Rebecca Wilks

Rebecca Wilks; Photographer, Teacher, Yarnellian, Do-Gooder

Sunday, February 25, 2024

150 Days in Guatemala

 This article was originally written for the Southern California Sierra Club Camera Club's publication, "Focal Points,"  but did not appear there in this form.

El Arco Reflected, Antigua Guatemala

I wonder how much time I need to devote to an international destination to make me credible enough to write an article like this. I’ve been hesitant for some locations, but after a dozen or so trips to Guatemala for a total of about 150 days, I have some images to share and a few things to say.

This all started when my husband and I got sparked about an exemplary NGO called Cooperative for Education.  We’ve volunteered with them, been tourists, and spent time in language immersion school. In 2019 I enjoyed a photography-based trip as an exchange sponsored by the nonprofit Through Each Other’s Eyes.  TEOE promotes cultural understanding through photography.  I was hosted with another TEOE Associate there, and we arranged a whirlwind tour with them in Arizona. 


A Local, Santa Catarina Palopo, Guatemala

I don’t do much street photography at home.  When I travel internationally, though, I appreciate the opportunity to convey something of the culture.  I love this woman’s traje (traditional dress) and the rooster, which is certainly not a pet.  We also had a brief lovely connection, which is one of the best  parts of travel for me.  My Spanish is passable, but she only spoke the local Mayan language, Kaqchikel.  We gestured and laughed.


Pig Vendor, Tecpan Guatemala

Chichicastenango boasts a famous Guatemala street market, but I love the market in Tecpan because we saw no tourists there, and the vendors are not yet fed up with us.  Generally, they’re happy to be photographed.  I love this image despite its technical flaws.  This woman was stopping people, hoping to sell the piglets.


Volcan Fuego, Guatemala

Of course, there are landscape opportunities.  We sat with a guide in a nature preserve along the flanks of Volcan Fuego, which famously had a large deadly eruption in 2018, and continues to have frequent small ones.  We were about to give up when I had the chance to get just this one 25 second exposure.


Net Fishing Lake Atitlan at Dawn, Guatemala

Some of the most beautiful destinations in Guatemala are in the shadow of volcanos, including Lake Atitlan.  German explorer Alexander Von Humboldt famously called it “the most beautiful lake in the world.” This predawn image from 2009 was my first published in a national magazine, Budget Travel.

View of Antigua Guatemala and Volcan Agua From Cerro de la Cruz

The city of Antigua is also graced by volcanoes.  The territorial capital boasts ruins from the 1500s, cobblestone streets more suited to photography than tuk-tuk rides, color, shopping, and dining.  I love to walk Antigua early in the morning, when the locals are going to work and school, and other tourists are still asleep. This image was made from Cerro de la Cruz high above the city.

Door Knocker Details, Antigua Guatemala

Fascinating details are everywhere, begging to be photographed.

Tikal, Guatemala

Even further back in history, Before Cortez made his mark, Mayan empires were built.  My favorite cultural site is the famous Tikal, tucked in the rainforest.  If you’re a geek, you might recognize it as the rebel base on Yavin 4 in Star Wars Episode IV, A New Hope.

Students in Patzun Guatemala

We’ve been to scores of tiny pueblos, delivering supplies to schools.  I feel privileged to have been welcomed to these places, danced and played with the kids, and of course photographed. The whole town shows up, and we have the advantage of being trusted, honored guests.  Nearly everyone, including the elders, is happy to be photographed and enjoy seeing the results on the back of my camera.

Kite Festival, Sumpango Guatemala

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing some celebrations, including the well-known processions and colorful handmade sawdust alfombras (carpets) made in the streets. My favorite is the Kite festival in Sumpango, which marks Todos Santos in early November.

Flor with Marco and me 2023

Finally, the relationships.  We’ve watched lots of young people grow up.  We especially treasure the chance to keep in touch with Flor, our first scholarship student.  We met her when she was 12.  Now she’s 27 and raising an infant daughter.  She supports the rest of her family and is saving to study engineering in College.

All those return trips to Guatemala might be evidence of a lack of imagination or perhaps I just want to know the country deeply. In any case, I’m sure we’ll be back.

There is, of course, much more in the Guatemala Gallery on my website.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

No Dog

Rare snow in the Mojave National Preserve

This was supposed to be a trip with a friend, but he was worried about the weather and cancelled. It was probably a wise decision since he would have had the longer more treacherous drive.  Death Valley, and National Parks in general, are not the best places to take an active dog.  As long as I had this dog-free trip planned, I decided to take this opportunity and shoot some dog-unfriendly locations I’d had on my list.  I got away with juggling the timing to travel between storm pulses and woke up to snow on the Joshua trees in the Mojave National Preserve the second day.  This seemed an auspicious start to the journey.

Feast or famine; water on highway 127, California

Driving up highway 127, I could see the damage from a rough season of rain everywhere.  I followed a pilot car through this flood, otherwise I would have lost my nerve.  Even the road into Texas Spring Campground in Death Valley was essentially four-wheel drive terrain.  Heavy equipment operators in the park will be busy for a long time. 

 Lots of my planned locations were not accessible.  There were roads that had been closed for a long time like Scotty’s Castle and Titus Canyon, and a long list of newer closures; Dante’s View, West Side Road, Devil’s Golf Course, 20 Mule Team Road, Artist’s Drive, and Salt Creek, as well as most of the back country. Lots of projects on my mental list have been bumped to next season. 

Cloud Reflections at Badwater Basin, California

Propper style on the mud flats, Badwater Basin California

The flooding of Badwater Basin, the occasional recurrence of historic Lake Manly, was impressive.  I made three visits with conditions ranging from flat calm to wind-driven white caps, sloshing around in the saturated saltwater in my flowered muck boots.  I heard lots of comments about them.  With so many places closed, it was a bit of a struggle to avoid including the crowds in my shots, even at sunrise. People were concentrated in the few populare places that were open.  I avoided Zabriskie Point and Mesquite Dunes, largely for that reason. 

Travertine and flames, Titan Narrows, Death Valley California

I enjoyed hiking into a few canyons.  Years had passed since I explored the travertine details of Titus Narrows.  One benefit of this road closure is the chance to walk up the passage, which is so washed out that it’s not recognizable as a road, without the need to dodge vehicles.  Desolation Canyon was new to me, a lovely hike and sort of consolation prize for the closure of Artist’s Drive since some of its wild geology is visible there too.  I loved being the only hiker in this lesser-known canyon. 

On the last day I made a swing through Rhyolite Ghost Town near Beatty Nevada.  I’d been curious about this place for years and might have spent more time there if I wasn’t so uncomfortable in the cold, strong wind.  The most captivating thing about that detour was the Goldwell Open Air Museum, with the famous Last supper sculpture and this “Keep Going” shadow sculpture by Michelle Graves .  That was a message I needed that day for sure, with the wind blowing me around on the highway and especially when a fuel pump malfunctioned in Pahrump and spewed diesel all over me and the van.  Every trip has its moments. 

Sunrise, Mojave National Preserve California

I didn’t want to drive all the way home in that wind and with that attitude, so I landed among the joshua trees, back in the Mojave National Preserve refueling psychologically and getting a little work done while the winter sun streamed into the van.

Golden light in Golden Canyon, Death Valley California

I'd come full circle with weather, light, and water where it usually isn’t.  I would have called it a near- perfect short trip, had I been able to bring the dog.

More images are in the Winter Gallery on the website.