Guatemala: Antigua + San Marcos La Laguna

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Isn’t he cute? That’s Oso. He’s my aunt and uncle’s dog. And one of about 7 dogs we got to know well in Guatemala…

The Hunters met Gord and I in Antigua a few days before Christmas. It was so nice to have company again! We rented a beautiful villa just outside the center of Antigua. It was equipped with everything we needed to spend Christmas in Guatemala: an outdoor pool, steam room, fireplace, 6 dogs, and oven (for the turkey of course). The dogs you see below are owned by the lady we rented from. She was staying in her loft next door and left them locked up in the other yard. When we were home we’d usually let them run around our lawn because they were very entertaining.

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So how do you keep the Hunters busy on vacation? Well you do things like make chocolate, hike volcanoes, take a cooking class on the local cuisine, visit a coffee farm, and go the market. There idea of a vacation is to stay as busy as possible (except on Christmas). We were busy, but had a fabulous time!

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5 Things You Didn’t Know About Chocolate:

1. The word chocolate comes from the Aztec word xocolatl, meaning, bitter water. Roasted cocao beans were originally consumed ground up with spices and chilies (which we sampled).

2. The Aztecs prized their cocoa beans so highly it was used as their currency. You could buy a rabbit for 30 beans.

3. When you buy a chocolate bar with a cocao percentage, the remaining percentage is the sugar that’s added. So a 70% chocolate bar bar is 30% sugar.

4. White chocolate isn’t really chocolate. It doesn’t contain any cocoa solids! It’s made up of cocoa butter, milk, sugar, and salt.

5. Chocolate that has a grey film on it (bloom) hasn’t necessarily gone bad. It just means it wasn’t stored properly or it experienced a rapid temperature change.

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We spent a day in Chichicastenango (“Chichi”) to visit the local market. As it was just a couple days before Christmas it was chaos. Everyone was out picking up flowers, fresh tortillas, and a turkey for Christmas. We would have liked a fresh Guatemalan turkey for our Christmas dinner, but no one was brave enough to do the you know what deed once we brought it home. So we ended up stopping off at a grocery store on our way back to pick up a good ol’ USA bird.

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If you ask Val what the highlight of the trip was, she will probably tell you it was the drive to Chichi with all the waving children. Hundreds of children and their mothers flock to the sides of the PanAmerican Highway (CA-1) at this time of year, waving at passing cars. They’re waving for treats, presents, and food. We didn’t have anything to give them so Val kindly picked up a 5kg bag of sweets. There were literally dozens of groups waving so we opted for the ‘drive-by distribution’ method. The children screamed in excitement as they scrambled for the “dulces” we threw out the window. We felt a little off about the whole thing so next time we’ll come better prepared with actual presents…and maybe some toothbrushes.

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We hiked up one of the active volcanoes in the area, Pacaya. It was a dusty hike up until we reached the lava rock flows. Although we couldn’t go all the way up to the top (toxic gases) the views from our summit were impressive.

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Gord and I wanted to give his family a local experience for their Christmas present so we enrolled them in a cooking class at El Frijol Feliz (which translates to “happy beans”). The traditional menu we chose for them included jacon (a green chicken stew), refried beans, guacamole, corn tortillas, and mole de plátanos for dessert. If you’re interested in cooking a Guatemalan meal you can find recipes here.

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I’ve always wanted to know how you go from the coffee berry to a cup of coffee so we learned from the professionals at Finca Filadelfia. Starting from seedlings in the vast nursery, they took us through each stage of the process. We learned why they prefer and grow arabica coffee over rustica coffee. And why shade grown plants produce the highest yields. We also learned that there’s a tiny coffee borer beetle that infests coffee crops worldwide. Don’t worry, the larvae invested beans still get used – enjoy your instant coffee!

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We spent the remaining 4 days of our trip in San Marcos La Laguna, a small laid back hippy town on the shores of Lake Atitlan, about 3 hours outside of Antigua. My aunt and uncle have a house in San Marcos (see pictures above) and are lucky enough to spend about 2 months of the year there. They showed us their outdoor bathtub, which you are encouraged to jump into from above. Highlights in San Marcos included the fabulous dinners that we enjoyed at Yuka and Morten’s (my aunt and uncle) beautiful house, and the intense hike through the valley they led us on.

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Guatemala was the perfect country to end our 4 month trip. And we enjoyed it in fine company. We left Guatemala feeling completely content with the adventures we have had throughout South America, although endings like this are always bittersweet. Soon enough Gord would be back at school, and I would be making make the move to Toronto.

Dear Guatemala, your country and your people are absolutely stunning. We’ll be back soon.

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Guatemala: Semuc Champey + Rio Dulce

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After more than a month in Argentina and Chile, it was time to start making our way home. Gradually. Two weeks in Guatemala over the holidays would allow us to ease back into life without a backpack. Treating this as en route to the ultimate destination of ‘home,’ we had few expectations upon landing. What a great surprise it was then to be blown away everywhere we went in this country.

Our first destination was Semuc Champey. Snaking through the hills of central Guatemala is the mighty Cahabon River. Underneath this beautiful landscape lies a world that is just starting to attract us tourists. Huge limestone deposits in the area have been eaten away by streaming water, leaving the area filled with miles of caves, underground rivers, and surreal gorges.

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Semuc Champey’s most noted attraction are seven descending turquoise pools that sit above an underground river. A small fraction of the water that flows underneath the earth here is diverted above the land’s surface. The limestone pools are essentially a natural bridge over the underground river, creating a surreal swimming location from below and an unforgettable view from above.

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Adding to the incredible natural beauty of the pools is the free therapeutic work that is done by hundreds of minnows who keep these pools alive. The schools of fish casually nibbled at the dead-skin on our feet while we waded. Tickling more than hurting, the minnows will certainly have more to eat once more tourists start discovering this site.

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Our home four the four nights that we stayed in Semuc Champey was Utopia Eco Lodge. The vegetarian lodge is isolated by a 45 minute dirt road drive from the nearest town of Lanquin. Although there are few foreigners around, the lush hills are home to many descendants of the Mayan who happily handled us gringos as more of a novelty then a nuisance.

Our final day in Semuc Champey was an amazing one. We explored a system of wet caves with candles and swimsuits. Swimming with a candle over head through parts of this limestone network was one of the coolest experiences we’ve had on the trip. Returning to our peaceful river front cabana after this unforgettable day was simply too much to resist asking Sarah the burning question that had been on my mind for months. She accepted my marriage proposal, searing Semuc Champey and our experiences here in our minds for the rest of our lives!

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Before heading to the colonial town of Antigua to celebrate Christmas with my parents, we made a stop along the way in Rio Dulce. In addition to processing the reality that we were going to get married, we took time to enjoy the area. The highlight was a hot spring unlike anything we had ever seen before. The hot water comes from a waterfall, descending down into a cool pool that has been carved out by the adjacent river. The cool water from the river mixes with the hot water falling from above to create a warm pool that we lounged in for hours.

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Buenos Aires

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Buenos Aires is not for the faint of heart. It’s loud, stuffy, and intense. But if you know where to look it will also melt your heart. We were once again incredibly happy with our airbnb apartment, a cute little bachelor in the Palermo district. Sure we were street-side and neighbours to a howling hound dog who cried helplessly at the sound of sirens, but it was all part of the experience. Even the old passenger elevator with manual sliding metal doors was an adventure!

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I had been in Buenos for a week before Gord and I were reunited. He met me in our apartment all scruffy with a mere 3 pesos left in his pocket. He ran out of money in Patagonia while hiking Torres del Paine and the ATMs were not accepting his cards. He even had to hike/run for four hours to get to the airport in El Calafate the morning he flew to Buenos!

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One of the first things we did together in BA was another free walking tour. This one wasn’t as good, but it probably had something to do with the size of the group. In a bustling city where cars and buses don’t heed for pedestrians, keeping a group of 25 together is no easy feat. It was another hot and gorgeous day out, and the striking buildings lining the streets gave the day a European flair. If this is what Parisian architecture is like, I must go!!

Over the next week we explored the sites, tasted some of the city’s finest food, and got lost in bookstores.

HIGHLIGHTS FROM BUENOS AIRES:

San Telmo Market: On Sundays Defensa St is blocked off for pedestrians as this road becomes a marketplace of arts, crafts, and souvenirs. Further down the road, in Plaza Dorrego, you’ll find antique vendors proudly showing off their collections. We spent hours wandering through the streets and booths. It’s also a great place to watch locals practice their tango!

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Rocolleta Cemetery: A beautiful yet eerie property containing a few thousand above ground tombs and mausoleums. Former presidents, military generals, artists and, most famously, Eva Perón, are buried here.

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Palermo Soho: Wandering through this shopping district isn’t the same at the end of a long trip when you’ve depleted your funds and are restricted to “just looking”. But it was still fun to check out all of the independent designers and the local BA style in their cute boutique stores.

Steak: We were told countless times that Buenos wasn’t only the capital city of Argentina, but also the world’s meat capital. And while we were here, we HAD to visit La Cabrera. You can’t dine here at this expensive steakhouse after 8:30pm without a reservation. Actually they only take reservations. Unless, you know about their Happy Hour. Line up at 6:30pm for their 7pm seating where you are given an hour to dine at 40% off all food and wine. The reason for the discounted window is that no local would ever dream of eating before 8pm. We felt a bit crazy for popping open a bottle of vino tinto and ordering 800 gram sirloin steak plus garnishings, all to be consumed within the hour. Of course the service suffers when you pack a full restaurant and seat them all at once, but the steak lived up to the hype and company was amazing as usual.

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Closed-Door Restaurants: In Buenos Aires and in a lot of other big cities you can find closed-door restaurants, or supper clubs as they are sometimes called. I’ll post a few pictures and describe our experiences at two closed-door restaurants we dined at in another post, but if you’re in a big city I highly recommend doing some research and dining at one of these hidden gems.

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Big News!!!

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WHAT?!! I know. I can hardly believe it myself. It came as the biggest and best surprise of my life!! We are less than 2 weeks away from ending this trip of a lifetime and Gord made it that much more memorable by asking me to marry him. We’re over the moon excited about it and just had to share the great news!!

Sorry we’re a bit behind with the blog posts (notice a trend?), but they’re coming! We arrived in Guatemala last week and have been in fairly remote areas of the country without a good connection. We are in Antigua, Guatemala now in a beautiful house where we’ll be spending Christmas with the Hunters. And then Vancouver on the 1st! We can’t wait to see you all!

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Perito Moreno Glacier, Glacier National Park

Ah yes, those glacier photos I promised you. It has been a smokin’ hot 30 degrees here in Buenos Aires, so these photos of Perito Moreno Glacier are a refreshing reminder of where we came from. The glacier is just 70km from El Calafate in Glacier National Park. This impressive ice blanket is 5 kilometres long, with an average height of 74 meters above the lake, and total ice depth of 170 meters. It was nice to know that in our era of global warming it is one of the few glaciers that is still growing each day!

We spent a day walking around on the balconies taking in different angles of the beast, waiting patiently for chunks to break off. Just when we’d start walking away to change spots we’d hear cracking and then a thunderous splash when the ice hit the water. We may have missed the moment when the ice breaks from the wall, but the splash and consequential wave created from the ice was just as impressive.

Definitely one of the most beautiful and coolest things I’ve ever seen! Now we’ll let the photos do the talking…

From El Calafate I flew to Buenos Aires and Gord ventured further south to trek in Torres del Paine. We’re now reunited in Buenos Aires, and leave tomorrow for GUATEMALA!

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