7-28-2015 – Costa del Sol, El Salvador and a Visit to Honduras, Belize and Guatemala

We began July with some exploratory surgery for Lungta. We had been seeing some unsightly streaks of rust coming from underneath two stretches of the wooden cap-rail, an area that is normally unremarkable. Before we actually got around to investigating, we noticed that the cap-rail itself was being pushed up and away from the cement. This made it clear the nature of the problem, but not the severity. Seawater must have gotten underneath the cap-rail through a crack or gap in the sealant, and contacted the steel framework that supports the cement. If left unattended indefinitely, the rust would spread throughout the framework and ultimately destroy the hull. The question was: how much of this framework was already compromised? We were pretty nervous as we began to deconstruct (a small part of) our boat. The first step was to remove a segment of the cap-rail covering the rust-damaged area. We used our multi-tool (an amazing power tool that we bought for this very purpose about 6 months ago, but have already used a dozen times on other jobs) to cut away the sealant between the pieces of wood. The cap-rail was joined quite nicely, with a three-segment zigzag shape which preserves strength. We followed that zigzag closely, and also had to cut away many of the screws which broke as we tried to remove them. After removing the rail, we were able to see that there was a steel flat bar to which all of the vertical rebar was attached. This steel plate was quite degraded, and there was a lot of crumbled cement caused by the expanding rust. There was almost certainly a void, or air pocket in this location, which would have contributed to making this particular spot more vulnerable. We spent a couple of days with hammers and chisels, chipping away at the cement that covered the rusty wire. Because we caught the problem fairly early, not much of the frame was really compromised – which also meant that the cement above it was strong and hard to remove. After removing the worst of the rusted wire, we installed and wired in new pieces of rebar and welded wire mesh – as similar to the original composition as possible, except that we did not replace the flat bar on top, since we determined that this was essentially an artifact of the construction process and not an intentional part of the design. Dan contacted the original owner of the boat, the guy who dreamed her up and put so much of his heart and soul – and labor – into building her, and Herman confirmed that hypothesis. What a pleasure it is to have such a knowledgeable and helpful resource! After the new frame was built back up, we mixed up some cement and troweled it on, fairing it as best we could to match the original curves. We made sure to keep it moist for the first few days, so that the cement could cure at a reasonable pace. We still need to fair the new cement a bit more using a cement grinding wheel, and then repaint, and there’s the other section to tackle, but the scary part of the job is behind us. Hooray!

Exporatory Surgery

After that project, we took off on another adventure. What a surprise! 🙂 Our visas into El Salvador were good for 90 days, and would expire in mid-July. These visas are actually good for 4 Central American countries: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, so we would need to leave that area for 72 hours before we could get a new 90-day visa to the area. We decided to head to Belize, going through Honduras and Guatemala on the way. We packed up in a hurry, though, and got halfway to the border with Honduras before we realized that neither of us had grabbed the passports – oops! So we turned around and drove the four hours back to the boat. But we did make a point to take a different route, one which we hadn’t seen before, and we enjoyed the scenery. We saw an unusual sign on the way: any idea what this critter is? We had no idea, although we were to see a couple of these just a few days later while wandering around the ruins of Copan. It’s called a paca or a gibnut, and it’s a mostly nocturnal rodent, roughly the size of a large housecat. Who knew?

Paca Crossing  Paca at Work

The next day we set out bright and early for Honduras, and managed to cross the border before stopping for the night. The mountainous terrain in Honduras is truly breathtaking, so we decided to take an extra day or two in the area before going on to Copan. We spent a night in the old colonial city of Santa Rosa de Copan and another in the small town of Gracias (a Dios). Characteristicly, we enjoyed several hours people-watching in the town square of Gracias. We took a nice drive through a national park to a tiny village called La Campa, which is nestled at the base of a dramatic cliff – on which someone has somehow managed to paint a welcome message! The drive to Copan was also beautiful, and we arrived early enough to spend the afternoon strolling through a bird sanctuary which is situated on a nearby mountain. We saw dozens of rescued birds in nice surroundings, including Honduras’ national bird, the scarlet macaw. Periodically they release some of these birds near the ruins, if they are rehabilitated enough to live on their own. They have a nice area where visitors could hold one or more of the birds for a short interaction, and Kathy couldn’t resist!

La Campa

Toucan Sam?  Avian Friends

The Copan ruins are an easy walk from town, and quite accessible. Although several people had told us that hiring a guide was particularly helpful, we did not find that to be the case. We enjoyed our visit, but found it to be fairly expensive. The admission cost about $15 each, and an additional $7 if you want to visit the on-site museum, and a guide costs another $15 per person. We found the write-up in our Lonely Planet guidebook to include enough information that we would have been happy (and our guide tried to spice things up by focusing on the violence of human sacrifice, which did not suit our tastes). The site includes dozens of structures that have been at least partially restored, including some surfaces that still show some very nice carving. The ancient city extended quite a bit further out into land that is privately owned. Owners are apparently prohibited from farming on this property, but not required to give it up. This city was quite influential in its day (roughly 500-900AD), and at its peak more than 20,000 people lived here. Visitors are allowed to wander around quite freely, much more than would be the case in the States. On our way out of the park we saw about a dozen of the scarlet macaws, some of them flying around – truly magnificent birds!

Copan Carving  Copan Structures

An unpleasant incident occurred when we left Honduras: a border guard shook us down for a bribe. Many of the countries in this area are making an effort to eliminate graft, but the attempt hasn’t yet been fully successful in Honduras. We still had about 10 days left on our visas, but the border guard that we worked with told us that we were overdue. He sat down with us in an office and told us that he could fix our problem, but hoped that we “would do something nice” for him in return. Although he spoke perfect English, he (deliberately) misunderstood when we asked how he calculated the 90 days, offering a partial explanation by saying that he counted from the day we left Mexico rather than the day we arrived in El Salvador, making the 3 days we were in transit part of our visa period. We satisfied his request with $30, but the experience left a sour taste in our mouths.

While waiting for the 72 hours to elapse we took the opportunity to visit our friends, John and Lucy, who live on their ferrocement boat in Placencia, Belize. Placencia is at the very end of a twenty mile peninsula that is quite narrow. The road down the peninsula has only been paved for a few years, and the area is going through a huge boom, largely becoming an expat zone with resorts and fancy homes. The town has long been a tourist area and still retains much of its lively laid-back seaside character. We stayed with John and Lucy for two days and had a great visit. We went out for a snorkel one day to a nearby caye, using a utility boat from the marina that John works with. This was Dan’s first Caribbean diving, and hopefully won’t be the last! The water was deliciously clear and warm, and there were lots of beautiful corals and huge purple sea fans. Kathy was tickled to see the Caribbean cast of characters again, and delighted to see a small group of tiny cuttlefish. She spent a quarter of an hour watching the hand-sized creatures eyeing her. John and Lucy were our inspiration for making wine aboard Lungta a number of years ago. Although we have left that equipment behind, they are still making creative wines. While we were there, we sampled their current batch of watermelon wine and some previous home-brews made from orange, starfruit and Belizean blackberries.

Hopkins Scenery  Cockscomb Signage

On our way out of Belize, we stopped for another hike in the Cockscomb National Park, which has been declared the world’s first jaguar reserve. Although we didn’t see any jaguars, we did see some beautiful scenery. 🙂 We crossed a dozen or so creeks along the way, and were impressed at how much water there is running through Belize. I’m sure that’s a large part of the reason that the mosquitos are thriving so well in this country. Our drive crossed a river that was serviced by a small ferry.  At first it seemed that the ferry was moving quite slowly, but then we realized that the ferry was manually powered, using a crank to pull it along a cable that spanned the river!  The ferry pilot was pleased to have Dan’s assistance! We stayed one more night in Belize, in order to visit the market in San Ignacio on Saturday morning. While it’s a nice market, it didn’t stand out for us as being significantly different from many of the others we’ve enjoyed in the last few years. We did buy some pastries and a bottle of honey, and then later with our last few Belizean dollars bought some homemade chocolate from a Mayan woman who told us some interesting things about her family tree and the complications of being Mayan in a modern world. The Mayan people are not all the same; there are more than 25 different languages, and lots of variations in tradition. Her parents came from different tribes, so didn’t speak the same mother tongue, and raised their children with no knowledge of these languages. She and her husband are raising their children to speak one of these languages, which is common to both families.

Belizean Ferry  Dan Driving the Ferry

After crossing back into Guatemala we drove up to the famous ruins of Tikal. We had heard that a ticket purchased after 4pm was good for the next day, and also that it was possible to camp onsite – and it worked out perfectly for us! We were able to rent hammocks with mosquito netting, and they were set up for us in a wonderful site with a cement floor and a thatched roof, and we could drive the car right up next to it. We were able to enjoy almost 2 hours in the park before the gates were closed at 6pm. We considered paying for a guide to take us in early in order to see the sunrise from the top of Temple IV, and scouted that site out beforehand. We hoofed it to the far end of the park and climbed the wooden stairway (Kathy counted 179 steps) to a small platform near the top of one of the higest temples in the complex. We sat there for perhaps half an hour, watching dusk come over the park. We saw several spider monkeys swinging in the trees below, and heard a nearly continuous drone from howler monkeys. A coatimundi clambered up the steps, undisturbed by the group of tourists while he foraged for food. We left in time to exit the park, but noticed that the guards were not strictly enforcing that curfew. We spent our first night in hammocks, and it went well enough that we anticipate more. We recently purchased lightweight hammocks for camping, but they don’t have mosquito netting – yet! It was really nice to fall asleep to the sounds of the jungle nearby, and to wake up again with the first birdsong. We decided to forego the 4am start that the guided sunrise tour would have entailed, but instead to enter the park at the regular 6am opening time. The park was empty of people and full of wildlife – just what we were hoping for! We climbed a smaller but closer temple and ate a breakfast of cold cereal and reconstituted powdered milk. We loved watching the monkeys and birds moving around in the trees below us, and were especially thrilled at seeing three toucans fly by. At first it looked like they were carrying something large and heavy, like a banana, but then we resolved it to be the bird itself. After breakfast we wandered all around the park, probably somewhere around 8 miles. We enjoyed envisioning up to 100,000 people living in the area and what it might feel like to come to the big city for markets or holy days. We found the ruins of Tikal to be accessible, beautiful, wondrous, even magical, but by mid-morning we were wiped out and decided to head south to our next destination, Semuc Champey.

Dusk Settles on Tikal  Tikal Coatimundi  Camping in Hammocks

Breakfast Site  Tikal Pyramid

It’s hard to know how long it will take to travel through mountainous areas with winding roads, especially if they are not well-maintained. At first we had allowed two days to make this drive, but once we got underway we chose to keep on going. There aren’t many substantial towns along the route we took, and we ended up bypassing the most likely candidate in favor of a more direct route. It turns out that was not a good choice. 🙂 The mountains of Guatemala are breathtaking. After our visit to Tikal, we kept envisioning undiscovered temples under every hill, especially those that had white limestone visible! Perhaps the inspiration for the Mayan temples originated in a natural hill that provided a desirable place for a king to call home, and then another king had to have his custom built. We loved the cliffs and vistas and bridges that we passed. At one point in the mid-afternoon, though, the road suddenly went from reasonably paved to barely passable (without four-wheel drive). We passed only a few vehicles going in the other direction, mostly dirt bikes and pickups, with an occasional delivery vehicle. One motor bike that we passed was stopped while the two riders were trying to reattach the shifter that had broken off. Dan helped them get it back on using the handle for our jack as a hammer, and soon enough they were back on their way with a wave and a smile. The sun grew low in the horizon, and the road continued to be torturous as it wound through the steep terrain and through several Mayan communities – we were well off the beaten path (be careful what you wish for!). We were crawling along at less than 5 mph – so all of our previous calculations went out the window. As dark approached we discussed spending the night in the car, but it seemed like the end must be close. At one point a couple of young men flagged us down for a ride, and we took them a couple of kilometers. It turned out they were very drunk, but we had a fun if confused conversation. The more cogent (sober) of the two taught us two phrases in the local Mayan language, Q’eq’chi. (“Hello” is something like “chan-sha-quill”, and “thank you” sounds like “pon-ti-osh”.) While these phrases will be of limited use in our future, it’s nice to feel that we’ve at least made an effort to communicate with the locals in this area that we are so drawn to. After dropping them off, we kept on going, and the pavement resumed not much further. Rather than make the turn towards the original destination, which signage told us would be 11km on what looked to be more rough, rocky road, we went an additional 40km to the larger city of Coban. The paved road had lots of potholes, but at least they were dodgeable. It rained a bit along the way, and as the land cooled this moisture formed a low but dense fog, making it difficult to see our way around the field of potholes. Sheesh! We arrived well after dark and found a cheap place to crash, then retraced that path the next morning. We stopped once behind another vehicle that had encountered a rock slide in the middle of the road; it had apparently come down sometime in the night after we had passed by, leaving one lane closed off and a significant boulder in the middle of the other lane. By banging on it with smaller rocks, throwing slightly larger stones at it, jumping on it, and hammering at it with various tools, the group of six men was able to break off enough chunks that the remaining block could be slid to the road’s edge. Whew!

Guatemalan Hills!  Removing Rockfall

We encountered more off-road roads on the 15 miles to our destination, a hostel named Utopia. Along the way we had several tour operators call to us that the roads were too rough and we should take a tour instead. We kept postponing that decision until it was impassable, but we reached the hostel before that point. Arriving at Utopia was indeed a breath of fresh air. It has a wonderful open-air communal area for dining, relaxing, journaling, and viewing the amazing scenery in the midst of a very rural Mayan community. The workers at the hostel are largely volunteers who loved staying there so much that they’ve extended their stay by signing up. We hung out there the first afternoon, enjoying a short dip in the river just a 5 minute walk into the canyon. We met a delightful British couple and had dinner with them. Martin is Welsh and Jemma is from a town south of London, but they had both emigrated to Australia before they ever met. The next morning the four of us took a shuttle (actually a pickup with a frame of tall bars in the bed to hold onto while riding standing) to the primary attraction in the area, Semuc Champey, a series of about a dozen cascading pools carved into the limestone that has formed a bridge over a quarter of a mile long. Most of the water passes under the bridge but some pours through the pools. The waters are clear, turquoise and cool. There are a number of places where one can jump from one pool into the next one down, ranging from 1 foot to at least 15. The shuttle bus dropped us off half a mile before the pools, and we walked the rest of the way, beginning with a large bridge with sketchy timbers. Apparently lots of adrenaline junkies enjoy jumping off this bridge into the clear running waters below, but we did not take that path. 🙂 We continued up the road to a path that led up the canyon about 1000 feet to a magnificent overlook. The path was largely carved into the stone of the cliff, and quite steep, but there were Mayan families, some with small children, that had come before us carrying bottled water and fruit to sell. How could we say no to everyone?! The watermelon slices were actually slices of heaven. We enjoyed the view for quite a while before deciding that it was time to descend to the pools. What a lovely way to spend the day! After we’d had our fill of nirvana, we walked the 3km back to the hostel, stopping at a stand to get a bite to eat. The walk back took us through some working fields and we felt we had indeed found the “heart of Guatemala”.

We Found Utopia!

Wanna Jump?  Semuc Champey

Jemma and Martin were planning to head north to Tikal next while we were planning to head back home, via the nearby Mayan town of Lanquin. We enjoyed our day with them so much that we talked them into delaying their departure one more day, and riding to Lanquin with us. It wasn’t terribly hard. 🙂 Although the road was still rough, knowing that we had already passed this way made it easier. We arrived in Lanquin in short order, but had to stop at a couple of places before we found one that had room for us. We ended up in a luxurious place called The Oasis, with bungalows scattered on a tall grassy hill over a bend in a nicely-flowing river. We got the last two available cabins – whew! After dropping our stuff in the rooms, we took a dip in the river, although it was cold enough that not all of us got all the way in. 🙂 Martin, however, took full advantage of the trapeze swing! Then we got a bite to eat and went off to explore a nearby bat cave. We paid the admission price, waved off the guide who wanted to show us the way, and followed the well-marked but steep and slippery path in. A good sized river gushed out just below and to the side of the cave entrance. We had three flashlights among the 4 of us, so we were fine, if a bit slow. Just before dusk a dozen or more others arrived to catch the show. We spent probably close to an hour watching the bats emerge, first in ones or twos and later in a constant stream. We never saw the end of the stream, but read somewhere that there are about half a million of these tiny guys. They zip close to your face or shoulders, never missing a beat!

Lanquin Bat Cave

After seeing our friends off in the morning, we hopped into our trusty Mitsubishi and headed back towards home. We drove through a variety of ecosystems that day, from lush green mountains to dry desert hills to thriving farms. The crossing from Guatemala to El Salvador went so smoothly that we thought we must have missed something. We spent a night in a cheap hotel in Santa Ana, watching a huge impressive lightning show as a deluge of rain washed the road off our car. In the morning we came the rest of the way back to the boat and are now settling in for a few days before our next adventure begins. Wow, what a trip it’s been!

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