Up the coast to Guatemala

(22nd – 25th)

Now that we are heading north up of the coast of the land mass of Central America we are beginning to see more signs of life in the sea around us. We do come across the occasional frieghter swiftly passing a mile or so away in the opposite direction, something that we did not witness in our crossing of the Antlantic, but the real interest is the appearance of wildlife.

This morning after breakfast (23rd) Sue and I stood on the top deck overlooking the prow of the ship, fascinated to watch the seabirds (no idea what species) using the updraft of the ship to maintain their weaving back and forth flight as they waited patiently for startled flying fish to burst out from the waves. Frightened by the noise and motion of the Columbus they took to the air, fins outstretched, desperate to escape the perceived danger from below, seemingly unaware of the real danger from above. As the fish took to the air, often in groups, the waiting predators reacted instantly, diving as fighter pilots on the tail of their enemy. Those fish that elected to skim at length over the rolling Pacific waves were the most fool hardy, however the spectacle provided the greatest excitement for the ship borne watchers, would the chasing bird catch up before they splashed into the safety of the waves? Even so, sanctuary was not guaranteed, if the bird was close enough, he too would follow into the depths, creating a blurred streak of bubbles within the deep blue. If successful, they would appear again on the surface and remain awhile swallowing the flash of silver gripped firmly in their beaks, otherwise they would instantly take to the air and like a good “Ace” join the combat again.

A little later we were delighted to see two turtles frantically paddling to avoid being sucked into the bow wave of the ship, happily they made it with ease, but it looked a good workout for them.

Onboard there are many daily one-off activities happening to amuse the passengers, as well as the usual quizzes, games, lectures, clubs and film shows, one deserves a mention. Through our daily update magazine the passengers had been invited to submit a structure that would enable an egg from breaking when dropped from Deck 14 onto Deck 12, and be closest to a target. I have a few engineer friends that would have loved such a competition and it appears so did a large number of passengers. It was a hoot. Some of the structures seemed to come straight out of the ‘Whacky Races’ factory and so did their creators, but most worked (in a fashion) and it wasn’t a matter of accuracy but downright luck as to who won. I hope they do this again, I may give it a go.

On one of the sea days, Sue had another story to tell when we met again after separate activities. An elderly Welsh lady in her eighties related to her why she was cruising alone. She should have had the company of a friend who she had paid all the costs for (including insurance and trips), as her friend could not afford to do so herself. However, prior to travelling, her friend had medical problems that meant she couldn’t travel, but on the insurance declaration she hadn’t declared that she had previous medical issues or that she had a scheduled medical appointment. Naturally, the company rejected the claim for compensation of costs. Bad enough you would think, but since the Welsh ladies husband had died in 2000, her friend had also been living with her rent and food free. To make things even worse, she had also just amended her will to state that if she died first, her friend could live in the property rent free until she too passed away, then it would become the property of her own daughter. A very sad state of affairs, particularly as her friend has yet to apologise for the situation and it is quite upsetting for the poor lady. However, she is prepared move on and enjoy her cruise. Good for her, it is literally water under the boat until she returns.

On the 25th we docked in the Puerto Quetzal, the main port on the Pacfic coast of Guatemala at 7.30am. First impressions were not great as this is principally an industrial city and the surrounding landscape was flat, not much to see of interest from the decks, unless you are an industrialist, of course. We were due to arive at a smaller port that was designed to take cruise ships, but recently a large ship containing charcoal had some smashed up the dock and it was being repaired.

By 8.45am we were seated with others on a small mini-bus for our transfer to a past capital city of the country, Antigua. The country is on the fault line where two techtonic plates collide and is therefore a very volcanic region, it wasn’t long before we began to encounter volcanoes. Most were dormant, but as we began our ascent from sea level to our 5000m destination we passed one that was still spasmodically erupting, evident by regular plumes of dark smoke billowing into the blue sky. It was at this point that we came across very dusty roadworks, slowing our progress to a crawl, giving us time to view the surrounding carnage. Last June, the belching pyramid of rock and ash that we had been blithely approaching had erupted with devastating effect. A pyroplastic cloud had raced down the slope that we were currently traversing and had swept the road away. Horrifically, around us was a scorched landscape of denuded trees, standing stark within a landscape of grey and rubble. On closer examination we could see the tops of buildings and other structures poking out through what is now the surface of the ground, they had been buried in ash. They are still digging out their inhabitants. A sobering moment and a bringing home of reality to those of us fortunate enough to live in more stable parts of this world.

The roads as you would expect are not in great condition and in several locations our vehicle bounced in and out of deep pot holes that not only shook its passengers but we would find out later affected the bus detrimentally.

Our journey to Antigua took 1.5 hours. It is a picturesque town surrounded by three volcanoes and has wholly cobbled streets that require great concentration when moving around due to the great amount of earth movement in this region dislodging the cobbles, even vehicles have to be careful and pedestrians run the risk of a turned ankle or worse.

We had decided to hire a guide for the day to make sure that we saw and understood all that was there to see on such a short visit (5 hours). For $15 each we secured the services of our English speaking guide, along with another couple.

Antigua is hosting a South American Convention at the present and there are many heads of state and diplomats staying in the hotels so the security was pretty obvious. with troops and police (all fully armed witha fearsome array of weaponry) standing on most street corners.

Our first visit was to an ancient monastery that is now the best hotel in the town. It had been destroyed by earthquakes but an entrepeuner saw the opportunity and turned it into a chic hotel, preserved the ruins, created several museums on the site and of course it as also the convention centre and where the heads of state are staying. I am surprised that we could enter the building, but our guide had a word at the entrance and we were nodded through. We have come across South American security before in Cuscos where during a ceremony I was able to stand 2m away from their President and I was carrying a rucksack. Perhaps they think that lots opf guns is enought deterrent? Have they not heard of ISIS?

The hotel/monastery/museum/convention/gardens was given a visit, but as you would expect it is an exceptionally pretty place to spend some time, particulary with a back drop of volcanoes to entice your gaze. We meandered in and out of the various preserved chapels, caught intriguing glimpses into the sumptuous hotel through the open doors, photographed the lovely gardens with fountains and eventually found ourselves back onto the cobbled streets of Antigua.

It is not a large town, so thankfully the sights were only a short walking distance from each other, especially as it was tricky underfoot, you had to be extra wary of the head height balconies that threatened to inflict even greater damage as you hugged the crazily undulating pavement whenever a vehicle rattled and bounced its way down the narrow street.

We passed and photgraphed several other vary ornate Catholic churches, one we entered and investigated the gold covered little chapels within, while the others we satisfied ourselves by standing outside and listening to its history in what ever shade we could find. All had been ruined by earthquakes at one time or another and the local population had rebuilt them, but the one that I found most impressive was just a facade, there was nothing left behind the beautiful frontage.

We stopped next at a small cafe/bar that according to our guide brewed the best Guatemalan coffee in the town. I can’t confirm that his boast was true, but it was tasty and certainly had a kick to it, I had been feeling a little lethargic in the heat, but afterwards I felt quite perky!

We visited a few local markets and Sue took advantage, while my wallet got lighter. The trinkets, clothes and ornaments on display were very bright and colourful and easily catch the eye. A distinct advantage with dour European tourists around.

The central park is the location of more churches, impressive government offices, shops and hotels. It is quite picturesque and obviously as well used by the locals as well as by tourists. School children, smartly dressed in uniform were making their way through the central square as we arrived, the girls attire included a very scottish pleated tartan skirt. There are many shoe-shine stalls and hawkers within the park, but like the rest we had come across in the cobbled streets, they show you their wares, and if you say no or show disinterest they move on with out complaint. They do not follow you, thrusting their trinkets in your face, continually jabbering, “Which do you want?” as they do in the Middle East.

After working our way around the square, learning about the history of its location and that of the surrounding building, we agreed to have 45 minutes roaming time to ourselves before meeting our guide again, to escort us back to the minibus. The other couple went off to find a bar that was playing music and we explored the streets surrounding the square, discovering another market where my wallet grew even lighter and then a chocolate museum where the smell was divine.

Arriving at the location of our minibus we discovered that the earlier potholes had indeed damaged our transport and that it was now broken. A new one had been sent for. However, around twenty minutes later it was announced that the driver had managed to fix the problem, but the airconditioning was now not working. We opted to drive back with the windows open rather than wait for the new bus to arrive. I think we were all of that generation that drove without aircon, we just opened the window, there was no option of a button to press to cool you down. It was the dry season and the journey was a rather dusty affair, but we survived and arrived in time to catch the Columbus before it sailed.

That night, we said goodbye to Guatemala and as it was Burns Night and there are a large number of Scots onboard the passengers and crew of the ship celebrated.

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