Good luck with Panama Canal tourism

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, 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.

The building contained two living units. Ours was on the left; our rental car was the blue one on the right.

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?

Not staffing the Tour Desk or the gift shop.
Nor at the reception desk.

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.

What you see when you peer in the windows of the post office
But there was action on the canal.

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.

In this last photo, you see the gate has closed, and the water level has started to go down. We didn’t stay to watch the whole process, which reportedly takes about two hours.

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.

Our Covid scare in Antigua

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.

The desk of the unfriendly receptionist

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.

Meet the Mayans

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.

La Casa del Mundo, as it looks when you approach it on the water.

Stepping onto the balcony of ours, Steve exclaimed, “It’s like Lake Tahoe — with volcanoes!

Other views from in or near our room.

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.

In a village wood crafts shop, Alex pointed out the Mayan Jesuses, recognizable by their big hands and feet.

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.

The painting of Rother in the church today.

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.

The lady is a village elder. Her hat announces her respected status. The guy in the background is wearing traditional men’s pants, not a common sight.

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.

Busing it

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).

The ticket seller in the Rio Dulce bus station.

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.

Give me a seat and some AC, and I’m a pretty happy camper.
A phone charging station in the Rio Dulce bus station.

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.

The view from my seat. (It wasn’t a bad bus.)

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.

NOT air-conditioned. But still pretty nice.
The office where we bought our tickets to Tikal.

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.

Not a great picture of the van interior. But it does capture that heavy sheen of sweat on our faces.

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.

On the cocaine highway

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.

We saw this plump fellow in the cave, along with a ton of bats. I tried to photograph them, but failed.

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.

Philip claims that Jerry Garcia painted the colorful image on the wall.

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.

Here’s Maria, owner of Restaurante Gamboa Place, and its chief cook.

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.

In the cloud forest of the resplendent quetzal

I like beautiful birds as much as the next person, but I’m no serious birdwatcher. I would have said spotting any particular bird would never shape the itinerary of any of my trips. Still, I knew that resplendent quetzals, gorgeous and elusive birds laden with powerful symbolism, are an icon in this part of the world. When border politics forced us to cut Belize from our journey and gave us three extra days in Guatemala, we decided to try to (metaphorically) bag this mystical avian.

I’d read that there’s a quetzal bio-preserve a few of hours north of Guatemala City. Moreover, this time of year is when the birds are mating and having their babies, hence it’s an optimal time for spotting them.

On the other hand, the Biotopo del Quetzal is not the easiest place to reach. Our Lonely Planet guide to Central America suggested we might be able to get there on a public Monja Blanca bus from Guatemala City. But… were these buses running, post-Covid? And how exactly would we get to one from our hotel? I couldn’t find ready answers. When a travel blog and Facebook led me to a driver named Alfredo Garcia, I emailed him and he responded promptly. We hired him to pick us up at our Guatemala City hotel the morning after our arrival and take us directly to quetzal country.

Quetzals live in the cloud forests of Central America. Historians tell us that the ancient Mayans thought they were gods and executed anyone caught killing the birds. What particularly tempts humans to kill quetzals are the male birds’ gloriously long tails; their feathers can grow to be 30 inches long. Although quetzals reportedly can be found in high chilly regions ranging from the Yucatán to Panama, Guatemalans particularly revere them. They made quetzals their national bird; put them on their flag and named their money after them. Alfredo pointed out to us that quetzals die in captivity. “So to us they are the symbol of freedom,” he said.

Alfredo turned out to be my ideal driver: skillful, smart, savvy, sensitive, and an agile conversational partner. He had told me about Ranchitos del Quetzal, located immediately next to the quetzal reserve, which itself is located down a heavily forested country road. At these basic lodgings, Alfredo personally had had excellent luck spotting quetzals over the years. He picked us up at our hotel in the capital at 9, and we arrived at the Ranchitos a little over three hours later. It had started drizzling when we set out, and the strength of the rain had built throughout our ride. But on the bright side, one of the young managers showed us a photo of a gorgeous male quetzal he had taken with his phone just a few hours earlier.

Alfredo on the steps of Ranchitos del Quetzal

We ate a simple lunch — black beans, potato salad, a bit of salad. Then Steve and I donned pretty much all the outerwear we’d brought with us (not much), grabbed our umbrellas and hiking poles, and trudged the 100 meters down the road to the reserve.

As cloud forests go, this was a lovely one. Our altimeter app said we were at 5500 feet when we set out, and from there, the path was all uphill, over rocky but well-tended trails. Towering trees, ferns of all sizes, orchids, bromeliads, wild ginger and other plants crowded in at every twist of the path, while a cold fog swirled overhead. The trees protected us from the brunt of the rain, though droplets hitting leaves sounded like birds; they made me jump and crane my neck almost constantly, hoping to glimpse our quarry.

But we saw no quetzals and almost no other humans, except for one pack of young Guatemalan parents shepherding toddlers and toting a couple of babies, moving through the drenched, vertiginous wilderness as blithely as San Diego parents stroll through Balboa Park.

I began to brace myself for leaving the area bearing only a photo of the stuffed quetzal in the reserve’s tiny, unmanned visitor center. But back at the Ranchitos, the manager told us to be on the porch at 5:30 the next morning, “and you will see a quetzal.”

It sounded enough like a promise that we did what he said. Once again, it was drizzly under cold gray skies. Steve and Alfredo and the manager and I stood and watched. We noted squirrels gamboling high in some trees. We heard birds singing and eventually saw a beautiful quetzal relative called a drogon perched on a wire. We admired the big violet saber-winged hummingbirds whom we’d been seeing throughout our stay. We milled about and didn’t chat much.

After an hour or so I had sat down on a stool and was meditating when some movement caught my half-lidded gaze. My first thought was that it must be some other small mammal, like the squirrel, with the capacity to be airboreal. Its very long tail to me looked rat-like. But then the creature flew to another perch. I stared at that tail and the manager yelled. The steely early morning light made it hard to make out the bird’s brilliant red chest, but the tail looked like nothing I’d ever seen on a bird before: unmistakably a quetzal, Alfredo and the manager concurred.

The four of us were ebullient, the way people get when they go to a lot of trouble to view exotic animals in the wild, and they get lucky. I felt proud of my quetzal pictures. They’ll help me remember what this very rare bird actually looked like. The cloud forest photos are less useful. They don’t come close to communicating what it’s like to move through that dense, drenched chilly realm. But I have added to my mental list of Amazing Quetzal Facts its power to get folks out of their comfort zone and into remote, resplendent forests that, if unphotographable, are hard to forget.

Central America, finally

It’s time for this blog once again to justify the “Abroad” portion of its name. Thursday Steve and I will fly down to Central America. Unless you consider Mexico part of that region (which I don’t), this is an area in which neither of us has ever set foot. It’s not for lack of interest. Rather, we were saving it up. Now the time seems right.

One reason we were saving it is because for some years we dreamed about driving in our aging van all the way from San Diego to Panama, then donating the van to a charity and flying home. That would have been a real adventure, and it would have required a significant chunk of time.

Eventually, however, several factors gave us pause about the wisdom of this plan, not the least of which were the bureaucratic nightmares that would have been involved in taking a personal vehicle across all those borders. On the other hand, unlike Europe and Asia at the moment, all the countries in Central America are once again open to visitors, particularly fully vaccinated ones such as us.

So we scrapped the driving plan, and I worked for a while on concocting an itinerary that would have us flying to all seven countries (Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama). I quickly learned that even if all the countries are open, service on the regional airlines that connect them is far from fully restored. The staggering current cost of short flights into El Salvador and Honduras (troubled countries on other counts too) led me to scratch them from the program. We had wanted to start in Belize and cross the land border into Guatemala (then continue on), but then I learned the Belize government was not allowing visitors out of Belize that way. This annoyed me so much I scratched Belize.

So now the current plan calls for us to fly to Guatemala and spend a week and a half there, followed by visits to Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua (in that order). For me these will be my 66th through 69th countries.

In the short time before we depart, along with packing and otherwise organizing, I’m trying to prepare for other as-yet-unforeseen challenges that may arise in the wake of global pandemic lockdowns. I’m telling myself this trip will be like traveling in the days of yore, when you couldn’t just assume everything would run like clockwork. But some intrepid spirits nonetheless hit the road then, because then, as now, it was better than not going. I can relate.