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.

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Damage Report from Lake Atitlan

Talked with Janet at Casa Palopo on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala this morning, ten days after we fled the hotel in the middle of tropical storm Agatha, which ultimately killed some 150 people in Central America. The news, thankfully, is pretty good, considering.

There was some slight damage around the hotel. It was isolated, cut off from road access to the villages on either side of the hotel for a week, until Sunday, but yesterday the road was opened all the way to Panajachel, the main town on the lake. Until then, the staff had been coming to work by boat.

Three employees' houses were damaged by mud slides but nobody's family was injured.

Casa Palopo is closed until Friday.


Photo was taken driving away from Lake Atitlan during tropical storm Agatha on Saturday, 29 May. More photos are going up this week in the Guatemala Gallery at

It Wasn’t the Volcano, It Was the Tropical Storm

The headlines were about Volcan Pacaya and the sinkhole, but the real misery was caused by tropical storm Agatha. Here are quotes from coverage of destruction around Lake Atitlan, with links to the stories in which they appear:

We walked to the road above the house just in time to see a wall of
mud . . . wash over the bridge and down into the river. The ground
shook with the force and it sounded like a freight train passing a few
feet from you.”


"The couple's home escaped damage, but about one-quarter of their Mayan village of Santa Catarina Palopo was decimated.

"Where there were roads, it's a mountain of rubble and mud. When you
go through the villages, there's no more villages – it's all a big lump
of mud, rocks and dirt," he said.

Two people died in their village, but one-third of the population of
neighbouring San Antonio, five kilometres away, was wiped out.

"I have an American friend in that village and while the storm was happening, he called me in a panic," Mr Seroussi said.

"The conversation was helpless. He could see people dying with his own eyes."

But Mr Seroussi and his British-born wife, Marcelle, were trying to stay calm.

"I've never in my life heard anything like that storm," he said.

"The noise of the landslide and the water was frightening – it was incredible. You could hear people's houses being taken away."


"The Guatemalan government said more than 36 inches of rain fell in
parts of the country and dozens of towns and villages were inaccessible
because of roads blocked by debris.

United States sent six military aircraft to Guatemala, from a base in
Honduras, to ferry aid and help with evacuations from isolated areas.

Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City was already closed after
being showered with ash from an eruption of the Pacaya volcano earlier
last week.


"The worst storm-related disaster occurred in a village in Solola
department where a landslide swept away 25 homes killing 15 people,
with another 10 missing, according to San Antonio Palopo Mayor Andres

To prevent an outbreak of disease, the bodies will be buried at once, he said.




We fled Lake Atitlan only hours before it all happened. We crossed the bridge in the photos above within six hours of its collapse. When it gave way the communities around the lake were isolated, perhaps until now, six days later.

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We Get to Fly Home, They Have to Stay and Clean Up

We called Casa Palopo repeatedly until we left Guatemala City and got no answer. Casa Palopo is where we were staying on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala until we fled the rains of tropical storm Agatha on Saturday.

Later Saturday afternoon the bridge on the only road to the lake washed out and still hasn't been repaired. We just hope Janet and Rudy and Guillermo and Jennifer, who were so gracious to us, are okay.

Back in Guatemala City they said it was a ten year storm. Elias, who drove us from the lake to the city, couldn't go home, and still can't, far as we know, because the bridge at Solola remains out until "Wednesday to Friday."

Everything was complicated by ash from the eruption Thursday of Volcan de Picaya.  (Guatemala City airport finally reopened on Tuesday, but due to the backup our first shot at leaving was Friday, so we came here to El Salvador for a flight home today, Wednesday.)

Casa Palopo was really nice. Hope it's intact. Have a look after the jump.

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El Salvador, Unplanned

Visited Antigua, Guatemala Monday, colonial capital of Spanish Central America. Would have put up some photos, and will in time, but on arrival back in Guatemala City, we learned that the airport hasn't reopened as planned and our Wednesday flight back to the U.S. is canceled. Apparently some more ash in light rainfall. So we had to work out a plan C.

It would be fun to stay and stretch out and call it a real vacation, but before the weather started getting rough it was only a three hour tour, a three hour tour. So we did some jukin' and came up with tickets from San Salvador to ATL on Wednesday. Then we arranged a road trip there for Tuesday. Hope to check in here from El Salvador Tuesday night.

But Tragic Too….

The weather is calm, but it's not peaceful. This morning's papers cite 82 deaths from tropical storm Agatha and, if
we've got this right, that doesn't include 13 deaths in San Andres
Palopo, a village right next to Santa Catarina, outside of which we stayed until we fled Lake Atitlan on

Literally: "la cifra no incluye, por ejemplo, los 13 decesos que confirmo al alcalde de San Andres Palopo."

We speculate that it's where we took this photo:


Calm Again


Fog's got Guatemala City socked in this morning, but there's no rain, and there's even the occasional bit of sunshine. After the eruption of Volcan Payaca and tropical storm Agatha had this place really rollicking over the weekend, quiet is good. They're going to try to reopen the airport tonight at 6:00 and we have a flight out on Wednesday, delayed only two days.

This little guy, from Lake Atitlan on Friday, will be among the photos in a new Guatemala Gallery shortly at