The Ride Out to Guatemala City

Two weeks ago today we fled tropical storm Agatha, from Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, to Guatemala City. We've since learned that subsequently, road access to our hotel was cut in both directions by mudslides.

Here's the first part of our trip out, here are some pictures, and here's a follow-up about what happened at the hotel, Casa Palopo.

And here's the rest of the story of the trip out:

Elias, the van driver, got us started. Not too much debris in the road. Into and then past the little village of Santa Catarina. Plants bent in toward the van, mud or rocks might have slumped a foot or two from one side into the road, but it was mostly easy to avoid. Pretty much nobody was driving.

Crossing the river just before Panajachel, though, was a revelation. It was a torrent. Already they’d put barricades across the footbridge, and people milled around gaping at the rising water, more than I’d have thought would be out in driving rain.

Part of a building with a corrugated roof, maybe a warehouse or light industrial, was collapsed into the river from its perch on the shore maybe ten feet above.

Panajachel is the main town on Lake Atitlan. The few tuk tuks that were out, which look liable to blow over on a good day, were in full crisis.  Water flowed a few inches through the streets.

The whole world was saturated – the rain, the ground, the roads, the air – and so were the insides of the van windows. All fog. First Elias and then we all began mopping. The ventilation was just overmatched, and we’d be mopping all the way to Guatemala City.

At some early point it became essentially impossible to see out the windows, except for the little area Elias constantly wiped down for six hours. For a while we’d slide a window open for a fleeting instant if there was something we wanted to see.

Finally, as the wetness began to equalize inside and outside the van, we dropped that nicety. Especially as we began a steep climb away from the lake toward the department capital called Solola. We drove around a corner and threw open the windows in amazement at what we saw.

I guess this was when Mirja and I realized we were in a real predicament.

Elias stopped on the road. We watched water falling down a steep hill as it just hammered the cliff side of a bridge and fell under it. We gingerly crossed the bridge, all of us agreeing it was dangerous out here, all of our eyes a little wider.

Elias kept getting cell phone calls that I wished he wouldn’t take, so he could concentrate on driving. Now came a call that a couple who’d left the hotel Casa Palopo shortly before we did (see the previous post) was stranded.

It was their driver calling from somewhere up ahead. He had gotten a call from back home near the lake that “his house was falling” and he needed to “get home urgently.” Could this couple ride with us to Guatemala City?

Of course they could.

At Solola water collected between the curbs and became rivers in the streets. It flowed just under the undercarriages of vans and SUVs, sometimes up to the curbs and onto the sidewalks. We stalled but started right back up again.

A remarkable number of people stood in ponchos in the rain, or just inside storefronts, and stared. I think they were just as amazed at what was going on as we were.

The other couple joined us at a gas station at the other end of Solola, and their driver was gone in a flash, back to try to save his house. They were from Spain and had marginally better English than Elias, so while we couldn’t communicate much, they could tell us occasional details they’d learn from Elias.

From Solola began a gauntlet of diversions along mountain roads. Mudslides and boulders were the usual culprits.

Let me describe the way the roads are built in this part of Guatemala: There are two lanes in each direction with a concrete divider in the middle, which is too high to drive over. There’s an occasional gap in the divider, big enough to drive through.

Just through sheer fortunate timing we managed to get away from the lake and through Solola before the calamities that eventually befell them. The highland traverse that started now took the longest portion of the six-hour/ninety mile drive, because events were happening faster than drivers, let alone the police, could react.

The traffic police were out in surprising force, putting up “diversion” signs and generally having a good presence. But there was only so much they could do. Lanes were being blocked in real time now, before our eyes, and much faster than the traffic police could put up diversion signs.

Usually mud or clumps of vegetation or even boulders nearly knee high would roll into the lane closest to the road. When they slumped across and closed both lanes, we’d have to turn around and drive back the way we’d come until we came to one of those gaps in the divider. This meant driving into oncoming traffic in our own lane.

When we’d come to someone, they’d turn around and this would happen again and again until we’d find a gap. Then we’d drive through the gap, turn into oncoming traffic and drive on the wrong side of the road until past the blockage on our side, until we could find another gap in the divider and get back to our side.

Of course, the traffic in whose lane we were driving wouldn’t know we were coming, because the mud or plant or rock slide had just happened, and the police didn’t even know it yet, so they hadn’t set out diversion signs.

And the same thing was liable to happen to us – oncoming traffic would appear in on the wrong side of the road in our lane, because of a mud or plant or rockslide that had just blocked the other side of the road. All in the drenching rain. All with our windows thoroughly fogged, unless we dared to try to see and opened them and everything got further wet.

For a long time we sat stopped in a queue that wound around a bend. Twenty, thirty minutes, more. Turned out three of the four lanes were out and the police were pacing traffic, but we wouldn’t know that for a while.

Cars, trucks, buses would periodically zoom by us up the queue. They did this, understand in the far left, and only remaining oncoming lane, since our side of the divider was blocked. We thought they were crazy and minded the queue like polite Guatemalans.

Trouble was, once we cleaned the passenger side windows so we could see, we realized we were in a fair amount of potential peril because there, perched just at the edge of the thirty foot bank across the way, was an even taller tree, poised to slam straight down on our little van if the bank gave away.

So we joined the passers we’d reviled a minute before, and did our part to further clog the way forward. But before we resumed our wait we got to a place where if the bank gave way, it wouldn’t be on us.

The town of Chimaltenango was the last hurdle. A long, sprawling place with some 45,000 people, just now it’s undergoing a debilitating road widening project, with the curbs torn away from the road and sidewalks ripped right up to the storefronts.

A driver named Sergio had been apologetic on the way in, because end to end the city was gridlocked. Now, each time we ground to a halt we thought we were entering its outskirts. Then we’d find that we weren’t there yet, but instead that police were pacing traffic into a single lane around this obstacle or that.

And then Chimaltenango did, indeed, take forever. Rivers ran down the ripped up space between the curb and the storefronts. Merchants, kids, whole families sat inside and watched the traffic, bemused.

On the Guatemala City side of Chimantenango we were the lucky ones, because once we came under the big city’s influence it was rush hour, and those who had it tough were the ones heading out toward where we’d been, or pedestrians, who battled on with umbrellas and ponchos, but who became utterly drenched, each and every one.

Once we were finally in a room on the 14th floor of our hotel, we dried ourselves off and looked down through the squalls at knots of young men shoveling the streets clear of the next day’s problem, volcanic ash.

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