Like some birds and aging retirees, many members of the North American rowing clan manage to find their way south during the winter—at least for a few precious weeks. Most of them seem to end up in Florida, where the variety of protected waterways and predicable good weather allow them to row to their heart’s content.
Add to this a chance encounter with a dolphin or a manatee and you have a winning combination that is difficult to beat, despite any shortcomings in hotel accommodations, culture, or local cuisine. As for the latter, among both undergraduates and master’s rowers alike, cheap digs and large portions of food have often been preferred to haute cuisine.
Still, there are other options.
When I told my friends that I was traveling to Antigua this winter, they “oohed” and “ahhed” and immediately conjured up visions of the Caribbean island by that name, located in the Bahamas. When I informed them that the Antigua I meant was actually a landlocked city located within the third-world country of Guatemala, their envious smiles quickly faded to blank stares.
“But why?” One of them boldly inquired.
“I have some friends there,” I replied, “and they want me to test out some new rowing shells on a giant Lake named Attitlan, surrounded by active volcanoes.”
This comment did little to alter their confusion, for rowing and Guatemala were two things that are generally not connected with one another.
Still, for anyone who cared to notice, there was a Guatemalan entry in the Head of the Charles Regatta last year. And, for what it is worth, there is a Guatemalan national team rowing site in Guatemala City, on another big lake named Amatitlan.
To be fair, however, the capital of Guatemala does have a bit of a bad reputation, and that has kept some of the less adventurous tourists away. If you are the sort who is inclined to follow foreign travel recommendations and alerts, you will find that Guatemala does have a few cautionary yellow flags beside its name.
On the first leg of my flight, from Boston to Miami, I sat next to a native of the Dominican Republic who spoke absolutely no English. Even with the limited range of my Spanish comprehension, however, I was able to understand him when he told me that Guatemala City was “muy peligroso.” Very dangerous. And when we both arrived in Miami and I discovered that my flight out to Guatemala City had been delayed, he advised me to forget about my original plans and accompany him to the Dominican Republic.
I couldn’t figure out how to say “maybe if you were an attractive young woman” in Spanish, so we just parted ways with a simple handshake.
Besides, I wasn’t going to spend any time in Guatemala City, but Antigua, the former capital of Guatemala. After that I was heading off to Lake Attitlan, nestled deep in the mountainous countryside. The first was a little like Santa Fe, New Mexico before it became too gentrified and expensive, and the later had the reputation of being one of the most beautiful lakes in the world.
Moreover, I had friends who were going to pick me up at the airport and whisk me away to these wonderful places.
Catherine Widgery and John Flory were two master’s scullers who had taken up rowing in their mid-fifties and became totally passionate about the sport, and about each other. About a year ago I’d set them up on a rowing date and thereby created a most terrible thing—a couple that rows together.
A rowing couple is nearly as bad as a golf couple, the only difference being that the latter consider water to be a hazard and the former can’t get enough of it. Still, the situation wasn’t that bad. John and Catherine had found solace in the fact that they could discuss a sport that no one else around them seemed to appreciate as much. Furthermore, their love of rowing had led them to some pretty exotic places, including the Silverskiff race in Turin, Italy, and now Guatemala.
They were waiting dutifully for me at the exit of the small airport in Guatemala City, and quickly whisked me away to Antigua in a small four wheel drive. Catherine spent the winter months there, working as an artist in her idyllic home on a hillside overlooking the city.
Sadly, there was no rowable water in Antigua itself, but John had set up two ergs on the top balcony of Catherine’s house, where the vista not only offered a complete panorama of Antigua but also the smoldering volcano appropriately named Fuego (fire). One of the first nights I was there, John and I watched as it erupted periodically, spewing lava and smoke. I concluded that if you couldn’t get motivated on the erg while watching something as powerful as that, there wasn’t much hope for you.
But who wants to erg if it isn’t really necessary? After a few days of sightseeing, we packed up Catherine’s little SUV and headed off for the lake.
The Road to B’Alam Ya
If you are squeamish about driving on narrow mountain roads without guardrails, don’t even bother even considering a trip to Lake Atticlan. As we wound our way into the mountains we encountered a series of washed out roads, including one that forced us to drive through an active streambed.
Catherine explained to me that they’d had an extraordinary rainy season earlier that year, and many of the country roads had been compromised. In some places, half of the road was simply not there, and in other places there were precipitous drops down into jungle like chasms where you could not see the bottom. To add to the outback-style adventure, signs were posted along the way saying “tumulto,” or avalanche.
Three hours later, we were there.
B’ Alam Ya means “water jaguar” in Mayan, and the enclave of elegant, thatched roof residences were set on the steep hillside overlooking the lake, connected by an interwoven cascade of stone stairs. The place had a feeling of tranquility to it that is more and more difficult to find in the world, and the presence of the massive body of water, framed by volcanic peaks, lent it a powerful, meditative air. It was Aldous Huxley who had called Atitlan “the most beautiful lake in the world.” I couldn’t make such a grand claim, but for someone who enjoyed looking at interesting landscapes and water, it was definitely home sweet home.
In her artwork, Catherine had recently been exploring the way light interacts on moving surfaces, like water, and the lake was a perfect template for this study. From the perch of our bungalow, named Mirador, we observed an ever-changing palate of color and texture on Atitlan, until at last it drew us down to its shore, where we promptly jumped in for a late afternoon swim.
Apparently, the lake was always choppy in the afternoons, so rowing was out of the question, but after our swim John and I decided to inspect the boats and make sure that they were ready for the following day.
The boats were made in Guatemala by Juan Zanassi, a former member of the 1964 Argentine Olympic rowing team. John explained to me that the hull was the FISA design, and the first two shells were made out of heavy-duty fiberglass. The sturdy construction put them a few pounds over weight, but it also lent them some extra stability.
The cost per boat, unbelievably, was $1500 each, even with wing riggers that had been built back in the USA. All the rigging passed our inspection, aside from a lack of heel tie-downs in one boat, so we returned the shells to their outside racks with the help of two Guatemalan guys named Eddie and Victor who worked at B’Alam Ya.
Like the majority of Guatemalans I met, Eddie and Victor were friendly and curious but not overbearing. Eddie wanted to practice his English with me, which was perfect since I needed to brush up on my Spanish. Victor was more interested in the boats and rowing technique.
While I was examining the dock that had been recently built for rowing, a local waterman paddled up in his dugout canoe and began to chat with me. I’d noticed many of these watercraft from a distance since we’d arrived, and I was happy to be able to inspect one close up. They were about ten feet long and two feet wide, carved from a single piece of wood. While the bow was long and tapered, the stern was squared off to lend the boat more buoyancy and stability. The paddle was single-ended, unlike a kayak.
As the man drew near I noticed that he was in rough shape. He had many deep scars on his arms and legs, and his body looked twisted like an old cypress. Without any prompting, the waterman explained to me that he’d been the victim of a bad car accident only two years earlier. He was lucky to be alive, and now his routine was to circumnavigate the lake, soliciting donations for various causes, including himself. I was happy to give him a few Quetzales, and he paddled off in the direction of the next village, Panajachel.
I saw a lot of poverty in the country, to be sure, but there was a general joi de vivre and a sense of community that I had not witnessed in many other places in the world. I mentioned this to Catherine and her theory was that it had partly to do with the plentitude of good food and a strong sense of community.
Her house back in Antigua was surrounded by huge fields that had been worked for many generations, yielding an abundant harvest of vegetables, coffee, and fruit. Almost every morning I had woken up to a breakfast of fresh banana, papaya and mango, which definitely brought a smile to my face, as did the local woman at Attitlan who came into our bungalow at B’ Alam Ya that evening and cooked us dinner—grilled shrimp, fresh vegetables, and arroz integral (brown rice).
Laurel, the owner of B’Alam Ya, had just returned from the other side of the lake, where she and her friend Rae had just participated in a ten-day meditation retreat. Both of them were pretty “blissed out” and glassy-eyed when they arrived to join us for dinner, but this matched the overall tranquility of the place. After a week spent in silence, speaking in full, coherent sentences proved challenging.
Laurel had been coming to the lake since 1975, drawn by its charm and tranquility. After years of renting a small cabin for short getaways, she finally bought the property where B’Alam Ya now stands in 2006 and spent eighteen months building the four elegant residences that now bear the names: Jade, Mirador, Bamboo, and B’Alam Ya.
Along with kayaking, swimming, and snorkeling, Laurel hoped the rowing would provide her guests with yet another way to explore the lake. The initial inspiration came to her via her neighbors, who owned an old Little River double scull. The double had not been used very much in recent years, but John, Eddie, Victor and I were able to resurrect it for a few trial rows the following morning.
I took turns coaching Laurel, then Eddie and then Victor, in the double, the latter two trips being mostly an exercise in trying to translate what I knew about rowing into Spanish. Both men accorded themselves well, but Laurel was the most proficient student of the lot, and we were able to take several strokes at a time together on our way back to the dock.
Afterwards, John and I took out the two singles and explored the shore above B’Alam Ya, which was peppered with quaint lakefront villas and boathouses that would have never passed the building code standards back in the US, but displayed a refreshing sense of creative architecture. Aside from a few passenger ferries and local fishermen, we were left in relative solitude. The boats performed perfectly, and we eventually discovered that rowing away from the shore was the best way to deal with the slow undulations of the lake.
Another home cooked dinner, some good wine, and a good night sleep. And in the morning, the birds woke us up early to row again. Catherine and John decided to row across the lake, a three or four mile venture each way, while I opted to do some yoga in the outdoor studio that Laurel had built above the residences. Many people came to B’Alam Ya expressly for yoga, and Laurel had plans to expand this part of her property as well, creating a larger indoor studio and some smaller residences.
Meanwhile, I had the beautiful, thatched roof patio all to myself, which overlooked the lake like the crow’s nest of a tall ship. I was able to watch Catherine and John disappear and then return two hours later, happy with their successful crossing.
Alas, that afternoon, it was already time to leave, but we departed with solace of knowing we would be back for a longer stay some time very soon.