The Pope and the Black Christ – Esquipulas, Guatemala

After our own sort-of-miraculous recovery from our campsite robbery, we packed up and traveled onward to the town of Esquipulas. Now, Esquipulas is not the only town that has a church which features a depiction of Christ as a black man, however, the sculpture of Christo Negro (Black Christ) in the Basilica of Esquipulas is credited with miracles and has become a major pilgrimage site even meriting a visit by Pope John Paul II.

 Basilica of Esquipulas

The gleaming white Basilica of Esquipulas in Guatemala is home to one of the world’s most revered images of a Black Christ. 

Tens of thousands of devout Catholics cram into Esquipulas during the annual celebration of the Black Christ which happens on January 15th. They come to pray and ask for help in front of a religious icon which has been credited with miraculously curing Pedro Pardo de Figueroa, the Archbishop of Guatemala, from a serious illness in 1737.

 Cristo Negro or Black Christ of Esquipulas, Guatemala

The Black Christ, or Cristo Negro, in the Basilica of Esquipulas in Guatemala.

Esquipulas candles

A copy of the real Black Christ of Esquipulas behind candle offerings from the faithful.


Perhaps an even more impressive miracle is the fact that Esquipulas was the site of a Central American peace summit which laid the groundwork for what became the Guatemalan Peace Accords of 1996 which ended the country’s ghastly 36 year civil war.

The Basilica de Esquipulas is such a major religious site that Pope John Paul II paid a visit in 1996 to mark the 400th anniversary of the church which the Pope is said to have called “the spiritual center of Central America.”

The church itself seemed weirdly extra-white and the Black Christ, which is carved from a nearly black piece of wood, looked just like White Christ. Other than the darker color, the features, hair, facial expression and general angst-ridden pose is exactly the same as every other depiction of Christ that we’ve ever seen. Not sure what we were expecting, but our first Black Christ was kind of a let down.

Milagros Esquipulas, Guatemala

Milagros (tiny metal offerings left by those requesting a miracle) collaged together in the image of Jesus at the Basilica of Esquipulas in Guatemala.

A sloped walkway leads up to the image from a side entrance and allows worshipers to walk a 360 degree circuit around the sculpture which is placed behind the main altar. The trip up this ramp can literally take all day during the festival in January, but we moved along quickly with just a few other families. One woman was singing beautifully and everyone knelt and prayed intently when they reached the front of the Black Christ, each clearly asking for something specific and important. There were tears.

Then each person stood and slowly backed away down the ramp, never turning their back to the image that has come to mean so much to so many.

Basilica of Esquipulas

Karen and our friend George in front of the Basilica of Esquipulas in Guatemala.

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Robbed and Recovered (all before breakfast) – Ipala Volcano, Guatemala

Sure we’re careful. But we’ve also been lucky. After many, many years of traveling on the road we have only been robbed once when some  *#!!*&^  stole the side-view mirrors off our truck in Guadalajara, Mexico. That lucky streak came to a screeching halt in Guatemala, however. It all started when we decided to go camping with our friend George (perhaps the coolest guy in Guatemala) on the shores of Ipala Lake in the dormant crater of Ipala Volcano.

Driving to Ipala Volcano

Ipala Volcano is more than 5,400 feet (1,650 meters) high which is pretty dramatic. But what makes this dormant volcano really special is the lake that’s formed in its crater. Ipala Lake sits at 4,898 feet (1,493 meters) and is more than half a mile (1 kilometer) in circumference. It’s also pretty nice to look at.

You can hike up to the lake along a scenic trail (about two hours) but if you’ve got a high-clearance vehicle you can drive to Ipala Lake as well. Emphasis on the high-clearance part. The road up from the town of Agua Blanca is steep, rutted and rocky. Forget it if it’s been raining.

Lake Ipala Volcano, Guatemala

Lovely Ipala Lake in the crater of the dormant Ipala Volcano in Guatemala.

Volcano camping

The slow, rough drive behind us, we were rewarded with a stunning lakeside camping area with flat, grassy sections for tents, four picnic tables under sturdy shelters with adjacent makeshift bbq grills, a relatively clean row of toilets and no other neighbors save for day trippers (locals and tourists) and some random horses and cows who wandered down to the lake to drink (something you should not do). All for 10Q (US$1.25) per person.

A local woman even sold us some firewood and homemade tortillas.

The bright blue, nearly perfectly-round Ipala Lake is part of Guatemala’s Consejo Nacional de Areas Protegidas (National Council of Protected Areas) or CONAP for short. This organization protects more than 150 location in Guatemala by keeping poachers and polluters out and ensuring that many of the areas remain open for recreational and tourist use.

The lake did look inviting, but at nearly 5,000 feet it was a bit chilly for a swim. Instead, we got busy setting up camp. As we were finishing a Peace Corp volunteer showed up so we invited him to dinner and he filled us in on the slow but steady progress he’d made in the area in terms of teaching the villagers about environmental practices and all the reasons why being more ecologically minded (not poaching crabs and fish from the protected lake, for example) is ultimately good for them.

Then the sky opened up and it rained like mad. George’s tent was leaking, so he spent the night in his car a short distance below the camping area. We woke up at 6:00 am the next morning to clear blue skies and another, less pleasant surprise.

Hey, where’s all our stuff??!?!

As we emerged groggily from our tent and wandered around camp getting ready to make some coffee and wake George up, something just didn’t seem right. That’s when we noticed that our Coleman camp grill and stove was gone. So were our two collapsible camping chairs. And our huge Coleman cooler. We’d been robbed!

Feeling distinctly violated, we woke George up and told him what had happened.

ASISTUR/PROATUR to the rescue!

Did we mention that our friend George happens to work for ASISTUR (now called PROATUR)? That’s a division of Guatemala’s department of tourism and the sole function of PROATUR is to assist and protect tourists.

Rental car broken down on a deserted highway? Want to visit an area of the country where it seems wise to have an escort? Having a dispute with a cab driver or tour operator you think is trying to rip you off? Had your camping gear stolen on the shores of a volcanic lake? Just call 1500 and PROATUR operators (who speak English and Spanish) will register your problem and send an agent (like George) to help ASAP. They do this 24/7. Totally free. No questions asked.

Yeah, it’s not good that visitors to Guatemala have these problems in the first place, but this stuff happens to travelers all over the world. How many countries can you think of that have created a division of government staffed with field specialists who solve and avoid tourist-related problems for free? Exactly.

Needless to say, when George realized we’d been robbed he sprung into PROATUR action–and by action we mean he and Eric rallied the stunned and outraged CONAP officials (who believed that a local crab poacher who visits the lake pre-dawn after a big rain probably snatched our stuff shortly before sunrise) and they literally tracked the thief through the forest.

Burdened with heavy, awkward and super-conspicuous stuff (it’s tough to look normal when you’re hauling a cooler, two camp chairs and a camp stove) the idiot had started slowly ditching his ill-gotten booty soon after he fled the camping area. What was he planing to do with the stuff anyway? There’s no ice for the cooler way up here and he’d failed to grab the fuel for the stove or vital parts. The chairs might come in handy…

Anyway, first Team PROATUR recovered the cooler (with a few beers still inside). Then they found the stove. Next, the chairs turned up. Since CONAP were the local authorities and they believed they knew who to blame for the robbery, George reluctantly left the catch and convict phase of the operation in their hands.

Then we all enjoyed some well-deserved coffee and a relieved laugh at the expense of the most inept thief in Guatemala. Thanks PROATUR!

Lake Ipala Volcano camping, Guatemala

Our tent (pre-robbery) on the shores of Ipala Lake in the crater of the dormant Ipala Volcano in Guatemala.

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Big, Big Rocks – Quiriguá Mayan Archaeological Site, Guatemala

Stela D - QuiriguaMayan ruins, Guatemala

Detailed carvings and hieroglyphics on stelae D.

Stela E - Quirigua Mayan ruins, Guatemala

Stelae E is 35 feet (10.6 meters) high and weighs 65 tons prompting some experts to call it the largest stone ever quarried by the ancient Maya and maybe even the largest free-standing worked monolith in the New World.

We’d decided to blow off the Quiriguá archaeological site, totally put off by the 80Q (US$10) entrance fee–higher than almost any other Mayan site in Guatemala other than Tikal. But when our travels took us right back past the remains of this post classic period Mayan city we took it as a sign and decided to shell out $20 and visit the site.

Quiriguá really does have some of the most massive and most unusual carved rock in the entire Mundo Maya (southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras).

For example, stelae F clocks in at 24 feet (7.3 meters) high and when it was raised in 766 AD it was the tallest monument ever erected by the Mayans. That is until the folks of Quiriguá put up Stela E 10 years later, which is 10 feet (3 meters) higher than stelae F.

At 35 feet (10.6 meters) high including the buried portion holding it in place and weighing a total of 65 tons, archaeologists believe stelae E is the largest stone ever quarried by the ancient Mayans. It may even be the largest free-standing worked monolith in the New World.

Inhabited as early as the 2nd century AD, what remains of the civilization at Quiriguá (now surrounded by vast banana plantations operated by United Fruit Company, aka Chiquita Bananas) was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981.

About a dozen stelae have been excavated, protected and displayed at the small site. Many relate portions of the city’s history and the feats of its various leaders. There are also carved calendars, of particular interest in 2012 since the epic Mayan calendar mysteriously ends on December 21, 2012 sparking all kinds of theories (end of the world? chance for a new beginning?) and increased interest in the Mayans.

Stela F - Quirigua Mayan ruins, Guatemala

Karen and our friend George dwarfed by stelae F which dates back to 766 AD. At 24 feet (7.3 meters) high it was the tallest monument ever erected by the Mayan until they put up stelae E (see photo above).

Also of note: many of the figures carved into the stelae at Quiriguá are wearing
unusually ornate head dresses and some even have beards. We only saw these elements  on stelae at a handful of the other 60+ Mayan sites we’ve visited on our Journey.

Stela C - Quirigua Mayan ruins, Guatemala

Stela C was one of the first stelae erected at Quiriguá.

hieroglyphics detail Stela D - Quirigua Mayan ruins, Guatemala

The hieroglyphics on stelae D feature relatively rare, full-figure anthropomorphic versions of Mayan hieroglyphics. The hard stone and mild conditions mean these odd carvings are well preserved too. 


What the heck is a zoomorph?

As impressive as all those stelae are, Quiriguá has other great big giant stone tricks up its sleeve. They’re called zoomorphs, which is a fancy word for multi-ton boulders carved to resemble fantastical beasts combining aspects of revered real-life animals like jaguars and turtles and crocodiles with made-up fantasy creatures. Those Mayans!

Zoomorph B - Quirigua Mayan ruins, Guatemala

This is zoomorph B, a 13 foot (four meter) long boulder carved on all sides with intricate  depictions of a creature that is half crocodile, half fantasy animal.

Zoomorph B - Quirigua Mayan ruins, Guatemala

Though zoomorph B dates back to 780 AD we could still see traces of original red pigment on it.

Zoomorph B - Quirigua Mayan ruins, Guatemala

Zoomorph B, a multi-ton boulder carved on all sides with intricate depictions of a fantasy creature that is part crocodile, part who-knows-what. 


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Spanglish Town, a Hot Waterfall and Birds on the Ground – Rio Dulce, Guatemala

We’d bounced over such bad roads to get to the famous natural pools at Semuc Champey that we figured a few dozen additional miles of the stuff wouldn’t kill us. So, on the advice of local tour van drivers who assured us that the shorter, more direct dirt backroad toward Rio Dulce was a breeze, we left the Semuc Champey area and headed southeast. The van drivers were right and the dirt road turned out to be in good condition as it took us through rolling hills until we’d descended to one of the quirkiest (and hottest) towns we saw in Guatemala.

Welcome to El Estor

El Estor used to be a bustling port town and trading post which was a hub of commerce and home to a large store. The story goes that the town became known as “the store” which local Spanish speakers Spanlished into “El Estor.” Get it?

Today not much happens in El Estor except sweating. We spent one of the hottest nights on the entire Journey in El Estor at the Vista del Lago hotel. The hotel is in a building which is believed to have been the original 1815 site of the store which gave the town its cockamamie name.

All we know for sure is that our tiny room in the two story wooden building was so airless that we spent most of the night pacing the wide wrap-around porch trying to catch a breeze off Lake Izabal. Except there wasn’t any breeze.

El Estor is not a tourist town. It’s not trying to be a city. It’s not an indigenous community. It’s just a town–one of the few”normal” towns we saw in Guatemala. Totally unspectacular, but noteworthy for that fact.

A hot springs waterfall (?!)

The next morning we escaped the heat by getting into a hot spring. Ridiculous as that sounds, this was no run-of-the-mill hot spring. Finca Paraiso, about a 15 minute drive (on pavement) outside of El Estor, has a waterfall fed by hot springs on its property. For 10Q per person (about US$1.25) the owners let people walk along a short path and hang out in their wacky waterfall.

The hot spring is located above the waterfall, so the tumbling water is very, very hot. When it dumps into the cold river flowing below it the combo creates a kind of fast-moving bathtub. It was a unique experience which would have been more enjoyable if the air temperature wasn’t already in the 90s.

Finca El Paraíso hot springs waterfall

This unusual waterfall at Finca El Paraíso, near El Estor in Guatemala, is fed by a hot hot spring.


The road on this side of El Estor is beautifully paved, as if to make up for the long expanse of dirt that unfurls out of town on the other side. After leaving Finca Paraiso it only took about 45 minutes to reach the Rio Dulce (Sweet River in English) and surrounding towns.

Castillo San Felipe de Lara - Rio Dulce

Spanish conquistadors built the Castillo San Felipe de Lara on a narrow section of the Rio Dulce as a defense against pirates. 

We made a pit stop at Castillo San Felipe de Lara which was built by the Spanish in 1652 on a narrow stretch of the Rio Dulce where the river enters Lake Izabal as an anti-pirate fort. After the pirates disappeared the stone structure was used as a prison. Today, the fort, which is set amidst a grassy park on a bit of land that juts out into the river, is open for tours. If you like canons and thick walls and pirates (who doesn’t?) it’s a peaceful stop. Bring a picnic. There are palapa covered tables and even a small swimming area.

Canons at Castillo San Felipe de Lara - Rio Dulce

Some of the original canons at Castillo San Felipe de Lara on the Rio Dulce in Guatemala.

Canons at Castillo San Felipe de Lara - Rio Dulce

Some of the original canons at Castillo San Felipe de Lara, guarding against pirates along a narrow passage on the Rio Dulce.

Canon detail at Castillo San Felipe de Lara - Rio Dulce, Guatemala

Original engraving from 1769 on a canon installed in the Spanish-built Castillo San Felipe de Lara fort in Guatemala.


Hangin’ on the river

Then it was on to the town of Rio Dulce (sometimes still referred to as Fronteras) and Hacienda Tijax Jungle Lodge & Marina. Built at the edge of Lake Izabal, which is fed by the Rio Dulce, Hacienda Tijax is part of a 500 acre parcel of land which includes cattle pastures, stands of rubber trees and wild jungle which the owners are working to preserve through the Hacienda Tijax Project.

The place has been in the Gobbatina family for years and now energetic, creative Adrianna Gobbatina is in charge of the rambling spread and she kindly invited us to stay and check it out for two days. Hacienda Tijax is accessible by boat or by car. We drove there (of course) and got from the parking lot to the hotel via a dramatic elevated walkway through the jungle and over the mangroves.

Hacienda Tijax offers a wide range of distinctive rooms ($21 to $121). Our cushy “cabin plus” (private bathroom, A/C) was an oddly angled mostly concrete structure. There are also wooden cabins and a couple of multi-bed houses with kitchens (though the food in the on-site restaurant was good too). Sadly, the water in the pool was a creepy shade of green when we were there, so we never got in.

Hacienda Tajix - Kayak

Karen checking out the howler monkeys during an early morning kayak trip through mangrove areas that feed into the Rio Dulce and, ultimately, Lake Izabal in Guatemala.

Hacienda Tijax offers trips into the rainforest and waterways around the lodge as well. We opted for an early morning kayak trip up river then into mangrovey offshoots where we saw howler monkeys and some of the 300+ species of birds that live in or migrate through the area. Mostly it was just a very peaceful way to start the day.

Hacienda Tajix bridge

Crossing over a 200′ swinging bridge on property owned by Hacienda Tijax in Guatemala.


After breakfast Emilio guided us across a 200′ long hanging bridge and through the Rainforest Sky Trail on the lodge’s property. The walk included a visit to a weirdly empty stone tower (which they call the Shaman Tower for reasons that were never quite clear), a stand of rubber trees, and a chunk of primary rainforest. Emilio, who has spent years collecting the seeds of indigenous plants to create a seed bank to preserve local species, was a wealth of information about the jungle’s medicinal plants. Near the end of our walk we also saw a nightjar on the ground just a few inches from the trail.




Look closely. Can you see the nightjar nesting on the ground? 




Nightjars spend a lot of time on the ground. They nest there and we often see them feeding on insects on dirt roads in the evenings. They blend in incredibly well and they’re often invisible until you’re right upon them–then they burst into flight in a way that’s so unexpected and jarring that it usually startles the wits out of us. We think that’s why they’re called “nightjars.”





Hacienda Tajix - tour

Emilio telling us all about medicinal jungle plants during a walking tour through some of the 500 acres owned by Hacienda Tijax in Rio Dulce, Guatemala.


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Way Out Water – Semuc Champey & Lanquín, Guatemala

You’ve got to endure a slow, bumpy, curvy road to get to the serenity of the famous natural pools of Semuc Champey. First we passed through the grotty, congested city of Coban before turning off the pavement. From there it took 45 minutes to drive seven miles (11 km) to reach the dusty town of Lanquín. From there it took another half hour to drive a steep, windy, narrow and rocky road another six miles (9 km) down to the Cahabón River where the pools form. You could say we were ready for a soak.

Thankfully, Semuc Champey lived up to the hype as a “must see” destination in Guatemala–beautiful, relaxing and worth the effort to get there.

View from Semuc Champey mirador

A short but steep climb above the pools brings you to a mirador where you get this awesome aerial view of the tumbling, crystal-clear natural pools at Semuc Champey in Guatemala.

Free fish pedicure

At Semuc Champey limestone deposits have built up over time, forming cascading rims in the riverbed which then fill with water creating natural crystal clear pools. Some pools are deep enough to dive into. All are filled with tiny fish that like to nibble on the dead skin on your legs and feet as you soak. Yep, just like that spa craze from a few years ago, only here its free (save for the 50Q, or about US$6.50, entrance fee per person).

Semuc Champey pools

Soaking in the natural, crystal-clear pools at Semuc Champey in Guatemala.

But it’s not all about soaking at Semuc Champey. A steep trail takes through the jungly hillside to a great lookout point above the pools. This is absolutely the best place to really appreciate this natural wonder as the pools spill out before you and the turquoise  and green  water looks impossibly clear.

Semuc Champey pools

Soaking in the natural, crystal-clear pools at Semuc Champey in Guatemala.

Where the river hides

There’s also a natural limestone bride at Semuc Champey which crosses over the Cahabón River. At one point the entire river “hides” under a rock ledge, disappearing from view completely. This ledge is actually where the pools form, fed by run off and side streams. So, as you’re soaking in the tranquil pools the river is raging below you. Crazy. This phenomenon of rock and water explains the name. Semuc Champey means  “where the river hides” in the Mayan Q’eqchi’ language.

River disappearing under the pools of Semuc Champey

Semuc Champey means “where the river hides” in the Mayan Q’eqchi’ language. This is the point at which the Cahabón River “hides” under a massive stone ledge.

Watch the Cahabón River “hide” under a massive stone ledge in our video, below.


A must-stay near this must-see

We’d heard the whispers about the laid back vibe, cool art work and great food El Retiro  Lodge on the road heading out of Lanquín and it, too, lived up to the hype. Private rooms and private cabañas (120 Q or US$15.50 double for a cabaña) are scattered around a lawn-covered hillside which slopes down to a lazy river.

Most rooms share a strip of clean bathrooms and showers which have been entirely decorated in pottery shards, glass beads, whimsical murals, shells and more.

Eric fixed El Retiro’s Wi-Fi so the manager gave us a free dinner one night. It’s a good thing we hadn’t eaten since breakfast because dinner at El Retiro is an all-you-can-eat buffet affair. Choose the veg option or the meat option (selections change daily) and get to work. At least 10 dishes were laid out in addition to the entrée and all of it (vegetables, salads, breads) was delicious.

El Retiro also has a riverside sauna made from empty glass bottles and that slow-moving river to cool off in. Things can get a bit raucous in the riverside restaurant and bar at night, so choose a room further away if you don’t want peace and quiet.

Lower pools at Semuc Chamepey, Guatemala

A lower, deeper stretch of pools at Semuc Champey.

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Photo Essay: Hungry Hummingbirds – Chelemhá Lodge, Guatemala

We had a lot of fun watching an impossibly colorful male quetzal emerge from its nest in the privately-run Chelemhá Cloud Forest Reserve in the Yalijax Mountains of the Alta Verapaz region of Guatemala. However, the color, diversity and sheer appetite of the hummingbirds drawn to the feeders on the wrap-around decks at Chelemhá Lodge were thrilling as well.

See what we mean in this photo essay highlighting the hummingbird species that happily call Chelemhá home.

Amethyst throated and Magnificent Hummingbird - Chelumha, Guatemala

An amethyst throated hummingbird (left) and a magnificent hummingbird at Chelemhá Lodge in Guatemala.

Magnificent Hummingbird - Chelumha, Guatemala

A magnificent hummingbird at Chelemhá Lodge in Guatemala. 

Hummingbird feeding - Chelumha, Guatemala

A hungry hummingbird at Chelemhá Lodge in Guatemala.

Magnificent Hummingbirds - Chelumha, Guatemala

Magnificent hummingbirds at Chelemhá Lodge in Guatemala.

Amethyst throated hummingbird - Chelumha, Guatemala

An amethyst throated hummingbird at Chelemhá Lodge in Guatemala.

Garnet throated hummingbird - Chelumha, Guatemala

A garnet throated hummingbird at Chelemhá Lodge in Guatemala.

Green throated Mountain gem hummingbird - Chelumha, Guatemala

A green throated mountain gem hummingbird at Chelemhá Lodge in Guatemala.


Getting to the food quickly. 

Hummingbirds - Giatemala

Hungry hummingbirds at Chelemhá Lodge in Guatemala.

Magnificent Hummingbirds

A magnificent hummingbird at Chelemhá Lodge in Guatemala.

Violet Sabrewing Hummingbird - Chelumha, Guatemala

A violet sabrewing hummingbird at Chelemhá Lodge in Guatemala.

Magnificent Hummingbird - Chelumha, Guatemala 2

A magnificent hummingbird lives up to its name at Chelemhá Lodge in Guatemala.

Magnificent Hummingbirds - Chelumha, Guatemala

Magnificent hummingbirds at Chelemhá Lodge in Guatemala.

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