Monday, May 14, 2012

2012 May 05 - 11 El Biotopo del Quetzal, Estanzuela y Vulcán Pacaya

May 8

Saturday morning (the 5th) I had a nice breakfast with the family and Sophia and then caught a ride to Plaza Magdelena with Mauro, Ilena and Sophia, who were going to the mercado to buy veg for the week. I had decided to finally buy a new camera, since I was pretty sure there would be tons of things at the Biotopo that I would want photos of.

Cameras are frickin' expensive in Guatemala! The poorest quality camera I could find was 700 Q (nearly 100 bucks!). I decided to buy something that was a little higher quality but it still cost me a little more than 100 bucks, and it's definitely poorer quality than the Fuji I lost/had stolen from me. The zoom is lousy (hence the low price) but most of the pictures I take are either landscapes, macros or portraits so I decided I could afford to compromise on that point, and it took better pictures than two other cameras that were more expensive, so I figure it's a pretty good buy. It's a tiny Samsung and it's BRIGHT FUSCHIA- a color I have started to love, in my adult life, so- yay!

I also decided to buy another phone, another item I managed to lose/have stolen from me back in San Pedro la Laguna. I bought the cheapest model- the same phone I had previously.

Finally made my way to the bus stop, where I chatted for about 20 minutes with a sweet mayan guy selling dulces (sweets) before catching a microbus to the Biotopo.

It was afternoon by the time I arrived at the Biotopo and I didn't want to have to pay twice so I decided to save the Biotopo for the morning and get settled in at Ranchitos del Quetzal, a cute little place only a couple hundred meters up the road (towards Coban) from the entrance to the Biotopo.
The view from the table near the café
The owner there, Julio, is a sweet guy and I spent several hours that evening speaking (in Castellano) with him and two Japanese girls, Yukie and Yoko, who are working for a Japanese organization similar to the Peace Corps called Japanese Overseas Cooperation Volunteers. Yukie is stationed in Chichimula, which is close to the Honduran boarder, and Yoko is stationed in a small village in San Marcos department! I told her how to get to Mimy's café and shared my knowledge of all things San Marcos with her. :o)

From left to right, Yukie, me, Julio and Yoko
I set my alarm for 5:30 am in hopes of seeing a Quetzal, however, I awoke at 6:30, never having heard my alarm. This watch, which I bought in San Pedro la Laguna at the mercado to replace the one those jerks in San Marcos la Laguna robbed me of, definitely leaves something to be desired. The alarm noise is pretty quiet, though I suspect that half of the time it doesn't actually go off (but it randomly goes off on other mornings when I haven't set it to go off!). Additionally, it also randomly decides to reset the time so I can't really trust it to tell me an accurate time!

Anyway, it turned out that there were no quetzals that morning, as I learned from Yukie and Yoko, who HAD woken up early. I spent a couple of hours talking with them, enjoying the morning and the coffee that Julio prepared for us. The previous night I had told everyone that I would cook breakfast that morning- scrambled eggs with onion and tomato, frijoles, half of an avocado and a nice portion of fresh mango for each of us.

I learned that camping at the Biotopo was only 20 Q, and although Julio's place was lovely, my room (the cheapest one, without a bathroom) was 75 Q and I was curious to know if I would be warm enough in my camping arrangement, which I had yet to try out in my nearly 6 months (holy shit! I really have spent almost 5 months JUST in Guatemala!) out of the US. So, I gathered my things and made the move to the Biotopo. I met the manager of the Biotopo, a nice guy named Jamie, and he allowed me to store some stuff in his fridge while I was there, and I was able to leave my backpack in the office while I hiked.

I spent several hours exploring the two trails in the Biotopo.  It goes without saying that the forest was beautiful; the only thing that made it a little difficult to enjoy was the ridiculously persistent mosquitoes- every time I stopped for even 5 seconds they were all around me. Pretty sure I paid for each photo with at least one or two bites, as I am now covered in itchy bites.  My plan of eating mosquitoes seems to be working somewhat, as my bites weren't itchy until I moved to a warmer climate...

Right after I took this photo a large blue bird swooped down and ate this little guy (who was seriously only about 2 inches long!)!  I know it's nature but I still felt like it was somehow my fault- maybe if the bird hadn't seen me paying attention to something on the ground he wouldn't have seen him!  :o(

I returned from my hike at dusk, grabbed my things and rushed to set up camp in the failing light, eating my dinner in nearly completely dark conditions. Jaime had invited me to his house to chat with him and two of the guards there so I spent a couple hours with them; Jaime prepared a nice cup of Italian coffee for me using this little contraption that looks like a mini percolator, which basically makes a beverage that tastes like very strong coffee, or weak espresso. Jaime was full of stuff to say and spent much of the time he wasn't actively talking correcting my Castellano, which I highly appreciate! Pretty sure I could have become fluent in no time talking with him every day! Other people correct me, of course, but Jaime spent time explaining WHY what I said was wrong, or why something else was better, which was really nice. Also, a lot of the time when I speak with native Spanish speakers they try to anticipate what I am trying to say and they don't give me time to think or get my conjugations right; the minute I pause they start spitting out suggestions, which just frustrates me and makes me make more mistakes as I rush to conjugate before someone tells me how to do it or throws out a word that is totally NOT what I am trying to say and just makes me lose my train of thought and take EVEN LONGER. Jaime didn't do this, for which I am eternally grateful!

Returned to my hammock to read a bit before calling it a night. I don't have a sleeping bag- just my thin little sleeping bag liner, and it's colder sleeping in a hammock than it is in a tent (because you have airflow all around you, though I DO have a camp pad so that helps a lot) so I wore all three pairs of pants that I own, both my long-sleeved shirts, two tank tops and my thin little sweatshirt that I bought for 5 Q in the packa in San Pedro la Laguna. All of this turned out to be totally unnecessary; I wasn't hot but I was nowhere near cold and I'm pretty sure I would have been fine with half the amount of clothes.  One sad thing has happened though- apparently there is a hole in my camp pad because it was un-inflated in the morning.  It's fine in the hammock but this means sleeping on a hard floor is going to be decidedly less comfortable.

In the morning I gathered my things and got on the bus for Guatemala City not sure exactly where I was headed but just knowing I wanted to at least travel to El Rancho, where the bus then headed west for the capital. While on the bus I read my Lonely Planet Guatemala and found something I had previously circled in the town of Estanzuela, a largely unremarkable place that has only a small paragraph in my guidebook. The thing that had caught my eye is that there is a museum of archeology, geology and paleontology here, which includes several nearly complete skeletons of very large animals! Yay!

Though my guidebook didn't say anything about hotels I found a place to stay easily enough- it's the only hotel in town and it's only about two blocks from the street where the microbuses arrive and depart, which is really nice because it's so frickin' hot here! The idea of leaving later today after I visit the museum and it's even hotter is something that sounds so awful that I think I might stay longer if it was any more than two blocks!

The hotel isn't super fancy and at 60 Q it's one of the more expensive places I've stayed in Guatemala. I'm not sure when the last time my bathroom was cleaned, however, my bed is comfortable, there is a pool (yay! I think I would be dead of heat stroke already if not for it!), I have a private bath, a TV and a fan (also helps me not die of heat stroke!) and the owners are super sweet.  Also, the coffee is very reasonably priced (2.5 Q per cup) and they have refilled my water bottle for free several times.

That's all for now- off to the museum!

Later the same day...

The museum was pretty cool, though anyone who has been to anyplace like OMSI (Oregon Museum of Science and Industry) wouldn't likely be too impressed.  It was fun to take my time reading the explanations, which were, of course, in Castellano.  I am feeling increasingly confident and pleased with my level of understanding, a welcome change from the months of frustration!

I've seen mammoth skeletons before but I had never seen (that I recall) skeletons of either giant land sloths or any whales that I can remember so that was pretty cool. There was also an extensive collection of mayan artifacts. And, it was FREE! That makes up for the exorbitant internet prices here (7- 8 Q per hour, and apparently more for shorter times as I paid 3 Q for less than 15 minutes earlier today!).
A Bowhead whale skeleton- one of the few animals on display here that aren't yet extinct.  These whales live in the artic regions and use their bony skull to break through the ice in order to breath.  Wikipedia's site on these guys is fascinating!  Several whales have been found with 19th century spear points embedded in their flesh, and in 2007 one was found with the head of an EXPLOSIVE HARPOON still embedded in his neck blubber!  The harpoon was manufactured in the late 1800's, lending further evidence to the theory that they live more than 100 years.  Cool.

Artist's rendition of what this giant ground sloth was thought to look like.  These guys became extinct around 10,000 years ago, as did many other creatures.  The emergence of human hunters is thought to play a role in their extinction. (Much of this from Wikipedia!)

Funeral urn, found with these two human skulls inside.
Teeny tiny little jars!

After reading a little more in my Lonely Planet Guatemala I decided to go to Ipala, a tiny town south of Chiquimula that apparently has little to interest the average tourist except for its proximity to Volcán de Ipala, which sounds amazing according to my guidebook. Apparently there is a lake in the caldera of the volcano that is about 1 km around (not sure if they mean diameter or circumference- it looks too big in the google satellite view to only be in circumference...) AND there is a campsite on the shores of the lake. How cool does THAT sound!? Totally my cup of tea.

Here's a link to an arial photo:

It only cost 11 Q to get to Ipala (5 from Estanzuela to Chiquimula and 6 on to Ipala) and I was soon walking the streets looking for a place to stay. I asked several people where was the cheapest place to stay and found my way to a little hospedaje (like a hotel but poorer quality) where the owners rented 5 or so rooms in the back of their house. Everything looked ok (to me... most other people would probably disagree...) until I pulled up the sheets to check for bed bugs and found suspicious dots on the mattress. Also about that time, no less than 10 mosquitoes began swarming around my legs.

I made a speedy exit, lying to the lady (who was super sweet- I couldn't bring myself to tell her the truth about why I was leaving!) and saying that I'd received a text from a friend and was going to stay with her! I'm now at Hotel Peña, which is lovely. I'm paying 20 Q more a night than I would have in the other place but there is no evidence of bed bugs, I have a private bath, TV and a fan and my room is very cute. The lady who checked me in said it would be no problem to leave my things there tomorrow while I go to the volcano, and overnight if I decide to camp.

I bought some tacos from one of the carts for dinner- 3 for 12 Q and they were delicious! Also treated myself to an ice cream cone, which was very refreshing as it's still probably 80 degrees or hotter (and it's now nearly midnight!).

Chilled for a bit in my room watching TV, making it a point to find shows in English but with Spanish subtitles. Packed my backpack (everyone I've talked to has told me it's safe and I don't feel like making an ascent of over 1000 meters using anything besides my backpack to carry stuff!) with everything I will need to camp, so I'm all ready to go for the morning. I'm pretty sure I will end up camping since the elevation is about the same as that of the lake, and though it did get a little chilly there at night I think I should be fine with the same set up I had in the Biotopo... I hope! :o) After all this heat the cold will be welcome, at any rate...

May 11

First of all, how the hell is it May 11th already!? I arrived in Guatemala the 11th of December. I can't believe I've spent 5 months here!

Ilapa Volcano was awesome. So awesome that there's not a word to describe it. Unfortunately, getting there was not so awesome!

My first stop after waking was the mercado a block from the hotel, to grab some coffee and breakfast- some type of rolled up, fried tortillas that I think had potatoes inside (?) with tomato sauce and crumbles of queso tipico (the traditional cheese here in Guatemala). I have been looking for a camping mug (like I have back home but didn't think I would want!) and I found one without even trying, at the stall near where I ate breakfast.  Yay!

Multiple missions accomplished, I grabbed my pack and headed for the volcano. It was only about a 10 minute microbus ride to the trailhead, or rather, the road that led to the trailhead. Even though it was early it was already pretty hot so I was eager to get started. However, just as I was starting up the road some guy who had also gotten off of the bus started talking to me and told me that the road was dangerous and it would be better for me to go into Agua Blanca (the next town down the road) and catch another bus, which went (supposedly) a different way and terminated halfway up the volcano. I hadn't heard anything about it being dangerous anywhere near here but I wasn't really eager to be robbed again so I decided to take his advice and jumped on another shuttle (meaning I payed for the voyage twice!) for Agua Blanca.

In Agua Blanca I bought a liquado and asked around a bit, got on a shuttle that was supposedly going where I wanted to go, realized about 2 km from Agua Blanca that I was going the wrong direction and the shuttle was NOT going to the volcano, got out and had to walk the 2 km back to Agua Blanca, asked around some more, got some help from the girl at the liquado stand, bought another liquado, and got on another shuttle, this one arranged by the girl in the liquado stand. Long story short, I don't think that guy knew what he was talking about, as we returned to the same place where I had encountered the “helpful” guy, except it was now two hours later and this time I was on a private frickin' shuttle, meaning that when we arrived at the trailhead (midway) they wanted 75 Q! I said I hoped they were joking because I didn't have that and they told me 50, which I also didn't have! So, they let me go without paying anything but I told them I would try to find them in the terminal in Ipala so hopefully I can find them- not that I WANT to pay 50 Q but I'm sure it did actually cost somewhat close to that, since I was basically the only person and they drove at least 10 miles for me. Also, turns out that the road isn't dangerous at all, except for the fact that it's not super wide so you could potentially get run over, except that there are basically NO cars on the road. So. Not dangerous at all. Thanks, “helpful” guy! He was probably friends with one of the shuttle drivers and this is some creative way to milk more money out of people- Cost of my voyage to Ilapa: 60 Q (assuming I can find those guys tomorrow). What my voyage SHOULD have cost: 3 Q (found out later that it's only 3 Q to the halfway point, though the first people charged me the full cost of the voyage from Ipala to Agua Blanca).


By this time it was like 12:30 so I got to make the climb in the heat of the day- awesome.
This looks much less steep than it actually is!
However, it was so worth it! The lake is absolutely beautiful and for most of the time I was there I had it all to myself. There were maybe 10 or 15 little places where you could camp and have a fire, and some places had picnic tables, though I passed those up for the seclusion of the other side of the campground, where there was really only one good place for camping. My site was up the hill from the lake and I had an amazing view, and I often had horses, mules, cattle or chickens grazing somewhere nearby. One of the neighborhood dogs hung out with me nearly the whole time I was there, probably hoping I would feed him if he was patient enough. I had only planned to stay one night but ended up deciding to stay a second night because it was so great I couldn't imagine leaving (especially returning to the heat of Ipala!).

Close up of my campsite
My campsite from a little further away- the lake is to the right about 20 feet or so outside of the picture.  You can just barely see my campsite in the trees on the far left.
View from my campsite!  Colors are true in this photo (not sure what happened in the previous two...)
First item of business was cooling off, and then it was time for some serious relaxing one of my favorite ways- sunbathing! After an hour or so I decided to go back in and before I knew it I was swimming across the lake. I didn't really know I was going to do it until I was right in the middle of the lake and I decided, why not? The lake is nearly 1 km across (confirmed from the guides) so, I swam almost 2 km!  The guides later told me that only three people have crossed the lake this year. So, that's pretty cool. I have done something that probably less than 10 people do each year!

Thanks to this useful tool I have learned that I'm not quite as cool as I thought I was- apparently I only swam about 1.3 km.

Set up my campsite and spent some time just chillin', doing a little crafty stuff (current projects: cases for both my knife and my camera, and a smaller passport holder because the one I have is awesome [thanks Irina!] but it's much larger than it needs to be so it's not super comfortable, and it's more obvious than I would like it to be), then hiked up to the mirador (viewpoint) to catch the sunset. It wasn't as good of a spot as I had hoped so I ended up hiking another ½ km or so around the side of the volcano (possibly on private property?) to get a better view.

The sunset wasn't great but it was better than it looks in the photos I took. Turns out that my camera doesn't take the best sunset (and sunrise) photos, which is sad because I love sunsets (and sunrises, if I can get my ass out of bed in time for them)!

One of the guides had invited me to join them in their kitchen/hang out area for a cup of coffee that evening, so I spent a couple of hours chatting with four of the guards (Mario, Manuel, Francisco and Adrian), returned to my campsite for another cup of coffee and then called it a pretty early night (10:30 or so).

From left to right, Manuel, Francisco, Mario, me and Adrian
I wasn't cold at all Amazingly, I woke before my alarm, at about 5:10. I could just see some pink skies outside of my hammock so I again hiked to the mirador! Beautiful!

As I was getting ready to make coffee back in my campsite one of the guards came over and invited me to have coffee with them again, an invitation which I gladly accepted!

After chatting over coffee for an hour or so I spent most of the day being crafty, finishing the knife case and getting a start on the camera case.
The material is the fake suede I obtained from the packa coat I deconstructed to make my bag (which I'll post photos of when I'm finished with... been preoccupied with other projects lately...), and I used some plastic from a soda bottle to give some form to the case.
In the afternoon a couple (Edgar and Daisy) came over to my campsite and started chatting with me and ended up inviting me to have a late lunch with them! I had purchased some sweet bread for the next morning as well as some stuff to make a soup (chicken consume, an onion, a potato, a carrot, one clove of garlic, some rice and a can of sardines!) from the little tienda near the guardhouse but decided to take them up on their offer and make my soup for lunch the following day. They now live in the US (in LA) but they were both born in Guatemala and they were there visiting Daisy's family, who still live in Ipala, so there were about 10 people there but I really only talked with Edgar and Daisy. Lunch was chicken soup with tortillas, and another chicken that was just baked. I didn't eat my portion of chicken but instead decided to save it for my soup!  

The next day my alarm woke me at 5:15 but there was a lot of fog/low clouds so I decided to stay in my hammock!  I regained consciousness again at 7:30 and started making a fire for my coffee, only to have Francisco come over and help me make it. I appreciate the sentiment but what is it about people that makes them think they should mess with how another person makes a fire!? I HATE it when someone tries to “help” me make a fire! I can make my own frickin' fire, damnit!

Some small animal left a present on my bench!
More craftiness today- finished the camera case, or at least, did as much as I could without a zipper, which I need to try to buy at some point...

Same materials as the knife case- fake suede from the packa coat and plastic bottle remnants for form.
Life was pretty tranquil at the lake until a horde of people descended on it around 11:00 this morning. Turned out they were doing some sort of training or camp for PE teachers. The guards told me there were 150 people! It was crazy. I'm sure Sophia would have been all sorts of excited about it, given her love for watching futbol here, but I was NOT all about it!

Just a little side note, something that is very different here than in the US is that people think nothing of wandering RIGHT through your campsite, and they often stop to have a chat (which sometimes lasts like 15 or 20 minutes)! The guards were awesome but I did get to the point where I was like “leave me alone!” (in my head of course) because every one of them ended up coming over at least once every day for at least a 10-20 minute chat!

Made my soup for lunch, which took me a ridiculous amount of time because my cup is really small but actually ended up being amazingly tasty! It also ended up making enough for about 4 people so I gave the leftovers to the guards.

In the process of making soup
I am pretty sure I will come back to the lake sometime in my life. It was pretty lovely and tranquil there and the guards told me that there's hardly ever anyone there during the week; it's only on the weekends that people camp there. Also, there's a cabin near the guardhouse that you can rent out for 200 Q no matter how many people there are!  My favorite things: the teenage boy who watered his cattle every morning throwing rocks off the dock for his german shepherd, opening the door to the bathroom this morning and coming face to face with a frog, how perfect the water was and how accomplished I felt for something so simple as swimming across the lake, laying in my hammock in the mornings listening to the world come alive outside, the solitude I enjoyed almost the entire time I was there!
My little camp buddy- I realized I had forgotten to post a pic of him!
The trip down the volcano was a bit rushed because one of the guards had told me that the buses didn't run very often after 4:30 so I made the descent (all the way to the road this time) in 40 minutes, jogging the last km or so. I was glad that I had jogged, as a microbus stopped not much more than a minute after I arrived at the main road.

Back in Ipala I skipped dinner in favor of over-indulging on ice cream! Discovered another favorite food- the chocolate-dipped coconut ice cream bars sold at the internet place down the street. Sad thing- they are closed for the weekend! :o(

I'm finally headed into Honduras tomorrow!  I'm a little sad to be leaving Guatemala but I know I'll be back here at some point in my life and I'm excited to see if I'll like Honduras as much as I like Guatemala!


  1. You have add very heart shaking images in blog.

    Volunteer travel

  2. I think this camera takes fine pictures! What a sweet place to camp. Your hammock might make me claustrophobic, but it's got to be better than sleeping on the ground.

    1. Yeah, the campsite was pretty awesome. :o) And yes, the hammock (with the mosquito net over it, at least!) IS a little claustrophobia-inducing! I think it probably looks like it's giving birth to me when I get out of it! :D