Guatemala and El Salvador

May, 2004


May 23rd

I rolled out of bed at 5:00 AM to catch the sunrise from Temple IV, the tallest at Tikal. It was impossible, not because of the guards with guns and machetes blocking the entrance until 6:00 AM, but because of dense fog. I hoped the clouds would burn away during the 35 minutes of fast walking it took to cross the park, but no such luck. By 7:00 AM, the sun was well up and cleared the clouds enough for a glimpse of the top of the nearest temple. Spider monkeys betrayed their presence by shaking the tree-tops I looked down upon. A pack of Howler monkeys moved closer and closer, lower in the trees on the stronger limbs, unseen but clearly growing louder. They howl and grunt at each other or, perhaps, themselves for hours. Sleep would be impossible with one in the trees above your bungalow. I was able to spot one on the walk back to the park entrance.

Getting out of Guatemala is much less complicated than getting in. Get your passport stamped, turn in the window sticker from the car and you're done. Getting into Belize is the same dance to a different tune. Get the car tires sprayed with disinfectant and then fork over 10 Belize dollars, the real reason for the spraying. Go through Immigration and Customs, get the car permit, buy insurance and you're done. Thirty minutes total... a piece of cake.

Belize isn't very wide. We stopped at the capital, Belmopan, for lunch and made Belize City, on the Caribbean coast, in another hour. The first surprise was the amazing number of Belize dollars (two of theirs for each of ours) it was going to take to survive here. A tuna sandwich is $26 of theirs, or $13 of ours. The Radison Hotel wanted $BZ 280.00 per night. We settled on "The Great House," a bed and breakfast place with an ocean view, for $BZ 180. The ATM machine in town spit out Belizean dollars; we wore a path to and from it.

The Swing Bridge, an automobile bridge which is rotated on a central pivot twice each day, by hand, to let the fishing fleet in and out of town is Belize City's sole attraction. The population, mostly black, was very helpful and friendly. Reggae rhythms predominate on the street and on the radio.

A local fellow offered to wash our car for $US 5.00. we took him up on the deal... Our scientific test had succeeded; you could no longer tell what kind of car we had under the dirt. His plea... bring as much Armorall to Belize as you can pack in... it's ten times more expensive there than in the States.

May 24th

The Belize Marine Terminal, about three blocks from our hotel, was an easy walk with our smallest suitcase trundling along behind. The open speed-boat with two 200 horsepower outboard engines seemed unlikely to hold the assembled crowd, but it did; twenty-five souls climbed aboard. Forty minutes later, we were deposited on the dock at Caye Caulker, the next "undiscovered" paradise. What "undiscovered" means is that the streets aren't paved. This allows rainwater to fill pot-holes that would otherwise go unnoticed. You can't complain because they told you the place was "undiscovered." You can, however, take the next boat out of town... which we did the first thing the next morning.

A one-hour golf-cart ride around town allowed us to take in every street twice, go to the airport, go to the beach and still have some time to spare. The homes on the first street back from the tourist "traps" were, by any description, modest. No abandoned cars were to be seen, because there were no cars on the entire island. Other junk found a way to the fill front yards of homes made from scraps. The most frequent "front door" was a piece of cloth hanging where a door would be expected.

I snorkeled around in front of "Popeye's Hotel," finding the water near the shore full of weeds and broken bottles. A few little brown fish fit right in.

Hello, Belize

To reach Miss Claudett's Belizean Lunch, you must SWIM across the split and follow the signs

May 25th

The second boat to San Pedro town on Ambergris Caye leaves at 8:45 AM and we were on it. Renting a golf cart again, we headed north out of town and found the ferry boat, required to cross the river, was a raft big enough to hold two golf carts and a few bikes, pulled across the river by hand! Two kids performed the honors, assisted by waiting locals who knew a helping hand would speed their progress.

Beach-front lots were for sale along the road, but the water was the same as before, shallow and full of underwater grasses. The developed lots lacked any sort of appeal. You could live in a nice house and look out at the water, which was the requisite green, turquoise and blue, but the beach could never be thought of as a place to walk or swim.

Finding Ambergriss Caye even less appealing than Caye Caulker, we decided to fly back to Belize City on one of Tropic Air's Cessna 208 Caravans. I rushed and got the copilot's seat for a refresher course, not having flown one myself for many years. Including a quick stop at Caye Caulker, the 2:00 PM flight took 30 minutes. We were back in Belize City before the 2:30 PM boat left the dock at San Pedro!

We picked up the car from the hotel lot and drove back to the Belize/Guatemala border at San Ignacio, poised to make the crossing first thing in the morning. We almost crossed the country twice on a single tank of gas... we had to buy 5 gallons of gas for $20 (that's US dollars!!) to guarantee a return to reasonable prices in Guatemala.

The rusty barge serves as a self-propelled ferry boat

People on the ferry pull the rope to move it

As simple as it gets... until it's on the other side and there's nobody to bring it to you.

Golf carts and rusty barges used as ferry boats help us make the
descision not to buy property here.

So we took the fastest way we could find out of town, Tropic Air's Cessna 208 Caravan

You can have your own for one million dollars

A million dollar smile

Departing Ambergriss Caye

After a 30 minute flight that included a stop at Caye Caulker, arriving Belize City.
Airport on the left.

May 26th

Belize took one more whack out of the wallet on the way... with a $BZ37.50 departure tax, but otherwise we've got the border crossing thing worked out pretty well now.

There's a 14 km stretch of really bad road entering Guatemala from Belize, You can't go more than 15 mph over the wash-board gravel surface without incurring damage to your dental work. After that it was smooth sailing. It seems strange to say that we were glad to be out of an English speaking country and back into a Spanish-speaking one, but it's true. Guatemala is treating us very nicely.

Our almost new room at the Mansion del Rio, on the shore of the river Rio Dulce, offered a giant swimming pool complete with a water-slide, and two restaurants for $US 56.00. Belize wanted $US 175.00 for the same accomodations.

Rentering Guatemala from Belize
Glad to be leaving an English-speaking country and entering a Spanish-speaking one.

Vulture, lunching on road-kill

Mansion del Rio, on the shore of the river Rio Dulce

May 27th

Rio Dulce

The Backpacker Hotel sent their boat to our hotel dock at the appointed hour and we were off for a day trip to Livingston. Catering to bird-watchers, the boat stopped at several islands along the way. Cormorants and herons predominated, with a large green iguana thrown in for good measure. Reachable only by boat, Livingston is one of the final outposts of the Garifuna, a black, Creole speaking people. A Swiss fellow living in town picked the best items from the local lunch menu... my topado soup had a whole fish, a whole crab and numerous shrimp... and invited us to visit his hotel on the way back to the boat. Go to the Hotel Rio Dulce for the best mojito this side of Cuba.

The boat stopped at a sulfur spring on the way back to Rio Dulce. I jumped in for a few minutes, finding the water too hot for comfort close to the vent. The water was definitly loaded with minerals; my silver ring was a brilliant gold color when I got back in the boat.

The beauty of the river, somtimes open and a half-mile wide, sometimes closed in by steep canyon walls, always edged with deep-green jungle and covered with pure-blue sky dotted with fair-weather cumulus clouds, easily overshadowed the destination city.

River cruise from Rio Dulce to Livingston, served only by water-craft

Bienvenidos a Livingston

Waiter, I found a fish in my soup

Elsa, supervising dock operations

A short stop on the way back to swim in the hot water flowing into the bottom of the river.
It was too hot to stay in some spots

Back in Rio Dulce

May 28th

Sweet Home, Santa Ana

Equipulas is the home of Central Americas most revered cathedral. Visitors burned candles as they prayed inside, while stalls on the street outside sold religious paraphenalia, including a drawing of Jesus talking on his cell-phone.

El Salvadoreans may be an industrious sort, but they haven't used their talents to make the border crossing any easier; it chewed up over an hour and more photocopies of the car registration. The farther we get from the states, the more lax the paper trail becomes. Mexico wanted to see our original documents and then accepted copies for their own purposes, as did Guatemala and Belize. El Salvador accepted a copy. The light blue printing on the original didn't copy well, so the agent couldn't figure out what state we were from; he sent his assistant out to examine the license plate.

The road turned to concrete, smooth and wide, promising an upgrade from the asphalt we've grown accustomed to. Repair work (on a new road???) blocked one lane every hundred-yards or so for a few miles, but eventually the repairs diminished and the trucks thinned out.

Not finding a place we wanted to stop along the way, we ended up in Santa Ana, El Salvador's second largest city. Santa Ana gives poverty a new meaning. Nothing appears new or even polished. Everything is dirty, broken or crumbling. The streets are narrow and crowded, wide enough for a parked car and a bus to get by. A store clerk advised Elsa to take off her necklace before venturing back into the walking-zone of stalls we had just visited.

I picked what the guide-book said was the city's finest hotel and got a nice, but not fancy, room for $US 38.00. El Salvador converted their curency from the colon to the US dollar last year; even the coins are minted in the US.

Lightning and thunder announced heavy rain after dark, the first we have had in a week.

Esquipulas is the home of Central Americas most revered cathedral

Basillica of Esquipulas

Leaving Guatemala, entering El Salvador

Welcome to El Salvador

Speedy Gonzalas takes the wheel

May 29th

Departed Santa Ana to the west, passing through Ahuachapan and Sonsonate on the way south to the Pacific coast at Acajutla. Saturday is market day in Sonsonate and the 20 blocks of city streets we passed through were so choked with people, they brushed both sides of the car as we passed. Stinky buses and a truck with speakers mounted on the roof, blasting the crowd, added to the ambience, but not our enjoyment.

We pressed on to the tourist mecca of La Libertad, where the elite from San Salvador go to frolic for the week end...

The common cure for poverty is money, but that won't help here, no matter how much you are prepared to spend. There is simply no support for the tourist. When your shower has only one knob, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the water is going to be cold. Whacking your toes on the cinder block used to replace the broken leg on the bed is another reminder that the finest hotel in town doesn't measure up. The people, however, are friendly and helpful, even the ones who stop to read the newspaper on the way to the kitchen with your order.

Santa Ana, the second largest city in El Salvador

Hotel in La Libertad