“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”– Maya Angelou
In the summer of 2010, my wife’s family, including me, traveled to Guatemala. We went to visit my wife’s brother Kyle. He was working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sibinal, a municipality in the San Marcos department of Guatemala. It was an exciting opportunity, since none of us had been to Guatemala before, and it had been over a year since we saw Kyle. We relied on him to plan out our entire itinerary. He chose where we stayed, ate, and arranged fabulous visits with his host families, set up a couple of historical tours, and a trip to his work site in the village of Sibinal. What we didn’t expect would be the deluge of weather that greeted us along our journey from Antigua to Quetzaltenango, known locally as Xela (SHAY-la), Lake Atitlán, San Marcos, and finally Sibinal.
While the trip had rain, mudslides, a hurricane, and an earthquake, the memories we gained, stories constructed, and time spent together are seen today as genuinely incredible. I know of no other trip I have spoken about more, cared more deeply about, then that trip to Guatemala. Join me as I venture ten years to the past and reflect on this incredible journey, and marvel at the places I saw, people I met, food I ate, and the brutal weather that has since become family lore.
Background & Prior to Departure
I am, in many ways, a new traveler. Ok, you might say, “but you have been to several places, near and far.” Sure, I love to travel. But, it hadn’t always been that way. As my brother loves to remind me, I freaked out traveling from my hometown to the city across our connected bridge to pick up KFC. Not sure which part of that story annoys me more, that I lacked such confidence that I would panic about driving over a bridge to a city, or that I enjoyed KFC. Either way, traveling was, to a small degree, avoided when I was younger. But, slowly, I learned to expand my horizons, let go of my anxieties, and, well, I met my wife, and she opened my eyes to incredible possibilities. I have always said, travel fulfills me, but traveling with my wife, is when everything good in my life is in sync.
Shortly after finalizing our plans to move to Hawaii to begin my Ph.D. studies, my wife’s family planned a trip to visit her brother, Kyle, in Guatemala. Without objection, my wife and I were on board for this trip, and in June of 2010, we flew from JFK Airport in NYC to Guatemala City, Guatemala. Our traveling companions were her parents, Mary and Pat, who I have spoken about numerous times in past posts, her sister Kaitlyn, and her grandfather Gus. Let’s head to Guatemala, but first, we had to prepare. While all the photos are mine, I must warn you that they were from 2010 when I didn’t think about my travel photos, which is an injustice.
Preparing for our trip was unlike anything I had done before. The vaccinations, the choice of luggage, clothing, camera, and being unsure of precisely what to expect – all made this a unique moment. By this point, my international travel experience was limited to France and Belgium, which I had visited for a two-week historical trip about two years prior. Guatemala was a different trip. Part vacation, part family visit, and sprinkle in a visit to Sibinal and meet those in the community Kyle worked alongside. In the weeks, possibly months, leading up to take-off, I got several vaccinations, bought new luggage, and packed for the possibility of a lot of rain since we were flying directly into Guatemala’s rainy season.
While our flight and one lodging had been booked by my mother-in-law Mary, Kyle did the leg work and reserved our other hotel accommodations, as well as mapped out our travel itinerary from the airport to his home in Sibinal. Sibinal is known for its close proximity to Volcano Tacana and the Mexico border. Kyle told us, multiple times, that Sibinal was very remote. It would be unlike the cities, towns, and communities we would visit in the first part of our trip. This long journey was not a problem since we were eager to explore Guatemala. So, Kyle booked our path to his site, made easier by hiring a private driver who accompanied us the entire journey. We were ready, but was Guatemala prepared for us? The short answer: Yes! The long answer, well, let’s get to the story.
Guatemala Here We Come
The day we left was a typical June morning in 2010. Mary hired a limo to take the six of us to the airport. This journey occurred in the pre-Uber/Lyft world, so go with it. It was an international flight, so we got up early and did our due diligence, and headed from upstate New York to JFK airport with relative ease. A couple of hours later, we made it to JFK, with only one car sick episode behind us. We went through our preflight routines, security, cleaned ourselves up, and, after some breakfast, proceeded to wait at our gate. As the minutes ticked away, we soon boarded our plane. Somehow, Gus charmed his way to an upgraded to first class, while the rest of us sat in economy. With no delay, no issue whatsoever, we departed JFK airport in NY for La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City.
Our arrival in Guatemala City was terrific. Excited to be in the country, we went through the appropriate security/customs and then met up with Kyle, who had a huge welcome sign at baggage claim. When we landed, the weather was perfectly splendid, and we were all emotional in our reunion with Kyle that the details are a little blurry. We soon met our driver and packed into our van. Oh boy, that van. It would quickly become another member of our traveling company with each passing hour. Meaning, we spent a lot of time in that van, too much time!
When the family tells stories of our trip to Guatemala, the van makes an appearance every time, and the driver, too, was terrific. But that van was a character if a van can be a character in a non-animated story. You will see why, but we selected seats that would inevitably add to the adventure to come when we all packed into that van. Mary, who gets car sick, sat in the front with our driver, whom she talked to regularly. Pat, my wife, and Kyle sat in the middle row. In the back row was Kaitlyn, who got in first and was against the window, Gus was in the middle, and I sat closest to the door and large window. The pieces were all in place and the stage set; the scene continues as we left Guatemala City for Antigua. First, we drove indirectly to avoid the massive sinkhole that opened in Guatemala City one month before our visit. With roads blocked off around the city, we didn’t stay long. As we headed to Antigua, we stopped at the home of Kyle’s first host family. We didn’t want to be late as they were making us a home-cooked welcome meal.
We arrived at their home to a beautiful welcome that words cannot describe. The family had boarded Kyle and looked out for him his first weeks in-country. They welcomed us into their home as if we were family. They hugged us, laughed with us, cried with us a little as well, and together we shared a wonderful meal. After several hours conversing and eating until we could eat no more, we said our goodbyes and headed towards Antigua, stopping once more along the way to visit a zip-line adventure park. I am going to put this one way; I am not adventurous at all. I love to explore, travel, and do as much as is humanly possible when traveling, but “extreme” sports or activities are not for me. I mean, I wouldn’t do a zip-line on a cruise ship. I will hike to see the most beautiful cliffs and waterfalls, but please do not put me in a harness and send me across a valley.
Luckily for me, while Pat and Kaitlyn got harnessed up and were willing to give it a go, the weather turned from sunny skies to rainy clouds, and the park closed the zip-line down for the day. Good thing, too, since Gus, who was 82 years old at this time, was having difficulty with the elevation and needed to go back to the van. Following Kyle’s lead, we abandoned the zip-line idea and got back on the road to Antigua. I want to note here that the entire zip-line collapsed into the valley not one week later. No one was hurt, but another reason, I do not take added risks when traveling. With no further stops scheduled, we made it to Antiqua a few hours before sunset. With the rain dissipating, the sunset over Acatenango, a stratovolcano close to the city, and nearby Volcán de Agua (Volcano of Water) and Volcán de Fuego (Volcano of Fire) would be a sight that my old camera could not truly capture.
Welcome to Old Guatemala – Antigua
Our drive into the old city in the central highlands of Guatemala was breathtaking. The mountains, the volcanoes, and in the town, the stellar Spanish Baroque-influenced architecture. We passed by Santa Catalina arch, Calle del Arco, and Inglesia y Convento de las Capuchina, an 18th-century convent, on the way to our hotel. Antigua is known for its well-preserved architecture and several ruins of churches, and it didn’t disappoint. On our short drive into the city, I was amazed by what I saw. It isn’t often that one is gifted the opportunity to see buildings of this design, especially when my county’s age is younger than many of the buildings I passed by and around. It was exciting. I couldn’t wait to see more.
We made it to our hotel, Casa de Leon, in the early evening. The inside of the hotel was stunning. You see what can only describe as an unassuming building, but once you walk in, you meet the friendliest staff and a courtyard with beautiful trees, plants, and water features. We had several rooms, and they were impressively large with all the amenities one could need. They had comfortable beds, spacious bathrooms, televisions we never turned on, and a kitchen onsite that could make us anything. We stayed one night before venturing to our next city, but I immediately loved it and Antigua. After settling in, our group met back in the courtyard and explored the city before getting dinner. We were eager to see the city’s architecture and Guatemala’s unique history.
During our city tour, we explored the UNESCO World Heritage Center, the Templo Santa Teresa De Jesus, the Convent of La Merced, Museo del Hermano Pedro, San Jose el Viejo, and the beautiful Antigua Guatemala Cathedral, which dates back to the 15th century. While unable to go inside some of those fantastic structures, we admired their design, history, and immensity. One could spend days, or weeks, in Antigua taking in these splendid sites, including Parque Central (Central Park) in front of UNESCO and the incredible Cathedral. With the sun setting, we headed to a restaurant Kyle suggested, Monoloco Antigua. The food was delicious and helped gave us more energy to see some of the buildings, and water fountain, around Central Park all lit up and looking majestic under the moonlight. We headed back to the hotel to rest up for our drive to thr next city, San Juan La Laguna.
A Stop at San Juan La Laguna
It was an hour’s drive from Guatemala City to Antigua. That was easy. From Antigua to San Juan La Laguna was, roughly, a little less than four hours. That’s not terrible, especially when you have the incredible country to observe as you drive. We had a great breakfast at the hotel before departing Antigua, so we were ready for the drive, and, to be honest, it went by quickly. Once we made it to San Juan, we immediately got out of the van, stretched our legs, and proceeded to explore. The city is in the shire of Lago de Atitlán, the deepest lake in all of Central America, often referred to as one of the world’s most beautiful lakes. While it has been home to an essential indigenous population, it has been the scene of historical horror and calamity ranging from massacres during the Guatemalan Civil War from 1960-1996 to the hurricane of 2005. While the historical importance and connection to this lake are both old and vital, its beauty is as strong today as when the Mayan culture, which is still integral, once controlled large areas of this Central American landscape and has survived through European contact, colonization, and control. While “there is no road that circles the lake” and other “communities are reached by…roads from the mountains that may have brief extensions along the shore,” we would be traveling by boat to our next destination, Santa Cruz La Laguna.
Of course, before heading to Santa Cruz, we had things to do in San Juan. We took a historical tour of a couple of churches, toured the weaving cooperative in the city, and enjoyed a pleasant stroll around the town as we talked with a guide. Eventually, we found a lovely local eatery with beautiful views of the lake and mountains. Rostro Maya was our selection, and I know I sound like a broken record, but it was good. The menu was extensive, and the aguas frescas a few of us ordered, including Gus (above photo), were outstanding. We were treated well, enjoyed a few moments to relax, laughed, talked, and were amazed by the lake’s beautiful view from the restaurant. After lunch, the weather had turned for the worst. It was now torrential rain, which was not helpful since we now needed to get all of our luggage off the van and walk to the dock, put it on a tiny boat, and speed across the lake to Santa Cruz and our hostel at La Iguana Peridida. Kyle fell once in getting down to the dock, and it was terrible. He went ass over teakettle like he was in a Looney Tunes’ cartoon as Wile E. Coyote caught in his slippery trap set for the Road Runner. Gus nearly wiped out but shrugged it off. Over the years, we have laughed about this on more than one occasion. The ride was bumpy and wet, but we were unfazed, yet sadly amused, by the rain or the speeding boat. It was fantastic, and Gus, who still maintained his dapper appearance, enjoyed every minute.
A Brief Time in Santa Cruz La Laguna at the La Iguana Peridida
Once we arrived at Santa Cruz, we quickly checked into the hostel, which somehow did not have our reservation. After a 25 minutes discussion between the woman in charge, and my wife, they found our reservation, and all was copacetic. We settled in, cleaned ourselves up, and warmed up before heading to the dinner buffet the hostel offered. I liked this hostel a lot. I shared a room with my wife, Kaitlyn, and Kyle, while Mary and Pat had their room, and Gus had some time to himself. It was fun, the four of us in one large space. We laughed, joked around, and made up for the lost time. That night we had a delicious dinner, listened to music, met other travelers, and learned where they were from and what brought them to Guatemala. It’s fun when allowed to chat with other travelers, share stories, and remind each of how lucky we were to see new places. After dinner, we had drinks, swung in a hammock and celebrated our time together.
The next morning, the sky was eerie, and you could tell that the weather had changed overnight. We learned that a hurricane was imminent, and an earthquake had struck the area overnight. As we slept, the storm caused several mudslides that would require us to navigate around while we traveled to our next destination, Quetzaltenango, or Xela (SHAY-la), then on to San Marcos. Still, we had a few hours to spend before getting back in a boat and speeding back to San Juan, where we would meet up with our van and driver. We had breakfast, used the Internet cafe, got some rest, and before we knew it, we were back in the boat, then the van, and quickly traveling to Xela. About two hours away from San Juan, Xela would be the location of our next hotel, a hot meal, and some cool, unique sites.
Bad Weather Gets Worse, but We Make it to Quetzaltenango
Our van went up and down various mountains with the weather worsening as we traversed our way from San Juan La Laguna to Xela. For those who get car sick, the rest of the trip would best be spent in the front seat because there were many heights. As the roads curved along mountain ridges, the mudslides made driving on the road slow and arduous. Even so, our drive to Xela was not terrible, as we sat in the same seats, chatted, and laughed, and Gus told me about his days as a pilot. Honestly, looking back, I think to myself how fortunate I was to be sitting next to my wife’s grandfather chit-chatting about nothing and everything.
We made it to Xela easy enough, even with the weather getting worse, and located our next hotel, a unique, chic, and fun place called Pension Bonifaz Hotel. It is a beautiful 1930 era building with tons of space and was indeed an enjoyable night stay. Until this point of the trip, our entire group had an incredible, educational, and worthwhile journey. Sure, the weather had been off the charts each day. But our travels had, for these first few days, been fantastic. Xela was no different. Our hotel accommodations were perfect, and Kyle, yet again, had come through with securing us lodging, finding us places to eat, and acting as our guide with his Spanish fluency.
With a day/evening of sightseeing, excellent dinner, and expecting another day of van travel the next day, we decided to venture back to the hotel. But not before partaking in a local concert in the Parque Centro America, the central square in Xela, which was close to the Cathedral del Espiritu Santo de Quetzaltenango, a Catholic Church built by Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th century. That night, we danced and sang with the residents in light rain and took in the fantastic atmosphere. The park is beautiful in both daylight and moonlight, surrounded by local markets, cafes, and restaurants, all assisting in promoting Xela’s reputation as a friendly city, one of the nicest in all of Guatemala. If I could have stayed longer, I would have. We went back to the hotel, got a sound night’s sleep, and awoke for a new day of travel.
To build up our “van” enthusiasm, we went for breakfast at a local cafe. The Black Cat Hostel had wicked amazing coffee and delicious breakfast options. Oh my, I can still taste the local coffee! I had, up to this point, had delightful coffee. I mean, I was in Guatemala. If you can’t get good coffee in a country known for its fantastic coffee farms, then there is no hope for you. We often stopped, got out, walked around local coffee farms, and observed coffee plants along our journey. So, my coffee addiction was 100% supported during this trip, but the cup I had at Black Cat was otherworldly. Not sure why; it just was, and it would be beneficial. Soon after our breakfast, my wife’s family pulled me away from my third cup; we checked out of the hotel, packed back into the van, and departed Xela for San Marcos, which would be a quick stop, before continuing to Sibinal, in what had become a nasty rain. The weather had turned for the worse, but would it continue? The short answer, yes. The long answer, a longer yes.
San Marcos and Sibinal
The drive from Xela to San Marcos was under two hours, but San Marcos to Sibinal would be over a two-hour drive. Those estimates are if the weather is perfect, with no traffic. The ultimate problem we faced was that the rain had caused mudslides, and while we were not in any danger, it made it slow maneuvered around boulders and mud that filled the roads. As we made our way to San Marcos, we ascended and descended so many mountain ridges that the drive was certainly not for those who are squeamish. Sadly, the rain fogged our ability to observe the scenery from our elevation. We were incredibly high at several points, and Kyle told us that you could see for what seemed like an eternity on a clear day. Not this day, but we braved the weather for the remainder of our journey to San Marcos.
According to Kyle’s initial itinerary, we would continue towards San Marcos, where we stopped, had lunch, and departed for Sibinal. But, according to that same plan, when we got to Sibinal, Kyle’s work city, we would stay overnight at a local hostel. The problem, as had become clear once we departed San Marcos, was still the weather. In the next few hours, our journey from San Marcos to Sibinal has become family lore. It could have happened to anyone, anywhere, no matter the circumstances, as long as there is a ton of rain, severe elevation, and heavy vans. The thing is, we had a schedule we were trying to keep. Kyle’s host family had made us a traditional dinner and were excitedly awaiting our arrival. Rain, mudslides, and heavy vans do not care about schedules. What do I mean? Well, it took us nearly four hours to get to Sibinal, instead of two.
We successfully avoided the mudslides that blanketed the roads at the base of the mountain ridges during our drive. While we ascended the mountain roads, you could look over the railing, and we were very high in elevation. At one point, as our van was almost at a 20-30 degree angle, I remember getting nervous and thinking, “what would happen if the car stopped and starting going backward?” Similar to a video I watched the other day on a YouTube channel called Super Enthused. Jackie, the host, was on a roller coaster at Animal Kingdom, and as it rose to a near-vertical angle it stopped. She looked and sounded, nervous, even behind her mask. It started moving again, but I understood how she felt.
Almost as soon as I thought about the van stopping and sliding over the road railing, the car bucked, started rolling backward, and then stopped. The vehicle continued back towards the ridge when the driver tried to start up again before hitting the break. Immediately, I was like, get me out of this van. I am somewhat nervous around heights, but this was something else. Our guide/driver was excellent. He stayed calm and asked us all, excluding Gus, to get out of the van because it was too heavy. Then Pat, Kyle, and I got behind the vehicle, which was a bad idea in hindsight, and pushed as the driver hit the gas. My wife, Mary, and Kaitlyn, per the driver’s instructions, walked up the mountain road to a flat area, and the driver told us to meet there.
Once we pushed the van to get its traction and took off up the hill, we three met up with the others as we walked a good 100 feet, or more, to a flat area. Once we caught up with the van, we got going again. Mind you; this is all happening as the rain is pouring and mud is sliding. We were legitimately walking as the roads became more and more treacherous. In the end, we all made it to the van, piled back in, checked with Gus, and then took off, only for it to happen again, not two minutes later as we went higher. This time, Gus too had to get out, but we didn’t have to push too hard, nor walk too far before we piled back, for a second time, into the van and departed. We didn’t have to get out to push or walk again on our journey to Sibinal, but on our trip back from Sibinal, we repeated this insanity two more times.
At the time, we were all soaked, exhausted, and annoyed, but today, I love this story. I mean, it seems so implausible, but it’s true. Even though our journey to Sibinal was extraordinary long because of delays like this, we did make it with no real issues. As we entered the city, the rain continued, but we met Kyle’s team, got a tour of the municipal buildings, walked around the village and explored his worksite. Before we had departed the van, Kyle had told our driver that we would be about 2 hours, but the driver said, nope, we had 45 minutes. We had a limited amount of time and still needed to meet Kyle’s host family for dinner. Now we only had an hour to spend there. Why? Our driver told us that with the worsening rain, several mudslides had made several roads impassable. If we didn’t get out and head back soon, we might not be able to get out for a few days.
When we arrived at Kyle’s host family, the roads to get to the house were so bad that we had to walk about a mile, which Pat, Mary, and Gus could not complete. Unfortunately, Kyle, Kaitlyn, my wife, and I were the only ones who made it to the house. It was not an extended visit, but we were welcomed into their home as if we were family and treated with kindness and warmth. We not only met Kyle’s host family, but we meet aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, and nieces, who all came to visit with us. They cooked for us, laughed with us, asked us questions, and cared for us, as we dried off from the terrible downpours. All of this happening as Pat, Mary, Gus, and the driver stayed in the van, a mile away, and were disappointed they could not conclude this last leg of the journey. After about an hour, we said our goodbyes, thanked them for their hospitality. Soon we were all back in the van and traveled back to San Marcos.
Conclusion: Sibinal to San Marcos to Antigua to NYC
Our drive back to San Marcos from Sibinal took just as long as it had from Sibinal to San Marcos a couple of hours earlier. The roads were terrible, and city workers were quickly toiling to remove mud from the streets to allow for traffic to pass through. We encountered several delays but safely made it to San Marcos. We checked into a local hotel, took hot showers, and ordered some wings and pizza. Not our food of choice when traveling, but we needed something to eat, it didn’t matter what it was. We were physically and emotionally exhausted. So, sleep was necessary since we had a long ride the next day. Without any overnight stops, we would go from San Marcos to Antigua the next day, a five-hour drive. Of course, before we left, we had breakfast.
Our drive from San Marcos to Antigua was exhausting. Nothing of any great consequence occurred, and we stopped only a couple of times to eat and stretch our legs, so it was purely a drive to a destination. We were pleased when our five-hour campaign came to close as we re-entered Antigua and re-checked in at the same hotel we stayed only days prior, Case de Leon. We arrived around dinnertime, quickly showered, and went to the hotel courtyard for a little impromptu event. This trip coincided with Mary and Pat’s wedding anniversary, so they decided to renew their vows in Sibinal. But with the weather, they decided to wait until we returned to Antigua. That night, my in-laws renewed their vows in the beautiful courtyard of Case de Leon, with Gus, who was a Deacon performing the renewal.
The next morning, we departed Antigua for the airport and, after a lengthy weather-related delay, left with Guatemala to our backs. It has been ten years since our trip. Our week-long journey through Guatemala is a wonderful shining moment, quickly called upon when times are tough. We shared a once in a lifetime opportunity to see Guatemala and locations I could never even have imagined seeing. We might have had bad weather, but our trip to Guatemala was one of the best vacations/educational trips. We created inside jokes, valuable bonds, and fell in love with Guatemala.
Cover Image by Ronald Cuyan on Unsplash