Posted from Río Dulce, Izabal, Guatemala.
Picking up where we left off… [to see the accompanying photos, click here] Last week Thursday was a more-than-seven-hour drive to Antigua. Thanks to Erik the trip was HOURS shorter than it could have been, since on the way we encountered an accident that had traffic backed up 4-5 miles on both sides (on a two-lane road). Erik took a leap of faith and followed a local who offered another route; although we didn’t clear the accident, it took us miles ahead of the stopped traffic. Then we just happened to be in the right place at the right time and got waved through as they allowed one lane of traffic to proceed. Instead of several hours, we were delayed maybe 30 minutes.
Antigua is a beautiful and historic city with cobblestone roads – and muchos touristas. Erik knew of a spot where we could camp for free: in the parking lot of the tourist police. It was not glamorous but it was free. And not glamorous. But free. The bathroom and shower were outdoors and the shower was cold. (Did we mention it was free?) Also there were a backpacker in a tent, a couple from Germany on motorcycles, and another German couple in a Toyota Landcruiser. (If you can read German, you can read about the adventures of Markus and Tania here.) We walked around the center of the village and just happened to catch a local wind band concert. They were impressively good, although disorganized. After concluding one piece, is would take them awhile to figure out which to perform next, and then we had to wait as they all dug through their folders to find that piece of music.
When we “checked in” at the police station that afternoon, a uniformed officer explained the rules of being there. Rule No. 1 was “No tomar” – no drinking. That evening Erik wanted to open our cheapy bottle of wine that we bought in Rio Dulce. Pepe countered that that was too dangerous. (Uh, we were at a police station.) We settled for Quetzalteca (Guatemalan booze) and warm Coke, which Erik could prepare on the sly. While making dinner we received an unexpected visit from another police offer, who was very talkative but who also seemed to have an agenda. We were convinced he was scoping us out. To be polite, we offered him a tostada (with beans, tomatoes, and guacamole) and he very quickly and matter-of-factly accepted. Pepe was so stunned that accepted that he had to double-check: “¿Verdad?” (“Really?”) Sí.
So now he was staying for a while and standing literally inches away from the cocktails we had in our camping cups. (Remember Rule No. 1? “No tomar.”) After Pepe prepared the officer’s tostada, he very quickly downed his entire drink in front of the officer so as to eliminate any evidence of wrong-doing. The officer talked with us for probably ten very long and uncomfortable minutes. We were impressed with our (perceived) ability to hold our own with conversational talk but Pepe refused to offer him another tostada since we only had two more tortillas left. Once he realized how boring and law-abiding we were (?) he eventually left and we set up camp.
Friday was the day of the Erik and Pepe Patented Walking Tour© of Antigua. First we went to the giant market for food supplies – again, ridiculously cheap. Then we started our tour of the ruins. We walked for a few hours along the cobblestone streets and through churches and ruins. Antigua has many buildings and structures hundreds of years old that have been unfortunately destroyed by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and floods. It is sad that theses building no longer exist in their original form, but they do make for interesting viewing and photos. But, catering to the masses of tourists, Antigua also has many high-end stores, restaurants, and hotels. Think jewelry, art, and textiles.
We opted for lunch in a private comedor – literally the front of some nice lady’s house. For the main meat there were three options (the things she just happened to be making that day), and with a small salad, a side of spaghetti, a cup of soup, and a bottomless basket of homemade tortillas, each meal was only Q25, or just over $3. While we were there, what we can only figure was a door-to-door traveling bra saleswoman came to the restaurant and unloaded dozens upon dozens of bras onto a table. We were thinking the owner/cook was going to do some shopping but we didn’t stick around long enough to find out – just in case there was going to be some personal fittings.
Saturday we said goodbye to the police station in the morning and headed to the only vineyard (that we know of) in Guatemala, about an hour outside of Antigua, called Chateau DeFay. About 15-20 minutes of the path was a terribly rocky dirt “road” on which we were unable to go more than 15 mph. When we got to the vineyard at 10:30, it was… closed. Their website said they are open at 10:00 on Saturdays and Sundays. Pepe walked from the front gate to the vineyard (about another kilometer) and found that everything was in good shape; it was not abandoned or closed down, as was our fear. We decided to wait until 11:15 and see if anyone showed up. (Maybe they were on Mexican time…) In fact, Erik was even prepared to use our emergency phone to call the number on their website. At 11:14, someone showed up.
After a fair delay while they scrambled to get set up and of course take a break to chat with one another, we received a private tour of the vineyard and the equipment that they use to process the grapes. Of course the tour was in Spanish, but because of our accumulated knowledge of all things wine-related, we not only held our own but even got in a couple of questions. Then we received a tasting of about 8 different wines. The vineyard was begun in 2000 and the grapes originally came from Washington state. They tried about 20 varieties, but only about 12 were able to make it. They grow cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay, shiraz, pinot gris, and other grapes there. Also, because of the climate, there are two harvests per year but only one vintage because they combine the two harvests: one has a much shorter period of time to ripen and is thus less sweet and more acidic. Although they weren’t all winners (one was absolutely dreadful), the wines were mostly good. We even liked one enough to buy it. And we were VERY happy to have wine flowing through our veins again. That’s normal, right?
Leaving the vineyard we found our way to an organic and fair-trade macadamia nut farm, called Valhalla, which was suggested to us by other overlanders as a place to camp. It’s not a campground, but we were told that the owners allow people to camp there for free as long as they make a purchase at the restaurant or in the store. Our tour guide was a girl from Minnesota who has lived in Guatemala for three years. We learned that macadamia nut trees will grow anywhere as long as it doesn’t freeze, they produce all year round, and there is no picking involved – one simply waits until the fruit falls from the tree and then picks it up off the ground. Of course they sell nuts there, but they also produce macadamia nut butter, skin care oil, chocolates, etc. And the restaurant’s claim to fame are macadamia nut pancakes, which are made from macadamia nut flour, have pieces of nuts floating through them, and are topped with a healthy drizzle of macadamia nut butter. We sampled them and they were quite good.
The big stinker, however, was that the owners of the farm would not be reachable until the next day, and therefore no one could give us permission to camp there. Despite the fact that we were referred and we thought our Minnesota sister might pull some weight, it was no-go. So… after a thirty-minute drive we were back in Antigua and the tourist police parking lot for one more night. Luckily, there is a three-night maximum and we had only been there two thus far.
Sunday morning we struggled through the road blocks and oncoming onslaught of Sunday tourists and headed to Quetzaltenango, or Xela (“SHAY-la”) as it is known, where we will spend the next two weeks learning yet more Spanish. On the way we crossed the highest point on the Inter-American Highway, which was over 10,000 feet in elevation. Xela has culture, restaurants, bars, a Walmart – can’t wait!!!
Coming up: living in a hostel is… uh… so not for us.