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!