Wow, now this was an early start!
At the welcome meeting on Thursday Gabo had given us the option of a 4am start or an 8am. He suggested the earlier option and no one disagreed. His reasoning was sound, we would miss the Guatemala City rush hour and we would get to spend longer at our destination, Rio Dulce
So shortly after 3:30am we stumbled out of bed, got showered, dressed and were downstairs a little dazed and confused but in plenty of time.
We all clambered onto a 22 seater coach, with all our luggage piled in the back two rows. "Can you fit them all in?" I asked Gabo. He nodded, smiled and added "if not, there's plenty of room on the roof".
Half asleep we tried to get back to the land of nod as we set off in the dark making our way towards the capital. Ahead of us was an eight hour drive. Every now and then we would open one eye to check on our progress. We had made it through Guatemala City without any delay when we stopped for fuel on the outskirts. The prices seemed very cheap at 6.93Q per litre, almost half the UK prices.
At about 5:30am, somewhere along the CA-9 highway the first signs of daylight brightened up the sky. After that, try as I might, I couldn't get back to sleep. It wasn't the light that kept me awake, it was my curiosity wanting to see everything, not wanting to miss a thing. The landscape here was mostly dusty quarries as the road cut through mountains quickly disappearing into marble or stone.
The road seemed to be continually rolling downhill as we descended towards the Motagua Valley. At the town of Guastatoya there were some dramatic scenery looking back towards the Central Highlands and the mountains of the Sierra de Chuacús.
We were making good time until we came to a sudden stop. The traffic had slowed down to a standstill. Eventually we began to move again but only very slowly. We heard a few ambulances whiz past on the other side of the road. The reason for them soon became apparent. We came to a jack-knifed oil tanker with another smaller truck involved on the opposite side of the road. But what was alarming was a motorcycle crushed beneath the oil tanker. We could only hope that the rider had fallen off long before the bike went under.
There was also some concern for our own safety as the word 'IMFLAMIBLE' along the side of the tanker reminded us that it was filled with something that could blow up at any moment!
Back on the move again we crossed the Motagua river, near the town of San Agustín Acasaguastlán. The river itself was a disgusting brown colour. Polluted with not just silt but many chemicals from upstream. The terrain had levelled off a lot and it was now hardly noticeable that we were going downhill. It had taken us three hours to get here.
The further we travelled the landscape gradually changed into more arid grasslands. By the time we had reached Teculután we could see the stunning mountain range of the Sierra de la Minas in the distance with its highest peak Cerro Raxon.
Moments later, near the small town of called Oja de Agua, a few miles before Rio Hondo we pulled over at what looked like a Flintstones themed restaurant, made to look as if it was built into the rock, with a comical triceratops popping its head above the wall. "Time for breakfast" said Gabo. The mind boggled as to what was on the menu?!
As it happened we weren't eating in Bedrock's finest but next door at Hotel Santa Cruz. It was very unlike a hotel, it didn't have a foyer. Instead we stepped inside straight into a large function room/dining room. They had been waiting for us and a table was laid out ready for our group.
I had a dish called Huevos Ahogados, or "drowned eggs". It was a twist on the more familiar Huevos Rancheros, with corn tortilals, refried beans and eggs but, as the name suggested, it was drowned in a spicy tomato sauce, topped with some sour cream and grated cheese. It was really nice despite the queso fresco not tasting especially fresco. This had a certain tang of a more aged cheese!
Julie enjoyed her French Toast or eggy bread as she used to call them. Simple but delicious.
We were now four hours into our journey with only two and a half to go. I was sat next to Gabo so I took the opportunity to ask if we were having another comfort break before we reached Rio Dulce and suggested somewhere we could stop for a few minutes en route.
The CA-9 highway literally took us past the Mayan ruins of Quirigua. I hadn't heard of them before until I recently read about them in a book called "Time Among the Maya". It's known for having possibly the tallest freestanding stone monolith in the Americas at over 10m. It and many other stelae have carved hieroglyphs commemorating important events, dated in the form of the complex Mayan calendar. Today was as Ajpu' in Quiche (Ahau in Yucaten) in the Mayan calendar. A day that represented the Sun Lord.
I tried my best to sell it to him without putting any pressure on him. He seemed interested but he was very non-commital.
After breakfast we all returned to the bus. I noticed there wasn't any luggage on the roof and for a brief second I had a what-if moment (which is usually Julie's trick) Once I saw both our rucksacks safely in the back row my worries were over.
Moving on the scenery became more lush with palm trees and rolling green hills replacing the rocky mountains of the Sierra de la Minas. In fact if you took the palm trees away it looked very much like the green green grass of home.
Gabo, resplendent in his floral shirt, took a photo of us all in the minibus. We seemed to be in high spirits despite already been on the road for five hours.
Around an hour and a half after leaving Hotel Santa Cruz we drove past the entrance to Quirigua, and carried on going. Gabo must have forgotten about it as he made no mention. "Oh well, it's a reason to return." I said to Julie. Not that we ever return to places. There's just too much to see in the world.
An hour later we drove over a bridge spanning the Rio Dulce, a wide river at the point it left Lake Izabal. We came to a stop at Fronteras (although sometimes it's also known as Rio Dulce), a colourful lively place which by all accounts didn't have much going for it.
At the welcome meeting we had been given a list of all our hotels and we had already checked out this hotel on tripadvisor. It looked lovely and on the waterfront so we had already guessed we were to arrive by boat!
With our bags on our backs we walked down to the marina to find a one. We didn't wait long, there was a 15 seater motorboat waiting for us. We all got on board, whilst our bulky suitcases and rucksacks were piled up front. Julie wasn't looking forward to getting in, it certainly wasn't straightforward because you were stepping down onto a moving target. It unsettled her a little but she did it.
With us all shipshape and bristol fashion we set off towards our hotel, in the direction of Lake Izabal. Mike and Mari were sat in the front and took a great selfie as we began the final leg of todays epic journey. After only a few minutes we were pulling back to land.
The thatched roof of Hotel Tortugal was getting nearer. It felt so exciting approaching it from the water. Although Julie had spotted the rickety wooden jetty and was already worrying about disembarking. There was no chance of getting out of the boat with your dignity intact.
It had only gone 11am and many of the rooms weren't ready. We all sat in the main building waiting for the keys to be handed over and one by one as the rooms came free everyone went to settle-in before lunch.
Our room was the last to be prepared but we didn't mind. It was so pleasant to relax with a cold beer in this idyllic setting.
There were only 11 chalets or bungalows at the resort, some were on stilts over the water, others were further up in the jungle, some had hammocks, some had balconies, some had twin beds. Gabo had already apologised in advanced about the allocation of rooms as they often randomly distribute the keys.
We got the "Bungalow with Garden View". It was a matrimonial room i.e. double bed which was all we asked for, really. We may have lost out on a balcony with a hammock or a river view but it was a lovely room with a comfortable rustic feel. Although it didn't look lovely for long once our rucksacks exploded!
For lunch we returned to the restaurant. We were the last to make it back. We'd already browsed the menu earlier and quickly ordered some quesadillas and loaded nachos to share, all washed down with a beer called Victoria, from the Mexican Modelo Brewery.
Gabo asked the group if anyone had any plans for this afternoon. I said I would like to visit the Castillo San Felipe, a 16th century Spanish fort a few miles away. He explained that you could either catch a boat from the hotel, or walk to the road and flag down a taxi or a bus that pass regularly.
Helen asked if she could tag along, which was fine but Julie didn't want to go, so it was just the two us. We set off about 2:30pm whilst Julie sat knitting with a view of the river from the main building.
A footpath lead from the resort through the forest to the road from Fronteras to San Felipe de Lara. When we got there we decided to continue walking, rather than standing still waiting in hope for a taxi. We could still flag down any vehicle that passed. Not that any taxi or bus came our way.
It was only a mile and a half to the village but away from the riverfront there was no breeze to cool us down. Also my choice of footwear wasn't the best. Flip flops were not ideal.
Eventually we arrived at the entrance to Castillo de San Felipe de Lara . The entrance fee was 75Q. They didn't take card payment, and Helen only has US dollars as cash, which they wouldn't take either. Fortunately I had enough cash to cover both of us.
We first walked through a cemetary. Now you can call me wierd but I do like a good cemetary, Paris and Bordeaux spring to mind. But this was a very different kind to what we have at home. We usually bury the dead in a coffin, six feet under the ground. Here they were entombed in pastel hued sarcophagi, above ground, stacked on top of each other if needed. It certainly made for a more colourful cemetary, that's for sure.
After the cemetary we walked down to the river towards the castle. Coming from Wales, a land of castles, Castillo San Felipe was a lot smaller than I was expecting. A fort would have been a better description. But size isn't everything. It was perfectly restored. I'm sure it looked as good today as it did the day it was built. A sign dated it as 1651 and described it as Castillo de San Felipe del Golfo.
We walked over the drawbridge where our tickets were checked by a peculiar man who on discovering I was from Wales said "Ah,Vales. There are some people in Vales, who speak Greek, no?" I was thrown by his comment and just stared at him blankly not really knowing what to say.
"This I know to be true" he said "I speak Greek"
I knew a Greek guy called Giorgios who use to run the Greek Taverna in Bangor but that was the only Grecian I knew in Wales.
"Would you like a guide?" he continued. I politely turned him down. I couldn't cope with him talking at me. So we went inside, into a small courtyard and set about exploring this compact little castle.
I didn't take long to see all there was to see on the ground floor. There was a noticable lack of signage, in English or Spanish. If only we had a guide! Or at least some display boards about the history would have been useful. It was still interesting to walk around though.
It had several towers, all of which I had to climb, if only to find which one had the best view. Some of the stairs, as in all castles, were a little precarious, but nothing too dangerous.
Out the back there was the cannon bastion, a turrett with 5 cannons pointing in all directions, protecting the castle from attack. Their main enemy were pirates from the Caribbean and most of these marauding renegades were British, mostly English but to be fair the Welsh were well represented by Black Bart Roberts, one of the most ruthless of them all, and Sir Henry Morgan, possibly one of the most famous state-sponsored bucaneer who went on to be the deputy governor of Jamaica.
We left Castillo de San Felipe ready for the long walk back. Along the way we were approached by a couple of guys asking us if we wanted to take the boat back. My initial reaction was to say "No" but I felt my feet complaining, so I asked "How much?" in my best Spanish. He typed 50 into his phone. "Per dos?" I asked. "Si" he replied.
That was it, deal done. For 25Q each it saved my flip-flopped feet any further pain.
On the way to the boat they kept on trying to sell us a trip to Livingston. It was a struggle but I think I managed to explain to them that we already had a trip booked for tomorrow. "Ah, collectivo" he said.
We arrived back at Hotel Tortugal, where most of the "kids" had swam out to a floating platform in the river to sunbathe. Julie had spent the afternoon knitting, watching them swim across with a drink in one hand!
Helen and I joined Julie for a drink in the lounge. Gabo came over. He looked a little worried. Then he told us that there was going to be a group meeting later, which sounded a bit ominous. Julie and I returned to our room to get showered and changed for dinner.
We joined everyone at the meeting where Gabo dropped the bombshell. News had filtered through that Belize were about to follow Guatemala's lead and close their border to anyone who came from or had travelled through Europe, China, Iran or South Korea. It was unclear if they included UK as European for this, although we had also transitted through Spain.
Gabo asked us all to write down our names, nationalities and all the countries to which we had travelled in the last 30 days so he could pass on the details to Intrepid for them to make a decision about the tour. He was still hopeful that the tour would go on for those allowed into Belize but it could be the end of the line for many of us.
The conversation over dinner was all about what we had just heard. Alex and Suzie had already been told that a cruise of the Carribean they were due to go on after this trip had now been cancelled. Richard and Margaret had future Intrepid tours to Cuba or Costa Rica that also hung in the balance.
To make matters worse US had announced similar entry restrictions, and it suddenly dawned on us that it would not be possible to fly home if you were scheduled to transit through an American airport. It was a lot to take in.
The doom and gloom didn't last for long and the atmosphere soon picked up. The bad news had brought a camaraderie to the group. Laughing and joking was soon back at the table.
Dinner was tasty if a little uninventive. I opted for their "vegetarian" sandwich, which was a shredded vegetarian between two slices of a really nice bread. Julie went for chicken and chips. I have to say the chips were delicious!
After out 4am start it was always going to be an early evening but we also wanted to get back to our rooms to search the internet for as much information as possible.
I checked for fights to Cancun from Guatemala City and found an airline called Volaris. If we could get to Mexico then at least we could still have a resemblence of a holiday.
Also in today's news Guatemala's Health Minister announced that they were closing schools for three weeks, banning groups of over 100 people, cancelling Easter celebrations and any sports events were to take place without public attendance. They also announced their first COVID-19 case in the country. A Guatemalan who returned from Northern Italy. We hoped he wasn't on our flight over!
Back in the UK the amount of people who died from the coronavirus almost doubled today, from 11 to 21. Italy however were struggling with 1441 deaths.
Before going to sleep I fired off an e-mail to the British consulate in Belmopan, Belize to see if British citizens were exempt. "Afterall they are still part of the commonwealth" I thought to myself. (Of course I didn't write that in the message!)Next day >