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Some of the Most Memorable Moments of my Life …

“Some of the most memorable moments of my life have been made possible by Biotrek Adventure Travels – among other wonders, I’ve seen sunrise at the Taj and from the highest pyramid at Tikal, witnessed the Ridley turtles hatching on a beach in Costa Rica, and traveled to the mouth of the Maya underworld for an ancient ceremony. The latest exceptional adventure occurred in La Antigua, Guatemala, at Las Palmas Restaurant. We were returning customers eager to enjoy the perfect mojitos and succulent steaks that are almost worth a trip to Central America just for dinner. But then from the bar in the back room of the restaurant came the music that was even better than the food and drink – a bluesy, Latin mix delivered by an amazing trio of musicians and the owner singing lead.

Turns out Rene Constantino de Leon Carney not only runs an exceptional eatery but also has established Las Palmas as a center for accomplished musicians and great music in Antigua. He writes much of the music (available on cd’s) and performs over the best sound system in town with musicians who frequently go on to recording careers in LA. Then again, not surprising. He’s always had an interesting life. The son of a Russian mother and American father, he grew up in Cuba and the US. A serious injury ended his motor-cross career when he was 17. As a University of Florida engineer, he worked for IBM, Marriott and Price-Waterhouse-Cooper in computer systems and project management – what Rene calls “33 normal years.” Finally, in 1998, he returned to his childhood music and came to Guatemala to run first, a small hotel, and then, Las Palmas, and beyond that, to compose. The restaurant was the perfect venue to showcase music ranging from jazz to flamenco to salsa to bossa nova to blues.

The current house band is too new to have a name, and Bryan Cifuentes, the youngest member, is only 16. But they sound as if they’ve been playing together from birth and can switch around to cover different instruments, depending on what type of music they’re playing. Gilberto Estrada covers keyboards and percussion, and Carlos Trujillo, 38, sings and plays the skinny-body guitar he and his father made. For as excellent as the others are, it is Carlos who is the star. He first played in a marimba band, the marimba being the national instrument of Guatemala. But he has become a virtuoso on the guitar and sings with the true tone and pure emotion that puts listeners in the magical heart of the music.

After his set, as we were gushing compliments in English and disabled Spanish, Carlos presented his beautifully crafted guitar to me the way one would hand a beloved child to a doting aunt, and I was deeply honored to hold and admire it. He and the others placed their hands over their hearts at receiving our enthusiastic response to the music they so clearly loved to produce. In response, we put our hands over our hearts that had been so touched by these musicians’ perfect art and soaring spirit.

It was one of those amazing moments that travelers hope they will come upon but that happens only from the kind of serendipity that Sunny arranges: When those of us from one culture are miraculously allowed entrance into the beauty and understanding of another culture; when the connection of people from different worlds supersedes all differences.” – Barbara Esstman (Fairfax, VA)