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Guatemala Travelog

January 2019

So a bit of a change of pace. Guatemala has a rather high crime rate and the “chicken” buses to some of the more remote places we want to go to are less than desirable, so we’ve hooked up with an Explore tour group. So, no having to figure out the buses or book hotel rooms for two weeks and a bit more socialising. On the downside, it does mean getting up early and being constantly on-the-go.

Guatemala City

We flew in from Costa Rica in the evening and just went straight to the hotel in the centre of town. The hotel was, many years ago, one of the grandest hotel in Guatemala and still retains some of its faded glory. But a nice little pub with craft beers, good G&Ts and a super friendly barman (who had only two customers) made for a good start. We’re a day early so have an extra day in the capital to look around. It’s not the prettiest or safest of cities so we didn’t stray much beyond the central plaza and the main shopping street.

The next day we met up with the tour group. We were expecting the usual 14-18 people but, most unusually, there were only 3 others – two northern Brits and an Albertan, all around our ages. Only five of us with a guide and driver felt like a private tour. We started off with a quick tour of Guatemala City but there’s not much to see. We drive around the centre and see historic churches and buildings. Like many Latin American cities there are slums right next to expensive areas. Being a Sunday, 3Km of roads are closed to traffic for the benefit of cyclists and runners and there are some nice tree-lined avenues. There’s clearly an effort keep the city tidy – improvement is on its way. There’s a park dedicated to peace with three pieces of the Berlin wall donated by the German government. Guatemala and Germany have long had friendly relations. From here we get hazy views over the valleys to the huge volcanos in the distance.

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Copan (Honduras)

So, our tour of Guatemala really starts with Honduras!?!. We drive out of Guatemala City towards the Honduran border and pass farms growing coffee, cardamon, banana, melon, papaya and mango. We also see coffee beans spread out to dry on huge flat areas. Agriculture is the main economic activity here.

After crossing the border we arrive at Copan Ruinas, a cute little town with cobbled streets within walking distance of the famous ruins. The museum here gives us our first glimpse of the intricate carvings for which Copan is so famous.

We spend the next day exploring the actual site that dominated the region from 250CE until 900CE. The remains of 3450 structures, most within a half kilometre of the principal group, have been discovered. The buildings include temples, royal residences, tombs, administrative offices and a ball court. Ball games were a popular pastime and, for the most important games, the winner had the honour of being sacrificed to the gods (or the loser, or no one, depending on who you believe).

The carvings indicate that there were 16 rulers during this classic period with great names like Great Sun Lord Quetzal Macaw, Water Lily Jaguar, Eighteen Rabbit, and Smoke Monkey. Each ruler built temples on top of previous temples getting higher and higher. The most famous monument is the hieroglyphic stairway which chronicles the history from 426 to 755CE. Here we learn to read the carvings on the stelae and understand the Mayan counting system (base 20, dot = 1, bar = 5, shell = 0 – each row is 20 times the previous).

We also visit the Macaw Mountain Bird Sanctuary, a private reserve dedicated to rehabilitating captive and injured macaws and toucans. Macaws can live to be over 80 years old and after years of captivity need to be taught how to survive in the wild. A few are too old to ever be released and enjoy human interaction. We get to hold these.

The next day we returned to Guatemala but, just over the border, we were faced with a road block. Apparently the government had promised some farmers vouchers for grain that never appeared and they weren’t happy. The protest was all very relaxed but, other than an ambulance, they weren’t letting anything through. Peter, playing with the maps on his phone, noticed an alternative road over the mountains (although the map indicated there was a blockage). The locals at the gas station said we could get through so, after a bit of a wait for another tour group who wanted to travel in convoy, we were off. Or, more accurately, up ... and more up. The dirt road was rough and steep but recently graded. The blockage (a massive landslide) was being repaired and passable (just) and the views were spectacular.

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Despite the delays we still had time to make a short stop at the small Mayan site of Quirigua. The ancient inhabitants here were big on carving extremely tall stelae. Quirigua’s history parallels much of Copan’s of which it was a dependency until Cauac Sky beheaded Eighteen Rabbit and declared independence. The giant stelae here are dedicated to the hero.

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Livingston and the Rio Dulce

After more hours on the bus and a half-hour boat ride we arrive at Livingston on the Caribbean coast. Livingston, named after American jurist Edward Livingston – not the British explorer (missing the ‘e’), supposedly has a laid back Garifuna culture. Unfortunately, due to our earlier detour we arrived late and, moving at Explore’s pace, didn’t get to experience it. We stayed at a posh hotel in a private cabana with a lovely ocean view, hammocks and a pool (a big step up from our usual backpacker digs) but, moving at Explore’s pace, we didn’t get to experience it. We were off early the next morning. However, we did enjoy some Garifuna music and dancing at dinner.

The real reason for coming all the way out to this corner of Guatemala is to travel the Rio Dulce. Leaving Livingston we see local fishermen laying out salted fish to dry in the sun. Everywhere there are hundreds of birds, -- pelicans, cormorants, seagulls, etc. The boat ride takes us through a beautiful green gorge with steep limestone cliffs. Up a small tributary, we stop at Ak’ Tenamit, an NGO school for people who can’t afford regular school. Illiteracy and early marriage and motherhood are serious problems in Guatemala that this charity tries to help.

The river widens out into El Golfete where locals paddle and fish beside yachts owned by foreigners. At the mouth of Lago de Izabal is the sixteenth century castle and fort of El Castillo de San Felipe that was used to defend the villages and caravans of Izabal from pirates and Englishmen.  We re-join our bus and driver to carry on to northern Guatemala to spend the night at a jungle lodge in the national park’s grounds at Tikal.

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By far the most important Mayan site and biggest tourist draw is Tikal in the far north of the country. The Maya settled here around 700BCE. Constructed in waves over a period of at least 800 years, Tikal is a large and complicated site with hundreds of temples, pyramids and stelae. Using brutal military methods it grew to be the dominant force in the region but in 553CE they were conquered by Caracol in Belize (next episode). Tikal re-emerges under the ruler Ah Cacao (Chocolate King) in the 7th century and his successors are responsible for building most of the temples around the grand plaza.

Our hotel in Tikal allows us to get an early start and we feel we have this beautiful forest and ancient ruin to ourselves. First stop is the tallest building at 65m, Temple IV, and the climb gets us above the jungle canopy to a spectacular view of other temples poking above the trees. On the solstices and equinoxes the sun rises directly behind the other temples. To appreciate the view, see Star Wars – A New Hope, the rebel base on the moon of Yavin was filmed here.

We spend several more hours exploring the site and climbing more pyramids. Jackie’s favourite temple was Temple I, a tomb built for the Chocolate King – the most photogenic temple on the grand plaza. After a meal and a rest (this touristing thing is hard work) we head a short distance to Flores, an island in Lago Petén Itzá.

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Candelaria Caves

To break up the long drive on rough, twisty roads we made a stop at the Candelaria Caves. This cave system extends over 22Km, although we only go a few hundred metres. It was used by the Q’eqchi’ Maya and still has ceremonial circles, platforms and stairways that they carved into the rock. We see stalagmites and stalactites and a variety of interesting limestone formations.

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This remote mountain town of the Ixal triangle is home to the Ixal Maya people known for their weaving of colourful fabrics. The people of Nebaj suffered more than most during the brutal 36 year civil war (too long, complicated and horrid to outline here). However they still cling to their ancient traditions and speak the Ixal language. This is not a popular tourist town but we visit the local market, livestock market and weaving centre. We also stop at the cemetery donated by the government for the reinternment of bodies found and identified in civil war mass graves – very sad.

One day we hike up over the mountain to the hamlet of Acul. Here the scenery is Alpine-like – in fact, two brothers, from the Italian Alps, arrived here in the 1930’s and their cheese producing farms are still in operation.

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The famous market at Chichicastenango runs on Thursdays and Sundays and today is Tuesday. However, there are still two streets filled with market stuff and we all agree that seeing eight streets full of more of the same stuff doesn’t really interest us so we stop today to save driving back on Thursday.

The church of Santo Thomas (1540) was built on top of the foundations of a Mayan temple so the Mayans come to the church to practice their ancient religion. On the steps we see Mayans burning incense and chanting in honour of their ancestors.

National Geographic has declared the cemetery in Chichi to be the most colourful in the world. Whilst the tombs certainly are brightly painted the rubbish and lack of grounds keeping diminishes the effect. Here, too, Mayan ceremonies are going on.

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As we drive though various towns along the way, we notice that all the women are wearing similarly woven clothing but the style and colour in each town is unique.

Lake Atitlan

A day off!! We’re looking forward to three nights in the same place – Santa Catarina Polopo. Many buildings are painted in bright blue and turquoise. But first it’s a tour (by boat) of the villages surrounding the lake. The lake is surrounded by mountains and volcanos and there is no river flowing out of it. As a result lake waters have been rising quite rapidly recently and many structures and trees around the shoreline are flooded.

We stop at the tidy little (but somewhat touristy) village of San Juan La Laguna and visit a woman’s cooperative that helps women earn a steady wage from weaving. Here we get a detailed demonstration of spinning the various varieties of cotton, dyeing using extracts from native plants and backstrap weaving of the beautiful Guatemalan fabrics.

We enjoy local coffee and chocolate before heading across the lake to Santiago Atitlan. This is the largest of the lake communities with a strong indigenous identity. We visit the Franciscan church with many wooden sculptures of saints. We noted that the altars have been subtly changed from Christian standards to represent more Mayan beliefs. The most interesting thing was to visit the current home of Maximon (he moves to a new house every 8th of May). This statue of the Mayan corn god drinks liquor, smokes cigars and is given money and other offerings. Shamans burn candles and incense and chant incantations at the request of those giving the offerings. There is also a Jesus in a glass casket with fairy lights all around. A weird mix of religions but interesting.

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Just a short stop on the route to Antigua. This beautiful and quiet former Mayan capital is quite modern (inhabited 1463 to 1524 when the Spanish arrived) in comparison to some of the ancient sites we’ve visited. Only a small portion has been excavated and rebuilt. Our guide is convinced he can feel a rejuvenating energy in the area and some of our group agree (Peter: rubbish). The area is sacred to the Mayans and there’s a shaman practising his rituals near one of the old temples.

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Antigua Guatemala

The former capital of Old Guatemala was destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1773 and virtually abandoned. Now it’s a busy tourist town and a UNESCO world heritage site. The cobbled streets make a grid of one-story brightly painted colonial buildings and is home to gazillions of churches, cathedrals, monasteries and convents. Many destroyed by the earthquake, some rebuilt. Jackie enjoyed the many craft shops, Peter enjoyed the craft brewery and we both enjoyed lovely steaks at a posh restaurant.

From our hotel breakfast balcony we saw Volcan Fuego belch out black smoke and one day felt a tremor (actually at magnitude 6.6 earthquake but the epicentre was many miles away). Guatemala gets up to 2000 tremors a year.

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