A Quetzal for my Thoughts

Flores Travel Blog

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Fri Nov 9, 2008

I could barely concentrate on work in the morning because I was so excited to leave for Guatemala. Finally, at 2ish, Tanya, Bethany and I boarded a bus to Benque. The $1.50BZ bus ride was really short. We passed the Xunantunich stop on the way and rode a taxi for $3BZ each to the border. Immediately, we were bombarded with money exchangers. Since we had some quetzals from Darlene and didn’t trust the money exchangers, we walked on. (It is customary to exchange money with them, but you should know the exchange rate.) In Guatemala, the first thing we did was get our passports stamped. The buses were supposed to be right at the border, but we had to ask a few people in Spanish and walk some distance before finding them. Along the way, we found an ATM and did our first Guatemalan currency conversion to figure out how much money we would need. 1quetzal is 13US cents.

 

I was excited to be challenged using my Spanish skills. Tanya doesn’t know much Spanish, but can fluently speak French, which helps out a bit. Bethany took Spanish classes in high school, but doesn’t remember much. I took 4 ½ hrs in h.s., so was eager to put myself to the test.

 

Buses in Guatemala aren’t actually buses. They are minivans with 12-16seats. Also, the local buses don’t run very frequently. The regular mode of public transportation is by a colectivo.

 

The ride to Flores is about 2 hours. During the time, our conductor crammed as many passengers in as he could. At one point, we had 19 adults and one baby in a van meant for 16 people. The conductor had to awkwardly stand squeezed between the door and a seated passenger. 3 passengers were sitting on makeshift seats in the aisle. Bethany and Tanya were lucky enough to sit up front with the driver, while I was stuck in back next to a foul-smelling fellow.

 

Most of the passengers departed in Santa Elena. It was already dark when the driver took the last 3 of us to Flores. They dropped us off a block away from Los Amigos Hostel, where we planned to sleep for the next couple nights.

 

The hostel is like walking into a sanctuary. There is no roof in the main area, so we could view the stars as we walked through. Inside there are gardens, pets (dogs, a cat, and 2 macaws) and hammocks. The woman at the reception counter in the back of the restaurant area also takes food orders. We asked for beds and the only ones available were in a private room. Just what I was hoping for! For 53quetzal ($7US)/night, we had our own private room with 2 full-sized beds, and a personal bathroom complete with a shower! We were in heaven. Our room was twice the size as the one in Belize. The shower was perfectly tiled and had a huge showerhead. We immediately sprawled out on the beds and took advantage of all our space.

 

After unpacking a bit, we went in search of a restaurant. Bethany and Tanya, seeking inexpensive food, looked over the menu prices and passed up a lot of restaurants. To me, it was all inexpensive. However, a dinner for $10US was more than they wanted to spend. We finally chose a place with specials for 30quetzal ($4US). I ordered the meat with vegetables, which was a delicious and filling meal. Then, we walked up and down the narrow streets until we found our hostel again. As an after dinner drink, I ordered the hibiscus iced tea, which was served in a glass chalice big enough for 2 people. It was incredibly sweet and tangy. As Bethany and Tanya stayed up late talking to the Israelis, Americans, and a Belgium guy, I retreated to our room and read up on Tikal facts.

 

Sat Nov 10, 2008

Sat morning, Tanya, Bethany and I headed out to find the bus for Tikal. Being from Chicago, I tend to get more confused in small towns, usually passing up my destination, perceiving that it should be farther away. So even though I was armed with a map and knew what the bus stop looked like, I walked us right past it. We had to ask twice more where to go and finally bought tickets at a travel agency. The bus picked us up here instead of San Juan Travel, and we headed toward Tikal.

 

The three of us joined 3 other American travelers and were guided by Noe. Gratefully, the tour was in English. Noe was very thorough with the tour.  We learned about the 29th ruler as Noe explained the engraving of him. Interesting fact: turkeys were the only domestic animals the Maya owned. Temple IV was the first temple we climbed. This one had a wooden staircase built for tourists, and at the top we could see two other large temples surrounded by forest. A couple other temples we climbed on the actual limestone. The largest open space is the last one we came across. Temple I and Temple II face each other. We soaked in the view from Temple II. Both the right and left sides had limestone structures built by the Maya.

 

Also during our visit, we spotted a handful of wild animals. My favorites were the howler monkeys, especially a mom who appeared pregnant and had a baby on her back. She swung through the trees just as quickly as all the other monkeys. The other species of apes living in Tikal are spider monkeys.

 

After 4 hours of viewing the sites, we made our way back home. I loved passing the rural areas on our bus ride. It’s not everyday you see horses grazing in soccer fields.

 

In the afternoon, we did a bit of shopping. Then, we ate vegetarian dinners at the hostel. The Ay Caramba burrito plate is sooo huge and delicious. I licked my plate clean. Also, I had one of the specialty drinks, an avocado and banana shake �" a meal in itself. That made up for missing lunch.

 

There were several backpackers at Los Amigos. Along with the people we met the night before, we also chatted with Australians and Germans. At the end of the night we watched a Mayan documentary directed by Mel Gibson. It was too gory even by my standards. We all agreed it was quite horrible, but at least we had more of a sense of the Mayan culture. It seemed like more than less of the film was made for Hollywood.

 

Sun Nov 9, 2008

I woke up at 5:45am, planning on going to church in Flores at 7am. It was a bit earlier than my alarm, but I used the extra time walking around the island. The church was deserted, even though a local had told me the mass times.  Since the island is quite small, I walked along the perimeter starting at the east coast. The sun was on the rise above the horizon and the soft colors in the sky were absolutely gorgeous. There was an older, white guy working out and a few locals hanging out on one of the verandas. It was peaceful and quite. The water was completely still.

 

I continued walking clockwise passing the bridge to Santa Elena and retracing some of the walk from the day before. A few more people were out and about, taxi drivers, travelers eating breakfast, and locals relaxing and talking. The west side of the island was quiet with homes and a few hotels lining the coast. The sun had not fully lit up the western sky, and the clouds were so low, they appeared to almost touch the water. Across the way was another island. To the north of Flores are more towns accessible by taxi boats. The colorful homes rest on the sloping terrain. As I walked back in the eastern direction, I watched the fog slither in and disguise the far off homes.

 

By 6:45am, I had walked back to the center of the island where the Catholic church is located. The gates were still locked and only a couple maintenance guys were around. I was disappointed, having wanted to see one of the few statues in the world of a Black Jesus, but I would have to wait. I walked past the large Christmas tree adorned with Gallo national beer ornaments (the company that sponsors almost everything in Guatemala). My roommates weren’t expecting me back until 8am, so after biding my time walking around Flores, I decided to spend some time in Santa Elena. This city is on the mainland right across the bridge. Its population consists mostly of locals, unlike Flores. Several times taxi drivers in their 3-wheeled automobiles would glare at me, checking if I needed a ride.

 

Not long after crossing the bridge, I came across the Santa Elena Catholic Church, whose bells had tolled as I woke up. The service was just beginning, so I popped in right on time, at 7:15. I was excited to listen to a Spanish-spoken mass. Of course, I could only understand bits and pieces, but I always knew what was coming next. The building was octagon shaped, with an extension to seat more people. There were few pews and most people, including me, sat in plastic lawn chairs. When it came time to kneel, only half of the congregation kneeled and the rest kept standing. There was just the tiled floor to kneel and the backs of the chairs to place our hands on. When the time came to give each other the sign of peace, there was the awkward 10 seconds, as I just stood watching everyone hug each other. Then, the people around me shook my hand, simply saying “paz.” The music was not at all what I would have expected. It was light and airy with notes on the lower end of the scale �" very unlike the folksy sounds at the Belizean mass. Since lines were repeated several times, I joined in, not entirely sure what I was singing. I also noticed that they say “Padre” in replace of “Lord,” such as “Las palabras del Padre.” (The Word of the Lord). Also, about a third of the people didn’t go up for communion, and the people in my section went up whenever they felt like it. Since I’m left-handed, I usually place my left hand under my right and pick up the Body of Christ with the left. However, the priest tapped my hands so that I would swap them. Shocked and embarrassed, I used my right hand and walked off. There were several announcements by the priest after communion and afterwards, no one stayed to sing a closing song.

 

After mass, I met up with Tanya and Bethany. I drank a delicious aloe vera drink from the hostel. It was light and refreshing. Then, we set out to going swimming, but we came across a fisherman who said the swimming was no good. (Even though there is a designated swimming area.) He talked at length (in Spanish, of course) about the oil from the boats passing through and how it was bad for the skin. He also tried to sell us a ride across the way to a better beach, but we refused, saying we had no money. We learned the there was also a good zoo over there as well as a few other touristy things. Finally, we coaxed him to let us continue our walk. We took photographs and shopped for hammocks and skirts. All the tourist shops were similar, and stretched out on one of the main roads.

 

After our purchases, we decided to spend some time in Santa Elena. We photographed some amazing graffiti art and then went in search of the large market. Along the way we found “la cemeteria central.” It is the most decorative cemeteries I have ever laid eyes on. One would think I have a fascination with cemeteries, but even my roommates were awed by the space. The length of the cemetery consisted of several walls adorned with flowers and wreaths and painted in various colors, with engravings of the deceased. A large majority of the cemetery included individual buildings, (about 8ft high and 8ft across-but all diff sizes) made of concrete, tile, and/or plaster. There is a little prayer room within them with a locked gated entrance. Both outside and inside are adorned with flowers and ornaments. Each one is unique. I was so amazed �" these buildings are better constructed than some Belizean homes! Of course, not all of the deceased were buried in these buildings. Some were buried underground and were marked with small monuments or crosses. Bethany and I could have spent hours in the cemetery, just taking photographs.

 

The locals we spoke with highly suggested the market 10 more minutes down the road. To our disappointment, we arrived at a mall and large supermarket, instead of the outdoor market we were expecting. We took our first Guatemalen taxi ride (10quetzal) to get back to the hostel. The next taxi driver wanted to charge us 15quetzal to go the shorter distance from Flores to the bus station in Santa Elena. We refused and crossed the bridge on foot. After crossing the bridge, we found out we still had 8 blocks to go and were running late, so we grabbed another taxi. This one wanted to charge us 20quetzal to get to the bus! How come the shorter the distance, the more money it costs! Tanya bartered down to 15, then bartered our bus ticket down to 30quetzal each (what it actually should cost).

 

On our taxi ride we passed the outdoor markets we had wanted to find. In the bus, we stopped for 10minutes at a locals market where there are small shops with merchandise. A flutter a kids came up to the bus and bombarded us with fruits, candy, hot foods, chips, and refrescos. One of the boys had packages of cashews hanging from paper suspenders. Some guys were even trying to sell some type of medicine. After we declined several times, other child vendors would come up to the window and into the bus (a.k.a. minivan). Another boy who had open sores all over his face was handing out candy nut samples with tongs. Since I hadn’t eaten lunch, I bought a small plate of chicken and rice for 5quetzal. I knew it had been sitting out for a while, but I was hungry from skipping lunch and we had a long ride ahead. Luckily, I didn’t get sick.

 

Along the ride back, we saw a bunch of baby animals including piglets, chicks, and baby turkeys. They were so cute. As we left Guatemala, I was sad that I wouldn’t have to speak Spanish anymore. It had been such a fun challenge. I also wished I could have spent more time getting to know the local people. It was riveting while it lasted.


Weekend trip cost: $80US

bSchu says:
Great blog, I've been considering Guatemala and this was extremely helpful.
Posted on: May 17, 2011
john1112 says:
Very Nice Blog!!!!
love reading about Guatemala

:D
Posted on: Nov 23, 2008
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photo by: Deannimal