Costa Rica to Guatemala

It was April 1976, and we had just left Costa Rica, and before that Panamá.  For the next few days we travelled north on the Inter-American Highway, through Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador to Guatemala, where we intended to stop for a while.  I wanted to experience the Mayan ruins at Tikal, to the north-west of Guatemala City, and to spend time in Antigua, with its nearby volcanoes.

From San José to Guatemala City is about 1200 km and the journey took us three days.  Several times each day, progress came to a complete halt;  it took at least one hour to progress through each side of a border, and there was a military road block both entering and leaving most towns.  In that part of Central America, it was deemed dangerous for drivers to continue after dark.

Managua was our first stop.  The city looked devastated, with shattered buildings and a cathedral that was so badly damaged that it had been shuttered and abandoned.  The earthquake that hit Managua on 23 December 1972 was of magnitude 6.3, and an estimated 8,000 were killed , 20,000 injured, and 300,000 left homeless.  Everywhere people looked defeated and dejected. I suspect that the ruling Somoza family were more intent on preserving their grip on power, with the military support of the Americans, than on helping their own people.

The derelict Managua Cathedral

Progress through Honduras to El Salvador was little different – abject poverty, dejection and a strong military presence.  Although it was seven years since San Salvador tried to invade Honduras in 1969, the two countries were technically still at war.  The peace treaty was not signed until 1980.

In San Salvador, the same gloom pervaded.  Shortly after dusk I went out for a stroll around the main plaza.  In every doorway there was a heavily armed soldier.  They seemed to be tense and wary.  Although they did not trouble me, I made my stroll a short one.

In Guatemala City, the evidence of the very recent earthquake was everywhere to be seen: shattered buildings and impoverished people living under plastic sheets, often only covering cardboard boxes.  Even the roundabouts of the main highway were crowded with destitute people.  Pure desolation everywhere.

The earthquake occurred on February 4, 1976 with a force of 7.6, and with thousands of aftershocks, continuing well into March.  23,000 people were killed and 77,000 injured, with some 260,000 homes destroyed.

The Hotel Terminal in Guatemala City, after the earthquake of 1976

We found a room in a hostel, the owner of which was a lovely elderly Swiss lady, who had spent most of her life in Guatemala; her husband had recently died.  The hostel became our base in Guatemala, in between trips to other parts of the country.

Because of the extensive damage caused by the earthquake, water was available for only one hour in the morning and again for one hour in the evening.  I will not attempt to describe the stench that seeped from the communal toilets: by comparison, my article, Shit, would smell of roses.

The hostel was opposite the main police station and I will never forget witnessing a handcuffed man being dragged out of a police car, and kicked and brutally clubbed by three thugs, otherwise known as policemen.  I shudder to imagine what must go on, once inside the cells.

One evening we were in a restaurant when the lights went out, the floor started to move, the building creaked and all was black.  People were running out of buildings and into the street, many hysterical.  It was yet another strong after-shock and there were women and children screaming in the street: they feared the worst.

I have no recall of how we managed to meet up again with Joe, the New York cop, with whom we spent time in Panamá, but there he was.  Given the situation in the city, we agreed to set off the next night, by local bus, on the overnight trip to Flores and the ruins of the Mayan city of Tikal.




Costa Rica

Today, we are smothered in information.  We can book flights, buses and trains on-line.  We can read the opinions and experiences of others who have preceded us.  We have access to maps and street views.  We could have a trip experience without leaving our comfortable chair by the fireside or the pool.

Thankfully it was not always so.  When we left Panamá in April 1976, we had no idea of what lay before us.

The bus from Panamá left in the early morning and arrived in the early evening in San José.  It was a trip of some 800 km, interspersed with some small provincial towns.  On the way we experienced the curse of Central and South America of that era: frequent military road blocks.  Sometimes it was a cursory check of papers, at other times a thorough check of baggage.  And the passage through frontiers was doubly tedious.  In most cases a visa was mandatory and that could only be prior obtained from an embassy or consulate office, and not at the frontier.  Central and South America was in the grip of military dictatorships, enamoured with bureaucracy.

I have no recall of how we found a room, but we ended up in a very comfortable B&B.  The next day we wandered around the city but found little to excite us: at 1170 m, San José in 1976, seemed like a small sleepy provincial capital.  And churches, museums, art  galleries etc. have never thrilled me: except for the exception of literature, I have always been something of an alien in the ‘arty-farty’ world.  But outside San José lay Irazú, an active volcano, and that really appealed.

So next day we caught the daily bus to the summit.  It was about 55 km to the north-east of San José, a slow, winding climb across the slope of the mountain, carrying us to the summit.  Stepping out of the bus was like what I imagine it would be to step onto the moon: thick grey-black dust everywhere.  And only sparse vegetation.

Irazú stands at 3432 m above sea level.  It has many times erupted in recent history, most notably in 1963, covering the city in a coating of ash, on the day President John F. Kennedy started a state visit to San José. That eruption continued through 1965.

Crater Diego de la Haya
The main crater of Irazú on a relatively clear day (photo from internet)

Apparently, on a clear day, from the summit of Irazú one can see both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.  But clear days on Irazú are a relative rarity, and our day was no exception; the cloud cover was thick, and visibility was limited.

We explored the area around the crater, keeping one eye on the direction back to the bus and the other eye on the time; the bus returned to San José after one hour, and we did not fancy having to walk back down the mountain, trying to hitch a lift.

By the time the hour was up, when we returned to the bus, we felt quite thoroughly chilled.  We had not anticipated that the mountain would be so cold, and we were not suitably dressed.

Returning to the balmy tropical air of San José felt so good.













Panamá, March 1976

After more than two weeks it felt great to be free of the boat; the constant moving between the gloomy light of the cabin, the restaurant, the bar and the deck was hypnotic.  One lost track of the time and days (see Sailing the Pacific).  Sydney felt very far away and the tropical smells and sounds of Latin America were completely new to me.  It was to be the commencement of my love-affair with Latin culture.

We took a taxi into the old city and told the driver that we wanted an inexpensive clean, hotel near to the international bus terminus.  The hotel to which he took us was adjacent to the Tica Bus station, that linked Panamá with all the central American countries, as far north as Mexico City.  It was a perfect location to stay in the heart of the old city, and the hotel proved to be both quite inexpensive and clean, with a small, albeit garish swimming pool.  We settled in for a few days.

Our first port of call was the bar beside the swimming pool and a cold beer.  It was there that we first met Joe, a New York cop, travelling on his own.  During his military service, he had been stationed in the Canal Zone, and he was on a trip ‘down memory lane’.  He offered to take us to the Canal Zone, so we arranged to go with him the next day.

Following their success in completing the Suez Canal, we learned that France started work on the Panamá canal in 1881, to connect the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, but eventually abandoned the project, due to high mortality rates from tropical diseases and the lack of funding.  It was the U.S. that completed the 80 km canal in 1914.  Between 1903 and 1979, the U.S. controlled the territory on either side of the canal.  From 1979 to 1999, the Canal Zone was jointly managed with Panamá, before being handled over and the withdrawal of the U.S.

Unless one has studied a map of Panamá, one could assume that the canal runs from west to east.  In fact it runs from south-east to north-west, and the Pacific end at Panamá is east of the Caribbean end at Colón.


As arranged, Joe met us the next day.  A busy road separated the old city from the Canal Zone and the contrast between the two could not have been greater.  On one side there was the old city, with its ramshackle buildings, busy narrow streets, bars, shops, throngs of people, and the constant beat of music.  On the other side there were extensive manicured lawns, interspersed with blocks of apartments, at the centre of which there was a small commercial area.  And there was relative silence.  In the Canal Zone we could have been anywhere US.

We walked down to the canal and watched the shipping wending their way through the series of locks.  To avoid having to make extensive cuts through the central Isthmus, the locks lift ships to, and descend them from, an artificial lake, Gatun.  It took about twelve hours for a ship to pass through the canal.

The canal (picture from internet)

On another day we went out to the ruins of the original city, Panamá Vieja – founded in 1519.  It became the starting point for expeditions to Perú, and it was from Panamá that gold and  silver were shipped to Spain.  It was attacked several times by pirates, and was finally destroyed in 1671 by the pirate Henry Morgan, with thousands of fatalities.  It was rebuild a few kilometers to the west at the present site.

Sir Henry Morgan c1635-1888, who ended as Lieutenant Govener of Jamaica (photo from internet)
The ruins of the cathedral of the original Panama City, with the modern-day city in the background (photo from internet)

When we originally decided to sail from Australia to Panamá, our ambition was to continue south to Chile, and return from there to Sydney.  At the time, I was completely unaware that there was no land connection between Panamá and Colombia, through the Darién Peninsula, and that the only way to reach Colombia was by boat or air.  At the same time we learned of all the interesting countries and geographies that lay to the north.  With the Tica bus terminal being next door, the change of direction was an easy one.  We bought tickets to San José, Costa Rica.

South America could wait for another day.



Sailing the Pacific

It was in March 1976 when we set sail from Sydney, bound for Panamá, on a liner of the Chandris Line, the Australis, on one of its last voyages back to Europe.  For some years, the Australis had carried immigrants from Europe to Australia, stopping in Freemantle, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, and returning to Europe via the Panamá Canal.  It was to be one of its last voyages from Sydney, for in 1977 the Australian government did not renew their contract, and from henceforth, immigrants were flown from Europe.

The Australis at Circular Quay, Sydney (photo from internet)

Leaving the magnificent Sydney harbour was for me a poignant experience;  I used to have an apartment on the north shore, at Kirribilli, from which I often watched ocean liners parting from Circular Quay.  It was there that I nurtured the growing ambition of one day sailing to South America and that day finally came. The trip was to be encompass some of both South and Central America, eventually returning.  42 years have now passed, and I am still on my way back.

Once free of the coast, the weather hit with full force; the Tasman Sea from Sydney to Auckland can be a difficult crossing.  I spent most of the next three days in my bunk, feeling distinctly queasy.  In Australian slang, ‘to chunder’ = ‘to vomit’ and ‘chundrous’ = ‘a tendency to vomit’.  I was sailing on a ‘Chundrous’ Line ship.

But Auckland was a welcome relief.  We were met at the quay by an old business associate of  A-M’s father and we spent a most interesting day with him.  He was most hospitable, a complete gentleman of the school.

There were not many passengers on the boat.  We had bargain-basement berths, travelling cattle-class in the bowels of the ship; A-M with three old ladies, complete with their ample supply of old-lady powder, and I, with three middle-aged drunks, who were either asleep or at the bar during the entire voyage.  I never did learn their names.

Passenger lines of that era bore little resemblance to the cruise liners of today.  Passenger liners carried their human cargo from A to B at minimal cost, as do low-cost airlines today.  Unless, of course, if one travelled first class.

From Auckland the sailing was on smooth seas with no more storms.  It took about six days from Auckland to Tahiti, some 4000 km.  We were due to arrive just after dawn and the first sight of the verdant mountain of Tahiti rising from the ocean was unforgettable.  We would not set sail until the early evening, so we went ashore.  It was my second visit to Pape’ete (see A Tale of Two Graves).

As we walked across the quay, a couple approached us.  They were considering sailing back to Europe on the Australis on a later voyage and were interested to hear of our opinion of the ship.  They were Alberto (Argentino) and Polly (English).  They were based in Pape’ete and Alberto worked for a French publisher.  He was writing a book on Polynesian cooking, one of those large coffee-table publications with beautiful pictures, that are so popular in France.  They drove us around the circumference of the island, showed us the sights, and were suburb hosts.  By the time we had to return to the ship, we had already become good friends.  A-M kept in touch with them and we met with them several times a couple of years later in England.

From Tahiti to Panamá is a bit over 8000 km and took about 12 days.  Every day or two, the ship’s clocks were changed and before long we were waking up in the late afternoon and going to bed in the morning.  Having no portholes to see daylight, we lost all sense of time.

When we were awake, whatever the time, we spent hours playing cards in the bar.  I cannot remember the name of the card game, but playing it was hypnotic, amply aided by a constant supply of inexpensive beer and gin and tonics.  And much time was spent in speculating on which of the passengers would be the next client of the attractive Australian hooker.  She came to the bar, afternoon and evening, working her passage, in constant search of her next customer.

Outside, there were no storms to get excited about.  The ocean was continued relatively calm and during the passage through the doldrums, it was more like a swimming pool.  On a few occasions a pod of dolphins would play around the boat and once a glide of flying fish swam alongside for a while.  Time passed very slowly.

Until one day we passed under the Bridge of the Americas and slowly berthed, under the brooding vigilance of a horde of vultures, perched on the warehouse buildings.

The Bridge of the Americas

The air was humid and heavy and saturated.  Onshore we could see a seething horde, anxiously waiting to offer transportation, accommodation, or general assistance.  We felt as if we were very much heading into the unknown and the adventure was about to begin.