Thursday, April 1, 1999

Greetings from The Monte Verde Cloud Forest!

When I last wrote a long update, it was 1 month ago and we were in Caye Caulker Belize. You all heard about my Gilligans Island experience, but not much after that.
Well, after we castaways were rescued, SGK & I headed to Tikal in Guatemala. The largest and most impressive ruins that we had seen so far this trip (remember that we had been to the Aztec ruins of Technochticlan, the Mixtec ruins at Monte Alban, and they Mayan ruins at Palenque). The town of Flores where you stay when visiting Tikal has nothing to recommend it though (except that Venison is on the menus in the restaurants).
We then cheated on our itinerary and flew to Guatemala City (Guate), thereby avoiding a 22 hour ride down a rocky road on an old school bus filled with livestock and only costing us twice as much.
We wasted no time in leaving Guate and heading for Antigua. Antigua is a beautiful city. At one time it was the capitol of a unified Central American Republic. Lots of people were studying Spanish here, but we decided to hold off until we got to Atitlan. We also ran into some friends that we had met on the Bus to Puerto Angel, then again on Caye Caulker - Nick and Abigail from New Zealand and England respectively. (We are firmly upon the Gringo trail!)
Guatemala is CHEAP. About 1/2 the price of Mexico. The clothing in the markets is the most colorful that we had seen so far (no wonder Avas went nuts!)
After Antigua, we headed to Atitlan - On the Chicken bus (as the colorfully painted old school busses are called due to the ever present barnyard foul). We had to take three of them to get there. The 1st one was good fun. My first real chicken bus, just like in "Romancing The Stone". The second one though was hell on wheels. We barreled down the Pan American Highway (less a highway than a 2 lane semi-paved road) at speeds that would have been unsafe for a Ferrari, never mind a 45 year old school bus. At times we seemed to be screeching around corners on 2 wheels while passing more sane drivers with the oncoming traffic within spitting distance; all the while Guatamalteco music blaring at a zillion decibels from the speaker just to the left of SGK's ear. When we were finally allowed to get off, we were shaking very badly. We were not the only ones either, a lot of the locals were shouting to the driver: "¡Manejar mas despacio!" and "¡Use sus frenos!"
When we finally got to Panajechel (the town at Atitlan) we were beat. We did try and board a boat to take us away from the travelers ghetto of Panajachel (also known as "Gringotanengo") to San Pedro, but by hat time we had had it with 3rd world transport and when the driver wouldn’t depart (he simply cruised up and down the shore looking to fill his boat) we simply got off.
That evening we ran into some friends that we had met in Creel, then again in San Christobal - Anya and her mom from Denmark - and yes, for those of you who have met them, they did find their weaving class.
The next morning we did catch a boat and headed to San Pedro. San Pedro is basically a coffee finca (plantation) that engulfs and permeates a village. We stayed at Hospadaje San Francisco in the same room that Peter and Avas had stayed in several months before. What a View! Volcanoes in every direction, surrounding a crystal blue lake.
We promptly enrolled in Spanish school. SGK managed to learn alot in the week we were there. I simply learned that I remember more of my Jr. High Spanish than I thought I did. My instructor had no game plan, and didn't speak English. We simply talked Spanish for 4 hours a day while he tried to correct my Mexicanisms and make it more Guatalmateco. It was good practice, but I probably could have saved the $50.00US by simply hanging out with the local children.
We did see some more friends here, Nils the Swede that we had met on the bus from Belize and again in Tikal, and his Irish friend Thomas who we had met in Tikal (what did I say about the Gringo trail?)
After Spanish class, we headed back to Panajachel to move on to our next stage. We checked our email and found that SGK's parental units were going to meet us in Costa Rica in 10 days. This killed our plans for a boat ride in the Caribbean to Utila, so we headed to Copan in Honduras instead. Before we could get to Copan, we had to go yet again to Guate, change busses to Chiquimula (Chiki) then change again o La Florida, walk across the border, then catch another bus to Copan. The busses and roads got steadily worse. The bus to Guate was a new, pullman style bus and the road was paved sometime during my lifetime. The bus from Guate to Chiki was an old, worn out greyhound and the road had not been paved since WWII. The bus from Chiki to La Florida was... A Chicken Bus, and the road had never been paved. Once we got extorted out of some of our good US$ for the privilege of having Honduran customs search through our dirty cloths, we were granted a 3 day visa. We also found out that there are NO busses running from the border into Copan. And there was no road any more either (courtesy of Hurricane Mitch), so we hitched a ride with an Aussie couple driving a van with BC plates. They bought the Van north of Whistler in a place called Big White where they had gone snowboarding (Yes Kathy, they bought the Van in your home town).
Honduras was WONDERFUL! Everything was dirt cheap, and the people extremely friendly. We hired an English speaking guide to take us through the Mayan Ruinas (for $10US) then hired horses and TWO guides for a 3 hour ride (another $10US). After our visas had expired, we had the same miserable ride back to Guate.
Now that we were back in Guate, we were in desperate need of CA$H. The ATM's in Belize didn’t accept our cards, and there were none at all in Honduras so we were virtually out. We promptly opened our Lonely Planet Guide (LP) to find the Amex office so we could cash a cheque. Well, the LP simply sucks. It says that the Amex office is in Zone 9, at Ave 0, Calle 12 when it's really in Zone 10, Ave 12, Calle 0. So, after wearing ourselves out with the long walk, we decide to pamper ourselves by splurging on a nice hotel (With CNN!) near the Tica Bus terminal.
The next morning we were off to El Salvador. Another bone to pick with the LP guide - it says that the Tica Bus from Guata to Panama should cost $35.00US - it actually costs 3 times that!
San Salvador. WHAT A COMPLETE SHITHOLE! We pull up to the Tica Bus Terminal; there are two machine toting guards standing knee deep in garbage in front of a razorwire topped steel gate. They opened the gate, admitted the bus into a compound, closed the door, then swept the compound for intruders. They wouldn't let us off the Bus until they were sure that noone had followed it in. Our ATM cards didn't work here either.
We had dinner at the Pizza hut across the street. Pizza Hut also is guarded - only their guards wear full body armor. As the Bus driver refused to drive in El Salvador at night, we slept in the Bus station. The only place that I could imagine as being worse is Sarajevo - where my friend Cliff is currently under fire by Serbs, Croats, and presumably Albanians.
The next morning we boarded the bus for Managua. Managua was not like San Salvador at all. It was more like San Jose, CA would look if there was no such thing as pavement and everyone was unemployed. We spent 4 days there with an old communist named Bill, who said he was Irish but was born in Boston and currently lived in Acapulco (he did have an Irish passport though; courtesy of the fact that all 4 of his grandparents were born in Ireland). He turned out to be quite a nice guy, and accompanied us on to San Jose Costa Rica.
The Border crossing into Costa Rica is like something out of a Movie. A war movie filled with refugees trying to get out of Somalia. It was complete Chaos and took several hours. Crazo would have been in his element. 1st you have to leave Nicaragua - no easy task. We waited in a queue, only to be told that since we were gringos, that we had to pay a $2.00US exit fee. OK, no problem except that we had to pay in US funds (they didn’t want their own currency) in a building at least 500 yards from where we were. We head to that building to find it full of confused gringos and no one to take our money. Finally we paid, then walked back to the other building to get our exit visas. Back to the bus. Across no mans land. Into Costa Rican customs. We wait in a ginourmous line and have our passports taken away. 2 hours later we get them back. You see, they have 1 line to turn them in, then 1 to pick them up, only the woman returning them does not follow the order that they were processed; she apparently picks them by random and calls out your name over a broken loudspeaker. What a mess!
On to San Jose. SJ Costa Rica is a lot like it's namesake in CA. A big, bustling city filled with Spanish speaking citizens, and costs about the same. We reserved a room at the Gran Hotel Costa Rica for SGK's Parental units (not us; were were in a fleabag down the street. Guess who was in our hotel? Susana and Andre, the swedish couple we had met in Managua - Susana still had not been able to replace her credit card).
After SGK's Parents arrived, we rented a car and headed for the countryside where we are now.
Today was Exciting! We did the canopy tour, where you slide from treetop to treetop GI-JOE style on a zip line. Helen loved it! after the first couple of swings, she was practically running to the front of the line to do it again. No Shit Joe and Kevin; this is your MOM I'm talking about here.

Where do we go from here?
Well, Helen wants to check out the Orchids and Butterfly farm, then we will head down to the Caribbean coast so Andy and I can do some diving, then Helen and Andy depart for the states and we go on to Panama and points south!


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