All work and no play make Jack and Jill a dull boy and girl, so on a Friday evening we came up with a plan – more of an idea, really – to go for a hike. On Saturday morning four of us drove into the mountains west of Guatemala City to find a hiking trail that looked interesting. No need to worry about or plan for ice, snow, or any of that stuff – this is the tropics, man. Tennis shoes, check. Water, check. Sunglasses, check. Hat, check. We’re good to go.
Hey, those peaks are close and look interesting. They’re not that high, and should be easy enough to climb. A few others were hoofing it up something like a trail, so we followed them. Lots of igneous rock, no forests, no alpine meadows, barely any vegetation, and the peak was hidden in low clouds. We switchbacked our way up the steep slope until we could look over the ridge. Still couldn’t see much because of the cloud cover.
We started scrambling down the the other side of the ridge. Going down the loose shale slope was easy: we went about 30 feet with each step. The fog was thick in places. And warm. And smelled like rotten eggs. Ooohhh – it’s kind of a volcano. In fact, it’s kind of an active volcano. That explains a few things.
The experience was so interesting that it took a while to sink in that we were inside the crater of a volcano, and something was bubbling away beneath our feet, hot enough to push steam up through the ground. Nobody can accuse me of being the sharpest knife in the drawer, but even I became a little nervous. Despite an intro geology course in college, I didn’t know whether poking around like this was adventurous or idiotic. The others were having similar thoughts, and we decided to leave.
It wasn’t too far of a drive to Lake Atitlan, an ancient, rain-filled volcano crater and the deepest lake in North America. It is widely regarded as the most beautiful lake in the world. Several rivers run into it and none flow out, yet the lake remains fresh because it does not lose water through evaporation. Lake Atitlan is ringed by mountains – including volcanoes – and was formed by the collapse of a volcanic cone (like Crater Lake). We couldn’t find a beach that was accessible, so settled for a little boat ramp in order to go swimming. It would be nice to wash off some of the sweat and sulfur that we brought with us from the volcano.
That swim was unlike any other I can remember. Slipping into the water was like diving into moonlight. The water felt silky and sweet against the skin, and so delicious and refreshing that I almost cried when it was time to leave. Haven’t felt the same about rainwater since.
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Another Saturday we went to the Pacific coast. Descending from Guatemala City’s nearly 5,000′ elevation into the coastal heat and tropical humidity caught me by surprise. I’m not a big fan of hot weather, and at first it was hard to breathe the warm, wet air. We paid to get into a local resort for the day, but I don’t think anyone mistook us for regular guests. Maybe it was the cutoff jeans, or that initial whiff of sulfur. Definitely lacking that je ne sais quoi, but we weren’t here to impress anyone – obviously. We just wanted access to a beach and a pool. Tried body surfing for the first time, and discovered that you can get pretty beat up even in shallow water and sand. The sand was flat enough to allow a good ride on the waves, then got steep enough to make for a very hard landing if we rode in too far. After a round of body slams, the pool was a nice break before going back for more thumpings in the surf. Too bad I spent what I had to get in here and didn’t have money left over for one of those ice-cold drinks served from the floating bar. Even a pretty good attempt to look pitiful got no response.
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Those who travel know the unforgettable experience of going to a large market. The noise, sights, smells, textures and tastes come at you from all directions as people hawk their wares, draw each other into bargaining, feed children, tend livestock, weave, smoke, drink, sing, dance, cook. Some of the displays get the old stomach churning. Lots of flies. How long has that meat been hanging there? Fruits and vegetables I’d never seen. Fried plantains. Fresh tortillas. Goat cheese – and there’s the goat. Our supermarkets seem pretty uninteresting in comparison, although I appreciate the luxury of shopping in air-conditioned, well-lit cleanliness.
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My 6’3″ frame towered over so many who were about 5′ or shorter. And the blondish hair didn’t help me blend in. Standing out in a crowd got me thinking about what some minorities might experience continually. People who didn’t know me or know anything about me could – and probably would – make a string of assumptions just because I looked different. Seems so simple and obvious, but it was a bit of a revelation to me.