Leaving Miss Piggy

This is Miss Piggy. We think she’s about ten years old, but we’re not sure. She was already an adult when we found her in 2013, scrounging for scraps in the compost heap behind our house in Birmingham. Once we fed her and got her to trust us, it became clear that she’d been somebody’s house cat. She’d already been spayed, she was terrible at fending for herself in the wild, she ate every meal as if it might be her last, and our vet let us know that she was an actual breed (a Bombay). We posted signs in all the nearby neighborhoods, with all the local veterinarians, and on lost animal forums online, but were unable to locate her owners. Several houses had recently gone back on the market in our neighborhood shortly before Miss Piggy appeared. We believe someone moved away and abandoned her.

Now Lea and I are leaving the country for ten months and can’t take her with us. Leaving Piggy behind is the saddest part of the whole deal.

The good news is that we’ve found friends to take care of her, and we do want her back when we return. It’s hard, though, knowing that she’s going to be unhappy. She doesn’t understand what’s going on, and having been abandoned once before we hope she doesn’t feel like it’s happening all over again. It’s unclear how much animals actually remember of past trauma, but any pet owner will tell you that they do retain something.

We’ve left Piggy’s carers detailed instructions on all her little quirks (how  she likes her food, how she likes her litter, etc.). We hope she adjusts quickly to her new situation and doesn’t spend all her hours hiding from her new humans. Most of all, we hope she remembers us when we get back.

With this career break, I admit that a big motivating factor is to leave behind the non-stop, high pressure world of American working culture. There is so much emotional baggage wrapped up in surviving day to day, even for those of us in the “comfortable” middle class, that we desperately want to escape from, and we can’t wait to find out what it’s like to be free from the constant daily nightmare of alarm clocks, crushing commutes, hair-on-fire deadlines, and demanding, demanding, demanding customers. (I know: First World Problems. Send me a meme.)

However, there’s a lot in our lives that we love and it’s hard to let go. For weeks, it’s seemed as if every single day was the last day I was going to see at least one person. Some will be here when we return, but some won’t. We’ve made a lot of friends over the last two years in Atlanta, and we love the city itself.

I haven’t felt this way about every place that I’ve lived. There were some that I couldn’t wait to leave. Here, though, Lea and I feel that we’ve finally found our place. For me, there are people here I can hang with, game with, go to movies with, make music with. Here I can go to DragonCon every single year and not have to pay $300 per night for a hotel room! (Incidentally, we’re leaving before the Con and they’ve booked Peter Capaldi as a guest. AAARGH!) I know, more First World Problems. Sue me.

So, if Atlanta’s so great, why not just stay and find new jobs? Because now is the time. Because we’re not getting younger or healthier, and if we wait too long to live what we dream then it will only be a regret instead of an actuality.

Believe me, once we set all the gears moving to get us out of the country, we discovered that the pressure not to go is enormous, from society in general and our own inner expectations. We’re both overproductive people, so we feel like we’re the kid who makes all A’s who suddenly wants to drop out of school.

Funny story: I was that kid, and I did that too. In 1993 I dropped out grad school. I wasn’t prepared for the emotional fallout of ditching the path I was on and forging something new, but in retrospect it was one of the best decisions I ever made, and maybe the first real one I ever made for myself.

Here I am, twenty-five years later, about to do it again. This time I’ve got my game face on, I’ve got my partner in crime and love of my life with me, and we’ve got a battle plan for what comes next.

But we’re really going to miss Miss Piggy.

The Secret Untold Truth of The Escape Hatch – Now Revealed!

Buenos diás, compadres!

When I started this blog back in April, I talked about how my wife Lea and I are frequent world travelers and that I was going to use this space to chronicle our adventures and why hadn’t I been doing that all along. I also implied that along the way we might learn a little bit more about ourselves and the world and wouldn’t it be swell to share all that with the reading public, because who just wants to look at a bunch of pretty pictures of places someone else has vacationed, am I right?

Well… All of that is true, but it’s not the whole story. The whole story, which couldn’t be revealed publicly until now is… (drum roll, please)…

I done quit my job. As of July 14, I will no longer be your friendly, neighborhood librarian. Lea and I are taking a long-needed career break. On August 1, she and I will fly to South America and not come back for at least ten months.

The plan is thus: We land in Quito, then fly to the Galapagos for an actual “vacation” before our serious traveling commences. Once back on the mainland, we’re going to take two weeks of Spanish-immersion classes (Lea at Intermediate level, myself at “laughable beginner”). After that, we’re just going to head downhill in the general direction of Antarctica and see what happens.

Our itinerary is deliberately vague. We’ll travel by bus, stay in hostels, and couch-surf as much as we can. If we like a place, we’ll stay a while. If we don’t, we’ll move along. If we find we’re spending too much money, we’ll look for somewhere cheap and hole up. If we get fatigued and a little too dusty from all that backpacking, we may (on occasion) wimp out and book ourselves into a resort with trustworthy showers and air conditioning for a day or two.

We’re planning an average of about six weeks per country, going from Ecuador to Peru, a quick dash through Bolivia to see the salt flats, moseying down a good stretch of Chile, flying to Tierra del Fuego sometime around December, then back up through Argentina, Uruguay, maaaaybe Paraguay, Brazil, and finally flying across to Columbia before coming home. Or going somewhere else.

FAQ:

Are you both out of your goddamn minds?

Why, yes. Yes we are. If you’re a working American with a relentless, 40-60 hour a week job that barely lets you sleep at night, you probably are too.

The truth is, we’ve been planning something like this for a long time. Originally we were to have left two years ago, but life happened. Life always happens. Eventually you have to tell Life, “Back off. I’m doing what I want.” Life replies, “Oh yeah? Bet I can stop you.” To which the appropriate response is “Bring it, jerk.”

But seriously, you’re quitting work for a year?

That’s not all we’re quitting. We’re not going to have a fixed address. We’re not going to have a car. We’re not going to have a TV. We’re not going to have a cat. We’re not going to be around people who speak our own language.

We’re not going to have employers or customers making demands on our time and our energy. We’re not going to have a schedule to follow except what we impose on ourselves. We’re not going to have any choice but to immerse ourselves in another world. At the same time, we’re not going to have anyone to stop us from heading to that beach, or hiking into that jungle, or taking a gondola up that mountain whenever we damn well want.

(You’ll note that I didn’t say climb that mountain. We’re not completely crazy.)

Basically, the time has come for us to do a hard reset – a CTRL-ALT-DELETE if you will – on our lives. Whatever happens, we’re going to be different people at the end of this. With planning, luck, and determination, we hope to come back refreshed, in better shape, and with a whole new point of view on the world.

Assuming, of course, we decide to come back at all.

Stay tuned, dear readers.

Guatemala, Day 8: Adiós!

Today I start my journey back home while Lea begins her home-stay with a local family as part of her language immersion class. Since we hadn’t done it yet, we spent the morning walking around Xela’s Cementerio General.

Color us weird, but we visit cemeteries pretty much everywhere we go. They’re beautiful and quiet, and it’s fascinating and touching to see how different cultures deal with death. We made a whole vacation out of it two years ago when we went to Oaxaca for Dia de los Muertos (but that, my friends, is another story).

The cemetery in Xela is gigantic. We barely covered an eighth of it in an hour of walking. It goes on and on over a significant portion of the city. I’m pretty sure it’s bigger than the town I grew up in.

Latin American cemeteries are incredibly festive. Not all, but many of the tombs are as brightly decorated as the houses of the living, or even more so. On any given day, American cemeteries tend to be empty unless there’s an active funeral going on. And yet, while we were at the Cementerio General there was a steady stream of people coming in and out to bring flowers and wreaths to their loved ones, enough to support a small market outside the cemetery gate.

I think it shows that Latin American cultures are much more accepting of death as a natural part of life. Above the entrance to the cemetery was an inscription that Lea translated as “The Memory of the Living Gives Life to the Dead.” To be remembered is something I think we all yearn for, but with seven billion of us wandering above the ground that may seem a daunting prospect.

Nevertheless, life (as they say) goes on. I’m sad to say goodbye to Lea for a week and head home. Right now I’m typing this from a hostel in Guatemala City, and my day tomorrow is a string of airport hops. The cat, I’m sure, will clobber me when I get home.

Over the next months I’ll periodically drop in with some highlights of our past trips. Our next adventure comes up in August, and it’s to an island chain that begins with G and ends with S. Let’s just say that a famous Beagle went there once.

Adiós, Amigos!

Jared Millet, Guatemala City, 12 May 2018

Guatemala, Day 7: Wandering Around Xela While Looking For a Laundromat

An edifice in Central Park, Xela. Because every park needs an edifice.

Today was a day for taking care of business. What business? Well, when you’re a week away from home and you only brought three outfits, getting some laundry done is business #1. This can be a challenge. Fancy hotels will charge you more than an airplane ticket to do a week’s worth of laundry. The cheaper ones will often have a deal with a local laundry service to pick your clothes up and deliver them back – this worked for us in Africa – but here we weren’t able to get a straight answer from our desk clerk as to where and when we should drop off said laundry, so I went in search of a place on my own.

In this part of the world coin-op laundromats don’t exist; laundry is strictly a service industry. I did find an excellently priced and quick lavanderia with pick-up and drop-off in four hours, but I did have to wait for them to open because the hours listed on Google were wrong.

But that’s boring. What about Xela?

Museum of Natural History, Xela

I did wander around a bit after Lea started class at the Spanish school. Mainly I went to Xela’s Parque Central, took photos, and paid a visit to the Natural History Museum. I wish I could have taken pictures inside, but no fotografía, por favor. The first floor was essentially a taxidermy exhibit with all manner of dead creatures skinned, stuffed, and posed like victims from an episode of Criminal Minds. The upper floor had the expected displays of local history and Mayan culture but, to my surprise and utter delight, they had a display of ancient telephones, computers, and office equipment.

They had an original TRS 80 from Radio Shack, y’all. They had an original Mac.

Catedral del Espiritu Santo

Also in the building was a nice little display of local art and, outside around the corner in a basement entrance to the same facility, the public library. Being a public librarian myself, I couldn’t resist. Once again, no fotografía, so you’ll just have to bear with me.

The American Embassy

Inside was a large, well-lit reading room. This was the only part of the library that was well lit, or even lit at all. The book stacks were in a series of dark alcoves, much like monastic cells. Most of the book rooms were padlocked shut – including the children’s books, which made me giggle inside. I can’t tell you how often I’ve fantasized about sealing away the children’s section of my library so the little brats couldn’t rearrange all the picture books. In Xela, the librarians actually got away with it.

The weirdest bit was something I saw on the way out. There was a plaque where in many American libraries you might see something in honor of Andrew Carnegie. Instead, this library was thanking and memorializing… wait for it… L. Ron Hubbard. The plaque was dated April of this year, so I really don’t know what gives.

Not L. Ron Hubbard

Anyway, Lea got out of school, the laundry got done, we ate lots of food and wandered around some more, then packed up for the next stage of the journey. Tomorrow Lea moves in with a family here in Xela for a week. As for me, tomorrow I start the trip home.

Boo, hiss.

P.S.

OK, seriously? A McDonald’s van?
Panda Express too?! Talk about cultural appropriation.
That’s it. I give up.

Guatemala, Day 6: A Hot Spring In a Cloud Forest On a Mountain In the Rain

Fuentes Georginas, May 10

Today we wound up at Fuentes Georginas, a beautiful hot spring on the other side of the Volcán de Cerro Quemado from the city of Quetzaltenango. No one calls it Quetzaltenango except for cartographers. The real name, as far as anyone in Guatemala is concerned, is Xela (pronounced shell-ah). It’s easier on the keyboard too, so that’s what I’m sticking with.

Una calle en Xela

Xela is about as far off the tourist track as you can get and still be in the populated part of the country. The roads in this city were not planned with cars in mind. Not one is wide enough for two vehicles, so the whole city is a maze of one way streets. The buildings seem squeezed in upon each other, but at least they’re bigger on the inside.

I won’t bore you with the details of how we got here, save to say that it involved another two and a half hours via chicken bus, followed by a cab driver who had no idea where he was going. We checked into the Hotel Kasa Kamelot and Lea’s Spanish school (see below), then because we were so stressed from travel at this point we made the best decision of the day and signed up for Altiplano Tours’ afternoon excursion to Fuentes Georginas.

It’s not fog anymore at this altitude

First off, you want to schedule this as an excursion. Even if you’re brave enough to drive yourself in other countries, this is a trip for the professionals. It’s a narrow, twisty switchback road up to the springs through dense layers of cloud (not fog, cloud) with near zero visibility, several washouts, and a sheer plunge into the forest on the valley floor off to the side.

The steam chimney

Once we arrived, we had an hour and a half before the park closed for everyone except those staying overnight. (You can rent bungalows.) All the way at the back of the path was a restaurant, a bathhouse with lockers, and the spring, which had been dammed into several pools. Steam off the spring water mixed with the clouds and the rain to create an overwhelming haze. The spring itself is in a crack in the mountain, which makes a chimney for the steam. The water is comfortably warm but not overly hot, perfect for relaxing and not taking your skin off.

And relax is exactly what we did. We really didn’t want to leave. After a day of noisy, jolting bus and cab rides and walking up and down hilly, cobbled streets, a prolonged soak was just what the rain gods ordered. It even stopped raining after a while, and the clouds broke up enough for a hint of blue to sneak through. Sometimes when traveling it feels like you hit that perfect moment of peace and otherworldliness. I think on this trip, this was that moment for us.

P.S.

Schooled!

Lea in the principal’s office.

This isn’t just a vacation. The reason we came all the way to Xela was so that Lea can attend El Quetzal Spanish School for a week. Here she is signing over her soul. Classes start tomorrow!

Guatemala, Day 5: Lago de Atitlan (Literally, “Lake of the Place Near the Water”)

May 9: Our excursion begins

First, the good: Lago de Atitlan is a lake in the Guatemalan highlands in a valley defined by thee volcanoes. The population and culture of the area is predominantly Mayan. The scenery was cloudy and hazy, but nevertheless stunning. It didn’t rain on us once, despite the fact that the Weather Channel app on my phone insisted we were in the midst of a constant thunderstorm.

The ugly: We knew ahead of time that Panajachel was going to be a tourist dump. We didn’t anticipate how aggressive the touts would be, not only there but all around the lake. It was nothing like this in Guatemala City, Flores, or Tikal. Here, you can’t walk five feet down the street in broad daylight without having ten people try and sell you textiles, beads, tours, tuk tuk rides, and random trinkets. (In Flores, we had to chase down the tuk tuk drivers. Here they chase us.)

Anyway, we signed up for a boat tour that took us to three of the other towns on the lake. Each town was built up on the hillside away from the water (which apparently can rise by as much as 10 meters). From the boat dock, each town had a steep “tourist street” leading up to the village proper. Once we ran the gauntlet of touts and vendors to the real village, we were safe to walk around unbothered and enjoy the untouristed areas.

The road to San Juan

San Juan La Laguna

San Juan is the smallest of the villages, but with the steepest climb from the dock. The most notable feature of San Juan is the sheer number of murals on the buildings. I’m just going to shut up and show you a few. Enjoy:

San Pedro La Laguna

San Pedro was the gaudiest of the towns we visited with a density of aggressive tuk tuk drivers unjustified by its size.

Welcome to San Pedro

We escaped the crush by cutting down a side street and then a back alley, which emptied out not far from a small museum explaining the geology of the region, native dress and customs, and exhibited some very faded photographs of locals taking part in the traditional Mayan way of life.

On the way back through the alley we noticed that it too was covered by murals. While admiring them, we bought a small bunch of bananas from a passerby and ate them on the spot, because that’s what you do.

San Pedro’s hidden alley

Santiago Atitalan

Santiago is the largest community on the lake. A long straight road uphill took us to the Cojolya Association of Mayan Women Weavers, a fair trade organization that runs a small museum on the making of Mayan textiles.

In the Cojolya Museum

Wandering further from the (very large) sales area, we came up to the Iglesia Parroquial Santiago Apóstol, a church founded in – I kid you not – 1547. The age of the building was impressive, but the saints and biblical figures lining the walls inside were, I swear, shop dummies dressed up in a mishmash of homemade robes.

Not your typical 500-year-old church

We took a side road back toward the docks where we came across a guy grilling food in the street. Obviously this was our lunch. I mean look at it!

Admit it. You’re hungry now.

When we planned to spend time around Lago de Atitlan, I’d been hoping for a little more natural beauty and less blatant consumerism, but then we’ve really got no one to blame but tourists like ourselves.

The view from the docks, Santiago Atitlan

True Confession Time

Haggling. I hate it. I know it’s expected, I know it’s part of the culture in many parts of the world, but it never fails to skeeve me. It makes me uncomfortable, so I’m not very good at it. If there’s something I want to buy I almost always overpay without talking the seller down as much as I can. No matter what, I always feel dirty, knowing that someone ended up getting ripped off in the transaction. Give me a non-negotiable price tag any day. Haggling bugs me to no end.

Last Minute Pre-Post Update

Exhausted, we walked across the street to the Restaurante Santander for dinner. Our waiter, who served our food, two mojitos, and two Cuba Libres, was thirteen years old. Which surprised me, because I would have sworn he was ten.

The Spanish school in San Juan. (Seriously!) Not the school Lea will be attending, but the one she wishes she was.

Guatemala, Day 4: Jumping On a Chicken Bus for Fun and Profit

This bus has had enough of your b.s.

Today we traveled from Guatamala City to Panajachel on the shore of Lago de Atitlan. Did we take the direct shuttle like any other tourists? Hell, no. We took the chicken bus!

See how happy people are to ride the bus?

A transit day isn’t merely a transit day if you take the chicken bus. It’s a state fair roller coaster where you don’t even have to wait in line. No, you have to move your ass if you’re going to catch up with the ride. In fact we took three chicken buses. The first took us from Guatemala City through Chimaltenango and up into the twisty, curvy highlands to a crossroads called Los Encuentros, where we had to run to catch the next bus heading down into the market town of Solalá, from which we jumped on leg three to Panajachel.

A bus in Chimaltenango, traffic jam central

“Chicken Bus” is the colloquial name for the local second-class bus service. Chicken buses are all repurposed and (usually, though not always) repainted American school buses. Wikipedia has several theories as to where the name originates, but I was honestly disappointed that there were no chickens on board. I understand it’s not unheard of.

The infamous Guatemala City Red Bus. Because of crime, tourists are advised to avoid these at all cost.

A chicken bus has a crew of two: the driver and his assistant, who handles the passengers, yells the bus’s destination to potential  riders while hanging out of the door, and unloads whatever cargo the bus may be carrying on its roof. What the driver and his assistant did not do was collect our fares as soon as we got on the bus. This confused me at first until I realized it would disrupt the entire mini-economy based on people jumping on the bus at one stop, selling goods or making speeches, then jumping off at the next.

Sometimes it was obvious what people were hawking, though in once case a gentleman jumped on the bus, made a loud, long speech until the next stop, then began collecting money. Afterward I had the feeling that I’d just listened to a political campaign speech and been asked to make a contribution. Lea recognized enough words to let me know that he started off talking about sweets and chocolates, somehow veered into something about a girl in a car accident, then got back on the subject of sweets. Which he was not selling.

I’ve no desire to ride the bus as a form of transportation in the United States, but I love riding the bus in other countries. There’s no better way to soak up the on-the-ground reality of a culture while getting from one place to another. Sure, you can see the countryside from the tourist bus, but to travel on actual, local public transport means that you’re not viewing the country from a whitewashed, hermetically sealed cage.

Plus, the ride through the mountains really is a roller coaster. These drivers are muy loco.

Panajachel, from La Papuseria Cheros

We arrived in Panajachel and checked into the Dreamboat Hostel, which is apparently run by and full of European backpackers. Lea says that we’re not cool enough to be staying here. We’re surprised they didn’t kick us out for harshing the buzz with our stodgy middle-class Gen-X’er ways.

We made it down the street to Pupuseria Cheros, where the pupusas (corn meal patties stuffed with tasty goodness) are Q10 each and did not stop coming. Toward the end, we ordered all the fillings that we’d never heard of, like loroco and chipilín.

And of course, we walked downt o Lago de Atitlan. More on that tomorrow.

Lago de Atitlan, May 8, 2018

Nuts & Bolts

Weather Forecasting in Guatemala: The Weather Channel has no idea what the weather in Guatemala really is. I’ve been freaking out because if its grim forecasts and yes, it rained on us a little, but WC has been predicting nonstop thunderstorms. That was definitely exaggerated. I’m wondering if they even bother to check their data for some parts of the world. Accuweather seems to be much more accurate (har har) with forecasts of spotty showers in the afternoon.

P.S.

P.P.S.

Guatemala, Day 3: Tikal at Sunrise

Lea and I on the steps of Temple V. Our guide takes better pictures with my camera than I do.

It was pitch black when we got off the bus at Tikal and were shepherded into the park. The forty-five minute hike in darkness to Temple 4 was uphill and aggressively fast, with us 40-somethings lagging behind the gaggle of 20-ish hikers up ahead. When we were about halfway to the temple, the noises started. They followed us all the way to the summit. Have a listen to this, particularly starting at the five second mark. You may want to turn up your volume for the full effect.

That, my friends, is the call of the Black Howler Monkey, the second loudest land animal in the world and the most terrifying thing you will ever hear while walking through the jungle in the dark. Our guide let us know that Steven Spielberg used that sound for the voice of the T-Rex in Jurassic Park. After a few minutes, I stopped believing his howler monkey story and kept waiting for a tyrannosaurus to come charging through the trees.

The view from the top of Temple 4, the highest structure in the park, was breathtaking (see Lea’s video above). The sounds of the jungle coming to life were even more so. The climb up the hills and the final staircase to reach the top was breath-destroying. Be prepared when visiting ancient structures in Central America. The Mayans and other cultures in the area seemed to love hauling rocks up to the highest mountains they could find and building pyramids even higher. I think they did it just to make the future tourists tramping over their sacred sites suffer.

Taken from the top of the astronomy pyramid

The tour followed through the rest of the complex, which is enormous. Tikal at its peak had a population of 250,000, so what you see is just a fraction of what’s really out there in the wilderness. An interesting factoid that our guide dropped on us was that Tikal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in both the Cultural and Natural categories. This means that they aren’t allowed to completely excavate any of the ruins. They can clean up and restore half of a pyramid or temple, as long as they leave the other side in its “taken over by the jungle” condition.

And we were definitely in the jungle. Wildlife was everywhere. The big animals are rare, of course – our guide said it had been over two years since he’d last seen a jaguar on one of the trails. There were all kinds of birds, including a hawk, toucans, and parrots (which are devilishly hard to stalk with a telephoto lens). We also caught a glimpse of a coati, a Central American member of the raccoon family, rooting around for lunch on the slopes of the astronomical pyramid in the center of town.

This damn bird held still for one second. That’s all I needed.

The tour wrapped up in the Plaza Central, flanked by two temples and several other structures – the basic town square of any great Mayan city. Even though our legs were burning, we climbed to the top of one of the temples for a few more photographs. We did this just for you. You’re welcome.

Temple of the Grand Jaguar, taken from Temple II

Nuts & Bolts

What to Bring to Tikal

  • Headlamps. (Or flashlights, but headlamps will leave you hands-free.) There is no illumination but what you bring with you, so if you go on the sunrise tour you will definitely want to be able to see where you can run when the tyrannosaurus chases you. Also, when I say there’s no illumination in the park, that also includes the toilets.
  • Toilet paper. Guess what else they don’t have much of? Years of experience have taught us to always bring our own. I’m not talking about a full roll of triple-ply Charmin, but the camping paper you can pick up at any Dick’s or Academy will make your world a happier place.
  • Water. Lea and I went through 5 liters before 11:00 a.m. That’s a lot of weight in a backpack, but you won’t regret it.
  • Snacks. You won’t get a chance to eat until after you leave the park, and at some point inside you are going to need a granola bar. Or cookies. Or Doritos. Just sayin’.
Our Coati

Guatemala, Day 2: Isla de Flores (It’s Hot, But It’s a Damp Heat)

Flores Island, taken from a boat in Lago Peten Itza

Lea made the observation that on this trip we’re going to set our record for the most consecutive days of getting up earlier and earlier to do stuff. Yesterday we got up at 4:00 to make our flight. Today we got up at 3:00 to do the same. Tomorrow we’re getting up at 2:00 to catch the sunrise tour to Tikal and enjoy as much of it as we can before the rain sets in.

But today we’re in Flores. Yay!

Restaurante San Telmo

Flores is a city in the northern part of Guatemala on the southern shore of Lago Petén Itzá. The tourist quarter is on the Isla de Flores, which is connected to the mainland by an easily walkable causeway. Yes, we’re staying in the tourist quarter. On the plus side, there are tuk tuks everywhere.

This is one.

First order of business was checking into the Hotel Villa del Lago, breakfast at Restaurante San Telmo, followed by getting tickets for Tikal. (See Nuts & Bolts below.) Then, since we’re on a small island in a big lake, the obvious and affordable thing to do was take a lake tour. There are several potential stops you can hire a boatsman to take you to; we ended up going to the ARCAS Wildlife Rescue Center (Q25 pp) and the Museo Santa Barbara (Q20 pp).

ARCAS was founded to rehabilitate wild animals that were being trafficked and mistreated on the Guatemalan black market. There were monkeys, many birds, a couple of crocodiles, and some big cats, including a puma and a jaguar. The jaguar was pretending to be bored, but I know for a fact he started stalking me. The puma didn’t look too happy with me either.

Annoyed Puma wants snack. Sees human with camera.

Flores is very quiet. We can tell it’s the off season, and that’s a good thing. The restaurants aren’t crowded, you can walk around without being hassled by vendors, and the people are overall welcoming. It’s restful without legions of partying gringos shrieking through the streets.

It is, however, very hot. Today was relatively cool 90⁰F compared to recent weather reports which had the highs over 100. When we get up to the highlands it’s going to be much cooler, with a lot more rain. It’s that rain that worries me. It’s raining now, but it’s supposed to clear up tomorrow morning when we take our trip to Tikal. After that, this might shape up to be one of our soggiest vacations ever.

The view from our hotel.

Nuts & Bolts

Buying Tickets to Tikal

So here’s the deal. You can arrange transportation and a guide to Tikal, but that doesn’t include the ticket to get into the park. For non-Guatemalans, the cost is Q150 for park admission and an extra Q100 if you want to get in early for the sunrise before the park officially opens. These are two separate tickets you have to buy, and the teller selling them seemed confused that we needed both.

The only place to buy these tickets is at Banco Banrural. You can buy them anywhere in the country, and doing so elsewhere than Flores might be ideal. The bank in Flores is open on Sunday from 10:00-1:00, and is conveniently located in the mall just to the south of the causeway from Flores Island, but we spent about an hour in line to get inside and get our tickets. Not sure if this is just how it is on Sunday, or if that’s how it is every day. Given that this is the slow season, I can imagine that during high season the line would be extra long with tourists and not just local residents trying to get their banking done in peace.

Pro-tip: Get there early and be ready to queue up.

Guatemala, Day 1: Plans Are Nice, Just Don’t Get Attached To Them

Vehicle auditions for the next Mad Max?

Today was a transit day. Transit days can be brutal, especially when you only get three hours of sleep due to late night packing and early morning flights. This happens to us a lot. Sometimes it’s our own fault for going with the cheapest fare; sometimes we’re limited by the flights available.

Anyway, we’re in Guatemala City. Yay! We’re supposed to be on our way to Flores, where we had a reservation tonight at the Hotel Villa del Lago. Yeah, that’s not happening at the moment. It turns out that once we got off the plane in GC, there was an email that our evening flight to Flores had been canceled and we’d been re-booked for a flight the following evening. That wasn’t quite going to work for us, but the kind folks at Avianca were able to book us on the first flight out tomorrow morning.

National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology

But, that means we get to spend some time in Guatemala City, which we didn’t think we’d do. We found a room at the Hostal Guatefriends and had some great sandwiches at Comedor Antojitos (which wasn’t actually open when we showed up hungry on their doorstep, but they let us in and fed us anyway.) We went to the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, which has absolutely fantastic Mayan artifacts, and went window-shopping at the Mercado de Artesanias. We’re going to crash early tonight so we can get that early, early flight in the morning to Flores and book our trip to Tikal. No way are we missing Tikal.

Exquisite Mayan pottery from the museum collection.

Nuts & Bolts

Tips for the Guatemala City Airport

  1. Hang on to your baggage claim ticket. They won’t let you take your baggage unless you can show the claim ticket on your way out. I’ve honestly never seen this before, and we held up the line for a moment while we dug ours out of our carry-ons.
  2. The ATM in the arrivals corridor is the most visible, which is probably why it was out of money today. There is another one on the Departures level, hidden behind the money changing kiosk.

Getting Around

Not that we’re experts or anything based on half a day of being here, but I’d say that even though Uber is available in Guatemala City, you’re just as well off flagging down a cab. Unlike in the States, where Uber sets your trip price before you agree to it, Uber in Guatemala is metered by distance and time – which means our driver took the longest route possible to get us back to our hotel and drove the price up higher than it would have been if he’d gone the straight way, or if we’d just negotiated a fare with a cabbie.

Update: Apparently we just had a bad experience with one Uber driver. We used two more and everything was fine. We reported the first on Uber’s site and got refunded most of the cost of the trip, so all is well.

Lesson learned.