Vagabroads: Guatemala

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It was the best of times; it was the worst of times… So much happened during our time in the country known as Guate. We rode in our first tuk-tuks, swam in the pools of Semuc Champey, Karin almost died tubing on the rapids of the Cahabón river, and we visited towns so numerous that we can’t name them all.

We camped at a coffee farm on the side of a volcano, celebrated Halloween and thanksgiving with friends, witnessed the Burning of the Devil, and worked out at the gym with the Costa Rican rugby team. We became close friends with a chocolate-making Mayan priestess and the owner of Frida’s Restaurant—a mecca for gays in Guatemala—went to Gay Pride in Guatemala City, and spent six weeks nursing our sweet dog, Gracie, back to health when her intestinal cancer took a turn for the worse.

Guatemala’s country motto should be, “Expect nothing because nothing will be what you expect.” We expected so little that we only planned for a few weeks in Guatemala. Five months later, we were considering moving there.

Guatemala was similar to neither Mexico nor Belize. Just over 60 percent of Guatemala’s population is of mixed Amerindian-Spanish descent. The remaining 40 percent belong to one of 23 Mayan ethnic groups, making Guatemala one of the countries with the largest indigenous populations in Latin America.

Except in large cities, most women wear traditional Mayan outfits, unique to the towns and villages they are from. Outrageous and campy chicken buses line every road. There are a few well-maintained highways but by and large the “roads” of Guatemala were in far worse shape than anywhere we had been thus far.

We began our trip into Guatemala by stopping in Flores, a small town in the middle of a lake that seems to be every traveler’s introduction to the Guate way of life. Flores was more developed and metropolitan than we had expected—most travel around Flores is done by way of tuk-tuks or small boats called lanchas.

Most people visit several ruins, particularly Tikal, while in Guatemala, but we had seen so many in Mexico and Belize that we just couldn't take any more for a while. From Flores, we headed south to a volcano-fed (there are seven active volcanoes in Guatemala and 26 inactive ones) hot spring, called the Cascades de Paraiso, that turned into a boiling waterfall feeding into a cool pool.

Guatemala was not as well set up for camping as Mexico and Belize had been. The weather was scorching, the air was sticky. I was homesick. This was all a recipe for the complete meltdown I had, almost ending our trip early. But, it wasn't the first, wouldn't be the last, and at times like this all you can do is call home, cry, get a hotel room or Airbnb, take a hot shower, sleep in a real bed, shake it off and keep going.

We needed something amazing, scenery that would blow us away. After seven hours of the roughest road of our trip to date (and one of my favorite adventures!), we finally made it into the town of Lanquin where we set up camp at a hostel called Utopia.

The next day we hiked to the remote and hidden world wonder that is Semuc Champey. A series of crystal blue mineral pools that have formed a limestone bridge over a raging river, it is easily one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

From Semuc Champey we went to a few other small towns and then to Lake Atitlan, known to be a spiritual energy center, the lake, surrounded by three volcanoes, is full of American hippies and new-ageists. The lake is said to have magical healing properties. Here, we attended a cacao ceremony, practiced yoga and enjoyed silence—this trip gave us the opportunity to explore all the sides of ourselves that the real world had little patience for.

After a couple of weeks at the lake we were ready for a city and past ready for an Airbnb. To Antigua we went. The colonial city, seated at the base of a volcano, is popular among artists, writers, and, frankly, the most interesting people we met our entire trip. Full of beautiful, grand old buildings, some ravaged by earthquakes but still standing, and cobblestone streets, Antigua is miles and miles of wondrous walkability.

We could feel it in the air—the high vibrato a city gives off when there are gays nearby. We just had to find them. We joined the local Facebook page for expats and asked where we could find our people. Across the board, every commenter pointed us in one direction—to Frida’s Restaurant and its owner, Maggie.

Frida’s hosts weekly dance parties and a once a month VIP Night, specifically for the gays. And wow, do the gays come out! We also learned of five other gay bars in Antigua, far more than we expected for such a small city. On a particularly random VIP Night at Frida’s, we ran into Daniela Sea, “Max” from *The L Word*.

In Antigua, we also met GG, a wise and mouthy photographer from Brooklyn who relocated to Antigua a couple of decades ago, only to become a Mayan priestess and launch her chocolate-making empire. With GG, we hiked barefoot in the sacred mountains outside of Antigua. She taught us enough Mayan words to say hello, goodbye and to offer someone a ride into town.

Antigua was the second place on our trip (Guadalajara, Mexico being the first) that we felt could be a potential forever-home. With Antigua as our base, we explored the southern beaches of Guatemala, with black sand and freezing water, and visited the nearby city of Xela, which blew our minds with the rainbow “gay friendly business” stickers on retail storefronts.

It was difficult to leave Antigua. We lived in a nice apartment for the majority of our time there. A personal trainer was $8 an hour for both of us, so we went to the gym daily. We had friends, straight and gay, we went hiking and exploring regularly. It was comfortable without being predictable. Under the care of a talented veterinarian, Gracie thrived again. The people welcomed us into their daily lives and it was easy to feel at home.

However, after five months and with heavy hearts, it was time to move on. It was time for El Salvador. Don’t Go There. It’s Not safe. You’ll Die. These were the worried cries from friends and family, when they found out we were heading to the murder capital of the world, home of the infamous MS-13.

After a laidback border crossing, we made our way down the Ruta de Flores (the Route of Flowers) towards our first destination, the sleepy surf village of El Zonte in La Libertad.

El Salvador continued to teach us the most repeated lesson of the trip: that we know nothing, about anything at all. We found no heads hanging from bridges, no masked men lurking behind every corner. We heard no gunshots and in the six weeks we spent in El Salvador, never once did we feel unsafe.

El Salvador was quiet, laidback, stunning and unassuming. Its people were friendly, welcoming and grateful that we were there, giving their beautiful country a chance. They know its reputation and it saddens them.

Gracie was recovering from the surgery she had in Guatemala, and we knew our sweet girl’s time on this Earth was getting short. We were determined to fill her days with runs on the beach and swims in the ocean. Her nights would be full of treats and belly rubs around a campfire.

In El Salvador, we camped on the beaches of El Tunco and El Cuco. We each tried

our hand at surfing. Neither of us were very good at it. We spent quiet days at the Laguna de Alegria, a turquoise lake in a crater on the top of a mountain. We watched a baby turtle release.

Because real, day to day life is part of this kind of fulltime travel, I needed to see a doctor for swimmer’s ear and the car needed some attention. This meant we would have to go into the city of San Salvador, said to be one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

Looking back, our fear and trepidation makes me laugh out loud. We found San Salvador to be clean, modern, hipster, metropolitan, and, generally, safe. Our first meal was at an Olive Garden. That is not to say there aren’t suburbs of the city or areas at night that we would recommend not walking around.

We stayed in a health-centered, yoga hotel for the couple of weeks we were there. While Guatemala was defined by chaos, El Salvador was defined by chill. It was “muy tranquilo, siempre.”

Tune in next month for the final installment of our four-part series about the Vagabroads 2-year journey through Mexico and Central America. We will tell you about staring into the caldera of an active volcano in Nicaragua, then surfing down the side of it, almost sliding to our death off of a jungle mountain in Costa Rica, and swimming with sloths in the islands of Panama.