A day at the market

Friday is market day in the town of San Francisco El Alto, about an hour away from Xela (Quetzaltenango) by chicken bus. It’s the biggest market in the country, and it’s easy enough to get lost in the rows of stalls that spill onto the town’s streets. They sell practically everything here, from fresh produce to old video games from the 1980s, from used clothing to traditional textiles, and, of course, live farm animals which were far and away the biggest novelty I’ll remember.


Brushing up on our bargaining skills, my friend and I ascertained that 4 medium-sized pigs cost 575 quetzales (~$96 CAD) and a turkey 25 quetzales (~$4.20 CAD). I briefly considered the idea of getting a turkey and bringing it back to the hostel, but thought better of it. I was, however, tempted to buy some fresh fruits and vegetables which were in abundance but not particularly different than in other markets in Guatemala. The variety of dried beans and chillies, and sights of rarer food products like achiote seeds and dried fish did impress, though. The thing with travelling with a backpack and moving around so often is that it can be difficult to buy material things simply because it’s not feasible to transport them while you’re travelling. In fact, I didn’t end up buying anything save for a pound of traditional chocolate sold in thick round disks, perfect for making hot chocolate later that night in a chilly Xela.


It was simply rewarding just passing through the lively streets and seeing locals buying and selling all sorts of stuff, not to mention interacting with vendors who were genuinely surprised to see foreigners in a part of the country where tourism is still largely (and welcomingly to this traveller) absent…


And to end, here’s a short video of the hustle and bustle at the market:

Jaibalito – Lake Atitlan’s secret

Beautiful, glimmering Lake Atitlan boasts a number of cities and towns on its shores, each with its own unique flair or claim to fame. San Pedro is the main backpacker hub, while San Marcos is reputed for its alternative and hippy vibe. Panajachel is the main tourist and transport hub, while Santiago Atitlan boasts a strong indigenous character.

There’s also an unassuming town village called Jaibalito on the north shore of Lake Atitlan. It has a population of about 600 – plus me. There are no roads leading into or out of the village, so the only ways to get here are to hike the mountain ridges from the next towns or to take a lancha (small motorized boat) into the pier. I’ve spotted a tuktuk, but there are no cars to be seen!

There’s a loud population of stray dogs, young kids can be seen playing on the streets during the day, older kids can be seen fishing from the piers, evangelical music echoes into the night, and gringos fleeing the northern winter add another element to the town dynamic.

Pier where lanchas dock. Across the lake are Volcanoes Toliman and Atitlan

I’m staying at a guesthouse/hostel called Posada Jaibalito. It has the cleanest dorm I’ve slept in the country the past four weeks (and at 35Q a night, also the cheapest I’ve come across), a couple of welcoming hammocks, a restaurant serving flavoursome German food, a decent kitchen, interesting guests, and more than a handful of roaming dogs, chickens, and ducks. It’s homely, and a comfortable refuge to base myself around the lake. If I’m not on the hammock listening to music or reading a book, I’ve been enjoying the hike to neighbouring Santa Cruz or taking a lancha to further towns on the lake.

It’s more or less what I’ve been looking for during my last week or so in the country.  Every day, I debate whether to stay another night or leave but I can’t come up with a good enough reason to pack my backpack and so I stay.  It’s been a wonderful way to relax before returning home in less than a week!

Fisherman on Lake Atitlan from Jaibalito pier during sunrise

The travel bug

It’s no secret that I have the travel bug and that I’ve had it for years now. The thing is, it’s a chronic infection and it gets more severe with the passage of time. I find that the more I travel, the more I want to keep travelling. I look back over the past few years of my adulthood (if I can call it that), and especially the last couple years since quitting my job, where travel has been so primary and fundamental to my life and I still somehow find myself pausing in amazement.

With a tremendous fondness, I reminisce the people I’ve met and shared experiences with and the emotions I’ve felt while standing amidst astonishing landscapes or extreme environments or imagination-defying architecture. Truth be told, I could (and have been) among the mundane and the unassuming and the overrated and still cherish those times with great affection. When I’m in a new environment, my senses and emotions are heightened and I feel more alive, more alert, and more aware of everything…

The odour of stinky tofu infiltrates the air while strolling through the night markets of Taipei…The city lights of Hong Kong, Tokyo, and New York violate the dark night sky and flash in all its consumerist and capitalist glory…I look up at same night sky under Lake Titicaca and understand why our galaxy is called the Milky Way…The hypnotic and mesmerizing call to prayer of the muezzins echoes from the minarets of the mosques during sunset in Istanbul…The voice of the squatter outside Leon, Nicaragua demands a bribe to enter the abandoned former prison which overlooks the city and the surrounding volcanoes…The lingering flavours of an exquisite Rioja wine tickle my tongue after a long day of hiking on the Camino de Santiago…The freezing cold water flowing mightily against my legs bring on a sense of urgency while I cross a seasonal glacial river while traversing to that glacier in Georgia…

Through travelling, I’ve had my own preconceptions challenged and I’ve learned not to assume or accept anything as fact simply because that’s the way I previously thought. There have been times when I’ve found myself in tense, uneasy or uncomfortable situations, and was still able to appreciate the emotions that were causing my heart to beat more profoundly. I can even value every uneasy feeling I get, and ask myself if I am really unsafe or just unfamiliar with how things are in another place.

Once I get going, I find that it’s so easy to push aside any worries and anxieties that might have been holding me back. I don’t ignore them, but I do my best not to let them dictate what I know I’m capable of. And once I get going, I become even more addicted and want to continue travelling – to keep exploring, discovering, learning; to keep finding those places where I’ll stand in awe and fascination; to once in a while, shake my head in disbelief at some strange and unpredictable encounters.

The travel bug is taking me to Guatemala today. ¡Vamos!

Journey to Ometepe

I’m a firm believer that the journey to a destination should be approached with as much importance and regard as the destination itself. There’s so much excitement, so much to absorb, so much to take away from getting yourself from Point A to Point B (often via Point C and Point D, depending on your luck). I’ve read that Ometepe Island should be part of any traveller’s itinerary to Nicaragua. And now, after having visited, I can confirm this statement’s validity, but as this is beyond the scope of this blog post, I won’t explain why at this moment…

After spending four nights in Granada, I checked myself out of my hostel and the uber-comfortable double bed that had been my crash pad in the dorm, and walked to the bus terminal, passing through the bustling shops and markets that spilled onto the road. I had walked this same road two days earlier to catch a chicken bus to Mombacho, but its familiarity did not temper the noise, odours, and peculiarities I had noticed the first time around. This was my first time taking a chicken bus alone; I’d taken them to and from Granada the past couple days with friends, so I found myself more alert travelling by myself. I felt that the bus was packed much more than on previous occasions, and it was interesting and entertaining just watching all the different vendors selling everything from food to pens that doubled as two-year calendars…

Upon arriving at the bus terminal in Rivas, I tried to pair up with others who were going to Ometepe in order to share a taxi. It was all in vain because unfortunately, everyone was either already part of a big group or had already gotten in a taxi, leaving me with taxi drivers offering very inflated prices to get to the port in San Jorge. I ended up speaking with a rickshaw driver who said that he’d take me to some taxis further away from the terminal, who would offer lower prices. I figured, “Why not?” and got in, and enjoyed the ride a couple streets over, pretending I was a celebrity being the recipient of numerous stares while on the road.

The rickshaw driver pulled over not far away from the terminal, and started telling the taxi drivers that I wanted to get to San Jorge. They were offering the same inflated prices as those at the terminal, but I was able to bargain it down a little, though I still think I overpaid by a dollar or two. At any rate, I got in a taxi for the ~7km ride to the port, happy that my journey was finally progressing…

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The 91 year old woman

I climbed a volcano, admired some fantastic views of Granada, Lake Nicaragua, and Las Isletas (through which we had taken a boat tour the day before), caught a glimpse of a volcano crater, rode in a chicken bus twice, rode in a tuk tuk twice (and simultaneously was in amazement that I wasn’t in India!), had an amazing dinner, and all with the enjoyable company of Derek from Ireland, Bernard from Holland, and Gui from Brazil. And none of these was the highlight of my day. Undoubtedly and unequivocally, my encounter with the 91-year old woman is what I’ll remember most about day 5 of my Nicaraguan trip.

We were well on our descent down Mombacho volcano, walking down the road built for trucks to transport tourists up to the Biological Station (the base for which you can explore the top of the volcano through guided or self-guided hikes of varying lengths), when Bernard and I were stopped by this old woman at the entrance to her property. I’m writing this over two weeks after this happened and I can’t describe the physical setting too well, only that it was typical of rural Nicaragua – her home was a modest shack comprised of concrete and sheet metal, surrounded by dusty brown dirt and the lush shades of green effortlessly produced in the Tropics. This woman looked like she had been standing there awhile, and was eager to greet us and I’d say even a bit desperate to stop us for a few minutes of light conversation. I may no longer be able to recall my surroundings there very well, but I can certainly remember her tan, wrinkled face framed by her silver hair, the contradictory excitement and sadness in her eyes, and her smile simultaneously expressing gratitude and melancholy.

Above all, I remember her words. She fervently told us her age, and I had trouble believing that she was older than 60. She described to us how she used to work up at the Biological Station up until a few years ago, but one day they told her that she was too old and that she basically stayed home since then. With sorrow, she expressed how it was almost a curse that God allowed her to be so old, because she lived in this lonely, solitary environment without her children and grandchildren (although one of her grandsons was visiting her that day), and life was tough being alone and unable to work. And then she brought her hands together and praised God, thanking Him for the blessing of our company this day. She claimed that meeting us and talking with us was the highlight of her day, and I believed her. The sincerity in her eyes and the honesty in her voice were only genuine.

Throughout this encounter, and certainly the further along it went, I was always a bit wary of this woman, thinking that she might want something in return for sharing her very personal stories. Some money, some food – that’s typical of what people usually asked for, right? It turned out, she had wanted nothing more from us that what we gave her – a few minutes of our time to enliven her day and break the seemingly endless monotony that dominated her life. It really was just a few minutes of conversation with this lady, and then we said goodbye and continued our walk down the volcano. But this encounter had me feeling guilty and ashamed for thinking the worse in a fellow human being. How jaded, untrusting, and skeptical had I become? Thankfully, my actions didn’t reflect my thoughts, but indeed, this meeting gave me a lot to think about.

This 91-year old woman was the highlight of my day. Perhaps what I love most about travel are these strange, unforseeable encounters and surprises that you can never imagine taking place, but which unquestionably end up having a lasting impact on you…

Lagoon quest on a bike with a Dutchman

Any solo traveller will tell you that one of the best things about travelling on your own is meeting and befriending other travellers (many of whom are also going it solo) and ending up doing a lot of fun, amazing things together. Or something like that.

I had been introduced to Bernard from the Netherlands a few days earlier at the hostel in Granada by an Irishman named Derek, and as we were both staying another night in the city, he invited me to do that typical Dutch activity of bike riding. There’s a place called Laguna de Apoyo, a crater lake outside of Granada that reputedly has Nicaragua’s cleanest water for swimming. “Sure,” I thought, “Sounds like fun plus it’d be good exercise”. Turns out, I got too much of a bargain…

We rented bikes from the hostel and after a short ride around the city getting acquainted with our rides, we made our first stop at a supermarket for a humble breakfast of bananas (an unbeatable value at 1 cordoba or $0.04 apiece), drinkable yogurt, and coconut cookies. The sun already began to bake us outside the store where we indulged in our meal. We then stopped at the old railway station and took a few pictures before edging our way to the outskirts of the city where we rode along the side of the highway. And here, it began to get really hot. Just in case you didn’t know, asphalt + sun + temperature of 30 degrees Celsius + humidity + bike riding = a desperately terrifying amount of sweat. To the point where your light blue shirt turns navy. To the point where you can fool someone into thinking that your sweat made this lagoon we were making our way to. We asked for directions from locals on the side of the road or those cycling just like us, and each time we got different responses to how close we were. As we were intent on just getting there, we kept going. Luckily, there was a roadside tienda selling ice cold gaseosas and we enjoyed a sugary orange soft drink with the company of the friendly shop vendor who pulled out chairs for us and kept us company in the shade of her family’s modest home, telling us how beautiful the lagoon is, and lamenting how her boyfriend who studies English wasn’t here to practice his language skills with us! This place was an oasis, a world away from the highway just steps away!

From here, we were a couple Ks away from the road which joins the lagoon with the highway. That was the good news. The bad news was that it was mostly uphill. But we kept pressing on, sometimes without enough energy to cycle, instead getting on our feet and pushing our bikes uphill. We passed a massive commercial chicken farm, enjoyed another break with ice cream, popsicles, and Pepsi, were objects of curiosity and fascination by passing schoolgirls… Ever closer, the last stretch was the easiest part and a welcome reprieve from our bike riding so far – a winding downhill ride in the shade where we could catch beautiful glimpses of the lagoon, and later into the entrance to the lagoon itself. We chose the closest access to the water by a lakeside restaurant, ordered some beer and some light snacks much to the dismay of the waitress who couldn’t sell something more pricey, and passed out a little bit from the fatigue of two and a half (or perhaps closer to three?) hours of bike riding to get to this point. It was a lazy afternoon of lounging by the lagoon, swimming in its almost too warm waters, admiring the hardly touched countryside, and having conversations with a new friend.

glimpse of lagoon

glimpse of lagoon

well-earned beer

well-earned beer

picturesque lagoon

picturesque lagoon

Alas, we resigned ourselves to the fact that we had to leave to make the arduous trip back to Granada. We walked with the bikes uphill for forty-five minutes, unable to find a suitable vehicle to hitch a ride. At the top of the hill, though, it was a fast and exhilarating ride down, and once at the side of the highway again, we waited not half a minute until a chicken bus pulled over and we eagerly got in, bikes and all, marvelling at the perfect timing of it all. Back in Granada and off the bus, it immediately started to rain heavily (it is still rainy season here, after all, and a strong downpour in the afternoon is obligatory). But what’s a little rain after all that exercise? It was even more refreshing than swimming in the lake, and possibly the funnest part of the day to bike through the streets of Granada, competing with cars, buses, taxis, and horses for control of the streets, navigating our way back to the hostel to end this great journey!

So, all in all, I’ll remember this day for many reasons and had an excellent time. Riding a bike in the city, down the highway, and especially through the rural countryside of Nicaragua was special, an opportunity to see life up close and personal for a bit, without the filter of shaded windows. But the physical exertion in this climate can’t be underestimated! So, the next time a crazy Dutch guy (or anyone from any nationality, really) invites me to go cycling in a tropical country, someone remind me of today so I’ll think twice about it!