Log 3
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Log 3 - Central America 1
(April 6, 2003 - May 8, 2003)

EL SALVADOR
ANTIGUA GUATEMALA
LAKE ATITLÁN, GUATEMALA
EL PETÉN, GUATEMALA


EL SALVADOR


April 6, 2003 - April 13, 2003 (Dana)

After eight days of pleasant sailing since leaving Acapulco, we crossed over from Mexican waters into Guatemalan waters. We only knew we’d done so from our chart, as there are no borders marked in the ocean, and there was no change in the land we could see in the distance. But the knowledge that we were in another country was sufficiently exciting, and we lowered our Mexican courtesy flag in an impromptu ceremony involving singing the Honduran national anthem (the closest one to Mexico’s or Guatemala’s that either of us knew) and folding the worn flag with all due respect.

The next day, we entered into El Salvadoran waters and hoisted the courtesy flag for El Salvador. According to our earlier estimated schedule, we were supposed to arrive at our destination in El Salvador the following day, but favorable currents had us sailing ahead of schedule.  If we stayed on course we would arrive around midnight, which was not an option because the entrance to Puerto Barillas is a tricky one requiring a local escort to lead the way. So we veered offshore to eat up some time and then turned back due east around midnight to meet up with a panga at a GPS coordinate off the El Salvadorian coast around 9am.

Once we met up with the panga at an unmarked and seemingly random point at sea, our 2-3 hour journey to the marina began. The first segment of our journey involved dodging shallow patches and breakers. These were out at sea as a result of large sand bars located a mile or two off shore, which are extremely difficult to navigate without local knowledge. But with our trusty panga leading the way and Chris keeping an eye on him from the bow, I steered through the heavy swells around the breakers, and nearly through a couple of the breakers themselves. It was a bouncy ride that a fellow sailor described as “like being in a Maytag”. Nonetheless, it was a fun mini-adventure, except for a few minutes when I was watching the numbers on our depth sounder drop a little too low for comfort. After one wave passed, the reading dropped to 12 feet, giving our full keel only about 6 feet of clearance with the possibility of the depth continuing to drop – yipes! I didn’t mention the depth to Chris (no need for both of us to worry) until we were back up to over 40 feet.

After an hour or so of negotiating the sand bars, we'd successfully passed them and began heading into Jiquilisco Bay, still following the panga as we waved to fishermen in rusty old boats heading out for the day. Inside the bay, the scenery was amazing. A shoreline lush with mangrove vegetation surrounded us, and the bay narrowed to fingerlike tributaries that seemed to branch off like points of a star with us in the center. As the panga led us down the appropriate fingers, the vegetation grew thicker and we could hear monkeys howling in the distance. The whole scene was like the jungle river tour in Tenacatita, only bigger and better. After an hour or so of motoring slowly through the bay, a warm rain came out of nowhere and rinsed off our salty Ker-Mor as we approached Puerto Barillas. By the time we reached the mooring the rain stopped, and I was very pleased to see that our new home was in one of the narrow mangrove-lined rivers with an exotic serenity beyond anything I could have dreamed up.

We sat on the boat for a short while with smug smiles on our faces before officials came to check our papers and take us to shore. Barillas Marina was much nicer than I expected.  It's amenities include a very pretty pool area, open-air restaurant showing CNN on a large TV, huge showers that a whole family could fit in, mini-market, grass umbrella tables with electrical outlets and Internet hookups, well-manicured grounds and even a grass air strip and helicopter pad. What more could we ask for at only $8 per day? Well they also provide free shuttles to town, walking tours to see monkeys and cocoa plantations, and on-site immigration services, all with a friendly and professional aim-to-please attitude. I guess that’s why the president of El Salvador himself is a member of Barillas Marina Club, which existed before they even had moorings to offer to cruisers. On top of all that, the relatively new marina is the only place we know of along the pacific coast of Central America where you can safely leave your boat while touring Central America by land, as we'll be doing.

But before departing on our land tour, we took a few days to enjoy our new surroundings. Our first morning at Barillas we started off with a swim in the river, only to find out later that there are crocodiles in the area so it's recommended to stay out of the water. We haven’t seen any crocodiles yet, but we’ll take the tip and not swim anymore. On shore, we watched the latest news on the war in Iraq and got to know some of the other people who made it this far south. Most cruisers we met in Mexico weren't continuing any further south than Zihuatanejo, but of those that have come this far, we have found a higher ratio of cruisers more like us.  There are at least two other couples that are in our age group, and who quit their jobs rather than waiting for retirement. Mike and Amy made up one of the couples. They sailed from Washington with their young daughter on a 35-foot boat named Oneida, and we met them briefly in Zihuatanejo before getting to know them a little better at Barillas. The other couple consisted of Bruce and Jen, who sailed from Northern California on Fearless, an approximately 43-foot sailboat. We met these two in Barillas' giant bubbly pool (Jacuzzi without heat), where they told us their story of spending about a year and a half making their way down the coast plagued with bad luck in the form of boat repair issues, theft, assault and other delays that taken together would have scared many into giving up. But they stuck it out, and we’re glad they did because things seem to be turning around for them, and we enjoyed being able to hang out with them for a couple days (and being fed a great gourmet meal by Bruce). Hopefully, we’ll be able to see more of Bruce and Jen in Costa Rica before they head east and we head west.

During our few days of leisure, we also took advantage of the free shuttle to Usúlutan, passing bull-powered carts on the way and wishing I could take pictures. Usúlutan is a busy but rural city, with more banana stands than can possibly be profitable. This made for one of my favorite lines of Chris’ lately... when he got on the shuttle back to Barillas he told someone that he really wanted a banana but couldn’t find any (I guess you had to be there).

After our few days of rest, we were ready to head to San Salvador to visit our friend John (PCI’s country director for El Salvador) and his family. A group had already hired a minivan to go from Barillas to San Salvador, so we hitched a ride with them. We were dropped off at a McDonald’s in the center of town, and that is where I first learned that American fast food is big in Central America. Looking down the street there were at least four large and relatively new fast food restaurants – McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and Pizza Hut, I believe. Throw in some modern office buildings and a large new shopping mall, and San Salvador certainly seemed to have developed into a more modern city than I imagined. There was a lot that was new even since the last time Chris was here about two years ago. At the same time though, there were people packed standing in the back of moving pickup trucks, traditional craft markets, and other signs that this was not a city that one would find in the U.S. (thankfully, considering we'd come this far).  After spending ten minutes or so soaking in the new environment, we were picked up by John, the first familiar face we’d seen since leaving San Diego, and he took us back to his house.

John’s house is in a nice little hillside neighborhood with a peek-a-boo view of the city. Living there also are his wife Ana, his daughters Chantal and Carolyn, a new daughter on the way, and at least two people working in the house to cook, clean and help take care of the kids. Having workers in the home is a big lifestyle difference between Central America and the U.S., as most upper and middle class households in Central America have live-in help (not just the richest households). I suppose as long as you are comfortable with the reduced privacy, which most seem to be, it is a convenient luxury that affords you time to do things that you wouldn’t be able to do if there were no one else to watch the kids or if you had to spend a good portion of the day cooking and cleaning. What it meant for us, though, was that Chez John's was a full service resort, where we were constantly being fed tasty meals in addition to having access to on-site laundry, hot showers and a high speed Internet connection. Also, we finally received our first package of mail that Loren forwarded to us from the U.S.  Among the bills, bank statements and letters was a copy of the L.A. Daily Journal article written about me back in January, which I had not yet had a chance to read. Considering how hit or miss the press can be, the article was good, but being the detail-oriented attorney type that I am, I couldn’t let it go without making a few corrections. If you’re interested in seeing the annotated article, click here:  two-page version or one-page version (small print).  After a couple days of visiting with John and Ana and taking care of laundry, Internet, mail and relaxation needs, it was time to get back to Barillas to prepare to leave the boat for a month or two of traveling around Central America.



April 14, 2003 - April 20, 2003 (Chris)

Today is Easter Sunday and we are in Antigua, Guatemala, the first stop on our month-long pilgrimage through Central America. As the week began, we had returned to Barillas Marina Club with John, Ana and their two daughters, Carolyn and Chantal. We enjoyed a leisurely day by the pool and on the boat. John had been on Ker-Mor before in San Diego but this was the first time for his family. As usual, the grand tour took about five minutes and afterwards we sat on the deck to take in the scenery.

John and his family left late that afternoon. Dana and I decided we would prepare the boat for our one month absence that evening and return to San Salvador early the next morning. Dana worked below deck and I worked above. We had arranged for the boatyard adjacent to Barillas to do some work while we are away. Specifically, we want the varnish and stain removed from the deck. This had been put on by the previous owners and I continued to maintain it because I did not relish the task of taking it off. In San Diego it would have cost us $50-60 per hour per person to have this done, making it financially unreasonable to do. In El Salvador it will cost us $14 per day for a crew of two. This we can afford.

Since the work was going to be completed while we were away, I had to remove everything that was sitting, strapped or screwed onto the deck – and you’d be surprised how much crap that is. I finished at midnight and crashed on the deck for the rest of the evening. Meanwhile, Dana cleaned up down below, packed and, true to her addiction, began updating the website until 5 am. We left the next morning to Usúlutan where we caught a bus for San Salvador. This would be the first of many buses we would ride over the next month.

For those of you who have not had the pleasure of riding a bus in Central America, I am here to attest that it is an experience to cherish. Upon first glance at your ride, you may be smacked with the sense of déjà vu. That is because many of the buses here are the big yellow bluebird school buses you rode as a child. Retired from service in the US, these yellow chariots have found a second life in Central America where each bus is put through rigorous speed tests…every day…with you in it. Each owner usually likes to put his own stamp on their vehicle through paint and decoration. These individuals fearlessly abandon conventions of good taste as they boldly attempt to express their personality – even at the risk of committing aesthetic sabotage. On the inside, the stainless steel handholds are usually wrapped in spiraling plastic cordage, usually with color schemes that contrast – this is eye candy on wheels folks! Each bus enjoys protection under what I like to call the "Jesus Insurance Policy". Coverage may vary on each bus but the details are usually provided on polarized strips across the windshield for your perusal before boarding. Some buses have been blessed by Jesus, on others Jesus is actually guiding the bus, and on a few select buses the drivers have received salvation from Jesus (which we hope covers non-policy holding passengers as well). Pictures of the insurer (J.C.) and the insurer’s mother (V.M.) usually adorn the bus. Adjacent to pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary are the other religious icons of Central America - Tweety Bird, Brahman cattle pictures (rural areas only) and the chrome plated naked lady silhouettes. Trailing the bus you might be privy to other important information, such as the drivers´ alias. For example, you may see on the back of Juan Gomez's bus that he is also known as "The Midnight Lover" – something to think about if you are going to be riding with Juan late at night. There are a number of bus drivers known as "The Terminator" -- something to think about no matter what time you ride with them.

I’ve learned riding buses in Central America that the term "Maximum Occupancy" doesn't have a Spanish translation. Any space occupied by air is considered potential passenger space. Seats that normally hold two people in the U.S. will hold three or four adults and a couple of children in Central America. The last arrival to the seat usually has to sit partially on the seat and partially squat in the aisle. I call this "half-ass" sitting. After all the seats have been filled, including the half-ass sitters, they’ll stand, hang off the back, ride on top, and even trespass forward of the sacred white line. Add all of this to the break-neck speeds at which they drive, the pulsating Latin music over crappy speakers and the constant stream of food vendors selling just about anything that can be deep-fried, and its like riding a carnival to your next destination.

O.K. I’ve purged myself of another comedic monologue. Back to seriousness. We have yet to tell you anything about El Salvador. It is the smallest of the Central American countries and is bordered on the north by Guatemala, east by Honduras, and south and west by the Pacific Ocean. It has the highest population density within Central America and has suffered from deforestation and subsequent water resource depletion. This is something that Project Concern International has been working with communities to prevent in addition to improving water, sanitation and food security for rural populations. El Salvador, however, is perhaps best known for the ten plus year civil war that plagued the country during the 1980´s and resulted in more than 50,000 dead. Most of these individuals were civilians killed by the government or pro-government militias. What most Americans don't know is that the United States supported this effort with military advisors and more than three million dollars a day in military aid. It was part of the Reagan Doctrine to support any government that was anti-Castro / anti-communist and in favor of U.S. economic interests and policies in the region. It was a shameful policy that played out throughout Central America resulting in awful deaths and grotesque tortures of the poor. If anyone is interested, two good films to rent would be "Romero" and Oliver Stone's "Salvador". They are a little Hollywoodish but fairly accurate. A good book to read about our involvement in Central America as well would be Bob Woodward's "The Secret Wars of the CIA".

ANTIGUA GUATEMALA

After staying at John and Ana’s house in San Salvador overnight, Dana and I headed for Antigua Guatemala. Antigua is a picturesque, colonial-style town nestled in the mountains above the current capital, Guatemala City. Up until 1773, Antigua served as the capital of Central America, but after 13 earthquakes, floods and fires, they decided to move the capital to the current location of Guatemala City. Good move? Well the present location has suffered from earthquakes in 1917, 1918 and 1976. Next time they move the capital I think they should consider Wisconsin.

Antigua is famous for its colorful celebration of Semana Santa (Easter Week) and we were fortunate to arrive during that time. Starting on Thursday and finishing Sunday, there are an average of two processions a day involving hundreds of men and women. Within the processions there are reenactments of Romans on horseback sentencing Jesus, huge platforms that support giant statues of Jesus carried on the shoulders of 50 or more men and women, and actors depicting Pontius Pilate, the disciples and the two criminals that were crucified along with Jesus. We found out later that the two actors depicting the criminals that hung with JC weren’t really actors or volunteers – they were real criminals. "Selected" from the local jail, where they had been placed for being drunk and disorderly, these lucky individuals got to shake off their hangover wearing loin cloths while having their wrists tied to a big wood post yoked across their shoulders. Reform via public humiliation I guess.

The major attraction of Semana Santa in Antigua however is what is underfoot of the processioners. Each procession takes a different route through town. In preparation, residents and business along the route prepare alfombras (carpets) of colored sawdust, flower petals, seeds (a la Rose Bowl Parade) and just about anything else they find useful, right on top of the cobble stoned streets. These are then destroyed as the processioners trample through the street scattering and smashing the art work that took the better part of 6 hours or so to complete. For those processions that occurred in the morning, volunteers would work throughout the night preparing the alfombras. Far from being a somber event, families and friends will usually be invited up to help out and liquor has been known to add to the merriment of alfombra construction.

After Easter Sunday, we stayed in Antigua for another 5 days. During our stay, we roomed with a family (Dora and her daughter) while Dana took Spanish lessons but I’ll let her tell you about that in her log.



April 21, 2003 - April 27, 2003 (Dana)

Spending a week in a town as picturesque as Antigua with colorful ceremonies can be frustrating when you don't have a real camera with which to capture quality images, but I had to accept that fact.  I was supposed to receive the new digital camera I ordered at John’s, but it had not yet arrived. In Acapulco and Barillas, I used disposable cameras because taking no pictures is not an option to me, but the quality of those cameras' photos and their development and scanning into digital images was so bad, that I didn't want to go that route again. So while in Antigua, I instead used my digital camcorder that can also capture low resolution stills, which look pretty poor in any size greater than about 2 inches, but at least aren't dark and dull with scratches and lint marks. As a bonus, I also recorded some of the ceremonies as videos that we may or may not ever watch again, but at least we know we can.

After a week of playing in Antigua, it was time to get down to some business – Spanish school. I didn’t believe that a week would accomplish all that much for me, but at least it would help me to understand some basics like how verbs are conjugated, since I never studied Spanish before. Knowing some verbs could really improve my sentences, which have tended to consist of a series of nouns and adjectives with gestures and pointing as necessary.  The morning of my first day of class, Chris walked me to school and told me to play nice with the other kids, and I did indeed feel like I was stepping back in time about 25 years. I was introduced to my instructor, Martha, with whom I would be spending 40 hours one-on-one over the next five days. She taught me a lot about the basics of Spanish, but perhaps more interesting was what she taught me about the downsides to Guatemalan society. It all started when I asked her if she was going to have more kids, and she responded that she couldn’t.  After further questioning, I learned that the reason why she felt she couldn't was because her husband was killed five months earlier in a bus robbery. He was a policeman in plain clothes taking a bus home, and he tried to intervene when the bus was held up by robbers, but ended up killed.  Martha and I spent the rest of the class talking about the kind of man he was and how his death has affected her and her family, and then each day of class thereafter by the eighth hour something would bring us back to talking about her family and Guatemalan culture. The stories of her family would make for a great book or movie, and luckily she tolerated my speaking English while we talked about these things or we couldn’t have covered nearly as much material. Still, she was speaking Spanish so I was practicing my comprehension (which is far ahead of my speaking ability).

I won’t get into all the personal details of Martha's stories, but in general, she told me of alcoholism, violence and infidelity that are much too common and accepted in Guatemala - though more in rural areas than in the modern cities.  Infidelity goes the extreme that some men have two different families at the same time, one with their wife and one with another woman, splitting their time between both households.  Apparently, many women are unable to reject this behavior, because they are prohibited from working and becoming independent.  In addition, they may never be able to remarry since most good men only marry virgins (even though they are not virgins themselves).  In all fairness, this is all just based on Martha's experiences, and she feels things are improving with each generation.  Martha, for one, was lucky to have a good husband.  He was loving and faithful and even gave in to her insistence on working, which has been very important to her ability to support her family now that he's gone.  She also is an independent thinker determined to do things in a more modern way and teach her kids accordingly.  For example, despite being pressured to wear black and be in mourning the rest of her life, she feels that the way she mourns should be a personal decision, so she’ll stop wearing black after one year. She’ll even consider dating another man after some time, though she is not hopeful of ever finding a good Guatemalan man who is single and would consider marrying a woman with children from another man. Nonetheless, she agreed to email me if and when she goes on her first date, and I hope to hear from her someday.

For our last two days in Antigua, we moved out of Doña Dora’s house and into a hotel, which, as nice as Dora was, was a bit of a relief. No longer would I have to sit at meals acting like a mute because I was only permitted to speak in Spanish.  I also wouldn't have to risk my life every time I took a shower. Dora's shower had a "widow maker" electrical heater that goes directly on the shower head, giving you a little shock if you touch it, which I learned from experience.  These units are not uncommon, but it's also not uncommon for homes outside of big cities to have no hot water at all, so I guess we were lucky to have the widow maker.  In any case, the hotel room had pre-heated water running to it, and cable TV that we could spend hours watching while eating pizza and acting like bums. That we did, then we took a bus back to Guatemala City, where we spent the night at Hotel Chalet Suisse before taking another bus back to John’s house in San Salvador, to pick up my new camera that had finally arrived thanks to a payment of $250 in import fees just to get it out of customs.

LAKE ATITLAN, GUATEMALA


April 28, 2003 - May 3, 2003 (Chris)

After paying the hefty customs fee on the camera, we headed back to Guatemala to continue our travels. Our next destination was the area around Lake Atitlán – approximately 75km from the capital. It is a favorite vacation spot among locals and tourists alike. Surrounded by 3 dormant volcanoes to the south/southeast and steep mountains bordering all other points, the winding 500 meter descent to the lake shores is a breathtaking experience – if you can see it. Fog tends to set in quite often in this basin.

Unlike Mexico and the rest of Central America, Guatemala has managed to retain its indigenous cultures, language and dress. This was due in large part to the friars that managed the country’s highlands during the Spanish conquest. With considerable power and influence, the friars insulated the indigenous populations from the influences of western civilization desiring to protect native cultures and traditions …eh…um…well, with the exception of religion of course which they promptly set out to change. The resiliency of the indigenous culture and ethnicity is apparent on the road to Lake Atitlán. The further you move north from the capital the more common it is to see individuals (although mostly women) dressed in colorful hand-made weaves called cortes (long skirts) and guipiles (blouses). On their heads they may have a weaved piece of cloth or the old-timers actually wear a very long weaved belt wrapped over itself many times around the head forming what looks like a disk or halo. Skin color and bone structure becomes more homogenous while language gradually transitions from the soft undulating Latin tones to the staccato, guttural sounds of an ancient American language. The three principle Mayan languages (reflecting the different ethnicities) are Quiché, Cakchiquel and Tzutzil.

The first town you come to at Lake Atitlán is called Panajachel. Dana and I stayed for two nights, the second of which I was laid up trying to recover from a neck pain that had been bothering me since Mexico. Panajachel (or Pana as the locals call it) was a principle destination along the hippie trail back in the 60s and 70s. Many stayed and raised families here as is apparent by some of the conspicuously looking white kids and young adults that stroll or ride their bikes through the streets and hang out with indigenous neighbors.

The next day we took an hour an a half ferry ride to the other side of the lake to a town called Santiago. When I first started working for PCI, its Guatemala program was based out of Santiago so I looked forward to returning – especially to see my old friend Lety Toj. Lety is a Tzutzil Mayan that directs a clinic called Rxiin T´namet (the People's Clinic in Tzutzil) that PCI helped to establish. Lamentably, we were not able to meet up with Lety despite various attempts.

In Santiago we stayed at the Posada de Santiago, an inn comprised of a beautiful set of stone cabanas stepped into the hill overlooking the lake. Each room has a fireplace, plenty of candles and plenty of charm. There is a large meeting area/restaurant at the base that overlooks the lake. Very romantic. It was our favorite place to stay thus far and we highly recommend it to anyone visiting Guatemala. The owners are an American couple named David and Susie.

While in Santiago we visited Maximon (pronounced Ma-shee-mon). Maximon is a Mayan religious relic (actually a wood carved effigy) that survived the conversion to Christianity. He is revered in Santiago and many believe in him, still bringing offerings of cigarettes, liquor and money. Oddly, Guatemalans have found a way to enmesh him into Christian culture. During Semana Santa for example, Maximon is portrayed as Judas, the disciple that betrayed Jesus to the Romans. But he is also revered as a saint – in fact his Spanish name is "San Simon". In Santiago, the location of Maximon is changed every year or so. When Dana and I visited, he was located in a small courtyard off a narrow street. Inside the courtyard, he was housed in a small room. In the courtyard, a marimba band was playing while a drunk was dancing some kind of jig to the music. I paid two quetzals (about 25 cents) to get inside the altar area. At the time, a ceremony was in session. A man was kneeling in front of Maximon while another man, who I was told was a Mayan Priest, was chanting something in Mayan dialect while placing and removing a cowboy hat fringed with a black veil over the kneeled man’s head. The statue of Maximon was adorned in various cloths and was flanked on his right by a number of saints, including St. Francis of Assisi, and on his left by Christ laying in a coffin. Not sure how the big "G" would fell about that symbolism! We had been told (by a non-believer) that most men go there asking Maximon for women and most women go there asking Maximon for revenge on the men who have cheated on them. I didn’t ask Maximon for anything but found the entertainment worth the 25 cent fee.

Since Antigua, I had been itching to climb a volcano. I don’t know why. I think it is just one of those manly things men want to do. But Dana thought it would be fun too so we hired a guide to take us up one of the volcanoes that border the lake. The volcano is called "San Antonio" and stands 2995 meters above the lake and has a town at its base of the same name. Prior to climbing the volcano we had been warned to leave valuables in the hotel as robberies have occurred on the path up. As a side note, Guatemala has become pretty violent in the last few years with many hold-ups on the way to the lake, kidnappings for ransom and I recall a few years back that lynchings (especially towns dissatisfied with public officials) had become fairly common. Susie, one of the Posada de Santiago owners had just been robbed the month before of one quetzal. When she ran, her assailant chased her with a machete and hit her one the head. She required stitches but fortunately was OK. Putting it all into perspective though I don’t think crime here is any worse than what you would find in a big city.

Back to the volcano. We were told the ascent would take 3 hours and the descent a little less. There were no real plateaus however on the climb up and after only ten minutes or so it was clear that we would have trouble making it to the top. I have to admit though that Dana seemed to be enduring the climb better than I was. The ultimate insult was when the guide asked if I was a smoker! I felt like saying “No, but I play one when climbing up steep volcanoes”. Needless to say we did not make it all of the way up but it broke our lungs and legs in for future hikes.

EL PETÉN, GUATEMALA


After leaving Santiago we headed directly for Guatemala City to catch a 9pm bus to the far northern part of Guatemala called the Petén. Remote and lush, this lowland jungle area is home to the ruins of Tikal, one of the Maya’s greatest civilizations. Traveling by land to this area used to be long and difficult trek, but recent improvements in the road have made it possible to get there in 8 hours by bus. We learned another thing about bus traveling on this trip – that direct does not mean non-stop. Our bus made lots of stops (mainly to pick-up or drop off passengers). At one point, he actually backed up on the highway for about a ¼ of a mile to pick up a passenger he overshot. He would also have to get out from time to time to throw water from a jug onto the windshield. It would quickly soot up in the jungle night air to the point where it was like fog – and his windshield wipers did not work.

We arrived without incident at Sta. Elena, just outside the town of Flores, the capital of the Petén. From there we caught another bus to a village called Remate which would be our next stopover on the road to Tikal. Remate sits on Lake Petén Itzá and is the gateway into the Biological Reserve Cerro Cahi. We stayed at a place called the Gringo Perdido (Lost Gringo) 3km inside the park. We walked there most of the way from the turnoff at Remate and it seemed like a piece of cake compared to the volcano climb we had done just a few days before. There were no screens or glass in the windows but we did have bed nets to keep out the mosquitoes. That evening, we were the only patrons at the hotel so it seemed pretty lonely and quiet. We did have the night guard to protect us though. And he would have been well prepared to stop any intruder…if they happened by his hammock and were loud enough to wake him out of his slumber. Dana and I played cards that evening by lamp light (no electricity) and turned in early to prepare for our big day in Tikal.



May 1, 2003 - May 8, 2003 (Dana)

Ahh, the buses we’ve ridden... On one end of the spectrum there are the public buses.  These old buses are immediately recognizable by the personalized exterior paint jobs that Chris described a little earlier, as well as by the baskets of produce strapped to the top.  On the inside, they are overloaded with hot and sweaty passengers gazing out cracked windows and providing a captive audience to the blaring ranchero music, hanging stuffed animals and plastic cartoon characters, and words of love adorning the front of the bus in honor of the otherwise machismo driver's favorite women and Jesus.  On the other end of the spectrum are the luxury Mercedes buses with cushiony reclining chairs, air conditioning, movies and hostesses. Along this spectrum, the bus we are on right now is one of the worst. We are currently at the back of a long dark bus that is racing towards the Guatemala-Honduras border at speeds that are quite amazing. It’s like being in the speed tunnel portion of the old “people mover” ride at Disneyland, except the seats are uncomfortable, we feel the Gs when we fly around turns, and we’ve been listening to the same tape of 80s American songs for three hours. This driver’s picks are: Queen of Hearts; Eye of the Tiger; Girls Just Wanna Have Fun; Ghostbusters; Jungle Nights; Land Down Under; and Africa

This bus ride is just the latest in some great travel adventures over the last several days. To leave Santiago (covered in Chris' log) we caught a ride standing in the back of a pick-up truck. I used to think this was unusual, but now I’m a big fan. In rural areas, any pick-up truck that passes by is a potential taxi.  In addition to their convenience, these trucks provide a fun ride with natural air conditioning, and you can’t beat the price at about 12 cents a pop. After the pick-up truck, we boarded a boat to cross the lake. While waiting to leave, a second boat pulled along side and we were moved to that one. That second boat brought us to Panajachel on the opposite side of the lake, where we hailed a bicycle cab (a three-wheeled bicycle with a covered bench in front). The bicycle cab was another fun ride, though I don’t think it was so much fun for our driver who had to dismount the bike at times to push us and our heavy backpack up hills. But he cheerfully got us to the public bus that we then rode to Guatemala City, where we caught a red-eye private bus to Remate. The bus to Remate was supposed to be direct, which was desirable since Guatemalan buses are prone to robberies and this one was driving in the middle of the night, however we were awoken  by the bus stopping then going in reverse for a mile or so to go pick up additional people (friends of the driver?) who were passed by mistake. We arrived in Remate early in the morning around 5:30 a.m., at which time there were no cabs around.  But some Americans in a VW van picked us up and got us closer to our hotel, to which we ended up walking a couple miles being followed the whole time by a local kid on a bike trying to convince us to stay somewhere else. The next day we took a minivan to Tikal (which I’ll write about shortly). Then today, we took another minivan out of Tikal to Santa Elena where we purchased tickets for a 3pm bus ride to a town near the Honduran border. At 2:45pm, 15 minutes before the scheduled departure time, we found out that the bus left without us, even through the driver knew that we were supposed to be on his bus. We’d been hanging around the bus station for hours, our luggage was still there and we had just gone down the street to get ice cream, but none of that mattered. A shirtless man who overheard the problem said he knew of yet another minivan that was about to go the same direction as our bus went, and he rushed us to it. The minivan driver promised he’d catch up with our bus, so we got in. Fifteen minutes later, the 15-seat minivan had 22 people crammed into it which they finally decided was full enough to justify leaving. We figured there was about a 50/50 chance of catching up with our bus, especially since we kept stopping to drop people off and pick more up, but lo and behold, an hour or so later we caught up to our bus and made it on board to where we are now: on a hot, dirty, smelly, uncomfortable, speeding bus playing the same 80’s tunes over and over again. (Strangely though, the bus does have three small TVs mounted overhead on which there was a showing of Con-Air.)

Now that I’ve painting the not-so-pretty picture of where we are now, let me tell you about the truly amazing place where we were yesterday: Tikal.

In the heart of the jungle, tucked into the northern Petén region, are the ruins of Tikal - the largest of the ancient Maya cities in Mesoamerica.  The Maya began settling in Tikal around 600 B.C., and over the next 1500 years the area was an important religious and political center, inhabited by approximately 60,000 people at its peak in about 700 A.D..  Today, the ruins of Tikal include more than 3,000 structures extending over six square miles, dominated by five sky-scraper-like pyramids each around 200 feet tall.  It is a monumental site with a mysterious and spiritual atmosphere amidst a setting lush with greenery and teeming with wildlife.   Not surprisingly, Tikal attracts archeologists, naturalists and visitors from all over the world. 

For our visit, we planned to spend one and one-half days exploring Tikal.  I would have been excited even if there were no ruins at all, the jungle alone being enough enticement for me.  Along with the many vegetation species, the area is home to an abundance of wildlife, including howler and spider monkeys, anteaters, jaguars, foxes, ocelots, parrots, toucans and macaws.  After entering the park, we could hear the howler monkeys and parrots beckoning to us.  But first, went to one of the three hotels there to settle in.  We picked the Jaguar Inn, consisting of 9 bungalows, a good restaurant, and even a separate area where you can rent one of a few net-covered hammocks for the night - it was that warm.  We opted for a bungalow, and did not waste much time before starting off on one of the paths to the ruins. 

As we walked through the jungle, catching glimpses of monkeys and stepping around jungle vines, Chris read from the Tikal guide we bought so we could learn something about the ruins we would see.  (You'll find him reading in most the photos in the Tikal gallery.)  The sites we were visiting included temples, palaces and plazas making up the ceremonial centre of Tikal.  Although there was much to read about these structures, the historical facts were shrouded in mystery.  How was Tikal built?  How were the various buildings used?  What caused the sudden collapse of this great city and its people around 900 A.D.?  There are theories, but very little is known.  Whatever the reasons behind the abandonment of the site, the jungle quickly reclaimed it, leaving only huge tree-covered mounds hinting at something underneath them.  The ruins of Tikal were officially discovered in 1848, and the excavations of the majority of temples and palaces were carried out in 1956-68.  Most of the structures (about 70%), however, are still buried beneath the tree-covered mounds.  It added to the mystery to see for ourselves how those mounds had grown up around the structures as if purposefully to conceal them.  But what were even more impressive, of course, were the structures that had been uncovered.  At the heart of Tikal is the Gran Plaza, a large courtyard surrounded by stelae and sculpted altars, sprawling stone ceremonial buildings and palaces, and flanked at each end by two of the great temples, all of which we were surprisingly free to touch and explore.  One of the two temples flanking Gran Plaza is Temple I, which, with its impressive proportions, is the poster-child of Tikal. But what impressed us even more was Temple IV, the tallest structure in Tikal and the tallest of any Pre-Columbian building, standing somewhere between 212 and 230 feet (depending whom you ask).   On the backside of Temple IV is a steep staircase that we climbed up.  Upon reaching the top, we were awed by a spectacular view looking down on the thick jungle canopy with pyramids towering majestically above it in the distance.  Wow.    

In addition to exploring the ruins and taking in the views, we spotted monkeys, vultures, parrots, a couple toucans and a coatimundi.  Tikal was one of the most awe-inspiring and enjoyable places either of us has ever been, and we are pleased that we added it to our tour.  But once again, the tour must go on -- next stop, Honduras.

A bus or two after leaving Tikal, we stopped in Esquipulas before crossing into Honduras. The town of Esquipulas is said to be the religious Mecca of Central America, and many faithful Christians come to pay their respects to the infamous Cristo Negro (Black Christ) housed in the church there. The closest I got to seeing it (Chris had seen it before) was looking at a photo, since we felt more like resting up there than playing tourists.  After a brief overnight, we crossed the border and hopped on another bus

 

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