Exploring the back roads and villages of Guatemala is relatively simple and few tourists take the time to venture further than the typical routes. Renting a car is the easiest route and except for a few places, you won’t need a 4 wheel drive.
A few months ago I was told of mineral deposits consisting of copper ore and its related family: malachite and azurite, located “somewhere around Rabinal.” The large fold out map of Guatemala showed Rabinal to be almost sixty kilometers due north of Guatemala city and the next closest town, Salama’ due slightly northeast, and also some sixty kilometers as the crow might fly. As is usually the case in Guatemala, the more direct roads are either impassible during the rainy season (May through November) or the bridges are washed out.
We chose the road to Salama’ first, based on recently built concrete highways north of Guatemala
City on CA9, the countries major arterial to the port of Barrios, on the Caribbean side.
We? The usual crew, survivors of last month’s venture for the ‘Lost Spanish silver mines’ north of Huehuetenango and before that, the trek to Takalik Abaj via the ‘short cut’ around the Acatenango volcano. We were scheduled to leave at the usual time and place: central park in Antigua and our driver, ‘Hill Billy’ Tom Martin, recently acquired a used metallic beige Ford crew cab style pickup, endowed with the largest V8 that Ford makes. Our previous transportation was his ‘96 Mercury Cougar, of the same color and good for highways and relatively less powered by a V6. Either vehicle encourages him to exceed any notion of speed laws or passenger safety.
9:15 and we were ready and packed: the ‘Perfesser’, Mike Donley, a Ph.D in cartography and responsible for Guatemala’s maps in the late 1960’s, ‘Alabama Bob’, civil engineer/land surveyor with a history of remote Guatemala exploits and I, one time gem dealer/ruby miner in India, retired in Guatemala.
9:30: ‘Hill Billy’ Tom had found a parking space around the corner and we threw our luggage in back. The ‘crew cab’ was designed for comfort in the front seats and midgets in the two rear spaces. ‘Alabama Bob’ and I are both over six feet but Mike Donley is significantly taller. Ergo, he always gets the front passenger seat, with includes navigator duties. It’s been said that he also doubles as an extra air bag in case of an accident.
There was a stop for gas outside Guatemala City (sixty dollars) a sense that the massive Triton V8 loved fuel, and we were through the gritty city in record time. North and northeast of Guatemala City, the land turns dry and brown, similar to northern Mexico and Arizona. It’s locked into a particular micro-climate, hedged by mountain ranges on all sides, keeping out the moisture laden clouds from the Caribbean coast. We stopped for lunch at a place that HBT knew of, as he has a second home further north in Gualan (see Four Pigs and a Land Rover, links below).
We turned left at El Rancho, onto the road marked 9N and the route up into the mountains to Salama’, where we had hotel reservations. The map showed 48 kilometers to our first turn, and another 19 kilometers to San Jeronimo and Salama’. We had the major map plus topographical maps, as provided by Guatemala’s excellent Institute of Geography. One of their maps had Michael Donley’s name on the bottom, to which the staff gave him a free copy of. I was armed with fallacious information, provided by Ponzi Bob, a local gold entrepreneur, his driver and his geologist. All three had different memories or instructions on how or where the copper/malachite/azurite specimens were located. We passed outcroppings of serpentine and marble. Hill Billy Tom passed every vehicle possible and there were no maps for Salama’ except for a grid pattern of unmarked streets on the topographical map.
We found the hotel and a Domino’s pizza shop, plus a coffee source for the morning. We found liquor and cigarettes and I found a red-painted rock hammer in a nearby hardware store. Maybe we’d find something where the map showed closed mines, in the morning. Next: the mysterious bridge in the middle of nowhere.