December 1989 Railfan Trip to Guatemala

Guatemala Cty to CoatapequePuerto Barrios to Rio Hondo
Coatapeque to EsquintlaRio Hondo to Guatemala City
Escuintla to Guatemala CityAntigua
Guatemala City to Puerto BarriosTikal

Friday 1 December 1989 Ottawa to Guatemala City

Joe and I flew to Guatemala City today via Dorval and Miami where we were met by Louise, Virginia and Fernando for a quick (Joeès family).  We arrived at Guatemala City after dark and were met by Fernando, the local guide. Couldnèt see very much of the city althou we were told that things were quite calm and safe there.

Saturday 2 December 1989 Guatemala City to Coatapeque

Up bright and early today.  Met the rest of the group at a sparse continental breakfast and then into a coach for a short ride to the station where our three special cars (private car, restaurant car and coach) were attached to the back of the passenger train.  Or they should have been.  After some argument with the stationmaster the coach was cut in as well.  We had a chance to look around the roundhouse and shop tracks.  This area was shared by red Babcock and Wilcox diesels built in Spain and large blue Bombardier units.  The Bombardiers look to be big brutes for the narrow gauge.   The star of the shop area was Baldwin 2-8-2 #205 which has been repainted and would be working two steam specials for us a few days later.  Another 2-8-2, #200, was also receiving a paint job.

We left late on the passenger train which is, in fact, a mixed train, and we managed to progressively lose time throughout the day.  The average speed, taking into account the maximum of 15 mph, and the en route switching, was 10 mph.  The outskirts of Guatemala City are pretty torrid.  I have never seen such squalid housing and so many children,  The most memorable was a hut built of cardboard.  People actually live in there.

Things were better once we were in the country.  There were great views of volcanoes, three of them active. We crossed Lake Amatitlan at a point where it narrows and then there was evidence of volcanic activity in the form of hot sulphurous springs.  There were lots of flowers - bourgainvillas, frangipani, African tulip trees and hibiscus.  Many bananas, papaya and mango trees.  As we began to drop down the steep grades into the coastal lowlands the sugar cane became much in evidence along with coffee and its accompanying shade trees.  One of the party, Marty, is a birdwatcher and was able to identify the many species of tropical birds we saw.  One of the first were the turkey vultures, big black birds that circled ominously over the train.

There was much switching at Escuintla where there was a GE 60T #704 in the roundhouse,  Lunch was a substantial box affair with fried chicken. There were some coolers on board with beer and soft drinks available on the honour system.

We struggled on through Santa Maria amid cane fields and the afternoon was a little boring.  In the country people live in bamboo huts with mud floors.  They seem to be well fed and clothed. Many of the huts had televisions. Everyone came out to watch the train and there were many children at each doorway.  The late afternoon was livened up by a tropical downpour.

It was dusk by the time we arrived at Matzatenango.  There was much switching to be done while the train crew pounded the tar out of several trucks to reset the springs.  After the switching the locomotive, #900, was taken over to the shop where the crew "serviced" it.  All this time the passengers waited quietly in the train buying food, drinks and ice cream from hawkers on the platform.  A great flock of turkey vultures glided silently over the little town into the sunset.

This crew worked all the way through from Guatemala City to the Mexican border,  They were on duty for 19 hours, had five hours rest and then came back the next day.

We eventually arrived at Retalhuleu in the dark and were met by the bus which had followed us.  It had been a hard 126 miles.  The bus took us to Coatapeque to an excellent hotel called Virginia.  We had dinner and tumbled into bed - exhausted.

Sunday 3 December 1989 Coatapeque to Escuintla

We were woken up early by the parrots and lorikeets.  After an electrifying (literally) encounter with the shower we had a quick breakfast and explored the beautiful grounds with views of the volcanoes and with many flowers and big trees.  The ride back to Retalhuleu was interrupted for a quick visit to coffee and rubber plantations where there was a large woodpecker and many hawks.

The train was two hours late at Retalhuleu and so there was time to have a quick look around the town on a bustling Sunday morning.  Many were wearing traditional costume.  There was a man in a skirt wearing a brightly decorated hat.  Joe and I bought some rum at a bar and talked with the locals.  Everyone was very frindly when they found out that Joe spoke Spanish and when they saw the Canada flag on my jacket.

The train arrived in a cloud of dust from the earth ballast - there being no such thing as rock ballast.  Joe and I rode the locomotive as far as Mazatenango.  It was interesting and a little worrying.  The rails are kept in place by the grass.  We nearly hit a car at a crossing in spite of the low speed.  The engineer was a happy go lucky person.  He didn't know whether the track was safe but he just ran his locomotive at a maximum of 15 mph. The speedometer and deadman's pedal had been cut out. Everhwhere we disturbed great clouds of butterflies which flew up on our approach.

On and on we rode relentlessly through yesterday's cane fields with occasional superb views of an active volcano. We detrained at Santa Maria which was the junction with the branch to the port of San Jose. The bus was waiting and we went to the port through another tropical downpour.  There was not much to see at the port although an active Plymouth and several derelict hulks at the Granelsa terminal made the trip worthwhile.

It was dark by the time that we arrived at the hotel in Escuiltla.  Had a good supper at the hotel dining room after struggling with the lock on the door.  Again early to bed.

Monday 4 December 1989 Escuintla to Guatemala City

Up in good time for a good breakfast at the hotel.  The sun was shining in a clear blue sky with good views of an active volcano with its plume of smoke.  We were amused to watch the gas station across the road.  With every fill up a team would throw water over the vehicle.  You can always tell the whereabouts of a gas station by the stream of water across the road.

The bus took us down to the station at Escuintla and we were let loose to find steam locomotive #205 and watch it on the turntable.  The sun was just right to get shots of the engine on the turntable with palm trees and  a volcano in the background. GE 60 tonner #704 moved some boxcars out of the way so that we had a great view of a simulated arrival and take off at the station.  Joe and I rode the engine as far as the first run past. It rode quite well and seemed in pretty good shape The crew made a practise of overfiring so that there was a continuous drumming from the fire which was deafening. We were on pretty steepp grades (up to 5%) and so I presume this was the reason for this. Chris Skow mentioned that the undergrowth grows so quickly that a good spot one year might be useless the next.  I think my favorite was the second one which was at a water tank.  A man was walking along the track.  He conveniently stepped to one side for the train and then resumed his plodding after it had passed.  Great for video but the still photographers didn't seem too pleased. In many cases it was possible to use groups of children as an interesting counter to the train.

I rode the roof for part of the tough climb into the Sierra Madre mountains. At the summit the land is much drier although there are still many tropical plants such as bourgainvilla and poncietta. There were a couple of good run pasts at Lake Amatitlan and then a horseshoe curve. The approach to Guatemala City is marked by the slums which must be as bad as any in the world.

Arrival back in Guatemala City gave us some time to wander around the market which is close to the hotel. We had a great time changing money.  The banks will not accept Canadian dollars. Good job I was travelling with US dollar travellers cheques.

There is an Indian market for the tourist against the walls of a square and along a narrow street.  These are covered in colorful items with indian designs but really producing little of interest.  The produce market was very interesting with its great selection of different peppers. There were small sections devoted to pottery and wood carving. Many Christmas decorations which seems strangely out of place in a land which does not know snow. In the main square they are building a large Christmas tree - a gift from the President's wife.

Tuesday 5 December 1989 Guatemala City to Puerto Barrios

Up early and back to the railway station to catch the train towards the Atlantic coast this morning.  Our three cars were attached to the rear of the train which was marshalled backwards in the single ended station.  #701 coupled on to the rear and hauled us out into the yard where we were attached to freight cars and the train locomotive which was #912. We then headed east through a better part of town - at least it didn't have the really poor shacks.  There is a spectacularly long, high bridge over a ravine on the outskirts of the city. The morning was spent on the back platform looking for good places for run pasts as we will take this route on our steam special in a couple of day's time.

The countryside was much drier in this area.  Again, there are some signs of volcanic activity with hot springs. One village was named Agua Caliente. Many butterflies including some irridescent black and green ones with a red spot on the wings. Spent some time at Cucajol waiting for a meet with big blue Bombardier #1002 "El Progresso".  All the townsfolk came out to stare at us.

We saw a long line of trucks waiting for a load at a cement plant.  Must have been at least seven miles long. It is incredible that the transport system should be so screwed up.

The country became progressively drier and tobacco and ranching were the main activities.  Lots of tall cactus and many vultures overhead.  Maybe they know to follow the train.

We arrived at Zacapa just before 15:00 and all bar two of our number detrained.  There was just enough time to have a quick look at the roundhouse with its three derelict steam locomotives and an additional two on a storage track. Must have been a very busy place at one time. This is the junction for the line to El Salvador but it is not seeing any use at present because of the civil war in El Salvador.

From Zacapa to Puerto Barrios we travelled by bus which had followed us down from Guatemala City.  It was only 100 miles but this took four hours because of the deplorable state of the roads.  It is literally being torn apart by heavy trucks.

We passed a westbound train just east of the turn off to Querigua.  It must have derailed immediately after we had passed.  Our eastbound train was annulled 48 miles out and the two from our party that travelled on it finally made it in by pick-up truck around midnight. Nobody knows what happened to the hapless locals that found themselves stranded out there.

As we moved east the country became wetter and banana plantations took over, the last half of the journey was undertaken in darkness and was pretty boring.

The hotel at Puerto Barrios was pretty spartan.  It was an old colonial hotel complete with creaky floorbooards and superannuated waiters.  The malarial bathroom with its one tap made me want to dress up for protection rather than strip down to get clean.  I decided to wear my flip flops into the shower.  The food in the dining room was not of the best although we probably made a mistake ordering lobster which was very dry.  I enjoyed the frijoles.  We decided not to sample the nightlife and got to bed early.

Wednesday 8 December 1989 Puerto Barrios to Rio Hondo

Woke up to find that the hotel has a view over the bay which is the Caribbean Sea.  It looked pretty polluted and was made worse by a mist that turned into a tropical deluge.

The yard office at Puerto Barrios was a tin shack.  There was an awning in front from which it was good to stand and film without getting wet. There were several hands of bananas lying on the floor and a woman came in with a basket of fruit on her head. She proceeded to peel the fruit and was ready for business. The railway dog was out to supervise the proceedings as steam locomotive #204 made up a freight train for us. The damp weather produced some good steam effects for us and there was much excitement among the locals.

Our small train was made up with some hindrance from #803 which was also switching the yard and we eventually backed down to the jetty which runs right out into the sea.  On a good day this would have been a great shot but the rain spoiled things,

From there we proceeded back through the yard and out of town to the end of yard limits. The rain had eased up and it was possible to get some good shots. At least the shadows were not a problem. We stopped by a bridge where the drill was to go through a woman's house so we could get a good view of the runpast over the muddy water. Chris Skow does this every year. The lady is happy because he pays her for the privilege. The house has a mud floor and wooden walls. It was very dark inside but I could see many religious paintings.

The local people make a sort of trolley with bearing races that fit the gauge of the track and use this to get into and out of town. There seems to be two models.  A low type is used mainly for freight.  There is also a higher type which is rather like a bench so that people can sit in comfort.  These are pushed by small kids or poled along by one of the people sitting on the bench.  They are sturdily built and will take seven small people. These see a great deal of use and there is much arguing as to who should take off to allow an opposing movement.  It seems that loads take precedence over empties or passenger movements. They wait until the last moment to get out of the way of trains.

This was pretty thick jungle.  People were living in bamboo huts in pretty swampy conditions. I checked that I had taken my malaria pills as this disease must surely be a problem in this area.

After a morning of run pasts the engine was taken back to the roundhouse where the plan was to spin it on the tuentable a couple of times and then put it in stall 2. #204 couldn't pump enough air to work the table.  The first time it managed to move about 60 degrees to line it up for the engine to run on.  Twenty or so supervisors conferred (read - shouted) among themselves and decided to use #803 as a source of air.  #803 was duly summoned and came in through the back way.  It pumped up the air and was then backed up out of the way so we could get our shots. This had to be done twice and in the end there was only enough air to get round as far as stall 5 so they decided to put the engine in there. Stall 2 was unoccupied but stall 5 had some track cars in it so we were unable to see the engine go right into the roundhouse. Amazing what they will do to make us happy.

Joe and I walked back to the hotel and bought a bottle of 23 year old rum from Zacapa.  Lunch was served by the same waiter who must have been at the hotel for a long time.  We then boarded the bus for a slow journey back over the same road we traversed yesterday.  We passed the train wreck and then made a detour to see the Mayan ruins at Querigua.  This is in virgin jungle. Very hot and very, very steamy. The rest of the area is vast banana plantation complete with its own monorail system for bringing the bananas into the central processing  area. We caught a quick glimpse of a banana monorail train. Quite amazing to see what the Maya constructed and a good tesaser for Tikal which we will be visiting at the end of the week.

Our arrival at the hotel was after dark.  Looks to be a good place with an enormous pool.  Dinner was a lot of fun. Joe acted as interpreter for the waitress and as a reward we were given an extra plate of shrimps as well as ice cream with the fruit salad for dessert. Not quite sure where the hotel was located. Somewhere around Rio Hondo, I believe.

Thursday 7 December 1989 Rio Hondo to Guatemala City

The hotel was indeed a pleasant place as we found out next morning. There were a number of domesticated parrots in a tree in the grounds.

After breakfast we bundled into the bus, which had been repaired overnight, and made for El Rancho.  This was not as easy as it had originally seemed because the bus was too wide for a narrow bridge on the main access road to the town.  We tried another track which turned into a stream but made it on the third try.  We entered town down a narrow back street.  It is a pretty safe bet that very few tourists, if any come here.  The entire town turned out to gawk at the gringos.

The train arrived just after we did. Steam engine #205 lead a motley collection of cars, this time with a wooden caboose bringing up the rear. The whole assembly rocked and rolled its way into town, recorded by the few who were observed by the townsfolk.  Upon arrival one of the passenger cars had to be switched out because the load would have been too great and a boxcar was switched in between the second tender and the passenger cars.  It was like a festival day as the engine took water before our departure.

The trip back to Guatemala City took the whole day.  There are a number of impressive trestles, many of them curved, and there were plenty of photo opportunities. The vultures continued to circle overhead. The closer we came to Guatemala City the more people came out to see us.  The train would stop in the middle of nowhere for a run past and a group of locals would appear and take an interest in the proceedings.

The wooden caboose provided an extremely interesting ride.  The trucks moved differently from the frame which moved differently from the body which moved independently from the cupola.  It moved in a series of jerking motions as the body caught up with the fairly constant pull through the drawbar.

We had a meet with a mixed train at Jalapa.  The station sign said this but according to the map, the village of this name is about 15 miles to the south. The other train was hauled by a blue Bombardier, #1000 "Zacapa". This would normally have been a job for a 900 series locomotive but these were likely all tied up by the derailment near Querigua.

The last run past was probably the most spectacular of the trip.  It was at the enormous bridge over the ravine on the outskirts of Guatemala City.  There is a severe speed restriction and we all enjoyed  the sight of the steam engine taking its time to traverse the amazing structure.

The trip to the station runs right through a brothel.  The girls were all lined up in the doorways of their huts. They were all dressed up, some in outlandish clothes, some in see-through clothes.  They were standing not ten feet from the train.

Back to the Pan American hotel for the rest of the stay.  Not the greatest but relatively comfortable.

Thursday 7 December 1989 Guatemala City - visit to Antigua

Today we went by bus to Antigua which was the former capital of Guatemala until destroyed by an earthquake in 1733.  Before this e were taken to see a concrete relief model of Guatemala.  This was very impressive and it is a pity the rivers do not flow any more because of earthquake damage. There was a park nearby and poor children were being brought in to see Father Christmas and some clowns.

They have made a great deal of the ruins of Antigua but they are not very interesting. I found a restored house much more interesting.  This was still being lived in but had been restored to its original form and was open to the public at limited times.

We had some time at the town square.  Joe and I walked down to the market which was beginning to close up and had lost the hustle and bustle which would have been normal earlier in the day. There was a circus in town and an elephant was being paraded through the streets dressed up like Santa Claus.  Some cute little kids were trying to sell us things. They couldn't have been more than three but they had been taught to pick pockets.

Back at Guatemala City Joe and I went out for a stroll along one of the crowded city streets.  It was very interesting.  People were selling virtually everything.  We felt quite safe and didn't notice any attempt to jostle us or go for our pockets.  Most of the crowd are shorter than we are.

Friday 8 December 1989 Guatemala City - visit to Tikal

This morning was a dress rehersal for tomorrow at the airport.  We were taken out in good time only to have to wait for over an hour for the plane to leave for Tikal.  The cloud was low at our destination and we couldn't take off until it was safe to land. The DC9 was painted up for AEROQUETZAL but it turned out to be a KLM plane on lease.  We landed at the military airfield at Santa Elena which is close to Flores on Lake Peten Ixa. Flores looks to be an interesting place.  It is built on an island in the lake and is connected to the mainland by a causeway.

The bus to Tikal was uncomfortable because of the exhaust fumes.  The first part was along the ugly concrete wall of the military base with small soldiers peering out of the occasional pillboxes.  The countryside was quasi jungle with the odd clearing and rude bamboo huts. The people seem to survive on clearing patches of land - and tourists.  It was dark and overcast the whole day and it rained most of the time.  Surprisingly, it wasn't too warm either.

We had a break for a chocolate bar as lunch wouldn't be until late, and then plunged into the jungle.  It was really pretty thick with many vines and parasitic plants competing with each other. There were termites' nests on the tree trunks and we stepped over the leafcutter ant trails. There were supposed to be fer de lance and coral snakes as well as anacondas and jaguars but the only life we saw were turkeys, parrots and toucans. Many of the trees were enormous - mahogany, cedar and incense trees.

The Mayan pyramids creep up on one because one cannot see very far in the jungle. Only a few have been cleared of jungle and it must be a daunting task to keep them clear once uncovered.  The structures are awesome. There is an echo between pyramids demonstrated with a clap of the hands. The Mayans used normal sized steps to build the pyramids so that the relatively small workers could climb up carrying a large stone in relative comfort. When it was finished they covered the steps with ceremonial large steps.  I climbed one of these.  It wasn't so bad going up because I couldn't see very much in front but coming down was worse. The tread was not wide enough for my foot and it was over a foot deep. I found that the best thing to do was to commit myself and then go. We also had the opportunity to climb a forested pyramid. I didn't do this because it was slippery. One of our party managed to fall the last twenty feet and I'll never know how he managed to do that without breaking anything. He would have been very stiff the next day.

After the 4.5 km walk we went back to a very welcome barbeque. The rain became heavier and heavier and the visit to the two museums was somewhat miserable. Everyone was pleased to get back into the bus in spite of the fumes.  

At the airport the plane was waiting for us. It had remained on the ground all day with its crew, That's utilization for you. Don't see how they can make any money like that. The trip back was uneventful. There was a good view of Guatemala City against the volcanoes and the setting sun.

Had a farewell dinner this evening at the hotel. It was pretty good.  Shrimp cocktail, steak with tomato salsa, frijoles, tortillas, finished off with birthday cake for Chris Skow. Good end to a good trip. For once the entire group was a pleasure to be with,

Sunday 10 December 1989 Guatemala City to Ottawa

We left Guatemala City this morning and came back to Ottawa via Miami and Dorval. Miami took almost two hours to clear customs and immigration while the baggage was so slow at Dorval that we missed the booked connection.  Luckily there was a delayed flight to Winnipeg which had plenty of room.  Wonder of wonders - our bags made it through as well. It was snowing and pretty cold in Ottawa.

Previous Month    Next Month

Main Diary Page