The hostel junkies are tempting me with tales of adventure. I’m fighting the urge to go get banged up at the local micro brewery “La Rana Dorana”, then, explore the fish market of fresh local catch, all the while listening, sort of, to the instructions on how to do The Canal “right”. These gals are dangerously compelling. They run a boat from Colombia to Panama for travelers. The land-boarder of Panama/Colombia is loaded with gorilla warfare and it is accepted as an impossibility to cross the terrain. The one gal is French-Colombian, looking much more Colombian but sounding far more French. The other is German and fits the part. We matched travel stories, routes & an affinity for the freedom afforded to those who drift without reservation or a set agenda. It was about as cliché as the travel-conversation’s come.
In the center of Viejo, the old city, I bumped into the Bushwick boy I split a taxi with from the airport. Immediately, I knew this guy was cool and could be trusted to help run up the score on borderline-dangerous ideas. We parted ways after the airport taxi ride, but the nice part about Panama City, as the lovely Victoria Guide at the Canal would later explain, is that you keep seeing the same people.
The Bushwick-bro, who had a hint of French to him, and I walked through the coast and then the brewery, reconn-ing Panamanian preferences for rums and beers. I’d star Beer Balboa above all.
The sun sizzled my skin to a tan-pink throughout the day. Later it radiated a vibrant Panama Red. Feeling accomplished and dehydrated, I dragged my haggardself to the airport just in time to lay on the ground lifeless. I rested, prone on the floor, just outside the plane’s gate. My phone re-charged. The Seattle Seahawks boarded the plane just before me. I insist on being the last on the jet for reasons I don’t really know. It took me a little to figure out who these Goliath-looking passengers were, but once the truth broke through my daze and sacked me, I exclaimed a big congratulations to them on their decision to visit Rio De Janeiro, rather than congratulating them for being Super-Bowl Champions.
I passed out for all 6 hours, said good-bye to the Seahawks and found my cousin in the other terminal. I told him “the Seahawks were on my plane !” assuming that would be the last time I’d come face-to-face with the World Champions. I was wrong though. Thrice.
When you spend your whole childhood with a protective mother and father, loving and nurturing grandparents, cautious teachers and coaches, and friendly neighbors, all in a community with a neighborhood watch that questions even the mail man arriving at an unpredictable time, safety is a given, not a privilege in the eyes of a child. Then there are the children that wake up on a dirt floor because the rain started falling and the dust turned to mud, the kind of mud that breeds flesh-eating infections, bloodsucking parasites, or brutal viruses harsh on fragile, hungry bodies; or the children that watch their beaten mothers struggle out of bed to walk four miles with a baby slung around her and one broken sandal on her foot to the community center for vegetable handouts. Some fear their fathers or the man in the makeshift hut next door because when their mother leaves for the day, sexual abuse could be the next horrible challenge they face, or maybe just starvation. Just starvation. I can think of hundreds of uneasy occurrences that happen on a daily basis all over the world, none of which happen to me. For me, life is separate from the horror I learn about in school, watch on the news, and witness on mission trips to Guatemala.
When traveling to a foreign country, I always think first about the awe-inspiring sights I will see and the adventures I will have, next about the culture and the plausibility of fitting in, and last about the length of the plane ride and how much Dramamine to pack; it seems that the more exotic the destination, the more wretched the journey there. I typically fail to worry about safety, though, because that’s what parents are for. Well, not everyone’s parents, I guess.
Going into the malnutrition center was like traveling back a hundred years, when doctors and nurses wore cloth surgical masks and simplicity triumphed in medicine. No powerful machines, no beeping monitors, no automatic doors, no electronic thermometers. The air was muggy, dense, repulsive. There were no smiles on the children’s faces. The nurses kept on, determined, moving from room to room in hopes of helping any child they could. The unusual odor was nauseating, yet depressing. The bleak room smelled of unwashed clothing and flesh, mixed with a vomit and sour milk; but the implications of this stench were far more nauseating. My brief visit to Casa Jackson was shocking and disturbing, yet more worthwhile than anything I took part in during my short stay in Antigua, Guatemala. Bony, mistreated, malnourished babies wore blank stares on their faces and passed-down clothing on their tiny frames. There was not enough love to go around.
Cautious we were as we placed their delicate bodies in our arms. Most of my classmates took turns holding one child and then the next, trying to equally distribute attention, but I picked up eight-month-old Maria Jose and didn’t put her down. Her big, almond-shaped eyes glared up at me with no joy behind them. She lay silently in my arms, wrapped three times in a fleece blanket. Seventy-five degrees the thermometer on the wall read. She felt hunger but did not show it until I lifted a spoonful of vegetable mush into her mouth, and she eagerly wolfed down the whole bowl. She felt the discomfort of a dirty diaper before I noticed a smell different from the stench of the room, but didn’t cry because “normal” for her meant sitting hours in her own filth; fussing never warranted a reaction before, why would it now? How is this the place for the lucky ones, the ones that were saved? Some of these children starved because their parents simply did not have the resources or ability to keep them fed and healthy, while others had suffered the horrendous consequences of unstable caretakers that favored one child over another. Either way, they had been unfed, unloved, or uncared forin their own homes by the people that were supposed to love them the most in the world. It baffled me.
The lengthy ride back to our host family’s bungalow served as the close for our emotionally exhausting day at Casa Jackson. For the first time since arriving in Guatemala I felt unsafe. We had been ushered from here to there, led by guides everywhere we went, like sheep herded by shepherds in a field, told what food to eat and which kinds to avoid, our whole itinerary and menu planned out for us. I knew it was a mission trip planned by Villanova and therefore everything we did would be somewhat protected, but it had started to become a little suffocating; I had only ever traveled with my unorganized parents or my risk-taking brother, so the whole buddy-system using, to-the-minute method bothered me. The first time I felt unsafe, as I sat scrunched up in the back of a Chevy pickup truck on the chaotic, traffic law-less roads, zigzagging through the mountains, the pressure and confinement lifted like the morning haze of a clear day. Karl listened to music, enhancing the moment, Chimere studied her notes, making the most of the moment, Erin sat nervously next to me, trying to forget the moment, and I examined all of my surroundings as they whipped by, capturing the moment. For the first time since landing in Guatemala, I felt unsafe, yet safely situated in the lifestyle I attempted to embrace. Only a sheltered individual would crave such a thing.
Semuc Champey, Guatemala is sandwiched between sharp mountains proving their youth and you would never know it was there unless someone told you to look for it. Thankfully, someone did.
A downtown consists of caves lined with dozens of pools of clear water rushing over massive boulders that look like under- water skyscrapers.
The movement of the water forces the bright green moss that hugs the rocks to sway with rhythm, resembling the movement of traffic through a city. Rather than horns honking, laughter echoes through the valley as travelers use this moss as taxis to slide from one pool to another.
Some trek to greater heights hoping to witness the light dancing from mountain to mountain, while others wade through the waters of deep caves trusting the light of only a dim candle to lead them through.
We were hundreds of miles into the green mountains. Nature was at its purest, freshest and most relaxed. The truck rumbled along the winding dirt road for hours on end. We occasionally stop for photos, even though the entire ride was picturesque.
Our hostel nestled in the valley as mountains surrounded, 360 degrees. They reached for the sky the way a little boy would the cookie jar atop the fridge, on their tippy toes, extending with all their might.
In these same mountains were some of the world’s oldest caves. We followed our Chimpa guide on a hike to the depths of darkness, into that black hole of an abyss. Water dripped. Repeatedly. We were trusting a white wax candlestick to lead us deeper into the unknown excitement that nestled into those spooky sable caves.
Even the silence echoed an eerie whisper of wonder and mystery. My imagination began to run wild with the same fixation for fear that drew me here in the first place.
Isleta Flores is known for its quick commute to Tikal’s ancient Mayan Kingdom, the main attraction for travelers. Tikal has some of the biggest Mayan temples ever discovered. The largest pyramid known to man, El Mirador, is only accessible by a 5 day hike through the jungle just westward. However, Tikal offers the next largest of the Mayan temples, and the most notable archeological site in Central America.
We walked around the tiny island of Flores for an hour or so before eating breakfast burritos at a cute little restaurant near the isleta’s main entrance. A kind woman served us, beautiful in her day- eyes windowed to decades of wisdom, tired but strong and sincere. We met James at that meal. James was a good friend until the restaurant phoned the police. Those details fit in better later
After staring at and comparing maps with time tables we formed a basic plan to stealthy stay the night in a Mayan temple. This adventure was recommended to us by the Jungle Party hostel staff, Canadian Bryan, in Antigua.
“When in Tikal, sneak pass, hide, deceive, whatever the temple guards because it’s worth spending a night in the King’s corridor, overlooking the Great Plaza.” – Bryan.. not verbatim.
The opportunity comes when the temples are clearing, closing and locking up the site. As the light gets dark the guards sweep the premises. Silently hiding in the dense jungle, out of sight was the plan.
The ruins lie among the most tropical rain-forests in Guatemala. The street signs warning of jaguar and snake crossing heightened the adventure.
We shared this epic plan with a few people at the hostel. Most thought we were crazy, others nonchalantly agreed it was a good idea, showing no interest in joining us. I was disappointed with the lack of adventure in these travelers. But then there was Raphael, a French man showing some curiosity and by the time I returned from the shower he had made a verbal commitment. Christiana-inception. Within the next hour or so we walked to the market for food, snacks, water and other picnic supplies. Raphael has now made a financial commitment to attempt this journey into the jungles thousands of years of history. This isn’t just a temple, but where man learned to throw spears rather than engage in hand to hand combat, where blood spilled in Mayan warfare. This is where the rulers of the western world, before it was the western world, resided.
We were going to sneak up to the temple and share an evening under the stars and above the jungle’s canopy .
We were told our best bet is Temple II, according to Bryan, who we only actually knew for a few hours. Just as the sun was setting we ran into a guard. At first I pretended not to know any Spanish, just smiling a lot with some thumbs up and a few broken-Spanish compliments. Then we were getting down to business and my Spanish got better. Including Rafael in the conversation, we got the guard laughing and relaxing.
After about 45 minutes with the guard, we agreed on a bribe of 10$ each to leave us alone to camp in the temple. We chose Temple II, The Temple of the Mask, the west side of the Great Plaza.
We shared the sun’s set, some rum, and stories as the shadows grew over the jungle spread beneath. As the fading sun lit the sky in a magnificent display of colors and clouds to a symphony of jungle noises, we watched in awe.
The night quickly took over and was the darkest yet. With flashlights we eventually made our way to the top of our new Tikal-temple hostel to make camp. Rafael toyed with the sliding metal gate’s lock until he defeated it. Now we explorer the inside of the temple, the section off limits even during tour hours. We were surrounded by bats, massive insects, monkey howls.
Old dirty-dust-like filth was everywhere. The walls were damp, the floor crusted with presumably bat shit and the walls had been carved by those who came before us. There were no windows out of the temple, there was only the half-opened, rusty slider gate. Obviously, there weren’t lights, but also no place for torches. The ceiling was high, well out of reach and covered by bats, squeaking yet seemingly friendly for some reason.
After settling in on the outer East-facing ledge, we played cards and music. Under the candle light we had a picnic and read about the Mayan civilization and the specific temple we made comfort in. The air was electrified with distant lightning and the bellowing cries of howler monkeys, which if we had not known better, would have mistaken for jaguar roars. The howls were surrounding and from every distance. We were lucky the sky stayed clear of rain clouds for the stars to pierce pin holes in the dense night.
In the midst of laughter we heard voices and halted everything. I crept down the temple for a better listen. The irking sound came from Temple III, the Temple of the Jaguar Priest. Maybe they are Mayan spirits?
With our small fire on the outside platform, atop one of the largest temples, facing inwardly at the Great Plaza, we were surely seen unless we extinguish all light and noise. After consulting each other and the rum we decide to call out and befriend the mystery voices.
They failed to respond. We made offerings, yet they still refused us. Maybe we’re being set up for ambush. Maybe we should counter it and strike temple III first. Rafael, Christiana, the rum and I continued to deliberate. Another offering slowly evolved into a ritualistic like dance. With fire flaming on the front edge, I stood behind and announced our peace. Speaker and blue light held over my head the music echoed off the temples and back. I danced and jived with the sounds as the others created a spectacle of strobing and flashing lights at my back, casting a show high above the jungle blaring into the plaza and to the ears of anyone remotely near.
We arrived to the Jungle Party Hostel and took a dorm room. Good vibe, hammocks, colorful walls/people, happy hour, book exchange, shuttles etc. The staff was very friendly, extremely helpful, and pretty much dragged us out to go party with them. They also provoked us to attempt the most wild adventure I’ve heard of in this part of the world.
We hit an all you can drink for 7 dollars at a place called “El Muro”. It’s was set next to a pastry shop, had a big bar in the front and blaring dance PA in the back. There had to have been at least 70 people- not cramped but you did have to maneuver yourself at times. Vodkaguas fueled the night until the 1 am close. All bars in Antigua are supposed to close at 1 am. The Jungle Party Hostel staff then lead the cobble stone, moon light stroll to “Reds”, a speak-easy sort of underground bar that stayed open beyond legal hours. There was no music playing, keeping the profile low. We knocked, were peeped at, and drunk-whispered the password. We entered. There, gallos beers carried the rest of the evening. I got back to The Jungle Party Hostel around 330 and woke around 8. Vodkagua was a good decision.
The morning came with a massive breakfast- free with the hostel stay, and that next morning recap swinging in hammock chairs with the other backpackers. Eventually we got a team together and looked to hike the Cerro Santa Cruz trail.
The houses are maybe three different pastel colors, all 1 story high and lining the poorly organized cobblestone roads. Everything looked similar to a new-arrival. Navigation took some time, but the town took an hour, tops, to completely circle. This included time for minor distractions.
The local women wore traditional dress, somewhat gypsy-like, long flowing skirts, embroidered flowers around the upper chest, short sleeves… almost Polish looking, colorful blouses, and visible texture. They were very distinct. They acted and looked different than the the other women we met on the journey up from San Jose, Costa Rica. They were very friendly, returning an almost bashful smile when we’d great them with waves and our charmingly broken Spanish. They had a very native American look, maybe a little Asian, and slightly Mexican if I had to describe it as a mixture of other heritages. The looked like ancient Mayans most, but ruly they have their own look, high cheek bones, round faces, slight slant to the eyes, very welcoming faces, sort of soft looking and I haven’t see any with bad skin. Their noses are a little wide and smoothly merge into their faces. A very attractive people.
On the “hike” to Cerro Del Cruz we were accompanied by ninos in school jumpers and polos, messy ice pops and giggles. The stroll up took about 30 minutes, the view was marvelous. It hovered above the 500,000 person city yet a stones-throw away. We viewed the churches, and all the low-rise buildings below, peeled oranges, swapping stories, plans, jokes, and cultural comparisons.
A little old guate man recommended we hike Cerro Santo Domingo after. We purchased some bread, cheese, tomatoes, chicken and beers for a picnic overlooking the city from the top of Cerro del Santo Domingo. It was about an hour hike.
It was an accomplishment and a good way to end the stay on Antigua. To the Mayan ruins in western Guatemala for the evening.
We arrived in Flores at about 6 am after the most charming bus ride ever. We were under the impression that we were getting a direct shuttle to Flores from our hostel in Antigua. However, what was really meant by those we booked through was a shuttle to Guatemala city to wait a couple hours in the bus terminal, then board the ice bus from hell for 9 hours. It was freezing byeyond reason. We were in shorts and sandals. Ours bags, extra clothing and hope fo warmth stored snugly underneath the bus until arrival. The conductor explained to the passengers why it was going to be so cold the entire trip, but not in a simplistic enough Spanish for us to understand. Christiana eventually put on a poncho. It served both the purpose of trapping in heat and deflecting the leaking roof that dripped in surprise attacks sporadically to awake us. Chris choked on the odor of my poncho and I was told I couldn’t wear it.
The ride ended in Santa Elena where we then caught a mini shuttle to the tiny island Flores. It was maybe 5 square blocks in size, hilly, cobble stone and peaceful. We went to Los amigos for our hostel. It was the sister hostel of the jungle party in Antigua.
5 am bus from Managua to El Salvador on a Tica bus. We snacked, slept, and got off for border crossings. That sums up the activity. In the back row we were elbowed every time someone needed the bathroom we sat across from. The seats didn’t recline, the passing landscape was sun soaked and beautiful. It was an 11 hour swaying, and rattling ride. We got diner with a Holland man who had traveled the last 8 months and truly didn’t think highly of Americans. We also ate with a NY yoga instructor woman who had way too much luggage and practically no trip planning skills. Good conversation. The food was moderately priced.
The next morning we rode another bus until noon to the murderous capital city: Guatemala City. The locals refer to it was Guatemala or Guate. There was a lot of armored guards, razor wire and barred windows.
We hopped on the first bus to Antigua, walked circles around the tiny city with our backpackers for almost an hour, then found the Jungle Party Hostel. Great find. We also stopped for gelato along the way.
The first half of the afternoon was spent in the sister city of Granada: Leon. We ate at Tip-Top, Central America’s version of KFC. We then self-toured the León Cathedral, which is the largest in Central America. They began working on it in 1747 and did so for the next 100 years. We walked the roof tops of the cathedral which bled history as mold grew through the cement as if crying survivor’s guilt. The mortal remains of 27 prominent Nicaraguans rest within.
León’s outskirts have surfing… down the side of Volcano Cerro Negro. 520 kilometers south, in San Jose, on my first evening in Central America, an Aussie chick was boasting about the idea of surfing a volcano in Nicaragua. My ears perked up and she had my full attention. In each city since the backpacking circuit has known about boarding down the black “sand” of Cerro Negro in León. Everyone agrees it would be fun, but also apprehensive because of the notorious dangers involved.
“Live freely, death is just the next step” has been the spirit of this journey so far. It’s better said in the words of the genius vagabond, Hunter S, but I cannot find them verbatim. I swear the interwebs are losing their touch. ~’How long you live isn’t measured in years but in moments of triumph’ as reminded to me by a college friend, Dlew, who, similar to me, has been blessed with dementia.
After leaving the private party island we are at the night before (story untold) we boarded a motorized row-boat to return to the mainland. As we boarded the rain began. It got strong, it soaked us. As we got of the boat, it ceased. The fog on the volcano attacked us in the very same way.
After an hour of off-roading, we arrive at the active Volcano Cerro Negro. It is a steep black cone. for 5$ we were handed wood sleds with metal under bellies. They had a knotted rope attached to the top. He instructed to “lean forward to slow down, lean back to speed up” I starred listening for more. I thought maybe he was waiting for something before explaining the rest, but there was nothing else to be said apparently. That’s all he had for us.
We marched towards the black mound of volcanic rocks. No directions, just white spray painted boulder markings. No guide, just Nica friends. No instructions, just a thumbs up. We could see the fog thickly roll in from the other side of the dark climb. Every step sent rocks rolling down, every few paces one of use slipped to our knees. The fog thickened like a horror movie’s climactic murder scene. We soon could no longer see the top nor the bottom. Upward we continued, breaking sweat and seemingly always having more to climb. Thunder struck the humid air. I turned to Christiana and told her that there would be more to come, so suck it up now. The setting was ominous. The only thing insight was the black cone we climbed and the thick white haze surrounding us.
Thunder cracked again. It was quicker to reach the top and board down then to backtrack the last 45 minutes. The smell of sulfur intensified, we were clearly nearing the gaping crater that opened to the earth’s core. No one was anywhere near us. “This is Nicaragua” Ale reminded me. A “truly free country” as he has so convincingly stated yet again.
Wiping away the sweat from my brow, the trudge continued. We soon reached a wood post that arrowed down. The sand much more closely resembles gravel. I had nothing to wait for, I was here for one reason. I set my feet up, and tested out the concept of breaking. This first test included a small wipe out. lesson seemingly learned. Jose then sped past into the fog and out of sight. I called to him. I go no response. I called louder and this second silence sounded even bleaker.
The others slowly made their way and we coasted down together. I got the hang of it, shifting my weight, picking up speed, slowing at will, picking up speed, shifting weight, still shifting weight, losing aim, picking up speed, dipping hand into gravel to slow, turning body, maintaining speed, pushing weight into some attempt to halt and then burying my board under the little black volcanic rocks and flipping a wipe-out forwards, rolling over my shoulders, summersaulting, and again, and again, knowing I could dig my limbs into the gravel and eventually complete stop myself from falling further down without my board. I did. I then tried to get back to the board, which was no easy task. The gravel was too loose for my weight to push off and up the slope. After a serious struggle I retreived the board and went again. This time I shifted the board to a snowboarder’s tactical horizontal slow before smashing another wipe out. This time I held the blue rope that leashed my wood sled. I had rooks in my jeans, my hair, my shirt. The sweat kept the gravel from falling loose. I again boarded down, this time with more caution.
The whipping breeze cooled my overheating body. I intensely concentrated on the gravel flying beneath the board, desperately keeping my balance and avoiding another belly flop onto the chalky black stones. The rocks grew larger as the bottom neared, but so did my confidence and ability to stay balanced. I made it to the bottom, out of breathe, I was out of my mind and I need to get these stupid rocks out of my shoes and pants. I stripped with a sigh of relief and enjoyed the adrenaline high.