19-Jun-2009, Puerto Ballandra, Baja California Sur, Mexico
You may recall that at the beginning of our trip from Mazatlan across the southern Sea of Cortez we had a little difficulty involving barnacles. They had grown on our propeller into a ball of such proportions that we could barely move the boat. I dove in and had at them with a scraper just enough to get us going again, but the sun was setting and we were twenty miles offshore, so I didn't do a very thorough job, and I didn't even begin cleaning the hull.
Puerto Ballandra was our first real stop in the Sea of Cortez, and we took full advantage of the warm, turquoise waters to rest from our long trip and to clean the hull. Ballandra is only a dozen miles from La Paz, but we were in no hurry. There was plenty of white-sand beach and clear water to look at, and a famous "mushroom rock". Charter boats come out from La Paz on dinner cruises.
The cove is large and reasonably well protected, even from the evening Coromuel winds that make most anchorages around La Paz uncomfortable. These winds come up especially in the winter and spring, blowing reliably from the south through the evenings and into the mornings. Southwest of La Paz there is a low spot in the terrain that extends all the way to the Pacific, and Pacific wind finds its way through the gap into the Sea of Cortez by this route. The term Coromuel dates back at least to the mid-19th century, and is said to be named after the 17th-century English pirate Cromwell. This is almost surely a myth, as there is no evidence that Cromwell ever visited the Californias, but it is the best story going so who's to argue?
28-May-2009, Volcano Pacaya, Guatemala
Our final entertainment in Guatemala was a short visit to Volcano Pacaya, about an hour's minibus ride from Antigua. Pacaya is a highly active volcano, 9,500 meters in height, whose slopes extend near Guatemala City and Antigua. Near the top is a national park, where one can get a guided tour by horseback or on foot. Being timid of horses - which they call "taxis" there - we opted to brave the hike to the lava flow in only our boat shoes. And I wasn't wearing socks.
Pacaya is also one of four active volcanoes in Guatemala, and there are twenty potentially-active volcanoes in the country. Pacaya is also being tapped for geothermal energy by an Israeli company. Various spots on the volcano have been flowing continuously for the last five years, and it is constantly changing shape as cones build and collapse.
After a bumpy ride in the minibus there is an hour-and-a-half hike to the lava flow. The town at the base of the trail has equipped itself for the tourist trade, with kids selling walking sticks--"Stick? Stick?"--and shops selling flashlights for the twilight walk back down. They also sell marshmallows in case some nostalgic person wishes to scorch some with sulfurous fumes.
The view from the slopes of the volcano would have been breathtaking but for the thick fog that enveloped the mountain on our way up. Instead, we slogged wetly upward over a cobblestone path, then along a soft trail winding through some woods, and suddenly to a clearing full of giant radio antennas. A few minutes' hiking along a developed trail led us to some crunchy dark-brown scree, and then we were climbing on a barren, sliding slope at the angle of repose. Gradually the route seemed more and more crowded with people, as various groups - our guide called ours the Pumas--converged upon the lava flow.
Suddenly the trail jumped up onto crunchy, twisted, cooled lava. The cool fog was pierced by mysterious blasts of warm air. A few moments later we were at the site of the lava flow itself, an improbably sharp, ridged cone on the side of the volcano. There were at least a hundred people standing around, mostly speaking Hebrew but also English and Swedish. We found two Hondurans who were happy to find someone who spoke Spanish.
Over to one side of this crowded ridge was the lava flow itself. As we walked closer, the ground beneath our boat shoes got hotter and hotter, and when the breeze shifted the air was burning hot, making our eyes sting. There was a trough of slow-moving lava pouring out of the side of the cone horizontally for several feet, and then spilling down the side of the mountain for hundreds of feet. Between the heat coming from the ground, the unstable rock and the crowds, it was terrifying. It was also fascinating: Somehow it was hard to fathom that there was actual liquid rock flowing by just a few feet away.
After eating sandwiches - dogs had accompanied the hikers up the mountainside in hope of a snack - the guide led us back down. The children selling sticks asked for them back, and wondered if we might donate our flashlights.
25-May-2009, Chichicastenango, Guatemala
On the Sunday morning after our visit to Lake Atitlan, we took a minibus from Panajachel to Chichicastenango, whose main claim to tourist fame is its enormous marketplace for Mayan handicrafts.
Where to begin? Chichicastenango was a tumult of impressions.
First, the tourist market: Chichicastenango is famous for its profusion of handicrafts. Streets throughout the center of town are blocked off for the vendors. There were textiles in red, brown, blue, yellow and green; sashes and tablecloths and headbands and wristbands and skirts and pants and blouses and blankets, stacked and piled and hung on hangers. It was totally overwhelming. There were stands with hundreds of carved wooden masks; stands with toys; stands with t-shirts or socks or worn-out tools. We didn't buy anything, and although there were many tourists, supply evidently exceeded the demand.
There are other areas of the market that deal in more ordinary items, TV sets and used cell phones and belts and kitchenware. In Guatemala all the tortillas are made by hand, so here and there women stand next to a comal, carefully patting the masa into neat disks, one by one. We saw limestone for sale in chunks, and bags of dried corn in many colors. It was somehow more pleasant to see the locals shopping for their ordinary needs than to be barraged with trade goods we have no space for on our little boat.
The market presses up against the steps of the big Catholic church, where they burn incense in a big tray that wafts through the crowd. Up at the doorway itself, two people maintained candles burning on the threshold, spread flower petals, and swung pungent, smoky incensarios. Inside the church, two long lines of parents presented dozens of dressed-up infants to be baptized by the busy priest. Signs warned tourists not to use their cameras, while proud relatives videotaped the whole event. The priest intoned in Spanish with occasional digressions in Mayan for the benefit of the monolingual.
But the market itself was somehow less impressive than the Mayan people thronging the town. The women wear more traditional dress - the woven and embroidered huipil, the headscarves, the belts; bare feet. Men wear a mixture of traditional and modern clothing: Woolen vests over polyester shirts, and tennis shoes. Tiny girls are dressed in elaborate handmade costumes with glittering thread woven through. Like their ancestors, the Maya like their teeth adorned, so golden caps flash on front incisors, with the occasional star or cross in the middle - we even saw a dentist's shop whose signs showed these offerings.
A few hours was enough in Chichicastenango, and eventually we retreated to the fancy old Santo Tomas Hotel for lunch. We dined in a tourist-colonial splendor and watched the parrots, having come to the largest artisanal market in Central America and bought nothing. What were we doing there?
24-May-2009, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Travel can be liberation: Away from one's everyday cares and environment, the blinkers are removed from one's eyes and there is a freshness about the world that one can't have at home. But travel can also make one feel like a parasite, caught in a mutual embrace with an unwilling host of a different species altogether.
This ambivalence characterized our weekend diversion from Antigua to Lake Atitlan and Chichicastenango. We went to a cheap travel agent, who booked us seats aboard a Saturday morning minivan and into a modest hotel in Panajachel, a backpackers' haven at the shores of Lake Atitlan. After a boat tour of the lake, we would spend the night and in the morning board a second van for Chichicastenango, a Mayan town renowned for what was billed as "the biggest market in Central America." In the afternoon we would return to Antigua.
The first van took us in the early-morning darkness northwest out of Antigua, its diesel engine grinding up the steep hills and around the tight bends in the road. We passed through open agricultural country, along steep canyons, through cool glades and muddy towns with women doing laundry in the municipal washbasins. By 8:00 in the morning we were winding downward toward the fabled lake, which glowed like a pale blue gem in the highland air. The flooded caldera of an absolutely enormous volcano, Lake Atitlan's edges are rimmed by smaller volcanoes, whose steep slopes descend directly into the water. Towns and villages speckle the shoreline and nearly-vertical plots of farmland erode the heights. The views are unique and truly stunning.
In Panajachel, after a cup of coffee and pan dulce in a cafe, seated by some large, chatty, drawling Texans on a religious volunteering vacation, we were handed bag lunches and led to a boat on the lake itself. Ten of us, including some Dutch physicists on their honeymoon and our Canadian housemates, boarded a roofed version of the ubiquitous fiberglass panga. The boat sped off along the rocky northern shoreline, passing costly modernist mansions, half-finished caprices in concrete block, other tour boats, local fishermen's plank-sided dugout canoes, and reedy inlets. All around us, reflected in the sparkling water, were the conical forms of the volcanoes, clouds growing in the sky around their tops.
After an hour we landed at a tiny, rickety wooden pier and were told we had an hour to stroll around and be back at the boat. With a little prompting of the guide - who, it turned out, was not OUR guide (we had none)--we learned that a path to the left would lead us where we wanted to go. Signs along the narrow alley informed us of places we could pay to meditate, do yoga, eat whole-grain Mayan breakfasts, spend the night in a hammock, reintegrate our chakras, and use the Internet. Another sign told us we were in San Marcos. At the end of all this New Age development we found the older town, with a school and a couple of churches, a road connecting the town to others around the lake, a rambling plaza with a big tree, and a couple of men selling fruit from a cart. A few slices of papaya and watermelon later, our little group (the Canadians and ourselves) meandered along the road. The Canadians were particularly excited to discover a driveway gate with an enormous maple leaf flag welded in. By the time we made it back to the boat we were a few minutes late - the non-guide checking his watch - and we roared off to our next stop. It was barely 11:00.
Our next stop turned out to be San Pedro La Laguna. Tourists visiting here are greeted with a much more aggressive array of opportunities. The steep road up from the docks is lined with restaurants, travel agencies, jewelry shops, and signs like "Broken English Spoken Here." Continuing upward one finds the town proper, with a market spilling out into the streets around it and tuc-tucs and pickup trucks jostling with the crowds. Mayan people in traditional costume share the streets with tourists and Ladinos; like most of the towns on the lake, there is a large indigenous population here. This is a town of a great deal of religious signage on the walls--generally on the theme of "Jesus es el Senor"--and some flamboyantly painted churches in yellow, pink or lime-green. We found our way above the town and could take in the breathtaking vistas of the red roofs and blue lake below, and green mountains above. Grey clouds were mounting around the mountaintops, and by the time we made it back to our boat (12:00) an overcast had set in.
By 12:30 we had landed at our third town, Santiago La Laguna. Santiago La Laguna is famous in part for being the site of considerable fighting between the military and the Maya during the Guatemalan civil war, and in 1981 an American priest was shot by a death squad in the town's Catholic church. The town stretches over a low hill, and the path from the dock is lined on both sides with vendors of tourist goods. We were waylaid by a guide who delivered us to a restaurant and then waited while we ate. He arranged a pickup truck to take us to see Maximon, probably the main attraction in Santiago.
It's a little difficult to describe the Guatemalan cult of Maximon, but at its center is an ancient wooden doll, dressed in fancy clothes and a carved wooden mask with an unlit cigar in its mouth. People come from far and wide to consult with his shaman caretakers in hope of curing themselves of disease or financial trouble or lack of marriage prospects. Maximon doesn't live in a church; rather, every so often he moves from the house of one member of the cofradia or council that is responsible for him. Everyone who comes to visit must leave an offering, but those with bigger troubles leave bigger offerings: A silk tie or a woven sash are particularly welcome, but liquor, tobacco and money are also good. Every week the shamans dress him up in a new outfit, and at night they put him up in his special bed in the rafters.
We were struck by several things during our own visit to Maximon. First, the rain on the way there. It came galloping down, filling the road and sending spray everywhere. We were riding in the back of a pickup truck - fortunately covered by a plastic tarp - which made it particularly impressive. And second, despite the ritual significance of Maximon, there was something profoundly informal about the whole experience. Although Maximon has a room dedicated to him, he sits on the cement floor in front of a picnic table at which were seated two men and a woman, chatting. We were welcome to hang out as long as we wanted, and if we needed something cured we were to ask the shaman, who was otherwise busying himself with the candles and tidying up. People came and went; someone opened a big bottle of beer and poured it into glasses to share.
By 3:00 we were back in Panajachel. In six hours we had visited three towns and one traditional Mayan deity, and taken three passages by boat. We really felt like tourists.
23-May-2009, Antigua, Guatemala
We'd been living in Mexico for six months and were beginning to accumulate a bit of history there. So it was getting increasingly pressing that I be able to talk to the locals in their own language about things that had happened in the past: "We coming from far with boat" was sounding more and more cave-man when I said it. Sarka, who had had the luxury of tutors and classes and textbooks in her own development in Spanish, was itching to be able to talk to somebody other than me. These urges drove us to take language classes, and some of the best language classes available in Latin America are to be had in Antigua, Guatemala. Plus, we needed to renew our visas. So in the middle of May we packed our bags and left our boat in Mazatlan, and headed by bus and plane to Guatemala.
Antigua is indeed a fabulous place to study Spanish. Actually, it's a fabulous place to do just about anything. The original capital of colonial central America, situated amid three volcanoes, it was built to survive the innumberable earthquakes that have afflicted it over the centuries. The air is cool and smells of pine and woodsmoke, and great clouds grow up around the forested peaks, threatening rain most afternoons.
The town itself is typically colonial, with a leafy central plaza rimmed by the main cathedral and several government buildings, and with the predictable grid street block layout. Except for religious buildings, all structures are low, two stories at most, but all of them are constructed with very thick walls in order to resist the earthquakes. This makes the graceful cathedrals' columns and arcades look particularly squatty and inelegant. There is also a large, genuine open air and covered market, several restored churches, and a number of interesting ruins from the 16th and 17th centuries. Some of these ruins have been rescued, stabilized and turned into museums, a few have been left alone, and some, apparently, can be rented out as picturesque venues for events like weddings and graduations.
The streets are cobbled, drained along the centerline, and really bumpy for a bicycle ride, though the locals seem undeterred. To get around, one can hire a carriage or a "tuc-tuc"; an Indian-made, three-wheeled motorcycle with a bulgy shell over it for cover. It has curtains for doors, and the front wheel is usually wobbly and slanted to one side. In some towns these are brightly painted, and at night display a crazy show of twirling color lights. The public transit is old American hand-me-down school buses, which have been beautifully painted with bold patterns. Their only drawback is the thick, hot, brown smoke the bellows from their exhaust pipes as they labor up the hills.
I cannot imagine any lovelier way to spend one's days than the two weeks we spent in Antigua. In the mornings we were at school, in a bougainvillea-shaded patio, sitting with a good teacher at a small table, learning how to talk about the future or the past, or about indeterminate things, or new ways of saying things. In the afternoons we returned to the home of the family we stayed with, ate lunch, had a nap, and went later for a stroll through the cobblestone streets to a cafe, where we drank rich Guatemalan coffee, ate mango pie with ice cream, and did our homework. In the evenings we ate with the family and our fellow guests, three Canadians also studying Spanish.
Our classes were very good. We arrived at 8:00 in the morning and studied, with a couple of breaks, until 1:00. My teacher, Juan, is an out-of-work elementary school math teacher. He and I spent a lot of time conversing about worldly topics: In fact, I wish the course had been more structured, because I really need to improve my grammar. I can, however, now talk about things in the past and future, and things that happened repeatedly in the past. I am also significantly more fluent. This is very useful progress.
Sarka, as you may have gleaned, has studied quite a bit more Spanish than I have. What she needs is more conversational practice and reinforcement of some advanced topics. She spent her time with her teacher, Vicky, perfecting her "Imperfect Subjunctive" and "Object Pronouns Together" and suchlike. She got less talking in than she might have liked, but the studying really proved her aptitude. We both agreed that five hours a day was just enough--we could have gone for more, but then where would we have found time for our homework?
Our accommodations were provided by a host family that lives just a few blocks from the language school. They rent a big house in the city so that they can be close to their four childrens' schools and they use three of their bedrooms as guest bedrooms for students. It was very comfortable and Chochi cooked us all three excellent meals a day. They were great at leaving us alone and then spending time with us so we could practice our Spanish. It helped, of course, that they own the school!
We had three younger female housemates, all from Canada. It appears that we in the US--at least around the Bay Area--really don't understand how many Canadians there actually are. The country is bursting at the seams, for it seems we encounter Canadians everywhere we go. There's even a full-time Canadian restaurant/bar/community center right on the water in Mazatlan, called (you guessed it) Canuck's! Anyway, there were three of them in our house: two 18-year-olds from Montreal sowing their wild oats, studying Spanish and "volunteering" between jaunts across the country and late nights at dance clubs; and a 20-something-year-old from BC refreshing her Spanish before working on her Master's thesis research on health care around Guatemala. They all seemed to think we were pretty old.
Antigua has been repeatedly damaged by earthquakes; a series of earthquakes in 1773 led to the city's abandonment, while in 1976 an earthquake killed 23,000 people in Antigua and Guatemala City nearby. We felt our share of earthquakes while we were there; two, anyway. One of them took place at 2:30 in the morning. It rolled and rolled and rolled, a pane of glass in our window rattling steadily, for at least two minutes. Everybody in the house woke up, and the family was dressed and ready to go, though where they planned to go I'm not sure. In the morning we learned that what we had felt was a 7.3 earthquake in Honduras, over five hundred miles away. It destroyed one of that country's two main bridges and killed seven people and injured more than forty (http://earthquake.usgs.gov/eqcenter/eqinthenews/2009/us2009heak/#summary), and was felt throughout Central America. In Spanish there is a sharp distinction between the word for a small earthquake, "temblor," and a big, destructive earthquake: "terremoto." To us it felt like a terribly long-lasting temblor, but this was unquestionably a terremoto.
Guatemala suffered a 36-year civil war that began in 1960. When I first traveled there, eight years after the war ended, I could still hear its echoes. There were stories of kidnappings just outside of Antigua. Traveling in southern Mexico I heard stories about out-of-work Guatemalan soldiers invading villages or helping the narcotraffickers. Tourist services in Antigua--which is a very, very touristy town--were present but pretty rustic. But things have improved a great deal since then, and Antigua is obviously thriving. It is thriving so much that they charge an entrance fee for cars coming from Guatemala City just to come in!
That Antigua is thriving does not mean that Guatemala is out of the woods yet. The country is still very poor--more than half its population lives below the national poverty line--and wealth is very unequally distributed. The BMWs paying the entrance fee to come into Antigua on Friday nights (not to mention yachties in boat shoes coming to learn Spanish) are a shocking sight when one considers the five-year-old shoeshine boys in the central park seeking their Quetzales. The country's leading exports are coffee, sugar and orphans.
We were oddly removed from all the tragedy of Guatemala, however. Staying in Antigua felt like being in some sort of Disneyland of clean air and tasty food and pretty architecture: Pleasant and a little surreal, kind of a guilty pleasure.
The country is very racially divided, too. The Ladinos barely speak of the indigenous majority, and evidently consider them ignorant and backward. And the indigenous culture is indeed quite different: The Mayan people we encountered in Antigua and elsewhere had a directness that was sometimes refreshing and sometimes shocking. One afternoon, as we sipped our cappuccinos and did our homework (I happened to be writing a story about Dracula), a young Mayan woman came to the table hoping to sell us some textiles. We politely turned her down. After a few vain entreaties she grew more insistent and insulting, calling Sarka a "crazy gringa" and a few other things. I suggested that she leave us alone and she went away, dumping upon us a quite eloquent barrage of insults in English, and the suggestion that we stupid gringos go back to our own country. However she learned such fine English in order to use it in this way was not a little creepy, and the irony is that Antigua is hardly her own country to invite us to leave: Like most any Maya one sees in Antigua, she herself takes the bus quite a distance to come into this Ladino stronghold.
All this is to say that Antigua was a very heady experience. Two weeks away from the boat, up in the mountains, studying Spanish, was a refreshing and interesting vacation from the sweltering saltwater of living aboard in Mazatlan.
15-May-2009, Mazatlan, Sinaloa, Mexico
We headed north for Mazatlan. It was a smooth, fast and very pleasant trip of 180 miles, with a two-day stop mid-way at Matanchen Bay, near San Blas. The longer, overnight trips have become noticeably easier for us. They don't feel like a big deal any more. It's not the sailing itself, it's the rhythm of activities during the day and night. We also altered the schedule of our watches from making the change at 12, 4, and 8 to switching at 6, at 10, and again at 2. Somehow this works better with galley duties and with sleep.
We had a long-awaited appointment with Eric's mom and her husband in Mazatlan at the beginning of May. They would stay in a nice hotel while we stayed in its attached marina, and we would rent a car and spend a few days together, visiting historic mining towns and a fishing village to the south. The swine flu threw a monkey wrench into that picture. The timing couldn't have been worse, as the hysteria peaked five days before they were due to fly to Mexico, and the two dears opted to postpone their trip until later in the summer. Our hearts were heavy with sadness as we passed the breakwater into Mazatlan's El Cid Marina, where their hotel reservation had also been made and cancelled. As we came into the dock an employee tied our lines and handed us a form inquiring about our health: High fever? Red eyes? Runny nose?
Mazatlan sits on the mainland Pacific coast across the southern Sea of Cortez from the tip of the Baja peninsula. The "old" town spreads around a couple of hills and an industrial harbor, and a new colony of hotels and condominiums sprawls along the beaches to its north. The city is relatively modern. Even though it was founded by conquistador Nuno de Guzman in the 1530s, it was not really populated until 150 or 200 years ago. The most influential early settlers were Europeans, particularly Germans and French, and between them and its position as a port city it is a cosmopolitan little city. The city has a lot going on - a beautiful cathedral, a large central market, the Angela Peralta Theater (named after the 19th century "Mexican Nightingale" who died there of yellow fever, along with 70 of her touring opera company of 75), and live music in the plazas on weekend evenings. Its Carnaval parade in February is the second-largest parade in the world, and its lighthouse is the second-highest manned lighthouse.
An important additional feature of Mazatlan is the home of the original Pacifico brewery, founded of course by Germans. We did not manage to visit the Archeology Museum or the Art Museum, but we did go on a tour of the brewery. There we met another Czech person, also in pursuit of free beer in the morning.
Here's a notable fact about the growth of the Mexican beer industry: The Pacifico brewery in Mazatlan, built in 1903, occupies 2.5 acres. There are six other breweries belonging to its parent company, Grupo Modelo. The largest of these, in Zacatecas, occupies 165,000 acres!
We stayed in Mazatlan for two weeks. Our friend Gary of "Dash" showed us around, and we enjoyed some time with Marnie and Peter of "Two Pieces of Eight", who made the passage from Matanchen Bay with us.
By this time we had been in Mexico more than five months already and our tourist visas were about to expire. We dutifully found our way to the Immigration Office, expecting to be granted a six-month extension. There they told us we could only extend our paperwork by one month. This left us with an appealing option: Take a little holiday, leave the country and get a new visa at re-entry. So we did some quick research, bought flight tickets to Guatemala, and signed up for Spanish classes in Antigua.