15/04/2012/1:33 am, La Antigua, Guatemala
We have just had the most extraordinary day.
It started much like yesterday - with breakfast on the patio - except today it was a full breakfast with tamales, tuna/chili croquette things, eggs, plantains, beans, a basketful of breads and a big tray of fruit. With full stomachs, we set off to explore and made it as far at the corner before the first happy thing happened. We looked across the street to find two familiar looking people - Ted and Honey Lynn (Patron) whom we had met at El Tortugal. We had enjoyed sharing a table at the Easter pot luck and wished we'd had more time with them - and here they were! After agreeing to meet for drinks later in the day we spent the morning wandering the city - through the market near our hotel, past churches with crowds of parishioners mingling outside and vendors selling ice cream and fruit, up and down the cobbled streets.
We then thought we'd look up a restaurant Karen and Martin had told us about and it was as we headed down 5a Avenida Sur that the stars really aligned. We had our heads together studying the map when a couple of folks stopped to ask if they could help us. "Yes, we're looking for Meson Panza Verde." "Oh, that's just where we're going," said the gentleman. He glanced at Jim's "Sailing World" cap, asked if we were boaters and when Jim said "yes" he replied, "We're meeting folks there for lunch. Some of them are former cruisers. Why don't you come too; I know you'd get along." We hesitated about 5 seconds before agreeing, and so it was that we followed Santiago and Leigh Ellen down the street, through the door of the lovely Meson Panza Verde, and up the steps to meet Lyne (from Montreal) and her husband who have been living here for several years. Then along came Marianne and Wyllys (the former cruisers - from Maine). We mentioned that we left our boat in the Rio for the summer and Marianne said, "Oh! Our good friends Cabot and Heidi are in that area too." Well - Cabot is the person who connected us with Casey and, by now, Chewink is tied up right next to Madcap! Pretty cool to accept an impromptu lunch invitation from a random stranger on the street of a foreign city, meet a really interesting group of people, including a good friend of the folks who told us about where we've left our boat. We're operating on one - maybe two - degrees of separation these days.
Lunch was absolutely delicious. We talked and talked, felt immediately at home, and thoroughly enjoyed the company of all these folks who regularly gather for Sunday brunch in this beautiful spot. We left with promises to connect again when we return in November, and with suggestions for restaurants for later in the afternoon. Thank you, Santiago!
A return visit to Jades SA resulted in a new piece of art for our living room, a visit to the Artisans Market filled my pack with some brightly coloured textiles, and then it was time to meet Honey Lynn and Ted. We had drinks on the roof top terrace at El Sereno where the views would have been spectacular if the clouds hadn't moved in, and then we moved on to have dinner at La Pena de Sol Latino (another suggestion from our lunchtime friends). It's a charming restaurant run by former cruisers where we enjoyed delicious and beautifully presented meals. Live music by an upscale Andean band finished off this amazing day spent with so many new friends.
Jim and I are surprised and delighted by the way Guatemala has wrapped its arms around us. It's beginning to seem like we are meant to be here.
Tomorrow, we catch a flight from Guatemala City to Florida where we'll reclaim our car, visit old friends and head north to Canada. We have come to the end of this cruising season and approach the beginning of what we expect will be a wonderful at-home season. I wonder what extraordinary days are yet to come.
14/04/2012/1:31 am, La Antigua, Guatemala
Our departure from the Rio was beyond beautiful. Nicholas arrived in his lancha about 6:30, we enjoyed a coffee with Casey and then piled our bags in the boat and headed out of the bay. The water was flat calm, the mountains rose softly around the lake, and the last few fishermen returned home from bringing in their nets. We just gazed around in awe at how absolutely gorgeous this area is.
About 50 minutes later, Nicholas pulled up at the dock in Fronteras and we dragged our bags up the hill to the Litegua station. We bought our tickets and boarded the bus (sitting back a few rows just like my walking partners suggested - so a) we wouldn't be as aware of erratic driving and narrow misses, and b) we would be less likely to be killed in the event of a head on collision). The bus rattled away across the bridge to Morales and on to the big city.
The scenery changed dramatically from the serene blue water we had started out in, to forested slopes and shabby towns to arid hills and eventually the drab, grey, dirt-poor outskirts of Guatemala City. Colours changed from blues to greens to browns and greys. Meadows and orchards gave way to steep hills with cinderblock buildings jumbled like mono colour Lego blocks. It was easy to see how earthquakes can cause so much destruction in places like this. Traffic came to a standstill for more than an hour and we never did see what caused it, and by the time the bus crawled through the narrow, dingy streets of the capital city to the bus station, our connecting bus to Antigua had long since departed.
The agent I tried to talk with spoke no English and my Spanish wasn't up to arguing that I had a ticket for the 2 o'clock bus that had left and what were they going to do about it, and we didn't want to wait for the 6 pm bus, so we shared a cab with two young women who were also headed for Antigua - paying 100 Q each and forgetting about the 45Q we had already paid for the bus.
By the time we got to Antigua, we were 5000 ft above sea level, out of the dinginess and into a beautiful colonial town nestled in a valley between three volcanoes. It was once the capital of the country, a lively political and cultural centre and home to a huge number of churches and monasteries, but after a series of earthquakes, it was pretty much abandoned in the 1770's. Buildings were evacuated and plundered and residents were ordered to move. For the next couple of hundred years, it was mostly squatters who stayed. In the 1800's a coffee industry began, but it wasn't until the mid 1900's that anything really changed. Then, the city was designated a national monument, efforts at restoration began and parts of the city returned to their former splendor. But then came the devastating earthquake of 1976, when thousands of people died and buildings came crashing down.
Antigua was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1979 and work began again. The Lonely Planet Guide says: " Perhaps the real miracle of Antigua is its resilience. Despite the destructive forces that have conspired against it - earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and floods, followed by virtual abandonment and centuries of neglect - it's reemerged with a vengeance, buoyed by the pride of its inhabitants."
La Antigua is now home to more than a dozen Spanish language schools, the wedding industry is big, tourism booms, many glorious buildings have been restored and the ruins of others are charmingly integrated into the streetscape.
We didn't see much of it by the time we arrived on Friday evening but we grabbed a quick dinner and fell into our bed at Hotel Entre Volcanes. This restored colonial hotel is near the market and a few short blocks from the central square. Jeanette and her staff took very good care of us, and the fact that all of them speak English as well as Spanish was a great help.
I had read that Elizabeth Bell gave excellent walking tours of the city so we headed for the fountain in Parque Central at 9:30 on Saturday morning. To our delight, we were the only ones to show up so we had a personal tour from this excellent scholar and historian. She is American by birth but has lived and studied here since 1969, is a cultural historian who is passionately interested in sharing the story of this city with visitors, has written several books including "Antigua Guatemala; the City and its Heritage" and gave us one of the best tours we have had. We highly recommend her tour to anyone who really wants to know some of the historical and current story of this city (and country).
We visited the Catedral de Santiago, and learned of the stabilization efforts and restoration plan. We viewed the architectural style, "Earthquake baroque", paid a visit to Jades SA to learn a bit about the jade industry here, and ended up at the Casa Santo Domingo Hotel which is built around the ruins of Iglesia Y Convento de Santo Domingo - once the biggest and richest monastery in the city. The site is also home to several museums, only one of which we had time to visit - but which was fascinating. It houses a collection of contemporary glass pieces and the pre-Hispanic ceramic art that inspired them. We loved this place!
In the afternoon, we viewed intricately embroidered and handwoven textiles that women from outlying communities brought to the city to sell. We bargained for and bought a few things, fended off hordes of folks selling wooden flutes and jewellery and scarves. One particularly insistent (and not typical) woman called out after Jim "You very cheap man!" when he refused to buy his wife a table runner!
We ate at Frida's that evening, enjoying very good Mexican food at a little table under an original Frida Kahlo painting. A walk home through the cobble stone streets, people watching all the way brought an end to our first - and definitely not the last - day in Antigua. As much as we hated to leave the Rio, we are really glad we made the decision to spend a couple of days here.
12/04/2012/5:37 pm, Casey's Dock, Rio Dulce
In all our careful timing and working backward from day of departure, we forgot about making adequate time for visiting. It seems strange that even with all the social time we've had recently, we missed this important part at the end.
We know that Guatemalans place strong emphasis on family and friendships. The folks "from away" who have settled here do the same thing, and so do we. Yet in our flurry to get everything done and see one more part of the country before we fly home (earlier than usual because of things we need to do there), we didn't allow tiiiiimmmmme to spend with our friends at Madcap's summer home. We paid a short visit to the sailor on that little 22 ft boat in Gringo Bay. I don't want to tell you his name because his mother thinks he is safe and sound along the US coast somewhere. Instead, he sailed solo all the way to Guatemala and is bound for Panama - on a 22 ft boat! We could have used more time with him. We drifted by Lapus to find out that they live in Stella Bay, Amherst Island in Lake Ontario - a favourite weekend anchorage for us when we sailed out of Trident Yacht Club. We could certainly have spent an evening reminiscing with them.
We came over to the dock on Thursday morning, said "Hola" to Casey and Che and Bilo and Nicholas, did laundry, cleaned out cupboards, hauled out the dinghy, fine tuned "the list" (things to attend to over the next 6 months). At the end of the day, we sat down with Casey for a beer and a look at the list and then the three of us headed off for a final dinner at the Mothers' in Texan Bay.
Martin and Karen and Keith joined us there and we ate a delicious ribalo (fish) dinner, told stories, shared jokes - oh my - the way these 4 old friends tell jokes is a whole new experience - and remained on the patio after the women cleared the table, closed the shutters and turned out most of the lights. We had found a warm and comfortable and stimulating group of friends - and we had to leave them the very next day. Bad planning.
Casey steered his lancha back along the shoreline under the stars - through a tiny little hole in one mangrove cay - across the bay - past the church with the lanchas tied up outside - and snugged it under the thatched roof by his workshop. It had been a wonderful day, a fabulous evening, and we wiggled ourselves into our berth for one last night on board.
Those last nights are hard ones ... Thank goodness we are coming back.