Author: Heather

I love travel, ballet, cats and my hometown of NYC.

Hiking Volcan Santa Maria

volcan santa maria

I feel like you can’t go to Central America and not do a difficult hike. Guatemala, like most countries in the region, has several hikeable volcanoes, and I was excited when I learned that one, Santa Maria, is in Xela. So before I even arrived in Guatemala, I was planning to hike that volcano.

PLQE had taken students up Santa Maria a few weeks before I arrived, so I booked a trek through Monte Verde Tours, a local outfitter. The hike almost didn’t happen. September is Guatemala’s rainy season and it poured for several days before my trip. The afternoon before, I called Monte Verde to confirm that the hike was still on; they told me that due to the rain, no one else had signed up and that they needed a minimum of two people. A few hours later, they emailed me that it was off. I was disappointed, but consoled myself with the reminder that I could now drink and go out with my fellow PLQE students after that evening’s dinner/graduation ceremony. (Every Friday, when students leave the school, they have to make a speech, read a poem, perform a song, etc. in Spanish to show off their newfound language skills.)

I was two beers into the night when, Haider, a PLQE student I invited on the hike, told me that he had just called Monte Verde’s office and signed up, and that the hike was back on. I put down my beer and headed home soon after–I needed to be up only a few hours later, at 4:30 a.m. Most people start hiking Santa Maria super-early, since it usually rains in the afternoon. It was downpouring when I fell asleep and I tried not to think about how muddy the trail might be.

The rain had stopped by the time Monte Verde picked me up at 5 a.m. We rode 30 minutes to the volcano, and commenced our climb just as dawn was breaking.

hiking volcan santa maria

Our guide was Carlos, a 41-year-old local who, thankfully, kept his Spanish simple, but also spoke very good English. Along the way, he waxed philosophical about how lucky we were to have this opportunity to experience nature and how we need to be good to the earth. My favorite Carlos-ism from the trip: At one point, when I was wiping dirt off my hands, Carlos pointed out that it doesn’t matter how dirty we are on the outside, as long as our souls are clean on the inside. Very deep for hiking!

hiking volcan santa maria

The trail was steep and a little muddy, but pretty well-kept. It wasn’t hard to figure out where to go, and rocks provided adequate footing. There was, sadly, a bit of litter strewn about at places.

The views along the way were stunning. We stopped frequently to take in the scenery and snap pictures. Until the clouds rolled in, after about two hours of hiking, we could see glimpses of Xela below.

the views from santa maria

Eventually, we climbed above the clouds, higher than other nearby mountains. As we neared the summit, we ran into small groups of other hikers, including local women who were just wearing sandals on their feet!

climbing into the clouds

Here’s a shot of Carlos and Haider approaching the top. I was really excited when it came into sight!

nearing the summit

We reached the summit after nearly four hours of hiking. Unfortunately, clouds obscured views of the city. But they moved quickly and, at times, we could glimpse the hillside. My favorite spot was here, where you could see the horizon line of the Pacific, in the distance.

the summit of volcan santa maria

me at the summit of volcan santa maria

We ate lunch while admiring the view, in the company of wild cows who live at the summit.

the summit of volcan santa maria

Then it was time to turn around.

the climb down volcan santa maria

The climb down was slow going because it was so slippery. Haider and I had to navigate carefully and, at many times, we were practically skiing as we slid on the mud. In fact, I learned the word Spanish wordВ cuidaВ (careful) from Carlos telling us that so many times. My legs felt fine (all that ballet in August prepped me for this!), but toward the end, I was physically exhausted from hiking for eight hours, waking up so early, starving from not packing enough food–and just ready to get off the volcano!

Still, the hike was really a highlight of my trip. I won’t be forgetting the gorgeous scenery along the way, especially the views from the top. It was, as they say in the Spanish-speaking world, vale la pena–worth the pain.

Las Fuentes Georginas

I love the intense Spanish lessons I have every day here at PLQE.В But like I mentioned,В the non-stop learning is tiring. So I was really excited when a group of us took a field trip toВ Las Fuentes Georginas–hot springs in the mountains outside Xela–yesterday afternoon.

To get there, we piled into the back of a pick-up truck for the 45 minute ride. It was bumpy and a little nauseating, but also lots of fun. We drove through small towns and wound through farmland filled with vegetable crops. I took the two photos below from the back of the truck.

the road to fuentes georginas

fields on the way to fuentes georginas

The hot springs were clearly built for tourism and named after former dictator Jorge Ubico’s wife. Despite that, I was thrilled to be out of the city and soaking in the warm waters. Since it was an overcast weekday afternoon, only a few other people were there.

fuentes georginas

The pool on the top level was closest to the source and therefore the hottest. I was shocked at how high the temperature was. None of us could go all the way in. I only managed to get in waist-high for a few minutes! We saw just one crazy guy splashing around in that one–and he told us he took an ice shower beforehand to numb himself against the heat. Um, smart?

Then, we hiked down a trail to two smaller, isolated pools near a waterfall and spent the rest of our time soaking in the waters and enjoying the view…

fuentes georginas

fuentes georginas

…until we reluctantly had to get out, dry off, hike back up and board another pick-up back to Xela.

the road back from fuentes georginas

Xela and Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco de Espanol (PLQE)

Greetings from Guatemala!

I can’t believe my first week here is halfway over–the time is flying! I admit, I was a little nervous about coming here, especially as a solo female traveler–anything you read about Guatemala, these days, mentions the high crime rate and all the scary potential dangers that come with being here. But, I feel quite safe and definitely believe I made a great decision to study in Qutezaltenango (Xela) with PLQE.

Xela is four hours away from Guatemala City, up in the western highlands. To get here, I (along with another student and a guide from the school) took a winding bus ride along the Interamericas Highway–which was really gorgeous. The road weaves through the mountains–up into the clouds at points–passing hills and valleys, grazing farm animals and little roadside stores and food stands. I was surprised at how smooth and wide the road was. The ride was more comfortable than any other I’d taken in Latin America. (Granted, I wasn’t on a chicken bus; I’ll get my first taste of that in the coming days. I took a “first class” bus which was basically an old Greyhound.)

parque central, xela

Xela is Guatemala’s second largest city, but doesn’t feel large or overwhelming. It’s a sprawl of low, colorful buildings and seems more like a small town. Plus, volcanos and hills flank the city, which make for dramatic scenery.

parque central, xela

During the day, people of all ages are out and I feel comfortable wandering and taking pictures (like these of Parque Central) by myself. But we’ve been warned not to walk alone after 9:30 at night–and, really, not to stay out much later than that.В (I’ve only been freaked out once: Early yesterday morning, around 5 a.m., explosions right outside my house woke me up. It sounded like a gun battle in the streets. After several rounds went off, I heard my host mom rustling around outside and popped out of my room to ask what the noise was. Apparently, Guatemalans shoot firecrackers in the wee hours to ring in someone’s birthday. Who knew?)

parque central, xela

As for PLQE, the school I’m attending–I’m loving it. They set me up with a wonderful homestay (more about that in another post) and they run a great program.


I have classes five hours a day (one-on-one instruction with my teacher, Arecely) and the school offers movie screenings, lectures and field trips every day.

plqe activities

As for the language learning part? The instruction is really good, but also tiring and, at times, frustrating. It’s hard to commit so much to memory and not feel dumb/hopeless in the process!

On my first day, Arecely, gave me a short oral and written test to determine my proficiency. Then, we developed a lesson plan based on what I wanted to review and focus on. After having taken group lessons with 9 other students in the States, private lessons seem like a luxury. Arecely is very patient when I repeatedly ask her to explain a grammatical point so I can fully understand it and therefore be able to use it. (Like why you’d use indirect object pronouns and the actual words they’re supposed to replace in the same sentence–isn’t the point to avoid redundancies?!) Or when I’m fumbling for words that just won’t come to me. В We’re moving at a good pace and covering lots of concepts, but not so fast that I’m not retaining what I’m learning.

Despite my struggles, my Spanish is improving. I can speak and understand a little more every day. But I still have a loooooooooong way to go. I’m jealous of the students who are here for a month or longer. It makes me wonder if/when I’ll have the opportunity to travel for that amount of time. And, if not, if Mal and I should do another program like this, in another country, for our next sister trip.


More updates to come!

Off to Guatemala!

Xela a noche

I’m about to depart onВ my end of summer trip–two weeks in Guatemala to learn Spanish! I’ll be studying atВ Proyecto LingГјistico Quetzalteco de EspaГ±ol (PLQE), spending one week in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second largest city, and one week at La Escuela de la Montana, their other location on a coffee farm in the mountains.

Earlier this month, I felt a little nervous about going–mostly about the mountain school. As a city girl, I’m never quite at ease in rural areas. I feel safe in big urban areas where there are lots of people and noise. When I’m surrounded by nature and the unfamiliar sounds that come with it, I’m always a little on edge. Even suburbs kind of creep me out!

But now I’m just so excited to go. I’m really looking forward to meeting my host family and fellow students, improving my Spanish and exploring two new places. (I only wish that Mal were coming with me–and already can’t wait for the next trip we’ll take together!)

(Photo of Xela at night by Harry Diaz)

So Not Ready for the End of Summer!

How is it already September? This summer has flown by! And yet, somehow it feels like it lasted for ages–which, in my opinion, is definitely a good thing!

Every year, I say that I’ve had the best summer, ever. This year is no exception. From mid-May through today, I’ve been lucky to have tons of good times with the people I love the most.

I spent many beach weekends in Maryland with Mal and Peter…

mal and peter

…and friends…

mal, heather, reen

mal, virginia, heather

…and family.В We spent lots of time lounging on the beach, but also hit up ridiculous places likeВ Seacrets, lol!…


…andВ devoured mountains of crustaceansВ atВ our favorite blue crab joint.

blue crabs

We also discoveredВ Jules, which, not counting theВ crabВ places,В is definitely the best restaurant in the Ocean City area. We went there with our parents, in mid-July, on Mal and Peter’s last weekend in the area.

e and meme

And then, Mal and Peter left Maryland…

ocean city

…and were back in New York, much to my delight!

mal and heather

Especially since now they’re only a half hour away and I can see them as often as I want. And rope them into things like river tubing. рџ™‚


I didn’t leave NYC during August. At first, I wondered if I could deal with that much time in one place. But it turned out to be a great month. I spent lots of time studyingВ SpanishВ and rehearsing a piece from “Les Sylphides” for the dance show I performed in last weekend.



Now I’m off from work for 16 days–and savoring the last bit of NYC summer before I leave for Guatemala early tomorrow morning!

mal and peter

heather and mal

Are you also sad about the end of summer?

This Must Be The Place

this must be the place

How gorgeous is that photo? I came across it on Gadling today and loved it so much that I had to reblog it. It’s by Flickr user il leleВ and part of his stunning photo set of White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. It kind of reminds me of the Bolivia’s Salar de Uynui–except with dunes. But nevertheless, I’ve now added it to the long list of places I want to visit.

(Photo by il lele via Gadling)

Music Love: Gaby Moreno

gaby moreno

In less than a week, I’ll be in Guatemala. But despite my efforts, I still don’t have a strong grasp on Spanish. During the past few days, I’ve been trying to cram in as much as I can, and was thinking that it might help to listen to some Spanish music. (Especially since I’m plugged into Spotify all. day. long. at work.)

As luck would have it, while browsing through NPR’s First Listen albums, I stumbled upon an artist I’m really loving. And she just happens to be Guatemalan.

While I can’t understand most of Gaby Moreno‘s lyrics (though I’ve been translating some!), I can’t stop listening to her new album “Postales.”В She has a gorgeous, soulful voice that’s so authentic and full of emotion. Plus, many of her songs have a quirky, bluesy, folky sound that’s similar to other female artists I love, like Regina SpektorВ and Jenny Lewis.

NPR is streaming Moreno’s album for a limited time, and I’ve embedded the second track, “Tranvia” here. Give it a listen and let me know what you think!

(Photo via NPR)