After San Marcos I spent a week in Antigua not thinking. I had been too in my head and decided I would let the universe tell me what to do. The universe was very clear, something I wrote about in my post announcing my decision to stay here, and an integral part of that decision was Hobbitenango.
I want to take everyone who comes to Antigua to visit Hobbitenango. All I knew when we set off on our mission was that we were going to a farm in the mountains with great views. We grabbed snacks and a tuktuk to take us part of the way up (we had underestimated just how long of a walk it was) before jumping out to hike the rest on foot. And I mean hike. If you choose to walk to Hobbitenango you will sweat and earn your beer at the top. But me being me, I wanted the physical challenge, and of course found the views to be worth it, so I enjoyed the trek.
When we reached the sign announcing our arrival at Hobbitenango I finally understood where we were going. It is pronounced by most here as “hoe-bee-ten-ango,” but seeing it written I realized it was actually “hobbit-enango,” as in Hobbiton mixed with Acatenango. Looking up past the sign I saw three main buildings built into a mountainside and one more off to the right. Two had circle doors. We were in a fantasy land.
Hobbitenango is actually much more than cool Lord of the Rings-looking buildings. It’s an eco-restaurant/bar/hotel that is built from materials sourced on the land and runs sustainably. It’s been under construction for over 2 years and it will be many more until it’s completely done, but the progress they’ve made so far is wonderful and I can’t wait to see it continue to grow.
Brayan and I had planned to stay just for the afternoon but on our way in we ran into Debbie and Pato, who had to go to work but told us to stick around for the night, they were coming back. That sounded good to us, so on a whim we decided to stay too.
We continued with our leisurely afternoon by grabbing a beer and finding a viewpoint up on the top of the hill from which we could see the volcanoes and green landscapes all around. We chilled on a blanket and watched the nature around us. It was beautiful. Right before sunset we went back down to the main area for another beer and watched the sky turn brilliant colors around a smoking Volcan Fuego from a log that had been carved into a bench. It was a gorgeous sunset. I sat there watching it, thinking only “how could I possibly leave this place?” It was paradise. I was in love with it.
After dinner and the best hot chocolate ginger tequila and chile drink I’ve ever had, Debbie and Pato arrived. We hung out in the dorm living room with the volunteers until the early morning hours, drinking wine, laughing, enjoying each other’s company. In the morning we ate brunch looking out at the still incredible view and went for a walk around the property. We talked about what it would be like if we all moved into a house together. Debbie, Pato and Brayan all wanted to find a new place and I needed one. After the past 12 hours we were convinced it would be the best idea ever. This was the foundation of how I ended up in a house with these awesome roommates.
It was hard to tear ourselves away from the paradise of Hobbitenango, but we had to go back and face the realities of work (at least they did). Not before one final moment that would seriously contribute to my new life in Antigua. On the way back down we slowed for a dog that was standing in the road at a steep curve. In the grass next to her we saw two tiny puppies cowering in fear of our car. The mom, we assumed, did not look good, and these pups were bloated with parasites and covered in fleas. Brayan jumped out to see them and the mom disappeared. It was like she stopped us so we would take them away. It didn’t take long for everyone to agree that we would give these dogs a better life than they ever could have on this mountainside, if they even survived, so Brayan dropped them in my lap and home they came. This is how we got Molly and Mary.
The 24 hours of Hobbitenango were pretty damn perfect. Halfway through my “let the universe decide” week I had this experience, which ended with roommates and dogs. The universe was being pretty clear. Stay, it was saying. And I was listening.
I escaped to San Marcos La Laguna. That’s what San Marcos feels like, an escape. It’s a tiny town right on the edge of Lago Atitlan, an expansive body of water that is surrounded by volcanoes. It is just as beautiful as it sounds.
San Marcos is unlike any of the other towns on the lake. I could feel it as soon as I stepped off the boat. From the dock I walked through a small alleyway lined by murals and plants, past places called the East West Healing Center and Las Piramides del Ka, in an atmosphere that transported me back to Rishikesh and Shambhala. I felt instantly at ease. This would be the place to take a break from the indulgences of Antigua and settle all the thoughts in my mind.
I reached the end of the alley and emerged onto the only real road in town. A basketball court was directly in front of me and tuktuks on either side. The only semi-congested place in this peaceful town that was about as busy as the FiDi on a Saturday. A bit down the road I found Hostel del Lago and the ideal outdoor chill space that I was looking for. Part of my escape to San Marcos was to work on a video, photo editing, and blog posts that I had been neglecting since I started hitchhiking, not to mention many catch-up phone calls. Del Lago’s patio was where I would take care of all of that.
San Marcos is something else. It’s one of those places that is really hard to describe why it’s so special. It could be its gorgeous setting and quiet car-free atmosphere. It could be the numerous yoga and meditation centers, offers of Thai massage and reiki classes, and stands selling crystals and space cookies. It could be the kind of people who are attracted to a place that offer such things. Or, as people say, it could be the energy. You can’t be in San Marcos without acknowledging its energy.
I split my time between personal work goals and San Marcos specific activities. Each day I attended something I was curious about, something that I had heard would be there and was part of the reason I was attracted to this town. I started with the cacao ceremony. Keith’s cacao ceremony was rumored to be an enlightening, deeply touching, can’t miss experience. I joined the twenty or so participants in his shaded outdoor space and was handed an intensely bitter pure cacao drink that I could sugar or spice up to my liking (I opted for the chili powder over the natural cane sugar). Then Keith talked while we waited for the cacao to work its way through our systems. About 45 minutes later I felt a deep sense of concentration; I sat in a meditative position and closed my eyes, letting the cacao get me into a sort of trance. I felt ready for what was about to happen. Then, nothing really happened. My high hopes were dashed as Keith focused his attention on just a couple of people there, turning the rest of us into flies on the wall of these personal therapy sessions. I left after three hours disappointed and ready to go back to work. Other people said he led great group meditations or moved them to the point of tears, but I didn’t have this experience. I just drank some bitter chocolate and tried to take seriously the girl who with an extended hand pulled the invisible fear out of someone’s throat, held onto it, and released it to the sky.
My second San Marcos activity was attending two sessions at Las Piramides del Ka. I had heard of their Moon Course when I was in Bacalar – a four-week program running from new moon to full moon that has morning classes on a variety of topics and afternoon meditation and culminates in a week of silence – but didn’t want to commit the time to it, so I was happy to discover that anyone could drop in for a class or two and see what it was about. I went to an evening meditation in the pyramid. The space is incredible for meditation and you could tell there was a special energy in the room, but I just couldn’t get into it. My mind was racing with all the other things I had come to San Marcos to sort out. Disappointed, again. The next morning I went to a class on lucid dreaming. Having had some intense dreams where I knew I was dreaming but unable to get out of it I was hoping for some insight as to how to control my dreams. Instead I got an hour talk about tricks to remember my dreams, like sleeping with my head to the North or East, lighting the same incense every night, and meditating before falling asleep. The thing is, I already remember my dreams, almost every day. Right now I could tell you what I dreamed last night. Sometimes I actually have a hard time forgetting my dreams. So it wasn’t really what I was looking for either.
I gave San Marcos one last shot with a Mayan ritual in the mountains. Friends and I met up with our shaman in San Paulo and walked an hour up into the mountains and scaled down a steep slope on our butts and hands to arrive at an impressive cave. Carved into the edge of the mountain, this cave had a giant tree growing horizontally out into the sky, shading it from the sun and hiding it from the lake below. It’s been used for Mayan ceremonies for ages and has some very powerful energy; people have experienced very intense things there. As he lit the candles smoke whirled upwards and was illuminated by rays of sun. I could see why this place was so special. We talked, we meditated, we played drums, we waited for our ceremonial food to show us something. And as soon as it started to, we were told it was time to leave. We were convinced we would die trying to climb our way back up the mountain and almost celebrated our success. Then we went back to the hostel and sat in a daze for two hours before everyone fell asleep. I think I slept 18 hours that night. Again, this did not live up to the hype, and I was left feeling disappointed.
Three tries, three strikes, I was out. Time to leave San Marcos. However outside of those activities, my personal goals were achieved. The rest of my time in San Marcos I did finish my video, photo editing, a number of blog posts, and had many necessary conversations. I had an idea what I wanted to do when I got back to Antigua but most importantly had decided to stop thinking so much. Getting away from Antigua to a totally different world was what I needed, and I realized that most of all when I got back to Antigua. I felt like I’d returned to an old friend. It was chaotic and overwhelming for the first night, but after that everything fell into place.
10 days after I arrived in Antigua I finally tore myself away to the next Guatemala destination on my list: Lake Atitlan. I had already begun to talk to people about staying longer in Antigua but felt like I needed some time away to wrap my head around this decision to stop moving. So I moved. On chicken buses.
Chicken buses are the generally accepted name for old school buses that have been on Pimp My Ride Latin America. They’re colorfully painted, decorated with stickers on the windshield, and outfitted with speaker systems that blast the local Latin music in your ears for the whole ride. People are packed into the seats six across, forcing the middle two to sit with half a butt cheek on a seat and the other hovering in the aisle. The classic joke “how many people can you fit on a chicken bus?” “one more” is entirely accurate. Speed limits don’t seem to exist in Guatemala in general, but even less so for chicken buses. On one winding mountain road it was a full body workout to keep myself from crushing the people on either side of me as I stood at the front of the aisle. The bus took turns like a rally car driver, forcing everyone to either hold on for dear life or play jello. Even the driver had to hold on on the turns.
The way to San Marcos La Laguna took four chicken buses and a boat. I started at the local market in Antigua and found the first bus to Chimaltenango. I sat in the last row on the bus so I could quickly jump out the back door when it was my turn to exit. I didn’t realize just how quickly I would have to jump. When we got to Chima a nice old man tapped me on the shoulder and pointed that it was time to get out. We were on the side of a busy highway intersection on the edge of town, was this really my stop? The back door swung open and someone asked me, “Donde vas?” “La Escuinta!” “Si aqui, la cruz a La Escuinta. Aca!” And he pointed at a bus that was hovering on the main road perpendicular to us. I threw my backpack on my back and jumped out the back of the barely even stopped bus and ran to the door of the next one. “La Escuinta?” “Si!”
I stepped onto chicken bus #2 as it started to accelerate to see that it was packed to the rim. My backpack found a home underneath the dashboard, held in place by a Guatemala police officer, as I found a place standing in the front of the aisle holding onto the metal rails. This was the workout ride when I thought we might go careening off the road at any turn. Every time someone passed me to get off I had to do a yoga move just to let them through.
The La Escuinta stop was another highway intersection. I jumped off one bus and found the bus to Pana (Panajachel). Finally I could calmly board a bus and wait for it to go. However this was not the bus to Pana but a bus to halfway to Pana, so without warning everyone got off and switched to another bus. Not calm anymore. Finally I made it to Pana.
The bus goes into the center of Pana to the market, but the boats are at the edge of town, so with the direction of “abajo” I walked 15 minutes back to the water’s edge. I don’t know why I expected more of a port – probably because Pana is the main tourist town on the lake and boats run from here to every town – but when I arrived I was slightly surprised by the small, rickety docks and boats. One final mini conversation consisting of location name and pointing at transport and I was on the boat to San Marcos. 30 minutes on rocky waters later I had arrived.
4 buses, 1 boat, 4 hours of travel, 46 quetzales, aka US$6.
It may sound stressful, but I actually found it entirely entertaining. I was laughing to myself most of the way. The chaos somehow works, and it made for a much more interesting ride than the shuttle.
The way back I took the same route with 4 buses, although the next time I was at the lake I had the patience to wait for the bus from Pana straight to Chimaltenango, cutting the ride down to 2. It was much easier that way for just 5Q more. But I’m happy to have done it the chaotic way the first time. Now I feel like I can go anywhere on these buses.
One of the things I wanted to do most when I made it to Antigua was hike Volcan Acatenango. I’d heard through the travel circuit that there was some great hiking in Guatemala, and this tough trek up a now inactive volcano was one of the best out there. What makes this hike extra special is the view from the top of its neighbor Volcan Fuego. Fuego is still active, so some lucky hikers get to see lava shooting out of it. Lately those lucky hikers are almost everyone – the past couple of months Fuego has been more active than it has been in years.
Typically people who want to hike Acatengango go through a hostel or tour company to book a guide, rent equipment, cover food and transportation, etc. I did not do this. Brayan had been before, so he, Matt and I decided we would go it alone. We packed up our backpacks, borrowed sleeping bags and a tent, got enough Subway sandwiches to last us three meals, and set off on a local chicken bus to the base of the trail.
I underestimated just how tough the hike would be. The first hour was all climbing uphill on soft volcanic dirt. Think what it’s like to run on sand but up a steep incline. By the time we reached the ranger station we had to pause to remove layers and take an energy-boosting swig of Quetzalteca. We carried on, continuing our uphill walk, through the varying forest of the mountain. Acatenango is a beautiful, fascinating hike. It goes through four different temperate zones: high farmland, cloud forest, high-alpine forest, and volcanic. The changing scenery is a great distraction from the physical exertion. If we weren’t racing against sunset we could have easily stopped more and longer to take it all in. One place we did have to pause for a while was at the juncture between cloud forest and high-alpine forest. It felt like we were on top of the world as we watched the clouds swiftly moving over the land below us.
The normal hike levels off after the cloud forest, taking people around a crater with a view over Antigua before resting at a camp on the east side, ideal for watching the sunrise. Again, we said fuck being normal, and took a right instead of a left to keep walking on the sunset side to a newer camp someone had told Brayan about. This meant we had no idea how long we had to hike to get to camp or what it would be like. We had expected it to level out like the other side, but we were very wrong. This way kept climbing, sometimes requiring actually scaling up rocks. At one point we were walking along a foot and a half wide path in volcanic ash shrouded in clouds. It was eerie and awe-inspiring and challenging. We were getting anxious to find camp since we were quickly running out of sunlight, but when we reached the other side of the volcanic ash and were back in a forest the clouds broke enough to see a brilliant sunset. This view was one of the best of the hike.
Suddenly we heard a rumble. Fuego. We quickened our pace and within minutes found the almost abandoned camp, just as the final moments of sun expired. Camping on Acatenango is a whole other challenge. It is freezing cold. We set up our tent as fast as we could with our now numb fingers. I put on every layer of clothing I had with me – 2 pairs of pants, 2 socks, 3 shirts, 2 jackets, scarf, gloves, hat – and even then we had to huddle close together to try to stay warm. The three of us slept like sardines just to make it through the night. But Fuego rewarded us for our suffering.
Fuego didn’t just erupt a little bit; it shot lava into the sky for hours. We joined the other four people who had found this camp around a tiny campfire for dinner and a show, the show being the lava. The reason we decided to go to this side instead of the normal side is because of the lava trails. Most of the lava of Fuego runs down the west side; the east side doesn’t usually get to see where the lava goes. So we saw fire shoot into the sky and then bright red lines streaming down the mountain. It was breathtaking. Fuego conveys a sense of power. I couldn’t help but marvel at the incredible force of nature that was in front of me. I also had to thank my camera for being a great machine that could capture this sight.
The next morning I woke up with the sun. The sky was every color of the rainbow. Fuego was still erupting in front of us, and the moon was hovering over Lake Atitlan in the distance. It was gorgeous.
The Acatenango hike is absolutely a must do for anyone visiting Antigua. I’m already talking to friends about going back up soon. I am considering making it a personal goal to go at least once a month.