Monday, August 16, 2010

Excursions



AUGUST 16, 2010


Many weekends while I was living in Antigua, especially on Sundays, I would go on an excursion with friends to something interesting in the area. Sometimes we would walk, other times we would take public transportation. Here are some of the more interesting excursions I made...



EARTH LODGE

One of my favorite places is about 5 miles out of Antigua (20 minutes in a vehicle or 2 hours by walking). It is an eco-friendly mountain lodge and avocado farm owned by a kind, young Canadian/American couple who have really poured their heart and soul into it. http://www.earthlodgeguatemala.com/index.html


One of the times I went there we walked - a beautiful way to spend a lazy Sunday (although the walk there is anything but lazy – mostly uphill!) As we meandered through the lush countryside marveling at the stunning verdant scenery along the way, we were joined by some local chaperones.




Once you get to the ‘turnoff’ for Earthlodge, you have to carefully descend 900 feet on a slightly treacherous trail for about 10 minutes (20 minutes if there has been rain.) This photo shows one of the better, wider parts of the pathway:


This pathway really puts things in perspective and makes you appreciate the ruralness of the place even more - for everything has to be hauled down this path by hand (although they recently got a mule which does help a tiny bit!) And when I say everything is hauled in manually – I mean it – all building materials and supplies; no vehicles (even motorcycles) can make it down this trail.


Also to appreciate, is its unique location - perched high above a fertile coffee-laden valley - its intrepid visitors are definitely treated to spectacular vistas (you might want to click on this photo to enlarge it):


Its remoteness also rewards the visitor with a break from the “hustle-bustle” of Antigua! It provides the perfect setting to appreciate their delicious homemade meals on the patio or contemplate life while hanging in a hammock enjoying the views below.


This hammock I'm on is on the private deck of their famous treehouse:


Here is the view from inside the treehouse:


Other accommodations include a two level tree cabin and a rustic dorm. Besides two visits I made there as day trips, I decided to go for some ‘serious’ r&r. So I, (along with about 40 others) went there for a few days to celebrate Thanksgiving:


Here I am gearing up for the feast with good friends Bonnie, Deet and Diane:


Two blissful days of tranquility and stuffing myself with yummy food! And I also partook in other fun activities like a traditional Mayan sauna (ooooh), ping pong and a beautiful hike. The hike was a ‘leisurely’ two hours of up & down in the surrounding mountains on tiny footpaths through the locals’ fields. Here is one of the locals tending to his crops:


I think you would agree that it is a pretty magical place!



Friday, May 21, 2010

"The Lake"


MAY 1, 2010


The Lake” – yes, that is how they refer to it here… just “The Lake” and everybody knows that they are talking about Lago de Atitlan (Lake Atitlan). A must see for all visiting Guatemala, it is one of the most attractive lakes in the world (so said Aldous Huxley in 1934) - exceptionally majestic, surrounded by 3 volcanoes, lush hills and culturally diversity with its 13 traditional Mayan villages which ring the Lake. Here is one of them:


The Lake offers endless activities; of course there are the obvious water options like swimming, kayaking and diving.


Regarding the diving, not only is it a fresh water volcanic crater lake, but, with such a high altitude (5118 feet), you can imagine how it provides a unique environment for divers. For example, on dive trips you can see things like massive volcanic rock formations, a fault line where you can plunge your hands into hot volcanic mud, a vertical swim-thru, sunken trees, and an abundance of fish, crabs and plant life. Landwise, you can partake in plenty of possibilities including walking between the villages or hiking up the steep hills to waterfalls and other delights. The adventurous can mountain bike too. Oh, and also, you can just kick back, take in the stunning scenery, relax in hammock, in a sauna or via a massage. In fact, one village, San Marcos la Laguna, is the ‘spiritual center’ of the Lake. There, besides massage, there are holistic centers offering courses in meditation, healing arts, yoga, etc. And they have great vegetarian food, too.


If you want to immerse yourself in the culture of Guatemala, besides plenty of Spanish schools to choose from, the many indigenous people who live at the Lake offer an exceptional experience for witnessing their way of life. A lot of them still wear traditional dress, speak in Mayan languages and practice age-old customs of producing things by hand like weavings, crafts or farming techniques. The villages have outstanding and very colorful markets and interesting religious and governing practices as well.



No wonder many come for a short visit and stay indefinitely! I have been to the Lake before, but since my last time was in 1997, I was due for a visit!


SAN MARCOS

In the first village where I stayed, San Marcos, I was lucky enough to get a room at this enchanting boutique hotel, Aaculaax, http://www.aaculaax.com/, designed and built by a German. Most of it is hand-crafted using recycled materials including thousands of glass bottles which he integrates into the design and uses to make it kind of like a gallery along with stained glass and even rocks – here you can see how a few were part of my shower:


Here are some of the details around the hotel grounds:




Here are a few videos of the hotel and my room:


From my room, which, like the rest of the hotel, is built into a hillside, I had remarkable views of the Lake:







With the exception of one ‘proper’ road which leads you into the town, tranquil San Marcos is unique in that it doesn’t have any streets. Instead, little footpaths are spread around in the lush, quasi jungle-like setting. It is, in my opinion, quite charming and adorable.




However, it can be a bit of a mini-treasure hunt to find anything - like, any of its approximately 15 hotels or 20 restaurants. Hmmmm, a bit different than Antigua (3 hours away) which has 200 eateries and 100 lodgings!


SAN PEDRO

In contrast, across the Lake from San Marcos, the community of San Pedro, which is much bigger and more of a city, wears the title “Party Capital of the Lake.” However, conversely it has many ‘chillout’ kind of places, including this one where I had lunch, “Zoola”:


And to visit “La Puerta,” a little coffee/cafĂ© place, nicely located on the marshy edge of the Lake (with a Spanish school neighbor), one has to walk through a horse corral and on a horse trail to reach it. Sipping a coffee there affords one this view:


Along the way you can stop in one of San Pedro’s hot tub places where you can soak al fresco in soothing volcano-fed thermal pools while you view the Lake.


SANTA CRUZ

In another section of the Lake, I stayed for a few days at an “Eco Chic” lodge. A 10-15 minute walk from the lodge via a lazy walking path which skirts the lake, brought me to the tiny town of Santa Cruz la Laguna. This village is even tinier than San Marcos with just 3 hotels (in addition to mine). All have beautiful gardens and gourmet restaurants with set meals. One of the nights I ‘splurged’ and went to one of these restaurants, Arca de Noe, owned by a European couple. There they serve nightly candle-lit 7-course (!) yummy family-style dinners for about $13 including tip! They use fresh ingredients bought at the local market and everything is homemade including their breads & pastries, jams and sauces. She also prides herself on using recipes from all parts of the world which she has collected from years of travel; all are used in an innovative way. Judge for yourself, here is the menu from the dinner I had:


My eco-hotel, Isla Verde, http://islaverdeatitlan.com/ also has a gourmet restaurant & lounge in a beautiful lakeside setting:


The owner is from Spain and insists on being as sustainable as possible, ensuring minimal environmental impact; she calls it, “Ecology in Style.” And they also create healthy home-made creative, delicious and global cuisine. She tries to serve as much organic food as possible and buy everything locally including building materials.

Her 10 solar-powered cabins creep up through a small canyon/ravine all set in nature with lake views and solar showers. However, the bad news (or good news, depending on how fit you want to be) is that lake views are only achieved via many stairs! From the lodge/restaurant, it would take me about 10 minutes to reach my cabin, one of the highest perched ones:


Here I have made a self portrait in my eco bathroom which looks out at the Lake:


And here are some sunrise views from my cabin:



Although the rainy season had long since gone, the Lake has its own unique micro-climate and often has rain year round. One day while walking about, the skies grew dark:


I was going to head back home to avoid getting wet, but these gorgeous magical light rays appeared and graced my view of the village across the Lake:


I’m glad I stuck around!


Sunday, April 18, 2010

Antigua's Architecture




MARCH 18, 2010


The best way to describe the buildings in present-day Antigua, is to liken the colonial city to an open air architectural museum.

Although so much was destroyed in the great earthquake of 1773, there are plenty of remaining structures which have either been fully restored to a state where they are currently inhabited, or they have been preserved as ruins.



RUINS

I pass by these ruins, San Jose el Viejo, usually at least twice per day:



You would probably would never realize it from the outside, but they are one of the most sought-after locations for events in Antigua, the destination wedding capital of Central America. One day while they were setting up for an event, I took advantage of this rare opportunity and I walked in to photograph the interior:


I think you would agree that being able to attend an event in 400 hundred year old ruins would be a pretty special experience:


Here they are at night with atmospheric decorations and lighting:



Everywhere you turn in Antigua there are beautiful ruins; these ones, Santa Clara ruins, are on the outskirts of town and often have big concerts in front of them:


During the weekends, a crafts market takes place in front of the El Carmen ruins:


Here is a close up – notice the flowers growing right through:


Columns and the arches they connect to play a big part of the colonial architectural style:


Here are some column details:






CHURCHES

At the peak of the Spanish colonization, Antigua (which is only 10 x 10 square blocks) had over 50 churches. Here are a few of my favorites; the first one, La Merced Church, I shot from a restaurant rooftop:


Here is San Pedro Church at dusk:


Here a man is locking up one of the two entrances to San Francisco el Grande Church:


And here, on the south side of town, is El Calvario Church:




DOORS

Elaborate and intricate designs are found on doorways, doors and door details. Here are a few examples around town:





This doorway is good for napping:

This one wins the award for most creative entry – a stepping stone course in a pond will bring you to your front door!


Gorgeous hand-carved wooden detail on door leading into La Merced church (yellow one above):


Doors are ornamented with beautiful knockers and handles:





INTERIORS

One of my favorite features of colonial style architecture are the interior courtyards; for all kinds of stunning things are hidden away inside, like fountains and flora:





Here is my all time favorite in town, the colossal fountain at the La Merced church: