Thursday, July 9, 2015

Travel in the Heart of Darkness

A couple months ago we lost our cat, Buster, a friend for twenty four years.  When we went to bed one evening he was with us, in the morning he wasn't.  We think he fell overboard while on one of his nightly walk-abouts.  He had a good life.  His first seven years were next to a green belt in Seattle as a "forest cat", dodging coyotes and raccoons.  The next eight or so years was as a condo cat, then finally a boat cat.  We miss him and are sorry for his frightening last few moments being swept away by river currents. 

However, now that he is gone we can do some land travel.  We are just back from a three week grand tour of Guatemala we took with some great new Canadian friends.  It was fun moving from place to place every couple days, figuring out transportation and lodging as we went. 

Travel arrangements were actually pretty easy, as we chose to travel by shuttle van.  Vans go door to door, picking up at the hotel or hostel and dropping off at the front door of the next place.  Sometimes there were only the four of us, but mostly they were full, usually with young backpackers from all over the world.  (It was nice to get out of the geriatric cruising community for a while.) We stayed in hostels for twenty to thirty bucks a night in a private room with bath.  The shuttles were about what a Greyhound would cost in the states. Total expenses. assuming we didn't eat out high end gringo, were about a hundred bucks a day.

Van travel
on the morning after.

While there we saw some demonstrating.  Guatemala is going through one of its frequent political dramas.  People are trying to oust the current corrupt president and former genocidal army General.  He was taking money from everywhere, causing some of the social services, like public hospitals, to run out of money.  The vice president had just been forced out for some sort of customs scam.  Business as normal in this troubled land.

Guatemala is a beautiful land, with stunning mountain views, lakes nestled  amongst active volcanos, rivers buried deep in jungle lined canyons, and pristine colonial towns.

Lake Atitlan




Rio Dulce

But for me the real attraction are the Mayan ruins and museums.



In Copan there were several ceremonial amphitheaters.  Judy is sitting where the king used to stand during sacrifices that required the most noble blood in the land....his.  The blood was obtained by piercing various parts of his anatomy, most often his penis, with a sting ray barb. 

All the males in the kings family gave blood for ceremonial use. One guide told me during the draught in the ninth and tenth centuries, the noble family almost bleed out supplying blood for constant blood sacrifices to appease the rain god.  The weakened noble families suffered chronic pain and illness.  He believes this was an factor in the collapse of the Mayan cities.

Other amphitheaters in Copan were used for more pleasant pastimes,,,,,getting stoned and playing ball.  Getting stoned on mushrooms was a common occurrence during ceremony's.

Sitting on the edge of this amphitheater was the water god.  Mayans would get loaded and try to imagine water filling the square up to the god's neck.  They imagined seeing all sorts of sea creatures in the water, the best being crocodiles.


And then the museums.  They had great ones at each site.  The best being in Copan where they built a full size replica of a tomb that had been buried during subsequent enlargements of the pyramid.  The museum in Guatemala City has the best preserved stellas, household items, etc.

Maya warrior

This statue is at the entrance of  the Museo Nacional de Arqueologia y Etnologia in Guatemala City.

He is a very handsome fellow by Maya Classic Era standards.  The sloping forehead and protruding lips and teeth were much admired by the nobility.  The strange look was intended to be proof that the nobles were descended from the gods. Boards were used to squeeze the foreheads back and some sort of orthotic device pushed the teeth and lips out.  They also were known to paint the tips of children's noses to develop crossed eyes.  Wonder what they could have done with collagen. 

At his side in the basket are the remains of his latest triumph over one of the gods of the underworld.

On the other side of the entrance is another Mayan.  At first I thought it was the now part of a "then and now" tableau, with the fierce warrior now a peaceful farmer. 

He also is a handsome fellow, as are the Mayans in general.

What makes me wonder about the "then and now" thing is what he's got in his basket.  What's this peasant farmer, with his hands full of maize, doing with a severed head?   

The artist may have been reflecting a commonly felt wariness felt by the elites toward Mayans, who make up about 50% of the population. It took the Conquistadors more then a hundred and fifty years and a great many lives before the last of the Mayans were overcome.  They were a tough group, battle hardened by almost constant tribal warfare. 

The tribal nature of Mayan society was a principle reason for the lengthy pacification process.  There was no central state the Spanish could conquer in one fell swoop.  In Guatemala the Mayan cities were independent of each other, much like the city states in ancient Greece.  Each tribe had to be subdued separately. There are twenty Mayan languages currently spoken in Guatemala today, indicative of their continuing tribal nature.    

Defeated Mayans were forced to leave their ancient homes and migrate to towns built near newly forming plantations.  This concentration enabled quicker acculturation and created a labor pool for the plantations to draw on.  The rational was that since the conquerors were saving Mayan souls by bringing them Christianity, the Mayans owed the Spanish tribute and labor.    

Initially the plantations had no claim on the land they were using, as the king granted only the right to the labor of the Mayans  This didn't bother early colonizers who viewed cheap labor as the primary source of wealth.  But during the Spanish depressions of the 17th  century, the Spanish Crown, in dire need for money began selling the "crown lands" in the new world.  Land that could support cash crops soon passed from Mayan ownership to the privileged Spanish. 

In the coastal lowlands the disposed Mayans gradually integrated with the Spanish, intermarried and adopted Spanish as their primary language.  But in the highland areas things were different.  Spanish plantation owners were not interested in land that was unsuited for cash crops.  The land remained in Mayan hands.  Ancient village associations continued to function and highland Mayans "fugitives" returned home, escaping the new Spanish towns.  Spanish attempts at rounding up the fugitives was not vigorous, and the highlands became a refuge. 
A Mayan lady working in her field in the
highlands of north central Guatemala.

The volcanic soil looks very rich.

Across the valley is an active volcano.
In the center right of the picture are a couple steam plumes
from a geothermal generating plant.

A river flows through the valley floor. 

Small plots extent up the mountain side.
Every arable acre is planted 

But the refuge came under serious attack after Guatemala won its independence from Spain.  This assault was lead by lawyers, as it involved stealing, all fair and square, Mayan land through a legal process.  Shortly after Guatemala gained independence the central government passed a decree that all farm lands, even the ancient communal lands of the Mayans, must be deeded to individuals.  Unfortunately the highland Mayans, who were not integrated with the Spanish, didn't get the word, but people in the lowlands did.  They flocked to place claims on much of the lower highlands.  Coffee had become an enormous cash crop and these lands were perfect.  The disposed Mayans soon had insufficient land to feed themselves.  They were forced to take jobs in the new coffee plantations. Money was loaned to them  by plantation owners in amounts they could not repay and debtors could not leave plantations to whom they owed money.

There was one more assault on the Mayans.  During the last half of the twentieth century non Mayan "red communist" rebel groups formed to resist the central government.  The numbers of rebels was never significant and they lacked the weapons needed to really threaten the government.  Elites and corporate land owners pressed the government to use the unrest as an excuse to attack the largely uninvolved Mayans, rationalizing these attacks as necessary to protect the state from "internal enemies".  About 200,000 were killed and over 600 villages were destroyed.  A United Nations truth commission found the central government guilty of organizing and conducting genocide.

The US supported the central government by providing material support and trained government troops in counter insurgency and jungle warfare, fully knowing, at least at some level, what was happening to the uninvolved Mayans in the Guatemalan highlands. 

Peace accords with in insurgents were concluded in the late 90's, but conditions on the ground remain the same.  Mayans still do not have enough land to feed themselves and malnutrition is endemic in the Mayan population. 

Peter Rohloff, an American doctor who runs a group of medical clinics in rural Guatemala told a reporter:

"The most incredible thing about stunting in Guatemala is how completely total an experience it is for rural communities. All children are at least six or eight inches shorter than they should be.  In a family that's extremely impoverished, you will see very extreme cases of chronic stunting where children who are twelve years old, look as if they were four or five.

But stunting is not just about height. With malnourishment comes greater susceptibility to disease and infection, impaired cognitive function and even lower IQ. Stunted kids are more likely to drop out of school and grow up to be unskilled workers with little potential for economic success later in life."

The assault on Mayans is ongoing to this day.  If it continues, and if the Mayans can organize themselves, their baskets could again be filled with severed heads.  It's not like there hasn't been a few centuries of provocation.

This is not to imply I feel the U.S. did any better with our First Nations.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Passage to Mexico

We have arrived in Mexico, and even though I would rather be back in Panama I was happy to be here.  It was almost like coming home.  Judy and I both love Mexico, the folks here have been in the tourista business for a long time, they are happy to have us and our money visiting, and they make it easy.  The import permit for our boat, that we got in Ensenada back in 2010 still has five years to run, the port captain and customs both have offices in the area and they processed us into the country in a matter of minutes. 

Contrast this with Costa Rica where we have to traipse around town for  couple days to three different offices and had the customs office reject the copy we made of our Coast Guard boat documentation.  They insisted we send to the US for the original, and placed us in "bond" until they arrived.

In the last five years of cruising, through seven countries, never did anyone object to us presenting a copy of our boat documentation.  The last time we were in Costa Rica they accepted it without comment 

Being placed in bond meant we had to go into a "bonding" marina.  Bonding means the marina promises the government they would hold Grace prisoner, not allowing us to leave until we presented the original copy of the Coast Guard document to customs.  This all would be a minor inconvenience except the going rate for docking in the marina was $2.35 per foot per day.  Grace is 40 feet long, so our nightly fee was $109 including taxes.  We heard from several locals the marina was kicking back a portion of this to the head of the customs office.  Nine days later we received our document and were able to leave, along with two uninvited guests, and return to Tierra Mar Marina, where we tied up to a mooring ball for $10 dollars a night.

Granted it's their country and we need to follow their rules but our copy was very high quality, and all the rest of our papers were in order.  This was our third time dealing with Costa Rican officials, the other two times they had no problems with our papers.  This office may have been taking advantage of a technicality to generate some extra income.

Mexico has had some issues with cruising boats in the past, when zealous officials harassed cruisers over technicalities, but if officials are out of line they are quickly brought back to reality.  Mexico doesn't want to upset the goose that's laying golden eggs. 

Anyway enough whining.  Its good to be back.

On our way out of Golfito we passed a yacht transporter loading boats headed north.  Leaving Golfito, they stop in La Paz, Ensenada and Victoria on Vancouver Island just 60 or so miles from Seattle.  We begged them for a ride, but no luck.  They were full.  The fare for Grace to be transported to Victoria would have been $15k which is a very good price.  We could have been in Seattle in a couple weeks and spent the summer riding our Harley with friends.   Enough whining!

Entering the squall
The passage north was pretty uneventful.  We did get stuck in one tormenta  while motor sailing off the coast of El Salvador.  There was a lot of lightening, thunder and rain, but no lightening closer then three miles except for one flash/bang strike I thought might have hit us.  There was no drama on board, no smoke, fire or burnt out electronics, but the last time we were hit there was no drama either, electrical parts just started failing all over the boat.  Since I wasn't sure if we got hit we motor sailed the rest of the way to Mexico in case electrical parts needed to restart the engine were damaged.
The last heavenly blue we saw
for several hours.

The devil has a yacht too!.
We completed the passage without more drama and are now lying in Marina Chiapas.  We will put the boat up on the hard and do some land traveling, maybe all the way back to Seattle, then continue north when the eastern Pacific hurricane season ends in November.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


Well, we've had a nice stay, an overly long stay, but tomorrow its good bye Golfito.  The anchorage here is the most protected, quietest place we've been since we left here two years ago.  It's a bay inside a bay.  The water is flat calm.  The winds are nonexistent.  The humidity is as high as the temperatures.  We haven't been this uncomfortable since the Sea of Cortez.


One of the reasons our stay was longer then expected was we had visitors.  There is nothing worse then laying awake at night listening to these guys chewing away on your boat.  We were desperate.  We had glue pads, poison and traps everywhere.  Finally got one, and as a precaution left every thing in place for another night and got another.  We think they got on board while we had the boat in a marina while we did some land travel.  Thank goodness they didn't have time to start a family. 

The place we are staying has a nice tradition of allowing cruisers to leave an autograph.  We saw several friends,  a semi famous sailing couple and some really cool designs.
Larry and Karen
Beth Leonard and Evans Starzinger
Beth wrote "The Voyagers Handbook".
Jim and Christine
Jim was our rigger in Seattle

Our humble attempt.
Based on a drawing by Bob Perry, the
designer of our boat.

Tomorrow we leave for Puerto Chiapas, Mexico, some 700 miles to the north.  It should take us about a week.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Behia Caraquez

 Bahia de Caraquez is a cool easy going Ecuadorian beach town built on a sand spit extending into the mouth of the Chone River.  The people are relaxed, happy, friendly and mostly honest.

Bahia's tranquil tempo picks up a bit weekends, as people from Quito and Guayaquil return to weekend condos that line the shore.  Beaches are crowded,  jet skis and runabouts slash through the water around the moorage, streets bustle,  restaurants fill and music booms through town ALL THE TIME.

But the real reason Bahia is cool is because it is cool.  Just a few miles south of the equator, it is cooled by a large pool of cold water rising from the depths of the ocean.  Climate wise it's like a perfect Seattle summer day.  The air is cool and the sun warm.  And unlike Seattle, that gets almost three or four of these days a year, Bahia gets them all the time.  Well, almost all the time.  It does rain every now and then.
Cruisers coming to Ecuador have pretty limited choices on where to come ashore.  There are only two marinas that I know of in the country.  One very expensive full service marina in Salinas, and the Puerto Amistad marina here in Bahia Caraquez.  Puerto Amistad has a mooring field with 18 or 20 moorings.  The new mall, gas station and restaurants are a short walk away.  In fact everything in Bahia is a short walk away. The monthly rate for a mooring is a bit over $400.

Approaching Bahia, stay offshore.  Shifting sand bars block most of the entrance.  We did not close with land until we reached 00 35.780S, 080 28. 300W then headed directly to the "waiting room" at 00 35.305S, 080 26. 832W to meet our pilot at high slack tide.  You should email ahead and let the marina know when you plan to arrive so they can arrange for a pilot.  Approaching Bahia, contact them on channel 69 after about 9am.  Unfortunately, there is a hill between the marina and the waiting room that blocks the marina's signal.  Relays from cruisers in the moorings are frequently required.  From the waiting room the pilot took us straight in toward shore, aiming at the base of a large hill to the south of town.  When we were several hundred yards off we turned north and paralleled the shore around town and into the bay.  As you come around the point the mooring field comes into view about a mile to the south.

Most boats moor bow and stern.  There are a few swing moorings available, but they are more expensive as the boat swings over a larger area, and they are usually reserved for cats.  Boats moored bow and stern are very close to each other.  Tidal currents of three plus knots can bring boats even closer at times.  We have been brought to within ten feet of our neighbors.  Rudders should be locked amidships lest they drive boats together.  Twice a day high tide covers protective sandbars allowing choppy waves to wrap around the spit into the moorage. You won't have to worry about losing your sea legs. 

Shore side facilities here are very nice.  The marina office, showers and restrooms are in the building close to the road, a beautiful restaurant extents from the shore on the muelle. 

The food is good by Bahia standards.  Happy hour from 5 to 7pm with $2.25 well drinks usually draws a good crowd of cruisers making for delightful evenings.  Wednesday evenings a group of expats will welcome you and your money to their weekly poker game. 
Dingy dock at low tide
The good stuff:
The marina office and restaurant staff  are very friendly and efficient. 
Good shopping now that the new mall has opened.
Wacho.  Wacho is the diesel mechanic everyone here uses.  He is as good as the great Kenny Breazeale in Panama.  Wacho is also beginning to take care of boats left here for long periods of time.  His phone #is 0997914250.  Refrigeration mechanics, electricians and machine shops are also available locally.
No lightening.
Great social life. Cruisers usually get together at the end of the day at the restaurant for happy hour.  Sunday the restaurant is closed.  Cruisers have access to the restaurant's BBQ and usually have a potluck dinner together. 
Good place to leave the boat for land travel.  Inland Ecuador is stunningly beautiful.

Great wi-fi from the boat.  Puerto Amistad recently upgraded their service.  It is the best marina wi-fi we've had since leaving the US.

Clean showers and restrooms, good laundry service, beautiful facility.  The on demand hot water heater for the showers short cycles causing the water temperature to constantly go from hot to cold to hot again.  The firing rate of the heater needs to be reduced or if that is not possible a smaller unit installed.

Great fuel prices.  Regular gasoline is $1.40 per gallon.  Diesel is $1.04 per gallon.  Fuel purchases should be arranged through an agent, in this case Puerto Amistad, but it is possible to dingy to the gas station.  There are steps up the sea wall.  Go at high slack.  Or it is possible to take a couple jerries to the station using a pedicab for $1.50 round trip.  Some of the service station attendants will limit you to two jerries per trip since it is technically not legal for foreigners to purchase subsidized fuel.

The not so good:

The consensus amongst cruisers is this is one of the worst places in the world for barnacles.  Not the worst (Cartegena, Columbia) but close.  .  Bottom cleaning can be arranged through the office, and should be done every three weeks.  Visibility in the water is very bad, so it is very hard to do a thorough job.  Ask to have your prop cleaned, greased and bagged.
Changing zincs may tax the diver's mechanical talents.

Like almost all anchorages and marinas in Central America, Puerto Amistad has had theft problems.  Boats should be well secured. 

Last year marina mooring lines parted three times.  In the one case I know of personally, a bridle line failed, the boat veered toward it's neighbor, but rapid action by the owner using his dingy as a tug prevented a damaging collision.  Should one of the single moorings fail completely on a flood tide a boat could be swept under the new Chone River bridge immediately to the south of the marina.  The bridge is low to the water.  Dismasting or worse would be a sure thing.

Tripp, the marina owner, has assured us that maintenance has been stepped up and all lines are in good condition.  As far as I know he has not personally inspected the moorings to verify that this is the case.  The guys working on the moorings seem to be self managed, and one in particular has a checkered work history.

I will be relieved when we leave and get away with no damage.

Grace will be leaving soon, heading to Golfito. Costa Rica.

I would come back to Puerto Amistad.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Been Busy

Apologies to my reader (sorry mom) for not writing.  I'm gonna do better.   Manana.