After a year and a half of enjoying Mexico, it is time to say goodbye. Anjuli, along with four other boats successfully transited the infamous Gulf of Tehuantepec to arrive here safe and sound at Marina Chiapas in the southern-most Mexican port of Puerto Chiapas.
The marina is quite nice, but also quite isolated requiring a 25-minute bus ride into the town of Tapachula to reach civilization. The other day on the way into town we shared a ride with seventeen other people – in a 12-
person van. Situated less than a half hours drive from the Guatemalan border, Tapachula has a real frontier town feel. This is not a tourist town – we have seen no other white faces. There is however a Home Depot, Burger King, Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club, and the automatic weapon fire from the naval base next to the marina let’s you know you are in a safe place.
We had planned to head south to El Salvador after a few days rest. Guatemala lies directly below Mexico, but we have opted to give Guatemalan ports a miss and continue on to Bahia del Sol in El Salvador where we will participate in the Cruisers Rally to El Salvador. This is a destination rally, where boats arrive when they can and stay for several weeks taking part in planned activities. Several of the other boats we have been traveling with planned land travel into Guatemala, and we were starting to be little envious, so when our Canadian friends on Avant asked us on the eve of our departure if we wanted to make a quick trip into Guatemala we said sure!
Entering Guatemala by boat is expensive and involves a bit of third-world red tape, but traveling by land is a breeze. As in most developing countries, the main mode of transportation is bus. You can ride the chicken bus or you can pay a few bucks more for something nicer. We, along with two other boat crews took a van operated by a tour company from the marina to the Guatemalan town of Quetzaltenango. Immediately upon crossing the border it becomes apparent that Guatemala is a very poor country. From our vantage point on the bridge over the river which forms the border, we could see people in all manner of rafts trying to cross the river into Mexico, which seems positively affluent compared to Guatemala. Apparently they are rounded up, fed a meal then bused to Honduras, regardless of their country of origin. This is funded by the US, being much more cost effective than having to deport them from the US if they make it that far.
Our trip started in the Guatemalan highlands. Think towering, verdant green volcanoes with coffee growing on the flanks of the mountains. There is no flat land anywhere! The small villages rely primarily on subsistence farming, and women washing clothes on rocks can be seen in every stream and river. Quetzaltenango, which is a town of about 140,000, has been populated since at least the 14th century. The Mayans, the Spaniards, the Germans, all have left their mark here, leaving a fascinating
mixture of architecture. We found a room in a hostel just off the central plaza. This is the first time I have stayedin a hostel – we had a private room with a shared bath. We were the oldest people there…
The next day we negotiated with a taxi for the 2-hour drive to Panajachel, a town on the north shore of volcano-ringed Lake Atitlan. From Panajachel we took a boat across the lake, which is actually a caldera, to the village of Santiago Atitlan. We have cruiser friends who own a beautiful home there. We found a tuk-tuk to take us to their home, where we had a great dinner and then spent the night in our own casita on the lake owned by a friend of our friends.
The next morning we took the boat back across the lake – not so pleasant this time with 15 knots on the nose and the boat flexing ominously! We grabbed a shuttle van for the 2-hr drive to the UNESCO World Heritage city of Antigua, Guatemala. Nestled between three volcanoes, and literally dripping with history, this is a special place. Cobblestone streets, and ruins around every corner. This is earthquake country, and between devastating earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, it is amazing that anything has survived -there are no tall buildings here! We arrived in the midst of a festival celebrating Lent with the town alive with celebrants, tourists, and parades of incense-waving purple robed church members.
Antigua is awash with foreign tourists, and prices reflect it. The only Guatemalans here are those working in shops, restaurants and hotels. English is widely spoken here, more so than in the big Mexican resort towns. We found the Guatemalan people to be friendly and helpful, and never felt unsafe. Apparently Guatemala City is not so nice however, and we were warned by the shuttle driver who dropped us off at the bus station there the next morning to go straight into the lobby (where there was a guard with an automatic weapon) and stay there until our bus came. The bus station was surrounded by 20-ft steel walls with two strands of razor wire on top. The gates opened to allow the bus in, then closed behind it while we boarded. But the bus was very nice, and the drive back to Mexico was uneventful. We lost several passengers at the border – apparently their papers were not in order, but we sailed through without a problem. Our foray into Guatemala has reminded us how very, very lucky we are to have been born in the USA.
Tomorrow we will untie from the dock and make the 2-day passage to El Salvador. We will miss Mexico, her people, and her quirks, but we will definitely be back someday.