piaggio-ape-like taxis are the most common mediums of transportation and, depending on how far you get off the track, normal cars get more and more sparse and the only vehicles you will see on the roads are run-down offroaders and the crazy tuk-tuk busses which drive like MADMEN!

So, without any further ado we set off to spend the weekend together at Lago Atitlán and in the beautiful mountains and highlands of Guatemala.

We drove to St. Pedro where we found the romantic hotel “El Sol” with a beautiful garden right next to the sea side: The perfect location to camp. When we wanted to ask for permission and the price to camp in the well-kept, huge garden of the Hotel we found the night guard sound asleep and decided to put up the tent and ask for permission tomorrow.

When we got up the next morning and opened the tent, Lago Atitlán greeted us with the most beautiful panorama you could possibly imagine. See the pictures!!!! Yesterday’s guard turned out to be a really cool dude and only charged us 20 quetzales each, more or less 2 USD.

After a great coffee at the Calle Principal’s intersection with Calle Santander we set off again and drove around the spectacular roads along the lakeside and drove to Santa Clara la Laguna, where Dax knew the owners of a little place that offers canopying (zip-lining) over a huge valley. I had never done anything like this in my life but zip lining has always been in the list of things I wanted to do. It was simply incredible – you literally race on a thin metal chord over a huge canyon which overlooks all of Lago Atitlán. I will attach a video to this post.

After this amazing experience we set off to go St. Pedro which has a very good backpacker fame. After some more 2 hours of riding across incredibly bad roads and through indigenous villages we arrived in St. Pedro, a charming village right next to the Lago Atitlán and set foot in the hostel “El Pinocchio”. We rented a small cayac and went for a excursion around the lake but were caught by the early dawn (around 5.30). Sitting only with boxer shorts in the cayac both of us had gotten not only pretty wet but also quite cold and decided soon to return home.

Back at the hostel I was surprised to meet Laura, a spanish girl I had already met in Belize. Turns out she and a friend of hers wanted to go to a thermal bath in San Pedro- just what we needed after almost freezing to death on our cayacs. We had a great (and very hot) bath and some beers later and fell into bed like a pair of stones.

The next day, we took off quite early with the destination Suche, an indigenous village deep down in the Northern Highland’s mountains and: far, far, far off all “civilization”.

Dax has been working in a development aid programme in the Suche since a year already and leads a program me there that helps local farmers to optimize their revenues by supporting them with seeds, insecticides, fungicides etc. On our way he told me a little about the population which had originally lived close to Lago Atitlán but was driven out of their inherited territory by land speculation. To fight again this bad but common practice in Guatemala, Dax’s corporation also assists the (in many cases illiterate) Mayas with juridical means, meaning they help the villages through the complicated juridical paperwork that is needed to prove their land is theirs.

We drove 8 long hours through Guatemala and crossed some of the most spectacular countrysides you can imagine. Streets turned from bad to worse, tarmac to dust roads, holes in the streets to 40cm deep steep craters that would kill the suspension even of the best street car. About one hour before arriving at Suche the road finally completely ended into a simple trail and I had a great time switching on the four wheel drive and maneuvering the 4x4Toyota through the beautiful countryside of Guatemala. With blocked differentials, lowered weights and free-wheeling hubs we crawled up the path to the almost 2000m high village Suche.

When we finally arrived it was like in a movie: Kids gathered around us and I had the impress the entire village was watching our very step. I felt like the first tourist that had ever come to Suche. Well, I probably was. We sat down witch what would be the chief of the village and Dax interviewed him on the progress of the program me, how they could help to increase productivity, what they needed and what not. I was introduced as his assistant and could follow the entire process of interviewing, contract signing and establishing new agreements for the next year’s period. Very interesting!

We camped on one of the bean fields and drove back to Guatemala City the next day from where I would be going to El Salvador, but that’s another story and another blog entry.

Now, enjoy the videos and pictures, hear from you soon again!

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