Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Hotel del Norte

It hadn't been our original intention to spend the night in Puerto Barrios, but Felipe drove us up to Izabal on a route that aimed to maximise the distance spent at cooler, higher altitudes, giving us an extended tour of southern Guatemala − a strategy I likened to an oddly inverted analog of running in the rain − given the extra hours we thereby had to spend in his car.

Still, it gave me the chance to reacquaint myself with an old friend: the uniquely rickety Hotel del Norte, where I overnighted (alone) twice in 1989. Back then it was yet to turn 100, and as far as I recall, wasn't quite so warped and wobbly. Perhaps the Salvador quake of 2000 bent it out of shape a bit more.

The receptionist gave us a choice: an 'air-conditioned' room in the modern block at the side, or a night under a ceiling fan in the grand old wooden caserón constructed in 1892. We checked out both options and discovered that the apparently sturdier accommodation featured lamina roofing which had baked up the interiors to uncomfortable levels. In contrast, room No5 in the main hotel benefitted from a sea breeze which was tempering the swelter.

Puerto Barrios sits on the Bay of Amatique, which opens into the Caribbean Sea. It retains much of the atmosphere of Belize back in the good old days before all the ecotourists turned up. The United Fruit Company, much reviled for its role in the 1954 coup, brought a degree of material prosperity to this banana-framed coast in the middle of the last century which has been steadily oxidising ever since.

The next day our Captain for the trip up to the golfete on the Rio Dulce was one Jorge Campbell, grandson of an (East) Indian employee of El Pulpo, who told us how UFC workers used to benefit from subsidised produce grown on the company's five fincas in the area. The locals also used to have a strong market for rope and textiles made from Abacá, a relative of the banana tree. Nowadays, you enter the port by crossing over the rusty rails of Guatemala's only, and now disused railway. Capitán Campbell fondly recalled the journeys he used to make on it.

Some pics of Puerto Barrios and the Hotel del Norte.

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