Monthly Archives: June 2013

The Mayan Ruins in Copan, Honduras

Scarlet MacawsStanding on the edge of the green expanse which is the Gran Plaza it was impossible not to witness the scarlet macaws as they flew overhead. If their colors, the brilliant reds with patches of vibrant blue, were not enough, the raucous calls forced them to the fore-front of our attention. The scarlet macaw, recently reintroduced to the area, was a sacred bird for the ancient Maya and images of the macaw are found throughout the Copan ruins.

Birds NestsIn the background we could hear the howler monkeys roar occasionally and, as we walked about the plaza, we saw the unusual and very bizarre nests of the Montezuma Oropendola (thanks Google for helping us identify this Dr. Seuss-like bird!).

A Stelae in the Gran Plaza

A Stelae in the Gran Plaza

The ruins of Copan, in far western Honduras near the Guatemalan border, have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1980. The expansive ruins offer an impressive number of stelae (tall columns carved on all four sides), altars, relief statuary and hieroglyphic writings. While the ruins are compact in size we spent several hours walking and climbing the groupings at the Gran Plaza and the East and West Courts of the Acropolis, with the ball court and hieroglyphic staircase in between.

Mayan Ballcourt at CopanThe ball court was unique in that the hoops we had seen displayed at other Mayan ruins (such as Chichen-Itza) were replaced by macaw heads.  It is believed that the stone heads were the targets to be struck by the rubber ball. Site archeologists have discovered several iterations of the macaw heads from the successive ball courts at the Copan site.Macaw head

Copan also has the most impressive on site museum that we’ve seen with numerous artifacts from the site preserved for site visitors rather than being housed in the national museums. The center piece was a full-scale reproduction of a sixth century temple, La Rosalila, which had been buried intact  within the Acropolis. Because we had spent so long wandering the actual ruins we were forced to move post-haste through the final portion of the museum as the guards began locking the outside doors and giving us polite hints that the museum was about to close.Parque Central

The city of Copan Ruinas is a very small colonial city, roughly a four block square surrounding a pretty little cathedral and a very picturesque parque central, perfect for sitting and people watching.Street Scene The streets extend out on all sides and are inclined or declined sharply on the steep hillsides that surround the city. It was the first colonial city we had visited where there was no visible evidence of the traditional Mayan native dress that we had become accustomed to seeing in both Mexico and Guatemala:  the rural setting made this distinction even more noticeable.Uphill or downhill in Copan

Tourism is the primary business in this charming little city and the people were smiling and friendly. We found a basic but clean, budget hotel at $25 per night with a fan instead of air conditioning and a little mosquito eating gecko at no extra charge on the bathroom wall.  However, we weren’t prepared for the cold water only shower that had us dancing the hokey-pokey! Next time we’ll remember that that might be an important question to ask!

By Anita and Richard, June, 2013

Necessities, Conveniences and Luxuries

Woman going to the marketWe’ve discovered in our travels that there are few true necessities; however there are preferences. High on our list of things we desire are a clean living area, a private bath, internet access and a reasonable walking distance to stores, restaurants, transportation and the city center. Lower tier desires include a comfortable bed, a good shower and access to a refrigerator and kitchen.

suicide shower

An electric water heater aka a “suicide shower”

Showering has been both a source of frustration and a familiar comfort. In Mexico the water trickled out at a maddeningly slow rate and, finally, turned warm. While travelling through Villahermosa in the Mexican state of Tabasco, we were first introduced to the electric water heater wired directly to the shower head, [a.k.a. the “suicide shower”]. We’ve encountered these elsewhere in our travels as well. Evidently common throughout Central and South America, this device operates on water pressure: the slower the water pressure the hotter the water. Even this rudimentary gadget is not a standard feature in many homes due to the high cost of consumer electricity.Community laundry We’ve not seen a dishwasher or vacuum cleaner since we left the US but washing machines, a staple in most American homes, are a rarity even in middle class homes both because of the initial cost and the operating cost. Hand washing is a daily reality in many homes. TanquePilas, large, double-sink wash basins with a ridged bottom for scrubbing clothing, are found in many homes including several where we have stayed. Many cities and towns have common outdoor laundry wash basins called tanques which serve dual purposes: the local women do the laundry and socialize, too.  During our travels we’ve hauled our dirty clothing to nearby lavenderias [cost: about $5.50 a week] while hand washing the “fine dainties” in the sink at home.

La Botella

Purified Water for drinking & cooking

Stoves are usually powered by propane tanks and it is not uncommon to see only the countertop stoves which we had in our Mexico apartment and no oven. The oven at our homestay in Guatemala was filled with pots and pans and never used during our two month stay. South of the border purified water is available in large 5 gallon botellas which are delivered upon request for a very reasonable price, about $1.35 each here in Antiqua. However, even this may be out of reach for many of the local people who drink water from the city supply which is said to be “potable”: safe drinking water is a critical problem here in Guatemala especially in rural areas.Perfect Balance Getting around by shank’s mare introduced the concept of humans [namely us] as beasts of burden. A lot of timesVender hauling goods our purchases every day or two are decided by the amount that can be carried back to our home [canned goods, vegetables and fruits, 6 packs of toilet paper, cleaning supplies, 2 liter bottles of coke lite, etc.]. Often on heavy shopping days we’ve relented and taken a tuc-tuc back home. But for many of the local citizens, that is not a viable option.

A backpack, bananas and a ladder

A backpack, bananas and a ladder

By Anita and Richard, June, 2013

The Black Sand Beaches of Montericco

Black Sand and Blue WaterAt the beginning of June we headed out with our friend, Mario, for the coast of Guatemala. We made the three-hour trip from Antigua by chicken bus and shuttle van and even passed the active volcano Pacaya puffing out smoke on the way. We had been away from the sea for over four months and when we crested a slight rise on the sidewalk and saw the surf of the Pacific ocean we felt like we were back where we belonged.

Mangroves and the river to Monterico

Mangroves and the river to Monterico

Monterico is a small, sleepy, resort community that until Our captain2007 was not connected by road to the rest of the country. A ferry ride or water taxi was required to transport residents and visitors to the picturesque beach town and many locals still use it as an alternative to the more costly buses and shuttles. On our return trip to Antigua, we opted for the water option for the first leg of the journey (fee: 5 quetzales or $0.65 each).Passing a barge

The black sand beaches are still primarily the haunt of the citizens of Guatemala City who use it as a weekend get-away, although highway access has increased the expat tourist trade from Antigua, too. Even with this increase, the beaches are still are not crowdedBlack sand beach by western standards and, at times, appeared deserted. Beautiful as the beaches are they do have their drawbacks.  The black, volcanic sand absorbs heat making barefoot beach-combing after midmorning all but impossible. At all points the beach slopes downward at awkward angles indicating strong rip currents. While the water is warm most visitors spend their time at the fringe of the surf; only strong swimmers venture out beyond the breaking surf.

seafoodBut all of that belies the point. The main purpose of a visit to Monterrico is to relax, eat some fresh sea in the local restaurants, and enjoy the sights and sounds of the surf and the laid-back atmosphere of the town.

An embryonic sea turtle recovery program has increased the foreign tourist trade. A preserve, Tortuga Monterico, is located just a short walk from the town center. Here visitors are allowed to release young leatherback and ridley sea turtles into the Pacific; a practice unimaginable in the states whose approach is much more scientific. But the reality remains; the majority of the eggs laid by the sea turtles that nest on the miles of shoreline are still harvested and eaten by predators both human and animal. Eco-tourism has yet to make itself felt on these remote shores.

Abode on the river to Monterico

Abode on the river to Monterico

By Richard and Anita, June, 2013

Volunteering in La Antigua

school assemblyThere are many opportunities to volunteer in Guatemala and we spent some time researching the multitudes of volunteer agencies, deciding which effort we wanted to support and what exactly we wanted to contribute. We chose IVHQ, an international New Zealand based agency which was recommended on several websites and had volunteer opportunities all over the world.Antonio Castro y Escobar Best friendsIVHQ in turn put us in touch with their affiliate in Antigua, Maximo Nivel, who arranged a homestay, Spanish lessons and a volunteer experience teaching English at a public school. Volunteer opportunities at Maximo Nivel in Antigua and nearby communities range from working in various orphanages, daycare centers, residences for the physically and mentally disabled to medical clinics, construction projects, after school tutoring programs and teaching at public and private schools.public school for girls The sign on the front of the all-girls public school building Earth Day assembly(well over one-hundred years old) reads “La Esquela National Para Ninas No.2, Antonio Castro y Escobar”. We volunteered for two months, March and April, teaching English to four classes Monday through Thursday (grades 3-6) from 7:45 – 12:30 and on Friday 7:45-10:30 for grades 1 & 2. In Guatemala, school is free through the sixth grade after which tuition is often required and it was sad to know that, for some of these girls, their educational opportunities would end and they’d be following the traditional life of early marriage with large families.class The task of teaching English for the first time to large classes was demanding but the girls made our meager efforts hugely rewarding. It was a pleasure to walk into the school, and each classroom, and be greeted by girls who were genuinely pleased that we were there to teach.Recess in the courtyard pretty little girlPassing by students in the hallway we’d be greeted with waves, occasional hugs and, “Good morning, teacher” or “Nice to meechoo”. In retrospect, volunteering was about a cross cultural exchange in which we may have learned much more than we taught. At the end of our volunteer assignment, the school Director invited us to go on a field trip with the girls to an amusement park, IRTRA, in the capital, Guatemala City. We gladly accepted and spent a memorable last day with “our “students.Amusement park at Guatemala City By Richard and Anita, June 2013

Antigua: Lent, Alfombras and Semana Santa

We arrived in La Antigua, Guatemala, a UNESCO world heritage site, after a nine hour overnight ride on a double decker bus.

The ruins of Templo San Francisco

The ruins of Templo San Francisco

The city is absolutely, stunningly quaint and picturesque filled with well-preserved Spanish Baroque architecture and the ruins of Spanish colonial churches (destroyed by both time and recurrent earthquakes), many dating back to the sixteenth century.

Ruins of Santa Clara

Ruins of Santa Clara

On the horizon, surrounding the city, loom three large volcanoes: Volcan de Agua, Acatenango (last erupted in 1972) and Volcan de Fuego, which is constantly active at a low level with steam visibly venting many days.

Volcan Agua

Volcan Agua

We were incredibly lucky to have timed our stay here during Lent as Antigua has the biggest Lenten and Semana Santa celebration in the world and the weeks leading up to Easter were filled with music, religious processions and alfombras.

Procession on Good Friday

Procession on Good Friday

Alfombras are sawdust “carpets” which are laid out on the cobbled streets in front of the family home or shop and have a variety of stenciled patterns, geometric and free form designs, made with colorfully dyed sawdust, flowers, fruits, vegetables and pine needles.Alfombra - San BertoloAlfombra They were absolutely amazing and involved hours of tedious work to make.After th These acts of devotion cost participants dearly in terms of time, money and effort: many people work all night to create their unique alfombra.Alfombra Each area of the city, and some of the surrounding villages, had its own procession over the weeks leading up to Easter with the faithful celebrants carrying enormous and incredibly heavy wooden platforms with the parish statues.Lenten ProcessionWomen's procession We spent the month of March waking up before dawn on the weekends, walking the streets, admiring alfombras and waiting with the early morning crowds in anticipation of the marchers.Incense and Procession The procession would be preceded by music as the streets filled with the fragrant incense smoke from men swinging burners. The men, wearing robes of Lenten purple, and the women wearing dresses of black or white, would slowly pass by carrying the religious statues.

After the Crucifixion

Good Friday – After the Crucifixion

They would make their way over the  cobblestone streets carpeted with the alfombras, trampling them to mounds of sawdust and debris. The bands with drums and horns would follow, signaling the end of the event and then the street sweepers would descend immediately to clean up the debris. Half an hour after the procession passed there’d be nothing remaining of the glorious alfombras. Street Sweepers after the Procession By Anita and Richard, May, 2013

To Tikal And Into The Peten

We set off from Chetumal, Mexico, for Guatemala via Belize on a bus that was a typical turistico affair: cramped seating for twenty-two (thin) passengers with the luggage roped on top and valuables in your lap. Belize river by roadsideWe started with twenty-one, lost four at the Mexican border due to an exit fee dispute, and thirteen departed in Belize City. The last leg of the journey was completed with a Dutch couple. The bus had flow through ventilation, sagging, tired seats and a top speed of about 50 mph. Drifting through the countryside we saw small towns and isolated homes, countless chickens, goats, pigs, a few cattle and fewer horses. It was enjoyable simply watching the world go by. After about four hours of watching the foothills draw closer and then climbing into them we came to El Remate – a small village at the east end of Lago Petén Itza’. It is a quiet place with a few hotels/hostels and some excellent artisans working with the native woods creating items for the tourist and export markets. This niche market provides a viable alternative to the destructive and uneconomical slash and burn agriculture.

Temples in the midst above the forest canopy

Temples in the midst above the forest canopy

The following morning we were waiting in the dark at 5:30 AM for the collectivo; we would be in Tikal for sunrise. But the dawn did not break that morning; the clouds were low and there was mist in the air; the light simply slipped in upon us.The Grand Plaza

After a lengthy walk from the entrance we approached the Gran Plaza from the back side and glimpsed the King’s Pyramid though the trees.Pyramid The mists gave the ruins a surreal quality which fitted well with the thick, damp, verdant surroundings. By mid-morning the sun had burned through and the day turned hot and humid.Residences at the Gran PlazaTikal is one of the largest Mayan sites; it was the military, religious and artistic center of a vast region of the Mayan world with extensive alliances and commercial interests.

Complex Q

Complex Q

It is located in the foothills of northern Guatemala in what is now a national park replete with native wildlife. There are an estimated 3,000 structures in the Tikal complex, although only a fraction of them have been excavated. Not surprisingly, Tikal is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

The Queen's pyramid

The Queen’s pyramid

While in the Petén we visited the island city of Flores, a flourishing town given over to the delight of the tourist. It’s as quaint as quaint gets; a small colonial town connected by a short causeway to the surrounding mainland around Lagos Petén–Itza’.Flores It was well worth an afternoon’s outing to wander about the narrow streets and the embarcadero checking the shops and restaurants.Flores By Anita and Richard, June, 2013