Relinquishing myself from all travel planning responsibilities was not a role I was used to taking on, or rather letting go of. My sorority sister from Alpha Pi Sigma posted a status update on Facebook announcing that she and another sister were going to Guatemala, by way of Tijuana, Mexico over Thanksgiving holiday for under $300 round trip! I sent a comment and leaned in to the trip. Thankfully my sisters welcomed me with open arms and before we boarded the plane, there were 4 of us sisters ready to explore Central America together.
One of the sister’s going was actually a woman I pledged with. She was incredibly detail-oriented and not only did she plan every detail of the trip, she printed out copies for everyone and put them in our own monogrammed folders so that we had hard copies, along with any and all confirmations that we needed. Now typically, I am the one who is meticulous with organizing, researching, and drafting plans of what to do, where to go, how much things cost, and back up plans. However, with this adventure, she had the captain's hat and I resolved to being a passenger on the good ship, Guatemala Exploration! The short version is that it was exciting and a new found sense of relaxation to just go with the flow and just be in the moment, to allow someone else to take the lead, and corrale all of us one way or another. There were times where I wanted to speak up and suggest alternative routes or avenues and once or twice I may have pushed an opinion, but for the most part, I took this as a gift to just be in the moment and look around at where I was and who I was lucky enough to experience this with - my sisters!
Now on to the juicy details! Where did we go, what did we see, and where did we rest our heads at night?
We flew on Aeromexico out of Tijuana into Mexico City and then to Guatemala City, to maximize our time off we left on November 23rd at 11:42pm and arrived at 10:15am. I should specify that I went to San Diego State University and my sisters are all still based out of San Diego, so traveling to Tijuana for this flight was not a large leap for them. I still had to get from Santa Barbara after work down to San Diego on the most traveled day in the United States. I took the Amtrak and paid for the business class, which in this instance was certainly the best move. I had a guaranteed seat (this time of year the seats sell out and they’ll even sell tickets for people to stand in the aisle, not exactly what I wanted to do for several hours). I also got a really nice snack package... and wine! In LA, I was able to go to a lounge where more snacks and wine were awaiting me. It was a smooth transition into vacation mode after that. We paid about $20 for a taxi from the Mexico border to the airport, then upon arrival to Antigua we paid another $20 to get from the airport to Casa Mia Hotel (*$23pp) - something to note when traveling in Central and South America the bills you use must be crisp and fresh, they will examine each bill thoroughly and if they find an imperfection they will render the bill unuseful. We spent the day exploring Santa Catalina Arch, La Recoleccion, Cathedral de Santiago, and the Mermaid Fountain in the Heart of the City. We were unable to make it to the top of Pacaya Volcano, but were able to see it from almost any vantage point in the city.
We spent days 2 and 3 in Lanquin! We stayed at El Retiro Lodge and after a day of traveling, we cozied into our bungalow - two rooms for the group with a balcony that had rocking chairs and hammocks. The view of the mountains and river below were a soothing start to our morning. We boarded the back of a truck with about 30 other intrepid travelers to take off for Semuc Champey and Kam’ba Caves Tour. The ride there was scenic, bumpy, and wet - a soft drizzle that would last all day. However, since it was also humid, the rain was not that horrible of an addition to our adventures. We started off by exploring Kam’ba Cavs by candlelight (travel tips: bring shoes that can be fully submerged. If you’re wearing glasses, you can still go into the caves, just be careful or opt for contact lenses that day - you will get completely wet and there is one adrenaline pumping portion, but you have a lot of support and you have to do it because it is the only way out.) We used ropes and jumped into dark pools of water while going through single file. I used this time to break away from my sisters and took delight in moments of solo traveler freedom cavorting with solo female travelers from Australia and Paris visiting for holiday. The tour also comes complete with a death defying rope swing into the river and tubing down hundred meters of a rushing river narrowly dodging rapids - some of the men on our trek even fancied jumping off a bridge about 50 feet in the air! We then started to climb Semuc Champey while the group had the option to lounge in Las Pozas, which I jumped into directly following the descent from the hike. It was the most beautiful springs I’d ever seen, just the ideal picturesque spot - I truly could have spent hours just swimming in them.
We made our way back to the truck all wet, tired, and a little hungry to go back to our homestead and fill up on traditional Guatemalan fare and some local brews before traveling all night by Atitlan Tours Shuttle ($50pp). We had a private shuttle which made the journey a bit more enjoyable since we were all able to stretch out and sleep (as best as one can in a small van). Our driver had the opportunity to showcase his process when we disembarked off of a ferry in the early hours of the morning while an entire village watched anticipatory of our movements or rather his driving skills.
Day 4 and 5 - We reached Hostel Yaxha ($10pp) and after an attempt to exchange blue money (one of our sisters had a pen bleed all over her crisp $20 dollar bills and no one would accept them!), we jumped into a chicken van - cozy and snuggly-like. After about 90 minutes or so, we were told to get out because we were at the exit for Yaxha ruins. However, what we were not told was that we were still 16km (9.9 miles) from the entrance. Upon hearing the news of the distance, we took a seat next to an elderly plump gentleman who had been waiting since 7am for a ride into the ruins. We were frantically casting glances at one another deciding silently what we would do if we had to wait hours for a ride. As if hearing our pleas, within 10 minutes of waiting, a truck came by and offered us a ride, we laughed and held on tight as the truck sped down the rocky road. Once we hopped off and bought our park entrance, every attendant looked quizzically at us as we explained to them that we did not hire a taxi for the day to take us to the ruins. They then pointed their finger down the road and said we were still a 3km (1.86 miles) walk from the actual ruins themselves. Before any negative thoughts infiltrated our minds, I looked at my sisters and simply said, "Well, let’s go!"
The walk there was hot and sweaty, but it felt so incredible to come upon the ruins after traversing the terrain - the plump man we hitchhiked with sped by us with another ride he found, he apparently was averse to walking. After reaching the ruins, the park attendants all called us princesses when we told them how we had arrived in such a sweaty state. With some laughter and fun prodding, we secured four seats on a taxi back to our hotel.
I would recommend to anyone to visit Yaxha. There were hardly any other visitors and we were able to truly climb all over every monument and see the views while experiencing the geometrical and mathematical symmetry that allowed us to speak clearly from the top of the astronomy tower to our sister at the base without yelling - a marvel that tourists have to often awake at 5am to replicate at Tikal. We watched the sunset as howler monkeys screamed into the darkness and I never felt more free, channeling my inner Jane of the Jungle. The next day, we took a tour to Tikal National Park - while the tour guide adjusted his information to fit the group,I’m sad to report a member of the tour group found his voice to be the dominant one and continued to speak over our guide. Luckily when we were given the opportunity to continue onward by ourselves and go up to some of the taller monuments or walk around the base back to the park entrance he opted to go a different direction and let the rest of us truly enjoy our experience. It was a remarkable experience to be so incredibly high above the tree tops and feel that small and yet that powerful and connected. The beautiful colors that the Guatemalan forest harbor are reflected in the intricate fabrics and patterns of native people walking past. Before we boarded our night bus back to the airport, we broke the “wash it, peel it, cook it, or forget it,” rule and bought street food for pennies on the dollar - continue to shop by the bus terminal for pastries and sopas! After traveling all day back to San Diego on the 29th, we all safely arrived back stateside with no line at the border (a marvel in itself), but we all by some miracle made it to work on time the following day!