We’ve just returned to the boat after taking our first inland trip in two years of cruising. We went into Guatemala for two weeks of Spanish classes in Antigua, and took some short trips from there. Originally we had planned to take a weeklong road trip after classes ended but we were both ready to get back to the boat, and I was even more anxious after having been gone for two weeks to Seattle immediately prior to this inland trip.
Antigua was a great little town and we enjoyed it immensely. The Lonely Planet guide says “Antigua is almost impossibly cute … cobbled streets, mustard and ochre-colored houses with colonial fittings, the leafy central park… Some people love it, some people hate it, but you’d be silly to miss it.” We’re definitely in the “love it” group. The fascinating thing to me about Antigua is that all the blocks are completely walled in. There are doorways everywhere that open into hotels, restaurants, homes and shops, most of which have lovely little courtyards. I was always curious about what was behind the door as we passed by. From above you can see what look like jumbles of disorganized walls, roofs and gardens inside each block. There were also church ruins all around the city, which was leveled by an intense earthquake in 1773. Prior to that earthquake Antigua had been the capital, but it was moved to Guatemala City afterwards. There was also another earthquake in 1976 and you can see in the ruins relatively new damage from the latest “terremoto”.
We studied Spanish with private instructors for four hours every day and spent several hours daily doing our tarea (homework) and memorizing new words in the park or in a courtyard cafe. We chose not to do a homestay with a Guatemalan family, and instead found a lovely little hotel that had shared kitchen facilities where we cooked breakfast and lunches. That left us evenings to explore and enjoy the many restaurants and bars in Antigua. The town definitely caters to tourists, most of which this time of year are from Australia, Central America and Europe. I would highly recommend Antigua to anyone traveling in Central America. The people couldn’t have been more friendly and the climate is absolutely perfect – it claims to be the land of eternal spring.
One afternoon we went on a tour to a live volcano about 2 hours from Antigua (Volcan Pacaya). We were in a van with about ten other people, none of whom were American and all of whom were about 20 years younger than us. It was an absolutely grueling climb up from the van to the crater, at about 8,000 feet where I’m not used to traveling after so many years at sea level. But the rewards were plenty. I’ve never stood and watched volcanic lava flow right in front of me before. It was hot as the dickens in there, but really fascinating. The most interesting thing to me was the contrast of the area around that volcano to the area around Mount St. Helens at home, where nearly 30 years after the eruption little has grown back. At Pacaya there were flows of cooled lava right through lush green treed high mountain meadows. Listening to the rumble of the volcano was a bit intimidating, espcially since the Lonely Planet warns that people do die when it erupts unexpectedly. But it was fun to see.
Another trip we took was in a van to the mountain village of Chichicastenango (tenango is Mayan for town). There is a huge Mayan market there on Sundays that is great fun. We had our stack of Quetzales (the Guatemalan currency, not the bird) and were ready to bargain. The market was noisy, crowded and exciting, and ended up being as much fun just sitting above watching during lunch as it was shopping. We found some beautiful treasures, but did pass on buying any live chicks for the boat. The most amusing sight was the huge basket a Mayan man carried on his back with a larget net holding live turkeys inside. The turkey heads were bobbing high above the crowd as he pushed his way through. A few hours was definitely enough and we were glad to have the van driver take us back to Antigua afterwards.
Our last trip was up to the ruins at Tikal, which is on a low lying hill in the lowland jungles of northern Guatemala. We took a first class bus out of Guatemala City overnight on Friday after our last day of school. Riding the buses in Central America is easy, comfortable and cheap. And overnighting on the bus worked out great – it was definitely more comfortable than flying a red-eye, just a little noisier and bumpier, but we slept great! We arrived in the town of Flores early Saturday morning and decided to rent a car for our two day stay. I had a room reserved at the Jungle Lodge Hotel, which was out of town inside the National Park boundaries, so it was easier than arranging shuttle trips back and forth.
The Jungle Lodge was fun to stay at, and a nice splurge after being at the little local place in Antigua for two weeks. It has duplex bungalows and was originally built for the archaelogists who were unearthing the ruins. We were hanging out in the pool to escape the opressive 104 degree heat after visiting the ruins on Saturday and could watch the spider monkeys in the trees nearby and hear the impressive sounding howler monkeys in the distance. A very cool spot for the last night of our trip.
The ruins of Tikal are fascinating. The Mayans built an amazing and impressive city beginning as far back as about 600 BC, with building conuining steadily for nearly 1,100 years. The building was all accomplished without the use of any metal tools or beasts of burden. The park consists of 6 square miles containing over 3,000 structures, only about 20% of which have been completely unearthed. As you walk among the ruins you see excavated temples and buildings alongside mounds of dirt that contain ruins yet to be cleared. The main temples tower nearly 200 feet (20 stories) overhead, and are made of limestone blocks sealed with a mixture of tree sap and limestone to preserve them.
One of the many fascinating facts about the Mayans is that they created a perpetual calendar and most ruins can be accuratley dated using glyphs and radiocarbon dating from some wood beams. Another sad fact is that there is no other written history about the culture; what little writings and glyphs they do have has not yet been understood and no “Rosetta Stone” is known to exist at this time. The biggest mystery is why Tikal was completely abandoned and never repopulated, and what caused essentially the collapse of Mayan civilization in the lowlands around 900 AD.
The guidebooks and tour guides suggest you should see Tikal at sunrise “as the Mayans did in their time”. Of course we bit into this idea and set the alarm for 4:15 so we could get into the park before sunrise and for, as they suggest, some quiet and meditation. Unsurprisingly, they sold this idea to another 150 people. So it became a sprint across the park and a hike to the top of Temple IV (remember that 20 flights up) in a crowd. But listening to the howler monkeys in the trees as we passed by in the dark was pretty impressive. And truly, watching the sunrise above the jungle was a beautiful sight.
Later on Sunday we turned in the rental car and toured around Flores and found dinner in the 100+ degree heat where there was not even a tiny whisper of wind. We pretty much just sat on a terrace and watched each other drip for a couple of hours waiting for the time when the bus left. Again we went in a first class bus for an overnighter into Guatemala City. We arrived there 8 hours later and took a cab to the other bus company for a bus to San Salvador, which was leaving in 45 minutes. Another 4 hours later we caught a last cab to the local bus station in San Salvador, where a chicken bus to Costa del Sol left 2 minutes after we got on. Two hours later we were opening up the boat after an amazing trip of 700 or so mountainous miles by bus in 16 hours.
Now we’re getting ready to leave El Salvador after a wonderful 6 weeks here in Bahia Jaltepeque. We’ll head down to Costa Rica for a short stay where we’ll refuel and wait for a decent weather window for our passage to Ecuador. What I think I know is that as summer arrives the ITCZ (intertropical convergence zone) moves north and we end up in the southeasterly trade winds for longer of this trip than we’d like. It’ll be a bit of wind on the nose, but it’s less than 600 miles so we should be able to motorsail a bit if we have to. After the summer rainy season is over in Central America we’ll return to cruise Costa Rica and the Pacific side of Panama.
Today on Yohelah we’re re-acclimating to the heat and are very very happy to be home after our first wonderful inland trip……
Chichicastenango is here