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.
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.
The process of booking and preparing for El Mirador reminded me a lot of the Salt Flats and the Amazon: it was possible to find some information online but it was typically unreliable, old, or inconclusive, so it came down to a gut feeling and a leap of faith. So I decided that I would write a post breaking down the process for anyone who might be interested in doing this trek.
Tip One: Booking the Trek
There are two ways to do this: 1) through an agent in Flores; or 2) go to Carmelita and find a guide once you get there. Option 2 felt a little riskier to us – there was no guarantee of finding anyone, let alone an English speaker, or that we would be able to leave the same day we arrived in Carmelita – although we did see it work out for a duo we met at El Tintal. We went with option 1, booking through an agent in Flores.
There are a handful of agencies around Flores that advertise Mirador treks, but most of them seem pretty untrustworthy. We heard some bad stories about places that offer it for less money but don’t bring enough food or try to bring you back on the fourth day instead of the full five that you paid for, and when you try to go back to complain they’re conveniently closed that day. You get what you pay for.
The 5-day trek will most likely cost US$250. Some places will tell you this includes an English guide, but just how much English they actually speak is a gamble. It could be zero. We found that a fluent English-speaking guide cost an additional US$50.
We debated booking through two agencies. The first was Hostel Los Amigos, which is probably the most reliable option in town since the hostel has to take responsibility for you and knows you could easily complain about them to other guests or TripAdvisor (everyone seems to be very concerned about TripAdvisor in Flores). It would have been US$250 for a guide who “sure probably speaks some English” – translation: Spanish only – and when we asked about cooking vegan for Cassidy they said that “should be fine.” We were skeptical about that response.
The second was our buddy Luis from Tayazal Travel Agency, who had boarded our bus on arrival from Belize to talk to us about booking tours. We heard from a group that went with him that they had a great experience on his Tikal tour, so they were going to book their onward buses through him. Positive reviews from friends. When we talked to Luis he broke down how it usually works and told us about the only guy in town he trusts to run this tour. Then I got to talk to that guy on the phone about more details. It was also US$250 but the English guide (guaranteed English) would cost an extra US$50. When I mentioned Cassidy’s veganism he said he had tried to cook for a vegan once before but it was too tough, so we should bring our own food and he’d knock off US$40. We trusted that Luis was looking out for us and something made us trust this guy on the phone too, especially since he gave us an actual outline of what we would be doing and he knew what veganism was (most of the time vegans get mistaken for vegetarians, or just people who don’t eat beef, as Luis proved when he told us to buy some canned tuna), so for US$260 we booked an English 5-day trek.
Tip Two: English Guide, Yes or No?
The extra US$50 to book an English guide was a big budget debate. I’ve been able to understand a surprising amount of Spanish in the past, but who knew if it was enough to really know what we were seeing when we got to Mirador, and ultimately the point of this trek was to know more about Mirador. So we decided to spring for it.
If you’re not pretty much fluent in Spanish and care to learn about Mirador then paying for an English guide is totally worth it. Since most of it is still shrouded in jungle we had lots of questions, and if we had not had an interpreter with us then we wouldn’t have gotten any answers to them. I did try to listen to our Spanish-speaking guide to see what I could understand if we hadn’t gone with the interpreter, and it was not much at all.
Tip Three: The Luck of the Draw
Having said that, your guides are totally luck of the draw. We found out when we returned that we were supposed to have a different guy, an actual English-speaking guide instead of a Spanish speaker from Carmelita and an interpreter, but he did not wake up that morning so they were forced to pull together a last-minute solution or tell us we had to wait two days to go. This is just what happens sometimes with Mirador; everyone is still figuring out how to run this tour.
We saw a variety of guides at El Tintal when we overlapped with different groups. There was one very eccentric guy who was fluent in English and had more knowledge on the Maya than we had gotten, but he seemed kind of disheveled and was a total stoner. Then there was one who didn’t seem to communicate much with his group at all, since they were asking our guy where things were at the camp. There was a girl who was promised English but got Spanish only. It’s a toss-up, so it’s best to embark on the trek with pretty low expectations, and hopefully you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
The other luck of the draw would be your group. The people you do the trek with will be your companions 24/7. If you sign up to go with people you don’t know, be prepared in case you get the novice hiker who decided a long jungle trek was a good way to try out this thing called hiking and camping. If you don’t have people who hike at the same pace as you it can take a couple of hours longer, and as an added bonus it takes the mosquitoes 0.25 seconds to find you once you stop moving.
Tip Four: Bringing Your Own Food
As we found out, it is possible to bring your own food. And if you are vegan, this is basically a requirement. There are three reasons this was actually a great option, and one it was a terrible option.
First good reason: Cost. They took US$40 each off for the food. Based on everyone’s advice, we would have bought snacks to supplement the included food anyway. So in the end the amount we spent on our meals and the snacks was actually less than US$40 each, and what we got lasted me beyond just the trek.
Second good reason: What we ate. Bringing our own food allowed us to control what we ate on the trek, so we could make sure it was healthy and balanced nutrition. On our way back through El Tintal the fourth day we saw another group’s lunch: a sandwich, made up of two slices of white bread, one slice of packaged ham, one slice of packaged cheese, a tomato slice, some onion, mayonnaise, and ketchup. At that moment I thanked Cassidy for being vegan. Dinner and breakfast did look better, but I was much happier with how we had eaten.
Third good reason: When we ate. That sandwich we saw being made was around 3:30 pm on the first day. If they followed the same morning schedule as we had, they would have had breakfast around 9 am and started walking around 10. Meaning they hiked 17 km in 5.5 hours with no lunch. Our first day we ate our sandwiches at a break around 12:30, which kept our energy and spirits up. We had complete control over whether we had breakfast on top of La Danta for sunrise instead of back at camp an hour later or dinner when we were actually hungry instead of when it started to get dark.
One bad reason: Camp dynamics. We didn’t realize what not having meals prepared at the camp would mean. The guides are used to showing up at a camp and setting up the tents while the cook (usually a woman) prepares the meals. At first we thought our guides were just awkward about camp time because we didn’t need their help cooking our food. Then we got back to El Tintal and realized that they were actually bitter because they had had to make their own food the whole time. That last day at El Tintal a woman from another group cooked their meals. And when we discovered our last tortillas were gone (apparently “the mules at them”) it was that same woman who gave us freshly made corn tortillas. Whether they were properly warned or not we’re not sure, but the gender dynamics that were revealed in that last day were off-putting, to say the least. This also explained why they tried to tell us they didn’t bring enough food and had to go home a day earlier (a lie, they just didn’t want to cook their noodles).
Tip Five: What to Pack
You will carry your own personal belongings: a change of clothes, toiletries, a hat, rain jacket, bug spray, and I brought a spork and Leatherman (which were life savers when our under-prepared guides didn’t have many cooking utensils at the Mirador site). But it’s possible to bring a bag to put with the things the mule carries, which is where I put my towel, sandals (which I only wore once and just got very muddy), and book. So if you have some heavier things you can offload them on the mule. We met someone who brought rain boots for the mud the first day and then let the mule carry them the rest of the time.
Bring cards, a book, and some way to play music. There is a lot of downtime at the camp, so we played hours of cards and made some significant progress in our books. The music is for the bus ride. It’s a long ride and the extreme bumpiness make it even impossible to read. And trust me, you’ll want to save some battery for the ride back.
Tip Six: What to Expect on the Trek
Everyone tells you how long you’re going to hike in hours. I think this is bullshit. People hike at such different paces – what they told us would take 8 hours took us 5. So here’s what is actually helpful: Day 1 and Day 5 are 17 km, Day 2 and Day 4 are 23 km, making the whole thing 40 km each way. It’s mostly level, but the last day we were surprised at the number of hills we didn’t remember hiking on the first day. The first day is also incredibly muddy for the first two hours, but it will get better. And Day 1 looks like generic woods from around the world, but Day 2 it gets much more jungley.
Otherwise prepare yourself mentally for the fact that this is just a walk in the woods. We didn’t get the survival skills and flora lessons that I’ve gotten on other experiences, but that’s not what this trek is about. This is about the destination, and the long walk to get there is how you earn and discover it. Having said that, it’s also a walk in the jungle, so insects, natural obstacles, and monkeys will torment you along the way.
Tip Seven: The Ride Home
No matter how tired, hot, sweaty, disgusting, or over it you may feel on the walk the last day, the bus ride back is the worst part. You’ve completed the jungle trek, you’ve made it back to town, and now you can sit for four hours and get transported back to civilization. It doesn’t sound that bad, right? Wrong. The bus is a sauna, the people and their stuff pile in on top of each other, and it stops at random points for unknown lengths of time. It is a test of patience. And every minute it’s waiting for people to get their cold Coca Colas from the vendor on the side of the road is another minute you’re not getting in the shower. For your own sanity, save some battery on your iPod and try to zone out. You will make it home sooner or later.
Any time I disappear on an multi-day excursion into nature I never know how to begin to write about it when I get back. Do I start with the facts: where did I go, how did I get there, what did I do? Or do I start with the deep revelations that inevitably happen when I have ample time to think about life? Or do I start with the tips for other travelers post: the do’s, don’t’s, and just-so-you-know’s of such an excursion?
Already breaking it down into those three questions outlines the three blog posts that have to be written about my El Mirador experience (although whether the second will be posted is yet to be decided). So I’ll start with the facts post. I apologize in advance: this is going to be a long one.
Where did I go?
El Mirador is one of the oldest and largest Mayan sites. In its heyday it was the capital city, home to more than 200,000 people but in charge of a million. It preceded many of the more well-known Mayan sites like Tikal and Palenque. It was abandoned nearly 2,000 years ago, and since then nature has taken over. Most of El Mirador is still hidden underneath a dense jungle that turned its stone buildings into vegetated hills.
There are two ways to reach Mirador: by helicopter or by walking. The nearest town is Carmelita, which is 40 km away. The five-day hike goes as follows: Day 1, 17 km, camp at El Tintal; Day 2, 23 km, camp at Mirador; Day 3, explore Mirador, camp at Mirador; Day 4, 23 km back the same route as Day 2, camp at El Tintal again; Day 5, same 17 km hike back to Carmelita, then a 4-hour bus back to Flores. Round trip it’s 80 km of fairly level but intensely jungle trekking.
Or as Chip Brown from Smithsonian Magazine describes it: “… two or three days to get from the end of the road at Carmelita to El Mirador: long hours of punishing heat and drenching rain, of mud and mosquitoes, and the possibility that the jungle novice […] might step on a lethal fer-de-lance or do some witless city thing to provoke a jaguar or arouse the ire of the army ants inhabiting the last great swath of subtropical rain forest in Mesoamerica.” Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?
How did I get there?
Mirador was first brought to my attention in a short article I read unknown months ago in an unknown publication (I seem to have forgotten those details). The author described a challenging trek through the wild jungle to Mayan ruins that were not seen by many tourist eyes. Given my penchant for the jungle and ruins – the Amazon, Angkor Wat, and Bagan all rank among my favorite experiences of last year – this sounded right up my alley. So even though the details of the publication may have escaped me, I never forgot this mystical place called El Mirador.
Fast forward to Bacalar and the realization that Flores was geographically on the way to Palenque. I had grown weary of the tourist trail already so the idea of removing myself from it for a few days to be in quiet nature sounded perfect. The athletic activity was also a draw; a few days lounging on a dock were lovely but I was yearning for some movement. The final piece of the puzzle fell into place when Cassidy decided to come with me. Without her I was facing doing the hike alone, which would have been awfully boring, or with a random group that could have been personality or pace mismatches. Cassidy and I already knew we got along, although five days was quite the test of that and we were lucky to have passed, but what we didn’t know and were happy to discover was that we walk at exactly the same pace: fast and non-stop.
Booking El Mirador was a bit of a leap of faith. We’d done some online research but it was hard to find any definitive agency to book through, so we had two options: go with the Hostel Los Amigos, or with the travel agent who had jumped on our bus on the way into town. Long story short, that will be discussed in a separate post, we ended up going with Luis the agent. Something felt less commercial about it, and we trusted that he was looking out for us. We made a couple of changes to the usual tour by opting to bring our own food – something they suggested (required) for Cassidy since she’s vegan – and hiring an English guide, which is an extra expense that I would recommend to anyone who isn’t fluent in Spanish and who cares to know anything about Mirador. Having secured the logistics, all that was left to do was spend longer than most people probably would in the grocery store deciding what we would eat for the next five days.
If you had told me I would do a five day intense hike on a vegan diet I would have said you were sorely mistaken. But that’s just what I did and let me tell you, I felt great. Maybe there is something to this Veganism thing… Here’s what a vegan eats on a hiking trip: cereal bars and apples or canned peaches for breakfast; peanut butter and banana sandwiches for lunch; nuts and Oreo’s for snacks; tortillas with black or refried beans, avocado, carrots, and cucumbers for dinner; and lots and lots of hot cocoa. Pretty tasty stuff. The added bonus of bringing our own food was that we were able to eat whenever we wanted, unlike the other groups who had to wait until they got to camp at 3:00 pm the first day to have lunch. I would have been seriously hangry by then.
What did I do?
Monday morning, 5:00 am. Time to go. With such an early departure I hoped to sleep on the four-hour bus ride to Carmelita. I think I managed some semi-conscious state, a miracle only possible by sheer exhaustion; the bus felt like all the components of the Epcot Test Track ride were happening at once. It wasn’t just bumpy, we were tossed side to side as well as up and down. Any time I opened my eyes the interior had a new crowd: first I was alone in the seat, then it was packed like sardines with people standing in the aisles, then I had a family of three in the seat with me including a breastfeeding baby. Any hopes of beginning this daunting trek well-rested went out the vibrating window. When we arrived in Carmelita we lingered long enough to have breakfast and load the horse (a sad reality of the trek, the horses all looked quite worn); by 10:30 off we went with our two guides, one Spanish speaker from Carmelita and one English interpreter who had only done the trek two times before.
The first day was all about one thing: mud. A recent rainfall had turned the path into a veritable mud pit that tried to steal our shoes right off of our feet and, when unsuccessful, latched on to create a second heavy sole of earth. Thankfully it dried up about halfway, and despite the slow start we still made it to camp in 4.5 hours. 17 km down.
Here’s how camp generally worked: arrive in the afternoon exhausted, make warm beverage (tea from leaves or cocoa), play Rummy Infinity – El Mirador Tournament of Maya Champions (aka the Rummy 500 game we kept up the whole trip; final scores: 3190 to 3755), make dinner, join with other group for Cambio card game (there was another trio doing the trek at the same time as us who we never hiked with but always saw at the campsites), go to bed.
Night one I experienced what I think of as my first most terrifying, near-death jungle experience. I woke up in the middle of the night, unhappily having drank too much leaf tea and needing to creep out of my tent into the total darkness that only exists in the most remote places. Maybe 10 minutes after returning to my tent I heard padded footsteps and a low growl. My mind had one thought: jaguar. I froze, played dead inside my tent, as if that would help protect me from an animal that hunts by smell. I have no idea how much time passed with my heart racing and my body petrified until I saw a headlamp walking confidently towards the bathroom. I figured it was gone then, and somehow fell asleep. The next morning I asked Leon if there were jaguars there, to which he replied, “Yes, I saw one here a few months ago. There’s one big one and one small one here.” Holy. Shit.
The second day was all about animals. We were proper in the jungle now. In the first 15 minutes I became one of the luckiest people in the jungle: I saw an ocelot. It was on the path about 30 yards in front of us for just a quick second before disappearing into the trees, but I remember it like it was a picture I’d seen a thousand times. Ocelots are not big for wild cats but they definitely look wild. It reminded me of the (frozen) bobcat I’d seen this summer in Vermont. We also saw sereke, cojolita, and some playful or evil spider monkeys who tried to shake water off of the treetops onto us. Before the end of the trail we stopped at La Muerta, a crypt ruin, and the site of my second most terrifying, near-death jungle experience.
“Go in to the left, there are bats,” Leon told me. Bats, no big deal, I can go see some bats. When I made it into the dark crypt my headlamp lit up one giant black scorpion spider on the wall to my left. My minor arachnophobia made me pause, but I took a breath and went in. It’s not like it was next to me. To my right I saw a bat. Then underneath it I saw a group of bugs that looked like the ones in the Mummy that crawl under your skin and eat you alive. I let out a small shriek, but sadly that was not the worst part of this exploration. When I turned back around my light illuminated the rest of the crypt, and I saw the real terror: many more huge black scorpion spiders dotted the walls, including one that was moving right next to my head. That was it, time to get the hell out of there. I crawled out as fast as possible, breaking into a run once I was in the open air and a spastic dance to mentally shake them off of me. Leon laughed at me and said he had to see what it was that scared me so much, so he grabbed his flashlight and went in. When he came back out he again said the least reassuring thing possible, “That is the only spider in the jungle that scares me. If that bites you, you don’t come out alive.”
After 5 hours and 10 minutes of walking 23 km, we arrived at Mirador. We started big: sunset at the top of La Danta, the largest pyramid in the world. La Danta was the perfect introduction to El Mirador. Standing in front of it today it’s hard to image what it looked like when it was built; it looks like a tree-covered hill. But as we started to climb I saw some stepped areas that were covered by tarps, a hint of the excavation process and of what was ahead. At the tops of these pyramids the Mayans built temples in threes – one large one in center and two smaller ones flanking it – to symbolize maize, beans, and squash, the three main agricultural crops. At La Danta the three pyramids are still mostly covered, but at El Tigre one is visible, and it is a beautiful glimpse into what it looked like so many years ago.
We climbed to the top of the tallest pyramid on La Danta, marveling at the way nature had grown over and around it. When we reached the summit I couldn’t hold it in: wow. Just wow. The view stretched out before us for miles, and it was all jungle trees. In the near distance we could see the top of El Tigre, the other large pyramid in El Mirador, which is just a mountain of flora, and in the far distance we could see the pyramid at El Tintal where we had been the day before, another mountain of flora. It seemed impossible that we had walked so far in that one day. We sat at the top and watched the day come to a close. We high fived. We made it, and it was everything I hoped it would be.
The next day started early with sunrise on top of La Danta. I was happy to have done the walk in light the night before; now I knew what we were in for. Unfortunately the sky did not cooperate for sunrise like it had for sunset; it was a wall of clouds. The howler monkeys at least added an interesting soundtrack to the non-scene. All morning we wandered the hidden city with our guides, who told us the uses of structures and meanings behind carvings to the best of their ability. Cassidy and I, both being Art History majors, tested our guides’ knowledge by asking tons of questions about everything. Personally it was a joy to have another person with me who was just as interested to find out if this government building was on a civic plaza.
Mirador is fascinating but takes a lot of imagination. My mind had a hard time grasping what it looked like when it was a city of stone buildings in a cleared landscape. Parts of structures were covered by translucent temporary roofs as they underwent restoration. A carving was redone next to a blank area that had yet to be worked on, and I found it hard to understand how whoever did it could possibly know what it looked like before. But this is all part of the appeal of Mirador, seeing it at such a juncture between past and present, nature and mankind, wild and tamed.
We closed out Mirador with another gorgeous sunset. We still had two days and 40 km to go, but that didn’t matter yet. All that mattered at that moment was that view, that magical place, that feeling of being one of the lucky few who had made it out to this ancient, important site, that feeling of being a small part of this wonderful world.
I try to remember that moment when I think about El Mirador, and not the last two days. Day four we basically ran the 23 km in 4:40. The mosquitoes were out in full force, we were grossly covered with four days of sweat, our guides tried to get us to walk all the way back to Carmelita in one day (we shut that down real fast), our tents were not set up when they were supposed to be despite our leaving early to get a good spot, our tortillas disappeared, and our normally quiet night time was crowded with a bunch of new groups. Day five we ignored our exhaustion and walked the 17 km nonstop in 4 hours. How we picked up the pace the last two days I’ll never understand. Maybe it was the prospect of being out of that damn jungle and into a shower. When the road of Carmelita was in site we broke out into a run to greet it. It was a trying last two days, but El Mirador must be earned. It wouldn’t be a real jungle trek without some hard times, right?
After the agonizingly long and hot bus ride back to Flores, two back to back showers, ample anti-itch cream, and a pot of chai tea in Los Amigos’s garden, I thought back to where I had just been. The hike itself wasn’t too challenging, but the jungle is a tough place to be for so long. I was glad to be out of it but more so glad to have done it. El Mirador is impossible to rank with the other popular Mayan sites, and maybe that is the allure of it. It stands alone in its wonder.
Waiting for the train in Hospet, my former Japan resident current travel companion told me to try to hike “Mount Ahhso” if I had time. I felt younger than my 27 years when I laughed at what sounded like Mount Asshole and made him repeat the name a few times before he finally spelled it out for me. A-S-O. Mount Aso. Got it.
Fast forward to Fukuoka and me planning my final jaunt around Kyushu. I knew I wanted to get in one more mountain stop – a small village and a good hike, like all the places I’d loved so much in the past year – so I looked up his recommendation and happily discovered that Aso was located on the north part of the island in a place that would logically complete my Kyushu loop. Perfect.
I took a local train between Kumamoto and Aso. I remembered the train ride from Inle Lake to Kalaw and how I’d fallen for that town, and even though this train ran much smoother than that one did the romantic feeling and pretty scenery assured me that I had made the right decision in going to Aso. This was confirmed when we pulled into a small station and upon exiting I could see what looked like the whole town in front of me with the volcano billowing smoke in the not-so-far distance. I forgot to mention – Mount Aso, or Asosan, is the largest active volcano in Japan. Unfortunately this billowing smoke was not a good omen for my hike; it meant that I couldn’t go to the crater, the main attraction. There were still other hiking routes though up and around the mountain so I was not deterred.
I walked the block and a half to Aso Base Backpackers, which quickly became one of my favorite hostels of the trip. It felt like a modern lodge, with a wood-burning fireplace, a fully stocked and beautiful kitchen with an assortment of teas and coffees (my favorite was the apple tea), and a variety of seating options from a large tree-trunk table to the distinctly Japanese raised section with a leg-oven table (you sit with your legs underneath a table that is covered by a blanket and has a heater hanging from the top – it keeps you really warm). I went over the trail map with the receptionist and mapped out a plan for the next day. Even though the crater was closed I could hike from the hostel up the mountain, around a loop trail to see other inactive craters, and back down in about seven hours he estimated.
It only took me 4.5. That is, once I got going. I woke up the next morning to slanting, cold rain. I waited an hour with my Japanese breakfast sandwich (a soft-boiled egg inside an onigiri, delicious) and coffee until I gave up and went for it anyway, as bundled up as possible.
The hike up was eerie and mystical in a way, since I was walking entirely in cloud cover. Once in a while it would part and I would see a cow standing nearby in a field or a green grass-covered cone of a former volcano or a glimpse of the valley down below. Because I could barely see 10 feet in front of me I missed the turn for the path I meant to be hiking and ended up walking on road all the way up, but I chose to look at this mistake as a good mistake – I got to see a larger variety of scenery and hike up a different side of the mountain than I would hike down.
When I reached the top the weather was at its worst. I was actually in a cloud and it was seriously windy. I stopped by the visitors center and the woman said it would be that way all day. I asked about the loop hike and she said, “No, dangerous!” I went anyway. I didn’t climb up a mountain for nothing, I wanted to see some craters.
I couldn’t see anything. The path was a series of steep staircases that led to nothing but mist. The wind was so strong at one point that I had to sit down so I didn’t get blown off the side. I had no idea how far I would have fallen since I couldn’t see more than a couple of feet around me, if that. I had to admit defeat and climb back down. This actually was dangerous.
Once I got back to level ground the clouds parted, which at first was a frustrating tease now that I could have completed the loop, but then I got to see what I really came for: a huge puff of dark gray smoke rose out of the active crater. At least Asosan gave me this incredible sight as a reward for my trek. I had never been so close to an active volcano before; there’s something really mesmerizing about watching smoke pour out of a mountain, like watching fire burn.
I cheerily walked back down the path I had meant to take up, singing songs to myself and sometimes running to change it up a bit. The sun came out and I could see Aso town down below. The landscape was gorgeous.
The rest of my time in Aso was exactly the relaxing experience I wanted it to be. I went to the onsen (and luckily did not get kicked out for my tattoos), wrote at the cozy leg-oven table in my alpaca gear, and had my two final vending-machine-ordered meals at a local restaurant slash market (udon and katsu don).
I knew that the next day I would go back to Fukuoka and the day after that I would fly back to the United States. I looked back at my last week in Kyushu and was proud of myself for arranging the perfect assortment of locations. I was going out the right way.
I honestly had never heard of Rishikesh until Shambhala, but when a new friend told me “if there’s one place you go in India, go to Rishikesh” I knew it had to be added to my itinerary. I planned to spend a few days after Kwaz left chilling out there, but as soon as I told her that she expressed that she would also like to see it, so we changed around our plan to start in Rishikesh instead. Somehow I had completely forgotten Kwaz’s yoga passion; of course she should also go to Rishikesh.
I can’t imagine a better way to have begun our India adventures. Rishikesh is a picturesque, relaxed town in the foothills of the Himalayas that is centered around yoga, meditation, ayurvedic massages, vegetarian food, and outdoor excursions. It is on both sides of the Ganga river, so crossing a narrow pedestrian bridge is part of the daily routine. It’s also routine to share this bridge with monkeys, cows, and motorbikes. In fact monkeys and cows, as well as dogs, share the whole town with people, so you always have to be sure you don’t have anything in your hand that the aggressive monkeys will want to grab. One even tried to take food through a restaurant window one night. They’re actually kind of evil.
We made the best of our limited time in Rishikesh with a zen day, an active day, and an unfortunately wet and freezing day.
The day we arrived was the wet and freezing day. The overnight bus dropped us off before most guesthouses were even open, which didn’t really matter since we’d happened to overlap with the International Yoga Festival, so almost everywhere was completely full. Uh oh. For well over an hour in a constant dreary rain we walked up and down the small hillside streets, back and forth across the bridge, carrying all of our now-soaked possessions on our backs, looking for somewhere, anywhere, that had a bed, hot shower, and place to lay our stuff out to dry. In all my traveling and not-booking-in-advance experience, this is probably the worst time I’ve had trying to find a room. We had nearly given up when a very kind man told us actually yes he might have space for us, come back at noon to know for sure. This glimmer of hope kept us warm, along with a few pots of Masala chai tea and some porridge, as we hid inside Oasis Cafe until 12.
When we returned our new favorite person in Rishikesh greeted us with a big smile; we had a room. Thank god. The rest of the afternoon we scoped out town in the continuing bad weather, getting the lay of the land and information on activities for the coming days. Kwaz bought some colorful scarves. Town seemed quiet all day and even quieter after 6 pm when seemingly everything closed. That was fine with us, we planned to start the next day with some early yoga.
Our second day in Rishikesh felt like the definition of what a day in Rishikesh should be. We started with 9:00 am Sattva yoga, a type of yoga that was developed in Rishikesh and is described as follows: “In Sanskrit Sattva means whole, complete, truth, balance… A Sattva Yoga Journey is a journey into Self through asana, vinyasa, kriya, pranayama, free movement, and laya. Every class is unique and set to music and has a theme – flowing and shifting energy in the body, mind and spirit.” This sounded interesting, and it was, as well as challenging and freeing for the spirit and the body. A combination of yoga and meditation to the soundtrack of didgeridoos and drums – I couldn’t help but think of Shambhala once the music started – I loved it.
We came out of the hour and a half class relaxed and centered and ready for the day, which had decided to reward us with sun and blue skies. We celebrated this fortunate weather shift with brunch at Ganga Beach Restaurant, located on the riverbank looking out to the bridge and town above. Healthy fruit, muesli, and curd with chai tea and a beautiful view; we could get used to this life. Kwaz went to another yoga class (apparently pretty hard compared to the States) while I wandered around town. I discovered that Rishikesh is actually bustling when the weather is nice. It is also apparently a town that functions between 11 and 6, a fact I attribute to everyone starting their mornings in yoga classes and having to go to sleep early for the next morning’s routine. Kwaz and I met up again that afternoon for our ayurvedic massages.
Ayurvedic massage was another new massage style for me; it is an oil full-body massage dominated by repetitive rubbing of the limbs and back, complete with an oil head massage that left us looking stunning (sarcasm). After the hour was up, we may not have looked great, but we felt great. We returned to Oasis for a delicious and cheap Indian meal and more Masala chai. Did I mentioned Rishikesh has a ban on alcohol? There’s none allowed in town at all. So we drank tea the whole time. Lots and lots of chai tea.
Our last day in Rishikesh started early – 5:20 to be exact. We had signed up for a sunrise hike and despite the tired and cold (my feet were numb for at least an hour) it was a fantastic decision. We were up on the top of a mountain by the time the sun appeared over the ridged skyline; snow-capped Himalaya peaks were visible in the distance and we could see the shadow of the temple beside us at the top looming over the city of Rishikesh below. Our guide Pramod told us the legend of the temples in the mountains and took us inside, where we were all blessed, before leading us a down to our delicious breakfast of aloo parantha, nutella and bananas, watermelon, tomatoes and cucumbers, and chai tea. Then it was time to climb down.
The 6 hour downhill hike was gorgeous, and Pramod’s continued anecdotes were fascinating. We learned everything from the crops that are grown in this area to the story behind Holi to modern-day marriages in the mountain villages. For anyone who is looking to go for a hike in Rishikesh, or really any travel services, check out TrektIndia, I highly recommend them. Not only did they lead us on a great day hike but they helped us book transportation from Rishikesh to Jaipur and Jaipur to Agra, something that is surprisingly hard to do in India and will get a separate bitching post from me at some point in the near future.
We left Rishikesh on a night bus bound for Jaipur for Holi (another story that will be in the bus-bitching post), sad to say goodbye to a town that we had fallen for. What started out as a tough trek through the cold rain ended in a beautiful stay in a relaxing town. I’m incredibly happy we decided to start our time in India there; it was the perfect calm before the crazy storm that is the rest of North India. It introduced us to the contrasts of India – such as the experience of exiting our relaxing massage into the crazy motorcycle- and animal-congested loud streets – that we would soon discover only escalated as the cities got bigger.
So thanks friend who told me to go there. I will now be like you and tell everyone else who is going to India to go to Rishikesh. A zen atmosphere and beautiful surroundings are waiting for you there.