Belize – When Iguanas Fall from Trees, Head South

“Welcome aboard, folks. Our flight time to Belize is two hours and ten minutes. The weather is expected to be a balmy 80 degrees Fahrenheit today when we land,” the pilot announced as we were buckling in. Then continued with “As you know the National Weather Service has issued the very rare ‘Beware of Falling Iguanas Weather Alert’ for Miami and South Florida this morning.”  As funny as this sounds, it actually happens when the temperature dips into the thirties in Florida.  Cold blooded animals, the iguanas slowly stiffen as the temperature drops and eventually lose their grip on the tree branches they have been sleeping on and fall to the ground, stunned, where they lay immobile until the temperature rises.  Iguanas can grow quite large and may cause serious injury or death if you are unlucky enough to get struck by one of the falling frozen reptiles. It sounds like something out of a zombie apocalypse movie – be careful out there. We were delighted to be heading south again to a warmer climate after a cold and rainy November and December in Italy, which was followed by a warm-hearted, but very frigid Christmas with our kids in New Jersey.

On our final approach for landing the wing of the plane dipped to reveal a beautiful azure sea outlined with dense green jungle and brilliantly white sand beaches – and not much else – as far as the eye could see.  It was still much like it was several millennium ago when a prosperous Mayan civilization flourished, supporting an estimated population of 500,000 – 1,000,000 in the region. Columbus sailed by without stopping and landed in Honduras during his last voyage to the Americas in 1502.  Navigator Juan Diaz de Solis did not mention a landfall or discovery during his expedition in 1507 sailing from Panama to the Yucatan. Several theories suggest that the 190-mile-long Belize Barrier Reef, the largest in the northern hemisphere, was too difficult to navigate through so the Spanish fleets sailed past. We witnessed this difficulty once from the deck of a cruise ship as the captain left a snaking wake as he steered a serpentine route through the underwater obstacle course.

The first European to arrive in Corozal literally washed ashore as a survivor of a 1511 Spanish shipwreck. To stay alive, conquistador Gonzalo Guerrero offered his skills as a soldier to Mayan Chief Na Chan Kan at Chactemal, (now Santa-Rita, Corozal Town). He proved his skill as a warrior and married the chief’s daughter, Princess Zazil Há. The children from their union are recognized as the first Mestizos of Central America; theirs was the first Mayan liaison recorded by Bernal Diaz de Castillo in his memoir “The True History of the Conquest of New Spain,” written in 1568.

Guerrero defended his adopted homeland against conquest in 1531 when he helped Chief Na Chan Kan defeat the Spanish army in a battle near the Rio Hondo. Today the river is still Belize’s northern border with Mexico.  Spain never established any permanent settlements in Belize.  Gold and silver were discovered next door in Guatemala and Honduras. Belize was absorbed into the Spanish empire of Central America by its proximity to its larger neighbors, but was never colonized until the British subversively entered the territory.

The riches of the new world didn’t go unnoticed for long, but by the time English and Scottish pirates arrived on the scene in the mid-1600s, the treasure-laden flotillas destined for the Spanish crown from central America had been replaced by shipments of logwood.  Native to northern Central America, logwood or bloodwood was used by the indigenous tribes of the region to produce a vibrant red-orange dye. Mixed with other ingredients, a full spectrum of colors was possible. It grew abundantly and was exported to Spain where the cheap natural resource revolutionized the textile industry and afforded commoners a chance to have colorful wardrobes, which before was only afforded by the nobility. Gone were the days of fabrics dyed gray with soot. 

Gold or wood – it didn’t matter. Pirates were pirates and willing to steal your cargo regardless of its content, as long as there was a profit to be made, and the English textile mills were demanding logwood.  After plundering large Spanish merchant ships that sailed across the Gulf of Honduras, the pirates found safe refuge for their smaller vessels in the shallow waters behind the Belize Barrier Reef amidst its 450 cays and atolls, where they could hunt for food, get fresh water, and repair their boats.  In 1670 England and Spain signed a treaty banning piracy in the Caribbean.  The days of the infamous pirates of Belize, Edward Lowe, Captain Charles Johnson, Bartholomew Sharp, Captain Henry Morgan, and Blackbeard, were waning.  By this time English pirates had discovered Belize was full of logwood and many ex-privateers became legitimate and wealthy logwood cutters and exporters after buying African slaves to work in the miserable conditions of the mosquito-infested jungles.  Though Spain considered all of Central America as part of their empire and occasionally harassed the British logwood camps trying to evict them, the Spanish crown never established any settlements in Belize. 

In 1763 Spain signed another treaty allowing English subjects the “privilege of wood-cutting,” but still retained sovereignty over the region. Possession is nine-tenths of the law and Belize finally became the English colony of British Honduras in 1862. Mahogany had replaced logwood as the major export. Conflict with the Mayans escalated as settlers moved farther into the interior exploiting the regions mahogany forests, and forced the indigenous population from their lands by burning their villages and crops. The giant cut logs were floated down the country’s rivers to the coast and where rivers didn’t exist, small logging railroads were built to satisfy the European demand for this beautiful hardwood that was favored for fine cabinetry, furniture and shipbuilding.

Disenfranchised and oppressed, the Mayan revolted in what is called the Caste War against their colonizers. Led by Marcus Canul, a Mayan chief,  his people demanded the British pay for the crops they burnt and for the land they occupied.  In northern Belize, Canul’s freedom fighters attacked and occupied the garrison town of Corozal. The movement lost its momentum when Canul was killed during an unsuccessful assault on Orange Walk in 1872.  Long considered a rebel and criminal, he is now regarded as a Belizean hero who fought against ethnic cleansing. The deforested jungles were replaced by sugar cane, ranching and agriculture plantations.

Belize finally became independent in 1981, though The British Army still maintains a jungle warfare training facility in the country to help deter Guatemalan aggression in an unresolved border issue. Aldous Huxley once wrote, “If the world had any ends, British Honduras (Belize) would certainly be one of them. It is not on the way from anywhere to anywhere else. It has no strategic value. It is all but uninhabited.”

Today the tiny country of 400,000 supports a diverse culture descended from Mayans, Mestizos, African slaves, Garifunas, Europeans and more recently immigrants from Lebanon, Germany, the East Indies, Asia and North America with an economy centered on tourism and agriculture.  English is the official language of Belize, but it is not the first language of many with Spanish, Belizean Creole and Q’eqchi’ Maya primarily spoken, depending on what part of the country you are in.

The barrier Islands and cays where pirates might have hidden treasure now sport popular resorts on their white sand beaches. Scuba divers can explore shipwrecks, the Great Blue Hole (a marine sinkhole that is visible from space,) and the exceptional marine life found along the Belize Barrier Reef which is now a marine reserve and UNESCO World Heritage site.  Ashore the jungles and mountains continue to reveal the extent of the Mayan civilization in Belize with over 600 known archeological sites discovered so far, ranging from ceremonial caves to towering stone pyramids.

We are on the other end of the tourist spectrum and wanted something very lowkey, inexpensive and relaxing for a month. We headed to Corozal! Located on Chetumal Bay, it is the northern most city in Belize and only 16 miles from Chetumal, Mexico. It was founded in 1848 by Mestizo refugees from Mexico fleeing Mayan retribution from the Caste Wars there. It prospered exporting mahogany logs when there were still enough trees to support the timber industry. Sugarcane now fuels the economy. 

In 1955 Hurricane Janet, a category 5 storm with winds of 175mph, flattened ninety-five percent of Corozal and left 8,000 people homeless.  Surprisingly one of the few buildings left standing on the waterfront, fully intact, was the home of lumber baron John Carmichael.  It was built in the 1880’s using only mahogany.  The house is still used today as a Catholic mission. The pre-1955 wooden structures have been replaced with concrete block houses now, mostly two stories high, except the four-story Mirador Hotel, the tallest building in town.

Our ah-ha moment happened after the two-hour, inland drive from the airport, when we entered Corozal and saw the enticing turquoise waters of Corozal Bay on our way to our Airbnb rental. We drove a mile along a still bay bordered by a low battered seawall and numerous public parks dotted with palm trees.

Turning onto 2nd St. North our driver stopped in front of a flowering bougainvillea-covered wall, less than 200ft from the water, that hid the Villa Imperial Loft Apartment, our home for the next four weeks.  Our host Oscar wasn’t home at the time, but had made arrangements with Sue, another guest, who graciously led us through the flowering garden, complete with a resident mama cat and her kitten, and up the back stairs to our studio apartment. She enthusiastically answered our first questions about Corozal.

The large room was brightly painted and pleasantly decorated with an eclectic mix of antiques, reminiscent of visiting our grandparents.  A wall of windows facing east offered a glimpse of the bay, and any storms approaching, through the neighbor’s tree. Best was the kitchen across the landing at the top of the stairs. It was enclosed on three sides with just screened windows, covered with louvered shutters. In stark contrast to the apartment, it was very rustic with the feel of an old lake cabin. But we soon realized it was the perfect spot to observe the wide varieties of birds that visited the trees in the backyard, and we thoroughly enjoyed cooking and eating there.  Birding over the next month while walking along the waterfront was one of the highlights of our stay in Corozal. Spotting just a few of the 590 bird species in Belize, we saw sandpipers, great kiskadee, white-collared manakin, yellow-throated euphonia, tricolored heron, kingfisher, lineated woodpecker, great egrets, couch’s kingbird, crimson-collared tanager, black and white warbler, and the outrageously raucous plain chachalaca, which you’ll hear well before seeing them.

For many travelers visiting northern Belize, Corozal is just a brief stop on their way to or from Mexico or Guatemala, or a transfer point to catch the two-hour Thunderbolt Ferry or a flight on Tropic Air from the Corozal Airport (CZH) to San Pedro, on the barrier island, Ambergris Caye.  The town doesn’t have a beach, which has probably helped keep it off the beaten path for most tourists that visit Belize. Access to the shallow water is from stairs in the 1.5 mile long stone seawall that has not fared well against the surges of the ocean. We had read that the district has a sizeable expat community, that likes to avail themselves of all the big city options, mainly a Walmart and Sam’s Club that are across the border in Chetumal, Mexico.  But from our experiences we only encountered a handful of North Americans, surely not surging numbers that would indicate it was a sizzling hot spot for vacationing or retirement that would change the character of the town. And that’s a good thing. The joy of Corozal for us was its tranquility; there really was not much to do there aside from chilling and the occasional dip in the gentle waves of the bay.  The serenity of the seascapes compensated for the lack of activities.

We were enjoying the tropical 80-degree weather of Corozal and re-embracing our slow travel philosophy by immersing ourselves in the daily flow of life in this small coastal town. It was wonderful to see parents accompanying their uniform clad children to school every morning. Some parents drove, others walked along or bicycled with their kids. Routinely at the end of the school day an older couple pedaling a three-wheeler sold homemade popcorn to the kids or the youngsters lined up for ice cream on the porch of a home that doubled as an ice cream parlor. The kids waved to us if they noticed us bobbing in the bay across the street.

Our daily walks led to discoveries all across town, mostly culinary in nature. We were eager to find the best places to buy groceries, interesting places to eat and quench our thirst.  Most importantly, our craving for good coffee was easily satisfied directly across the street at the top of a colorful flight of tiled stairs. Here Oscar’s nephew Rudi runs the LVDM Coffee Stop on the porch of his home and makes what are easily the best cappuccinos in Corozal. He also rents two rustic villitas in his backyard. 

In town there were any number of Asian-owned grocery stores that all offered the same staples. We tended to prefer a shop called the Central Supermarket, because they were the closest place to carry our recyclable beer bottles. Diagonally across the street the city’s daily market had numerous fruit and vegetable stands, an open-air butcher, and clothing vendors. A twice weekly farmers market was held outside of town, across from the cemetery.  Fortunately, this location did not reflect negatively upon the quality of produce sold there. At a much greater walking distance, it didn’t offer any real advantage over the produce sold for the same price at the daily market. Shopping there was an early morning event and the atmosphere was very vibrant. It was here we got the first glimpse of the country’s Mennonite farming community, easily identifiable by their conservative dress and spoken Pennsylvania German. Since 1958 when they were invited to settle in Belize by the first Premiere of the country, George C. Price, the community has grown to 10,000, and they have contributed immensely to Belize’s agriculture self-reliance.

Surprisingly, even though Corozal is located right on the bay, we could not find fresh fish and had to purchase locally caught frozen fish, conch and lobster from Frank’s, a great butcher shop that makes their own sausage and offers a wide assortment of fresh beef, pork and poultry.  Directly across from Frank’s on the other side of the civic center field we found Vivi’s for wonderful meat pies.

On one of our walks, we did meet a young brother and sister team carrying a five-gallon bucket on the handlebar of their bicycle. It was full of lobster and conch, caught by their father earlier that morning.  They were going door to door in the neighborhood, selling it so they could buy their school uniforms.  Of course, we purchased some, and it was delicious.

The town does not have a marina for boats, but there are spots along the bay where fishermen pull out their ancient mahogany boats for repairs.  Called sandlighters, many of these traditional sailing vessels were built across the bay in the fishing community of Sarteneja and are over eighty years old.

There were several small bakeries in town, each offering different specialties.  The Y Not Bakery, to the detriment of our waistlines, was the closest and created the best temptations. Another favorite was Caramelo Bakery across from the high school and down the street from Belcuisine, a spice factory that produces flavorful Belizean Recados mixes.

Corozal really was a rewarding foodie’s destination with numerous small taquerias and enterprising folks offering roadside barbeque. Many businesses were operated from the windows of homes, like Ruby’s, who prepared delicous ceviche then sold it through her living room window for take-away.

The only option for eating out was casual dining. We found June’s Kitchen and Mar’s Caribbean Garden for homecooked meals.  Directly across from the bay, Scotty’s Crocodile Cove was a relaxing spot with thatched roofs; it was an enjoyable place for a refreshing Belizean brewed Belikin beer and large burritos that could easily feed three people.  The Tortuga Grill, across from the waterfront Rainbow Park, and the Wood House Restaurant, adjacent to Miami Beach, both offered good food and views of the bay.

Corozal enthusiastically supports its art community and one Saturday a month, in the town’s Central Park, holds the Art in the Park event where local artists and craftspeople display and sell their work. It was a fun time, with live music and delicous Belizean food. It’s held between 5pm – 9pm to avoid the heat of the day.  If City Hall is open make sure to check out the fantastic wall mural depicting the history of Corozal, painted by Belizean-Mexican artist Manual Villamor.

The blank concrete block walls of homes and businesses across from Miami Beach were the canvases for street artists invited to participate in the Corozal Graffiti Festival. In 2020 street mural artists from Belize, Cuba, El Salvador and Mexico were invited to enliven the walls with an “Ancient Chactemal” theme. It was a lively event with a music stage, art and crafts for sale, body painting and food vendors. On the beach, the Corozal sailing club was offering catamaran rides on the gentle waters of the bay.

There is an abundance of civic pride displayed in this small, well-kept community on Corozal Bay that is endearing. We barely scratched the surface of places to explore in Belize and were perfectly content “Snow Birds” with our choice of Corozal for a month’s worth of lazy rest and relaxation.  We’d definitely return to explore the surrounding area more fully.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

365 Days on The Road – Our First Year as Nomads

“It’s hell, I tell you!” My heart sank. I only regained my composure and burst into laughter when I turned to see a wry smile across Donna’s face and heard, “I only have three pairs of shoes with me.” Dusty after a full day of game drives, we were sitting on the porch of a small cottage sipping wine in the middle of Schotia, a 1600 hectare (4000 acre) private game reserve, just outside of Port Elizabeth on the Eastern Cape of South Africa, reminiscing about our first nomadic year.  Darkness covered the countryside early in June, the beginning of South Africa’s winter season.  Our guide had just lit the oil lamps a few minutes earlier, handed us a walkie-talkie and said, “Use this to call the owner if there’s an emergency, you’re the only folks here tonight.’’ There were no other lights around except for the moon.  The bush has a life of its own and sounded totally different in the darkness. The owner lived somewhere on the other side of this vast reserve.

We’ve had a great year, but there have been some challenges along the way:  An extremely close encounter with an aggressive bull sea lion and seas rough enough to shake a martini in the Galapagos Islands; playing chicken with chicken-buses in the Ecuadorian Andes on serpentine roads, without guard rails, more suitable for Humvees than tiny sedans. Running into the courtyard of our Airbnb in Cuenca half naked when we felt our first earthquake.  Watching a major eruption of Volcan Fuego, only 9 miles away, from our rooftop in Antigua, Guatemala, and surviving the city’s pyrotechnic Christmas season, which at times can resemble a war zone.  Endured an open coconut-taxi ride during a torrential rain in Cuba while searching for Cuban cigars; pickpockets in Lisbon; tourist information officials in Bulgaria who were better suited to working in a gulag – “FOLLOW THE LINE!!” – than greeting visitors to their beautiful country.  Plus, a husband who snores.

And through all that my gal only wants an extra pair of shoes!  I’ve married the right woman.

We didn’t plan on being the only folks at the game reserve during the middle of the week, but that’s one of the benefits of off-season travel.  Following spring-like conditions around the globe, we’ve been able to avoid hot, humid weather and the crowds.  Plus, the prices are lower for hotels and Airbnb’s. Our traveling budget is intact, so we haven’t had to resort to smuggling, selling blood or that extra kidney.IMG_7406When we retired early, a year ago, we had to choose health insurance or travel.  We made the decision to go without U.S. health insurance, because it’s too damn unaffordable and wouldn’t cover us outside the U.S. anyway.  We chose travel insurance instead, with medical evacuation, and we pay out of pocket for wellness care and dentistry.  Our two years on the road will bridge us until age 65 when we qualify for Medicare.  And it’s surprising how affordable excellent healthcare is in other countries.  We’ve paid $25.00 for an emergency room visit to a private hospital and $5.00 for the prescriptions in Ecuador to treat high altitude sickness.  Our travel insurance paid fully for a visit to an ENT specialist in Lisbon to treat a persistent sinus infection.  I’ve visited dentists in Cuenca, Ecuador for a tooth extraction and bridge; Sofia, Bulgaria for a broken filling; and Cape Town, South Africa for a root canal.  The care has been excellent and extremely inexpensive compared to pricing in the United States.  Though when we are in the United States travel insurance only covers us if we are one hundred miles away from our previous home in Pennsylvania.IMG_0594We plan on purchasing a home when we return to the United States. Right now, though, our budget is plus/minus $1000.00 per month for an apartment.  One thousand per month for housing goes much further overseas than in the states and allows us to live in unique and interesting locales.

The regional cuisine everywhere has been wonderful.  Food is a large part of any travel budget and to keep our expenses down we cook in quite a bit.  We enjoy the experience of shopping like a local and buying different fruits, vegetables and “oh, the breads.”  We’ve purchased meat and chicken from street vendors and learned to arrive early in the morning while the day is still cool to avoid the flies.  Our dieting regime of walk a little then café, walk a little more then café, seems to be working.  We monitor our physical activity with our phone’s health app. Though after a day bouncing through the bush in a Land Rover it credited us with climbing 170 flights of stairs.  No fools we – we ordered two desserts that night.IMG_3737[35074]Restaurants have been refreshingly inexpensive with most meals costing half or less for what you would pay in the states for something similar.   In 99% of the places we’ve dined we haven’t experienced tourist pricing and it’s wonderful.  We did get extremely gouged at a historic café in Porto, Portugal, which wouldn’t have been so bad, but the coffees and pastries were tasteless.  Lamb, fish, oysters and ostrich, pricey things at home, are now on our shopping list.  The wines in Portugal and South Africa are very good.IMG_7034We’ve rented cars in Ecuador, Guatemala, Portugal, Bulgaria and South Africa. Near the Schist villages in the mountains of central Portugal we gave a lift to two hikers, who were exhausted from a long trek without water.  We ended up having a delightful afternoon and lunch with them.  Aside from the deeply rutted dirt roads of the Andes Mountain range in Ecuador, South Africa with its driving on the left has proven to be the most difficult.  We find that a pilot plus navigator system works well, with the latter reminding the pilot to stay left and make very wide right-hand turns.  Interesting traffic signs dot the roads here: Caution Tortoise and Baboons Share this Road Too, Watch for Stray Cattle.  I chuckled to myself when I passed a sign that I thought said Zebras Humping, only to realize a moment later it was a speed bump when I hit it at a pretty good clip.  Caution High Winds – Parents Hold Your Children Firmly by the Hand as there is Mortal Danger of Them Blowing Off, greeted us in the parking lot of a scenic and windy overlook.  South Africa has a well deployed and concealed electronic camera system and we’ve received our first notice of a traffic violation from the rental car company. 

Originally, we were going to spent April and May pet sitting in England, then June, July and August doing two different Workaway assignments, in exchange for free housing in France, in order to budget some extra funds for our push into Africa.  On short notice our first pet sit in England fell through. Next, Donna was sick for several weeks and I fell three times on the same arm, severely bruising it.  With deep introspection we realized we’re not as young as we wish anymore and cancelled our working assignments.  Gardning at a 14th century chateau sounded wonderful, but not in the record 114F heat that France recently experienced.So, we quickly reworked our plans and ended up in of all places Bulgaria, (more on that in future blogs,) for a month, before flying down to Cape Town.  At the end of August, we head to Victoria Falls, bordering Zimbabwe and Botswana, for a few days before flying to Ethiopia to visit the indigenous tribes of the Southern Omo Valley, and the Rock Churches of Lalibela.  Montenegro and Italy will host us until Christmas when we’ll return to the states to celebrate it with our family.  Our route for 2020 hasn’t been determined yet.

When shopping for souvenirs we try to buy directly from local craftspeople and have learned that if an item is very inexpensive it was probably made in China.  Cheap Chinese imports are undercutting the livelihoods of many local craftspeople around the world.  I don’t want my tourist dollars inadvertently supporting rich Chinese businessmen who purchase poached rhino horn for use in folk remedies.  China’s traditional medicine practitioners are the only market for poached rhino horn.  Three rhinos are killed every day to support this illicit trade and China needs to stop turning a blind eye to it.  In Cuba we witnessed widespread poverty, the effects of a failed communist state.  Tourists dollars greatly help aspiring entrepreneurs and local economies grow.  Why the U.S. is restricting travel again to Cuba is beyond me.  We conduct business with China, forgetting its reprehensible human rights record, but not Cuba only ninety miles from Miami. Go figure.

Many of our most memorable moments have been conversations around communal dining tables sharing stories, adventures and tips with inn keepers, guides and fellow travelers.  In many of the places we’ve been “we don’t get many Americans here” is a common refrain. Travel – it’s good for the soul and opens a window of empathy that you can’t find sitting in an armchair watching the nightly news.

Till next time,

Craig – Suitcase #2

Now for a different perspective on our nomadic year check out Suitcase #1, Donna’s blog at: https://bornwithgypsyshoes.com/2019/07/02/a-look-back-one-year-of-being-homeless-jobless-and-uninsured/

P.S. The 2suitcasesfor2years blogs run about 8 weeks behind our actual travel dates.  You can also follow 2suitcasesfor2years on Instagram for more great photography.

Two Hundred Fifty-Three Days on the Road

cropped-img_4837The good news is we haven’t killed each other, though there have been times that I’ve dreamt a pillow was hovering over my head. Just kidding.  We have gone from the two of us working six days a week while living in an eight-room house, to being together 24/7 with only a suitcase each.  Boy did we downsize! It was challenging: what not to bring, considering all the seasonal changes we have encountered.  Don’t laugh, but I have thermals, wool hats and gloves packed, just on the off chance we get snowed in on a mountain pass in the French Alps, this July.  Yes, there’s also a flask of medicinal whisky packed in the bags for emergencies.  And to my wife’s amusement, a cheap plastic fly swatter.  Tragically the backup swatter was left behind in Antigua.  In Lisbon I finally caved in and bought a pair of slippers because the floors of the stone buildings just don’t retain any heat in the winter.  The comfort of a pair of slippers in the evening, after a long day of walking, can’t be underestimated.IMG_8406It’s been a huge but surprisingly easy transition for us. 253 days ago (I thought I was writing this at around day 200, it’s easy to lose track of time on the road) we slammed the door shut on our storage pod, locked it, and popped open a bottle of champagne to celebrate our impending journey. We haven’t looked back.  Ecuador, Guatemala, Cuba and now Portugal; I can’t imagine undertaking this adventure with anyone else.

The Airbnb revolution has greatly contributed to our concept of slow travel, allowing us to immerse ourselves in a location for an extended period of time and to enjoy a community to its fullest. Experiencing a festive Christmas season and an explosive New Year’s celebration in Antigua, Guatemala, was extraordinary and something we wouldn’t have appreciated as much if we were just passing through.

We felt a little blue being away from our kids and their families during Christmas. The irony that we, and not the children, broke with the family tradition first was not lost on us.  A three week visit back to the States in mid-January to see everyone helped tremendously.img_0864 This visit also gave us an opportunity to jettison the wonderful textiles and ceramics we had purchased along the way for a home we don’t have yet.  Imagine this scene from our last stop in San Pedro – the backseat of a tuk-tuk overflowing with Donna and all our suitcases, while I’m sharing the driver’s seat with the driver, one cheek on, one cheek off and a foot dangling outside the cab as we speedily snaked through the steep narrow alleys of the village. 

Shopping in the central markets and street markets of each city has been wonderful as cooking is essential to keeping within our budget, though the size of some of our kitchens have tested our creative culinary abilities.  The exotic fruits available to us in Ecuador were amazing and we tried many that we were unfamiliar with.

In Olon we bought the catch of the day from the fish monger as be pushed his cart through town. Guatemala yielded remarkably flavorful vegetables.  We had a memorable culinary carrot experience there, go figure. This from a home gardener is quite a statement. Like our neighbors in the Alfama district, we are hanging our laundry out the windows to dry in the Lisbon fresh air. Our stays in each place have ranged from four to ten weeks.  I favor the longer stays whereas Donna prefers a shorter visit. 

There have been challenges negotiating the medical systems in Ecuador and Portugal only because we haven’t known the protocol of the local doctors.  We have been extremely impressed by the care we have received from the medical professionals in these countries for altitude sickness and a persistent upper respiratory infection.  The out of pocket costs have been remarkably inexpensive in comparison to the U.S. medical system.IMG_8692 Not everything has gone smoothly.  A rental car agency did not honor a reservation and we had to scramble to find another one late one night in the airport.  We have felt very safe during our travels, but there are unfortunately some extremely talented pickpockets out there. May the curse of arthritis shorten their careers!  Filing a stolen property report in Lisbon with the tourist police turned out to be an enjoyable experience due to the officer assigned to us.  Luckily, within 24-hours they called us with the good news that our wallet had been recovered, minus the cash of course, but that our passport and credit cards were all there.  Honestly, we weren’t following our own advice: only carry in your pockets what you are willing to lose.  Everything else of value needs to be carried under your clothing.IMG_8596After Lisbon it’s a two-week road trip through Portugal. Then we are off to, of all places, Sofia, Bulgaria for a month, (the Beatles song “Back in the USSR” keeps coming to mind) in order to reset our Schengen union days for later in the summer.  After that, two dog sits in England and two Workaway experiences in France at a 14th century chateau await us before we resume our life of leisure in Kotor, Montenegro, in September.img_0669We have shared meals and stories with so many wonderful and interesting people along the way.  These friends have made this journey what it is – fantastic! 

Kindness and a smile go a long way in this world.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

 

 

San Pedro la Laguna on Lake Atitlan – The Road Was Un-named

img_1653The scenery along the drive to Lake Atitlan, along roads that continued to climb higher, was spectacular with verdant greenery and distant volcanos appearing then disappearing again with each twist of the serpentine route. img_1668Arriving in San Pedro we thought we were on a movie set for a sequel to Mad Max or Water World.  Down by the Panajachel dock dreadlocked travelers, wearing eccentric attire, filled the streets along the lakeshore.  Feeling as if we had time traveled, we were relieved to find our Airbnb far out of town on a dead-end road that ran along the lake.  According to Google maps the road was unnamed.  Our host said “tell the tuktuk drivers you are staying on Calle Finca,” which referred to a distant and abandoned coffee farm, about an hour’s walk from the trail head at the end of the road.img_0540-2Our new home for our last week in Guatemala had a wonderful porch with great view of Lake Atitlan and tranquility.  A relaxing change of pace was called for after the Christmas and New Year’s Day celebrations in Antigua.  Bird calls or the soft Mayan chatter of coffee pickers, harvesting ripe beans right outside our door, were the only sounds that filled the air.  Fortunately, we were much closer to town than the abandoned coffee finca and were able to walk to the daily outdoor market, along streets where we could see women washing clothing in the distant lake, and make-shift scales were set up to buy coffee beans hauled down from the slopes of Volcan San Pedro.

As we neared the market the streets became steeper than those in San Francisco, CA.  Every morning vendors set up vegetable, poultry, meat, flower and used clothing stands.  The fish monger displayed freshly caught fish, pulled from Lake Atitlan earlier in the morning, still flapping in baskets along the edge of the road.  And multiple varieties of avocadoes were available to satisfy our cravings for them.  San Pedro lacked a proper super market, so if we wanted meat or chicken, we had to purchase it here.  The key to buying meat or poultry was to go first thing in the morning, before the heat of the day and most importantly before the flies started to stir.  Shopping this way, we did not have any issues with the meat, poultry or vegetables we bought.  There were several small panaderias in the blocks around the market that had great baked goods. We rounded out our pantry with fresh eggs, yogurt and coffee from the farmer next door to us.  Large numbers of tourists didn’t seem to venture up the steep streets of San Pedro away from the waterfront, which was filled with coffee cafes, art galleries, hostels, restaurants, and bars.

Aside from researching an affordable and charming place to stay on Lake Atitlan we didn’t know much about San Pedro La Laguna itself.  Fortunately, we were able to reach out to one of our Instagram followers who does medical missions to the area several times a year. Cathy was right on with her coffee and dining recommendations.  Straight uphill from the Panajachel ferry dock, Luis at Cafe Las Cristalinas brewed a great cup of coffee and served wonderful empanadas, among other delights as promised.  On the street that follows the shoreline, La Terraza Coffee Shop & Kitchen offered a quiet respite and a wonderful view of Indian Nose mountain towering over the village of San Juan, just across the lake.  Closer to the Santiago Atitlan ferry dock at Restaurant Idea Connection we enjoyed their Italian menu and coconut macaroons, outside in the garden. The brunch offered on Saturdays and Sundays at El Barrio can’t be missed if you are in San Pedro over a weekend.  Plan on eating only one meal the day you choose to go, so that you can fully enjoy their incredible and very affordable four course brunch.  Smokin Joe’s BBQ has a store on this side of town which sells local and imported meats, all vacuum sealed and frozen.  We were impressed with their selection.img_0767A short ferry ride took us to San Juan La Laguna, a weavers and artists village that visually celebrates its Mayan heritage with colorful street murals.  The steep walk uphill from the boat dock to the center of town was lined with art galleries.

The streets at the top of the hill of were full of various weaver’s cooperatives that use locally grown cotton, wool or bamboo and only natural dyes.  Here we serendipitously stumbled across the Casa Flor Ixcaco, the first weaver’s cooperative in San Juan, founded in 1996 with only five members.  Today more than 100 women support their families through this weaving cooperative.  The variety of designs created on backstrap looms and the color range they created from natural dyes was amazing.   The question here was “what not to buy?” because everything was so beautiful.img_0864Six years ago, when we first visited the lake, we stayed at Posada de Santiago in Santiago de Atitlan and met Carolina, an American expat who has been in Guatemala going on thirty years now.  We’ve stayed in touch over the years.  Being so close by, a reunion was in order.IMG_1019It’s a long ferry ride to Santiago de Atitlan and even longer when the wind churns up whitecaps on the water, and the small boat we were in rocked side-to-side for the duration of the crossing.  We silently said our prayers when the local folks stated to reach for the life preservers.  Fortunately, we were never too far from shore and know how to swim.  It is a breathtaking view coming into the boat dock at Santiago with its namesake volcano towering over the town and Volcan San Pedro just an avocado toss away, across the water.

The waterfront seemed the same with kids swimming and women doing laundry in the lake, but the walk up to the tuktuks overwhelmed with craft stands and vendors calling out their sales pitch.  Lunch was as delicous as we remembered at Posada de Atitlan and as wonderfully lively as we anticipated with Carolina.  Very interesting embroidery art by the late artist Antonio Ramirez Sosóf hung on display in the restaurant. These are truly amazing pieces of cultural art that were all delicately hand stitched and depicted indigenous and Mayan culture around the lake.img_0669Enjoying the stars from our porch we were surprised when fireworks celebrating Epiphany lit up the night sky above villages across the lake, their colorful bursts reflected brilliantly on the water.  With magical moments like this, still fresh in our memories, Guatemala tugged at our hearts as we packed for our next adventure.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

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Antigua – Snow Birds in Paradise

img_0920Paradise is such a subjective feeling and if you don’t require a turquoise blue sea and white sand beaches, Antigua, Guatemala just might fit the bill.  This charming colonial city with its ever spring-like weather was perfect for our two-month stay. img_6117We arrived in Antigua at the end of October so that we could attend the Sumpango Giant Kite Festival held every year on November 1st, All Saints Day.  That spectacularly colorful event and a religious procession that burst forward from La Merced Church on October 28th would prove to be representative of the people and life in Guatemala we experienced.

Settling into our spacious two-bedroom Airbnb on Alameda Santa Lucia, with views of the three volcanos surrounding Antigua, was a breeze after living in two studio apartments and a boat cabin in Ecuador. At first, we thought the cost of living in Guatemala was going to be considerably higher than that of Ecuador, but that was due to eating dinner out the first couple of days before we got fully settled.  The dinner restaurants in Ecuador are considerably less expensive than those in Guatemala, but once we started shopping in the central market our food expenses dropped dramatically. We were delighted with the freshness and quality of the local produce. img_9629On Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays the market tripled in size when the outdoor portion was open, and farmers brought in truckloads of fruits and vegetables from the surrounding villages. There we experienced one of the best markets going, set in a bustling, dusty lot with Volcans Agua, Fuego and Acatenango touching the sky in the background.  Most produce was sold in quantities of 5 quetzals (60 cents) so bring lots of small bills, as vendors didn’t usually have change for anything larger than 10Q.  The flavor of the locally grown vegetables was amazing. Being backyard gardeners ourselves, we were duly impressed.  Twenty quetzals would buy enough vegetables for a week.

On Sundays we would walk to Caoba Farm, just on the outskirts of town, for their organic produce and stay for their brunch, which featured live music in a beautiful outdoor setting.  They have mastered the farm-to-table restaurant concept.img_8874Shopping at the local supermarket, La Bodegona, was a wonderfully hectic experience.  At times it could feel like you were shopping from a conga line, weaving up and down aisles, afraid to leave the line for fear of not being able to enter it again and being stuck in dairy for eternity.  Numerous store employees lined the aisles offering samples of cookies, deli meats, drinks and other temptations to keep the energy level of the beast alive. It was a hoot! We had to psych ourselves up, like players before the big game, to shop there because it was so hectic and required a certain mental and physical stamina.  I will confess though to dancing in the checkout line to blaring Latino Christmas music – the mood was contagious. img_0714 On the same block D&C Cremas, a Walmart affiliate, offered a more sedate shopping experience. Both supermarkets had excellent poultry, which was more tender and tastier than back in Pennsylvania.  We were also fortunate that a pork butcher opened a new shop a half block away and offered fresh meat and sausage daily.  We enjoyed all the different varieties of Guatemalan sausage he made and found them to be very flavorful and lean, with almost no fat.

Antigua was a delight to explore on foot.  Charm, color and textures greeted us around every corner.  Every open doorway revealed something of interest.  Old colonial doorknockers featuring various faces, animals or hands graced many of the doors and we became intrigued by their artistry.  There are still several metalsmiths in town that cast and forge these works of art.

Most folks greeted us with a “Buena Dia” as they passed us on the sidewalk, though navigating the sidewalk hazards could be challenging at times.  Our early weeks were spent exploring the ruins of convents and cathedrals destroyed in a 1773 earthquake. This cataclysmic event led to Antigua being abandoned as Guatemala’s capital and left as a forgotten backwater to evolve unchanged into a charming UNESCO heritage site. Today Antigua is a very cosmopolitan, old colonial city with sophisticated dining and museums, yet still retains a quaint authenticity with its Spanish architecture and cobblestone streets which haven’t changed for centuries.  Many local women still wear traditional, locally woven blouses – guipils, created from the textiles for which Guatemala is renowned, which adds tremendously to the cultural atmosphere of the community.  Antigua had a genuine character that we hadn’t experienced to this extent before.

Finding our new favorite spots was a fun quest we eagerly embarked upon. There were many choices: our favorite coffee café is Fernando’s; a roof-top bar with the best view is Café Sky; there were five wonderful panaderias, bakeries, among which we rotated.  Six years ago, when we first visited Guatemala and Antigua, it was difficult to find a good cup of coffee. Instant coffee was served nearly everywhere, since the good beans were saved to be exported, and cappuccinos were unheard of.  Now the barista culture is firmly embraced, and cappuccinos have become a competitive art form.

Our calendar for November and December filled quickly with fun and interesting activities to attend.  The city sponsors many free events such as concerts on the central plaza; an annual Flower Festival, November 17th, which runs along the same street as the iconic arch; and the annual Waiters Race (Carrera de las Charolas) that starts early in the morning, so no one misses work. On November 14th. hundreds of waiters and waitresses filled the starting lines at the central plaza and, for cash prizes, zoomed around several city blocks to the cheers from a mostly local crowd.  Saturday afternoons found us heading to the Santa Catalina Arch to watch wedding parties pose for photographs amidst admiring spectators under the iconic symbol of Antigua.

December 1st brought the first music concert of the Christmas season. It was held in the ruins of Antigua’s first cathedral, behind Iglesia de la Escuela de Cristo, just off the central plaza. The musicians and audience sat under arches now open to the stars.  Christmas carols reverberated off the ancient walls which provided amazing acoustics.  The concert ended with fireworks bursting over the open domes. And then the spectacular and noisy religious festivals and processions of December began.  Guatemalans love their FIREWORKS!! And I swear every family has an arsenal of them at home, under the beds.  Some peaceful religious events resembled imagery seen on the nightly news, of war-torn streets filled with smoke and the sound of large explosions.  The smell of gunpowder was ever present and filled the air.  It was difficult to find a comprehensive list of local events, but InGuat, the Guatemalan tourism agency, compiles a list of events that changes every day and it is available on their Facebook page.  OkAntigua.com proved to be a good resource for upcoming events, also.  Around town shops and restaurants hung posters announcing activities too.

For a change of pace, we rented a car from Renta Autos de Guatemala, that went very well.  The cobblestoned streets of Antigua quickly changed to smooth pavement as we headed to Santa Maria de Jesus which is high up on the slope of Volcan Agua. In the evenings we could see the lights of this village from our rooftop.  They don’t get many visitors up there, so this village was a wonderful destination for a very authentic market day. After getting directions at the communal laundry basin we found everything you could imagine on sale in front of the church: hand crafted guipils, cooking utensils, fruit, fresh fish from the Pacific and Lake Atitlan, and rabbit hutches to name a few. Fried iguana was available for the willing.  Horses carried jugs of water for home delivery and hay for animals out in distant fields down the streets around the market.  And women carried those rabbit hutches home on top of their heads.

Lower on the slope of Volcan Agua, San Juan del Obispo offered the colonial era Bishop’s Palace and a chance to taste some wine made from locally grown nispero fruit, for which the town is famous.  Knock loudly on the door so the nuns can hear you and usher you inside for a tour.  The plaza behind the former bishops’ residence has a beautiful church and a nice view of Antigua.  Just uphill and around a corner from the palace is Casa Museo Luis De Lion.  This is a small family-run museum dedicated to the Guatemalan poet who celebrated his country in verse.  Today it doubles as a child care center for children displaced from their homes by the frequent eruptions of Volcan Fuego.  Musicians travel from as far as Guatemala City to give these young children free music lessons. It’s a wonderful program run by dedicated staff.

Most of the beautiful textiles you see for purchase in Antigua are crafted in San Antonio Aguas Calientes, so we decided to check out the source.  At Mercado de la Artesanía, we watched women create intricate weavings on their back-strap looms as they sat on the floor in front of their stalls.  Upstairs the sales pressure was less intense, and we found Anna, a delightful weaver who pleasantly shared her life with us.  I turned away for moment only to find Donna fully clad in traditional clothing when I turned backed.

Pastores offered handmade leather boots and shoes, for unbelievable prices, in shops that lined both sides of the road.  A week later we returned, via Uber, to pick up our custom fitted boots. Cost $40.00 per pair. On our way back, we diverted to Finca Filadelfia, a quiet coffee plantation, to review our shopping expedition and plan further adventures with our wheels.img_1797The next day we a followed a serpentine mountain road, second gear all the way, up to Santo Domingo del Cerro, a beautiful sculpture and art park with museums, walking trails and a restaurant that overlooks Antigua.  Plan on spending at least a half day there, because it is a beautiful setting for a restful day or afternoon. Casa Santo Domingo offers a free hourly shuttle to the park from the hotel in town.

For the nine days before Christmas, Las Posadas de Navidads proceeded through the neighborhoods of Antigua. Each evening smaller processions, led by fireworks and accompanied by a band and carolers bearing torches, carried a small float of the Holy Family door to door to a different home, re-enacting their search for shelter as they traveled to Bethlehem. Arriving at the predetermined host for the night they sing, “In the name of God, we ask for shelter, for my beloved wife cannot walk.” (En el hombre del cielo, os pido posada, pues no puede andar mi esposa amada.)  It is considered a great honor and blessing to be a host, and the family provides the participants in the procession with traditional food and drink after the statues are brought into the home.  Home town Saint Hermano Pedro started this tradition in 1663.

On Christmas Eve we watched from our rooftop as the surrounding countryside exploded in a spectacular display of fireworks.  All around us our neighbors and families near and far, lit the night sky for at least two hours.  The night’s fireworks displays rivaled July 4th celebrations in the states.  Instead of our usual cold northeast weather and a large family gathering, our first Christmas away from home was celebrated with weather in the high 70’s, blue skies and shirtsleeves.  It was odd because we had broken a tradition and we were a little blue because of it.  Then again it was warm and sunny, Feliz Navidad!! I think we have quickly become snowbirds. img_2637Antigua filled early with people in all their finery on New Year’s. Vendors selling textiles the day before were now offering party hats and all sort of 2019 memorabilia. Concerts were held in Plaza Mayor and under El Arco.  Firework launchers were being setup amidst the crowds in the streets. Families were picnicking in the park and folks were staking their spots early to watch the fireworks later.  At midnight a loud and colorful display filled the night sky. We could hear the roar of an appreciative crowd from our rooftop.  We heard random explosions throughout the night to sunrise.  Guatemalans love their fireworks!

Two days later we boarded a tourist shuttle to San Pedro La Laguna for our last week in Guatemala.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna