Sometimes you go places that you’ll never forget, and sometimes you meet people you’ll never forget. My trip to Guatemala with my friend, Shenna, has both.
The details of our trip to Guatemala and the story of our new friend Alexi definitely go hand in hand.
We arrived in Antigua and wandered around town for a bit before asking for a restaurant recommendation. It was one we both recognized from reading material, and we decided it was a winner. We were trying to order jalapeños when the man next to us assisted and started chatting. He is french & mexican, but was raised in Guatemala City among other places. His mom was an anthropologist, and he traveled through Guatemala extensively growing up. He was full of interesting stories about Antigua, and immediately asked if we had checked out the Arch, the monastery turned 5 star hotel, the cathedral ruins, etc etc etc… we had walked past all of the above but didn’t know a thing about it. So, when this seemingly nice man who spoke fluent english and spanish offered to walk us around and tell us about the local sites, we agreed.
Let me stop the story right here for a second. I’m pretty open to engaging people when I travel, but Shenna is a bit on the ‘I’ve seen too many scary movies/criminal shows’ side. She questions everything they say to make sure their story aligns, and even then doesn’t fully believe them. I’m being a little dramatic, but it’s obviously a good thing when 2 females are traveling together alone. Also, we are well traveled and know the basics… new friends never know where we stay, we don’t drink a lot, blah blah blah.
So the night with Alexi starts out by him explaining the famous yellow arch in Antigua was actually just a way for the nuns to cross the street from their convent that was on both sides of the street. It was a convent of reclusion, and the arch was a way to make sure the nuns could remain unseen. Yea, I never would have known that if he would not have offered to be our tour guide. Interestingly, Antigua was one of the 3 largest cities after the Spanish colonization. Lima, Peru being one and I forget the other.
The entire city is dotted with convent ruins, but one in particular had been refurbished and turned into a hotel. Convenient enough, Alexi knows the owner of the 5 star hotel and we continued our impromptu tour and wandered through the cathedral ruins and crips where the monks were buried at night. It’s actually a fully functioning cathedral in the ruins (seats set up and a giant tent over), and we walked through by the full moon. He knew years, facts, and folklore for a place on every street. I’m a big nerd and love learning the history of a new place, and was immediately sucked in. He was teaching Shenna spanish along the way (attempting with me as well), so it was a great time!
This is when we learned about Masheemon, or Saint Simon to a gringa like me. I can’t possibly go into as much detail as he did, but I’ll give a brief because these people truly believe in this and its fascinating. There is a small statue dressed in traditional clothes that the Mayans believe is a saint that will return to you in fold whatever you leave at his statue.
So, you light a candle and make your wish and either leave what you wish for, or leave an offering (apparently the Saint prefers cigars and liquor… not joking). So, you see these vigils set up at a couple of places around town and sure enough there are liquor bottles around or cigars in the statues mouth. There is one in the Lake Atitlan village of Santiago that is very interesting. There is a brotherhood that keep track of this particular Masheemon. Once a year he changes houses. The way they pick the house, and add another man to the brotherhood is by essentially having a human football game with the statue as the football. Only the brotherhood can partake, and they run through the streets of this village trying to tackle whoever has Saint Simon. Whatever house the statue falls in front of is the house which hosts his vigil for 1 year. Meaning, they allow visitors whenever, and are supposed to ‘taste’ or use whatever is left for the Saint. We never made it to Santiago, but we did find a couple of Masheemons in Antigua that we were able to see and leave our offering for… obviously.
Somewhere along the lines that night we nicknamed our french/mexican friend (who we later found out when he gave me his business card, got his masters from does contract work for Harvard), as our personal wikipedia. And he speaks 5 languages. And he’s lived in almost every country in Central/South America in his 39 years. Yea, obviously our tour guide wasn’t the average tour guide. We were leaving for the Lake in the am, and said goodnight to Alexi. He said he would meet us for coffee before we left, that he wanted to show us the coffee shop with a haunted butler that was close by. He claimed it wouldn’t stay open past dark because no worker would agree to work those hours because of a butler who was buried alive when it was a working home. True to his word, he was waiting for me when I had forgotten he was going to be, and he got our to go coffees and showed me where the butler was buried alive.
We boarded our shuttle to Lake Atitlan, and Alexi said he may come that way too… that he had friends who lived on the lake he had not seen in a while. We were like ok, whatever, we will email you. He really did come, and stayed in the same small village…. which we thought was a little more than coincidence. From Panajachel you have to take a boat to get to the other villages around the lake. This was our first introduction to the peaceful beauty this lake had to offer. So shuttle, then boat, then a tuktuk took us to our hotel from the dock.
|the hotel view
We met up for dinner only to realize he knew as much about the villages around the lake as he had about Antigua. And the Mayan culture, and the best local spots, and had fun folklore stories the locals believed about the lake. But we were still trying to figure out what his deal was. He knew Shenna was happily married, he wasn’t hitting on me or making any moves. He was just hanging out with us, and very good company.
The next morning we woke up at 3am for the sunrise hike to Indian Nose. Our guide met us and walked us to the bus stop. To the chicken bus stop. The chicken bus is a mode of transportation that includes…. -a very colorfully decorated school bus from the US. -Lots of locals…. like crammed in there. -Smells, lots of smells. -A rack on top that the locals climb a ladder to place their boxes of stuff they’re taking to the market. -And some sort of death wish for the passengers. These buses take hairpin turns up mountain at 50mph, they just stop in the middle of the road if someone needs on or off. It was absolutely terrifying at 330 am going up a mountain in the dark!
I didn’t document our ride on the inside, but this was a video from riding behind one.
But, we lived. However, we barely made it up the last 45 min hiking up that dang mountain. It was rough! As we are walking with our flashlights huffing and puffing I realize that they are farming in the area. Like, they climb up this daily carrying things up, and carrying crops down. These Mayans and their short little legs are beasts. The women carry the baskets on their head that can weigh up to 40lb sometimes (our wikipedia said that), the men place the strap of a bag on their foreheads and carry the weight on their backs. Watching them work or just carry things around made me exhausted.
Indian Nose sunrise was breathtaking. I truly doubt I can put into words how much I appreciated being able to witness that. I’m a big suckered for a sunrise or sunset, but this one was one I’ll never forget. You get up there just as dawn is starting to show.
The outlines of the neighboring volcanoes and mountains with the lake spread out before you, and 2 visible cities below is pretty cool. Then the sun continues to rise and you realize that you are actually well above the clouds. The colors as it makes its way over the mountain were beautiful and reflect just perfectly off the lake. Again, I’ll simply never forget it. The local who hiked up just to make us (& another group of 4) coffee on a bonfire just added to it!
The ride down was nearly as exciting. We just missed the chicken bus down, darn it, and had to hop in the back of a pick up truck. Confused but following our guide, we stood up and held onto the welded metal to hang on. We stopped along the way and picked up locals. I counted 14 in that truck bed by the time we filled up. It was quite the experience, but the views going down the mountain were worth it! Obviously we napped after that lol. We had set a time with Alexi to meet, and of course he was there. We had mentioned how horseback riding would be cool as we hung out for a bit. We went our separate ways only to find out later that he had set up and paid for us to go ride through the coffee plantations. We had made a friend from Amsterdam at the hotel, and she was included in the group outing. The sunset horse back ride was awesome! As someone who never cared for riding horses as a child, I discovered that I loooove it. So much fun!
We grabbed dinner afterwards, a local street food that we HAVE to try according to our friend, and then dessert… because he wants us to literally try every Guatemalan of Central American food that we come across. That Nutella empanada and ice cream is probably top 5 fav dessert ever tho. Obviously the stranger danger is starting to melt away, even tho we still can’t figure out why he keeps wanting to hang out with us… strictly platonic. We’re fun, duh… but men rarely do not have ulterior motives.
The next day we need to go back to Antigua. He had his car being painted at his friends shop on the lake, and offered to drive us back and stop by ancient Mayan ruins. SOLD. I love that shit. I love how he had professional theories about the civilizations disappearance. Anthropologist mom, and he himself is a mesoamerica political consultant and has lived all over Central, South America, and Europe.
So, he explained the Mayan calender, Myra-glyphs, that their language has been discovered as being written symbols and phonetic, and we debated the proof of all of the above. The ruin city wasn’t all that impressive, but the ball courts were well excavated, and there were 2 palaces and courtyards, as well as a still used today sacrificial alter. This was in the back of the ruins, and was clearly still being used. This particular ruin city, Iximche, was the last Mayan city to be concurred by the Spanish. It was last discovered because of its place in the highlands. The Spanish burnt everything upon discovery, and very little was said about the city on the plaques placed around the ruins. Even our wikipedia didn’t know much more than the last city standing stuff.
The road trip consisted of stopping for lunch at a place that had smoked meats (Guatemalans take pride in their meats), and also a couple of lookout points over Lake Atitlan and then again over Antigua. It was also a continuous Spanish quiz, as he was teaching Shenna a lot, and patiently trying with me lol. That night he stayed put in Antigua again rather than heading back to his parents home in Guatemala City, and we made plans for dinner. Of course, it was another local meal we had to have while there. I really wish I could remember the names of ummm any of it. That’s the problem with trusting someone to just order for you.
We went to No Se bar afterwards and met up with Shennas cousin who happened to be visiting as well. This is when the male objective became clear. He was suddenly very affectionate towards me. When I commented he explained he was interested but wasn’t sure if I was and didn’t want Shenna to feel awkward when it was only the 3 of us. (Go ahead, ahhhh obviously there was an ulterior motive). No man insists of taking care of EVERYTHING, plans, check, transportation, for 2 women who are showing no interest without at least trying. Alexi is a 6’2, dark handsome, 39 year old man with a successful career and cultured life. But, I honestly told him I wasn’t sure what I thought about him, and he simply said that’s fine and we continued chatting. Wait, you’re not mad you’ve wasted time and money and putting yourself out there?!
Ahhh. So that’s what a real man acts like….
He walked us back to our hotel, and as promised was there to pick us up and drive us to Guatemala City to fly out the next morning. Giggles, Spanish lessons, travel plans being made, and more food and dessert stops along the way.
I seriously doubt our trip would have been as good without him, but who knows. I’m certain I learned more from him than I could have if we had gone at it solo, and I don’t doubt that we will keep in touch and possibly see each other again somewhere around the world.
Guatemala is a beautiful beautiful country… Antigua and Lake Atitlan both are surrounded by lush mountains and volcanoes (there are 33 in the country… 3 around the lake and 3 around Antigua). The people are so polite and always ready to offer a smile and Buenos. I loved the places we visited, and how our trip turned out.
Moral of making this into a ‘story’…
Go out and travel, you never know what you’ll get to see, or who you can meet!
P.s. I did this 5 day/ 4 night trip for under $250 including our flight taxes. Obviously having a man pay for a lot helped….BUT you can travel, money isn’t an excuse 🙂