Sunday 25th September 2011

El Paredón Surfhouse, Pacific coast of Guatemala

Since the last update, many things have happened! We started off from Quetzaltenango on Wednesday, and descended towards the coastal plain, stopping first at Zunil, where we visited the impressive but rather sombre church. We then continued down the valley before meeting the main highway leading towards the Mexican border, dodging the numerous potholes where possible. We finally turned off, onto what turned out to be the best road I have seen in Guatemala, leading down to the Pacific shore at Tilapa, where we left the car and boarded a launch for the short journey to our hotel, the El Pacífico, which was highly recommended in both the Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide. Full of expectation, we checked in, but this shabby place, with windowless rooms and sullen, unsmiling staff, was a huge disappointment. The pool was empty, and although the man did try to pump water into it using a generator, the generator immediately broke down!

The church in Zunil

We then walked out to the beach, which although strewn with plastic rubbish, turned out to be excellent for shorebirds. There was a river mouth just to the west, complete with pigs rummaging through the trash, which attracted among other birds Black-bellied, Wilson’s and Snowy Plovers, Whimbrel, Willet, Sanderling, Turnstone, Black-necked Stilt and Royal Tern.

We headed back along the beach, and found to our surprise in this out-of-the-way corner of the Pacific coast that two gringos were walking towards us. Naturally we started chatting, and it turned out that they were cousins, Jan and Moritz, and they were also staying in the dismal Hotel El Pacífico. We agreed to meet up later to drown our sorrows and to perk up the mood together over dinner.

Our route then took us a long, long way along the endless volcanic sand shoreline, until we finally turned inland to explore the seemingly deserted beachfront apartment complexes and cabins, none of which looked as if they had been occupied for a long time. One particularly eerie compound we wandered into contained the broken off tail fin of an aircraft, bearing a Colombian flag – we decided not to investigate further!

The evening, despite the unsmiling service of our hosts and the glum surroundings of the hotel, turned out to be another highlight…literally, as we fled to the beach, and our two new German companions insisted on making a fire. At first, the damp driftwood would not catch light, but on a return visit to the hotel, the owner (whom we must not malign too much) smashed a plastic chair to help with the fire!! We finally ended up not using the pieces of chair, but after considerable effort, the drier bits of wood did catch, and we enjoyed a roaring blaze on the beach, listening to the breakers crashing onto the Pacific shore.

Numerous flashes in the darkness revealed the presence of turtle egg poachers, who were scouring the darkness in the hope of finding a female turtle that might have come ashore to lay her clutch of precious eggs. These they would then steal – apparently to sell them as an aphrodisiac, which is drunk raw. How many animals around the World are placed in danger because of the desire for human potency? Perhaps we should spread a rumour that these animal products cause impotence and shrinkage!

The following morning we were picked up by the boatman who had ferried us over to the hotel the previous day, Ivan, and we began a magical boat tour into the Reserva Natural de Manchón Guamuchal. We started off along the main channel that runs behind the beach for much of the length of the Pacific coast of Guatemala, but suddenly we veered into what looked like an impenetrable wall of mangrove trees, and an opening revealed itself. Ivan switched off the motor and we glided into a cathedral-like world of winding channels, which we paddled through for more than an hour, surprising crabs with yellow pincers that scuttled up the mangrove roots to avoid us. We were treated to good views of the magnificent Lineated Woodpecker, numerous Great Kiskadees, Mangrove Yellow Warblers, complete with their red hoods, Little Blue and Green Herons, impressively enormous Ringed Kingfishers flying along ahead of us, and a formation of Wood Storks gliding gracefully southwards overhead through a gap in the foliage head above us.

The mangroves of Manchon Guamuchal, with Jan in the bows

After a brief return to the Hotel El Pacífico to pick up our bags, we were taken by Ivan back to the port where we had left the car, and we squeezed the four of us plus large rucksacks into the Nissan Sentra, and we began our journey parallel with the Pacific coast all the way along to Siquinalá, where we turned off during a DRAMATIC thunderstorm and cloudburst. Darkness was already falling, and we were not entirely clear about how to reach our destination, but after enquiring at a petrol station, where we received several conflicting pieces of advice, we headed on along the asphalt road for a short distance before turning off onto a corrugated dirt track, which we followed for a seemingly endless journey in the darkness, with the eyes of Pauraques (a species of Nightjar) glowing red in the darkness on the track ahead of us.

Finally signs of “civilisation” appeared in the form of two brothel bars, where we did not stop to ask for directions, but we eventually found ourselves on what was familiar ground to Luisa, and we finally drew to a halt at the wonderful Paredon Surf House, where we were welcomed by the super hosts – nothing could have provided a greater contrast to the Hotel El Pacífico.

Activities at the Surf House included relaxing in the pool, boogie-boarding (a new experience me!) in the Pacific surf, chatting with the Swiss owners, our two German companions and more German, Canadian, American and Guatemalan surfers who arrived after us, drinking rum and spraying ourselves with “Off!” in an attempt to fend off the rapacious mosquitos!

I left the group twice to walk a couple of kilometres along the beach to the mouth of a river, where I have enjoyed such avian highlights as a flock of around twenty Black Skimmers, with their extraordinary oversized lower mandibles cutting through the water as they skim the surface for food, White Ibis, Tricolored Heron, numerous waders, Royal, Elegant and Common Terns, Laughing Gulls and Brown Pelicans.

Yesterday afternoon came perhaps one of the most nostalgic of all my great grandfather’s footstep retracing activities so far – a visit to the old pier at Puerto San José, where he first set foot on Guatemalan soil on 16th March 1878, and from where he left on 7th April 1881, marking the beginning and end of the Guatemalan half of his Central American journey.

The old pier at Puerto San Jose, where GCC landed in March 1879

We parked in front of the ruined station of the Puerto San José to Escuintla section of the railway, which operated from 1880 until the mid 1990s, although judging by the fact that shops and stalls have been built all over the railway tracks, one might be forgiven for thinking that operations had ceased earlier than that. We then picked our way through the shacks behind the beach, and came out at the base of the old pier, now without a top and with its iron supports rusting away in the salty atmosphere. I found the whole scene emotionally quite strange, partly as this place was so important in the visit of my great grandfather, and partly as it symbolises the transience of such engineering masterpieces as the pier itself, which provided such a vital link with the outside world for Guatemala for just over 110 years, and the railway, which started operating during my great grandfather’s stay, and is now gone. As a closet railway enthusiast, I find its demise quite tragic….as I did in Ecuador and in Costa Rica, both of whose railway networks have also been allowed to fall into disuse.

Puerto San Jose panorama, with the old station on the left

After a final evening in the El Paredón Surf House (which I can quite honestly say is one of the most magical places I have ever had the pleasure of staying in – please visit it if you can:, our fantastic guide Luisa Zea (HIGHLY recommended: drove us back to Antigua, where a new drama is currently unfolding! Moritz, one of our two German travelling companions, was waiting with his cousin Jan to take the shuttle bus to Lake Atitlán, when too late he realised that his small rucksack had been inadvertently placed on the wrong bus, and he had ended up with someone else’s rucksack instead. We will see if this situation can be resolved!

El Paradon Surf House

Sunset from El Paredon Surf House

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