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Guatemala - March 21, 2000
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Greetings from Guatemala. I love this colorful country! I took the advice of many and skipped Guatemala City since it is not supposed to be that safe or interesting, and went directly to Antigua.

Antigua
Antigua was founded in 1543. In addition to being one of the oldest cities in the Americas, it is also known to be one of the most beautiful. It has a few too many tourists for my liking and at first I had the impression of it being a city of "closed doors". However, it is very colorful, has some beautiful ruins, spectacular churches and art, a great market, and behind many of those doors, I found amazing gardens and very welcoming people. I had the opportunity to do two great hikes up Volcanoes Agua (the highest) and Pacaya (still active), and once I had time to explore the city, I found that it has many special places. My favorites are the gorgeous hotel Casa Santo Domingo built around some ruins, and Cerro de la Cruz, a hill just north of the city with a huge towering cross. From this hill, there is an amazing view of the city with the cross in front, the immense Agua Volcano in the background, and all the buildings of various bright colors below alongside trees with purple blooms.

It was also interesting that I was in Antigua briefly two more times, and ended up spending three Sunday nights there in total. Each time I had the good fortune of seeing the parades that are held in anticipation of Semana Santa (Holy Week). They hold these parades every Sunday evening for seven weeks prior to Easter. It is a huge procession that goes through the entire town for hours with religious floats, people in costumes, a marching band, and many followers. They are just a build up for the even bigger processions held for Holy Week and Easter. It is too bad I'll miss those as they are supposed to be amazing with, literally, carpets of flowers in the streets!

Lago de Atitlan
From Antigua, I went by bus to Panajachel on Lago de Atitlan, and took a boat across the lake to stay in a small village called San Marcos. Not only was it beautiful and quiet, but there is a large Mayan community in the hills there. One day I took a long run into the hills and constantly had adults and children smiling and waving excitedly at me. The next day I went back to take photos and started by taking photos of one family (they allowed this because I promised to send them copies of the photos) and the next thing I knew I had virtually the entire neighborhood coming to ask me to take their photos too!

Chichicastenago
I went to Chichicastenago to experience its famous Sunday market. Fortunately I arrived a day early because that turned out to be my favorite part of being there. On Saturday the other tourists hadn't yet arrived; I met lots of very friendly people and enjoyed exploring this cute small town. As promised, the Sunday market was large and colorful, the pig market was even more interesting, where I watched people barter pigs for a couple of hours, but most interesting was the early morning Sunday mass at Iglesia de Santo Tomas right in the center of the market area. This church dates from about 1540 and although it is Catholic, it was very unlike any Catholic mass I've ever seen. It was really filled more with Mayan traditions and customs and several interesting rituals.

Tikal
I took a gorgeous eight-hour bus ride from Guatemala City to the El Peten region in Northern Guatemala to see Tikal, the greatest Mayan religious center yet discovered. It is known as the most impressive of the Mayan archeological sites. The pyramids are spectacular. Some are higher than 40 meters and it is amazing to think that the Mayans settled here as early as 700BC and within 200 years they had begun to build these stone ceremonial structures. The park is also a very pleasant place to visit and spend time because it is in the jungle, filled with wildlife, including toucans, monkeys and lots of pisotes. During my time in the north I stayed on the peaceful Lago Peten Itza, in a town called Flores, and also went boating to see some of the sights around the lake. My boatman was a 74 year old man (he looked about 100!) who has been living there his entire life.

Rio Dulce and Livingston
From Tikal I took a bus to a town called Rio Dulce in Eastern Guatemala and then a two hour boat ride down the river, also called Rio Dulce (literally means sweet river because it is fresh water), to the Caribbean town of Livingston. This river was so beautiful and lush green with mangrove and jungle walls filled with lots of tropical birds. The most spectacular are the Garzas Reales, large white birds perched on the trees along the river's edge. They seemed to each be guarding their own tree. This boat trip was so great that I did it again (in both directions) a few days later. I loved the town of Livingston and as a result I stayed there much longer than I had planned. It is a very colorful place with outgoing and fun people. It has an interesting mix of Garifunas and indigenous Kekchi Mayans. The typical local coconut seafood soup called Tapado is excellent and often while sitting in an eatery or restaurant, local Garifuna bands will come in and play their traditional music. I took some long runs here on the beach at sunset and once ended up going through the cemetery which was very cool! It is actually very typical of all the other cemeteries that I saw from afar throughout Guatemala and Honduras, but this was the first one I had the opportunity to actually go in. It was like a park with lots of old, big trees, and tombs that are painted in various colors and decorated with wreaths, flowers and other personal things. Some of the most interesting places I find are during these hour-long runs.

It is difficult to leave here, but I feel that Roatan off the northern coast of Honduras has been calling my name...

Hasta luego,
Karen

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