Winter Hiking – Let’s Start Slowly

So my hiking partner, Steph, and I decided to try winter hiking, because we’re apparently crazy.

Having never done winter hiking (her), or snowshoeing (me), we decided to start slowly, and climb Cascade and/or Porter, if it looked like we were doing ok and had time.  Cascade is a short hike, 4.8 mile round trip hike from Route 73.  Doing Porter would add another 1.4 miles, if we decided to tack it on.

We’ve climbed both peaks before, they were our first 46-ers, back in October of 2011.  I remember hating them on the way down – the hike is steep enough, and the rocks plentiful enough, to make you curse the day you said ‘yes, I’ll hike with you, why not?’

Am I doing this right?

The day of our hike, we layered well – I had on base layers on top and bottom, fleece pants with rain pants over top, as well as a warm Vik Wind Pro mid-layer jacket by 66° North. I had an extra, heavier fleece jacket in my bag, as well as a windproof/waterproof jacket, extra socks and an extra pair of long johns in my pack.  I also had a toque, two pairs of liner gloves, and a pair of thicker mittens.  I was wearing a balaclava style neck and head toque. The temp was forecast to be quite nice, but being prepared for anything is par for the game of hiking in the Adirondacks.

We arrived early – there were plenty of cars parked along the road, but not many on the trail (or summits) – I guess they were off doing Pitchoff, on the other side, or ice climbing.  At any rate, we got settled into our snowshoes and took off, flipping up our heel lifts soon after our start, as we hit the climbing part of our day.

At the lower elevations, the snow cover wasn’t too deep – there were sections where a few rock tops peeked out, but for the most part the rocks were hidden, and our trek undisturbed.  We played leap-frog with a group of women behind us – we were hiking at the same pace, but taking breaks at different times.

Lots of snow at the higher elevations

We had one minor  incident, when I tried to back up in snowshoes (do not back up in snowshoes, just turn around) and fell over, getting snow all down my pants.  A quick brush off with a dry toque, and a change of liner gloves and we were off again.

It took us about 2 hours to hit the junction between Cascade and Porter, so we quickly head out to Cascade, to get our first Winter 46-er.  We met two men coming down who warned us about the winds on the summit, so we took out of thicker fleeces and popped them on, put on our toques, changed out of snowshoes to microspikes, pull on a second pair of mitts, and started to climb the rocks.

There’s this one rock spot on Cascade that is a bit of a bear to get up over, apparently as much in winter as in the summer.  Thankfully, another group was coming down as we were going up, so one of the men braced himself, and stretched out his pole, allowing us to get a good grip and pull ourselves up and over.

Obligatiory shoe shot

The summit was indeed blustery, and cold!, so we snapped a few pictures, as well as an obligatory shoes at the summit photo, before heading down, desperately hoping not to be blown off.  (Ok, it wasn’t that windy, but it was quite strong.)  We made good time getting back to the junction, so we stopped for some food (thankfully not frozen), before heading over to Porter.

Not as bad on Porter

Shortly after the junction, we hit a patch that was a little icy, and a little steep, going down.  So we sat down, and pushed off, sliding our way over the patch.  The hike to Porter was quicker than I remember it being in the summer, and thankfully the summit wasn’t nearly as windy – the trees helping to block the worst of the wind.  We spent a bit mor time here, actually enjoying the view, before heading back to the junction, and down to the trailhead.  We made good time on the way down – it took us an hour from the junction – mostly due, I’m sure, to the fact that we slid down most of the way.

Contemplating the view, before re-snowshoeing
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I Went to Guatemala (And You Should Too)

A while back, like September, I saw a bunch of promoted tweets on Twitter from ‘Discover Guatemala’ promoting travel to the country.  These tweets were retweets from travellers in Guatemala doing awesome things – like roasting marshmallows on an active volcano.
Which made me think, ‘I can do that!’  Because a) I like to hike and b) marshmallows.
So, I talked to the BF, who agreed that yes, volcanoes are great and marshmallows are tasty and ok we can go to Guatemala for Christmas.
Our flight went through Washington DC, with an overnight lay-over, so we left on a Friday after work, and landed in Guatemala City on Saturday, December 20.  We immediately left the city for Lake Atitlan, having arranged for a private shuttle with our hotel, La Fortuna at Atitlan.
The drive from the city to Panajachel (the main port town on the lake) took nearly 5 hours – we hit three separate traffic jams, due to pre-Christmas travel and shopping.  Once we hit Solola, the town at the top of the escarpment above Lake Atitlan, we hit the third and final traffic jam – it seemed most of the town was out on the steep, cobblestone, one lane streets.  Including several buses, ambulances and other emergency vehicles.  Our driver was nonchalant, “Eh, Guatemala” he said, as he careened down a (very steep!) street, around parked cars and school buses.  Thankfully, we finally arrived in Pana shortly thereafter, in one piece, and our shuttle company dropped us off just up the street from the docks, where we could catch a ferry (lancha) to our hotel.
Outdoor shower was lovely
The lanchas on Lake Atitlan are quick, and cheap, although they will try to scam you the first time – we had been told it was 10Q per person to our hotel, but were charged 25.  (In fact, the guy tried to insist it was 25Q per person, which I refused to pay)  For people staying at hotels outside the towns, it’s not difficult to flag them down – simply wave your arm and they ferry will zip in to pick you up.  We were met at the dock of our hotel by one of the owners, Kat, who showed us to our casita (a private cabin) and gave us more information, as well as our dinner order.
The next day, Kat came by again with a few suggestions on what to do around the lake, included a short hike along the shoreline from Santa Cruz (the town next to our hotel) to Jaibilito.  We thought it sounded like a good idea – it would get us out and active, and give us a chance to see some of the surrounding country-side, so we walked down to the dock and flagged down a lancha.

 

We arrived in Santa Cruz and started our hike to Jaibilito.  At the dock, you immediately turn left, onto what does not look like a path, and follow it as it turns into wooden bridges – the water of Lake Atitlan has been rising for a few years, and it wiped out the path, so bridges have been constructed above the former path.
Heading out on our hike

The path goes down into a small gully, past a hotel, and then turns left as you climb up the mountains surround the lank.  There was a large section of burnt out land up top – it still smelt faintly of charcoal and ash.  We walked past this burnt out area and eventually crossed a bridge into Jaibilito.  We walked through the town, than back and down the only cross street to the dock area, then turned left to go to Club Ven Aca.  Along the trail, we could see where new retaining walls had been built, as the lake water rose.

A few hours later, after lounging poolside, we headed back to Santa Cruz, pausing at the boardwalks, as the wind had pick up and was tossing waves over the bridges.  It was a wild sight – not only were the waves crashing, but the moored boats were being tossed around, to the point where we wondered if one or two of the smaller ones would capsize. We carefully walked along the bridges – they were slick with lake water, and you never could tell when another wave would come crashing over them, ready to knock your feet out from under you.
We indulged in some Zapaca rum at the hostel to the right of the dock, watching the water and the people coming and going.  The rum was good – sweet, with no fiery after burn that I find a lot of hard liquor (*cough*vodka*cough) has.  I think it would have been perfect if the day were slightly sunnier, and we were on a beach.  The boat ride back to our hotel was definitely not for the faint heart.  And as we found out, this is common on Lake Atitlan – the waters are always rougher in the afternoon, but the mornings are mirror-calm.
Zipping across to San Juan
The next day we headed to San Juan, a small, mostly Mayan community on the other side of the lake.  The lancha ride was a little longer, and a lot more crowded than our ride the day before.  At San Juan, we hiked up the road from the dock, taking time to look at the shops that line the streets – mostly selling souvenirs, but also coffee shops, a place where the show you how they make the dyes for their yarn, and a few art galleries.  We spent nearly an hour walking around San Juan, before jumping in a tuk tuk (an auto-rickshaw) and heading the few miles to San Pedro, at a cost of 10Q each.  Be prepared for some bumpy roads! The tuk tuks weave in and out of other traffic, because they’re smaller, they can often get around the giant car-swallowing potholes easier, and our driver at least wasn’t about to let traffic get in the way of dropping of us.
San Pedro is a busier, touristy town.  While San Juan felt quiet and relaxed, there was more bustle around San Pedro, and a lot more tourists.  Most of the shops and restaurants and clustered near the dock, but we wandered up and around, to the cathedral, and through the market.  We had lunch near the docks, and watched the lanchas come in, off-load one group, and load on another before heading off.  Thankfully it’s easy to figure out which lancha you need, as they yell out the names of the towns they are heading to (i.e back to San Juan, San Marcos, and Santa Cruz, or to Panajachel.)  If in doubt, it’s easy to ask – just give the name of the town or hotel you’re heading to, and they’ll either nod, or point to which lancha you should be on.
We left the next day for Antigua, using a shared shuttle.  The ride was again bogged down in traffic in Solola at the top of the escarpment above Panajachel, but the traffic lessened as we left it behind.  About two hours later, we arrived at our hostel, El Hostal.  We dropped our luggage, made a reservation to climb Pacaya the day after, then headed out to the city.
View of Antigua from Kafka

We wandered down to the arch, then past the Merced Church before finding Kafka, a restaurant that had been recommended to us.  They have a wonderful rooftop patio, with an amazing view of Pacaya.  (In fact, quite a few places in Antigua have rooftop patios with views of the volcanoes that ring the city.

It was pretty windy, and getting cooler, so after one drink we headed out and wandered towards our hostel, we took a pretty rambling route, because one of the things that we enjoy is just walking through different cities and seeing the buildings, the people and the lives that happen there.

The next day we were picked up at 6:30, and driven to the trailhead for Pacaya, an active volcano just outside Antigua.  Tickets typically do not include entrance to the park, an extra 50Q per person.  The two other people with us, a German couple, didn’t have enough money, they hadn’t known that they needed extra to enter the park.  We weren’t going to ruin their Christmas Eve by making them wait at the gate for us, so we offered to lend them the money.  They only need a few Quetzles for the entrance fee, so we were shortly off.

On top of Pacaya

The hike itself starts out at a moderate grade, but quickly becomes much steeper.  Our guide, who spoke fairly good English, would allow us to stop every 30 minutes or so, for a quick break to get our breath back.  As it was just the four of us, we made good time.  We climbed higher and the guide pointed out lava flows from both 2010 and from early 2014.  We then headed across the lava field, over the jagged rocks, being carefully where we stepped.  We stopped to pose for a few photos, and then rounded a corner to find….a store.  The Lava Store, to be exact.  This store provides local with jobs – they make jewellery that have lava stones set in them.  Buy a piece, and you get a small change purse, made from traditional Mayan cloth.  We lent the German couple some more money here, and honestly I wasn’t going to ask them to repay it.  You do good deeds to do good deeds, not to get rewarded or paid back.  However, true to their word, they left the money for us at our hostel later that day, after we had returned from our trek.  I hope they had an enjoyable rest of their holiday.

After a brief stop here, we headed over to another lava field to roast some marshmallows (which, along with a stick, were provided by a guide.) over a hole dug into the rocks.  We spent a bit of time here – we were the first tourists to arrive, so we were all alone, and wandered around a bit.  When a larger group appeared, we decided to head back – our solitude having been interrupted.

Back in Antigua, we headed out for the challenge of finding something open for lunch (and then dinner).  A lot of restaurants in Antigua close for both the 24 and 25 of December, although we noticed that the places closer to hotels or hostels tended to be open.  We also found out that most hostel offer cheaper beer than the bars, and you don’t need to be a guest to drink there.  Good tip if you’re looking to save some money.

In Tikal

On the 26, we were picked up by a private shuttle and taken to the airport in Guatemala City, where we climbed aboard a 19-seat plane for a quick flight to Flores, and from there to Tikal, a set of Mayan ruins buried in the jungle.  We had booked a hotel right in the park, along with a few tours.

Our first tour was immediately after arriving at the hotel.  We walked into the park, and stopped at nearly every tree for a brief discussion on what it was.  It took a few minutes before we got to our first set of ruins, and they were blissfully empty.  We wandered around (and over) before heading to the Grand Palace, and the hordes of people.   We climbed up a few pyramids, but trying to wind our way between the crowds was difficult.  Our group had 7 people, 3 Americans, 2 Colombians, and us 2 Canadians, so the tour was mostly in English, with some Spanish for the Colombians.  We all seemed to go at the same pace, which was great.  After climbing up the largest pyramid in the park, and enjoying the views (if you’ve ever seen Star Wars: A New Hope, you might remember the aerial views of Yavin 4, which were filmed at Tikal.  That’s essentially the view you get from the top of the pyramid) we hopped a truck back to the park gates.

Up top at yaxha

Our trip the next day was to Yaxha, another set of Mayan ruins not far from Tikal….as the crow flies.  Driving there takes about an hour and half.  Only about 10% of Yaxha has been unearthed, so you constantly pass “hills” that aren’t hills – they’re pyramids buried under earth, trees and roots.  Yaxha has far fewer visitors, so we were nearly undisturbed, other than the sounds of the howler monkeys in the trees, which are a little disturbing.  When all you see is jungle, and you hear a noise that sounds remarkably similar to the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, you really start to wonder who’s trying to prank you.  We got to climb a bunch of pyramids, enjoying the views from the top, before heading to lunch, and a boat ride across the lagoon to an island, and more Mayan ruins.  It was about this time that the rain began, so we quickly headed back to the car, and to Tikal. The rain did let up, so the BF decided to try the ‘canopy tour’ near the entrance to Tikal – he says it wasn’t nearly worth it, as it’s a series of nine, short zip-lines and nothing ‘canopy’ or ‘tour’ like about it.

On the Rio Dulce

The next day saw another early morning, as we headed to Santa Elena, for a bus to Rio Dulce, and then a ferry towards Livingston, and our hostel on the river.  The bus ride was short, quick and painless, and we arrived about a half hour before the boat left.  The boat ride was a bit slower – it’s very much meant for tourists – they swing by the fort, then a tree filled with birds, then stop to let local girls in canoes paddle up to sell souvenirs, another stop at hot springs, and then they pick up speed as they race down the various channels to drop people off at hotels.

We spent two days lounging river side, reading and relaxing, before heading into Livingston itself for a few days.  At this point we were losing steam – we’d been travelling fairly non-stop for a week and a half, so we were beginning to look forward to a few days of rest in Guatemala City before heading home.  Our stop in Livingston kind of felt like just killing time.

Not prepared for the hike up to Siete Altares

Still, we booked a tour out to Playa Blanca, on what turned out to be our greyest day in Guatemala.  We stopped off at Siete Altares, hiking up to the pool at the top (which was filled with collage age children, so we didn’t stick around), before speeding across to the beach.  We paid the 20Q entrance fee, and sat on the beach (getting bit by little sand flies) and enjoying the few rays on sunshine that broke through the cloud cover.  The weather turned nasty again, and we headed out 45 minutes earlier than planned.  The sea was choppy, but lots of fun as we headed back to Livingston.

Getting to Porte Barrios the next day, January 1, was interesting.  We waited at the dock for half an hour for the ferry to fill.  (Lucky us that we hadn’t arrived early – one couple had been waiting for an hour!)  But we eventually headed out, only to be pulled over by the navy – doing a spot check of licences and safety precautions.  Once in PB (ha!), we caught our bus to Guatemala City.  I’m pleasently surprised that all of our connections, for our entire trip, ended up being fairly painless.  Often we did have to wait an hour for the next bus, but in the grand scheme of things, an hour isn’t too bad a wait.  At least it’s not 3+ hours, right?

After that it was relaxing at our swank-fancy-pants hotel, who got us a driver to take us to the market so we could pick up souvenirs.  We went to the central market in Guatemala City, where we found everything we were looking for – t-shirts, ball caps, hammocks, toys, masks, coffee, texiles, etc, and vendors willing to haggle with us. But other than that, we were too tired to properly visit the city.

Still, we were sad to leave, especially since we arrived home to freezing rain and snow.  Which is why we’re going to Jamaica for Easter.

TL:DR
Pros                                                                 Cons
– sunshine, sunshine, sunshine                            – closure of shops/restaurants in
– La Fortuna at Atitlan (and Atitlan)                    Antigua over Christmas
– Volcan Pacaya                                                – Tikal
– Yaxha                                                             – Livingston
– excellent bus, ferry systems                             – boats are few and far between on
– safe                                                                 Rio Dulce
– friendly people, who don’t push you                 – non-haggle friendly vendors
to buy souviners                                                 in Antigua
-haggle friendly vendors in GC                           – waiting an hour for a bus