April 1976

At the time, we never considered flying to Flores, the nearest airport to Tikal: we did not even know that there was an airport there, but if we had known, we would still have gone by bus.  So, A-M, Joe and I bought one-way tickets for the local bus, leaving late that evening.

It was very dark on the way to the depot. Few street lights in the city were functioning, but it was easy to find the bus at the depot: it was the only one with lights switched on and motor coughing and spluttering, ready to go.  It was an ancient bus that had seen better days: it was probably older than we were.  And as it turned out, we were the last passengers to arrive.

We entered the bus through the rear door and immediately the strong smell of stale sweat and unwashed clothes hit us.   We were the only ‘foreign’ passengers and we had to search for the three remaining dispersed seats.  There was no spare leg-room between the rows of seats and I felt like a giant when compared to the local Indian population.  The door was soon closed and with a roar, we departed.

Within a short time, the passengers that had been awake, were fast asleep.  Somewhere ahead of me A-M and Joe may have also been asleep.  I had a little Indian guy cuddled up to my shoulder.  He stayed there for most of the journey,  I really did not mind.

We were soon on a second or third-class road, sometimes descending, at others ascending, tossing, turning and bumping from pothole to pothole.  Twice our progress abruptly ceased.  Each time I got out with some others to watch the driver, buried in the engine, fiddling, swearing, adjusting, with only the light of a torch, until the motor finally exploded into life, to a round of applause from the appreciative audience.

At intervals through the night the bus stopped to drop off passengers or to pick up others. It was shortly after dawn when we arrived in Flores.  When I left the bus, I was no longer aware of human body smells.  How rapidly we can adjust to our environment.

Guatemala map
Map of Guatemala, with Flores about 480 km to the NNE of Guatemala City

We had no trouble in finding an inexpensive, but clean and comfortable hotel, with a view over the lake.  There appeared to be few, if any, tourists in Flores, most probably scared off by the earthquakes.  Joe headed off to find a neighbouring hostel that had been recommended to him, and we agreed to meet later that evening.

And when we did, Joe was enthusiastic about a bar that he had passed early that day.  We went in, and after our eyes had adjusted to the dim light, and we had settled down to our cold beers, the conservation went something like this…

‘Did you actually come here earlier today, Joe?’

‘Nope, I thought that I would wait for you two’

‘Joe, have you noticed anything different about the women?’

‘Well, there seem to be a lot of single women, and they are not wearing much’.

‘What about those doors along that corridor, with the couple just emerging?

‘No, I had not noticed’.

‘And the couple that have just gone down the corridor?  Joe, we are in a brothel’, at which point A-M started to laugh, and the spell was broken.

We eventually finished out beers and left.  No doubt A-M will still be recounting the story of that evening when we took her to a bordello.  And I suspect that Joe returned after we left him at his hostel.

Flores (photo from internet)

The next day we caught a local bus to the ruins of Tikal, about 65 km to the NW of Flores.  The Mayan city flourished during the era from 200-900 AD but was inexplicably abandoned over a relatively short time.  It became overgrown by the jungle and it was not until the mid-1800s that it was ‘rediscovered’, although the local Indian tribes were aware of its existence.

When we were there, it was only partly uncovered, and there were numerous mounds, smothered in vegetation, that once restored, would one day reveal their form and purpose.  In its day, Tikal encompassed a large area, connected by causeways.

The temples were massive, and we climbed two of them, Temples I and II.  They were steep, and the steps were irregular and quite worn, but the view from the top over the jungle was breath-taking.  And on the way up, monkeys were screeching at us from neighbouring trees.  It was sobering to remember that countless of human sacrifices were performed on those elevated altars.

Temple I (photo from internet)
Temple II (photo from internet)
Temple V (photo from internet)

We were travelling light and decided to spend the night in Tikal, sleeping in hammocks in a little enclosure in the jungle.  The shelter was circular, with a thick waterproof roof of fronds, open on all sides, with a waist-high wall.  There was no light, so when the sun set, we climbed into our hammocks.

Initially, I fell asleep, but was often awoken by the constant clamour of the jungle.  It was another world out there.  At one time there was a furious galloping through our clearing.  The next day we were told that it would have been a tapir.

A tapir with the mottled camouflage of the young (photo from internet)

When we returned to Flores, we decided to fly back to Guatemala City.  The Flores airport was nearby, and none of us relished another long and uncomfortable bus journey.

The next day, Joe continued on his way north and we headed off to Antigua.  You can read more of our journey here at Volcán Agua.


































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.




Volcán Agua

Antigua, Guatemala

April, 1976

The original city of Antigua was founded in 1524 by the Spanish conquistadores, and was called Ciudad de los Caballeros de Santiago de Guatemala, but it was destroyed in 1541 by a mudflow from nearby Volcán Agua, possibly caused by an eruption.  The survivors relocated to the current location.

Antigua is surrounded by four volcanoes and in the intervening years has been once devastated and many times damaged by earthquakes.  These days it is known as one of the best surviving examples of colonial Spanish architecture.  It was there that we found a comfortable room in a remote wing of an old mansion, owned by a building contractor.

At 3760 m, Volcán Agua towers some 2100 m over Antigua, and the base at Santa María de Jesús is about 10 km south of the city.  From my first sight of the volcano, I wanted to climb it.  Locals told me that one needed two days, spending the night in the crater.  But I had neither suitable equipment nor clothes to spend the night at altitude.  I decided to do it in one day.

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The Arco de Santa Catarina, with Volcán Agua in the background (photo from internet)

So one morning I woke up long before dawn, carefully closing the heavy front door, across the courtyard, and through the outer door to the silent street outside.  No cars, no dogs, not even the crow of roosters, still asleep in their coops.  Nothing stirred in Antigua.

Walking in the middle of the cobblestoned streets, without a car in sight, one could have been transformed in time to the Middle Ages.  Past the church of Nuestra Señora de la Merced, many times destroyed by earthquakes since 1541 and rebuilt.  Under the Arco de Santa Catarina, past the Plaza Mayor and the Cathedral and the church of San José and out into the countryside.  And once out of the city and away from the polluting neon lights, I could see, towering in the distance, the bulk of Volcán Agua.

After some time, the sounds of my own breathing and plodding footsteps were interrupted by voices, first faint and then becoming more distinct.  I hesitated, not sure whether those that approached would prove friendly or a threat.  Then out of the half-light appeared a large group of people; some men, some women and a horde of children of all ages from teenagers to quite young.  All carried massive bundles on their backs and heads.  One carried chickens trussed together, one had cages containing wild birds, others carried bundles of various vegetables.  Even the youngest, probably no more than four or five years old, had her burden.  They were heading to the market.  ‘Buenos días señor, buenos días, bueños días…  One by one the greeted me, as they passed.   There would be no school for those children that day, perhaps not any day.  For them earning a living and surviving may have had a priority to learning.

It was almost sunrise when I arrived at the village of Santa María de Jesús.  I continued through the village, up a long steep street, until I arrived at the last of the houses and a police post.  I had to produce my identification (passport) and sign a logbook.  I could see that not many people had passed that way in recent weeks.

From the police post the path climbed on long loops, back and forth across the slopes of the volcano, steadily ascending.  It was already a warm day in the sun, but still cool in the shade of the trees. I continued at a steady pace for the first couple of hours, until I was well above the tree line.  A bank of clouds moved in and I was soon walking through a thick fog.  It was noticeably cooler.

When I finally emerged above the clouds, the view was stunning.  Below me was an ocean of white with several volcanos dotted about, like upturned ice cream cones.  And the most impressive of them was nearby, Volcán Fuego, spouting towering clouds of smoke and ashes, and bleeding the vivid red of the streams of lava.  It was a magnificent spectacle.

Volcan Fuego in early evening (photo from internet)

But by now, my progress had very much slowed.  My breathing was very heavy and my heart was beating so much, that I could feel the rapid thumping in my forehead.  In the last thirty minutes trudging steeply up on loose rocks and dust of the old lava flows, I found myself taking ten steps, resting for ten seconds, in repetition, until I finally reached the highest point on the mountain.

Down below, on the bed of the crater, I could see a partially completed building. I found out later that it was intended to be a religious retreat.  I was tempted to try to find a path down into the crater, but decided against it.  If I wanted to descend before dark, I needed to soon start back.  I then understood why most people did the climb over two days.

Although relatively easy at first, descending brings into play a different set of muscles.  It is not until the descent does one realize how far one has ascended on a mountain.  After two hours I realized that I was not much more than half-way down, and the sun was visibly lower in the sky.

It was not long after I was back in the trees, that I heard a crashing and thudding coming in my direction.  I did not have time to even imagine what it could have been, when a group of Indians burst out of the trees, across the road in front of me, laughing, shouting waving, and noisily disappearing headlong down a non-existent path.  I guessed that they were workers from the building work in the crater, and for them, straight down the mountain was preferable to the tourist path that I was on.

I was not tempted to follow them.

I reached the police post at just after 17:00, signed the logbook, and headed back along the road to Antigua.  It was already dark when I passed under the Arco de Santa Catarina.