off the beaten pathYou probably like getting off the beaten path as much as we do. Nobody wants to be ‘just another tourist.’ Nobody wants to face up to the fact that all those ‘friendly locals’ are seeing dollar signs when you saunter through their colorful ‘authentic market.’ Nobody wants to be tracked by a hungry guide in search of his next sunburned tourist, “Amigo, amigo, you wanna see ruins? I give you tour, cheap price for you, amigo.”
So what a thrill it was to discover Yaxha, a quiet paradise tucked far away from the hustle and bustle of Guatemalan’s backpacker havens, Lake Atitlan, Antigua and Tikal.
mayan ruins all to ourselves
In fact, we just chanced upon these ancient Mayan ruins. There we were, sipping a refreshing coke at a roadside shop, when we noticed a large signboard with a big arrow pointing down a nightmarish dirt track. Although the paint was peeling, we could faintly make out what great attraction was being announced, Yaxha Ruins 11 kilometers, it read.
Not having a guidebook, we had no idea what lay ahead. Maybe Yaxha was nothing more than a pile of stones with an entrance fee. But locals insisted it was worth a visit.
And boy were they right. Sprawling Mayan ruins plopped on top of a hill overlooking two lovely lagunas and surrounded by pristine jungle. And hardly a tourist in sight. Just us and the screeching howler monkeys. And a few crocs splashing around as soon as the sun went down. We spent two days relishing the peace and solitude, scrambling up pyramids built more than 2,500 years ago. Wandering around the ancient ruins and marveling at the architectural achievements of the Maya. Camping on a high platform overlooking the lakes.
Then we hit the hills. Torturous, twisting roads that climbed and plunged and climbed and plunged until we started seriously contemplating a ride on the back of a truck. Hills with grades so steep, my front wheel started popping up and I nearly lost my balance. Hills that make Ethiopia’s Highlands look like child’s play. Hills to rival the 3,000 meter mountains we tackled in Lesotho.
I like a challenge just as much as the next adventurer, but climbing those hills on an over-loaded touring bike was painful. I’m talking serious pain. Thigh burning, calf wrenching, muscle spasm inducing climbs that make you wish you were on a mini-bus being shuttled around with 25 other ‘adventure tourists.’
another sort of paradise
Finally we arrived in Chicaman. We’ve been here for more than a week. There’s nothing to do here. There are no tourists. There are no volcano treks, or traditional market tours, or artisanal villages to visit. It’s just a small town tucked away in the highlands, surrounded by tall stands of pine and palm trees.
In the morning, we head over to the small indigenous market to marvel at the selection of fruits and vegetables-- lush papayas, enormous pineapples, bright red tomatoes, all sorts of avocados, stringy green beans, emerald green broccoli, and piles of cauliflower. Gangs of barefoot toddlers pull at their mother’s skirts as we pass, “gringos, gringos” a few of them call out and the mothers are always quick to shush them up, whispering a quiet reprimand in their ear. Some of the youngest let out yelps and cringe as we pass. I imagine they’re not used to seeing such an odd color of hair. A few of the older boys show off their English, “Good morning, mister, how are you?” If I return in the afternoon, alone, the greeting doesn’t change. Still I will be welcomed with, “Good morning, mister,” followed by hoots of laughter.
With the help of the Peace Corps Cooking Survival Handbook, we are able to whip up such delights as pasta with red pepper cream sauce, a mean cauliflower curry soup and a mouth-watering potatoes au gratin. Eric gets a haircut. We do yoga. We lounge up on the terrace, gazing up at the mountains or looking out over the red-tiled roofs and on to the central square. We thumb through old issues of Newsweek and we contemplate the foreboding hills that lay ahead.
Tomorrow, bright and early, as soon as the neighbor’s hens
start squawking, we’ll hit the road.
Destination: Chichicastenango. Where the tourists just may outnumber the locals
during the famous Sunday market. That’ll
change of pace.
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