Sunday, November 24, 2013

Ticket to Paradise

It came down to Monterrico with its famed black sand beach or Tikal with the largest archeological site in the Americas.  So I had to choose between soaking in the rays and assorted bebidas or unearthing the mysteries of the Maya.  Ever the student I opted for the beach.
The alleged 2-1/2 hour trip to Monterrico was just shy of 3-1/2.  That’s what happens when you live on Guatemalan time.  After a slight climb out of Antigua we descended from about 6,000 feet to sea level and saw the mountains fade in the distance as the countryside became farmland then jungle. The cool Antigua breezes changed to hot, humid and still at the coast.

The web and my Moon guide identified Pez de Oro as the best hotel choice in Monterrico. Situated right on the pencil lead beach Pez de Oro was built palapa style and decorated in a colorful style much like that of Mexico. There was no hot water, a condition shared by all Monterrico hotels, but hey, the surroundings were tropical and the nearly deserted beach called my name.
I figure Monterrico to be around 2,000 people with a main drag of small stores and restaurants leading to the beach. Most of the hotels line the beach while others are slightly inland. The town was quiet during my two day visit. What action there was happened at Johnnie’s Place which served Ceviche Peruano which was simply incredible.  The dish, photo included, was succulent chunks of sweet white fish “cooked” in citrus with onions, sliced chiles, kernel corn, pieces of what seemed to be a squash of some kind, avocado and cilantro. It was so good I had it twice. My Monterrico scorecard shows three ceviches, two filetes de pescado. That means that every non-breakfast was seafood just the way I planned it.

At dark o’clock, that’s 5am amigos, Saturday I took a launch into the mangrove and reed lagoon behind Monterrico with my personal boatman, Eleazar. We slipped beneath a leafy canopy in Apocalypse Now darkness and watched the sun rise over a flotilla of water lilies and sea grasses that are home to 350 species of birds. Egrets darted across the lightening sky as Eleazar poled our flat bottomed lancha through the placid waters. From time to time we stood still in a mood Guatemaltecas would call muy tranquilo.

After yogurt, fruit and granola at Johnnie’s and a brief nap, I decided to take a barefoot run down the beach toward Hawaii. Hawaii was the next village south and I’ve got signs to prove it.  That black sand, arena negra, needed a warning sign.  I limped back to the hotel with blisters the size of quarters.  Running along the water line where the surf cooled the sand was a total blast but the last 50 yards across the embers to the hotel was absolute agony.  My feet haven’t hurt like that since I ran from lawn to lawn to the public pool during the summer in Phoenix.  I don’t think my pain receptors know the difference between rare and well done so I repaired to the local farmacia for anti-biotic cream, gauze and tape. Happily, by Tuesday I could run with little discomfort.

But for the poverty Guatemala could be paradise.  The cost of living is among the lowest in the western hemisphere, the produce is outstanding, the coffee sublime and the temperatures blissfully mild.  A beachfront house in Monterrico lists for under $200,000.  Alas, poverty and crime are realities so there’s a semi-automatic in the hands of a rent-a-cop in every other doorway.  But still.....

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Poco de Todo

San Pedro Las Huertas
Because I’m between flights in Dallas and have been stuck in a customs line for an hour I’ll keep this brief.

I’ll be back from the third world soon.  No, check that, I’ll be moving from one third world locale to another.  Like a painter friend once told me when she returned from Colorado, “Going to Taos, New Mexico is like going to Latin America but the flight is shorter.”

Here are some teasers from Guatemala. In depth posts about sands of Monterrico and my new favorite bar in the world will follow.
San Cristobal de Bajo by bike

The black sand beach of Monterrico

Water Lillies in La Laguna de Monterrico

The rising waters of Lago de Atitlan at San Marcos

Las lanchas de Monterrico

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Put this in your Funk and Wagnall's.

Volcan Atitlan from Hotel Jardines del Lago
I must be a tough sell.  Lago de Atitlan proclaims itself to be one of the dozen most beautiful lakes in the world but it didn’t work for me.  Based on the sheer beauty of the place it may be true but add the largest town, Panajachel, and you get a noisy, trinket hawking pit. Pana, as it’s called, is the picture next to the phrase “tourist trap” in your dog eared Funk and Wagnall’s.

Pedro played me like a violin when he sold me a private boat trip to San Marcos and San Pedro.  “It’s only $50 more than the public launch and you’ll get to San Marcos in 30 minutes instead of two hours”, he said. “Then you’ll get to San Pedro so fast you’ll have time to tour a coffee finca or share a bong with some naked twenty year old hippy chick.” I paraphrase.
Approaching San Marcos
What I got was his nine year old mini-me, Andres, who tried to extract my last dollar for $5.00 post cards and $50 weavings worth $12 back in Pana.  When the kid took me to his casa his mother, the lovely Rosa, floated the aforementioned price and when I asked for her lowest price her eyes glazed in disbelief and she turned mute.  And that, friends, was the end of the road for me. Yes, I am a rube and I’ve been hustled out of my shorts.

My eyes bulged and my face flushed when I told the kid to take me back to the boat “ya.” That means already and already is even sooner than now.
Peace and love in San Marcos
San Pedro
San Pedro
Cerveza at the Sunset Cafe
Thankfully the embarrassment of being flummoxed by a nine year old and paying twice as much for half the time was short lived.  And after a perfectly decent Pasta Putanesca and a couple of glasses of good Chilean vino tinto that evening I tore up my non-refundable ticket back to Antigua and arranged to leave Panajachel early by seven hours. The armpit of Atitlan was squarely in my rearview mirror as it deserved to be.

On the plus side I had some serious Atitlan coffee in San Pedro and even better Hue Hue at the redoubtable Crossroads in Pana. Crossroads which is owned by a perfectionist New Yorker and his South African wife, Adele, is a house roasting shrine to great coffee and might have been worth the trip to Atitlan by itself.  A coffee pilgrimage to Guatemala would be killer, and I mean that in a good way.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Slums by any name

From afar the slums of Guatemala City look like the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the ones that have gotten so much negative attention in the lead up to next year’s summer Olympics. Like Rio’s favelas Guate’s ascientomentos are huge shanty towns that have risen on a hillside no man’s land near El Centro. The name, in fact, comes from the verb “to rise up.” Thought of as lawless or at least outside civilian law, each vecino or neighborhood of the ascientomentos is governed by a gang that demands fealty and protection payments.
Seen here from a highway overpass and through chain link this ascientmento is a vast corrugated and container city that is densely human, vibrantly colorful and forbidden to outsiders.