Photos courtesy of Jackie Fehr’s Flickr account)
In 2001, my parents retired. Naturally, being from the strains of Fehr or Breckenridge, neither parent is good at being retired. My dad works “part time” in “retirement”, as the CTO of a company named Raser Tech. Raser seems to require endless weeks in Detroit, the armpit of Amerika. In the meantime, mom volunteers with more causes and groups than I can count: she teaches at the National Ability Center, Rock-something National Park, at least three community associations and both parents volunteer ski patrol throughout the winter at Park City Mountain. Not including their endless, year-round patrol training classes (a majority of which they teach), you get the “workaholic” picture. And, being our parents’ kids, my brother and I display the same tendencies.
In order to make sure my family takes time off from work, our newest family tradition is to take international vacations, preferable out of the reach of mobile phones. The most recent adventure found the family—plus our childhood friend, Byron—in Guatemala, which was, in fact, a pretty arbitrary choice. After a wonderful vacation to Costa Rica in 2005 (not including the turtles1), the family attention span is gradually moving up the pacific coast of Central America. So, on the agreed-upon date, the family showed up in the Guatemala City airport, with just a smattering of “Lonely Planet” chapters to give us any hint of the week to come.
Guatemala City, the new capital, looks like any other mostly Westernized, non-English-speaking city. I did not actually see it—Byron and I landed at night, cleared customs2 and zipped out of the city in a turismo van without so much as a bathroom break. As we drove through the city, visibility was further obscured by a rainstorm best described as a heavenly deluge. Now, it’s important to note that Guatemala City sits in the basin of ring of mountains. Driving out of the city involves driving over a mountain pass. On the night we arrived, the regularly steep drive also included unmarked construction obstacles, traffic, low visibility and road submerged under storm-fed rapids rushing down the median and gutters. The rain on the roof of our turismo van was so loud we couldn’t talk, but that made it much easier to sit politely as the driver picked up and dropped off five different people in random villages along the drive to the beach. It seems if you don’t expressly say “no (thank you)”, your turismo taxi fee pays for any local along your route.
Two hours and ten stops later, the beach appeared out of the sheets of rain. Well, less a beach and more a town with “Puerto” in the name, followed by a road lined with palm trees and undercarriage-scraping speed bumps. In effect, the beach. After the 18th speed bump, we arrived at our hotel to find sleepy check-in attendants, our cabana number, more rain and the news that there was no food after 10 p.m. Since it was midnight, there would be no food until morning. Taking in our miserable expressions and audible stomachs, the night staff suggested, via pantomime, that we go to the club and get drinks, at least. After ditching our stuff in our cabana, we walked over to the club. Immediately a major theme of the trip became apparent: this wasn’t really a gringo resort. The club was full of sweaty, young locals, doing their best to make “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights” look like a middle school grub tolo. We politely took our beers—“beer is liquid bread, right?”—into the shadows by the pool, downed them to shut up our stomachs, oogled the dancers, then went to bed.
As with any good beach holiday, on Day Two we tackled the difficult schedule of exploring the pool, breaking in a set of lounge chairs and finding the best combination of ocean breeze + shade progression + proximity to bar, as well as tolerable distance from the pool speakers, blaring salsa. Dad began a book of those damned math puzzles I can’t spell, I sprinted through another wonderful O’Brian book, Mom worked on her “Spanish in 30 Minutes a Day” (which she’s made last three years), Adam read a collection of books and we forced Byron to read our beloved “War of Witches”. “Witches” is a must-read for anyone looking for some immersion in modern day Aztec culture. Yes, Guatemala is nominally Mayan country, not Aztec, but it’s close, okay? Mel Gibson doesn’t distinguish.
Sure, you’re thinking Day Two sounds nice and peaceful, but in fact the major theme came back into play. Villas del Pacifico is less of a tourist resort and more like a weekend beach hangout for the more well-to-do from nearby cities. So, Day Two being a Sunday, the pool featured about 300 Guatemalans and five gringos. We were definitely a curiosity, and liberally stared at. We idly tossed around an American football, to heighten the effect.
Another interesting fact about the Villas del Pacifico: it’s located along a 30-mile-long volcanic black sand beach. Naturally, another Day Two duty was try to stand on the beach without sandals, which our guidebook said was impossible during the hot season. Standing on the sand (in the rainy season) was easy…until we attempted to walk without sandals. Toasty—about the same as I would expect the beaches in hell. The beach was, sadly, covered in trash, tangled amongst the usual Pacific flotsam and jetsam. In fact, the entire country was covered in trash. It was a striking contrast to our Central American adventures, really. Costa Rica has ruined roads and hideous traffic, but pristine scenery. Guatemala has roads a driving enthusiast (me) would love, but trash drifted across the entire country, even on the nearly vertical sides of volcanos.
The last interesting fact about the Villas del Pacifico, and Guatemala in general (which I’ve alluded to before): we visited during the rainy season. Around three or four in the afternoon, the wispy clouds obscuring the volcano tops gathered their timeless anger and stormed down to the Pacific. The only downside was the possibility of lightning, which meant we had to get out of the pool. Otherwise the rain was a lovely mid-80s in termperature, with a light drizzle followed by a quick curtain of harder rain, just enough to tickle your spine. On Day Two, the rain continued into the evening, through dinner, pool at the pub, and some lazy reading until we all fell asleep.
At the start of Day Three, we thought we had the resort routine down. But in fact we did not. The hotel and beach club was virtually deserted, and the various buffets, games and friendly locals we enjoyed the day before were gone, never to return (during our trip). So, too, were the salsa dancers, the games led by the pool staff, the giggling Guatemalan children, the water polo area of the pool, the outdoor ping-pong table equipment, the $3-rental ATVs on the beach and the sand volleyball court equipment. And 2/3rds the hotel staff. Thankfully, the main restaurant kept a small section open for all five of us week-long guests.
Despite the ghost-town feeling, we found that the sun, beer and a raucous pool volleyball game with adorable local boys made the day less eerie. But the highlight of Day Three was easily our evening spent drinking with the top-selling women’s undertaker team of all Guatemala City. How, you ask? No idea. As the top-selling team, they won a day at the pool; they were the only other guests in our hotel bar, so we joined forces playing pool. Those ladies knew their rums, tequilas and peppers. My downfall was the rum. Byron and Adam fell for tequila and a chica named Muffin. And Dad took the gastrointestinal stomping that was the pepper. It’s worth a note to the wise: should you think that Guatemala women shy away from jalapeños, with fearful expressions, you might want to make the conclusion that it’s not a jalapeño. A pepper that scares the locals is indeed something to be feared. Dad, with a table full of women, ate the whole thing in one bite. Their raised eyebrows turned into shocked expressions, but Dad managed to mute his reaction to turning bright red, with a single tear escaping down the cheek facing away from the women. The other side of his face was simply red and smiling. A remarkable display of will. I tried a micro-bite and lost all feeling in my face for an hour.
I mentioned the drinking on Night Three. But I didn’t mention that on Day Four, we had a 7 a.m. wake-up call to drive around all southwestern Guatemala in a turismo van3. I was not in good shape. Byron and Adam were hurting too. Dad’s stomach was still pissed at him about that pepper. I recall snippets of rainy countryside and the inside of my eyelids until about 2 p.m. local. We drove to a town called La Democracia to see under-whelming Mayan ruins. I managed to get out of the van, then back in. Then we drove around and up a volcano shrouded in clouds, trying to find an active lava field. After six mountain-side towns and stops for directions, we vetoed mom’s idea of a rainy three-hour hike up to the lava. There was more driving, and when I finally recovered enough wits to participate in the day’s events, we were in the old capitol of colonial Guatemala, Antigua.
Antigua was amazing. It’s a mix of ancient capitols—the Mayans had a major market in the area, off and on for centuries, and the Conquistadors built their own terrifying capitol in the 1500s on the backs of those same Mayans. In the middle of the human tug-of-war over the city, Mother Nature wiped it out a few times with a liberal application of volcano eruptions and floods. In the early 1900s, after the fifth or sixth cataclysm, they moved the city/capitol to the geologically (more) secure Guatemala City, 30km away. In effect, that means the rich people moved their city, even to the point of pulling the guilding off church roofs and putting in up on new churches. The poor people stayed in the remains of the old capitol, and it gradually developed again into a city again. Antigua thrives, even in half-demolished buildings. Current city buildings exist on top of layers of cataclysmic ruins. Functional, modern walls trail into ancient, ruined walls, which then descend into lush, tropical grass. The city also has a rich, ornate Catholic/Mayan history, which resulted in an endless number of shrines, meeting places, public squares, large stone façades and elaborate decorations, all in various stages of beautiful ruin or stubborn repair. We toured around Antigua, marvelling at the life of the city, and even went up to a sketchy park to pick up a local geocache before heading back to the beach.
I should mention, as an aside, that we brought along a SuperNES to Guatemala in Byron’s luggage. And one esoteric game—“The Lost Vikings”. Since we had the childhood crew together and late evenings to kill once everyone else was asleep, a decade-removed go at our favorite game might be a good addition to the vacation. Call it nostalgia, but it was rad. We were shocked to find we knew the music, the passwords, timing on certain difficult elements, solutions to puzzles…in short, we laughed our asses off. Totally worth the 3lbs packing excess for Byron.
Day Five largely consisted of pool, pool volleyball, pool water polo, pool backward beer dives, lots of food, a nice walk on the trashy beach, and other resort-area entertainments. Oh, one other thing: a 500+ person convention of sugar cane workers had a one-day event at the hotel, right around us. 500 Guatemalan men, six long-suffering Guatemalan women, five gringos and team-bonding events. We saw a towel ‘n waterbaloon relay on the black sand beach. We saw a bike relay across the futbol field. We saw an innertube relay foisted on the unsuspecting workers who went into the pool fully dressed. And we saw “tank”—a team of twenty or so people, enclosed in a cylinder of black plastic sheets on poles, about 15’ high. The team can’t see where they’re going inside the cylinder, so one person rides on shoulders to guide the entire team—without speaking. That game was my favorite, because it looked ridiculous, and it was right next to our lounge chair station and they didn’t make a sound.
After team bonding, the convention-goers (some still soaked from the innertube relay) retired to the outdoor auditorium for some loud video messaging and inspirational speeches. The Day returned to normal. After the previous excesses and busy afternoon, we took it easy on the bar in the evening, but did try out best to drink them out of lemonade and horchata. Delicious, delicious horchata. All-in-all, Day Five was much needed relaxation, in both standing and supine positions, because on Day Six….
At 6 a.m., we got back into our sturdy turismo van, to drive even further that our first trip. On this excursion—with our faithful translator, Jeremy, and our driver, Hector, he of impressively large earlobes—we headed north toward Lake Atitlán, Panajachel, and the formerly authentic Mayan market town of Chichicastenango, deep in Quiche Mayan territory. Fourteen hours on bench seats in a van. A van in the clouds.
First we visited a real, functioning market in Chimaltenango, a fairly major city on the edge of the Guatemalan highlands. The highlight, besides an authentic market experience, was seeing multiple camionetas, buses, loading and unloading passengers in the center of town. We’d seen a few on the road, but only blurring past us. Tourists call them “chicken buses”, based on good ol’ developing world transport stereotypes from PBS, but it’s strikingly apparent that they’re formerly American school buses, serving a demonic afterlife in Guatemala. Locals call them camionetas, a word that Hector would not translate for me, but the Internet tells me means “auto”. Hmmm.
Public transportation in Guatemala is limited to certain urban areas. To fill the gap, some enterprising locals bought, shipped and customized “retired” American school buses in ways that would make the best Long Beach custom shops proud. Every bus featured a ton of chrome, intricate paint jobs, pin-up girl names across the back and an awesome amount of creativity and love. All that being said, if a flame-n-skull-pattern custom grill rode up on the tail of your small turismo van, outlined in glowing purple neon and the diver, all the while, leaned on a horn that would best suit an aircraft carrier, you might not find them so cool.
Camionetas, as best I could construct from spanish, are privately owned, so they cover no assigned routes. They just head off to one city or another and pick up people along the way, until they get there. Then they head back. The profit is in the number of people the drivers pick up, and that’s dictated by how far they travel and how fast. Hence, amazingly reckless driving. Did I mention that Guatemala is not flat? Overloaded camionetas regularly force other vehicles off roads, or they themselves lose control passing on the outside of a mountain switchback4. During our short week, a camioneta plunged off just such a cliff by Quetzaltenango, killing 36 Guatemalans. According to Jeremy and Hector, Guatemalans are totally okay with death-by-camioneta, due to their deep, Mayan-tinted Catholicism. Camonietas are God’s favorite way to call you back to his bosom.
After Chimaltenango, we headed into the Guatemalan highlands. By the word highlands, I expected mountain plains at high altitude. But, in fact, there wasn’t a level surface to be seen, except the two-lane road. The Guatemalan highlands mostly resemble, to my mind, a serrated labyrinth of steep mountain ridges, with villages perched randomly along the tops. We cruised for a remarkable amount of time along the top of the serration—deep valleys on both sides, just a stone’s throw away—until the ridgelines ran out. Then we dropped into deep jungle canyons, and came back up the other side onto a new ridge system. Our turismo van got quite a workout on the descents and ascents. Dad enjoyed his altimeter watch, which logged descents over 1,000’ into valleys and general elevations of 5,000-7,000’ on the ridge tops. While we marveled at the terrain in vehicular comfort, local honest-to-God Mayans walked the shoulders the same roads, carrying absurd loads for their tiny size. The closer we got to Chichi(castenango), the more absurd the terrain, load size, numbers of Mayans and our feeling of interloping became.
Chichi was a controlled, calculated riot. Like other Guatemalan towns we visited, the streets felt deserted, with only a shrug at sidewalks and small, barred windows and heavy wooden doors facing the street. Without traffic, it felt abandoned. But if you went inside the homes, you found interior courtyards full of light, gardens, arches, ornate woodwork and friendly people. It was beautiful. As a contrast to the forbidding streets, the market itself spilled out of the narrow alleys circling the city square. Originally it was a real market, but now it caters to tourists—rainbow textiles, carvings, clothing, nicknacks, paintings, etc. We didn’t get a lot of time in Chichi; our translator Jeremy was somewhat controlling about where we could go. My guidebook said Chichi holds very strong ties to a local god who crosses the bridge between Catholicism and ancient Mayan religions, but I didn’t get to see the main shrine on the small hill above the city. The only echo we saw was incense shakers on the steps of the churches in the town/market center. In fact, they’re a secretive brotherhood of community elders, much closer to mafiosa-like Mayan shamans than Catholic volunteers. Ooooooh. Aahhhh.
Did I mention Mayans are tiny?
After our whirlwind tourism indulgence at Chichi, we continued ridge-hopping down to Lake Atitlán and its artist-colony, Panajachel. I’m not sure why Panajachel was the destination, other than the fact it was on the side of the lake closest to our trajectory, and it was vaguely Western, due to an artist-colony history. Unfortunately, it was still cloudy, so Mom’s picture-postcard photo-op of the volcanoes ringing the caldera didn’t entirely come through.
Just as we tipped over into full tourist mode, the drive out of Panajachel re-aligned out priorities. Just outside of town, we crossed the damage of Huracán Stan, which hit Guatemala in 2005. It was shocking, since no mention of Huracán Stan was made during the previous days of the trip in any shape or form. Somehow, in all our driving around the highlands, mountains and towns, one deep river valley around Lake Atitlán showed the effects of a massive hurricane, just one short year prior. The road along and out of the river valley was a ruin, and the Panajachel boat launch was missing entirely, leaving the shore and the town disconnected by a 30’ cliff. The most poignant damage was along the river that joins the lake at Panajachel, where we saw a badly situated expat home destroyed by the massive flash-flooding along the river. The home used to be connected to the main road and hillside, but Stan left it a mangled island, isolated about forty feet from the ruined road. On the walls of the ruined homestead, the bitter residents wrote, “Island in paradise. Thank you STAN. Están listos oooo?”.
Despite the sudden shock of extreme hurricane damage, the drive out of Panajachel was amazing. The mountains were terrifyingly steep along the Lake, but the lake itself was beautiful. Hours later, we returned to the resort amid another heavenly deluge, which lasted into the evening. Long day. We played more “Lost Vikings”, then went to bed.
Day Seven had a big cloud hanging over it—we hand to leave the next day. Adam’s flight was at 7 a.m., Byron’s and my flight was at noon, and Mom and Dad had the awful task of trying to decide where to spend the next six days of their extended vacation: Tikal and the most famous set of Aztec ruins, or Copán and the second most famous set of Aztec/Mayan ruins5. I know, tough choice.
We spent the morning by the pool until three o’clock, when we loaded up in our sturdy turismo van for the trip to Guatemala City. The trip was quiet and morose, until the last highway mountain pass before the city. Some nasty accident shut down the highway. We thought we’d be stuck in the inside lane for hours, but an enterprising camioneta unloaded its passengers to push the highway dividers out of the way6 so traffic could turn around. All my orderly, line-waiting American manners were (silently) protesting, as all three lanes, including us, cut through the open barrier and went back down the pass. Along the way, we saw the interesting sight of the uphill outside lane turned around against traffic in its own lane, with a group of drivers forcing their way back down lane, shoulder and the closest on-ramp.
Our erstwhile driver, Hector, knew a shortcut over the pass, which was in fact the old 1.5-lane road over the top of the mountain. But so did a majority of local drivers, as well as the ambulances trying to go to or from the massive accident. That detour was interesting, to say the least. The accident back-up triggered gridlock in Guatemala City, too, so the city driving to our hotel was equally entertaining. But in the end, we arrived, only 40 minutes behind our estimated time of arrival.
Adam vanished from our airport hotel at some early hour of the morning, for his trip home. Byron, Mom, Dad and I met for breakfast. During breakfast, we encountered the last interesting fact of the trip—the Guatemalan orphan baby trade. No less than 15 lilly-white American couples (some with white children in tow) were breakfasting with their brand-new Guatemalan babies. We learned some about the local trade, but not enough for me to comment accurately about what we saw. But one final, telling detail played out in the shuttle to the airport—a paisley- and fur-covered American mom allowed her 7- or 8-year-old daughter, Madison, hold her new, adopted baby brother David Francis, a anonymous Guatemalan newborn swaddled in a cashmere blanket. David Francis Something, formerly of Guatemala, now of New York City’s posher areas. Go figure.
All in all, a surreal, cloudy, dream-like vacation in Guatemala.
4 We saw just such a camioneta passing maneuver, though thankfully no crash; all the laws of physics seemed flaunted and it took a good part of the afternoon to reconcile my perceptual trust in the rules governing moving objects.
5 Tim & Jackie chose to visit Tikal, since it could be packaged as a mini-trip. Tikal is up near the Yucatán peninsula, close to Mexico. It was about 24 hours driving from our beach resort, so we couldn’t add it to the week’s adventures.
6 I shudder to think of the surprise awaiting those first few cars that pass the accident to head down the pass. In the middle of the inside lane, they’d find three large concrete barriers. I still find myself wondering if the police swept the highway first, before opening it up to traffic.