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Cruising in the Comfort Zone:  Guatemala & Copan Side-Trip

Sailing Vessel Rose of Sharon Spends Hurricane Season Travelling in Guatemala & Copan

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A must-see for Rio Dulce visitors is the “agua caliente” (hot water) waterfall, Finca Paraíso.  But an additional treat was that Joe and I finally rode a “chicken bus” to get there.  The local bus was the most cost-efficient way to get to Finca Paraíso, one hour northwest of Fronteras at 15°34.16N, 89°11.64W (according to Maya Paradise).  We joined Gloria and Gary of S/V Bold Venture for the bus ride into the Guatemalan countryside.  Let’s just say that the only springs we felt that day were the springs at Finca Paraíso.  The seats on a chicken bus have no springs.  The bus itself had only a memory of shock absorbers.  Some of the seat cushions were in obvious disrepair, but some appeared to be just fine until you sat down and then sat down again when the seat caved in a bit or – my personal favorite – the back seat collapsed and you found your head in someone’s lap.  “I can’t ride laying down,” I told Joe as we searched for two adjacent seats.  “That’s my only requirement, I have to be in an upright position.”  By trial and error, we found our spots on the chicken bus near Gary and Gloria, and the adventure began!

There were no chickens, not live ones, anyway.  It was early morning and people boarded the bus with fragrant pieces of grilled or fried chicken, which they ate en route to their destinations, usually their workplaces.

The countryside was beauitful.I was in sightseer’s heaven.  If I looked out the bus window, the lush green fields and forests were overwhelmingly lovely and dotted with grazing cows and Guatemalan cowboys on horseback.  If I studied my surroundings in the chicken bus, I often made eye contact with men in cowboy hats and boots and neatly tucked-in shirts; I could tell they were pleased to see gringos using the local transportation.  I was mesmerized by the women’s lovely skirts, which at first glance appeared to be the same gray pattern, but they were all very different.  I observed the women’s fashion goal seemed to be to match their blouses with an almost-obscure color in the primarily gray skirts.  Sometimes the blouse was an ornately woven huipile but most often the women wore a beige or white full slip covered by a loose knit over blouse that was mass-produced and sold in the marketplaces of nearby towns.  As they boarded, with children on their hips and babies in slings, I’d first look at their turquoise or pink over blouses then at the multicolored gray skirts and yes! There it was:  a perfect color match was blended into the skirt’s pattern. 

The chicken bus stopped and picked up locals, dropped off workers, and struggled gamely up steep hills, pausing halfway up to catch its breath and continue the climb, something I could certainly identify with.  “Do you think it’s going to make it this time?” laughed Gary as the bus rumbled and rattled and heaved itself up a particularly high hill. “Hey, it’s a Mercedes,” said Joe.  “Of course it can make it!”

At one stop the bus driver turned at pointed at us to get off.  Then he pointed to a clearing on the right side of the bus and motioned us to go that-a-way.  “Cascadas,” he said, so we clambered out of our seats and off the bus into a cleared-out field with a one building and one man to welcome us.  He sold us tickets to the waterfall ($10Q per person, about $1.50 U.S.), ice cream, and pointed toward a jungle path, which we eagerly began to follow.

As we walked along, a Guatemalan man came up behind us and I said nervously to Joe, “Why did I stop carrying my pepper spray?  When did I get so complacent?  I carried pepper spray in New Orleans and New York City and San Francisco and quit carrying it here, of all places!”  Gary glanced at me and raised his hand so I could see a tiny vial of mace palmed-in.  It turns out that Gary was retired from ATF, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; he never gets complacent about safety.

small lagoon, small cavesAfter ten minutes, we rounded a corner and there it was!  A lovely rock-lined lagoon, nestled in the jungle complete with a rushing waterfall, tumbling into an inviting clear-water pool.  We began struggling out of our clothes and shoes, then, eyeing the stranger who had accompanied us, Gary suggested we carry our cameras into the pool and to a dry rock near a cave entrance for additional security.

The man who was following us plopped down on a large shoreline rock and stretched out as if for a nap; it was then that we saw an identification badge on a rope around his neck.  “¿Como se llama?” we asked him.  It turns out Eduardo was not there to rob us, he was there to protect us from getting robbed!  Or drowning.  He said as long as people were in the waters of Finca Paraíso, his job was to count heads and provide safety.  While we frolicked in the lagoon, swimming, splashing and exploring the caves and crevices, Eduardo sunned himself like an iguana on his rock until a group of people appeared, then he sat up and studied them intently.

Fun at Finca ParaisoThe water was cool, not cold, and I don’t know how deep it was in the middle, but when I dived down and went as deep as I could it was too far; I swam quickly back to the surface and emerged with my lungs screaming for air.  The waterfall pounded down with such force that if you put your back into it, the hot water became the ultimate back massage.  If you ducked under the smooth boulder overhang, you could view the world from a steamy perspective. And of course, the waters were said to have healing properties, which is what they always say about hot springs and I always believe it.  I mean, you can smell the sulphur and the minerals and you can taste them . . . it’s got to be medicinal, right?

Gloria and I floated and paddled and splashed around like the fish we may have been in another life while Joe and Gary did what boys always do:  they tried to climb the rocks to see if they could get to the top.  When they got to the top, they made us look and wave at them, congratulating them on their feat, then they climbed back down the rocks.  “I could stay here forever,” Gloria murmured as she let the current carry her toward the water’s edge.  I sat in the rocks and dug my toes deeply under the rounded pebbles to feel the heat rising up from the earth.  When it got intolerably hot, I pulled my feet away.  I wonder just how hot it gets down there?  I pondered.  Maybe I’m sitting here, in heaven and maybe the Mayans were right.  Hell is hot and underground.

The solitude was magical, but as more tourists joined us, the pool became crowded and we decided it was time to leave.  We promised ourselves if we returned we’d bring picnic lunches and books, then plan to spend a day there, swimming, reading and napping.

We hiked toward the main road and at an opening on the wooded pathway, saw young boys playing in a stream adjacent to a remote village schoolyard.  At the time, we had no idea two days later we’d be in that very same schoolyard on a medical mission trip.

Bryan, the Jungle MedicWhen Joe needed a test for kidney function, I contacted Jungle Medic, a husband/wife team who helped boaters with their healthcare needs.  Bryan and Riechelle Buchanan began as independent Christian missionaries but now live in the Rio Dulce area and often host doctors, dentists and other medical or ministry teams in their continuing effort to take medical care into remote areas of Guatemala.  The Jungle Medic program has become hugely successful and their website is

In addition to their primary medical mission, they have several programs in the works.  Bryan told us of Bathrooms for Children, where a hygienic bathroom unit is constructed near schools and in villages; he said after they’d completed one they returned later to see that it had not been used at all!  “We couldn’t use it until it was blessed and dedicated,” the villagers explained.  Jungle Medic happily participated in a ceremony, blessing and dedicating the bathroom, then it was officially “open!”  Their van and supply trailer will soon be joined by a donated bus that is currently in the U.S. and being converted into a pharmacy, lab and private examination rooms.  Requests for assistance have been issued to First Lady Laura Bush, the U.S. Military, and the Guatemalan government to allow the U.S. Military to transport the bus to Guatemala duty-free.

When Jungle Medic asked for boaters to assist in a village’s request for medical care, Joe and I volunteered along with Texans Jim and Janice Morin (S/V Island Time, Port Isabel), John and Diana O’Neill (S/V Dragonet, Kemah), and Don and Lodi Hutson (S/V Anon, Garland).   We met the day before the trip to discuss tasks and to learn more about how what we would face as first-timers on a medical mission trip into a remote Guatemalan village.

Team meetingThere were about 20 volunteers gathered at Bryan and Riechelle’s comfortable home just north of Fronteras, and Bryan ensured we had no illusions about the poverty, ignorance, and bad sanitation we could expect the next day.  He told us what medications are usually needed and repeatedly explained that while sending medicines home with the families is best-case scenario, the real issue at hand is “compliance.”

“It’s difficult to get educated people in other countries to take the full recommended dosage of a medicine,” he said, “So getting these people to follow-through is twice as hard.  We can’t send more home with them than they will use.”  He continued, “And we have to make sure they understand what to do with it.  Then we have to appreciate that the odds are they will try to sell it or save it.”

One volunteer asked about birth control information and contraception.  Bryan hesitated.  “We do not do anything with birth control.  If a woman asks about birth control, we request that she return with her husband for the discussion.”  I saw some women’s backs stiffen and apparently, Bryan saw the skepticism in their faces.  “Here’s why,” he added . “A while back, a woman in a village came to us, asking for birth control information.  Later that day, she told her husband what she had done and he beat her.  The next day, we rushed back to the village and tried to get her to a hospital, but it was too late. He beat her so badly that she died.  So we don’t do birth control.

“You have to leave your personal ethics and beliefs at the door when you do this,” he continued.  “I know it feels like we’re putting a band-aid on a surgical wound, and really, that’s what we’re doing.  But you’ve got to remember if we help one – just one person – then what we’re doing is worth it.  Try to keep that focus.”

We somberly gathered our scrubs and returned to our respective boats to prepare for the next day.

DCP_3566Transportation to and from the site was limited, so Joe and I, along with Gloria and Gary of S/V Bold Venture volunteered to take the “chicken bus.”  Early the next morning, as we settled into our rickety seats on the rickety bus, I turned to Gloria and said, “I’m starting to like riding these buses.  How weird is that?”

Bryan had told us not to wear sandals, so for the first time in many months, I struggled into my canvas boat shoes and complained about the unfamiliar restraint on my feet and toes.  Joe wore socks and galumpy old tennis shoes, which I thought was overdoing it (I was wrong), and Gloria was wearing rain boots.  Rain boots were perfect because we spent the day in mud.  Let me amend that – not just mud, but animal fecal mud and open sewage mud and the same mud from which practically every child we saw that day had acquired worms.  The worm treatment station was a hotbed of activity for over 6 hours.

Bryan issued workstation assignments and the medical mission center was set up under the eaves of the two village school buildings.

The first workstation was a diagnosis station, where each family was assessed and treatments/medications recorded on a slip of paper.  Every person to be treated was numbered with a marker on his/her hand; it was the only way we could keep track of who was to receive what. The pharmacy workstation doled out requested medicines.  Almost every family needed some combination of prenatal, adult or children’s vitamins, so two vitamin workstations were set up in front of both buildings.  The worm medicine station was a stopping place for almost every family; the scrawny children with bloated bellies were a clue to the diagnosis people that a child was worm-infected, and usually the recognized symptoms were offered by the children’s mothers.

Head lice stationI worked with British boater Paul (S/V Merengue) at the Ear, Eye and Skin workstation.  While I was effective at applying ointments to the numerous skin infections and abrasions, Paul became a master at dropping medicated liquid into squirming, screaming youngsters’ infected eyes.  “This stuff must really hurt,” was all we could say when it got to a point where, as we examined their respective sheets of paper and numbered hands, children saw they were being handed over to Paul and began screaming before he even touched them.  Whatever the treatment, Paul and I tacitly agreed I would be the one to touch the women.

The busiest workstation by far was the head lice treatment station, set up in the playground adjacent to a water faucet.  The children seemed to enjoy the hair treatments, and one cruising couple worked non-stop the entire day, shampooing and medicating children’s hair and scalps.

490 people were treated that dayThe turnout was almost overwhelming, as the people crowded into a loosely-defined queue and waited patiently for their turns.  We treated almost 500 woman and children that day, and late in the afternoon, a few men visited after work.  Tired mothers, pregnant or nursing, walked from station to station surrounded by their clusters of children. We stopped briefly to eat a hurried lunch inside an empty classroom, drank several cups of Gatorade, then returned to our workstations and the needy villagers.

I spread antibiotic ointment on dirty babies dotted with pus-filled sores and worried about which ointment to use on which skin infections; if hydrocortisone was not the prescribed medicine I would use the ever-reliable Triple Antibiotic ointment.  Paul and I squirted additional ointment into baggies and explained to each patient: “Por mañana. Mañana.”  We figured mañana was about all we could count on, and hoped it would be enough to provide some measure of relief or healing.  Bryan had explained that the Guatemalan people had not been exposed to all the antibiotics found in U.S. meat, for example, and therefore did not require some of the super-antibiotics we Americans now need.  “A little penicillin goes a long way down here,” he said.

swimming with surgical glovesAt the end of the day, the stream of patients tapered off and we volunteers began to relax.  Paul gave some tubes of toothpaste to some children, I handed out a few bars of motel soap and another table gave some unused examination gloves to a group of young boys.  When we walked to the road to catch our bus, I saw the boys in a nearby creek, laughing and playing with the surgical gloves; it was a new form of entertainment for children who had never seen a Fisher-Price logo.

Exhausted, Joe and I boarded our chicken bus and spoke little on the ride back to Fronteras.  We took  a launcha to Catamaran Marina and once there, left our muddy shoes on the dock and our filthy clothes in the cockpit.  Joe rushed to the nearby shower and I went below to scrub, shampoo, re-shampoo, and then we both toweled off with rubbing alcohol.  As always, we were amazed by how much grime we can get off each other after a shower.  We fell into our bunk and immediately went to sleep; heavily, dreamlessly.

DCP_3581Since my arrival in Guatemala, I have seen incredible beauty and learned to respect the national and personal pride demonstrated by its people.  I was happy to be able to give something back to the country that had offered me so much happiness.  Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” but I’ve noticed people are spending so much time examining their own lives that we’ve become an all-about-me society.  Me too.  So I’ve decided that a life without outreach is not worth living and every now and then I remember to pull my focus away from what I’m feeling and what I want and take a look at how I can help someone else.

In Guatemala, you don’t have to look very far to find an outreach project.  I hope I am lucky enough to be able to help again.

Hurricane season on Guatemala’s Rio Dulce for first-time cruisers is a rite of passage, and perhaps a necessary one for some of us.  It gives you time to settle down, step back, and take a deep breath as you examine where you’ve been and what you’ve learned, then decide what’s next.

For the veteran cruisers, this was no big deal.  Most of them had established a comfortable pattern of where they travel, when they depart for points south and when they return to the Rio Dulce.  They balance their cruising time with months in the U.S.

One couple left the U.S., cruised to the Rio Dulce in time for hurricane season, then left Guatemala and flew to their home in The Woodlands for a motorcycle trip that covered thousands of miles in the western part of the country.  Two days after their return, she was topdeck and applying waterproofing to her dodger and bimini!  I was exhausted just hearing about “how they spent their summer vacation” and had to relax a couple of hours by the pool afterwards.  But they were established cruisers with no doubts about what the next season would bring.  In the fall, they’d journey southward, wintering and cruising, then make their way back to the Rio Dulce in time for the next hurricane season.

The veteran cruisers who really made me laugh were the ones who shot into the Rio Dulce like rockets when an early-August hurricane threatened the Northwest Caribbean cruising grounds.  “We were waiting it out ’til the very last minute!” one woman laughed.  Unlike the new cruisers who heard a rumor about marinas “filling up” along the Rio Dulce and who had rushed in to secure a good spot, these boaters knew enough about the cruising grounds to know that in Central America, things have a way of working themselves out quite naturally.

Then there were the Americans who were so captured by the lifestyle in this simple and beautiful area of Guatemala that they joined the ranks of the ex-cruisers who don’t want to leave the Rio Dulce.  Ever.  The thing that Gene Rutt of Kemah, Texas U.S.A. had told me was true:  “The Rio Dulce eats gringos,” he’d said.  “They get up there and never leave.”

“Bob and his wife are looking at a house,” Joe reported after one trip to town.  “Did you hear?” One cruiser asked me.  “The Buchanans are applying for Guatemalan citizenship.”  The Rio Dulce area is a tiny community and there are few secrets.

I often shook my head in bemusement at how nervous we were when we first arrived.  We now rode chicken buses anywhere and everywhere, crowding on and off them with the tired laborers, grandmothers, and young mothers with wide-eyed children clustered around their legs.  I began to overpay the vegetable and fruit merchants sometimes but other times questioned every purchase:  “¿Dos pimientos verdes? ¿Que mucho?” and make great show of adding and totaling their price quotes.  And sure enough, some of the vendor prices went up in July after the arrival of the 2005 season’s group of gringos to the sweet river.

Meanwhile, my Spanish was coming along noun-wise, but I was struggling with verbs and pronouns.  I learned that if corn is in a can, it’s elote.  If corn kernels are in a barrel to be ground for tortillas, it’s maize.  Beans for refried beans were frijoles, but after a month of requesting “frijoles verde” (green beans) from the vendors, I learned that green beans are ejotes.  One day, in frustration, I pointed to a carrot and asked for “the orange potatoes.”  The vendor laughed at me and carefully pronounced the word for carrots while I repeated it back.  Guatemalans are pleased to see gringos trying to speak Spanish; it is a measure of respect for a country for visitors to communicate in the local language.

The trip into town by dinghy was not a long one, but our cranky Johnson outboard was so slow and persnickety it was becoming a problem, so Joe bought a used Mercury 15hp outboard from another boater and we zipped along in the river so fast I worried about hitting a wave and bouncing out of the dinghy!

Irwin and Joe at workJoe and I continued to work steadily on boat improvements, assisted by our helper Irwin, who came once a week for $100Q (about $15 U.S.).  Irwin had labored alone for a couple of months on Rose of Sharon, but now he and Joe worked side by side in the hot Guatemalan sun on those weekly workdays.  I found myself down below, mixing iced teas and waters for them and handing up bowls of papas y huevos, which they would cover in hot sauce and eat for lunch.  The Catamaran Marina installed another dock, then another, to accommodate cruisers’ requests for space, and the workers who were digging up the river’s floor to increase the water depth for sailboats teased Irwin sometimes when I brought him a glass of water or his favorite strawberry- flavored drink made from a mix.  They thought he had a cushy job, and I think he thought he did too.  His language was the Mayan/Spanish mix that confounded language purists, and it was a real Spanglish breakthrough when he and Joe began making jokes as they worked.  Rose of Sharon began looking a bit less shabby than when she’d arrived on the river.

We lost refrigeration in Mexico and the Rio Dulce refrigerator repairman, Manfred, was Austrian, handsome, and tired of trying to fix our refrigerator but we wouldn’t leave him alone.  After three fruitless attempts, Manfred finally backflushed the system, put a new filter in it to keep the humidity from freezing in the microtube, then hooked up a pressure gauge.  There was some kind of remote sensor in the freezer unit that displayed the temperature on a panel on the nav station and my job for one weekend was to read the number on the gauge, read the temperature on the panel, then record that information along with the time.  I didn’t understand any of it, but the refrigerator was finally back to its old self:  it would keep ice frozen for a while but not make ice.  THIS was the boat fridge I knew and loved, and I was grateful to have it back again!

Our oven burner part was still in transit, so Joe jury-rigged an oven burner out of a Coca Cola can.  I was so impressed with his creativity that I sent a brag email to our friends and included Coca-Cola’s slogan from 1963:  “A chore’s best friend: Things go better with Coke!”  Then I baked cornbread and muffins.

Sometimes Joe talked about not leaving the Rio this season.  “We would save a lot of money if we just sat it out for one year,” he’d say.  “I mean, we can go to the Bay Islands for awhile, of course . . . but then just come on back.”  I’d say sure, that sounded fine.  A week later, he’d say, “Heck, we could just take the bus to Honduras when we want to, why even leave here at all?” and I’d frown, feeling the gringo-eater’s teeth nipping at my heels.  The following week, I’d have made my mind up that we were living here forever and Joe would begin talking about going through the Panama Canal.

Our boat papers neared their 90-day expiration and marina manager Emy processed the renewal paperwork for us.  The renewal/extension for the boat would be valid for 9 months.  Because we’d left Guatemala for our May/June trip to the U.S., our passports would not expire until September 15.  “We can just pay someone to have them stamped or we can take a quick trip to Honduras,” Joe suggested.  I wasn’t sure how the deal worked with handing over your passport to someone else for an update, but it worked and cruisers did it all the time.  Me being me, I’d rather take a bus to Honduras and visit Copan, using the passport-stamping in-and-out process as an excuse for tourism.

Speaking of tourism, Guatemala’s Quiriguá was on Joe’s list of places to visit, so we planned a daytrip there.  As Mayan ruins go, Quiriguá isn’t as well known as Tikal and Copan, but perhaps it should be!  Only an hour south of Fronteras, this site is a fascinating one that is often visited by native Guatemalans and Europeans, but we were the only Americans there the day we ventured on another chicken bus for our sightseeing expedition.

Joined by S/V Bold Venture’s Gloria and Gary, we took a bus to the road that leads directly to the site, then clambered aboard a retired chicken bus for the ride through banana plantations to the ruins.  I say, “Retired chicken bus” because this bus would have needed some upgrades to qualify for chicken bus status.  “I can walk faster than this!” Gary exclaimed, as we lurched and chugged down the narrow road, stirring up clouds of hot dust that blew into the bus’s open windows.

The entrance fee for visitors was $25 quetzals per person. After a stroll through its small museum, a short walk took us to and through the lovely, well-landscaped lawn of Quiriguá.

Mayan ritualThe small once-upon-a-time city was near what is now the Honduras border and served as a major Mayan trading post.  Fodor’s says, “Unlike the hazy remnants of chiseled images you see at most other archeological sites in Central America, Quiriguá has some that are seemingly untouched by winds and rain.  They emerge from the rock faces in breathtaking detail. Quiriguá is famous for the amazingly well-preserved stelae, or carved pillars, that are the largest yet discovered.”  It was true!  Stern faces of Mayan kings long departed from this world looked down upon us with regal contempt.  Every scale was etched into the carving of a huge snakehead.

The stelae were often erected as part of altars and then, as now, lined a path toward the nearby temple, which indicates they may have been used in religious rituals, as part of processionals toward the temple or for sacrificial offerings.  They day we visited, a group of Maya were kneeled in front of one of the largest pillars, performing a religious ceremony not unlike one their ancestors may have done.  Incense was burning in front of the icon and the “call to worship” was issued from a conch shell; indeed, it was the sound of that primeval instrument that brought us scurrying to watch the prayers and music. Standing at a respectful distance, I turned to two nearby gardeners and asked, “¿Es normal?” and they shook their heads.  “No.”  So this was not an everyday occurrence.  Gloria, who was born in Venezuela and speaks excellent Spanish, learned that the Mayans were thanking the god for rain and praying for more rain to be delivered to the areas of Guatemala that needed it.

As usual, Joe expounded on his theory of ancient astronauts and their relationship to the cities and ruins of the Mayan civilization.  And as usual, I didn’t understand why he believed in it but wished very much for it to be true.

When we stood in front of the steps leading to the temple site, I debated whether or not to attempt to climb them; Joe had firmly discouraged me from climbing Chichen Itza in Mexico, but this was much smaller.  Could I do it?

Sharon can climb . . . NOT The first step was higher than my knee.  There was no way I could simply step-step-step up and I couldn’t even do the old woman one-legged step-stop, step-stop climb.  The only way I could get up there and back down was to crawl on my hands and knees, so that’s what I did.  The people down below got a spectacular view of my enormous pink-denim clad butt and the people up above could see down my cotton blouse to my bellybutton, but as Joe always says, “Don’t worry about it.  We’ll never see them again anyway.”

After I had scrambled up to the temple remains, looked around and carefully picked my way back down the steps, I sat in the shade and watched a young European couple eat their lunch of fruit and water.  While he carefully sliced their pears and plums with a pocketknife, she pulled water bottles from their backpacks.  They were so . . . clean, so healthy.  I loved the way the young Europeans dressed:  often they wore the safari gear I’d seen in old black-and-white movies.  As usual, the Women of a Certain Age – my age – wore whatever the heck they wanted, and teetered around atop inappropriate shoes wearing jangly jewelry.  With heavily rouged cheeks and often – this knocked me out – hair widely streaked with a fire-engine red color, these women had it going on!

How Bananas are grownWhen our foursome reconvened, once again we commented on the absence of Americans and I decided Joe was totally cool for selecting a tourist site that was mainly frequented by Europeans.  But there was nothing “cool” about me.  My shirt had odd stains on the front, my knees were a dirty as a 5-year-old’s on the playground, and my hair was – as always – plastered to my scalp with sweat.  “How come I always get dirtier than the other kids?” I asked Joe, Gary and Gloria, and they shook their heads.  We stood near the banana plantation road until another ride came along – this time, a van that was full of people, but not insufferably full until we got in.  I sat in front with the driver, his wife, and their small son.  Joe, Gloria and Gary crammed in the back with five or 6 other people – this was not a supersized van, mind you – and the trip to the main road was much quicker.

We then sat at a highway bus stop for about 45 minutes, waiting for the bus to Morales.  We had been told to catch a bus to Morales rather than a bus to Rio Dulce and be prepared for a bus change in Morales, but this one took us all the way to Fronteras.  These bus trips are never dull and you just can’t beat the price, either!  The banana plantation bus/van was $3Q per person (less than fifty cents U.S.), and the chicken bus was about $15Q per person (about $2.00 U.S.).

“I know we’ve spent too much money this month,” I told Joe as we walked northeast on Fronteras’ main street.  “With the haul out, and Irwin working on the boat, and the outboard motor. We’ll just get a price quote on re-upholstering the salon and have the work done later.”  I could tell he didn’t believe me, but I was sincerely planning to stick to our monthly budget.

We found upholsterer Thelma in a shop that specialized in making and selling piñatas.  The business had no telephone and Thelma had no cell phone, but she had heard we might be interested in upholstery work.  The Rio Dulce has a word-of-mouth communications link that would rival the internet! Rather than set an appointment time, she wanted to go back to the boat with us then and there.  “Well, okay . . .” I hesitated.  Her English was almost nonexistent, as was my Spanish.  “Pero . . . trabajo in Septíembre.  ¿Comprende?”  She nodded enthusiastically.  So the three of us trooped back to the dinghy and she took measurements.  The next day she returned with fabric samples.  I had said I wanted Sunbrella for the sofa cushions, so she brought Sunbrella samples, but after I’d looked them over, she pulled out a long piece of lovely multicolored material that picked up the color of our existing curtains and enhanced the yellow highlights of the teak in our salon.  “Oh my!” I exclaimed.  “That really works!”  Thelma whipped out a calculator and pointed to the Sunbrella “Dees ees . . .” and she punched a 165 on the calculator.  “Yarda.”  I nodded.  Then she typed in a 75 on the calculator and held up the multi-patterned fabric.  “Dees ees setenta y cinco yarda.”  I did the math and realized we’d dropped down to $10.00/yard in U.S. dollars for fabric that was actually prettier than the Sunbrella.  “How many yards do we need?” I asked tentatively.  She shrugged.  Then she punched 2500 on the computer and waved her arms inclusively.  “Para total,” she said.  I looked at Joe.  “I don’t know how durable this fabric is,” I said, “But at this price, we can get enough mileage to make it worthwhile.  Twenty-five hundred quetzals is pretty good.”  He agreed.

When I repeated to Thelma that the work would have to wait until the next month, her face fell, but I nodded firmly.  “No tengo dinero.  Dinero en tres semanas.”

Joe took one look at her crestfallen face and blurted, “Well, we can go ahead with it.  I mean, it’s really a good price and . . .” Thelma immediately requested advance money for the fabric and payments on a delivery-of-work basis.  She also requested money for a taxi to take her and some of our cushions from the dock to the piñata shop.  Her English seemed to have improved a great deal.

Laughingly, we handed over the cash and Joe took Thelma and three cushions back to Fronteras in our dinghy with its “new” zippity-doo-dah outboard.  When he returned, I said, “Yep.  When it comes to money you are a tower of Jell-O, Captain Joe.  You caved in under pressure at the first pretty face.  Do you think we’ll ever see her again?” Joe shook his head.  “Heck, I don’t know.  I got the impression she really needs the work and the money, so . . .”

He was right.  Two days later, Thelma returned with the newly upholstered cushions and we chatted a bit before giving her 300 quetzals and more cushions.  She emphasized that she needed more work, so I sent her next door to our neighbors, a retired Houston attorney and his wife, Ken and Betty.  They happened to have a bit of brightwork available, and offered the job to Thelma.  The day after she finished our upholstery work, she was topside S/V Belle Lorraine, sanding and cetoling.

At this point, we had completely exhausted our budget.  “We can charge hamburgers and beer to Catamaran Hotel every night for the rest of the month,” Joe said, as he looked at our bank account.

“I’ve got a better idea,” I offered.  “Our passports will expire in 3½ weeks, so let’s just go to Honduras!” Joe laughed.  “So, you mean since we don’t have any money to spend, let’s spend more of what we don’t have?” “Exactly!” I nodded enthusiastically. Joe immediately searched three bank accounts and managed to scrape up $500.  “I don’t want to use credit cards,” he warned.  We’ll travel economically and pay cash.”  I nodded as sincerely as possible but was already wondering which credit card would take the hit (American Express, as it turned out).

We asked Paul and Mary Margaret of S/V Angel Heart if they wanted to go, knowing that Paul’s passport had to be nearing expiration, and they mentioned it to two other couples at Mario’s Marina, and the next thing we knew, we had a charter van.  Now, I’d heard there was a Litegua bus that went directly from Fronteras to Copan, Honduras, and I knew the price would be good, but the cost per couple for the comfort of a private van was $50.00 U.S., not that much more than a bus.  We didn’t make plans for the return trip because no one knew how long anyone was going to stay in Honduras.  Only one couple made hotel reservations.

Joe & Sharon, Roy & Beverly, David & Carla, Paul & MaryThe following Monday morning, we were off!  Armed with guidebooks and fully charged cameras, we climbed aboard our air conditioned van and began the 4-hour road trip to Copan, Honduras.  In addition to me and Joe, Paul and Mary Margaret, there was David and Carla of S/V Ragamuffin and another cruising couple.  The man was a bit grumpy and immediately fussed when he overheard me speaking Spanglish to our driver.  “We asked for an English-speaking driver,” he growled.  “If he has anything important to say, I want it to be in ENGLISH.”  I smiled sweetly.  “Let’s see… your boat is at Mario’s Marina?  Were you one of the dancers in the water ballet they had last weekend when they re-opened the swimming pool?”  He clamped his jaws shut, but then reconsidered.  ��No,” he replied.  Joe immediately launched a UAW 662-type discussion, and both men were comfortable with that particular language.  Throughout the trip to and from Honduras, I discovered this GOM (grumpy old man) was very knowledgeable on a variety of subjects and could be teased into good humor.

At the BorderAt the Guatemala-Honduras border, we were besieged by men wanting to convert U.S. dollars to Honduran lempiras.  I had checked the exchange rate before we left Guatemala, and it was approximately $19.50HNL per $1.00USD, a very good rate!  At the border, money changers were offering $18.00HNL per $1.00USD, so we only exchanged $50.00.  We discovered later that the rate at the border is a fair one and travelers can [usually] get a rate of exchange commensurate with Honduran banks (which were offering $18.50HNL).  We processed out of Guatemala and into Honduras with ease, then piled back into the van for the 35-mile trip to Copan.

All of us took a room at Hotel Camino Maya because one couple had already made reservations there and the price was about $50 U.S. per night.  They boasted air conditioning and hot water and a lovely pool, but we discovered the lovely pool was two blocks away and the water was hot only when the water was available, which was not between 8:00-9:30 a.m. or 5:00-6:30 p.m.  I discovered that the hard way, after I’d lathered my hair and body and face to a rich, sudsy froth, then turned the water on for a rinse and . . . no water.  Joe and I now know exactly how much bottled water it takes to rinse a Rubenesque first mate!

No matter, the air conditioner worked well and the water could be worked around.  If you don’t have this kind of travel attitude, avoid Central America!

Local restaurantCopan is a favorite backpacker site and many of the restaurants had filling meals at fair prices for these young nomads. (“Tired of beans and rice?” read one menu. “Our Backpacker Special is cheese ravioli, salad, and ice cream $4.00USD!”) However, we discovered a restaurant nirvana in Copan. Every night we picked a Fodor’s or a Lonely Planet recommended restaurant, and every night we were transported into epicurean heaven.

�Anafre! Joe couldn't get enough of the stuff.Joe became hooked on anafre, which is not exactly a food, it’s a small portable brazier, fueled by a piece of burning charcoal.  When Joe ordered “anafre,” he received a cooker topped with a bowl of refried beans, cheeses, tortilla chips, pico de gallo . . . whatever ingredients that particular restaurant chose.  Joe was happy with all the choices, too.  He ordered anafre and Salva Vida beer at every rest stop, and eventually bought a Salva Vida t-shirt because the beer was so memorable.  The finest meals averaged $15.00 U.S. per couple.

Our first day, we toured the local museum and walked around the plaza, orienting ourselves to the small city.  I was stunned at the prices of souvenirs; most were half the price of Guatemala souvenirs.  “Joe, we need to get a few Christmas things here,” I warned him.  “We aren’t going to find better prices anywhere else.”  He rolled his eyes and I could almost hear the American Express card go “cha-ching!”

John L. Stephens visited the Copan ruins in 1839 and wrote, “All was mystery, dark impenetrable mystery . . . here an immense forest shrouded the ruins, hiding them from sight, heightening the impression and moral effect, and giving an intensity and almost wildness to the interest.”  Nestled in a Honduran jungle, the vastness and vibrance  of Copan’s former life is etched in every stone. It was a privilege to be there.

The Maya-Toltec people have been called one of the most highly developed cultures of the world.  Copan was built approximately 3,000 years before Christ; the structures and stellae of the Copan ruins date to at least 1,000 B.C.  Some time in the 10th century, the area was mysteriously abandoned.  The ruins of Copan are said to reveal the most information about ancient Maya civilization and the people who lived there were demonstrably more artistically advanced than those in many Maya cities.

I was confused because the modern town is called “Copan Ruins,” but the ruins themselves are a short walk out of the main town.  The Mayan word for Copan is “Xukpi.”  As usual, I whined a bit about the walk.  “If I walk there and then I spend the day walking the ruins, I’m going to be in bad shape!”  I complained to Joe.  “You know . . . because I’m already in bad shape!”

“You can do it,” Joe said.  “And we’ll get a taxi back to the hotel; how’s that?”  I said okay and gamely followed Joe, Paul and Mary Margaret for the walk to the site.  I needn’t have worried though, because we spent more time waiting for Joe to catch up than me.  He was distracted by unusual plants, birds, trees, bugs . . . and stopped to examine everything he saw.  None of us cared; whatever the pace was, it was a good one.  The walk to the ruins from the center of town was supposed to be a mile but I think it was less.  It felt like less, anyway, so if I could do it, you can do it.

We decided to do our own tour and declined the offer of an English-speaking guide.  I was reminded of those Hollywood Stars tours in that we’d heard of one famous Mayan king – 18 Rabbit – and were eager to touch anything he had touched, to walk the grounds he’d once walked.  Most of the stelae in the Great Plaza were created by and feature images of 18 Rabbit during his reign from July 9, 695 to May 3, 738.

I opened my bilingual guidebook and began reading aloud.

Visible vault opening under stela“Recommended tour:  Walking about 100 meters to the east, we have the spectacular view of The Great Plaza, where a number of monuments, called ‘stellae,’ and the corresponding altars stand in their original places. ‘Stela’ means ‘stone column with inscriptions engraved vertically.’  I turned to Paul.  “Which way is east?” and he glanced at a tiny compass on his backpack.  “That-a-way,” he pointed and we walked the short distance to an overlook and there it was!  We launched into our best Marlon Brando (“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”) imitations:  “Stella! Stella!” and rushed down the hill to begin our exploration of The Great Plaza.

Each piece:  altar, stela or monument, is either lettered or numbered.  When the major restoration of the site began in 1935, archeologists identified incomplete pieces with a letter and broken pieces with a number.  The four of us followed the “recommended tour” from my guidebook from stela to stela, with Mary Margaret reading pertinent information from her guidebook, and it was a great tour.

DCP_3828The ball court lacked the visibility and detail of Chichen Itza’s ball court.  In fact, though I had never prided myself about being a scholar on any subject, I found myself comparing Chichen Itza, Quirigua, Tulum . . . and remembering details from each site.  “This is the only one that still has the Mayan red paint visible!” I enthused.  In my mind, the stone monuments would be fire-engine red, but in reality they displayed only streaks of the red paint used centuries ago.  It was beautiful to behold and I was fascinated by the magnificence of many of the stones’ swirled colors.

I was getting tired but was not giving up the chase until we found Altar Q, one of the most outstanding pieces at this Mayan ruin.  I began choosing which rocks to climb and which rocks to demur while Joe and Paul and Mary Margaret clambered up and down every available structure.  On one of the trails, we met the most famous tour guide of Copan, Tony Rivers, who speaks a multitude of languages and is also well-known for his bad jokes!

At one point, I plopped beside two Europeans and asked, “Exactly where are we?” and they both shook their heads.  “Well, it’s not the ball court and it’s not the cemetery,” they said as we gazed into a courtyard of sorts.  “We really don’t know where we are, either,” they chuckled.  Mary Margaret and Paul were on the opposite side of the courtyard and Joe was climbing a pile of rocks, so I took the time to rest and ponder the marvel of being there.  Later, after consulting a terrific interactive online map (, I decided it was the Jaguar Court.

Altar Q - one of the most important monumentsAltar Q is the exclamation point at the end of a day touring the ruins of Copan. This square-like structure has 16 cross-legged men carved around its base and it is believed that four of the men represent the group’s leaders and two of the leaders represent Guatemala and Copan. There are several theories about what Altar Q commemorates, but the most basic theory is that the altar represents a gathering of astrologers/kings to develop a uniform calendar.

Copan taxiAs he promised, Joe flagged a taxi for our return to our hotel, but it was a “moto-taxi,” an upscale golf cart.  The four of us got into the taxi, and with Paul half-in and half-out, raced back into town as fast as our little cart could go, which for Joe was too darn fast!  “How do you say ‘slow down’ in Spanish?” Joe shouted as we careened around corners on two wheels.

DCP_3839The next day, we took separate teeny-tiny taxis to Las Sepulturas, the Mayan “suburbs” of ancient Copan where the aristocracy lived.  When touring Copan, you should visit Las Sepulturas, if for no other reason than to enjoy a nice walk in a wooded setting.  Las Sepulturas proves that “it’s good to be king.”  The people who lived there enjoyed cozy bedrooms with candle nooks and homes with spacious cooking areas.  The poorer people had their “kitchens” inside their homes, but richer Mayans had a separate building for cooking to keep the cooking fires’ heat away from their primary living space.  We didn’t request a guide but acquired one along the way, and he shared his knowledge and pointed out sights we would have missed on our own:  a fragrant citronella leaf, a chicle tree and its sap, another tree which yielded red berries (the source for the Mayans’ red paint, I think), a re-routed river path, a tomb under an altar for babies, a vertical tomb for adults.

Paul & palBack in our moto-taxis, we went to a site Joe had requested, Macaw Mountain.  This bird and nature preserve is quite lovely, and the jungle-setting landscaping is as well-tended as the birds.  Many of the “residents” of Macaw Mountain were brought there to be healed from injury or illness or, in several cases, were brought there because they had acquired a disagreeable habit, like imitating fire engines!  One bird could perfectly duplicate a baby crying and his exhausted owners donated him to the nature refuge, where he promptly taught all the other birds in his cage how to make the same sound!  “They do it right before a storm,” our guide explained, bemusedly.  “All of them sound like a bunch of babies crying!”

Hello.These birds were healthy and well cared-for, and it was a treat to see them “in the wild.”  A Peregrine Falcon found its way to the aviary and suffered heat exhaustion.  “He would have died,” said our guide.  “So the owner rented an air-conditioned hotel room for him until he could recover!”

Wild parrots roamed freely in the wooded habitat, and several birds were “cage optional.”  They had cages, but the doors could be opened by visitors who wanted the thrill of having a large tropical bird on their shoulders, arms, or heads, and we did!  Additional information about this nature preserve can be found at

Our hotel told us they were full, so we checked out of Hotel Camino Maya and walked to nearby Plaza Copan, where we found an on-site swimming pool and running water, 24/7!  It was two dollars more per night and we all stood in the lobby and laughed about how we wished we checked into Plaza Copan on Day 1.  “Hey, you take your chances, anyway,” one cruiser surmised.  “With or without reservations, it’s all a crap shoot.”

Meanwhile, I volunteered to try to find the public bus station and the Litegua bus that could take us back to Rio Dulce, Guatemala.  Already exhausted from Mayan ruin-ing and Macaw Mountaining, I wandered up and down the streets of Copan until finally, I turned to a young man and said, “¿Donde esta el station por autobus?”  He said, “I speak English!  I take you there!” and I followed him four blocks to . . . a tour guide office.  I explained to the lady behind the desk that we wanted public transportation to Guatemala, and she explained to me that we could get a bus to Rio Hondo then catch another bus to Rio Dulce and that the cost would be more than we had paid for a private van!

I limped back to the hotel and other cruisers; one of them made a quick phone call and our private van from Fronteras was scheduled to arrive at 1:00 p.m. the next day.

Our lunches had been so elaborate (best lunch – Yaragua Restaurant) that we opted for cheese and crackers for our evening meal one night, but for our last evening in Copan, we visited the Tunkul Restaurant (“The place to see and be seen!” according to our guidebook).  The food was excellent and the restaurant was crowded, but we didn’t see anyone we knew.

Our private van would arrive at 1:00 p.m., so that was plenty of time for one more site to see and – very important – souvenir shopping!  Mary Margaret suggested a butterfly and orchid farm within walking distance of Copan.  The Enchanted Wings Butterfly House and Nature Exhibit is home to over 30 species of butterflies and the admission price was $100 lempira (about ($5.00) per person.  We had butterfly guide charts with which to identify the various butterflies, and the real treat was watching them attach themselves to colorful objects – in this case, us!  Cruiser Carla was so covered with the friendly insects that she barely made it out the entrance!

At the souvenir shops, I bought several pieces of Lenca pottery for my daughters, some handcrafted earrings and the usual kid-stuff for the grandchildren.  Then we were back in our van and on the road again, absolutely glutted with the pleasure of Copan.

As soon as we boarded our van, the grumpy old man demanded, “Does our driver speak ENGLISH?” and Paul, who was riding shotgun, soothingly replied,  “Yes, he speaks very good English.”  With a glance at the CDs in their holder above the driver’s visor, he boomed, “Well the first thing we got to do is make sure he doesn’t play any of those CDs!”  At that, I turned to him and said, “I can tell you’re a music lover!  Would you like to hear a song I wrote?”

He frowned.  “What makes you think I’m a music lover?” and I replied, “I was being sarcastic.  Do you want to hear my song?”  The corners of his mouth twitched and I thought I saw the beginnings of a smile.  “Okay,” he said, so I loudly burst into song:

Row, row, row mí barco, en la Rio Dulce,

Gusto!  Gusto!  Gusto ! Gusto!

Vivo muy bien!

Even after a short getaway, I found I missed the Rio Dulce and my boat.  It was good to be back home.

The earth was drop-kicked several times during 2005’s hurricane season, and those of us on Guatemala’s Rio Dulce listened in amazement as we heard stories of lives lost, property lost . . . boats lost in 2005.  When the pictures became available, we were saddened at the sight.  No longer feeling quite so secure in our hurricane hole, we watched with consternation as two named storms threatened Central America.  One hurricane tore through the Yucatan Peninsula, devastating October tourism in Belize and Mexico’s Cancun and Cozumel.

The rains from Hurricane Stan caused mudslides that destroyed two Guatemalan villages and killed hundreds of people.  Every available mobile medical and disaster response team in the country was utilized to assist the people at the storm site, and as is often the case in Central America, the problem was almost too big for the resources available.  One village was declared to be a cemetery, as it was deemed impossible to recover all the bodies.  But Guatemalans are survivors in the truest sense of the word, and after several weeks, roads were re-opened to traffic and many the surviving families returned to the rubble that was once their homes.

Then, having swirled through the named-storm conventional system of using the letters A-Z, hurricanes Alpha and Beta led the way to what everyone hoped would be the end of one of the worse hurricane seasons in history.

ClinicI also tackled a project that also seemed to be too big for the resources available.  The medical clinic located in the jungle near the village of La Esmeralda wanted to join the computer age.  They acquired a computer and the necessary software but were unsure how to organize their patient data.  I volunteered to get them started, jumped in with both feet and nearly sank within two weeks.  It was an almost overwhelming task for many reasons, not the least of which was that the database of patients needed to be sorted according to names, alphabetized names.  But the patients’ names were confusing at best and on each visit to the free clinic, they might use a different surname.  Each person had at least two but sometimes more last names that included their mother’s maiden name and their father’s last name, but sometimes fathers were unknown and sometimes the patients came as a family – mom, dad, aunts, cousins and siblings crowded into the exam room – so some of the patient files were families, not individuals.  And the tiny clinic had thousands of patients.

I finally enlisted the assistance of other boaters to complete the data entry project.  Ex-secretaries, corporate refugees and one retired Houston attorney utilized flying fingers to put the medical clinic records into a manageable spreadsheet.  After one month, the clinic’s computer was current with its patient base and updated every “clinic day,” Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Gaunt-eyed dogs, curious goats, and plump chickens roamed freely and dirty, barefoot children frolicked along the path that led to the medical clinic that I and other boaters traveled every week.  Every year after hurricane season, when the cruisers left the Rio Dulce and rushed back into the Caribbean, the number of volunteers staffing the clinic plummeted, but during hurricane season U.S. cruisers worked faithfully each week.  Some of the Texas cruisers who staffed the clinic during the 2005 season included Sandra of S/V Cattleya, Trish of Kemah’s M/S Barnacle, and Sherrie of Rockport’s S/V Gitane.

EmbassyIt seemed to me that the majority of the health problems brought to the clinic were lifestyle-related:  poor water sources, poor hygiene, open wood-fire cooking inside small and poorly ventilated huts.  When U.S. Embassy officials visited the Rio Dulce, one of them told me that respiratory disease was the leading cause of death in Guatemala.

The Embassy visit to the Rio Dulce is an annual event and garners a good turnout of U.S. citizens, almost all of them cruisers.  It is usually held at the Catamaran Island Hotel, where Rose of Sharon was docked.  “I just came for the refreshments,” said one boater.  “My gosh, look at them,” said another boater.  “Dress shirts, ties, jackets.  They have got to be hot!”

The consular visitors may have been warm in the tropical setting but were definitely put in the hot seat when one cruiser complained about accessibility to our embassy.  “No one ever answers the phone!” he exclaimed.  The speaker assured him that the situation had changed – callers would always get a voice, not a recording.  So the boater stood up with his cellphone and proceeded to dial every phone number listed for the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala, and every number went into a recording.  I almost felt sorry for the speaker, but he was a true government employee and completely nonplussed.  “Well, we’ll do something about that,” he replied.

Another cruiser complained that the guard at the entrance to the embassy only spoke Spanish.  “You have to explain your business to him to get to an English-speaking person, but if you don’t speak Spanish you can’t get past him!  Can’t you guys get an English-speaking guard at the gate so that we English-speaking Americans can explain why we are there?”

“We can’t afford an English-speaking guard,” the Embassy rep replied.  Audience suggestions of providing the Spanish-speaking guard with a small two-way radio or cell phone so he could better assist language-challenged visitors were met with nods.  “That’s a good idea,” the officials responded.  (Remind me to take my Spanish dictionary with me if I ever need to go to the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City.)

At the meeting, a great deal of audience time was spent bashing the State Department’s Guatemala website, which many viewed as more alarmist than educational, but the consular representatives stood firm on their assessment of Guatemala as a dangerous place. “They just want to get their hazardous duty pay,” laughed one cruiser, and sure enough, one flak-jacketed bodyguard stood behind the Embassy reps while another manned the perimeter.  These people were on “elevated alert,” to use the lingo of our terrorism times.

Antigua, Guatemala is the heart of Guatemalan culture and rich in Central American history.  Cruisers who spend hurricane season on the Rio Dulce often visit the lovely colonial town at least once while their boats rest on the river.

Joe sat on a circa 1700 wooden bench and gazed across a well-tended courtyard and beyond, to the mountains and volcanoes.  The lawn was perfectly trimmed and adorned with lush foliage.  “The difference between our construction and their construction is that we create a landscape around our homes and they build their homes around the landscape,” he observed.

One week in Antigua is barely enough time to see all there is to see, and walking is how you see it.  We walked so many miles I thought my sea legs would go on strike.  But every hike through the city was accompanied by sangria stops . . . nutmeg cake with lime icing and café latte stops . . . cerveza and nachos stops . . . ice cream and fruit stops . . . so, no, you can’t assume your extreme walking regime in Antigua will help your weight loss program, because when you stop walking, there’s something wonderful to taste.

The view from 5 Avenida NorteYou cannot visit Antigua without seeing the world-famous Arco de Catalina.  It is the only remaining structure of an Antigua convent founded in 1613.  The arch itself was built in 1693 to accommodate the convent’s growth from four nuns to a much larger ministry, and spans the city’s 5 Avenida Norte.  It allowed the sisters to cross from one side of the convent to the other without being seen.

Nuestra Senora de la Merced exterior is stunningAt the end of 5 Avenida Norte is the stunning Iglecia de Nuestra Señora de la Merced (Our Lady of Mercy).  The original church was built in 1548 but later destroyed by an earthquake.  This architectural triumph was re-designed and built by Juan Luis de Dios Estrada in 1767 to be earthquake-resistant, with thicker-than-average walls and small, high windows.  The church’s façade is among the most beautiful in the world, incorporating Mayan deities and white niche saints into its bright yellow Churrigueresque design.  (William Dean Howells once described Churrigueresque architecture as “frantically baroque.”)  This structure was near the house where Joe and I stayed with a large family and several other traveling couples for $26/night, so we walked past it every evening.  I learned to love Iglecia de Nuestra Señora de la Merced not only because I noticed something lovely and previously unseen every time I passed it, but also because when it came in sight, I knew my tired legs would get some rest soon.

Antigua’s largest convent was Iglesia y Convento de Nuestra Señora del Pila de Zaragoza; often identified as Las Capuchinas in guidebooks and on tour maps. The ruins of this site are well preserved and offer scenic courtyards and lush gardens.  The Spanish colonial nuns’ lives came to life for me here, as I studied their bathtubs, their penance cells, and even their toilets, which were perched inside wall recesses and ventilated!

Textile Marketplace, Nim PotWe visited the Museo de Arte Colonial, which houses a collection of 17th century religious paintings and statues.  We shopped at Nim Pot, a combination gallery/retail shop that displayed some of the finest examples of Guatemalan textiles and traditional Mayan clothing to be found in Central America.  Nim Pot was conveniently located next to Frida’s, a restaurant that offered the best margaritas in town.  We had to stop at Frida’s twice to make sure we were correct in our assessment of their margaritas and yes, those deliciously sweet-and-tart ices slid down our parched throats quite easily, thank you.

But the Antiguan coffee!  I usually drink my coffee with a hefty amount of sugar (like people who use catsup on their food, I’m not proud of it but I do it anyway), but in Antigua I added no sugar because it would be an abomination to corrupt the flavor of these wonderful coffees with any additives.  If you aren’t a coffee drinker, the place to become one is Antigua, Guatemala.

Monasterio San FranciscoJoe liked the hidden passageways and underground rooms at the Convento Santa Clara but I had a religious experience at the Monasterio San Francisco, which houses the body of Saint Pedro de San Jose de Betancur.  Miracles and cures have allegedly been granted to petitioners who knocked on his casket, which was located on the right side of the church’s altar.  Later, a newer receptacle was built for Friar Pedro’s remains and was put on the left of the altar, but many believers return to the site where his remains sat for centuries – the right side of the altar – to pray to Saint Pedro.  (At least he’s still in Guatemala.  The Catholic Church is famous for hauling its saints’ bodies all over the globe.)  I decided he was probably a versatile guy so I went to his new coffin and sent up a couple of prayers.  ��Why did you pray at that particular church?” asked a friend and I replied, “On account of you never know,” which just about sums up my grasp of theology.  The ruins of this 1579 structure also host a small museum dedicated to Friar Pedro, where you can see some of his clothing and the ropes he used for flagellation.

No tour of Antigua is complete without a visit to the beautiful Casa Santa Domingo. True to form, this five-star Guatemalan hotel was built around the ruins of the Monasterio Santo Domingo, thus preserving the integrity of the ancient structures while incorporating newer, well-tended gardens and scenic walkways. The entire property is educational and eye pleasing.  Craftsmen and artisans work in small studios within the complex, and I was in museum heaven!  There is an Apothecary Museum, a Museum of Contemporary Arts, a Museum of Pre-Columbian Art and Modern Glass, a Colonial Art Museum . . . and I refused to leave until I’d seen every museum piece at Casa Santa Domingo.  Joe was getting glassy-eyed as I eagerly pointed out the contrast between modern Swedish art glass and pre-Columbian Mayan and Olmec art as if I knew what I was talking about.  “So,” I said authoritatively, “Some of the pre-Columbian art here was discovered when they excavated this site and most of it’s dated circa 1400.”  Joe raised an eyebrow.  “Well, yeah,” he said.  “That’s why they call it pre-Columbian.”  I paused and asked him to explain.

“Pre-Columbian,” he said again.  “Before Columbus!  What did you think pre-Columbian meant?” and I had to admit that I hadn’t ever thought much about it at all.  This is why I have to travel with Joe; while I wander about, waxing poetic about colors and shapes, he knows important details, like where we are and what we’re seeing.

Street vendorsWe met fellow-cruisers in Antigua every day; some were attending Spanish Language school, some were shopping, and all had boats waiting for them on the Rio Dulce.  The streets were busy with tourists and vendors, many of them very aggressive but all of them polite.  Mary Margaret of S/V Angelheart fussed at her husband Paul for giving a beggar a dollar.  “It’s bad tourism to give people something for nothing,” she fumed, “A physically handicapped person, yes, but this guy was a professional beggar!”  Meanwhile, I too may have corrupted future tourism in Antigua by offering quetzals to the locals for permission to photograph them.  I think the locals are usually accommodating of photographers for free, but I wasn’t spending any money in Antigua shopping and I wanted to contribute something to the economy.  So I gave away our spare change for photos.  If the native-costumed locals won’t pose for you for free when you visit, it might be my fault.

There’s no such thing as a perfect picture.  Even as we strolled the streets of Antigua in relative safety, we were aware that the crime rate is commensurate with the town’s huge tourist traffic and close proximity to Guatemala City.  Sure enough, one fellow-cruiser’s debit card numbers were stolen and another acquaintance’s debit card was physically stolen.  As he showed us the tiny razor-slash in the pocket of his nylon shorts, we pondered the fact that the bad guys are not only adept at their thievery, they are FAST.  Both victims’ accounts were accessed within an hour for thousands of dollars.  There appears to be no easy solution to this particular type of criminal activity, which is thriving in well-traveled third-world countries.

As we packed for our return trip by bus to the Rio Dulce, I contemplated Joe’s wallet and my pepper spray.  “After what happened to John, I really think you should put your wallet in your underwear,” I said to Joe.  “I’m not worried about needing pepper spray anymore.”

Joe sighed.  “Sharon, these are cargo pants.  They’d have to cut through two pockets to get to my wallet, and the material is canvas.  We’ll be okay.”  He paused, then added, “Remember when Bob came to visit us in Indiana and he wore a money pouch around his ankle?  He was afraid of getting robbed in Indiana!”

“He wasn’t used to traveling outside of his comfort zone,” I replied.  “Even a place like Indiana was enough to make Bob nervous.  Every person’s security level is different, and mine goes on red alert at Guatemalan bus stations,” I laughed.

“What exactly do you mean by ‘comfort zone?’ ” a Rio Dulce cruiser asked me.  “Is it a place or a state of mind?”

“It’s both,” I replied, and that led to a spirited discussion.  I told her how, following my 2004 surgery, we were not able to make the passage from Corpus Christi to Isla Mujeres across the Gulf of Mexico.  “We had to make our passage as comfortable for me because I was healing, so we took the least bouncy route – the ICW – from Texas to Florida.”

Her eyes widened.  “I think the ICW is the scariest place on the planet!” she replied.

“Well, I thought crossing the Mississippi River to get into New Orleans was scary until we hit that coral reef in Mexico . . .” and my mind revisited where Joe and I been and what we’d done to get to Guatemala.  I began to think she was right.  In reality, there’s no such place as a “comfort zone” for cruisers, even though we spend more time feeling comfortable and sailing comfortably than we do otherwise.

At the safest of locations, we are vigilant against damage to our boat or threats to our safety.  And for every month we spend relaxing and rejuvenating from a passage, there’s at least one day or night of sheer terror that makes for a good story around the campfire.

As sailors and cruisers, we set goals.  We plan a passage using best-case scenarios, worst-case scenarios, and then provision and crew accordingly.  There are sailors whose goal is a hair-on-fire journey from Point A to Point B, with as much tacking and jibing as humanly possible.  There are sailors who rarely shut the engine off, try to keep the boat in a position that makes for steadier walking below deck, and whose idea of the perfect sail is smooth water and light winds.

I guess my and Joe’s concept of good sailing and successful passage making incorporates good weather, safety for ourselves and our boat, a scenic or convenient dockage or anchorage, and an enjoyable journey through journey’s end.  That would make “cruising in the comfort zone” our goal. Not always our reality, but certainly a good place for which to strive.

Apalachicola City dockageMy favorite places that we visited/accessed along the Intracoastal Waterway were Avery sland in Louisiana, Ingram Bayou in Alabama and Appalachicola in Florida.  It was Appalachicola where we first said the sentence that we found ourselves repeating several times along the way to Guatemala:  “Hey, this would be a great place to retire!”

Isla Mujeres!  What a wonderful induction into the cruising world!  It was there that we learned some things we took for granted (familiar canned vegetables, mail delivery) were about to become precious or unattainable.  It was there that we learned how unimportant so many things were, in this new world, because there was so much beauty, and sunlight, and crystal-clear water . . . well, what more did we need?

When we ran aground on a coral reef bed off the coast of Mexico, we spent one of the worst nights of our lives.  We thought our dream was going to shatter, along with our rudder, on a pile of rocks.  But the boat survived and so did we, with a lesson learned.  We were never complacent about getting in or out of a potential anchorage again.  And we learned to never, ever, follow a catamaran into an unfamiliar anchorage!

We spent two months in Belize and tried to cram a lifetime of sightseeing into those two months.  By golly, we almost did it.  We missed a few good sights in Belize, but not that many and besides, we needed a good reason to return to Belize, if the cleanest water and whitest sand on the planet are not enough.  I remember when words like “Ambergris Caye” and “Caye Caulker” were exotic words, the names of places I could only dream of seeing.

I still have to do a reality-check sometimes to believe we did it.  We had a goal:  to sail our boat up the Rio Dulce in Guatemala.  We had nothing planned beyond that one goal and we seriously questioned our ability to accomplish what seemed like such a daring feat at the time.  We’d seen better sailors who could not complete the journey, but you know what?  It’s not that difficult.  If you ever wanted to do it, my wish for you is that you make sure it happens.

Joe and I spent much of the 2005 hurricane season high-fiving ourselves for our accomplishment, but we were not willing to stop cruising just yet.  With hurricane season near its end and the warm, clean Caribbean waters drawing me like a magnet for another jump-off-the-boat swim, we knew we would have to continue our journey to points south.

Until we sailed to the Caribbean, I couldn’t imagine anything more rewarding than sailing to the Caribbean!  Then, something that would be much more rewarding presented itself.

Let me say this:  most cruisers have family “back home” but many do not.  I never thought much about it one way or another until a cruiser became seriously ill in Guatemala.  The cruising community rushed in to provide support and assistance in any way possible, and this particular couple was never really “alone.”  But when that happened I realized, for me, how much I value our children.  There never has been nor ever will be anything more rewarding in my and Joe’s lives than our two daughters.

It’s funny how fast your children go from being people you need to take of to people who can take care of you!  I know that if Joe and I get into any kind of trouble out here, cruising in our comfort zone, our daughters will rush to our aid.

And one of our daughters is childless, so she decided to adopt a baby; a Guatemalan baby.  In Guatemala, once a baby is identified for adoption the process is not complete for 3-6 months.  During that time, the baby is placed in a foster care home in Antigua.

Joe and I will put our cruising status on hold just long enough to be foster parents to our own grandson, the first boy our family has seen since 1978!  We rented an apartment in Antigua for the first 4 months of 2006 and will have the opportunity to nurture and love this baby the same way our daughters would care for us, if we needed them to.

It hasn’t even happened and I’m already missing the cruising life, but looking forward to this adventure!  You know, whenever we leave our boat for any length of time, we feel displaced and eventually unhappy.  We don’t feel comfortable until we are back on our boat, our home.

So maybe the “comfort zone” represents our boat, Rose of Sharon.  No matter where we traveled or how difficult the voyage, she always took care of us.  Our next adventure will be another passage, and our boat will wait patiently for us to return because we always do.

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