Taking a Break
May 05, 2005
We came to Guatemala last month to take a break. We deserve it. Everyone we know back home gets to take a vacation every once and a while; in fact, sometimes they visit us on their vacations (see our March 24th entry, "Entertaining Joe"). So, why shouldn't we get to take a vacation, too? When we share this conviction with some of our non-cruising friends and family members, we don't always get a lot of sympathy. Sometimes they're downright derisive. They figure we've been on permanent vacation since we quit our regular jobs 11 years ago. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Of course, we're partly to blame for this misconception because we're always telling the folks at home about the great weather we're having, the beautiful places we've visited, and the interesting people we've met. After all, that's what they expect (and secretly want) to hear, especially when it's midwinter and they've just cleared the snow out of the drive for the third time that day. But cruising full time can be hard work. What we don't usually mention to our land-bound acquaintances (because then we'd be accused of whining) are the long dinghy trips to get fuel and water; the nights we're kept awake on anchor watch while a storm passes through; and the hours spent scraping, sanding and coating various surfaces of our boat in the futile hope that we can arrest its steady deterioration. And then there's the monotony of living aboard, even if we happen to be in tropical paradise. We're cloistered together in 36 feet of space and even though we both have wonderful personalities, there's a limit to how much togetherness we can take and for how long. When we get off the boat, we usually confine our movements to that narrow meniscus where sea meets land, unaware of what might lie inland a few miles. Palm-fringed sand beaches are fine, but what about seeing a mountain or two or some bright city lights? Our main connection to popular culture and world events is the CBC six o'clock news we hear on Radio Canada International. Are there things we're missing out on?
While we have ample justification for taking a break, there's one little problem: no one out there seems prepared to pay us to go on vacation. Presumably, that's one of the benefits of having a normal, full time job. But if you're like us and can't afford an expensive vacation, Guatemala -- and more specifically, the Rio Dulce -- is a pretty good alternative. Most cruisers don't go to the Rio for the sailing. They go there to park their boats because they're either waiting out hurricane season or doing some inland travel. That's why we previously ended up on the Rio in the summer of '97. It was a secure place to leave your boat, either at anchor or at an inexpensive dock. Public transportation was cheap, as were hotels and restaurants. And there were lots of neat places to visit: beautifully preserved colonial cities; breathtaking Mayan ruins; colourful highland market towns; volcano ringed lakes; dense jungles.
There's a danger, though. You might not leave. Some boaters have discovered that Guatemala has other attributes, like pretty muchachas and an established ex-pat community. Take, for example, our American friend Bruce on the Westsail 42 "Twilight". We last saw Bruce in Puerto Rico in 1995. When we showed up on the Rio a couple of weeks ago, we were surprised to find "Twilight" anchored in front of Fronteras, the main town on the river. We stopped by in our dinghy. A chiropractor by training, Bruce told us he had come to the Rio three years ago, fell in love with a local woman, and now works part time at a medical clinic in town. He has no immediate plans to return to the States. Life is good.
We don't intend to become permanent residents of the Rio; in fact, we plan to be out of here before the summer rush arrives. There was only one other sailboat winding its way up the canyon when we left Livingston, the sleepy little port at the river's mouth. For the first six miles we were hemmed in by near vertical walls festooned with lush tropical vegetation. After an hour, the river opened up into El Golfete, a shallow lake nine miles long and a couple of miles wide. At its southwest end, the lake narrowed back to river proportions and the Rio continued another five miles to its source at Lago Izabal. Several marinas dotted the shoreline along that last stretch of the river; most were half-empty. Hardly anyone was anchored out. The big influx of hurricane-shy cruisers won't begin to happen until later this month.
With a short break in mind, we headed into Mario's Marina, a friendly, well run operation we remembered from our previous visit on the river. We hardly ever stay in marinas, but at fifty bucks a week for a serviced dockside space, we decided to treat ourselves. After all, we're on vacation. It was stifling hot and windless at the dock -- when your boat isn't air conditioned, swinging on the hook in an open breeze has some definite advantages.
Early the next morning we took a water taxi into Fronteras to catch a bus to Guatemala City, commonly referred to as "Guate". We had two choices. For about five dollars, we could do the five-hour trip in an air-conditioned bus with reserved seating. For half that price, we could do the same trip in an old school bus without air-conditioning and without reserved seating, which meant you might not get a seat at all or, if you did secure a seat, you'd have to share it with a family of five and their two chickens. "Let's splurge," Eileen said. "I see video monitors inside, maybe we'll even get to see a movie."
As it turned out, the air conditioning didn't work and after five minutes the nearest video monitor fell off and hit the woman sitting below it on the head. We were seated near the front of the bus. Midway to Guate, an instrument alarm sounded. The driver appeared unperturbed by its persistent buzzing and pressed on. More alarming was his inclination to pass any vehicle in front of us regardless of steep grades, blind curves, and absent shoulders. But we didn't hit anything, the engine didn't blow up, no more objects fell from the ceiling, and we arrived in Guate half-deaf, but otherwise okay.
We went first to Guatemala City because it's a hub for travel to anywhere else in the country. Guate is a grimy, congested city of two million inhabitants that sprawls over a plain of flattened mountains. Over the years, earthquakes have levelled many of its historic and architecturally significant buildings, which have been largely replaced by uninspiring concrete structures. It's altitude results in comfortable temperatures, and that's just about the only really positive thing we can say about the place.
We got out of Guate the next afternoon on another air-conditioned bus without functioning air conditioning. The driver compensated for the high ambient temperature by driving with the door and overhead emergency exits open. We were bound for the commercial centre of Quetzaltenango, also know as Xela, some 200 kilometres away. No one fell out of the bus on the way. We liked Xela. It had a nice central park, a bustling market, some good inexpensive restaurants, and not many tourists.
While in Xela, we learned that, according to our guide book, it was market day in nearby Zunil. Most service towns in Guatemala have a particular weekday designated as market day when people from the countryside congregate to buy and sell all manner of things in the town plaza. "Let's check out the market," Eileen said.
We took a local bus to Zunil, one that didn't have pretend air conditioning or reserved seats. It cost 50 cents. We grabbed seats about halfway from the front and were puzzled why the passengers following us all piled up five and six people deep on the benches in front of us rather than spreading out among the empty seats behind us. The reason became apparent after a few stops. In short order, every seat was occupied and people were stacked up in the aisle. The early arrivals crammed themselves into the front seats so they would have fewer bodies to climb over when it came time to leave.
With some difficulty, we extricated ourselves at Zunil and found our way to an empty plaza in front of the town church. Where was the market? There were a lot of women in traditional garb carrying large bunches of flowers on their heads. They were walking in different directions without an apparent common destination. Maybe that's what you do in Zunil. We decided to follow some of them and, while we never found the market, we ended up seeing a lot of Zunil. It's a pretty little town in a fertile valley with a towering volcano as backdrop.
From Xela we took another series of local buses the hundred-odd kilometres to Panajachel on Lake Atitlan. Our last connection was at Solola where, according to our guide book, there had been a market the previous day. "Too bad we missed it," Eileen said. "It's supposed to be one of the best markets in the western highlands."
We descended from the bus to find ourselves in the middle a very active and colourful market. We began losing confidence in our guide book.
Panajachel's main attraction is its location on Lake Atitlan facing three stunning volcanoes. The town itself is full of gringos and tourist shops. Although not too authentic, it's a happening place and kind of fun. We stayed in a quiet hotel with a nice courtyard garden for ten dollars a night. We decided to take a day trip across Lake Atitlan to the town of San Pedro at the base of the volcano of the same name. Halfway across the lake, the outboard motor on our launch abruptly stopped. It was a hot day, we were a long way from shore, and the captain had no means of calling for help. Eileen asked, "What if we run out of water? We brought only one bottle with us."
"We're in a lake," David replied.
After fifteen minutes, the motor started as abruptly and as inexplicably as it had died and we arrived in San Pedro ten minutes later. "We should have known better than to get into a boat on our vacation," David said as we clambered on to the dock.
San Pedro had a confusing layout with half of the town oriented toward the lakeshore and the other half focussed on the public square above the lake. Fortunately, we were befriended by a very helpful dog, whom for lack of imagination we called Perro. Perro led us to the town's highlights, including the main church, open air market, coffee sorting stations, and numerous language schools. After he safely returned us to the docks, he picked up another group of tourists. Perro is the only guide we've met in Guatemala who didn't charge for his services. We'll bring some milk bones the next time we visit San Pedro.
The last stop on our inland tour was Antigua, the original capital of Guatemala until it was heavily damaged by an earthquake in the 18th century. The city is framed by three magnificent volcanoes. Despite (or perhaps because of) its trials with no fewer than 16 earthquakes, floods and fires, Antigua is among the most beautiful and well preserved colonial cities in the Americas. It's been suggested that its built form represents Darwinian architecture: only the best and sturdiest buildings have survived. But even the ruined ones are arresting in their context. We spent two days walking its cobble-stoned streets from dawn to dusk, but we could have stayed weeks and not seen enough.
We caught a local bus out of Antigua at first light in order to connect in Guate and get back to the Rio in plenty of time to find our way back to the marina. We had been gone only a week. We climbed out of the water taxi and were walking down the dock to our boat when a familiar voice hailed us. It was Chris on "Tall Tales" whom we had last seen in Utila in Honduras.
"Hey, it's great to see you again," she said. "We got here two days ago. Where have you been?"
"Everywhere," we said.