In Mordor, where the shadows lie
category: Jims Guatemala

mordorSM.jpgI have been re-reading the greatest work of literature of all time, The Lord of the Rings, and it’s such a powerful book that it tends to affect how I see things around me. But maybe that can’t be helped when you visit places like this: Volcán Pacaya. We went there about a year ago, and we thought now would be a good time to celebrate our one-year-in-site anniversary with a reunion hike. It was good.

Peace Corps can be emotionally taxing at times, so it’s nice that we get vacation just like everyone else. And when friends visit, we get to show off the Guatemala we already know and love while also seeing some stuff we’ve not yet had a chance to visit. We just saw our friends Robin and Elena off to the airport after their 10-day Guatemalan visit. Robin is a Spanish professor at Knox College, and head of their Global Studies department. Knox College is where Emily went to school, but is also noteworthy in that they offer the only “Peace Corps Prep” program in the nation. She will be teaching a two-term introductory Spanish course next year, with a trip to Guatemala for the students during spring break. Her field-study is our vacation.


So as to not be repetetive (we re-saw several sites that we know to be awesome) or to bore you with our vacation exploits (which would annoy ME, if I were reading this from my desk at work when I was supposed to be accomplishing something productive), I will rehash some of the NEW places we visited. The first one was the Unicornio Azul, a bed-and-breakfast/French riding school in the Cumbre. The Cumbre is Emily’s favorite part of Guatemala, and with reason: it’s beautiful, lonely, pristine, and two miles up in the air. It’s normally blanketed in clouds, but it opened up for us to let us take some crazy beautiful pictures.

The Unicornio Azul is run by a French lady married to a Guatemalan man, and they’ve built their business up over the last 14 years. They have a sustainable, environmentally and culturally responsible approach, hiring local hands (and treating them fairly), serving locally grown food, and participating in the local economy. They have a stable of about a dozen well-trained horses (stables pictured above), and lead hourlong rides in the local area as well as fully outfitted, multi-week horseback excursions to local national parks and otherwise unreachable Mayan ruins. She was fascinating to talk to. But the best part? Lunch. We finished our ride, and she hopped off her horse and went right into the kitchen to help her cook put the finishing touches on some AMAZING French cuisine. In Guatemala? Hell yeah. The whole thing was a little expensive for our Peace Corps budget, but is very reasonably priced for any tourist that wants to get off the beaten path and see some of the more remote Guatemala.

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You can click on the pictures to enlarge them: Emily in the saddle, the stars at 10,000′, and a view from the porch of our casa. Brian and Mel, take note! This is where you have to go after the wrap party.

IMG_6203_smWe did some stuff in our site with Robin, too. She and her 12-year-old daughter Elena made the tough trip out to our village and learned about washing in the stream and pooping in a hole. What troopers! Like Devin, they too were suprused by how time-consuming and trying it is just to do daily stuff in our site; the blog entries don’t properly prepare you for the real thing.

IMG_6206_smRobin speaks Spanish (of course) and is interested in women’s issuses, so we took her to one of our health lectures. This week’s discussion was on family planning options. We broke the women into groups, and each had to give the rest of the crowd a brief presentation on one method of contraception to the remaining women. At the end, Robin gave a presentation on IUDs, and she had their rapt attention. After all the presentations, several women started talking with her about it, and asking how they could set up a session with the nurse to get them put in. Robin did a great job, and seemed really pleased that she got to take part in this strange, cross-cultural teaching experience (the lady standing to the right is the Q’anjob’al translator).

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Here we are in our house. The first picture is Chalio and some of the neighbors coming over to meet Robin and Elena. Everyone was pretty amazed to meet a real-life white child, but I think Elena liked the attention. The town pitched in and made a big steaming pot of butx-ulul (a salty corn and bean porridge) then invited themselves to our house to have a party. I was not too keen on the “inviting themselves into our house” part, but it was fun to get everyone together, and not too much damage was done.

casadelmundoSM.jpgOne of the prettiest places on earth is Lago Atitlán (I posted a picture a few days ago), and karma sortof obligates us to take any visitors there as well. This time, however, Robin wanted to treat us so we stayed in the fancy Casa Del Mundo instead of our usual cheap, fun-but-backpackerish place. Like the Unicornio Azul, it is built with overseas money and with an eye toward social and environmental responsibility.


You can only get there by boat, and it boasts such amenities as hot showers (whee), fantastic views, a woodfired hot tub, and more hammocks than you can shake a stick at. Some of the balconies are close enough that you can jump off of them right into the lake, which is so ridiculously deep and steep (being a water-filled volcano and all) that there is no chance you will hit the bottom. In fact, Lake Atitlán is the only place you can earn your high altitude dive certification without getting into salt water.

It’s so beautiful, I want to take everyone I know there.

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climbing.jpgThe last place we went with Robin and Elena, before they returned to the land of cheeseburgers and apple pie, was the Pacaya volcano. We went there at the start of our service, and it was a lot of fun to see it again. The trail was a little different this time, too! Since Pacaya is one of the three active volcanos in Guatemala (there are over 30 in total here), they have to constantly reroute the trail to avoid new lava flows or pumice landslides.

eruptionFuego_smOn the climb up, we looked out over the plains of southern Guatemala to see the two volcanos we know best, Agua and Fuego, to the north. Then Fuego erupted in the distance! In the photo, Fuego is on the left with the smoke coming out, and Agua is on the right, with the standing lenticular cloud. A standing lenticular cloud is one of my favorite meteorological phenomenon. Is that nerdy that I have a favorite meteorological phenomenon?  


Despite not being accustomed to the altitude, Robin and Elena made it to the lower summit, where the lava was flowing out of a rift in the ground in glowing slow-motion, like a Playdoh fun factory. Here I am, posing quickly before my shoes melt or I get a sunburn on the side of my face.

Hopefully Elena will have interesting stories to tell her 7th grade class when school starts again in the fall.

Posted by: jfanjoy