It’s summer in Florida, and that means heat and humidity. Most (normal) people survive by turning on their air conditioners and hiding from the great outdoors. I don’t blame them…it is HOT! But here on a boat in a mooring field in the Florida Keys, we are intentionally living a little more simply, a little less expensively, and a little more closely to Nature.
In the summer of 2010, we spent our first season in Marathon, and didn’t have the boat set up to handle the heat. Boot Key Harbor is notoriously murkey, warm, and full of moving dinghies and fishing boats, making it unswimmable. Afternoon thunderstorms meant that we couldn’t always have the boat open, so it would get downright steamy inside. That summer was particularly bad for mosquitoes as well. We quickly developed some coping strategies.
We had a large blue canvas rectangle, which we tied tent-style over the trampolines, ice, and a blender. I would make frozen lemonade every afternoon, take a good read-aloud selection, corral the kids, and we would have a siesta out under the tent until the heat abated. Every night, we’d give the kids a cool-down shower in the cockpit and send them to bed wet, with a fan over each bed. We would seek cool places, like local restaurants with pools, the beach for a swim, or the air-conditioned library. Jay made some Velcro-on bug screens, and we bought wind-scoops and better fans. By the next season we spent in the Keys, we had shade awnings for the decks and cockpit.
The summer of 2015, before leaving for the Caribbean, we got really smart: we stayed at Marathon Marina and plugged in and turned on the new air conditioners Jay had installed. We were there between May and November, the hottest part of the year, but that was expensive, and we felt a little trapped, both inside the boat, and tied to a dock.
This summer, in addition to all those stay-cool strategies, I made a list of menu items that don’t involve heating up the galley of Take Two. We’re also testing a single-burner induction plate that works with our cast-iron skillets, Oxo teakettle, and Kuhn-Rikon pressure cooker. It takes electric power, but doesn’t create as much heat as cooking over gas. And because it’s portable, we can cook in the breezy cockpit.
Even with these coping mechanisms, we sweat. If there’s a breeze, it’s more comfortable. But when the wind dies, the perceived temperature goes up and we find it hard to concentrate on school and work. Sleep is disrupted and tempers flare. Unless we decide to head to a marina, our only option is to start up the generator and run the air conditioner. This is a real luxury, as many boats have neither. On hot, still evenings, we can close up, run the air full-bore, then turn everything off just before bed. If we wake up hot, we open the hatches above the beds and usually it’s cooled down outside. The exception, of course, is when it’s raining. Not much we can do about that, but I guess that’s what it means to live closer to Nature!
Seven strategies for staying cool
Shade awnings: Phoenix Square Sun Shade, from Amazon
Q: What’s scarier than teaching your teenager to drive a car?
A: Teaching three teenagers to drive at the same time!
We’ve merged into the fast lane. Having arrived in the U.S. one month ago, we’ve made a lot of progress toward re-integration. Eli turned 18 and registered to vote. The three teenagers got phones and learner’s permits. At the end of the month, assuming they’ve jumped through all the right hoops, they’ll start their first dual enrollment classes at the local community college. Eli and Aaron are dipping their toes into the wide world of work this week as they join a construction crew with our friend Andrew (remember the captain of s/v Abby Singer?). Sarah sailed in her first regatta as crew on a Hobie 16. Sam is taking his Florida boater’s safety course to operate the dinghy solo. And Rachel checked out her first library books!
I’ve joined a Wednesday-morning Bible study, a yoga class, and committed to teaching high-school home-schoolers a U.S. Government class this fall. Jay has been fixing broken things on our boat now that we have access to parts and shipping, and working like crazy using unlimited high-speed internet. We’ve been having weekly date-nights to organize all these new adventures and support each other so that we’re ready for whatever comes our way.
“Far too often in seasons of transitions, we tend to do one of two things. Either we forestall the ending because we cannot face the grief of the conclusion of an era, or we leap over the finish line and bound headlong into the next race without pausing to reflect on where we have been on the road to where we are going. Transition– good, heartful transition– requires both. Experiences do not change us. Reflecting on our experiences changes us. For every shift between a then and a now, our task is to reflect on what was and, as a result, what can now be. We must digest our experience in order to [go into the future].”—Chris Bruno
When we bought Take Two in 2008, we talked of taking our kids down to the Caribbean, enjoying beautiful clear water, catching fish, seeing the world in the microcosm of islands, and maybe learning another language. On Tuesday, July 2, we finished that dream trip as we crossed our track and motored toward our mooring in Boot Key Harbor, a place we left over three years ago with our then 14-, 13-, 11-, 9-, and 4-year-old children. We left as coastal cruisers with kids, but we came back seasoned blue-water sailors with young adults. The world seems wider now, but the boat smaller. We came back because it’s time to let the kids begin their own journeys, and our family and support systems are here. We came back to the same place, but we are not the same people.
All of us are “digesting the experience” in different ways. It is wonderful, but weird, to be back in Florida. Some of us were excited to return to “the Land of Plenty” and familiar places and faces. Others of us are happy travelers, reluctant to rejoin the daily routines of land-life. Most of us won’t really understand what the travel has done to us until we gain some life experiences here in the U.S. and get a little perspective. The memories of the last three years, complete with the whole range of joy and misery, friendship and loneliness, excitement and boredom—are still too fresh. Even so, I asked everyone in the family to pause, if for only a moment, before a “new normal” sets in and we’re off exploring in different directions, and to reflect on their experiences as travelers.
Jay: I’m not really a cruiser. I’m just a guy who lives on a boat. I like the self-sufficiency: the boat is our house, it’s our office, it’s our school. We’ve just been doing “regular life” in foreign countries. In that way, coming back to the United States represents conveniences like easy shipping, good grocery stores, and fast internet, but doesn’t really change my day-to-day. There’s not a strong delineation between then and now.
For me the travel was really about the kids. It started as a way to show them the world, have some fun, and learn new things. We wanted our kids to see different cultures and get a broader picture of the world, but also to avoid being indoctrinated in the U.S. with negative things like materialism, promiscuity, entitlement, and instant gratification. While we had a lot of fun in the Eastern Caribbean, the trip really changed when we went west at the end of 2016. We had wanted our kids to learn Spanish, and what better place than Central America?
I think all our goals were met. Some of the results of the travel remain to be seen, but I’m happy with where our kids are right now. I would have liked some of them to step out of their comfort zones more often, but I think they saw enough and picked up enough because we were there so long. My comfort zone definitely grew. Things that would have freaked me out early on didn’t bother me later, and I realized I really like Central America. I can imagine traveling again, being nomadic, maybe spending more time in South America. Having done it once, leaving again would be easier.
Tanya: I’m struggling with this “conclusion of an era” part. This is likely the last big sailing trip we take with all seven of us. I knew it couldn’t last forever, but part of me secretly wanted the kids to stay small so we could just keep traveling around as a family. The other part wants to see the result of this experiment—parenting and homeschooling and traveling—to see what kind of interesting people my children will become as independent adults. Seeing your child transform into an adult is like giving birth in slow motion—it is painful, requires a long labor, and inspires curiosity—and I’m dying to meet the person emerging into the world.
Eli will be 18 this month, Aaron is 16, Sarah, 15, Sam, 12, and Rachel, 8. I am well on my way to becoming the shortest person in the family (even Sam is passing me up and Rachel shows no sign of slowing). There will be a steep learning curve as we rejoin our culture and the requirements of life in the U.S.—learning to drive, taking tests, figuring out educational options, meeting with old friends and new, and finding our places here (both literally and figuratively). I am sure we will continue to travel, as it is more who we are than what we do, but some of our trips will be by land, others by air, and the ones by sea might find us short a few hands.
Despite my sounding a little sad about the conclusion, the bottom line is that I have no regrets: we did what we set out to do. Take Two traveled around the world without having to cross an ocean—her crew met people from all over the globe, heard many languages spoken, experienced the cultures of the Old World while traveling in the New, lived in Central America long enough to understand and passably speak Spanish, made lifelong friends, gave back to the community, came into contact with indigenous peoples and remnants of their ancient civilizations, encountered incredible natural scenery and wildlife, and broadened horizons.
While the results of our book-learning remain to be seen, the benefits of travel and real-life learning are evident: we can sail, tie knots, take a night watch, fish, cook, play musical instruments, solve problems, make art, wash dishes, converse intelligibly with people of all ages, perform in public, hail a taxi or catch a bus, fix broken things, weave baskets, teach a class, get lost and find the way back, express our thoughts in writing, freedive, speak another language, drive on the other side of the road, and make friends cross-culturally. Not all of us can do all of these things, of course, but a wide range of skills and talents are evident, and I believe we have all developed a kind of confidence and comfort in the world that only travel can impart. I am not minimizing the difficulty and discomfort of rejoining the flow of life in our own culture, but as citizens of the world, I think we have a leg up. Furthermore, I have memories to cherish (and write about) for a lifetime, and without a doubt, more adventures to anticipate.
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” –Roy Batty (Blade Runner)
Eli: Now that we’re back, I’ve had some time to reflect on our grand voyage. So, what exactly did this whole trip mean to me? Well, my home was there, so it wasn’t really a “trip.” We only left people behind. We had all our stuff; we did chores; we did school. The only thing missing was the social environment in which we would have been immersed if we had stayed. But we didn’t stay. We went far away and had all sorts of awesome adventures instead of staying in the same place with the same people. We spent many years and months away from the United States. My “social development” basically stopped when we left our society, and barely advanced in all our time among the islands. I don’t have a phone, I don’t know how to pick up a check, I don’t know how to drive a car, I don’t have a job, I don’t even know very many people here. I’ve been left behind by all my friends, and I feel like I don’t fit in.
But I’m not sorry I missed out. Not at all. I don’t think I ever fit in, and I’ve never been very comfortable around other people. I like to travel. I liked seeing new places, and freediving and hiking and swimming and sailing every day. It was an amazing adventure. It was my life. But now that phase is over, and we’re here in the Keys, and I’m feeling both like I missed out on all my friends’ lives and like I would have regretted staying and missing out on the adventure. But I couldn’t have both. I’m happy with how things went, and I want to reconnect now. I want the relationships, but I also miss the cruising life. Technically speaking, our life now isn’t much different than it was in, say, Isla Mujeres or Guatemala. The real difference is that it’s not new. It’s an old place, with old memories associated very deeply. It feels totally different now than when we visited briefly here last year. It’s the end of an era, and that knowledge changes everything.
Our life didn’t radically change when we left “civilization,”
but it did change in small ways. I feel that we became closer as a family, we
became more conscious of our wealth in relation to others, and we learned to be
more comfortable around the foreign. I came to feel sure and confident in that
environment, and everything was good. Now, I don’t know what comes next, now
that we no longer swim and hike and climb every day. School is changing,
locations are changing. I miss the years spent on the ocean, if only because I
know they’re over.
Aaron: When we left the U.S., I was newly 13 and gave zero care to jobs, driving, college, and other related subjects, which was fine. Now that we’re back, I am almost 17 and still don’t care much about any of it, which isn’t so fine. I think I lost my motivation because I live on a boat, spend most of my time at home, and have next to no friends, so all of the aforementioned subjects seem far away and unimportant, while the opposite is true.
Aside from this almost complete lack of concern for untaken developmental steps and vacant area where “social status” ought to be, I think I’m basically the same person as I would have been if we’d never left. I grew my hair out, discovered new music, started working out, and started forming my outlook on life, regardless of location. I can understand the value of living in Central America for a couple of years, but it comes at a cost; it builds insulation from normalcy. I like being on the outside looking in, but I’m thinking that at some point I’m going to have to get in myself, and it won’t be any easier with such a late start. It’s a bit distressing to me to think that I could have been a licensed driver almost a year ago if we’d never left.
The most important things that I did while we were away were
working at Agua Dulce Marina, making local friends in Guatemala, volunteering
at Casa Agua Azul and the Rio Dulce summer camp, and climbing up the Acatenango
Volcano. While similar opportunities in the U.S. might have built skills and
self-confidence as effectively as the ones I had, I probably wouldn’t have been
interacting with my surroundings in a different language and culture in the way
that I was in Latin America. Also, our parents separating us from our peers was
successful in sparing us from any teen drama that there might otherwise have
In conclusion, the position in which I stand isn’t entirely
good or bad. I’m getting a late start in the flow of normal life, but I’m also
entering with an outsider’s perspective. And I think Mom and Dad were right
when they said, “trust us, when you look back on your life, you won’t regret
this part of it.”
Sarah: All good things must come to an end. Not all good things are all good. And while I didn’t have a good time all the time, I think the last 3 years, 5 months, and 8 days we spent as a family traveling around the Caribbean were spent well, and I wouldn’t trade any of those experiences for anything. When we left the United States to begin our trip, I was 11 years old. When I was 11, I would think things like “Someday I’ll get a job” or “Someday I’ll learn to drive a car.” Well, now it’s “someday” and that is scary. I didn’t spend a lot of time preparing for “someday” while we were in the Caribbean, so now that we’re back in the States and about to be immersed in normal life (as normal as it gets for us anyway), I feel like I’m being hit in the face with responsibilities and choices that I’m not quite ready to take on. In a word: overwhelmed.
In a way, I feel like our trip back to the United States last summer
helped me prepare for what we’re facing now. Before our visit I had very little
idea of what was expected of someone in my age group, or how to accomplish
those goals. Now I feel like I have a better idea of what to do and how to do
it. It’s also great to be back in a place I can call home, to see familiar
faces, and to know where I fit in. Living on a boat has always been, and always
will be, a trade-off, and now we’re about to experience something completely different
than we’ve been used to; but then, fear of the unknown is normal.
Sam: Each country or island we visited is like an individual person; each has a personality, a culture, and a history. When we went on our three year “trip” we were not on vacation, hanging out on white sand beaches or relaxing somewhere in a resort. When we came to a new island or country, we met it and we made friends with the locals, and learned from it, if we could. So when we came back recently to the United States, I did not necessarily look different on the outside (besides growing taller) but I carry with me on the inside something from the places I went and people I met. I carry not only experiences, like swimming with whale sharks and jumping in waterfalls, but skills, like freediving and palm-weaving, for example, and lessons, like “never interfere with wild animals,” or, “the ocean is unpredictable.” We also came back to the U.S. with a knowledge of the history of the places we have been. I feel that I am a happier person when we are traveling and if I sit too long in one place, I tend to get bored with it.
Rachel: We live full-time on the boat. I can’t really explain what that’s like because it’s normal for me, but I can tell you some of the places we have been. We went to the Bahamas and the Eastern Caribbean. Then we went west to Bonaire, Colombia, Panama, Grand Cayman, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, and back to Florida. I loved our adventures. I am a little sad that the trip is over (except for the times when I was seasick.)
Note: This is the last of the Caribbean geography reports. As Mexico is such a large country, I have chosen to focus on the part of Mexico we visited, Isla Mujeres and the Yucatán peninsula.
Capital: Mexico City
30 percent of the Mexican population is indigenous (Mayan, Mixtec, Náhuatl, Otomí, Purépecha, Zapotec), 60 percent are
mestizos, and the remaining 10 percent are white or other ethnicities. Most of
the people practice Catholicism and even the indigenous people have mixed
traditional religions with catholic practices. Most holiday celebrations include
fireworks, music, and dancing. Day of the Dead (Día de Los Muertos) celebrations
commemorate family members who have passed on by decorating tombs and creating
elaborate alters at home.
Language: Spanish is
the official language, but there are 68 Amerindian languages also spoken.
Climate: The climate zones
of Mexico vary from snow-capped mountains and alpine tundra to tropical islands,
making Mexico attractive to visitors looking for variety. The main regions
include: tropical wet, tropical wet-and-dry, semi-arid, desert, temperate with
dry winters, humid subtropical, and Mediterranean. Where we were, in Isla
Mujeres, the weather was warm, sunny, and breezy with predominant easterlies,
cold fronts with north wind in the winter and spring, and tropical waves and
risk of hurricanes in the summer and fall.
Mexican meals consist of corn, beans, rice, tortillas, squash, chilies,
avocados, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and a various meats, like turkey, beef,
goat, pork, chorizo, and chicken. Mexico is also known for its delicious tacos.
Corn has been Mexico’s most important food for thousands of years, and it has a
religious significance for the Maya, Huichol and many other indigenous groups.
Fruits grown in Mexico include: pineapples, citrus fruits, star fruits, mangoes,
papayas, melons, tomatoes, and other tropical fruits. A popular drink is
tequila, made from the agave plant.
Government: The United
States of Mexico has a Constitutional Republic, with a President as head of
Currency: Mexican Peso,
about 18 pesos to the dollar.
The culture of Mexico is a mixture that comes from its history of Old and New
World influences. Cultural influences include traditions from the Maya and
other indigenous peoples, Spanish language, music and religion from the conquistadors
and settlers, and a mixture of European, African, and Asian cultures that arrived
later in Mexico. The Spanish brought Roman Catholicism, which became Mexico’s
main religion and slowly mixed with the indigenous religious practices. Mexico
has a rich artistic history, with world-famous artists like Frieda Kahlo, as
well as arts and crafts like weaving, pottery, leather-working, and
wood-carving. Decorated skulls are a common motif. Popular musical styles
include mariachi and ranchera, which use the sounds of various
guitars as well as violins, trumpets, and accordions.
History of the Yucatán Peninsula
The Yucatán’s oldest traces of humanity date back 11,000 years according to artifacts found in the Loltún caves and Tulum. It is supposed that the first Mayas arrived in the Yucatán around 2500 BC. The Maya had a knowledge of astronomy, math, and architecture, the evidence of which can be found all over Mexico in the form of pyramids, palaces, and other structures. The Maya were also good artists, based on jewelry, carved limestone, and plaster artifacts found at ruins.
Around 600 AD the Maya civilization was at the height of its Classic
period. The Maya lands at this time were not ruled as an Empire, but as a
collection of independent city-states. Near the end of the Classic period, the
Mayans moved to the Yucatán, with ruins like Chichen Itzá showing us construction
very different from earlier Mayan settlements (Tikal in Guatemala, for example).
After the Classic period, the collapse of the Maya came very suddenly. One
theory is that as the Maya civilization grew, they were not able to grow enough
food to feed the people. The Maya then weakened and were taken out when the
invaders from central Mexico came.
Mexico was “discovered” by the Spanish conquistador Hernan
Cortes in 1485. The Spanish came to the Yucatán in 1513 when Juan Ponce de León
and Antón de Alaminos set out to find land west of Cuba and came across a large
peninsula. The first attempt at the conquest of the Yucatán was made in 1527, when
the Montejo family and a band of other men were sent from Spain to Cozumel, but
they decided to sail around the peninsula and quell the unrest in Tabasco. They
decided to establish their base near Campeche and push inland to conquer the Yucatán,
but four years later they were forced back to Mexico City. In 1542, after allying
with the Xiu, the Montejos defeated the Cocomes, and founded the city of Mérida. In four years’ time they had put most of the Yucatán under
Spanish rule. The Mayans then became slaves for Spanish settlers.
Throughout the colonial period, the native Maya and other
indigenous groups continued to resist Spanish rule. The harsh treatment of
natives by the Spanish led to many revolts, most of which were unsuccessful. In
1821, after a war with Spain, Mexico succeeded in becoming independent, and the
Yucatán became part of the Mexican Federation. Despite the new government, the
Maya were still forced to work under horrible conditions which led to the Caste
War. In 1847, Mayan chiefs led a revolt against the descendants of Spanish
settlers who had political and economic control. This act started an all-out
war between the Maya forces and the Yucatecos (Spanish descendants). The war
officially ended in 1901 but some of the small settlements and towns refused to
acknowledge Mexican control. The war spilled the blood of over 200,000 people.
From 1876 to 1911, when Porfirio Diaz ruled Mexico, he
brought the country into the Industrial Age. He passed laws that created an
even larger number of landless peasants and concentrated the wealth in the
hands of a smaller elite. In the Yucatán, wealth was acquired by making rope
and other products from plant fibers. Diaz was removed from power in 1910 when
a war broke out, sending the country into chaos for the next decade.
By the 1970s, huge oil reserves were discovered in the Gulf
of Mexico, which brought new investors to the country. With new money coming in,
Mexico invested in infrastructure on a large-scale, and installed a central oil
processing complex in the Bay of Campeche, which was producing a million
barrels of crude oil a day by 1981. The influx of oil money also led to the
development of the Quintana Roo and Cancún as tourist destinations. With white
sand beaches, crystal-clear turquoise-colored water, and nearby ancient ruins
to explore, this area soon became known as the “Riviera Maya” and attracted
tourists from all over the world. While oil prices fluctuate, creating booms
and busts, the tourism industry remains fairly constant, despite the occasional
hurricane causing damage and requiring rebuilding.
Landforms/Flora and Fauna
Mexico is a large country and has a very diverse landscape. To the north is the U.S.A., to the east, the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea, to the south, Belize and Guatemala, and to the west, the Pacific Ocean. Baja California is located in the northwest, a jagged finger of land with mountains and desert bordered by the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of California. Mexico has the world’s largest volcanic field. Central Mexico has the Sierra Madre mountains and a central plateau. Mexico City is in the south-central part of the country and boasts a population of 21 million people in the greater metropolitan area. The Yucatán Peninsula is flat, with a coral limestone bedrock covered by littoral forest and filled with sink holes, caves and cenotes. Isla Mujeres is a small island to the north of the Yucatán, surrounded by beautiful water and coral reefs. Because of this variation in land forms, the flora and fauna are found in equally diverse habitats—from pine forests to tropical jungle, from cactus-covered deserts to palm-fringed beaches, from treeless volcanic peaks to the fertile Bajío region where produce is grown. Some animals you might see in Mexico are spider monkeys, the rare axolotl (salamander), cacomistle (mammal), Mexican prairie dog, ocelot, cenzontle (bird), zoloitzcuintli (hairless dog), quetzal (bird), endangered vaquita porpoise, coati, and Mexican gray wolf. Near Isla Mujeres, you might go in search of whale sharks or sail fish, or see barracuda, snappers, colorful reef fish, and marine invertebrates while snorkeling and diving.
Things to do in the Yucatán/Isla Mujeres
On the mainland there are cenotes to explore, Mayan ruins like Chichen Itzá and Tulúm, beaches along Cancun or on Isla Mujeres, snorkeling and scuba diving along the Caribbean coast, visiting the Spanish colonial city of Mérida, horseback riding, and deep-sea fishing. Also, good tacos can be found almost everywhere!
One of the things I love about a traveling life is how
things come full circle—sometimes literally. We are one passage (a mere 400
nautical miles as the crow flies) away from crossing our outbound March 2016
track in our circumnavigation of the Caribbean Sea. In another sense, because
we keep meeting up with old friends, we complete circles in
relationships—sometimes a friend to whom we’ve offered assistance ends up
We arrived in Isla Mujeres, Mexico in early May. A year ago, we were on the Western side of Roatan, anchored conveniently near the reef where we were freediving every day in clear water. One day, a youngish guy dinghied over and introduced himself. Originally from Argentina, Joaquin is a traveler, a sailing and SCUBA instructor, a musician—and now, a friend.
After introductions and polite conversation, he asked if he could borrow a SCUBA tank. He was taking a friend diving, and the local dive shops would not rent him gear unless he was going out diving (read “paying to go out diving”) with their outfit. We lent him the tank.
When he returned it, we had another good conversation and
parted, as we often do, by saying “until next time.” Next time happened to be about
9 months later in Rio Dulce, Guatemala. The boat Joaquin had been sailing on,
owned by his friends, was on the hard at our marina, where he was working on it
and getting it ready for sale. He had spent much of the time since we saw him
last working on a wooden ship-building project in Costa Rica (a
conservation-minded program called CEIBA, find it at www.sailcargo.org). We got to catch up a
bit, swap travel stories, and even share some music (he’s a great harmonica
When we headed up to Antigua, Guatemala, at the end of March, we ran into Joaquin again. We invited him over for dinner and shared a lovely evening. He had shown us pictures of his trip up the Acatenango volcano and recommended Walter, the guide we chose for Eli and Aaron’s hike. He even (coincidentally) showed up to play live music at the restaurant where Jay and I were celebrating Jay’s 44th birthday later that week. When he mentioned he’d be heading to Mexico soon, we were pretty sure we would see him again. As it turns out, he was staying in Morelos, a small town near Cancún, and when I asked for advice about a field trip I was planning (to visit cenotes), he made a generous offer to help me plan—and even act as guide for—our outing.
We were about a dozen people from three boats coming over on the ferry for the day. Joaquin met us with a van and driver and we drove through Cancún, past all the beach hotels, and out into the wilds of the Yucatán. When Jay and I honeymooned here twenty years ago, this place was all about the beach. Sure, we went to Chichen Itzá and did some horseback riding in the jungle, but cenotes were not even “on the map.” Now, due in part to the hostile takeover of the beach by persistent Sargasso seaweed, people are looking for other ways to stay cool, and swimming in cenotes is big business.
A cenote (derived from the Mayan word for “well”) is
basically a place where rainwater has dissolved limestone bedrock to expose
groundwater—in Florida we would call it a sinkhole. In Mexico, it is a sacred
watering hole that sustained the people and the animals of the Yucatán
for thousands of years. The water is cold and clear, purified as it trickles
though porous rock or runs through underground channels. Cenotes were believed to
be an opening to the underworld, and there is archeological evidence that sacrifices
were made in some of them to the Mayan rain God, Chaac. Some of them are “open”
so that you can see the wide circular opening and others are “closed,” meaning
a cave with water in it, often accessible through a small opening. There are
thousands of them in Mexico. Some are still quiet little places in the middle
of the jungle, but the ones near Cancun are popular with tourists. The
wilderness has a paved road now, with good signage, and entrance fees.
So, given that ours would be a day-trip, we drove about an hour away, down the “Ruta de Los Cenotes” and went for a swim. Joaquin, ever the thoughtful guide, wanted to make sure we got something from—and gave something back to—the experience. As a community of long-term travelers, we are more than tourists with a vacation mentality; we are visitors and observers, aware of our impact on fragile environments and communities. Instead of buying plastic-packaged snacks, for example, we stopped at a local fruit-vendor to buy natural goodies. And conversations throughout the day centered on the history of these sacred places, the pros and cons of development, the economic and cultural impact of tourism, the thoughtless destruction of nature, and what we can do about it during our short lives on earth. Of course, in addition to these more serious thoughts, there was plenty of monkeying around, both figuratively and literally.
We arrived early to Cenote Verde Lucero, nearly the only visitors in this quiet place. The spider monkeys were still out and about, and we were warned not to leave snacks where they could be snatched. It was a beautiful place—it was easy to ignore the deck, the stairs, the picnic tables, and other signs of tourism—and see only the mirror of sky in a fresh water pool fringed by trees in the littoral forest. After the initial quiet of observation, the kids made the most of the cool water—shattering the surface of the mirror by jumping in from the top of the steep sides, dropping in from the zipline, and shaking each other off the rope suspended across the cenote.
With masks and fins, some of the kids explored the cenote and discovered that the middle was shallower than the sides (evidence of roof-material from a cave-in) and that there were small fish hiding among the rocky ledges and tree roots. I paddled around, taking pictures, laughing at the kids’ antics, and admiring the trees, which were thirstily reaching down the steep sides of the cenote for a drink of water.
After swimming, we came up for snacks. We had carefully hidden all our fruit and drinks, but it turns out the monkeys had grown bold with all the tourists, and they weren’t merely reaching into bags—they would come up to the table and snatch whatever they could find, right in front of us. They caught us by surprise while we were snacking, and we lost a bunch of small bananas before we scrambled to hide the rest. Rachel, having had a bad experience with spider monkeys (see “When Monkeys Attack,” December 2017), quickly retreated to a safe distance.
We took a short walk through the littoral forest, remarking how similar the flora looks to that of south Florida, and then turned back toward the cenote. A large group had arrived and was noisily entering the cenote—a couple dozen people in orange life jackets. We beat a hasty retreat.
On the way out, we noted, off to the side, a clearing in the
center of which lay a “temazcal”—a Lakota sweat lodge where people can come for
purification ceremonies. The spiritual significance of the cenote may have
changed in the last five hundred years, but there is still a sense that the
place is sacred, and an acknowledgment that fresh water in a hot place is
life-giving and precious.
We went next to a closed cenote, La Noria. It was removed from the main road by a long and bumpy dirt path, a promising sign that things hard-to-get-to are less-frequented. It was nearly noon when we got there, and the sun was directly overhead, perfect timing for the light in the cave. Once again, we were nearly the only people there, and after we arrived, the other small group left and we had the place to ourselves. There were two entrances, one a small tunnel into which descended a spiral staircase, and another bigger opening in the cave roof.
Inside, it was beautiful, with its reflections of stalagtites in the water, bats flitting around, and clear, cold water lit only by a column of sunlight from the narrow entrance. It was a stark contrast to the wide, sunlit swim of the morning.
Once again, some of the kids donned masks and fins and explored beneath the surface, and several of them jumped into the water through the skylight. I was interested again by the appearance of tree roots—some reaching through twenty-five feet of limestone in search of moisture. Without sun exposure, the water was cold, and we swam until our teeth chattered.
Afterwards, we went to Morelos for lunch—Joaquin knew a local place with good food. It always makes me happy to hear my kids ordering confidently in Spanish. We then went for a short walk on the beach—noting the rafts of sargassum that clog the shoreline and rot in the sun. More conversations ensued—what kinds of change we can and cannot control, the growing awareness among young people of a need to take care of the environment, but also our own joy and gratitude in the face of these difficulties. It had been a wonderful day—perfect weather, good friends, cool, clear water, food, and fun. We parted, as always, with the acknowledgment that our lives are transient, and though goodbyes are frequent, so are the serendipitous reunions.
I took some pictures today of what our boat REALLY looks
like. Usually we clean up or hide the mess before we take photos to post. But this
morning, I took a closer look at our clutter, and before griping about it or
demanding the kids tidy up, I took the opportunity to let it tell me something
about the stage of life we’re in.
Rachel left some Play-doh out, and her plastic dishes (on which she had made me pancakes and bacon). This reminds me that we are nearing the end of the Play-doh years. Soon, there will be no little bits of blue or pink goo ground into rugs or stuck on the rear-end of my shorts, but also no little girl to clean up after.
School books, which are supposed to be put away at the end of every weekday, were left out over the weekend. We have two boys nearing graduation, and I am reminded that my work with them as a teacher/academic advisor is nearing completion.
The desk/guitar practice area is kept pretty organized by the musicians who play there, but it’s still a lot of stuff in a small area. How quiet it will be when Aaron moves off the boat, taking his beat-up guitar and all the coils of cable and electronic equipment with him.
The kitchen stove is disgusting. We went out for dinner (just grownups!) last night and left the kids in charge of cooking for themselves. The spaghetti explosion is the result. Instead of waking someone up to take care of the mess, I reflected on the fact that I got to go out without kids last night, and that I have capable kids who can cook for themselves.
The bar, or catch-all, sports a grocery list, school-work to grade, a computer, an SAT prep-book, camera, sunglasses, a Mexico travel guide, and other detritus from our busy life. A lot goes into organizing school, meals, laundry, boat repairs, and travel for a family of seven. As the kids grow up, I will have a lot more time to keep the boat clean, but I will really miss them and their messes.
None of this is earth-shattering. Lots of moms have come to the same logical conclusion. If mess=family and family=love, then mess=love. My prayer this morning: Forgive me, Lord, for complaining about that for which I should be grateful. Let me serve this family without grumbling and nagging,and appreciate what I’ve got before it’s gone.
The area around Guatemala City is elevated, mountainous, and volcanically active. One of the most prominent of the volcanoes in this area, Fuego (Spanish for “fire”), has been erupting regularly and has recently produced enough ash to close the airport in Guatemala City about thirty miles away. Right next to Fuego lies Acatenango, a dormant volcano from which hikers can obtain a stunning view of the eruption from less than two miles away. It’s not an easy view to obtain though, because unless you hire a helicopter, you’ll have to hike eleven miles round trip with a pack full of water and cold-weather clothes to the summit, where the eruption can be seen. Even without the added twenty-to-thirty pounds of backpack, climbing up the 5,150-foot elevation change on volcanic gravel trails would be tough.
On a recommendation from some friends, and because we knew we didn’t want to miss such a cool opportunity, we decided to do it during our week-long visit to Antigua in April. After talking over what we knew about the hike, it was apparent that the whole family would not be going on this excursion. We reached the conclusion that only Eli and I would go with Walter, a trusted guide recommended by Joaquin, a friend of ours who had previously done the hike with him. We each packed five liters of water, some snacks, and all the warm clothes we own. We would be hiking about five hours up to base camp, then remaining there until 4:00 AM, when we would be getting up to hike the remaining hour and a half to watch the sunrise from the peak. At an elevation of 13,045 feet, the temperature can drop below freezing and the wind chill can be wicked, though it seldom rains or snows due to lack of moisture.
We met Walter at the Parque Central of Antigua at 7:00 AM, said “adios” to Mom and Dad, and followed Walter to the bus terminal. The first bus took us to a neighboring town outside the old city from which we rode a second bus to a town lying at the foot of Acatenango. There Walter made some last-minute preparations, then we rode in the back of a truck up to the trailhead. We disembarked from the truck, bought hiking sticks for five Quetzales apiece (less than $1), shouldered our packs, and started hiking around 9:30 AM.
The first part was probably the worst, because it took about an hour for us ascend the dusty trail that runs between cultivated fields before we started getting any shade—we were prepared for cold, but not for heat. From there we basically trudged uphill for four more hours until we reached base camp. The scenery was actually quite nice, but when we weren’t resting, all we really cared about was making it as far as possible before we had to stop again.
We were by no means the only ones doing this; we saw several other groups going up and several more going down from the previous day. The last part of the hike to base camp was probably the best (that and bumming around base camp just watching the volcano) because it was mostly flat. Base camp consists of several terraces in the mountainside where rows of tents can be set up.
We arrived around 2:30 PM and were immediately presented with an amazing view of Fuego. We set down our packs, sat down, and watched for a while as occasional plumes of ash and smoke billowed from Fuego like a chimney. Every once in a while we’d be able to hear it exploding and see chunks of rock go flying. But most of the time there was not much more to see than some cool cloudscapes. We decided that clouds are only interesting from above; from below you only get to see the flat bottoms.
Up to this point we had been wearing pants and T-shirts and had been rather hot. Now that we had ceased our strenuous exercise, we started packing on the layers. We helped Walter pitch our tent, then we took a little nap until it came close to sundown when we put on more layers and went to watch the sunset from a nearby vantage point. We took pictures of ourselves in front of Fuego, but it refused to erupt dramatically as long as we were holding the camera. It was still a sweet view, pretty high up on the list all the awesome things that I’ve seen. Erupting volcano? Yeah, definitely in the top three.
It got better after dark, because it was possible to see more color than in daylight. When it erupted, we didn’t just see clouds of ash, we also saw the reddish orange of the glowing lava spewing out from the top of the barren rock cone set against the darkening evening sky. It really was that dramatic; I’m not exaggerating. It was just like the cover of a national geographic magazine, with little orange lava particles being ejected with considerable force from Fuego just a few miles away. Unfortunately it was impossible to capture pictures that reveal what it looked like—when we tried to photograph fountains of lava, all we got was black background with orange splotches.
We sat around the fire with some people from a different group, ate dinner with the erupting volcano in the background, and then went into our tent to sleep. Or so we hoped. The hours between 8:00 PM and 4:00 AM ticked by agonizingly slowly. Neither of us could have gotten more than four or five hours of sleep and certainly not uninterrupted. The most probable reasons were the lack of pillows, the cold, and a mental giddiness caused by our location. Once during the night I became sick and spent some time outside the tent, though even now I can’t imagine why, because I felt fine afterwards.
We were awakened in the dark of early morning for the final push to the summit. Eli and I removed most of the contents of our packs to make them lighter, put on all of our extra clothes, and continued the upward journey. Not too long after we started, a little bit of light was visible on the horizon and we ascended past the tree line. There was no longer any vegetation at all, just black pumice for the rest of the way. The last stretch was possibly the most grueling hundred yards that I have ever traversed. Combined with lack of sleep and fatigue from the previous day, the almost 45° incline and the sliding gravel ensured that each step was as tortuous as possible.
The first thing I did when I got to the top was lie down and enjoy the view (and also the fact that there were no more uphill slopes in my near future). And the view was indeed worth all the trouble; from an elevation 13,045 feet we were actually looking down on Fuego, which was 700 feet below us at a height of 12,346 feet. We were also considerably higher than the clouds, which created a flat grey plane covering the ground below us. It was quite stunning.
And the volcano was even better, because we could still see all of the color, but also much closer and from a different angle. We could see it explode upward then fall and ooze down the side. We were not the only ones to see it; after a while there was actually a bit of a crowd—maybe twenty to thirty people around one of the more prominent viewpoints.
It was also really cold. Not just the temperature but also the wind chill had us freezing inside all of our layers within fifteen minutes. Not what you might imagine of tropical Guatemala. We drank some blessedly hot tea that Walter had brought in a thermos, took some triumphant photos, and just generally enjoyed our sense of accomplishment. The top of the volcano on which we stood looked like the surface of another planet: only black gravel, pale dawn sky, several mounds surrounding a central crater, and a white metal shelter constructed as a memorial in the middle of the crater, looking like a habitation module from Earth. I also felt kind of like an astronaut in all of my layers, standing against the harsh, cold, alien wind.
After a little while, Walter suggested that we start down,
so we picked up our packs and followed him back down. We took a slightly
different path down which made it possible for us to basically run straight
down. If I’d had a snowboard or something, I probably would have been able to
ride it on the loose material. At any rate it was fast, fun, and not too hard
on the ankles. Upon our return to base camp, we changed into lighter clothes
for the hike down, ate a quick breakfast, packed up, and started walking. We
were the first to start hiking, and only passed one solitary hiker near the
trailhead who was the first person coming up for the day. It was all downhill
and we ran some of the way, covering the same distance as the day before in less
than half the time.
Five minutes from the end though, Eli and I both suffered the only injuries we received on the entire trip. Eli slipped and ripped his jeans, and I, in classic Aaron-fashion, tripped and landed face first, cutting my lower lip. It looked kind of messed-up for almost a week afterward. After quickly self-administered first aid, I rejoined the other two, and we took the truck and bus rides back to Antigua, where we met Mom, Dad, and Sam. We took leave of Walter and finished our trip with celebratory pulled-pork sandwiches at Pappy’s BBQ and went home for much-needed showers and naps.
Life here in the Rio Dulce has settled into a daily rhythm, and things have begun to move in a sedate and predictable manner. Life is steady, possibly even monotonous. Weekdays, for the most part, follow this general pattern: get up early, do school for five hours in the tropical heat, call it quits and play basketball in the afternoon, go for a swim, take a shower, play video games or watch an episode of Star Trek before dinner, eat, go to bed. Weekends are a little different, but are still predictable. On Saturdays, Aaron and I go volunteer at an orphanage, and work our butts off for most of the day. We are often accompanied by Deon, a friend of ours from South Africa. We work in the dirt until the afternoon, when Jerry (the house father) drives us home. Then we swim and play for the rest of the day. Sundays, we have a pancake breakfast and goof off in the afternoon; sometimes Dad takes us wakeboarding on Lake Izabal.
Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with a repetitive week, but for people who are used to changing locations every few months, it can get a little dull. So we leap at any opportunity to break the trend, get out of the boat (and school) for a day, and do something awesome. Our marina in the Rio Dulce is in the shadow of a national park on a large mountain covered by lush rainforest. Our friend Jerry from the orphanage where we volunteer is often lovingly referred to as “Jungle Jerry” because he leads rainforest hikes on occasion. We asked him to take us into the jungle and he agreed to take a day off and show us a part of Guatemala we might not otherwise experience.
I didn’t quite know beforehand what it would be like. All I knew was the general area where we would be hiking (in the hills further down the river), how we would get there (in Jerry’s little SUV), and what time I had to wake up (7 a.m.). The early hour was possibly the least pleasant aspect of the outing, but it was well worth it. We packed lunches, snacks, spare articles of clothing, a camera, and water bottles in two backpacks. We put on sturdy shoes and hopped in the dinghy. Dad drove us over to the restaurant where Jerry would be picking us up. On the way, we grabbed Deon. Jerry was waiting for us; Mom, Aaron, Deon and I piled into his vehicle and drove off.
We drove over the bridge and soon left the noise, chaos, and urban squalor of Fronteras behind in favor of the tranquil scenes of pastoral squalor that comprise much of Guatemala. Jerry told us entertaining stories about his childhood in Guatemala and his life in the U.S., including his time in the Marines. Suddenly we turned off the highway and became off-road explorers. Such radical changes in terrain are quite common here. One minute, you can be driving down a well-paved road with flat pasture-land on either side, and the next, through dense hilly rainforest on a muddy track, rattling your teeth out as the road dips and bumps over rocks. Jerry’s vehicle is a hardy off-roader, an Isuzu Amigo, the sort of car you get when you cross a jeep wrangler with a pickup truck and drive it around for a few years on bad roads. It has seats for five, but by Jerry’s count, it can carry up to ten people (an assertion we put to the test on one occasion). It has little in the way of comfort, but she’s got it where it counts.
We drove for almost an hour on prodigiously bad roads, through two shallow rivers, and deep into the hills. The land near Rio Bonito was verdant and cultivated with palm oil plantations which rose up on either side, covering the road with a green arched roof, with the overgrown trunks forming ranks of shaggy green pillars. We stopped and disembarked. Jerry took his vehicle a ways down the road to park, and came back with two local guides and a few scrawny dogs. In single file, we followed the guides (and dogs) off the road.
At first the path went through the palm plantation, and the ground was muddy and dotted with cow manure. Then the orderly rows of palm trees ended, and we began to ascend. The path became narrower, and the guides up ahead hacked away at the encroaching vegetation with machetes. The dogs ran off into the woods to hunt. Sounds of their chase would echo back to us from time to time. The trees were very thick, and covered with vines and moss. The slowly-rising ground was split by roots and covered with fallen leaves. The air was humid and heavy, but not too hot as the day was mercifully overcast. But the path snaked ever onward and upward, and it wasn’t long before we were perspiring like professionals.
The trail went up and up. It was often very narrow, cutting into the side of the wooded hills. The sound of insects filled the air. Aaron and I traded off the big backpack every now and then; Mom, puffing behind us like the Little Blue Engine, carried her own small pack. After about an hour of trudging upward, enveloped in our own personal banks of fog, we reached the top of the hill. We waited for Mom to catch up, then we trudged down the other side. The other side was lot steeper, and we found ourselves stumbling and sliding as often as walking.
Before long, we reached a broad, shallow, and fast-moving stream. We took off our shoes and waded across, then continued upstream. I didn’t catch on to the fact that this was a waterfall hike until I could see the waterfall (although the name “Rio Bonito” should have cued me in). And what a waterfall! It rushed out from a wide gap between two great piers of black rock thrust out from the sides of the valley, and tumbled into a series of deep pools, each turquoise pool hidden from the next. We took off all unnecessary clothing items and began the exploration of the falls.
The water was frigid and fast-moving. Diving into the turbulent pools, we discovered tunnels that ran under the rock. We scaled the rock faces, swam and climbed up the curved canyon, and found more pools and falls. It was otherworldly—like something from a movie set. Mom followed us up the first canyon, then swam back to relax and eat lunch. One of our Mayan guides hunted snails by the rocky pools, his faithful dogs following him around, leaping from rock to rock over swift-moving water.
Climbing up icy waterfalls in your underwear may be fun, but it gets pretty tiring after a while. So we swam over to the small rock island downstream where we had dumped all our stuff. We opened our weighty backpacks and lightened them a little. After a delicious lunch of sandwiches and carrot sticks, we donned our clothes and shoes, and plunged back into the jungle. The way back seemed easier, probably because all that uphill we did at the beginning was now mostly downhill. Now that we weren’t straining to get up the hill, we were free to enjoy the surrounding wilderness in relative comfort. As an added plus, the sun had finally come out, bathing the forest in a pleasant, green, leaf-filtered light and warming us after our brisk swim.
The trail ended, but we continued down the road toward the village where Jerry had parked his vehicle. The palm plantation dissolved abruptly into rolling sun-drenched cow pasture. The walk to the village was long, and we talked while we ambled, with the dogs barking and chasing cows in the background.
The village was small and indigenous, something I usually associate with grime and poverty, but this place was immaculately clean. Most of the buildings were elevated on stilts, with hand-cut board walls and palm-thatched roofs. Colorful blankets fluttered from clothes lines. Hammocks hung on porches. Women washed clothes down at the river. It was very National Geographic. Jerry told us that when he first visited the village, the children were afraid of Gringos eating them (a threat parents made to get good behavior). Apparently, they were still afraid, because there were none in sight. Just tiny Mayan eyes peeping out at us from window cracks. We reached the car. The guides produced coconuts and speedily lopped the tops off with machetes, then handed them out as refreshments. We sipped the coconuts, tipped the guides, and drove home.
The hike showed us a Guatemala we had not seen before; long ago, the entire country must have been like this, blanketed completely by trees and undergrowth. Now, the landscape is a patchwork of cattle-strewn grassland, dense groves of banana trees, and orderly ranks of rubber-trees or palm-oil plantations, the rainforest held back by machetes and a few feeble strands of barbed wire. But the jungle remains, thick, dark, and lush, lurking just beyond the property lines.
Editor’s Note: After nine months in Guatemala, Take Two is preparing to head north toward Mexico–likely Sam’s last geography report–as we complete our three-year, 5000+ nautical mile circle of the Caribbean this spring.
Capital: Guatemala City
People/Customs: Guatemala has a population of more than 16.5 million, (as of 2016), made up of many different people groups about 41% Ladino (mestizo), 11% K’iche, 8.3% Q’eqchi, 7.8% Kaqchike and a mixture of other Mayan and indigenous groups. Guatemala’s religious makeup is mostly Evangelical Christian and Roman Catholic, but there is also a Jewish population, as well as small groups of Muslims and Buddhists.
Language: the official Language is Spanish, but several Mayan dialects are also spoken (Q’eqchi for example). English is taught in schools, but not commonly spoken.
Climate: Guatemala is bordered by two oceans (the Pacific and the Atlantic) making it susceptible to hurricanes, volcanos and floods. Temperatures range from near-freezing at the highest altitudes, to a humid 90° on the Caribbean coast. Guatemala has a dry season and a wet season (rain depends on altitude and region) and is in the hurricane zone, though Rio Dulce, which runs inland, is considered safe from hurricanes.
Food/Farming: typical Guatemalan food consists of rice and black beans, some sort of meat (chicken, pork, beef, or fish), salad or cooked vegetables, fried plantains, and corn tortillas. The volcanic soil of Guatemalan highlands helps with the growing of tropical fruits (bananas, mangoes, pineapples, papayas, melons, etc.) and vegetables (lettuce, cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, and beans). Cattle, pigs, and chickens are raised for meat, and freshwater lakes provide fish. Guatemalan coffee of the mountain regions is exported all over the world.
Government: Guatemala is a constitutional democratic republic with a president.
Currency: the Quetzal (1 dollar= about 7.5 Quetzals)
Art/Music/Culture: the music in Guatemala was influenced by the Spanish settlers, the African slaves, and the Mayan natives. Some of the main musical types are nueva cancion, salsa and punta. Mayan musical instruments included drums, horns, and flutes, and a wooden xylophone called a marimba is still popular today. Carvings from wood, stone, and jade are common, and the markets in the mountain regions which sell colorfully-dyed and woven cloth are famous.
As in Belize, the Mayan civilization plays a large part in Guatemala’s history. The Mayans were in Guatemala thousands of years before the Spanish conquered their land. It was an advanced civilization with a written language and a complex religion consisting of many different gods and spirits. The Mayans were expert builders and possessed advanced knowledge of mathematics and astronomy. They also believed in an afterlife where humans who were sacrificed continued the battle of good and evil. When the Spanish came to Guatemala in 1519, they tried to convert the Mayans to Christianity, but only succeeded in a limited way. As the Spanish settled in Guatemala, the Mayans were either killed, enslaved, or forced to flee to remote places. Many fought back, and many died of diseases brought from Europe. Since no gold or silver was found in Guatemala, the land and its people—as slave laborers—were exploited for tobacco, chicle, cacao, cotton, indigo, and cattle. Somehow, despite Spain’s three centuries of brutal rule, and continuing conflict with the Guatemalan government, their culture has survived until the present day.
The first capital, Villa de Santiago de Caballeros was founded in 1527 (present-day Antigua). After flooding and earthquakes destroyed it in 1773, it was moved to its present location (Guatemala City). During the colonial period, power was concentrated with Spanish landholders and the Catholic church, and the subjugation and persecution of the Mayan peoples that began in this period continued into this century.
In 1821, several Central American regions, including Guatemala, claimed their independence from Spain and formed a loose federation of states. In 1838, the Honduran and Guatemalan leaders of a liberal party invaded Guatemala, took over the government, and executed the head of state, beginning more than a century of violence and political strife as liberal and conservative factions fought for government control. After warring with neighbor states, Guatemala declared its independence as a nation in 1847, though border disputes persisted into this century.
Coffee was brought to Guatemala by Jesuit missionaries in the mid-1700’s as a decorative plant but was not grown as an agricultural product until the mid-1800’s when the natural dye companies went out of business due to the invention of synthetic dyes. There are eight distinct coffee growing regions in Guatemala today and its coffee is exported all over the world.
In 1904, the United Fruit Company entered the scene, and eventually bought about 40 percent of Guatemala’s land, cultivating 14,000 acres of land with bananas and other tropical fruit, and building railways, roads, ports, and a fleet of ships. The United Fruit Company had a hand in many other business and political ventures. (The fruit companies still have a lot of economic and political power.)
Jorge Ubico was a general in the Guatemalan army who was elected president in 1931 (in an election with no other candidates) during the Great Depression after José María Reina Andrade, Manuel María Orellana, Baudilio Palma, and Lazaro Chacón had all been deposed for separate reasons in the previous 2 years. Ubico was known by his efficiency and cruelty; he reinforced the police and military greatly and instated forced and slave labor. He was forced to resign 1944 after a series of violent uprisings.
A new constitution was made which allowed all adults the right to vote and limited presidents to serving one term in office. Ubico’s successor lasted only one year. In 1945, Juan José Arévalo was elected and served a six-year term, survived 25 coup attempts, and established a social security system and health reforms. After Arévalo, a military leader, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán was elected and made socialist reforms. Because he was friendly to the communist party and passed agrarian reforms which redistributed land to Mayan peasants, he lost the support of the United Fruit Company and incited the United States to get involved. Guzmán stepped down in 1953 before the CIA could mount an attack to depose him, and what followed was thirty years of economic and political troubles during which the constitution was revoked and the Mayans lost land holdings and civil rights. President Armas, supported by the United States, was shot by his own body guard in 1957.
After much turmoil, General Fuentes took power, but was later overthrown when the U.S., fearing a communist revolution, backed a military coup and a new leader. The next several years saw constant change and conflict—with the military in charge of the government and guerrilla fighters representing the people involved in a bitter, decades-long civil war.
Initially, the two sides were the FAR (Rebel Armed Forces) and PGT (Guatemalan Labor Party) against the MLN (National Liberation Movement), a right-wing organization aligned with the military and blamed for using political assassinations and death squads to silence opposition. Later, as the violence escalated, URNG (Guatemalan National Revolution Unity) and the EGP (the Guatemalan Army of the Poor), whose motto was “Long live the poor, death to the rich,” opposed the ESA (Secret Anti-Communist Army), FNO (National Opposition Front) and the government-sponsored PACs (Civilian Self-Defense Patrols). People were forced to either serve the government or join the guerrillas.
Horror stories and human rights abuses were common during the war. In one case, villagers who came to a town meeting to resolve a land dispute (over a parcel near fruit shipping lanes owned by the president) were met by soldiers who shot over a hundred men, women, and children and buried them in mass graves that the army had dug the day before.
The elections of 1990 were the first peaceful transfer of a civilian democratic government, and peace accords were signed in 1996. The thirty-plus year civil war cost hundreds of thousands of people their lives and land and created over a million refugees. Tens of thousands went “missing” (like school children abducted to serve in the army) and their whereabouts were never discovered. Some of those responsible (like Rios Montt, president in the early 80’s) were later charged for what amounted to genocide and “crimes against humanity.” Political turmoil, government corruption, and economic inequality are still common in Guatemala, where there is a huge gap between rich and poor, and the military protects the government instead of the people. Peace is tenuous, and there is always the threat of impending conflict. Despite that fact, Guatemala is a beautiful country with fruitful land, kind and friendly people, and a rich pre-Colombian history.
Land forms/Flora and Fauna
Guatemala is made up of volcanic mountains, cloud forests, rain forests, coastal plains, wetlands, and mangrove islands. On land you can find many different kinds of wild cat (like jaguars, panthers and mountain lions), tapirs, monkeys, coati, iguanas, snakes (including the infamous fer-de-lance), as well as domesticated animals like cows, horses, goats, pigs and chickens. In the air you can find many different species of macaw and parrot, toucans, oropendolas, hummingbirds, hawks, and vultures, as well as seabirds like pelicans, cormorants, sea gulls, and frigate birds. And In the water you can find several spices of freshwater fish like snook and white-fish, and on the coast, reef fish and sharks. There are pine forests, tropical forests, palm trees (like coconut palms), fruit trees like mango and papaya, ferns, air plants and hundreds of species of orchid.
Things to do
Go zip-lining, kayaking, wake-boarding, hiking, swimming in water-falls and hot-springs near Rio Dulce and Lake Isabal, climb a volcano, visit coffee plantations, or find jade and fabrics in the markets of Antigua, visit the Mayan ruins of Tikal or Yax’ha in the Peten region, or visit the villages along the shores of Lake Atitlan.
“Guatemala.” Wikipedia. January 2019.
“BBC News Timeline: Guatemala.” News.BBC.co.uk. January 2019.
Pavlidis, Stephen J. Cruising Guide to the Northwest Caribbean. “Republica de Guatemala.” 2014. Seaworthy Piublications, Cocoa Beach, FL.
We’ve noticed a pattern when we travel to a new place: for the first couple of months, we feel like strangers, after three months things begin to feel familiar, after six we’ve made friends with locals, and after nine we feel at home. Beyond that, it gets hard to leave and the place keeps a little piece of our hearts. Places are like onions—you have to peel back the layers. And a lot of the places we visit have a skin of tourism that puts us off initially, but once peeled away, reveals something fresh and interesting.
Little by little, we have begun to dig beneath the surface here in Guatemala, both literally and figuratively. Through a friend in the Keys who is starting an orphanage on Lake Izabal for abandoned and abused children, we met the Guatemalan guy who will be the house father, who also works for an organization that runs a high school for indigenous villagers with an itinerant teacher, and who helps organize a week-long kids’ camp in January before school starts (the equivalent of a Vacaction Bible School in the U.S.).
After visiting the orphanage in October, I knew there was something special happening there, and that I wanted to be a part of it. Our boys began to go on weekends to do work at the property— building a privacy fence, digging a pit at the edge of the lake that will eventually be a slip for the orphanage’s lancha, moving rocks, and doing anything else boys with lots of energy can do.
By the first week of of January (the last week before school starts here), we were excited to help with the Campamento Rio Dulce. If you didn’t grow up in an evangelical church in the United States, you may not know what a Vacation Bible School is: it is a week of camp, organized by a local church, geared toward introducing kids to the Bible in a fun and engaging way. Kids do arts and crafts, play sports and games, sing songs, and learn Bible stories. In Rio Dulce, the camp was started five years ago by a missions team from a church in Texas that wanted to give the local churches an opportunity to reach out to the children in the indigenous villages along the river. These villages originated as Mayan refugee camps during the civil war, and the people are survivors of an attempt at ethnic cleansing. Some of the kids who come to camp from the 17 villages represented speak only Q’eqchi’. The local churches have taken responsibility for the camp (still funded by an organization in the U.S.) and it is an impressive community effort.
We rode a large lancha every morning full of screaming and singing children, teenage camp counselors, and volunteers to a remote place on the river, up a mangrove creek through the jungle to the campsite. The fast lancha with the cocineras, the cooks, got a head start so the ladies could light the fires and begin cooking lunch for more than 300 people.
This is not a peanut-butter-and-jelly operation. These are ladies who volunteer to chop vegetables, make tortillas, and cook rice, beans, and chicken soup in enormous pots over open fires in a thatch-covered hut, then hand-wash the 300 plates and cups outdoors—every day for a week.
Joining me, Eli, and Aaron were three teenage friends from other boats—two girls from Israel and a boy from South Africa. I was helping with arts and crafts, up to my ears in scissors, crayons, glue, and googly eyes. After standing around much of the first day trying to figure out what they could do, the teenagers ended up helping Josue with sports and games. Our kids’ time in Homeschool P.E. in Marathon came in handy, as they knew lots of big-group games. The language barrier was the biggest obstacle, but once that was overcome (with the help of a kind translator who speaks flawless Spanish with a North Carolina accent), there was no stopping them.
I loved helping with arts and crafts and felt at home in a roomful of little people jabbering in Spanish, as it reminded me of my teaching days in Atlanta, where I taught Kindergarten in a school that was 80% Spanish-speaking immigrants. Even the groups with big kids, who didn’t need help with the crafts, were a joy—they were practicing their limited English with me, and I was attempting to learn to count to 10 in Q’eqchi’.
Some of my favorite memories from the week of camp come from the assembly time at the beginning and end of the day. Aaron brought his electric guitar and wowed the kids with his rock riffs, and I filled dead time (while he set up) teaching a song I knew in both English and Spanish. I met a guy from Rio Frio named Franklin, and he helped me learn the word for “Hallelujah” in Q’eqchi’. On the last day of camp, we sang a two-part song, one part in English, the other in Q’eqchi’. To me, it was a beautiful illustration of how bridging language gaps draws people together and helps us find common ground.
After a week of camp, I had made friends with a group of young people (the camp counselors), all of whom were interested in learning English. I decided to start a free weekly English class and the pastor of the local church offered us a space. If it goes well, I hope the class will be the first plank in a language bridge between the locals and the English-speaking cruisers who live here for part of the year. As of this posting, I’ve had two great classes, and had other cruisers ask how they can get involved.
Photo: The crew of Take Two with camp counselors, Deon from s/v Dreamcatcher (far left), the crew of s/v Rothim (Hagit in the middle with Naomi and Adi to her right, Zoe next to Rachel), and our friends from Maine, Owen and Zuber (back row next to Aaron and far right).
One of my students, a guy we met at camp, plays guitar and drums and made friends with Aaron. They have gotten together already to practice music. Eli went along too and it makes me happy to see our kids using their Spanish to reach out to locals.
As we’ve peeled back the layers, I have begun to view my surroundings with different eyes. What first appeared as only a loud, dirty, and crowded town, Fronteras has become a place where I see familiar faces, occasionally hear my name called, and feel at home browsing in the produce stalls, waiting in line for fresh tortillas, or chatting in Spanish at the Dispensa Familiar. By the end of April, when our visas expire, we will have been here for more than six months. When we move on and approach the completion of our circle of the Caribbean Sea, Rio Dulce will be out of sight, but not out of mind. It is a place we know now, and love, and to which we may return for a future hurricane season.