Journey Home: San Cristóbal de las Casas

One of the places we knew we wanted to revisit on our drive back north to the U.S. was the Chiapas, Mexico city of San Cristóbal de las Casas.

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Still closer to San Jose, Costa Rica than we are to Austin, Texas. Mexico is big. But we’ve already crossed 4 out of 5 borders, which is the hard part.

It’s a lovely, walkable, Spanish colonial town with a friendly vibe, fresh mountain air and plenty of nooks and crannies to explore. (Click on a photo to see slideshow/full captions.)

You should totally visit, but it is worth checking with your accommodations about whether there are any festivals going on in the neighborhood during your stay. This place likes to party. Which is cool, and we’re generally fairly intrepid travelers who can pop a Tylenol PM, put in our earplugs and fugheddaboutit.

… but our AirBnB was in the middle of Barrio de los Mexicanos, which hosts a festival for the Virgin of the Assumption in August each year, during which revelers set off bottle rockets, ring church bells and play music all night long. Bad timing on our part. The dogs were scared of the fireworks, and for the first couple nights none of us got much sleep. The second morning, a marching band woke us up at 4:30 a.m.

Despite the bombs and the minor sleep deprivation, we did manage to get out and explore the city a bit. I was working during the days, but at night we’d walk along the cobblestone peatones (pedestrian streets) and stop in at one of lots of wonderful restaurants. In which, evidently, Andy takes more photos of me than I do of him. Forgive the food montage.

Andy visited the Museo del los Altos de Chiapas one day, and I did manage to get to a yoga class at Casa Luz. (Yoga in Spanish is a great way to review body-part vocab!) On Saturday the sun came out and we and the dogs hoofed it up to the church at Cerro de Guadelupe, where we got a great view of the city. Afterward we stumbled upon a parade (part of the ongoing festival), with floats, horses, and dancers wearing dresses over innertubes along with terrifying masks. It was an incredible sight.

The next day, we set out early for the 10-hour drive to Oaxaca, where we are now. More on that in the next installment!

Journey Home: Nicaragua and Honduras

On Sunday, July 31st we started our drive back home to Austin. We’re driving mostly on the weekends, since Emily needs to work, so we’ll be taking about six weeks to get home. Our planned arrival date in Austin is September 18.

Day one of the journey started out great. The drive to the border was fairly long, but easy. Exiting Costa Rica was no problem — we ran ahead of the huge group of Tica Bus passengers, presented the appropriate papers for ourselves and the car, and got through the border without incident. It was a rather unceremonious farewell to Costa Rica.

Our entry into Nicaragua was a little trickier. It turns out that the people who are there to help with processing paperwork at the border are authorized, but authorized doesn’t mean free. We did get through the whole process of temporarily importing the car, passing through immigration, and getting a certification from the vet for Penny and Theda to enter the country pretty quickly, but we also got taken for a bit of a ride. That won’t happen again.

We also had a bit of trouble exiting the border area when an agent noticed that we didn’t have a front license plate. That plate was stolen a couple weeks ago, but we played sorta dumb (I’m good at that) and after some conversations with a few officials, we got border boss-level permission to enter Nicaragua with only one license plate. Phew!

Even with all of that messing around, the border crossing took less than two hours, which we count as a major success. We rolled into Granada at about 3:30 p.m. and got settled in our cozy & comfortable room at the Hotel Casa San Francisco. I was familiar with this place because I stayed at a casita owned by the owners of the hotel when I visited Granada earlier this year. The hotel is just a few blocks from Calle La Calzada, which has a few pedestrian-only blocks lined with many restaurants and street performers. We enjoyed the walkability of the city, which led to our car being parked on the street the whole time we were there. Each night, we payed a guard a couple bucks to watch the car, which is common practice in these cities where petty theft is apparently common.


A park I found in Granada about a kilometer from our hotel. It was an important find, since these walled Spanish colonial cities lack abundant green space for the dogs to relieve themselves. 

On Tuesday, August 2nd, we relocated to León, which put us within two hours of the Honduras border. We found a room on AirBnB at Hostal El Nancite, which is a guesthouse run by John, a talkative expat from NYC and his Nica wife. Emily and I enjoyed being near the center of action – close to the León Cathedral, a great bakery/restaurant called Pan y Paz, and other restaurants and attractions. One of our most enjoyable meals was procured from the ladies grilling various meats and other savory delights behind the cathedral at the edge of the market. Paired with some Costa Rican beer, it was a fairly perfect dinner.

After a few days in León we packed up and proceeded to barrel through Honduras in just two days. We crossed the border on Friday, August 5 after talking to lots of officials, waiting for the customs officials to get back from lunch, and jumping through all the hoops. (Honduras wants so many copies of documents! Where do they all go?) We spent one night in Tegucigalpa at a Hyatt in the equivalent of The Domain in Austin — a fancy-time mall-like area with hip restaurants (and Chili’s) and condos. We had a great night there, including a tasty meal at the nearby wine bar and a cocktail at the hotel’s rooftop bar.


We rolled out of Tegucigalpa on Saturday morning. After getting lost in the city a couple times (GPS was having trouble), we made our way to Copán Ruinas. This was one of the two nights on the trip that we didn’t have lodging booked in advance. We stopped by the place we stayed on the way down last year, but they were full. After some hunting around, we found a room at Carrillos Hotel, a small, modestly-priced place on the edge of town. It was also conveniently located around the corner from a restaurant specializing in pupusas, a food we’ve recently come to love.

We woke up bright and early on Sunday, loaded up the car, and rolled over to the ruins to make up for missing them on our trip down to Costa Rica last year (“Don’t miss the ruins,” say all the guidebooks). I’m pretty fascinated by ruins and imagine people living out their lives there — at it’s peak, Copán and the surrounding area was home to about 20,000 Mayans. Emily was more into the adjoining scarlet macaw sanctuary, which was really cool. We’d seen these birds flying in pairs from far away, but up close they’re spectacularly beautiful and loud. We have no intention of becoming birders, but if there is such a thing as a “gateway bird,” the scarlet macaw would seem to fit the profile.

After checking the ruins off of our list, we hopped in the car, crossed the border into Guatemala, and arrived in Antigua. We’ve been here for five awesome nights and will hit the road tomorrow to make our way closer to Mexico before making our penultimate border crossing on Sunday.

Antigua anecdotes coming soon!



Things got interesting our second night at the beach house in Nicaragua.

First, the power went out at about 5 p.m. Realizing we probably weren’t going to regain electricity by the time we left the next day, we cooked dinner in the hour of light we had left, watched the lightening for a while, and gave up and went to bed at about 7:30 p.m. Like olden times! 

At around 8 p.m., we heard a gunshot nearby. We learned the next day that this was the guard firing a warning shot after the power went out, which we appreciated, although we would have been slightly less sketched out to have that intel at the time. I leaped out of bed to ensure the doors were locked, and on my way, knocked a side table’s seashell display onto the tile floor. If you’re wondering what sound that makes, it’s sort of like a bar full of angry bikers smashing their beer bottles against one another’s foreheads all at once.

The next morning, after a romp on the beach, we followed a caravan consisting of two dudes on a motorcycle, a dog, and a guy on a bike out through the dirt “roads.”


Traffic jam in Nicaragua.

For that evening’s lodging, we decided to try our luck in San Juan Del Sur, a surf town about an hour’s drive north of the Costa Rica border. Luck was not on our side. I held about 10 conversations in my broken Spanish that went along these lines: “Do you have a room for two people for tonight? Do you allow dogs? No? Ah, too bad. Do you know of a hotel or guest house near here that allows pets? One block over, two doors down? OK, thank you very much!”

Normally I’d have difficulty with that much rejection, but I was so elated to be having successful exchanges in Spanish that it buoyed me along. Eventually Andy had the smartypants idea to stop at an Internet cafe and try to find something nearby online, which he did in about 10 minutes. We left pet-unfriendly San Juan Del Sur for a lovely hotel called Casa Bahia in Playa Marsella, about 20 minutes away. The friendly staff upgraded us to a casita with a kitchen, and the girls got more beach romping time in.

The next day, we set out early for the border — the longest crossing yet, at about four hours and 20 minutes. Leaving Nicaragua was relatively smooth; we were able to negotiate the steps ourselves in about 35 minutes without the assistance of a guide (although we were approached by a few). Entering Costa Rica was a jumble, though. First we stood in the long immigration line behind a busload of tourists — once you make it inside the building, you can ask someone at a desk for the immigration form most people in line have already filled out. The woman at the window was skeptical that we didn’t have a return ticket — we told her we were driving and planning on applying for residency, but we didn’t yet have whatever documentation she wanted to see. After a couple tense minutes she decided we weren’t worth the hassle, and approved our 90-day tourist visas. Big whew.

Next, we went to the first aduana (there are two) to initiate the vehicle permit process. They told us to get back in the long line to have our luggage scanned. At that point, we found a young migración employee who became our guide/savior. He helped us get our bags scanned (a wholly arbitrary operation; they only ran our luggage through, not any of the bins or musical instruments or anything else we had in the car. Duh, don’t they know we store all our drugs and guns in the mandolin case???), talked to the vet at the border for us, sat in line with me at the bank so I could pay the ~$30 that would satisfy the vet to allow our dogs in, made sure all was copacetic with the first aduana, and pointed us on our way toward the insurance office, copy shop, and second aduana.

We met a lovely Brit ahead of us in line at the insurance window, who was on an extended mission to form relationships in underprivileged locations that might benefit from assistance with organic farming. His karma, therefore, was clearly more assured than ours — after he was helped, the window closed and the guard informed us it was lunchtime, and we’d have to wait 30 minutes.

I am not a patient person by nature, and I would like to thank the borders of Central America for helping me work on that. No, really! I mean it. If you come here expecting things to happen at a certain rate of efficiency and become annoyed every time that expectation is not met, life will be unpleasant. Patience, adaptability, flexibility and a sense of humor are key.

That said, our patience, adaptability, flexibility and senses of humor had been tested to their upper limits. By the time we purchased our insurance, made the necessary copies of that along with our stamped passports, handed everything over to the second aduana (who spoke not a word to us), and got in a line of not-moving vehicles to exit the border area, we didn’t even have the energy to celebrate the fact that we made it Costa Rica.


But we did! We made it. We MADE it. The drive from Austin took 12 days, with two days off from driving. We averaged 8- or 9-hour days in the car, only driving at night when we got lost or had to push a bit further to get to our lodging. We were considerably less hassled by police than all the guidebooks and blogs we consulted warned — only twice did we have to show our paperwork, and never once did we have to bribe anyone.

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Our route

Our friend Mario Chaves has an apartment in the Escazú area of San José, Costa Rica’s capital and largest city. He graciously offered it to us as a place to land our first week here, and that has been the biggest godsend. He’s also been texting us recommendations for where to shop and eat, introducing us to his friends and colleagues, and in general being the most generous and hospitable person on the planet.

During our first few days in our new country, we’ve:

  • Gotten hooked up with mobile internet and a local phone number (if you need our number and don’t have it, email us!)
  • Drank wine with Evan and Jessica, a friendly couple from Seattle we met in the phone store who relocated here a couple days before we did
  • Took a twisty drive through the mountains that turned out to be quite a bit longer than it looked on the map
  • Went for a muddy hike with the dogs in Braulio Carillo National Park, a cloud forest about an hour’s drive north of San José
  • Tended to Andy’s bug-bite-swollen ankle, sunburn, and poopsickness
  • grocery shopped, cooked, and enjoyed being normal and not in the car all day erryday.

I go back to work tomorrow, and we’ll start applying for residency soon. We’re still a little in shock. This has been a wild few months — planning, getting our house rented and moving out, pulling all the necessary paperwork together, making the drive. It hasn’t quite sunken in yet that we’ve arrived, and we live here now.

Guatemala – Honduras – Nicaragua, Days 5-9

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We spent a couple nights at Casa Jucanya in Panajachel, Guatemala, on Lake Atitlán. It was ideal: a gorgeous view of the volcano across the lake, a sprawling lawn for the pups to run around on, a washing machine and clothesline, a kitchen to cook real food in, and both a lime tree and a questionably safe trampoline in the yard!

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The girls at the lake house in Guatemala

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In Panajachel, we learned that if you have the time, it’s worth it to buy specific items from specific vendors, rather than trying to one-stop shop at the supermarket. Buy fresh produce from the farmer’s market, tortillas from the tortillarilla, aaaaand more diarrhea medicine than you think you might need from the Farmacia.

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Walking around in Panajachel. Tuk-tuks are a convenient way to get around in a lot of Central American towns.

After resting up, we set out in the morning toward the Guatemala/Honduras border. The original plan was to stay another night in Guatemala and tackle the crossing in the morning, but when we approached the border at El Florido, we didn’t see anywhere to stay. Overestimating the amount of daylight left, we decided to cross — the tourist town of Copán was just 10 kilometers across the border, a short enough distance to justify breaking our “don’t drive at night” rule.

Leaving Guatemala was painless; entering Honduras was character-building. There were no lines later in the evening, but the process was painfully slow. After being fingerprinted and paying our immigration fees, we headed to the Aduana for our vehicle paperwork to be processed — but the one guy on duty was on his dinner break. A guard pulled a TV outside of the office and turned it to the Discovery channel, and we watched programs about lions and sharks in Spanish until we were allowed to go in.

If you keep a sense of humor, the Honduran aduana is a hilarious Orwellian experience. Neither of us had ever witnessed more bureaucratic nonsense in our entire lives. Honduras requires three copies of everything (and you can forget what any guide or blog post tells you about what those things are, because it will have changed by the time you get there). For us, it was copies of my driver’s license, passport, vehicle title, and registration. We hadn’t anticipated the registration copies — indeed, the employee on the Guatemalan side told us we wouldn’t need copies of that — so we didn’t have them, and the copy shops were closed for the night. We panicked for a moment — this dude was humorless — but I spotted a copy machine behind his desk, clasped my hands in plea, and in poor Spanish offered to pay him a little extra if he would make the three copies of the registration for us.


AduanaEm Our Honduras aduana faces.

Homeboy rolled his eyes but obliged. Then he hunt-and-pecked in all the information from my passport, the title, and random bullshit about our Subaru. At one point he pulled out and thumbed through a binder to denote whether the model was a four-cylinder versus a six-cylinder. Andy and I exchanged many surreptitious wide-eyed looks over the course of the hour this dude took entering data about our car, making even more copies, and scolding a poor truck driver who didn’t have three copies of everything that he’d have to wait until morning when the copy shops opened.

We were more than relieved to arrive in Copán, especially when the first hotel we stopped at had a room available, agreed to allow our dogs, and offered secure parking, hot showers and internet for $35/night. Score. We walked the dogs, ate some street food tacos, washed off our stink, booked a room for the next night, and passed the eff out.

The next morning, we blew past the Mayan ruins that make Copán worth visiting (“don’t miss the ruins!” our guidebooks said), but we were determined to make it to the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, well before nightfall. Which we did! Because I was driving rather than navigating, and we tend not to get quite as lost when I am not navigating. Heeeeeee.

Honduras is a beautiful country, and we were never hassled by the police or asked to show the safety triangles and fire extinguisher every guidebook warned us to have on hand, lest they stop you and demand a bribe should you be traveling without those essentials. Everyone we met was friendly and helpful.

We stayed in an AirBnB converted-garage apartment owned by a lovely man named José. There, we decided we’d cross the border to Nicaragua the next day and drive another four hours to the beach, where we’d rest again for a couple nights.

The Honduras/Nicaragua border at Guisale was stressful — it’s hot, kiddos beg for money and money changers hassle you, and it takes hours. We hired a guide for $11 to walk us through the first half. Honduras wasn’t amused that we didn’t have the document we were supposed to get at the previous border for our dogs, and that took an hour and some (perhaps unofficial) fines to process.

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We waited in the car with the AC running and our hot pups in the front seats to cool them down.

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The sweaty Honduras immigration building at Guisale

The Nicaraguan aduana asked for some kind of vehicle document I didn’t have, repeatedly demanding the one with the license plate on it. I’d already given her the title. Did she want my registration? My insurance? No, no. People behind me in line were trying to help. Andy helpfully went to buy some food from a vendor, because we were getting hangry and losing it. Eventually, another gal in the office pulled up a translation on her phone: “The title with your license plate number on it.” I pointed to the title the aduana was already holding. “Lo tiene,” I said.


The auto insurance sales office on the Nicaragua side of the border

Andy said it’s his goal to learn enough Spanish to handle these situations smoothly on the way back. It’s a great goal. So far we’re more or less getting by, but I still feel like an idiot a lot of the time, and it sucks to feel like an idiot. I look forward to not including the phrase “Lo siento; no hablo mucho español” in every single conversation at some point in the future.

A few hours later and significantly calmer, we arrived in León to do some grocery shopping and meet the dudes who would guide us to our rental on Playa Tes. I thought it was a bit silly to have us follow someone’s truck — we can follow decent directions! — until we went on this drive. There were a dozen squirrelly turns through jungle, across mudflats and over sand. On top of that, a thunder and lightning storm started to raging outside. Andy was making spooky noises and Blair Witch references, which I did not appreciate:

We arrived at the beach house and met the charming Roberto, who gave us the most thorough tour of a cabana that can possibly be given. “This is the closet! Here is the silverware drawer, and that is the microwave! Ah, I forgot to show you how the shower works!”


The oh-so-mysterious shower apparatus

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The beach house at Playa Tesoro, Nicaragua

We sat outside and watched the lightning storm, then crashed out. Today, we’ve been swimming in the pool and the Pacific. The dogs are in heaven. We’re resting up — both of us are under some predictable digestive distress, and we’ve got another drive to the south of Nicaragua tomorrow. After that, we cross our final border into Costa Rica!

Five Days In!

We’re on the road! We ended up leaving Austin on Saturday morning rather than Friday night. The trip south from Austin initially felt like just another drive. However, once we hit the border and crossed the bridge into Mexico, we started to feel like this thing is really happening.

Picnic at a rest stop

Our last meal in Texas for a while!

The border crossing itself was surprisingly easy. We were stopped at a checkpoint on the Mexican side of the border. We told them we had dogs, so they didn’t open up the back. We let them look in the windows, then they sent us on our way to the CIITEV to get our Permisos Vehiculos (vehicle permit) and visas. We were lucky enough to find a blog detailing this process, since it isn’t obvious to the border-hopping newbie. As instructed, we followed the nice blue and yellow signs down a very non-official-seeming road, made the craziest U-turn in our lives, then made it to the CIITEV!

Crossing the border!

Crossing the border!

Due to our being slightly frazzled and tired because Penny whined and woke us up every 40 minutes while staying at Silas’s house the previous night (thanks Silas!), we accidentally waited in the line of cars that were waiting to be inspected and have their temporary vehicle permits cancelled in order to leave Mexico. Whoops. While waiting in this line, Penny freaked out and forced her way past the barrier keeping the dogs in the back and ended up on top of all our gear. After figuring out that we were dorking up this whole process, we hopped out of line, parked, left one of our two keys in the ignition with the AC running, moved the dogs to the front seat, and locked the car.

Now, it may seem like a super sketchy idea to leave a car running in the parking lot to keep our dogs cool, but it worked really well. There are also windows all along the front of the building, so we were able to run out and move the car so we could see it at all times. Our dogs being slightly scary-looking helps, and they LOVE being in the front seat.

Inside the CIITEV, there were a bunch of government-employed helpers available to assist with filling out the necessary form for entry into Mexico. The forms were in both English and Spanish, but it was nice having someone guide us through it quickly so we didn’t make mistakes. After visiting windows 1 (Imigracion), 2 (Copia – copies of forms) and 4 (Banjerecito – pay refundable import fee and get permit) we were on our way!

Signs were plentiful and helped us relatively easily get out of Nuevo Laredo and on to 85 / 85D to Monterrey. Emily pointed out that this might be the quickest way to get to see some mountains from Austin, especially if you have the vehicle/visa process down.

We arrived in Monterrey, our first big city in Mexico, and after successfully navigating a few turns, we got a bit lost. Luckily, our spidey-senses were tingling and we were able to turn around easily. Retorno = “Here is a gift from the Mexican transportation and highway authorities. You screwed up, but we’ve left you an out — you’re welcome.”

Retorno sign

This will save you when you make a wrong turn.

We did end up at the Novotel we were looking for. It’s a fine place to stay, if a bit uninteresting relative to our subsequent lodging. Also, not the best for travelers with dogs — the elevator trips to take them outside were kind of a pain. Luckily, there was a nice open area at the Lincoln dealership next door for them to romp around.

The next day, we made the trek to San Miguel de Allende. By the way, if you want to get somewhere as fast as possible in Mexico, the autopista (toll road) is the way to go. It costs some money and I’m sure we’re missing out on some cool stuff, but it saves loads of time and the roads are generally in great shape.

After getting lost shortly after arriving in town (this will become a pattern) we arrived at the San Miguel RV Park and Tennis Courts, a fantastic place to camp that is just a few blocks from the action in San Miguel. We also met Pat Williams, who happens to be from Wimberley, TX! He’s riding around the world on a motorcycle over the next year and was about a week into his journey when we crossed paths. Check out his blog!

Our campsite in San Miguel de Allende

Our campsite in San Miguel de Allende

Before setting up camp, we had heard from the proprietor that it had been raining the last few nights and would probably rain again. “No worries,” we thought, “we’ll just throw on the rain fly and we’ll be fine!” Satisfied with our preparations, we walked into town to find some yummy food. We totally lucked out in that regard: we found a great restaurant that served chile relleno en nogada, one of Emily’s favorite dishes. After stuffing our faces, we walked back to camp feeling great.

As we were sitting in the tent texting our families and checking on some emails, it started raining. After a few minutes, I noticed that my edge of the tent was getting wet. Then it started raining harder and there was thunder and lightning. And water started dripping from above. Our tent, as it turns out, is not waterproof! Emily had the great idea to move the tent under a covered library/hangout area near our camp, where we stayed the rest of the night. Not the best night of sleep, but we survived. All in all, we really enjoyed San Miguel and wished we could have stayed longer — we’ll just bring a better tent next time.

On Monday we got up bright and early, packed up our wet tent, made coffee, and hit the road for Córdoba. There’s not a lot to say about this drive, except that there are lots of awesome suspension bridges in Mexico!

Mexico loves suspension bridges.

Mexico loves suspension bridges.

Take that, Sundial Bridge.

Take that, Sundial Bridge.

We stayed with a lovely couple, Frank and Ania, at a chalet on their property in Córdoba. The place was very cozy and we had a great time. We went into a nearby town, Fortín de las Flores, to find dinner. We ended up at a small restaurant on the square with three things on the menu: gordas, huaraches (I think), and tostadas. One of the proprietors explained what each item was — gordas were explained as “like a gordita” and we already knew what tostadas were — but it was way beyond our abilities to comprehend, so she just brought over an example of each one. We saw them and said, “Yes.”



On Tuesday, we got back on the autopista to San Cristobal de las Casas. After we got lost, then unlost, we ended up at yet another great house just a few blocks from the pedestrian-only section of the Real de Guadalupe. We met Megan from Asheville, North Carolina who was about to leave San Cristobal after being there for a month on a grant to learn more Spanish for her career teaching ESL classes. We went out to a fancy dinner on the Real, got some hot cocoa (a little different than we’re used to) and headed to bed in anticipation of our next border crossing.

Fancytime in San Cristobal

Fancytime in San Cristobal

Wednesday was a huge drive. There were lots of two-lane twisty roads through mountains that reminded us of being in the Sierra Nevada mountains on the way to the border at Cuauhtémoc.

Feels like California

Feels like California

It was easy enough getting our paperwork sorted when exiting Mexico. The offices we went to were in a somewhat sleepy town, only made busy by the traffic through it. The border crossing on the Guatemalan side, in La Mesilla, is also fairly straightforward, but it is a crazy stretch of market stalls and loads of pedestrians and scooters.

In Guatemala looking back into Mexico

In Guatemala looking back into Mexico

The border at La Mesilla

The border at La Mesilla

It took a little time, but we got through, managed not to hit anyone on the way out, and continued along a very twisty set of roads down to Panajachel, on Lago Atítlan. When we arrived at our lodging for the night, Emily proposed that we stay an extra night to take a break from the road. I agreed, so we’ve had a full day of no driving at a beautiful home right on the lake. We’ll share more about our experiences here in a future post. In the meantime, here are a couple photos!

Casa Jucanya

Casa Jucanya

The view from Casa Jucanya

The view from Casa Jucanya

Hasta proxima!