guatemala

Trip Envy!: Guatemala

Lake Atitlan
After my 25th birthday trip to Costa Rica, Mal and I decided that each year, we’d visit another Central American country until we’d seen them all. For a few years, we did that, following up CR with Nicaragua, then Panama. (We also dipped down to Bolivia, on another occasion.)

Then, last summer, I broke our pact. I booked my solo trip to Guatemala, even though it killed me to do so. But I was desperate to take a Spanish-learning trip and fixated on going to PLQ—despite the fact that a long vacation was out of the question for Mal, who’d just started a new job. I went and had an amazing time, though wished she was there, too!

So I was thrilled when Mal and Peter decided to take their own trip to Guatemala. They’re going to Xela, as well, but also spending a few days at Lago de Atitlan, Central America’s deepest lake. I really wanted to spend time there, but only saw in passing. (And snapped the photo above.) I’m looking forward to hearing all about their time in the country (look for an upcoming guest post)—and curious about how it compares to mine.

…and then we can figure out which Central American country we’ll hit next! (I’m thinking El Salvador…)

Buen viaje, Mal and Peter!! ❤

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Final Thoughts on PLQE and Guatemala

Xela, from the roof of PLQE

Xela, from the roof of PLQE

I’m sure it’s obvious, from all my recent posts, that I had an amazing two weeks in Guatemala. I had such a wonderful time that I didn’t want to leave. I just wanted to settle in and stay in Xela for another month or two.

If you’re interested in taking a Spanish-learning trip, I couldn’t recommend PLQE more. I learned more Spanish in two weeks there than in my whole life, combined. Sure, I still have a long way to go to achieve proficiency. But before I went, I only knew the present tense and the basic future (ir + a + infinitive). Now, I’ve learned the pretirite and the imperfect, and can actually talk like a real person (well, like a total Spanish newbie)—but at least I don’t have to talk about the past using the present tense! I’ve also found that I can understand much more now than three weeks ago.

And this is going to sound so cheesy, too—cue the sappy music—but the whole time I was at PLQE, I was really inspired by everyone around me: My teachers, who taught me a ton and shared stories about their own hardships. My host family in Xela, who were so warm and welcoming that I felt at home there, even though it was just for one week. My host family at the Mountain School, who always gave me lots to eat, even though they didn’t have much, themselves.

And my fellow students. Like me, most were in their late 20s to late 30s and at transitional points in their lives, between degree programs or careers or relationships (or some combination of those). Each person had an interesting story of why he or she was there. But unlike me, most were staying longer—which I was very envious of!

When I first came to PLQE, I was dreading the graduation ceremony where I’d have to present—in Spanish—something to demonstrate my newfound language prowess. And though I was super-nervous, my presentation went well. I made a list, entitled “10 Maneras Para Saber Si Tu Eres Un Estudiante de PLQE” (“10 Ways to Know If You’re a PLQE Student”) and comprised of inside jokes about the school. Thankfully, people laughed.

PLQE set up for the weekly graduation ceremony

PLQE set up for the weekly graduation ceremony

Everyone else’s presentations impressed me—their talents were so diverse! One woman salsa danced (really well, I might add), one guy freestyled in Spanish and English, another performed a dramatic monologue. Others told jokes, read poems or played the guitar. Admittedly, I spend so much time in my ballet/writing world, that I’m always awed and very appreciative when I see other peoples’ passions on display—especially when they’re in a language they just learned!

Carlos, PLQE's director, giving out diplomas

Carlos, PLQE’s director, giving out diplomas

I’m not a spontaneous person, but I booked this trip on a whim. I didn’t research any other schools and only did a quick Google search on Xela to make sure the city hadn’t been hit by some natural disaster before buying my ticket. I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out. It was really one of the most rewarding trips I’ve ever taken.

One Night (Was Enough) in Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua, Guatemala

I spent my last night in Guatemala in Antigua. My flight back to the U.S. was at 1 p.m. the following day and I didn’t want to make the 4 hour bus ride from Xela the same morning. (Antigua is just 45 minutes from the airport.) Plus, I was departing during Independence Day weekend, and every single Guatemalan I spoke to told me to get out of Xela as early as possible to avoid getting caught up in all the parades. And I figured I might as well see one more place in Guatemala.

So early on Saturday morning, two PLQE friends, Viradeth and Laurie, and I took a shuttle to Antigua. The ride went smoothly and we passed many small Independence Day parades in towns along the mountain roads. We also caught a glimpse of Lake Atitlan which, unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to visit this trip.

Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan

Although I’d planned to spend my last night in Antigua for a while, I had a feeling I wouldn’t be too crazy about the place. I’d heard that it wasn’t the best place to learn Spanish because there are so many gringos and everyone speaks English.

My hunch proved correct.

“Tourist trap” is the best way to describe the place. Sure, it’s gorgeous. It’s way prettier than Xela, with beautiful, historic buildings and cobblestone streets flanked by volcanoes. It’s the quintessential colonial town that exists in every Latin American country, the one that guidebooks always dub “the crown jewel” of the place.

Santa Catalina Arch

Arco de Santa Catalina

But because of its beauty, tourists flock there and the city caters to them. Antigua has tons of shops, cafes and restaurants, but nothing seems authentically Guatemalan. It kind of feels like Disney.

We had a Guatemalan lunch of rice, beans and tortillas at a nearby restaurant whose name I can’t remember (and couldn’t find online). The food was plentiful and delicious, but I’d been so spoiled with great homemade Guatemalan food from my host moms, that it didn’t quite stack up—especially the tortillas!

Afterwards, we walked around snapping requisite photos of old churches and buildings. The streets were so crowded with tourists that I just couldn’t get into it, though. I don’t think Viradeth and Laurie could, either. After about an hour, Viradeth went back to the hostal to take a nap and Laurie left to wander on her own.

Catedral de San José

Catedral de San José

La Merced Church

La Merced Church

My friends from PLQE, Jenny and Kathy, had told me that when they were in Antigua, they spent an afternoon at Hotel Antigua‘s pool. (For $10, anyone can purchase a day pass.) That seemed like a much more appealing option, so I spent an hour there chillaxing and watching the clouds move across a nearby volcano.

hotel antigua

Avoiding the touristy streets by spending an hour at Hotel Antigua’s pool

In the evening, Viradeth and I went on a quest to find a restaurant that served Guatemalan food and didn’t resemble Applebee’s. (We figured we HAD to have local cuisine for our last meal in the country!) But it took a long time. We walked up and down nearly every street. Finally, we settled on La Fonda de la Calle Real, which is right in the heart of tourist central, but the only Guatemalan place we came across. The food was actually really good, especially the pepian y pollo.

And then, since it was our last night in the country, we hit up a few touristy bars. In true gringo style.

Our hostel, La Sin Ventura, was actually one of my favorite parts of Antigua. It was a block away from Parque Central and single rooms were just $18/night. Mine was spotlessly clean, with a double bed and private bathroom that had hot water and good pressure—a luxury I hadn’t experienced in two weeks. It was definitely the nicest hostel I’ve ever stayed at. We did find out why it was so cheap, though: at night, the bar downstairs is hopping and you can hear people in the hallways.

la sin ventura

My room at La Sin Ventura Hostel

The next morning, I was ready to leave Antigua, but not Guatemala. Two weeks was just not enough time there.

A Week at La Escuela de la Montana

the mountain school

After a week in Xela, I bid my host family goodbye and headed off to La Escuela de la Montana, PLQE‘s sister location, about an hour away. Before my trip, I was pretty nervous about it. As a city girl, I knew I’d be fine in Xela, since it’s Guatemala’s second-largest city with lots of stuff to do: restaurants, cafes, shops, etc. But a week in the mountains? I was scared of bugs. And snakes. And weird birds. And strange nature sounds. And criminals who target people in remote areas. And—mostly—of going stir crazy.

Of course, soon after arriving via chicken bus with two other PLQE students, Jenny and Kathy, I learned that my fears were un poquito loco. It did take me a day to adjust to the ways of the Mountain School. But it was truly a rewarding experience and I’m so glad I went.

In addition to the school being way out in the middle of nowhere, the lifestyle is completely different from PLQE in Xela. The students live, dorm-style, in the school. Jenny and I shared a room that was meant for four people; it was fine with the two of us, but I think it would have been tight if the room was filled to capacity!

my room at the Mountain School

My room at the Mountain School

the library

The school’s library was right outside my room

Classes were four hours a day in thatched huts on the school’s property. Whereas Arecely, my maetra in Xela, drilled me on Spanish grammar every day, here, my maestra, Flor, was more of a conversationalist—and a great story teller. I learned a lot just speaking with her. We traded tales of working as shoe salespeople (her in Xela, me at Bloomingdale’s) and she told me about her nutty neighbors who have several cats, dogs and more than 50 chickens. (I so would not go into that house!) In more serious topics, she also told me about a cousin who smuggled his way into the U.S., via coyotes, through Mexico, when he was just 16, to escape a gang that was after his family here in Guatemala. (Hearing stories like that—and I heard many during my time there—was so humbling.)

classrooms at the mountain school

My “classroom”

After classes, we could study on the front porch or on el mirador, a perch with a great view.

el mirador

the view from el mirador

The view from el mirador

The Mountain School is adjacent to three small communities: Fatima, Nuevo San Jose and Santo Domingo. Each was created when groups of families moved there from coffee fincas where they had been exploited and denied wages. Today, the communities are still very poor. Fatima, for example, is just one unpaved block long. The houses are one-story structures with tin roofs and plain cinder block walls. Many families in Fatima and Nuevo San Jose derive part of their income from the Mountain School: The women cook for special occasions, do students’ laundry and provide students with meals on a rotating basis.

I ate all my meals with a host family that lived in Fatima. Elsa, my host mom, was just 39, but had eight kids and grandchildren, who all lived in the house. Unlike in Xela, where meals were a family occasion, here, families didn’t always eat together. The men often leave the house super-early to work as day laborers in other towns or farms—and the women get up even earlier to cook for them. I always ate at a small table by the door while one or two family members sat and talked with me. Often, it was 17-year-old Elida, the second-oldest daughter, and her son, Hamilton. Other times, it was 4-year-old Jony or 2-year-old Pablo.

I took these photos on my last day there. Most families in the communities don’t have cameras and Mountain School students are often their only means to getting family snapshots. Elsa asked me to send them to her after I was back in the States.

my host mom, Elsa, and her grandson Darvin

My host mom, Elsa, and her grandson Darvin

Jony, dressed up for Independence Day, and Pablo

Jony, dressed up for Independence Day, and Pablo

Hamilton and Elida

Hamilton and Elida

tortillas and a tamale

Meals there were simple. I loved the tortillas Elsa served with each meal—so much that I often had three, in addition to whatever the main dish was. She was a good cook, too, and I was a huge fan of her soups. But there were a few instances when I found myself craving more fruits and vegetables (like after a meal of just hot dogs and tortillas), which were a little hard to come by in the communities.

Throughout the week, I learned more about Guatemalan history and culture. On Tuesday, a local woman named Floria spoke to us students about her time in the guerilla. In 1983, the Guatemalan army killed her father and her family fled to Chapais, Mexico. But Floria wanted to avenge her father’s death, and returned to Guatemala to join the guerilla when she was just 14. She remained part of it until the peace accords were signed in 1996.

Later that day, Jorge, a longtime school employee, took us on a hike up a nearby mountain to a plot of land where he grows black beans. We also caught a glimpse of a waterfall. As we walked, Jorge told us about projects the communities are planning to bring in income: candle-making, empanada-making and, eventually, opening up a panadaria (bake shop).

Jorge on the plot where he grows black beans

Jorge on the plot where he grows black beans

coffee plants

Coffee also grew on the mountain

waterfall

The waterfall

the view from the mountainside

The view from the mountainside

Thursday morning, all of us students and teachers piled into the back of a pickup truck for a field trip to Colomba, a nearby town. This is a typical mode of transportation in Guatemala. Even though I rode in several, I never felt quite safe—I’d always try not to think of what would happen if another car hit us! Still, it was a fun way to get from place to place, especially because you had unobstructed views of the scenery.

riding in the back of a pickup

riding in the back of a pickup

riding in the back of a pickup

the view from the back of the pickup

The view from the back of the pickup

In honor of Guatemala’s Independence Day, September 15, local schools had set up exhibits in Colomba’s central park, showcasing industries, food and dress unique to different towns. It was here that I first tried arroz con leche (a sweet porridge-like dessert made from, obviously, rice and milk) and pollo pepian, which is a delicious brown sauce made from sesame and pumpkin seeds and other spices.

independence day display in colomba

independence day display in colomba

It turned out to be a food-filled day. Later that evening, much to my delight, a local woman named Josefina taught us how to make pupusas with cabbage slaw and spicy salsa. They were delicious.

Mateo grating cabbage

Mateo grating cabbage

Jenny and Kathy chopping veggies and herbs

Jenny and Kathy chopping veggies and herbs

josephina frying pupusas

Josephina frying pupusas

pupusas

Hungry, yet?

The Mountain School’s weekly graduation ceremony was on Friday afternoon. We could either cook or pay a local family to cook for us. (I chose the latter.) All of our host families came and it was like one big party. Just like at PLQE, those of us leaving that week had to share a few words of thanks, read a poem, sing a song, etc. in Spanish. I spoke about my irrational fears about the Mountain School, what I learned from my time there and just how rewarding the week had been. Then, we served our host families food. It was just a small gesture, but I hope it conveyed the gratitude I felt for all their hospitality over the past six days.

My Host Family in Xela

Catalina and me

Catalina and me

For the week I was in Xela, I lived with a Guatemalan family. My host mom was more like a host abuela—Catalina was an older woman who had several adult children and grandkids, most of whom lived nearby. She’d been hosting PLQE students for more than 15 years.

Her house was on Diagonal 2, a few blocks away from PLQE. Besides her and myself, two 20-something Guatemalan guys lived there: Eddie, who worked in a bank, and Gaspar, a med student.

Diagonal 2

Diagonal 2

I loved the layout of Catalina’s house and wished my NYC apartment resembled it more. Four bedrooms, a bathroom and kitchen flanked a small, central courtyard that was bright and airy during the day, when the sun streamed in. The focal point of the courtyard was the pila, the green, table-like structure on the right. It has a basin in the center for clean water, and two surfaces on either side for washing dishes and clothing.

My room was small and basic, but comfy enough.

my room in xela

I came home for every meal and felt super-lucky to have Catalina as a host mom. She was an amazing cook and never served the same dish twice. Breakfast was usually eggs (my fave!), beans and the amazingly delicious corn tortillas that Guatemalans eat with every meal. Lunches and dinner were often rice, chicken or pork with veggies and more tortillas. Catalina’s dishes were such a nice change from the oatmeal/eggs/avocado/bagel/soup diet I subsist on at home in NYC.

lunch

Plus, those meals were another opportunity to practice Spanish—though, admittedly, I couldn’t really follow the conversations unless someone spoke directly to me in slow, basic Spanish. And then repeated everything twice. Gaspar spoke English quite well and (even though I guess it was cheating, a little!) sometimes helped me out by explaining words and phrases in English.

Gaspar and me

Gaspar and me–it literally took Catalina 15 tries to take this photo with my iPhone 🙂

Before I came to Xela, I notified PLQE that I was allergic to cats and dogs and couldn’t live in a house with either. But it didn’t occur to me that families would have other kinds of animals.

On the first day I met Catalina, I nearly freaked out when I saw her pet—a plump chicken named Paloma. I am deathly afraid of birds. That afternoon, she started to walk into my room, but ran out when I gasped and jumped on my bed. After that, she stayed away from me (smart bird!) and only tried to come in one other time.

paloma

I never told Catalina I was afraid of Paloma because I a) didn’t want to be an inconvenience to her or PLQE and b) because I thought I should face my fear and just deal with it. That tactic kind of worked—I got used to living with a bird and, after a few days, stopped cringing when I heard her making bird noises outside my room. Eventually, I didn’t even have a problem eating chicken while Paloma sat in the next room. I suppose that’s part of what this trip was about anyway—learning and self-growth.

On my last day in Xela, Catalina gave me a notebook in which all her former students wrote her a note, along with their contact information. It was interesting to see where everyone was from (mostly different cities in the US and Canada) and how good their Spanish was (most seemed way better than me). With only one week of Spanish under my belt, I needed a dictionary to write my letter, but I thanked her for her hospitality, patience with my Spanish and, of course, for her delicious cooking. And I apologized for any errors!

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 word cuida (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. But like I mentioned, the non-stop learning is tiring. So I was really excited when a group of us took a field trip to 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