The month of August flew by without enough blog-worthy to share (but September was busy, busy, busy). We spent the first two weeks visiting family in the States, and the last two weeks working on lots of small things around the boat. Dan’s family gathered in Atlanta, Georgia to celebrate his father’s health (the event was planned after a cardiac bypass surgery late last year), only to find David back in the hospital again for pulmonary issues. It was good to be there when he came home, and wonderful to spend several fun days with all four siblings together – but we did come home with the heavy sense that David’s body is aging and he will never again be able to do many of the things that he used to enjoy.
We flew from there to Houston, Texas to visit Kathy’s mother, who is also making life changes. Marilyn has come to recognize that the house she lives in is too big and requires too much maintenance for her to keep up with. She has decided to move into an independent living complex, essentially an apartment with a long list of services, including a cafeteria and regular van trips to local services like doctors and grocery stores – and a constant stream of social events. She arranged for us to take a tour of the place so that we could more easily picture her at home. We helped her tackle some of the difficult parts of getting the house ready to sell (mostly organizing stuff that needs to go!). She will take a few months to complete the move (there’s no need for urgency, so why hurry?), and then probably another few months to get the house on the market. It’s nice to know that things are moving in a direction that will make her feel more comfortable with her living situation!
When September came around, we were ready to change gears again. This time the plan was to spend a few days in a Salvadoran town with our friends on Isleña, visit a couple of new places in Guatemala and renew our visas in Mexico, and although that is ultimately what happened it didn’t happen exactly according to plan!
As we left for our journey, we stopped for lunch in the town of Olocuilta, a wide spot in the road packed with pupuserias. As you may recall, pupusas are the national food of El Salvador; they are to tortillas as a jelly donut is to a piece of bread: stuffed with ingredients like cheese, beans, chicken, and spinach. This town is famous for its “world-record” largest pupusa (but I can’t imagine there was much competition from French or Japanese chefs!). We tried our first rice pupusas (most are made with corn flour or masa) – and will definitely look for them again! After lunch we moved on to the day’s educational program: we visited Joya de Ceren, a World Heritage Site that is often called the Pompeii of the Americas. It’s a village that was buried in volcanic ash around 600 AD. A major difference between this site and Pompeii is that there are no human remains – they had enough warning that they were able to leave, but there were still dishes from a half-eaten meal on a table. Archaeologists have learned a lot about “common” people (as opposed to the rulers and religious elite) from this site because of how well the plant materials were preserved by the roughly 6 meters of cool ash that quickly settled over the town.
The first segment of our excursion was timed for a regional festival. SaM and David from Isleña have visited the town of Ataco before and wanted to return for the Fiesta de los Farolitos. They did some advance planning (imagine that!) and found that all of the hotels in town were already full for the weekend. But they knew a tour guide who lives in town that has a couple of rooms in his home that he sometimes rents out. Ernesto and his wife Alexandra generously shared their space with four gringos for the holiday weekend. It was very cool to get a glimpse of what a local life looks like. Their home is composed of 3 rooms (plus a kitchen and bathroom) surrounding a courtyard which is half garden and the other half, which is covered from the elements, is used for dining and socializing. There is an area at the front of the house that is designed for a business, in their case an internet cafe that is mostly used by local boys for internet gaming. Ernesto has a very sweet puppy, a mini border collie named Cherry, who formed a deep relationship with Dan. He taught her to come, sit and (sometimes) to lie down – and when she barked at night, SaM held Dan responsible. 🙂
The festival commemorates when the statue of the virgin was brought to the church from Mexico over the mountains. Apparently the party traveled with lanterns that were visible winding down the mountain path as they approached. The town lights up with candles everywhere, even creating structures to hold dozens or hundreds of them. Alexandra is an administrator at a local college, and managed to convince a group of students (studying tourism!) to put up a display in front of their house. They arrived around noon and didn’t leave until well after midnight. They spent most of the day assembling an awning, a water fountain in front of a life-size statue of the virgin, and a small “garden” showcasing several of the most important local plants – and of course candle lanterns, can’t forget the farolitos! Around town, people were launching floating candle lanterns into the sky, there were three big stages for live music and lots and lots of food stands in the town square – and there was a really exceptional fireworks show. But after four festive days we were all ready for a quieter venue, so we drove up to Tacuba, a town at the entrance to El Impossible National Park. We had all gotten various forms of a cold, and laid low that afternoon. While David and SaM napped, we investigated the idea of taking a hike on the mountain the next day. We tried to drive to a trail-head, but the road got way too rugged very quickly, so we returned to ask about a guide. We talked with Nina, the only other person staying at our hotel, who said that the trek wasn’t as interesting as others she had been on nearby, so we decided to head on to Guatemala. The next morning, when David and SaM decided that they’d rather sleep off their colds at home on their boat instead of paying for a hotel bed, we invited Nina to go to Antigua with us instead of taking the bus. Lots of fluid plans!
Antigua is a VERY beautiful bustling town, and while we have enjoyed the city and will certainly go back, it is full of tourists. We were seeking something a little different this time: we wanted a closer look at the Mayan experience, so we decided to drive into the neighboring mountains to try to find a smaller town a bit more off of the beaten path. We spent three days mostly driving around the western highlands, through spectacular country. The first night we stayed in Santa Caterina Palopó, a small town on Lake Atitlan. As we came into town, we encountered a procession heading down the main street. It was composed of two wooden “floats” that were carried on the shoulders of 4-6 people, and dozens of others walking along with them. There was lots of incense and explosive shots that went off periodically – and continued through the night. We pulled the car aside, found a hotel, and then walked up the *steep* paths to the church, which is where the procession ended. There was a 6 piece brass band playing, and lots of townspeople there enjoying themselves. All the women were wearing beautiful blue blouses from a locally woven fabric which we deduced was the town’s traditional color. It turns out that the neighboring town had similar garb, but in green. When we stopped in one shop to look at their fabrics, the two women were very friendly and enthusiastically dressed us in local clothing to take a photo. We enjoyed talking with them about their language (another of the many Mayan dialects) and the ongoing celebration. We had dinner at a hole-in-the-wall below the hotel, facing the lake. A sweet Mayan family ran this restaurant, with their baby was swinging in a hammock right next to two of the dining tables. They had another guest, an American woman who was staying with them for a few months; this was her third year visiting them, and she had come to think of them as her second family.
The next night we ended up in a town that has probably not seen a gringo in months. Todos Santos de Cuchamatán is a completely Mayan town in a spectacularly beautiful and isolated valley. It seems to be the center of a cluster of towns, perhaps something like the county seat. It’s the only one big enough to have a hotel. The weekly market was still in swing when we arrived, and we spent an hour or two swimming through the rivers of shoppers and around the islands of stands. Most people were in traditional dress, with many variations. The men in this region also have a traditional costume that they still wear daily. Their clothing consists of pants made from red and white striped denim, a long-sleeved white shirt with blue stripes and a heavy collar often worn as a jacket, and often they also wore a set of black knee-length chaps. (We noticed the same fabrics used for curtains in our room and tablecloths in the hotel’s restaurant.) Both men and women could be seen wearing a white straw hat with a small brim trimmed with a blue ribbon. One day we drove further down the valley to try to visit another town, but the road got very rough and we decided to turn around just as we spotted a motorcycle by the side of the road. A young man and his father were heading into the “big town” to get some fuel and cooking oil when they got a flat tire. They did not have the necessary tools to remove either the tire or the wheel, and neither did we. But we offered them a ride into town and they eventually accepted, although the young man chose to ride the bike along with us rather than figure out a way to get back. We were disappointed that our common understanding of Spanish was not really sufficient to have much of a conversation – they spoke less English than we did Quiché! We do know 2 phrases (“Thank you” and “Hello”, which translates literally as “How is your heart”), but the conversational possibilities were limited. It did feel good to help them out, though.
We stayed in this town for 3 days – until our plans changed. Our friends SaM and David sent us an email saying that the boat’s anchor light had gone out, and with further discussion we realized that the main battery bank had probably run down after a few days of cloudy weather. We talked them through starting the generator, but decided that we should probably go home to make sure that everything was stable again. They did us a HUGE favor by alerting us to the problem and then managing the situation until we could get home two days later. Unfortunately, our timing was awkward: it was the day before the big celebration of the Central American Independence Day from Spanish rule. When the news came out in 1821, runners headed all the way from Antigua (at the time, the capital of the entire region) to arrive 5 days later in Cartago, Costa Rica. To commemorate that activity, groups of people take to the streets, running with a torch (or several!) at the front, and typically a van or bus following close behind. Apparently, though, they don’t necessarily retrace the original route. 🙂 People along the way encourage them with whistles and shouts, and many offer them water or spray water on them to help them cool down. This practice devolved over the course of the day to water balloons being thrown at runners, who sometimes fought back with their own water balloons. It seemed mostly to be in good fun, but we kept our car windows shut when runners were passing! The traffic to Antigua ground to a complete stop just before dusk, and didn’t move again for almost two hours. We were tired and hungry when it finally did, and relieved to arrive at a familiar hostel an hour later. Just after we checked in, two guys walked up to get a room, but weren’t able to communicate with the receptionist with their limited Spanish. We helped provide translation services – and were very proud of ourselves!
The next day, Independence Day, we decided to stay put: if traffic was as bad as it was the day before, who knew how bad it would be the actual holiday? Also, would the border be open on a big national holiday? Why risk the hassles, when David and SaM assured us that they had things under control? So we enjoyed a leisurely day in Antigua. That evening we were having dinner on the roof of our hostel when the guys that we helped the night before arrived to take photos of the volcanos ringing the city – one of which was sending up small puffs of ash! We enjoyed a pleasant conversation with them, exchanging stories. Scott and Mark had been traveling for almost a year and were nearing the end of their time. They were planning to start a restaurant business together in New Zealand (Scott is from New Zealand, Mark is from Bermuda and has spent many years in Australia). They had skipped through from Costa Rica to Guatemala, and had a few free days before their next meet-up. We invited them back to the boat with us, promising to introduce them to pupusas, so they would have a genuine Salvadoran experience. We drove back to the boat the next day, stopping again in Olocuilta. The pupusas were still yummy, and we found Lungta right where we left her. We spent a couple of relaxed days showing Mark and Scott “our neighborhood” and making sure the batteries and refrigeration were in good shape. We played in the deliciously warm ocean waves one day and the swimming pool the next. Then we all headed back to Guatemala. Although we got an early start, we couldn’t quite make it to the Utopia hostel near Semuc Champey before nightfall (the road to Utopia is barely passable during daylight and not safe to try in the dark), so we stopped in the nearby city of Coban in the pouring rain. We stumbled on a new hotel which was really sweet, and they had a kitchen where a woman (who Kathy guessed was the mother of the proprietor) cooked us dinner just across the hallway from our room. The next morning we continued on the crazy rocky road to Utopia.
Utopia is a nicely organized backpackers’ hostel on a beautiful piece of land fronting the same river that runs through the limestone falls and pools of Semuc Champey. They have hammocks, bunks, small private rooms that they call nooks, and separate cabañas. We opt for the nooks, because part of the charm of the place is the ever-changing community that forms there. Although the folks we’d met the last time had moved on, there were new people to meet. This time there were roughly a dozen Israelis there, coincidentally, not traveling together. We walked to the pools the next day with Scott and Mark and 5 of the Israelis, and found a strange situation. The locals were in a dispute with the government’s tourism department that runs the national parks. The strike meant that no one could take our money, but we were still allowed in. We tried to donate our admission fees to some of the workers and their families, but they wouldn’t accept it. We learned that the protesters had actually closed the road to the park with huge boulders for several days the previous week, also preventing traffic in or out of Utopia. This created a little bit of ill-will, but was getting straightened out. The day we arrived was the first day that Utopia was able to get more provisions, and the next day was the first day that the kitchen staff was back on duty (they’d been temporarily laid off during the conflict because their families were intimately involved with the protest that closed access). Things were pretty much normal by the time we arrived but it felt tenuous to the people running the hostel. It rained every afternoon, and we were nervous about getting our car out through the steep and potentially muddy roads. Mark and Scott needed to get going, though, so they took a transport which had sufficient clearance and better traction. We left the next day, and happily made it out with no trouble.
We headed for Mexico, to renew our visas again. Although we’d just been to the States a few weeks previously, we knew that our next trip outside the region (Thanksgiving with Dan’s family) would be more than 90 days from our entry, so we’d need to renew them before that trip and now is as good a time as any. We hadn’t spent any time in the very south of Mexico in our way down, because we were hurrying along in order to make it to El Salvador while the weather was till conducive. So now we were returning with the intent of visiting the colonial city of San Cristóbal de las Casas and the ruins of Palenque. The roads between Semuc Champey and the border were very rugged, and it rained for part of the way, causing the nearby hills to become unstable. Although it wasn’t raining hard, there were times when it seemed like we were following a riverbed. Since we couldn’t get quite as far as San Cristóbal in one day, we stopped in the smaller city of Comitán de Dominguez, which SaM had recommended to us from a short stop they’d made. We stayed near the central park, which we found to be delightfully full of life, and splurged a bit on a “fancy” dinner of tapas and a glass of wine.
We moved on to San Cristóbal and found it to have a similar feel to Antigua: a colonial city in the cool mountains with a lively tourist trade, making it feel pretty cosmopolitan. The biggest difference is that this city is not frequented by English-speakers. Spanish really is the primary language here. We found a sweet hostel with a big backyard that our room looked out on. The yard sports fig trees, hammocks, and an amazing view of the surrounding countryside. We spent two nights here, and continued our culinary splurge: the first we each had a mezze plate at a really good Lebanese restaurant (Arez), where we talked with the proprietor about how life had brought him to Mexico from Lebanon via London. Unfortunately, he feels a deep cultural divide and even after 11 years does not feel comfortable with the town he lives in. The second night we ate in an Italian place (Trattoria Italiana) that offered excellent homemade ravioli. Both staff and clientele were comfortable and happy. The cuisine was superb and the wineglasses were full. We also spent some time wandering the market and the streets near the central park. We bought macadamia nuts from a guy with a wheelbarrow full of them, who offered to break them open with a hammer wrapped in shiny silver tape. We enjoyed mucho chocolate in various forms, and watched a street dance performance done by two guys with rattles on their calves and a huge bird mask with feathers from the tail of a pheasant. Their drumming was infectious – and the town is vibrant! One day we ran into a parade: we have no idea what it was celebrating, but the kids with inner tubes sure were having fun! We had thought we might visit a nearby town that had an interesting church (a mixture of Catholic and traditional Mayan religious themes and practices), but we read some grisly news that a couple of men who had stolen a taxi were lynched and set afire in the town square. We didn’t want to visit with that kind of energy around town; perhaps some other day…
The next morning we set off for Palenque, a 4 hour drive – or so we thought! We’d planned on stopping at some waterfalls on the way, but about a third of the way there we ran into a roadblock. Although we didn’t see it, we were told that there had been a landslide and that it would be hours until it was cleared. Many people were waiting, but we decided to return to Comitán and try a different route the next day. (In the morning we saw a parade in celebration of the National Week of Adolescent Health. Central America seems to love parades!) The next day we got an early start but encountered additional problems. Just before the town of Ocosingo we ran into another roadblock, this time a group of men who were demanding money for a political party called FSLN, which was mobilizing against the parties that had killed the 43 students last year. It turned out that this was the one year anniversary of the tragedy, and it appears that the government is not making much progress in resolving it. Many people across Mexico are very unhappy about the situation, blaming corruption in many forms. We “donated” 100 pesos (about $6US) and were on our way again – but not for long! A few miles down the road we ran into another group of men asking for money to maintain the roads (in a section that was actually in quite good repair). There was a good size backup here, too, but we eventually paid them about $1US and they moved the blockade aside. Several other cars went through on our payment. Another hour down the road we ran into a third stoppage. This time Dan got out of the car to investigate while Kathy stayed with the car and talked with the truck driver behind us. We both got the same story: more civil unrest around the issue of the 43 students. The road was being blocked by a propane delivery truck and a bus, and would probably be opened up again around 6 in the evening. Apparently this kind of thing is happening frequently, and the locals are both interested in seeing the issues dealt with and yet their ability to move around freely is impacted. We decided that this just isn’t a good time for us to be driving through Chiapas state, and that it was time to return home. The boat is calling, and hopefully we’ll get another chance to see the area during less turbulent times.
We took two full days to drive home, and although nothing especially noteworthy happened it was an exciting drive. There had been a good bit of rain while we were in Mexico, and we saw numerous places where the hills had slid downwards. At first it was a few rocks here and there in the roadway, then it was a stretch with a lot of mud where we lost traction a few times. The muddiest stretch was all downhill, and we realized that we would be unable to turn back if we encountered an impassable section. There were lots of places where the potholes were deep enough to cause some damage, but now they were filled with muddy rainwater and more difficult to assess. One time the front wheels dropped in so hard that we thought we might not be able to get out again, and indeed backing up was fruitless, but somehow we were able to move forward and suffered no damage. An hour or two before arriving in Antigua (for the last time on this trip 🙂 ), it seemed that the brakes weren’t functioning properly. Did we smash a hole in the line and lose our fluid? The problem cleared up after an hour or so, though, whether due to a bubble that dissipated or some new self-healing technology we may never know. Arriving in the familiar hub of Antigua was a relief, and the rest of the trip was on better and more traveled roads.
We were still in Mexico on the night of the super-blood-moon, but for us it was a non-event because the sky was cloudy and it rained. We saw some nice pictures from friends in the States who had clear weather. And we heard stories from Costa del Sol, where the boat is, of high tides that caused flooding on the island right next to our boat. Lungta was just fine, but virtually all of the 75 families that live on this island were up to their ankles – or knees, or even hips! – in salt water. Most of their possessions, including beds and firewood, were soaked. No one was injured, and no homes were lost, but it will be a while until life returns to normal for these poor people. Only a few of them have water catchment systems to allow them to capture rainwater. Many of them have to paddle their dugouts (called cayucas) across the estuary several times a week to fill jugs of water from friends or families on the mainland. Lots of aid has been offered by the cruising community, both locally where they’ve cooked meals for the families and abroad where money has been donated for various projects including improved berms to keep the island dry and professional class mosquito sprayers. It’s a sad situation, but now that the full moon has passed they can focus on prevention and getting back to normal.
We’re glad to be back home again, and expect to spend the next few weeks working around the boat and socializing with the few people who are still here in the boating community. (Many folks have left recently, continuing their travels north or south, and a few are planning to head across the Pacific this coming spring.) Don’t know what’s after that…