Imagine an enchanted azure lake surrounded by three towering volcanoes and many traditional Mayan villages; the soundtrack of scarlet-colored
macaws as one wandered lush gardens filled with orchids, bougainvillea and other aromatic exotic flora. That's the spectacular and serene beauty of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. An adventure in
Paradise, right? Until it wasn't...
Some of you know that our group of 16 Loom Dancer travelers were stranded in Guatemala beginning on March 16th. The Guatemalan President
closed their borders endeavoring to avoid the spread of coronavirus, which unfortunately stranded our group with no way to leave the country. All incoming flights were canceled and no bus
travel was permitted in the country. The saga of our sojourn came to an end when the last of us finally got home on Friday, March 29th. The important news is that everyone is sheltering in place
safely and with one heck of a story to tell!
OK… so here’s a somewhat condensed version of the timeline after the Guatemalan borders were closed and flights were canceled (which feels like a
lifetime ago). Fortunately, the group was able to enjoy the first week of our itinerary in Guatemala as planned weaving with the local indigenous women of Maya Traditions, visiting Antigua and Lake
Atitlan. Our group came away with lovely woven creations of their own and it was a wonderful experience. Sadly, for me, much of my time during that first week was spent cancelling the
three upcoming Loom Dancer Odysseys tours to Japan, Italy and Canyon de Chelly as well as upcoming workshops in Santa Fe. But everyone was having a great time and falling in love with Guatemala as I
had years ago. So far, everything was as planned. Then the activities of our tour came to a screeching halt.
After the Guatemalan President made his announcement on March 13th about the closure of the borders, things were getting a little
tense. I met three American weavers at Hotel Atitlan that night and they were very worried. One of them personally knew a Guatemalan congressman and had reached out to him for advice.
With his help and a police escort, they returned to Antigua and were able to get one of the last flights out on that Sunday. That gave me pause. When our group returned from Santiago across the
lake on Saturday, I pulled our local guide aside and mentioned that perhaps we should return to Antigua where we might be in a position to get a flight if necessary. His answer was that we
should carry on to a neighboring town for their local market the next day. In retrospect, I should have held my ground, but I am an adventurer and felt that perhaps we could at least visit the
incredible, once-a-week market before making any changes to the itinerary. So, we carried on and visited the market the next day and a weaving cooperative in the mountains before heading off to
Xela. I was getting a bad feeling when one of cooperatives we were to visit cancelled in fear that we were carrying the virus. You see, were told that in the Highlands, local people felt that
outsiders were bringing in the virus and were scared.
The view from my room
We decided to return to Lake Atitlan for one night so that we didn’t have to drive so far and to regroup. Well, we ended up staying there
for 10 nights at the incredibly beautiful Hotel Aititlan. This beautiful hotel graciously kept the property open just for the 17 of us. We were locked in the gates and not allowed to leave the
property, but they served their delicious meals and took great care of us! The staff became like family to our group. They even baked two special birthday cakes for our group to celebrate
birthdays I'm sure these two women will never forget! We were sequestered from anyone that might have the virus there, so it was the best situation I think we could have been in. The
group, while stranded, was happy and felt safe in a stunning environment. They could walk the gardens, swim in the pool and relax. I will never be able to thank Hotel Atitlan and their staff
enough for their generosity and kindness. If you ever go to Guatemala, you must stay there! It is remarkably beautiful.
While in a beautiful setting, in the background, my Assistant Guide Jan Jeffryes and I worked tirelessly for that long week writing to the
Embassy (I believe I sent the list they requested a total of 11 times to everyone that asked in that rare event that we could get through to anyone), signing everyone up for the STEP Program twice,
reaching out to every news organization we could come up with to bring attention to our plight, soliciting any assistance we could muster from our state senators and politicians, family members,
friends, trying to get permission to travel to Antigua by land as all overland travel had been banned until further notice, etc. etc. all the while trying to keep the group from worrying. At one
point, the Denver Post reached out to me for an interview, but by that time, I had completely lost my voice and couldn’t talk. I do plan on reaching out to them once I get my voice back as there is
much that needs to be disclosed about those that are stranded around the world. Our local guide, Helmuth Leal, was also doing everying he could to assist in securing transportation, permits,
and keeping up the morale of the group. It was a very challenging time for all.
I do not wish to turn this writing into a political diatribe, but the reality is that during this time, information/assistance was virtually
non-existent. The US Embassy just kept telling us via the same alert every day to check with our airline. This was ludicrous as they weren’t flying, and it was impossible to reach a person
anyway. The Embassy in Guatemala was equally mostly unreachable by phone. We all tried over and over from there as well as having family and friends try from the US. I have never been in such a
helpless situation. Meanwhile, our government was publicly saying that stranded travelers got themselves down there and needed to find their way home. Not very helpful. Anyway, all of
that is for another conversation, for another time in person, possibly with a glass of wine. All I would say, is that we were stranded and not being offered viable assistance other than the
same alerts day after day emailed to us.
Finally, we got word through a Facebook page many of us joined called Stranded in Guatemala that the US was offering six flights of Guatemala
beginning on March 23: two each day on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. It was imperative that we get on one of those flights. We had been told that we might be stuck until May when
commercial airlines thought they might resume service. Against my wishes, the group got split up, but we had no choice. Nine people got on the Monday, March 23rd charter to
Dallas. The rest of us got the next day. That sounds simple, but not so much. For example, I was the only one not scheduled for a flight at all and never did receive any written
confirmation. But that is another story for another day with another glass of wine. The point is we all got out of Guatemala by Tuesday March 24th.
We arrived at the airport almost four hours before departure. We waited in a seemingly endless line outside of the airport in Guatemala
City for well over an hour, jampacked with other travelers. The option for social distancing was non-existent. Fortunately, most of us had masks on. No one was telling us what was going
on. In order to get on the charter flight, we had been advised that we would need to sign a promissory note while standing in line as payment for the flight. To this day, we do not know what we
will have to pay for that flight. We had to go on faith. This unknown is a financial burden to many, but we had no choice if we wanted to leave. Once we got to the front of the line, they
checked to see if our name was on “the list.” Thank God, all of us were in this second group. Once inside, they took our temperature. If you had one, you would have been
quarantined. At this point, I had no voice so I was really afraid that I would be left behind in quarantine, but I was lucky – no fever. We then went to three stations where they checked
our passports; the next one they checked our promissory notes that we filled out and the next one, they notarized them. Still no idea of the cost. Check-in followed and then to the gate.
Very eerie as everything was closed. We couldn’t even buy water. But they allowed us to put our water through security.
The flight was uneventful except that there was only one working toilet on the plane in economy and no one was allowed from their seat to stand
in line. We were also advised that we were not to touch the flight attendants. Again, very surreal.
One of the things that is most disturbing is that upon landing in Dallas, no one checked our temperatures or seemed to care that we had come into
the country on an international flight. As there were no lines in a very quiet airport, we made it through Customs with no questions about our health or anything about traveling
internationally. There was also no official advice offfered as to whether we should self-quarantine or merely shelter in place. My niece and her family returned from France at about the
same time and had the same experience. No one checked their health status even though the Travel Advisory for France is at a Level 4!
Everyone has now made it home. It took Jan and I the rest of the week to get to our respective homes, but we finally made it. I want
to publically thank every member of this remarkable group for their patience, resilliency, humor, understanding and spirit. It was a truly incredible group of -amazing indivduals that made the
best of a very difficult situation. I want to honor each one personally: Sandi and Bruce, Mary Beth and Bobby, Falma, Elizabeth, Karen, Priscilla, Cheri, Doris, Ruth, Cathy, Cindy and
Mimi! There is no way I could have survived this ordeal without the true friendship and level-headedness of my Assistant Guide Jan Jeffreys! We will never forget this escapade!!
Well, that is probably all way too much information! I can only hope for your sake that it might have provided a small diversion while you
are sheltering in place.
Be well and stay healthy. Let’s stay in touch. We all need each other right now in this time of fear and uncertainty. As there were
only 20 cases of coronavirus in Guatemala when we left (it’s up to 36 as of today), we felt relatively safe from the virus there. It is shocking to see the rapid spread here in the US. It is a
crazy and frightening time for so many. You are all in my thoughts every day. I wish you some peace and comfort.
Stay well and take care of each other,