1. Guatemala? More like GuateBUENA!

21 Apr

Two of my best friends, Patrick and Helen (pictured above), have birthdays in April just a few days apart! I guess I’m a sucker for a Taurus. We decided it would be fun to go on a trip over their birthday week to a country none of us had ever been to before. After careful consideration, it came down to South Korea or Guatemala… and Guatemala had better flights from Pittsburgh.  The plane Helen and I took from Atlanta to Guatemala City was delayed, which meant some fun lounge perks #livelaughlounge, and when Bel and I finally landed in Guatemala, it was after 1 AM. We were advised not to spend any time in Guatemala City, so we immediately took an Uber (thanks, airport WiFi!) to Antigua, a gorgeous city about an hour to the west. Our Uber driver, Jennifer, was sweet and helpful. She stopped at a 24 hour convenience store so we could buy bottles of water and asked us, in Spanish, if we minded if she stopped to get gas later on our drive. No problema! The 1 hour uber, including a generous tip, was $22 dollars. We were thrilled. Less thrilled was our Air BnB host, with whom we had been communicating all night as our flight kept getting more and more delayed. She was very patient and kind but clearly exhausted when we arrived after 2 AM. As we drove through Antigua in the middle of the night, we were shocked to see this old city (“antigua” straight up means old in Spanish) was bumping. There was a festival happening in the streets with vendors of food, souvenirs, and keepsakes as far as the eye could see. The fiesta was going strong. We were muy impressed. After being greeted by our very patient, very tired Air BnB host, we received a quick tour and matching locally-made bracelets (WE LOVE MATCHING!!) and immediately went to sleep.

Our home for the night.

The next morning we woke up excited as can be. It was our first day in Guatemala and PATRICK was joining us! Patrick had booked us a 3 person room in La Cucaracha Hostel (which, despite the name, turned out to be lovely) and he was meeting us there at 2 PM. We had all morning to walk across town to meet him. Patrick is a very savvy traveler, as avid readers of the blog will know — we met many years ago in the Peace Corps in Jamaica and have gone on many travel adventures together since. He opted to use this trip to Guatemala as an excuse to be technology-free for 8 days and didn’t bring his phone on the trip. I repeat, he didn’t bring his phone on the trip. Not for the planes, not for the layover in Mexico City, not for the maps, not for Uber, not for photos. He was a man off the grid. We made our way to the hostel early as were quite keen to meet up with him and to our delight and surprise, he was already there. “Patrick? He just checked in…” the concierge told us. He lead us back to our room and there was our Patrick, phonelessly reading a book on the bed. Helen and I often joke that spending time with Patrick is like reading a book. We walk away learning so much. This time, it was about Nonviolent Communication. Ladies, he’s single.

Found him!

 

After spending some time catching up in our room, we got ready to hit the streets on a crucial mission: find sunblock and ice cream. In Guatemala, the day between Good Friday and Easter is referred to as Black Saturday. As if living in a spoiler-free world, we joined the Guatemalans in wearing black in mourning of Jesus, who had died 1 day (and 1986 years) before. We had to hold off on our colorful clothes until the following day, when we could celebrate the news of the resurrection. Again, “news” being a surprising word choice. #1986yearslater We walked around the streets of Antigua and were blown away by the art. In celebration of Easter, murals had been made with dyed sawdust, stenciled on the ground into (usually) floral masterpieces. They were breathtaking.

 

Making a masterpiece.

Always be stenciling.

 

The processions (word to the wise: do not call them parades) marched through the streets and walked directly through the sawdust. Once the processions had gone through, volunteers were immediately out behind them sweeping up the trampled sawdust. These street murals were designed to be temporary.

 

FLO(O)RAL MURALS

 

When the Virgin Mary tramples your masterpiece

 

We wanted to make sure we had a rundown of the processions, so Helen asked strangers on the street, in Spanish, what time and where the processions were taking place. Every person gave us a different answer. We were very confused. We had read in our guide book that Guatemalans often will give you an answer rather than saying they don’t know. We assumed we were experiencing exactly that until we discovered there were MULTIPLE processions starting from multiple different churches. That’s when it dawned on us. Ooooh. Everyone we asked was telling the truth. GuateBUENA, indeed. As it turned out, there was a procession that marched directly in front of our hostel at 4 PM and there was a candlelit vigil #RIPJC at 8 PM in the middle of town.

We went off on an adventure and found the most delicious ice cream that looked like a frozen, upside down “Fruit on the Bottom” yogurt cup. It was DELICIOUS.

“I don’t know what this is, but I want to always have one in my hand.”

 

We wandered the beautiful streets of Antigua and saw many more stunning floor murals. The streets were alive with food vendors, natives, tourists from all over central America, and TV stations broadcasting live from the square. When it comes to Easter weekend, Antigua is THE place to be. We were all startled by how POLITE Guatemala was. As we stood in a square surrounded by hundreds of people, we couldn’t believe how quiet it was. “I’ve been in groups of 4 that are louder than this.” We were confused. Was this silence usual or was it out of respect for the somber nature of the day? We would soon find out Guatemala is just a very polite and quiet country. Even the ambulances would pass with their lights on but no sirens and would honk when only absolutely necessary.

In addition to the sawdust murals, streets were lined with enormous, themed vignettes — depicting different scenes from the life (and death) of Jesus and homages to the Virgin Mary — that would be motorized in a parade in the USA. But of course, this wasn’t a parade (never forget) and we weren’t in the USA. Underneath the vignettes, were a couple dozen women holding the weight on their shoulders, getting ready to march it through the streets of Antigua.

YOU RAISE ME UP

 

We ended up in front of the biggest church in the middle of a town square just before its procession was about to start. Marching bands (primarily consisting of different sized drums) were playing ominous music that felt appropriately like dirges. Mass was happening inside the church and, as as soon as it let out, the women started marching their tribute to the Virgin Mary around the square, one wobbly step at a time to the rhythm of the drums, before they went and onward throughout the city and made the loop back. It was 3 PM when the parade #dontcallitthat started, we’d later see them at the halfway point, passing the church with the candlelit vigil at 8 PM. These women were volunteers — members of the church who were honored to be selected for this duty.

Once we had watched them go around the block, we hung back for the 40 minutes it took them to walk up the street, and found a place to sit and eat some street food. We love street food. Street food safety tip: Look for places with high turnover. You don’t want to eat food that has been sitting in the sun for too long. Places with long lines usually move lots of food quickly. That’ll ensure you’re getting the freshest possible street food.

Delicious. And she even made a vegetarian sandwich for Helen!

 

So nice, we had it twice.

 

We hung back for a long time to give Mary a head start, and started back towards our hostel, eating anything delicious looking on the route. We came across a particularly delicious taco stand in a parking lot. Patrick and I wanted tacos but Bel couldn’t have them because they had carne. The taco stand advertised “2 TACOS!” and that was exactly what we wanted! A taco each! We ordered the 2 tacos but didn’t realize until they arrived that each order came with 2 tacos. We had 4 tacos. What a delicious accident. The tacos were INCREDIBLE. One of the tricks for staying cool on a hot summer day in Guatemala is enjoying a Choco Banana, which is just a frozen banana dipped in chocolate. (“There’s always money in the banana stand.”) Helen asked the man running the taco stand if he knew where she could get a Choco Banana while we ate our tacos. He told her the price and asked her for some quetzal (Guatemalan currency), and he sent his kids on a mission to get one from a stand somewhere else in the market. They came back with the Choco Banana and the change. Guatemala is a well-oiled machine.

Full of choco and tacos, we made our way through the shops in the market and came across the BEST SHOP OF ALL TIME: One with a rack full of birds, hand-made from beads. They were GORGEOUS. We were overwhelmed. If we had known the word “resplendent” at the time, we would have used it. There were so many birds to see, with varied color schemes. It was joyous. I entered the store and sat down and looked at each and every bird while Helen and Patrick sat on a bench just across from the entrance. Every so often, I’d call them in to show them the favorites I had narrowed down from hundreds. Just as I was about to make my selection, the woman who owned the store pulled out another basket of birds for me to sift through. “Sam, do you see that she’s getting more birds out?” Patrick called from the bench. She wanted to make sure I got the right bird. Eventually, we knew what we had to do: get 3 matching birds.

This is the one, right?

 

With our birds in hand, we headed back to the hostel for a nap. We were so proud of our birds. We couldn’t wait to show them off. Helen laid them on the bed and took a picture to send to her girlfriend, Victoria. I took it from her hand. “You can’t send her this picture, it’s hideous!” We spent longer than you’d think staging the birdfect photo.

The Chosen Ones

 

Whew! Feeling accomplished, we went out on the town! It was still only 6 PM and we wanted to circle back to a bar / restaurant that had advertised LIVE MUSIC! We wandered the streets until we found it and ended up in an adorable outdoor space with twinkle lights and a guy playing an acoustic guitar.

Hanging with the locals

 

The waiter came over and asked us what we’d like to drink. “What’s your favorite local beer?” Helen asked him in Spanish.” He looked excited, “Gallo!” And with that, we ordered 3 bottles of Gallo, a Guatemalan beer brewed in Guatemala City. It was delicious. Thanks to that enthusiastic waiter, Gallo would be our drink of choice for the rest of the trip.

Once we had finished our Gallos, we headed back to the streets to see the festival and the candlelit vigil at 8 PM. There was a singer, standing outside of the church, and hundreds of people watching as the same Virgin Mary vignette went through. Many people were crying as the Virgin Mary passed. We could not believe we had lived a full Antiguan adventure and these women were still carrying their Mary through the streets. They were officially at the end of their route and now had to make the 4 hour voyage back to the church where they started. We were exhausted for them.

CANDLELIT VIGILANTES

 

The vibe of Antigua had completely changed at night. We meandered through the streets on our way back home.

Ta’cool for Ta’school

 

Once we were safely back in our room, Patrick and Helen chose their sleeping arrangements and I was SHOCKED. There were 2 bunk beds and a queen mattress. Helen and Patrick took the bunk beds, leaving me ALONE in the BIGGEST BED. “I’ve never heard anyone complain about getting the biggest bed before.” – Patrick

“Aww! We share everything!” “Sure…Except beds.”

 

The next day, we awoke to the good news: JESUS HAD RISEN! We took our breakfast coffees, eggs, fruit, and (lots of) Nutella to the roof and did some reading about Guatemala. We had some research to do to figure out where we would be spending the rest of our trip. Once the breakfast spread had been taken away, Patrick would occasionally run out to get us more street food. We each took on a few regions of Guatemala in the guide book (which was written by former Peace Corps volunteers!) and gave a summary of what that region had to offer. The region we chose would really determine the nature of the rest of our trip.

Breakfast cutie

 

Rooftop views

 

After reading (and snacking) for a few hours, we had finally come to a consensus: Every region of Guatemala has a lot to offer. We highly recommend this country. We chose the central region full of natural wonders, bat caves, hikes, cloud forests, and quaint towns. We decided to rent a car to best explore a region, as all of the sights were spread out. After all, a trip to Semuc Champey was a 14-hour bus ride, one-way, down a very bumpy mountain. We thought we had best take that into our own hands. (Pro tip: if you’re renting a car in Guatemala, make sure it has 4-wheel drive.)

Rooftalk the red-nosed reindeer. Oops, that’s Christmas. This was Easter. Where are the Easter songs?

 

From the rooftop, we could hear people singing “When The Saints Go Marching In” in Spanish! There were celebrations in the streets! And we knew exactly how we wanted to celebrate: By visiting A MACADAMIA NUT FARM. Luckily for us, we were just one town away from one. We called an Uber from our hostel but couldn’t get it due to all of the Easter parades. There were more sawdust masterpieces on the ground, but they didn’t slow us down. We decided to walk away from the city in the direction of the macadamia farm to get a head start on calling an Uber, but we didn’t have any internet service once we left or hostel. Eventually, we stopped in the entry of another Hostel to use their WiFIand they were SO helpful. Shout out to 3 Monkeys Hostel in Antigua. We got our Uber and were a short 20 minute drive from DELICIOUSNESS.

BIENVENIDOS A VALHALLA

Upon arrival, we were offered a free (gratis!) tour and jumped at the chance to learn about macadamia nuts. First, we learned about the trees and the limited number of countries that grow macadamia trees in the world. Then, we learned all about harvesting of the nuts. You never pick them from the trees, you only gather them once they have fallen. Prepare yourself for a photo lesson.

 

The wheel removes the skin from the nut

 

Then we slide them down this ramp, which sorts them into bins of like-sized macadamia nuts

 

Macademics.

 

We fell in love with the Valhalla Macadamia Farm. The shade from the macadamia trees made the farm a cool, welcomed change from the past few days of wandering the hot streets of Antigua. They had all sorts of macadamia nut products for sale: batter for pancakes, macadamia nut chocolate, everything you could imagine. As well as a philosophy we could all get behind:

Como se dice “Preach!”?

 

A bathroom with an obvious love for potted plants.

 

After the tour, we sat down to look at the delicious menu (which I recommend checking out: http://valhallamacfarm.com/valhalla-restaurant/) which features the macadamia nut in every single dish. We had no choice but to order 4 dishes to share (Minus the chicken, sorry Helen), it was a holiday after all! We got roasted chicken with macadamia nut BBQ sauce, white chocolate macadamia nut pancakes, macadamia nut-filled ravioli with macadamia nut pesto, and a macadamia-breaded eggplant sandwich with caramelized onions, lettuce, tomato, cheese, and a honey-mustard dressing. We were beside ourselves with joy. We love Easter Sunday.

HAPPY FEASTER!

 

After a few hours of eating, chatting, and trying not to pet the dog at our feet (Pro tip: Don’t touch animals in foreign countries), we headed back to Antigua for a night on the town! The festival was still bumping and we were ready to explore.  Antigua sure knows how to celebrate a resurrection! We walked through the streets with our eyes peeled and our hearts open, ready to see whatever called to us. Our first stop was in Vagamundo, another hostel, which had live music playing in the back. A 6-piece band comprising of horns, drums, guitars, and a piano was JAMMING. This was exactly the vibe we were looking for. We made ourselves at home and did some more research for our upcoming week. When the time was right, we moved on and explored some outdoor markets. It was overstimulating. We walked around the square and looked at (read: tried) all of the street food. There were booths with candy, jewelry, games, everything you could think of. We dipped into a pub to explore with full intentions of leaving quickly and taking in more of the festival. We spent a bit of time watching a soccer match, laughing, figuring out our ratios, and ordering Gallo like the locals. Unfortunately, we must have been at the tail-end of the festivities because as soon as we came out of the pub, everything had been taken down and packed up as if we had dreamt it there an hour before.

El gallo mas gallo.

 

We are the Three Amigos, and Amigos forever we’ll be.

 

 

We went to bed in our beloved hostel, excited to wake up early and get to our rental truck in order to hit that Guatemalan road.

Hasta pronto,
(A)‘Mi(ga)

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