It was 1975 and I’d just arrived from Germany to start a new life in Guatemala. I didn’t know much about Guatemala aside from that it was exotic, exciting and a little scary. Needless to say, arriving in the middle of the Guatemalan civil war was probably not the best timing.
For my job as sales manager of veterinary products I had to travel the country extensively and found myself soon immersed in Wild West scenery with big-hatted cowboys carrying pistols roping Brahman cattle and remote Indian villages where life seemed not to have evolved from the time of the Conquistadors 500 years ago.
My job also took me to the pristine jungle area in the northern part of Guatemala in Peten, that could be reached by a bumpy ride in wartime DC-3s or by a two day tooth shattering drive by car from Guatemala City. Having seen the wrecks of several DC-3 submerged in the shallow water of the jungle lake Petén Itza and after we took off one day with a gasoline funnel still sticking out of intake in the wing, I usually took the drive.
Driving around the beautiful lake Peten Itza one day, a local guy recommended me to stay at a new hotel called Gringo Perdido. When I inquired why someone would call his hotel “The Lost American” he answered that this was the nickname of the owner, an American called David Kuhn who had inexplicably come to this remote area to build a small hotel and was considered to be nuts, stoned or most likely simply lost in the jungle. He guided me to the palace on horseback and yes, we found a plot of land on the lakeshore where a few palm thatched huts proclaimed to be a hotel. The owner was absent. An Indian women was cooking tortillas, the sound of the clapping of her hands as she formed the flat tortilla between them already familiar to me and signaling an invitation to a hearty meal. Three small bungalows were finished among the exuberant jungle vegetation and a canoe provided the only water entertainment. It came with a warning not to fall into the crocodile infested lake. I remained mystified why a foreigner would settle down so far from any civilization and resolved to ask that question when I would meet him.
That occasion would have to wait for 48 years. It was December 30, 2017 and I was sitting in the breakfast lounge of Hotel Don David in El Remate, Petén, only 3 km from Gringo Perdido when an elderly gentleman approached with a mug of coffee in his hand. He turned out to be the owner of the hotel and told me a story about Peru, and the town of Iquitos on the Amazon River I had also visited many years ago. He had flown there hunting for big anaconda snakes to export to his zoo in Florida. The trip down there was organized by a “Spanish speaking Gringo” who soon lost himself in the delights of the girlie bars of that wild town and turned out to speak only enough Spanish to order a beer and the company of the dancing girls. David saw lots of monkeys, jungle cats, wild birds and giant fish but no anacondas. Time went by and money ran low. The Gringo then persuaded him to buy a shipment of tropical fish packed in oxygen filled plastic bags inside Styrofoam containers and fly them to Florida on one of the “monkey planes” that came down to Iquitos regularly to pick up cargoes of monkeys destined for American zoos. Somehow the fish shipment got lost when this or another monkey plane got grounded on a rumor of drugs being flown out of Iquitos and David returned to the US, minus anaconda, fish and the bilingual Gringo.
But now he was bitten by the tropical bug and pretty soon he was exploring the Guatemalan jungle for other animals. Living in Florida he was very much aware of the price of waterfront property. When he visited Lake Petén Itza, he was astonished to hear that the government would give waterfront property away for free to anyone who wanted to develop the property. He inquired, was able to buy a few lots on the lake, sold his zoo in Florida and moved to Guatemala.
Soon he decided this was the place to build bungalows and a camping area for tourists and in December 1975, he opened the first jungle accommodations on Lake Petén Itzá and named it after himself, the Gringo Perdido, the nickname remaining stuck to him like the chicle of the local roads.
The first five years of business were good. Don David married Rosita, a local girl he had hired as his assistant. But, as the 1980’s dawned, the civil war flared up and the country became increasingly dangerous. Tourists stopped visiting the jungle areas of Guatemala. By 1984, after three years of almost no business, David sold the lodge to a Guatemalan entrepreneur and along with Rosita and Kelsey, their one year old daughter, moved back to the US.
But now he had family ties to Guatemala and when the Maya Biosphere Reserve was established and tourism improved, David and family returned and opened their first bed and breakfast room in their partially finished home in El Remate. Adding a room or two each year, they officially opened “La Casa De Don David” in 1996, which today has 15 air conditioned rooms centered on a botanical garden, and a restaurant overlooking the lake.
“Yes”, he said over his steaming cup of coffee, “I am the original Gringo Perdido” and broke into a hearty laughter. “It took you a long time to find out, didn’t it”.
At 78 years old, he now contemplates to sell his new hotel and spend the last years of his life close to his daughter Kelsey who now lives in New Zealand. Rosita, his longtime partner and still a good looking feisty lady, supports his dreams as she always has.
I wished them luck and finished my coffee while enjoying the view of the lake and its guardian, the Cahui hills, that curves around the horizon in the shape of a giant crocodile, cradling el Remate in a verdant embrace.