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On Different Tracks

Guatemala: Chugging through banana plantations on a rugged old steamer.

September 10, 2000|KARL ZIMMERMANN | Karl Zimmermann is a freelance writer based in New Jersey and the author of 13 books on trains

GUATEMALA CITY — Along the banks of the broad, powerful Rio Motagua, we stood and stared at the boulders that had fallen onto the narrow-gauge tracks of our railway, Ferrovias Guatemala. No. 205, a stalwart steam locomotive built in 1948, hissed and wheezed while the crew--along with many of the 49 passengers--surveyed the impasse.

In fact, the rocks were no big deal for Guatemalan railroaders, who routinely improvise their way through washouts, derailments and other unwelcome events, usually with only hand tools and their wits. Within minutes, crew members with crowbars had pried boulders loose and wrestled them clear of the tracks.

That done, engineer Jorge Diaz--76 years old and frail, but indefatigable and deeply proud of his locomotive--yanked twice on the whistle cord, sending sweet, shrill notes echoing off the hillside and prompting passengers to scramble back aboard the train.

That was my cue to clamber to the top of the locomotive's tender, where I joined Bob McLaughlin, a model railroader from Massachusetts, on a wooden bench held in place by wires.

"What a view!" Bob said with a big grin, unlimbering his camcorder. From this open-air perch we could look down into the locomotive cab and watch Jorge and his fireman as they went about their arcane rituals: the subtle and specialized manipulations of throttle, brake handle, injector (forcing water into the boiler) and other controls required to get a steam locomotive moving. We also could see past the locomotive's smokestack to the track ahead and had a 360-degree view of the riverscape, where mountains yield to jungle.

Just as we were ready to roll, passenger Barbara Coates hesitantly climbed up to our bench. "My husband will never believe I'm doing this," she said demurely as we chuffed into motion, left the rockslide behind and rambled along the Motagua at a stately 20 mph.

We were on the second day of the weeklong Great Guatemalan Rail Adventure, a trip last February operated by Trains Unlimited Tours. Our journey would take us 197 rugged rail miles from Guatemala City, the capital, east to the Caribbean coast at Puerto Barrios, then back again. Passengers can take this trip only once a year, and only through Trains Unlimited, which has chartered trains here since 1988. A train buff, I'd been attracted by the remote and exotic route and the chance to ride behind steam.

Our first afternoon we traveled by train to El Rancho, halfway across the country. After a night in the comfortable Hotel Longarone in nearby Rio Hondo, we finished the journey to the country's east coast and the town of Puerto Barrios, where a bus returned us to our Rio Hondo hotel. After a day sightseeing by bus, we reboarded the train at El Rancho for the trip back to Guatemala City, where we did more sightseeing and spent three nights at the Hotel Royal Palace.

Our steamer, built in the U.S. by the Baldwin Locomotive Co., was a "Mikado" type, meaning that it had eight driving wheels plus two-wheeled lead and trailing trucks. The 205 burns oil, not wood, to convert water into piston-pushing steam, so Bob, Barbara and I had no hail of cinders to contend with, though low-hanging branches could administer a nasty slap in the face.

Coupled behind the tender and auxiliary water tank were a baggage car, in which a rudimentary kitchen was fitted; a spartan restaurant car, where we were served lunch daily and breakfast once; a coach with upholstered but certainly not luxurious seats; and the "presidential car" Michatoya, which sported a brass-railed observation platform.

Trains Unlimited categorizes some tours as "railfan," meaning that they're recommended for hard-core rail enthusiasts. Others are labeled "tourist" and are geared for the general traveler with a passing interest in trains. The Guatemalan trip fell into a hybrid category, "railfan-tourist," appealing to both groups.

The tourist side of things included a midtrip visit to the Mayan ruins at Quirigua, with a stop at a nearby banana plantation. Quirigua's most notable features are nine steles covered in relief carving, the tallest (up to 32 feet) found at any Mayan site; and a collection of "zoomorphs," sculptures of animal gods often monstrous and mysterious in derivation.

Actually, almost everything about the remarkably advanced Mayan culture is mysterious--not least of all why it vanished. Quirigua's heyday was between AD 600 and 800.

Antigua, about 10 miles southwest of the capital, doesn't seem so antique compared to that, but our visit, on the tour's last day, offered a glimpse of the 16th and 17th centuries. After the Spanish invaded in the early 1500s, a "captain general" appointed by the Spanish king ruled the region from Antigua. Handsome buildings radiate from the Plaza de Armas, making the city's cobbled streets perfect for wandering. (Antigua remained the capital until 1776, after earthquakes prompted officials to move to Guatemala City.)

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