Feb. 16-26, 2010
High above the colonial town of Antigua, nestled on a ridge between a coffee plantation and the village of El Hato, sits the Earth Lodge hostel (www.earthlodgeguatemala.com). With a commanding view of the valley below and three nearby volcanoes (one of them active), it is the perfect place to laze away the day while enjoying excellent food, an eclectic group of fellow travelers and a fully loaded bar. In short, it was the ideal place for Roz and I to take a vacation from our vacation.
We had no idea what to expect as the Samurai slowly climbed 7 km up a steep, twisting road from Antigua to El Hato in the dimming light. The road was paved until we got to the village and then it turned into a narrow dirt road, tightly hugging the mountainside for about a kilometer, and then it abruptly ended. We parked the truck, grabbed our tent and sleeping gear, and followed a sign that directed us down a steep foot path for a couple of hundred meters. This definitely wasn’t a wheelchair-friendly hostel, but on the plus side, its isolation meant that it was safe from riff-raff stumbling in by accident – except for us of course. At the end of the trail, we found the proverbial gold at the end of the rainbow – the bar! After a quick drink, Roz and I pitched our tent in the dark and soon went to bed. In the morning, we were treated to this unbelievable view.
Earth Lodge is the co-creation of Canadian Drew and American Briana who, over the last few years, have built a dorm, a number of private cabins, a treehouse and even a 2-story tree cabin. There’s also a wood-fired sauna, movie room and avocado farm. Best of all is their kitchen, which provides a wide range of delicious breakfasts until 3 p.m. and lunch on demand. Dinner is served around 7:30 every evening as a sit-down group affair, which is a great way to meet other globetrotters. Roz and I spent almost two weeks there and while my memory of it has turned into an alcoholic blur, here are the highlights that come to mind.
One of the main reasons for staying so long at Earth Lodge was that Mountain Hardware promised (yet again) that they would send us a set of replacement tent poles (my splinted broken poles finally gave way during a windstorm at Earth Lodge and I was determined to receive a new set before we left). As we didn’t want to just sit around and get drunk every day (well, actually, that’s exactly what I wanted to do), we spent a day touring a local co-op coffee plantation with some fellow Earth Lodgers. The tour was organized by an innovative non-governmental organization (NGO) called “As Green As It Gets” (www.asgreenasitgets.org). We met our guides, Arturo and Roberto, and our translator, Alexander, a cool dude with the Peace Corps, in Ciudad Vieja, about 5 km south of Antigua. From there we walked to the nearby coffee fields and went through the whole java-making process – from picking beans to eventually, grinding the fire-roasted beans and drinking some of the best coffee I’ve ever tasted. As coffee lovers, Roz and I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the labour-intensive process that makes us so happy and jittery every morning.
After a week of camping, Roz and I decided to spend a night in the treehouse. Boy, what a treat! A staircase takes you up into the tree where a tiny cabin sits in the branches. Just big enough for a bed and a huge picture window, it was the perfect place to share a bottle of wine and gaze at the lights of the valley below. In the morning, the views were just as spectacular.
As already mentioned, Earth Lodge has great views of the three nearby volcanoes – Volcan Agua, Volcan Fuego and Volcan Acatenango. Although Agua and Acatenango are inactive, you could see smoke pluming out of Volcan Fuego most days. And every once in a while, you’d hear a low distant rumble that sounded like thunder. That was also Fuego. One morning, after a day of real loud rumbles, we discovered a thin layer of fine black volcanic ash on our tent. That was pretty trippy. Almost as trippy as when I was sitting in the outhouse and an earthquake hit. I’d never felt one before, but there was no mistaking it. As I sat, I could feel the earth swirling in circles and I could see the trees out the window swishing. I began to have visions of the earth opening up and me falling to my death into the bottom of the crapper. I gotta say, that’s the first time I’ve ever had the crap scared into me! I got out of there quickly and returned to Roz in the treehouse to see if she had felt anything. She said that she had heard some very loud creaking in the tree and had also felt the treehouse bouncing. She had called out to me, assuming that I was messing with her mind by bouncing up and down the stairs. Nope, it was just Guatemala, land of natural wonders, saying good morning.
One thing I really enjoyed at Earth Lodge was their happy hour before dinner every night – mostly because one of the excellent volunteer staff, Scott, mixed a mean white Russian with Earth Lodge’s home-made kahlua – YUM!! Best of all though, we finally got to play some poker with a wide range of fellow travellers and some Earth Lodge volunteers. Roz and I had been jonesing to play ever since we left Vancouver, so we were thrilled to discover there were some other serious (in a drunken, fun sort of way) players in our midst. Poor Roz got busted out first on her very first game, but came in 2nd at the next game. I split a pot with a player of one game and came in 2nd at another. So between the cheap booze, fun poker games and a nude evening in the sauna (with Scott), Roz and I had a hard time leaving the place.
But as fun as it was for us, a few French Canadians saw the darker side of Guatemala. One dude, after a night of drinking in Antigua, took a taxi to El Hato and stumbled around the village trying to find the road to Earth Lodge. A police truck stopped and the officers asked him what he was doing. When he told them his destination, they told him that it wasn’t safe to walk there at night, so he asked them to drive him back to Antigua where he could call for a ride. Halfway down the mountain road, the cops pulled over on a dark side road and, while one of the cops played with his gun and checked for bullets, the other one said that they would need gas money. The Quebecois asked how much they wanted and they said the same that he had paid the cab driver. He reluctantly paid them and then they drove him the rest of the way to Antigua. The weird thing is that he said he spotted the cops in town the next day and they waved at him with big smiles. Personally, I wouldn’t call this a regular police shakedown as he did ask them for a ride, but it does illustrate why you may want to think twice before asking a Guatemalan cop for help.
The other story involved a French Canadian couple who also took a taxi to Earth Lodge. They had wisely agreed on a price before getting in, but when they arrrived in El Hato, the cabbie demanded more money. The Quebecois only had a big bill and when the cabbie didn’t have change, the Quebecois said that wasn’t his problem, it was the cabbie’s problem for not carrying any. Besides, they had agreed on a lower price in the first place. At this point, the cabbie pulled a sword (“It wasn’t a machete – it was a big F*CKING sword!”) and slashed at the guy. Jumping back, the dude told him to calm down, but the cabbie said he was going to kill him. In tears, the girlfriend threw money at the cabbie and the two ran off. They were pretty shaken up by the time they arrived at Earth Lodge. Drew reminded everyone (again!) that the safest way to get to Earth Lodge was to call the hostel and they would send one of their trusted drivers. Weird story for sure, but since I wasn’t there I don’t know what kind of attitude the Quebecois gave the cabbie. I know that when he was drunk, he was quite stupid. If I was a poor cabbie, I may have done the same. In any case, Roz and I never felt threatened or had any trouble with the locals while we were in Guatemala.
What else did we do at Earth Lodge? We took four days (8 hours) of Spanish classes with a great tutor named Luis (email@example.com). We also had a fun night in Antigua with Drew’s mom, Sue, who was visiting from Ontario for a few weeks. First she plied us with perfectly mixed Bloody Caesars at her stylin’ 4 bedroom palace, then we went to the restaurant Gaia, where, after an excellent Middle Eastern dinner, we shared a hookah pipe (Sue’s first time) and talked so much that we closed the place down. (ROZ: Another “must eat” place in Antigua is “Hector’s”. Best beef bourguignon I’ve ever had – and I usually don’t enjoy red meat. Slightly off topic, but if you’re ever in need of a great haircut while in Antigua, I highly recommend “Kinky Afro”. The woman (owner?) completely understood what I wanted (“como un ‘bob’) and proceeded to give me the quickest and nicest haircut I’ve had in a long time). I read many books in a hammock. We skyped friends, put out a blog entry and generally lazed around like a couple of drunk yahoos.
Best of all, we met some amazing people – some for a short time, others for the duration – including the exceptional staff. Drew and Briana have attracted some diverse and fascinating volunteers to staff their hostel. (ROZ: Big shout outs to Scott (great guy, fantastic chef), Mitchell (working on a screenplay about Guatemala based on the book “Bitter Fruit”), Tim and Astrid (long-limbed lovely couple from Holland) and Sean (another super-chill, all-around beautiful spirit from Australia – what is about that place?) And making it that much better for me were Drew and Briana’s two adorable dogs – Lola and Rufus, and their big, beautiful cat, Baba, who reminded me so much of our dearly departed Bella.) But as much as we wanted to stay, our tent poles, unbelievably, finally arrived. It had taken two months, dozens of emails and even the threat to go public about their crappy tent, but Mountain Hardware eventually came through and sent us new ones (via DHL – FedEx seems incapable of finding any city outside the continental USA). For that, I’m grateful. But they could have saved us and many other disgruntled campers a lot of hassles had they just sourced better poles in the first place. I’ll save my “poor global outsourcing” rant for another day.
While it was sad to say goodbye, the open road was calling us once more and it was time to move on. Thanks Earth Lodge – maybe we’ll volunteer there on our way back!
Next stop: El Salvador