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  • Writer's pictureMartijn

The many facets of Central America

The three- hour flight from Cozumel to San Salvador took us almost full South, through Belize and Guatemala. We started out along the Caribbean coastline to enjoy the view and then inland, avoiding Honduras airspace. The weather was good, visibility also, except for a few scattered clouds here and there, so basically quite an uneventful flight, until the final approach. Alex had carefully studied the charts, he was prepared for the mountain right before the airport and knew he needed to approach via a right-hand base-leg close to its flank, but he was not prepared for the aircraft on left base, on a head-on conflicting path!

What’s more: the aircraft was not on the frequency, it is the tower who informed us of its presence and instructed us to make a left 360-turn in order to let the rogue aircraft touch down. Our friend Oscar was outraged when we finally landed and we never found out who the mysterious pilots were or why they were on the wrong side of the runway, but we soon forgot about the incident because we were warmly welcomed by the head of the local Aeronautic Administration, a pair of journalists eager to interview these tourists who had chosen to come to San Salvador and last but not least: the famous Captain Dardano from TACA flight 110.

TACA Flight 110 was a scheduled airline flight operated by TACA International traveling from Belize City to New Orleans. On May 24, 1988, the flight encountered severe thunderstorm activity on its final approach to its destination. As a result, the brand new Boeing 737-300 suffered flameout in both engines while descending through a severe thunderstorm, but the pilots made a successful emergency landing on a grass levee adjacent to NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility, with no one aboard sustaining more than a few minor injuries, and with only minor hail damage to the intact aircraft…. The captain of the flight was Carlos Dardano. At 29 years of age, Dardano had amassed 13,410 flight hours, with almost 11,000 of these as pilot in command. Earlier in his career, he had lost an eye to crossfire on a short flight to El Salvador where civil war was raging at the time. (source Wikipedia).

The journalists have their cameras ready

Finally meeting Oscar in person (on the right); Captain Dardano is on the left

El Salvador is hardly a tourist destination but Oscar and his sons Mateo and Fausto (an aviation enthusiast like his father) managed to wow us with three consecutive day trips. The first day we traveled to the Santa Anna volcano (the fog and rain were not really planned but gave a nice reality touch to the panoramic restaurant we had lunch in), the second was Sunday and we were invited to Captain Dardano’s place outside the city where we explored a beautiful estuary with shallow water and lots of mangrove trees, and the last day our two planes flew to Punta Barillas, a nearby grass-airfield on the water, for breakfast. Of course, we took lots of air-pictures of each other! Pilots are always looking for opportunities to fly, so going for breakfast or lunch 100 miles away is perfectly legitimate and gave rise to the well-known “100 dollar hamburger” guide of all easily accessible ON AIRPORT restaurants throughout the US😊

Santa Anna (or Ilmatepec) volcano

Buying a cake to take to Captain Dardano's, Bitcoins are accepted!

Another guest brought his catch

On our way to the estuary

Back at the house, enjoying the pool...

... with volcano view!

Making the most of the November 1st holiday: Ready to go to Punta Barillas

We were ready too but our plane was parked a little further away, next to a big boy!

Oscar's plane and the volcano

This was a short but very panoramic flight

Reaching the Pacific coast after only about 20 minutes

Landing at Punta Barillas, wind calm

We are not the only ones there!

And while 100 dollar hamburgers are probably acceptable, 800 dollar ones are not, which is why we decided to make a change to our next destination. Our plan had been to visit Costa Rica because neither of us had ever been there and it is usually spoken of very highly but upon closer examination, we found out that the airport fees (landing and parking) were outrageous, and the hotels were not cheap either. After discussion with our hosts -Oscar and his wife Erica are Argentinian but have been living in Central America for a long time- we were persuaded to stop in Guatemala instead, before heading to meet friends in Panama. We would have to retrace our steps to go there which is not very efficient, so we decided to skip the world famous Tikal pyramids (after all we had just seen Xochicalco, Monte Alban, Palenque and Tulum and were getting a slight overdose of archeological sites…) and go to the closer by Antigua city and Atitlán lake instead.

The Aurora airport (MGGT) in Guatemala City was less than an hour away. It was a large international airport and Oscar had recommended a handler to help us with the paperwork which, unlike El Salvador, was allegedly more complicated than in Mexico. This was great advice because thanks to Alejandro of TAS (Total Aviation Services) we were out in no time, customs and parking included, and reached Antigua before dark, so we could enjoy the beautiful colonial museum-hotel Convento Santo Domingo (also recommended by Oscar) and the picturesque streets of Antigua.

Approaching Guatemala City

Aurora is a large airport with the corresponding infrastructure (at least for large planes)

But some aircraft are more equal than Alex had to self-park our tiny plane

Like in Mexico, fusion between the Spanish grandeur and original influences is omnipresent in the city, giving it a unique atmosphere that attracts many tourists, like us, who then contribute to its progressive transformation into an eclectic ensemble with coffee shops, sushi bars, Irish pubs, happy hours and craft markets just for us. The obvious debates on the effects of colonialism or whether tourism is good or bad will not be addressed here…suffice to say that you can’t help but think about them in these latitudes (or in any latitude for that matter but the transformation and contrast is more blatant in some places than in others).

A cathedral

A plaza, of course

and a courtyard

Amazing remains of colonial grandeur

All you need for a good procession!

Inquisition street : one way

Colonial history and plastic bottle art co-exist

As do the symbols

Despite its transformation, we were happy to have seen picturesque Antigua and continued to Lake Atitlán the next day to explore the many villages surrounding it in which Maya culture and crafts are still prevalent and traditional dress is worn. The villages, which are surrounded by volcanoes, can be reached by boat or by car (although there is no road that connects them all), we chose water the first day and road the second, all in all an extremely colorful experience as you will see in the many pictures below (too many, I just couldn't choose).

Which bus goes to Atitlán?

In San Juan de la Laguna I practiced weaving and we tasted chocolate and chocolate liqueur, in San Pedro de la Laguna we visited a church, in Santiago Atitlán an elderly lady demonstrated how she put on her head dress and our guide explained the worship of Maximón, an idol formed by the fusion of traditional Mayan deities, Catholic saints, and conquistador legends who resides in houses and gets moved in a great procession every year in Semana Santa.

View of the lake from the hotel

Our boat is waiting for us in Panajachel harbor

First stop: San Juan de la Laguna

Preparing the cotton for spinning (hitting it with a stick)

Learning how to spin

Chocolate beans

becoming cocoa powder

The church of San Juan de la Laguna

And after a short boat ride: the church of San Pedro de la Laguna

With its famous Virgin, uniquely dressed in local dress

Mural in the Plaza

Arriving in Santiago de Atitlán (moto-taxis continuously go up and down the hill from the harbor to the town; we chose to walk)

The plaza

Demonstrating the traditional head dress

The church

A typical building

Street food tamales for lunch:)

Return to Panajachel, just in time because the water was becoming rough

In Santa Catalina Palopó I got to wear the villages local dress and in San Antonio Palopó we witnessed various systems of clothes washing.

Steep and narrow streets were no issue for our driver!

Santa Catalina Palopó church and typical blue houses

Getting dressed, in blue also

Last stop: San Antonio Palopó

Our driver showed us many things

including the municipal laundry station

which apparently was not functioning: so the original station was used instead

We were told tourism around the lake started with hippies in the 60’s and the economy is almost entirely reliant on tourism today, although it was interrupted during t Guatemalan civil war (1960 - 1996), when the lake was the scene of many terrible human rights abuses, as indigenous people were assumed to be universally supportive of the guerillas. Hundreds disappeared[1]. According to Alex, the quiet strength and ancestral heritage of the Maya culture that we felt there forebode that we have not witnessed the last chapter of their culture yet.

We took a looong bus ride, through the mountains and many half-finished looking villages, back to Guatemala City where we stayed in a hotel near Aurora airport to get ready for our trip Southwards in the morning. Alejandro picked us up and we were out in no time again, international flight plan in hand, destination Bocas del Toro, Panama. He did take a few minutes though to show us a massive “airplane cemetery” on one of the taxiways, filled with decrepit aircraft of all sizes and shapes that had been seized by the anti-narcotics police. Don’t stop in Aurora if you’re into shady business.

Getting ready to leave Aurora

One last look at lake Atitlán

To go to Bocas del Toro, a small archipelago in the West of Panama, we needed to fly back towards El Salvador, then over the water South of Nicaragua, staying carefully away from their airspace, and finally across the mountains of Costa Rica to go back to the Caribbean side.

Those mountains drop abruptly into the Ocean which forced us to make a very quick descent into Bocas del Toro international airport (MPBO) which lies at sea level. I was flying and almost went around because the quick descent made it difficult to keep the speed under control but I winged it and felt quite happy, especially since it was another one of those beautiful waterside landings, until the Tower requested we proceed with caution because there were persons on the runway! What? We had already been cleared to land! Alex who was filming my approach immediately stopped to look out, ready to assist, and indeed we spotted a man on a bicycle standing in the run-up area to the right of the runway. He didn’t seem to move and he was right at the beginning so before we knew it we had already passed him and did not see any other obstacles -human or otherwise- so we touched down but remained in a flabbergasted state for several minutes…

Bocas del Toro approach

Can you spot the bile on the right?

Many pilot travelers had recommended the use of a handler in Panama also, so we had complied and Ruben was already waiting for us on the apron. He was not surprised at our cyclist encounter and mentioned something along the lines of “Welcome to the Caribbean”. The migration process was seamless but we were concerned about the safety of the plane given that apparently people can just walk or cycle onto the runway. Ruben recommended we hire a night watch, so our dear LV-GQF was going to spend three nights with private security. Alex was still not fully comfortable with the situation, so we went back that same afternoon with borrowed bicycles to check out the runway and found people walking along it with strollers etc… It was the best asphalt road on the whole island, so people took advantage of it! It also ran right through the middle of two separate neighborhoods and the only way to go from one to the other was by crossing the runway, which happened often because there was fresh water available on one side, so people went there all the time to fill their jerrycans. Alex started interviewing a few locals and found out that everyone knew that when the lights on the runway turned on, they had to get out of there as soon as possible. There was a method to this madness!

Alex filmed the runway also:

The islands of Bocas del Toro are connected by dozens of small motorboats and people come and go all the time. We had chosen to stay on the island Bastimentos so we went to the transportation office to find a “ride”. The manager warned us that we would have to walk ten minutes on a sand path through the jungle to get to our hotel but he took pity on us and called the hotel to request help with the luggage. From the conversation we understood that the hotel was not very eager to send someone but the manager convinced them by clarifying “son mayorcitos” (they’re a little old)…We were still offended, somewhat embarrassed but also relieved when a young man with a wheelbarrow met us in the tiny Bastimentos harbor and rolled our luggage through the vegetation over the sand trail, all the way to our room . Not too bad to be mayorcitos every once in a while.

Bastimentos harbor

A "mayorcita" walking lightly behind the wheelbarrow

Bastimentos is very preserved and has beautiful beaches lined with mangroves and snorkeling spots.

It is also very warm and the accommodations somewhat rustic so upon my explicit request (I’m not very big on paying a premium to be allowed to live in primitive conditions, sorry), we moved back to Isla Colon, the main island, the next day which allowed Alex to go check on the airplane at night. Fortunately, everything was in order and the night watch was happy to have some human company.

To make the most out of archipelago life, we booked a room featuring a porthole in the floor through which we could see fish swimming under us. We had chosen this hotel because it offered 30% discount due to construction but it was Friday and we knew they would not work over the weekend (we were getting better and better at choosing good deals…). We also booked one last boat tour advertising snorkel-boarding, dolphins and starfish. That did not turn out to be as good a deal as the hotel room: to begin with, no one else had booked our tour so we could either cancel, reschedule or pay extra for a private excursion. We were leaving on Monday so we chose the latter. Then, the motorboat we took had an engine problem soon after departure and we had to wait quite some time, in the middle of the water, for a new boat and finally it started raining tropically soon thereafter, forcing us to take refuge in a restaurant on a small island for almost two hours because there was no visibility on the water and we were getting very wet. However, this gave us the opportunity to enjoy a very interesting conversation with our guide who told us about his life and how hard the lock-down had been for him and his family. They were confined on a small island with his wife’s parents, they ran out of money and anyhow it was really hard to get food so he had gone clandestine harpoon-fishing during the night so that the police would not catch him, but even so he had lost a lot of weight, his wife had had to put her education on hold until they save enough to pay her school again, and their children missed their friends. Fortunately, now that tourism is back, he always finds work because he knows the area by heart and says he can navigate between the islands without compass or GPS, just based on the shapes of the islands around.

As soon as the rain lost intensity and visibility was sufficient to go on the water again, he took us to see dolphins and large orange starfish as promised, and we even did a little snorkel-boarding (basically snorkeling while being towed) before returning to the Isla Colon shores with its cute and colorful houses on stilts above the water.



Isla Colon architecture

Our scaffolded hotel

On Monday morning, before the construction started in the hotel, we walked to the airport and got ready to leave to Panama City. While we were waiting to start taxiing, the controller switched the runway lights on and we saw all the people rush to safety, however the dogs and the birds did not understand the light-signal so the fire brigade’s van drove up and down the runway to chase all remaining animals away. Just for us! Very cool.

The stop in Panama City had been planned a long time ago, to finally meet Luis Eduardo, our eternal watchful eye and ally who had followed all our flights and helped us more than once with meteorological updates in-flight or communications, for example with the Loreto airport when we entered Mexico. We were also going to visit our friend and colleague Adolfo who had recently lost his beloved father, Adolfo Gafoglio, a veteran and hero of the Guerra de las Malvinas.

The flight from Bocas de Toro to Panama’s Marcos Gelabert (MPMG) airport was short but challenging. We had to go over the mountains from the Northwest of the country on the Caribbean side to the Southeast on the Pacific and there were active thunderstorms on both coasts. Another one of those sandwiches between the clouds and the mountains…At some point, our storm scope screen showed but a very narrow passage but Alex kept going, carefully avoiding the cloud accumulations until we landed.

No problem, just stay clear of the thunderstorms...

Panama skyline from afar

The Panama Canal must be somewhere on this picture

Luis Eduardo was waiting for us and stayed throughout the routine oil change that we had arranged with the handler, after which we went to lunch together to celebrate our in-person encounter.

OK, let's take care of this oil change now...

That same afternoon, we settled into Adolfo’s guest room in a high-rise apartment with ocean view and took a walk along the water towards the old town. The next (rainy) day Adolfo and his partner Bruna took us for a ride through the city and to the Panama Canal. While I found the old town to be quite underwhelming, I loved the city’s neat, modern skyline standing against the water (Chicago-style) and the Canal infrastructure is awesome. We watched several huge container ships travel through but I could have watched for many more hours.

Panama by night

The Old Town

The famous Canal locks


and exiting...the ship is exactly the right size...

With Adolfo and Bruna

Adolfo in his father's arms (1982)

The alternative plan however was better: we had dinner with Luis Eduardo, his wife Claudia and her sister and spoke about Panama life, flying and special needs education which is Claudia’s profession and the reason they left Colombia, their home country, for Panama where she was offered a job in a prestigious school.

By now, it was November 9th 2021, we were still more than 5000 km away from Buenos Aires and had many other people and places on our wish list, so it was time to go again. Many had recommended we make one last stop in Panama to see the San Blas archipelago but we were done with islands :) Just like with churches and archeological sites, you can get a tropical island overdose. Instead, we wanted to go to Colombia where Alex had lived in the 90’s and had very good friends.

[1] Another dramatic account about this period in Guatemala is the recent novel “A veces despierto temblando” by Ximana Santaolalla who won the 2021 Premio Mauricio Achar (Literatura Randomhouse).

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