Monday, October 12, 2009

El Estor

We took a little bus excursion for an overnight at El Estor, a small town on the north shore at the far end of Lago Izabal. You could take your own boat up the lake but most people don't - one security incident (theft) even a while back puts people off a place for years.

We were curious, having heard that originally this was a location where the Spanish stored treasure. When? What treasure? Where did it come from? How did it get down the narrow river gorges without being picked off? Lago Izabal was also how the coffee plantations in the highland state of Alta Verapaz connected to coastal shipping before trains and trucks arrived.

Nobody knows nuttin'about the Spanish- might be one of those stories that gets passed along because it sounds interesting and we want to believe it.

The next story about El Estor is its name: The Store, said Spanish style. This is true; the building still exists and is in fact the hotel, Vista del Lago, where we stayed, in a very small and basic room. A train line to carry coffee from the Highlands to Puerto Barrios on the coast passed this way starting sometime in the 1800s and The Store, started in the 1850s by two British gentlemen, was the only source for European goods for miles around. How many people wanted European goods? I can't even imagine.

Eventually a highway was built south of the lake and El Estor slipped back into near oblivion.

Things get active again in the 1960s when a high grade of nickel was discovered nearby. A Canadian company, via its Guatemalan subsidiary, put money into the town, building the roads and a town square, a hospital (now finally being restored for use), housing and schools, even a golf course for the employees.

Their plant stood a couple miles outside of town. It's still there under its tall smokestack, fenced off and guarded, looking like it could swing into some kind of action shortly.

Various technical and transportation difficulties shut it down in 1977, "much to the relief of the locals who had witnessed the decimation of the surrounding forests and rivers" says Shelagh McNally in Pocket Adventures Guatemala.

Our host at the hotel had been employed at the mine in its prime. He was happy to take us out there and tried to explain how the plant had been operated; neither of our language skills were sophisticated enough for some of the discussion. Apparently, they needed to generate a lot of electricity and eventually the price of diesel fuel for the power plant contributed to their demise.

What looks even clearer in El Estor than in our 'home town' of Fronteras is that many many people, maybe 80-90 percent? are the indigenous Mayan, K'iche'. Reading further into Shelagh McNally's book, I learned that land rights have been and continue to be of ongoing concern in this area. There was an infamous massacre here in 1978, 100 people gunned down by the Guatemalan army. Amnesty International came through in 1999 after a prominent human rights activist went, and stayed, missing. And in recent years, the Guatemalan military has violently evicted Mayan communities living on land the government preferred to transfer to international corporations.

Although there was successful community resistance to keep international oil drilling out of the lake, efforts to promote conservation and preservation in the area, which is quite near the extensive valley of the Rio Polochic BioReserve, are also fairly low-key.

Since the nickel mine isn't running, and there aren't really any signs of a fishing industry, or a cattle industry, or much commercial agriculture, except on a very small scale, it's hard to say what makes the money go round.

At least that's the gist of what I've learned by Googling around, in particular from

The orderly grid of streets, broad, with curbs and sidewalks, give El Estor a dignity unlike the usual bustling but ramshackle feel of other Guatemalan towns. I'm nearly certain that we were the only tourists in town, and after we'd been up two or three blocks, and over four more, everyone knew us as well.

We did our best to entertain them: taking pictures in a surprisingly well-stocked music store,
checking out an aguardiente (firewater, as in grain alcohol!) joint, watching cayugas get loaded (not with firewater!) for trips to even smaller villages somewhere.
We drank street-vendor drinks out of plastic bags, and a chocolate licuado made with Nesquick that was pretty good. We checked out a small eco-resort, visited the nickel mine, ate something delicious smokily cooked over an oil drum, and slept in our tiny lake view cabin.
Next day, as we had a tipico (refried beans, plantains, eggs, bit of cheese, tortillas, fresh juice) breakfast at a cafe overlooking the square, we tried to give part of it to a young boy, in neat clean clothes but clearly hungry, who had been watching us intently. The waitress intervened to stop us, 'on principle', the principle of not having their customers hit upon, I guess.

These folks were waiting for the bank to open. The line stretched half a block already and was still there when we left town an hour later. I went off to buy some Rio Polochic rice (sorry to report, it's undistinguished) and then we boarded the bus, clambering over the bundle of plastic plumbing pipe in the aisle (no chickens), towards Boqueron.

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