October 15 – November 10, 2019
Ten days in Fronteras gave us just enough time to acclimate to the area, get some logistics sorted for our land journey to Mexico, start the process on a couple of boat projects which would be undertaken while we were away (re-galvanising our Rocna anchor as well as having dinghy chaps and sun covers made).
The town of Fronteras, in many ways, reminded us of a much nicer smelling Semporna (from our Scuba Junkie days in Borneo).
The Shack, one of the bars on the waterfront, quickly became a favourite place to hang out. Gin and Tonics for less than a dollar fifty were the initial draw. The owner, Marvin, is a great guy who offers open mic night every week, which opened the door to meeting a really talented musician named Jerome.
Every now and then, our paths place us in an orbit with some really fascinating people… and Jerome is certainly one of those people. Not only did he have some great stories as well as a lot of insight for us as sailors, but he was also an awesome front man on guitar, harmonica, and vocals for me to jam with during two different open mic nights and even a late night jam in the cockpit.
I couldn’t understand some of the scientific vocabulary used by the hyperbaric physicist, and some of the things I could understand just seemed downright bat-shit mental. But, one thing for sure, I always enjoyed Jerome’s company. And he has damn fine taste in guitars… long live Guild!
But now it was time to leave Exit tied to the dock at Monkey Bay Marina, and head further inland to do some land-based traveling by bus.
We had figured out a route through Guatemala and Mexico, that would get us to Playa del Carmen in time to see old friends while still making a number of stops along the way to see more friends and take in the sights.
On paper, our route roughly resembled what could have been a child’s drawing of a sailboat… ironic. In actuality, there was no mistaking it… we were definitely back on the dirt.
… and back on the bus. For Kris’ birthday, no less.
Described in one guide book as: a fantasyland that would never be included in a list of authentically Guatemalan experiences. Building codes are adhered to, garbage in the streets is picked up, and stray dogs mysteriously disappear during the night… more like what a Guatemalan town would be if Scandinavians had taken over for a couple of years.
We liked it.
Less aggressive hawking. Very chilled environment. Amazingly vibrant colours covered the walls of century old buildings with the most striking and eclectic display of front doors we have ever encountered. Timeless (and horribly difficult to navigate) stone streets remain untouched as part of the agreement securing Antigua’s UNESCO Heritage status.
A brief reunion with Craig’s daughter Zoe, who now lived in Antigua, put us on the inside track to a couple of memorable bars.
Cafe No Se, a bar opened by an American expat twenty years prior, had an incredible story behind it, as relayed to us by its fascinating owner John. Dark and mood lit with surreal towering wax candle sculptures, it had all the vibe I would imagine of a Prohibition-Era Speak Easy.
Complete with a small book store hidden behind an antique refrigerator door attached to the wall — the location where illegal bootleg mescal had been sold in the early days of the bar — the now legal, but still fittingly named Illegal Mescal, had recently placed second in international tequila competitions.
The Irish bar Snug also turned out to be a great source of pub food and happy hour specials, with the exception of a near heart attack inducing hour when Kris thought she had lost her iPhone one night… eek!
The Earth Lodge
An eco-lodge on the side of the mountains with a perfect view of Antigua down in the valley surrounded by volcanos. On a clear enough night, we could just see the red glow of actual lava spewing out of the active volcano Fuego.
We decided to move each day from one to another uniquely designed bungalow, just to have a different view of the valley. Quiet and tranquil would be an understatement. More than easy to do absolutely nothing for a few days.
Kite Festival of Sumpango – Day of the Dead
The Day of the Dead. Though it sounds more like an episode from the Zombie Apocalypse series, it is actually more of a family oriented celebration tying the the living to the dead. Families gather in cemeteries for picnics, offerings are made to the deceased, and attempts to communicate with the dead are initiated.
For nearly twenty years, the tiny town of Sumpango hosts thousands of people attending the Gigantic Kite Festival every November first, celebrating the Day of the Dead. The elaborate kites, ranging in size from a couple of meters to six meters in diameter, are displayed on a football field. Eventually, all but the largest will make an attempt at flight amongst a field of onlookers.
The kites, constructed and flown by families commemorating the deceased, are considered conduits through which communication between the living and dead can be enhanced.
It’s a county fair vibe, with the added flare of potential risk of injury or death from a gigantic flying toy.
Apparently one of a handful of places on Earth located in the midst of an energy vortex of some cosmic significance well beyond my comprehension… which essentially seemed to mean a universal convergence point for a lot of pot smokers and yoga instructors.
Before taking a water taxi to the town of Santa Cruz, we stopped at a restaurant/bar at the edge of the lake for drinks, where I befriended one of the local musicians. Later we learned that a man who owed the Cartel money was executed outside this very restaurant one morning, just a day or two after these photos were taken… fucking hell.
The area… picturesque, without a doubt. A huge lake surrounded by dormant volcanoes covered in lush jungle.
Even better, another Scuba Junkie reunion. This time with Ollie and Flo, two old SJ friends. Ollie, one of our dive master trainees from ten years back, with Flo, now manage Isla Verde, a beautiful resort located right at the edge of the lake.
It was the first time we had the pleasure of meeting their 3 year old son, Henry — obviously a sailor in the making who, when shown a photo we took in Antarctica of a penguin which occupied eighty percent of the photo’s field of view, Henry managed to point out the tiny, out-of-focus boat in the background. Good skills swab!
We can’t thank Ollie and Flo enough for all their hospitality, as well as thanks to Isla Verde’s owner Riley. Its alway amazing to see Junkies in strange places.
And… traditional American blues guitar artists playing during the nightly happy hour on a REAL record player? In the jungle of Guatemala? Really? Holy shit! Now that is righteous.
Though we didn’t quite achieve that performance level at open mic night, to be fair… everyone was pretty trashed. Good times.
On a bit of a side note… I must admit that, once again, I was the individual responsible (or irresponsible should be the term) for the bar’s gin stock running dry. One of the dangers of having Gin & Tonic specials!
Flores (Suckers making a rookie mistake)
We had just taken an overnight bus from Lake Atitlan, requiring a bus transfer in Guatemala City that ultimately dropped us off just outside the island town of Flores.
Buses, in Central and South America, are a remarkably comfortable and affordable travel option. The “executive first class” option lands you in a seat comparable to a Lazy-Boy recliner in comfort, usually for well less than a hundred dollars.
However, the temperature inside the bus’ lower deck can be that of a meat freezer. The only possible justification we could conjure up was an attempt at maximum air ventilation, without which could result in sleeping inhabitants fatally succumbing to either diesel or latrine fumes.
When we stumbled off the bus just after sunrise, our brains may have actually been mildly hypothermic. We waded through the first wave of taxi drivers and asked a small old man toward the back of the group to take us to the hostel Kris had reserved before we left Isla Verde.
Over the course of the next hour we made a number of what can only be described as inexcusable rookie mistakes that left us scratching our heads at our own stupidity and complacency a short time later.
Inexplicably, by seven a.m., we had made and paid for reservations not only to the ruins of Tikal, but also for bus tickets to the Mexican border and onward to Playa del Carmen.
By nine a.m., we had realised there was a high probability we had been suckered.
The battery in Kris’ iPhone, which had died on the overnight bus trip twelve hours earlier, preventing any online research while we were underway, was now sufficiently charged. Enough so for Kris to start finding all kinds of TripAdvisor and other online warnings regarding the dishonest and unethical business practices of Enrique – the same fucker who had just sold us the tickets.
If we had paid too much for tickets, that was one thing. But if we had been sold tickets that didn’t actually exist… that would be a whole different level of asshole.
We decided a visit to the tourist police INGUAT was worth the time. However, in a very broken conversation we were able to ascertain that, while yes, they were well familiar with the shady business practices of Enrique the scar-faced Cartel thug, they couldn’t do anything in this instance until after he had actually ripped us off… fuck.
They made copies of everything we had and sent us on our way, inviting us to contact them if it all went to shit.
Test question number one from the “Did Enrique really screw us?” inquiry was whether we would even be picked up for the day trip to the Tikal ruins.
We were… and to be fair with full disclosure, it was a great day trip. The guide Ruben, a Mayan descendent who was living on part of the land converted to national park when Tikal gained UNESCO Heritage status, was incredibly knowledgable and had a personal stake in passing on the history as well as carrying on the legacy of Tikal.
The Maya were aware that the earth was round and orbited the Sun. Maya hieroglyphic script is one of only five basic writing systems ever developed in the history of mankind. The Maya calendar, over five thousand years in its cycle, is more accurate than the Gregorian calendar currently in use. They were the people from which the Aztec and Inca civilisations emerged.
For over a thousand years, Tikal represented the heart of the Maya civilisation. The city’s structures, built between 600 B.C. and 900 A.D., pre-date both Machu Picchu and Chichen Itza. And yet, ultimately, Tikal was mysteriously abandoned within one hundred years time.
The already excavated structures number only a fraction of the thousands of earthen mounds scattered throughout the area. Mounds that hide additional currently undisturbed Mayan ruins, have remained swallowed by the thick Guatemalan jungle for over a millennium.
Wandering around the remnants of what had once been a gleaming central hub for tens of thousands of people was surreal. Massive limestone temples and structures silently emerged from their still partially buried states, peaking out above the upper canopy of the surrounding trees. Even with their staggering scale, they struggle to remain free, as the jungle relentlessly seeks to reclaim them.
Later, it was amazing to learn that, fifty years before, my Mom’s sister had cooked breakfast on a Sterno stove atop one of the same Tikal ruins we were currently standing on… crazy.
To be continued…