My 5 am climb up the Santa Maria Volcano

“The Beauty of the Mountain is hidden for all those who try to discover it from the top, supposing that, one way or an other, one can reach this place directly.   The Beauty of the Mountain reveals only to those who climbed it…” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

View of the grand Santa Maria volcano off in the distance as I was leaving Xela via shuttle on my way to Antigua. 

There are things you’ll experience in Guatemala that will stay with you forever: the smell of a freshly grilled tortilla; the assault-on-all-senses of a jungle trek; the people you bump into on the road and become lifelong friends…..In the west, a volcano looms on almost every horizon, almost begging to be climbed.  (Opening lines in the introduction to Guatemala, Lonely Planet 2010).

It was with these words, “almost begging to be climbed” that I joyously opted to skip my already-paid for Spanish class on Wednesday and wake up at the break of dawn to climb Guatemala’s fourth highest volcano, Santa Maria (elevation 3772 m/12,375 feet).  It didn’t matter that I was utterly exhausted nor that I didn’t have the right gear.  All that mattered was there was an enormously, inviting volcano begging to be climbed.  There was no way I wasn’t going to climb it.

Adventure Travel Guatemala TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking

A symphony of color on the streets of Guatemala

I have never before seen such an enormous symphony of color as I did in Guatemala.  The past Spanish colonial influence combined with the vivid Mayan culture and tradition of brilliant colors reflect deeply throughout Guatemala, especially in the Highlands.  Xela is the heart of the Mayan culture and community.  If you take a walk around her lovely, hilly streets you will be reminded of her past, present and future.  You can see it reflected in the lovely colors of the buildings.  Some of which are on their fourth generation of color.

Come….take a walk with me through the streets of Xela and experience all the joy that color can bring to the soul.

Looking up to the hills.  A typical street in Xela lined in ancient foot-burning cobblestones and a gorgeous splash of color.  

From golden yellows to turquoise blues the colors never cease to inspire me and make me smile.  Above is a cheerful looking “Tortilleria” where fresh tortillas are made from scratch and grilled hot before your eyes.  

As you can see, there are many gorgeous colors to capture and many more to come….

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The Children of La Pedrera

One of the reasons why I wanted to go to Guatemala was to volunteer.  For the last two years, I have been passionate about volunteering internationally and giving back to the countries in which I have had the pleasure of visiting.  It has inspired me, motivated me and changed me to become the person I am today.  And I must admit, I am proud of that fact.

Two years ago, I went on my first volunteer trip with Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS) to Costa Rica where I worked at a nursing home for abandoned grandparents (to read posts, click here).  Then last April, I traveled to Morocco again with CCS to volunteer at a women’s school and help tutor English.  I loved both of these volunteer experiences as they truly changed my life.  However after two years of doing volunteer work as a group I wanted to try venturing out on my own.  I had traveled abroad alone before yet never for an extended period of time.  I felt like there was no time like the present to give it a whirl and truly challenge myself.  I just needed to find the right place.

When my son Max started first grade at Burroughs Community School in Minneapolis my opportunity arose.  Max’s first grade teacher, Ms. May, just so happens to be married to a Guatemalan man and together they have run a Spanish School called Casa Xelaju and a nearby community center, La Pedrera, for years.  My opportunity had come!  Guatemala was on my travel list and after falling in love with Costa Rica, I could hardly wait to visit another Central American country, especially one with a vibrant indigenous community, the Mayans.

Photo above of me with my little girls. These three girls are the same age as my daughter Sophia. I adored them and their smiles brightened my soul and warmed my heart.

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Spanish crash course 101 (Part 2): Learning like the Guatemalans at Casa Xelaju

Her name was Lili de Leon.  Lili was one of the most experienced Spanish teachers at Casa Xelaju, having taught there since its opening over twenty five years ago.  She was assigned to be my individual teacher for my entire week at Casa Xelaju, all for the meager cost of $190 (which also included room and board at my home stay).

When I first met her, I was a little taken aback.  She did not at all look like what I had envisioned her in my head the night before.  Instead of dark, thick black hair Lili’s hair was almost as blond as mine which was a rarity in Guatemala.  Her shoulder-length hair was neatly combed back in complete perfection despite the windy conditions, and her wonderfully tailored coat and slacks made me feel like a total slob in my $5 Target t-shirt, washed out jeans and sneakers.  She greeted me with a warm, enthusiastic smile and I instantly knew that I’d like her.  Usually I have a good intuition on people and normally I am proved right.

We headed up to the third floor of Casa Xelaju, a beautiful, spacious building that not only hosts several individual teaching rooms but also offers fully furnished, clean apartments for rent at insanely cheap deals (a fully furnished, two bedroom apartment with kitchen and bathroom ran about $150 for two weeks).  It was a quite week at the school as there were only about four students at the moment.  At the height of high season, they can have dozens or more.

We entered Lili’s classroom on the third floor and I was very pleased to see it was beautifully decorated, full of lively colors and pictures, and best of all, had an enormous window looking out over the next door neighbor’s chicken coop one direction and a fantastic view of the city in the other direction.  It was facing east which meant the morning sun would rise and light up the room with brilliant sunshine each day.  I knew it would be the perfect place for me to crack open the books and start learning Spanish.

Photo above of Lili’s classroom which screamed happiness.

View outside the window overlooking the neighbors backyard and chickens. I could hear them cock-a-doo-dle-doo all day long!

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Spanish crash course 101: How to speak Spanish like the Guatemalans do (Part 1)

View of Xela from the school roof.

I woke up to the sound of the eternally barking dog outside my window, wondering for a moment where on earth I was.  I checked my cheap plastic travel watch and it read 6:50 am.  The sun had yet to light up my bedroom and I was exhausted after a fitful night’s sleep.  I tossed and turned, continually stuffed in my ear plugs and cranked my white noise up yet nothing seemed to help drown out the symphony of noise from the Guatemalan city life.  Unfortunately I’ve always been a light sleeper which got worse after I became a mother.  I swear I sleep with one eye open, listening throughout the darkness of the night for someone to call my name.

My first day at Spanish school was in a little over an hour and I was so tired I had no idea how I’d function, let alone function in another language which I hardly understood.  When I turned off my white noise the sounds of a bustling kitchen filled the room.  I inhaled the delightful aroma of fresh Guatemalan cooking.  Breakfast would not be long.

I slowly cracked opened the door and shyly peered outside.  My room for the week was right next to the kitchen and the family-shared bathroom.  I was still in my PJs in an unfamiliar house with unfamiliar people.  I wasn’t ready to go tramping out the door in plain view of my Guatemalan hosts!  That I reserve for only close friends!

When the coast was clear I made a run for the bathroom and brushed my teeth in a glass of purified water.  There was no way I was going to risk getting another parasite like I did in Costa Rica!  Thus I took every precaution given to me by the travel clinic seriously.  I avoided fresh fruits and vegetables.  Did not drink the water, and brushed my teeth as well only with the bottled stuff.  I flipped on the strange looking shower and got ready to jump in, thinking how good it will feel to wash my hair after a long day of travel.  Maybe the hot water would even wake me up and make me feel better!  I needed any kind of pick me up to start my day in another tongue.

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Lost in Translation: My first night in Xela

The moment Luis Enrique rung the doorbell to the tall, green house my stomach dropped in anticipation. What would they be like, my host family for the week? Would they speak any English? Or would they understand my Rosetta Stone beginner level Spanish? Would the house be comfortable? Would I feel awkward and uncomfortable? All these thoughts loomed my head as I waited and waited for the door to open. It felt like an eternity.

Finally after a couple more rings, the door opened. I secretly gave a sigh of relief. I was tired, dirty and hungry. Plus I was eager to meet my new host family who I had heard all about from Ms. May, my son’s school teacher back home who runs the exchange program for Casa Xelaju.

The door creaked open and a dog barked. A young man answered the door and some words were exchanged briefly in gunfire Spanish. All I understood was “Nicole” (my name), “si” and “uno momento por favor”. I entered the dark house to silence and pulling in my enormous red suitcase. I was told to wait there for a moment in the long, narrow hallway, and there I stood for another five minutes waiting for the matron of the house.

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Spanish Immersion 101: Home stay in Xela, Guatemala

Author’s note: This post was originally published on March 16, 2012. For some reason, it had attracted daily spam comments for one year straight so I moved it to drafts. I’m experimenting now by republishing the post to see if the crazy spanners from all across the world find it again. I enjoyed this post and want to keep it on my blog as it documents my week doing a home stay and Spanish immersion in Guatemala. Here it goes again! 

I arrived in Quetzaltenango, or simply called Xela (pronounced “Shay-la”), as the sun was setting across the lush, volcanic valley.  I was exhausted from the day’s travels and the total immersion into a new country with a new language as a solo traveler.  It had been a long time since I’d traveled completely alone.  Yes, I had spent a few days alone here and there before my previous volunteer trips in Morocco (April 2011) and Costa Rica (April 2010) the past two springs.  Yet, I was always welcomed a few days later by an entire volunteer crew of English speaking friends.   This time was different.

I would be spending the week in Xela, Guatemala’s second largest city, in a home stay with a local family.  There would be no english spoken whatsoever and I had never met them before.  All I knew were their names and their address.  That was it.

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My Guatemalan Adventure: Day 1

I landed in Guatemala City on an excessively windy day on Sunday, March 4th.  After a fitful night’s sleep at a mediocre airport hotel I was ready to leave Houston and finally continue my way south to Guatemala.  I had the usual feelings of excitement and anticipation which I always get before I land in a new country and enter into the mayhem it brings.  The whole bag of usual mixed thoughts raced across my mind.

What would it be like? Would I enjoy my stay there? Would I understand and be able to communicate in my broken Spanish? Would I be safe?  Would I get sick?  Would my ride be there as expected, waiting for me outside the baggage claim?  Would the bus ride suck?

You would think that a seasoned traveler would get over these worry wart antics but it never seems to fail.  I’m always a worrier and I also go through this kind of strange mixed up, emotional nonsense.  At least now I am fully aware of it and try my best to take things as they come.  That is the best advice I’d ever received about traveling in different countries:  Just let go, and go with the flow!  Yet words can mean more than actions for a type A person who is normally as organized and orderly as drill sergeant.

I exited the plane and felt the warm air flow through my Minnesota veins.  It felt great to finally be there and to be somewhere warm!  I grabbed my mighty red suitcase, stuffed to the rim, and quickly passed through immigration and headed out the door.  I was ready for the flood of people waiting frantically outside of the airport doors, with signs and smiles and searching looks across their faces.  Of course I was an instant attraction as it isn’t every day a tall, blond-haired woman walks out of the doors, completely alone and searching the crowd as well.  My eyes scanned the horizon and sorted through the mass of chaos until thankfully I quickly located my name on a white placard.  My ride was there.

Guatemala TRAVEL BY REGION Volunteering Abroad

Home at last!

Finally after two days in limbo in two US airports, I made it home. I am utterly exhausted yet of course it is right back to it. As a stay at home mom of two young children, there is not much time to relax or recuperate.

I made it home unexpectedly through a bit of luck. Two amazingly kind United Airlines gate agents, one in Houston and one in Chicago, were looking out for me. After I landed in Chicago, to my dismay things were delayed as well. There were 48 mph winds causing O’Hare to shut down runways and delay and cancel flights.

I used my weary head and immediately went over to the departure gate for the next flight out of O’Hare to Minneapolis. I told the agent my story and she put me on the standby list. The flight was supposed to leave at 2:20 pm but the pilots were delayed due to weather. Thus I ran over a few gates down and put my name on the standby list for the 3:30 pm flight. I was third on the list for the flight when the agent informed us that the plane had maintenance problems! Not knowing what else to do at this point, I ran back to the other gate for the delayed 2:20 flight (it was 3:30 at this point) and the gate agent told me there was no chance. It was leaving.

I turned to walk away not knowing what to do when I heard someone running after me, calling “Young lady!” urgently. I turned around, and it was her. “Come quick!” I started to run and before I knew it I was on the plane to Minneapolis, the doors closed and of course I lost it. I was so incredibly tired at that point that I could no longer control myself. I was going home.

At 5 pm, I landed and nearly raced off the plane to greet my children. Tears poured out of my eyes out of exhaustion and happiness to be home safe and sound. They kept saying, “Mama, why are you crying?” I told them that I’d have to explain it later. It was a long story!

Here are some photos of leaving Antigua on Sunday morning around 10 am. The city of Antigua is surrounded by three glorious volcanoes, in which one, “Fuego” (or “fire”) is active. It has been cloudy most of the day on Saturday so I never saw the peaks of the volcanoes. Yet someone was looking out for me because not only did I see all three peaks Sunday morning I also saw Fuego, the active volcano erupt! Right as I was leaving town, Fuego blew its top. It was a strike of pure luck! Somehow or another I’d make it home safely and in once piece!

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The last two pictures above are my first sight Sunday morning of the tops of all three volcanoes surrounding Antigua. I finally saw them!

Per Wikipedia:

Three large volcanoes dominate the horizon around Antigua.
The most commanding, to the south of the city, is the Volcán de Agua or “Volcano of Water”, some 3766 meters (12,356 ft) high. When the Spanish arrived, the inhabitants of the zone, Kakchikel Mayas, called it Hunapú (and they still do). However, it became known as Volcán de Agua after a lahar from the volcano buried the second site of the capital, which prompted the Spanish authorities to move the capital to present-day Antigua. The original site of the 2nd capital is now the village San Miguel Escobar.
To the west of the city are a pair of peaks, Acatenango, last erupted in 1972, some 3976 meters (13045 ft) high, and the Volcán de Fuego or “Volcano of Fire”, some 3763 meters (12346 ft) high. “Fuego” is famous for being almost constantly active at a low level. Smoke issues from its top daily, but larger eruptions are rare.

Stay tuned….I promise I will back up and start from the beginning of my trip to Guatemala, with day one Arrival and my long bus ride from Guatemala City to Xela in the highlands, were I stayed for the week. I can’t wait to share more! Thanks for reading and all the comments! I’m working on catching up and answering them all!

Guatemala TRAVEL BY REGION

El dia de la mujer in Xela, Guatemala

Today was an amazing day. One of those unexpected, joyful events happened here in Guatemala. An event that will have a lasting impact on my experience living here in Xela for a week to learn Spanish and understand Guatemala’s rich culture.

Being away from home, I completely forgot that March 8th is a special day for women around the world. It is International Women’s Day. Thus, I was fortunate to be here on “El dia de la muter” and witness the grand celebration that is happening all across Guatemala and the world today. The celebration and promotion of women’s rights and an end to violence against women.

Since I’ve been in Xela, I’ve learned a lot about a woman’s life in Guatemala. My fantastic Spanish teacher, Lili told me some surprising details of what it is like for most women to live in Guatemala. There are several issues regarding women’s rights that need to be resolved yet are very complicated since many problems are engrained in their Latin culture. Guatemala, like most latin countries, has a strong culture of Machismo and is very conservative. Thus women are not always treated as equals. Most women in Guatemala, regardless of status and/or profession do not understand their rights or if they do understand them are afraid to do anything. Violence against women is very common and tragic. Many women suffer beatings and some are even killed if they do not comply with their husbands wishes. The murder rates are high thus women are afraid of reporting domestic violence to the police.

To further aggravate the problem, many women working at factories are exploited in their jobs earning under minimum wage and working long hours with no benefits or health insurance. They are trapped in a horrible situation and are also often sexually abused by their bosses. Oftentimes, they have to submit or else they will be fired.

Lili also told me that it is quite common for men to have mistresses that they frequent or even prostitutes which greatly puts women at risk for developing diseases or other health problems. Generally, women are expected to produce a large family and sometimes if a woman refuses or tries to use contraception, she is beaten or even killed.

Mayan women have it even harder as almost 90% are illiterate and uneducated. Many Mayan children today still do not attend school further aggravating the problem. Most Mayans are very poor and live a hard life outside of the city in farming communities and villages. Although they still maintain a rich culture that has lasted for centuries, the life of a Mayan woman is quite hard.

Despite the law created in 2007 to protect women against violence, little has changed due to fear and a vicious cycle of being trapped in a culture that hasn’t changed much in regards to women’s rights. If a woman is poor, uneducated and has no job along with five or six children, how could she possibly leave her husband? She must accept the violence.

On a positive note, many groups have formed to help educate women on their rights and support women who suffer mentally and physically from abuse. Women have services available at their church and at local and governmental levels, if they choose to speak out. Furthermore, today was the largest demonstration and celebration of El dia de la mujur en Xela. There were women, girls and even men and boys all together, representing all walks of life. It is not only a Mayan problem. Violence and mistreatment of women is very common and happens to many Guatemalan women.

It is a tragic problem that will take some time to solve since it is so engrained in the culture. Lili believes that boys and girls must be educated at a young age that they are equal and they must treat each other with respect. That is the only way that women will ever have equal rights. Let’s hope all women can have the same rights as men and be treated fairly with kindness and respect!


Here are my photos from the spectacular celebration in Xela, as women from all walks of life came together to celebrate and fight for women’s rights, together as one.

A Mayan woman walking down the street.

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5am climb on Santa Maria Volcano

Just a short note to let you all know that I had the most spectacular day today in Guatemala! I rose at 4:45 am and set off in complete darkness to climb the fourth highest volcano in Guatemala, Santa Maria at 12,375 feet/3772m. It was so intensely beautiful that it made me melt. When we got to the top of the volcano a few hours later, I saw my first ever live volcano eruption right across the way at Santiaguito Volcano. Here it is….

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There are two other options for climbing The Santa Maria Volcano. One is you start at 11 pm and do a moonlight hike and watch the sun rise over the neighboring volcanoes (there are tons!) but it is very very cold. The other is a 2 or 3 am start and you arrive just as the sun rises over the volcanoes. Apparently if you do the night hike you can see the brilliant red lava gleaming from a neighboring volcano!!!! If I was here a little longer than a week, I would have definitely done it. I can’t imagine how amazing it would be to see burning live lava in the darkness of the night!

Stay tuned…This is just a quick “postcard” summary of my trip. I took over 150 pictures today of the amazing volcano, countryside and farmland. Of course I need to edit and write it all up as a post! That will be when I return!

Adventure Travel Guatemala TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking

View from the school

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Photo above taken from rooftop of my Spanish School on the first day of class

I have completed my second day of class. It has been exhausting and difficult yet on the bright side of things I must admit that I’ve already come a long with with my Spanish. I by no means can speak well but at least I can somewhat formulate some sentences and understand more.

It has already been quite an adventure and indeed a huge cultural experience. I have never done something like this before. It is my first time traveling completely solo and living with a host family. The family has eight residents plus myself and a yellow lab (who is adorable but loves to bark incessantly in the middle of the night). The family is wonderful, gracious and very fun-loving yet the language barrier has been hard, especially during mealtime when everyone is eating together and talking extremely fast. It is a unique experience to be an outsider who doesn’t understand the language or culture. Definitely a “third-eye” experience in which I am certain I will learn a lot and grow from it.

I have already taken lots of photos and when I return home will do more detailed posts of my stay here in Guatemala as well as my impressions of the experience. In the meantime I will post a photo a day similar to my thirdeyeworld site (which is short posts containing postcards from my travels). I am sure you understand that it is more important to be exploring my surrounding than spending time writing my stories.

Tomorrow I am rising at 4:30 am to do the sunrise trek to Santa Maria Volcano! I decided to skip a day at class so I could experience the trek. I have hired a Spanish speaking guide so I guess I’ll be practicing on the hike. Wish me luck! I can hardly wait to share the photos with you!!!!

Stay Tuned…..

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