Arriving in Santo Tomas, Guatemala
Guatemala was to be our first exposure to Central America on this 26 day cruise. The captain expertly parallel parked the ship in the small fishing village of Santo Thomas.
Our cruise ship was docked in a commercial port beside a massive ship loading nickel ore. As the day passed, we could see the ship sink further into the water as it was loaded.
We waited in the lounge for our tour number to be called, got our ticket to board the bus and walked through the commercial port to board our bus. While this tour was marketed at a “moderate” activity level, we saw many people struggle to pull themselves onboard the bus and snarl when they couldn’t claim the front disabled seats. Both halves of our cruise had a large number of mobility challenged cruisers who were not letting much stop them from any of the tours.
Guatemala Heart Of The Mayan World On Our Trip to Rio Dulce
It was an almost 90 minute bus ride to get to the town of El Rellenos where we would catch a boat for the next leg of our trip. Our guide Hugo did a great job of talking through most of the drive. He gave us all little “worry dolls” – small plastic moulded dolls in small bag that you rub to make your worries go away. We got to see the countryside go by us as Hugo filled us with facts about Guatemala (see my notes on what he told us at the end).
When we got to the little dock, we were split into groups and put on our small Lanchas boats and told to don our lifejackets. Once we got everyone onto the rocking boat, the driver raced onto the river. While we had thought we would get a gentle ride on the river, the river traffic did not have a “no wake” rule and boats were all racing every which way – from seadoos, to fast speedboats to the large group of Lanchas ferrying locals and tourists.
Castillo de San Felipe de Lara on the Rio Dulce in Guatemala
After a short but exciting boat ride we approached Castillo de San Felipe de Lara and docked for a short walk around.
Re-boarding the Launchas, we headed back and went under the large bridge over Rio Dulce to stop at the bird sanctuary island. Who was watching who?
Lunch At The Local Catamaran Hotel on the Rio Dulce in Guatemala
From there we had a short stop at the Catamaran Hotel for a snack and a walk around this very local resort. We had a chance to shop for clothes and fabrics hand woven by locals.
One of the key points Hugo made was how different this eastern coast of Guatemala was from the central and western parts. When we had transited through Santo Thomas, we noticed how poor and ramshackle much of the town looked and this got no better as we moved into the countryside. He highly recommended we try the town of Antigua if we were to return and this was echoed by others we met who had travelled to Guatemala before. Apparently when you cruise on the Pacific side, your day trip options include Antigua.
It was a long day sitting mostly on a bus. We got a little taste test of Guatemala Heart Of The Mayan World but we would likely not be returning to this part. But we would soon learn that many of the countries we would visit in Central America on this 26 day trip (Costa Rica and Panama) were mostly commercial ports and poorer on the Caribbean side we were transiting. I guess that means we will be back to visit the Pacific side!
Some of the things I learned from our knowledgeable guide along the way:
- Guatemala is a Guatemalian word (not spanish) for “land of trees”
- It is the most populated country in Central America with 15 million people
- 23 cultures and 23 languages (20 are Mayan dialects)
- 45% are natives, 45% are of Spanish descent and the rest are mixed (including black Indians)
- There is one major archeological site at Tikal (in the north – closer to Belize)
- Catholic dominated (including politics) but 45% have converted to evangelical religions (big influx of Mormons)
- Cacao had a rich history in Guatemala:
- Boast that cacao originated in Guatemala
- Cacao beans used as money in ancient time
- Only the ruling class could afford to actually drink it (so cacao was often buried with the rich)
- Guatemala also claimed that corn originated here – black, white, yellow and red like the people of the region
- Corn is the most important part of their diet – they are referred to as “men of corn”
- 33 volcanos face the pacific – 5 active – create great soil for growing
- Quetzal bird the most spectacular – icon of a Mayan cult as the feathered snake which represents the duality of human nature
- Apparently they have good rum – their President gives this as a gift – 5 yrs in a row won Caribbean rum contest
- Limestone hills with caves with Mayan burials
- Currently grow rubber trees to support latex production
- 22 families own 70% of the land (the oligarchs). A war was fought for “land for everyone” (enough for each family to plant one years supply of food).
- Became a democracy in 1985 at which time they started a large investment in education – mandatory for grade school, bilingual so young kids can speak Mayan and Spanish – less than 1% get to college
- Average 5 kids per family.
- Minimum wage $10 per day.
- Main export in colonial times was based on dies and textiles – Cocchia red from harvesting beetles was used as the rich red for red carpets and indigo die made from crushed plant. In the 1860s when synthetic dies created there was an economic crisis that switched them to coffee production.
- Sugar and cotton were introduced. The Chinese put them out of cotton but they continue to produce the 7th greatest amount of sugar worldwide.
- Main income is from money sent back from the US by people who leave to work and not from trade. Cost about $7k to leave so start with that debt.
Have you visited Guatemala? What is your favourite part of Guatemala Heart Of The Mayan World? Did I miss a key tidbit of info about Guatemala?