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Western Caribbean: Politics, Economics, and Guatemala City (December 2008)

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These are mostly Susan’s remarks. Larry’s notes are indicated thus <Larry: blah blah blah.>.


Complications of International Travel: You Can’t Go Home Again


Larry and I returned to Guatemala on November 13th and 30th respectively. We had spent July and August in Maine, in and around Camden, and September and October in North Beach, Maryland, on the western shore of the Chesapeake. Both places satisfied my need for some time in a livable house in the States, and Larry enjoyed uninterrupted Internet access and the ability to speak English rather than Spanish.


Larry’s Spanish is very good now but he still feels the effort and stress in speaking Spanish full time. I remember the same experience when it was my responsibility to get us through France with my very limited French. I was so happy when we got back on the Chunnel and returned to England. The relaxation was comforting, though the high I feel when I got something right in a foreign language was gone. I think we both realize now more than ever the marvelous gift it is to be fluent in another language. We regularly meet residents of the countries we visit and most are at least bilingual. The Europeans thrive in these situations, most knowing two or three languages. We have a long way to go in teaching foreign languages in the United States! <Larry: For Europeans, with their history of reciprocal invasions, multilingualism is a survival necessity. The old joke goes: “What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? American!”>


We spent November visiting doctors, dentists and our good friends in California. Long Beach is still the standard against which we compare other places. We find that Long Beach is hard to beat in most categories, though I was disappointed with the decline of Pine Avenue during our visit in November.


Larry went back early to Moira on the lovely Rio Dulce in Guatemala to put her back in order, and he had many projects to attend to. I stayed for the Thanksgiving holiday with my sister and brother-in-law and arrived in Guatemala on the 30th of November.


We both used the same travel agency for our travel (Forest Direct) which has served us well for international travel. After we made my reservation, Forest Direct called and advised us that we might have trouble getting into Guatemala with our one-way tickets. Apparently Guatemala does not want visitors to come who do not have “evidence of onward passage,” like a return ticket. We discovered that the airline delivering a passenger to Guatemala (and some other countries) has the financial responsibility of repatriating him or her to the country of origin if the immigration folks deny entry, and the airline also faces a $1,000 fine. We called the Guatemalan embassy in Washington and talked with a young lady who assured us that with proper documentation that our boat was our way out of Guatemala we would have no problems upon our arrival in Guatemala. I also called Delta, my airline back to Guatemala, to hear that Delta also did not think that we would have a problem but they did admit that their policy was unclear. Requiring a return ticket was an insurance policy for the airlines. Well, we gathered our evidence: that our boat was in a marina in Guatemala, that we had arrived in Guatemala by boat, and that that boat was still berthed in Guatemala. I was confident that we would fly through easily.


Larry was not so sure, because he discovered that cruisers in similar positions to ours had recently been forced by American Airlines to purchase a round-trip ticket, even though they had the return-half of a round-trip ticket (originating in Guatemala) in hand. <Larry: A Google search for something like onward ticket Guatemala will bring up a number of experiences with this phenomenon across multiple airlines.> Of course, one answer to the problem would have been to buy a round-trip refundable ticket at the airport and then, once safely in Guatemala, get the refund for the return leg credited back to the credit card. <Larry: Unfortunately, the tickets we already had in hand were non-refundable and non-changeable, so we’d be out of pocket for at least one leg, and maybe two.> So our departure from Dulles was not anxiety-free.


As it turned out, we both passed through easily and the subject was never brought up by either Delta or TACA. Both airlines were far more interested in our “excess” baggage, for which we each paid $200. Ouch….. but it was cheaper to bring in many new boat parts that way than having them shipped into Guatemala.


The Unvarnished Truth


We found Moira in very good condition. Marina Tortugal had taken good care of our home and with some routine work she will be good to go.


We decided to execute several boat projects before setting off again, including having Moiras interior re-varnished. I did the original varnishing of the interior when we bought Moira from Valiant in March of 2001. I chose to do the work not because of my varnishing skills—which grew considerably during that process—but because Valiant wanted way too much money for varnishing the interior (they provide oiling as part of the boat’s price). We wanted varnish because oil tends to discolor and become a magnet for mildew in hot climates. But with time and hard use her varnish needed to be redone. We found that getting the job done in Guatemala would cost about 1/20th of the price in the US. We found a good worker in the Río Dulce and agreed to vacate the boat for the three or four weeks needed to do the job. It took us three days to clean out the boat so the varnishing could begin, but we do have the time and still—amazingly—the energy.


I, of course, had planned a number of inland excursions in Guatemala when we returned from our time in the US. Larry, who only goes on my trips out of husbandly duty, had a good excuse: he was saving a lot of money!


Politics and Economics: High Level


We set off on December 4th for Guatemala City to begin our travels through Guatemala. To put the travels in some context, it might help to understand a little about Guatemala. We are no experts on this very beautiful country, but we have done some reading and we can see and observe. With a population of about 13 million in the country slightly smaller than Tennessee, this is the poorest country besides Honduras in Central America. One can compare Gross Domestic Products for Central American countries, but the naked eye will tell you that this is a very poor country. We saw this in the state of the roads (almost as bad as Costa Rica), the dirt-poor living conditions of the Mayan indigenous population, the lack of schools and medical clinics (there are very good doctors and hospitals in Guatemala City and Antigua), the unreliability of electricity, and the lack of countrywide potable water. Land-line telephones are not easily found in rural areas or certain parts of the cities. The CIA reports that there are about 10 million cell phones in Guatemala for a population of 13 million, and we have found this pattern to be common throughout Central and South America: cell phones have in many areas replaced land lines, which many countries find difficult and expensive to provide. <Larry: The elevated price of copper these days plays a dirty trick: while we’ve been in the Río Dulce, power and telephone cables have been repeatedly cut down and stolen for their valuable copper, causing outages of power or telephone service lasting days.>


<Larry: According to the 2008 CIA World Factbook:


Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita

Top 10% of households consume X%

Bottom 10% of households consume X%

Bottom 10% consumption (GDP/capita x consumption %)




























There are clear class distinctions in this country, based on race, history, and the distribution of the country’s wealth. The Mayans were in the area we now know as Guatemala when the conquistadores came in the 1540’s. To provide funds for the Spanish Crown, the Maya, who had developed—and lost—a highly sophisticated culture before the Spanish conquest, were enslaved to mine silver, farm cotton, and produce a wealth of woven materials and coffee for the old world. This went on for over 300 years, and enforced labor was a reality until well into the twentieth century. After the Spanish conquest, all land was owned by the Spanish crown. Distribution of land was at the whim of the governor, with large tracts granted to the criollos (the landowning class of the original Spanish colonials) and some to the ladinos (mestizos or mixed blood inhabitants). Large plantations were established to export crops, and land distribution to the already wealthy upper class was reinforced. Laborer, Santiago Atitlan, with "chicken bus" in backgroundWhile the Spanish crown did provide some land to the indigenous Mayans on which they could provide for their own subsistence, legislation eventually abolished indigenous communal lands. The rural population was turned into migrant farmers with no chance of upward mobility. The long period of slavery and the lack of equitable distribution of land have reinforced the class distinctions and adversely affected the social structures here, creating two Guatemala's, the few who have and the many who have not. We have read that over 50% of the rich agricultural lands are owned by 50 of the wealthiest families. <Larry: Perhaps in a kind of expiation, the Spanish government is funding a number of projects to recover and restore Mayan archaeological sites. Perhaps surprisingly, the government of Taiwan is funding the construction of a number of roads.>


There is high illiteracy, with a low percentage of the GDP spent on education. Public education is in Spanish, which is not the native language of the Mayan. Some parents are concerned that education in Spanish undermines the Mayan culture and family structure. <Larry: We were told that perhaps half of the Mayan people speak only one of the dialects of Mayan, and speak no Spanish at all.> Many Mayan families depend upon their children’s labor to help support their families. There are several non-profit organizations that pay parents in food to let their children go to school. School is supposedly compulsory through sixth grade, but only about 40% of children actually attend. Parents must pay school fees (paper, pencils, and books) which cost about a hundred dollars per child per year. Often one child goes to school and the others work. We met several employers who pay the school fees of their employees’ children as a part of the employment package. <Larry: We were told that anyone who has any money at all sends his child to a private school, because the public schools have no teaching supplies (charts, books, etc.)>


The Civil War


Guatemala suffered through civil war for 36 years, until peace accords were signed in 1997. <Larry: The war, according to the CIA, “had left more than 100,000 people dead and had created, by some estimates, some 1 million refugees.”> Even now, the country seems exhausted. Efforts are being made to discover the fate of thousands who were either killed outright by the military or who simply disappeared. It appears that most of the fighting occurred in the highlands, the mountainous areas outside of Antigua and Guatemala City, so that neither of the cities experienced much direct conflict, though they felt the economic and psychic wounds of a country at war with itself. <Larry: While we were in Antigua, there were TV commercials funded by the national government, with the message: “Peace is everyone’s task.”>


The town of Santiago Atitlán (see below) played a major role in the Guatemalan civil war. The guerillas were mostly Mayan peasants. Their lands had been taken from them and given (or leased or sold) by the government to the United Fruit Company for banana plantations, upon which the Mayans were expected to work for subsistence wages. The Mayans wanted the return of their lands so that they could farm in their traditional way. <Larry: We were told that the villagers were equally threatened by the government and the guerillas. Each side would requisition food and supplies from villagers without compensation. Each side exacted reprisals against villages for suspected cooperation with opposing forces.>


The Guatemalan Army, trained by the US Army, occupied many small towns in the highland areas. Their goal was to deprive guerillas of access the villages, where they might obtain food and other supplies. The army ruthlessly and apparently randomly burned towns to the ground, often killing or “disappearing” the inhabitants. The story goes that one night in 1990, the troops got drunk and began harassing the villagers of Santiago Atitlán. The villagers assembled just outside of the town to discuss what could be done about the harassment. They had reason to be concerned, given the history of the army. Soldiers appeared to break up the meeting, villagers threw stones at them, and the army fired into the crowd, killing 11 and wounding 40, some of them children. National outrage resulted, and the villagers petitioned for the army to leave the village. Surprisingly, the President at that time ordered the army to leave, and surprisingly, it did so. The Guatemalan army has never returned to Santiago Atitlán. There is a plaque to the heroes of Santiago Atitlán in the local church, and the villagers every year meet to remember them.


<Larry: In common with other countries in Central and South America, narcotraffickers have become a threat to national sovereignty. After 40 years of working to reduce the size of the central government and the power of the military, in some quarters, some citizens are demanding a reversal of  that course. It appears that as much as people may distrust their government, they want even less a government run by the narcotics kings.>


Rigoberta Menchu was born outside of Atitlán, in the small village of San Miguel Uspantan, in 1959. She joined other members of her family who opposed Guatemala’s military dictatorship and the army’s occupation of the highland villages. She wrote about the brutality of the army in her book, I, Rigoberta Menchu, including the brutality to her own family which resulted in the death of her three brothers and her father. She was forced to flee Guatemala for years, living as an exile in Mexico. She became an influential writer, speaker, and gifted proponent for peace in Guatemala. In 1992 she won the Nobel Peace Prize and was able eventually to return to Guatemala and assist in the peace process, which was finalized in 1996, and which returned significant amounts of land to the Mayans.


Our tour guide at Tikal, Sr. Noél, was an independent contractor who spoke English well and was able to speak to us not only about the ruins at Tikal but also the civil war in Guatemala, with which his family had some experience. After high school he had attended a three-year university level course in the history, ecology, and geology, specializing in the Tikal area to prepare himself for the role of a certified tour guide. He worked often with Ni’tun Lodge as well as other lodges and hotel in the area. Our guide was one of nine children; his immediately younger brother had emigrated to the United States illegally: he walked there and now earns a difficult living as a house painter, but he stays, believing that his life will be better there. One sister is trained as a teacher and about to start working. The remaining siblings live at home and attend school. His parents are farmers who have a small farm about two hours outside of Guatemala City in the highland area. They appear to make a decent living. Our guide was able to give us a very clear description of the reasons for the civil war, mostly resulting from the land grabs of the United Fruit Company, helped by the Guatemalan government at that time. While his parents already owned their own land, many others have benefited from the peace accords, receiving land formerly taken by the United Fruit Company. We were told that there is much pressure on the smaller land owners to sell their land to owners of large plantations trying to expand their holdings. Our guide related tactics used to compel transfer of such properties that sounded ruthless and less than legal. Problems still exist in Guatemala and much of these problems appear to be around the subject of land ownership and the uneven distribution of wealth.


It does appear that every national government since the peace has made progress in assisting Guatemala to develop itself and become a better place to live for all its citizens.


Politics and Economics: Ground Level


A President here serves for four years only and cannot succeed himself. In any case, people told us that any outgoing President would be too exhausted to continue in office. Right or left, governments have concentrated on building roads into the rural hinterland (to provide access to markets), providing electricity, and developing sources of potable water. Education is now becoming a greater priority mostly because more parents are seeing the argument for educating their children. <Larry: Part of the urgent need for road construction is a legacy from the years when the United Fruit Company largely controlled the country. UFC had a monopoly on rail transport throughout Guatemala, and improved roads would have competed with their railroads.>


The government is small in size and in budget. There appears to be little interest in a bigger government which could provide more services.

Much faith—and burden—is put in the private sector to provide services faster and more efficiently than the public sector, without the corruption and inefficiency of bigger government. We have been told that only about 40% of the gross receipts of business and private individual income are part of the formal, taxed economy. The other 60 % percent of the economy is a cash and barter economy, and is not taxed. About 15% of the economy ($6 billion) is in remittances from Guatemalans outside of the country sending money to their families, which does not show up in the GDP statistics.


Where employment is formal and on-the-record, there is a minimum wage of $225 per month <Larry: about $1 per hour>. Social security provides health care as long as, but only as long as, one is formally employed. Each payroll employee is entitled to 14 monthly paychecks, two of which are bonuses provided in mid-December and mid-June. We noticed long lines at the banks on Friday, December 12: many were cashing their Christmas bonus checks. Two weeks of holiday are also required of the employer.


Guatemala has no mortgage industry at the grass-roots level. Yet, many want to own their own homes. So the first step is for the employee to save the funds to buy a small piece of land, then build on that land as funds develop. Often employers become the source of these loans: $3,000 here goes a long way toward buying a lot for a home. Once the loan is paid back, building goes on piecemeal as time and money permit. <Larry: The employee and his family may live on the lot in a shack, or in the partially completed house, during construction.> Once the citizen can occupy the house, he escapes from paying rent, and without the burden or paying rent, a middle-class citizen gets on well enough. Building materials are often adobe or brick, both of which are made from natural materials which are plentiful and cheap.


While coffee is the biggest export, and while Guatemala is the world’s biggest source of cardamom, tourism is the biggest segment of the economy. Tourism is gathering steam, and resources are being spent to expand it. After all, this is a land of 32 volcanoes, many of which are active, beautiful deep lakes, beautiful mountains to hike and climb, and the amazing Mayan ruins (Tikal and others). The indigenous cultures are still a source for colorful and beautiful weavings, pottery, and wood work. Jade (jadeite, not nephrite) is mined here and provides an employment base, without most of the environmental damage that is reported in the Asian countries who also mine jade (mostly nephrite). Jade jewelry is readily available, though it does not seem to be especially cheap. I bought a simple pair of earrings with a silver base and cubed pieces of jade. It was made for me in several hours at a charge of $38. Had the pieces of jade been ground to a spherical shape the price might have been double that.


There are many lovely, upscale places to stay but there are also many charming, inexpensive places. We looked for B&B’s that matched our standards of comfort and often provided an environment conducive to meeting others touring Guatemala, as well as to meeting Guatemalans.


Kids work as well as adults. There is little begging but everyone wants to sell to the gringos. Its hard not to feel self-conscious; after all we are about a foot taller than the compact Guatemalans, whose average height is perhaps 5 feet, and many Mayans are even shorter. And, of course our clothes are different: many of the Mayan women are dressed in traditional, ankle-length, colorful skirts and embroidered blouses and the men in western dress. In the highlands, adult men mostly wear traditional dress. No adult women wear shorts except the gringos. This is a conservative society where each person has a place that is well-defined.


On the road again: Guatemala City


Fronteras traffic jamWe started our trip through Guatemala in Fronteras, one of two towns a short launch-ride from our marina on the Río Dulce. Fronteras is a boom town. The main street is a perpetually-clogged two-lane paved road, with traffic ranging from mules to motorcycles, from bicycles to buses, with heavy trucks carting everything from cattle to construction materials. Air conditioners, tortillas, chickens, cell phones, lots of fresh vegetables and fruits are all available here. On the side of the street, a pedal-driven tricycle sits with a battery-powered megaphone on the handlebars, blaring out taped advertisements. People come both to sell and to buy basic goods. There is no visible hunger <Larry: even the beggars appear to be reasonably well-fed>, but these folks do not have much.


From Fronteras (Río Dulce) we had the choice of taking the bus to Guatemala City for $7 each or a private shuttle for $160 per van-load. We took the bus! (Though when we arrived in the country by air, laden with luggage (spare parts for the boat) we indulged ourselves and took the private shuttle.) The Litegua bus for our trip was old, not air-conditioned (though the day is cool), and without a potty. But the tires looked ok, so we climbed aboard. This is not a chicken bus… no live animals nor guns are allowed! The worst problem for us was the leg room. These buses are built for the normal Guatemalan, who is not 6 feet tall! <Larry: My theory is that the buses were designed by Procrustes: even if you weren’t short when you got on the bus, you’d be short when you got off.> Occasionally a bus offering "Especial Plus" service serves the Rio. these are very pleasant buses at double the cost but much more like the buses we enjoyed in Mexico and Ecuador. On the return leg we will try to secure seats on an “Especial Plus.” <Larry: Update, January, 2009: We tried one of the “Especial Plus” buses. It was even more uncomfortable.>


Guatemala City is a six-hour ride away from Fronteras over a twisting, two-lane mountain road that one shares with plodding truck traffic, passing where one dares. The bus stops for twenty minutes at a rest area and cafeteria catering to the road traffic between the Río and "Guat City" as the gringos call Guatemala City, or Guate (“GUA-tay”) as the locals call it. The restaurant was clean, and the food was pretty good, including ice cream, which is popular throughout Guatemala.


The bus schedule from the Río pretty much requires an overnight stop in Guat City for most travel to elsewhere in the country, or out of the country by airline. Most airline flights of interest to us occur in the morning and mid-day, which does not coordinate well with the bus schedule. Similar awkward connections exist for bus or van travel within the country.


Guat City has a reputation of being crime-ridden, with extremes of wealth and poverty. We were careful about walking around and took a taxi to dinner. We saw no crime but do not doubt the rumors. It’s an open question whether the city has a worse crime rate than any big US city. The city is certainly overwhelmed with noisy traffic which causes smog and dirt: it took almost an hour to get from the edge of the city to its center because of small streets and way too many cars, buses and trucks.


The city is divided into 20 zonas (zones or neighborhoods), with shanty towns around the outside of the city. Zonas 9 and 10 have most of the tourist spots in the city, with the most upscale restaurants, hotels, and residences of the well-to-do. Zonas 9 and 10 are also the “new city,” with high rises and a good infrastructure. Previously, we had stayed in the “old city,” waiting overnight to make airline connections out of the country. The old city has adobe buildings of no more than one or two stories, because of the frequent earthquakes. The old city certainly has color, with small tiendas (shops), and small hotels which offer overnight stays at about half the price of the typical hotel in Zona 9 or 10. A $30 hotel is very different from a $95 hotel! Previously we had stayed at Posada Belén in the old city, which was small and friendly, with colorful Guatemalan fabrics hung throughout, and which provided a truly delicious dinner. Posada Belén was pleasant enough, but a bit rudimentary for our tastes, so we decided to try something else this trip.


On this trip, we stayed at a B&B, the Hotel San Carlos, which was lovely, friendly and comfortable. It was an old mansion converted into a hotel, and small enough to be very hospitable, cozy, and friendly.


The Hotel San Carlos happened to be almost next door to the US embassy, a blockhouse-like structure which looked forbidding and remote. Looking for a list of recommended physicians in Guat City, we wandered over to the US Embassy in the morning. Long lines of Guatemalans were outside waiting for entry into the Embassy, perhaps seeking visas. We felt the power of our passports: as soon as we waved our passports we were shepherded into the inner courtyard, searched, and shown into the general information area where we were quickly and politely given the Embassy’s list of recommended physicians. Pretty neat, but I could feel the anxiety of those waiting outside. I felt secure, if not warmly received.


For dinner that evening, we decided on a restaurant called Zuma, recommended to us by the hotel and Fodor’s Guide. Zuma was located in Zona 10 as was the hotel, though perhaps too far to walk at night. The restaurant occupied a refurbished carriage house, decorated with color and beautiful Guatemalan art and antique furniture, with echoes of oriental style. The food was delicious, particularly the seafood. What a lovely find in this city! As usual, we were the only guests in the restaurant until about 8:30pm, when another group entered.


I would like to see more of Guat City.


Additional photos from this trip can be found in our Photo Gallery and Moira’s Ship’s Store.






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