Our trip to Guatemala involved us flying in to Flores, a tiny town in the north part of the country that is a gateway to the ruins at Tikal, and flying out of Guatemala City. After Tikal we were heading to the south part of the country and had to figure out how to get there. We finally decided on the overnight bus. The company we chose was Linea (one of two primary bus lines) and the bus was to leave the station around 8 pm, so we had some time to kill in Flores after checking out of our lodging in Tikal.
Flores is a beautiful little town that sits on an island in the middle of a lake. There is not a lot to do there, but we had heard that a boat ride around the lake was a pleasant way to spend a few hours. When we tried to book it at our hotel the price they quoted was 1200 quetzales ($163 USD). Fortunately we decided to wait until we got there and the price in person was significantly less…200 quetzales ($27 USD)! After some truly fantastic tacos, we hopped on a small boat and our guide took us around the peaceful lake and stopped at a few places. The first was a trailhead that lead up to a lookout point where we could see the whole town of Flores on its tiny island.
Next we spent some time at the dilapidated zoo. It’s not a place I would recommend…some of the animals are kept in very small, run down enclosures. There were peccaries running free, and spanish speaking macaws.
As the sun began to set, it was time to head to the bus station. The bus was late, but everyone was friendly and we felt safe there as night fell. We boarded the bus and tried to get comfortable in the worn seats. It was a long night. Through the 8 hours, there were many stops with people getting on and off. Limbs constantly fell asleep from the contorted positions we had to take. Of course I woke up frequently to do the 1-2-3 kid count and make sure everyone was ok. It was a dark, bumpy, and uncomfortable ride. Getting off in Guatemala City was a relief, and we hunted for caffeine in the bus station. Crime is more of an issue in Guatemala City than the other parts of the country we visited, so we stayed in the indoor station protected behind security gates as we waited for our ride to Antigua. Josebal (JB) picked us up in a van and navigated us through the large city. He was amazing, telling us all about the history and politics of his country, as well as his personal story. Apparently there were going to be massive protests against government corruption that day, so we made it out of the city just in time!
Since it wasn’t quite time to check into our rental house, he took us to a restaurant perched on the hills overlooking Antigua, and 2 of Guatemala’s most famous volcanoes– Acetenango and Fuego. Fuego is very active, so we had a delicious breakfast on a terrace watching in awe as billows of smoke and ash poured in intervals from Fuego’s peek. After breakfast, we walked around admiring the art on display and the kids got a playground break.
We only spent a few days in Antigua, but it is a lovely town. It has an interesting history and colorful buildings. Crumbling old buildings and pristinely built churches frame the streets filled with motorbikes and chicken buses. Volcanoes tower overhead. Relatively safe, it is popular with backpackers. There are lots of hostels and funky fusion restaurants. We met more fellow travelers from around the world on the days we explored the town than any other part of our trip. Our favorite moments were relaxing on the roof of our rental house with a bottle of wine, watching heat lighting break through pink sunset clouds over the ever present dramatic volcano silhouettes.
While we were staying in Antigua, we made arrangements with our wonderful driver JB to visit Chichicastenango Market. It is the largest outdoor market in Central America, open Thursdays and Sundays. The drive there wasn’t bad, a mix of windy mountain roads and crowded towns. We stopped to get breakfast at a tasty local place featuring Guatemalan hot chocolate and beans, plantains, tortillas and eggs.
Arriving at the market was disorienting. The colors and smells and sounds and crowds were stimulating to the point of being almost overwhelming at times. Beautiful textiles, homemade candles and hammocks, fresh fruit and tortillas, children’s toys and dolls, masks and statues, flowers…every corner we turned had something new to admire. We wandered through the alleys and main streets for hours, soaking everything in.
At last we came to the famous 400 year old Chichicastenango church of San Tomas. There are 18 steps leading up to the main structure, one for each month of the Mayan calendar. On the day we went, there was incense burning and people selling flowers and other items on the steps. Late in the afternoon, we said goodbye to the colorful market and started the drive back to Antigua, happy to have experienced such a vibrant and bustling place.
This past year was the most road-trip-filled year we’ve ever had. I’ll leave some of the smaller ones for another day, and share the highlights of the two biggest ones we attempted.
Starting at our home base in Raleigh, North Carolina, the kids and I decided to drive up the east coast to Union, Maine to visit my parents at their new home there. On the way, we stopped first at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. Although we spent the entire day at this wonderful place and did everything from musket training to an archaeological dig, there was so much more we didn’t get to see or do. We will definitely be back here again, and will try to spend more time visiting the Jamestown settlement as well. Colonial Williamsburg truly makes history come to life for children and adults.
We had planned to stop by Assateague beach and see the wild horses, but the holiday traffic was horrible and so we opted to drive straight through to Manhattan for the 4th of July. Using hotel points, we snagged a hotel room a block from Times Square, and as soon as we dropped our bags in the room, it was time to explore. Times Square seems like a completely different place than it was the first time I visited New York in 2001. Back then it was still insanely packed with people, but the vendors were more on the seedy side…selling things like borderline obscene t-shirts, photocopied packets of”100 sex positions for 99 cents!” and questionable medicinal substances. It has a theme park feel to it now, with every cartoon character and super hero under the sun walking around looking for kids and families to pose for pictures with, for a small fee of course. Since it was the 4th of July, we gave in and posed with a sassy statue of liberty, and then avoided eye contact with all of the other characters until we escaped the main area.
We spent the rest of the day walking around the city for hours. The kids were very enthusiastic about taking a real subway ride for the first time, so we made sure to fit that in as well. Purely by accident as we were walking around looking for a place to stop for lunch, we stumbled upon the World Trade Center Memorial. The last time I was here was 1.5 weeks after the towers fell…smoke and rubble everywhere, a stench in the dust clogged air, and the skeleton of a building towering over the street. Very powerful to be back here 14 years later.
The final stop on our whirlwind two days in Manhattan was at FAO Schwarz, the iconic toy store. Skye, Claire and Flynn found renewed energy as soon as we passed through the doors and had a blast singing karaoke, learning magic tricks, and dancing on the floor piano. That’s in addition to the massive selection of toys to admire and a separate area filled with every kind of candy imaginable.
We finished off our stop with some Japanese ramen and ice cream, and then back in the van for the final push up to Maine! It was wonderful visiting my parents and seeing their new home, and the kids enjoyed riding in the tractor and learning to sew with their grandparents. We also got to go to the Lobster Pound to pick out some tasty local lobsters for a feast.
A few weeks after we returned home (in a crazy marathon 15 hours of driving!) it was time to finish packing up our house and move out to California. Jason’s job had relocated to a town in the middle of the Mojave desert in Southern California, and the kids and I decided to turn the move out into a fun cross-country road trip.
The van was packed up and loaded with car activities, movies, and books, and we said goodbye to our home in North Carolina and headed south to Destin, Florida. Destin is another former home of ours, and Jason’s parents, sister, and niece and nephew live there still. We spent the first few days of our trip hanging out on the crystal white sand beaches the town is known for and on the last day decided to attempt paddle boarding. It was hilarious fun watching the kids try to stay up on their boards by the shore. We paddled out to Crab Island, and after Jason’s sister was stung by a jellyfish we attempted to paddle back. Unfortunately, the current picked up and we couldn’t seem to make progress towards the shore…I had Flynn and Claire on my board, and was basically towing Skye and her cousin on another. No matter how hard I paddled, I wasn’t getting any closer. Thankfully, a pontoon boat full of summer partiers spotted us in our comical situation and picked us up. They brought us all the way back to the beach and we were very thankful!
Next up was a two day stop in New Orleans. It was SO difficult to choose which activities to do while we were there, but we decided to visit Mardi Gras World and take a cemetery tour. Mardi Gras World was a feast for the eyes…a huge warehouse stuffed with colorful floats and sculptures, and an informative tour about the parade, its traditions, and details about how the floats are crafted. A piece of King Cake is included in the admission price!
The next day, we booked a tour at St. Louis Cemetery. On the phone, the operator claimed the tour was kid-friendly, but that was not the case. A slow, soft spoken discussion of the history and architecture by the guide and stops every few feet were not particularly engaging for the little ones. The highlight though, was a stop at Marie Laveau’s tomb. The stories of the “Voodoo Queen” were very interesting, and tied in with a stop we made later at the voodoo shop on Bourbon St. We ended up ducking out of the tour early, and it was a fortunate choice, as the low dark clouds in the sky opened up on the way home, drenching the city just as we got to our room.
A long haul drive from New Orleans brought us to Glen Rose, TX. There we entered Dinosaur Valley State Park, and had an amazing day. A short hike down to the river revealed dinosaur tracks preserved in the stone. Big round apatosaur-like prints and three toed carnivore tracks. It was so neat…I think I was more excited than the kids! Right down the road from the tracks, we stopped at Dinosaur World, where we played “Herbivore or Carnivore” and dug for fossils.
At this point, we were over halfway there and packing more miles into each day. Next on the list was White Sands National Monument, a beautiful park in New Mexico filled with miles of white gypsum sand dunes, the perfect place to go sand sledding!
One last stop before the last stretch through the mountains to California was the enormous meteor crater near Flagstaff Arizona. A breathtaking site, the crater rises out of the ground in the middle of the flat desert. There is a small museum there with great history and interactive presentations. But the best part was just stepping out on the bowl of the crater and imagining the power and destruction that blasted this quiet region so many years ago.
We made it safely to our new house in Palmdale, and are looking forward to these few years in California and all of the exploring we’ll get to do on the west coast. For now, until we move again, we will enjoy the joshua trees in our new desert home.
I had seen the lovely photos of the Greek island of Santorini in travel magazines, but nothing prepared me for how it felt the first time I stepped out on the edge of the caldera in Firostefani. My eyes actually filled with tears as I was struck with the vastness and beauty of the open space dropping out before me. The cliff is so steep, and the bowl of the caldera so immense. The inky blue Mediterranean was dotted with tiny white cruise ships and large seabirds lazily circled on the air currents way below us. The smooth walkways and cave dwellings, mostly all in white, were otherworldly.
We were there for a week to see two of our good friends get married, and we went in with two other couples to rent the Blue Angel cave house in Firostefani. Elaborate rounded rooms with over the top decor and a rooftop soaking tub with an amazing view greeted us as we rounded the corner to our temporary home. We had selected Firostefani to stay in because it is known to be one of the livelier towns in Santorini, with lots of restaurants and bars and things to do.
After a couple of days of settling in and relaxing, our friends organized a day-long sailboat charter in the vicinity of the island. We made several stops, including an island made of lava rock and a cove that was great for swimming. It was very neat to see the cliffs of Santorini from down below!
The next day, Jason and I were on our own, so we walked up the main road near our cave house, and stopped at the first vehicle rental place we found. Soon we were on a four-wheeler zipping down the road towards Oia for the day. Oia is on the other end of the island from Firostefani, and has a very different feel to it. It’s much quieter, and more polished and immaculate. When we first arrived, we encountered hoards of people filing down the streets and into shops and alleys. We soon learned that it was “cruise ship day” and all of these folks were taking advantage of the limited shore time they had before it was time for them to re-board their ships. After an hour or two, the crowds dissipated and we were able to enjoy exploring the peaceful city with it’s fascinating architecture, iconic white and blue churches, and fantastic restaurants hiding in rounded nooks.
Next came our friends’ wedding. I can’t imagine many settings more romantic than a balcony overlooking the sweeping views of Santorini just before sunset. It was wonderful and there were many tears:) I was photographing the wedding and crying behind my camera! Here are a few images…there are more on my photography blog.
After the wedding we had one more day and we weren’t ready to leave. Toasting the last sunset, we tried to soak it all in and promised each other we would be back one day.
We couldn’t visit Guatemala with out going to Tikal, one of the largest and most significant cities in the ancient Mayan world. The kids were 3, 6, and 8 and I read as much as I could find online to make sure they would be able to handle the hiking and to figure out how to get there. The more I researched, the more I knew we had to make sure to include this stop in our itinerary. I was fortunate to get us a plane ticket that flew into Flores (the closest town to Tikal) and out of Guatemala City 2 weeks later.
After a connection in Guatemala City and a short final flight into Flores, we met up with our shuttle van and headed out to the Jaguar Inn, one of only 3 hotels that are located in the park within yards of the entrance to the ruins. Although night was falling, we were glued to the windows throughout the 45 minute drive. It was Sunday, and the residents of the small villages on the way were all out playing basketball and attending festive evening church services. Every so often, we would see animal crossing signs with outlines of jaguars, turkeys, snakes and coatimundis. When we arrived and got in line to check in behind a group of exuberant Australian backpackers, the exhaustion from an entire day of traveling hit and we gratefully piled into the beds in our simple but lovely bungalow and crashed.
In the morning, we awoke to a jungle paradise. Sipping coffee on an outdoor patio, we observed feisty coatimundis (a raccoon/weasel-like animal), green parrots, and 2 grey foxes. We were told that the sneaky coatis sometimes come into the restaurant at night and steal the sugar from the tables. Birds, insects and frogs filled the air with their songs. The kids ran around playing soccer with a coconut.
Armed with bug repellant in every form imaginable (even bracelets!) and thick socks, we marched out of the hotel and towards the gate to pay for our entry into the park and get a map to explore on our own. A man with a large automatic weapon sat guard by the ticket booth, causing me to wonder what type of threats they had to deal with out here in the wilderness. The paths were well groomed and lush, and we studied the map, planning a route that would take us to see as many of the temples as possible, in a circular route.
After we had been walking for about 15 minutes, the kids began to melt down. Flynn decided out of nowhere that he was deathly afraid of the giant ants and was crying. Claire joined in and was jumping around screaming. Skye complained that her legs hurt. The idyllic day of jungle exploring I’d envisioned now seemed out of reach. And then, as suddenly as it came on, the storm passed and the kids calmed down. We studied the leaf cutter ants up close and talked about how to step over them. We saw our first spider monkey swinging in the trees above us. And for them (and us!) the day turned into a fun adventure.
We ended up spending about 5 hours hiking through the complex. The size and variety of the temples and other structures is awe inspiring. And amazingly, we saw very few other people there. I honestly cannot believe that such a place is not overrun with tourists. It felt like we had the place to ourselves. We saw so many ruins, from the enormous Temples I and II and the pristine Great Plaza courtyard, to crumbling overgrown structures that have not been completely excavated. The kids ran through the buildings and climbed up stone steps, pretending the tunnels were portals to another dimension.
My favorite part of the day was when a nice man we ran into told us to veer off the path near Temple III at a certain spot to see some monkeys. We followed his directions and found ourselves in a clearing ringed with huge trees. The branches were teeming with monkeys, above us, around us. Lanky spider monkeys and big, grumpy looking black howler monkeys. I have never seen so many in the wild before, and so close. One baby howler monkey was curious about us, and dangled down from his branch, hands outstretched towards us, while his lounging elders looked on. It was magical.
The 5 hours flew by and I was impressed with the kids’ stamina. We arrived back at the Jaguar Inn for dinner and booked a sunrise tour for the following day with resident tour guide Carlos. That meant waking up at 3:30, and meeting at 4 in the darkness in front of the inn. The sunrise tour brings you to the tallest temple in the Mayan world, Temple IV. Many people feel that it is a spiritual experience watching the sun come up from that vantage, and it has the added excitement of being the location where the rebel base was filmed in Star Wars Episode IV! Handing out flashlights, our guide instructed us to stick together and we stumbled awkwardly through the darkness, holding hands so as not to trip over the invisible roots and stones on the pitch black path.
After nearly an hour, we arrived at the base of the temple and climbed the steps to the top. There we found a place to sit among the other early risers and sat in silence to wait for the sunrise. The top was made up of steep horizontal stair steps, so it almost felt like theater seating, with the tips of the other stone temples poking through the misty jungle canopy below us as far as we could see. It was especially important for the children to be quiet for the 45 minutes or so until the sun was up. We had a long talk with them beforehand and provided gummy bears, and they did a great job sitting in silence so that the people who had come here for a “spiritual” experience would not be disturbed. Unfortunately one can not necessarily control all bodily functions, and one of the kids innocently broke the peace with gas echoing thunderously across the stones. Apologies to anyone who’s meditation was interrupted.
The sunrise itself was mostly obscured by the fog that morning, but it was still a lovely experience watching the jungle wake up from above. The air slowly got lighter and lighter, and birds and monkey began their morning routines in the trees. We climbed down to the bottom together. While we waited for the rest of our group to descend, the girls used a stump to set up a tea party, complete with place settings fashioned of leaves and twigs. Once everyone was back together the guide walked us back through the temples, stopping frequently to explain the history of the temples, Mayan culture, and to point out wildlife and interesting plants. Some of the temples were ones we had seen the day before, but now we viewed with new eyes after hearing Carlos’s descriptions. I felt a chill when he showed us an altar in a sunny courtyard where he explained the human sacrifices occurred. He said they usually happened at the bottom of the temple and involved removal of the heart from a living person. It always feels strange to be in a quiet place where so much history has taken place and imagine the dramas that unfolded through the centuries in the same space you are standing in.
We also stopped to watch a toucan take flight, examine coriander and pepper plants, and the “chewing gum tree” whose thick white sap is apparently used to make gum. Claire and Skye got to feed a tarantula with tiny grasshoppers caught by the guide. They dropped them onto the edge of a hole and the hairy beast grabbed them and scuttled back into it’s tunnel. We also saw another tarantula, this time in a grey fox’s mouth as it ran across the courtyard we were standing in. Don’t see that every day!
Between the wildlife and history and incredible structures, Tikal was more amazing than we could have imagined and a wonderful family adventure.
The kids and I drove all the way across the country this summer to follow Jason from our old home in Raleigh, NC to our new home in the California Desert. Speed was somewhat important, but I tried to plan at least one fun or interesting stop for us each day. After a stressful drive through the mountains of New Mexico, it was a relief to pull into the visitor’s center at White Sands National Monument. Coming out of the mountains, the park looks like a thin, shimmering, sparkling band of white surrounded by the dull browns of the barren New Mexico wilderness. It’s only when you get close that you realize how big the park is. At 275 square miles, it’s the largest area of exposed gypsum sand crystals in the world.
Before entering the park, there’s a little visitor center with a gift shop and a room with some illustrations of the local geology. We paid the fee to get in and also rented a couple of flying-saucer-style sleds and a fist sized chunk of wax. Back in the car and we followed the winding roads to the entrance. I was a little sad that it wasn’t a sunny day, as I had imagined bright sun and blue skies for our stop. However, the dramatic grey clouds over the rolling dunes made for a different kind of beauty. The dunes became whiter and smoother the farther in we drove, and the wind created mesmerizing dancing patterns of white sand across the dark asphalt of the road.
We finally found a good place to stop and the kids bolted out of the car, happy to stretch their legs after 8 hours of driving. It was wonderful to just let them loose to run free and play as they liked, no rules or boundaries. We stayed until dusk, sledding, burying each other, rolling down the hills and dancing on the peaks of the dunes.
As the light began to fade, the wind picked up and it started to sprinkle. Just as I turned around to call Claire back to the car, I spotted her dancing with abandon on the tallest dune, with misty clouds of white sand kicked up around her feet. A vision I’ll never forget in a magical place.