At the beginning of our trip to Guatemala last week, I wrote prophetically in my journal, “Travel isn’t really travel unless it freaks you out a little bit, gets you out of your comfort zone, and makes you think.” If that’s true, then we sure did some serious traveling last week!
When Josh, Sarah (Josh’s sister) and I arrived in Guatemala, we spent several days in Guatemala City before heading out to Lake Atitlan. We were staying in a hotel in a small, remote village in the cleft of a mountain on the lake, only accessible by small water taxi. If there ever was a place where you could get lost and fall of the map, this was it. Other than our pleasant hosts at the lodge, we were the only guests in the suite that overlooked the two volcanoes on the other side of the lake. It was quiet and relaxing, complete with hammocks, flowering vines and peaceful afternoon rain.
Attack of the Bat! Our first adventure truly started when all three of us woke up simultaneously in the middle of the night to the sound of velvety flapping wings. As I lay there paralyzed in the darkness I knew exactly what it was. It wasn’t a bird… it wasn’t a moth… yes, it was a bat. Josh turned on the light as I pulled the covers up to my eyes and watched the bat disappear into the hole in the ceiling above my head. And then the question – what do we do?!
The lodge had many buildings and it occurred to us that we had no idea where the managers lived on the property. “Crap,” I said. “If only we had a way to alert the hotel management that we had a bat in our room… like… a bat signal!” Since no bat signal was found, we had several options:
Option A: Turn off the lights, open the front doors wide, hide in the second bedroom for a minute and hope that the bat comes back out of the hole and leaves out of the front door. This method proved unsuccessful, although it was funny to watch Josh run around (in the raincoat that he thought would protect him from the bat) opening doors and turning off lights.
Option B: All three of us would crowd into the second bedroom in the little bed, close the door and sleep. Let the hotel deal with our bat friend in the morning. We chose this option – we would rather be cramped and have sore backs than try to sleep in a room with a bat.
Trapped in a Village! Our next adventure was political in nature. The day that we planned to leave the lake area, we travelled to the village of Panajachel, where we were to catch our shuttle to Antigua. That day we heard rumors about a protest and saw men moving rocks into the street, but the shuttle company assured us that everything would be fine. However, as we drove out of town, we reached a barricade of trees . The men of the town had blocked the only two roads out of town in order to protest the rising government electric costs. The shuttle driver turned off the van and we got out to assess our options. The news reached us that the protesters were not going to stop “until the President came to Panajachel and discussed the electricity prices.” At this point I realized that we were dealing with people who would either protest all night, or get drunk and tired and go home in an hour or so. I contemplated buying them a round to speed up the process. We weren’t really sure how it would turn out, but we all decided to stick around for 2-3 more hours to see if we could get out of town. It was starting to get dark.
I started looking around at our fellow passengers and wondered how we would all fare together as the cast of “Lost.” There was the pleasant German tourist, the History professor from Michigan who talked incessantly and wouldn’t shut up, the slightly shady bus driver, three new age hippie tour guides, a very old white guy with a beautiful young Guatemalan wife and baby, a serious female Guatemalan doctor, and us. Yes, we were a motley crew. As the hippies stood outside the van and got high, we plotted our next move – were there any hotels in town we could stay at if we were trapped for the night?
The old man with the baby somehow convinced the Guatemalan doctor to walk up to the barricade with him and beg to be let through. They had a flight to catch in the morning, but he told the doctor to tell the men that their baby was sick and needed medicine. After taking a meager collection from some of the other passengers, they walked toward the barricade with the baby to try this story and offer up some money to let us through. It didn’t work.
As it turns out, after about 2 hours, the government sent word that they would negotiate, and the small band of protesters relented and moved the trees that they had placed in the road and let us through. Everyone in our van cheered, and the hippies began talking (slowly but enthusiastically) about connections, microcosms, and vortexes. Yes, it was onward to Antigua!
Volcano! After finally arriving late in Antigua on Wednesday night, we decided that we were exhausted and would spend some time around Antigua on Thursday and that we would hike the Pacaya volcano on Friday. It was an active volcano but a tourist attraction in which you could hike up to see the peaceful lava flows. Well, on Thursday evening as we were dozing off in our hotel, we overheard people talking excitedly in the hallway. We turned on the television and saw coverage of people being evacuated from the villages around Pacaya.
Apparently the volcano had erupted in a big way for the first time in 10 years. It was raining black sand all over Guatemala City. Both Antigua and Guatemala City were only about 15 miles away, but the wind was carrying it to Guate and blanketing everything in 3 inches of black sand. The Guatemala City airport closed, and we started to get nervous about our flight on Sunday morning. Soon we did hear that the airport would be closed for the next several days, and our flight was canceled. We decided that we were going to have to go to El Salvador or Belize or somewhere else to catch our flight. As El Salvador was the closest route by bus (5 hours), we decided on that and rebooked our flight for Tuesday.
Tropical Storm Agatha! On Friday, it started to rain non-stop. The first tropical storm of the season, Agatha, was forming just off the coast and headed straight toward us. We were unsure about whether to remain in Antigua, the smaller town, or whether to go on to Guatemala City as planned. We decided that yes, we would go- and on Saturday morning when we caught our scheduled shuttle we noticed that the streets were starting to fill up with the rainwater, and our driver commented that this would probably be the last shuttle of the day due to the rain and the flooding.
That night in Guatemala City the most intense part of the storm rolled in. We had gone to the mall nearby our hotel looking for something to do, and we watched the wind and the rain and the lightning show on the way back to our hotel in the taxi.
Floods, Sink Holes, and Landslides! The worst of the storm was over as of Sunday, but we waited until Monday to catch our bus to El Salvador. The country had been devastated by all of the rain and the flooding from the past several days. Whole villages and families were evacuated, especially in the mountainous areas where there were landslides and lots of runoff. Agatha, the flooding and mudslides caused nearly 179 deaths in Guatemala while we were there, which was a very sobering experience. In Guatemala City, a massive 350 foot deep sink hole swallowed up several homes.
To make a long story short, we ended up taking our bus to San Salvador with no problems (although the black volcanic sand was still covering the roads, and we saw some swollen rivers and evidence of landslides along the way) and we caught our flight back to the United States on Tuesday. We were just happy to make it back home after all of the calamity. While the events that occurred were certainly ones that we will remember for a long time, we also greatly enjoyed our time in Guatemala apart from the craziness. More to come about the rest of the trip soon – but the adventure story just had to be told first!