From flowers to sweet rivers

We enjoyed 24 hours of the hottest weather we’ve encountered Flores (flowers in Spanish). This city was once known as Tayasal, founded by Mayans in the 13th century. Is located on a small island about the size of 4 city blocks in the middle of Lake Peten Itza close to Tikal in northern Guatemala. In 1541, Hernán Cortés visited this island on his way to Honduras, and amazingly left peacefully. Cortés left behind a lame horse, which the Mayans fed and cared for until it died. When Spanish priests came to the island many years later, they found the Mayans worshiping a shrine representing the horse as an incarnation of one of their gods. Flores was one of the last Mayan cities left unconquered by the Spanish, but in 1697 it finally fell by an attack by boat. As in other cities, all Mayan temples and buildings were razed to the ground, and the Spanish city of Flores was founded on their ruins.

After a peaceful afternoon in Flores wandering the narrow alleys and admiring the views across the red roofs, we spent the evening on the roof of our hotel drinking dollar beers and watching a huge thunderstorm gather over the jungle. Sounds from surrounding houses, music from nearby parties, and fireworks explosions filtered through the streets while we enjoyed the warm night air, quite the change from the cold weather we’ve gotten used to in much of Guatemala. We parked our car in the alley next to the hotel for extra security, however, the security guard was so drunk he could barely stand to guard the car. The next day we gave a small tip to the very hung over security guard and continued south to the El Salvador-Guatemala border.

A hectic market pushed in from both sides of the highway as we entered the steamy town of Rio Dulce (sweet river in Spanish) where we planned to spend our last couple of days in Guatemala. We rolled up the windows and almost kept driving as hoards of men on foot and bicycle swarmed around the car, shouting about their parking lot, restaurant, or hotel. Luckily, we did not let the aggressive crowds deter us and found the lovely quiet oasis of Bruno’s marina complex, complete with hotel, pool, restaurant, and wireless internet. Steve, the manager, made us feel at home by showins us around the place, giving us some local travel info, and helping us find the perfect place to park our car. After camping for a night and chatting with all of the friendly yachters who were quite curious about our car-camper deployed outside the restaurant, we grabbed a morning water taxi and sped up the river to the small town of Livingston. Along the two hour ride, we went through gardens of water lilies, passed small thatched house on stilts, glided next to young children paddling small hollowed-out canoes, and stopped for half an hour to dip our feet in some natural hot springs.

Livingston is only accesible by boat, and sits at the mouth of the Rio Dulce (sweet river) as it empties into the Caribbean Sea. It felt like we had arrived in a different country as we clambered off the launch. Pastel colored wooden buildings line the small streets, and the people are a mix of descendants from Caribbean Islands, slaves from Africa, and indigenous Guatemalans. We spent the afternoon enjoying some of the local foods, and wandering around the town.

Later that evening we watched the dancing and chanting crowds on the street while sharing many litros of beer with our three new friends from Denmark and Colombia. We met Mix on our boat ride into town, and Ben and Elisabeth ended up talking to the three of us as we sat at a table on the sidewalk. When Ben found out that we were driving to South America, he talked about how impressed he was that we would do something so daring, and kept asking us questions about our trip. After answering his questions, I asked him how he ended up here in Livingston, and he explained that he sailed from Colombia. Later in the evening, we found out that a few years ago he sailed around the world, and in the middle of the Pacific the keel of his sailboat broke causing the ship to sink. The rescue team found his rescue beacon floating in the open sea and abandoned the search, believing everyone drowned. After 3 days at sea in a liferaft with his two sailing companions, he luckily managed to contact a nearby ship via shortwave radio. Funny that a man who almost died sailing around the world thought we were being adventuresome.

We returned by speed boat the next morning to the town of Rio Dulce, and spent one last night at Bruno’s before we said adios to Guatemala and drove into El Salvador.

Getting ruined in Mexico and Guatemala

Walking through any of the Mayan ruins, it is easy to be look around in awe and wonder what these majestic cites must have looked like in their peak more than two thousand years ago.

The Mayan empire covered an area from Southern Mexico to Northern Honduras. During its heyday from 250-900 AD, it was one of the most densely populated and sophisticated societies in the world. Among its many accomplishments, Maya have the first recorded use the concept of ‘zero’ in 36 BC, had a fully developed written language, used sophisticated mathematics and astronomy, and built many huge elaborate stepped pyramids and throughout the dense jungle. The Maya had no single center of power, but were a diverse group of powerful city-states that often were engaged in a struggle for power with their neighbors.

There are hundreds of major Mayan sites and thousands of minor ones in existence today. We ended up visiting three sites in Mexico, and one in Guatemala over the last two months. Palenque (Palisade in spanish), the first site we visited was in southern Mexico, is set against beautiful jungle hillsides. We were awed by the pyramids crowned with temples, elaborate living quarters, aqueducts, and carved reliefs that covered the walls.The buildings that exist today are probably from a reconstruction effort after the invasion by the city of Calakmul in 599 and 611 AD.

Close to Palenque is the very small but important site of Bonampak. In one of the temples, rainwater slowly leaked through the roof in a way that covered the walls with a thin layer of calcium carbonate. Unlike most Mayan sites, these magnificent murals are still visible. It is amazing to imagine that such murals would have covered many of the interior walls of the temples and royal living quarters. The discovery by archaeologists of these murals in 1946 (the local indigenous Lakandons led them there) changed the previously held notion that Mayan were a mostly peaceful society.
We then went to Yaxchilan, a small site on the border between Guatemala and Mexico. With its maze of cavernous rooms and pyramids crowned with towering structures, this site is only accessible by a one hour boat ride from Frontera Corozal, the closest town. Yaxchilan was built on a river bend, but during a rainy period the river flooded and turned Yaxchilan into an island. The Mayans solved this problem by building a 100 meter suspension bridge in the 7th century. The 63 meter span remained the longest in the world until the Italian Trezzo bridge surpassed it more than 700 years later.

Finally at Tikal in Guatemala, we climbed one of the tallest pyramids of the Mayan Empire and looked across the jungle to see the tops of three other pyramids rising above the trees. These temples were the tallest of all the places we visited, and since people have died from falling down the steep stone staircases, rickety wooden staircases just as steep (but with handrails) have been installed.

Around 1000 AD, the Mayan civilization rapidly declined from its height. The cause of this collapse is still subject to rigorous debate. Some people believe that a 200 year drought may have strained the dense population that had settled on land poorly suited to intensive farming, while others point to evidence of internal political strife.

Today, over 6 million Mayan people live in southern Mexico and northern Central America today. Many Mayan still speak one of the 21-29 different Mayan languages, wear colorful traditional clothing, and practice a blend of Catholicism and pre-conquest Maya customs. Many Mayans consider the ancient temples sacred. Ceremonies are still performed at Tikal, and in 2007, spiritual leaders performed a cleansing ceremony at the ruins of Iximche after US President George Bush’s visit.

When you visit a Mayan site, try to ignore the grass lawns (a European invention) and the vendors selling inaccurate Mayan reproductions. Imagine seeing priests instead of tourists on the top of the temples, and instead of seeing the jagged exposed bricks, imagine the temples beautifully painted and covered smooth with limestone stucco. And, if you are a person well known for your unpopular foreign polices, expect a spiritual cleansing ceremony to be performed in your honor.

(video of our experience at Yaxchilan)

Fear the sheep, not the devil

The Sunday market in Chichicastenango lived up to its reputation as one of the best in Guatemala. The main square and surrounding streets were jammed with indigenous people and their small stalls packed with goods. Everything from shoes, underwear, bolts of cloth, fruits, vegetables, purses, and wooden masks was available for aggressive bargaining. We found the best technique was to admire, ask the price, offer less than half of the asking price, barter a little, then walk away if we couldn’t agree on a price. Most times the person would then shout at our disappearing backs that our last offer was OK, although they acted like we were taking food out of their mouths (hopefully not). We bought some beautiful trinkets, and then anxiously awaited for the “Burning of the Devil” to begin.

Quema del Diablo, or burning of the devil, is celebrated to varying degrees throughout the country. Effigies and garbage are burned on the streets to symbolize a cleansing before the Christmas Holiday. The party in Chichicastenango far exceeded our wildest expectations. A glowing statue of the Virgin in shimmering blue robes was paraded through the town, accompanied by raucous bands and a quiet crowd of devotees carrying candles. Men ran ahead of the procession to light off deafening fireworks. Shrines to the Virgin, decorated with lights, candles, pine needles and burning copal incense were set up outside many people’s houses on the parade route. The parade stopped at each shrine for a brief prayer, then continued toward the main square for the party. When the Virgin shrine reached the main square, it was placed on the top of the stairs leading into church. It was from this vantage point that the Virgin watched as men wearing devil and sheep “costumes” danced to a marimba band. The costumes were actually metal contraptions covered in a wire structure. It wasn’t till the lights were dimmed and the first fuse lit that we realized these contraptions were in fact huge wire cages covered in fireworks. The brave (possibly insane) men wearing these structures continued to dance, whirl, and run towards the surrounding crowd as the fireworks exploded, shooting sparks and bottle rockets in every direction. Highly entertaining and likely quite dangerous, we were mesmerized for an hour by the display. We returned to our hotel, ears ringing, and settled down to what we thought was going to be a peaceful night of rest. However, we awakened by bed-shaking explosions starting at 4 am, making us think Guatemala was back at war. We were told later that during the civil war the same explosives were fired at crowds during the Guatemalan civil war to break up riots. Fortunatley they are now only used as a really big firecracker. Wearily getting out of bed at 6 am, we returned to the main square to watch a choreographed dance of random costumed characters like Homer Simpson, Elvis and Che Guevara, which no one we talked to could explain. After we left Chichicastenango that morning and drove north towards Tikal, all traffic on the highway was stopped twice in small towns to make way for similar dancing parades.

Getting cleansed for Maximon in San Andres Iztapa

On our way out of Antigua, we decided to stop by the small town of San Andres to visit a shrine of Maximon to ask for good luck on our travels. With about 20 shrines found throughout Guatemala, Maximon is considered to be a manifestation of Pedro de Alvarado (the Spanish Conquistador who conquered Guatemala), the underworld Mayan god Mam, and the biblical Judas. Wearing a 18th century style black suit and hat, he can be found sitting in a chair smoking a cigar. Depending on the shrine you visit, he may be wearing other accessories such as sunglasses, a bandanna, or even an ammo belt.

At first glance it seems strange that anyone would come to worship such an evil character. However, you do not come to worship Maximon, but more to offer gifts to appease him. He is like a Mafia deity that works on extortion – you need to offer him gifts of alcohol, cigars, cash, and candles or you may run into trouble.

Without good directions and no road signs, our recent Spanish classes came in handy as we talked to people on the side of the road to first find the town, and then to find the small unmarked road in the middle of a corn field that led us to the shrine. Small vendors outside the shrine’s gate sell colored candles, amulets, fragrant bundles of herbs, cigarettes and alcohol so pilgrims could purchase their offerings. We wanted to participate in a limpia, or cleansing ceremony, so we bought two bundles of herbs, blue candles for safe travels, yellow candles for protection, a bottle of beer, and headed in to the temple. A local woman spotted the slightly confused looking gringos and immediately offered to help us find a shaman who could perform our cleansing ceremony. After a hurried and incomplete negotiation about the price of the cleansing, the shaman grabbed a bundle of herbs, our beer, and Chris. He poured the beer over the herbs, and thoroughly beat Chris with the dripping bundle. At this point I decided one limpia would be enough for the two of us, and grabbed the camera. The shaman than took large mouthfuls of beer and sprayed them all over Chris until he was dripping and sticky (they say a picture is worth a thousand words, I think our video below is worth a million).

A bit bewildered by this ceremony, we assumed we had been duped as clueless tourists until we saw the line of Guatemalans waiting to be subjected to the same cleansing ceremony. Unlike our ceremony, the Guatemalans we witnessed were taking this process very seriously, and spending a good amount of time after their cleansing talking and praying to the shrine. This ceremony is very similar to the Mayan medicine rituals we learned about while in San Cristobal, Mexcio. For some ailments, Mayan shamans will sweep herbs over the body while sprinkling floral water.

We joined the line to climb the stairs and stand in front of the shine in order to make our offering of a few Guatemalan quetzal coins and a Darien Plan card to the effigy of Maximon. Back at the car Chris changed into a clean shirt and we set out for the small market town of Chichicastenango knowing that our travels are now being protected by a powerful Guatemalan deity.

Toasting marshmallows over molten lava

After the slightly gritty, gothic feel of Xela, Antigua felt like a European paradise. Antigua was founded in 1543, but was mostly abandoned in 1776 after an earthquake destroyed the city. By the mid 1800s, people were returning to Antigua to rebuild. Brightly colored houses line the wide cobblestone streets mixed with the crumbling ruins of churches. Antigua definitely has a ‘discovered’ feel as the streets are filled with camera-toting gringos while Italian and Chinese restaurants compete with cigar and wine bars. Guatemala is one of the most volcanically active countries in the world, and the three volcanoes that pierced the near horizon were a reminder of the city’s dramatic history.

One afternoon we took a guided trip with Old Town Outfitters to climb the active Volcan Pacaya hoping to see some activity. The Pacaya volcano erupted in 1965, and has been in a state of continuous eruption since. It seems to be hit or miss: some people we talked to said they didn’t see any lava, but their friends that climbed a week earlier did.

As we got out of the tour bus, hoards of kids clamored around us trying to sell walking sticks for the slipper ash slopes high on the volcano. We had our hiking poles (ski poles) with us, but this still didn’t stop one young entrepreneur from telling Chris that his lightweight collapsible poles were no good, and what he really needed was a good sturdy stick. As we hiked out of the small town and through farmland, Chris tried to casually ask our guide Renaldo how “safe” climbing an active volcano was, and his response was, “very dangerous, be careful”. Unfortunately his English was not good enough to give any details of what we needed to worry about. He did have duct tape wrapped around his shoes, and he explained that his shoes were melting from the heat of the ground. This did not make Chris very comfortable. If the ground is hot enough to melt your shoes, doesn’t that mean there is a thin layer of rock between you and a underground river of lava? We decided to stay away from any shoe melting areas in order to be safe.
After passing through the lower forests of the volcano, we entered into a weird moonscape completely devoid of vegetation. Scrambling over loose ashy rocks we followed a ‘path’ up the side of the volcano to the area of most recent activity. We weren’t sure what to expect, but I don’t think we ever imagined that we would be toasting marshmallows over open pits of molten lava. I don’t think most of the people coming up the side of the volcano expected this either, since you could hear everyone who came over the ridge scream explicatives of amazement when they saw the red glow. Sitting on the rocky slope, we watched glowing flows of lava churn and roll down the side of the volcano. After admiring the fiery show for about an hour and watching the sun set across the valley ringed with other smoking volcanoes, we headed down for dinner and the ride back to Antigua. Looking back up at the volcano in the pitch black night we saw the flowing lava illuminate the clouds above with an eerie pink glow.