Extracurricular Activities: Guatemala

Our trip to Guatemala wasn’t all vocabulary and verb conjugation; the school organized different activities for their students, and we jumped into most of them.DSC_2779

First off, a tour of the historic downtown. I’m sure you will be astonished to learn that our children did not enjoy this particular experience, especially as the entire commentary was in Spanish. Much whining was exhibited.

More to their taste was a trip up one of the ten mountains surrounding Xela. Really, it was a large hill; we took a collectivo to the path at the base, and still made it to the top in under two hours. Expanding on the theme at orientation, we were met by two members of the “tourist police,” armed guards who accompanied us the whole way.

Michu attempts to express something in grammatically correct Spanish to an armed man

Michu attempts to express something in grammatically correct Spanish to an armed man

They were nice enough guys, and gave us a chance to work on our Spanish a bit more, but it was still disconcerting to understand that we might not be safe taking a hike in a park.

Kids running up from the bottom of huge concrete slides at the top of Mt. Beul

Kids running up from the bottom of huge concrete slides at the top of Mt. Beul

Monument to Tecun Uman, a Mayan leader killed in Xela at the time of Spanish conquest and reportedly buried here. Many myths surround his death, and some claim he appears on the mountain on misty days.

Monument to Tecun Uman, a Mayan leader killed in Xela at the time of Spanish conquest and reportedly buried here. Many myths surround his death, and some claim he appears on the mountain on misty days.

The good stuff.

The good stuff.

The kids were even more enthusiastic about a trip to a cafe where chocolate was taken from bean to beverage. The owner demonstrated both ancient and modern ways of processing chocolate, from roasting and shelling the dried seeds to grinding them up. There was a lot of sampling. Making chocolate from scratch is still an everyday occupation for many people in Guatemala; there are communal mills, and you can buy the beans at the market. My teacher, Veronica, used the phrase, “When I make my chocolate…” in the same way I might say, “When I make bread…” as if it’s a routine part of the week.

Peeling the roasted chocolate beans

Peeling the roasted chocolate beans

F grinds some beans, old-school

F grinds some beans, old-school

T works on a modern hand-grinder, still used in Guatemala. These days, most people take their chocolate to the local electric mill.

T works on a modern hand-grinder, still used in Guatemala. Most people take their chocolate to the local electric chocolate mill.

Three phases of chocolate with sugar: hand-ground on the right; electric milled in the center; cooled and hardened on the left. The heat from the electric mill makes the chocolate soft enough to shape.

Three phases of chocolate with sugar: hand-ground on the right; electric milled in the center; cooled and hardened on the left. The heat from the electric mill makes the chocolate soft enough to shape.

Finished product! Cooled bars of chocolate mixed with hot water and milk.

Finished product! Cooled bars of chocolate mixed with hot water and milk.

Not all of the cultural info was outside of school. On Wednesday and Friday, we got a half-hour break to learn about local culture, including the beautiful Mayan clothing worn daily by at least 30% of the women in Xela.

F models some local garb. The skirt was made of a huge amount of fabric, and weighed more than my wedding dress.

F models some local garb. The skirt was made of a huge amount of fabric, and weighed more than my wedding dress.

Our final field trip was to an ancient archeological site that straddled the Olmec and Mayan cultures. It was a bit of a bus trip to get there, so we paid upfront to help arrange transportation; but when Saturday rolled around, F’s sniffles had advanced to Not Getting Out of Bed status, so T and I went on a mom-and-son adventure.

Alter and stele in front of a temple in

Alter and stele in front of a temple in Takalik Abaj

Stone commemorating another cycle of the Mayan calendar

Stone commemorating another cycle of the Mayan calendar

We’d hoped to visit some of the more spectacular examples of Mayan architecture, maybe at Tikal or Palenque, but as our trip advanced, that became less of a possibility. We were too anxious to get back to the boat after a week away, and many of those sites are pretty challenging to access. Takalik Abaj was a good compromise—not too far away, but giving a good idea of how Mayan cities were built and a way to better understand their culture. Our guide was excellent, explaining the different structures and carvings. I wouldn’t say T found the whole thing fascinating, but at least he appreciated the aspects of mythology presented by the steles of various jaguars, toads and crocodiles.

Takalik Abaj is still used as a holy site for modern Mayan people; this family was heading to an alter for a ceremony.

Takalik Abaj is still used as a holy site for modern Mayan people; this family was heading to an alter for a ceremony.

By Sunday, we were all ready to head back. The boat needed attention, F’s cold was advancing through the whole family, and we were completely topped up with Spanish language and Guatemalan culture. We said our good-byes to Maria, and took the long, winding bus back to our comfortable home.

Overland to Guatemala: a little Spanish school for everyone

Since before we left on this epic trip, Michu and I had been planning a week of language school for the whole family. A lot of different places offer high-quality language instruction, but when we arrived at Chiapas and heard from a fellow cruiser about the great experience his wife was having in Guatemala, we decided the time was ripe for a field trip. Leaving the boat well cared-for at the marina, we hopped a bus to the mountain city of Quetzaltenango—aka Xela (“Shay-la”).DSC_2801

Up close with a chicken bus

Up close with a chicken bus

Guatemala does not enjoy a particularly great reputation for safety, so we were cautious about our planning. The bus we took was not a classic chicken bus, but a direct, private, air-conditioned coach with about a zero-percent chance of being hijacked (as has been known to happen to the chicken busses). We were met at the bus station by one of the teachers of the school, and ferried directly to the home of a trusted host near the center of town.

We were the only people on the bus!

We were the only people on the bus!

The area leading up to the mountains of Xela is know for its agriculture; a patchwork of vegetable plots line the valleys between the mountains...

The area leading up to the mountains of Xela is know for its agriculture; a patchwork of vegetable plots line the valleys between the mountains…

...and up the steep hillsides as well.

…and up the steep hillsides as well.

Produce truck. And don't think Guatemalans are so poor that all the veggies are organic, because they can't afford the pesticides; we saw lots of guys carrying sprayers on their backs, spraying the fields by hand.

Produce truck. And don’t think Guatemalans are so poor that all the veggies are organic, because they can’t afford the pesticides; we saw lots of guys carrying sprayers on their backs, spraying the fields by hand.

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Road construction is a marketing opportunity; selling to cars slowed at a bridge.

Road construction is a marketing opportunity; selling to cars slowed at a bridge.

We arrived mid-day Sunday, and had a few hours to walk around the city. Xela is pretty big, but our house was only a few blocks from the central park area, and the first Sunday of the month is market day.DSC_2658

DSC_2665Not only were the streets filled with market stalls, there was some kind of huge ceremony getting underway by the cathedral.

Team All-Purple gets ready

Team All-Purple gets ready

Yer a wizard, Harry!

Yer a wizard, Harry!

Lining up

Lining up

Not just for grown-ups

Not just for grown-ups

Our teachers later explained that it was the 100th anniversary of a religious service group, and they had invited all of the other surrounding groups within the Catholic church to participate in a parade.

On their way to the final line-up

On their way to the final line-up

Street art made of sawdust. We think the processional walked through it at the end.

Street art made of sawdust. We think the processional walked through it at the end.

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Fancy banner, rococo Cathedral

Fancy banner, rococo Cathedral

It's not Catholic without incense.

It’s not Catholic without incense.

Here comes the main event!

Here comes the main event!

The climax of the procession involved carrying a huge, heavy litter from the cathedral around the main square. Every hundred yards or so, the people carrying the float would support the structure with dozens of metal crutches, and a different group would take up the burden. The outfits distinguished the different groups—some all in black, some all in purple, with different shaped hats and fantastic banners declaring their names and when they were founded. And lest you think it was all men: the first group out of the gate were women, garbed in traditional Mayan skirts.DSC_2738

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Firecracker aftermath. It's a tradition in Xela to wake people up on their birthday with firecrackers; we heard them go off every single morning of our stay, between 5:30-6:00. We suspect the gunpowder industry needed an outlet post-civil war.

Firecracker aftermath. It’s a tradition in Xela to wake people up on their birthday with firecrackers; we heard them go off every single morning of our stay, between 5:30-6:00. We suspect the gunpowder industry needed an outlet post-civil war.

We had requested a home-stay, and were happy to be placed with a woman who ran a hotel out of the front of her house and a series of rooms in the back in her home. She cooked for us three times a day, and gave us a better understanding of the food of Central America—bigger breakfasts than a typical weekday for us (although she cut back when she saw we couldn’t eat it all), main meal of the day around 1:30, and a lighter supper around 7, with lots of beans and tortillas at all times. On our last night, she made tamales for us out of chicken and rice, wrapped in a leaf instead of a corn husk. Home cooking, Mayan style.

DSC_2776The school itself was pretty intense. We were each assigned our own teacher—kids, too!—and worked five hours straight with our instructor, with only a half-hour break at 10:30 to take advantage of local vendors in the courtyard selling tostadas, empanadas and other snacks. The classes were a mix of grammar instruction, review, and conversation. So, just imagine: here is a person you have never met in your life. Please talk to them for five hours. Go! Immersion school is not for the shy—or, at least, it’s much more tiring for introverts, as T and I quickly found out.

Don't they look excited?

Don’t they look excited?

My teacher, Veronica, gearing up for another two hours of chatting and verb conjugation

My teacher, Veronica, gearing up for another two hours of chatting and verb conjugation

The kids needed a bit more flexibility, so we sent them off to the zoo or for ice cream with their instructors for the second half of the morning; we also got a rest during mini-lectures after break twice during the week, learning about Guatemalan music and the specific Maya-influenced culture of Xela. Still, it was pretty exhausting for the whole family, and there were times when I felt like my grammar was worse than it had been on arrival. Do I use the predicate or the imperfect here? Is that verb irregular in the third person plural? I don’t remember! And this is the 5,000th error I’ve made today!! So the school was occasionally dispiriting in a break-you-down-to-build-you-up kind of way, but the staff were extremely nice and professional, and we all came out speaking better Spanish.

Outside the piñata store near our casa

Outside the piñata store near our casa

Xela itself was a great antidote to our experience in Puerto Quetzal. The town is a real, functioning city, with ancient stone streets in the center and a regular commercial perimeter. Tucked into the mountains, the cool air was a huge contrast to the tropical humidity we’ve become accustomed to, and we busted out our fleece and jeans for the first time in almost a year.

Mountain view from our room

Mountain view from our room

Day of the Dead

You’d think our biggest struggle around the holidays for the kids would be Christmas. Far from friends and family, no snow, serious limits on the presents…or maybe Thanksgiving? But no; on our boat, the biggest struggle is Hallowe’en.

It’s not so much the costumes or the candy; back in our old neighborhood, Hallowe’en was a serious community event, and our block was the epicenter, thanks to our friend Cooper’s haunted house. By the end of the night, all the kids would be across the street in his yard, running around like maniacs. Costumes, we can make; last year, we trick-or-treated the docks in Charleston; but we can’t put our kids back with their friends for the night.

This year, neither kid wanted to dress up if there were no other kids around. The marina is pretty sparsely populated, as well—not too exciting to trick-or-treat the two other cruisers and the office. Instead, we went with Distraction. Look over here—it’s the Day of the Dead!

Tamarind skulls and puffed amaranth on a stick

Tamarind skulls with chile and puffed amaranth on a stick

We kicked things off by watching Guillermo del Toro’s movie, Book of Life, which we all loved (thanks, John!). The next day, we caught a collectivo into town to check out the scene.DSC_2634

We were lucky to stumble on a competition for the best oferta and best Catrina right off the main square. The winners:DSC_2627

…although I was partial to this one:DSC_2631

This celebratory bread was a gift from a fellow cruiser, alone with some extra heads so I can bake my own

This celebratory bread was a gift from a fellow cruiser, alone with some extra heads so I can bake my own

Notice the skeleton crawling towards the plastic-strewn “water.” The little tripod in the front held some kind of burning incense, and they all had tequila on offer somewhere. Ofertas were set up in the official government office where we paid for our TIP, with a statue of the Virgin Mary at the head; there was also a big one at the Wal-Mart, with a prominent pic of Sam Walton.

Pan dulce for Day of the Dead

Pan dulce for Day of the Dead

We made sure to stock up on special Day of the Dead treats, as well. After so much time in Panama and Costa Rica, we are so extremely happy to be in a country with a serious food culture. Our restrictions on restaurant meals have flown out the window, especially since we know we can eat really well for not much money. Four days in country, three meals out–that’s a record, for sure, and we’ve no plans to put on the brakes. Chocolate- and coffee-tinged mole, taquitos, grilled meats, table-side salsa prep, heaps of guacamole, chilaquiles, platters of tacos…and we’re just getting started.DSC_2623

Cost to Cruise: October, 2017

Boilerplate disclaimer: this is not what it will cost you to go cruising.

Free fresh water in Costa Rica

Free fresh water in Costa Rica

People’s constant advice, discussing cruising finances, always seems to be: It’ll cost what you have. We did not find this helpful in our planning, however true it may be. What we’re trying to show is the cost to us, more or less, for one month to go cruising. We’re going for monthly expenses, because they’re easier for us to track; so you won’t see the boat insurance amortized, you’ll just see that expense when we pay it. It won’t be what you’ll spend, but it was the kind of information that helped us out when we were trying to wrap our heads around that magical number for our cruising kitty.

Living up to expectations, October was not cheap. Among other things, our unexpected stop in Guatemala cost us almost $500. To break it down:

Marina: $870.73
Restaurant: $299.04
Grocery: $576.16
Transportation: $103.88
Supplies: $129.28
Boat Parts: $80.33
Ice Cream: $3.45
Booze: $14.94
Immigration/Customs: $422.80
Communications: $159.48
Laundry: $22
Fuel: stove, $46.86; diesel, $206.64

Grand total: $2933.59

A few things jump right out at you from those numbers:

  • The marina costs included our three-week stay at the Costa Rica Yacht Club, almost all of which was in September; we also paid big money for the slip in Guatemala.
  • Customs and immigration included costs of checking out of Costa Rica; $200 for our two nights in Guatemala; and our costs for checking into Mexico, including our ten-year Temporary Import Permit.
  • Money spent on transportation is closely linked with cabs and private cars to get customs and immigration work done. Sometimes, you just can’t take a bus.
  • Clearly, we need to start spending more money in three categories: ice cream, booze, and laundry. Where are our priorities?

A bit of a sprint

We use a lot of different resources for making our cruising plans: cruising guidebooks, online aggregators like Active Captain, advice from fellow cruisers, State Department bulletins, tips from locals, traditional guidebooks like Lonely Planet, sailing blogs, and hours of staring at charts. Every single one of those sources pointed us to Bahia Santa Elena. (Well, except for the Lonely Planet-type stuff. Sorry, traditional travelers—this place is too remote for you!)

Getting the sunset pic out of the way early.

Getting the sunset pic out of the way early.

DSCF3308This huge bay on the very north coast of Costa Rica is entirely surrounded by national park. Hidden from the swell, it also provides great protection from the weather, including the nasty Papagayo winds that blow down from the north. We’d hoped to spend almost a week here, but our late departure from Cocos gave us only a few days.

Grilling off the stern in Bahia Santa Elena

Grilling off the stern in Bahia Santa Elena

DSCF3340We still managed to find our way to shore and follow a path to a small but glorious waterfall. Walking up the stream bed, the ravages of Tropical Storm Nate were everywhere. At night, the bioluminescence in the still water reflected the Orionoid meteor shower from the stars above. We cooked up some meals, cleaned up the boat a bit, and turned our attentions to heading north.

Damage from Nate. The whole stream bed was washed out.

Damage from Nate. The whole stream bed was washed out.

This is the amazing photo of the bioluminescence and dolphins that we took on passage. Of course, we took lots of photos, but this is the best one. Isn't it amazing?

This is the amazing photo of the bioluminescence and dolphins that we took on passage. Of course, we took lots of photos, but this is the best one. Isn’t it incredible?

Winds were up and down along the entire coast of Nicaragua, following the spotty thunderstorms. I started to feel a little embarrassed about posting so many pictures of Arenal Volcano, as the entire coast was fringed with equally spectacular spires. Most fantastic: the sparkling waters at night. We have never seen such vivid bioluminescence, and the dolphins that came to swim alongside the boat were perfectly outlined, nose to tail, in glowing greens and blues.

Volcano rising out of Lake Managua, as seen from the Pacific

Volcano rising out of Lake Managua, as seen from the Pacific

I think most long-range cruisers would tell you that the first three or four days of a trip are the worst; after that, you fall into a rhythm of sleep and wakefulness, eating and reading, and the movement of the boat becomes background noise instead of loud bells in your face. We wouldn’t know. We maybe got there on the Jamaica crossing, but we really don’t love the long push. Costa Rica directly to Chiapas would have taken four or five days; instead, after two nights we opted to head for the Gulf of Fonseca and get some real sleep.

El Tigre. Best island for an evil lair.

El Tigre. Best island for an evil lair.

Fonseca is at the conjunction of El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, and has been a strategic stronghold for such formidable powers as Sir Francis Drake and the CIA. No one could even decide which islands belonged to whom, until the International Court of Justice parsed things out in 1992. The island we opted for officially belongs to El Salvador, but we strongly considered heading to El Tigre, a bit further up the gulf: there’s an excellent volcano to hike, an old CIA base to explore, and checking in and out of Honduras can be accomplished there for free in the same day. Sleep won out, however, and we went for the nearest comfortable spot. We hoisted our “Q” flag and spent a couple of nights pretending we were not actually in El Salvador.

This small town will have to stand in for our entire experience of El Salvador.

This small town will have to stand in for our entire experience of El Salvador.

On to Mexico! But first, we had a bit to learn about gap winds. The most famous gap winds in this part of the world are the Papaguyos blowing through the Gulf of Fonseca, and the howlers that rage down the Gulf of Tahuantapec; wind in the Caribbean jumps across the peninsula of Central America, intensifying in the “gaps” between the mountains, until being spit out on the Pacific side at double strength. They usually don’t really kick up until December, but apparently October is a fine time for them as well. We don’t think we really saw any full-disaster Papaguyos, but we did see strong, sustained winds that were affiliated with gaps in the mountains; winds would blow for two hours at 20 knots, maybe gusting 25, for three hours, then die down to almost nothing for two hours before picking up again. Reef in, reef out, genoa in, genoa out, motor off, motor on. Tell you what, though: we made great time.

Another stunning volcano, this one in El Salvador

Another stunning volcano, this one in El Salvador

We generally download weather about every eight hours when we’re on passage—maybe twelve, if everything’s relaxed—and at about two in the morning the night after we left Fonseca, we noticed a serious problem. A low pressure system was forming directly south of us, and it didn’t look pretty. Three of our weather models seemed to say, hey, don’t worry, it’s going to totally fizzle out and you won’t even notice this; one model screamed, “APOCOLYPSE!!!” literally placing a hurricane directly in our path within 36 hours. Obviously, we listened to the Apocalypse Scenario.

The southern coast of El Salvador is not exactly rife with safe harbors; the best and closest spot required following a pilot through breaking waves, an entrance that’s impassable much of the time due to our old friend swell. We’ve heard some terror-filled tales and wanted no part of it. Instead, we bee-lined for Puerto Quetzal in Guatemala.

Horrible cruise-ship restaurant. Yes, we ate there anyway.

Horrible cruise-ship restaurant. Yes, we ate there anyway.

Puerto Quetzal is a deep-water harbor for freighter traffic. In a classic case of If You Build It They Will Come, cruise ships now dock here as well. The result is a hilarious mix of filthy, industrial shipping harbor and faux-Guatemala tourist trap. The cruise ship folks are unloaded to a proscribed area filled with bad but overpriced restaurants, souvenir stores and little cultural dances playing out over the afternoon. The marina is in the tourist trap, entirely filled with sport fishing boats on the hunt for clients. We paid a pretty steep price for the privilege of stopping here; the marina is not cheap, nor is checking in to the country—and there’s no possibility of just hanging out under your “Q” flag and pretending not to be there. Tropical Storm Selma, of course, faded away and went east; we would have had no problem if we’d continued on, but we were happy to be safe.

The dock in Puerto Quetzal. Each of these fishing boats has three guys to keep it spotless, regardless if it's going out on charter. Walking down the pier is like walking through a frat house.

The dock in Puerto Quetzal. Each of these fishing boats has three guys to keep it spotless, regardless if it’s going out on charter. That’s a lot of Guatemalan testosterone.

The final stretch took a speedy 24 hours, and we finally pulled in to Marina Chiapas in beautiful old Mexico.