#32—Guatemala, Central America
Puerto Madero, Mexico, to Guatemala.
Friday morning the 2nd, anchored in Puerto Madero, Sam and Andy came through for us again. One of our aluminum dinghy oars had snapped in half while anchored in Puerto Angel, when the stern anchor line slipped underneath it and snapped it in two. When we described the problem, Andy seized the two-piece oar and returned an hour later with the two pieces made whole via a wooden insert and several sheet metal screws. Although slightly shorter in length than the original, it was now much stronger than it had ever been. We probably should have broken the other oar so that they could have fixed that one as well.
With repaired oar in hand, we departed Puerto Madero, Mexico, in the afternoon for Central America. We immensely enjoyed the last six months we spent cruising in Mexico, but also looked forward to new sights and scenes in Central America. With no wind, we motored throughout the afternoon and evening, with very calm seas.
6:00 on Saturday morning we passed by Puerto Quetzal in Guatemala. Just as dawn broke over the horizon a blue haze slowly lifted to reveal a coastline framed by three volcanoes. The mystical setting piqued our curiosity, and we decided to make a stop and explore.
Puerto Quetzal is Guatemala's main port on the Pacific Coast. Bordered by Mexico on the north and west, Belize to the east, and El Salvador and Honduras to the southeast, Guatemala is Central America's third-largest country.
Guatemala is most recently remembered for its civil war, which began in 1960 and ended only recently with a peace accord signed by the government and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity, a coalition of rebel groups. The treaty was signed on December 29, 1996. Key reasons behind Guatemala's civil war were primarily human rights abuses by the military regimes which dominated the country's government, social policy, and economy since 1954. The settlement agreement requires the disbandment of all guerilla forces, recognizing the differences and rights of Guatemala's indigenous populations, new social programs, and reorganization and downsizing of the military.
Guatemala's people and culture represent a unique blend of a strong Spanish colonial heritage and Native Americans, predominately Mayans. People of mixed European and indigenous ancestry, called mesitizos or ladinos, represent about 50% of the population. Ladinos live primarily in urban areas. The Mayan people, who live in the rural mountainous areas of Guatemala, continue to speak their own language—although there are 20 different dialects—and practice their own traditional religious and village customs. The two cultures produce complexly different social values, education, and economics, which serve to divide the country.
The anchorage in Puerto Quetzal actually lies inside the Navy Base. Consequently, any boat anchoring there receives de facto protection from the Guatemalan Navy. Cruisers also can use the officer's club and swimming pool, for a small fee.
Saturday June 3rd we anchored in about four fathoms at 9:00 a.m., and hoisted our yellow quarantine flag on the port flag halyard, signaling that we had just arrived and needed to be cleared into Guatemala. We also called the port captain's office and requested a visit by immigration. Three hours later a launch pulled up and three people boarded—one from immigration, and two from the Navy Base.
Roberto, an immigration officer, efficiently reviewed our documents and stamped our passports. The cost for checking in and anchoring was $150 US. This included five days anchoring, plus all port and immigration fees. The Navy guys had no interest in inspecting the boat. But they were interested in the boat's length, where it was built, how long I have owned it, and similar questions.
After the official duties were completed, we asked Roberto for his recommendation about places to visit. After thinking for a moment, Roberto said that he had a friend who owned a taxi and might be available to act as our guide for the next several days. We agreed to meet him and his friend, Mike, at the officer's club swimming pool around 16:00.
Roberto and Mike arrived at the officer's club with a four day, three night itinerary planned. Our cost for Mike and his taxi, gas, meals, and hotel was $100 per day—very reasonable by US standards. In addition, Mike would take us to places that we would probably never otherwise see. And he spoke some English, having worked for two years in New York City before US Immigration deported him back to Guatemala. We agreed to meet Mike at 9:00 Sunday morning.
Amatitlan and Antigua
The next morning, Sunday, June 4th, at 8:50, we walked past the armed gate at the entrance of the Navy Base and felt extremely secure in knowing that Andanté was safely protected by armed guard.
We waited and waited. At 9:40 we suspected that something was wrong, and started to discuss alternate travel plans. But Mike didn't impress me as the kind of person who would stand us up. I asked a man, standing at the nearby bus stop, what time it was. 7:40, he responded. What? I walked around the corner to the entrance gate at the naval station and asked the officer on duty for the time. 7:40, he responded.
It appeared that when immigration checked us in the previous day, a communication breakdown occurred due to the Spanish-English language translation. Somehow our watches got set two hours earlier, even after we asked for confirmation of the time after resetting them. We were out standing in front of the naval base waiting for Mike's taxi two hours early. Once we had the correct time zone straightened out, we waited patiently, for another hour and twenty minutes, until Mike arrived at 9:00, right on time. We all thought about how nice it would have been to sleep in for an extra two hours, instead of standing in the hot sun.
Mike first drove us to Amatitlan, a small lakeside town inland from the coast. Because it was Sunday, families walked the streets, which were lined with stands selling homemade confections. Dan bought a brightly orange colored bar that consisted of orange, coconut, and a lot of sugar.
Our next stop was Antigua, positioned at the base of the dormant volcano Agua (12,388 ft). The city was created in 1542 after the nearby town of Ciudad Vieja was destroyed in a flood. Antigua was the seat of the military governor of the Spanish colony of Guatemala for over 200 years. The Spanish colony of Guatemala included almost all of Central America. Antigua is a market town for the local population, and offers antiques, crafts, and jade for travelers and nearby Guatemala City. After an earthquake almost completely destroyed Antigua in 1773, Guatemala City was founded as the new capital.
We visited Hotel Casa Santo Domingo—an old monastery converted into a luxury hotel. The price of rooms range from $65 for a single to $272 for the presidential suite. Incredibly beautiful grounds, coupled with Guatemalan hospitality, would make this a wonderful stop if you're looking for a place to stay in Antigua.
During the afternoon that we visited, an elaborate Guatemalan wedding filled the open-air courtyard. Based on the sequence, format, and music, the wedding could have been held anywhere in the US. The only difference was lingual.
Later in the early evening, as dusk fell, Mike drove us out in the countryside to Valhalla, an experimental botanical station, with 400 varieties of Macadamia trees, run by Lorenzo (Larry) and Emilia Gottschamer. By experimenting with various genetic strains over the past 20 years they have achieved their goal of sustainable agriculture—high quality, high yield trees that can reproduce themselves without grafting.
The Macadamia tree, we learned, converts up to 63 cubic feet of carbon dioxide to oxygen every day, and sends 50 gallons of water vapor into the atmosphere. Macadamia nut oil, however, is used by cosmetic companies as the key ingredient in all anti-aging creams. But these products are heavily watered-down. At Valhalla you can purchase 100% pure Macadamia oil and cream. Lorenzo's Macadamia oil is pressed by 20 tons of hydraulic pressure, and then filtered to remove all water and impurities.
You can also sample gourmet Macadamia nut dark and light chocolates, as well as Macadamia nut butter.
While the achievements at Valhalla are impressive, they seem insignificant to Larry's stories about being a firefighter in San Francisco.
Iximche—Mayan Archeological Site
Monday, June 5th, we visited the ancient Mayan archeological ruins of Iximche. Based on a miniature reconstruction in the adjacent museum, Iximche appeared to be a fairly large city in its day; housing thousands of Mayan inhabitants. Today, Iximche is tranquil and peaceful, devoid of the tour guides and vendors that crowd larger more popular sites. Few people seem to be aware of its existence. No signs lead the way. Mike, our driver, had to repeatedly ask for directions while winding his way through the nearby village.
The calm and peacefulness of the grounds provide an almost mystical tranquility—appropriate for contemplating what Mayan civilization must have been like over 1000 years ago. Originally thought to be a peaceful people, archeologists have now changed their opinions about the Mayans. Mayan people were combative and warring, often seeking royalty from neighboring cities for human sacrifices.
An accidental discovery provided an interesting link between the past and today. I walked the length of the site and found myself in a grass field at the back of the ruins. I noticed several people walking toward me from the wooded area directly behind the field, however.
I walked forward to investigate, and, from a distance, saw what I initially thought was a backpacker camp site: smoke rising from a flat area with what appeared to be brightly colored nylon tents. Closer inspection, however, revealed a contemporary, sacred, Mayan offering site. Positioned in front of yet-to-be excavated ruins were piles of offerings. What I thought were brightly colored nylon tents turned out to be bouquets of yellow flowers. In addition to flowers, Mayans heaped the ground with whole bananas, slices of watermelon, and even two geese. The smoke that initially appeared to be a campfire turned out to be smoke from burnt offerings, and, I think, incense. A large section of ground in front of the offerings was charred black and gray. The only sound came from flies buzzing around the decay.
My discovery made my visit to Iximche even more mystical. I wondered what the contemporary Mayans, who made these offerings, thought about the site, and their ancestors. And I marveled at the continuity of these ancient people.
Panajachel and Santiago Atitlán
Monday evening we drove north through Guatemala's mountainous countryside to Panajachel at the base of Lake Atitlán, which has been described as one of the most picturesque lakes in Central America. Sixteen miles long, and 11 miles wide, Lake Atitlán fills the enormous crater of an extinct volcano.
The inactive Atitlán volcano—with an altitude of 11,604 feet—frames the southern end of the lake.
The hotel accommodations in Atitlán ranged from Spartan, at about $10 per night, to expensive, at $110+ per night. After investigating five different hotels, we discovered Hotel Dos Mundos—comfortable and clean, with swimming pool and breakfast included, for a mere $34 per night for a double.
Tuesday morning, June 6th, we negotiated with several entrepreneurial young Panajachelians for a boat ride across the lake to Santiago Atitlán—a Mayan town offering arts and crafts, as well as significant indigenous culture. Santiago Atitlán is also important in recent Guatemalan history because of a military massacre of Indians there on December 2nd, 1990. The Atitlán massacre was instrumental in United States' decision to cut off military aid to Guatemala because of the country's extremely weak record regarding human rights.
Today Santiago Atitlán retains the core of an active and authentic Mayan town. But vendors aggressively call out to introduce their wares, and young children follow you constantly with beaded bracelets and plastic pens.
Even in shops that look uninteresting and predictable, a discriminating eye can find unique treasures. Amid the hundreds of crafts that look very much the same we found some amazingly beautiful Guatemalan textiles, pottery, and wood carvings.
Never pay retail. Bargaining is an art in Central America. If you're interested in something, don't show it. The price goes up. And they're very good at reading body language. The best approach is to negotiate, and then walk away. You will be pursued with a better offer.
National Geographic quality photos lie in wait around every corner. But beware: capitalism has conditioned most people to ask for money—usually a quetzal—if you ask permission to take a photo. Some photos are worth a quetzal. Most are not. One lady showed me a small coin to communicate her availability for modeling in exchange for payment. When I took the photo and produced the same coin that she originally showed me, the price went up to a quetzal. Candid photos are difficult to shoot, because people will often shield their faces from your camera.
Olmec Carvings in Democracia; Return to Puerto Quetzal
Wednesday morning, June 7th, after even more shopping in Panajachel, we climbed into Mike's taxi for the return drive to Puerto Quetzal. Along the way we stopped in Democracia where this small town's central park displayed large Olmec carvings of people and faces. An Olmec museum across the street from the park promised more detail, but it was closed when we arrived Wednesday afternoon.
Access and Resources
Hotel Casa Santo Domingo is an old monastery located in Antigua. You can make reservations via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Valhalla Macadamia Farm. To sample some wonderful macadamia products, and hear Lorenzo's fantastic stories about firefighting in San Francisco, stop by Valhalla on the outskirts of Antigua. It's open 7:00 - 17:00 Monday through Sunday. Take the bus out of Antigua, past the Radisson Hotel, toward San Miguel. Ask the driver to drop you off at Valhalla. Contact Emilia Aguirre, Natural Cosmetics Apartado postal 268, Antigua Sac. Guatemala, C.A. Telfax: (502) 831-5799.
Hotel Dos Mundos in Atitlán—comfortable and clean, with swimming pool and breakfast included, for a mere $34 per night for a double. Located on Calle Santander 4-72, Zona 2. Telephone: (502) 762-2078.
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