We left Guatemala in company of 2 other sailboats, Interlude and High States, arriving the following day, Thanksgiving, in the Bay Islands of Honduras. West End, Roatan, was our first port and we celebrated with dinner at the Rotisserie Chicken Shack along the beach. Roatan is know as a major scuba diving destination in this part of the world, sitting along the second largest barrier reef in the world, as does Belize. The road through West End is littered with dive shops, small restaurants, bars, and very few souvenir shops. The road itself is just hard packed sand in constant state of being repaired, always water filled potholes, and also filled with friendly locals. Diving is very cheap and the reef is only a hundred yards from where we anchored.
After a month there we sailed 20 miles to Cayos Cachinos, a small island group in the middle of a marine park. Only a few hundred people populate the islands so few things are available but the diving was excellent. The crew of Interlude and Jumbie have friends that live on the island and we, along with High Sates, were all invited to have Christmas dinner at Greg and Judith's beach house. An excellent time was had by all, the food lasted for 4 days and we still had leftovers.
From there we sailed to Port Royal, back on Roatan, in time for a pot luck dinner and New Years eve party at the Mango Creek resort, more friends of Interlude and Jumbie. In true cruiser fashion we declared "cruisers midnight" to actually be 9pm, when most of us are ready to call it a day. The snorkeling along the reef in this bay was excellent.
Next stop was French Cay Harbor, 8 miles to the West. There was a new marina~yacht club that just opened and the owners go out of their way to help the cruisers. It has become the local cruiser hangout and they treat you like family there. We made friends with an avid diver named Joyce who has been here a year. She dives almost every day and she became our unofficial guide to all the dive sites in the area. She has become such good friends of the local dive resort that they gave us big discounts on renting tanks or going out on their dive boats.
We had only planned on stopping for a few days and 3 months have now passed. Our next stop will be the island of Guanaja, 30 miles East of here, to clear out with customs and immigration. Due to prevailing wind and seas from the East we have to time the passage for calmer winds than the norm of 15-20 knots. From there we will be making a 150 mile overnight passage to a small group of island known as the Hobbies and Vivarillos. Sitting in the middle of nowhere these unspoiled small islands are uninhabited except for a small fishing camp where a few local fisherman stay. The diving and fishing is supposed to be excellent and it is not uncommon for the fisherman to trade you a half dozen lobsters for a pack of cigarettes, matches, a few beers, magazines, cans of Vienna sausages or Spam. We expect to spend 3~4 weeks there and will be out of communication except for our ham radio. Our friends on Interlude and Pavo Rial will join us there at some point before we all head S toward Panama.
We had our last party in the marina on Holloween, the last time we would see many of the other cruisers that have become our friends. Most cruisers start leaving after Nov 1st, the end of hurricane season. We left just a few days ago for Roatan in the Bay Islands of Honduras, about 130 miles east of Guatemala. We sailed in company of 2 other boats we have become good friends with, and as I write this we are anchored 200 yards behind the reef as a cold front is passing. Cold fronts bring rain and wind, lots of it. Steady wind speeds of 25-28mph with gusts near 40mph have been slamming us most of the night and will continue until tomorrow. Waves are crashing over the reef where we were peacefully snorkeling 2 days ago, pretty neat actually.
The last big thing we did before leaving Guatemala was to go to a kite fest held in the village of Sumpango. For hundreds of years it has been a tradition to fly kites over the cemetary on All Saints Day as a way to send your love and prayers to your departed friends and family, and as a means to fend off evil spirits that may want to harm them. A general theme is given each year and teams begin to design and build their kites 6 months in advance. Kites range in size from 8 feet to 40 feet in diameter and are constructed of bamboo, rope, paper, glue and tape. Only the smaller ones up to about 12 feet ever make it off the ground and most of those crash before becoming "permanently" airborne. It was a fantastic festival and one of the most colorful we have seen.
In the cemetary itself families decorated the graves as modestly or elegantly as their means allowed. Instead of the somber feeling I've had in American cemetaries and funerals this seemed more like a celebration of the lives of their loved ones. People were having picnics and socializing with friends and enjoying the day.
Casa Guatemala is an orphanage located along the river in the jungle. They are very poor and funded only by donations and volunteers. 100 full time children live there and another 100-150 come to school there from the 3 outlying villages, ages 2-16. There is no electricity during the day, I'm not sure at night, and generally all they can afford to feed the children and volunteers is rice and beans, occasionally vegetables or fruit, sometimes they have meat donated to them on Fridays. There is a medical clinic on site but rarely does it have any trained staff, occasionally an MD will volunteer for a few weeks but that is rare. Last month we started working the clinic 2 days a week, we are all they have, and the villagers also come in. They have no other access to health care, most have little or no income and live at barely a subsistence level, it is very sad.
The clinic has some very basic equipment and a large variety of drugs donated to them, very little of what we use the most of, topical antibiotics, steroid creams, and anti itch medicines. We have an assortment of oral antibiotics but we are only nurses not trained to diagnose and prescribe and hesitant to do so. On the other hand we are all they have and they are very grateful for what ever we may be able to do for them.
Everything they have has been donated but unfortunately almost every medication name is in Spanish. All the brand names are in Spanish as well as the generic names, so I've been spending a lot of time on the computer translating their names to English and making a chart for us and who ever follows after us. The most common things we see are cuts, scrapes, skin infections, lacerations, and lots of head lice. They even asked us if we knew how to set broken bones. We may be in way over our heads. We won't give anybody injections without a doctors order, which we won't be able to get in any case. Nearest doctor is 6 miles away by boat.
Our second day at the orphanage we did see one boy Michelle thought had possible strep throat, and had been running a 102 fever on and off for days. We checked our reference books and what was recommended for an anti biotic was not in the clinic. It is something that needs refrigeration so there is no way they could keep in anyway. The disease can lead to scarlet fever if untreated so we took the child, along with one of the instructors, to the free clinic in town when we were finished for the day. I went with them hoping to speak with an English speaking doctor to see if something we had at the clinic would have been appropriate. Of course no doctor was on duty that day, but the nurse that saw him ended up giving him an injection of Penicillin, which is what our book said, then he got another injection of a different medication. I also went because I wanted to make sure he got an anti-biotic. Apparently one of the volunteers went to the free clinic for a possible eye infection and all they gave him was Visine. A few days later he went to a hospital in another town and was diagnosed with conjunctivitis and give anti-biotic eye drops. So the orphanage people aren't too confident in the care available at the free clinic.
While we were at the orphanage one of the older boys carried in a large trash bag full of various medications, mostly anti-biotics or anti-parasitics. They have tons of that kind of stuff but very short of topical medications, which we seem to be using the most. Creams and ointments like Benadryl (Benadryl pills too), triple anti-biotics creams, hydrocortisone, anti fungal creams and powders/sprays for athletes foot. If it gets to be too frustrating for me I can always make use of the large supply of codeine, valium, tranxene, and assortment of other benzodiazepines I am still translating. Why they even have these medications there I cannot guess. We are not very comfortable playing doctor but at least we know when to call for one.
Last week a True North medical mission team arrived at our marina, the director had heard of our work at the orphanage and came to our boat for introductions. His organization has been coming to the area for a decade and his first visit this trip was to be the orphanage. He brought a team of 5 doctors, 2 pediatricians, 2 anesthesiologists, and 1 ER doctor. They saw 185+ children and each child received medicine to de-worm them. Alan, the mission director, told us that every child they see gets the medication because intestinal parasites are very common among these people. The mission spent the next 4 days visiting remote villages before they sailed to Belize to give the volunteer docs some well earned R&R.
We were relieved to learn that we had been doing an effective job treating the few things that we thought did require antibiotics. We only have a few days left to work at the clinic and we have not heard of anyone taking our place anytime in the near future.
I have added a link to the Casa Guatemala web site but much of the information is out of date.
I'm not sure what happened to the farming, fish farm, or chicken ranch but they no longer exist. They still raise pigs which are sold in their shop in town to help support the orphanage.
September 15th was Guatemala's independence day and we helped celebrate with a pig roast and party. About 50 people showed up and we all had a great time. The marina staff were invited to attend, at our expense, but we were told they always spend holidays with family whenever possible. The cost of the meal was less than $10 but that is as much as some of them earn in a day. This is a very poor country with per capita income reported to be between $2000 and $4500 per year. Many people live at the subsistence level, one room shacks, no running water or electricity, and barely enough food to eat. Education is free up to 6th grade but students have to have shoes, a school uniform, and buy their own school supplies. Many children never get the chance to attend school because the family has no money for those things. There is a well to do upper-class but their riches rarely filter down to the poor of the nation.
Since our last post we have been exploring two of the excellent Mayan ruins in the nearby countryside. There are dozens of sites within a few hundred kilometers of our marina but Tikal and Copan are the most famous.
Tikal National Park in the Northern Highlands encompasses 575 square kilometers of primary tropical rainforest. Originally inhabited between 900 and 700 BC the village grew to an empire that was one the richest and most powerful Mayan city-states. At it's height Tikal covered 30 square kilometers of land and had a population of at least 100,000. Tikal's influence was felt as far away as Copan, over 300 km to the South in Honduras.
By the mid 800's AD the decline of the Mayan cities began, and by the end of the 10th century most had been completely abandoned, including Tikal. The Mayans had become the experts of their era in mathematics, construction, astronomy ( they discovered 2 planets ), and engineering. Archeologists are not certain what ultimately led to the Mayan decline who's numbers once reached 10 million. Further discoveries lead authorities to believe the citizenry tired of the rule of dynasties and revolted, leaving a hodge podge of warring clans and villages with no central ruling body. There is a general agreement that rapid growth of their cities led to deforestation and loss of wood for cooking and construction as well as local climate changes. Also the population growth often outpaced the ability to provide food for the citizens. Sounds like us doesn't it?
Three couples from our marina went to Copan Ruinas in Honduras so we could get our Guatemalan visas renewed, taking advantage to explore the nearby ruins. The town is small and surprising tidy with many excellent restaurants to choose from. An excellent meal for 2 can be had for under $30, or you can dine in a "local's" place for under $10.
At the ruins we were told by our guide Fidel that the Mayan ruins in Copan were like the Paris of the Mayan empire while Tikal was more like New York. With an estimated population of 25,000 it's craftsmen and sculptors carved monuments that far surpassed those in Tikal for intricacy and design. It is believed the Mayans lived here from 100AD until the early 800's AD when the citizens grew tired of being ruled by a Dynasty and dis-empowered the king. With colorful names like 18 Monkey, Smoke Imix, and Yax Pac, the long line of ancestral kings was ended with the ouster of U Cit Tok'
This is a rather long post but we are so enthusiastic about Guatemala I just could not shut up. The photo's tell it better than I can.
We arrived in Livingston, Guatemala June 4th to clear in thru customs and immigration, then proceeded into the Rio Dulce. Less than a mile from Livingston you enter the "gorge", where the 400 foot tall canyon walls, lush with tropical vegetation, close to within a hundred yards of you. After a few miles of awesome scenery the river opens up where the surrounding mountains can be seen nudging the clouds. 17 miles up the river we found our summer home, Mario's Marina. Located about 15 minutes by boat from Fronteras , or 2 ½ hours by trail and road, , the closest town. According to other cruisers that come here every year this season is slower than usual, same number of boats on the river but more people left their boats in marinas and flew home for the summer. Each morning on the vhf/marine radio marinas announce any special meal deals, movie nights, swap meets, or other things of interest to keep you busy and out of trouble.
Mario's is a great little marina and has a good social group. The mix of people changes every few days as new arrivals appear and others take inland tours for days or weeks. A typical day for us is to get up @ 8am, sunrise is around 5am, no daylight savings time here. Piddle around the boat until late morning then probably take the dinghy into town to pick up fresh fruits and veggies, all which must be washed in bleach water to kill the germs that may cause dysentery or travelers diarrhea. You will see in the photo section what shopping is like in Fronteras, a true frontier town. Every day at 3pm is an hour of volley ball, which we usually attend, followed by happy hour drinks by the small pool. Around 6pm the bugs may start to feed on us and most head back to their boats for the evening. No such thing as cable TV here but the bar/restaurant has a big screen TV and satellite dish. Mondays are pot luck dinner in the restaurant and the marina supplies a dish also. My Swedish cardamom meatballs where a crowd pleaser with many requests for the recipe. Sundays we got hooked on the dominoes games, guess we will be ready for the nursing homes when we get back.
The country is beautiful with all the mountains, volcanoes, lush forests, waterfalls, Spanish colonial buildings, and the beautiful traditional dresses most of the women wear. Knowledgeable people can tell where a woman is from by the design of her dress. We spent 2 weeks in the city of Xela taking a total immersion Spanish class while living in the home of a Guatemalan family. I'm not sure how much I actually learned but I can now butcher the Spanish language at a higher level J. The family we stayed with were wonderful and welcoming and tried to help us as much as they could. We ate most of our meals with them and even learned to cook a few traditional meals. They eat very little meat, or fruits, Replaced with lots of beans, soups, and corn products. But we liked most of it and never went hungry. Most afternoons they would take us on a field trip to a museum or old church, hiking the hills, hot water springs, etc. It was a great experience and Xela has few tourists so we saw the way typical Guatemalan families live, work, and shop. Xela also happens to be the coldest city in Guatemala, which we discovered our first night there, with temperatures in the fifties. Most homes don't have heat so lots of heavy blankets are the norm. It is also the rainy season and the only 100% reliable weather forecast is "it will rain today".
Our oldest son and grandson flew down to spend a month with us and we have spent the last 10 days exploring the Western Highlands area with them. This is about 250 miles West of the Rio Dulce and our boat. Most women wear the traditional dresses and many of the men in smaller villages still dress in traditional garb. Antigua is a popular tourist city with numerous Spanish colonial buildings still in excellent condition. We spent 5 days here exploring the town and visiting the old ruins and exquisite churches, Even if you are not religious, the design and architecture of these old structures, many dating to the 1500's, are awesome.
We next spent a day going to Chichicastanaga to see the largest outdoor market, (mercado) in Guatemala. Except for the church it was a waste of time. Highly touted as a must see, it was mostly set up for tourists. The Sunday's mercado Democratica in Xela was almost as big and much better because it was authentic and where the people in town actually went to shop. You could find anything from dragon fruit (excellent) to cow eyeballs (did not try) for sale. The church is Catholic but is still a place of worship for the Mayans, which often intermingle Christian and Mayan deities and worship practices.
Our next stop was Lake Atitlan, deepest lake in Guatemala. Surrounded by volcanoes and dotted with small towns and villages it is truly breath taking. Many of the towns are accessible only by boat and the "launcha" business on the lake is booming. We stayed in a village named Santa Cruz at a hostel called La Inagua Perdida and cannot speak highly enough about the place. Situated on the waterfront and originally a simple backpacker hostel, they slowly expanded and added electricity 4 years ago to most rooms. We had the "deluxe" rooms with a private bath and small balcony for $37/day. They have rooms as low as $15/day, and beds for $3/day. If you are willing to volunteer for a least 3 weeks you can get a free dorm bed, free meals, and half priced drinks. It seemed like half the staff were on the volunteer program. But it was the staff that made it a special place. They were all very laid back and casual, warm and welcoming. We felt like part of the group from day one and we got lots of hugs when we left. Mostly a younger crowd in their 20's and 30's , along with an occasional family, passed through while we were there. Food was excellent, inexpensive, and dinners were served family style. Surprising was how many British accents we heard, by far the majority. Three of the staff are planning to be in Columbia and Panama around the same time we are and with luck we will run into them.
Each village and town around the lake is different and easily reached by launcha. With all the trails , waterfalls, and volcanoes to be hiked you could spend a month here and not see it all. The photo's will show you what a magical place this can be.
As I sit here typing this we are in Panajachel, still on the lake, until morning. We will be catching a 6am shuttle to Guatemala city to connect to a bus that will take us back to the Rio Dulce and our boat, probably 8-10 hours of adventure on the highways of Guatemala. Michelle and I will have been away from the boat for a month by the time we get back and despite the great time we have had it will feel good to be "back home".