They say all good things come to an end, so today we’re finding out what is at the end of the road on our Central American tour with our intrepid group from this spring. Join Dale of The Maritime Explorer as he recounts this last stop.
Sadly, this is my final post from Victor Romagnoli’s epic tour through all the countries in Central America for Adventures Abroad . The group has been to Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and finally Belize where the trip will end in Belize City tomorrow morning as we all depart for our homes or continue travelling on our own. This final country has been a very pleasant surprise with its impressive Mayan ruins, especially Caracol which we visited yesterday and the wonderful Black Rock Lodge where we spent two nights deep in the Belizean rainforest. We saw plenty of different birds at the lodge, but few of the other elusive creatures that inhabit the area. Victor is going to remedy that today as we make a stop at the Belize Zoo on the way to Belize City. Please join us on this final journey through this tiny country.
Leaving Black Rock Lodge we turn onto the Western Highway which bisects the country midway between the Guatemalan border and Belize City on the Caribbean Sea. This is a good road with little traffic and offers an opportunity to see parts of the country not on most tourist’s itineraries. As noted in my first post on Belize it is a poor country still heavily dependent upon agriculture and many of the traditional rural houses reflect this.
The houses are built on stilts and being far from the ocean it is not to protect from storm surges, but rather to provide shade during the hottest times of year when the inhabitants might sleep under the house and not in it.
We pass by the entrance road to Belmopan the capital city which is singularly unimpressive. In an effort to replicate Canberra or Brasilia, the capital was moved from Belize City to this planned community in 1970. It is the smallest capital city in the Western Hemisphere at just over 16,000 residents.
Visiting Belize Zoo
Normally a visit to a zoo would not usually be something you would expect to find on an Adventures Abroad tour, but Belize Zoo is different than most. It is set in a natural environment that has been disturbed as little as possible and the animals that live here have not been trapped for the purpose of putting them on display. Instead these are all native Belizean species that have been unable to make it on their own in the wild due to injury, abandonment or other cause that puts them at risk in the wild. It is closer to a wildlife rehabilitation centre than a zoo.
It also serves the purpose of introducing native Belizean children to the many exotic creatures with which they share this wonderful little country. On the day of our visit, they are here in droves and as per usual with kids at a zoo, they cannot wait to rush from one exhibit to the next, screaming with laughter and awe that would make anyone’s heart melt if they weren’t so damn loud. Okay in no particular order here are some of the species this old codger saw at the Belize Zoo that day that now seems so long ago and so far away.
First off is the Baird’s Tapir which is checking Alison out or vice versa. This is the largest of the Latin American tapir species which surprised me because I always that they were bigger than this. There were quite a few of them here living out their lives free from fear of jaguars even though one of them is only a few exhibits away.
While the tapir was sucking up to Alison this clay-coloured thrush was busy scavenging in its bowl.
The Belize Zoo has many humorous signs like the one below wherein a Guanacaste tree is bemoaning its fate at the hands of Hurricane Richard which struck Belize in 2010.
The compounds the animals are kept in are quite large and the walk between them resembles more a stroll in the rainforest rather than what you would see at most zoos.
Monkeys are always a big attraction at any zoo and Belize Zoo is no different. The spider monkeys seem at least as interested in the people as the people are in them.
This particular one put on a gymnastics display that would make Nadia Comenici jealous; then again Nadia doesn’t have a tail to go with two arms and two legs. He would put on his show for about thirty seconds and then stop and look right at you to see if you were impressed or not. Even though it is verboten to feed the animals, I suspect people do and that’s what was behind this type of behaviour. Or maybe he was just a natural born entertainer like my grandson Charlie.
The only creature I saw at the Belize Zoo I felt sorry for was this King Vulture. Despite being reviled by many as being ugly and depraved in their eating habits, vultures play a vital roll in the environment and I don’t think this guy is in any way ugly. He was a beautiful bird that for one reason or another would never again soar thousands of feet in the air on the warm thermals rising over the rainforest. And somehow, I think he knew it.
Not all the animals at the Belize Zoo are there because they have to be. The place was alive with agoutis who were in seventh heaven stealing food from the tapirs and monkeys.
Likewise this bird, which despite its black and white appearance I believe to be a brown crow.
Aside from the monkeys, the big stars of the Belize Zoo are the many species of cat found in the country. This is the smallest, a margay which is the most arboreal of the wild felines, spending almost its entire life in the tree tops.
Next in size is the much better known ocelot which can even be found in southwest United States. It is one of the few wild felines which is not currently endangered.
The jaguarundi is one of the few species of feline that is not particularly attractive, its head seemingly too small in proportion to its body size. This gives it more the appearance of being a large member of the weasel family. It’s a very efficient hunter and elusive enough that it is also not particularly endangered.
There was also a jaguar, but it was sleeping in a position that didn’t allow me to get a good photo.
Victor had suggested we pre-order our lunches before seeing the animals and this proved to be wise as by noon time the tiny restaurant on site was thronged with the school children and their teachers. However, our lunch and beer was there for picking up with no wait.
The drive from Belize Zoo to Belize City was uneventful and the city itself was not particularly attractive or memorable. I did recall that no building here was taller than the Sky Palace at Caracol I had climbed the day before. By mid-afternoon we were ensconced at the Radisson Fort George on the Belize City waterfront. Most in the group opted to spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing around the pool bar which was very tempting, but Alison and I opted to go for a walk along the waterfront. Despite the city’s negative image crime wise, we encountered no difficulties and watched a couple of dive boats being filled with what seemed an inordinate amount of supplies before heading out for a week long trip to the Belize reef. Sherrie and Barry Amundsen, two California forest fire fighters in our group, were set to join one of these type of trips the next morning.
As is usual with the last day of a wonderful trip, there was an air of false gaiety that overlay a feeling of solemnity at having to say goodbye to travel companions who had become good friends over the last month. With Victor, it was more like saying au revoir, because we fully expected to be travelling with him again, not knowing that the pandemic was already on its way and as I write this, having no clue if and when that will ever happen.
I hope you have enjoyed these posts on Central America as much as I enjoyed writing them. Although the Adventures Abroad tour is over Alison and I will be travelling to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye for a few days and you are welcome to join us.
This post is dedicated to Don Celle who Victor informed me not long ago, passed away recently. He and his wife Donna had travelled with Adventures Abroad many times and often with Victor. Although Don was a bit infirm on this last trip, he did not let that stop him from keeping up with the rest of us, including taking in the grueling drive to Caracol and back. The photo captures Don’s grim determination as he made the crossing from Costa Rica into Nicaragua. Donna please accept our heartfelt sympathy and may we cross paths again.
A small country with a big list of historical sites, with the most prized spot being the Sky Palace of Caracol. We join Dale of The Maritime Explorer for another look at travelling in Belize while on our Central American Tour.
This is my second post from Belize, the final country on Victor Romagnoli’s one of a kind guided odyssey through all of Central America for Canadian tour company Adventures Abroad. In the first post from Belize I gave my first impressions of this tiny country as we visited several Mayan sites including climbing El Castillo at Xunantunich. In this post we’ll pay our final visit to a Mayan archaeological site, the very important city of Caracol where there is a chance to climb the highest structure in the entire country, the aptly named Sky Palace. It’s a journey that will take an entire day on very bad roads through the Belizean rain forest. Please join us to find out if the effort to get to Caracol is worthwhile or something to take a pass on and enjoy the day relaxing at the wonderful Black Rock Lodge, as many in the group chose to do.
Black Rock Lodge
I’ve commented again and again in this series about both the quality and the variety of the accommodations Victor has selected for this trip and for our first two nights in Belize he has outdone himself with the Black Rock Lodge. It is an eco lodge located deep in the valley of the Macal River that lived up to every expectation I think one could have of a rain forest experience. Not only are the individual cabins and the main lodge excellent, but the surroundings are almost surreal. The lodge overhangs the river below and just over the railing is this feeder which is filled with a dozen types of fruits and nuts that attract an incredible variety of birds. Although it is hard to make out there are five different species in the photo above and over the course of our stay I saw at least thirty species, many of which were first timers for me. So first and foremost Black Rock Lodge is a birder’s delight, but there is far more than just birding.
The lodge offers rain forest hiking to look offs high above the Macal River as well as to secluded caves and waterfalls, all the while looking for exotic birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects and flowers. If you are ever going to see one of Belize’s wild cats, whether it be an ocelot, margay, jaguarundi, puma or even jaguar, then these trails are the place. The staff at Black Rock Lodge all are expert naturalists and love what they do, introducing people like us to their wild kingdom.
In addition to the natural side of things, Black Rock Lodge offers guided tours to nearby Mayan ruins of which Caracol is the most difficult to get to.
On top of all this the place is run on an entirely sustainable ecological model including generating its own electricity, wastewater treatment and recycling, use of natural products and growing their own produce. They even offer a tour to demonstrate how the place operates, doing the least damage possible to the rain forest that is under siege in so many places around the world.
I have to admit that before coming to Belize I associated it with its Caribbean coast and the barrier reef, but having visited Black Rock Lodge I would never return without spending at least a week in the rain forest.
Getting to Caracol
The distance to Caracol from Black Rock Lodge was technically not that far, about 60-70 miles (100-110 kms.) I would guess, but we were told that it would take up to three hours due to the poor condition of the roads. So there would be six hours in a vehicle on shitty roads in the heat of the jungle with two hours at least in Caracol and a couple of other stops on the way there and back. Oh, and we were also told that due to hostilities between Guatemala and Belize there would be armed soldiers escorting visitors to the site. For this reason about half the group, including Alison, opted to enjoy the day birding and hiking around the lodge. For myself, there was never a chance I was going to pass this trip up.
These were our two vehicles which the guides loaded with water and food and extra gas. Lynn and Brian Palardy and I hopped into the pickup truck and Victor and the rest into the van and we were off. The road into the lodge is quite rutty and bumpy and after less than a mile Victor knew his back could not withstand six hours of this so he had to bail and walk back to the lodge. I too suffer from severe lower back pain on occasion, so I know what he must have felt like and was glad he didn’t push himself for the sake of the rest of us. We had two good guides from the lodge as it was.
The description of the road to Caracol was not an exaggeration – it was terrible indeed. In places we couldn’t get above ten miles an hour, while in others we were jostled up and down so much that without seatbelts we would have been hitting our heads on the roof. The countryside was interesting with a few tiny villages at first, then a small farm or two and finally, a bit to my surprise, a pine forest.
We made our first stop at an old English army camp which had been used up until independence as a place for training commandoes in jungle warfare. It was an interesting relic of the colonial past.
The next stop wasn’t planned, but foisted upon us by this boa constrictor that literally covered most of the road. He/she took its time slithering away into the undergrowth. I am not afraid of snakes and got out to take this photo, but everyone else remained firmly seated.
Stop number three was at Rio Frio Cave, which is technically not a cave, but a tunnel cut through the soft limestone by the Rio Frio, although at the entrance it sure looks like a cave.
Only when you are inside can you see that it is a tunnel of about 300 yards in length.
Back in the vehicles we continued on, leaving the pine forest and descending to a narrow crossing of the Macal River, the same one that runs past Black Rock Lodge.
After three hours we finally arrived at the entrance to Caracol, but in truth with the stops along the way, it wasn’t that bad.
Notice those shells inside the Caracol lettering. Caracol means ‘snail’ and was the name given by modern visityors who noticed the abundance of land snails in the area. No one knows for sure what the real name actually was.
History of Caracol
The archaeological history of Caracol dates only from 1937 when it was rediscovered by a mahogany seeking lumberman. This is a truly amazing fact because we now know that at its height Caracol covered over twice the land area as modern day Belize City and had at least double the population, some think as many as 180,000. The Sky Palace is still the tallest structure in the entire country. Think of it – a city of this size and population just disappearing from sight for a thousand years. Perhaps for this reason, archaeologists at first did not think it was an important site, but the more they dug the more they found and Caracol is now reckoned to be one of the most important Mayan cities anywhere. The fact that it is so difficult to get to and that there is nothing on site in the way of restaurants, gift shops or anything usually associated with major archaeological places means it gets very few visitors and very little renown.
Settlement at Caracol dates as far back as 1,200 B.C., but as with many Mayan cities a timeline that is documented in stelae and altars sets an ‘official’ founding date of 331 by Te’ K’ab Chaak and runs through a series of rulers to 859 when the last king is mentioned, although not by name.
Deciphering of the dozens of altars and stelae has revealed that Caracol was frequently at war and usually victorious with a record of seven wins and two losses. The first war was lost to Tikal which we visited only two days before and which lies only about 60 miles (96 kms.) away as the crow flies. Caracol avenged that loss in the next war which led to a serious decline in Tikal’s fortunes for over a century. After that followed five wars with the city state of Naranjo which is even closer than Tikal. Caracol won the first four and lost the last. Kudos to Naranjo for never giving up. This was followed by a beat down of its closest neighbour Ucunal on the Mopan River in Guatemala and finally a last victorious war with Tikal, before fading away to nothingness. All those wars and so little to show for it. People never learn.
While there is no real museum on site, but there is a small building with a model of the Sky Palace and not much more. Aside from no activity on site there is also no admission fee that I am aware of, but at one point before arriving here the guides had to stop and go inside a military post to report our presence. It is from this post that the army closes the road each night and opens it again at nine each morning, escorting whoever is waiting the rest of the way in. We got here after nine so the convoy had already left, but aside from us and maybe a half dozen other tourists, the only other people around were soldiers, escorted everywhere they went by a troop of dogs.
Our guides, whose names I have unfortunately forgotten, were not only knowledgable about the history of Caracol, but the natural world as well. Here they are explaining the importance of the stemadenia Donnel Smithi tree, aka Horse Balls tree which is both a natural insecticide and a cure for worms. Who knew?
Caracol is not the type of place you want to take your eyes off the ground because there are roots everywhere that can easily twist an ankle or worse.
Just like at Tikal there are howler monkeys in the trees overhead. The guides warn us that they love to throw shit at passersby so I don’t know whether it’s wiser to look down for roots or up for flying shit. Instead I stood still for a while and took this video. Listen carefully for the howlers.
Similar to my post on Tikal, I’m going to stick just to the highlights of Caracol starting with this interesting altar which according to the guides depicts the sacrifice of two kings captured in one of the many wars fought between Caracol and its neighbours. From other sources I can confirm that it does represent two bound captives and once you were captured in the Mayan world there was little doubt of what your fate would be.
This is as good a time and place to give consideration to the two competing theories about the state of affairs in the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans. On the one hand we have Thomas Hobbes ‘State of Nature’ theory in which he espoused that American Indigenous peoples were living, before being ‘discovered’, in a ‘war of all against all’. His description of their lives as ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’ was used as justification for pretty well doing anything the Europeans wanted to them because, well, they’re lives were shit anyway so what the hell. On the other hand we have the Noble Savage theory wrongly attributed to Jean-Jacques Rousseau which posited that the same people Hobbes was referring to were living in some kind of Edenic bliss at harmony with nature and at peace with each other.
Based upon what we have seen from El Salvador to Belize it appears that Hobbes was probably more correct than Rousseau, but not entirely. The Mayans were certainly not solitary, living in cities larger than those in many modern day countries and their lives were not necessarily short, some Mayan rulers living well into their 80’s. In terms of being poor, the palaces and temples they built make it clear that the elites were anything but. However, as for the state of the ordinary Mayan, we really don’t know. If Hobbes got these things wrong, he was certainly right about the nastiness and brutality prevalent throughout the Mayan world where there did seem to be a state of constant warfare between the various city states and no mercy given to the losers. And they definitely were not as one with nature, destroying natural resources and depleting the soil in ways that eventually were significant if not the primary factor in the eventual failure of the entire system.
Looking at it from the 100 mile view and with the benefit of traveling through six continents and seven decades, I can claim, without fear of contradiction based on science and facts, that the Mayans were human beings exactly like the rest of us. No more noble and no more savage than each and every one of us.
With that editorial out of the way let’s visit the Sky Palace. This is the base.
This is the view from the plaza in front. It looks like there are two levels, but there are actually three.
Before we climb it, here is a short video of the main plaza at Caracol.
From afar, it doesn’t look that steep, but up close you realize that the steps are quite steep and they get steeper from one level to the next. It’s not the going up that’s an issue, it’s the going down.
This is the view from the top of the second level.
And the view from the very top, the highest man made point in all of Belize. The Empire State building held the title of world’s tallest for 36 years and the CN Tower for 25, but this place has been its country’s record holder for over 1,200 years and there’s still no contender in sight.
And courtesy of Brian Palardy, proof that I did make it to the top.
As I said, it’s the going down that’s a little more tricky because one slip and you are toast.
At the bottom I don’t know if I was more relieved or sad that this would be the final pyramid I would be climbing on this trip and maybe in my lifetime.
The wildlife sightings also continued with this friendly tarantula which the guides enticed out of its hole with a little twig. Contrary to what most believe tarantula bites are not that common or that serious. Their venom is weak and more like a bee sting than a deadly snake bite which is why some people keep them as pets.
Leaving the tarantula be, our group made it back to the main entrance where there were a few covered picnic tables and we had a late lunch, but alas, no beer.
I wasn’t exactly thrilled about the prospect of the three hour drive back to Black Rock lodge, but it was made interesting by a stop at the pools on the Rio On where the guides invited us in for a swim.
We all declined the offer, but there were others refreshing themselves in what, if I were forty years younger, would have been a no-brainer.
Surprisingly, the rest of the trip back seemed to go by almost in a flash or maybe I was just light headed. I can tell you that visions of a cold Belikin at the bar were dancing in my head.
Back at Black Rock Alison shared pictures of a few of the birds and flowers she had photographed during her excursions and we both agreed that we had picked our best options for the day.
Tomorrow is a day I always dread – the last on a tour I hoped would never end. Hope you’ll check in to see how it goes as we part ways with Victor and a group that has begun to seem like family.
While we are sad that the end of the tour is near for Dale and us as readers following along, we can’t wait for his next installment. Many thanks for sharing your thoughts and photos with us, Dale of The Maritime Explorer.
I’m finding it hard to believe, but we are headed for the final country in Victor Romagnoli’s guided tour of all seven Central American countries for Adventures Abroad. We have just wrapped up an amazing eight days in Guatemala capped off by a visit to the best Mayan site I’ve ever seen – Tikal. This morning we will drive through the Guatemalan rain forest for about 60 miles (100 kms.) to cross the border at Cuidad Melchor de Mencos into travel Belize. Please join us as we explore this former British colony which is the only non-Spanish speaking country in Latin America.
The drive to the border is relatively uneventful, but what happens there is anything but.
We are all required to get out of the bus and physically walk from Guatemala to Belize along a defined path, which is nothing unusual. What is, is that after moving along quite briskly, the line stops dead for a good half an hour without moving. Our group is about a hundred feet away from the small customs building and we can’t see what’s going on inside. It’s also hot and muggy as hell and we each have to pull our luggage. Victor finally walks up to see what’s going on and comes back to tell us that the group of Koreans we first ran into at the Guatemala City airport and yesterday at Tikal, is being refused entry because of concerns about Covid-19. This is way back in February of this year. The Koreans are not even allowed to use the washrooms. The bus that has brought them here has departed, thinking they would be picked up on the Belizean side. Talk about screwed!
Victor then learns that another bus has been ordered and they will be driven back to Flores and how they proceed from there is their problem. The irony of all this is that South Korea has one of the best records in dealing with the pandemic, way better than Canada, only 276 deaths compared to our 6,000 +. It was a very early lesson in how Covid-19 would turn the world on its head. It was with a big internal sigh of relief that I saw the first people in our group getting their passports stamped and proceeding onward.
A Bit About Belize
Belize, known until independence as British Honduras, has by far the smallest population of any country in Central America; around 400,000. Despite this it has an amalgam of various cultures including three distinct Mayan groups each with their own language, Creoles who are mostly the descendants of former slaves and have developed their own language, kriol which is a derivative of English although I doubt I could figure out a word of it, Garinagu who have both African and Indigenous Caribbean roots, Mestizos with Spanish and Mayan blood speaking “Kitchen Spanish’, German speaking Mennonites and sundry other groups. Perhaps surprisingly given the plethora of languages, English is the only official language, although over half the people are multilingual.
What I found most interesting about the make up of the population is that almost nobody actually wanted to come to Belize. Whether it was the first Mayans or the late to the party Mennonites, they were all either forcibly brought here as slaves or were fleeing from slavery, warfare or persecution somewhere else, most notable neighbouring Guatemala and Mexico.
While in terms of size Belize ranks 147th in the world, about the size of New Jersey or Israel, it has a number of distinct geographical zones including tropical rainforest in much of the south, swampy coastal plains in the north, mangrove forests along much of the Caribbean coasts and offshore islands and cays. The one outstanding geographical feature is the Belize barrier reef which is the second longest in the world and the main reason why tourism is the fastest growing industry. However, the economy is still primarily agriculturally based with sugar and bananas the main crops. This in turn means that the average Belizean is very poor by our standards, less than $5,000 USD per capita, but I’ve come to learn in my travels that monetary wealth has zero connection in many places with contentment or happiness.
The country does have a reputation for crime, with a high murder rate, but nowhere near as bad as El Salvador or Honduras, two countries we’ve already successfully navigated with no issues. However, the crime is almost all drug related and most takes place in Belize City between rival drug gangs. Although Victor advises us not to go wandering around at night when we get there, he’s confident we’ll be fine everywhere else in the country.
So, with that brief introduction let’s make out first stop in Belize.
We make our first stop barely a mile inside the border when the bus pulls over and Victor says we are going for a ferry ride, but the bus can’t come.
This is the mighty Mopan River which we must traverse to get to Xunantunich, one of a number of Mayan ruins we will visit in Belize.
We all head for this small ferry to make the crossing.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been on a hand cranked ferry. There used to be a number of them crossing smaller rivers on the Canadian prairies, but I believe all have now been replaced by bridges. It was an interesting bit of nostalgia for me.
On the other side of the river, which we crossed in only a few minutes, there were vans waiting that transported us to the Xunantunich site not that far away. A number of backpackers were doing it on foot.
Xunantunich was not a name I was familiar with, but the largest monument on the site, El Castillo I had read of. The actual name of the Mayan city is unknown and the appellation Xunantunich only dates to the late 1800’s and refers to an alleged ‘stone lady’, a ghost some claim to have seen walking about the ruins. I’ll keep my eyes open.
Xunantunich is a much younger city than those we have visited previously on this tour, dating from the Late and Terminal Classic periods of Mayan civilization and was actually growing while other cities were collapsing. As soon became apparent once we got out of the vans and made our way on foot, the city was built on top of a hill – a big hill. This defensive position may explain its emergence late in Mayan times as city states were increasingly at war over ever dwindling resources. Still, that did not prevent its disappearance into the mists of time by no later than 1,000.
The site is not that big compared to Tikal or Copan, but it’s definitely impressive. Like the ancient city of Monte Alban near Oaxaca, Mexico, Xunantunich was built on top of a hill that was levelled by hand to create an entirely flat surface upon which to build.
This is the view of the city from the first plaza that you come upon once you’ve regained your breath from the upward climb.
While there are a number of smaller temples and plazas at Xunantunich, I’ll cut right to the chase. Everybody is here to see El Castillo which dominates the city like no other singular Mayan pyramid I have seen so far.
Unlike El Castillo at Chichen Itza, you can climb the one at Xunantunich and climb it we did after viewing this interesting sideways head at the base of the pyramid.
At one time El Castillo had a frieze that apparently went completely around it. Parts of it have been reproduced and it must have been pretty impressive in its time.
The way up to the top of El Castillo and then down is a continuous one-way route that everyone must follow. This is the second tallest structure in the entire country of Belize so we were a bit winded once we got to the top. This is Alison catching her breath atop El Castillo.
But what a view! This was more than worth the effort to get here. From here you can really tell that it is built on a hill that has been artificially flattened. And all this was done without benefit of the wheel.
You can also see that Xunantunich gets very few visitors and that you’ll almost have the place to yourselves.
While getting up to the top of El Castillo was relatively easy, getting down was another story. At first glance this looks just like an iguana basking on the ruins, but if you look more closely you will see that it’s not a picture of a solid rock, but rather just past the iguana’s head there is a straight drop of at least eighty feet. The iguana is actually on a ledge that’s no wider than a yard with no railing or anything to hold on to and you’ve got to make a right turn around the rocks without knowing what’s on the other side. Despite the idea that this was a one-way route some people elected to return the same way that they came up rather than go down those steps to that ledge. I must admit it was the scariest moment of the entire trip, but I went down anyway and it wasn’t as hard as it looked. You just didn’t want to look down.
Here is Alison coming down after making it past the iguana guardian.
He continued to look over his jungle kingdom as our heart rates returned to normal.
Waiting back in the shade at some picnic tables at the entrance we were entertained by this Red Throated Ant Tanager, another life lister for me.
San Ignacio & Cahal Pech
Back on the bus we drove a short ways east on the surprisingly good Western Highway to the twin towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena that face each other across the Macal River which is spanned by the only one-lane suspension bridge I have ever seen. With a population of just under 18,000 it’s the second largest urban centre in the entire country of Belize. We left the bus and got out to look for a place to have a late lunch. Somehow this doesn’t look like any kind of urban metropolis to me. It was a Monday and just for that good reason most of the restaurants were closed including the tandoori place on the right which had been recommended. I did find out that the national beer of Belize is Belikin which makes a number of brews including Lighthouse, but the one I came to prefer during my stay here was just called Belikin and had a picture of El Castillo on its label.
Eventually we did get something to eat, but it was not memorable. After lunch we gathered for the penultimate Mayan ruin visit at Cahal Pech which is actually right in San Ignacio. It is a relatively small site that was once pretty well a family compound for a powerful Mayan family. This is was it is believed to have looked like during its heyday.
It was blazing hot and after Xunantunich most of us were ‘ruined out’ so we did a quick whirlwind tour, staying in the shade as much as possible.
The site definitely had more of a feel to it of a living quarters rather than as a ceremonial centre. There were a lot of small rooms and at one spot I thought I might have come across the ‘stone lady’ from Xunantunich, but it was Donna Celle looking very relaxed in the searing heat.
We were now ready to head for our lodgings for the next few days deep in the Belizean rain forest. It turned out to be a totally unique experience and I hope you’ll read my next post to find out why.
If ancient cities in the overgrown jungle are your type of travelling dream, then you’ll want to read this installment from Dale of The Maritime Explorer about Tikal.
This is my final post on our visit to Guatemala as part of Victor Romagnoli’s Central American odyssey for Canadian travel company Adventures Abroad. Visiting every country on this vast isthmus that stretches almost 3,000 kilometres (1840 miles) from Colombia to Mexico has been an eye opening experience to say the least. I now understand that each country has its own ethos and that they are not just a bunch of banana republics with similar histories of civil oppression, American interventionism and endless wars and revolutions. I also know that, despite being third world countries (Panama and Costa Rica might dispute that designation), that they each have a unique beauty, unmarred by poverty and lack of opportunity. Guatemala has been particularly notable in this regard as I’ve noted in my posts from Chichicastenango, Lake Atitlan and Antigua. Our final stop in Guatemala will be at the fabled Mayan city of Tikal which is deep in the rain forest in the northeast of the country not far from the border of Belize.
Although it’s theoretically possible to drive to Tikal, it’s actually a hell of a long way from the Guatemalan Highlands and the other attractions that bring tourists to this beautiful country. The vast majority of visitors arrive by air in the small city of Flores on the shores of Lago Petén Itzá and that’s exactly what out group will do. Returning to the Guatemala City airport from Antigua we board a late night flight on a small jet for the one hour flight to Flores. We are joined by a group of Korean tourists on board, which I mention only for what will become relevant in a later post. I am somewhat surprised to note that, despite being a city of over three million people and the capital city, Guatemala City has fewer flights in an entire day than Halifax airport has in an hour, at least pre-Covid. What the situation would be today (June 2020) I have no idea.
After boarding a bus around midnight Victor asks for a little more patience as we drive another hour to our lodgings on the shore of the lake. He assures us that it will be worth it because it will allow us to get to Tikal, still another hour’s drive away, at opening time and avoid the heat of the midday sun. The downside is that we need to get up before six to do this. Still, I’m not bothered at all because Tikal has been on my list of must visit places for decades and it almost seems unreal that I’m actually here and about to see it.
The Story of Tikal
The Mayans differed significantly from the Aztecs and the Incas in that they were never one unified force, but rather a collection of city states that frequently warred with each other. Think of the Aztecs and Incas as Rome and the Mayans as ancient Greece. While many Mayan cities were powerful at different times during the three recognized periods of Mayan history, Preclassic, Classic and Post Classic, few spanned as long a period of time as Tikal. The foundation of the city dates way back to 600 B.C. and it was inhabited for 1,500 years, being abandoned for reasons unknown around 900. At its height Tikal may have has as many as 90,000 inhabitants living in area over 6 square miles (16 sq. kms.) in size and containing an estimated 3,000 buildings. While the soil in these lowland rainforests was fertile, strangely enough the city had no ready access to water, not being on a river or lake. Archaeologists believe the residents relied strictly on rainfall which was stored in numerous reservoirs throughout the area.
Written records in stone provide a dynastic history of Tikal from a first recorded king in around 90 A.D. up until 869 through a series of 33 rulers, at least one of which was a woman. From at least 200 A.D. Tikal developed a direct relationship with the great central Mexican city of Teotihuacan which Alison and I visited on an earlier tour with Victor. In 378 the ruler of Tikal, Chak Tok Ich’aak (Great Jaguar Paw) was apparently assassinated by an emissary from Teotihuacan in a coup that put the city directly under the yoke of the Mexicans. There followed a period of great growth for Tikal and the subjugation of many surrounding Mayan cities as well as the foundation of the city of Copan in modern day Honduras, which we visited only a week before. This status as an aggressive puppet state did not sit well with neighbouring Mayan cities, especially Calakmul and what followed was the Mayan version of the Peloponnesian Wars with each city having the upper hand at various times over the next few hundred years. At first Calakmul allied with Caracol a city in modern day Belize we will be visiting soon, and decisively defeated Tikal and kept it subjugated for over a century. But then Tikal got its second wind and crushed Calakmul in 695, a defeat from which it never recovered. It was during the period that followed that the most impressive of the city’s many pyramids were erected including Temple IV, the largest Mayan structure from the Classic period.
Around 900 Tikal simply collapsed for reasons that are still debated. We know it wasn’t destroyed like Teotihuacan, but went out with a whimper, rather than a bang. The rain forest then covered it for almost a millennium and it became the proverbial lost city. In fact one area of the complex is named Perdido Mundo or the lost world. If you ever want an Indiana Jones type of experience in stumbling across arcane overgrown ruins in the middle of the jungle, like the picture above, then Tikal is the place to come. We’re here so let’s go explore this place.
Tikal is actually inside a large national park that is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the first to be inscribed in the program. It is notable not only for its great Mayan ruins, but also is part of the Maya Biosphere Reserve and the unique flora and fauna of this area of the world. The visitor gets not only an archaeological experience, but a biological one as well, something that only a handful of World Heritage Sites can claim. This is truly one special place.
As promised, Victor gets us up well before dawn and we grab a bagged breakfast before boarding the bus for an almost one hour ride to the site. We arrive at the park gates just at six a.m. when it opens, but the ruins are still a ways further and we get to the parking lot where our guide Luis is waiting for us. There is literally no one else around.
He takes us inside for a look at a model of the site and we get the first realization of just how big these ruins are.
From here we head out for a walk through the rain forest to the actual ruins.
Along the way there are several interesting sitings including this red-naped wood rail, which is a first for me.
As are these oscillated turkeys, a species much more striking than the more common American turkey.
It’s already been a pleasant walk and we haven’t seen a single ruin yet.
Tikal is such a big site that I’m not going to try to replicate the tour that Luis provided, which was excellent. Instead I’m going to hit the highlights which are most definitely the temples or pyramids (both words seem to get used interchangeably). This is a map of the heart of Tikal where the largest ruins are found.
The road we walked up enters the site at the Q and R complexes and then the North, Central and Mundo Perdido Acropolises follow in that order.
It starts out rather modestly with the East Pyramid Complex with a number of stelae in front. This shows how blasé I’ve become about Mayan ruins over the last couple of weeks since we visited out first sites in El Salvador. Back then, this small pyramid would have been a big deal, but today I’m looking for much bigger things than this.
Walking through complex R, one can see the remains of unexcavated pyamids of which there are many at Tikal. There is still a lot of work for archaeologists to do and hopefully it will continue post Covid-19.
And then, seemingly our of nowhere you come across the first temple and it is magnificent and incredibly steep compared to anything I’ve seen anywhere, including Egypt and Mexico.
And then the next temple rises from the jungle.
And the good news is that you can climb most of the pyramids at Tikal. Victor notes that since his last visit the government has constructed much safer ways up and down these structures than previously when you just climbed up the steep face. Now the way’s up are along the sides and do not obstruct the view of the structure from the plazas in front of them.
Now the climbing is neither for the faint of heart or the weak of heart. The way’s up are steep and given the rapidly rising temperature I understand why Victor got us here so early.
Here is a short video taken from the East Plaza Complex with the noise of howler monkeys that brings home the fact that you are deep in the jungle in the literal middle of nowhere visiting a place that once housed 90,000 people and survived for over 1,500 years.
Ok, time to do some serious climbing. This is a view of the tallest temple at Tikal, Temple IV which rises 230 feet. For this photo I am standing on the top of Temple II or the Temple of the Mask.
Victor goes up and down these pyramids like a mountain goat in bare feet.
This is the view of the Tikal ball court from up top.
There are a tremendous number of photo opportunities from these pyramids. In this one we are standing on a ledge with about a fifty foot drop behind us, but the shot of the great Mundo Perdido pyramid in the background was too good to pass up.
Many of the pyramids at Tikal were used as burial sites like their Egyptian counterparts such as the one below.
This is the view from the base of Temple IV which you are not allowed to climb.
All told we climbed four pyramids at Tikal ending with the most formidable one of all, Mundo Perdido which just looks foreboding.
We had already been on site for over four hours and the temperature was now well into the high 90’s (35 C), but as tired as we were by the time we reached the base of Mundo Perdido there was no way we weren’t going to the top. The view of the other great pyramids of Tikal from Mundo Perdido is one I will never forget and once again seared in my memory the image of a great city swallowed up by the jungle.
And of course, getting your photo taken up here was mandatory.
Luis had been promising us a late lunch on site for some time and by the time we reached the base of the pyramid, knees now aching like hell, I was exhausted, thirsty and hungry. This coati mundi was not waiting for his lunch, but digging it up on the spot.
Never has a beer been more welcomed than on that mid-afternoon in Tikal.
As we were leaving the site we ran into the group of Koreans who had been on the plane the night before. They were just starting their tour at the hottest part of the day. Once again I thanked Victor for using his experience to make sure we didn’t end up doing something stupid like that.
In summary, Tikal is one of the greatest archaeological sites on the planet and well worth the effort it takes to get here.
Tomorrow we are off for a land crossing into our final country on this amazing journey, Belize. I hope to see you there.
Often described as the jewel of Guatemala – but how does Antigua feel in real life? Luckily we have the words, wisdom and photos of our traveller Dale of The Maritime Explorer to explain.
Alison and I are continuing our journey through every country in Central America with guide Victor Romagnoli leading the way on behalf of Canadian tour company Adventures Abroad. We just spent two amazing days in the Lake Atitlan area which I describe in this post and now we are headed the short distance to the famed colonial city of Antigua Guatemala. On the way we dropped into the shrine of San Simon, which was an other worldly experience to say the least. We are now leaving the domain of the various Mayan peoples who dominate most of the Guatemalan Highlands and entering an area where there are more mestizos than purely Indigenous peoples. And although we got our first taste of a true tourist town in Panajachel on Lake Atitlan in quite some time, Victor tells us to expect Antigua to be much more crowded.
History of Antigua Guatemala
Anyone familiar with Spanish will know that Antigua means ‘old’ or probably more accurately ‘ancient’ which is kind of ironic because, unlike many Spanish colonial cities, Antigua Guatemala was not built on top of a much older Indigenous settlement. It’s chronology of continuous occupation is actually much shorter than many other Guatemalan cities, but by New World standards it’s still pretty old. It was founded in 1543 as Santiago de los Caballeros, the third attempt by the Spanish to build a city in the area under shadow of Vulcan de Agua. The first had to be abandoned due to attacks by Mayan warriors and the second got wiped out by a huge volcanic mudslide in 1541. Sounds familiar – we saw the same thing at Leon, in Nicaragua.
The third city was founded five miles further away from Vulcan de Agua in the apparent belief that this would be far enough to ensure the city didn’t get buried a second time. The Spanish picked a nice flat spot at the base of a wooded hill (now Cerro de la Cruz) and laid out the city in a perfect grid, making it just about the easiest both physically and spatially to navigate in the country. You’d have to really work at getting lost in Antigua.
In 1549 Santiago de los Caballeros was named capital city of the huge province of Guatemala which included every present day country in Central America except Panama, as well as a good chunk of southern Mexico. That turned out to be a great magnet for religious groups who began pouring into the city, starting with the Franciscans and followed by just about every other major religious order of the day. Like the old adage, you can’t swing a cat in Antigua without hitting a church, monastery or convent. None of these groups seemed to bothered by the fact that almost like clockwork, every ten years or so there would be an earthquake that would destroy much of what they had built since the last earthquake.
During the 1600’s earthquake activity tapered off and there was an explosion of baroque architecture, both ecclesiastic and lay that made Antigua one of the most beautiful cities in the New World. The city prospered and by 1770 had a population of over 60,000. But those damn earthquakes kept happening. in 1717, 1751 and finally in 1773, virtually levelling the city in the process.
By 1776 the Spanish had had enough and ordered everybody to get out and move to what is today Guatemala City. Most did and Santiago de los Caballeros was given a new name, pretty well by accident – Antigua Guatemala. In the 1800’s less than 10,000 people remained living in a city of ‘beautiful ruins’, many of which remain to this very day.
In the 20th century the city was rediscovered by artists and language schools who found it a perfectly romantic place to learn to draw or paint or to learn Spanish. This in turn brought other types of tourists, like our group. In 1979 UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site describing it as follows:
The pattern of straight lines established by the grid of north-south and east-west streets and inspired by the Italian Renaissance, is one of the best examples in Latin American town planning and all that remains of the 16th-century city. Most of the surviving civil, religious, and civic buildings date from the 17th and 18th centuries and constitute magnificent examples of colonial architecture in the Americas. These buildings reflect a regional stylistic variation known as Barroco antigueño. Distinctive characteristics of this architectural style include the use of decorative stucco for interior and exterior ornamentation, main facades with a central window niche and often a deeply-carved tympanum, massive buildings, and low bell towers designed to withstand the region’s frequent earthquakes. Among the many significant historical buildings, the Palace of the Captains General, the Casa de la Moneda, the Cathedral, the Universidad de San Carlos, Las Capuchinas, La Merced, Santa Clara, among others, are worth noting.
Today there are about 35,000 people living in Antigua, just over half the number almost 250 years ago, most making a living as a result of the ruins people come to see and the destruction that drove the original population away in the first place. There’s definitely some irony in that.
Hotel Camino Real
Once again Victor has outdone himself in the selection of our hotel for our stay in Antigua. From the moment you walk into the Hotel Camino Real you are greeted with the sight of flowers everywhere like this display in the lobby.
It is a modern hacienda style hotel that has interesting nooks and crannies to explore where you find things like this old cart festooned with flowers.
Or this courtyard fountain.
The rooms are spacious with all the modern amenities, but designed in a manner that you do feel you are staying in a hacienda.
The breakfast buffet at La Velas restaurant was outstanding, probably the best on the entire trip and why I didn’t take a picture of it I don’t know.
And of course it has a really cozy bar where you can also get a meal.
After a day of trekking the streets of Antigua some in our group enjoyed the pleasure of soaking in the large jacuzzi.
The Camino Real is the type of hotel where you might go just for the experience of relaxing without ever leaving the premises. It’s an added bonus that it is just a short walk away from the centre of Antigua.
We had a couple of guided tours with our Guatemalan guide Tony, but for the purposes of this post I’m going to mix what we saw together. The bottom line is that there is a ton of things to see in Antigua and they are easy to walk between. If you get fatigued by one church or religious institution after another then this might not be your favourite Central American city. However, I can guarantee that you will not get tired of the ruins, especially those places that are partially ruins and partially working churches, convents or even hotels and restaurants.
A good place to start is the Parque Central which is the city’s equivalent of a Mexican zocalo with the Guatemalan and Antiguan flags flying overhead. It’s the beating heart of Antigua with a mixture of locals and tourists with only a few annoying hawkers to avoid.
There is a reconstructed fountain that originally dated from 1737 with four mermaids squeezing water out from their ample bosoms. How did that get by the nuns and priests of 18th century Guatemala?
Behind the fountain is the Catedral de Santiago which was almost completely destroyed in the 1773 earthquake and only partially ever rebuilt. It’s actually one of the less prepossessing buildings in the city.
At right angles to the cathedral is the Palacio de los Capitaines General which is a two story colonnaded structure that once housed the administrative offices for the entire province of Guatemala. It too was severely damaged in the 1773 earthquake and abandoned for some time. Here is a woodcut from 1840 showing the cathedral and the palacio. Note the rubble in front of the palacio.
Today the colonnade provides welcome shade and houses a number of businesses and restaurants.
The woodcut makes it appear that Antigua is literally almost at the base of Volcan de Agua on the left and the twin peaks of Volcan Acatenango and Volcan Fuego on the right. This is a bit of an exaggeration, but the presence of these volcanoes cannot be ignored and in fact is what gives Antigua some of its romantic charm.
Vulcan de Agua was the one responsible for the mudslide that destroyed the second attempt by the Spanish to establish a city in the area. Although it has not erupted during recorded time (the mudslide apparently not qualifying as an eruption) it most definitely is not dormant. During our stay in Antigua it regularly sent out smoke signals.
One of the more interesting of the partially ruined buildings is the large complex that was once the home of the Franciscan order in Antigua. They were the first to arrive in the area, even before the mudslide of 1541 and upon moving to the present site in 1579 set out building a huge church complete with cloisters and other buildings required to run a proper monastery. Despite set backs from numerous earthquakes they persevered until finally they were done in by the 1773 earthquake and heeded the order to move to Guatemala City.
The structures lay in ruins for almost two hundred years when the Franciscans returned in 1961 to start a five year reconstruction. Talk about a fixer upper project! The reconstruction is only partial so that today it looks like this.
Tony points out the coat-of-arms over the front entrance to the church which is that of the Hapsburg’s. This family once dominated Spain, Austria-Hungary, the low countries and much of Italy and Germany, but somehow I never associated them with the New World. Another travel related learning lesson.
The area around the church is very busy with many fruit and vegetable vendors which this slimmed down version of Friar Tuck is checking out.
If you’ve got a sweet tooth then this stall is the place to come with a great variety of goodies available.
On the other hand, if you are desperate you might gravitate to this place.
Those are candles in the shape of body parts – limbs and various organs. Why would you want one of these you might ask? Because there is a saint buried in San Francisco Church and being of recent vintage his powers of healing are apparently very strong. Peter of Saint Joseph de Betancur or Hermano Pedro as he was usually called while alive in the 17th century, was a goatherd from the Canary Islands who made his way to Antigua and became a Franciscan brother. Using his experience with goats, he shepherded the sick, the poor and especially those imprisoned. He was that rarest of beings, a truly good man. In 2002 he was canonized by Pope John Paul II, becoming Guatemala’s first saint and now people from all over Central America flock to this church seeking his divine intervention. There are many here today and Tony wisely suggests that we not disturb their prayers. While I don’t believe in this stuff, I don’t begrudge those that do as long as they respect my right to disbelieve and don’t try to convert me.
The street that the Franciscan complex is on is called Calle de los Pasos which means ‘street of the steps’ and contains a number of stations of the cross where people congregate on Good Friday which is a big deal in Antigua. One thing I really like when visiting countries like Spain and those in Latin America is the tradition of using tiles or paint to give the street name a personality that we just don’t do in North America. There’s just something about this sign that makes you want to walk down this street.
Undoubtedly the most famous landmark in Antigua is the Santa Catalina Archway that once connected two convents on either side of 5th avenue and viewed from the north side has a splendid backdrop of Volcan de Agua behind it. Although you can’t tell from this photograph because I cropped it severely, this street was jam packed with tourists; the most I saw at any one place in Guatemala. Everyone wants their picture taken in front of the archway. Everyone except me – I figure if I took this picture, there was a good chance I was there.
Time for lunch. There is a good selection of restaurants on two sides of the Parque Central and I don’t include chain restaurants under the term ‘good’ although there is also a selection of them as well. Alison and I found a place inside the colonnade and she had potato and leek soup with side salad. I went with fagioli soup which I always enjoy and breaking the rules of not drinking beer with soup, had a local craft beer, Muy Noble Blonde Ale and it was.
There’s still a whole lot more to see in Antigua starting with another ruined monastery that has been repurposed as a series of museums and a luxury hotel. The former Dominican monastery, Santo Domingo de Cerro was one of the largest in Antigua until it was levelled in the 1773 earthquake and abandoned. It sat in ruins for even longer than San Francisco before being purchased and converted into the five star Caso Santo Domingo which opened in 1989. The building incorporates portions of the ruins directly into a modern structure in a way that very much preserves the feeling of being in a monastery, except one with spas, swimming pools, HDTVs and other modern amenities that monks could only dream of.
Non-guests are not allowed to just wander around the hotel, but they can visit some of the small museums on site including the catacombs where you can stand on plexiglass and look down at the remains of this nameless monk.
Here is another example of the combination of old and new, this time to create a work of art which I call ‘Bells and Babies’
Tony drew our attention to this rendition of the Last Supper which is very unusual. If Tony had not pointed it out, I would not have noticed that Jesus was serving up tortillas and not the usual bread you would see in European versions. Another case of syncretism with the tortilla, which far predated Christianity in Guatemala, being incorporated into the new religion’s rites.
Now I’ll just fast forward to a few more of the things we saw, lest the reader get bored with too much detail. This is the interior of the Colonial Art Museum which as you can see is not exactly overflowing with tourists.
The architecture of this old palace was more interesting than the religious artifacts on display, although there was a modern art exhibit that featured famous disasters of Guatemala. Based on the number of paintings, they have a lot choose from.
I don’t want to give the impression that most of the ruins in Antigua have been repurposed, most have not. One of the most famous is Nuestra Senora del Carmen which actually survived relatively unscathed from the 18th century earthquakes only to be devastated by one in 1917 and again in 1976 when the dome collapsed. It is indeed a beautiful ruin and the presence of the small tourist oriented market doesn’t detract in the least.
Antigua is one of the few places that still maintains a public laundry facility that is still used by residents.
One more church and I promise it will be the last. These are photos of the exterior of La Merced another of the best examples of the baroque style for which the city is famous.
This is as ornate as it gets.
This was our final stop on our guided tour of Antigua. On the way back to the hotel I noticed this intriguing Station of the Cross showing the Deposition or removal from the cross after Jesus dies. Its a portable float that will be carried through the streets during Easter celebrations. That’s something I’d like to see.
Cerro de la Cruz
We had a fair amount of free time to explore Antigua on our own and the one thing I would absolutely recommend doing is taking the walk up to the top of Cerro de la Cruz which is the wooded hill on the opposite side of the city from the volcanoes. It’s not too taxing, involving a series of stairways. The view is outstanding with Volcan de Agua and its classic pyramid shape we usually associate with volcanoes.
The city is laid out below and you get a much better idea of just how many convents and monasteries there once were and how big they were. This is a view of La Merced from Cerro de la Cruz.
And of course you are going to want to sit on the retaining wall and get your photo taken here. Even I succumbed to that.
The Jade Factory and Museum
Jade was a big deal in the Mayan world. They had very little gold, no diamonds and few other precious gems so jade, which was reasonably abundant, took on an importance to the Mayans that remains to this day. Technically jade is a commercial term that applies to items made from either jadeite or nephrite which are two completely different minerals in composition, but look so alike that it was not until the 1800’s that they were identified as distinct minerals. While most people associate jade with the shade of green of that name, it comes in many different colours depending upon impurities exist within it, as the natural colour is white.
We had been hoping to buy some decent jade while on this trip and Victor had advised us to wait until Antigua and the Jade Maya Museum and Factory where there would be no issues as to authenticity or quality. It was good advice.
Jade Maya is just off the Parque Centrale and features a guided tour followed by a chance to purchase some high quality jade products that are made on site.
There are a number of exquisite masks on display including the one above and this one which is a full scale replica of the famous Mask of Tikal.
Upon seeing this beautiful piece I decided to buy my own, albeit a much smaller version. He now sits on the mantle of my fireplace at home and is a great reminder of our visit to this wonderful city of ruins.
We end of visit to Guatemala by visiting one of the greatest of all Mayan cities, Tikal. Hope to see you there.
Life is full of detours, our Guatemala tours can be as well. Dale of The Maritime Explorer takes on one such detour as he ventures with Victor over to San Simon. Read on to find out how it went.
At the end of my last post on beautiful Lake Atitlan I wrote that I would see you next in the city of Antigua during our Guatemala tour, but we’ve decided to take a detour to see something that wasn’t on the original itinerary. By we, I mean a group led by expert guide Victor Romagnoli for Canadian travel company Adventures Abroad with which we have travelled many times over the past twenty-five years and never been disappointed. This tour is a specialized one-off designed by Victor and will include all seven countries that make up Central America. A few days ago we arrived in Guatemala from Honduras and I have been blown away by this very unique country. It is the only one in Central America where a significant number of the population are Indigenous Mayans. During our stay in the market town of Chichicastenango where the population is overwhelmingly Mayan, I got my first glimpse of the syncretic religious practices that incorporate Catholicism with traditional Mayan gods. Our group saw it again with the cult of Maximón in Santiago Atitlan and when our local guide Tony mentioned that there was another, quite different shrine between Lake Atitlan and Antigua we all said we need to see it. So here we go to visit San Simon in the village of San Andrés Itzapa. Won’t you join us?
Who is San Simon?
Well if you were a practicing Christian, you would probably say he was one of the more obscure apostles who was given the moniker Simon the Zealout to distinguish him from Simon Peter, the alpha apostle and from a brother of Jesus also called Simon. His symbol is, of all things, a saw. Here is a sculpture of him in the ancient Saint John Lateran basilica in Rome by Francesco Moratti with saw in hand. One of the many explanations for his death in England, Egypt, Persia, Armenia or Iberia (take your pick) was that he was sawn in half.
So far, so good – just another proselytizing apostle who met a grisly death. His Saint’s Day is October 28th. Keep that in mind.
Now the title of this post refers to a playboy saint and the guy up above doesn’t fit that bill at all. So was there another St. Simon or San Simon as the Spanish speaking world would call him?
In the last post we met Maximón, tucked away in his moveable shrine in the village of Santiago Atitlan. Now he fits the bill as the cigar-smoking, money grubbing, hard drinking, womanizing rascal we might rightly describe as a playboy or more accurately perhaps, a roué or wastrel. But a saint? Hardly. Is it just a coincidence that October 28th is also Maximón’s feast day? Maybe not.
We are headed to the small village of San Andrés Itzapa which is about five miles (8 kms.) off the Pan-American Highway near the city of Chimaltenango, to find out more about this mysterious character. Our local guide Tony tells us that there is a permanent temple or shrine to San Simon here that draws pilgrims from all over Latin America.
Actually we never seem to come to a town, but all get out on a country road where there is a lane too narrow for our bus to enter that apparently leads to the shrine. Immediately on stepping off the bus I can smell the acrid fumes of what could be burning rubber. Tacked to a telephone pole at the end of the lane is this poster and there’s a fascinating story behind it that’s not apropos a visit to San Simon.
This is Sandra Torres, former first lady of Guatemala from 2008 to 2012. But like Hilary Clinton, being second fiddle was not enough. She wanted to succeed her husband to the Presidency and tried to run for President in 2011 and replace him when his term was up in early 2012. The only problem was that the Guatemalan constitution forbids relatives of the sitting President to run in subsequent elections and the courts ruled against her. No problem. In a move even Hilary has not thought of, she promptly divorced her husband Álvaro Colom and ran again in 2015, losing to a comedian, Jimmy Morales who ran on the slogan “Neither corrupt, nor a thief”. Morales found that running a country was no joke and by the time his term was up he was apparently both corrupt and a thief. Reenter Sandra for a third time. Always viewed as corrupt herself and with investigators on her tail, the Presidency would make her immune from prosecution. Sounds familiar. Alas, poor Sandra lost again and was charged with corruption almost immediately by the new President who had run on a promise to “Lock her up!”. Also sounds familiar. Guatemalan politics is nothing if not interesting.
We are also confronted with this banner which has Jesus in the middle flanked by his mom on one side and I presume, San Simon on the other. Even I can decipher that this is some type of spiritual centre.
I will save you the time of translating this. Here is what it says according to a pretty lousy internet translator, but it gives you the gist.
You have problems in love, you do not pay your money, you want to raise your business, you want luck in lotteries or you suffer from supernatural diseases.
You want to know if you can be the victim of a malignant spell, this is your chance to free yourself from everything bad, change your life today, be a trickster.
Even though Jesus is the middleman in this (literally) it appears that the guy on the right is the one to whom these prayers will be made.
Heading down the lane we come upon shop after shop selling replicas of San Simon and just like t-shirts, he comes in small, medium and large. Unlike Maximón who, at least in Santiago Atitlan, sports a beard and in addition to a tie, wears traditional Mayan clothes, these San Simons sport typical western garb. Why their heads are covered in plastic bags, like victims of a Mafia hit, I don’t know.
As we approach a gateway through which you need to pass to get into a plaza in front of the shrine, Tony says to watch out for witches. He says they hang out here to cast spells and hexes for people who want revenge on someone they think has crossed them. Apparently mistresses are the favoured targets. They advertise their availability by smoking cigars and sure enough there is a woman doing just that by the entrance. I don’t want to take the risk of getting hexed myself by taking an obvious photo so I shot her from afar.
The plaza revealed the source of the acrid smoke. There were a number of sacrificial fires burning with Mayan shamans chanting in front of them and I presume those who were kneeling were the hopeful beneficiaries of these requests for intervention.
This video gives a little better idea of the scene. The voice is Tony explaining what’s going on.
It’s time to enter the shrine itself and from the steps I look back and get a closer look at the shamana who appears to be in some sort of trance. In case you are wondering if I was not feeling like a voyeur about to enter a place I thought was peddling pure bullshit, the answer is definitely “Yes.” But, no one who actually believed in this stuff seemed to mind our presence.
Sleeping dogs are always a good sign when entering a holy place. This one was no Cerberus. How it could be comfortable in that position was beyond me, but as the wise adage goes, I let him lie.
This is the interior of the San Simon Shrine and no old time saloon could outdo it in terms of being a smoke filled room.
There he was in all his glory with a line up of dedicated believers eager to ask him for his favour. There were about a dozen in line on the day we visited which, from videos I’ve seen on You Tube was quite a small number. The one thing we were not going to do was get in line and pretend we were supplicants. There is a limit to this voyeurism. But I did get close enough to get a photo of San Simon and was able to observe him relatively close up.
Until I saw the plastic bag over his head, I had assumed the replicas for sale were just wearing the bags to protect them from dust, but apparently it’s part of his shtick. Now I’ve seen statues venerated around the world by believers of many faiths, but I’ve never seen one quite like San Simon, unless you count his alter ego Maximón from yesterday. This was just plain seriously weird.
A closer look reveals, in addition to the hanging snowman, offerings of beer, cigars, rum, food and I suspect his favourite, cash money.
The smoke was coming not only from seemingly hundreds of candles, but also from the lit cigars and cigarettes of San Simon dummies who were seated before the real San Simon. What they were praying for I have no idea.
As if things couldn’t get any more bizarre, at the back of the shrine a scaled down version of a mariachi band was playing. Tony said it was common for shriners to hire a band because apparently San Simon likes his music as much as his booze and tobacco.
So what exactly are people asking San Simon to do for them? Is it good health, luck in love, erasing money troubles – all the usual things people think they should get in exchange for lighting a candle and saying a prayer or two? Well all those things on the wall are photos, plaques and other forms of thanks to San Simon for granting their wishes. The great majority of them are thanking San Simon for getting them the hell out of Guatemala!
Some are more mundane like a new car and a couple of motorcycles or a nice fat baby.
My research for this post also turned up the fact that a lot of drug dealers or worse come here to ask San Simon to make sure they don’t get caught. They don’t tend to leave behind obvious evidence of thanks, but hey, that new car and the motorcycles had to come from somewhere.
Visiting the shrine of San Simon was something I will long remember and reaffirms once again, why travel is so vital to a better understanding of the world. You can be an armchair traveller all you want, and in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic that’s all any of us can be, but I yearn for my next Adventures Abroad trip.
In the next post we will definitely get to Antigua. See you there.
We love first-hand accounts of how our tours run and are so thankful for Dale of The Maritime Explorer for sharing with us his take on one of our Central American tours. This time, it is all about Chichicastenango. Enjoy!
We are close to the home stretch on Victor Romagnoli’s Central American odyssey for Adventures Abroad. Previously the group has visited Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador and lastly the ruins of Copan in Honduras. Today we are crossing back into Guatemala which we briefly traversed on the way to Copan. Our destination is the Guatemalan highland town of Chichicastenango which is world renowned for its Mayan market and syncretic religious practices. It’s a full day’s drive from the border to our destination, but I never mind travelling through a countryside I’ve never visited before – a stranger in a strange land so to speak, to parrot Robert Heinlein who was in turn parroting the Israelites time and exodus from Egypt. It’s literally a story of travel as old as the Bible and I hope you’ll come along for the journey.
The one thing I have learned on this great trip so far is that no two Central American countries are alike. Despite our tendency to stereotype them all as Banana Republics, nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t need to go into detail on what makes each one different, you can read my posts from each country for that, but suffice it to say that Guatemala promises to be a completely different experience from where we’ve been and where we are going. There’s a number of reasons for that starting with the make up of Guatemala’s population.
Guatemala has by far the largest number of indigenous people of any of the Central American countries; fully 44% of the people are identified as such in the last census of which the overwhelming majority are Mayans. However, Mayans are not one homogenous group, but many sub-groups speaking many different Mayan tongues which are not dialects, but completely separate languages. This map shows the predominant language in different areas of the country. Although over 90% of the population speaks Spanish (Castilian) as a first or second language, the map shows that the country is definitely not a melting pot, but more a patchwork quilt.
Guatemala has the most people of any Central America country – over 17 million and growing at one of the fastest rates in the Western Hemisphere. The average age of Guatemalans is only twenty and the number of people over age 65, less than 5%. Compare that to an average age of 40 in Canada with 16% over 65 and you have completely opposite demographic patterns. On top of that, Guatemalans average only 5 feet one inch in average height, allegedly the shortest in the world, so we are going to stick out like old, white, tall people in a sea of young, brown, short people. Should be interesting to say the least.
Guatemala also has the largest urban centre in Central America, Guatemala City with a metropolitan population of close to four million and growing exponentially due to the high birth rates and rural migration. That rapid growth has led to the city becoming infamous for its slums or asentamientos of which La Limonada with over 60,000 residents is the largest outside Brazil in Latin America. It is a literal hell hole where many of the residents making a living picking saleable items from garbage that is dumped there. If you ever want to know why so many Guatemalans flee their country for Mexico, United States and even Canada, read Don Winslow’s great novel The Border . In part it tells the story of Nico, a young Guatemalan boy who lives in El Basurero (the dump in English) a thinly disguised La Limonada, and is forced to flee from the gangs that dominate and control the slum through intimidation and murder. His effort to get to El Norte is a truly amazing read and far better than Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt which to my mind is a rip off of the former.
Where Guatemala is actually very similar to the other Central American countries we have visited is its history of repression, revolution, civil war and seemingly unending violence, largely funded by American interests. The main sport of the nation today seems to be trying and usually acquitting former politicians of all political stripes on corruption and even genocide charges. Despite this, tourism in Guatemala, at least before Covid -19, is booming compared to its southern neighbours, El Salvador and Honduras. However, it is restricted mostly to the capitol, Lake Atitlan and the UNESCO World Heritage city of Antigua as well as the Mayan ruins of Tikal. With the exception of Guatemala City, which we will drive through, we will be seeing all the other tourist hot spots. We will be led through Guatemala by the voluble Tony de la Torre who, as we will learn over the next few days, seems to know everyone in the country.
However, while Chichicastenango is not exactly unknown, it receives only a fraction of the visitors the other places do. So with that introduction to this sixth Central American country let’s get a move on.
The border crossing back into Guatemala from Honduras goes smoothly and before long we are back at the junction of Highway 10 and heading north to a left turn onto Highway 9 which will take us all the way to Guatemala City. The road conditions are surprising good and most of the major towns are by passed so we make good time. The countryside is quite pleasant with well forested rolling hills interspersed with agricultural valleys. This is not volcano country, but that will be coming up once we reach Guatemala City.
Victor makes no promises of how long it will take to get from one end of the capital city to the other. In places there are four lane or even wider highways and in others we are down to a crowded one way street with red lights seemingly every block. The traffic is far worse than any place we’ve been on this tour, but still nowhere near nightmarish. We do get stuck in a traffic jam a few times, but usually not for long. Most of the cars are reasonably new and some, like this pickup are carrying interesting cargo. Some lucky kid is going to have a ball smashing that piñata.
The most interesting thing I see in Guatemala City is the La Limonada slum which stretches for miles in a ravine which is crossed by the main highway a good 100 yards or more above it. It’s sobering to think that here we are in air conditioned comfort crossing over the heads thousands of people living in abject poverty below. I try to think up an appropriate analogy, but I can’t.
On the other side of the city the highway starts to climb steeply as we head into the Guatemalan Highlands and the volcanoes once again make their appearance on the left side of the bus. There is a steady line of about a dozen them that run all the way from Guatemala City to the Mexican border. The scenery begins to take on a distinct alpine appearance with many buildings made of huge wooden timbers. We also start to see a lot of the ‘chicken buses’ for which Guatemala is famous.
The chicken buses are so named because a lot of people bring their chickens on board, just like every stereotype you’ve ever thought of third world bus transportation. They are repurposed school buses from the United States and Canada (I saw few Bluebirds maybe from Brantford and New Flyers definitely from Winnipeg) that are the main means of getting from town to town in Guatemala, especially the highlands where most of the Indigenous population is based. They are outrageously decked out and fitted with motors that make them go like hell. The drivers put their faith in God and not their common sense so you see them sometimes passing on blind turns, careening around corners almost on two wheels and other not so safe maneuvers. Personally I think the name comes from the way they seem to play chicken with traffic coming the other way. I’m glad I’m not sitting in the front seat.
After what seems like hours we turn onto the road to Chichicastenango and the bus begins a painfully slow ascent up a high mountain pass and then down and up again. In places the turns are so sharp that the driver has to stop and back up to get into position to make the turn. Meanwhile the chicken buses come rushing at us as if they really are protected by God and I keep expecting to see one go hurtling off the cliff to a fiery death hundreds of feet below. The people we are seeing out walking the roads or riding one speed bikes, often in the middle of nowhere, are pretty well all Mayans, many dressed in traditional costumes which of course means they are not costumes at all, but their regular clothes.
Finally, well below us, Chichicastenango comes into view. Still it’s at an elevation of 1,985 metres (6,447 feet) so we’ve been pretty high up going over these mountain passes.
The Mayan Inn
Our accommodation for the next two nights is the Mayan Inn and once again Victor has booked us into a place that has a perfect location in the middle of Chichicastenango, has a really nice ambience and is comfortable as hell. It consists of two complexes across a narrow cobbled street from each other and dates all the way back to 1932 when Guatemalan tourism was in its infancy and a fellow by the name of Alfred Clark acquired these properties and proceeded to fill them with art and artifacts of the Mayan Quiché (K’iche’) people who are the dominant group in the area. Our rooms are mostly in the building called the annex across from the building above where the bar and restaurant are located.
This is the door knocker for the annex.
Inside there is a lovely central courtyard festooned with flowers where each morning a scarlet macaw and a green parrot are brought by their owner and places on perches for the day.
Every room is different and each has a working fireplace in recognition that it does get cold up here in the Guatemalan highlands. This is our room A 12.
After unpacking there’s time to look around the place and its more like a museum than a hostelry, very similar to El Convento in Leon, Nicaragua. There are a number Mayan wall drawings with Mayan hieroglyphs above them interspersed with traditional Catholic religious icons such as you see above. This mixture of traditional Mayan religion and post Spanish conquest Catholicism was to become the ‘theme’ as it were of much of our visit to Chichicastenango and later the Lake Atitlan area. Although I am not a religious person, I have always been interested in learning about religious beliefs around the world and in particular syncretism, which is the combination of religions, often with almost diametrically opposite forms of worship, into a recognizable third type of religion. Probably voodoo or obeah are the best known examples to most people, but it exists throughout the world and one could argue that it is growing in Indigenous communities in North America where the revival of traditional religious beliefs is a definite trend.
This is one of many paintings found on the property depicting people wearing the traditional Quiché garb with Chichicastenango in the background.
The courtyard in the main building is a riot of colour and there are a surprising number of twists and turns in what turns out to be a very large inner compound.
It was only on about my third reconnaissance of the property that I took a turn that took me out to another courtyard from whence this view. That’s the Chichicastenango cemetery down below and I knew immediately I had to get a closer look.
I used the phrase ‘a stranger in a strange land’ earlier in this post and from the moment Alison and I stepped into the streets of Chichicastenango I have never experienced this feeling more strongly. The reason is readily apparent – we are like Gulliver in the land of Lilliput, towering above these really tiny people, the women averaging well under five feet. Also the fact that almost all of them are dressed in the same manner they would have been centuries ago, in colourful traje (dress), huipil (blouse), or corte (skirt) along with the tzute (head cloth) makes us, dressed in traditional modern costume, the real outsiders. However, it’s not an uncomfortable feeling. They just basically ignore us.
My first question upon arriving at the cemetery and seeing this sight is, “How the hell can they afford this?”. After all Guatemala is a poor country and some of these tombs are as big as small houses. The answer apparently lies in that combination of Mayan and Christian beliefs. The Mayans very much believe in the practice of honouring the dead, in fact, failure to do so can lead to the soul being trapped between life and death and no one wants that.
Every year just before the Day of the Dead ceremonies at the beginning of November, the families repaint the graves, whether they be mausoleums or simple crosses. The colours do have a meaning as well.
Some of the mausoleums are works of art in themselves.
Others are dedicated specifically to one individual and reflect that person’s overriding passion in life. In this case car racing apparently as there is a miniature race track incorporated into the structure.
Obviously not every person in Chichicastenango has the means to afford a grand mausoleum, but the simple painted crosses in their varying colours are almost as interesting and photogenic.
What I did not take a picture of in the Chichicastenango cemetery was the most interesting thing we saw there. At the highest point in the cemetery there is a flat covered concrete floor which is there specifically for sacrifices. Now the word ‘sacrifice’ has many connotations and the pre-Columbian Mayans practiced many of them including human sacrifice. Post conquest, the sacrifices were toned down, but they have continued over the years with the addition of a few Catholic additions, especially candles.
There was a family who had gathered for a sacrifice which was a circular collection of offerings including modern Mayan essentials – food, alcohol and tobacco. Over the next few days we would see a number of Mayan sacrifices and all would involves these three elements. Along with dozens of candles, all this is lit on fire and prayers made while the sacrifice burns. It is a sacred moment for the family and not one that should be photographed without permission which the family was not giving. If we were feeling like strangers when we set out for the cemetery, watching this ceremony cemented the feeling.
Returning to the Mayan Inn we passed one of the churches of Chichicastenango and observed sacrificial fires on the forefront of the building. The combination of the cross and the ancient ritual of the Mayan sacrifice taking place in a supposedly Christian place of worship spoke volumes about the Mayan syncretic beliefs.
Back at the inn it’s time for a cocktail at the bar followed by dinner. Each couple has a man assigned to them during the stay who, dressed in Quiché garb, acts as both waiter and porter. This was our chap and I’m sorry, but I’ve forgotten his name.
The dinner is vegetarian, which is actually a nice change, although I wouldn’t want to do it every night.
This has been one heck of a day, but I’m looking forward even more to tomorrow it’s market day in Chichicastenango.
I get up really early and go outside the Mayan Inn courtyard to see the preparations for the Chichicastenango market which has been held here every Thursday and Sunday for hundreds of years. It is the largest market in Central America and is a tourist attraction, but most definitely not a tourist market. The population of Chichicastenango and surrounding area is overwhelmingly K’iche’ Mayan and the products offered for sale are almost all primarily for the locals. The market spreads over a number of blocks and includes indoor and outdoor elements. It appears to be at the highest point in the town with the result that everything needs to be hauled up here, much of it by human foot power. I am amazed at the size of the loads that the people, mostly women, are carrying on their backs.
Back at the Mayan Inn a traditional breakfast awaits and then it’s off to explore the market.
Victor suggests checking out the poultry market which is in a closed street only a block from the hotel and it’s pretty interesting. The birds, which all seem to be remarkably fit looking, are kept in woven baskets covered with open netting that lets the birds move around, but not escape.
It’s not just chickens for sale, but ducks.
The most colourful part of a market world famous for its colours is without doubt the textiles, most of which are made locally and reflect traditional patterns that have been around for over a thousand years.
I walked by this stall where this guy was dressing his distinctly unMayan looking mannequins.
And returned five minutes later to see them decked out in their fionery.
How about some aprons?
The Chichicastenango market is also well known for its pottery, which is not decorated for sale to tourists, but for every day use by the K’iche’ people. Again, there is a direct connect from these types of pottery and those used by the Mayans over two thousand years ago. By now the market was starting to get quite crowded, but there were no other tourists. Some did arrive later in the day by bus from Antigua or Lake Atitlan, but as far as I could tell the Adventures Abroad group was the only one actually staying in town which let us explore the market for the first couple of hours as the only tourists.
That stranger in a strange land feeling was continued in the market as there were so many items for sale that you would never see at home. Like this guy selling chunks of limestone. Say what?
In order to make tortillas you need corn flour and in order to make corn flour you need an alkaline substance, usually limestone, to use in a process called nixtamalization which makes the corn flour digestable by humans. The process has been documented in Guatemala as far back as 1500 B.C., once again directly linking this market to customs that are thousands of years old.
I had to pay this lady to take here picture and even then she refused to smile, giving me the evil eye instead. Considering that the Mayans very much believe in witches and she is making brooms, maybe I should invest in an appropriate talisman.
Flowers are always a popular attraction at any market, Chichicastenango being no exception with the flower market spread out on the steps of Iglesia Santo Tomás with the almost exclusively female vendors dressed in K’iche’ clothing.
It’s not just flowers that are sold, but petals as well that are used in the Mayan sacrifice ceremonies.
The church was built in the 1500’s on top of what had been a Mayan temple. The K’iche’ people have not forgotten that and this fellow was worshipping/praying in front of the church doors and not inside as you would expect in a purely Christian rite.
Homemade musical instruments were one of the few things that anyone made any effort to actually sell to us as obvious tourists. If one of the reasons you might want to avoid markets is harassment by over zealous vendors you don’t need to worry about that at Chichicastenango. Nobody got in our faces at any time. The contrast between what goes on in an Arab souk and here could not be greater.
The food portion of the Chichicastenango market is in a two story building from which you can get a great view of what is going on below. This is the vegetable market, a Christmas coloured collage of green and red.
This lady did look up at me and smiled – sorta anyway.
We were approached in this market by some kids selling good luck dolls and thinking back on the possible evil eye glare from the broom maker I persuaded Alison to buy some, just in case.
The market also has an enclosed area where hot food is served and by now we were both hungry and footsore so we stopped at one of the many family run operations that are lined up side by side under a large tent. I chose the one that had the most locals eating at and we were not disappointed. These might have been the first fries I’d had in weeks and they were great as was the chicken. I started this visit to the Chichicastenango market with chicken and that’s where I’ll end it.
Chichicastenango is not the easiest place to get to, but more than worth the effort to be here on market day. It truly is one of the best markets I’ve ever been to.
Next we are off to one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, Atitlan, and I hope to see you there.
Another installment in the exciting Central American series with Dale of the Maritime Explorer. This time to one of our favourite destinations: Lake Atitlan.
This is my second post from the wondrous country of Guatemala which, despite years of civil unrest, finally seems to be returning to a semblance of normalcy that is seeing the return of tourists to the most popular areas. The first post highlighted the amazing market in the mountain town of Chichicastenango where I also got my first look at the syncretic religion practised by the K’iche’ Maya of the region. It definitely whetted my appetite to see more of this most unusual Central American country. While I am writing this at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic that has effectively ended tourism as we know it, I am hopeful that there will be a worldwide return to normalcy as well, I just don’t have a clue when. Once it does, this post might serve as an inspiration to visit one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen or been – Lake Atitlan. If, God forbid, things never return to normal and Lake Atitlan proves impossible to visit in the future, then let this post stand as a paean to its beauty.
Alison and I are in country number six of Victor Romagnoli’s specially created itinerary of every land in Central America for Canadian based Adventures Abroad. Our bus chugs up and over the mountains between Chichicastenango and Lake Atitlan which, as the crow, or more likely the vulture flies, is not that far away. We cross the Pan-American Highway at Los Encuentros and pass through the small city of Sololá which, like Chichicastenango is noted for its biweekly markets. Despite the short distance we have travelled, we have moved from the heartland of the K’iche’ Maya to that of the Kaqchikel Maya who speak a different language and whose native dress differs,. The two were traditional enemies and the Kaqchikel helped the Spaniards conquer the K’iche’ way back in the 1500’s, but not so long ago that there still isn’t bad blood between them. From the streets of Sololá we get our first glimpses of Lake Atitlan, almost 2,000 feet (600 metres) below.
Creation of Lake Atitlan
About 85,000 years ago there was one super volcano named Los Chocoyos that erupted in an event that blew it to pieces, sending ash as far away as Florida and Ecuador. It is reckoned to be one of the greatest volcanic eruptions of the last 100,000 years. Instead of of a huge mountain, there was now a huge hole, more properly a caldera, that gradually filled with water to create Lake Atitlan, much like Crater Lake in Oregon. From the map above you can get an idea of just how big Los Chocoyos was compared to the three volcanoes in existence today that sprung up after the explosion. They are veritable pimples compared to the original. Similar to Crater Lake it is also very deep, up to 1,120 feet (340 metres) with an average depth of 720 feet (220 metres) so it’s a long way to the bottom for those who drown on its surprisingly rough waters.
The great polymath and personal hero of mine, Alexander von Humboldt is often quoted as describing Lake Atitlan as the most beautiful lake in the world, yet I can find no record that he ever visited Guatemala during his epic expedition to Latin America between 1799-1804. Almost everywhere you go in Latin America, he shows up in statues, parks and street names, but the Lake Atitlan quote was either apocryphal or based on hearsay. Either way it doesn’t matter because I’m about to find out for myself as we pull into the mirador for a look at Lake Atitlan from above.
Alexander, you were right. This is a stunningly beautiful lake. Below is the view looking south and you can barely make out our destination, the town of Panajachel on the left.
If there was ever a mirador from which you want to get your picture taken this is it. Photography buff Brian Palardy took this photo and it is one our favourites from the entire trip.
Tomorrow we will be out on the lake, but for today we will content ourselves with settling into Panajachel and exploring one of Guatemala’s most famous tourist towns.
Panajachel or just ‘Pana’ as everybody seems to call it, is the first real tourist town we have been in for it seems like weeks, or at least the first town with any recognizable amount of tourists. After leaving Costa Rica, our Adventures Abroad group was about the only bunch of tourists, other than a few backpackers, in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras. This place almost comes as a shock with its narrow streets not exactly thronged, but with way more tourists than we have been used to seeing. There are restaurants and handicraft stores everywhere, but overall most of what is being offered for sale is crap. There are an amazing amount of really cheap t-shirts with dumb sayings on them that an amazing number of people are buying and wearing. I can never figure out why dumbasses want to let everyone know that that’s exactly what they are. There are also quite a number of seedy looking, rheumy-eyed expats that look like they would fit right into a Graham Greene or Malcolm Lowry novel.
I’m not saying that I didn’t like Panajachel, I just found it jolting after the relative authenticity of the places we had just come from. The town has a fabulous location on Lake Atitlan and Alison and I very much enjoyed walking in a loop around the town and returning along the waterfront. However, in preparing for this post I found that I never took a single photo of the place other than of the hotel.
The Porta del Lago which I note is temporarily closed because of the pandemic, describes itself as a boutique hotel with which I might quibble. The Mayan Inn where we stayed in Chichicastenango and a number of other others on this trip were boutique hotels, this is not. However, it is still a very fine hotel with absolutely world class views from the rooms. This is the view from our room, 503.
It has a large swimming pool, some very nice Mayan handicrafts for sale and puts on an excellent breakfast buffet. I have no hesitation in recommending it to anyone who might get to Panajachel in the future.
On Lake Atitlan
In reading the itinerary for this trip one of the things I was most looking forward to was the day we were to spend exploring Lake Atitlan and a couple of its villages. Well, that day has arrived and before nine we are headed the short distance to the waterfront to board our boat and cross the lake to the town of Santiago Atitlan. It’s a beautiful day for a boat ride and soon we are pushing back from the dock at Panajachel and headed out on the open water.
Now I mentioned that Alexander von Humboldt thought Lake Atitlan to be the most beautiful lake in the world, even though he apparently never actually saw it. However, one person who definitely did see it was the British writer Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World among other works. In his travelogue Beyond the Mexique Bay he compared it to Lake Como in Italy, but thought that the addition of volcanoes to the scene made it “really too much of a good thing.” Sorry, Aldous, but I disagree. These are the three volcanoes of Lake Atitlan and they don’t in any way detract from the grandeur of this lake.
However, all is not sweetness and light when it comes to Lake Atitlan. Guatemala is miles behind most countries when it comes to protecting the environment and that has had a very deleterious affect on this lake. The combination of high phosphorus fertilizers and raw sewage draining into the lake has created algae blooms and cyanobacteria that is lethal to the lake’s eco system. The system may have been able to resist these effects but for the introduction of a species of bass in the 1950’s for the purposes of creating both a sport and a food fishery. As usually happens when man tinkers with nature, this backfired spectacularly. The bass ate their way through the native fishes and when they were gone, even ate the ducklings and chicks of ducks and grebes that were unique to Lake Atitlan. By 2010 the lake was faced with the prospect of actually dying.
The good news is that since this near death experience the process has begun to be reversed as the use of fertilizers has been dramatically reduced and several sewage treatment plants have curtailed the draining of raw excrement into the lake. Right now the situation is apparently improving although nowhere near back the the way the lake was before the bloody bass were introduced. The Atitlan grebe is extinct and will never return. What is also gone, thankfully, is the horrible smell that cyanobacteria gives off, so this morning the lake looks blue and pristine, even if I know it’s not.
One other thing about Lake Atitlan which man can’t interfere with. That’s the Xocomil. It is a wind that is unique to the area and is created by warm Pacific air meeting cooler northern air over the waters and boy is it blowing today. The water might look calm from the photo above, but it’s actually rough as hell and the boat slams into the waves every five seconds or so sending a jolt down the spine that I’ll be paying for in days to come.
I can’t believe the local people are out in their makeshift boats with the prow just barely not going under with each approaching wave. They don’t seem too concerned so neither am I.
Santiago Atitlan is located inside a long inlet which we enter after about a thirty minute crossing of the lake. The roughness subsides and we pull up to the dock where a number of people are collecting lake grass which I presume will be used as a type of fertilizer. I know I used to harvest eel grass every year from just off my wharf to use as a type of compost on my flower beds until the invasive European green crabs arrived and destroyed the grass beds.
Getting out, Victor and our Guatemalan guide Tony commandeer a fleet of tuk-tuks and we are soon whisked through the crowded streets of this bustling town to the central plaza.
Santiago Atitlan is home to yet another Mayan subgroup, the Tz’utujil people who once controlled much of Lake Atitlan until the Spaniards arrived. Today, aside from Panajachel, most of the villages around the lake are populated by Tz’utujil Mayans who, collectively, number only about 100,000 and have a syncretic form of religion which is absolutely fascinating.
As most people know, Santiago is the Spanish equivalent of St. James and this rather unprepossessing looking church is, in English, Saint James the Apostle Church. It dates all the way back to the 1540’s and lies in the shadow of the mighty Atitlan volcano which rises to 11,598 feet (3,535 metres) which in the Rockies would be a good sized mountain. The steps you see are actually over a thousand years old and once led to a Mayan temple which the Christians of course destroyed to build the church atop in an act of religious oneupmanship. But it didn’t actually work as we shall see as we enter what is one of the most fascinating churches I’ve ever visited anywhere.
Tony takes us on a guided tour of the interior which has more than a few things of passing interest starting with the various saints decorated by groups that are unique to Guatemala, the cofradias. These are religious brotherhoods that date back to the Spanish conquest and were originally intended to help spread Catholicism and stamp out native beliefs. Instead they have morphed into something similar to the krewes of Louisiana who each have their own distinct colours and symbols. The entire church is lined with these brightly coloured figures. The guy in the brown outfit looks like he’s pulling a move right out of Saturday Night Fever.
These are the boys in red. Note the bright ties on two of them.
Sometimes things are not as they first seem to appear. This is the pink cofradia.
But take a closer look at the Virgin Mary. WTF? She’s got two babies, not just the usual one. Here’s where things get tricky and try as I might, I can find no one coherent explanation for the two babies. Here is Tony’s version. The second baby is actually Judas. Yes, you read that right. For Mayans, the death of their religion at the hands of the Spanish priests was not cause for celebration or a great awakening, but rather an execration. The one figure from Christianity that many of them could embrace was Judas who was responsible for getting Christ killed and thus in their eyes, more powerful than Jesus. There are umpteen versions of the story and we shall see more even before we leave Santiago Atitlan, but let’s finish exploring the church first.
This is a group I call the blue krewe.
The altar of the church is fairly standard, but what’s behind it is not.
This is the apse with this wonderful carved wooden panel with ten figures adorning it (twelve if you count the two wooden ones at each end at the top).
A closer look reveals this ghastly looking version of Jesus who, uncharacteristically is shunted off to the side while lesser figures occupy centre stage.
Opposite Jesus on the other side, is this rendition of the Holy Trinity, but when I first looked at it, I thought it was an old guy in one of those euphemistically named ‘motorized mobility scooters’ that you increasingly see tearing up and down the sidewalks of North American cities.
One a more serious note, there is an important monument near the church entrance that is worth examining and learning the story of Father Stanley Rother. He was an American priest who came to Santiago Atitlan and during the civil war, defied the authorities and stood up for the Mayan people that were frequently the target of massacres during this time. For that, he paid with his life and has been recognized as a genuine martyr in every sense of the that word.
Although his body is buried in his native state of Oklahoma, Stanley Rother’s heart is buried here and that seems appropriate because he gave his heart and his life to the Tz’ujutil people. While I might not agree with religious proselytizing, no one can dispute the goodness of this man’s intentions to help the poor and downtrodden. In this world where Catholic priests are just as often seen as predators rather than protectors, it is comforting to know that that some truly follow the true teachings and example of Jesus, even if it costs them their lives.
Beside the church is the rectory and Tony points out the very spot where Rother was murdered by a government backed death squad in 1981. Sadly that was not the end of the violence. In 1990, eleven more people were killed in Santiago Atitlan by the army which had a base nearby. That event caused such an international uproar that the base was closed and since then life in this small place has returned to a semblance of normalcy.
Leaving the church area we are headed for the market, but not before Tony stops to talk to a tiny, wizened old lady. He explains that in her youth she was a famed beauty and you can certainly see it in her face. Alison posed for a photo with her. She also demonstrated how the Tz’ujutil women create a bonnet out of what appeared to be just a long cloth band, whipping it around head to create what she is wearing in this photo.
Rounding the corner we saw her face again, although many years younger. She was the model for the image on the Guatemalan 24 centavo coin and the residents of Santiago Atitlan erected this monument in her honour. Who says you don’t meet famous people on Adventures Abroad tours?
In my previous post I wrote about the wonderful market at Chichicastenango and perhaps was expecting more of the same here. In some senses the market was similar, certainly in terms of the bright colours of the textiles. The patterns of the Tz’ujutil Mayans were completely different than the K’iche’, with flowers and birds being the predominant themes, rather than geometric patterns. Many of them would qualify as works of art and no two were alike.
What was different at the Santiago Atitlan market was the absolute chaos of the place. The people were jammed in so tight that we literally had to squeeze our way through in many places. Here you can see Alison, at five foot four, towering over most of other market goers. Considering that some in our group came in at well above six feet, it was an unusual sight to say the least to see our stream of putative giants slicing through the Lilliputian crowd. Oh, and social distancing? Forget about it.
Flowers seemed especially important to the Tz’ujutil people as at least half of the people at the market were either buying or selling.
I’m not a big fan of crowds so I was not disappointed to get out of this particular market and follow Tony through a series of narrow streets to find something that moves around from house to house in Santiago Atitlan.
Perhaps the ultimate in religious syncretism is the cult of Maximón or San Simon who is described in this National Geographic story as the ‘Liquor-Drinking, Chain-Smoking Saint’. Although, like the association of Judas with Mayan Catholicism, there are many versions of just who this guy is and how he came about, all agree that he constitutes the embodiment of a Mayan god or character with a Christian saint. He has both good and bad traits like most of the ‘trickster’ characters found throughout the world. In Santiago Atitlan he is a carved wooden figure that was allegedly created by shamans to protect the town, which after a bad start which required his head to be twisted around and his legs broken, has been working pretty well ever since. He must not have been on duty when Father Rother was murdered or during the 1990 massacre.
Anyway, Maximón belongs to the town and every year is moved to a different location in the charge of a different cofradia. Tony knows where he’s holed up this year and we enter a small courtyard where a number of people are standing around and these young boys looking ever so nonchalant.
This is a Mayan shaman leading some type of ceremony. Maximón is inside a small room which she is looking into as she intones.
After paying the obligatory offering, i.e. cash, to Maximón’s handlers we are permitted inside, one by one, for a quick glimpse of the legendary figure himself. Look closely and you’ll see the bills underneath his tie. How do you say ‘racket’ in Tz’ujutil?
No matter what you might think of Maximón and his followers, this is fascinating stuff and one of the great reasons why travel is, for me, an absolute necessity, just like liquor and cigars are for him.
The one thing I really did not like about Santiago Atitlan was the persistence of the trinket sellers in and around the main street leading up from the waterfront. They were very young and as annoying as the gadflies Hera would send to torment Zeus’s mistresses. They had every trick in the book, ultimately playing the guilt card which really pisses me off. The reason it stood out was that it was the only place in all of Central America that we ran into this type of ultra aggressive hucksterism.
Back on the boat we were headed to a much smaller town on the Lake Atitlan lakefront.
San Juan La Laguna
About a twenty minute ride from Santiago Atitlan is the much smaller town of San Juan La Laguna which seems to consist of one main street leading up from the waterfront to the plaza where the church is found. Along the way are a great number of handicraft shops, coffee and chocolate emporiums and a number of attractive murals. It’s an interesting place that actually seemed to have more tourists walking about than Santiago Atitlan.
Pulling up to the dock I noted this hard working man and his relaxed looking dog.
This is the main street. Looking at this photo now I don’t see any people wandering about, seeming to contradict what I just wrote about the number of tourists, but I assure you they are there, just hiding for some reason.
A few examples of the murals you’ll find as you make your way up to the church.
This one you look down at from above and some of them look back at you.
The town is also noted for its pottery, which would definitely make for a good souvenir of the place.
This wood collector emerged from the shadows of a narrow lane presumably to sell his wares in the town.
After visiting the church we made our way back to the boat and headed for Panajachel. Nearing the town we saw these tree enormous buildings that were totally out of sync with everything else on or around Lake Atitlan. Of course there was a story behind them and as with many things in Guatemala, corruption was the theme.
Even though Lake Atitlan was supposed to be protected from developments of this kind, the former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, hoping to launder some of the money he had stolen from his people, bribed officials in Guatemala to let him build these three buildings that were supposed to be condos. They got built, but Somoza didn’t get a chance to sell the condos as he was assassinated in Paraguay after being ousted by the Sandanistas. Two of them have never been occupied while the third apparently has a lot of squatters. And so goes life on Lake Atitlan.
This is an incredible place and I can only hope that the wheel of fortune favours it more in the future than it has in the recent past. I will long remember our magical day on this too, too beautiful lake.
Next we are off to Antigua which has long been on my bucket list of Spanish colonial cities. Hope to see you there.
Venturing into Honduras, we explore once of the best Mayan sites in the world with Dale of The Maritime Explorer.
Our journey with Victor Romagnoli through Central America on behalf of Adventures Abroad continues as we make our way into the fifth country on the itinerary, Honduras. Our destination is the legendary lost Mayan city of Copan deep in the jungle and far, far away from the troubled cities of Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula where gang violence is still rampant and tourists are wise to avoid. In order to get to Copan we need first to cross over into Guatemala from El Salvador where we have spent the last three days. There we got our first taste of Mayan ruins as the sites of San Andres and Tazumal. Frankly, before I signed up for this trip I was not even aware that there were Mayan ruins in El Salvador so I was not really disappointed that they paled in comparison to Chichen Itza and Tulum, the two Mayan sites I had visited in the past. Copan, however, is a different matter. It has long been famous for its stelae, the unique hieroglyphic staircase and the Rosalila monument so I am really psyched about this visit. Why not join us and see if our expectations are met?
We had spent the night at the tiny mountain village of Concepción de Ataco surrounded by volcanoes and coffee farms. In the morning we made our way back through Santa Ana, El Salvador’s second largest city and then up to the border crossing at the Rio Anguiatú where things went smoothly and we were into Guatemala. There was an alternate route that would involve crossing directly into Honduras from El Salvador, but Victor made it clear that the less time spent on Honduran roads the better. The route we were taking would cross into Honduras from Guatemala only about twenty kilometres (14 miles) from Copan Ruinas the town just outside the ruins where we would be staying for two days. Arriving at the border crossing at El Florido we disembarked and walked across the border, stopping on the way for a group shot in both countries. Not sure what Victor is looking at.
There was a bit of confusion at the entry point as apparently the woman in charge wanted a bribe, but Victor told her to shove it and after a little delay we got our Honduran passport stamps and got back on the bus for the short ride to Copas Ruinas.
Hotel Marina Copan
Once again Victor outdid himself with the choice of hotel for our stay in Honduras. The Hotel Marina Copan is an oasis of wood, brick, tile and greenery that has large rooms and a swimming pool that many in our group took advantage of, as we had the rest of the day to relax and explore the town.
The town of Copan Ruinas was developed around the tourists attracted by the nearby ruins and as such is a rarity in Honduras, a hot spot for foreigners. At least it was until the violence that plagues Honduras got so bad that the tourism industry has almost completely dried up. There was only one other group staying at the hotel and the streets of Copan Ruinas were deserted of tourists, but not of the locals who, despite the obvious downturn in business seemed quite cheerful and upbeat. Victor assured us that it was quite safe to walk around on our own and Alison and I did without feeling any qualms. It was interesting that we had become used to seeing armed guards everywhere in El Salvador and so their absence in Copan Ruinas added an extra level of relative safety.
This is a typical street in the small town. There are not a lot of cars, but lots of tuk tuks and motorcycles, reflecting the relative poverty of Honduras where the gross annual income is only $2330 USD, ahead of only Nicaragua and Haiti in all of Latin America and the Caribbean.
We were hungry and after checking out a few places settled on Tipicos la Pintada which looked like a family operation serving typical Honduran food. A pupuseria is a place that sells pupusas which are the national dish of El Salvador, but widely popular in Guatemala and Honduras as well. They are essentially tortillas on steroids which are stuffed with anything you can name, but I have to confess that I much prefer the thinner tortilla which doesn’t overwhelm the ingredients with breadiness. So I won’t be ordering a pupusa.
I will be ordering a Port Royal Export which is a Honduran lager in the Pilsener style that is typical of Central America and goes down well served ice cold.
The menu has Honduran style fajitas so Alison goes for chicken with the other Honduran made beer, Salva Vida which is the most popular in the country. Tell me that plate of food doesn’t look great.
I go for the mixed bag fajitas and they are delicious as well. There is enough food on this plate to satisfy even the hungriest of appetites and the good news is that these two meals cost only about $7USD. If you can tear yourself away from the fried chicken joints and try some of the restaurants serving food like this you will be healthier and wealthier and maybe even wiser.
After this big meal we wandered around town, spent some time sitting in the main plaza and found the only bottle of gin in town, a litre of Tanqueray covered in a layer of dust in an understocked liquor store across from the church. Time to get some tonic water and relax by the pool, tomorrow is going to be a big day.
A Little History
I always find that the more you can learn about an archaeological site before you visit, the more informative and interesting your visit will be. In the case of Copan, aside from boning up from a number of online sites I listened to the lecture on its history by Professor Edwin Barnhart in his seriesFrom Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mesomerica Revealed.
Barnhart was one of the archaeologists who was on hand for one of the greatest discoveries in modern archaeology – the tomb of K’inich Yax K’uk Mo’ or Great Sun First Quetzal Macaw, the founder of classical Copan. In a nutshell this is what I learned from these various sources.
Human habitation of this area, which is actually a valley in the Honduran uplands at an elevation of 2300 feet (700 metres), dates as far back as 1500 B.C. with stone structures as old as 1000 B.C. However, not much is known about ancient Copan before 426 A.D. when K’inich Yax K’uk Mo’ arrived here from Tikal, either as conqueror or to reestablish a city and create a dynasty that lasted 400 years through sixteen kings. Now here’s the strange part that shows that history is never as clearcut as some text books would have us believe. Analysis of Kinich Yax K’uk Mo’s remains revealed that he was not a Mayan, but a much larger individual. Figurines which are believed to represent him show him dressed as a native of the great Mexican city of Teotihuacan, over a thousand miles away, have been found at Copan. We visited that site with Victor and Adventures Abroad in 2018 and in my opinion it is the most impressive in all of Mesoamerica as I wrote in this post.
It is now believed that a group of warriors from Teotihuacan first conquered the Mayan city of Tikal in 378 and from there send the expedition under K’inich Yax K’uk Mo’ to Copan a few generations later. The irony is that Teotihuacan collapsed almost overnight in about 550 when it was burned for reasons unknown, while Copan flourished for another four hundred years or so.
Analysis of the skeleton of the woman believed to be K’inich Yax K’uk Mo’s wife showed her to be a native of the Copan area so that the dynasty that followed was a mixture of both peoples and both Mayan and Teotihuacan architectural influences are found here. As noted in earlier posts, the Mayans were the only people in the Western Hemisphere to develop a system of writing and it was because of that we know so much about Copan. It is considered to have the finest collection of Mayan stelae anywhere with the most detailed and beautiful sculpture work adorning them. These along with the great hieroglyphic staircase that has the largest Mayan inscription in the world have left a written record of the kings of Copan and their deeds.
Add to this a huge number of temples, altars and tombs in a city forgotten in time for hundreds of years and you have the perfect magnet for real and armchair archeologists as well as a few lucky souls like us who will get to visit Copan today.
The design of the site, with its temples, plazas, terraces and other features, represent a type of architectural and sculptural complex among the most characteristic of the Classic Maya Civilization. The Maya site of Copan represents one of the most spectacular achievements of the Classic Maya Period because of the number, elaboration and magnitude of its architectural and sculptural monuments. The stelae and altars at the Plaza form one of the most beautiful sculpture ensembles in the region. In both the design and execution of monuments, the Maya bequeathed a unique example of their creative genius and advanced civilization at Copan.
The site is administered by the Honduran government and is open from 8:00 to 6:00. Admission is $15 USD for the grounds, $8 USD for the museum and a further $15 USD if you want to go into one of the tunnels dug into ruins. We are going to do the first two, but not the tunnels.
We are here just before opening time and as you can see there’s nobody else around. Once inside we meet our guide for the day Juan Carlos Calderon, one of only four registered guides who will be working today I later learn from him.
The first stop is at this model of Copan and as you can see this is a huge complex with lots to explore.
One thing I’ve learned about visiting archaeological sites in Mesoamerica is that they often double as great birding spots as well and this sign at the entrance to the lane that leads into the site confirms that.
Right off the bat we spotted this scarlet macaw, which is a good omen because these birds were sacred to the people of Copan and we will be seeing images of them at both the site and the museum.
It’s not just birds that frequent the site, but agoutis and squirrels as well.
Visiting the Site
Ok, enough dicking around let’s see some ruins!
Here is a map of Copan with the stelae marked by letters and/or numbers and the structures by names or numbers. We enter the Great Plaza from the right side.
What follows is our trip around Copan in the order that Jose presented it to us starting with Structure 4 which is a truncated pyramid with stairs on all four sides in the middle of the large open area. It is believed to have had some astronomical significance, but nobody knows for sure why it was built.
Next Jose takes us to a series of stelae grouped around the plaza starting with this one erected by Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awill better known as 18 Rabbit (probably because nobody could pronounce his real name). He was considered the greatest of the kings of Copan for the many additions he made to the city and because, like Ramses II in Egypt, he made sure everyone knew about his accomplishments by building many stelae in the city to himself. Each one tells a definitive story that could have been read by his subjects, often related to important events in the Mayan calendar.
18 Rabbit met an ignominious fate when he was captured and beheaded by the ruler of the tiny vassal city of Quiriguá apparently in league with the much larger city of Calakmul which was a sworn enemy of Tikal and Copan.
This is Stela B and it was also erected by 18 Rabbit. Showing him in immensely ornate attire, it has become a favourite of crypto-historians. See those curly things at the top of the sculpture? Well according to the same people who believe that a stone sculpture in Palenque shows an ancient astronaut, those things on this stela can’t be anything but – wait for it – elephants! Since they are obviously elephants then everything we thought we knew about the Mayans is wrong and the guy portrayed here is really from Asia. Believe it or not the Mormons think this sculpture affirms a portion of the Book of Mormon that asserts that not only elephants, but horses and asses existed in the New World long before Europeans arrived. Elephants and horses I doubt, but there has never been any shortage of asses anywhere.
I prefer to think of it as one of the great works of Mayan art, nothing less and nothing more.
This is Stela C, the first of the seven 18 Rabbit had erected in the plaza and it still has traces of the paint that would have made these sculptures even more remarkable at the time they were first unveiled. This is a Janus like sculpture with one side facing east and portraying a young man and this one facing west showing him as an old man with a beard. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west after a long journey so the symbolism is pretty obvious.
We’ll take a break from stelae for a while and check out this giant turtle altar that faces Stela C and also has two heads, one looking young and this one the old head.
You could actually spend hours in the Great Plaza if you had someone like Juan Carlos to explain the significance of what you were seeing at each stela or altar. This photo also gives a persepective on just how large these stelae are.
This is enigmatic Altar A which Juan Carlos explains is a turtle meant to represent the world, a theme quite common in lots of parts of the world, but others think it is a flying saucer. There are no end of nuts in this world.
Let’s look at another altar that is among the latest works at Copan. It depicts Kukulcan the feathered serpent god who plays a prominent role in Mayan theology and is one of a series of three dedicated to him.
As we conclude our tour of the stelae and altars of the Grand Plaza and head toward the major structures I look back and realize just how deserted Copan really is.
Juan Carlos and Victor then lead us to one of the most important buildings in Copan, the ball court. We first saw one on this trip at Tazumal and I explained the significance of the ball game to the Mayans, so I won’t repeat it here. This is the third and final version of the Copan ball court which was dedicated in 738. It is one if the largest in the Mayan world, reflecting the status of the city.
Where other ball courts usually have rings through which the ball would need to go through in order to score, here the markers are in the shape of macaw heads.
Near the ball court is this macaw representation, the original of which we will see in the museum.
If the only things at Copan were the beautiful stelae, altars and ball court it would be considered a major Mayan site, but we are only now getting to the temples for which are equally famous. This is the view of the north side of the acropolis with some huge ceiba (kapok) trees growing right out of it in and looking like something right out of an Indiana Jones movie.
Directly to the left of this is Temple 26 and the Hieroglyphic Stairway which has been covered to protect it from the elements. Let’s look inside.
This is Stela M representing K’ak Yipyaj Chan K’awiil aka Smoke Shell, the Copan ruler who completed work on the hieroglyphic stairway in 755. He is dressed in the uniform of a ball player as are a number of the 18 Rabbit and other stelae figures at Copan.
And here is the hieroglyphic stairway, one of the wonders of the Mayan world. It is a 10 metre (33 foot) wide staircase with sixty-two steps each composed of a series of stone blocks which collectively form the largest single Mayan hieroglyphic inscription ever found – 1,250 blocks with over 2,000 hieroglyphs. Together they tell the story of the Copan dynasty, but only the first fifteen steps are in the right place. The rest had fallen apart when it was reconstructed by archaeologists in the early 20th century, but at that time the Mayan hieroglyphs had not been deciphered so they just put each stone wherever they felt it would fit. The result is that the stairway is mostly one giant jigsaw puzzle that will takes decades to properly put together.
BTW if you are wondering why I titled this post Copan & the Stairway to Heaven, it’s not because Led Zeppelin ever had anything to do with it, but because the Greek word ‘hiero’ means sacred. I figured any stairway covered with sacred hieroglyphs was metaphorically leading to a higher place.
The temple on which the stairway is built was first constructed very early on in Copan and then subsequently covered over with larger and larger temples for the next four hundred years in seven different stages. It contained the tombs of a number of, as yet, unidentified persons including a woman who was buried with three heads of decapitated men and a man who was buried with a child that had been sacrificed.
Now it was time to climb to the top of the acropolis via a rocky path to the right side where we passed this stone skull along the way. This was to be the first of many precarious climbs to come over the ten days or so.
Once at the top you get a great view of the ball court below and another opportunity to observe that we have Copan almost entirely to ourselves.
Here’s a shot of Alison on the highest spot in Copan. About half the group ascended this high, while others opted for the relative safety of the main trail through the acropolis.
Although not much remains of the temple that stood at this end of the acropolis there are some very interesting things including this giant head often referred to as The Old Man of Copan. More correctly, this is a pauahtun named for the head dress he is wearing which is called a pauah. This is believed to be one of four that would have been placed just under the roof of the temple representing the four Bacabs who the Mayans believed held up the sky. It’s actually pretty amazing and unlike anything I’d seen before at any Mesoamerican site.
Next we walked to an overlook of the Patio of the Jaguars which has some really interesting things to see.
However, getting down there is easier said than done. One of the great mysteries to me is why the Mayans who are normally quite short built steps that even Wilt Chamberlain would have found daunting? These are the steps leading down to the Patio of the Jaguars.
Once inside the patio there are a number of protected monuments including this scary looking guy who I believe is the Sun God, K’inich Ahau.
Now given their bloody sacrifices, you don’t usually associate the ancient Mayans with a sense of humour, but you have to see this next sculpture to believe it. This is Dancing Jaguar and boy does he have moves! The holes in his arms once held obsidian discs. I will refrain from making any comments on the world’s first disco dancer.
Something was nagging at my mind about this guy – he somehow seemed familiar. Then it hit me – Snagglepuss, the pink predecessor to the pink panther who loved to dance and was also known for his moves, including exit stage left.
Heavens to Murgetroyd, what will Copan come up with next?
How about arguably the most famous burial pyramid in the New World? Unlike the Egyptians, only a few of the Mayan pyramids were actually designed as tombs; most were purely temples. This is Temple 16 at Copan which is the culmination of a five stage structure that was started by K’inich Yax Ku’k Mo’ and finished two hundred years later by 18 Rabbit. Here in 1995, underneath the oldest structure that lies deep within this pyramid were found the remains of K’inich Yax K’uk Mo’. Earlier excavations had discovered the remains of his wife in a tomb that encased his and above that an amazing temple called the Rosalila that covered them both. A complete life-size copy of the Rosalila has been built in the museum and we will see that later. Just remember that the real thing is beneath these stones.
Here is a row of six skulls over the entrance to the tunnel at Temple 16 that leads to Rosalila, some of them looking more simian than human.
We are almost finished our visit to the ruins of Copan with only a few more sites of importance. These are the royal residences which are behind the acropolis. Even at its height Copan had at most 9,000 people living in or close to the ceremonial centre with a population of around 20,000 in the Copan valley. The people who frequented the areas we visited today were the 1%, except on ceremonial days when thousands would flock to the temples to observe the rituals.
The last building of note is Structure 11 which is believed to have been the royal residence of Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat, the 16th and last known ruler of Copan.
So we have come full circle from the first to the last rulers of Copan in the best documented line of succession in the Mayan world.
Nobody can say for sure why Copan declined and was completely abandoned, but it was a slow process that took over four hundred years. There was no destruction by foreign invaders or civil tumult that resulted in the cataclysmic ends of cities as great as Teotihuacan. Almost certainly it was the gradual environmental degradation brought on by deforestation and soil exhaustion through over cultivation, but that’s still a theory and not an historical fact. There is a lesson to be learned from Copan, but I’m pretty damned sure nobody in authority is interested in learning it, yet alone heeding it.
The Sculpture Museum at Copan
Now, if your not too tired let’s finish our visit by going to the museum, because it’s something you really don’t want to miss.
The museum was opened in 1996 to house the most endangered of the stelae and altars as well as thousands of artifacts from Copan, found both outside and inside of the temples and tombs. The most ambitious project was the full size recreation of the Rosalila monument. That would require a huge amount of interior space, but there was a hitch. Since Copan was a World Heritage Site nothing could be built that would in any way detract or interfere with that status i.e. no obvious large building. The solution was to build the museum inside a natural hill so that from the outside, you barely know it is there and that has worked marvellously.
This is the entrance, a symbolic serpent’s mouth which the Mayan’s believed would take you to the netherworld.
That illusion continues once inside as you wend your way through the serpent’s body.
And then you come out into a massive space, open at the top and face to face with the Rosalila monument. Seldom in my life can I remember a more dramatic entrance to any museum or gallery. Rosalila is not a person’s name, but a reference to the rose/lilac colour of the exterior of this monument, the original of which lies deep within Temple 16 which we were standing beside not twenty minutes ago.
Can you imagine the astonishment of the first archaeologists who, tunnelling into Temple 16, suddenly came upon this magnificent work of art? Somehow the builders of this museum have almost managed to recreate that feeling for anyone entering the museum for the first time.
The museum has two floors that allow you to see Rosalila from all sides and angles and it will hold your attention, believe me. You will for sure want to get your picture taken with Rosalila.
But, there is much more to see in this great museum and I have included only a few of the best works starting with the original Altar Q which I couldn’t get a good picture of so I’ve borrowed this one from Felix Kupprat.
This altar is the equivalent of the Rosetta Stone for Copan. It was commissioned by the last dynastic ruler of Copan, Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat in 776 and depicts all sixteen of the Copan rulers with their names in hieroglyphs identifying each one. It was this one work that allowed archaeologists to learn the chronology of Copan and to use the hieroglyphs from this altar to help decode their meaning and develop an understanding of ancient Mayan writing. This is an incredibly important artifact.
This is the original of the macaw that we saw at the ball court.
This is Camazotz the killer bat that decapitated one of the sacred twins in the Mayan creation book Popol Vuh and was scaring the bejesus out of people long before Dracula.
This is a sample of just a few of the many sculptured heads found in the museum and that once adorned the exterior of buildings in Copan, each representing what would have been an identifiable person, god or other entity, no different than would you would have found in ancient Greece or Rome.
I found this head with the ghastly looking bird head dress particularly interesting because it looks more like something you would see on a temple in Bali than in Honduras.
I could go on and on, but this post needs to end at some point. I hope I have convinced you that Copan is a must-visit for anyone with an interest in Mayan civilization or archaeology in general.
Next we are off to Guatemala starting with a visit to the highlands and the amazing market of Chichicastenango. Hope to see you there.
Continuing on with our Central America and El Salvador tour series with Dale of the Maritime Explorer, we are excited to explore the Ruta de las Flores, Santa Ana and Tazumal.
This is my third and final post on the tiny country of El Salvador which Alison and I visited with Victor Romagnoli on his definitive trip through Central America for Adventures Abroad in February, 2020. In the first post I gave my general impressions of El Salvador and why, once again, I was surprised to find that a country’s negative reputation isn’t necessarily deserved once you actually visit the place. In the second post we left the city of San Salvador and visited an extinct volcano, our first Mayan ruins and tie-dyed at one of only two organic indigo farms in the world. It was a very interesting day to say the least. Today we head for the Mayan ruins of Tazumal by way of Santa Ana, the country’s second largest city and then follow the Ruta de las Flores through a number of towns to our eventual destination in the mountain town of Concepción de Ataco. It promises to be another day of eye-opening firsts in this seldom visited part of the world. Why not join us?
We checked out of the Barcelo San Salvador and headed north on the Pan-American Highway towards El Salvador’s second largest city, Santa Ana only 64 kms. (40 miles) away. The traffic was light, the road good and by 10:00 am we were driving past this roundabout with the Santa Ana welcome sign and headed for the historic centre of the city. Now comparing Santa Ana to San Salvador would be like comparing the proverbial apples to oranges. At around 250,000 residents it’s a fraction of the size of the capital and feels more like an overgrown town than a big city.
We got off the bus at the Parque Libertad which is flanked on three sides by the main cathedral, the Teatro de Santa Ana and the municipal building in the photo below with its distinctive ionic columns.
I was quite surprised at how many people were out just enjoying themselves in the plaza as it was a weekday, but it added to the general feeling of bonhomie that seemed to pervade the plaza. And this in spite of the armed security guards and policemen that are ever present in El Salvadorean cities.
This is the Teatro de Santa Ana with a lovely neo-Baroque facade that dates from 1910 when Santa Ana was the wealthiest city in the country and the home of El Salvador’s coffee barons.
For some reason I did not take a picture of the fine looking Santa Ana cathedral, but it’s definitely worth seeing so here’s a photo from Wikipedia taken by Yessica Guerra.
So all around the Parque Libertad we have a neo-classical city hall, a Baroque theatre and a Gothic revival cathedral. My mind says this mishmash of styles should not work, but in fact it does. The main plaza of Santa Ana was one of the most pleasant we visited in all of Central America.
I don’t know if every day is like this in Santa Ana or if this was a market day because the streets around the Parque Libertad were packed with shoppers and as is usual, each street seemed to specialize in one type of item, in this case clothing. Since these are not tourist markets, the prices were ridiculously low. The quality might not be the best, but when you can get a pair of decent jeans for less than $10.00, who cares?
Santa Ana has a reputation for being the safest city in El Salvador, or at least that’s what the internet would have you believe. However, the feeling of not feeling unsafe if that makes any sense, was definitely in the air as Alison and I explored some of the streets and lanes running off the Parque Libertad.
We even came across a Bank of Nova Scotia branch where we were able to get direct access to our accounts back home and get some US dollars before heading to Honduras and Guatemala. I don’t know if we’ll need them or not, but better to have them than not in my experience.
Not far from Santa Ana are the ruins of the Mayan city of Tazumal which are literally surrounded by the present day city of Chalchuapa, a Nahuatl word meaning ‘river of jade’. Our bus drives down a narrow street with vendors on one side and open air restaurants on the other until it can go no further. How he is going to turn around I have no idea, but we get out and walk the short distance to the entrance.
Tazumal, like San Andres which we visited yesterday, had two distinct growth periods. One before the eruption of Ilopango and one after with a significant gap in between. The earliest settlement here dates as far back as 1000 B.C. and apparently had a definite Olmec influence, based upon a carving found on a boulder at the site. The period immediately preceding the Ilopango eruption was the city’s heyday and there were structures much larger and over an area much greater than what you see today. Although construction resumed in the 5th century and what we will visit today dates from that time, the city never regained its former prominence. By 1200 Tazumal was abandoned.
The visit to Tazumal starts with a walk through a small museum where the most interesting item is this recreation of a Mayan cacique complete with jade and feather ornamentation. Shakespeare is wrongly attributed to have written “Vanity, thy name is woman.”, but he might have written it about this guy.
Tazumal is essentially one large plaza dominated by a pyramid that is much larger than that at Santa Ana and although you can’t climb it, there is a path to follow around its base.
This is the view from the back which looks amazingly like a Babylonian ziggurat.
We also come across the first of the many ball courts we will see on this trip. One of the most fascinating things about pre-Columbian Mayan culture was the obsession with ‘the ball game’. A Mayan wife would never say to her husband, “Honey, it’s only a game.”, because to the Mayans it was much, much more. The playing of the game was not a sport as we know it, but a ritual which could actually see the losers executed. Talk about ‘sudden death overtime’! Every major Mayan city had at least one of these ball courts and they always had a viewing area which in the case of Tazumal would have been on the tiers of the pyramid beside the court.
Whenever Alison says I take the results of a football or hockey game too seriously, I think of these Mayan ball courts and wonder if maybe the Leafs should have been shot for blowing that last series with the Bruins.
After our visit to Tazumal, Victor gives us time for lunch on our own and while most people in the group look for the fried chicken places that abound in Central America, I look for where the locals are eating. Don’t get me wrong, the locals love the fried chicken places, but there are other choices as well, usually involving big pots of something or other. As long as it’s been cooked you can be pretty sure it’s not going to give you Montezuma’s revenge.
This afternoon it’s fried yucca with chicharonnes. Washed down with an El Salvador Pilsener it’s absolutely delicious and way cheaper than the fried chicken joints. Alison loves it too and how here hair turned blue, I have no idea.
Back on the bus which the driver has somehow miraculously extricated from this narrow lane without running anyone over we are headed for the Ruta de las Flores which is a mountainous road that connects a number of interesting villages and as you can guess by the name, is festooned with flowers. It’s also the centre of El Salvadorean coffee production.
This small city was a pre-Hispanic community of the Pipil Indigenous people who inhabited El Salvador after the Mayans and whose presence is still very apparent in the people today.
We stopped at the local market and Victor bought a bunch of bananas which are quite different from those that make their way to North American food stores. They are thicker and shorter, but taste just like bananas.
Across the street from the market there is a small plaza where you’ll find this monument to Oscar Romero who is literally a modern day saint and venerated everywhere in El Salvador and much of Latin America. He was an outspoken archbishop of San Salvador who took the side of the poor and downtrodden, something the Catholic church was not particularly known for at the time. For his efforts on their behalf he was assassinated by a right wing death squad in 1980. He was canonized by Pope Francis in 2018 and almost every city and town we visited in El Salvador has some kind of monument to him.
On the other side of the plaza there was a temporary monument inspired by another saint. Valentine’s Day was fast approaching. Brian Palardy took this picture of us in the heart of Nahuizalco, just as he had done three year’s earlier when we shared the day with he and his wife Lynn on an Adventures Abroad trip in Kenya. We reciprocated.
This place is the coffee capital of El Salvador and we walked up to a coffee plantation that had a small cafe amid a beautiful garden, but I left the camera on the bus so you’ll have to take my word for it. While most of the women had one version of a coffee drink or another, most of the men settled for beer, but I did buy a pound of their best coffee and have enjoyed it at home in the morning. For me any time after noon is too late for coffee, but not too early for beer.
This is our local guide Dio standing before a huge ceibo tree in Salcoatitán that is the source of a legend. According to Atlas Obscura one of my favourite sources for arcane lore, if you hug the tree and thank it in Nahuatl you will receive a favourable gift. And here I thought tree huggers were wasting their time.
Actually this tree, also known as a kapok in other parts of the world, is over 300 years old and has been a landmark for centuries. Near the tree there is this mosaic of the Mayan demi-god Quetzalcoatl, portrayed as the Feathered Serpent.
Across the street I couldn’t help but notice this young boy carrying a large pottery jug and thought that, but for the clothing, this could be a scene from a thousand or more years ago on this very spot.
From Salcoatitán the road rises steadily to the town of Apaneca which is 1450 metres (4757 feet) above sea level, the second highest in El Salvador. It was also probably the prettiest town we visited in that country with cobble stone streets, colourful murals and coffee plantations on the hills surrounding the town.
Overlooking the town are three crosses at the top of a coffee plantation which in this part of El Salvador are laid out in a distinct latticework pattern.
Ever wonder where those clothes and shoes you drop off at donation bins everywhere in North America actually end up? Only about one quarter of donated goods actually gets resold in thrift shops in Canada or United States. Much of what doesn’t sell is sold in bulk to third world countries where it ends up in places like this, advertised as ‘ropas Americana’. I particularly noticed a lot of them in Nicaragua where in 2017, Canada exported almost $8 million worth. It is one of the rare win-win situations with Canadian charities getting money from Canadians who throw out perfectly good clothing on a fashion whim and people in countries like El Salvador able to get decent clothing at a price they can afford. However, the real irony is that most of these clothes were made in third world countries in the first place and are simple being repatriated.
While the clothing store looks well run, I couldn’t say the same for the shoe salesman. Do you have that in a size 9?
Apaneca has one of the nicest churches we came across in Central America. Iglesia San Andrés was originally built in 1798, but destroyed in the 2001 earthquake. It has been completely rebuilt and is one of the most photographed in the country.
It’s been a long jam packed day and our last stop is the mountain town of Concepción de Ataco and the lovely boutique hotel Misión de Angeles where we will spend the night and share a great meal.
This is the view from Room M-10. Sitting on the balcony with a g&t in hand, I am amazed to think back on the day and realize how much I have come to like El Salvador in such a short period of time and how completely different it is from what I anticipated. Thank you Adventures Abroad for once again opening my eyes to the unexpected.
Tomorrow we cross two borders to get to one of the places I have wanted to see for decades – the Mayan city of Copan in Honduras. Hope to see you there.
Many thanks again to Dale of the Maritime Explorer for his wonderful insights on our tours. Always appreciated and we can’t wait to follow along with his next publication.