Exploring Guatemala

Thursday 18 February

The morning stroll revealed lots of building work going on around San Pedro, a town of around eleven thousand. The tricycle motor taxis buzzed the narrow and in some places very steep streets – most too narrow to drive a car through. At the top of town a lady very kindly let me go onto the roof of her house to take pictures over the town and across the lake.

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Like many houses here the rebar pokes skyward, waiting for the next story to be added on. Here too it is not until the house is finished that one has to pay the tax; most houses are unfinished. There are also some very old stone cottages.

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It’s Cam’s birthday today so off we went to Pinochio, a local hostel/restaurant where he shouted us breakfast.  A stroll through the town revealed stalls selling all sorts of tourist nick hacks.

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Next we took a boat across the lake to San Marcos. This is a small hippy-like town with lots of Europeans running bars and other businesses. We had a long chat to a lady from the US who was teaching laughing yoga there and running a retreat this coming Sunday. Lots of people strolled the narrow streets, some with dreadlocks, many inked up in a big way.

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The guy riding shot gun on the beer truck was very happy to have his picture taken as he stood across the road watching the truck being unloaded.

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After a stroll around the very small town we sat at the waterfront bar to admire the views across the choppy lake before heading back to San Pedro.

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In the evening we stopped at a charcoal BBQ on the side of the street to discover behind it was El Rancho restaurant. It looked a bit rough but we heard the food was good. The only spare seats were at a table with three Aussies. After a bit of banter we settled in for a great night. Frank, Dave and Joe, all in there early twenties, have been traveling for a few months in Mexico, Belize and Nicaragua prior to this. They had some great stories to tell, which made for a late and entertaining evening. The food was great and by far the best value for money we have struck. The toilet out the back down a dirt track consisted of a concrete pad a bowl a bucket and rough boards around it.

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Friday 19 February

After a lazy start we sorted a car to take us to Puerto Barrios for tomorrow morning, after which we took a stroll out to the east side of town at the lake edge. There are houses submerged in the lake. A little Google research told us that no one really knows why this crater-lake with no outlet rises and falls, sometimes up to fifty years apart. The locals who have lived here for generations build well above the lake edge. It’s newbies to the towns that get caught out.

There are a couple of theories:

  1. That ash from volcanoes, along with silt from farmlands block the aquifers that drain the lake, then along comes an earthquake and shakes the silt out and the lake lowers.
  2. That it’s caused by volcanic activity.

Apparently some time back, when the lake was a lot lower, people came to town wanting to buy the shorefront land below the local’s houses. The locals obliged, selling off the land below their houses. Up sprung restaurants and houses on the shore line at towns around the lake. After extended rain in 2005 the lake rose a couple of metres quite quickly and kept rising, eventually gaining five metres to the height it sits at today.

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We strolled to the end of the paved road where Cam and AJ tuned back. Continuing around the road I came across numerous nice houses set above the shore line. People worked there market gardens by hand. A little further a sign states that a 2,800 people subdivision is being developed; further around a 10,000 people one is about to start. After about four kms the road runs out and turns into a horse track up a hill from which one gets a great view of the lake.

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While walking back I stopped to talk to some stonemasons. I showed the boss a video of the new wall we built at home. He called each of his workers over to have a look. They were impressed.

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Heading back around I visited the roof-top restaurant at a lake-edge hotel to take a picture. As I lifted my foot to step back the wind caught my jandal taking it off my foot into the lake where it disappeared. I am now the owner of hippy type jandals.

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In the evening we again stopped at El Rancho for a light meal, this time eating at the street table beside the grill. The local friendly dogs surrounding and under the table were chased off by the owner with a stick, only to return when her back was turned.

As we were enjoying our meal a woman asked how the food was. “Excellent” we said, so Nikki and Jonny joined us. Nikki, from Anchorage in Alaska, had ridden her CBR600 Honda motorbike down from Alaska. She had stopped in San Diego to get her tyres changed and met Jonny (the tyre changer and also a biker). The two fell madly in love and are now heading down the rest of the Pan America Highway to the bottom of South America. Nikki had previously worked her way around fifty states in her pickup truck starting out with a hundred bucks in her pocket.

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As I have mentioned before the great thing about travel, particularly back-packing, are the people we meet and the stories they have to tell.


Saturday 20 February

Leaving San Pedro at 6am we got just down the road when I realized I had left some things behind. The van stopped and I ran back to the hostel.

We went back over old ground to to the turn off to Antigua. Our two drivers were the best we have had so far. First we stopped at a restaurant for breakfast, then every few hours at gas stations where they changed over and we got to get necessary provisions such as beer. Heading through the north side of Guatemala City we saw houses perched on the steep slopes of a canyon.

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As we headed northeast the surrounding country changed from flat, market-garden country to steep scrub and bush covered hills. The traffic came to a stand still near El Rancho. It turned out two big trucks traveling in opposite directions had clipped each other on a bridge. We scooted down the side of the traffic to a few hundred meters short of the bridge where we waited thirty minutes to get across. The traffic was backed up for over ten kilometres on the other side.

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Further northeast large valleys grazed dairy cows, some standing outside sheds ready for milking.

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After ten hours we reached Puerto Barrios, a rough looking town hosting the east coast port for Guatemala. A boat was leaving for Livingston a few minutes after we arrived. The trip took us past what appeared to be a resort area with lots of jetties protruding from the jungle. Small boats fished for shrimp, pulling the nets in by hand.

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At the wharf a local tout, “Cachi”, lead us down the road to Casa Norstra. After dropping our gear off he then took us across town to a bar (bamboo shack) overlooking the sea. Here the two other customers were glued to the screen of a video jukebox that blasted out a thumping noise.

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A stroll down to the beach revealed lots of rubbish and untidy houses and other buildings. Cachi then guided us to Restaurante Margoth. At that point he departed with a “thank you for coming to my country my friend”. Margoth was apparently Livingston’s first restaurant and served up a great fish meal.  

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Sunday 21 February

We were woken early to the sound of tropical birds. Turning left out of the casa I headed for a stroll along the coast for a couple of kms. So far all the roads we have seen here are concrete. The road then headed into the jungle areas had been cleared for farming. I heard coming from a house the sound of an old single banger engine spark into life. Looking inside the family welcomed me in to watch the process of grinding corn and making dough from lt. The road eventually turned to a shingle track.

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In places there are clusters of a few houses, some made of bamboo, others of timber. I passed a large, round, abandoned swimming pool, then a hole-in-the-wall shop stocking eggs and other provisions. A bunch of cows were in a muddy floored shed ready for milking.

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On the return journey along the concrete road many dairy-type shops were now open, as were workshops and other small businesses. At a school young girls sat behind old typewriters tapping away. Large fillets of shark were being laid on racks to dry in the sun.

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We had a cheap and tasty breakfast on the roadside by the wharf.

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The boat was soon ready to depart. Lifejackets on, we did a run around the waterfront picking up some other passengers, two from the casa we had stayed in. Large flocks of pelicans sat on fishing boats anchored in the bay. The odd heron stood out with its white plumage.

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The journey up river to Rio Dulce was a smooth one with the outboard driving us along at a good speed. Like on the Amazon, young kids paddled boats alone all over the river, some fishing, others just going places.

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There are a real contrast of houses along the river from bamboo shacks to mansions. As we neared our destination large, open-sided sheds had been constructed over the water alongside houses. Large launches were parked in these, obviously to keep the sun off the gin bottles!!

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As we pulled in to the jetty next to a large arched concrete bridge people were washing themselves in the lake.

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We checked into Casa Posada Del Rio at 380 locals for the night – one of the more expensive places we have stayed. This town is built in the main road and has few other streets. We strolled up the road looking at the many stalls and street food outlets. We ate a tasty dinner on the street.

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Down a side alley by the water we found a lovely café where we were able to sit and admire the view over the water while watching small boats coming and going from the many launches and yachts moored in the lake.

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Monday 22 February

We rocked up at the bus station at 9:15 for the 9:30 bus to Flores. People piled on to the already ‘standing room only’ bus. Then there was no more standing room so we waited for the 10:30 bus. We even got a seat on this one; four hours standing on a shaky bus would have been hard work.

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The people on the bus were friendly, the guy next to my offered me the window seat as I had a camera. We headed north through a variety of country including jungle cow farms and various crops.

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The ride was quite bumpy. We stopped at one place to get off and stretch etc. Two soldiers watched over us with their assault rifles slung around their necks. A minister got on at that stop giving, I presume, a sermon as we headed up the road, at times shaking his bible viciously. Of course at the end of his message he came around asking for money before getting of at the next stop.

A van took us across to Flores where we checked into Hotel Mirador Del Lago with views out over the south east part of the lake. Lake Peten Itza is quite high just now flooding onto the adjoining foot path. This was followed by a three wheel taxi tide off the island to find a money machine.

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A visit to the town square revealed a fiery red sunset.

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We met Marilyn, a woman from the US, who traveled on the bus with us and joined us at our hostel. She had been doing volunteer work at a place down the river from Rio Dulce. With no power and quite basic conditions, in spite of using a mosquito net and repellant she got the Zika Virus. It started with a sore throat and stiff neck, then a rash developed over her body. After a week it cleared up. A local English doctor assured her that there will be no after affects and it only seriously affects pregnant woman. It is apparently part of the dengue virus family but at the lower end.

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 Tuesday 22 February

On a three am bus we headed to Tikal. Tikal is the remains of the religious part of a Mayan city. Apparently construction started around 900BC. The city remained with its population increasing to over two hundred thousand until 900AD. Apparently years with little rain depleted resources and the city was abandoned. Rumours of its existence had been passed down through generations but it was not rediscovered until 1948 by a local from Flores. At that point the structures were just large mounds with trees growing on them. In the late fifties the restoration process began. Now with over a million visitors a year the restoration process still goes on. It is thought that the America’s population originally came from the Mongolian region crossing the then frozen Bering Strait around twenty thousand years ago.

On arrival we were lead in darkness by a guide through the grounds to the a large, east facing temple. There we climbed a hundred and seventy steps to sit in silence and wait for the sun rise. As we sat a weak, red glow appeared in the sky before the mist got thicker and it disappeared.

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Daylight upon us, we climbed down and were guided around the many structures and features including a huge pit, where some of the stone had come from to build the pyramids. These were later sealed and used to store water.

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Arriving at the main area between the king and queen’s pyramids the process of sacrifice was explained to us as the many sacrificial stones were pointed out. We then got a chance to wander around the various structures including climbing the queen’s but not the king’s pyramid. Back in the day all the forest in the area was felled as fuel for the kilns they used to bake crushed limestone and turn it into a mortar for the construction.

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Prowling the grounds was a large wild turkey, which looked like someone had stuck corn to its head. Its gobble started with a drum-beat sound from its stomach and rose up through its neck, ending in a blood-curdling scream. We also heard howler monkeys in the trees. Long wide ant trails ran along the ground in places. Animals with a pointed nose and long tails foraged by the side of one track, unfazed by our presence. I was unable to establish a name for these.

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As we headed out of the park around 9.30am the crowds began to arrive as the sun got hot. At 400 locals our early start had been well worth while.

The evening we spent sharing experiences with a group of German tourists. Paul and Robert were on the road for a few months and Frauke for a year. All plan to head to NZ one day

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