We arrived in Guate about 2pm, at the Litegua bus station downtown, and negotiated for a taxi to take us to our hotel near the airport. We weren't sure what the far should be, but the taxi driver started at 90Q and we got him down to 60Q, so we probably got a reasonably fair fare.
Our hotel, a small family run hotel called Patricia's was recommended to us by a friend. http://patriciashotel.com/
It turned out to be a family home, in the traditional Guatemalan style with a courtyard in the middle. The family rents out 6 rooms with shared bath, 3 in each leg of the "U". It was a very clean and fairly cheery place, and Patricia and her family were very nice. The beds were firm, the pillows NOT lumpy, the sheets good. There is free wifi. TV is shared, in the courtyard.
We'd recommend this as a budget hotel close to the airport. The cost was $12 U.S. pp, which includes one airport transfer and a continental breakfast. They also gave us a ride into town (Zone 10) for 25Q (about $3). They do NOT do dinner, but there is a small diner within walking distance featuring typical El Salvadoran food.
After we got settled in the hotel, Dave and I spent the afternoon poking around the Zona Viva (Zone 10) in Guatemala City. This is the area where most of the foreign embassies are located, and has several US-style shopping malls, plus numerous bars, restaurants, and hotels, all within a few blocks of each other. This is where most non-backpacker tourists stay in Guatemala, either coming or going. There is a nice-looking Holiday Inn and a few other upscale US hotels. But the low end of these hotels start at $75/nite, a price we'd never consider paying in Guatemala.
We strolled the malls and were amazed at the "stuff". You can truly get just about any U.S. goods here, at a price. Not outrageous, just what you'd expect to pay when adding shipping costs and government import taxes (12%). The largest store in the Rio Dulce is about the size of a typical 3BR home in the U.S., so everything is limited in selection and quantity. So we just gawked at all the stuff in these stores. And the malls they were in were typical huge malls... 3 levels with a large food court in each one.
We also walked a few blocks to check out the budget hotel that many of the cruisers use when coming to the city. Hotel Las Torres
It is located in Zone 10 and within walking distance of all the malls, restaurants and bars. We had received conflicting recommendations from our friends. One friend said it was great, and other said they wouldn't stay there again. Though we didn't get to see a room, because they were all full, it looked "entirely adequate".
The Las Torres is right across from the Holiday Inn and costs half the price. They advertise a room rate of $38.50, but tell them you're a boater on the Rio Dulce and give them a boat card to put on their wall, and you get a room rate of $25. The front desk guy says their wifi works "most of the time". I think we'll stay here on our way back through Guate just to experience it for ourselves.
Our plan was to eat while downtown and then catch a cab back to the hotel for an early night. We needed to get up at 4:30am to catch our 7am flight out to Ft. Lauderdale.
I have to confess that we ate in the mall food court, and then had an ice cream at McDonalds. The mall meal was good--at a New Orleans themed restaurant though with a Guatemalan flair.
We flagged down a taxi back to the U.S. Again he asked for almost double what it should have been and when Dave started pressing for a lower price, he whined about rush hour, etc. We settled on 30Q, but Dave gave him 35Q, because the traffic was bad and he turned out to be a nice guy.
It appeared that we were the only guests at Patricia's. We never saw another guest, and it was a nice quiet hotel, EXCEPT for the engine noises coming from the airport. The traffic dies down after dark and the only one that disturbed us was about 4am, some turbo prop revving up his engines.
The common questions when you meet another student (in a bar, in the square, on a bus to somewhere, at the mid-morning break at the school).
- Where are you from?
- How long are you here for?
- Where have you been in Guatemala?
- Where are you going next?
- How can you afford to do this?
It is fun sharing life stories and tips about how to see more of Guatemala for less. And it is inspiring to meet other adventurous people like ourselves.
They had promised us an itinerary, but we never got one (and forgot to ask until we were underway). Maybe it was a plot to make us have to talk Spanish with our driver!
The driver, Carlos, seemed to only speak Spanish (but later I found out that he speaks English pretty well). I was worried that the fact that we were supposed to be picking Dave, Ron, and Dorothy up at El Rancho hadn't been properly communicated. So I worried the whole way until we actually had them in the bus that something wouldn't work out right. But it was no problem.
We didn't pick them up in El Rancho until about 4:30pm, and we still had about 2 hours to go to get to Coban. To fit all 12 people in, with luggage, we had to put Sue on the jump seat next to the driver, and Dorothy on the back jump seat next to the luggage. They swapped places on the way back and both ended up with sore bums.
It was a dark and rainy night and we were all glad that someone else was driving us. Carlos turned out to be a very good and careful driver. Most of the roads in Guatemala are still only 2 lanes. And they have no trains and no ports to speak of, so ALL the goods in the country move via truck. AND the roads are very mountainous, so one heavily laden truck going up a hill will essentially stall traffic to a crawl. So the other drivers just pass them anywhere, any way they can... on hills, on blind curves, etc. It is not uncommon to have 3 abreast on a 2 lane road. They are all crazy. It's nervewracking to just be in the passenger seat. But Carlos refused to pass unless he could do so safely.
The sleeping arrangements for our 2 nights in the hotel had been a little fuzzy. The normal student population (the backpackers) are used to dormitory style accommodations. But I wanted to spend at least the first night alone with Dave, so I asked for a private room for us and another for Ron and Dorothy. There were 2 other couples in the group and 4 single people. Once all the keys had been given out, it turned out that my friend Sue (who is married) ended up being paired with Kim, an older gentleman from Korea. He wasn't too keen about that and neither was Sue.
There were no more rooms to be had. So they shuffled things a little bit and they ended up putting her in with 2 other students (in a 3-bed room). I think the name of the hotel was Pasado Don Antonio, but it was somewhat unremarkable. We got there late, it was pouring rain and it continued to rain until we left in the morning.
The next morning we had breakfast in a Pollo Campero, which is a McDonalds-style fast food restaurant that specializes in chicken.
They are all over Guatemala, but so far we had refused to eat in one. But our driver, Carlos, picked this place because it was easy and relatively fast. It was not bad. Dave and I both got 'Plato Super Tipico' which included refried beans and fried plantains (and eggs, bacon, etc).
Once we left Coban for Lanquin, the paved road ended and we went the rest of the way on dirt roads. However, we saw regular mile markers (in kilometers, actually). We wondered whether someone would really go 265 Km on this road!!! I think it was only about 40 Km to our final destination, but it took us 2 hrs of driving to cover that distance. It had rained the night before and the roads were muddy and slippery, and we were going up and down hills on very rutted roads.
With the van so heavily loaded, Carlos had to get a running start before going up a hill. Once, we met another car coming our way, and we had to stop to let him pass, and then Carlos had to back down the road a quarter of a mile to get our running start again. We also had to shift a few people to the back, to put some more weight on the back wheels. We eventually made it.
The first stop on Saturday morning were the caves of Lanquin (lan-keen)... Las Cuevitas de Lanquin. This was a big series of caves with lights, etc. Our guide spoke only Spanish and took us through the cave pointing out formations that look like something else. (ie one rock looked like a monkey face, El Mono).
It was kind of uninspiring after our cave trip in Belize. Everyone was excited when Dave pointed out the bats hanging from the ceiling. The cave was lit, but they had told us to bring flashlights in case the lights go out. They say there are miles of caves that have not been explored.
After the caves, we piled back in the van for another 10 Km to get to our final destination, Semuc Champey and Hotel Las Marias. It was more bumpy slithery road, though small villages and at least one coffee plantation.
Las Marias is situated on the Rio Lanquin, right near Semuc Champey.
Semuc Champey is a series of waterfalls and pools, where the river goes (mostly) for awhile. The sight of the river falling into this big hole was an amazing site.
We got a chance to swim and climb around on the rocks in the pools.
Then Dave and I and Sue opted to walk back via the 'mirador' (overlook). It was a half hour climb up steep steps (both rock and wooden) to get there. But the view was worth it and we saw 3 toucans in the tree nearby. The picture at the beginning was taken from the mirador.
We met some of our friends from the La Union school who had also gone to Semuc Champey on a trip they organized themselves. They got to do the tubing trip in addition to the waterfalls trip.
At dinner the owner of the hotel and his buddies hauled out their Marimba and played some authentic Guatemalan music for us.
The trip back on Sunday was long. The only fun thing was our stop at Biotopo Quetzal, where we did an hour nature walk through the 'cloud forest'. There are supposed to be Quetzals (the Gaute national bird) there, but we didn't see any.
More pics here:
Coban, Lanquin, and Semuc Champey
My teacher and I in schoolIt's about a 10 minute walk from our casa to the school. Each student/teacher pair gets a desk, and there are about 30 desks scattered around the school. We get a break from 10:00 to 10:30am. There is an old woman selling meat pies on the street at break. Or you can go next door to the internet cafe.
During the morning, one of the people from school comes by and describes the day's afternoon activity and asks if you want to participate (all in Spanish). Yesterday, it was a free Salsa/Merengua class. Today it was a visit to Mayan family house for a demonstration on weaving, a mock wedding, and some 'plata typica' (typical Mayan food), with, of course, an opportunity to buy some Mayan handicrafts (yep, bought another one).
Tomorrow the activity is a bicycle tour of Antigua. These are generally free or inexpensive. And they are all in Spanish.
School ends at 12 noon. Lunch (back at the casa) isn't til 1pm, so we have time to either check some email or lounge a bit before lunch. Most of the afternoon activities start at 2pm, so it's back to the school for that. We are usually back at the casa by 5pm, where Estela has dinner ready.
Then we study... an hour or two, perhaps interspersed with a little bit of TV. (CNN in English, sometimes a Spanish channel).
Every weekend the school also organizes a group tour for the weekend, to some place in Guatemala. This weekend the tour is to Coban, Lanquin, and Semuc Champey. This is an area of caves and rivers, where the attractions are rain forest, caves, tubing, and waterfalls. The cost for the trip, including transportation and hotel, is $85 pp. This is an area that Dave has been dying to visit. So when I heard that was where the trip was, I called him and asked if he wants to try to meet me. He researched the logistics of getting from the Rio Dulce, and said it was do-able. He also enlisted our friends Ron and Dorothy. So the three of them are going to catch the Litegua bus to El Rancho, where the road from Antigua/Guatemala City turns left to Coban.
Note: Coban is not Copan, which is a place of ruins in Honduras.
Our humble abode.
Sue had done all the research and had picked the school already. I checked out the La Union website and agreed it looked like a good school. La Union website. The cost for 4 hours a day with a private tutor is $90 a week, and room and board in the 'student house' is another $83/week. Sue and I both signed up via a form on their website. Some schools require as much as a $75 registration fee, but La Union does not.
We left the Rio on the Litegua bus on Thursday and started school on Friday. We opted to take classes on Saturday (at least THIS Saturday), but we are taking today off. After 2 days of intense study, I have 'verbos irregularos' spilling out of my brain. I am learning, I just hope it sticks.
I would probably be learning more if I had opted to do a 'home stay' (stay with a family who won't speak any English to you). However, we both wanted the freedom of a less intimate setting. The student house has turned out to be kinda fun. It is typical of the low end hotels in Antigua, but kind of family style with communal meals. The accommodations are bare bones, but clean enough. (Sue bought a roll of paper towels today so she could clean up her bathroom a little better).
Our 'house mother', Estela, lives elsewhere, but comes in at 7am to make breakfast, and stays til 5pm. She does the cooking and the cleaning. Lunch is ready for us at 1pm, when we get out of school, and she makes dinner and leaves it for us when she leaves at 5pm. We are free to eat when we want by warming it in the microwave.
There are 6 rooms here. Most of the students are young Americans--just out of college. They seem to drink and party more than they study. One is actually working as a bartender in a local student hangout. Sue and I are the oldest. There's another older student who's an American, but who is originally from South Africa. Brian is currently living in the Dominican Republic and an aid worker with a non-governmental organization based in the DR. He desperately wants to learn Spanish, and studies
every night. We have had an interesting time talking around the dinner table. He has family in South Africa and New Zealand, some of whom are sailors. So he is curious about what we are doing and why (and how much it costs).
We plan to stay here in Antigua studying for 2 weeks, and then Sue will fly back to the States for awhile (while her husband Mike finishes the messy project), and I will go back to the Rio Dulce. If Dave and Mike can take a few days off from their 'projects' next weekend, we hope they'll meet us in Guatemala City for a day or so.
The first step was to announce on the morning net that I was putting together a trip for next week. We got an unexpected boost in interest when one of the 'old hands' on the river came on and said that Quirigua had the best stellae (carved stones) that he'd ever seen. Within an hour I had about 15 people on my list. The last few I had to tell that I wasn't sure I could fit them in. I wasn't sure if I could get more than a 12 person van.
We screwed around for a few days with Steve from Bruno's, trying to get a price for a trip to Quirigua. For whatever reason, he wasn't very interested in the business. Finally I gave up and asked our friend Russell from s/v Cookie's Cutter to call the van driver they'd used before. With Russ's help, we hired Edgar for Q600 ($80) for the day. He said it would be Q40 ($5.25) a head if we had 15 people. We asked him the max he could take and he said 17. (NOT!!)
I finally got 15 people confirmed and told them to meet at Bruno's at 8:30am on the appointed day. Everyone kept asking me questions that I couldn't answer (since I hadn't been there). I did a little research on the internet to better plan the trip. There wasn't much about Quirigua... it seems to be a short stop on the way from Copan to Tikal or Guat City for most tours. So I told everyone what I thought and that we'd be winging it.
A bunch of us at Tortugal were going, so we took the Tortugal launch over to town in the morning and had an early breakfast at Bruno's. While at breakfast, Ron got to talking with some backpackers who were looking for something to do for the day. We told them we were going to Quirgua and we could probably squeeze in 2 more. Fortunately they decided to go elsewhere, as there turned out NOT to be room for 17 in the van.
Edgar showed up on time. It was a decent van--not one of the top of the line Tourismo vans, but not bad. Pretty much what I'd expected for the price. With 15 of us, and almost no luggage, we were pretty crammed. If we did another trip in that van we would limit it to 12 or 13.
One guy brought a cooler, and it had to go on top. There wasn't enough room behind the back seat to even put backpacks. Edgar originally said we could have A/C for Q5 more per head, but I guess he was hot and turned the A/C on anyway.
Since I hadn't done the trip before, I had to guess at the plan... my guess was an hour's drive, about 2-3 hours there, lunch, and a drive back, and we'd be back by about 3pm. I ended up spot-on. I suggested everyone bring a bottle of water and a snack. Dorothy's idea of a snack turned out to be lunch for everyone (a bottle of wine, pate, cheese, crackers, etc, complete with a table cloth, wine glasses, and wooden bowls). I had NO IDEA she was lugging all that stuff around until she started unloading it.
Quirigua is a small place with big stones. There might be more unexcavated stuff in the jungle, but the part that's open to the public was pretty small. The interpretive center was all in Spanish, so a few of us who could read it, interpreted for the rest. There are no plaques around the stones, and no brochure. One part of the site was actively being excavated and was fenced off.
We managed to pick up an English speaking guide (who didn't know the place well) and his buddy, who did know the history, but spoke no english. Between the two of them, they did a pretty good job of guiding us thru the place. We all pitched in a couple of bucks a head to have them tag along with us.
It had rained hard the night before, and the grounds were kind of swampy. The mosquitos were brutal. The place was set in heavy jungle, so there wasn't a breath of air stirring. Fortunately there was a paved path with some shade over it. But most of the people who came with us didn't venture close to more than one or two of the stones. ("Seen one rock, seen them all").
We were finished looking at everything in about an hour and a half. Dorothy decided it was time for 'snacks' and sat down next to a ruin, in the shade, and started pulling stuff out of her backpack. Those of us that had perservered through the mosquitos, heat, humidity, and the climb up over the ruins, had a nice picnic lunch there.
The others had apparently had enough of old rocks and had headed back to the van--a cell phone call revealed that they were back at the van waiting for us. We promised them we'd finish off our wine and cheese and go to lunch with them.
Then it was off to Mariscos, a small town on the far side of Lake Izabel. Edgar wanted another Q10 a head to take us to Mariscos. After the drive there, I understand why--it was quite a ways off the main road (it was only 1/4" on the map!). You know how high gas is in the States? Well, it's higher here.
Anyway, it was a good fun day trip. Total cost, including lunch: $15 per person. (If you were booking the same trip through a gringo hotel, it would be $50-$75)
See all our Quirigua (and Mariscos) photos here:
The Lake Atitlan fishing boats are a funny shape
Ron and Dorothy hadn't been buying anything on the way up (but Ron was having fun negotiating anyway). After our experience in Chichi, where we discovered the price comes WAY down when you start to walk away, Ron knew that you don't buy on the first look.
One of the interesting things we saw was a man working on an old loom. We learned later that the huilepuil's that the women wear are woven in 18" wide strips by the women on a 'backstrap loom'. The other weavings, for general cloth around the house and some of the men's clothes, are woven by men on a big loom.
On the way back down, Ron and Dorothy started buying a few things. The closer to the dock they got, the lower the prices got. Once they started buying, word got around among the women on the street that someone was buying, and everyone in town headed for Ron. By the time Ron arrived back at the dock, he was surrounded by a swarm of Mayan women all thrusting their goods on him. All were amazing pieces of workmanship, taking literally months to make. Being offered, at that time, for about $10-$20.
I did end up buying one off Dorothy later, who bought her last one on the dock from a young girl, just because she felt sorry for her. Though we felt Dorothy had 'stolen' it at only $10, the girl was really happy about her end of the transaction. I saw her look of triumph as she got the money from Ron.
Our Santiago Pictures are here:
We only booked one night ahead of time, but ended up staying 2 nights once we got there, because it was such a nice place. Booking ahead was interesting, because they want you to pay ahead of time. They don't accept Paypal, and there's a 6% surcharge if you pay by credit card (this is common in Guatemala). So, while we were in Antigua, we pulled cash out of an ATM machine, and went to their bank and deposited the money directly in their bank account.
To get to the Casa del Mundo, you have to take a water taxi. We had been warned that the price should only be Q10 (about $1.50) but many times they will charge the gringos 2 or 3 times that. Dave did the negotiating and we got the Q10 price.
We had so much luggage by this time (what we originally bought, plus all the trinkets we'd picked up at Chichi) that when a Tuk Tuk drove by as we came out of the hotel, we got the brilliant idea to hire it for about $2, load it up with all our luggage, and send Dave off to the dock with the luggage. Since we'd been to the water's edge the night before, and seen boats, we thought we knew where the dock was. The PROPER dock turned out to be a lot further away than we'd thought. We were double glad we weren't lugging all our luggage that way. Dave talked us in to the proper dock by cell phone.
Even though we were prepared for a really amazing place by our friends, we were still amazed by the Casa del Mundo.
Built by an American who married a Guatemalan woman, one bungalo at a time, it's a beautiful place. Each room is hanging on the cliffside with fantastic views. Even our budget room with shared bath (about $25 US) was nice (no lumpy pillows). And it is truly a world traveller's place. At the 'family style' dinner every night, we met travelers from all over the world. We sampled
their wood-fired jacuzzi, took kayaks out on the lake, and took a lancha across the river to Santiago Atitlan. The grounds were immaculate and bursting with all kinds of tropical vegetation.
Ron and Dorothy's room (about $55/nite) seemed to be the 'honeymoon suite'. It was way up on the hillside (about 3 flights of stairs up), a huge room with huge bed, and one whole wall was windows. It was really gorgeous (but with our old knees, quite a climb to get there).
Make sure you visit the photo album to see the rest of the pictures of the lake and grounds.
On the way out of Atitlan, we got a chance to stop at a beautiful overlook. There was a Mayan woman and her 2 daughters at the overlook. The woman was weaving (and selling cloth). Ron got them to pose for pictures (and I got to take a picture of he and Dave showing them the pictures).
Our Lake Atitilan Photos: http://picasaweb.google.com/SoggyPaws/LakeAtitlan
Pana, as it's called by everyone who's been in Guatemala for more than a day, is one of the most touristy towns in Guatemala. It is the gateway to beautiful Lake Atitlan, and everyone goes there.
Because the Lonely Planet wasn't real high on Pana, we only planned to stay there overnight. After of our experience in Antigua--where we got to the hotel we'd chosen out of the book, late in the afternoon, and it was full--this time we eeny meeny'd from the choices in the Budget category in the Lonely Planet, and picked a hotel ahead of time, and booked it.
The LP guidebook says this about Hospedaje Tzutujil "Down a little alley set among the cornfields, this is one of the best budget deals in town, with clean modern rooms, balconies, and firm beds. Upstairs rooms have fantastic mountain views."
Well, they were right about the cornfields. The rooms weren't bad for $20 a night with a private bath and hot water. The view was so-so. There were no blankets in our room (Ron and Dorothy found theirs in the morning in the bedside table, but we didn't have any). The sheets were very low quality and the pillows were lumpy.
LP also didn't mention that there was a public basketball court next door (see last photo in the album). They played a lively game of basketball, with the whole town in attendance, until about midnight.
The next day, we visited a couple of other places in about the same price range, that had also been on our list. The one we'd come back to next time ended up being moved in the 2007 guide from LP's Budget category to the Moderate category (the price went up to $25/night), was the Hotel Utz Jay. It has very nice rooms, a jacuzzi, a small restaurant on site, a travel agency, and internet access. We didn't check the sheets and pillows, but I would assume they were better.
Note: If you don't like cheap sheets and lumpy pillows (they are endemic to the budget hotels), bring your own.
Lonely Planet says the Sunset Cafe was a 'don't miss'. However, we didn't see much sunset as the afternoon clouds were rolling across the river. But it was a nice view and a nice meal, and there was live music after dinner. (Dave and I were so tired after Chichi and a long day, we opted to head back to our room vs. staying for the music).
We actually did a little more shopping in the morning... I bought a really nice pair of sandals with Guatemalan cloth in the straps.
Next stop: 2 nights at the Hotel Casa del Mundo, on the side of Lake Atitlan.
Pictures of Panajachel http://picasaweb.google.com/SoggyPaws/Panajachel
Chichicastenango is a small town in the highlands area that has the largest 'indigenous' market in all of Guatemala. Held twice a week, it attracts native Mayan traders from highland villages for miles around. Stalls and blankets are set up on the plaza and the streets around it.
This is supposedly "the place" to buy local handicrafts like as textiles, masks and carvings, and jade jewelry.
We spent the night before Market Day in Antigua, and had booked spots on a 'shuttle van' that was going to Chichi early Saturday morning. Dave had done a great job of negotiating for the shuttle van ride. We wanted to essentially move from Antigua to Panajachel with a stop at Chichi for a few hours. That wouldn't be too tricky, because on Market Day, all the tour operators go TO Chichi in the morning and AWAY in the afternoon... except for all our luggage... what to do with it while we're in the market. He talked with several tour companies and finally booked us 4 slots on a van that was going from Antigua to Chichi and then on to Pana, with all our luggage.
Pickup time at the hotel was 7am. As the crow flies, Chichi's not that far from Antigua, but... you know our old drunken crow. It was close to a 2 hour drive, with a short stop for breakfast in between. All the van drivers line up on this one street, a block from the market. On the corner was a really nice hotel, with a beautiful courtyard and grounds. Dorothy and I made a potty stop while the guys took pictures of the parrots and an old guy playing an instrument made of gourds.
As we walked out of the hotel, we were immediately surrounded by people selling handicrafts... beautiful woven cloth, wooden carvings, jade and stone carvings, old coins. We ultimately had to wade past them to get to the market (which was the same thing 100 times over). Alleys and alleys of people selling beautiful things... none of which we had space for on the boat (or at home, for that matter). We quickly learned that if you walk away, the price drops immediatly by at least 25%. And as a rule of thumb, if you do some negotiating, you can get everything for 25-30% of the original asking price. It was fun negotiating and we did eventually buy a few things--"Christmas gifts".
Dave was intrigued by the old coins and some of the old stone carvings. After seeing the same thing in several stalls, we realized the coins are replicas and the 'old stone carvings' were probably new last week and rubbed with dirt to make it look old. But it was fun looking and dreaming about possessing valuable antiquities.
We had lunch in a nice restaurant that had a balcony over the main street, and showed each other the stuff that we'd bought. Even though we had had no intention of buying anything, we'd all bought a few things.
The restaurant was a nice break from the closeness of the market and being bugged by young and old to buy their stuff.
However, INSIDE the restaurant was a nice lady selling her stuff (probably someone's mother).
Ron took this great picture of her.
We met back at the shuttle bus at 2pm and were on our way to Panajachel and the lake Atitlan area.
See the rest of our Chichicastenango Photos
We are back on the boat as of last night and watching Hurricane Felix very closely.
We have a lot to catch up on, but I promise some posts and pictures on our Guatemalan inland adventures soon, as well as periodic status reports on how we're doing with respect to the hurricane.
Thanks to everyone who has emailed me warnings about the storm!
For the most part, the weather here is same-o same-o... some rain overnight and hardly any wind. It was a little cooler than normal out early this morning.
You guys with TV's probably know more about what's happening in Mexico and Belize than we do. We don't get the Weather Channel on the marina's satellite TV and the only CNN channel we get is CNN Asia, which frankly doesn't give a rats ass about a hurricane in Mexico. It finally made a little news last night... coverage was about 5 minutes at the top of the hour.
Our friends on Memory Rose are back from the States finally, so we have planned an inland expedition with them to the Guatemalan Highlands. We leave on Thursday.
I have to confess that we've opted NOT to take the 'chicken bus'. I don't mind the chickens, but the Guatemalan practice of cramming twice as many people on the bus as will fit, and stopping for anyone who waves the bus down, and driving like maniacs, makes the normally 5 hour trip into a 7 hour nightmare. We bought reserved seats on the 'gringo bus'... an air conditioned express bus. Dave booked us early so we have the front row seats, so we can see something as we travel the route. The gringo
bus from here to Guat City only cost $6.50, and then another $5.25 to go on to Antigua on a smaller bus.
We don't have our trip fully planned yet, but we'll go to Antigua and do a volcano hike, and then on to the Lake Atitlan area, making sure to see the Sunday market at Chichicastenango. Then we'll move on to Quetzaltenango and do some more hiking and/or horseback riding. We've downloaded the latest Lonely Planet guide to Guatemala (available chapter-by-chapter in PDF form for about $3 a chapter, so we have all the latest G2 on where to go and where to stay.
I have convinced Dave that we HAVE to take a computer along. So stay tuned. We'll try to do some updates on our travels while we're out and about.
We expect to see some boats from the Honduras and Belize coastal waters in the Rio today, as the people holding out until a storm comes, finally run for cover.
We are continuing working on our 'projects'. Dave is still working on the watermaker, and our friends should arrive to day with a suitcase full of extra bits and pieces for us. Ron and Dorothy were even kind enough to make a special trip to Publix to pick up a couple of packages of Grits for Dave.
My canvas work is going slowly. Partly because rebuilding is harder than starting fresh, and partly because there are so many other distractions here... social events and other things. But I've put the pedal to the metal, because it would be really nice to have our cockpit enclosed if we get days of rain out of Hurricane Dean.
One of the 'distractions' is that things that would take a half an hour in the States take half a day here.
For example, Dave needed a couple of simple plumbing fittings. In the States we would jump in the car and run down to Lowes or Home Depot and be back in 30 minutes. Here, we have to dinghy to town, trudge around to the 3 small hardware stores in town, only to find that they don't have what we need. Then we hopped on a 'collectivo', a mini bus, to Morales (a hairy 30 minute drive east), and there trudge around on foot to several slightly bigger hardware stores. It's always an adventure trying
to explain what you are looking for (in Spanish), especially if you don't have one to show them.
The internet is still out at the marina, so we haven't been on the internet much... it takes a dinghy ride to town to get our internet fix. I HAVE been gradually uploading the photos from our time in Belize. I'm still not quite done yet, but I added several albums several days ago.
Dave is working on constructing a new watermaker. He brought (almost) all the pieces parts from Florida. There have been a few items he needed and so far has been able to find in the local hardware stores. We will have pics and a discussion on the project posted on the website once he has it working. He chose to fabricate the system from scratch so he understood the inner workings of it and could maintain it himself no matter where in the world we are.
I am working on learning Spanish and on canvas projects. I spend 3-4 hours a day working in workbooks and listening to my 'Mastering Spanish' tapes. There is a Spanish Class for cruisers offered twice a week but I am already beyond the beginner Spanish--I thought it better use of my time to work on my own in a cram course. We are going walkabout in a few weeks and I want to be up on my Spanish. But this brain only accepts so much new info at a time. Fortunately Dave also has passable Spanish,
so between the two of us (and a dictionary/phrase book) we can usually make ourselves understood.
This morning we were trying to explain to the marina worker how to use Snobol to clean the waterline of our boat. The guy who does the boat cleaning as a job thought the Snobol was a miracle product. Hope we can find more here! It is often comical (and frustrating) to try to communicate well with someone who doesn't understand any English.
My first canvas project is to adapt the enclosing windows from the previous dodger for the new dodger. The zippers are different and the size is not the same. So I have to change out zippers and add a little fabric here and there. I am trying hard not to make the end result look too patchworky, since Canvas Connections did such a great job on the dodger.
Well, I'd better get back to work... Hasta luego mis amigas y amigos.
What I did for provisioning was to make a '4 week menu', listing the foods we liked to eat in a rough rotation. You can get very detailed with this, or not so detailed. Mine was in between. Spaghetti, Chicken Parmesan, Shrimp Scampi, Beef Stew, etc. Some things you eat every week, some are a once every couple of weeks. You need to consider breakfast and lunch, too, and the side-dishes. And figure what you're going to do about things like bread. (more on bread later).
Once I had a menu laid out (and approved by Dave), then next to each day, I listed the general ingredients/quantities for that day. For Chicken Parmesan, it is "Chicken Thighs, 1 Jar Spaghetti Sauce, 1 can mushrooms". The Parmesan Cheese went on the Spices list, and the green peppers, onions, and garlic went on the veggies list.
The next pass through the menu I counted up all the stuff by food type, and ended up with a grocery shopping list. 4 Pkgs Chicken Thighs, 4 Jars Spagetti Sauce, etc. There are some recipe programs that will do all this for you, but I had it all done from cruising before on a couple of Excel spreadsheets. By the time I got finished cruising in '97, I could put in the number of weeks I was trying to provision for and it would make the buy list for me. I just had to adjust my list for Dave's tastes instead of Lenny's and Nicki's.
On making up the menu, I made sure that I mixed things up... type of food, complexity of fixing, type of dish (traditional vs one-pot meals). I also left one day a week for either eating out or 'caught from the reef'.
Once we got underway, we didn't follow the menu exactly, but I knew that we had plenty of food aboard in the right quantities. We ended up just posting the list of the meat we had next to the freezer, and when we took something out, we marked it off. The list of what's left in the freezer is our 'what can we have for dinner list'. I made sure to save the 'easy to fix' meals for nights when we were on passage or had just finished a long day. And I always keep a can of Chicken Chow Mein (includes meat and veggies) for an instant dinner if we're REALLY tired and hungry.
Bread: Store bought white bread in the tropics gets green very fast. Putting bread in the fridge or freezer extends the life considerably, though if you're provisioning for an extended trip, there's usually not much space in the fridge for bread. Whole wheat and rye bread lasts longer without refrigeration.
If you're planning on baking bread, you need to know approximately how often you need to bake, and make sure you have enough flour and yeast to cover it. At home, without baking bread, a small bag of flour lasts a year. On the boat, baking bread, we went through something like 2 bags a week. How much you need to bake depends a lot on the eating habits of your crew. I'm not big on sandwiches, but Dave really feels he needs a sandwich for lunch every day. That means a small loaf of bread every few days. Don't forget to check the expiration date when buying yeast. It does make a difference. Nothing's worse than bread that doesn't rise.
Many cruisers have breadmaking machines that you pour in ingredients and out pops a loaf of bread awhile later. In the States you can buy pre-mixed pre-measured bread machine ingredients in box, that you just dump in and add water. Dave originally had a breadmaker aboard, but I chose not to take it along. They are usually large, and I couldn't justify that much space for something I wouldn't use that often. They require lots of 110v power to run. When we are far enough from civilization that I need to bake bread, we usually don't have an abundance of power, and we do have the time to make it the old fashioned way. The biggest challenge is just remembering to schedule your breadmaking day around the other activities. It did take me a few tries on our last cruise before I made an edible loaf that approximated store-bought loaf bread so practice a few times before you go.
On fresh veggies... My best advice is to buy "The Cruising Chef Cookbook". He covers the prep and shelf life of fresh veggies very well. A few additional tips... we really like celery and green peppers, and they don't have a very long shelf life. If you have the freezer space, consider chopping and freezing some in small boxes for use as flavorings in cooking. They don't last forever but will extend your ability to cook with them as flavorings from about 2 weeks to 6 weeks. Make sure you take along at least one head of cabbage and some carrots. These last forever if kept cool, and when you are dying for a bit of green crunchy stuff, will taste delicious, when everything else is long gone.
In the Caribbean, unless you are going somewhere pretty remote (like the Aves in Venezuela, or the San Blas islands in Panama), fresh fruit and veggies are readily available. In prep for our Pacific crossings, I bought some sprout seeds at health food store. I experimented with them while out at the Belize atolls. Mung beans were the most successful. I had nearly 100% of them sprout, they took the least tending to grow, they lasted a long time, and would actually be a good sub for lettuce in salads and celery in cooked foods. We also enjoyed just snacking on them as we walked past the sprout tray. The alfalfa I sprouted was less successful. Only about 50% of the sprouts made it to maturity... some didn't sprout and some got fungus and had to be pitched overboard. And the broccoli seeds failed miserably. I didn't get one usable sprout. It is very difficult to sprout beans in the tropics because the heat makes the fungus grow faster than the sprouts. The ambient air is too hot and the fridge is too cold. So I am still working on perfecting the sprouting technique that works on our boat. But for sure take along some mung beans for very forgiving sprouts.
Hard to find foods: Of course the list varies by where you are. On our previous cruise, we ran out of horseradish and couldn't find it for months in the Caribbean. We finally had friends bring us some. This time, it's peanut butter. We ran out and I've yet to find a store that stocks it (however, we haven't been to Guatemala City yet). One unexpected item is Cheerios. They have Granola and Choconuts here, but no Cheerios. If you have a favorite sauce, marinade, make sure you ring lots along. What most people do is eventually learn how to make what they like from scratch. Books like the Cruising Chef Cookbook and Corinne Kanter's Kiss cookbooks help a lot with tips on 'making do while cruising'. In the larger cities and cruising hubs, there is usually a grocery store that stocks imported items, but the selection is usually limited, and the price is high.
Our trip yesterday was in a lancha with 13 other yachties. The lancha is a long open boat with a big outboard, and the tourist version has covered benches. Someone has a son visiting and so are trying to show him all the signts. We paid 100Q per person (about $13) for the lancha and the guide to operate it for the day. He took us downriver on some of the back waterways. We stopped for a hike at the Manatee Reserve. Some of our Pacific coast friends were really excited to see the one manatee we saw. We didn't get too excited because we see them all the time in the Melbourne area. We paid about $3 pp to get into the Manatee Reserve, and there was a fairly decent interpretive center and then a very nice 20 minute hike on a trail through the rainforest.
We didn't see much animal life on our hike because, with a group of 15 yachties, someone was always laughing and yakking. Dave and I and someone's son walked ahead to try to get away from the chatter, but by then everything in the forest for 5 square miles was gone. We did see a really cool Leaf Cutter Ant trail. This trail was a path through dense grass that was about 6" wide and wandered thru the jungle as far as we could see. In a square foot of trail there were probably 50 ants hurrying back and forth, about half of whom were carrying a big piece of a green leaf. It was good to get out and stretch our legs though.
One of the sights they pointed out to us was Ac Tenamit, a medical and dental clinic and school for the Mayan people living on the river. The clinic itself is housed in a houseboat... we could see a dentist chair through the sliding glass doors of the houseboat (and a bunch of people waiting). I imagine they make regular trips up and down the river system with the houseboat, as there are hundreds of families living on the river, with only a dugout canoe for transportation.
We had lunch in Livingston, the town at the mouth of the Rio Dulce. We had 2 hours while there to explore. Livingston is only a little bigger than Fronteras, the town near us upriver. We didn't find much in the way of groceries there... just the basics and some pretty old-looking fruits and vegetables. Dave bought a few bits of PVC pipe in a hardware store to complement what he'd brought along to put in the watermaker.
Livingston was an interesting mix of cultures. It is at the confluence of the Mayan people living in the interior/on the river, and the Caribbean blacks (called Garifunas here). So we had everyone in the street...Rastas selling trinkets, black ladies offering to braid our hair, touristas with backpacks, and Mayan men and women selling tortillas on the street. We got a table in a restaurant on the street and just watched the color go by.
On our trip back upriver, we stopped at Texan Bay Marina to say hi. Almost everyone in the lancha had stopped at Texan Bay on the way in, and several boats had become pretty good friends with them. I think one even had been towed upriver by them because of engine trouble. And the one boat who hadn't been there wanted to see it. The owners Mike and Sherry are unique characters and they are working hard to build a nice place for yachties to hang out. We had a beer at their Restaurante and then piled back into the lancha for the trip back to Fronteras.
We had intended to stop at Casa Guatemala, an orphanage just downriver from Fronteras. However, big rain clouds were flowing down from the mountain range to the east of us, and heavy rain looked imminent. we raced the rain all the way home, and only managed to avoid the heaviest parts. Dave and I and another guy were in the very front of the boat, pretty much exposed to the rain. Of course we hadn't thought to bring raincoats. Though it rains nearly every night, we have yet to have much rain during the day. Fortunately it didn't rain very hard, but the raindrops that did hit us stung like heck because the boat was going so fast.
I WAS catching up on my internet stuff, and getting ready to upload a bunch of photos. However, the internet being down at the marina will slow me down again. But I will start posting our Belize and Guatemala pics in the next day or so.
A bit later... I hauled my computer in to the internet cafe in town to do email and post some website updates, only to find "No Hay Internet". The internet at Bruno's is down too. Rats...
See more photos of these 2 trips on my Picasa Album: http://picasaweb.google.com/SoggyPaws
0730: The morning VHF net cranks up on Ch 69 at 0730. Dave is usually still snoozing, so I turn up the cockpit VHF real loud and open the hatch to the aft cabin. There are announcements about a Spanish Class, a CPR Class, and 'Information Offered or Needed'. This is where people ask about getting stuff done... varnishing, canvas work, galvanizing, engine repair, etc. After about a week of listening to the net, you know who does what.
0800: Breakfast. We are running out of Granola and haven't found any here. They have Choconuts in the local store, but in a word, "yuck". So we are switching to the local rolls and Dave likes Oatmeal, now that he can microwave it. Once or twice a week we'll do a "big breakfast".
0900: Daily projects. Mine has been laundry for the last few days. At this marina you have to give them your laundry to do, at a cost of about $7 per load. We are fortunate on Soggy Paws to have a washing machine aboard. It is a small plastic unit that lives under the V-Berth. It is designed for remote areas with not much water. You have to manually fill, and manually move the wet stuff into a spinner to finish. But it has a good agitator and a very good spinner. It ain't like home, but it
is also much easier than the bucket method I used on Island Time. The clothes then need to be hung out to dry. It is efficient enough on water and electricity that we can run it out on the hook.
Dave's daily projects are centered on the 6 large Rubbermaid tubs that we brought with us from the States. Unfinished projects. Things like installing a new higher capacity watermaker. We have all the pieces parts to do the job (we hope), just didn't have the time to actually do the installation before we left. One tub was full of 300' of 3/4" 3-strand nylon line. That needed to be stowed for future use, in an area underneath the cabin sole that we didn't have access to. We cut the holes in
the floor just before we left, but didn't take the time to finish them off, clean up the space, and stow the line.
Dave has made me a rather lengthy project list that includes some varnishing, some canvas work, some toerail painting, etc. He is patiently waiting for me to quit screwing around on the computer and get started on my projects!
1100: Take a dinghy trip to town. Mornings are preferred for dinghy trips because the wind is calm until about noon. By 3-4 pm it can be quite windy and rough on the river. Dinghying around then is still possible, just a little wetter. A 5-minute fast dinghy ride gets us from the boat to town. There is a pitifully small grocery store and an open air market that includes vegetables and fruit. Nearby is the fish market where you can buy several varieties of fish, shrimp, and crabs. And a meat
market where you can buy fresh chicken, pork, and beef.
1200: Lunch. About half the time we eat sandwiches on the boat, or dinner leftovers. Since restaurant fare here is fairly reasonable ($4-$7 for lunch), we eat out a few times a week. Some restaurants specialize in local food and other in 'gringo food'. We go where the wifi is good. :) If we stay on the boat for lunch, we quite often take a dip in the water to cool of.
1300: By early afternoon the wind is blowing and it's reasonably cool in the cockpit, so I have been alternating between laundry and computer work in the cockpit. Dave has been working down below with the fans on. We turn our A/C off during the day, both as an economy measure and to enjoy the outdoors.
1500: By about 3pm, the sun is low enough in the sky that we are getting shade from the trees off our bow, so it's cool enough on the dock and on the foredeck to move projects out there.
1730: As the sun starts to dip we finish up our current project and get ready for an evening swim. There is a float with a couple of lounge chairs on it, about 100 yards from our stern. So we usually swim out to the float, lounge in the cooling air for a few minutes, and swim back to the boat. Though there are nice showers here, they're kind of hot, so we are still showering on the stern.
1830: As we finish up our shower, the mosquitos start to come out, so we turn on the air, close all the hatches, and go below for dinner. Once dinner is finished, we read or watch a movie. We brought about 100 DVD's with us, about half of which we haven't seen yet, and there's an active loaner system among the boats, so there's always a movie we haven't seen.
A few nights of the week, one of the local marinas does something special. On Friday nights Mario's hosts a local music group for pick'n and grin'n. It's not quite the social swirl that we experienced in Trinidad, mainly because there's less to do ashore, and fewer boats.
Fortunately we had planned ahead and secured reservations several months ago for us at Tortugal. (we did this by paying dockage ahead for 2 months without being here) Dave said the overflow marina (formerly called Suzannah's) was really hot (no breeze) and 'low rent'. Tortugal is right across from Suzannah's, is well run, has a nice restaurant, and gets the afternoon breeze. It is also one of the few marinas upriver from the town of Fronteras, and so the water here is clean enough to swim in.
The stern of our boat is about 50 yards from the marina's swimming area (complete with float, lounge chairs, and dive platform).
I was dismayed to find that the wifi at Tortugal is not working, and the only wifi I can pick up from here is locked. So that's going to be a pain in the butt. Tortugal's satellite dish got struck by lightning a couple of weeks ago, and the satellite system has been shipped to the US for repair. There is still no phone/DSL in the area, everyone does internet by satellite... and with the advent of cell phones, there is little pressure for the phone company to extend the wires.
I'll have to find a convenient internet cafe. There are several a short dinghy ride away, and one we passed on our walk into town charging Q10/hour ($1.30). A few people at the marina are talking about getting cellular data cards. I told them if they did that, to get me one too. It is a PCMCIA card that uses the cellular system to do internet. In the states a cell data internet card plan is only about $40/mo. One of the guys here said he thought it would only be $30/mo for 'all the data you
can use'. We seem to have good cell reception here (better than in Satellite Beach!)
Though most of the travel around here is done by dinghy, we hiked into town by foot yesterday afternoon, just forthe exercise. It is about a 30 minute walk on a mostly shaded path. (Safe enough in the day, but probably not good at night). We bought a Guatemalan Sim Card for my GSM (Cingular) cell phone, changed some more money, surveyed the grocery store, and bought a few veggies.
Cell Phones: I have a Cingular GSM tri-band phone. When you buy it from Cingular, it is locked to Cingular. You need to get it 'unlocked' before you can use it on any other cell phone system. We had already paid a guy in Belize $20 US to 'unlock' my phone. You can also get this done via eBay, by mailing your phone to someone. Or you can buy an already-unlocked phone on eBay. You need a tri- or quad-band GSM phone to be able to use the phone everywhere in the world. Dave's old dual band Nokia
is good in South/Central America except Costa Rica. So here we paid Q50 for a Guatelmalan sim card and bought Q100 worth of minutes (for a total of $20US), and they said it will cost us about 10-15 cents a minute to call Florida, and about half that for local calls. One of the challenges was dealing with the phone in Spanish. When you insert the Guatemalan sim card, all of the sudden the phone menus were all in Spanish. I finally located the manual for the phone to figure out how to switch it
back to English. Then when we tried to call out, I had trouble with MY phone... it will call and receive, but apparently the microphone is broken (probably a byproduct of the unlocking process).
But I had an unlocking program for Dave's Nokia (program purchased earlier off eBay) and unlocked his phone, popped the sim card in, and voila, phone service. (now if I only had internet!!!) Aparently pay-as-you-go phone cards are the norm now for cruisers, at least in the US and Caribbean. There is no monthly charge, and when you leave a country, you just sell the sim card and leftover minutes to the next boat coming in. (much cheaper than using my Cingular phone service 'roaming' which is about
Dave got a chance to go off to Puerto Barrios this morning. PB is the major coastal port, a few miles from Livingston. You can get anything in PB. I think Dave was after some R12 refrigerant, but who knows what else he'll come back with. I was left with the cell phone and the dead batteries of a friend's boat who's off in the States. Dave said "I got the battery charger going, the multi-meter's on the dinette, call Ron and he'll tell you what to do. When I checked his batts, they were up from
zero to 7.7 volts, and his freezer's at 45 degrees. Hope the batteries are not destroyed... We're not sure what happened, but at least we were here to handle it.
Gosh it is so nice being around other 'yachties'. It has been nearly 2 months since we've socialized. Being footloose and fancy free is fun for awhile... On this morning's VHF net, there were announcements about Spanish classes, CPR classes, free wifi with lunch (several of the local spots advertised their daily specials). Tomorrow is 'Swap Meet Friday' at Mario's Marina, about a mile downriver. Ah, civilization. (but I'll be darned tired of it in a few weeks).