Quetzaltenan–I don’t wanna–go

I spent a total of two and a half weeks in Quetzaltenango (AKA Xela), and almost every day I discovered something new about the city that I absolutely adored. And since I’m realizing now that I never gave Xela its own blog post, I decided to come up with a list (in no particular order) of some of my favorite things about the city.

Parque Central and Pasaje de Enríquez

My Spanish school was close to Xela’s Parque Central, so I spent plenty of time around this lively park. There were always people in the parque hanging out, whether it was day or night, and during the day vendors sold ice cream, souvenirs, nuts, and plenty other things. I also loved the architecture in the central park, especially the “kiosk” in the center of the park.

 

View of Xela’s Parque Central from El Balcón de Enríquez

Right next to central park, is Pasaje Enríquez. It’s full of restaurants and bars, and is always a fun place to go at night for dinner and/or drinks. Good times were had here.

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El Pasaje de Enríquez

The people

Xela is full of so many nice and interesting people. A lot of young Guatemalans come to Xela for university, and there are also a lot of spanish schools in Xela, which draw a lot of foreigners to the city. This gives Xela a fun, youthful vibe, and we always met really cool people whenever we went out.

The food

While I didn’t eat out much when I lived in Xela because I stayed at a homestay, there were plenty of delicious (and affordable options) in the city. I’ll do a more detailed post on food later, but for now just know that there is something for everybody in Xela, whether you are looking for a café, a taquería, a burger spot, or Asian cuisine.

Tacos from TaCorazón

The climate and scenery

Fall is my favorite season, hands down. The crisp, cool air is perfect for me because I love wearing layers. Despite the fact that it was June/July when I visited Xela, it felt like fall, because we were almost 8,000ft above sea level. I loved it. Also, having views of mountains and volcanos (and even seeing one erupt!) was pretty darn special.

 

Santiaguito erupted during my Spanish class!

Xela is truly a fun, lively city that I would love to have the chance to visit again.

-S

 

“Indian’s Nose” sunrise hike

“Indian’s Nose” sunrise hike

After a wild Saturday (full of horseback riding and dancing the night away at Sublime, see my previous post), I woke up crazy early on Sunday to go for a sunrise hike. I crawled out of bed at 3:15am and sleepily got ready. Three of my friends and I headed for a mountain near San Pedro known as “Indian’s Nose” or “El Rostro Maya” (“The Mayan Face”). It gets its nickname because the mountain looks like the profile of a man’s face.

We got picked up in an old travel van and headed for Santa Clara. I wanted to sleep on the way there, but that turned out to be pretty impossible. It was a bumpy ride, and the van had been pimped out with some neon green lights on the inside that lit up every time the driver hit the brakes (which was often).

After about 45 minutes, we arrived in Santa Clara, pulled over in what seemed like a random part of town, and got out of the van. Our guide, José, asked us to turn on our flashlights and follow him. In the darkness, we walked down an alley and then through cornfields. My friends and I were really confused as to where we were, and also so so so thankful we decided to pay for a guide, because otherwise we would have been terribly lost. We eventually reached the base of the mountain, where we finally saw a well-travelled trail.

Now the hiking began. We went up some stairs, and then zig-zagged back and forth up the mountain. The hike itself was pretty short–maybe 30 minutes, including breaks. But I was hiking against medical advice (I’m having knee surgery in the fall), so I was in a good bit of pain.

But the views were definitely worth it.

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When we reached the top of the mountain (well not quite the top, we were at the “mouth”, not the “nose” of the face), the sky was just beginning to light up.  The view of the lake was incredible, and the lake looked so still it almost looked frozen.

 

We could see almost every volcano around the lake. The towns below us were still in the shadows, with their street lights twinkling. We watched the sun rise up over the mountains; the sky changing from pale blue to pale pink, to light orange. I can’t even put into words how beautiful it was.

 

Naturally, we took a million pictures (which will never ever do the views justice), and José was smiling and laughing at us as we posed for “candids” and held an imaginary Simba out over the lake.


Even though waking up for this hike (and actually hiking) was pretty painful, this was one of my favorite experiences so far in Guatemala.

-S

 

Horsing around in San Pedro

Horsing around in San Pedro

I know, I’ve been slacking on the blog posts lately. But I have a pretty good excuse: I spent almost three days completely out of commission due to some horrendous stomach bug. I’ll spare you the details, but just know I was struggling. However, with lots of Gatorade, Immodium, sleep and prayers, I made it out alive.

Last weekend, we took a short trip over to San Pedro La Laguna. We started off with a brunch buffet at Mikaso Hotel ($5 all you can eat).  The food was pretty good, and the buffet included made to order omelets and crepes. However, service was a bit slow because I don’t think Mikaso was ready for 11 hungry college/grad school kids to descend on their buffet. The views from the restaurant (third floor of the hotel, right on the lake) were fantastic though.

Mikaso Hotel Restaurant

Next, we decided we wanted to go horseback riding up San Pedro volcano. Sounds kind of crazy/dangerous/fun, right? It turned out to be all three. All 11 of us rode through the cobblestone streets of San Pedro and headed along the lake towards the volcano. The last time I rode a horse was at some fair of some sort when I was a child, so I’ll admit I was pretty nervous. But the trip through town was really fun, with people coming into their doorways when they heard horses and waving at us as we rode by.

But then things got a little wild once we left town. The horses started running. In the streets. For no apparent reason. They would run for a good 100 feet or so, and then walk, and then start running again. I had no idea how to make the horse (her name was Muñeca) slow down, so really all I could do was hold on tight and focus on not falling off.

We made it safely up to a viewpoint on the volcano, where we got off the horses for a while, rested, and took pictures. I really enjoyed our afternoon horseback riding adventure, and it ended up being a pretty fun way to “hike” a volcano.

We ended Saturday night with dinner at Bar Sublime. The food was absolutely amazing, and we got there in time for happy hour, which included $0.66 Cuba libres (no, that’s not a typo). We met the owner (and the DJ for the night, DJ Fernchild) and stayed for his set. Bar Sublime was a ton of fun, and I’d definitely go back again.

Once again, a Saturday in San Pedro well spent.

-S

Lost weekend at La Iguana Perdida

If you’re a true Gossip Girl fan like I am, you’ll remember the “lost weekends” that Chuck and Nate used to have. These weekends were wild, party-filled getaways to random locales and were probably full of trouble. While I’m sure my past weekend getaway to Santa Cruz La Laguna was much tamer than a Chuck and Nate Lost Weekend (although there was a party), I think it still should classify as a “lost weekend,” even in a slightly different sense of the phrase. Mainly because the weekend was full of losses:

  1. We lost power
  2. I lost most contact with the outside world (no wi-fi)
  3. I lost my umbrella
  4. I lost the opportunity to kayak on the lake at sunrise because I couldn’t charge my phone and thus didn’t wake up until 9:30am

And to top it all off, the place we stayed at was called La Iguana Perdida, which means “the lost iguana.” (I forgot to ask where the name came from, I didn’t even see any iguanas.) So the “lost weekend” title fits and I’m sticking to it.

But the weekend was also full of wins. La Iguana Perdida was an amazing place to stay. It’s a fun, colorful hotel/hostel right on the lake with a wide variety of rooms. There are dorm-style rooms as well as huge suites with balconies that overlook the lake. There’s a bar and restaurant, which every night serves a family-style dinner to guests. There’s plenty of outdoor lounge space, including hammocks and a pool room. This place was so relaxing and tons of fun at the same time.

The balcony outside of our room at La Iguana Perdida

Friday night we went into the tiny town of Santa Cruz and had dinner at Café Sabor Cruceño, which was fantastic. This place had an unbelievable view of the lake, and the food was amazing, right down to its presentation. It was actually the first night that they were serving dinner so we also got free dessert (#winning). Between the gorgeous lake view and the delicious food, this place could be easily one of my favorite spots I’ve eaten at in Guatemala so far.

 

Dinner with a view at Café Sabor Cruceño 
Fried Eggplant Sandwich at Café Sabor Cruceño

The sad part about this weekend was that it stormed really badly on Saturday, and we lost power. But this meant we had a candlelit dinner accompanied by live guitar music, which was a pretty cool experience.

Saturday night is also the night that La Iguana Perdida has their cross-dressing/costume party. They have a closet full of hideous dresses, obnoxious blazers, and animal print onesies that people can borrow to fulfill their wildest dress-up dreams. Even with the power out, the show went on. And although I didn’t have time to get my outfit together, some of the other guests were able to put together some fabulous outfits.

I will say, despite the many losses, this weekend was definitely a fun time. I loved loved loved La Iguana Perdida and would go back if I had the chance.

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Lake view from La Iguana Perdida

-S

Working hard or hardly working?

Working hard or hardly working?

So based on my Instragram/Facebook/blog posts I’ve had a few people ask me if I’m actually doing research in Guatemala (lol). While this trip does feel like a vacation a lot of the time, I promise you, I am in fact actually helping out with a research study here.


Our project is part of an ongoing study focused on cardiovascular health education, and we are working with people in the small lakeside village of Santiago Atitlán (I’ll do another post on this beautiful town later, I promise). I’m working with one other student from my medical school (hey Laura), and a community health worker (hola Diego), and we are supervised by some physicians here in Guatemala and back in Virginia. Last week was our first week on the project, and we began at CAIMI (Centro de Atención Integral Materno Infantile). We had a pretty successful week there and got way more study participants than we were expecting. Go us.

This week we were planning to work at a small hospital, but that didn’t quite work out as planned. So instead, we are doing home visits, and educating participants in their homes. I’m really enjoying these home visits so far because we get to explore Santiago some more and get a glimpse into what life is like for its residents.

It’s been quite the experience working on a research project in foreign country. It can be especially hard at times because a lot of communication occurs in Tz’utujil (one of Guatemala’s 21 Mayan languages) and all I can understand are the words for “yes” and “no.” Laura and I are pretty good at communicating with our partners here in Guatemala in Spanish but even that can get tricky at times. However, it is pretty rewarding to be working in the community, learning more about Mayan culture, and being involved in teaching people about heart health.

And living in place so beautiful that I can take enough pictures to make you all think I’m not even working is a pretty big plus.

-S

Pueblo Hopping on a Saturday

Pueblo Hopping on a Saturday

This past weekend marked my graduation from Spanish school and my transition to life at Lake Atitlán. But before getting down to business (i.e. research projects), we decided to take the weekend to enjoy all that el lago has to offer: breathtaking views, delicious food, great shopping, and good vibes all around. So what better way to do this than to rent a double-decker boat for the day and cruise around the lake?

We started in Panajachel (“Pana” for short), which is the largest lake town. It’s relatively lively and has its fair share of tourists and ex-pats. After a fabulous breakfast, we headed for the dock to get on our boat, praying that it wouldn’t rain.

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Crew love

With the music bumping, our boat headed for San Pedro La Laguna, but about halfway there our driver stopped in the middle of the lake so we could go swimming. And by “going swimming” I really mean jumping off of the boat into the lake, and then swimming back to the boat just to jump off again. The water was the perfect temperature, extremely clear, and this gorgeous dark turqouise color.

Once we got to San Pedro, we headed to this hipstery restaurant/bar/hostel called Zoola. This place had the coolest vibe–we sat on brightly colored pillows on the floor, ate amazing food, and then checked out the beautiful pool/bar area. Loved this place.

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Lunch at Zoola, in San Pedro

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Zoola‘s pool and dock

After San Pedro, we got back on the boat and headed to San Juan La Laguna. We made a quick stop at a weaving collective, Asociación de Mujeres en Colores Botanico, where a woman gave us a demonstration of how cotton is cleaned and made into thread. She also showed us how the thread is dyed, and explained that they use all organic products (leaves, fruits, vegetables, etc) to dye the thread.

After that it was time to head back to Pana and chow down on some delicious tacos. Lake Atitlán, I love you and I’m so excited you’ll be my home for the next month.

-S

What it’s like to witness a Mayan Ceremony

My Spanish school provided us an opportunity to observe a traditional Mayan ceremony, which was quite beautiful. I’d hate to lie to you all and tell you I remember exactly what all the symbolism used in the ceremony meant, so I will mainly share some of the pictures I took. There was a lot going on during the ceremony, but I’ll try to share the bits and pieces that I remember.

The Mayan priest began by forming a circle with sugar, then layering various offerings, including coals made from pine sap, chocolate, tobacco/cigars, and herbs. Everything placed in the circle has a meaning, such as sugar for the sweetness of life and the cigars for the memory of the ancestors.

The different colored candles are placed with the wicks towards the center, and each color is associated with a cardinal direction. Red is the east and the sunrise, black is the west and the sunset, white is the north and the air, and yellow is the south and the earth/material things. (Notice how those four colors are also the four colors of corn.) Blue and green candles are also added to the center.

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Next, a student helped the priest light the candles.

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During the ceremony, the priest honored the ancestors, the 260 Nawales (spirits), the elements and nature. He invited other students and teachers to add more candles and seeds to the fire. Towards the end of the ceremony he added honey and liquor to the flame.

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As a neutral observer I found the ceremony to be quite relaxing and peaceful. Definitely a cultural experience I’m happy I was able to witness.

-S

New addition to my fave foods list: rellenitos

Ok so I love fried plantains. And I love black beans. So I was destined to love rellenitos, which are basically fried plantains stuffed with black beans. Honestly it doesn’t get much better than that.

This week my Spanish school offered a cooking class, where we learned how to make rellenitos, and they were surprisingly easy to make. Basically you boil the (ripe) plantains until they are soft, then peel and mash them, then add powdered cinnamon.


Next you grab a chunk of the mashed plantains, and flatten it in your hands. Then in the center of your bed of plantain, put some pureed black beans (which here in Guatemala you can buy in a bag from the grocery store, but I guess if you can’t find that in the States you’d have to mash up your own black beans, sorry guys). Then, fold the flat plantain together so that the black beans are on the inside. Roll the plantain around in your hands and shape it into a ball.

Rellenitos are supposed to be egg-sized but clearly we missed that memo.

Now all you gotta do is fry those bad boys until they get nice and golden-crispy on the outside and there you have it: rellenitos. Top them with a little crema and sugar and you are good to go. Qué rico. 

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LOL at whoever got ambitious with that monstrous rellenito. 

I’ll for sure be making these when I get back to the States–if I can ever find ripe plantains in the grocery store.

¡Buen provecho! 

-S

(PS: Shouts to Grant for being my personal photographer while my hands were covered in mashed plantains–that’s real friendship.)

I took a chicken bus to Chichi

I took a chicken bus to Chichi

On Sunday, I embarked on what would be one of my most interesting trips in Guatemala so far–a trip to the Sunday market in Chichicastenango.

*I’m warning you in advance this is a long post, because it was a long day.

At 6am, five other students from my Spanish school, led by one of our teachers, made our way across Xela to the bus station (which was really more like a street corner), to catch a camioneta. These buses, which serve as public transportation in Guatemala, are actually old school buses (like those big yellow ones you rode in elementary school), with a brand new colorful paint job. Apparently, once upon a time a foreigner visiting Guatemala saw a chicken on one of these camionetas, and ever since tourists have referred to the buses as “chicken buses.” (Nope, I didn’t see any chickens–or any other animals for that matter–on any buses during my trip this weekend.)

One of the legendary “chicken buses” of Guatemala

The chicken buses are usually pretty crowded, with three people usually squeezed into the seats of the bus that are made for two. This means that the people in the aisle are awkwardly sitting halfway on their seats (one cheek on and one cheek off) and pretty much blocking the entire aisle. People enter and exit the bus through the front doors or by jumping out the emergency exit in the rear. It was a wild ride but I actually enjoyed the experience.

After a couple of hours of riding in a chicken bus that was going about 60 mph (Snapchat verified) on the highway, we arrived in Chichicastenango. First we headed to Cafe Popol Vuh, where I had a big breakfast complete with fried eggs, black beans, fruit, queso fresco and fried plantains (all time fave).

Then, our teacher/guide took us on a short historical tour of Chichi. We walked through the cemetery, which was a stunning array of brightly colored tombstones and above-ground graves.

Cemetery of Chichicastenango

Near the small chapel in the back of the cemetery, an older man approached our group and offered to lead us to a newly built monument in remembrance of the 2012 completion of a cycle of the Mayan calendar (remember, December 21, 2012, when the world was supposed to end?). The monument is a circular arrangement of Mayan statues, representing the Mayan belief that “Todo inicia donde todo termina y todo termina donde todo inicia” (“Everything begins where everything ends, and everything ends where everything begins”).

Plaza Ceremonial Oxlajuj Baq’tun

Next we went to two cathedrals, which actually face each other, with the market plaza in between. When we went in the larger of the two, Iglesia de Santo Tomás, I was in awe of how huge it was, and our teacher/guide explained how the Catholic church incorporated Mayan rituals such as candle burning and bringing flowers to worship, which we could still see in the cathedral. I couldn’t take any pictures inside, but I managed to capture how lively the steps of the church are, with women selling beautiful flowers and people mingling in front of the church.

Steps of Iglesia de Santo Tomás

Finally, it was market time. One of my best friends and I broke off from the group to do our own shopping, and we had quite the market experience. There were so many gorgeous hand-made table cloths, blankets, huipils (traditional Mayan blouses) wood carvings, jade statues, purses, belts, painted skulls, and more. One part of the market had live animals: chickens, roosters, dogs, and kittens (so cute). Another part had all the food: fresh cut fruit, fried chicken, french fries, fruit smoothies, tacos….

View from Cafe Popol Vuh of the market early in the morning–before the rush.
I wanted to buy all of these painted skulls, but showed some self-restraint instead.

We wanted to look at everything. But the thing about markets is that the vendors can be a little, um, aggressive. Vendors followed us showing all the different blankets they had. We would ask how much their items were, they would say something that seemed far too expensive, so we would say no thank you and walk away. And then they would continue to follow us, asking us to name a price instead, and we would still say no. Now you gotta love determination and perseverance but at the same time it was a little exhausting trying to shop when people are literally following you trying to convince you to buy their wares. But my friend and I, due to our pretty impressive negotiation skills, were able to find some good products for decent prices.

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My purchases: silk table cloth and a jade statue of a Mayan pyramid

 

Overall, I enjoyed the market at Chichi. I was expecting the vendors to be a little pushy, and to have to haggle a lot, and those expectations were met. I was also expecting to find beautiful, unique handicrafts at the market, which I saw plenty of, but I also noticed that some items looked mass-produced and catered to tourists. But altogether, the market plus the tour of the cemetery and churches in Chichi was a fabulous way to spend a Sunday afternoon. And I didn’t spend all of my money (go me!).
-S

Friday Field Trip

Friday Field Trip

My Spanish school encourages its students and teachers to use one half of a class period every week to venture outside of the school and practice Spanish out in the real world. This week, two of my best friends from medical school (who are doing the same summer program as me, ayyy) and I decided to take full advantage of our field trip time. First we went with our teachers across town to a Mennonite bakery (random, right?) called Bake Shop.

This place is delicious. They sell basically any carb you could ever want: everything from bread to cookies to muffins to donuts to pastries and more. I got a huge blackberry-filled donut, some banana bread to take home to my host family, and we brought back more donuts to share with some classmates.  My stomach was happy.

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Donas on donas on donas

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Then, we strolled through the market on our way back to pick up some ingredients to make a black bean and mango salad, which we brought to the school graduation/potluck dinner. (The salad turned out amazing by the way.)

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Finally, we made our way back to school to finish our lessons and deliver our baked goods to our friends. What a happy happy Friday.

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My friend’s teacher, Norma, leads us back to school

-S