Spring Break in Guatemala

Last week was one of the most exciting and life changing experiences. For my spring break, I decided to take a random excursion to a country I had never been to (and never learned anything about). My friend had already booked a flight so I decided it would be fun to tag along with her to Guatemala. We went into the trip with no plans except for our lodging accommodations and it was the best decision I’ve ever made. I might be addicted to the backpacker lifestyle now and I may or may not be planning a solo adventure for the summer time (destination TBD).

Before we even got to Guatemala, we made some friends in the El Salvadorian airport. We met a group of musicians/dentists from Pittsburgh who were coming into town for a mission trip. They were nice enough to let us hitch a ride with them from Guatemala City into our first destination: Antigua.

While we were in Antigua, we explored the city and did some awesome shopping. We toured a coffee farm and got to sample some. That night we found a bar that offered free salsa dancing lessons and I met a man who grew up in Guatemala but lived in my hometown of Fredericksburg, Va for two years! He treated me and Shannon to a night out with his friends. Although there was a language barrier between most of us, it was so much fun to make friends and share a new experience with them. Since I’m a huge fan of cooking and learning about culture through cuisine, we took a cooking class and I was able to make a completely vegan Guatemalan dish. It was delicious and I can’t wait to make it again at home.

After saying goodbye to Antigua we traveled north to Lake Atitlan where we stayed for 3 days. The lake is enormous and surrounded by volcanoes. Each little village on the edge of the lake has its own personality and we visited a few places while we were there. We stayed in San Pedro (known as the party town) which was home to many European and American expats looking for a relaxed way of life. While I can see the appeal of a longterm travel stint away from work and responsibilities, I do enjoy my day to day American luxuries (like being able to flush my toilet paper).

We visited San Marcos several times which is another small village known for being the hipster town. Shannon and I booked massages and also had a chakra alignment treatment while we were there. At the time, I was in the throws of a pretty terrible cold and I really felt better afterwards. I can’t say that it cured my cold but it did help me release a few emotional issues I’ve been struggling with and I genuinely felt my mood and my cough improve for the rest of the week.

The rest of our trip was spent shopping and meeting fellow travelers. We made some new friends from the states and brought home some incredible souvenirs. I got a handmade hammock that I cannot wait to put up in my yard now that warm weather is on its way.

This experience was eye opening for me and I feel like I’ve just discovered a whole new window into the world. Although my bank account needs to recover a little bit, I have my eye on a few different trips after my summer session ends for school. I really can’t wait to see what the next adventure will bring me.

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The Last Leg

For the third and final part of our trip we traveled to Zimbabwe to visit Victoria Falls. As one of the 7 Natural Wonders, the falls are the tallest in the world. While admittedly there really wasn’t much to do in the town besides visit the falls, it was worth it to see such a beautiful sight. We also got to relax in the National Park and I squeezed in a game drive the night we got to the lodge. Just a few hours north of our stay in Hoedspruit, the scenery was abundantly green and luscious.
   
    
  

This tree was 1700 years old!
  
The day we visited the falls we also perused a local market and I got my first taste at haggling for goods (it’s a skill I’m not very good at) and we also took a boat ride on the Zambezi River. Technically, I can say I’ve also been to Zambia but since we never got off the boat and onto land, it was totally legal. 

   
  
Although a quick stay, I am glad we stopped here. Zimbabwe is a country I doubt I’ll ever travel to again (although I never imagined I would make it to Africa in the first place so who knows). Although I have spent time in some of the poorest parts of America (looking at you Appalachia) even these towns seem luxurious in comparison. Where we stayed in Zimbabwe, it wasn’t uncommon to see people living on the side of the road- and this was in a tourist area. By the time our stay in Victoria Falls was over, I was happy to finally be heading home to America. With the journey back came a renewed sense of gratitude for everything I have in life. However, I will admit, when our final plane out of Johannesburg took of for the States, I shed a few tears thinking about how much I would miss Hoedspruit and Cape Town.  

Before the beginning of this journey I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve never been pushed out of my comfort zone so much- even though I really didn’t have much to complain about given the nature of our trip. I am so proud of myself for doing something out of the ordinary for me and I was lucky to have one of my best friends as a travel companion. We traveled surprisingly well together knowing when to give each other space to get acclimated to our new surroundings everywhere we went. 

Now that I am fully settled in back at home (with more big changes soon to come), I’m happy to have the memories from this trip to fall back on. I’ve decided that my next big vacation will probably be here in the states as there are a few things on my bucket list that I haven’t gotten around to (more specifically: Glacier, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Jackson Hole as well as a few cities I would love to explore). I’m sure these trips will happen eventually but for now my bank account needs to recover. 

South Africa Part Two

After what I thought was the most incredible three days of my life, Abby and I departed Cape Town hopeful that the next part of our journey would at least be a lot of fun. We had no idea that the second part of our trip could be even better than our time in Cape Town. We stayed at the Jackalberry Lodge in Thornybush Private Game Reserve which is right next to the famous Kruger National Park. We went on a game drive every morning and evening to explore the reserve and try to find the Big Five. 

The Big Five are named as such because they are considered the five most dangerous animals to humans when encountered on land. They include: lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and cape buffalo. Apparently the group that came just days before us were unable to spot all of the animals because they spent a long time searching for leopards and were unable to find them. We were lucky enough to find one on our first drive! 

 It was hard to see how dangerous some of these animals are when they’re relaxing. All the sleeping cats we saw reminded me of my kitty at home-although I doubt they would want to cuddle with me like Reggie does. Things were much more intense however when we found a male leapord on a hunt a few days later. You could feel the tension as he stalked a warthog from afar. We also saw an incredible number of elephants, cape buffalo and rhino-both black AND white. I couldn’t believe that we saw both types of rhinos in the wild! At one point, our car went off roading (one of the benefits of staying at a private reserve rather than going into the National Park) and we found ourselves in the bush surrounded on all sides by elephants! They came so close to our car we could probably have touched them and went about their business eating.  

An adolescent leopard resting after her dinner.
      
This guy decided to take a bath right on the road.
 

The final animal we saw (and my personal favorite) was of course, the lion. Growing up The Lion King was my favorite movie and in college, my best friend bought me tickets to see it on Broadway for my birthday. I actually cried at the surprise and to this day it is one of the best presents I’ve ever recieved. I’m not quite sure why I’ve always loved lions but I think there is something so beautiful about an animal at the top of the food chain that is also so playful and social with its family members. 

   
 
Someone asked our tour guide what his opinions were about the whole Cecil the Lion debacle that happened last year and his response was really interesting to me. He basically said that the story was sensationalized and that nobody in Africa actually cared about the lion. It reminded me of an article I read when the story first came out about how lions are terrors to Africans and how the local people hunt them because of how dangerous they are. Although the original story upset me, it was more upsetting because I find it just another example of American greed and excess. It was interesting, however, to hear how the backlash from established countries actually really hurt the tourism economy in several African countries due to the money they get from hunting excursions. 

 

The best guide and tracker team we could have asked for!
 
Another thing I found very interesting was the realization that race relations are still a very touchy subject. I didn’t notice it as much in Cape Town but I assume that is in part to the fact that it’s a city and we were in a tourist area for most of our time there. There were a few moments where I felt uncomfortable because someone made a remark that would be inappropriate in our culture (or at least I would be offended) but seemed completely normal there. It made me appreciate the fact that although we still have a lot of work to do here at home in that department, there are still many places in the world that are so much farther behind us in their race relations. It also makes me wish our country could set a better example so that others would be encouraged to catch up a little faster but that’s a topic for another day. 

Leaving Hoedspruit and the Jackalberry Lodge was the most difficult part of our trip. I hadn’t been outside in the wilderness in a long time and I had missed it so much. Every night we ate dinner under the stars and I loved seeing new constellations. It was pretty funny when more than one person insisted they saw the Little Dipper which isn’t a constellation you can see in the Southern Hemisphere. The only constellation we share is Orion but it was pretty cool to view it from another part of the world. 

You Thought I Abandoned You-April Fools!

I know its been a long time since I’ve been around but to be honest, March was pretty jam packed this year. I can’t believe that today is the 1st day of April and just three weeks ago I was in the most amazing country. It still feels like a dream which is partly why I haven’t posted about my experience yet. Writing it down means that its over and that I’m back to my usual routine.

To preserve the trip in my mind, I’ll post about each city we visited individually as we experienced too much to jam it all into one post and I have so many great pictures to share.

After a 17 hour flight to Johannesburg followed by another flight to Cape Town, Abby and I arrived just in time for bed on the first night. I woke up early the next morning and had coffee in the hotel cafe overlooking Table Bay. That was kind of my thing every morning and that view is one I’m already longing to see again. We took a helicopter tour of the bay and then Abby and I rented some bikes and explored.

On our second day we went to Franschhoek  which is the biggest wine producing area in South Africa. We went to two beautiful vineyards and sipped some delicious wines before heading home for the evening. We called it a night after having a quiet dinner at the hotel with the rest of our tour group.

On our third and final day in Cape Town, Abby and I took a Hop and Ride tour of the city and it was incredible! We stopped in Bo-Kaap where I found the cutest little spice shop and got some really cheap spices to take home with me. We also took some obligatory pictures in front of all the colored houses. The colored houses are especially beautiful when you know that they were originally painted by Africans who were freed from slavery and moved into the neighborhood. They were so excited to be free that they painted their houses in bright colors in celebration of their ability to wear whatever colors they wanted and to finally be able to express themselves.

We finished our stay in Cape Town with a dinner at Gold’s Restaurant which was an interactive dinner with traditional African dishes from throughout the continent.

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The view from our helicopter!

helicopter

Franschhoek
The first of two vineyards we stopped at in Franschhoek. 

Bo Kaap

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At the top of Table Mountain.

 

Africa
Getting our faces painted at dinner.

Cape Town was an incredible city and it kind of reminded me of San Francisco, California. Except much prettier (in my opinion) and a lot cheaper (I mean A LOT cheaper-but duh everything is outrageously expensive in Cali). I could’ve stayed in that city for weeks without becoming bored. It was also an incredible way to start my first adventure into a new country as everyone spoke English fluently and the city was vibrant and felt so safe during the daytime. When we got on our plane for the second leg of our journey we were both so sad to be leaving after only 3 days. Little did we know how incredible the second part of our trip would be.

More on that in my next post!