Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Holidays on the Rio

We closed out our last blog with us preparing to head back to the States for the Thanksgiving Holiday after making several wonderful sightseeing trips in this beautiful region of the world. When we leave our cruising home and travel to the States it becomes a paradox from many sides.

Boarded the plane in San Pedro Sula for Miami. On our way back to the 1st world.

When we returned to the Rio in September we were unsure of our plans to travel back to the States before next summer and planned on leaving to cruise the western Carib in early November. However, after we got back to our home Linda's family resolved to schedule the dedication for their father's memorial for Thanksgiving week so we made plans to travel back for that and to stay through the Thanksgiving holiday. Traveling back also gave us an opportunity to bring back more supplies to supplement what we brought back in the summer although we knew the weather would be cold (not something we're used to) and every trip back is expensive.

Spending time back in the States gets costly for many reasons. First there is the cost of the trips itself although we were fortunate enough to work off our high point balance of frequent flyer miles. Before we started cruising we had about a million frequent flyer miles and about three-quarters of a million Marriott points but each trip back whittles that balance down quickly. Then of course while we are back we visit with friends we go out to eat a lot and buy groceries to help with the meals for those with whom we are staying. But, unlike here in the Rio where $20 buys us groceries for a week, in the US that buys us not much. We can go out here in the Rio to the best place for dinner with lots of drinks for $40. Less than half of that gets us sandwiches at Panera. Then on top of all that are the supplies we need to bring back with us to continue our too civilized life in the jungle. This trip over Thanksgiving we brought back thousands of dollars of stuff that included boat parts (one very expensive), healthcare items, some food and maintenance items. A big item was our new solar oven that required a new bag because it was so big. Coming through customs at San Pedro Sula in Honduras we were worried about being questioned on our many personal supplies. After our bags passed through the scanner the monitor asked us if we had a book in our bags. Almost amazed I asked him again what he was asking about and he asked us if we had a book. I said yes and he asked how much it cost. Well, we had several books so I said I didn't remember exactly but said "about $20." He said "ok" and that was it. We were on our way home.

Our luggage back home in the cockpit after running the gauntlet of customs and political protests.

Our time in the States was very enjoyable as we celebrated Al Lee's memorial and the Thanksgiving holiday. During the 2 weeks we got to visit with friends and family and suffer through being cold. In fact, I got sick about the second day there with a cold that lingered pretty much until we got back here. We joke about temperatures under 75 being chilly but after spending most of the last 3 years in temps above 80 everyday 30F is really unbearable now.

On the way back home from Chicago we landed right in the middle of somebody else's war. We left the airport and as we we're leaving, Otto, our driver, told us that there might be protests on the way home because of the Presidential election that had just occurred and no winner had been announced. We took the news stoically as we saw the security around the airport and the heavy security around the Honduran Air Force base just off the airport. The drive went well until we saw vehicles driving the other way on our highway shoulder just before the traffic stopped.

Our solar oven working on the dock. Did a great job on veggies 2x. Would have used it more but it has been so overcast and rainy.

Once we were stopped we had no idea if it would be a few minutes, hours or days until we could continue. We had no food, little water and there were no comfort facilities anywhere around. The best we could hope for was a sudden downpour of rain that might drive off the protesters so we could continue. We had no idea how safe we were from collateral violence or deliberate violence that might be directed against us as Americans or just as indiscriminate crime victims.

On the 9th of December RAM Marina held a celebration for the 1 year anniversary of the great paint shed and to celebrate the accomplishments of a local school at Cayo Quemado.

People walked past us all night heading to the protest. Many looked like folks out for a party. They were joking, some carried balloons or children, bags of food and most totally ignored us which was comforting. We saw trucks going toward the protests loaded with pallets and tires and we saw the flames of the fires not that far ahead. But mostly, we were surrounded by trucks and cars with people just suffering in boredom waiting to go on.


An article about the protests going on in Honduras.


Finally there may be a ray of sunshine in Honduras.

Our big concern was that the border to Guatemala closed at 1800 until 0600 the next morning. Otto suggested that we could walk around the protests and get a cab that would take us to the border and we could cross and then take a cab to the Rio. I had several concerns with that. The big one was what if there were protests down the road and we got stuck again. Then we would be with someone we didn't know, in a place we didn't know with someone that probably spoke less English than Otto. Linda and I both agreed we should stay in place and just wait it out. From my years of experience in the Army it seemed like a well-blended position would be less conspicuous than being out alone someplace where we had no support.

Sharing a Happy Birthday with our good friend Nina at Dreamcatchers.

We did have some nutrition bars that we ate and we drank our water sparingly sharing with Otto and after dark walked off the road to relieve ourselves until finally at 0130 the road was open and we were able to get past the sites of the protests. As we drove through the protest sites we saw the burnt tires and debris that was still burning. At one point there were lots of rocks on the road that I guessed were probably thrown at the police but hoped that was not the case. Finally we made it to a 24 hr

A wonderful paella at Dreamcatchers.

We shared the evening at Dreamcatchers with our good friends Bert and Dorothy.

convenience mart in Puerto Cortes where we stopped to get some water, snacks and use the restrooms. The mart was full of people who asked if we had come from San Pedro Sula because they were all waiting to go there. We told them the road was now open. We bought a little refreshment before driving to the border arriving about 0300 to wait for it to open at 0600. We finally got some sleep as we waited with many other vehicles in the vicinity of a nearby Army security station that provided some comfort against assaults. At 0600 we got over the border and from there the trip was uneventful.

Up the mast.

After we got back and over the next several days we read up on what was going on in Honduras. A curfew had been imposed and a number of folks had been killed in the rioting. Apparently the electoral Court ultimately declared the incumbent the winner over the challenger who is allied with the Maduran government in Venezuela. The protesters were wearing Che Guevara hats and bandannas. Honduras is a beautiful country with lots of treasures. Hopefully, peace will arrive soon.

A view of the marina from the top of the mast.

Looking down at Linda on the bow.

Since we got back we have been, well, living in the style to which we have become accustomed. Enjoying the fresh fruits and vegetables purchased at the local tiendas. eating out cheaply when we like, visiting with friends, getting all our prep work done and suffering through the cold and rainy weather of the end of the rainy season.   Any day now the rainy season will end and we will get lots of bright sunny days.

We have pulled out all the halyards and bent on all the sails to get the boat rigged. We had taken them all off when we got here in June to protect them from the sun but with the sun now at its lowest its safe to get rigged and ready to go. I rebuilt our fender board with new hardware and repainted it as the old hardware was corroding and leaving rust stains on the deck. Also painted our deck boards and bought a new one here in Rio that I painted and bolted on to the stanchions so we can attach all our fuel and water jugs securely in the rough water we will face on our upcoming passages. Also accomplished our annual canvas cleaning and waterproofing. The tasks completed here pretty much exhaust our "to do" list and completing all that is a wonderful feeling.

One night we had a dinghy raft-up with friends just before they left the Rio.

Living in the Rio has become very comfortable. The weather is pleasant; abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables available very inexpensively; inexpensive dining out; friendly local people and cruisers; most of anything we need is available here; and the chance to finish every project on my deferred maintenance list. With the work the yard did and what I've been able to accomplish the boat is looking great! Hopefully when we leave here the boat will be in the best condition since we've owned it. This all makes it more difficult to leave plus the fact that we haven't been offshore since we got here. As anxious as we are to get on with our trip it is hard to leave. We also know that after a month off-shore much of the maintenance work we accomplished will be obliterated. It just gives us challenges to keep it up.

Amekaya stripped of canvas for cleaning and waterproofing.

Since we got back to the Rio after Thanksgiving the level of activity on the river has increased dramatically. There are many Guatemalan tourists here to celebrate the season and lanchas are running frequently providing lots of wake to our boat at the dock. Inventories at stores and tiendas have been increasing in quantity and quality as locals look for food and gifts for their holiday festivities. The streets are busy and it is a fun time to be here. Unfortunately we missed the Christmas parade in town because that happened the day we were stuck in the Honduran protests.

The cruisers and ex-pats generously support Casa Guatemala that is a local orphanage that is a very complex organization. They run the Hotel Backpackers that not only provides rooms, meals and  laundry services for travelers to generate profits to support the orphanage. They also have a boat that comes around twice a week with supply items that they sell to generate profits to support the orphanage. The cruisers and the locals team up to provide a Christmas party with Santa Claus for the orphanage complete with donated gifts and food to support the children.

Our cockpit with Christmas lights.

The cruisers and ex-pats in Rio Dulce do a lot for the community. Their mere presence here provides opportunities for local folks to do work on boats, increase sales at the tiendas and the marinas hire local people for full-time positions providing good jobs. Beyond that the charitable work through Casa Guatemala and a cruiser organization called "Pass It On" all contribute to improving life in the local towns and villages. But, there is so much to do. Most children have little or no schooling. Children work from the time they can do something productive to help contribute to the family income. Children can typically be found working in most of the tiendas or even in the boatyard along with other family members.

The RAM Marina Christmas Tree

The tourists are now coming to the Rio. The hotels and hostels around town are full and lanchas cruise around full of tourists. Many of them pass by the marina here slowly with the passengers looking at the boats. One day recently when I was at the top of the mast to retrieve a halyard when the leader line got wrapped around the jib swivel a boat full of tourists was going in circles near our boat so everyone could gaze at the gringo up the mast while causing wake. Of course they had no idea that their wake was causing me to slam into the masthead keeping me from accomplishing my mission as I had to hold on to keep from banging into the mast.

One day on the Cruisers Net we heard that the local dispensa (grocery store) had turkeys for sale. We got excited. We don't eat much in the way of animals except for chicken or turkey so we thought this might be an opportunity to enjoy something we liked for the holidays. Since the turkeys were small we could handle them in our small oven. But, we decided to cook half in our oven and half on our grill. After an afternoon of prep and cooking we shared a nice turkey dinner with our good friends Bob and Nina from Moondance.

Christmas dinner with 8 of our friends.

Christmas eve at midnight fireworks were launched all around the Rio. In all the holidays we've witnessed here on the Rio this is the biggest celebrated with fireworks. For Christmas we enjoyed dinner at one of the local marinas with several of our cruising friends. The food was horrid but it was a great time socializing with our friends. During the day we took the opportunity to call our kids and family to wish them the best for the holidays.

Christmas in the tropics is different. The images of sleighs, snow and glowing fireplaces that we knew for so many years have given way to camaraderie, fellowship and wishes for our family still in the cold world. With so much work we prepare for leaving this wonderful community and venture forth in the new year for new horizons and new adventures.

Watching a double feature of the original and new versions of Miracle on 34th Street on Christmas Eve.

It's always a challenge as we prepare to leave a place where we've become comfortable to head out to new adventures. The conflict from leaving the familiar to going into the unknown raises the anxiety level. But as much as we love it in the Rio we are anxious to get going on new adventures. Some cruisers just go from point to point after hitting the highlights without much thought but we enjoy gaining understanding and familiarity with the local folks as we settle into the local culture. That's the joy of cruising.

A holiday weekend in the Rio. Boats and PWC;s everywhere.

The lovely Mayan woman that helps us each week at the tienda where we buy lots of fruits and vegetables.

Around the Rio the time between the holidays was really busy. Lots of tourists from all over the region to celebrate the holidays. New Year's Eve was hectic with about an hour worth of fireworks beginning just before midnight. But here we are in the New Year as we get ready to finally get back out on the water cruising. The Rio has been very comfortable but we're ready for new adventures.

Peace and love for all our family and friends and best wishes for the new year as we all embark on new opportunities. Next update will be from our adventures in Belize.





Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Our Mayan Holiday

Volcan Agua towering over Antigua.

With most of our boat work behind us it is time to finally get out and see the many attractions that make Guatemala a key tourist destination. One of the reasons for cruising is to visit many places you don’t get to see otherwise and experience the culture by living in it. We believe it’s better than backpacking because you are always at home in your boat. Central America has been the site of many remarkable periods in the history of the western hemisphere and is an excellent cruising destination. Among the many empires of the hemispheres indigenous peoples was the Mayan which came to prominence in Mexico and climaxed in Northern Honduras after almost 1,000 years. The interesting thing is the Mayan people still exist throughout Mexico and Central America but there is no confirmed reason for why their great Empire collapsed.

Relaunching Amekaya after completing all the work.

While work was being done on our boat we really didn’t feel that we could leave for any length of time in order to be available to review and discuss the work progress with the yard. We also were living out of the casa with very little of our stuff with us and we would have had to pack stuff back and forth on the boat. We didn’t have the time we thought we would have to spend long visits to the sites so we tried to make the most of what time we had. With our going back to the States for 2 weeks in November it limited our ability to take long trips. Although we will have some time when we come back we can work around the time we need for reprovisioning before leaving and get back out to visit some things we missed.

The North Face in the Great Plaza of the Acropolis at Copan.

We decided on 3 trips. The centerpiece was a 5 day trip to the Spanish colonial capital of Antigua and the beautiful Lake Atitlan with 2 shorter trips to Copan and Tikal.

Getting Around Central America

The roads around the region go from bad to non-existent. There are many dirt roads and around the mountains they are subject to washout in heavy rains. Even the paved roads are slow going. They have solved the problem of speeding by putting speed bumps (called sleeping policemen) all along the highway that definitely slows traffic. The traffic backs up as vehicles wait for those ahead to cross the bumps – one at a time. There are a few four-lane roads in a few places. From the Honduran port city of Porto Cortes to San Pedro Sula there is actually a toll road. That helps speed up traffic between the cities but there are traffic lights and frequent turning traffic. The primary way to get around is by bus although on the Rio boats are still the primary carriers. There haven’t been any railroads in decades after they were abandoned for trucks to do fruit hauling. Buses of all sorts travel the highways.

A typical chicken bus.

Bus travel in Central America is a major industry of little businesses. Since many people in these countries don’t have cars, commercial transport thrives. There are numerous large bus companies that provide intercity travel within each country.  There are even a few buses that cross the international boundaries. The companies have large commercial buses that range from truly first-class to some that are rather mangy and the fare you select determines what level of bus you ride. In each town 

A typical commercial bus that runs daily to Guatemala City.

there are mini-buses that operate down every road and in most cases to remote towns stopping all along the road picking up and discharging passengers. There are also the infamous chicken buses, so-called because people ride them with cargo (including chickens) going to market. These are made over school buses from the US that get some amount of renovation and then travel the back roads picking up passengers going to town usually with freight. We saw some buses that still had the school district name readily visible. It’s possible to travel from border to border at any level of service.

Tuk tuks are everywhere.

Once travelers get into town there are Tuk Tuks (also known as auto rickshaws), little 3-wheel enclosed motorcycles, that will take you to pretty much anyplace local. They only travel about 20 mph and will carry 2 adults with luggage for about Q15 (about US$2). There are some cab operators who drive cars or mini-vans and may charge slightly more. It’s also possible to find drivers that will take you wherever you want to go.

Border crossing near Porto Barrios.

Border crossings are usually fairly simple. There is a community of Central American nations; Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua who issue common documents and residents with CA driving licenses can cross the border without issue. On the borders there are community service facilities where travelers can go to one window to check-out of one country and another window to check-in to the other country. Unlike most US border crossings there are few if any other people crossing over at any given time. Borders are easily identifiable by the numerous trucks parked off the road waiting for their clearances.

The border crossing at El Florido.

Traveling through the great natural beauty of mountains and valleys the country is very scenic with the small villages and farms along the way. The roads are busy with buses, cars and trucks carrying shipping containers from and to the ports loaded with locally grown produce. Guatemala is a major exporter of bananas, pineapples, papayas, coffee, cacao and vegetables along with rare minerals all over the world. Check the produce you buy at your supermarket. Chances are you find lots of it from Guatemala. 

The roads are lined with stands selling any variety of things although mostly whatever they may have produced including animals or artifacts. The roads go through little towns with their tiendas, street vendors, restaurants, pharmacies and gas stations. I don’t think I’ve seen a car dealer outside Guatemala City. Just cars sitting along the road marked "se vende" for sale.

Typical road scene.

Visiting the Copan Ruins

It is sort of ironic that we visited Copan first as that was the end of the Mayan Kingdom during the 9th century AD and the ultimate Mayan site with the others throughout Central America earlier and far less sophisticated than Copan. Today much of the population in this part of Central America is modern Mayan and descendants of the great empire that collapsed 600 years before Columbus arrived.

The town of Copan is just 10km south of the border with Guatemala in a very remote part of Honduras and close to the El Salvador border. Its remote location made the trip there a bit of an odyssey. We purchased tickets on the daily Litegua Bus to the town of El Florido which is right on 

Waiting for the bus to El Florido (or so we thought).

the border and left on 22 October. From there we planned to take a cab or local bus into Copan. The big bus arrived late (which is not unusual) and after a lunch stop at the Valle Dorado cafeteria passed through the town of Zacapa (which has a famous rum named for it and is the heart of the jade mining in Guatemala) and arrived at the large town of Chiquimula, Guatemala. At this point the conductor came and told us in Spanish we had to switch to another bus. In Rio Dulce a Canadian couple had boarded with us and they were also going to Copan as part of their vacation traveling about the sites of Guatemala. We all walked to the waiting bus which was little more than a big van. We thought we would ride this bus to El Florido even though it stopped frequently to pick up and drop off passengers but we got to the town of Jocotan and again were told we needed to change buses to what was a typical mini-bus, or colloquially a "collectivo." Fortunately, this bus went all the way to El Florido and the 4 of us that boarded in Rio Dulce were the only ones that rode to the end.   

Looking toward Honduras at the border.

Some of the trucks waiting at the border for clearance.

To cross the border, we walked to the Guatemala Exit window and cleared out and then walked across the border to the Honduran facility and cleared in through immigration. Then we walked to the bus stand and waited for the next bus. After a trip of almost 8 hours, about 145 miles and 4 buses we finally made it into Copan and walked the 2 blocks to our hotel. It felt like something out of an old western having just got off the stage coach and walking to the hotel.

Looking out from our table at dinner the first night.

The Courtyard of our hotel.

The landing sitting area.

View of our room from across the hall.

Copan is a relatively small town with lots of charm. It is clearly a tourist destination with its many hotels, restaurants and boutiques. The cobblestone streets are bounded with typical central American buildings and houses on the mountainsides that make up the area. Our hotel was just across the street 

View of the street outside our hotel.

from the central park and had an open courtyard on the inside with lots of hanging tropical plants and trees growing in it. It almost looked like something out of an old movie set. Very low key. When we went to leave early in the morning there were no lights on in any of the corridors and when we got downstairs to the lobby with our cellphone flashlights we woke up the attendant who unlocked the door to let us out.

Looking at our hotel through the Central Park.

The Cathedral across from the Central Park.

The town is situated in a valley with high mountains surrounding it. The Mayan ruins are throughout the area and only the major structures have been protected in the Park to date. Probably most of the ruins will never be reclaimed due to the large area they cover and the cost to excavate and protect 

The model in the visitor's center of the Mayan City of Copan.

them. The jungle cover actually protects many of the artifacts from destruction by the elements.  
The town hosts international visitors of all types including large tour groups and young backpackers as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The first night we found a hostel that had a very good but inexpensive restaurant. We were delighted to find that as a tourist town most places accepted US$, 

Looking down one of the side streets with the hilly terrain of the town.

Guatemala Quetzales and credit cards along with the Honduran Lempira. Since we had Guatemalan Q’s we had to work the exchange rate in our mind from Lempira to Quetzales to dollars to determine what things cost. One Lempira is worth about $.06. We had a pre-reserved room at the Camino Maya Hotel which was pricey for the area but clean and comfortable.

The ruins are just a little over 1 Kilometer out of town and well managed. There are of course official guides to help explain the story and the ruins. Like most ancient ruins they have been partially 

Some of the mountainous jungle around the ruins.

restored through reconstruction attempting to reassemble the pieces as closely as possible to their original design. The grounds around the ruins reflect the jungle that has been hiding the treasures for almost a thousand years. Full of teak, mahagony and ceiba trees whose roots broke up the work that took generations of Mayans to build.

The full-size replica of the Temple Rosalila that was discovered by archaeologists inside other temples. At least 4 layers of temples were built surrounding their predecessors. The Temple is still fully enclosed within the outer temples.

Also on the grounds is a museum to which much of the original art work from the complex have been removed for storage and protection. Many of the original pieces still contain remnants of the original coloration where they were protected from the elements. The ruins and many of the artistic pieces contain extensive hieroglyphs that have been studied for years. It’s just amazing how much of the original work has been so well preserved by being sheltered from the elements. In town there is also an Archaeological museum with information about the site, the construction and the region.

Ruins of the "Necropolis" that was a royal residential area next to the Grand Plaza.

The  highest point in the Acropolis and site of altar Q.

The famous dancing Jaguar symbol of 7th Ruler. The Jaguar was one of the worshiped animals of the kingdom.

Skull carving in the wall of the Acropolis.

View in one of the tunnels showing the underground bulwark of the acropolis.

One of the many sacred altars on which sacrifices were made.

The hieroglyphic stairway covered for protection. Each step contains hieroglyphs telling the story of the Mayans.

Another one of the sacred altars.

The ball court. At the top of each side were maccaw heads and the team scored by hitting the head with the ball that was quite large.

The east facing side of with some of the original red coloring still on it.

Another of the original stela still on site and protected from the elements.

Living quarters in the sepulturas which was an elite residential area.

Famous Altar Q depicting the 16 kings of Copan with the oldest handing off the torch to the newest.

The Mayans in their art reflected the animals that lived around their jungle home. Prominent were monkeys like the Howler Monkeys. The jaguar was also prominent in the Mayan culture. Many of the Mayan Kings named themselves for the jungle animals. The national bird of Honduras is the Maccaw that has been reintroduced to the grounds of the ruins in an effort to have them repopulate the region. With their great beauty and loud squawking they brightened up the canopy and were a treat to watch fly.

Three maccaws in a tree near the entrance.

Two maccaws playing.

Our visit to the ruins and museums took most of a day with the guided tour taking about 3 hours leaving little time to visit around the town. Even though there are many more things to do in Copan  we didn’t take the time because we wanted to get back. We thought about staying another day and easily could have stayed longer.

Linda talking to Juan our guide inside the great plaza. So many wonderful pictures of these ruins there isn't room to post. The style, engineering and artistry of the Copan civilization are probably the best of the hemisphere's pre-Colombian period. Considering all of this is at least 1200 yrs old, it is really well preserved.

Our return trip was less difficult. We left our hotel just before 5 AM as our return bus left El Florido at 6 AM. We had arranged through a local hustler for the ride on a mini-bus and there was a full bus going to the border this time. After checking out of Honduras and back into Guatemala we boarded a big bus that would take us all the way to Rio Dulce. Although it still made frequent stops it was more comforting without the hassle of changing busses and we got back just after noon.


Selfie taken just below the cross with Antigua in the background in front of the Agua Volcano.

Lying in the uplands of western Guatemala and surrounded by volcanoes is the colonial city of Antigua (pronounced Antiy wah unlike the island). Antigua (meaning ancient) was established in 1524 with the name of Ciudad Santiago de los caballeros de Goathemalan (City of St James of the knights of Guatemala). It was established as the Spanish capital city of the Spanish realm of Mexoamerica that included southern Mexico and all of modern Central America down to Panama. After several disasters destroyed other cities the capital was moved to Antigua and then after another earthquake to Guatemala City. 

The Antigua skyline from our hotel.

Antigua is another one of the UNESCO world heritage sites and an even bigger attraction than Copan with excellent examples of Spanish colonial architecture and a well-preserved style from the colonial era. From the time we decided on coming to Guatemala this was on our “to see” list. The only question was how would we get there. With some good fortune the local chapter of the Ocean Cruising Club arranged for a group tour and we quickly signed up to take advantage of this organized opportunity to see some wonderful attractions. Included with the trip was Lake Atitlan which has been described as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world.

Twilight with the cityscape, the convent arch and the volcano in alignment.

The La Meced Church celebrating the month of the rosary with the lit one hanging over the entrance.

We would have the good fortune of traveling in a charter bus and managed entrance to lots of events eliminating some of the angst from getting to new places in a foreign country. All the arrangements were made and we left on Sunday morning the 29th of October on an 8-hour trip to go about 200 miles.

The bus made several stops including one for lunch. We were delayed about an hour at the major road project on the highway from Guatemala City to Porto Barrios. The project is to build a 4-lane highway through the mountains but during construction the road is closed for portions of every hour to facilitate demolition and removal. The heavy traffic and the lack of express routes through Guatemala City made the trip long and slow.

A view of Volcan Atitlan across the Lake.

We arrived at our hotel the Sin Adventura and quickly went out to walk about the City visiting the Cathedral, watching their weekly procession and finally stopped at Hector’s Bistro for dinner where we ran into several others from our group and enjoyed an excellent meal. Antigua is known for its fine restaurants.

Monday morning we boarded our bus for the trip to Lake Antitlan that turned out to be longer than expected. We expected to take a boat ride to visit 3 of the Mayan villages around the lake where we would learn more about their culture and get to visit some of the craft homes. The beautiful Lake Atitlan was formed in the crater of an ancient volcano and is surrounded by volcanoes. At an elevation over 5,000 ft in the Sierra Madre mountain chain it is one of the largest and highest land-locked (there is no actual exit) fresh water lakes in the world. It has been called one of the most-beautiful lakes in the world and it truly is.

We were due to meet our boat at 1100 but got there after noon so we had to wait for the boat Captain. 

There are 3 volcanos around the lake. This is Volcan Atitlan.

Looking down at the lake shore.

The trip across the lake was scenic and we arrived at the village of Santiago de Atitlan. Since we were so late we had time for lunch and a quick visit to the see Maximon the Mayan idol formed through religious fusion and make an offering to his holiness. After our visit to Santiago we sailed over to Santa Cruz for a visit to a weaving factory to observe making traditional Mayan weavings. They had several native plants on site including cotton trees, banana and coffee trees. We didn’t have

Cotton trees that the Mayans pick to make their fabrics.

time to go to the chocolate factory or really see the entire exhibit. The offerings in the various Mayan villages around the lake and the difficulty of transportation because there is no road all the way around the lake make the region one where it would be easy to spend several days or a week especially to go up on the volcanoes.

A local out fishing in his handmade cayuco.

Some of the native crafts for sale in Santiago.

We met one of the vendors, Sra Dona Chonita Concepcion-Ramirez, that was the model for the engraving on the coin below. While it appears she is wearing a hat, it is a flat band of felt that integrates into her hair and then is wound around her head, layer on layer to form the head dress. The coin is a quarter of a Quetzale.

After the very full day we went back to Antigua and wondered around looking for a late dinner and stumbled back into Hector’s with several of our friends. Hector’s offered us probably the best salad with chicken ever. Although they were almost closed because it was so late Hector made us grilled chicken breast fillets for our salad that were seasoned and finished to perfection.

The Mayan idol Maximon in his sacred dais. We could take his picture for Q10.

Caught a glimpse of one of the volcanoes passing gas.

The next day we had a guided tour of Antigua and hit the high spots although we missed a lot. It is amazing the history and the well-preserved culture present in Antigua. Along the tour we visited some of the hotels that had taken over many of the major haciendas, the cathedrals and parks. We climbed the cerro de la cruz which was historically the site where many Antiguans committed suicide after the Capital city was moved from Antigua. There is a walkway from the street to the hill that has 333 steps or 666 roundtrip symbolizing the contempt the City held for the hill.

View from cerro de la cruz (hill of the cross).

We also got to visit a Jade factory where we had the opportunity to see the craftsmen making jewelry from Guatemalan jade and learn about the rare jade mined in Guatemala. Guatemala is one of few

The Merced Cathedral in daytime.

Inside the Hotel Posada Don Rodrigo Antigua.

Jade mask found in the Mayan ruins (believe it was from Copan).

Samples of the different colors of jade found in Guatemala.

places in the world with the rare forms of jade it has including turquoise jade. We visited a chocolate
factory but it was really a sales tour. Having made our own chocolate we were interested to see how they do it commercially. After lunch we stopped by the Casa de Ron for a toast to my birthday. The Casa de Ron was as elegant and outfitted as any sophisticated restaurant in any major city but the rum, even Zacapa XO was still cheap by US standards.

Halloween night brought out kids and adults all dressed up in costumes visiting the shops and stores looking for treats and celebrating Halloween. But along with several of our friends we went to

Street scenes in Antigua.

Happy hour on Halloween at Fridas Bar.

Epicure Restaurant for dinner to celebrate my birthday. Epicure is an amazing restaurant. It is owned by a foundation that also owns farms and works to provide educational and training opportunities for local Guatemalans in all facets of the businesses so they can go off on their own to be successful. We

Having a birthday toast at Casa del Ron.

A fine birthday gift from my friends.

met the owner and benefactor who explained the entire process of making this one of the few farm to table restaurants in the region serving many products raised on their own farms. This was a great place for a birthday. Especially with it being Halloween. A birthday to remember. What a great night!

Our dinner party. Linda and me with Serge and Charlotte from Kuaka at one end of the table.
At the other end was Bob and Nina from Moondance and Tom and Trish from Double Up. But where's Trish and Nina?

We caught this little devil sneaking into the closed cheese case in the deli. Our friend Nina on Moondance found Manchego cheese that we've looked all over to find.

Wednesday was el Dia del Muerto (Day of the Dead) holiday across the Spanish-speaking realm where families go to the cemeteries and repair the graves or mausoleums of their family and decorate them with flowers and candles to celebrate the deceased. One family even had a mariachi band

A local marimba group provides entertainment in the street. The marimba was alleged to have been invented in Guatemala.

Decorating the local graves to honor the dead.

Even a mariachi band to serenade the deceased.

Kites of all sizes. This one never flew.

Selfie in front of the kites.

perform to sing their loved-ones songs. From this was born the notion that kites should be flown to attract the spirits from the heavens and bring them back to their survivors. Sumpango, which is not far from Antigua, hosts the annual Kite Festival which is also world renowned. It was exciting visiting the festival and got to see many kites flying although there wasn’t enough breeze to get the giant kites up. The fiesta runs all day with food merchants selling typical local food along all the

The lead of the procession honoring the dead. The parade was preceded by fireworks and lots of lanterns burning incense.

The evening procession for the Day of the Dead.

streets and the local businesses are closed as tens of thousands of people descend on this small mountain town. With the influx of local and international celebrants come criminals and several in our group lost wallets, phones and purses. With the throngs of people it is hard to be alert to every risk. We had been warned the night before by our host at Epicure and we did not see any crime.

A great dinner our last night in Antigua with our friends Tom and Trish of Double Up at Meson Panza Verde.

On Thursday with much regret we boarded the bus to head home. In Antigua we, along with our friends had wonderful breakfasts each morning at the Café Contessa that were simply outstanding. I thought their stellar offering was the oatmeal pancakes that were simply scrumptious. After breakfast on this last day we boarded the bus and traveled to the Guatemala City Zoo. We were pleasantly

A black panther.

A tigrillo.

A black swan.

Linda talking to the lemur.

surprised at the zoo. Unlike the usual array of desert scenes with no animals present all the animals were active, vivacious and close-up. Most of the animals in the zoo we had never seen before. The Zoo had critters that populate Central America and northern South America that we have never seen in American zoos, not even the US National Zoo.  The zoo was clean and the animals appeared to be well-cared for making for a great experience.

After the zoo visit we trekked back to the Rio on a long slow bus ride.

Our trip to The Mayan Ruins at Tikal

Trying to complete the major list of tourist sites we planned our trip north from the Rio to the ancient Mayan site of Tikal. Also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tikal is located in a relatively flat area of Guatemala (since most of the country is mountainous) not far from Belize and relatively close to Mexico. Both of which have many key Mayan sites of their own. Tikal represented the largest known Mayan community and predated the development at Copan. Located near the town of St Elena and its island community of Flores, we made travel arrangements to get to Flores from Rio Dulce by Fuente del Norte Mayan del Oro bus.

On our way to St Elena in the back seat of the Mayan del Oro that was 2 hours late.

To our knowledge the best bus service was the Mayan del Oro service on Fuente Del Norte which had a bus that stops in Flores on its way through Belize to Mexico. We found a little hotel in Flores that was far better priced than the one we found in Copan. Flores is on an island in Lake Itza and connected to St Elena by a causeway.

Pictures of Lake Itza from our hotel the first morning.

We had originally planned to travel on Tuesday 7 November but found out that morning that spot protests were planned during the day to disrupt traffic by several groups allegedly protesting actions by the government. The protests were supposed to continue into Wednesday so we changed our plans to leave on Thursday instead.

Our bus was scheduled for 1530 but we were advised it would be late. It finally departed about 1730 so most of our trip was in the dark. The bus was full and supposed to be air conditioned and have a lavatory but neither worked. We motored on and finally got into our hotel just before 2200.

A scale model of the City at Tikal.

Although we were weary from traveling the town seemed alive so we found a recommended hot spot and had a nightcap. The Sky Bar was located on the top of a 3-story building with an open deck right across from the water. Its primary food offering was pizza but we had one earlier so we just stuck to one drink and enjoyed the vibe, ambiance and fresh air at this very attractive lounge.

Hotel Villa del Lago.

Gateway into Flores.

We had a reservation for Hotel Villa del Lago which is a small quaint hotel along the water but fronting on the interior street. It has about 30 rooms with a little courtyard and nice views of the town. Isla Flores is primarily a tourist town and could easily be mistaken for similar island towns anywhere. There are many hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops and convenience stores. Across the river St Elena is busy town with an airport, lots of shopping and a McDonalds! Something we haven’t seen much of since we came back from the States. But the hotel is clean and comfortable and maybe nicer than our room in Antigua.

Monkeys up in the trees of the Park.

In spite of our late night we were up early on Friday morning because we had booked a ride to Tikal for 0800 with a bus that would pick us up at our hotel. We were picked up just about on time but the driver drove around picking up other people until we finally headed out to Tikal. Many people book the sunrise or sunset tours hoping to be on top the temples for a fantastic view. There are a couple issues with that and we decided against it. First of all the sunrise tour leaves at 0300 and you walk to the temple and climb it in the dark (of course the sunset tour is the reverse). Secondly, most days it is sunny, foggy or hazy during the cooler evening hours obscuring the view. Our friends Bert and Dorothy did the sunset tour but their guide got them there too late but it was overcast and they couldn't have seen it anyway. Their guide said the same was true for the sunrise tour and the park charges extra to go there at sunrise or sunset. 

Tikal is 60km or about 40 miles northeast of St Elena although much of that distance is just getting around the lake and like most places it takes a while to get there. We purchased tickets at the gate but unlike Copan where they took credit cards for everything here it was all cash and they didn’t have any ATM’s on site. We also needed our passport to prove we weren’t local since Guatemalans get a reduced rate.

The unexcavated back side of the first temple.

The excavated front side.

The view from the top of the first pyramid.

Our tour started out with a stop at the visitor’s center that featured a model of the entire compound. The known area of the site is just over 6 square miles with about 3,000 structures most of which have not been excavated. Several of the key areas have had excavation but current plans are not to uncover

Some of the unexcavated ruins in the Park that probably will never be restored.

more since the jungle actually protects the ruins from further destruction. Satellite images show the images of the topography which can then be mapped to form the reconstruction of the areas. It is believed the population of Tikal may have been as high as 90,000. But where Copan is in the mountains, Tikal and most of the other Mayan cities in Belize and the Yucatan are on tropical jungle plains.

The jungle is teaming with wildlife. We got to see some Howler Monkeys swinging through the trees and some wild turkeys up close. Several ponds have crocodiles but they stayed very well hidden.  We also saw a red-headed woodpecker working on a tree.

The back side of the great temple.

We visited the primary excavations including the 4 temples and the central Acropolis site climbing the temples and ruins that were open allowing climbing. Two of the temples have wooden stairways over unexcavated portions or portions that are too tender to climb. As we walked through the site large tree covered mounds were visible reflecting the unexcavated portions of the ruins.

How the jungle reclaims the ruins.

The history of the Mayan projects is impressive for how they built their pyramids and temples without slaves, animals or even the wheel. They did use logs to roll the blocks but ultimately it took Mayans to lift the stones and set them into place. They had developed mortar and stucco for packing and covering the limestone blocks and extracting pigments for coloration. Unfortunately, once the civilization collapsed so did most of the knowledge they possessed. It’s likely that some of it survived in stories or in wisdom of wise men but never again were any of the Mayan royalty ever able to assemble a kingdom again.

Looking up at the Acropolis.

A selfie with the Great Plaza in the background.

Looking down into the Great Plaza from the Acropolis.

A couple wild turkeys just outside the Great Plaza.

Looking up at Temple IV from the Jungle.

The Top of Temple IV

View looking back at the Great Plaza.

The view of the Great Plaza from the top of Temple III

Watching the sunset from Terrazzo after our long day at the Park.

After our day at the Park we returned and clean up and headed over to a restaurant called Terrazzo. Kind of an Italian-Guatemalan fusion place that had been recommended by a young man we met on the tour from DC. Zack was here visiting and we had a good time catching up about DC. We caught

The avocado salad at Terrazzo. A pile of chopped lettuce and red cabbage surrounded by avocado slices and then layers of 3 kinds of tomatoes, onions, cucumbers and topped with sprouts.

The veggie pizza.

a great view of the sunset over Lake Itza and were in time for happy hour that went from 5-9. The special was a couple of types of beer and drinks for Q10. So we began drinking Cuba Libre’s for Q10 or $1.30. They also had some great menu items. We split a vegetarian salad and a veggie pizza. After 3 hours we paid our bill of Q170 (about $22) for a pizza, a salad and 5 drinks.

Coffee with our friends Bert and Dorothy at Cafe Itzu.

During our final day we met our friends and neighbors at RAM Marina Bert and Dorothy from IP 38 Island Girl on their way heading back to Guatemala City. They stopped by for a few hours over a cup of coffee as we talked about our respective trips. We saw many of the same places but their route through the mountains across the country was very exciting.  

The Central Park on Flores.

Entering Flores.

View of Flores from St. Elena.

The remainder of the day was spent getting our return bus tickets and roaming the area visiting a real supermarket and doing some souvenir shopping. After that we returned to Terrazzo for their salad and happy hour drinks to wait out some rain showers before finally returning to our room for the evening.

Narrow streets in Flores.

When we bought our bus tickets for the trip to Flores we went to the bus station in Rio Dulce. For the return we weren’t really sure where the bus station in St Elena was because when we arrived there didn’t seem to be a terminal and a collectivo picked up everyone and drove them to Flores. In Flores there are lots of travel agencies that sell tours to everywhere and sell bus tickets. Of course each one wants a commission and that ranges from 20-100% that includes transportation to the bus terminal over in St Elena. We stopped in several shops before we got what we thought was a good price. Considering we would have needed to take a cab to the bus station to get the tickets at their true cost and pay for a ride to the bus station to catch the bus it really didn't cost much more. All in all it wasn’t too bad of a deal and we helped a local business.

Our bus waiting for the return trip to Rio Dulce.

The bus station in St Elena.

The agency said they would be at our hotel 9:30 Sunday morning to take us to the bus scheduled to leave at 10:00. A young man that was in the office actually showed up early but then had us walk around the corner where he had a tuk tuk waiting that drove us to the bus station. The bus was there but instead of a 10:00 departure it left at 10:30 for some reason. When we went to board, staff from the bus lines setup a small table by the door and searched bags and back packs of travelers boarding the bus but let us gringos on without being searched. Strange that they only did it there and only a few people. People getting on and off along the way weren’t searched. But the bus left before 1030 and we were on our way. On the way back there was a little girl with her parents across the aisle and she was fascinated by my playing a game on my telephone and came over and played for a while.

Little girl from across the aisle that wanted to play.

After a while she wanted to climb up in my lap and since we didn’t know her or her parents I didn’t want to get too close to her. Understand from numerous guide books that many parents here are concerned about child theft so I didn’t want to cause them any alarm.

Back and safe at home after several fun trips. Now getting ready for a trip back to the US for 2 weeks in the cold.

A beautiful day back in Rio Dulce.