So why would you choose to travel around Central America during the pandemic?
Both Steve and I have confidence in the efficacy of the vaccines we received (Pfizer and Moderna) months ago. We had never been to Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica, or Nicaragua before and were curious about all of them. And they were all welcoming visitors.
You’ve traveled a lot (to approximately 65 other countries, before these). How different was this trip?
In many ways, it felt like all our trips. We enjoyed it all, some things immensely. But some aspects were different — some better, some worse, and some just… different.
What was better?
Fewer crowds! In Guatemala’s spectacular Mayan ruins at Tikal, we had the place almost to ourselves. We never had to think about making a restaurant reservation anywhere. That was pleasant.
What was worse?
Having to be tested over and over to prove we didn’t have Covid. These tests aren’t cheap. The two of us spent almost $200 for the antigen tests required by Panama and the United States. The PCR test demanded by Nicaragua was almost $100 apiece. Guatemala was the only place that let us in with no hoop-jumping other than showing our vaccination cards. (Gracias, Guatemalans!) Costa Rica required neither testing nor proof of vaccination, but it made us get certain insurance coverage in addition to filling out a complicated electronic form.
What fell into the Just Different category?
Seeing almost everyone wearing masks outdoors, virtually all the time, at least in Guatemala, Panama, and Costa Rica. In Nicaragua, maybe 60% of people on the street were masked. Steve and I almost never wore masks outdoors, and the only time we were ever chastised for this was by a bossy American lady tourist in the central park in Antigua.
We couldn’t discern whether the almost-universal mask-wearing was required by law or simply driven by people’s fear of getting Covid. Vaccination rates are low everywhere we visited, and we sensed that many people are scared.
We were fascinated by the requirement in Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama that businesses take the temperature of everyone entering their premises and make them wash their hands. This has spawned an entire industry of automatic temperature-taking and hand-washing stations, though many places instead had a worker aim a temperature-taking instrument at every entering arm. In most places, no one seemed to be paying attention to the numbers displayed by the alleged thermometers. But it may have made some folks feel safer.
Did anything surprise you?
Over and over we asked hotel workers and tour guides and other people in the travel industry what they did when their governments closed the borders and tourism evaporated overnight. One hotel manager started going out to work with his fisherman father. A tour guide at Lake Atitlan started picking coffee beans. Another dusted off his carpentry skills and made furniture. Almost everyone tried to adapt. They sounded shell-shocked.
Did you ever come close to dying?
Maybe. It happened when we were being driven to Guatemala’s Caribbean coast. We had a good driver (Alfredo) and made good time from the cloud-forest where we spotted the quetzal. Only once did we encounter bad traffic, passing through a market town.
We were less than an hour from Rio Dulce when the cars in front of us stopped abruptly. Uh-oh. After a while, we got out of our air-conditioned vehicle; it felt like a muggy 100 degrees outside.We realized that a six-car crash had just occurred about three cars in front of us; people were still being extracted from the wreckage. Steve and Alfredo and I all shook our heads and cringed at the thought of how long we would likely be stuck in it.But minutes passed, and no police or emergency vehicles arrived, and cars in both directions began creeping past it.
We sneaked by too and arrived in Rio Dulce having been delayed by less than a half hour. At some point it occurred to me that we missed being in that terrible accident by less than a minute — probably closer than I’ve ever come to dying in a car accident in a foreign country. That’s a risk that scares me. But I’m not willing to stay home to avoid it.
On our last night in Nicaragua, Steve and I sat next to the pool in the house where we were staying. Every few minutes the sky flashed with approaching lightning. The thought struck me, “This is a violent country.” It’s dotted with volcanoes and riven with earthquake faults primed to wreck human infrastructure, like one that in 1972 destroyed 80% of the buildings in Managua, the capital. Hurricanes sometimes batter its Caribbean coast and fierce thunderstorms are a summer commonplace. People have done a lot of bloodletting here, at least since the Spanish arrived 500 years ago. Pirates sacked Nicaragua’s cities. An unhinged American named William Walker invaded and got himself elected president in the 1850s (before going on to die before a Honduran firing squad). A long line of Latin-American dictators followed, until left- wing revolutionaries who called themselves Sandinistas toppled the outrageously corrupt Anastasio Somoza. Their war ended in 1987 but Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, now almost as rich and corrupt and vicious as Somoza, has positioned his family members to carry on a dark new dynasty.
None of this violence diminished the pleasure of our week in Granada (the oldest city in Latin America, residents boast.) Founded in 1524, its large, leafy central plaza anchors an orderly grid of streets lined with Spanish haciendas painted in hot tropical colors. I found a house-trading partner willing to accept guest points from us in exchange for a week’s stay in a building erected about 125 years ago. Its American owners restored it to pristine condition about five years ago. From the street it doesn’t look like much. But once beyond the metal gates and heavy wooden doors, we reveled in a 5,200-square-foot patch of paradise, configured around two open-air courtyards. The baronial master bedroom suite opened to them both. At the center of one was a beautiful garden surrounding a fountain……while the other held the swimming pool and adjoined a spacious kitchen.When we arrived (Wednesday, June 9), Steve and I felt tempted never to step outside this sanctuary.
We relented, of course, and were rewarded. One day we visited the potters in one of the indigenous villages not far outside of town. They demonstrated every step in the process of kneading local clay… …spinning it into various shapes on a foot-driven potter’s wheel…… dipping it in colored muds that are allowed to dry before being polished and engraved.They fire the end products in wood-fueled kilns that they heat to 900 degrees. The results were splendid.
Another morning we hired a motorboat to putter among the little islands sprinkled near Granada on Lake Nicaragua. Nicaraguan millionaires and billionaires as well as ex-pats have built mansions on them, which makes the outing part Lives of the Rich and Famous and part nature documentary.
Sunday afternoon we took a class at Granada’s Chocolate Museum. Cacao trees originated in this part of the world, and today Nicaragua is a major exporter of the beans. I’ve seen the pods before (in Peru and in the Amazon); I’ve sucked the delicious creamy white gel that covers the seeds that grow within the pods. But the class filled in the many steps involved in transforming those bitter seeds into creamy dark deliciousness: fermenting and drying them, then roasting them till they turn dark and aromatic. Steve and I each removed the husks from a dozen or so of them, then pulverized the innards. ￼You get a buttery chocolate mash when you do this. We mixed ours with honey and other liquids to make yummy chocolate drinks and with additional flavorings (salt! rum! bananas!) to make bars that we ate for dessert for three days.
It was all great fun, but I’m not sure I’ll remember it five years from now. What I doubt I will ever forget is the evening we visited Masaya Volcano. Several volcanos dominate the landscape near Granada. Masaya is the closest. It last erupted hugely in 1772, but it certainly cannot be called dormant today. We hired Carlos Medal, a tour guide and jack of all trades (he works for the couple who own the home we were staying in) to drive us out to the national park in which the volcano is located. We paid a quick visit to the informative little museum… …then motored up to one of the craters at the top. Steam was rising from a precipice.
We approached and peered in. At first we could detect only a faint glow within the steam…
…but as the sun set, it didn’t take long for the orange-red color to intensify…and grow hellish. For seconds at a time, the smoke cleared and we could see the magma churning barely 1000 feet below. It felt creepy and thrilling and mind-boggling, like glimpsing the inferno… before driving back to our lovely hacienda 45 minutes away.
It’s tempting for me to see the volcano as metaphorical. Nicaragua is beautiful but it ranks among the poorest countries in the world; some sources place it second-poorest in the Western Hemisphere, after Haiti. The suffering is obvious: shacks in the countryside rival those we’ve seen in Africa. Beggars hold out their hands on every other corner. Men on the street sell single cigarettes all day long, every day. Meanwhile the Ortega family members live better than the Spanish kings and queens of old. They’ve murdered some political rivals; put others under house arrest.
Over the weekend we heard so many loud explosions we wondered if another revolution was starting. We asked what was going on, and people told us the noise is humdrum; that Nicaraguans set off firecrackers to honor saints, celebrate weddings, and otherwise express themselves. On Saturday night, we saw more evidence of auditory extremism when we walked down a pedestrian street filled with open-air diners. For at least a block or two, speakers as big as refrigerators were blasting music at volumes guaranteed to cause hearing loss. Yet the locals were tossing back beers and bouncing kids on their laps and acting like they were surrounded by Muzak.
As I noted sitting next to the pool, it all seems violent — violent in a way that makes the US feel like Switzerland. But what do I know… about thunderstorms or Latin American politics? Not much. The storm we thought was coming that night never materialized. The lightning faded away. I hope sunny days are ahead for Nicaragua. But I wouldn’t bet on it.
You’ve heard, no doubt, about the desperate Nicaraguans massed in Tijuana, trying to get into the US. I can relate.
Why it should be difficult for Steve and me to get into Nicaragua as tourists I don’t understand. Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in all the Western Hemisphere; the poorest in Central America. You would think the government would be panting for US dollars, particularly when their international image is so tarnished. Their dictatorial president, Danial Ortega, has been ruthlessly smashing (indeed killing) political opponents and protesters since a wave of criticism of him crested three years ago. He’s been a Covid bad boy, accused of concealing the extent of deaths here and failing to organize any lockdown action in response to it.
What the country has done is to enact the strictest regulations in the region for incoming visitors. Only Nicaragua requires a negative PCR test obtained within the 72 hours before arrival. And that’s not all they ask for.
It took me a while to realize that Nicaragua’s particularly strict testing requirement complicated our plans. Months ago my research made me feel confident we could get Covid-tested near Nita and Marty’s house (where we were staying in Costa Rica). But it typically takes about 24 hours to get PCR results, and it finally dawned on me that because of the weekend, if we tried to go to Nicaragua on a Monday (our plan), we wouldn’t be able to get tested, pick up the results, and have them for the Nicaraguans within the required time frame. Argh!
I finally changed the plan and cut two days from our scheduled stay in Nicaragua. That allowed us to move from Nita and Marty’s to a beach near the airport in Liberia, Costa Rica’s second largest city. I made an online appointment for us to get the PCR test offered at the Liberia airport Monday at 1 pm.
That went just fine. We arrived at our appointments almost two hours early and joined a line of gringos waiting in a big white tent next to the Arrivals terminal. Lab Echandi, the outfit running the operation, seemed extremely efficient and well-organized.They let us get tested despite our having shown up early and said the results would be emailed to us sometime the next day. Less than 24 hours later, they showed up in my inbox — signed by a doctor, QR-coded, and, happily, Negative. The clerk at our hotel’s reception desk printed them out for us.
Only one wrinkle remained. The Nicaraguan government’s website stated clearly that in addition to showing proof of the negative PCR test, all visitors had to fill out an online form from the Ministry of Interior, “an agile, orderly, and secure application for admission, which must be submitted at least seven days before entering Nicaragua.”
A week earlier, I had found that form online, filled it in and submitted it, and within a day received a colorful email back (entirely in Spanish). It seemed to be saying that I had to email the negative test results to the email sender. In yellow-highlighted letters it also said that after sending in the test results, “you must wait for notification to enter the country.”
Of course we emailed them the test results as soon as we got them Tuesday. Within an hour, I received a reply… telling me I had to also submit the health form. I fired back another salvo, reminding them I had already submitted it. I attached a pdf as proof. Then we heard…..nothing. Nothing Tuesday, nor Wednesday morning, nor by the time the driver we had hired dropped us off at the land crossing.
With some trepidation, Steve and I hauled our roller bags across the invisible line separating Costa Rica and its neighbor to the north. The sun was blazing; it felt like it had to be over 90 degrees. Outside the immigration office, some white-uniformed women at a health station signaled for us to hand over our passports and Covid test results. A few minutes later, they returned them to us with stamped slips of paper that suggested the tests had been reviewed and approved. Then we entered the immigration office to find a sleepy scene: a booth manned by two officers and no would-be visitors other than us. One of the officials, a burly, round-faced man, motioned for us to approach and asked me cheerily in Spanish how I was. In the minutes that followed, he examined and stamped our passports, photographed each of us in turn, had us pay a lady a municipality tax of $1 apiece, asked for an additional $13 federal entry fee per person… but never said a peep about the online health form.
So did we technically sneak in? It didn’t feel like it. But this morning, after being here in Granada for almost 24 hours, another email from the Nicaraguan government popped up in my inbox. It was exactly the same email I had received three or four times before: telling me to submit the Covid tests; stressing (with the same yellow highlighting) that we must not enter until we’d heard back from them. I suppose it’s theoretically possible a knock could come on our door. We might be hauled off for questioning.
I’m not losing sleep over the possibility.
And I have to note: taking the two days at the beach turned out to be a blissful payoff for slogging through the bureaucratic quagmire. Steve and I rarely spend time at beaches during our travels. We declare, too archly, that we live at the beach so we don’t need to seek them out on vacation. But this beach on the north-central Costa Rican coast was nothing like our hometown San Diego beaches.
We walked for miles, seeing almost no one but crabs……and a showy while egret.
Along with two or three other people, we were almost the only guests at the beautiful resort that I had found online for about the same price as a Rodeway Inn at home. It was sort of creepy but also really cool to have it almost all to ourselves.
Call it the yin and the yang of traveling in the time of Covid.
When Steve and I left behind San Jose last Wednesday (6/2), weeks had passed since I watched a television show or movie. That morning we drove in our rented SUV to El Castillo, a tiny village (pop. 250) that clings to the slopes of Volcano Arenal in northwest Costa Rica. I had traded more of my HomeExchange.com guest points to arrange a five-night stay in a delightful two-bedroom bungalow owned by a couple of American ex-pats there.
A moon gate on the grounds led to a private trail into the rainforest. We had our own little private swimming pool… ,,,hand-carved doors and other colorful decorations.We also found an extensive collection of DVD movies, through which Steve and I leafed Thursday night after dining on excellent burgers at a local joint named after the monkeys that serenaded us every morning with their barks and moans (Howlers). Craving some electronic entertainment, we decided to watch Soylent Green.
Somehow we missed this movie when it came out in 1973. Turns out it’s set in the year 2022 in New York City, where the population has reached 40 million, a hellhole so insanely crowded that people sleep in stairwells, piled up like trash bags in a garbage strike. But it’s home to a buff young city cop: Charlton Heston. He and everyone else in the throngs are sweating because global warming has gone critical. We see people wearing masks (yikes!). In the end Charlton figures out that dead humans are being transformed into green wafers (Soylent Green) because that’s the only food left on the planet; even the plankton in the seas has all been eaten. Shortly before this climax, we watch him bust into the creepy facility where his old friend Edward G. Robinson, dispirited and hopeless, has gone to be euthanized. Because Edward G is so old, he remembers what the world used to be like, and as he’s dying, he gets to watch images from the pre-apocalyptic days on a giant screen. Tears well up in Charlton’s eyes when he sees deer eating grass in a flower-filled meadow; schools of fish swimming in the sea. “How could I have known?” he chokes out.
Pretty corny stuff. But also wildly comforting to be watching in 2021. New York City’s population, Wikipedia tells me, is actually just 8.3 million (and that was before the Great Covid Exodus). In the movie, no one mentions Costa Rica, but anyone paying attention in the 1970s would have likely predicted a worse future than New York’s 50 years down the road. More than 75% of Costa Rica had been covered by forests in the 1940s, but by the 50s and 60s, people were chopping down ancient giants as if they were weeds, clearing land for cattle and pineapple farms whose produce could be hollowed out and used to hide bags of cocaine. By 1987, more than two-thirds of the forests were gone.
And then the Costa Ricans miraculously changed course. By 1998, the deforestation had not merely stopped; the forested areas began expanding. Costa Rica is the only tropical country in the world where that’s happened. According to one estimate, 53% of the country was again covered by trees in 2019, up from 21% at the nadir.
Today the money from ecotourists and adventurers drawn by the tropical splendor makes up a big part of the economy. And now I understand why. If Charlton and Edward G could have seen what Steve and I experienced over our five days in El Castillo, they would have stocked a backpack with Soylent Green and headed south.
At least 1200 species of butterflies live in Costa Rica, and we saw a couple dozen types of these beauties on a visit to a butterfly conservatory located in El Castillo.
These two are mating.
We went on several long hikes, through dripping rainforests…Across suspension bridges…
…and over lava fields created by Volcan Arenal.
The volcano had been quiet for 400 years before bursting into life in 1968. It put on a spectacular show for 42 years, then it abruptly stopped in 2010. So we didn’t see any lava flowing, but the mountain is still a powerful presence.
Its magma heats an extensive network of hot springs throughout the area; frolicking in them is a popular tourist activity. Steve and I spent a couple of hours in one resort, and I thought soaking in the hot water was pleasant. But finding otherworldly flowers like these in the garden mesmerized me.
Even more mind-boggling was the guided walk we took yesterday morning on the Bogarin Trial. We’d been told this was a great place to see both wild sloths and local birds. We wound up getting that and something even more magical: more than three hours in the presence of Marvin “Geovani” Bogarin.
Geovani told us he was one of 11 children born to poor parents; their small house didn’t even have electricity. He was named Marvin (god knows why), but he always hated that, and as we learned quickly, he is not a fellow to passively accept what fate doles out.
Now 58, by the time he reached his late 20s, he somehow found his way to a career in guiding biological research teams and tourists. He worked at that for 10 years, and then around 2000, he was seized by a crazy vision. He wanted to take 300 acres near the center of La Fortuna (the larger and more touristy town near El Castillo) and transform it from grassland for cattle into a nature preserve. He had no money. But somehow he struck a deal with the land’s owner: if Geovani would do all the work to effect this transformation, he could use the land in exchange for splitting any eventual revenue.
Somehow he turned a landscape like this…
In the early years, he dug deep trenches and built up trails made of gravel and clay — flat and smooth enough that blind people and folks in wheelchairs could use them, as they do regularly today. (Giovanni thinks access to nature shouldn’t be limited to the able bodied.) He planted everything except for the handful of old-growth trees that still dotted the pastures. For long intervals, he slept on a platform open to the elements. Everyone in town thought he was crazy, even his siblings. But he persisted and by 2010 he had accomplished enough to begin shepherding tourists around the place. Today he welcomes visitors from all over the world, and if they see it through his eyes, as we did, it’s a wonderland.
A green basilisk (known as the Jesus Christ Lizard because of its ability to walk on water) greeted us near the entrance, but we soon moved into the forest where Geovani scanned the canopy like someone taking in the headlines on Apple News. He pointed out a large male sloth that I would never in a million years have spotted in the leaves above us. For several happy minutes we watched him hang there, scratching at the parasites infesting his fur.Then Geovani heard a toucan, and we scurried after him to find and photograph it.
At another point, we called a broad-billed motmot to us. Or rather Geovani did. He commands at least 100 bird calls, an achievement that has gotten him onto the pages of the New York Times. For us, he not only whistled the motmot’s pretty song, but got an answer back.Eventually the bird alighted not far away. As much as it looked like the two of them were engaged in a conversation, Geovani said the bird and his mate had a nest nearby, and this guy probably had mistaken Geovani for another motmot who might be moving in on his territory.
There was more. Just three days before, Geovani been bitten for the first time in his life by the fearsome bullet ant, a denizen of these parts, and we wanted to hear the gory details (“24 hours of excruciating pain.”) Another grisly story involved a close friend who a few months before had died from the bite of a fer-de-lance, a highly venomous pit viper that lives in these woods (along with coral snakes and several other deadly serpents.) Compared to them, the tiny poisonous frogs (provider of the poison for blow darts) look childish, like something Fisher-Price would make. Geovani told us how he once had gotten careless after handling one, touched his eyes, and went blind for three days.
It wasn’t all horror stories. Geovani’s a thoughtful guy with a passion for studying geopolitics. So we talked about next year’s race for Costa Rica’s presidency. And we asked him how Costa Rica had been able to turn things around; how it had avoided becoming Soylent Green South. His thoughtful answer was too long and detailed for me to fully reprise here, but he cited many factors: the realization that struck many of his countrymen in the 1980s that tourism could be more profitable than farming, proselytizing on the part of some key environmental visionaries, the country’s high education level (something like 97% of the population is literate, an achievement Geovani attributes to not having to spend money on a military); some sensible laws protecting key resources.
He didn’t say it, but we left thinking we’d just met another piece in the puzzle: the existence of people like him. Tough, generous, brave, inspired, intelligent, unbelievably hard working. As long as individuals like that keep popping up on the planet, I don’t feel terrified about its future.
I have no personal interest in sex tourism. Never have; never will. It was instead a journalistic impulse that drove Steve and me to the Hotel del Rey Tuesday night. Costa Rica is one of the few countries in the world where women are allowed to legally sell their sexual services, though pimping and other forms of promoting prostitution are illegal, as is having sex with minors. Trying to wrap our heads around these extraordinary facts, we’d stumbled on wild online descriptions of the bawdy offerings to be found in “Gringo Gulch,” just a block off one of the main avenues in the heart of San Jose (Costa Rica’s capital city). Could this still be going on in the midst of what appears to be continuing Covid panic? Curiosity nibbled.
Nothing else about San Jose has seemed spicy — or even particularly attractive — since our arrival late Monday morning. The 91-year-old Gran Hotel where we’re staying in the city center is very nice, and it’s been fun to look out our window and see the people strolling across the Plaza de la Cultura. Almost every one is masked. But before 9 am, after about 7 pm, and at times in between, the streets radiating out from here have been depressingly empty.
The buildings lining those streets for the most part are forgettable, a mix of tacky strip mall and architectural brutalism. The national theater adjoining our plaza is an exception, and the post office building is so pretty we stopped to admire it. But where was the Spanish colonial heritage so evident in other Latin American capitals? The guidebook suggested an explanation: early Spaniards came here but when they found few natives to enslave and no gold, they lost interest and never left much of a footprint. “It’s kind of like Panama!” Steve exclaimed. “Only with volcanos and earthquakes.” (And of course no Canal.)
We spent most of yesterday giving San Jose our touristic best shot. Visited the Cathedral. Spent time in the national museum.
We should have done the jade museum, but after two exhausting hours of Costa Rican history, tromping up and down 5 stories to look at 7000 objects made of pretty green stone didn’t push my buttons.
In the afternoon we returned to the central market area (which had been lifeless at 8 am). It was crowded and colorful and studded with what seemed like the highest concentration of cripples and old ladies and other folks hawking lottery tickets I’ve seen anywhere in memory. I went Full Tourist and bought t-shirts that seemed to represent some of Costa Rica’s greatest charms.
Sloths are native and iconic.
And one of their presidents in 1948 dismantled the country’s military. Costa Rica still doesn’t have one!
Then it felt like we were out of things to do except study Lonely Planet for dinner options.
For my birthday Monday night, we’d had a great score — an Argentine joint featuring beef. Every table was filled, and we spent a couple of hours swooning over the food and loving the all-tango musical background. But even though Nuestra Tierra (our choice last night) had hundreds of enthusiastic online reviews, we and two saggy business types were the only customers, apparently for the night. Our waiter looked sad when we said we only wanted one beer apiece. When we turned down the free dessert, he looked almost desperate. The manager, sitting at the bar, may have been thinking of heading for the US border. It was then we resolved to stroll by the notorious Hotel del Rey, den of iniquity par excellence. Could some hilarity at least be found there?
We turned off the pedestrian-only Avenida Central…… which looked like this a little before 8 pm and walked the short block to Avenida 1, where the already-dim streets were darker and creepier. Almost all the storefronts were shuttered. Almost no one was out walking. But Google Maps insisted the Del Rey was just a block or two away. An online report had described the massive pink structure as sticking out like a sore thumb. This was true enough that we easily spotted it, but this thumb looked more dead than sore. Dark and lifeless, it made us wonder if it was yet another victim of Covid. Or had we simply been misinformed about its heyday?
We scuttled back to the main street, where a lighted storefront caught our eye: clearly a casino. Such gambling also is legal here. Lest our brief stab at vice-detecting fail utterly, we let the guy at the front door take our temperatures, and we squirted yet more sanitizer on our hands (the universal drill) and wandered throughout the two-story establishment. The light was gray and metallic. A few dozen patrons, each shielded by plexiglass barriers between their slot machines, slumped in front of the whirling mechanical images. In the far rear of the place, we found an electronic roulette wheel, so deserted that I managed to sneak a photo.
We didn’t feel particularly lucky, so we hurried back to the plaza of culture and were asleep well before 10. Now it’s morning, and we’ll say goodbye to San Jose in a few minutes and drive ourselves to the north. There the true Costa Rican experience reportedly awaits.
On our first-ever visit to Panama of course we would want to see the Panama Canal — vaunted 8th wonder of the world, 107-year-old shortcut between Earth’s two greatest oceans, Number Two on Lonely Planet’s “15 Top Panama Experiences.” And for Steve and me, experiencing the Canal had turned into something more; it had become a quest; a semi-sacred mission.
Weeks ago, in preparation for our travels, Steve began reading The Path Between the Seas, David McCullough’s splendid and definitive chronicle of what it took to create this engineering marvel. Steve immediately became besotted by it, declaring it was the best business story he had ever read. He couldn’t stop sharing the details with me and anyone else who would listen. I haven’t had time to read the book yet but I intend to. Listening to Steve convinced me I must.
Our guidebook and various online authorities assured me there were many ways of seeing and learning about the canal. A museum in Panama City was dedicated to it. A highly recommended activity was to visit one of the lock sites; at least two (at both ends of the canal) had fancy visitor centers. We could ride in a historical passenger train that ran alongside the canal, or pay for a boat ride through all or part of it. I fretted we would have trouble fitting in all the options.
When I discovered there was a home-exchange option in Gamboa, I got more excited. Gamboa is a tiny hamlet situated about mid-way across the peninsula. When the United States built the canal, it received a strip of land five miles on either side of it which it was supposed to be owned by America “in perpetuity.” Jimmy Carter ultimately decided (correctly, Steve and I think) the Canal and the Zone would be better off in the hands of Panamanians. That changeover happened in 1999, but in the 1940s, the US military built housing for the American canal administrators in Gamboa, and it was one of these elegant buildings that Jorge L (a Panamanian) acquired and now uses as a weekend retreat. He also rents out the place via Airbnb and trades it on homeexchange.com, a site that lets you arrange direct house trades OR receive “Guest Points” for letting other folks stay in your home while you’re away. You can then “spend” those points to stay elsewhere.
I thus arranged for Steve and me to spend three nights at Jorge’s Gamboa house. We were a little nervous about landing at Panama City’s airport at 4:30 pm, picking up our rental car, and having to make the 45-minute drive with night approaching. But luck was with us, and we arrived in Gamboa under thick clouds around sunset. Jorge had only sent GPS coordinates for the center of the town plus a photo of his house (apparently addresses are not a thing in Panama.) We were feeling pretty irritable driving around the rapidly darkening streets, trying to figure out which dwelling place might belong to Jorge, when we spotted a guy watching us with apparent bemusement. This turned out to be Omar, a sort of caretaker who confirmed that we had reached our destination.
Jorge had never mentioned him. Omar let us in and it felt a bit like stepping into a time machine; I tried to conceal my mixed feelings.
Two stories tall, both levels of the house had high ceilings and a gracious layout. It appeared to be more or less clean, but any 70-plus-year-old building set on the edge of a steamy jungle is bound to look and feel a bit grimy. I wondered how many exotic spiders and snakes and centipedes might be staying there with us. Omar gave us vague directions to the only eatery in town, and somehow we made our way to it in what by then was complete darkness. My heart sank at the sight of the garishly lit storefront, open to the street, no customers evident.
A tiny grocery store run by a Vietnamese couple adjoined it, however, and we bought enough supplies to return to the house and throw together a pasta dinner. The house was sweltering, but a floor fan made it bearable. Still I felt beyond sticky, and my mood dipped further when we discovered the shower taps in the only full bathroom appeared to be rusted into inoperability. I WhatsApped Jorge but heard nothing from him that night.
In the morning, Jorge responded that he would have Omar check the shower, and when he appeared moments later Omar somehow muscled the taps into life. Steve brewed the ground Duran Cafe Puro (“Panama 1907”) that we had bought the night before into something that tasted actually delicious. I cracked four thick brown eggshells and scrambled the whites and deep orange yolks in melted butter. With sunshine streaming through the windows, the house looked substantially more charming; its character outweighing the mild grubbiness.In high spirits, we set out for the Gamboa Rainforest Resort about 2 kilometers away. There we hoped to sign up for a tour or two and if necessary make a reservation for dinner in the fancy restaurant there.
I had read (and Jorge had confirmed) that this $30 million, 5-star hotel complex could be enjoyed not just by guests but also day visitors like Steve and me. It was less than a mile and a half from Jorge’s. We drove and found the parking lot almost empty. Still the grandiose entryway gave no indication it was closed. We walked in and gaped at one of the strangest sights I’ve ever seen.
The lobby was enormous, immaculate, and elegant, and the views breathtaking.
But where were the people?
Slightly dazed, we wandered around for a while and spotted one distant gardener and one guy cleaning the pool. We thought we heard the voice of maids in one of the guest wings. But we detected no other sign of humans. Indeed it looked like aliens had just departed after herding everyone onto the spaceship.
Clearly, we wouldn’t be booking spots on the the 11 am Gamboa Tree Trek. Or any of the Gatun Lake Expedition boat rides. Still, Gamboa is situated on the Canal, so we left the resort and did some poking around the town and the banks of the famous waterway. Parts of the town also looked abandoned.
From the Puente de Gamboa, it would be easy to mistake the Canal for a workaday river. But Steve was all too keenly aware of what went into creating this portion of the waterway — the infamous Culebra Cut. The cut passes through Panama’s continental divide and the highest point on the canal route. It’s excavation bankrupted the French company that made the first attempt to dig an isthmian canal and cost the USA twice what was originally expected.
Steve was dying to get a better look at the Cut, so later that afternoon we drove across the snazzy Puente Centenario and caught this view.We also looked forward to our visit the next day to the Miraflores Locks near Panama City. Steve was understandably crushed when he checked for directions on Google Maps Wednesday night and read that the its visitor center was closed because of the pandemic.
I double-checked and confirmed the closure. But I also saw that the Agua Clara Visitor Center, near Colon, had just re-opened to tourists on May 1. I had to make a reservation online, but almost all the slots were available.
When we arrived there Thursday morning, we learned that a big part of this center also was still closed (our entrance tickets were discounted, as a result.) But we were able to enter the huge, modern observation platform, where we watched a gigantic container ship from Hong Kong approach and enter the first of the three sets of locks that step boats down to the level of the Caribbean Sea.
These were the new locks opened in 2016, financed in part by Japanese and Europeans, that accommodate ships far larger than the original locks. Those are still operating, and about two dozen tankers and car carriers and smaller container vessels and other ships pass through each day. Although we couldn’t get close to the old locks, after we left Agua Clara we drove around some more and eventually found the nearby dam that created one of the essential components of the canal, Gatun Lake, at the time of its creation the largest man-made body of water in the world.
Making it all work in the face of unimaginable obstacles and challenges, “This was the greatest engineering effort in the history of mankind,” Steve declared. “Greater than the pyramids at Giza. Greater than landing a man on the moon.”
Friday we packed up and left Jorge’s place, happy in the end to have had our three nights there. (As it turned out, the only jungly creature who joined us was this two-inch-long lizard, who seemed to live in the kitchen.)We drove to Panama City, turned in our rental car, and took a taxi to The Sexiest Condo in Panama, which is how Vicki Marie S bills her unit on the 31st story of a high-rise overlooking Panama Bay. I used more of our home-exchange Guest Points to secure three nights for us here, and I have to say it is pretty sexy. Here’s the view of the city skyline from the balcony outside our bedroom with its king-sized bed.And the view of me wondering: how DOES one pole-dance, anyway?
Our immersion in Panamanian Canal arcana wasn’t quite over. This morning (Saturday, May 29) we spent a couple of hours at the gleaming Panama Canal Museum in the gentrified Casco Viejo neighborhood. If not great, it’s respectable, and I think at last Steve feels sated. We’ll have all day tomorrow to participate in the Sunday morning Ciclovia, visit the natural history museum housed in a particularly colorful Frank Gehry structure, and eat more of the excellent local fish. Probably it will all be fun. Still, I think we’ll depart for Costa Rica Monday most impressed by how much luck we had in understanding the greatest engineering achievement of all time.
Getting into Guatemala was easy. After deplaning, I merely had to stop for a moment to show my vaccination card to a young woman (she looked about 14) in a nurse’s uniform. She glanced at it for perhaps 3 seconds. Then I was in!
We knew that the next stop on our itinerary — Panama — would not be so frictionless. The government there has been requiring either a PCR test or an antigen test administered no more than 48 hours before arrival. (I kept checking to see if that would change, but it didn’t.) Our first Guatemalan driver, Alfredo, said we could easily get either at the Guatemala City airport before our departure. But that sounded potentially stressful, so we also asked the person manning the front desk at our hotel if tests were readily available in Antigua. He gave us a couple of options: two places that would send someone over to test us or another just down the street. Laboratorio La Merced was administering both tests in its clinic, he said.
We figured the onsite service was bound to be cheaper. But which one to get?
I was a little afraid the PCR test might so sensitive it could pick up some trivial, asymptomatic exposure. Charming as Antigua was, I didn’t want to be stuck there inadvertently.
On the other hand, neither Steve nor I have been tested for antibodies since we got our second vaccine doses back in February. (I assumed antigens were some variation on antibodies.) We agreed it would be interesting to be tested for them. We were virtually certain to have lots, but if the test for some reason came back negative, we could follow up with a PCR test, either in town or at the airport.
Monday morning promptly at 7, we walked the few blocks to the clinic. Iron bars blocked entrance into its unprepossessing foyer, and for a moment we wondered if it was closed. Then I noticed a cord attached to a bell behind the bars. I reached through and yanked. A moment later, the gate buzzed. We pushed our way in.
A taciturn young woman behind the desk listened to what we wanted. She said we would have to make an appointment, and the test would cost 375 quetzales (about $48.50) per person). Happily, her appointment book appeared to be empty for most of the afternoon, so we secured a spot at 1 pm.
We returned at that hour, gave the receptionist our passport numbers, and in a moment, I was called into a small exam room nearby. The hazmat-suited technician in it asked me to fill out a more detailed form. Then he had me take a seat on a wooden chair against the wall. He extracted a long cotton swab from a kit and inserted it deep, deep up each nostril. I’ve had a couple of PCR tests in San Diego (required before minor medical procedures), but those probes were lightning quick; they didn’t bother me. This swab was thicker, and the guy twisted it for a second or two. It felt a mixture of ticklish and creepy; I half-laughed, half-moaned.
Steve was next, and the technician allowed me to stay in the room while he was processed.We were instructed to return in a half-hour for the results. We got coffee at a nearby cafe, then went back. Another tug on the bell; another confrontation with the inhospitable receptionist. She didn’t say a word but pulled out two pieces of paper and began folding them.
“Que paso?” I squeaked.
She opened them for us to see, and the word “Negativo” leapt from the pages. I think we groaned. No antibodies? How could that be?
The receptionist frowned. She seemed taken back by our reaction. “You don’t have Covid,” she declared in Spanish. For a second, I wondered if we had somehow gotten the wrong test. Then the light began to dawn. “Es bueno, este resultado?” I asked her. Would they let us travel to Panama with this result? Looking annoyed, she called another guy from the back of the clinic. He spoke no English either but made it clear: a negative antigen test was what everyone wanted.
Later that afternoon, a Google search educated me: antigens (bad) result from the presence of pathogens in the host; they in turn trigger the body to start making antibodies (good) to fight the illness. How could I — formerly science and medical writer? — missed learning this? I felt deep chagrin. Still, Steve and I were relieved to have what the Panamanians appeared to be demanding.
On the very elaborate government website, the Panamanians seemed to be saying we also needed to create online accounts with their Covid-tracking software. We struggled for at least a half-hour with page after page of questions, including a security one. (“In what city did your parents meet?” was the one I chose.) We rolled our eyes at the thought that ordinary Panamanians were all filling this thing out. And indeed, at the airport yesterday afternoon, no one mentioned it, and we’ve heard nothing about it since.
We did have to pass through a slightly more formal gauntlet than we had encountered in Guatemala. As we came down an escalator to the immigration portal, we first had to walk up to one of three plump ladies wearing masks and what looked like plastic raincoats. (I tried to take their photo but instantly got yelled at.) One of them looked at each of our tests and compared them to our passports. She nodded and said the magic words: welcome to Panama.
I first met the Mayans back in high school. I think I ran into them in my freshman-year world history course, though truth be told I remember nothing of whatever I learned. In my consciousness, they just became part of a jumble of Olmecs and Toltecs and other people who once rocked in Mesoamerica.
After Steve and I moved to San Diego and started traveling in Mexico (mid- to late-70s), we visited some Aztec archeological sites and one Mayan area (the Yucatán peninsula), and I became more aware that Mayans and Aztecs differed significantly. I must have learned some of the details of their differences. But all that detailed knowledge also evaporated.
We started meeting Mayans from Day One of this trip. And the startling thing has been: they appear to be living, breathing people speaking Mayan languages, dressing as their ancestors did (at least the women), and seeing themselves as part of a contemporary culture whose roots go back to about a thousand years before Christ. Who knew?
Visiting Tikal last Tuesday kick-started my education (or re-education) on just how amazing the golden age of Mayan civilization was. At its peak 1300 years ago (when Europe was slogging unimpressively through its Dark Ages), Tikal was home to at least 250,000 people, maybe more. Much of the area they inhabited is still buried under thick jungle. Throughout the centuries, the Mayans did some warring and practiced some human sacrifice (though that was basically what Americans today would call capital punishment; a matter of killing captives.) Compared to the blood-thirsty Aztecs and Incas, they look like Quakers.
Instead of plundering, they concentrated on things like architecture and astronomy, fields in which they achieved astonishing sophistication. It’s a jaw-dropping experience to be strolling through the jungle and come to a clearing containing some massive structure as tall as a 20-story building. Tikal contains several of these. Some are astronomical observatories, some temples, some palaces.The Mayans developed an advanced (base 20) mathematical system, and a hieroglyphic writing system that compared to that of the Egyptians.Some of the writing has been deciphered from stone markers such as this one. But our guide said that sadly, only three of their books have survived. The Spaniards burned all the rest — reportedly 1200 in just one morning.
The next day (after our harrowing flight in the thunderstorm), we had a driver transport us to the small town of Chichicastenango in the highlands. Every Thursday and Sunday, surrounding villagers stream into the center of town and set up their wares for sale. But although Chichi’s market has long been famous as one of Guatemala’s largest, we’d heard that the pandemic lockdown had cast a pall over it. Guatemala was closed to all air traffic for months, and although it’s welcoming visitors now, we’d heard that the market action was much reduced.
When we ventured out in brilliant sunshine early Thursday morning, that was hard to believe. If Chichi’s market is busier on Sundays (as we were told) and busier still in normal times, we were happy to be visiting in the midst of a plague. A large section of the center of town was crammed with mostly mask-wearing vendors in stalls, hawking everything from vegetables to hand-woven fabrics to flowers to pills for diabetics.
The place crackled with energy and color. Although Steve and I could not have been more conspicuous, we never felt hassled. Particularly mesmerizing were the skirts and tops and belts worn by almost every female. We asked ourselves: when’s the last time we’ve been in a place where virtually all the women weave cloth and turn it into outfits as striking as these?
The next day, we heard an explanation of why Mayan men no longer wear their traditional outfits (they almost universally dress in second-hand shirts and pants imported from the US.) After spending the morning at the Chichi market, we were driven to Lake Atitlan, about 90 minutes away from the market town.At the foot of the public pier in the town of Panajachel, we caught a launch to our hotel, La Casa del Mundo. Built starting in 1980 by a Guatemalan woman, Rosy Valenzuela, and her American husband (Bill Fogarty), it’s one of the most remarkable places I’ve stayed anywhere. Every cottage built on the vertiginous stone cliff commands heart-stopping views.
Stepping onto the balcony of ours, Steve exclaimed, “It’s like Lake Tahoe — with volcanoes!
Friday, Steve and I visited three of the villages situated on the lakeshore not far from La Casa. Our guide was Alex, 29 (whose Mayan name I forgot to write down.) He and his three siblings first learned Tzutujil, one of the 23 Mayan languages. But all his classes in school were taught in Spanish, by government mandate, so the Mayans are also fluent in that. About 5 years ago, when Alex decided to become a tour guide, he learned to speak English (well) in an intensive program in Guatemala City to which he got a scholarship. These days he’s studying Hebrew because so many Israelis come to Guatemala on vacation (and to start businesses, like this one).￼
We spent six hours with Alex talking virtually non-stop. He told us how the village had built a public clothes-washing facility, but the women preferred doing their laundry in the lake.
It was in the village of Santiago Atitlan that the subject of Guatemala’s civil war came up. Steve had read that even today, a quarter century after that bloody conflict ended, this topic should be broached with caution. But Alex was eager to explain it to us.
He said it ignited when Guatemala’s wealthy Spanish-descended oligarchs tried to grab yet more land from already impoverished Mayans in the highlands. Alex led us to the Catholic Church and school in Santiago where government soldiers assassinated the Oklahoma priest, Stanley Rother, in 1981 because of his work in giving refuge to Mayan political targets.
Alex said back then the soldiers had orders to target even ordinary Guatemalan campesinos, who were easily identifiable by their striped pants and colorful shirts. That’s why the men shifted to wearing Western-style garb, a habit that continues today.
My favorite part of the tour was our stop in the village of San Juan, where we took a tuk-tuk from the waterfront to a women’s weaving cooperative. In the garden there, cotton plants taller than our heads bore balls of white, brown, and tan…￼
One of the women showed us the steps involved in turning the fuzzy balls into the gorgeous fabrics:Pulling off a chunk and removing the seeds from it…
Beating the seedless chunk to make it smooth…
Then using a hand-held spindle to twist the fiber into thread.
She showed us the natural products (bark, charcoal, avocado leaves and seeds, insects, etc.) that she and her comrades use to dye the white cotton.
After setting up the patterns on a complex wooden frame, they strap on looms to weave the threads into the beautiful fabrics.This is what is looked like, in action:
Every girl starts to learn these steps when she’s somewhere between 8 and 11, we were told. It’s not necessarily a career path (as a weaver), but just a mundane life skill in these parts, like cooking.
After leaving the Mayan heartland Saturday afternoon, we took a collective shuttle bus to the town of Antigua. It was the Spaniard’s capital in Guatemala for more than 200 years, and their administrative center for much of Central America. Then a fearsome earthquake all but destroyed the town in 1773, and the ruling elite built a new capital about 20 miles to the north. (It grew into the urban monster that’s Guatemala City today). But over the last two and a half centuries Antigua was repaired and rehabilitated. Today it exudes a hip charm and draws tourists from all over Guatemala and beyond.
Steve and I had a delightful time walking around it for several hours Sunday morning. We were struck by how many more European-looking faces we saw. I can’t exactly say that bothers me. But for the first time in my life I found myself missing all the Mayans.
Someone might ask me: why would you take public buses to travel between cities in Guatemala? I might respond: why not?
Here are the reasons Steve and I used buses to get from Rio Dulce to Tikal. (We wanted to go to Tikal because it’s the site of fabulous Mayan ruins that rank among the most famous touristic destinations in Guatemala.)
1) Buses are one of the only ways to get between those two places. One alternative might have been to rent a car on our arrival last week and drive ourselves everywhere. But stories about the crazy Guatemalan drivers and difficult urban traffic scared us. The second alternative was to hire a private driver, as we did to get to the quetzal reserve and Rio Dulce (and will do again later in the trip). That’s the easy choice, but it’s also invariably expensive. No trains or planes or boats connect Rio Dulce and Tikal, so they’re not alternatives.
2) Buses are how ordinary Guatemalans get around.
3) Buses are not expensive. That’s why regular folks use them.
Here are the reasons we might have flatly rejected bus travel.
1) It’s invariably tricky to figure out. It’s not a big deal if you’re a native or you speak the local language like one. But I have often found bus schedules to be daunting.
2) On buses, things often go wrong, sometimes in smaller ways (they break down), sometimes spectacularly. (Their brakes fail and they go off a cliff and everyone on them dies.)
When I knew we wanted to get from Rio Dulce to Tikal, I emailed Wilmer, the manager at the Tortugal. He said our choices were buses or a private driver, and he promised to help us arrange something after we arrived.
Wilmer was great. When we checked in, he said he could help us secure a private driver or he could guide us to a public bus that would take us to Santa Elena. From Santa Elena we would have to catch a chicken bus that would take us the additional 90 minutes to Tikal. (That’s a chicken bus pictured at the top of this post.) But he also had a friend who operated a chicken bus directly to Tikal. He said he would find out if that would be running.
As things turned out, the friend only took groups of 6 or larger, and Steve and I were the only people interested in going on Monday. With the promise of Wilmer’s help, we chose the other option: travel like most Guatemalans do.
Monday morning he took us in the launch to the town of Rio Dulce, then walked with us to the station where we bought tickets on a direct bus to Santa Elena. They cost $300 quetzals (about $39) for the two of us. I was happy to hear the guy behind the counter say the ride would take four hours (I had thought it might be closer to 6).
Less encouraging was that the next bus was expected between 9:30 and 10:30 (we had arrived at 8:30, hoping to catch what we thought would be a 9 am bus.) But we had plenty of electronic toys to entertain us and the tiny bus station was air conditioned, so we settled in for as long as it would take.
Siting there, I could summon few memories of uneventful bus rides in my life. I’ve had some, but I don’t remember anything about them. I usually don’t remember the traumatic rides either, but while waiting for the bus to Tikal, images flooded out of the part of my brain where I had repressed them. How could I have forgotten the Peruvian bus that broke down near the border of Bolivia, and the hours-long drama that followed, in which dozens of locals struggled to fix it? Or getting stuck on our “deluxe” bus in Colombia’s steam-bath heat, and having to ultimately transfer to a very much non-deluxe replacement? Or the homicidal Vietnamese bus driver who seemed intent on taking us to meet our maker? Along with thoughts of all those breakdowns and missed stops and awful delays, the thought also came back (duh!): when you’re on a Latin American bus, you are stripped of any illusion of control over your destiny (unless you believe in prayer.)
Miraculously, the bus did arrive at 9:30, and my refresher course in Bus Facts of Life continued.
Lesson One: The locals will always know what’s happening earlier than you do, and they will mobilize faster. That’s why you will get the last seats on the bus. Forget about sitting together.
Lesson Two: The concept of personal aural space does not exist. That’s why the 16-year-old guy next to you is uninhibited about broadcasting his favorite tunes from his phone. It’s why the six-year-old across the aisle blasts video games on his tablet and neither of the women flanking him tells him to tone it down.
Lesson Three: The bus will stop at random intervals and often it will be impossible to figure out why. On our trip, a guy in uniform boarded at one point and asked for IDs. I showed him an expired California driver’s license and he barely glanced at it. He didn’t demand anything of Steve (but Steve was wedged against the window in the row behind me, next to four Guatemalan guys.)
If it sounds like I’m complaining, I’m not. Nothing went wrong. We arrived at the Santa Elena bus terminal around 1:15 — 15 minutes before the ticket seller in Rio Dulce had said we would. A gaggle of men surrounded the bus when we disembarked, and I was braced to be hassled. Instead, when I said we wanted to get to Tikal, a brisk energetic guy led us to an office inside the large, clean terminal.
The man at the desk inside said he could sell us tickets ($19.50 for the two of us) on the only ride going directly to Tikal. It would be leaving in about an hour, he declared, which gave us time to eat the sandwiches Wilmer had packed for us.
Our ride arrived a few minutes late, and it turned out to be a van. Wilmer had said it would be a “chicken bus,” a Guatemalan institution. I had read that they are colorfully decorated former school buses that acquired new life here. They pick up and drop off passengers along certain routes. But a couple of guys on the van told me that at least in this part of Guatemala, a van could also earn the name just from the fact that stops on demand for passengers.
Whatever you called it, that thing was an oven. By the time we stopped picking up riders, every seat was filled.
No one had to stand, and no one brought their chickens or any other animals on board. We reached Tikal a little after 4, very close to the time it was supposed to get there. We had reconnected with the everyday experience of locals, something both Steve and I cherish. We felt happy.
The next afternoon, after a mind-blowing experience in Tikal, we got a ride in a private car back to the airport In Santa Elena (aka Flores). In advance we had bought tickets on an airline called Transportes Aereos Guatemaltecas — everyone calls it TAG. If the weather had been good, I would have forgotten that leg of our journey instantly. Instead, when the driver dropped us off, storm clouds were gathering. The TAG employee at the check-in desk told us the flight was unfortunately delayed. It might be an hour late. Or maybe later. To pass the time, Steve and I made our way to a nearby snack shop. We each ordered beers and tamales (highly recommended by our driver/guide).. Not long after consuming them, peals of thunder and lightning ushered in a downpour so intense it seemed capable of breaching the roof and flooding all the indoor spaces.
We waited, but no announcements came. Instead the lights went out. Phones and computer screens and blasts of lightning illuminated the faces of the few other sad travelers around us. Thunder made our ears ring. The lights came on eventually, but only for a while. Again we plunged abruptly into darkness.
But they came on again, and about 7:45, a propeller plane landed. Lightning was still splintering the sky when about 20 of us climbed aboard.Ironically, the 45-minute flight to Guatemala City was not terribly bumpy. Some rides are worst in anticipation.
After our quetzal victory Saturday morning, Alfredo drove us for five hours south and then east to Rio Dulce. Rio Dulce doesn’t rank among Guatemala’s A List of touristic attractions, but given the extra time we gained from skipping Belize, it seemed worth a visit. It’s the starting point for a river trip that guidebooks gush over. As things turned out, we also loved our two-night Rio Dulce stop-over.
We didn’t stay in the sweltering town but rather in a lodge-cum-marina on the river. This whole area is reportedly a magnet for nomadic gringo boaters. People say during hurricane season it offers the safest berths on the western Caribbean. At the Tortugal Boutique River Lodge, the sterns of the sailboats and cruisers lined up along the docks bore place names like Oakland and Alameda, California and Houston, Texas.They looked like nice yachts, but I was happier ensconced in La Casita Elegante.Located at the farthest reach of the property, it was more rustico than elegante, but I loved the wild jungle surrounding the back of it. In the other direction, we enjoyed views of the river. And the dining room came equipped with two friendly young Guatemalan dogs.
For the river trip, my guidebook had reassured me that tour agencies as well as local sailors offered routine passage both downstream and up. Unfortunately, the pandemic has all but decimated tourism, and it wasn’t clear even the single public ferry of the day would be running from Rio Dulce that Sunday. So we opted for the alternative: hiring a private launch and pilot to take us down the river to the town of Livingston.
If pricy ($170), this was a luxury that felt like it was worth every penny. Baltazar, our pilot, was competent and informative, and we had his services for the whole day. He pointed out the egrets and cormorants perched in the dense trees on Bird Island. We cruised through an area filled with water lilies that he said bloomed year-round.A bit further downstream, we stopped at a bankside establishment that was part restaurant, part tourist attraction. Steve and I each paid 15 quetzals (about $2) to the 67-year-old proprietor, Felix,and he guided us up and down a plunging path to a creepy cave and natural sauna warmed by hot springs.
I tested the water temperature in this bathing area (quite warm but not scalding). But I passed on a full-on soaking.
Downstream from Felix’s place, the river runs through towering limestone cliffs covered with some of the densest, greenest vegetation imaginable. The guidebook says a Tarzan movie was filmed here, and it’s easy to see why. A little later, about two hours after leaving Rio Dulce, we motored into the harbor at Livingston.
Everyone and everything that arrives in Livingston comes in by boat. No roads connect it to the rest of Guatemala. Adding to that exoticism is the fact it’s the home of the Garifuna, descendants of Afro-Caribbean people who moved to this coastline centuries ago. Because of their presence, Lonely Planet proclaims, “nowhere else in Guatemala will you find such a friendly, fun, and relaxed vibe.” People had also told us we couldn’t miss eating the Garifuna dish known as tapado, a mix of seafood stewed in spicy coconut milk that’s an emblem of Caribbean cooking.
We did see a dozen or so black folks hanging out around the pier. But walking up the seedy central thoroughfare, we detected few signs of the ethnic minority. The street ended at the beach, all but deserted shortly before noon on this particular Sunday morning. Because the breeze off the water tempered the sweltering heat, we decided to stroll along a scruffy waterfront pathway for a bit before searching for the restaurant recommended by our Rio Dulce hotel manager.
That’s how we met Philip Flores. He and another black guy were lounging on the concrete stoop of a derelict bungalow, and as we approached, Philip called out the universal street-hustler’s greeting: “Where’re you from?”
“California,” Steve answered amiably. “Where in California?” Philip pressed.
His next question was less orthodox. “What’s that mountain there [in San Diego] where you can see in all directions? I went up to the top when I played there as a musician.” We determined it was probably Mt Soledad, which somehow led to him reminiscing about fishing for tilapia at the Salton Sea. In another moment, he was telling us how rock legend Jerry Garcia had spent time in Garifuna and wound up inviting Philip, an accomplished guitarist, to return to the US with him and tour.
Despite studying (at some point) at the University of Illinois’s campus in Chicago, Philip had returned to Livingston. Today he says he’s a well-recognized community leader. If this all sounds far-fetched, something made Steve and me trust him. His explanation of the sad plight of the Garifuna today had the ring of both truth and passionate indignation. He explained that during the 1980s, Mayans (as he called them) fleeing Guatemala’s civil war had moved into the town where the Garifuna had lived peacefully, in isolation, for so long. The Mayans had commandeered all the prime commercial real estate and forced the Garifuna into a ghetto on the shore. It was all but apartheid, according to Philip. And with local fish stocks decimated and little land for subsistence farming, the Garifuna were barely surviving, supported in large part by money sent back from relatives in the US.
When Philip offered to lead us on a little walk through the Garifuna enclave, we jumped at the opportunity. Steve and I have spent so much time in poor African villages in the last ten years, the Garifuna district almost felt like home. It was wretchedly poor. Most of the folks we passed looked tired.
We eventually wound up at a restaurant recommended by Philip, where we did gobble down delicious bowls of tapado.
Philip didn’t join us. He said he had to get to a gathering where he would be working with some of the local children. But before he left for that he sat with us and we talked a bit more. He mentioned offhand that the Rio Dulce is a huge highway for drugs. He implied that virtually all the cocaine grown in South America for eventual sale in America floats up it. The presence of the drug cartel lords and their enforcers adds to the edginess of his home town.
Steve and I left Livingstone shortly after lunch. On the ride back, we looked for signs of the drug runners, but all we saw were some waterside homes and marinas that looked suspiciously prosperous. They were like the fancy mansions we passed on our drive with Alfredo, conspicuous, almost arrogant, in their wealth.
We made one final stop. Just a few miles west of our lodge. In the opposite direction from Livingston, the Castillo de San Felipe commands a narrow point where the river meets the Lago de Izabel (Guatemala’s biggest lake). Baltazar told us the Spanish built this fort in the mid-1600s to fight the English pirates who roamed the Caribbean, plundering and marauding. It bristles with cannons that the locals employed to deter the bad guys of the day.
It made me reflect that the Garifuna people are probably worse off today than they were when the fort was new. On the other hand, life’s a lot better for the residents of Rio Dulce. Travel does provide constant reminders of the ups and downs of human fortunes.