I’d just finished clawing my way out of yet another crowded, congested, and confusing Central American city, woven tight with a seemingly haphazard maze of narrow, bumpy, noisy streets where cars stopped, turned, parked, and passed with no discernable attention to any sort of procedure. I had given up on camping long ago, so each day was planned around the goal of reaching some destination with a hotel by about 4 pm. Today’s target was Escuintla, about 40 km inland from the Pacific coast of Guatemala and roughly 140 km from the El Salvador border. I had decided to avoid Guatemala City and take a westerly route which would take me from Guatemala directly into El Salvador instead of crossing through Honduras first.
I was following the CA-1-Pan American highway down the western side of the south central slopes of the mountains headed toward Guatemala’s own San Cristobal. From there the CA-1 turns due south, following a winding course across the western edge of the southern most part of the Sierra Madre mountains, offering what must be, some of most stunning, breath-taking views in the world. My route will take me through another famous Central American city, Antiqua, around mid-day, unfortunately, too early for me to plan more than a brief excursion before heading on to Escuintla.
Slideshow of ruins in Old Antigua
I hated the thought of staying another night in busy, crowded city so after having gone back and forth through the Escuintla several times trying to find an ATM and stopping at the only clean looking identifiable hotel and finding it closed, I decided to take my chances and press on. It was only 2 pm when I reached Escuintla, giving me at least another 2 hours to try to find a more suitable place for the night.
A guard at the Citibank where I finally located an ATM gestured directions to me for the way out of town toward El Salvador so off I went. I quickly found myself back on CA-2, now a narrow, gently rolling, peaceful two lane road. There weren’t many cars or people along the way. Nor was there the usual village after village crossing interrupting the rhythm of the road. The highway was mostly straight, gently rising and falling across the Guatemalan lowlands. As I got further out of town I came across stretches of road lined with sugar cane fields ready to harvest with soft white plumes waving just high enough in the air to block my view, encasing me in the roadway ahead.
There were only two cities between Escuintla and the El Salvador border and both looked to be very small. It would be fortunate if there happened to be a clean hotel to be found but I was starting to think it was more likely that this would be the first night I might actually camp on the road. The landscape looked inviting so I started thinking about how I might approach a landowner to ask if could camp on their property. I’d decided that it wouldn’t be wise to take a chance and just camp randomly without permission.
Suddenly, almost out of nowhere, I a long white fence with clean, nicely laid out lettering announcing the “Tourist Centro De Don Juan Hotel, Restaurant, and Piscina” sprung up in front of me. There was a groundsman standing just outside the open gates, touching up the sparkling white paint. I manage to slow down just enough to get a glance through the open gates where I spot a wide thatched roof covering a sprawling open patio set with tables and chairs. I’m jolted by the excitement of finding such an inviting looking oasis, far away from the city, out here in the quiet, coastal countryside. I pull to the side of the road and slowly back up the empty highway until I can turn into the gate to properly check out this unexpectedly welcome discovery in the Guatemalan countryside.
I rolled down the passenger side window as I pulled through the gate in case the groundsman tried to wave me off. I’d adapted to moving cautiously as I explored this unfamiliar part of the world. He continued obediently tending to his work, not even looking up, so I drove on through the gate and into the well maintained grassy grounds. The grounds were clean and open, shaded by a comfortable mix of large old trees with white painted trunks with patches of grass and sandy soil below. The large patio with a tall peaked thatch roof lay directly ahead. The patio was surrounded by a short stucco wall covered by lush green vines. I noted that there was one car parked in front of the patio and another parked off to the side, suggesting to me that they were, in fact, open for business. As I pulled forward to park, I spotted a couple of Guatemalan girls working on the patio, setting up the tables and arranging the chairs, definitely looking as though they were preparing for guests.
I got out of the car, feeling myself becoming mesmerized by the atmosphere and drawn in with the anticipation of something good about to happen. As I walk toward the entrance to the patio I spot a long curving stone bar with a green tile top off to the side. Sitting in the middle of the bar is a young, attractive, sandy blonde haired woman dressed comfortably in slacks and a white oxford blouse. I make my way forward, announcing myself with my now customary greeting. “no hablo Espanio,” followed with the question, “do you have a room?” The woman gets up from her stool at the bar and walks toward me. I’m quickly trying to process it all. She had been sitting there at the bar with a well-groomed Latino man and between them was a small cut-glass bucket of ice, a pitcher, and a bottle of scotch accompanied by a plate of fresh cut limes. As the woman approached, she announces, “yes, we do.”
My already amazed sense of consciousness at having stumbled onto such an expectedly welcome find was now blown away. Here was a beautiful, quiet, quaint, inviting oasis in the wilderness where I expected to find only an inaccessible landscape of unknown countryside. And now, out of nowhere, a smiling and attractive young woman speaking clear articulate English flavored only by the addition of her beautiful Guatemalan accent. It all seems to good to be true. And yet, it keeps getting better.
I ask about the cost of the room and she quotes me two hundred quetzals, about $25. I knew that I had been spending down my Guatemalan currency but thought maybe I had two hundred left. I would, of course, be more than happy to pay that amount for a room in this inviting little Casablanca tucked away in the lush coastal plains of Guatemala. Alas, a glitch. I only had 140 GTQ . Suddenly I felt fearful, panicked actually, that I might be denied access to this new found treasure of a place. I asked about credit card and ATM locations but she said she didn’t accept credit cards and the nearest ATM was back in Escuintila or about 20 minutes further ahead in the next town. The intoxicating effect of finding this place, finding this attractive English-speaking woman operating as the proprietor, the long, wide curved bar with the bucket of ice, bottle of scotch and soda water had sucked me in. I couldn’t accept the idea of breaking the spell by getting back in the car and driving to the next town. I wasn’t sure what to do but I knew I was enchanted and did not want this experience interrupted.
Glacie, whose name I quickly learned, was friendly, warm, confident and relaxed. She gave no hint of discouragement. I quickly found both her and the gentleman at the bar to be fun minded, sociable people who seemed to be as interested in learning about me as I was in learning about them. His name was Angel and he also spoke English, but not as well as Glacie. He told me he was a salesman for Saquaro, a large, distilled beverage distributor in Guatemala. Thinking quickly, I ask Glacie if I could camp here on the hotel grounds. She replied enthusiastically, “yes, of course.” Then I asked her if the cash I had would be enough for me to drink, camp and perhaps get a hot shower in the morning. She reached out and took my hand and started counting out the cash I’m holding. She tells me that I have enough for eight beers or the scotch, she says, is free. And I quickly went , I went from blown away to fully vaporized!
Glacie, I learn, is 32. She inherited the hotel from her deceased husband’s mother. The hotel, she tells me, has been in the family for about ten years and she is now operating it as the sole proprietor. She tells me that she has a home in Escuintla and that she has four children. Her first husband, she says, was older, about my age. They had a daughter together who is now 17. She divorced and remarried and had three more children; another daughter who is now thirteen, another who is four, and a son, age two. Her second husband died about a year and a half ago, killed in some way that Glacie only describes as violent. She also tells me that she has a sister who lives in Boston who she went to visit for two months last year.
Glacie and I chatter away almost non-stop; me, driven by days of solitude driving through miles and miles of unfamiliar country and her, by years of little opportunity to use her English skills which she tells me she went to school for five hours on Saturdays for two years to learn. Glacie is open, inquisitive, and easy to talk to. She wants to know why I wanted to leave the US and live in Costa Rica. I ask her if she is happy with her life here running the hotel. She says so-so. As we talk we begin sharing our personal thoughts, dreams, and aspirations. I explain to her how my best friend in college was from a military family, growing up in several different foreign countries which I felt had given him a broader, healthier perspective on life. She tells me that she likes to sell underwear – Victoria’s Secret, she says, is her favorite. She also likes to work out and says maybe next year she’ll try to learn to play the guitar and sing. I tell her how I’d like to become a writer.
Angel is the supplier of the scotch. The bottle on the table is Ballentines, a brand I hadn’t tried before. Not wanting to be intrusive, I started off with a beer and then, when they started to pour their next round, I asked if I could join in. Angel makes me a drink and we all sit contentedly, drinking and smoking and talking away. We carried on for hours. Glacie says she may come to Costa Rica next month. I ask her where and she says she doesn’t know. I ask her if she has email. She says yes and jumps up to get paper and pen. She hands me her email address and notes that she is on Facebook too. A little later she gets a phone call and I can hear her say something about American touristo. She finishes the call and explains that one of her friends wanted her to come back to Escuintla and go to the discotheque. She says no that tonight it would be too much partying. For aeach of us, it seemed that there was nowhere else we’d rather be than sitting there at the bar under the thatched roof beside the pool talking, drinking, smoking and listening to the sound of the cars and trucks rolling by.
After a couple of hours, a few guests roll in. Two different families arrive for dinner. The pool is ringed by tables each under its own little thatched roof hut. The families opt for the poolside tables instead of those on the patio. One family has two small boys and they quickly strip naked and start playing in the pool. Then a couple of the young men and a woman from the other group change into swimsuits and jump in too. We carry on talking, drinking and smoking, watching the kids run around, but mostly just learning about each others lives, families, travels and careers. My watch was lying on the bar and I picked it and asked Glacie if the time was correct. She checked her phone and took the watch from my hand and reset it for me and then handed it back. That gesture of friendly familiarity made my feelings about this place even stronger.
Finally as dusk approached I excuse myself to go setup my camp. Glacie sends Marko, the groundsman who had been touching up the paint on the fence, over to help me. I’m stumped about how I’m going to work with a helper that I can’t communicate with to set up camping equipment that I’ve never even taken out of the boxes. I pull out the tent and Marko and I open the bag and unfold the tent and remove the poles. It goes together quickly and we work together using gestures and it all goes fine. I dig out my lantern from underneath the backseat and am pleased to find that it has a full tank of fuel. After a few pumps it fires up quickly and casts a nice soft glow around the area. I gesture to Marko that I am good, that I can finish on my own and he turns and trods off back toward the patio where Glacie and Angel are still sitting and talking.
I am sweating from the heat of the latern and the work of setting up the camp. I want to get the job finished and clean up so I can rejoin Glacie and Angel at the bar. I know Glacie is going to leave to return to town but I am hoping to have another drink with her before she leaves. I grab the box of wet wipes that I keep in the car, grateful that I have something to freshen up with close at hand. I wipe myself down and return to the bar. They are there, almost as if they were waiting for me to return. I ask for another drink which Glacie fixes for me. She is out of ice and I see her get some bills from the counter and give to Marko to go and get ice. I tell her not to worry, I have ice. I walk back to my camp and get one of the two bags of ice that I picked up as I came through Antiqua and carry it back to the bar, grateful for the chance to make my own contribution to the occasion. Glacie has one of the girls fill the ice bucket and she finishes making my drink. After a bit, Angel excuses himself to head into Escuintla for work. He’ll make the rounds at the bars and then return sometime after one or two in the morning. Glacie and I are alone at the bar so I ask if she wants to see my camp. She says yes so we stroll over to the side of the grounds where I parked and set up camp. She says she’s never seen a camp before. I show her my tent and air mattress nicely made up with sheets, blankets and a pillow. I’ve got chairs set up outside and the latern is casting a nice soft light over the area. I’m happy with the campsite. It’s clean and comfortable looking. We head back over to the bar and I ask Glacie to a join me for the last drink of Ballentines. She makes us another round and we keep talking. She tells me how she let one of her employees go last week and I ask if she needs a bartender. She says , yes, she does starting next week. I quickly let her know that I might be interested.
After a bit, Angel excuses himself to head into Escuintla for work. He’ll make the rounds at the bars and then return sometime after one or two in the morning. Glacie and I are alone at the bar so I ask if she wants to see my camp. She says yes so we stroll over to the side of the grounds where I parked and set up camp. She says she’s never seen a camp before. I show her my tent and air mattress nicely made up with sheets, blankets, and a pillow. I’ve got chairs set up outside and the lantern is casting a nice soft light over the area. I’m happy with the campsite. It’s clean and comfortable looking. We head back over to the bar and I ask Glacie to a join me for the last drink of Ballentines. She empties the bottle and makes us another round while we continue to talk. She tells me how she let one of her employees go last week and I ask if she needs a bartender. Yes, she says, she does, starting next week. I quickly let her know that I might be interested.
I finally decide to excuse myself so that Glacie can have time to finish her work for the night before she drives back to her home in Escuintla. We agree that I’ll wait her for her to return tomorrow so I can meet her family. Before I go she offers me her phone for an international call and gives me directions to the ATM. I made a quick call back to the states and then headed over to my camp and warmed up a can of soup for a late dinner. Then I dug out a swimsuit and took a quick swim before heading to bed, savoring a sense of contentment that I hadn’t felt for a very long time.
Next Up: Part 3: Guatemala: A Girl and a Gun – New Years Eve at the Don Juan Hotel
By: Bob LaGarde
Originally published December 30, 2010 at www.southboundrambler.com
Updated: May 1, 2016