Flores is an island town on Lake Petén Itzá. Flores is the staging ground for trips to the spectacular Mayan ruins in Tikal. There are several nice places to stay, we found La Casa Del Lacandon, across from Dona Goya, on the water with a balcony overlooking the lake. 140Q per night for a triple, or about $6.25 per person per night, well within our $7.00 per night budget.
Restaurant Las Puertas was particularly nice, we talked with owner Carlos Salizar about the history of Flores and his small wildlife preserve on the north side of the lake near Francis Copola's property. Las Puertas feels like a european restaurant to me, the food is first rate
Xela is a great city. Xela is the second largest city in Guatemala and it has the feel of being a "real" city (Antigua for example is wonderful but it seems a bit too touristy).
The Parque Central is beautiful, surrounded by historic buildings. This part of Xela compares to Antigua, only the historic area is smaller in relation to the rest of the city.
There are tons of restaurants, bars, salsa lessons, Spanish schools etc. The real problem arises when you try to sort out where to go and what to do among so many cool choices. First you should check out the website Xelapages.com. This site has lots of good info on schools, doctors, hospitals and more. Xelapages is the serious website that gives lots of good information. The publication Xela Who? on the other hand is irreverent and it has quality info for finding where the hot spots are in the area. Xela Who is available at many local restaurants, bookstores and language schools to help you make decisions. The small, probably xeroxed publication is full of interesting reviews of cultural life in Xela (and now San Pedro too!). It also has some humorous articles to keep you reading.
CHICKEN BUS DRIVER FIRED FOR
DRIVING TOO SLOWLY, SOBER
By Chris Perras
Chicken bus driver Juan Lentemente was fired this weekend amidst charges of driving too slowly and without the influence of alcohol. Initially, bus company officials had called for the suspension of Lentemente’s license, but upon learning that he never had a license and was only thirteen years old, decided they had to let him go. Lentemente issued an apology, adding "I neglected my responsibility to the Guatemalan public to drive as fast as the laws of physics allow to get my passengers to their intended destination, and just before reaching it, to stop inexplicably for an extended period of time." We interviewed Alvaro Siemprespacio, the president of Xelaju Chicken Buses, Inc., to find out more about the firing. "The difference between arriving in Chichicastenango at 6:15 am and arriving at 6:19 am may only be the sale of one goat," he remarked, "but when that difference is multiplied by the number of people who can fit in one of our buses, that's a whole lot of goats."
Siemprespacio pointed out that these were neither Lentemente's first, nor only violations. He has also been cited for failing to stop for passengers on the roadside when the bus was, as he put it, "full." "We at Xelaju Chicken Buses, Inc. believe that when there's no room, it's our job to make it" commented Siemprespacio. The company was kind enough to share with us the formula it uses for bus capacity: (C = 4N + X), with C representing capacity, N the number of benches and X the number of additional people on the roadside who want a ride - generally somewhere between 8 and a gajillion.
Siemprespacio explained that filling each bus to capacity helps create a family atmosphere. He added, "If sitting on the lap of a campesino while simultaneously helping diagnose an oozing rash on a nearby passenger and breastfeed a Quiche baby isn't an ice-breaker, I don't know what is." Siemprespacio also responded to criticisms of his company's mandatory alcohol requirement. "Tossing back a few Gallos before driving is a crucial aspect of the job," he replied. "How can one make blind passes on twisting, steep mountain roads without an artificially-inflated set of huevos?"
We at XelaWho can't help but agree. As the saying in Guatemala goes, 'he who hesitates is (knocked off of a cliff by an oncoming 16-wheeler and subsequently) lost.'
Over 2.1 billion people live without electricity. Most of these people use kerosene lamps to provide light at night. The price of kerosene, like gas, is going up. It costs a family in Africa (or Guate) about $75.00 per year to light their houses. Cheaper and better is to use photovoltaics and LED, (light emitting diodes) lights. A house can be outfitted with a 20 watt PV panel, good quality nickel metal hydride batteries and (3) room lights using LEDs for less per year than the cost of kerosene. And that includes the cost of borrowing money at typical market rates. (This is a business opportunity for any eco-entrepreneurs out there!)
I was working with the Xela Teco workshop in Xela to make some prototype LED circuit boards. The big idea is this: LED lights are still pretty expensive, about $25.00 just for an LED replacement for a light bulb. If you make your own LED circuit on a pre made circuit board the cost is relatively small, about $2.50 - 3.50 per LED circuit board. The catch is that you have to design the circuit board and install all of the parts.
A NGO who provides services in very rural parts of the world can set up a workshop to make LED lights on pre-printed circuit boards, sell the service - light - and provide maintenance of the lights and photovoltaics as a profit making venture, given the right circumstances.
I, or we, (The Appropriate Technology Design Collaborative) are working on the design of a universal LED circuit board. It will work with almost any photovoltaic system and when made in a host country where rural use of kerosene lamps is common, it will cost less than kerosene.
The design of the LED circuit board will be published for anyone to use. Better, we expect to make thousands of the circuit boards and instructions available to any NGO who wants / needs to use them.
Anyway, I was trying to be short winded about this but as you may guess by now, I'm pretty excited about the project.
The Xela Teco workshop has engineers and the ability to prototype electronic circuits (+about anything you can imagine). Working with them was a pleasure. Plus I find it much more interesting to travel with some sort of project in mind VS travel just to be somewhere different.
At Xela Teco we worked out some of the potential bugs in the circuit board design, although much work needs to be done. My partner at Xela was Jose Ordonez who has a much deeper knowledge of electronics than I, and he was fun to work with. We started the project speaking mostly English but at the end I'd say we were speaking half English and half Spanish.
I have to catch the bus home, I will add more to this soon.
Also: After Xela, on to Tikal and Peten.
Our trip from San Pedro to Quetzaltenango (Known as Xela, pronounced Shay-la) was by Chicken Bus. We first had to catch a bus headed toward Guatemala City and get out at "148" or some number. The location is just a mile marker on the main highway. We were assured that a bus headed toward Xela would be along shortly. We waited about 10 min. and sure enough, a very full Chicken Bus with "Xela" written in the front window stopped and picked us up.
I'm just shy of 6'=0" tall and a little over 200 lbs. I'm not huge by US standards but when sitting 3 to a seat on an old school bus, things get really tight. I had to remind myself that the trip was only a couple of hours.
One reason for our trip to Xela was to go to language school. We chose Celas Maya online and were very happy with the school, the teachers and facilities. Their main program consists of 5 hours of one on one Spanish every morning and living with a Guatemalan family so you have to practice your Spanish at meal times and in your daily interactions with your host family.
I wish I had a photo of our family (single mom with kids moved out), but the last day when I planned on taking photos, a new father and daughter from the US. overlapped with us and I missed out. If anyone out there has a photo of Doris, (I will add her last name), she is the only Doris family that is connected with Celas Maya school - if you could please forward me her photo I would appreciate it very much.
Thanks in advance,
Next: More on things to do while in Xela.
Luis at Xamanek recommended a bus line to take to Pana where we could catch the boat over to San Pedro. We had a choice, we could wait for a first class bus at 10:30 am or catch the "chicken bus" at 9:00 am. We chose the chicken bus which meant we had to gather up our stuff and bug out in a hurry.
We got to the bus stop just a few minutes after the bus had left. (the bus left early). Our cab driver offered to take us across town to catch up with the chicken bus, or we could wait. We chose the chase. Off we went in true "Bullit" style. The driver really knew his way around Guatemala City. We saw neighborhoods that may have never been seen by tourists. Eventually we caught our chicken bus. We thanked and tipped the driver and we were off to Pana!
Panajachel is a fairly touristy place, and that is not all bad. There are stalls on the main drag down to the boat docks that sell handicrafts, clothing, T-Shirts and the typical tourist stuff. Also there are vegetarian restaurants and some really fine dining places. We stopped in at (I have to look up the name, sorry), which is recommended in the Lonley Planet, where we had a great meal in a peaceful tropical garden just off the busy street.
We stayed a few hours in Pana and then caught the boat over to San Pedro, our destination for a few days stay before heading off to language school in Xela.
In San Pedro we first stayed at Casa Elena which is near the boat dock. We had a room on the street and it was pretty noisy, but fairly cheap at 60Q for a triple, shared bath. I have to say, Casa Elena doesn't really have much to offer except location and price. It is not like some of the hostels we've experienced where fellow travelers interact trade stories and compare notes from the road. Casa Elena is not bad, but I really can't recommend it. We did, however, find Jarachik, which is along the path between the Pana and Santiago docks. Jarachik has great food, a bonfire every night when there is no rain, 4 rooms on the second floor and a pair of roof top rooms with a great view.
We stayed on the second floor in a triple with bath for the same 60Q we were spending at Casa Elena. Jarachik has a great vibe to it, really great food and it is located just across the path from the best internet we found in San Pedro.
Next: On to Xela
Many people and guidebooks will tell you to keep away from Guatemala City - that it is too unsafe. We stayed at Xamanek Backpackers, which is located in a safe area of the city. Our host, Luis, who is from Canada gave us excellent advice on where to go, which bus to take and which areas of the city ware safe. He even encouraged a "tour" of a squatter area organized by a school program that provides schooling and other services to the poorest of the poor. The program, Safe Passages, provides assistance for children who once worked salvaging garbage at the city dump.
Thanks to Safe Passages, today, more than 550 children who live around the
Please note, Squatter Cities are areas where people build their own houses on land they don't own. Cities feel free to ignore these populations and often don't provide any services. No electricity, no water, no sanitation and no garbage pick up. Moreover, police service is also usually not available. Few NGOs deal with these populations, so the people who live in these areas are really on their own. Right now over a billion people live in squatter cities and that number is expected to double in the next 15 years.
If you are interested in a tour of Safe Passages and the area where they are located you should get in touch with Safe Passages early in your travel preparations. They are busy working with kids but offer some outreach to travelers on occasion.
Next on our trip - On to San Pedro
Xamanek Backpacker's is a very nice hostel. A bit over our budget of $7.00 per person per night but we found less expensive digs in San Pedro and Quetzaltenango so it all balanced out.
In Guatemala City we walked around our relatively safe neighborhood, found some interesting places to eat and we took the bus into the city center to catch the market and sights.
We visited El Portal, the bar where Che and Fidel were known to hang out. It felt like it hadn't been changed at all in the years since Che was there.
After a couple of days in Guate we were off to Pana to catch a boat to San Pedro.
We are then off to Lake Atitlan where we have an abundance of places to stay. The challenge will be finding some place cool but not overly Gringofied. Panajachel is officially known as "Gringotenango" so we might be fighting an uphill battle.
We plan on traveling by "Chicken Bus" for part or all of our travels so we should have some very interesting stories from the road.
Road time is Mid June to Mid July.
Hope to see some of you on the "Gringo Trail"
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