Saturday, November 29, 2008

Panajachel, Guatemala to Tonala, Chiapas, Mexico

November 29, 2008

After much discussion and gnashing of teeth Pat and I decided to reenter Mexico. Originally we had thought of traveling to El Salvador and further south but decided it would probably be more of the same. And to be honest we have been traveling for 5 months and are ready for a break. The question is where to take the break. We are mulling that over now.
We had mixed feeling about leaving Pana. What a beautiful city and the weather is perfect. Mild days and nights. We discussed staying there for our break but decided it just didn't feel right. We may look back on leaving and find it was a mistake.

Biker coming down 30% grade....~30mph! Bikes are a common mode of transportation for the Guates.

The drive from Pana to Mexico further enforced our view that Guatemala is one beautiful country. Thick forests cover the mountains and birds and animals are everywhere. Maybe the prettiest country we have visited. The people out in the countryside are very friendly and, for lack of a better word, pure. For instance, we stopped for some road construction in the middle of nowhere and some locals were selling snacks and drinks to the travelers. When we told them we had driven the van from Alaska to Guatemala they couldn't hardly believe it was possible. They acted like Alaska was on the other side of the world. We bought some tamalies and drinks from them. As we were driving off they were huddled together talking about what they were just told. These country people can make a living doing almost anything. We see them on the side of the roads carrying wood, selling food, with machetes clearing brush, tending their fields with babies straped to there backs, washing dishes and clothes in the streams. Young and old, men, women and children, it doesn't matter. They are all working. It is all very humbling and uplifting. No welfare in the Latin American countries. You don't work, you don't eat. Maybe the US could learn a lesson from these industrious people.

9800ft above sealevel, above the clouds in Guatemala. Guatemala has rich soil for cultivating food which they export. In some areas farming is out of the valleys onto the mountainside. We noticed they import more junk food than in the mountainous areas of Mexico.
Prevalent biodiversity in Guatemala.
The Mexico part of our drive was easy and uneventful. We ultimately found the Hotel Grajandra in Tonala to be a perfect place to stay with secure parking, internet, air conditioning, strong shower with hot water and a comfortable bed.
Photo right: The Guatemalteca Arch De Triumphe.

For those who may want to know the Mexico entry details on Highway CA-2 read the following:

Crossing the border into Mexico from Tecun Uman, Guatemala on CA-2
Photo left: Not something you see everyday.

Heading north in Tecun you will see a sign that says "Frontier Mexico" (means "border") to the right. Don't take it because it is the border crossing for the big trucks only. Bear left and follow the signs into to Tecun where you turn right when the two-way traffic road you are on turns into a one-way coming at you. Go 1 block then turn left. The border crossing is on the right about 5 or 6 blocks straight down this road. The friendly people will gladly direct you.

You will be directed to turn into a parking lot where one person takes all the passports and the Guatemalan entry papers into a customs building. Again you will be directed there by a guard. There will be "helpers" there to offer their services but they are not necessary. We actually let two guys "help" us and it made the entry more fun. After getting our papers stamped in this building our helpers directed us and the van to the imigration office where an old gentleman ceremoniously "exit-stamped" our passports. No exit fees or copies of documents were required. We were ready for entry into Mexico. The Guat side took about 20 mintues. Es no problema.

BTW, change any Guatemalan currency you have with the guys on the Guat side because we saw now money changers on the Mexico side. Some guy offered to change money for us and when I asked about the tipo de cambio (exchange rate) he said 1.4 pesos to the quetzales. Pat hung her head out of the window and said "He wants to give 1.4. Don't do it. I took his calculator and put in 1.6 and handed it back to him. He put in 1.5 and we struck a deal. I gave him 500 quetzales and he gave me 750 pesos. He still made a good profit. We gave our 2 helpers 50 quetzales to split between them....spread the wealth.

We drove about .5 miles to the Mexico border entry across a bridge. A lady waved us through to a masked guy who sprays some stuff on your tires. After that you pull up to a building on the left where you pay a 50 peso fumigation fee. We pulled up to a building on the right and parked then I handed our passports to a guy who did a quick look in the van then directed me to the passport office. Pat stayed in the van. The passport guy was hilarious. We both had a great time trying to understand each other while he told me to fill out both tourist cards. He never even looked for Pat. He gave us 180 day visas and we have to pay 237 pesos each at a bank in Mexico (who stamps out tourist visas PAID) before we leave the country.

We then proceeded the final checkpoint where a Mexican officer quickly checked the van. We asked him about the Vehiculos Importacion Permite we need to get to have the van in Mexico. He told us that we would get that on the other side of Tapachula, about 30 miles away, and that we would see the checkpoint. I was doubtful because there were roads going everywhere, Pat was non-plussed about the whole thing and said "Don't worry, It'll work out". She was right because after we took this convoluted southern route to get around the traffic of Tapachula there was the busy checkpoint on Highway 200 just northwest of the city. The officer directed me to park on this dusty street just to the right after crossing the checkpoint. We already knew we needed a copy of the drivers passport, the vehicle title and my drivers license for the Permite so we had them ready. But I also needed a copy of my tourist visa which I made at a small store next to the checkpoint. After the clerk had my 4 copies he charged my credit card for about $43 USD and gave me our Importation Sticker and we were on our way. You have to put an Importation Sticker on the inside of the front windshield in the top center. All pretty easy.

Panajachel, Solola, Guatemala

November 24-28, 2008

Arriving in Panajachel was one of the most impressive moments in our travels. We had no idea this place was so stunningly picturesque. Getting to this small city requires going down a steep curvy road descending 3000 ft in elevation. Our brakes overheated making us a bit nervous...all the way to the floor by the time we made it to our destination. Panajachel sits at the edge of Lake Atitlan which is surrounded by 3 volcanos. The lake’s waters are clear and various shades of blue. The temperature couldn't be better: warm and sunny. The wind kicks up in the evenings and cools down but still very comfortable.

Originally we thought we’d stay one or two nights but decided to stay for the week and take a class at the local Spanish school. It’s a great way to buckle down on the Spanish, interact with locals and learn all there is about the area. I took 5 hrs/day, Bruce took 2hrs (his brain is fried after one hour) …the rest of the time he’s watching the market.
Nicolas, Bruce's Spanish instructor gave up on him by the end of the week.

These trucks are only to carry 10 or less.
On Tuesday we went to a fiesta Santa Catarina, a small village 15 minutes away. The locals dressed in their best garb and mulled around the small town. Their fiesta is like a miniature Puyallup Fair and a micro Texas State Fair. It was fun watching a manually (literally) propelled Ferris wheel with children on board, they were having a blast. I played a ball-in-cup game and won a toy which I passed on to a little girl whom was eyeballing it for quite a while…..afterwards she followed us around with few more kids. They left us alone once they realize we had no more toys....I wished I'd had more.

The main gig for this fair was blaring music and a central dance area. The dancers were three drunken men who could only sway to the music. All the people around the square sat quietly, expressionless and watched. After that the “fiesta committee” danced. Twenty of them dressed in full costumes with masks and did the Texas version of line dancing -used to be seen at country & western bars in the 80s- very slowly and out of in sync. I mentioned this to our maestro, Oliver, and he said it was because they were drunk too. Other than that, the rest of the town was sober.

Photo left: What is it about boys and video games?!

We then walked near the lake and talked for a long time. Oliver informed us that it is dangerous to be out on the lake when it is windy - which is often. Apparently 4 people drowned last week after the wind and 5 meter waves overturned a boat. According to Oliver ~5 ppl per year die from lake drownings as not all boats have life-preservers. Oliver had many questions about Alaska, snow, and the United States, he was particularly interested in New York and the events of 9/11. He seemed surprised when we told him how many things that were legal in Guatemala were illegal in the US. One example was the overloaded pick-up we road in to the fiesta, he asked why that be illegal.

Photo right: I rate this my photo of the year.

The rest of the week we walked a lot, ate, sat by the lake and studied Spanish. We considered staying in Panajachel since the weather was “perfect” by Bruce’s standards……definitely worth a re-visit someday.
The cure for bad never see Guatemalteca women stooped over.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Antigua Guatemala, Sacatepequez, Guatemala

November 19-24, 2008

Antigua Guatemala is a tourist town west of Guatemala. It has that nice Spanish colonial presence set in the mountains amongst volcanos.

Volcano spews ash our first day there.

Fountain of zocolo in Antigua Guatemala.

Colonial streets and one of many abandon churches.

Another abandon church. These were destroyed during earthquakes more than 200years ago and left as shown.

Cobblestone streets are wide in this town.
One of the larger churches in Antigua, left as is after earthquakes.

Workmanship lasts many years beyond structural destruction.

Gun-weilding security guards outside of banking businesses seemed to be the norm. We never saw signs of any trouble. Not sure how long Citi will be there with the trouble they're in.

The Ricky and Lucy Ricardo suite.

Farming land extends out of the valley onto the hills.

We bought donuts for these children and the people I thought were their grandparents who were beggers.

El Pacaya Volcano, Guatemala

November 22, 2008

Antigua is surrounded by 4 volcanoes and they all periodically prove this by spouting steam or ash from the very top. We decided to vist the Pacaya volcano and hike up to the lava fields. The volcano is about 90 minutes away and there are several tour operators who will gladly drive you there and back for $10. But of course we decided to make the drive ourselves so after getting directions from an Inguat (official tourism office of Guatemala) employee we set out for the volcano. Our Guatemala map lacks a lot of detail but we thought with the guidance from the Inguat guy we could have a leisurely drive to the mountain. The drive started out innocent enough, we were right on course…the Inguat guy’s course…, but we soon got a hint of what was to transpire when we stopped for gas and, as I was prepaying the $200 quetzals, the attendant stuck the diesel nozzle into the gas tank to start the fill. I just caught him before he started to pump. I shouted ‘No diesel, No diesel. Gasolina solomente’. The guy looked at me quizzically as if he thought all big vans took diesel. That was one major crisis averted.

The names of the buses reminded us of Stephen King's movie, Maximum Overdrive.

Following the Inguat employee’s directions we ended up being funnelled into Guatemala city but we found our exit and ended up in some small town where the streets were so narrow I could hardly squeeze the van through. Stress is trying to drive that big van through a village full of taxis, buses and people with no street signs or one-way signs or stop signs or traffic lights. BTW, I don’t see how the bus drivers do it. Many times buses have to pull forward then back up many times just to turn a corner. Pat finally took matters into her own hands and with our lacking map got us on the correct road to the volcano. Oddly enough it took about the same amount of time to get there that the Inguat guy had told us. I guess he allotted for snafu's along the way.

We happened on to the Volcan Pacaya “parque entrada” which looked like a bus stop. The van was approached by several Guatemalans who wanted to act as guides. It was a little disconcerting because they surrounded the van. After paying the 40 quetzal per person fee we proceeded to miss the turn off to the parque.

Back on the proper route we were soon on a beat up gravel road to the trail head. Eventually we reached a dilapidated village miles from nowhere and 20 villagers chasing the van to be the first to offer parking, guides, walking sticks and who knows what else. They surrounded the van looking inside. It was scary…almost like out of some movie. I was concerned for the safety of the van but we proceeded on and enjoyed the hike.

The steep 2500-meter trail ended at the foot of the lava flows. We continued on over the hardened flow and you could feel the heat from below the lava but we never saw any free flowing lava. Pictures tell the story.
We were behind this happy group of students on the trail. We followed them in the search for flowing lava, which we never found. The trails change due to lava flow so we tagged along with them once in the lava fields.
Cute puppies in photo below, we couldn't help but wonder if they had more than a 5 year life expectancy. There are stray dogs everywhere in the Central American countries we visited.

We eventually made our way back to Antigua via a much shorter and direct route Pat figured out than that given by Mr. Inguat. In all it was a 9-hour trip and I was wore out.

One of the many poor children that chased us wanting to sell us sticks for the hike. Pat gave in to one pushy kid, kept the stick and gave it to another to resell....spread the wealth.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Rio Dulce, Guatemala

November 18, 2008

On our way from Tikal to the Rio Dulce we stopped in Flores for some lunch. Driving into the city we passed a military compound that had lookout towers facing the highway. We thought it strange but later on discovered that the country is full of people carrying guns. Even an attendant at a gas station we stopped at stood guard with a shotgun while the other employees pumped gas. When we stopped at the Inguat visitors center a gun-carrying guard stood at the front door.

Town of Rio Dulce, market and stores on the main road.

The highway to Rio Dulce was well maintained and the scenery was great. Rolling hills and farm land. Lots of buses and trucks on the road. The Guatemalans in this central part of the country seem to be hard at work.

I have always wanted to visit the Rio Dulce after having read about it in sailing magazines over the years. It is a beautiful place. Water and palm trees everywhere. There is a large sailboat community there. Pat and I have had interesting sailing adventures in the past and have always talked about someday sailing away and Pat has always left that decision up to me. However I always stop short of getting real serious about it. This time was no different. A lady showed me a 32 foot sailboat that she said could be bought for almost nothing as the elderly owner had returned to the United States and was not returning. After a quick look I decided that the van on terra firma was the better option…at least for now.

Woman doing laundry in the Rio Dulce river.

We had a nice room at the Mar Marina overlooking the river. The next day, after exploring the town, we headed for Antigua.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Tikal Mayan Ruins - Peten, Guatemala

November 17, 2008

The Tikal ruins are tucked away in the jungle about 30 kms from a main road. It's an easy and relaxing drive getting there from the main highway. The signs on the road state the speed limit is 40kph so to make sure you drive slow one attendant writes the time on a slip when you entered the road, and another attendant at the ruin site checks the time. I'm not sure what the punishment is if you get there too fast. The reason is to slow everyone down to avoid hitting any wild animals.

Tikal is an important tourist draw for this part of Guatemala; the panhandle and state of Peten. Care with preserving this site is of the utmost importance. Bruce, being a lover of animals more than people, is always careful with the wildlife but we found it odd the Guatemalans living, walking and working along the gravel road from the Belize-Guatemala border not being protected. A pinched rock from a tire has enough force to put an eye out and the potholes can cause a swerve into another vehicle causing injuries or casualties of an overloaded bus, truck or wagon. Unfortunately, we later learned, this is the way things are because of the recent history this country has endured.....political and rebelious termoil from 1961-96. We are very lucky to see Tikal at a time of political peace which has only been in the last 12 of 47 years in Guatemala.

Men working on temple, notice the worker/climber with no safety's a long way right is the temple they are working on.

Tikal is a large complex with the most impressive and important buildings restored. Unlike Palenque, the grounds are not completely cleared so you have to walk through the well-marked jungle trails to see the ruins. Some buildings are still partially overgrown with jungle flora and there is still ongoing work excavating and restoring. Seeing the monkeys, coati, wild pig-like rodents, birds and listening to the jungle sounds was as much fun as seeing the ruins. There was even a little crocodile in the nearby mini-lagoon.

We camped under a heavily shaded tree on a soccer field next to the ruins and had a candlelight dinner at the adjacent restaurant. The candle was not for the ambiance but to see. The restaurant had no electricity and probably used propane or gas to cook our of the best spaghetti meals we've had in a while.