Abigail D. Malik

Tag: Guatemala

Travel: Guatemala’s Semuc Champey is Heaven on Earth

10151612885471742The decision to backpack around Guatemala was a surprisingly quick one. My best friend and I had batted around the idea of traveling internationally to celebrate turning 30. The intent was real, but the discussions were vague, until one day she received a text from me.

“We should go to Costa Rica” was my suggestion based on a friend’s recent trip. “How about Guatemala?” was her suggestion based on a friend’s recent trip.

Four months later, I departed from Lexington, Kentucky, and she from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and we arrived around the same early afternoon time at La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City to begin 10 days of backpacking around the country.

The night before, the question “What have I done?” sprinted through my head.

My 12-year-old L.L. Bean backpack was stuffed with just enough to sustain me. (Once home and unpacked, I proudly realized I had packed two shirts too many.) I registered our trip online with the U.S. Department of State and emailed pictures of my passport and credit card to my most level-headed friend.

However, I hadn’t brushed up on my Spanish nor had I done a recent Google news search on the country. My public-library borrowed Frommer’s Guatemala was only halfway read. And while I’m normally able to effectively shut out my father’s isolationist commentary, his concise voicemail from a few weeks ago reared its ugly head in my own: “Did you know that Guatemala borders Mexico?!”

Guatemala was my first time traveling abroad.

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Travel: The Unique Opportunity That is a Van Ride

photo by A. Malik

In the van waiting to catch the ferry on the way to Semuc Champey, Guatemala

Van rides have meant something special to me ever since returning from a 10-day backpacking trip in Guatemala where so many of my hours there were spent crisscrossing the country in vans with travelers from around the world. The Israeli grandfather wildly snapping pictures, screaming madly at the radio during a soccer match, being gently scolded by the driver for exiting the van during a very short ferry ride – he’s a small piece of my van crew that’s such a strong part of my travel experience in Guatemala.

Even pickup trucks played a vital role in traversing the country, particularly in my attempt to successfully complete the last leg of an eight-hour trip from the Tikal ruins to Semuc Champey, a Guatemalan national park located in an isolated, hard-to-reach area near the small town of Lanquín. Nestled in the valley of a jungle, turquoise freshwater-filled pools have been etched atop a natural bridge of limestone, under which rushes the Río Cahabón. It’s an Eden, and in order to trek the narrow, bumpy path from Lanquín to El Portal, the hostel at the edge of the park, I stood up in the back of a pick-up truck. My body jostled against a dozen others, gripping the truck bed’s side metal bars for dear life (or at least to keep my teeth in my head) as six kilometers (almost four miles) felt like six years.

For me, now, van rides are opportunities. Is there a shuttle involved in this trip? I’m in. Can we take the bus? Yes, we should. Want me to climb in the back of your pick-up truck? Well, let’s talk first.

Even the shuttle van at the car mechanic is an adventure waiting to be had with travelers from around the world. One morning, months later, back in Kentucky and at 8 a.m., I hopped into the backseat beside a young woman with long blonde hair. We exchanged good mornings. Her father, gray-headed and likely in his mid-60s, sat up front next to our driver, Kim. Less than a minute later, we picked up another passenger.

“The last time I was in a van,” I said as I scooted to the middle seat, “I was in Guatemala. It didn’t have such nice seatbelts.” The man turned around in his seat, and he was smiling. We began to discuss Guatemala, a country of which he is quite fond.

“Did you go to Chichicastango?” he asked, referring to the well-known market that brings nearly the entire country together for buying and selling handmade goods and homegrown foods. It was, I had to tell him, the one thing on the travel to-do list that went unaccomplished. The market is open Thursdays and Sundays only, and we couldn’t sync our travels to make it either day. He said I should visit Oaxaca, Mexico, and this time to make sure and visit the market.

“Where are you originally from?” Driver Kim asked him, after he began to speak and we heard his soft accent.

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