Sunday, December 30, 2007

Finca Ixobel and Christmas

The final stop on our Tikal Tour was Finca Ixobel. (Pronounced Ish-o-bell) In Spanish, (at least here in Guatemala), Finca means ‘ranch’. Finca Ixobel was originally a ranch but is now “an ecologically friendly hotel and campground” with a ranch to help support its activities. It happens to be halfway between Tikal and the Rio Dulce. We have heard about it from various cruisers. Since they have some interesting hikes and activities, we thought we’d stop in and stay for a couple of days.

We had originally planned to stay only for 2 nights, and arrive back on the boat on Christmas Eve (the 24th). But we were having a good time (especially Nicki), and they had a nice Christmas dinner planned, that we extended our stay through Christmas.

The day we got to Finca Ixobel was the employees Christmas Party, and of course the hotel guests were invited. Carole, the American owner of Finca Ixobel, put on a really nice buffet for everyone, there was a gift exchange, and a Marimba Band. We enjoyed participating a little bit their traditions. This was very much like any American company’s Christmas party… all the spouses were invited and everyone was dressed up and uncomfortable. But after awhile the punch was flowing and the music cranked up and it looked like everyone was having fun.

At 10pm the Marimba Band shut down and the party moved to Finca Ixobel’s bar, where a bonfire (outside of course) and a DJ had been set up. We stayed long enough to see the bonfire lit. But as soon as the DJ cranked up, we decided it was too loud and left Nicki with the young people. We could still hear the boom-boom-boom of the music pretty well in our room a half a mile away, though. We were apprehensive this would recur every night, but found that the DJ was a special thing for the Christmas Party.

Finca Ixobel has a nice setup for backpackers. You can actually camp there if you have your own equipment but they also have ‘tree houses’ with beds in them. These only cost $10/nite for 2 people.

They also encourage ‘volunteering’, where you agree to stay for at least 6 weeks and they feed and house you while you help out on the Finca. This arrangement provides a constant supply of enthusiastic young people with various linguistic skills to help run the hotel. It also makes the atmosphere a lot of fun for the hotel guests.

Nicki spent most of her leisure hours hanging out with various kids from all over the world. And it was Nicki who asked to extend our stay at Finca Ixobel through Christmas. Since all the friends we might normally have done Christmas dinner with were all in the States, it seemed a good alternative.

After hanging out with all the backpacker kids, Nicki got seriously bit by the backpacker bug. Before she left for home, she told me “Mom, maybe instead of working this summer, I’ll start in Mexico and backpack down meet up with you in Panama.” This was EXACTLY what I’d been hoping for when I invited Nicki to Guatemala. (I feel that life is way too short to spend it completely focused on “getting ahead”).

Our first activity was a nice relatively easy horseback ride around the ranch. We had a German couple join in our group and each had a 5-6 year old child in their lap on the ride. So we didn’t go very fast. But we did get up to a nice vantage point to see the ranch and the ‘pueblo’ (small town of people working at the ranch) nearby.

The next day, we went on an all day hike to see and swim in a large underground cave system. This was listed as a ‘strenuous’ hike… 2 hours hiking to get to the cave, then 2 hrs INSIDE the cave system, and 2 hours to get back. Seems a little much of both walking and caving, but Nicki and Dave were really excited about it.

As we started on the hike, the weather was great. The walk out was through a combination of farm area and some serious jungle. Our guide was a Guateman who spoke no English.

The first part of the walk was easy—on flat ground on dirt roads. However, we eventually left the roads and went into the jungle. We had to scramble up and down 3 fairly serious hills covered in dense jungle. (Fortunately we had a guide and somewhat of a path to follow).

At the mouth of the cave, we stashed all our non-waterproof stuff, including the packed lunch we brought with us. And we followed the guide into the ‘Underworld’. The water was cold enough to make us gasp as we waded in. We followed the guide through the darkness, wading, swimming, and sometimes scrambling over rocks. We had headlamps and flashlights, and the guide lit a candle and placed it along the rocks as we went deeper into the cave system.

I took lots of pics with my nifty waterproof camera, but unfortunately very few of them came out as well as we’d hoped. The foggy atmosphere in the cave caused ‘backscatter’ when using the flash, and it was too dark to take pics without the flash, and at least once or twice my lens got fogged up too. But we did get a few good pics.

One feature of the cave system is a 12 foot high cliff where you can jump off of into a dark pool below. The guide showed us where to aim with his flashlight, and then did the first jump. Dave, Nicki and I all jumped (Dave and Nicki twice). It was nuts.

It started drizzling while we were in the cave, and ended up pouring before we made it back to the Finca. So the trip back was long, muddy, and wet. But we had a blast.

The next 2 days we lounged around, read books (even Dave!) and recovered from the hiking.

Finally on Christmas Day, when Nicki was sleeping off a very late Christmas Eve with the other kids (partying til 5am!), Dave and did a short climb up the ‘pyramid’ hill near by. This ended up being very tough on the knees, basically straight up and straight down. It had finally stopped raining but was still kind of muddy. But the view was great. And we really needed the exercise after 2 days of lounging and eating.

We headed back to the boat on the 26th. Nicki left on the bus for Guatemala City on the 28th.

See all the Finca Ixobel pics

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Tikal Trip Day 3 - Winter Solstice Sunrise

3:30am… wakey wakey…
4:00am… waiting for the guide in the dark cool morning air
4:30am… STILL waiting for the guide

We saw lots of flashlight activity over by the entrance gate. But we had been told specifically to wait at the entrance to our hotel.

Nicki and Jane Waiting for Sunrise at Temple 4

Finally, at about 4:35am, I left Nicki and Jane at the waiting spot and went over to investigate. We certainly didn’t want to get left behind. Our tour was supposed to have picked up people in Flores at 3:30am and be picking us up between 4 and 4:30am, prior to entering the park.

I wandered among the milling groups of people trying to find someone in charge. The guides all had headlamps and had name tags. Not knowing who our guide was supposed to be, all I could do was ask for Tikal Travel and San Juan Tours. One guide told me that a guide had been looking for me, but had already gone in. He told me that he’d put me with someone else and we’d sort it all out after sunrise at Temple 4.

So I signaled back to Jane and Nicki to “abandon post, come here”… by flashing the red light on my headlamp on and off, as previously agreed. I got a couple of answering flashes back and soon they were by my side.

After buying tickets at the ticket booth (another $20 plus an extra $1.50 for entry before 6am), our little group stumbled off in the dark behind the non-English speaking guide. As we walked along, I was trying to get my GPS up, so I could figure out exactly what time sunrise was supposed to be. I hadn't thought to look it up, since we were supposed to have been picked up by an English-speaking guide and coddled a little. I thought it was 5:30-ish, but didn’t really know. I had taken a waypoint on Temple 4 the afternoon before, and using the ‘go-to’ function, I could tell it was going to take about 25 minutes to get there at the pace we were walking. And it was already 5:05am. Eek!

It was hard to read the screen in the dark, trying to walk fast, avoid the roots, hold the GPS still, at 5am (with Nicki saying “come on Mom, quit playing with your stupid GPS”). Also, walking through the heavy foliage, the GPS doesn’t receive the satellite signals very well, so it took a long time to get a lock. Just as we arrived at Temple 4, I finally got the sunrise information… oh… 6:22am. Oh. We have nearly an hour to wait.

Somehow, we were some of the first to arrive at the top of Temple 4, so got to pick our seats. No need to bribe the guide this time… the open area of Temple 4 is facing east. It was still full dark when we got up there. Nicki and I got set up in the front row, close to the rail. I set my ‘Gorilla Pod’ (a small tripod with bendable legs) up on the railing, and proceeded to take a picture every 5 minutes or so.

After the last group got settled at the top of Temple 4, one of the guides told us all to be really quiet and we could hear the sounds of the jungle awakening. Pretty soon we could hear several howler monkey groups calling out and answering back and forth. We could also hear all kinds of exotic birds, including macaws, toucans, flocks of parrots, and the distinctive cry of the oro pendulum. See ‘Movie of Howler Monkeys at Dawn’ in our Photo Album. (note, not much video, but lots of audio… warning, large file!)

Dawn at Temple 4

It slowly got light, but being a cool morning, we had heavy fog. Never saw the sunrise. Finally about 6:45, the spokesman for the guides gave a little talk about dawn at Tikal and some of the flora and fauna. Then they split us up among the various guides (this is where we ended up with the wrong guide, who’s tour ended at 8:30am instead of 11am).

Our guide was good. He spoke good English and knew where to go to find the animals (monkeys, toucans, etc). We started working our back back from Temple 4 toward the central part of the park, unfortunately covering areas that we had seen in our unguided walk yesterday.

Our Guide Calling the Monkeys

We had made plans to try to hook up with the guys at 7:00 in the Central Plaza. (Note: No cell phone coverage at Tikal, and we hadn’t thought about things like walkee-talkees, so we had to just wing it).

However, since we were covering areas of the park that we had covered yesterday, and I had my trusty GPS. So when the guide announced that the next stop was Temple 5, I knew I could find the Plaza, round up the guys (if they had gotten their lazy asses out of bed yet), and get us back with the group in Temple 5. I didn’t make it to the Plaza until about 7:20, and as I walked in from one side, there was Dave and Tom just getting there on the other side. Great timing!

After Temple 5, the guide headed straight for the Central Plaza. Oh well. After he gave us a briefing on the temples surrounding the Central Plaza, he announced that the tour was over.

What!? It’s only 8:30 and we booked a tour until 11am! It was only then that we found we’d been directed to go with the wrong guide, when the groups split up atop Temple 4.

Fortunately Tom’s 10Q map had made it back into the park with the guys. We spent the rest of the morning locating and walking to the several large outer temple complexes that we hadn’t gotten to the day before.

By 11:30 those of us that got up at 3:30am were feeling pretty tired. Not just sleepy tired but very footsore, so we headed out to catch the 12:30 shuttle to our next hotel.

We started looking for our shuttle about 10 til noon. There are 20 or so vans hanging out at the entrance to the park, waiting for groups coming out. When the guy had dropped us off the day before, Dave made it clear we’d be wanting to go back on the first (12:30) shuttle, and he said “I’ll be waiting right here.” Well, after each of us checking the parking lot over the next half hour, still no shuttle.

At 12:30, Dave finally used the hotel phone to call the company we booked the tour with (Tikal Travel). The guy said the shuttle should be there and just be patient. 5 minutes later, he called back and said “I’m coming to get you.”

It’s an hour trip from Flores to Tikal, so we went back to the Jaguar Inn for lunch and to wait for the van.

Long story short… our tour company, Tikal Travel, had subcontracted the tour and shuttle ride back to San Juan Tours. Somehow the whole thing was miscommunicated. Probably why we didn’t get picked up at the Tikal Inn in the morning as we’d been told, and why there was no shuttle driver looking for 5 gringoes and luggage at 12:30. To complicate things, the Tikal Travel operator is closed daily until 3pm (she teaches during the day), and of course, there’s no cell phone signal out at Tikal. The guy we’d gotten ahold of is Tikal Travel’s brother, who happens to have a van (and who charged us the normal fare after he picked us up at Tikal. Dave made several phone calls to Tikal Travel’s owner, who indicated it was San Juan Tours’ fault. She said she’d get them to give us partial refund, if we stopped by their office the next day. (we did and they wouldn’t). We felt really scammed by the whole thing. Not so much that an honest mistake was made, but that both operators refused to refund any money. We do not recommend either Tikal Travel or San Juan Tours, for any Tikal trips.

Anyway, eventually we got out of Tikal and on to El Remate, where La Casa de Don David awaited us. This turned out to be a really nice alternative to staying IN Tikal. It is located on the eastern shore of Lake Peten (the same lake that Flores is in), and is considerably closer to Tikal than Flores. It is well-run, has good food, and reasonable prices. We saw a spectacular sunset over the lake there.

Dave Relaxing at Casa de Don David

Tikal Trip Recap and Recommendations

After we finished it all, if we did it again, here is what we would do.

1. Go at a less busy time, and make less reservations ahead.

2. Avoid San Juan Travel and Tikal Travel at all costs. Their organization stunk, and they absolutely refused to give us any refund for services we did not get because they were so disorganized (we got neither the guide we paid for nor the trip back from Tikal).

3. Book 3 nights at Casa de Don David in El Remate vs any hotel in Flores or Tikal. Don David is 'muy tranquilo', reasonably close to Tikal, nice rooms, much better food, and well run. They will help with transportation to Tikal and away from the area when you are ready to leave.

4. Don't pre-book any tours to Tikal, but wait until you get to the front gate and negotiate your own deal directly with a guide. Make sure he speaks good English and is familiar with Tikal (perhaps ask other travelers for individual recommendations).

5. Skip the sunrise tour unless your just into listening for the animals in the jungle. I don’t think the sun is seen very often at dawn.

6. If you want to do sunrise or sunset, do it at Temple 5, not Temple 4. Temple 4 is really crowded these days at sunrise/sunset.

All of Our Tikal Photos.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Tikal Trip Day 2 - Tikal Inn, Sunset at Temple 4

In the morning, we had an hour to walk around the town of Flores before our shuttle bus was due. Very narrow streets and very touristy (mainly shops and restaurants). The most notable thing was the big Christmas tree in the square that was topped with a 'Gallo' ornament. Gallo is the local beer (pronounced guy-oh).

Our shuttle bus was on time at 10am. The drive only spoke Spanish so we put Dave (our designated speaker) up front with the driver.

We drove right past the 'new' airport at Santa Elena, which is also an army base. In addition to tanks and military jets, it is clear that this area has been discovered. It is rapidly turning into a major tourist destination—large hotels going up, big new airport addition, sparkling new tourist buses.

On the way to Tikal, our driver offered us a 'deal' on tickets into Tikal. He was offering to get us in for Q100 (about 1/3 off the normal price). He said it was a travel agent price. We wondered why the travel agent had not offered this option to us the day before. Long story short... it turned out to be somewhat of a scam. We did get into the park that afternoon on his discount ticket but we could not use it for entry the next day (which we had planned to do). On a regular ticket, if you go in after 3pm, you can also use your ticket for entry the next day. This was only one of several bad experiences we had with the arrangements with Tikal Travel and San Juan Tours (related agencies).

We got checked into the Tikal Inn, where Dave had already made reservations, left our bags in the lobby because our room wasn't ready yet, and went next door to the Jaguar Inn for lunch. It was an OK lunch, a little pricey and limited selections (but apparently the best available out at Tikal).

There are only 3 places to stay AT Tikal... Tikal Inn, Jaguar Inn, and the Jungle Lodge. The Jungle Lodge is the most expensive. Tikal is the middle one. The Jaguar Inn is the least expensive, and has a slightly better restaurant and common area atmosphere (and wifi/internet). None of the places has electricity during the day (except in the common areas).

When we finished lunch, our rooms were ready, so we unpacked our bags and equipped ourselves for major hiking. By 2pm we were at the Tikal Park entrance. We were disappointed to find that the museum, which used to be free, now charges an entry fee on top of the (just raised by 200%) park entry fee of 150Q ($20). In mute protest, we opted not to go into the museum.

One of the first things we encountered was the big Ceiba Tree. The Ceiba is also known in the Caribbean as the Kapok tree. In Guatemalan, the Mayans hold the Ceiba tree as sacred. It is known as the Tree of Life, because its roots go deep into the Underworld and its branches go way up in the sky. All we know is that it was one impressive tree, and we’re glad no one has cut it down.

The Girls at the Big Ceiba Tree

We had a guidebook that we had bought for $10, it had a map and some writeups, but it turned out to be mostly pictures and not that great. Tom and Jane had bought just a map for 10Q and we ended up using that as our primary map. The ‘traditional’ Tikal map is an archeologist sketch and is hard to read. Their map was a Disney World type map and much easier to figure out where we were and where we were trying to go. It clearly indicated which temples had been excavated and which were still ‘au natural’. The good map was a medium sized color fold-out map had a Gallo ad on the back. If you see it, buy it, it’s worth it.

On the way in to the Central Plaza, we went through a picnic area that had spider monkeys all over the trees. We saw a mommy with a baby on her back. Was hard to get good pics since they were so high up and under the dark canopy, but I think we got one or two good ones.

Also on the way in, the path passed what we termed a “looters tunnel”. There was no sign prohibiting entry, so of course we had to go in. Not much there, but fun to explore.

We eventually found the Central Plaza and all the surrounding temples. I have included a number of pics in the photo album and labeled them all. I won’t bore everyone here with the details. All I can say it is an amazing collection of structures rising up out of the jungle, dating from about 200 AD. There are thousands of ancient structures at Tikal and only a fraction of these have been excavated after decades of archaeological work. Most structures are still claimed by the jungle. If you’re interested in and overview of Tikal, check out the Wikipedia entry on Tikal.

Atop Temple 2 with Temple 1 in the background

Below, Climbing Temple 5

We climbed all over all the structures we could access in the Central Plaza and then located Temple 5 and climbed it. As the sun started to drop, we headed for Temple 4, reported to be the best sunset/sunrise viewing site.

When we got to Temple 4, we were dismayed to find that it was being reconstructed and all the west-facing spots were blocked off. We carefully hopped the fence so we could at least get to where we could see the sun go down. Pretty soon a gun-toting guard came by and told us we had to get back behind the fence. We pleaded with him in Spanish to let us stay where we could see the sun go down, and he eventually said he’d let us stay for 20Q ($2.65) per person.

Dave didn’t want to do bribes and was getting ready to climb back over the fence, but I wasn’t going without seeing the sun go down, so I whipped a 100Q note out of my pocket and gave it to the guide. Before the sun went down there were about 15 people hanging out on the prohibited side of Temple 4. The guards must fight for who gets to guard Temple 4 during sunset!

I did feel like a bad tourist. But then… I couldn’t believe that with the newly-increased $20 per person fee we paid to get in, there wasn’t some information passed out about having the west side of Temple 4 blocked off. They surely need a PR guy managing Tikal.

Anyway, we stayed for the sunset and then hiked out in the dark back to the hotel (about a half hour of hard walking). Got some great pics of the sunset, and then of the full moon rising over Temple 1 as we walked past.

Our dinner at Tikal Inn was mediocre, but we were hungry after all that hiking.

After a couple of drinks, Tom and Dave informed us that in order to take advantage of the free breakfast that comes with our room, they were going to skip sunrise and meet us in the park later. (WIMPS!)

Nicki, Jane, and I turned in early, as we had to be out at the curb at 4am the next morning for the sunrise tour.

Tikal Photo Album

Friday, December 21, 2007

Tikal Trip Day 1 - Rio Dulce to Flores

We started the second half of our adventure with Nicki with a trip to Tikal, the largest 'open' ruins site in Guatemala.

Dave had been assigned the travel arrangements while I was off with Nicki in Antigua. He spent a lot of hours talking to other cruisers in the Rio about how to get there and where to go and stay. Most of the advice turned out well. Some of the problems we did have were associated with traveling during Christmas, which is a busy time in Guatemala.

In addition to Dave, Nicki, and I, we were also joined by another couple that were staying at Catamarans (the marina where we are now). Jane and Tom don't know much Spanish and thought it would be great to tag along with someone who did. We were happy to have them join us, as more people make better negotiating power when you are trying to negotiate group rates.

Our Motley Crew

Our first task was to get to Flores, the town near Tikal, where we planned to spend the night at a nice hotel on the lake. We were trying to get there by early afternoon, so we had time to look around the small island town of Flores, and maybe do something fun. But the normal bus that everyone takes doesn't leave the Rio until 3pm, so one of the 'old timers' on the river told us about a bus that passes thru between 10 and 11am (the Rapido del Sur bus). They don't have an office in Rio Dulce, you just flag them down as they pass through.

By 11:30, the bus still hadn't come (though people on the street told us it should be coming soon). However, as we were waiting at the Fuente del Norte bus station, we saw that the normal 2nd class buses that pass through once an hour (our backup plan) were totally jam packed. They already had people standing in the aisle before they arrived in Rio Dulce. We didn't really want to have to stand up all the way to Flores.

Dave Contemplating Bus Options

Fuente del Norte Bus Passing Thru - Jammed

So, 'Plan C' was hatched on the street. With 5 of us, it was almost reasonable to hire a private van to take us to Flores. We negotiated with one of the guys hustling travel arrangements in the street, for a private van for $150. So the price for step one of our trip increased from 50Q ($7) per person to $30 per person. But we had a direct door-to-door van all to ourselves and could stop if we wished.

After a quick lunch at Bruno's we finally got off at 1pm in the private van. On the way out of town, the van driver stopped at his house (a small wooden shack on the street in Fronteras) and picked up his 9 year old son and his 8 year old buddy. These two little guys amused Nicki and I all the way to Flores. They asked us a million questions about the English words for things. And asked Nicki if she had any 'niños' (kids), which Nicki thought was a real hoot.

The Island of Flores

We arrived in Flores about 4pm. Dave had already made reservations at the Casona de la Isla, and Tom and Jane were able to get a room there too. It was a really nice place with a pool, hot tub and nice view of the lake (see more pics in our photo album). We had arranged for one large room for the three of us, and our room was huge, with 3 double beds, a private bath with hot water, and a great view of the lake. (Later we found that 2 of the 3 beds were really sprung...)

Sherry & Nicki In Front of Casona de la Isla

The View from Our Room

We also noticed there was a travel agency, Tikal Travel, right across the street. Dave's original plan was to wait until we actually got to Tikal to get a guide and make arrangements for our planned sunset and sunrise trips into Tikal. However, the travel agency had a lady that spoke good English, and because it was 'busy season', we thought it might be better to book things ahead (this turned out to be a big mistake).

So we booked a shuttle van into Tikal for the next day, and then also booked a 'sunrise tour of Tikal' for the following day.

For the sunrise tour, the guide was to pick us up at the front of our hotel in Tikal at 4:30 am, and guide us into Temple IV to watch the sunrise, and then take us on a half-day guided tour of the rest of Tikal, and then we'd take the shuttle bus back into El Remate (halfway back from Tikal) for our next stop. The price for the round trip (35 miles each way) and the guided tour was 200Q ($26). Entry to Tikal for non-Guatemalans is now Q150 ($20) on top of that.

We had a fair dinner at La Luna restaurant down the street from the hotel. It was recommended in the Lonely Planet and also by friends. The décor was great, service was good, but the menu was so-so-- more European than Guatemalan, and a little on the expensive side for Guatemala.

Tikal Trip Photos

Monday, December 17, 2007

Vulcan Pacaya Reprise

View of Fuego, Agua, and Santa Maria Volcanos from Pacaya
The volcano hike (my second one, Nicki's first) was really awsome. Unlike the steady drizzle and fog we encountered during the summer, we had a spectacular clear day. We could see everything for miles, once we got up on the mountain, including all 3 volcanos that surround Antigua (Santa Maria, Agua, and Fuego). The lava flow wasn't quite as good, however. On our trip before, the lava was oozing slowly on a relatively flat area. So we could walk right up to it and feel *relatively* safe. This time, the lava was flowing down quite a steep hill and randomly breaking off basketball-sized flaming boulders and flinging them downhill (right at us). I didn't feel quite safe like that, but the guide didn't seem too concerned (he could probably run faster than me!). We were also taking pictures of the lava right into the rising sun, so it was harder to get a good shot. The trip was a LOT dryer. After fully preparing for a wet trip, we saw nary a drop or hint of rain. It was still tough going up and down, but we went a lot faster... we were back in Antigua by noon. Anyway, Nicki and I both had a great time. We'll be feeling it tomorrow, but it was definitely worth it, even for a second time around. More photos on our Hiking Pacaya again with Nicki

Saturday Night in Antigua

We had a really nice dinner last night at La Pena del Sol Latino. They have great food and play live Andean (Peruvian) music several nights a week.

However, we left the restaurant in the middle of the first set, to get to bed early, because we had booked a 'Volcano Hike' and and had to get up at 5:30am to be ready for our pickup at 6am.

A good night's sleep was not in our future. First, it was Saturday night and our hotel, Casa Rustica, is very close to the central square. And apparently close to a disco... we had LOUD live music until 1am. Then after the music shut down, there were some fireworks set off, and that woke the roosters up.

It wasn't quiet until about 2am, and then we still had the random rooster going off.

At 4:15am, the guard in our hotel walked around banging on each door, trying to find the idiots who booked a 4am shuttle to somewhere, and didn't set their alarm. The noise also set the roosters off again. Whoever said that roosters only crow at sunrise just hasn't been around roosters much!

And, of course, we had to get ourselves up at 5:30am to go hike the volcano.

Nicki says it's a plot to keep her forever from getting a good night's sleep (she has just finished finals week at USF and is feeling quite sleep deprived).

I have promised her that TOMORROW she can sleep in.

Friday, December 14, 2007

On the Road Again

Daughter Nicki flies in today from Florida, on break from University of South Florida. We gave her the choice of going sailing or seeing Guatemala and she chose Guatemala.

So I am on my way this morning to pick her up in Guatemala City and take her to Antigua for a few days. Then we'll head back to the boat, pick up Dave and the 3 of us will finally get to Tikal.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Back in Guatemala (Whew!)

We had an eventful last couple of weeks and I never got around to doing another update. So here's a rough sketch...

Thanksgiving with the family & unplanned road trip to Atlanta... We had been looking forward to Thanksgiving in St. Augustine to see all of Sherry's family at once. But Sherry's Dad got sick with acute pneumonia just before Thanksgiving and was unable to come down. By the time Thanksgiving was over, he was in intensive care with pneumonia in both lungs and some internal bleeding. By the end of the weekend he was on a respirator and in very serious condition. Sherry & her brothers jumped in her
brother's motor home and made a quick trip to Atlanta to see him, and Dave followed Sherry up in his car a day later. But we only stayed 2 days because we were just getting in my sister's way--she had his care well in hand and didn't need more people to care for.

It was nice to see Sherry's sister's beautiful new house in Fayetteville, but not under those circumstances.

Pictures of the family Thanksgiving can be found here:

For awhile it looked like Dad was going to pull through, but he passed away quietly in his sleep on December 2.

We pushed off our planned December 6 return to Guatemala to December 9 so we could attend the family memorial service in the Keys. Again we enjoyed spending more time with Sherry's scattered family, but it was a very sad time saying goodbye to Gordo.

Pictures of Gordo's send-off can be found here:

On Sunday, we drove out from the Keys and direct to Ft. Lauderdale airport for a late night return to Guatemala via San Pedro Sula, Honduras (the only reasonably priced airfare we could get on short notice--our December 6 Spirit Airlines flight had been bought at such a discount that it was cheaper to abandon it than to change it). The flight into San Pedro Sula is pretty cheap because it is such an inconvenient time... You land at SPS airport at 12:30am.

I couldn't find much information about hotels in San Pedro Sula or the bus trip to Guatemala. We did manage to book a hotel and a shuttle from the airport via email ahead of time... good thing, because there were no taxis that late at night. And finally got some advice from other cruisers on the Rio about the bus trip.

We only got about 2 hrs sleep as we had to be up at 5am to catch the 6am once-a-day bus that goes to Rio Dulce. Though the 'crow flies' distance from San Pedro Sula to Rio Dulce is only about 60 miles, this is 'only' a 4 hour trip with an easy change in buses. But between a road that goes around the mountains, and 3 stops at the border for Honduran and Guatemalan Immigration, we were estimating 5 hours. We thought we were home free when we got to the crossroads, only 20 miles left on a straight
road to the Rio Dulce.

But the bus we were to change to got delayed, due to a traffic accident up the road. After about 2 hours, we finally gave up waiting for the bus we'd already paid for, and hired a passing van to take us and our 4 HEAVY suitcases the last 20 miles to the Rio Dulce. We finally arrived about 2pm, in the midst of a downpour. So Dave and I sat in the Rio Bravo bar annd had a pizza with Dave's friend Paul, who was there to give us a ride back to the boat.

We were happy to find Soggy Paws in good shape... except for the thin film of grey-green dust (mold) coating the interior, and some bright green mold in the low spots around the deck.

We are REALLY REALLY glad to be back. (Sherry started saying "I can't wait to get back on the boat" in about mid November).

Sherry's daughter Nicki arrives by plane in 2 days (Friday Dec 14), so we're furiously cleaning and getting the boat ready, as well as making travel reservations for travel with her around Guatemala.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


We have been busy the last week seeing old friends and attending various events:

- WRCC (Waterway Net) picnic in Wickham Park (Thursday)

- MYC (Melbourne Yacht Club) TGIF (Fridays)

- SSCA (Seven Seas Cruising Association) Friday - Sunday

- CSY (Caribbean Sailing Yachts) Owners Breakfast - Sunday

- ECSA (East Coast Sailing Association) Wednesday

- GW (Globe Wireless) Wednesday

Sherry raced with her old women's crew in the ECSA Women's Race on Sunday, taking first in 2 out of 3 races. Meanwhile, Dave and friends played golf at the newly renovated Patrick Golf Club.

The SSCA Gam was its usual flurry of social and learning events. The best presentation we attended was by Nine of Cups on their 'Circumnavigation of South America'. They went some cool places.

We had a nice breakfast with old and new friends at the CSY Breakfast, held at Memaws BBQ on the Sunday of SSCA.

Saw many old and dear friends at the Waterway Net Luncheon just before the SSCA Gam.

Sherry gave a 45 minute slide show/presentation at the ECSA meeting on Wednesday night (and promises to do the same at MYC TGIF on Nov 30).

We had a nice visit at Sherry's old company, Globe Wireless.

And finally, TGIF at MYC. The newly renovated clubhouse is gorgeous and we are really enjoying being back in town to enjoy the clubhouse and all our old friends.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Gator Football / Boat Show / Shopping!

Sherry Hanging out at the "Hub" at UF
(waiting for game time)

Nothing Like a "Gator" Game

Dave Pricing New Dinghies at the St. Pete Boat Show

This is what we call "Civilization"?

We have been having GREAT weather here in Florida this week, cool and sunny.

Gator Game: Yay, lots of fun! The Gators won convincingly, and so did the 'Noles and Navy (Dave's teams).

Boat Show (Strictly Sail St. Petersburg): On Sunday, light attendance. Fun socializing with several old friends manning booths. Poking around the displays looking for something new (not much). Beautiful weather!

Shopping: Walmart, Bealls, Target, West Marine, Office Depot, etc... We have already filled one large suitcase with the stuff we've bought, and still have a few more items on our list.

I4 Traffic: Bleah!!

Our plans for the month: Thursday we drive across the state to Melbourne for the WRCC and SSCA gatherings, with hopefully an appearance at MYC too on Friday night. We'll be based in the Melbourne area until Dec 5, with some side trips around Thanksgiving. We have a bunch of doctors appointments and social activities lined up, and we need to attend to Sherry's 2 rentals (anyone want a 2 BR / 2 BA furnished condo on the beach in Indialantic?)

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Back in the U.S.A.

We got up at 4:30am and were at the airport at 5:30am. The Guatemala City airport has been recently upgraded and it looks pretty much like any other airport.

Security wasn't particularly stringent at the Guate airport. For example, we saw a bag left by itself up near the front of the line at the ticket counter for nearly an hour--this probably would have triggered a massive security incident in the U.S. And I got through the security checkpoint without any hassle or a close look at my stuff. I was carrying a laptop and a backpack with lots of wires and electronics. And nobody questioned my water bottle. (However, later, Spirit Air had their own bag search as we got on the plane, and they did confiscate my water bottle there.)

The Spirit flight was uneventful. Our tickets, booked online a couple of months ago on cost only $99 round trip, but then they added all the Government taxes on both ends, which brought the price up to about $210 pp (still VERY reasonable).

However, this price does not include any checked luggage. Checked luggage costs $5 per bag if reserved ahead and $10 per bag at the airport. They do no free snacks or beverages, but will sell you the average array of stuff for $3 a can (credit cards only).

Our bags arrived on schedule, unmolested. We'd taken the precaution of using a cable tie to tie the zippers together, so we could tell they had not been opened.

The trip through Customs and Immigration was no problem, and efficiently managed in fairly pleasant settings, and by 1:30pm we were in our rental car headed out of the airport.

Dave had planned a couple of stops in Ft. Lauderdale on our way out.... At the Sailrite store, his favorite sushi place for lunch, Sailorman, and the watermaker place. We struck out on the first two. Sailrite has closed their Ft. Lauderdale store (too expensive to operate, not enough true cruisers to support it). The sushi restaurant had been levelled and there was no indication that they'd relocated somewhere else. A large CVS pharmacy was under construction.

After finishing our business in Lauderdale, we hit the road headed for Dave's college roommate's in Clermont, where we'd stored Dave's car. We enjoyed a nice night a Jimmy's house and left for Dave's cousin's house in Largo in the morning.

We had one little wrinkle we forgot about. When we stored Dave's car, we had to turn in the license plate, so they didn't suspend our driver's licenses when we canceled the insurance. We'd forgotten the paperwork--left it on the boat. However, the county tax office in Clermont had it all on their computer, and in 5 minutes we had a new tag and we on our way. Dave had activated the insurance via phone on our way out of Ft. Lauderdale.

We dropped the rental car at the Clearwater Airport and made it to Bryan's (Dave's cousin) house in Largo by noon.

Our plans are to stay in the area here until Thursday (Nov 8) and then head for Melbourne, to attend the SSCA Gam. We'll make Melbourne our base for the next month.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Headed Home (a day in Guate City)

On Wednesday, Dave and I hopped on the morning Litegua bus to Guatemala City. It was an uneventful trip and I took advantage of the time to read a book. Dave marvels at my ability to read in a moving vehicle. But I've always done it. It's a great way to make the time pass.

We arrived in Guate about 2pm, at the Litegua bus station downtown, and negotiated for a taxi to take us to our hotel near the airport. We weren't sure what the far should be, but the taxi driver started at 90Q and we got him down to 60Q, so we probably got a reasonably fair fare.

Our hotel, a small family run hotel called Patricia's was recommended to us by a friend.

It turned out to be a family home, in the traditional Guatemalan style with a courtyard in the middle. The family rents out 6 rooms with shared bath, 3 in each leg of the "U". It was a very clean and fairly cheery place, and Patricia and her family were very nice. The beds were firm, the pillows NOT lumpy, the sheets good. There is free wifi. TV is shared, in the courtyard.

We'd recommend this as a budget hotel close to the airport. The cost was $12 U.S. pp, which includes one airport transfer and a continental breakfast. They also gave us a ride into town (Zone 10) for 25Q (about $3). They do NOT do dinner, but there is a small diner within walking distance featuring typical El Salvadoran food.

After we got settled in the hotel, Dave and I spent the afternoon poking around the Zona Viva (Zone 10) in Guatemala City. This is the area where most of the foreign embassies are located, and has several US-style shopping malls, plus numerous bars, restaurants, and hotels, all within a few blocks of each other. This is where most non-backpacker tourists stay in Guatemala, either coming or going. There is a nice-looking Holiday Inn and a few other upscale US hotels. But the low end of these hotels start at $75/nite, a price we'd never consider paying in Guatemala.

We strolled the malls and were amazed at the "stuff". You can truly get just about any U.S. goods here, at a price. Not outrageous, just what you'd expect to pay when adding shipping costs and government import taxes (12%). The largest store in the Rio Dulce is about the size of a typical 3BR home in the U.S., so everything is limited in selection and quantity. So we just gawked at all the stuff in these stores. And the malls they were in were typical huge malls... 3 levels with a large food court in each one.

We also walked a few blocks to check out the budget hotel that many of the cruisers use when coming to the city. Hotel Las Torres

It is located in Zone 10 and within walking distance of all the malls, restaurants and bars. We had received conflicting recommendations from our friends. One friend said it was great, and other said they wouldn't stay there again. Though we didn't get to see a room, because they were all full, it looked "entirely adequate".

The Las Torres is right across from the Holiday Inn and costs half the price. They advertise a room rate of $38.50, but tell them you're a boater on the Rio Dulce and give them a boat card to put on their wall, and you get a room rate of $25. The front desk guy says their wifi works "most of the time". I think we'll stay here on our way back through Guate just to experience it for ourselves.

Our plan was to eat while downtown and then catch a cab back to the hotel for an early night. We needed to get up at 4:30am to catch our 7am flight out to Ft. Lauderdale.

I have to confess that we ate in the mall food court, and then had an ice cream at McDonalds. The mall meal was good--at a New Orleans themed restaurant though with a Guatemalan flair.

We flagged down a taxi back to the U.S. Again he asked for almost double what it should have been and when Dave started pressing for a lower price, he whined about rush hour, etc. We settled on 30Q, but Dave gave him 35Q, because the traffic was bad and he turned out to be a nice guy.

It appeared that we were the only guests at Patricia's. We never saw another guest, and it was a nice quiet hotel, EXCEPT for the engine noises coming from the airport. The traffic dies down after dark and the only one that disturbed us was about 4am, some turbo prop revving up his engines.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The People You Meet Traveling

I have been meaning to write for awhile about the amazing variety of people we have met while we've been traveling in Guatemala. Just on our trip last weekend, we met some really cool and different people:

  • Brian is a non-denominational, non-governmental social worker in the Dominican Republic. Brian is originally from South Africa, but now is a US citizen. He and his wife have been working together in Haiti and the DR for about 5 years. Though a big strong guy, he has a very gentle heart and a clear mission in life. Brian is in Guatemala studying Spanish so he can better interact with the people he is working with. Website

  • Adam is a newly commissioned lieutenant in the US Army Reserves. He was an Army sergeant, but just completed 6 months of officer training school, and is taking a break for a few months in Guatemala. He's studying Spanish and working as a bartender at the local sports bar.

  • William is a young man from Belgium, but is of Guatemalan origin. William was adopted from Guatemala as a baby, and has returned to get to know his country of birth. He's one of the most outgoing (and nice) people we met. Being Belgian, he grew up knowing French and Dutch. His English is pretty good, and he's learning Spanish.

  • Laurel and Darrin, a mid-life couple from California who are 9 months into a 15 month trip around the world. They've been backpacking for 9 months, and have been all over... Australia, Nepal, India, etc. From here they are headed to South America. Their $3,000 round-the-world airline ticket runs out in March... Website

  • Steve and Jacky are a mid-life couple from New Zealand, traveling in Mexico and Guatemala on a 6 week vacation. Jacky's stories of traveling in her younger days (3 days across Africa in the back of a fish truck) were incredible.

  • Kim, who is a 50-ish Korean man. His brother has lived in Guatemala for a number of years and Kim has come here to visit him. He studies Spanish in the school in Antigua during the week, and then goes to his brother's house in Guatemala City for the weekend.

  • John and Celine, a French Canadian couple. John is here for his 4th time. His Spanish is pretty good, but he's still expanding his vocabulary and increasing his fluency. He brought his wife Celine down here so she could learn and travel with him.

  • Hanneka, a Dutch woman. Here by herself, just hanging out in Guatemala, and learning Spanish and seeing the sights.

  • Suresh, who is a Canadian from Ontario. He has just completed his medical school entrance exams, and has a couple of months to wait before the results come back. So he's here studying Spanish and hanging out. He already knows Spanish much better than I do (from only 2 weeks and Spain, he said).

  • Lucy, a young girl about 21 who wasn't really interested in college. Her parents suggested she try a different tack and encouraged her to go to Guatemala to volunteer to do some social work up in the highlands of Guatemala. The prerequisite was 2 months of language school, which she finished last week. Lucy got on a bus for Xela last weekend to go up into the mountains until Christmas.

  • And of course the 'yachties'. To our amigos at the school, our life and plans are very exotic, too. They are interested in exactly how we are living (and how we can afford it.

Dave's Website

Memory Rose's Website

The common questions when you meet another student (in a bar, in the square, on a bus to somewhere, at the mid-morning break at the school).

- Where are you from?
- How long are you here for?
- Where have you been in Guatemala?
- Where are you going next?
- How can you afford to do this?

It is fun sharing life stories and tips about how to see more of Guatemala for less. And it is inspiring to meet other adventurous people like ourselves.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Coban, Lanquin, Semuc Champey

We left the school at 1pm on Friday. There were 9 of us and luggage, plus we were picking up 3 more at the crossroads. Hmmm... could be a little tight in that van!

They had promised us an itinerary, but we never got one (and forgot to ask until we were underway). Maybe it was a plot to make us have to talk Spanish with our driver!

The driver, Carlos, seemed to only speak Spanish (but later I found out that he speaks English pretty well). I was worried that the fact that we were supposed to be picking Dave, Ron, and Dorothy up at El Rancho hadn't been properly communicated. So I worried the whole way until we actually had them in the bus that something wouldn't work out right. But it was no problem.

We didn't pick them up in El Rancho until about 4:30pm, and we still had about 2 hours to go to get to Coban. To fit all 12 people in, with luggage, we had to put Sue on the jump seat next to the driver, and Dorothy on the back jump seat next to the luggage. They swapped places on the way back and both ended up with sore bums.

It was a dark and rainy night and we were all glad that someone else was driving us. Carlos turned out to be a very good and careful driver. Most of the roads in Guatemala are still only 2 lanes. And they have no trains and no ports to speak of, so ALL the goods in the country move via truck. AND the roads are very mountainous, so one heavily laden truck going up a hill will essentially stall traffic to a crawl. So the other drivers just pass them anywhere, any way they can... on hills, on blind curves, etc. It is not uncommon to have 3 abreast on a 2 lane road. They are all crazy. It's nervewracking to just be in the passenger seat. But Carlos refused to pass unless he could do so safely.

The sleeping arrangements for our 2 nights in the hotel had been a little fuzzy. The normal student population (the backpackers) are used to dormitory style accommodations. But I wanted to spend at least the first night alone with Dave, so I asked for a private room for us and another for Ron and Dorothy. There were 2 other couples in the group and 4 single people. Once all the keys had been given out, it turned out that my friend Sue (who is married) ended up being paired with Kim, an older gentleman from Korea. He wasn't too keen about that and neither was Sue.

There were no more rooms to be had. So they shuffled things a little bit and they ended up putting her in with 2 other students (in a 3-bed room). I think the name of the hotel was Pasado Don Antonio, but it was somewhat unremarkable. We got there late, it was pouring rain and it continued to rain until we left in the morning.

The next morning we had breakfast in a Pollo Campero, which is a McDonalds-style fast food restaurant that specializes in chicken.

They are all over Guatemala, but so far we had refused to eat in one. But our driver, Carlos, picked this place because it was easy and relatively fast. It was not bad. Dave and I both got 'Plato Super Tipico' which included refried beans and fried plantains (and eggs, bacon, etc).

Once we left Coban for Lanquin, the paved road ended and we went the rest of the way on dirt roads. However, we saw regular mile markers (in kilometers, actually). We wondered whether someone would really go 265 Km on this road!!! I think it was only about 40 Km to our final destination, but it took us 2 hrs of driving to cover that distance. It had rained the night before and the roads were muddy and slippery, and we were going up and down hills on very rutted roads.

With the van so heavily loaded, Carlos had to get a running start before going up a hill. Once, we met another car coming our way, and we had to stop to let him pass, and then Carlos had to back down the road a quarter of a mile to get our running start again. We also had to shift a few people to the back, to put some more weight on the back wheels. We eventually made it.

The first stop on Saturday morning were the caves of Lanquin (lan-keen)... Las Cuevitas de Lanquin. This was a big series of caves with lights, etc. Our guide spoke only Spanish and took us through the cave pointing out formations that look like something else. (ie one rock looked like a monkey face, El Mono).

It was kind of uninspiring after our cave trip in Belize. Everyone was excited when Dave pointed out the bats hanging from the ceiling. The cave was lit, but they had told us to bring flashlights in case the lights go out. They say there are miles of caves that have not been explored.

After the caves, we piled back in the van for another 10 Km to get to our final destination, Semuc Champey and Hotel Las Marias. It was more bumpy slithery road, though small villages and at least one coffee plantation.

Las Marias is situated on the Rio Lanquin, right near Semuc Champey.

Semuc Champey is a series of waterfalls and pools, where the river goes (mostly) for awhile. The sight of the river falling into this big hole was an amazing site.

We got a chance to swim and climb around on the rocks in the pools.

Then Dave and I and Sue opted to walk back via the 'mirador' (overlook). It was a half hour climb up steep steps (both rock and wooden) to get there. But the view was worth it and we saw 3 toucans in the tree nearby. The picture at the beginning was taken from the mirador.

We met some of our friends from the La Union school who had also gone to Semuc Champey on a trip they organized themselves. They got to do the tubing trip in addition to the waterfalls trip.

At dinner the owner of the hotel and his buddies hauled out their Marimba and played some authentic Guatemalan music for us.

The trip back on Sunday was long. The only fun thing was our stop at Biotopo Quetzal, where we did an hour nature walk through the 'cloud forest'. There are supposed to be Quetzals (the Gaute national bird) there, but we didn't see any.

More pics here:
Coban, Lanquin, and Semuc Champey