Monthly Archives: March 2019

Hiking with Jungle Jerry

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.

Jungle Jerry and Deon

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.

Palm Oil Plantation, Rio Bonito

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.

Jungle Hike, Rio Bonito, Guatemala

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.

Waterfalls near Rio Bonito 2

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.

Mauricio with his Perros

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.

Palm Oil Plantation

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.

Village of Rio Bonito

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.

Geography Report: Guatemala

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.

Basic Facts

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.

History

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.

Bibliography

“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.