Sunday March 9, 2014
Bellies bulging with Belize barbeque, we headed for Guatemala and the first of what we had come to anticipate as “the dreaded Central American border crossings.” Certain borders around the world are infamous for dingy, clapped out government shacks, power-bloated brainless officials, absurd bureaucratic regulations, and wild goose chases to procure documents that make no sense at all. From what we had heard, the crossings between Central American countries were among the worse, taking anywhere from two hours to an entire day.
Exiting Belize was no problem at all. A quick stop at immigration to exit stamp our passports, a second stop at customs to cancel Charlotte’s vehicle permit, and we were out. We had hidden Vaca Muerta on the roof to avoid the problems of confiscation like we had in Belize and were ready to enter our next country. Well armed with information from fellow travelers who had gone before us and plenty of photocopies of our travel documents, we confidently drove through the “no man’s land” between countries and advanced to our first task…fumigation. Just like in Belize, Charlotte had to be bug sprayed. Unlike Belize, however, we had to drive her through a “car wash” where scary chemicals were spewed at her instead of soap and water, and we got to watch with horror from inside. Our second task was to drive to a dingy shack to pay for the privilege of being poisoned.
Next we had to obtain our visas, and we had heard that although most people are unscrupulously charged 20 quetzales (about 3 bucks) per person, the visas should actually be free. At the immigration window, the surly woman relieved us of 20 quetzales each. We thought about arguing for a moment, but really, they have all the cookies, don’t they? We just wanted to get into Guatemala and continue our trip!
The weather was hot and muggy and crowds of people milled around. Some, like us, were crossing the borders, while others were hawking either money exchange or “fixer” services. Fixers are people who, for a charge, will guide you through the sometimes complicated process of getting through the red-tape snarls of exiting and entering different countries.
We accepted the money exchange service, but turned down the fixers. We did welcome their friendly help, however, in pointing out the customs building where we needed to obtain Charlotte’s permit.
The middle aged man at the counter in the stuffy customs building was mildly friendly with an edge of sarcasm, and it was all going just fine until he asked for a copy of Ned’s newly stamped passport. We had copies of everything else, but how were you supposed to have a copy of something that just occurred? Well, just like at the Ferry in Mexico, there was another building where you could get copies…except it was Sunday and they were closed. We asked if he could waive this requirement since there was no way to get the copy, and with a little smirk he told us to take a taxi into town. We then proceeded to argue with him. Big mistake. Stone wall. We hailed a cabbie and were driven into the dirty border town of Mencos. The first place was closed, and the copier was broken at the second. Sweating profusely in the non air conditioned taxi, we arrived at the third shop where we made the irksome copy.
Victoriously waiving our photocopy, we approached the counter, grateful that no one else was in line. “Stone-wall” however, turned away from us and made a big show of watching the soccer game on the big screen TV behind him (the only modern item in the whole place). Like I said, they have all the cookies. It never pays to argue with border officials. 25 minutes later he completed three minutes of paperwork. We took our vehicle permit, got in Charlotte and slunk away thinking that at least it was all over. Unfortunately, it was not. There was still one more bridge to cross…literally.
We remembered reading about this bridge which was infamous for toll takers taking way more than the actual toll and pocketing the rest. The actual fee was supposed to be 10 quetzales (about $1.50) but some people reported being charged anywhere from 20 to 40. Granted, we are obviously not talking about a lot of money, but the feeling of being taken advantage of is never fun. We were also still raw from the whipping we took getting in the door, so our incensed reaction when the woman asked for 50q’s was not too surprising. We huffed and puffed and said we wouldn’t pay that much. She threatened to call the police, and we said, “Yes, please call the police! In the meantime, we were blocking traffic, so we pulled over and began asking the locals how much they had to pay. Some said they lived here, so did not have to pay anything. Others said they paid the 10. Through it all, the expression on the woman’s face did not change. Not one muscle. She made old Stone Wall look quite animated.
In the end, we gave up. We paid the 50 quetzales and drove away feeling dispirited. But really, there was no use arguing. It was not worth the slim possibility of having the police after you in a foreign country to scoot off without paying. And besides, the six extra bucks meant practically nothing to us, whereas, here in Guatemala, it would go a long way toward feeding a family.
Charlotte’s chemical bath house.
One of the hawkers was this kid selling bottles of whisky.
As evening was settling in, we came into the quiet little town of Poptún. The higher elevation brought relief from the heat, and we found a nice restaurant for dinner. The manager/chef was a young man named Adrian who was born in Guatemala, but raised in Boston. He had recently moved back to Guatemala to help his elderly father on the family farm. Adrian had worked for Texas Roadhouse in Boston as a chef, and was trying to revive the restaurant which was owned by a lovely woman named Iris. Adrian was as bold and entertaining as Iris was warm and quiet. They graciously allowed us to camp in the enclosed backyard where we gratefully spent a peaceful night.
This sweet gentleman came begging money while we were eating dinner. Guatemala, like the rest of Central America had been war torn for years and is much poorer than Mexico. We would find a reoccurring theme of begging and being over charged.
After breakfast at Adrian and Iris’ restaurant, we hit the road and headed southeast finding ourselves on a very rough, remote dirt road through mountainous jungles and tiny villages. We have always made a habit of removing our sunglasses and waving at the local people as we drive by and had become used to the big welcoming smiles of the Belizeans and Mexicans.
Some of the Guatemala people were friendly, some gave us dirty looks, while others, like this family were just plain wary. In most of Guatemala, we found that the women wore lovely woven clothing. In each local area, however they had slightly different ways of wearing their skirts and tops. The clothing was all somewhat colorful but, like the people, a bit more subdued than in Mexico. We tried to hand out “dulces” to the kids, but received only blank stares. We were puzzled, and I finally got out and asked one of the young mothers, showing her the candy. She told me that they call them bon-bons. We revised our language and had plenty of takers!
This was a very poor area, but oddly, nearly all of the dirt-floored houses had satellite dishes.
Boys on the loose.
Water Buffalo on the loose.
Pigs on the loose…looks like these guys are running away from being dinner!
We drove through the slightly seedy town of Sebol, and at 4:00, we were stopped by a construction road block. The worker said the road would open at 6:00 or 7:00. Evidently the problem was a big rock slide, and they had been working on it for a month. We were in a tiny village with a shack “tienda” (store). I decided that if we were going to have to hang out there for the duration we should make friends, but it was not to be.
I got out and found that they had beer but no refrigeration. I then went to give my tire tread sandals away since they didn’t fit that well. I asked if anyone could use them. First the women asked if it was a gift, and I said “Of course” (again, the cynical money side of Guatemala; everyone with their hand out). Then they thought the sandals were funny. I noticed all of the women had croc-like sandals, the ones charities give away in villages like these. I guess there was not as big a need for shoes here.
The women giggled as they handed my poor sandals around. I explained that they were hand made in Mascota Mexico. They seemed curious, but not very impressed.
We made the mistake of handing out bon bons. The kids took the candy, but still, no one was very friendly. I went back to sit in Charlotte with Ned, and the kids began begging more and more bon-bons. I decided to teach them to count 1-5 in English in exchange for bon-bons, and they seemed eager to learn (or they wanted more candy!) Three teenagers arrived at the tienda, looking kind of bad-ass. Uh oh, not great. One peeled off and arrived at my window with the now infamous Mexico sandals. He turned out to be the best of the bunch. His name was Gorge and he was truly curious about the shoes and where they came from and was impressed that I had watched the woman making them. We chatted for a while and I found out that the teenagers do learn some English, but the younger ones do not. Gorge said their Native language was Quiché (pronounced key-chay). He, like so many would love to come to US. When Gorge left, the younger kids started becoming a real nuisance, yelling for more bon-bons and hanging on my door. I closed the window, locked the doors and crawled in back to read. The road did not open until 10pm. Then it was like a race start, with everyone jockeying to get out of there. We let all the crazies go and navigated the final five miles of torn up dirt road in the pitch dark, blessedly alone.
Our destination had been to the semi-famous pools at Semuc Champey, but we did not get to Languin, a town outside Semuc until 11:30 that night. We spotted a rustic hotel, but it looked dark and closed up. We idled outside for a minute, and a kind man came and let us in the gate to sleep in the parking lot. He even invited us to swim in this lovely pool…eeek!
We passed another quiet night and had breakfast at the hotel. Heading to the pools, we dropped about 4,000 vertical feet to get to the river.
The pools at Semuc Champey are remote! We drove for miles on a rough dirt road and found ourselves deep in the heart of the Guatemala jungle wilderness. It was hot and humid, and the pools looked very inviting.
But we decided to hike up to the lookout first.
We had sweat off all of our bug spray by the time we got to the top, but the view was worth it. The pools were gorgeous.
This guy hid in the foliage and entertained himself by watching sweaty humans struggle through the hour long hike.
Ahhh, finally, swimming in the pools was amazing. Beautiful cool, clear, water and lovely little cascades in a wild jungle setting.
Charlotte does not have air conditioning, so we always appreciate moments of reprieve as we drive back up into elevation and cooler temperatures.
On the paved roads again…this was one of three tour bus drivers we saw crashed out at this gas station, waiting for their tour-ees to finish touring.
We continued southeast to the city of Coban which was big and semi-modern. We loved these counting down street lights!
Later, the suburbs came as a total surprise. They were very modern, and, being evening, we passed dozens of people out jogging of all things! We hadn’t seen anything like that since we left home. It was as if someone flipped a switch and we were transported somewhere else.
We found a beautiful restaurant/hotel in Santa Cruz Verapaz. The wait staff was very friendly, and, when asked, eagerly said we could camp in the parking lot…another great camping score! We were missing our remote, hiding in the back country camping, but so far, there just wasn’t anywhere appropriate. There was either populated farmland or steep, rocky, inaccessible jungle.
We met the owner, Roberto and his girlfriend Cinthia. Roberto was very intense, but warm hearted, and we had a good time eating his great food and visiting.
The busses of Guatemala seemed to be the most colorful and vivacious enterprise in the entire country. Privately owned with lots of competition, each one strove to out-decorate and out-drive the others. Charlotte had to be on her toes to avoid being run down by these flashy demons of the highways.
Guatemala, like much of Mexico was part of the Mayan empire, giving it its rich cultural heritage and native costumes. Later becoming a Spanish colony, Guatemala gained its independence in 1821. Like most of the Central American region, a series of democracies and dictatorships left the country with political unrest, and years of civil war have left deep physical and mental scars.
In 1996, the civil wars ended, and the government has been stable, becoming a representative democracy. Since then the county has seen both economic growth and successful democratic elections. Interestingly, however, there are about thirteen different political parties ceaselessly vying for power. The effect is a staggering amount of advertising in the form of hand painting and stenciling on the landscape. Absolutely nothing is sacred and every available surface is used to dizzying effect. Power polls, guard rails, trees, rocks, houses, curbs, anything they can slap paint on sport the colors of one or multiple parties. For us it became visually noisy and irritating, like being politically badgered, and our photos do not do justice to the amount of paint we saw. The countryside would have been quite pretty, but the constant mental input was too distracting.
We found out later, that painting the countryside for political advertising is illegal, but the fine is only $100, so they continue to do it. I don’t know what these parties stand for, but just for fun, here are few we were able to discern (some of you may be curious enough to Google them!):
Red and white: Lider (the obvious leader at the moment and winner of The Most Paint Used contest)
Continuing ever southward, our destination was now Lago de Atitlán which we had heard was quite nice. We found ourselves on another rough dirt road and wound our way sinuously along in first and second gear for about 50 miles. After three hours, the road turned to pavement but was full of pot holes and still steep and windy, so we continued to creep along in low, slow gears.
We finally arrived at a town called Chichicastenango which was supposed to be very colorful with a good market full of local weaving and textiles. We found parking, and took a stroll through the market. We normally love markets and town centers with their energy, beautiful churches and colorful displays, but this one had a bad vibe. It was dirty, and the people were more reserved. It actually felt kind of depressing. The church had ear splitting music playing, but it sounded creepy, like a cross between a 3rd world military march and a dirge. We took some interesting photos and got out of there.
This 12 year old boy was chopping up rock-hard coconuts so fast we were amazed that he still had all of his fingers.
After 200 miles and 8 long hours on rough roads, we arrived at Lago de Atitlán.
The lake was touristy, but very pretty with a stunning backdrop of dueling volcanoes. We found a hostel that let us camp in the parking lot, had a nice dinner and crawled in Charlotte for a good night’s rest. We were feeling rushed to get to Antigua, so we only stayed one night and did not do any hiking.
Volcano framed by the Arch of the Convento de Santa Catalina.
This is the famous picture everyone takes when they come to Antigua, Guatemala, so Ned had to take one too. The shot was featured on nearly every Guatemala map and tourist poster we saw.
A beautiful colonial city, Antigua was full of churches, tourists and Spanish language schools. Many people come here for weeks or months to do immersion training in Spanish.
This shop was one of the best we had ever seen. It was an immense warehouse full of colorful, local artisan goods.
On my way to pick up laundry, I spotted a sign for Salsa dancing lessons…I can be a bit of a dancing dork, but Gloria was delightfully fun and very patient. I don’t remember a thing I learned, but I had a blast!
Over the last 3 months of travel, we have seen many women carrying a myriad of things on their head. The ones that are able, pride themselves on balancing heavy loads without using their hands. I missed the photo shot, but saw one woman carrying a full sized cooler without holding on!
No local garb here…
Wait, that’s me! A great way to carry the laundry back and good for the posture! Couldn’t do it sans hands, though.
Night time in the main plaza of Antigua was beautiful and entertaining.
At 9:30am on Saturday March 15th, we left Antigua and headed south toward the El Salvador border. Along the way we drove through the town of Santa Maria de Jesus. We were charmed by this scene of women washing clothes in community troughs, but it was the filthiest town we had seen yet. The wash water was murky, and garbage plastered the streets. In most towns and villages there is usually some evidence of pride in the community, but this one had none. I had to ask myself why, but had no answer. Had we stopped, we might have found out, but we were disinclined to do so.
Santa Maria had puzzlingly good concrete roads, not asphalt. They were disgustingly dirty, but the surface was great. Then abruptly, just out of town, we drove onto the roughest, rockiest dirt road of the whole trip. It was slow going and lined with garbage for the entire eleven miles to Palin where we hoped to pick up a good Autopista
The track was literally paved with trash. Thinking about it, it is obvious that it takes money to have clean roads and cities. Everyone generates trash, and something has to be done with the smelly stuff. We take it for granted that every week the nice garbage truck will show up at our curb and rid us of the unsavory residue of our day to day lives. But what if we couldn’t afford garbage pick-up? Or our town was too poor to provide it? Probably, we would do as these people do and dump it wherever we could.
We passed several disgusting dump sites with smoldering garbage. Pitiful dogs rummaged throughout. We got the bug zapper out to kill the disease ridden flies, but the ones we picked up quickly fled back to their dumps. Back in Belize, Emily had told us Charlotte smelled like a pet shop (what, really??). I guess our three-month-lived-in-bus was not quite savory enough for these flies!
See if you can spot the dog…actually he was very sickly and sad.
Palin was trashy too. The smoldering garbage lined road passed right under the good Autopista, but there was no way on to it. We had to navigate our way through the crowded, grimy city.
The toll road cost $2 and was well worth it this time. We went from the worse road in Guatemala to the best! We found it odd, but entertaining that the left lane was painted with a speed limit of 80kph (48mph), while the right lane was marked 60 (36mph). We took our chances and sped Charlotte along at her cruising speed of 65mph, heading for the border crossing into El Salvador.
In our rush to get to Costa Rica, it took us only one week to cross Guatemala. In all fairness, that might not have been enough time to do it justice, but overall we found the country subdued and money-hungry. Our meals were pricey and uninteresting (note, no food photos). Aside from the two restaurant owners, we had no close encounters, and that alone left us feeling a bit flat.
Traveling is always fascinating, but we simply couldn’t help comparing …had that road block happened in Mexico, it would have been a big party, and we would have left with tearful goodbyes and hugs for everyone!