Christmas in Central America

On Cay Caulker, Belize, the conch shell Christmas ornaments hanging on palm fronds marked the season as Christmas and my wife and I felt merry. It got even more Christmassy a few days later in Antigua where the ancient buildings that lined the large plaza were lit with small white lights. A band played Christmas music of all types. It was Christmas season 2015-2016.

Getting there in our 1947 Bonanza, flying from Seattle across Utah and Arizona to Mexico then to Belize, had not been without problems. Annoying CO in the cabin resulted in an unscheduled landing in Scottsdale to get it fixed – ATC had an ambulance waiting even though we were breathing bottled oxygen and feeling mostly fine.

Belize beach
Christmas in the Caribbean has its advantages.

We fought 70 mph winds against us in Mexico after diverting around a snow storm near Chihuahua, Mexico. More difficult was the continued high security (dogs sniffing us at every airport), the APIS (passenger info list) that did not work easily, and the never-ending paperwork. Then there was the airport in Belize City. We arrived 30 minutes before the airport completely closed for the night – the entire airport staff stared at us with daggers in their eyes. It took almost two hours to get cleared into the country. We were left in front of the dark airport; finally a security guy called a taxi.

My last article about the 2014 Christmas trip to Guadeloupe in the Caribbean created a stir for lack of flying information. So I am going to start with my best advice about flying south of the border after 45 years of experiences: prepare the best you can, fly the plane, expect anything, keep traveling, laugh and expect some adventure. Don’t forget to pray.

Regarding how to do it, Caribbean Sky Tours is the place to go for information and how to. You can buy their info book online – it is very complete. Also, from their website you can print forms, old charts and obtain other information concerning flight requirements. The company also provides services – I paid $25 per crossing for each flight into Mexico and departing from Mexico. For that fee, the company filed my APIS info with the Mexican government. I filed the US eAPIS although beware coming back: the APIS has to be filed online. Finding an internet connection at some Mexican airports is quite difficult.

After departing Culiacan on the way back, in the air, I remembered that I had not called US Customs in Tucson to tell them we were coming. This is yet another requirement to fly into the US. I had Caribbean Sky Tours file the Mexican APIS departure report and I had filed my own eAPIS with the US. I am not sure why the US government also requires that the pilot call Customs also – I had a flight plan and a transponder code. Fortunately Prescott, Arizona, FSS called Tucson Customs for me. I got a Prescott Radio frequency that Prescott uses in Mexico from Hermosillo radio.

A couple of tips. First, start planning way in advance. You need landing permits for Belize and Guatemala, in advance to departure. Each agency wants a copy of your license, medical certificate, radio operator’s license, airworthiness certificate, logbook entries, passport and proof of insurance to give you a landing number. Have copies of everything with you in the plane, also.

Avemco wasn’t going to insure me into Guatemala, but finally did issue a binder after I told them I had flown across Venezuela and into Colombia the year before. I think Avemco mistakenly figured maybe I knew what I was doing. Beware: the Belize landing permit is good for ONE day, so don’t be late like we were (one day). They almost did not allow us to land. Guatemala issued the permit for landing in a 14-day window. Guatemala was super professional compared to Belize. Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City was organized and friendly and as a bonus we found great food at the employee café by the executive terminal.

Back to my story: the flight in 90 degree humidity from Belize City to Cay Caulker was pleasant and short – 10 minutes. We found backpackers, some older folks who looked like escapees from the IRS or some other government agency and nothing fancy, but we encountered lots of warm beach and a great reef not far from the beach. The food was good and inexpensive. The comfortable bed in our hotel and very relaxed atmosphere put us into the Christmas spirit and just as God did through Jesus, I was willing to forgive and forget everything. Snorkeling with nurse sharks, gliding over the reef and then eating fresh caught seafood,   I was ready to rethink my entire life.

Guatemala City airport
You never know what you’ll get in Central America, but Guatemala City has a good airport.

About three days too soon, it was time to leave in order meet up with my wife’s family in Guatemala. We departed Belize (after returning to Belize City to get our exit stamps and pay some money). The mountains of Guatemala are high, and some are volcanos. We encountered clouds and with no oxygen left in our bottle, we flew between some of the peaks. We had the heat turned on. The high-altitude Guatemala City airport was modern. The approach inside the circle of volcanoes that surround the city was very memorable… and beautiful.

On Christmas Day, we awoke in a magnificent Spanish colonial hotel located in Antigua – the old Spanish capital. There were big, thickly-decorated Christmas trees in the public rooms and restaurants. The music of xylophones, played perfectly, transported me to colonial times. Dressed for Christmas, seated in heavy, ancient furniture, eating with old cumbrous silverware and speaking and laughing in formal Spanish with my wife’s classically dressed sister and close relatives completely transported me to the fifteenth century Spanish empire located in Guatemala… so distant from Madrid.

The following day we went to the museum in the old monastery of the order of Santo Domingo. Artists had prepared canvases of the Last Supper in which each of Jesus’s disciples was dressed in the Indian garb identified with villages of the area. The brush strokes were fine and expert.

On departure day, my heart was not prepared to leave Central America, but work was ready to have me back and I was thinking of the bills. After departing Guatemala, we had to stop at the designated border airport in Mexico. It was very humid.

Customs at Tucson International hardly looked at us – I think we looked honest. We had them fooled!  We imported a great deal of Christmas Spirit. And about Christmas is this article:  Merry Christmas.

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