Ambergris Caye

After several enjoyable days on Caye Caulker we traveled to Ambergris Caye only a twenty-minute ferry ride.  Ambergris Caye is where we stayed for the remaining two and a half weeks of our trip.  As we were getting on the boat to go to Ambergris I realized I had left all our passports in the safe at the hotel, yikes!!  Fortunately I just walked back and got them, I was delayed 1 ½ hours so as foolish travel mistakes go this one didn’t cost me anything but a bit of time.

Ambergris Caye is a linear barrier island that extends all the way to the border with Mexico considered an island only because of a man made channel that separates it from the mainland.  The only major town is called San Pedro and is quite a lively place, lots of restaurants and bars mostly catering to tourists.  The streets are very tiny and most people used golf carts to navigate the town, in fact full size cars require a special license.  I was curious about the name Ambergris and came across an article in the New York Times about the origins of Ambergris which turns out to be a hard perfumed substance that was used by nobility in Europe and is quite rare.  It is formed in the stomachs of whales, basically some sort of a gall stone if you will.  The Ambergris if jettisoned from the whale can float around in the ocean for years before showing up on a beach somewhere.  Presumably Ambergris was found of the shores of this lovely Caye in its past history giving its name.

 

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Once we got situated in our hotel and my passport snafu was forgotten we began checking out the town, investigated dive shops and looking for cheap grocery stores (this was difficult).  We had lunch at Caroline’s cookin’ at the urging of our oldest and enjoyed beach and the pool before watching the Superbowl.

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We were loving Ambergris Caye despite being far more developed than Caye Caulker and also chocked full of many old white Americans, I am assuming they are attracted to the weather and is basically the only country in Central America that speaks English.

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Caye Caulker

We landed in Caye Caulker (pronounced “Key Caulker”) and life seemed to slow down just a bit.  The weather was beautiful and the town and the beaches were beautiful.  We stayed near an area called “the split” with a beach nearby that was perfect for the kids.  We basically just enjoyed the ocean and watched the sunset for a few days.  Maddy and I took turns exploring the island on morning runs and walks while the kids did school and chilled out as was their request after decently fast travel around Guatemala.

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Once we were sufficiently relaxed we took the kids snorkeling, visiting shark and ray alley as well as the Caye Caulker marine reserve.  We took a sailboat into the lagoon, it was nice to putz around without a motor.  Once we anchored we saw tons of nurse sharks and sting rays, apparently this spot was well known as a fish cleaning station for fishermen who would dump the fish guts in the ocean attracting sharks.  So whenever boats approach the nurse sharks and rays are attracted to the sound of boat motors.  The kids were a bit apprehensive at first, seeing 6-8 black sharks swimming around our boat, but we convinced them that they were totally harmless.  We swam with the sharks for a while before heading to the coral sanctuary, where there were less sharks.  We swam around there for at least 30 minutes with the kids looking at fish and coral, they did great!

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On our way back to the shore, the boat captain spotted two Manatees, a rarity for them in the lagoon this time of year.  We were able to swim with them for a few minutes.  They were very graceful but looked like their tails were chewed up by boat propellers.

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For sunset one night we visited a hotel that offered pelican feeding, they brought out fish to feed the pelicans and they swarmed around like crazy, most of them very approachable.  They gave you fish and then the pelicans would snatch them out of your hands.  They also fed sting rays in the water, the kids were brave enough to wade into the water and let the rays brush past them.  A nice distraction for the kids so Mom and Dad could enjoy a beverage and watch the sun go down.

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One of the last days we spent the afternoon at Coco Resort a boat ride from the wharf across the split a water way that separates Caye Caulker in two and was formed when a hurricane struck the island many years ago.  The kids played around on inner tubes and had fun on the beach.  Maddy explored some of the island with Caroline.  We stayed until sunset but the bugs came out so we got out of dodge.

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Guatemala City

We were sad to say goodbye to Lago Atitlan, although I have a feeling we will be back, which is somewhat unusual for us because we like to explore new places.  So Atitlan is for sure a special place.  We took a boat from our home in Santa Cruz to Panajachal and got picked up by our hired van to Guatemala city.  The road climbing out of the caldera was very windy and steep.  Once we got to the top of the basin the topography flattened out and we decided to stop for a snack.  Mirabelle after complaining about car sickness got out of the van and threw up.  She just made it out of the van and puked in the gutter…  close call.  She was feeling better almost right away, with the straighter roads.  We stayed over night in Guatemala City, lots of high rises and tons of traffic.  The next morning we flew from Guatemala City to Belize City, these countries are not very creative with their city names.  After take off we flew very close to several of the active volcanoes and I got a great shot of Pacaya and Fuego in the same shot both smoking.

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Once we landed in Belize City we hopped a ferry to Caye Caulker and settled into island life.

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Top Seven Things to do at Lago Atitlan

During the next few days we finished school and explored some of the other towns around the lake including Santiago and San Martin.  I concede that diving and climbing a volcano should be on this list but we didn’t quite have enough time for those so here is the list.

7. Explore San Martin – Closer to the Santa Cruz, San Martin was much easier to get to and turned out to be a bit of a hippie commune. Lots of vegan restaurants, drum circles and dreadlocks. Caroline and Maddy went to explore it while the twins and I had a pool day.

6. Hike to Jaibalito – we hiked to the next town over for lunch on one of our last days with our new friends Theo and his mom Talla. It was a beautiful hike over the steep cliffs only marred by the constant whining from children who don’t like to hike. We had lunch at a local shop and then took the public boat back to Santa Cruz.

 

5. Communal Dining at Iguana Perdida – The local hostel puts together a communal dinner, that anyone can sign up for and participate in. It’s quite fun to chat with all the different people; we met some Danish, Portuguese and even some people from Madison, WI. Soup, pulled pork and chocolate cake was our menu and was a great break from our cooking at home.

4. Swimming in the Caldera – Ever gone swimming in a caldera??? Neither have we before visiting Lago Atitlan. Maddy and I went for a swim on the last day jumping from the boat pier near Casa Eggendal.  The water was refreshing, quite cold at first but we got used to it.  The water was greenish in tint and very clear.

3. Tuk Tuk around Santiago – located is a bay created by two of the volcanoes extruding into the lake, seems like a dangerous place to build a town but the church has been there since 1547 AD and the Mayans had been there several centuries before that. We decided that we would hire a Tuk Tuk to show us around the town, it ended up being really fun and only cost us $100 Quetzales ($14). We visited several places around town including the original church, a graveyard, traditional cloths washing in the lake and Maximon a Mayan deity and folk saint who stays with a different family every year and people come and worship giving alcohol and cigarettes as offerings.

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2. Cooking Class – I had promised the kids for Christmas that we would take a cooking class on our trip, so we took the opportunity to visit the CACAP an organization in Santa Cruz that employs 100+ women and teaches weaving and cooking. They look to empower women and help them develop skills. We showed up at 9:00am and cooked for three hours with Claudia.  We cooked tamales, a banana dessert and a chicken dish (tofu for Maddy), we all had a great time and stuffed ourselves for lunch.  The kitchen where we cooked also had incredible views of the lake and volcanoes.  It was an amazing time, I highly recommend it.

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1. Ziplining at Reserva Natural Atitlan – We took the kids to this natural preserve just outside of Panajachal on the east side of the lake which had a series of ziplines. When we got there, they asked us if we wanted to do the regular or the Xtremo ziplines?? Xtremo of course!!!  We first had to hike up the hill for a half an hour through jungle, across rope bridges and around waterfalls.  After huffing and puffing our way up the mountain, we finally made it to the top.  The first zip was across the preserve valley and was only a thousand feet or so but the next one was nearly 1 kilometer long and was out over the edge of the lake shore with views of the whole caldera.  It was terrifying; I actually had a pit in my stomach as we flung hundreds of feet over the lake shore.  The kids went with the guides and loved it.  The third zip was nearly as long as the second and took us back into the canopy of the jungle.  We did 5 more shorter zips and finished at the bottom of the preserve. It was an amazing adventure and was quite exhilarating.

 

Lago Atitlan

Anytime we mentioned that we were heading to Lake Atitlan, we were met with gushing exclamations of ooohhh it’s so beautiful up there. So we thought we were ready for Atitlan but as we descended into the caldera that forms the lake we were amazed at the beauty of the place. Perfect volcanos rimed one side with green water and lush jungles inter spaced with cute towns cut into the side of the lake shore.

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According to geologist the lake was formed about 1.8 million years ago when a massive volcano erupted catastrophically spewing volcanic ash as far away as Florida and Ecuador. The eruption known as Los Chocoyos eruption creating the massive caldera which was subsequently filled with water to form the deepest lake in Central America. The basin does not have any outlets and is mostly filled from underwater springs thus giving the lake a slightly higher salinity than most other fresh lakes. The lake has seen volcanic activity since the Los Chocoyos eruption as evidenced by the three massive volcanic cones on the south side of the caldera; the most recent eruption was Volcano Atitlan which erupted in 1858. Since then the lake communities have seen other hardship including earthquakes and several hurricanes that triggered massive mudslides as well as a civil war that raged from 1960-1998. The communities are living peacefully today, enjoying the influx of tourism that beautiful lake views bring.
We arrived at the lake via the city of Panajachal a typical jumping off point for boats shuttling passengers to the many small communities around the lake.

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We were met at the embarcadero by Pedro our boat driver and taken to Santa Cruz La Laguna where we stayed at Casa Eggendal our home base for the next 9 days. With all our bag and groceries we had to hike a 1/4 mile up the hill (which seemed like 10 miles to the kids) to our villa amongst beautiful gardens; we were basically surrounded by a botanical garden with blooming flowers wherever you looked.

The hike straight up the mountain was made even more difficult being at an elevation of 5,541 ft but the views were worth it. Lots of beautiful stone paths that wound around the hills exhibiting views to die for.  We had found our paradise, someone described it as the Lake Como of Central America.  With all our bags unpacked we let the kids explore and Maddy and I went off for a walk along the shore.

 

 

Chichicastenango

We left Antigua on Sunday and headed up to Lake Atitlan, on our way we visited the Mayan market of Chichicastenango.  Supposedly the biggest Mayan market in Guatemala and one of the most well known markets in Central America.  The The kids have been begging to buy things in all the stores on our trip, especially Julie, so we had said that they could shop at this market.  Really as more of a ploy to get them not to ask to buy things everywhere we went.  Each kid was given 100 Quetzales or about $14 to shop.  The town only has the market on Thursday and Sunday so it was good timing to visit on our way to Lake Atitlan.

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On market days the indigenous Mayan population from the surrounding area bring their items to the town to sell to a wider audience.  We were dropped off by our driver on the edge of the market chaos, there were little stalls of all sorts of trinkets lined up along all the streets of the town.  We were told that we could find food in front of the church so off we went.  It wasn’t until we asked that we were showed a small alley way that opened up into a larger cooking area.  We sat down and order fried chicken, papas fritas and soup.  The meal also came with the ubiquitous small corn tortilla that we saw being made all over in the market.  It was all very tasty and filled our stomachs for our market adventure.

We split up with Julie and I together and Maddy with Caroline and Mimi and tackled the market.  The market was sort of organized into types of wares for sale in different areas.  Like lots of jewelry on one street and fruit in one area and textiles on another street but really just mashed together in a kaleidoscope of color.  In front of one of the main churches they were selling flowers and made for a burst of yellow.

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We had a fun time negotiating with the shop owners, Julie learned to walk away from the merchants and then they would yell a totally low-ball price at you.  I purchased a dark green ring and an interesting Mayan coin and Julie bought a silver ring and some small figurines.

It was a fun experience had by all, we finally got extracted by our driver and headed to the massive caldera that is Lake Atitlan.

 

Marshmallow Mountain (aka Volcano Pacaya)

by Mirabelle

We were staying in Antigua Guatemala, my parents thought it would be fun to climb a volcano.  I definitely did not want to, but then I learned that you could rent a horse to take you up the volcano and so I changed my mind.  We waited and waited finally the day came.  The van picked us up at 2:00pm for a long two hour car ride through Guatemala City by the time we got there I was so happy because I was car sick and bored.  We bought snacks for the climb and found a man who rented us some horses.  The horses were 200 Quetzales up and down the volcano which was about $30.00 USD.  We wore pants and sweatshirts then it was off to the volcano!  The horses knew their way up the mountain so we didn’t even need a guide.  On the way up it gets colder and colder but also more beautiful and more beautiful.  It was like an hour and a half so if you have cranky children, I advise to take a horse plus kids love animals.

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When you get to the top you have about 10 minutes of just looking at the view, taking pictures, walking around or just whatever you want.

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Then you can go down a trail where horses can’t go because it’s really rocky so I advise renting a walking stick at the start it will make going down easier.  Once you’re at the bottom you walk over to where people are roasting marshmallow, Oh and all the rocks are dried lava isn’t that so cool!  The guide hands you a stick and you grab a colorful marshmallow then you stick it in a hole with warm air coming out, my dad called it a fumarole.  There is no lava inside the hole but it is still warm, the further in the warmer it gets.  When you finally pull the marshmallow out it’s all puffy and then you stick it in your mouth and it’s all soft and has no hard middle.

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After that you go up a different way to watch the sunset and it was beautiful!  Then you walk over to the other side of the mountain to get your horse it is so steep and scary going down in the dark but luckily I had a person to guide me down.  By the end we had chips for dinner and rode the van home.

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Chocolate Making Class

When we were in Antigua, Guatemala we went to a chocolate making class after school.  When it started we all got aprons on and walked into a room that had things that help make chocolate. Our guide thought us about how ancient Mayans made chocolate and the difference between cocoa and cacao.  Cacao is the paste made by crushing fermented roasted, shelled cacao beans and is what is considered real chocolate.  Cocoa powder is when the cocoa butter has been removed from the cacao and our guide told us this makes a chocolate flavored bar only.  Once he finished telling the process of making chocolate (harvest, ferment, dry, roast, peel, grind,) he told us that most popular white chocolate brands make fake white chocolate with different products like palm oil and shay butter instead of cocoa butter.  After we went back to the table and we made chocolate bars with lots of toppings like sea salt and shredded coconut when we finished our guide put them in the freezer.  Then we made three chocolate drinks. The first was ground up cocoa beans, we added honey, chili powder, ground corn and hot water. The second one was cacao bean shell tea with cacao bean shells, hot water and sugar. and the last one was fancy hot chocolate it was made with milk, cacao and cinnamon.   My favorite was the third one drink.  Then we got our 70% cacao chocolate bars back and it was so good.

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Antigua

With our visit to the lowland Mayan ruins completed we boarded a plane in Flores, the one hour flight was in a smaller propeller airplane with about 25 people on board.  We flew south into Guatemala City the capitol of the Guatemala and a city of 7 million people!!  The city was located in basin situated beneath two large volcanos.  The highlands of Guatemala are well known for their volcanos and earthquakes and there is a massive line of volcanoes that stretch from northern Guatemala down through Honduras and Costa Rica.  The sub-ducting Cocos plate is the engine for all the volcanic activity.  There are at least volcanos that were actively erupting during the time we were visiting.  It was recommended to us not to stay in the city but to head out of town to Antigua the old colonial capital of Guatemala.  We got picked up from the airport by a hired car and navigated our way through the narrow-convoluted streets of the capitol city; I was very happy to not be driving as it was chaos.  Once we exited the periphery of the city the landscape changed and we began climbing into the mountains and back into the jungle.

Antigua was very charming and was centered around an old Spanish colonial square with beautiful arching walkways leading to government buildings.  The city ceased being the capital after a large earthquake destroyed large portions of the city in 1773 and presumably was unable to function.  There are many baroque style churches and other beautiful architecture that remain from the cities past.  The city is a UNESCO world heritage site and they have great gelato as well.

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Flores

After Tikal we headed to Flores. It was a pretty easy and scenic drive there, through the countryside and past lovely lakes.

Flores is a little colonial town on an island in lake Peten and is connected to the mainland by a bridge. You can also take little water taxis everywhere around the lake.

We had a bit of anxiety about our lodging. We had booked an Airbnb which was part of/next to a hotel, but the owner informed us that due to an issue with previous guests the apartment was not available. I thought it might be one of those scams going around but they went out of their way to accommodate us in the hotel. We got three lakefront rooms, each with a balcony. The hotel had a pool and restaurant where we got a nice big free breakfast each morning. So it all ended up just fine!

There was lots of loud music happening and street closures when we got there. Our lunch waiter told us there was a celebration in the town for 2 weeks that we arrived in the middle of. Something about the anniversary of becoming a county or something? In any case it meant we got to see some little parades, hear lots of loud music, and enjoy the very loud sound of firecrackers basically all night long both nights we were there. It was mildly annoying but we got used to it.

We were pretty chill while we were there. Did some school and work, strolled around the town, ate in cute restaurants and street food stalls. Jules and I went out on a paddle boarding ride around another little island near us, which was a ton of fun and very good bonding time.

Hotel pool with restaurant and view of the lake in the background

View from our balcony with the little island Jules and I paddled around

View across the lake.

Gorgeous sunsets

Selfie time

Darling Caroline looking all tropical

Tuktuks heading up the little streets. We never needed to take one because nothing is more than a 5-10 min walk

One of the parades. This one had a band and some dancing clowns