A "Tehuantepecker" blows at 50 knots.
On another day and in a better mood.
We make our crossing in dead calm.
A cute pooch waits to sniff the next boat.
Colonial architecture and ornamentation is Antigua's
Pretty cobblestone streets get much needed repair.
Antigua is nestled in the mountains.
Mayans sell colorful weavings in front of a
The most popular form of transportation is small
"McDonalds is my kind of place..."
"...my kind of happy place."
A sleek Porsche sets up the view of the cathedral.
The town lives for tourists.
Handmade chocolate bars.
Steel doors with viewing windows
protect the inhabitants inside.
The open air market.
Musicians set up street-side.
A bike shop where we picked up a pair of
awesome Guatemala jerseys.
A display of antique bikes.
Painted schoolbus that tourists are advised to avoid.
Our bus back to Mexico weaves through a bicycle race.
Late February, 2012 - We returned to Huatulco from our inspiring days in Oaxaca, and focused our thoughts on crossing the
dreaded Gulf of Tehuantepec, a 250 mile stretch of coast between Huatulco and Puerto Chiapas that is prone to horrific storms
affectionately nicknamed "Tehuantepeckers." During these vicious blows the wind howls from the north in the Gulf of Mexico,
then crosses Mexico's narrow isthmus and finally accelerates to gale force once it hits the Pacific on the south side.
The trick to crossing this gulf is timing, as the Tehuantepec blows and calms down at regular intervals all winter long. Armed
with today's sophisticated weather forecasting and a bit of patience, it is not too hard to find a good time to make the jump. The
conventional wisdom is to wait for a three-day window of calm weather. We were lucky and got six.
Since the crossing takes a typical cruising boat anywhere from 32 to 48
hours, this allowed us plenty of time. Cruisers are advised to follow the
coastline with "one foot on the beach" (very close to shore) in case all
hell breaks loose unexpectedly, but we shot nearly straight across the
gulf in 36 hours of flat calm water and still air. We arrived at the brand
new Marina Chiapas rested and smiling.
We were now just 16 miles from the Guatemalan border, and the
check-in process included a boarding by four members of the Navy
and a cabin check by a drug-sniffing dog. The dog arrived with booties
on his feet so he wouldn't scratch up the boat. Very polite.
This marina is a great place to leave the boat for inland
explorations, and after a few days we packed our
backpacks and took an 8 hour bus ride to Antigua,
Guatemala. The distance isn't that far, but the bus
probably averaged 30 mph at best, as the roads were
twisty and there were lots of "topes," or speed bumps,
plus we made lots of stops.
The most important
stop was at the
where we all shuffled
off the bus, checked
out of Mexico,
walked across the border, and then checked into Guatemala. In the distance we saw people
crossing the river that defines the border, wading waist deep in water from one side to the
other, perhaps in an effort to avoid all the official border crossing paperwork. The border
area was chaotic with vendors filing the streets and money changers approaching us
constantly with wads of Mexican pesos and Guatemalan Quetzales clutched in their fists.
Our bus conductor shuttled us through the mayhem and we re-boarded our bus on the other
side, suddenly conscious that we were no longer in the familiar land of Mexico.
As the bus climbed and descended the mountainous terrain, we
crossed endless streams and rivers where women were
washing their families' clothes on the rocks. As the day wore
on and the washing was finished, each river we crossed was
strewn with clothes lying on the rocks to dry. We passed men walking alongside oxen and horses
carrying heavy loads, and we saw vast fields of sugar cane stretching into the distance.
Well after dark the road widened and the lights grew thick as we
approached Guatemala City. Suddenly our world was transformed
from extreme rural poverty to the glittering glitz and glam of new
wealth. Our fast, wide, multi-lane highway carried us at top speed
between flashy new buildings, and we watched in awe as all the
chain stores we have ever known flew past our window. The bus
station was deep downtown, however, and our driver had to slow to
a crawl and creep around sharp turns on narrow colonial streets
between crumbling antique buildings. We got stuck at one turn
where a parked car made it impossible for the bus to get around the corner without damaging
something. The driver hopped out, enlisted the help of a nearby cop and, to cheers from the
passengers, bent a large metal street sign back to allow the bus to pass without getting too
Once at the terminal, our bus conductor helped us negotiate a taxi ride
to Antigua, and soon we were being whisked along those same decrepit
inner city streets in a cab. At a red light the driver reached over and
manually locked each of the four doors of the cab. Mark and I
exchanged a look of surprise as we both us silently acknowledged that
we were truly in a new country.
Quetzales are currently about 7.7 to the US dollar, and I began
thinking about quick ways to handle this new exchange rate in
my head. I calculated and recalculated the gas prices I saw
posted at the gas stations, stunned by the prices. Gas was
nearly $5 per gallon, a far cry from the $3.30 or so that was
typical in Mexico. After about 45 minutes we arrived in Antigua.
It was around 7:30 pm, and we were surprised to find the
streets nearly empty. We had to ring the doorbell next to the
sturdy steel front door of our hotel to be let in. After dropping
off our bags in our room, we asked for suggestions of where to
get a bite to eat.
The hotel manager shrugged noncommittally and suggested we'd find something
within a few blocks. We took off into the night and walked a star pattern around our
hotel. The only people we saw on the streets were a handful of loud gringo tourists. It
took a good bit of walking before we found a restaurant that was open. A single gringo
patron was at the bar drinking a beer. The waitress was sullen. We ate in silence in a
room full of empty tables. Where the heck was everybody? The tab for two beers and
a small plate of french fries came to over $10. This was definitely not Mexico.
By day the mood
filled the streets
and we found them
peopled with tall
English in various
accents and tiny
Mayans selling woven textiles. The
architecture was wonderfully decorative
and old, and the narrow streets were all
cobbled, many in need of repair.
Antigua is known for its immersion
Spanish schools, and we had come hoping to take a week or two of classes
while living with a Guatemalan family during our stay. Apparently that was
why most other people were in town as well. There is a Spanish school on
every corner and several more on every street in between. There must be a
hundred Spanish language schools in this small town.
The teaching method is tutorial, and the price is generally $100 per week for
4 hours a day of tutorial work and $90 per week for a home stay that includes
meals with the family. All over town we saw pairs of people walking, sitting,
pointing and talking. Each pair was made up of one Guatemalan teacher and
one gringo student actively engaged in Spanish tutorials. Many solitary
gringos carried books around town, and students could be spotted
everywhere crouched over homework, their dictionaries, textbooks and
notebooks spread out on bistro tables next to their cups of coffee.
We took photos freely, trying to get the warm
and fuzzies for this odd place. After an hour
or so, however, Mark commented that he felt
really uncomfortable wearing his camera and wouldn't bring it out
again on our explorations around town. He found it attracted way
too much attention -- people were staring at it.
One of the best things we found in Antigua was its amazing
McDonald's, definitely the prettiest one we have ever seen anywhere.
It has a beautiful outdoor seating area with cushioned seats and sofas
(very popular for tutorial Spanish lessons). Its delightful shaded patio
looks out onto a lush garden filled with flowers. Ronald McDonald sits
on the park bench in the middle of the garden, his arms outstretched
on the back of the bench, inviting folks to take a seat and get a photo
with his iconic figure.
We stopped in and filled our
gringo tummies to the brim.
How awesome it was after
months of tacos to savor
one of the new Angus
burgers! We sat back and
relaxed for a moment, until
Mark noticed that a little kid
had made his way into the
bushes next to us to within
arm's reach of our table and
was eyeing up my camera
in front of me. "That kid is really interested in your
camera…" Mark commented. I grabbed it and
put it in my backpack. There was a creepiness
to this town that we were not accustomed to
feeling in Mexico.
The church ruins around town were lovely in a
way, but most had an air of abandonment.
Antigua is situated in a zone rich with
earthquakes, and each glorious cathedral and
church has been gutted repeatedly by
centuries of tremors and shakes.
The tourist map shows numbered streets that
are laid out with avenues in one direction and
streets in another. The street signs, however,
harken back to an earlier era when the streets had names that weren't numbers. So we felt our
way around town by becoming familiar with landmarks. However, because all the streets look
somewhat alike, the best landmarks turned out to be the people that inhabited the streets. Take
a left at the guy in the white shirt with no legs who lies on his back and holds out a tin cup (he's
on that corner everyday). Take a right at the man in the dark blue jacket who's missing both a
foot and an arm and reaches his good hand towards you clutching a shiny Quetzal coin in hopes
that you'll give him another.
In stark contrast, parked a few feet from the old woman in the tattered shawl who was hunched
over her begging basket was a brand new Porsche with Guatemalan plates. A few cars
down was a glistening BMW. Big shiny Range Rovers were common. Between these fancy
cars, over at one of the town's large public fountains, a line of women washed their families'
clothes in the outdoor pools under the
ancient church's stone arches. Tiny
tuk-tuks zipped all over the place,
ferrying people on bumpy rides up
and down the matrix of streets.
On our third day, in an effort to get
comfortable in this rather inhospitable
town, we moved from one hotel to
another a few streets away. We tried
to take one of these tuk-tuks so we
wouldn't have to carry our bags.
The hotel matron had told us not
to pay more than $1.50 for
the ride, but none of the
drivers would go that low,
and all drove off in disgust at
the idea of taking us a few
streets for less than $3. We
walked instead and were
glad for the exercise. In
Mexico, five mile taxi rides in
real cars were routinely just
$2 or so. Our sticker shock
in Antigua just didn't stop.
We had narrowed down our
school choice to either the highly rated (and new)
Antigua Plaza or to tutorials and a home-stay with a woman who taught
independently and had been recommended by a fellow cruiser. Both seemed
like they could be wonderful situations for improving our Spanish. But in
discussing life in Antigua with the school director we were strongly advised not to
go out at night, not to carry more than a few dollars in our pockets at any time,
and never to show our cameras in public. We were assured the school was safe
behind it's solid locked gate (and the outdoor setting for class tutorials in the
colorful garden was absolutely lovely), but the director confessed that she
preferred not to go out much herself.
An older woman walking her dog in a stroller caught our eye that afternoon and
we struck up a conversation. She had lived in Antigua for as an ex-pat for 12
years. "Don't go out at night," she suddenly said. "Don't carry more than $10 in
your pocket. And don't let anyone see your camera!" Here was the same
unsolicited advice again!! She explained that tourists and business people have
been targeted by "express-kidnappers" who zip up on a scooter
and either run the victim around town to ATMs to empty their bank
account, or strip them of their belongings at gun point. A woman
who refused to give up her bag in a recent robbery in
Antigua had been shot in broad daylight. "Things have
gotten really bad in the last six months," she told us.
Both of our hotels were barricaded by large doors that
were locked at all times. Guests were not given keys to
these front doors but instead had to ring a doorbell to be let
in. At night each hotel had a second steel door that
provided extra protection. When you rang the bell the
manager slid open a small window and peered out at you
before letting you in.
Antigua seemed to wear a superficial veil of prettiness over
a dark inner core of of fear.
We looked for signs of normalcy around town, for people who lived and worked in
Antigua outside of the tourist trade. We found few. There were none of the typical
Mexican tienda convenience stores or fruit stands or grocery stores or hardware
stores or clothing stores or pharmacies that make a community livable. A handful of tiny closet-sized stores sold
Budweiser-equivalent beer for $2 a can ($12 a six-pack) and expensive packaged snacks. Spontaneous smiles from the
locals were almost nonexistent.
The only place that offered a feeling of
congeniality was the large open air market at one
end of town. Here we saw imported fruits
(Washington apples) and local fruits and
vegetables of all kinds. Heading into the large
tents at the back of the market we discovered
where American designer clothes end up once
they've been marked all the way down. Racks
and racks of brand new clothes filled the back of
and a few still
showing their original
store tags, these brand new
designer label clothes were strung
up alongside used duds. We were
amazed to be able to buy a brand
new pair of Levi jeans, tags and all,
for $4 and several pairs of new
name-brand shorts for even less.
The economics in Antigua baffled
us. If the folks on the street had
seemed happy it would have been a
lot less unsettling.
We left Antigua after four days never having
gotten comfortable enough anywhere in town
to stay for a whole week of Spanish classes.
Other cruisers who had been to Antigua in
years past thought we were crazy not to have
fallen in love with the city, and other travelers
will surely have different experiences. But for
us it was a place we were very glad to leave
behind. Upon crossing the border back into
Mexico we both looked at each other and
laughed, saying, "Thank goodness we're back
The homes seemed better kept, there was a lot less trash on the roads, and
in no time we saw the happy grins and heard the exuberant laughter of the
locals that make Mexico so much fun.
Upon our return to Groovy in the marina at Puerto Chiapas, I researched the
travel advisories from the UK, Canada and the US to Guatemala, El Salvador
and Honduras to try to find out whether the scary vibe we felt in Antigua was justified. I discovered the warnings to each of
those countries are not only severe but are expressed in a totally different tone than those to Mexico. Even with the terrible
drug wars, the murder rate in Mexico in 2011 was 18 per 100,000, about the same as Atlanta. In Guatemala it is 41, a little
higher than Detroit (34) but less than St. Louis (45) which is the highest in the US. El Salvador's murder rate is 71 per 100,000
(the second highest in the world) while the rate in Honduras tops it, for first place, at a whopping 86.
Unlike Mexico where tourists have not historically been targeted by violent criminals (until
the recent bus robbery in Puerto Vallarta), tourists in these other countries have been
targeted along with business people because of their perceived wealth. Although each
advisory was quick to point out that the vast majority of travelers never have any trouble,
they also helped us come to grips with the unnerving sense of danger that we felt while we
were there. An El Salvadorian on the bus with us back to Mexico told us there had been 20
murders in his small village in the last two months. Not mincing words for a moment he
said quite plainly, "El Salvador is a beautiful country, but I wouldn't recommend that you
travel inland there now."
We settled back into life in the brand new Marina Chiapas for a few days. We were one of
just three boats staying there, as construction around the marina was still in full swing and a
dredge blocked the entrance to the marina. Not sure which direction to head with Groovy,
we decided instead to take another inland tour, this time on the Mexican side of the border
through the intriguing Chiapas countryside to the charming colonial city of San Cristobal
de las Casas.
Find Antigua on Mexico Maps.