Vines hang like thick ropes tangled and twisted over branches and around the trunks of almost every tree. The air is sticky and warm. The sun can’t seem to break through this canopy so every step I take is in the shade of this jungle. I stop when the sound of howler monkeys overpowers the bugs and birds and humans. Everyone stops. It sounds like a cry from a monster coming from the deepest darkest part of the jungle…in reality, it’s just a small monkey. A furry black monkey wrapping its tail around a sturdy branch and gently swinging to the next – a movement that flows with effortless ease and I wonder where in that little body that strong howl comes from. They have earned their name.
I keep walking past the monkeys and vines, past the Ceiba trees, which are sacred symbols to the Mayan people. The trunks work deep into the ground and the branches reach out like long arms that seem to touch the spiritual world above. As a symbol of life, it connects the world from below to the one above. Further in, I see what looks like a stone wall covered in vines and soft green moss. There are trees growing from the side wall of this temple that was built sometime around 200 AD. It has barely been touched – the earth taking it back ever so slowly. Climbing now I start to hear voices coming from the main central plaza. An area in the middle of this Mayan town, the main attraction, the most excavated temples have brought visitors from all over. They set up picnics and sit in groups under trees and admire the stone temples that rise up by steep steps. Each pyramid topped off with a simple piece that wears like a hat. I stare at the stone walls that have turned black from time and wander carefully through narrow paths that lead from one temple to the next.
I check my watch and think about Colin, who is sitting back at the campground (which is now more like a parking lot with so many visitors) inside the camper hanging out with Sprite. Since dogs are absolutely, no exceptions, don’t even think about it, not allowed in the park (or even next to the entrance gate which is about 11 miles to the actual ruins) we decided to bring along a friend of ours instead of the dog. So Sprite came along. Sprite is not much for hot days and walking through ruins so she decided to hang back in the camper, with the fan on, with treats, and take naps while Colin and I took turns exploring. Sprite is one of those high maintenance friends who is sometimes good to travel with and sometimes not. So I checked my watch and couldn’t believe 2 hours had already come and gone. We decided to give ourselves about 2-3 hours each, but you could spend days here.
Over the next few days we piece together a plan that is a direct result from “throwing caution to the wind.” When we left Virginia and took off on this journey we had one goal – travel. We had a big ol’dream that our budget would allow us to get down to South America, but we were very firm on the fact that as we progressed south, if one person wasn’t loving it (wanted to change directions or plans) we would sit down and hash it out (no coin toss or bloody knuckles, but talking together about the pros and cons). We talked a lot. A few times it was while sitting under and on top of thick snow when we were in the US. Another conversation was about crossing into Mexico and driving through Tijuana. Then learning about the Zapatistas when we were in Chiapas and trying to figure out a route that would not land us in the middle of their territory with masks hiding their faces while they blocked the roads and took travelers money. The next conversation came right before crossing into Guatemala – will our budget allow us to cross into South America? The big expense here is shipping across the Darien Gap and then figuring out what to do when we found ourselves out of road at the very tip of Argenina. I imagine we look at each other and say, “Were you the one in charge of saving enough money for us to get home?” And then there’s that question…”Where is home?”
With so many questions and no easy answers we decided to book our ticket on the Ferry Xpress from Panama to Colombia as soon as we heard that the last possible boat is leaving on the 20th of April and never taking this route again. We did this online while in Mexico. At that time it would give us three weeks to get through Central America to board the boat. Sometimes when you throw caution to the wind, the wind changes direction. A few days into Guatemala, we realized that due to an unexpected financial emergency (can we really say “unexpected” when we planned to pay taxes, we just didn’t plan to pay 5 times that amount!) it was just not smart, with our budget, to get on the boat. South America would have to be another trip. Over another talk through hopes and dreams, and pros and cons, we decided to enjoy Central America, head back to the states, spend a few months exploring the places we have been dying to go, and perhaps figure out where we will land. The truth is, there will always be another place, a better place, a more distant place, but sometimes the place you are in is where you need to be. At least for the moment you are there.
We slow down and take the road through the western highlands of Guatemala. The landscape is vibrant green, packed with volcanos and mountains that fall from the sky into valleys with heavy thick clouds hovering just above their summits. Farmland thrives in the rich soil and we see perfect rows of plants springing up all along the foothills and among terraced fields. We drive through tiny villages where a single road connects each town and a constant line of people walking back and forth carrying a bundle of something: firewood in a stack balanced on top of the head, or big blue bowls of tortilla dough wrapped in a blanket, or loads of fruit or vegetables slung over the back. Old and young, everyone carries something. They are dressed in traditional clothing that Colin and I can’t get enough of. Women wear long flat skirts to just above the ankle with colorful patterns from stripes filled with designs to a mix of other prints, a blouse with lively colors of patches with intricate shapes tucked into a belt with hand stitched flowers and birds dancing around their waist. Their dark hair is perfectly placed and sometimes wrapped into a bright string that flows around the braid and ties everything on top like a bun. The men wear colorful patterns as well, but white flowy pants with pink and green dashes leading to thicker lines of color around the bottom cuff and a belt that looks almost like a shawl but wraps around the waist. A tweed colored bag drapes over the shoulder and usually a machete hangs from a strap tucked beneath the belt. Most men wear long plain pants, a dress button shirt, a cowboy hat, bag and machete, but we love to see the guys wearing the traditional clothes.
Every town we pass through is surrounded by beautiful landscapes that look nourished by rain and mountains dipping and climbing through the clouds. The homes are nothing more than walls made of wooden branches nailed together with a rusty metal roof. Others are mud walls and no roofs at all. These modest homes sit crooked on dirt patches and pieced together by the materials found on the land. It amazes us to see people walking out of mud huts in outfits that look like they were finished that morning. Fresh, bold colors, neatly ironed and ready for their first wear – like being ready for the the first day of school. They sell fruits stacked in bowls sitting by the road side on small stools. There are fires burning trash and fires heating grills and flat skillets for cooking. We climb along this narrow dirt road, over sharp rocks with our wheels slipping and the truck clicking and cranking, and discuss that these are the worst roads we’ve seen yet, but how can we be upset as every single person we pass waves and smiles. They shout “hello” and “hola” and little kids run up to get a closer look while a few yell “Gringo!” It’s a steep passage way cut along mountain sides with a view that glides over clouds and the tops of green peaks for miles.
We camp at a coffee farm in Coban, and next to volcanos in Lake Atitlan, and in a dusty parking lot that closes us in by a rusty fence in San Pedro. We splurge for a hotel in Antigua and take a few days strolling the cobble stone streets, admiring the churches that have damage still showing from several earthquakes back in the late 1700s. Pieces of the church crashed down into the courtyard and left where they fell. We meet new travelers and talk to ex-pats who have found a home in one of the villages around Lake Atitlan. We jump on with a tour group and climb Pacaya Volcano with an Australian couple followed by a horse that was there to take our money if we decided our legs wouldn’t take us any further (no one took the horse!) We fall in love with Guatemala and can’t figure out why more people don’t talk about this country. Everyone waves or whistles or honks. We spend 17 days. On our final night in Guatemala we are already thinking about coming back.