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.