I arrived in Guatemala City on November 15 and spent 2 days there. With 2 million people, it is a big dirty place. There are guards in every store and fast food place – the ones in the stores have pump-action shot guns and the guys in Wendys have side arm – incredibly boring jobs. This is supposed to be the most dangerous city in Central America. Kidnappings are happening with the victims killed if ransoms are not paid within an hour. Despite warnings not to ride in the red city buses, I got cheap and did it anyway and was the only gringo – (15 cents versus $8 by taxi) and had an adventure getting incredibly lost 4 different times, but there was little else to do. The people were very nice and tried to be helpful but rarely were. Went to 3 museums and the big cathedral and that was about all to do in the city. I have an unlocked iPhone so am using local telephone networks. Sorting it all out was another adventure.
I then took the chicken bus and was again the only gringo on board but it only cost $4 for a 4 hour ride). On my way to Panajachal on Lake Atitlan in the highlands, it was 2 transfers to get there. The funniest thing were all the vendors that get onto the bus at every stop selling fruit, candy, and pop using a staccato selling pitch. Some distribute everything in their box around the entire bus and then pick it up again when few people buy anything. The second ride, a Toyoto van with seats for 15, had 24 on board. The Mayans are so short that they can stand up which is handy. These trips are way more fun than the big Pullman buses.
Lake Atitlan is possibly the second biggest tourist draw in Guatemala after Antigua. It is big, 1000 feet deep, and surrounded by many small Mayan towns and several volcanoes. Every town has a large Mayan population with a smaller ¨tourist¨ area. After 1 day in Panajachal, I spent 2 in Santiago La Laguna, a big working town with a huge market on Fridays. It is home to Maximon, a small seated wooden figure dressed in a suit and silk scarves and a smoke in his mouth. After paying the 25 cent admission, one is expected to give alcohol, cigarettes and fruit as offerings.
I then spent 8 days in San Pedro La Laguna, a town with many old hippies, it is very touristy with people from all over the world. My nice hotel room with a private bath was about $7.50 a night and I can eat well for the same price. The fare here is cosmopolitan and you can get anything. My favorite so far has been the BBQ chorizo sausage served with guacamole, beans and onions for $1 on the street. I went to Spanish language school for 4 hours per day for 5 days. Clearly the hardest learning experience of my life, especially with little vocabulary, I had a great teacher and still learned lots.
I will never be able to carry on a conversation with a fluent speaker, but am getting tired of saying no habla espanol. After taking the boat across the lake to San Marcos (a town with many alternative businesses mostly yoga, massage and meditation), I went for breakfast at a small restaurant. The owner was a dapper English man who had moved there in 2008 from Spain where he had been a well off real estate developer (he had paid his wife 4.5 million euros as alimony at the time of his divorce in 2004). He said it was not uncommon for somebody from N Europe to come down and with no down payment, purchase a million dollar condo. The bank loan was negotiated after 15 minutes. This is the crux of the problems in Spain and other countries in Europe. No wonder their banking systems collapsed. I walked back along the dusty road to San Pedro. Another day I got up at 4 am to watch sunrise from the top of the Indian Nose, a high mirador above the lake. I also went to the huge market at Chichicastenango on a day trip. The market had everything, with stuff for the locals in the middle and all the beautiful handicrafts around the perimeter. It is easy to understand why so many gringos bring the handicrafts back to North America and resell them. Most all the brilliantly colored cloth is manufactured and I can only hope that the locals are involved and benefit from the manufacture of all the products. The local church is mostly Mayan – possibly the only Catholic thing going on is baptisms. On the Sunday I was there, at least 50 babies were being baptized. With the families all dressed up and the babies in their finery, each kid got about 30 seconds from the priest. He finally sped things up by leaving the baptismal font and walking along the line of waiting infants using a tiny squirt bottle of holy water! The many church steps (likened to the steps leading up to a Mayan pyramid) were covered with people selling flowers and old men swinging incense burners. With few simple pews, there were people kneeling all over lighting candles and offering gifts of fruit, flowers, whiskey and cigarettes. There is a Mayan shrine on the ridge above town that is very important to the locals.
Antigua, the once colonial capital of Guatemala, is a pretty place with its many pastel colonial buildings, a gorgeous square with a big, old fountain, and ruins, the remnants of a disastrous earthquake in 1773. The old cathedrals of La Merced and San Francisco (lovely paintings on the walls) are beautiful. The church and convent of Santa Domingo have been restored and are now a very high-end hotel with several museums. Roberta joined me on Dec 6 and both of us went to Spanish school. We stayed on the grounds of the school – individual casitas spread around gorgeous gardens. The bed is larger than most of the rooms I´ve been staying in, a large bathroom with a warm shower, kitchen, dining room, living room and lovely deck. One can spend days wandering the streets, walking through all the hotels, climbing the hill to the cross on top, and shopping. My favorite t-shirt was ¨No I don’t want a tuk-tuk ride, a jade necklace or any f***ing cashews¨. There are hundreds of jade stores. The store and street vendors are relentless. On our last day we bought a Mayan quilt, 10 gorgeous place mats, 4 pillow covers and some table runners and mailed them back home. The postage was $75. There is a large expatriate population but just like in large cities at home, nobody acknowledges you (they actually arrived about 10 weeks after mailing – I was sure they had been stolen somewhere.
After a 36 year civil war that ended in 1996 resulting in the death of 250,000 poor people, Guatemalans still fight corrupt government. 70% of the land is owned by 3% of the population. With no social safety net, everyone works or begs and you need to have an obvious handicap to do that very successfully. There is a prominent Mayan population dressing in traditional garb everywhere. One of the things that does get to you after a while is all the garbage. It is everywhere and nobody seems to care. Apparently there have many PhD theses written on the subject. By far the cleanest places in Central America are gas stations – spotless and swept daily.
We took a bus across into Honduras to visit the most southerly Mayan ruins at Copan. Without the huge pyramids of Tikal, Copan, once home to 27,000, has some wonderful features. Most pyramids had large trees and roots sticking out. Some pyramids has been excavated via long tunnels showing how successive rulers simply built their pyramids on top of their predecessors. One covered pyramid, the Rosalia temple, was completely intact and an exact replica has been reconstructed inside the impressive museum. You enter a serpents mouth and then walk down its gullet to enter the huge space. Copan is best known for its many stelae, many in excellent shape with clear hieroglyphics and red paint still visible. The hieroglyphic stairway tells the story of the 16 rulers of Copan. Since crossing into Honduras, there is no evidence of Mayans in traditional dress – the men all wear cowboy boots and hats.
We then spent 2 days on the bus going through the rest of Honduras and most of Nicaragua ending in Grenada. It has the best colonial architecture in the country but doesn´t compare to Antigua. We walked around lots going to many cathedrals and went up the nearest volcano of Mombacho. With our excellent guide, we walked around the crater obtaining magnificent views down to Grenada, Lake Nicaragua with its many small islands, Lake Apoyo and the Puelblos Blancos, a series of small highland towns known for their handicrafts. The big tourist street is closed to cars, has tables and has chairs outside each restaurant. The young street dance troupe were world-class. One fellow could dislocate his shoulders and do amazing things. A sweet 8-year-old orphan made a grasshopper out of a vine to sell to us.
We then flew to Panama City with plans to travel north through Panama and Costa Rica before Roberta flies home. We were advised to buy exit tickets (this time cheap bus tickets) in order to get onto the plane and again they were of no value. Panama City is huge with a skyline resembling New York City. Hundreds of skyscrapers line the Pacific shore. We paid a taxi driver $60 to drive us to the Miraflores lock on the Panama Canal and visit the well done museum. He waited for us and then drove us to Casco Viejo, the only place in the city that was supposedly safe to walk. It has many wonderful old colonial buildings, a cathedral (closed on Sundays at lunch – the only catholic church in the world closed then) and museums. We got caught in a torrential downpour. They have been having huge rainstorms here and the Panama Canal was closed for the first time since 1945 because of too much rain. Instead of paying $28 for a taxi, we took the local bus for $1.05 back to our hotel near the International Airport. We were then picked up the next day by some of Roberta´s friends who have a house down here and stayed with them for 4 nights. They bought a lot and built a small house in a gated community established 25 years ago by one of Noriega’s cronies. It is on the continental divide of the country and consists of 2200 lots along the ridge. About 1000 summer homes were built then. When people’s preferences changed to being on the beach, the area was virtually abandoned and now has seen many expatriates from NA and Europe move in. At 1100 meters, it is in the cloud forest, cool and misty. There are birds, especially hummingbirds (there are over 200 species of them) everywhere. They have views 50 km down to Panama City, beautiful at night. Surprisingly none of the high rises are lit at night – apparently all the ones in the east side were built with laundered drug money and sit empty and all the ones on the west are office buildings and unlit at night. Panama seems more advanced than everywhere else with less visible poverty, tap water that is drinkable, and toilets that handle toilet paper.
We spent two days in El Valle, a town in an ancient volcanic caldera where we visited the square trees, a waterfall, some hot pools with mud baths, and walked by many huge homes owned by Panamanians. It was a lovely place to spend Xmas. A 5 hour bus ride brought us to Boquete in the far west of Panama. Boquete was voted by Modern Maturity magazine as one of the 5 best places to retire in the world and has a large expatriate community. Most are Americans who have moved here permanently – we suppose to escape the mess of the states and to a life of very cheap retirement. Panama has made immigration here easy and requires only a $300,000 investment – either as a bank deposit or real estate purchase. Very windy with misty rain, Boquete is the adventure capital of Panama. We booked to do the 8 km Quetzal hike but it was cancelled as the river we had to cross on the trip was too high. Another group led by a non licensed guide started the trip, but the guide drowned when he tried to cross the creek! We also booked the 28 km return trip to the top of Volcan Baru but cancelled because of all the rain and instead hiked up a steep muddy trail to a viewpoint high above town. The zip line was great fun. We have met a couple from Sacramento and have ate dinner with them every night. Most of our time seems to be spent reading, going online, eating and drinking rum and cokes. We are getting tired of the cool, wet weather and looking forward to some beach time in Costa Rica.