Cuzco and the Sacred Valley

In April I was sent to Cuzco for work to train Walking Tree’s new Country Director in Peru, and I was lucky enough to have some time to explore the area.  For years, I had longed to visit Machu Picchu, and now I finally had the chance to visit!  This trip was particularly exciting for me because I was able to work together with our newest Country Director and train her personally, something I had never done before.

After a long overnight journey from San José, I arrived to a cold and foggy Cuzco greeted by the first side effects of altitude sickness.  The taxi ride from the airport to the hotel was exciting as it gave me my first glimpse of the city.  The cold and dreary weather at 7:00 AM wasn’t exactly the warm welcome I was expecting after going almost 24 hours without sleep, but I didn’t let this get my hopes down. The taxi driver left me at the base of a giant staircase which I had to climb to get to my hotel. After huffing and puffing my way up the stairs, I was greeted at the hotel with a hot cup of tea.  This would be my first of many cups of coca tea, which has been used by the Incas for centuries to combat the symptoms of altitude sickness (and is used today to make cocaine).

IMG_1679

My first of many coca teas 

IMG_1722

Cuzco as seen from my hotel 

I made the most out of my first day in Cuzco by grabbing lunch at the mercado central and exploring the city on foot.   I had been to plenty of colonial cities in Latin America, but I was so astonished to see the colonial grandeur of centuries past so evident today.  Huge plazas, grandiose churches and narrow cobblestone streets transported me to another century.  The mix between colonial architecture and Incan construction created a clash of two distinct worlds that I had never seen before.  I visited a few museums and was able to learn a lot about the Incas and the important role that Cuzco (the ancient capital of the Inca empire) played in the region.

IMG_1721

A rainy afternoon at the central market

As part of my job, I visited the three small communities (Chinchero, Ollantaytambo and Huilloc) where Walking Tree send groups of students to do volunteer work and live with host families.  Working together with these communities and building relationships with them has always been the favorite aspect of my job.  I met many host families who have hosted our students over years past and was able to see which service projects that Walking Tree had completed in the past.  We also spoke about which projects could be completed in the coming year.  I was able to share a few meals with host families and hear from them first hand what it has been like for them to host American students in the past. I am definitely grateful and proud to be part of an organization that helps empower communities by facilitating cultural exchange.

IMG_1727

Learning how women at a local handicraft cooperative in Chinchero dye and create textiles.  Little has changed over the centuries, as these women still use plants and berries as natural dyes for their textiles.

IMG_1949

A host mother and her baby boy in Huilloc

What is cool about all of these communities is that they are built around ancient Incan ruins, which anyone can visit.  I spent several afternoons just traversing ruins and having some solo time to reflect on what it would have been like to live as the Incas did centuries ago.  They also offered beautiful views of the Sacred Valley, which is without doubt one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited.

 

IMG_1779

The town of Ollantaytambo as seen from the top of its ruins

IMG_1814

The ruins of Ollantaytambo

IMG_2039

A beautiful sunny afternoon at the ruins of Chinchero

One afternoon, I had the chance to visit salt flats which have been in operation since the Incas first discovered a subterranean salt river.  Basically, a series of salt flats are laid out at the mouth of this salt river, and over time they have gradually expanded to cover almost the entire canyon.  Salt is still cultivated in the same way it was centuries ago – and visitors have the chance to walk among the salt flats to see first hand how the process works.  I had never seen anything like this before, nor had I ever tasted water so salty.

IMG_1757

Salt – the Inca way

The highlight of my trip was the long awaited trop to Machu Picchu.  To get to the ruins, I took an hour and a half train ride that followed the Urubamba river to the town of Aguas Calientes, which is at the base of the ruins.  The train ride was an experience in itself, as I was able to see awesome views of the andes and the raging river just beside us. I woke up bright and early the following morning to make it to the ruins just after sunrise.  It was a strange feeling finally visiting the somewhere that had been on my bucket list for such a long time – I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but at the same time I knew this would be an unforgettable experience.

To make the most of my trip, I hired a local guide to take me around the ruins and explain to me the historical context of the ruins (totally worth the money).  I spent most of the tour asking questions, taking photos and just marveling at how advanced this city was for its time.  The mystery of these ruins is what I found most interesting, no matter how much we investigate, we will never know a complete history of Machu Picchu.  As always, whenever visiting ruins I like to take some time to myself and just meditate and imagine what this place was really like centuries ago.

IMG_1922

Machu Picchu

IMG_1867

Machu Picchu

 

Overall, it was a great trip to Cuzco and the Sacred Valley.  I spent my last night in Cusco at the Sacsayhuaman ruins, which overlook the entire city of Cuzco.  I was treated to an awesome sunset and a breathtaking (literally) hike back to my hotel just below the ruins.  Hopefully I’ll find myself back in Cuzco, as there is so much to see and do around the Sacred Valley.  I left Peru with a great appreciation for the Incas and filled my bags with quinoa, crema de ají and enough choclo to last for a few weeks.

Three Countries in Three Days

Back when I found the $100 flight to Lima, I thought it would be a good idea to buy another $100 ticket from San José to Panama City and keep it as a surprise for Mauricio’s birthday.  This time around, $100 got us a series of long layovers and the chance to visit three countries in three days.  Although it was hard to keep a secret, I think I did a pretty good job with Mau’s birthday gift this year.

On our way to Panama City, we had a 10 hour layover in Bogotá which was enough time for us to get out in the city, see some sights and meet up with a friend of ours. We spent just over 24 hours in Panama City, then on our way back to San José, we had a 22 hour layover in Guatemala City and were able to spend the day in Antigua and stay with another friend of ours.

The 10 hours we spent in Bogotá gave us a glimpse into what an awesome city Bogotá is.  We started our journey by meeting our friend Margarita, who recently moved back to Bogotá and luckily was able to grab lunch with so we could catch up.   We had our first bandeja paisa – which is basically a huge platter of typical food from the northwest of Colombia.  Beans, rice, eggs, avocado, blood sausage, pork belly, plantains, ground beef and chorizo accompanied by a coconut milk lemonade was enough to hold us over for the rest of the day.  After lunch, we took a cable car up to the famous Monserrate.  Located at 10,341 feet above sea level, we were treated to the most extensive view of Bogotá (and a small headache from the altitude).  Next  we explored the Candelaria neighborhood, which is a historic and colorful part of the city located close to a major university.  Towards the end of the day, we spent some time with Margarita, went to her high rise apartment with an awesome view of the city at sunset and got some polls (beers) before headed back to the airport.

View of Bogotá from Monserrate

View of Bogotá from Monserrate

Monserrate

Monserrate

Sunset over Bogotá

Sunset over Bogotá

Mauricio at Monserrate overlooking the city of Bogotá

Mauricio at Monserrate overlooking the city of Bogotá

Just a few hours later, we landed in Panama City and checked into our grimy hotel for the night to recharge our batteries for day 2 in Panama.  We stayed in the Casco Antiguo, which is the historic district of town, and spent most of the morning exploring on foot.  The contract of old dilapidated housing next to new buildings made for some great photo ops.  The newly opened Biomuseo was by far the highlight of our trip.  The Biomuseo is a brand new museum dedicated to the importance of preserving biodiversity in Panama – it was interactive, informative and just awesome.  The building was designed by the famous Frank Ghery and was an architectural marvel.  We spent the rest of our time in Panama sweating (it was so hot), taking pictures, did some shopping in the most gigantic mall ever, and enjoyed the downtown sunset view from the malecón.

Sunset over the Panama Canal

Sunset over the Panama Canal

Panama City

Panama City

Mauricio outside the Biomuseo

Mauricio outside the Biomuseo

Inside the Biomuseo

Inside the Biomuseo

Just as soon as we arrived to Panama, we were off to Guatemala City.  Our good friend and co-worker Guillermo graciously picked us up from the airport and let us stay with him in Antigua.  I had always wanted to show Mauricio Antigua, as it was the first place I traveled to on my own and is just an awesome place.  Guillermo, Mauricio and I spent the day wondering the colonial streets of Antigua, eating pepián, perusing the many souvenir markets and enjoying some good company.  Guillermo was able to show us his favorite spots around town and I was able to share memories of the summer I spent learning Spanish in Antigua.  We ended the day by winning trivia (and some extra cash!) at one of Guillermo’s favorite bars in town.

Antigua from above, such a beautiful city

Antigua from above, such a beautiful city

Reunited in Antigua!

Reunited in Antigua!

Outdoor market in front of colonial ruins

Outdoor market in front of colonial ruins

Before we knew it, we were off to the airport to make our journey back to San José.  Unluckily for us, we experienced the worst three-hour traffic jam of our life and missed our flight back home.  We ended up paying more than our flight cost in the penalty change fee, but it was worth it.  Six flights, three countries, three days and two friends later we were back to reality.  When we landed in San José, we both headed straight to work and our routine.  I’ve said it before and i’ll continue to say it – long layovers are the best!

Lima for $100?

I am always on the lookout for a cheap flight, which is ultimately enough of an excuse to get out and travel some more.  Every once and a while, I stumble across a deal that’s too hard to pass up.  In February of this year, Avianca decided to publish crazy cheap fares from San José to a few destinations in Latin America – for $100 round trip.  All taxes and fees included.  Needless to say, I instantly took advantage of this offer… twice.  Mauricio and I flew from San José to Lima for just a hundred bucks each!  Normally, this ticket would cost about $700.  I have never paid less money for a round trip plane ticket in my life!  Anyways, What’s most exciting about all of this is not the great deal we got, but rather that Mauricio and I would be traveling to a new and exciting place none of us had been to before.

We had just one week to plan our last minute trip – which was a hectic week.  Only after we purchased tickets did we realize that 1. Mauricio needed a visa to Peru and 2. we both needed yellow fever vaccines 10 days before our departure date.  We both quickly got our vaccines and told a little white lie to the Health Ministry.  Luckily, we weren’t responsible for a crazy yellow fever outbreak. Mau scrambled to get his visa documents together, and just two days before we left, he luckily had his visa in hand.  Disasters averted!  Before we left we were also able to find a place to stay in Lima thanks to Couchsurfing.  Score!

Our Couchsurfing hosts graciously picked us up from the airport on the night of our arrival, and we got our first taste of the city.  It had been such a long time since we had been to such a big city, and it was a refreshing change.  The apartment we stayed in had a rooftop terrace with awesome views of the city, which seemed to go on for ever.  Our first of many great meals was a small sandwich counter across from Parque Kennedy – Peruvian sandwiches and chicha morada, a blue corn and pineapple cold drink.  So good.  After getting to know our hosts and taming our hunger, we hit the sack and got some rest for our next day of exploration.

Tourist-ing!

Tourist-ing!

Our first impressions of Lima were completely different than we expected.  Miraflores, the neighborhood we stated in, was super clean and beautiful – a notable change from San José.  We spent so much time walking around the tree-lined avenues, admiring historic buildings and tall apartments. Lima is very pedestrian friendly and people are constantly out and about, giving the city a lively vibe.  We made our way to the Malecón, a kind of boardwalk that runs along the coast.  There are plenty of parks, a nice shopping mall with the most killer view of the ocean, and access to the rocky beach below.  We ate so much great food during our trip, and some of my favorites are the ceviche, causa, inca cola, crema de ají and chifa (Peruvian/Chinese fusion).  Peruvians know how to eat well!

Our last day in Lima - sunset at the beach

Our last day in Lima – sunset at the beach

El Malecón

El Malecón

Tree-lined sidewalk avenues

Tree-lined sidewalk avenues

The coast

The coast

We also devoted some time to learning about Peru’s history.  We did a tour of Huaca Pucllana, the ancient ruins of a pre-incan civilization that were the first to settle the city thousands of years ago.  We got to walk up ancient mud pyramids which were surrounded by the city’s tall apartment buildings – definitely strange exploring ancient pre-Columbian civilizations in the middle of a modern city.  Another day, we went tot he Museo Larco, which is the most beautiful museum I have ever been to.  The museum, which used to be an old colonial mansion, is dedicated to Incan artifacts.  Nerd alert – It was super cool to see all the artifacts that I had learned about in school in person.  The perfectly manicured garden was the perfect place to relax after the museum tour.

From the Museo Larco

From the Museo Larco

The garden at Museo Larco

The garden at Museo Larco

Museo Larco

Museo Larco

Huaca Pucllana

Huaca Pucllana

Another day, we made our way to Downtown Lima and got our fill of colonial Spanish architecture – you know the huge plazas, ornate cathedrals, grand mansions etc.  The conquistadors did a great job of keeping things pretty same around Latin America.  Although I could draw many similarities to other places I had been in Latin America, Lima was unique in its own way.  We wondered around the central market, saw too many dead animals hanging from their necks and smelled lots of odors we wish we hand’t.  We got lost around Chinatown, got some llama souvenirs and bought some bootleg computer programs for $5!

The central market

The central market

Downtown Lima

Downtown Lima

Downtown Lima

Downtown Lima

Plaza de las Armas

Plaza de las Armas

During the entire trip, Mauricio and I talked about how much we fell in love with Lima.  We talked a lot about what it would be like and what we would do if we lived in the city.  The food is wonderful, cost of living is inexpensive, there is good public transport and the weather is great (when it’s not foggy).  We were amazed to see that there are no rainwater gutters in the city – it never rains!  It eventually dawned on us that Lima is in a desert – duh.  You can take someone out of a tropical country, but you can’t take the tropical country out of someone.  We left Lima with a great appreciation for big city life and a realization that Costa Rica is basically a tiny farm town.  Being in Lima sparked important conversation about where our future may take us one day – which still to be determined.

 

Toronto and Montréal

Below are some of my favorite pics from my quick and unexpected trip to Toronto and Montreal in December 2014.  Turns out that Air Canada cancelled one of my flights and I wound up having a three day stopover in Toronto. I decided to take advantage of this mishap and see a bit of both Toronto and Montréal.  Looking back on my trip, I managed to see a lot and cover quite some distance in just three days; putting sleep and comfort on the back burner was well worth it! I landed in Toronto just after midnight on Day 1 and took the 6am Megabus to Montréal.

Sleeping in the airport for a few hours never seems like a big deal when you book your ticket, but there is always several moments of regret in the moment. It was a long night of scouting out the best seats to nap in, people watching and dozing in and out of “sleep.” Getting from the airport to the bus station at the crack of dawn was quite the challenge, as a snowstorm had just begun. I managed to grab two busses and hike through the snow for a few blocks (with all my luggage) to find the bus stop.   Boarding the bus to Montréal was such a relief as I could finally relax and get a decent nap. Strangely enough, I felt like I was taking the bus from Kansas City to Chicago, as the landscape was almost identically flat and uneventful.

IMG_0450 IMG_0437

When I arrived to Montréal just after noon on day 1, I took the métro to my hostel for the night. I had always assumed that some people spoke French in Québec, which was wrong. Everyone speaks French all the time, which was a bit intimidating at first.  It was surreal for me at times being in Montréal because it felt like I was dropped somewhere in Europe, but in reality was very close to the USA.  This also sparked my interest in wanting to learn French, as I spent the next few days trying to pick out words I could understand here and there.  After I dropped my things off at my hostel. I wasted no time and began exploring on (wet and soggy) foot, as the snow continued all day long.

The métro in Montréal

The métro in Montréal

Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal

Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal

It was a pleasant change traveling to Montréal after spending so much time traveling throughout Latin America, everything seemed to work out just as planned and I could use google maps with ease!  The snow-covered city was beautiful and I think I got a good taste of downtown and also spent some time in the Contemporary Art Museum.  At the end of the day, I fell hard against my pillow as I had only slept a few hours during the past few days.

A snow covered view of the city from Parc Mont Royal

A snow covered view of the city from Parc Mont Royal

Vieux-Montréal

Vieux-Montréal

I woke up on day 2 energized and ready to get back out and explore the city.  I started off by walking up to Parc Mont Real, which is located on a hill that overlooks all of Downtown Montréal.  The park was beautiful and covered with snow, and I was treated to an awesome view of downtown (and a snowman) once I reached the lookout point.  I also made my way to Old Montreal, which is the historical part of town where old French architecture has been preserved.  The Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal was unreal – such a huge and intricately designed and decorated basilica unlike anything I had ever seen.  Although I got lost a few times, I had a great time wondering around and before I knew it I was on an overnight bus back to Toronto.

The Art Gallery of Ontario

The Art Gallery of Ontario

An early morning view of the CN Tower

An early morning view of the CN Tower

The St. Lawrence Farmers Market in Toronto

The St. Lawrence Farmers Market in Toronto

Day three, my final day in Canada, started bright and early at the Toronto bus station.  After a quick breakfast in Denny’s at 5am, I set off on foot to explore downtown for a bit.  I got to do some exploring before the rest of the city woke up. It was a bit surreal wondering around such a big city almost alone, but the rest of the city eventually woke up and decided to join me.  I made my way to the St. Lawrence Market, which was huge!  You could find everything from fruits and veggies to breads, juices, coffee, etc.  I must say that the best part of the market were the free samples at the cheese stalls. After the market, I spent some time walking around downtown and saw the CN Tower make its appearance between a few buildings.  Finally, I made my way to the Ontario Art Museum before I had to get back to the airport and board my flight to Chicago.  I am a big fan of long layovers and stopovers.  Depending on how determined you are to get out and explore, you can see a lot in a small amount of time and get a taste of what that city is like.

25th Birthday in Nicaragua

To celebrate my 25th birthday, Mauricio and I decided to take a long weekend trip to the colonial city of Granada.  It had been a few years since we went to Nicaragua last, and we both had wanted to visit a new part of the country we had never seen before.  The long, hot and crammed chicken bus rides were worth it, as we spent four days relaxing and treating ourselves.
IMG_0228We spent most of our trip wondering around on foot and taking in the colonial architecture.  Although it was hot, the weather was great the entire time.  Compared to Costa Rica, Nicaragua is so cheap, and we had the chance to eat some awesome food for a great price.  It’s a win-win combination, you get to treat yourself without feeling guilty!  Where else can you get a romantic three course candle-lit dinner for two for $20?!
IMG_0249

We took a day trip to the Mercado de Masaya located about an hour away from Granada.  Although we didn’t find the cool leather bag we set off looking for, we had quite the adventure getting to the market.  Finding our way to the market via chicken bus and advice from locals was a lot of fun and certainly a change from the everyday transport.  We went to both markets, the artisan (super touristy) market and the market locals frequent to find almost anything under the sun.  IMG_0262Exploring on foot can get a little monotonous, so we decided to switch things up a bit.  Setting off to explore on two wheels was a great idea, and we had a blast!  It was a pleasant change of pace, as we leisurely peddled our way through parts of the city we hadn’t yet seen.  We got a good taste of what it was like to live in Granada by seeing families hanging out in their neighborhood.  We talked a lot about how cool it would be to buy a run down apartment, renovate it and have it be our getaway vacation loft.  Never hurts to dream, right?! 
IMG_0274The pool was essential, as the heat was unbearable at times.  We ended up staying at a hotel that just opened which had it’s own pool.  During our entire stay, we were the only guests in the entire place, so we essentially had the hotel to ourselves! Traveling during the low season is the best.  The hotel, which used to be some sort of a mansion back in the day, was apparently haunted. Luckily, we had no unwanted visitors.

IMG_0245

As always, our vacation ended as quickly as it started.  We made our way back to Costa Rica with cheap rum and lots of great memories.  Mauricio and I love Nicaragua, and still talk about going back to see different parts of the country.  Traveling for our birthdays has become a tradition for us that is well worth the effort; travel is a great way to celebrate and reconnect!

Ultimamente…

Although it’s been more than six months since my last post, I wanted to take some time to myself and write.  In the craziness of everyday life I have neglected to devote some of my time to relaxation through writing. These last six months have been pretty eventful and I figured it would be nice to recap some of the most memorable moments.

Since my last post, Mauricio and I settled into our new place and had a memorable Thanksgiving dinner with friends from around the world.  Mauricio made a kick ass turkey, we ate pumpkin pie and nobody left hungry.  No Thanksgiving would be complete without some drama, but that’s another story.  As quick as Thanksgiving was over, so was Christmas. Mauricio and I spent our second consecutive Christmas together in Costa Rica, and without a doubt the best part of the holiday was Mauricio’s present – a golden retriever puppy!  This hands down is the best gift I have ever given.   This was the second year in a row that I spent away from my family in the United States, and it makes you reflect on the importance of holidays.

Sandy, the best Christmas present anyone could ask for!

IMG_1762

Sandy is seven months old now and getting bigger every day.

One of the biggest highlights from these past months was having my dear friend Christin visit all the way from Germany.  Once an exchange buddy, always an exchange buddy!  Although it had been more than two years since we saw each other last, it felt like we hadn’t been apart for more than a few weeks.  It was so much fun showing her around Costa Rica, introducing her to my way of life and getting to reconnect with her.  We drove all over the country, went zip lining, toured the city and took a killer weekend trip to Bocas del Toro, Panama.  Our weekend in Panama was filled with plenty of beach time, crazy boat rides, our own golf cart (cause you know, we are hostel royalty) and plenty of bug spray to keep the dengue fever away.  Next stop – Germany!

Christin and I in Bocas del Toro, Panama

Christin and I in Bocas del Toro, Panama

I have been transitioning well and learning a lot at work also.  I successfully coordinated my first Walking Tree Travel programs in Costa Rica, and am getting super excited for this upcoming summer. Working from home has been an adjustment, but I am really enjoy it.  Being disciplined, keeping a routine and staying organized have helped tremendously.  The most rewarding part of the job so far is being able to build relationships with several small communities around the country and organize service projects for American high schoolers.  Thanks Craigslist, I owe you one for helping me find this job.

After more than a year and a half of endless paperwork, bureaucratic madness, countless trips to immigration, waiting in line for hours and more bureaucratic madness, I am finally a resident in Costa Rica!  The amount of satisfaction and achievement associated with getting residency is related to graduating again.  Seriously, until you actually do it you have no idea how much work it takes to get a simple resolution.  Being in immigration limbo for such a long time is a mess, and knowing that you are completely “legal” is super important, especially if you are trying to make a life in a new country.

Boom! Residency!

Boom! Residency!

Most of May was spent back in the United States with Mauricio.  Mau and I were both really excited about traveling together since we hadn’t done so in such a long time. We both started off our trip in Denver for the annual Walking Tree training session.  Every time I go to Colorado, I fall more in love with it.  We were able to stay with some of our friends, explore Boulder and Denver and spend some time in the mountains during a freak May blizzard, which was completely unexpected.  Being together with the entire team only happens once a year, and it’s a lot of fun to hang out and catch up with everyone (and drink plenty of microbrew IPA’s).

The 2014 Walking Tree Travel team.

The 2014 Walking Tree Travel team.

After Colorado, we headed to Chicago to spend some time with my niece and nephew.  We quickly realized that playing with a two and four year old is super fun and extremely exhausting. Being “dindo” (godfather) is always awesome, and I wish I could spend more time with the kids.  We took a few days to escape the suburbs and spend time in Chicago, one of our favorite cities.  With our CTA pass in hand, we took to the city exploring China Town, Wicker Park, the lakeshore and downtown.  We ate authentic Chinese food, Greek gyros, Brazilian feijoada, Vietnamese pho, and had a pickle back shots – a shot of whiskey followed by a shot of pickle juice (accompanied by a hot dog of course).  The gastronomical site seeing was just as fun as the actual site seeing.  While in the city we stayed with our good friend Hollie, and had plenty of time to reminisce of our crazy days as irresponsible exchange students in Costa Rica. We better see you soon in Costa Rica, puta!

Reunited with Hollie in Chicago

Reunited with Hollie in Chicago

10273741_2285156607000_1905391360540709112_n

Such a beautiful city.

It’s been exactly a month since we moved in to a new apartment, and Mauricio and I love it.  We learned some good lessons about renting from the last place we lived, mainly the importance of a good location.  We are within walking distance of a supermarket, convenience stores, bus stops, cafes and Downtown Heredia.  Our new place is the perfect location, perfect layout and just really cool.  Mau does a great job of decorating and his “updated vintage” style is really awesome. Most of the furniture and decorations in the house are second hand, recycled or made by Mauricio himself.

Here it is, the new apartment!

Here it is, the new apartment! Updated vintage.

Until next time…

Dia de los Muertos – Guatemala

For the past week, I have had the pleasure of getting to know a great group of people in a truly beautiful place: Guatemala. Our trip started in the colonial city of Antigua. Declared a world heritage site by UNESCO, we became immersed in the old world colonial architecture, wondered over cobblestone roads, explored century old ruins and enjoyed some great weather. Practicing our bargaining skills proved to be a challenge at time, but luckily we bought some great one-of-a-kind handicrafts to bring home with us. For many in the group, this was not their first time in Guatemala, so our group was able to revisit their favorite spots around town. Thankfully, there was never a shortage of refried beans, corn tortillas or coffee.

IMG_0294 IMG_0334

After our first two days in Antigua, we hopped on a bus to Sumpango to celebrate Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). In Guatemala, Dia de los Muertos is celebrated mostly in the cemetery by decorating grave sites with flowers, food and ornaments. This day is used to remember, honor and celebrate the lives of loved ones who have passed away. The colors, sights and sounds of the cemetery offered a glimpse into Guatemalan and Mayan culture that many of us have not seen before. Day of the dead is also celebrated by flying “barriletes” or kites. Sumpongo is known for its giant kite festival, where elaborate kites made of tissue paper and bamboo are displayed to the public before flown. There were kites of all sizes, and some of the biggest measured up to ten meters in diameter! The artisans who make these kites spend months planning, building and preparing for the big event.

IMG_0345 IMG_0343 IMG_0370

After a color filled morning in Sumpongo, we took our bus to Panajachel, situated on the banks of Lake Atitlan. The two days we spent in Panajachel were dedicated to learning more about Starfish One by One, a non profit organization based out of Colorado which focuses on educating indigenous Guatemalan girls around Lake Atitlan. Our participants, who also sponsor young indigenous girls, were able to see young women whom they support and share lunch in their homes with their families. Starfish staff members from both the United States and Guatemala facilitated a wonderful graduation ceremony for a group of graduates who recently completed the Starfish mentoring program. It was really amazing for us to be able to see first hand the important impact that Starfish One by One has made and continues to make on various communities around the lake. Talking to young women who have completed the program, as well as mentors for these women, gave us valuable insight into the challenges that these ladies have overcome during their lifetime. They proved to be an inspiration for all of us!

We ended our trip to Panajachel with a sunset boat ride across Lake Atitlan, surrounded by three magnificent volcanoes. We spent the following evening in a coffee plantation called Los Tarrales, located on a private nature reserve. Bright and early the next morning, we took a bird watching tour and spotted 28 species of tropical birds. We were all very impressed by Josue, our guide, who was incredibly knowledgeable about everything bird related. The highlight of the tour was spotting a hard to find Ferruginous Pigmy-Owl. We eventually made our way back to Antigua for our final farewell dinner where we recapped our favorite parts of the trip and shared some memorable stories with each other. As we all part ways for our homes today, it has become very evident that we have left a piece of our hearts here in Guatemala.

IMG_0448

You can check out the original blog post on the Walking Tree Travel website here!