Wednesday, March 22, 2006


8/31/2015:  I updated this entire blog today: it now begins with the Appalachian Trail and Calgary, typos were corrected, obsolete links were replaced,  several pictures were added, and a link to the amazing story of Allende was added just before the first photograph below.

You can read my other 5 travel blogs by clicking on:             and             and    and and 

We like this philosophy from a kindred soul:  click here

To see this entire account, just scroll to the end.
To go directly to 1 of the 9 following segments, click on one of these:
Antigua in Guatemala
Generalizations, Tikal
El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua
Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama
Panama to Maine to Mendoza
Mendoza to Ushuaia
In and Around Ushuaia
Ushuaia to El Califate
El Califate to Journey's End

This adventure wouldn't have happened without the Appalachian Trail.

My wife Marge and I maintained parts of it in Maine for nearly thirty years.   When I retired in 1985, two years before her, I decided to walk the parts of the AT in Maine that she and I had not already worked on or hiked.   I got hooked, and continued south in segments.   The next year I reached the 50th reunion of my MIT class in Vermont, a nice coincidence.   I had reached the midpoint of the AT in southern Pennsylvania when Marge retired in 1987.   From then on we could do more things together, one of which was her driving me to an intersection of the AT and a road or dirt track in the morning, and retrieving me at a crossing further on several hours later.   We had so many distractions that it wasn't until 1999, when I was 74, that we reached the end of the AT in Georgia.

But three times, one each in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, I had walked a short cut, bypassing part of the AT in order to reach my planned destination that evening.  I went back this century and hiked those, so I could know and honestly say that I had walked the entire AT.   One was in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.   In 1986 I had intended to stay enroute one night at Appalachian Mountain Club's Madison "hut", sort of a hostel, but reached it via a trail segment shorter than the AT meander over adjacent Mt. Madison.   So one afternoon in 2002 I emerged from the woods at timberline and saw ahead two hikers also hiking the AT toward Mt. Madison.   From there over the summit and down to the hut they were visible, so I could see their speed was the same as mine.   We three reached the hut about 6 PM, the supper hour, the last ones in, so we were seated together.   Of course: "Where are you from ?"  "Holy smoke, so am I".   Later these previously unknown Brunswick neighbors of ours, Sira, a Spanish translator at a Portland hospital, and Brian, a medical consultant there, visited us, and told us about their plan to tour South America most of 2003, then establish a tourist travel business in Santiago.  The evening before they left for South America they gave us their computer and all that went with it.

Marge and I like revolving tower restaurants, which provide an experience that is romantic, beautiful, slow and expensive, as in Toronto, Seattle, San Francisco, and Calgary.   Each takes an hour for one revolution.   Service is always slow, which is essential.   We reserve for an hour before sunset.   The first hour we see the whole city panorama below in daylight.  The sunset is usually beautiful, followed by an hour of watching the spectacular city lights all around us.

So there we were in the Calgary tower restaurant in 2003, when I finally dared tell Marge what I had been thinking.   I told her that since we had driven from our Maine home to the extreme north, east and west ends of North America, I intended to drive to the south end - of the hemisphere.   I said I'd like her with me, but was going anyway, and she might visit me by airline at points enroute.   Her reaction: "Waiter, another glass of wine, please".

On November 7, 2003 we two started driving from our Maine home to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world.   After that we would return to Santiago, Chile, give our scruffy 1990 Camry to Sira and Brian, and fly home.   It was a cold start, but we would soon be in the tropics, and in South America the seasons are reversed.  

We had made these extensive preparations for the journey:
* We got all the recommended inoculations and all the pills recommended for tropic travel.     We stocked over 3 months of the pills we take at home.
* We read extensively in books, articles and on the Internet.
* We took guidebooks, maps, and a Garmin GPS.
* We got advice about routing and safety from MIT alumni who were citizen residents of Guatemala and Colombia, from South American Explorers ( , and from the tycoon world traveler Jim Rogers (
* Dick spoke Spanish and had lived in Mexico.   He and Marge had traveled extensively there.
* Our Camry odometer showed 316,000 miles.  We had carefully maintained it since new, so it was dependable, but it looked old so would be less a target for thieves.   If we lost it (which eventually happened) we wouldn't be out much.
* We hid many $50 bills in the Camry air cleaner, and many dollar bills under floor mats.   We laminated several color copies of our license plates, which might be stolen, hiding them in the trunk.
* All of our goods were concealed in the car trunk, so the passenger compartment appeared bare.   We made multiple bilingual copies of a diagram showing inspectors where each container was placed, and the contents of each: Dirty Laundry, Tools, Shoes, Books, etc.   This speeded passage across borders and through in-country military checkpoints.
* We added locking wheel nuts, a locking gas cap, and an alarm system.   Every night south of Texas our car was in a locked compound or otherwise under guard.
* A padlocked heavy steel box welded in the Camry trunk held our absolute essentials: passports, some money, our pills.
* Some countries required an escrow service which guaranteed that an imported car would be exported.   Only the Canadian Automobile Association provided that, so we engaged their services.
* We had a money belt, some travelers checks, a dummy wallet, and careful habits.

Enroute we visited our families in Maryland and Indiana.    On November 19 in Cape Girardeaux Missouri we drove down Rush Limbaugh (local celebrity) Drive to the small factory of fledgling Renaissance Aircraft.    After much trouble with lawyers, banks and the FAA they had started building modernized copies of the 2-seat 1946 Luscombe, which we coveted at a 1999 airplane show in Florida.    We saw two beautiful prototypes, which unfortunately were followed by bankruptcy in 2004.

The Camry performed like a new car on the Interstate highways.   However, we replaced our complicated $700 Garmin 2610 GPS with a $250 Garmin eTrex Vista, which was handheld and easily concealed, and showed most of the roads we would be using, including the optimistically named Pan American Highway all the way to Patagonia.

We spent four days in Brownsville, Texas, making final preparations for the trip ahead.   We thought the place a delightful alternative to Florida.   We had a difficult time getting the required permission to export the Camry, and had to get the help of our Senator Collins.

I've gone to Mexico several times since 1952, by car, Cessna, and Delta, lived there for months, and had many adventures there.    My first visit left me forever imprinted with a love and respect for Mexico and its people.    Read about:  Allende: click here  .

Our overnights in Mexico were at Ciudad Victoria, Tuxpan, Veracruz, Villahermosa twice, Tuxtla Gutierrez twice, and Tapachula.

Our 2003 circumnavigation of the Gulf of Mexico, using the short-lived Florida-Yucatan ferry, was our most recent preparation for Mexican highways.    Toll roads costing up to the equivalent of 17 US cents a mile were excellent, with light traffic.   All other roads were mediocre to bad.   Our second evening in Mexico we crossed a beautiful world-class suspension bridge, got lost in Tampico, and drove the last 40 miles to Tuxpan in darkness.   All agree that one must not drive at night in Latin America.   That night we avoided most pavement holes but lost a hubcap.   The road was narrow and unstriped, with sharp dropoffs where shoulders should have been.   There were many fatalistic pedestrians on both sides, extreme tailgaters, and oncoming cars with high beams or no lights.   I tried to drive behind other cars, aiming between their taillights, if any.   Every town has topes (speed bumps), varying in number, location, elevation and signage.   At crawl speeds some topes scrape the bottom of the car, so that's where vendors gather in the daytime.   Tire shops and roadside crosses abound.   One day I passed on a narrow road, and somehow, simultaneously and impossibly, was passed by a third car.

Each downtown at which we stayed in Mexico was photogenic.    In the evening families strolled in the warm air, and mariachi music was everywhere.   Countless vendors, some children, offered their wares but were satisfied with a simple "No, gracias", for these were not tourist areas.   In the morning sidewalks were carefully washed, and gutters were swept in front of each shop.   USA influence was ubiquitous, especially Christmas commercialization.   Picture "Frosty the Snowman" in the tropics.

Each day on our drive the climate and vegetation were different, successively cacti, oranges, vanilla, sugar cane, coconuts, bananas.

For why we detoured to Villahermosa I'll go back 20 years.

In the spring of 1982 El Chichon (click here), a former volcano near Villahermosa dormant for 232 years, erupted.   The peak was blown into the stratosphere, replaced by a crater, affecting the world's weather for a year.   Several nearby villages were destroyed and more than 2000 people were killed.    Late the following year Marge and I drove to the area in a VW sedan rented in Mexico City.   Nobody in the USA or Mexico could tell us if the volcano was still cordoned off by the army, and if the base could best be reached by foot, horse or airplane.    In the nearest town to the volcano, Pichucalco, we found that SeƱor X (name forgotten), whose coffee plantation had been devastated by the eruption, would for $100 fly me in his Cessna 180 to his hacienda 4 miles from the crater, and return to pick me up.    Before dawn the next day I left Marge in our Villahermosa hotel, with the understanding that if I didn't return by 6 PM she would contact the US Consul.   I drove past workers trudging to their jobs (contrary to the stereotype of a Mexican sitting asleep under a big sombrero) in the adjacent banana plantations, and arrived at the Pichucalco dirt air strip at 7 AM.    Sr. X was not there as agreed, so I feared that the Mexican casual approach to scheduling would ruin the trip.   I drove to his elegant house in town.   The door was unlocked, as in 1950's USA, so I went in.    A woman's pocketbook was on the stairs, suggesting that another stereotype, the high crime rate we associated with Mexico, did not then apply to small towns.    I helped myself to their water, and left without seeing anyone else in the house.   I arrived back at the airport just as Sr. X did.   To haul the maximum amount of coffee in his scruffy plane, all seats had been removed except his.   He popped in a seat for me.   Then he taxied to chase away the goats, and we were off on the 12 minute 25 mile flight.   I tapped an instrument and said (translated from Spanish), "This doesn't work".   He replied, "Nor does this one, and this one and this one".   Using full brakes, the landing run on the very short narrow sandy strip ended 10 feet from the end.   After I trudged a half mile on the young ash towards the volcanic cone ahead, 2 campesinos (farmers) appeared from the side, offering to guide me.    I hesitated, for this would be like crossing the stream on an alligator's back: risking one's neck to save one's neck.   "OK", I said, "but I am rich and you are poor, and you have the machete, so you two go ahead a bit".   Later I caught up with them as they sat resting in the growing heat.   "Where's the machete ?"   "You were concerned, so we cached it back a ways".   The cone was essentially a huge pile of ash, with random deep dead-end gullies eroded by two rainy seasons since the eruption.    It was soon apparent that my "guides" had never been up the volcano either, so we shared route finding.   We shared my water supply too, so it was soon gone, and we three were increasingly dehydrated.    Marge later told me it was 90 in the city, and it must have been hotter on our unshaded climb.   Sulphurous fumes wafted from scattered fumaroles.   Without a trail, we three carefully picked our way up around the deepest gullies.   We reached the rim with what seemed the last of my strength and adrenalin, but there I could see that the true rim was a half mile ahead, even higher, and beyond even worse gullies.   I told my companions that I was exhausted and could not continue, so would go back.   We rested for 15 minutes, while I pondered that I would never be there again.   So I told them I had decided to continue on ahead.   They went with me.   Finally we reached the top.   They sat astride the sharp rim, gazing down 1500 feet to the seething crater below, the heart of that which had destroyed their homes and changed their lives.    I asked what it had been like.   "For two days there was only night".   Did all in your village escape ?   I'll never forget the answer: "All but the old ones, who could not run fast enough".   They had fled, in darkness mitigated by fires, and fumes that threatened asphyxiation, with ash and hot stones of varying sizes falling all around them.  That must have been as close to Biblical Hell as anyone has endured on Earth.    On the descent we reached a small stream falling over rocks yellow with slippery sulphur.   We are cautioned never to drink tap water in Mexico, and never never to drink from outdoor water anywhere.   But we plunged our hot heads in the stream and drank our fill, with no subsequent after-effect, except survival.   When we parted I paid my "guides" about $10 equivalent: they had asked for $3.   Returning to the hacienda alone, I walked over a village with only about the top foot of charred house frames protruding from the ash.   The thatched roofs had burned away.   At the hacienda I waited with some apprehension for the return flight, for there were several miles of roadless jungle between me and the paved road to Margery.   In the covered patio I inspected two wingless Cessna fuselages pocked with dents of varying sizes, the deeper ones holed by rocks big enough to have penetrated the aluminum skin.   The caretaker's little daughter cried at seeing apparently her first gringo, me.   A faint buzz was heard, a tiny dot appeared above the horizon, and soon Sr. X arrived in his Cessna, with a small boy.   I had a seat, but there was none for the lad, so he clambered unbelted into the coffee-cargo space behind.    I paid another $20 for an awesome pass over the crater on our return flight.    I rejoined Marge at 5:55 PM,  5 minutes before we had agreed she would contact the authorities about me.   I was and am still amazed that all this occurred in a single day.  (written Feb. 7, 2011:  I'm searching our messy storage for three photos I know are there: of the crater from the plane, of the remains of the nearly buried village, and of the two Cessnas from Hell).

Marge and the Cessna 180 that took me to the base of El Chichon.

The Pichucalco takeoff strip, temporarily free of goats. The strip near the
 volcano was shorter, and narrow between tall lush new growth.    

A bad place for farming.  Only the older "guide" and I wore hats.

My "guides".  One is carrying my tote bag and empty water bottle, and wearing sandals for climbing volcanoes.  I wonder how the tree got there so soon after the eruption, seated over hundreds of feet of ash.
 For the first time he is looking into the crater that changed his life.  Ground is unstable ash.

They told me a helicopter crashed and is submerged in the hot acidic lake.   Note fumes rising from a pool of sulfur.

We breathed sulfur fumes all day.  Here's a pool of pure sulfur.   I don't know the association, but sulfur is often near petroleum deposits, like in Texas, and huge Mexican oil fields are in this narrowest part of Mexico. 

Back to our 2003 trip.  In Villahermosa and Tuxtla Gutierrez the price of a flight over El Chichon was over $500, so instead we drove to Pichucalco.    Here 20 years of population explosion was evident.     A group of friendly businessmen told me that Sr. X had died last year, and the little landing strips no longer existed.   When I bragged of the 500,000 kilometers on our car, "old and well cared for, like me", one of the men showed me his car's odometer: 501,000.   "You win !" produced a broad smile.

The road ahead, across the mountains of Chiapas, was one of our most difficult ever.   Civil war had prevailed in that jungle state in recent years.   It was still simmering, so there were a few military checkpoints.   We drove about 100 miles of tight turns down to 10 mph, 5 mph behind some trucks. The road rose to 6000 feet, with visibility down to 50 feet in clouds.   Police stopped us once, but only to politely advise us not to pass a truck again on those curves, even at 15 kph (10 mph).   We passed many small Indian men trudging uphill like oxen, each with a giant load of firewood on his back and a tumpline taut on his forehead.   Sometimes it was a woman with a large load plus a baby on her back. I was reminded of Markham's Man with a Hoe, from high school.    It's a beautiful, profound, prophetic poem - see it in books or click:  Man With A Hoe 

We entered Tuxtla Gutierrez after dark, its modern center a profound contrast to the primitive scenes behind us.    All upscale accommodations were sold out for a fair, but about 9 PM we found a room in a very modest hotel.

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