We have two full hours before our planes take off, and the group always tries to squeeze in an extra museum. We visit the Museo Popol Vuh. Wonderful artifacts here, even thought they are not exactly sure where many of them came from. You can see some the ancient ocarinas and hear a soundtrack of modern musicians playing music from them. I am deeply attracted to an Early Classic stone carving of an hallucinogenic toad.
When I was a young lad, we used to refer to the kid who got to ride in the front seat of the car to the right of the driver as riding shotgun. Some kids felt that if they were the first to call out, “I claim shotgun.” it would better their chance of securing this coveted place. Sometimes this worked, sometimes it did not. But we never really asked why was it called riding shotgun and no firearms were actually distributed. Imagine my surprise when I saw a truck in Guatemala City carrying choice cuts of meat with a driver on the left and a man carrying a shotgun on the right. Perhaps those who long for the good old days of Wyatt Earp, could find a home in Guatemala.
With this, my Guatemala adventures came to an end, then on the plane to Las Vegas for a different cultural experience.
We are still in Antigua. Several in our party have had a case of the runs, and last night was my turn. I take some Loperamide, drink plenty of water and get plenty of rest. By mid-afternoon I am back to my normal self. It is a good thing that today was a free day, so I just take my time exploring the city.
I saw some interesting craft shops and found some more masks. I visit the old public laundry where there are about twenty stone basins where the local ladies came to do their wash.
We spend our last night out at a fancy restaurant and get rowdy and tell stories and give our farewells.
The city was founded in 1543, and was originally the capital of Guatemala, but the place seemed to be prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. So in 1776 they finally decided that this may not be the best place to put a major city, so they abandoned the town and moved the capital to Guatemala City. Antigua, Guatemala is popular with tourists, both the rich and the backpackers. The place looks clean and prosperous. The only buildings that I saw that were over one story, were buildings constructed over two centuries ago.
Most of the old buildings were churches, several of them repurposed into hotels. The exposed foundations show a signature mixture of bricks and basalt.
Volcanos loom over the city in all directions,
and the streets are paved with chunks of basalt.
We visit a candle making shop and a jade workshop.
The hotel room has a mirror, but not over the sink. If I was still into shaving, this would have been rather awkward.
There was a dresser and TV stand, but no desk or chairs, and no decorations on the wall. It had a modern shower, but low fired brick tiles on the floor that leave your feet more gritty after you shower than before. On the other hand it has the best sheets of any place I stayed in Guatemala.
The trip to Nakum involved an hour and a half ride in the back of a pickup truck traveling through the jungle over a dirt road. Let me correct that, it wasn’t entirely a dirt road. It was more like 1/3 dirt, 1/3 mud, and 1/3 swamp puddle. We knew that last week a truck was stuck on this trail and the passengers had to walk back to civilization, and that three other drivers had refused to take us up this road. I can say that in all my sheltered lifetime, I have never been over a worse road in my life. In the swampy places the truck would heave up and down and side to side and buck like rodeo bull.
Meanwhile we passengers in the back of the truck were ducking to avoid the low hanging branches, palm fronds, and vines. Were we distressed? Not at all, we were whooping and hollering like we were on a grand adventure ride. And indeed we were. At the first few slippery areas, we wondered if the driver could make it through, by the end of the trip, we would have trusted him to driven us off road to Tera del Fuego.
The trip was worth it for the adventure ride alone, but the Maya site of Nakum was something wonderful to behold. There were grand structures, with labyrinth-like steps and and surprise trails taking you from one structure to another.
There were circular arches unlike those I have seen at any other Maya site ever. There were astonishing views.
There were towering unrestored temples covered in the green jungle vegetation with fairy-like paths leading between them.
It fulfilled my fantasy as to what an almost perfect archaeological site should look like. I say almost perfect because there is a slight bit of a mosquito problem.
Then, of course, there is the repeat of the adventure ride on the way back, and we arrive shaken, if not stirred at the site of Yaxhá. It was getting late and we did not have much time to explore, but I was able to climb the tall temple pyramid with a picture postcard view of the lake.
We stayed at the Hotel Flores, Flores, Petén, Guatemala. The hotel beds were a bit firm for my taste and it was on the fourth floor with no elevator, but after climbing the pyramids the stairs were a piece of cake. (But, I must admit, I did have the bellman lug my luggage.) On the plus side the hotel was near some interesting craft stores. I ended up with a suitcase full of masks and carvings.
At four in the morning I awake to the sound of howler monkeys. My brain knows that these are just monkeys and unlikely to approach, but their sounds are intimidating enough to make me hesitate to venture out of my room into the night. For those of you who have not heard them, do not sound at all like monkeys, they sound like giant ten foot beasts.
The lack of electricity at night takes me back to my early teenage years when I was supposed to be asleep, but would secretly read in bed with a flashlight.
We then travel to the remote village of Uaxactún. It is a bit over an hour’s ride through the jungle on a gravel and dirt road. The site is one of the earliest in the area with some of the structures dating back to 2,000 BC. It one time conquered Tikal, but was then reconquered by King Jaguar Paw around 400 AD. It is also an important spiritual site. The present day Maya elders come to this place to practice their celestial celebrations. It was excavated in the 1920’s and 1930’s by the Carnage Institute.
As with most sites there are many unrestored mounds. But here they have been cleared of the jungle plants, and are now covered with low green foliage. Somehow they make me feel close to my father, as they remind me of the Adena mound builder sites that he and I explored in my youth in Kentucky.
Other buildings have some large Maya stone masks and buildings with internal stairways to explore.
This used to be a major gathering site for chicle, the tree sap that was used to make chewing gum. The industry moved elsewhere when the area was inclosed in the National Park, but locals are still allowed to gather small amounts. I bought a square from one of the local ladies, and sure enough, it works just like chewing gum. Sadly, most kids today have never had organic chewing gum, but instead make do with a form of synthetic rubber.
The Uaxactún also had the Museum Juan Antonio Valdés, one of the most astonishing museums I have ever been to. In most museums the artifacts are carefully staged and behind glass.
Here there are fabulous vases and artifacts just resting on simple wooden shelves. and they allow you to actually hold these thousand year old ceramics. Most impressive.
Our hotel in El Remate was dated and eccentric, calling itself “The clean and green place to stay.”
It makes you wonder what they are implying about their competition. It has a lovely viewing platform to watch the sunset over Lago de Petén Itzá.
This morning was the revolt of the machines. My primary camera refused to acknowledge that it had a battery, and my phone (useless here as a phone, but handy as a camera) refused to be charged. I was left with my infrared camera, which can take excellent infrared pictures, but even with the special filter, the colors and contrast are a bit goofy. Nonetheless I venture to explore my second day at Tikal.
We head up this morning by truck and are grateful to not have to trudge twenty minutes to get to the site. It is an open air vehicle with no canopy and the driver jauntily speeds along the twisty, bumpy jungle trail. It is quite the adventure. Some of us sing the Indiana Jones theme song as we make our way up to the site.
We start the day at Temple IV. This is an extremely steep pyramid, that would have been difficult for the ancient Maya to have climbed, but again, it has been made more accessible to us moderns by the construction of wooden steps. It is well worth the climb, you can see the tops of Temples I, II, III, & V as they poke their tops above the trees.
Then after a meandering walk, we explore the Pyramid of the Astronomers. This is an unusualMaya pyramid as it has no temple on top. It is presumed to have been an observation platform for the astronomers to chart the positions of the sun and the planets.
There are pyramid groups here where one pyramid overlooks three others and you can plot the sunrise at fixed days of the year, such as the equinoxes and the solstices. I am not sure which I admire the most, the ancient astronomer-architects who built the structures or the modern astronomer-archaeologists who rediscovered their function. The group of structures in this area is called El Mundo Perdido (The Lost World.)
This sounds terribly romantic, but it lives up to its name. Here we were invaded by a pack of 60 or so coatis, who remarkably seemed to be neither attracted to humans or afraid of us. We seemed to just be living in different worlds.
Again, the pyramids, temples, palaces, and ancient government office buildings in Tikal are vast and awe inspiring. There are groups of structures here that would serve as major focal points for sites, but in Tikal they are just a side trip.
I like exploring with the IMS group, but I basically like being able to explore on my own… listening to the stones and the forest and taking things at my own pace. Many of the pathways at Tikal are well marked, but unpopulated, perfect for solitary contemplation.
This morning we flew to Flores, Guatemala. The jungle around the Flores airport is strangely militarized, serving as a reminder of Guatemala’s turbulent past and uncertainty about its future. There are miles of areas surrounding the airport with concrete bunkers every 300 meters. (Note to readers: as I have been living in two cultures with very different measuring systems, my mind has become rather commingled. I think in long distances in terms of miles and short distances in terms of meters. Then I revert to feet and kilometers. You will just have to bear with me.) We also saw a group of soldiers inside the national park. I am not sure if these were to guard against poachers, smugglers, Maya rebel forces, or perhaps all three.
The Tikal National Park is both an ecological park and an archaeological park. The archaeologists want to restore the area to about 800 AD, and the ecologists want to restore it to about 800 BC. Both want to hold back land exploitation and development within the park. They work together. They compromise. And the compromise works very well. You can see the fabulous archaeology and you can experience the the jungle animals such at the white nosed coati and forest monkeys.
For me, the archaeology is my primary draw. The archaeologists have identified over 4000 structures at Tikal, many of them having the rather pragmatic names such as Temple I, Temple II, Temple III, etc. As I approach the site, I trudge up a jungle pathway, keeping a sharp eye on the ground to see the steps and avoid tripping over the tree roots. I only pause to look up at the trees above you when I hear bird calls. There is the occasional giant pile of rubble off to the sides to remind you that this is indeed an archaeological site. Then on my left I come upon the rather imposing site of the Southern Acropolis, then as I look ahead through the trees I see the top of Temple I towering high above, I redefine my definition of imposing.
I approach the Gran Plaza and climb to the top terrace of Temple II. This is a climb of over a hundred feet up. fortunately modern explores can climb the wood steps rather than the steps of steep narrow stone.
It has an excellent view of the Gran Plaza, a close view of Temple I
and distant views of Temples III and IV. Again I am impressed with the audacity of these stone towers.
As darkness approaches, we head to our hotel next to the site. As an innkeeper, I tend to be overly fussy about hotel rooms. The hotel here reminds me that I am indeed in a 3rd world country. There is only one skimpy towel for the room and no chairs or tables. The electricity and hot water are only on for three hours in the morning and three hours in the evening. The shower is not the traditional spray that I am used to, but rather it comes down in a steady stream.
On the other hand hearing the roar of the howler monkeys at night waking up to the sounds of the exotic jungle birds birds reminds me that I am indeed indeed in a different place on the planet. This is definitely not a Hilton Garden Inn where you cannot tell which city you are in.
Ah the joys of early morning flights. I got up at three thirty AM to get the taxi to the airport. Upon arriving at the airport I discover to my surprise that I have a Business Class ticket. This explains why my one way was more expensive than my canceled round trip. So this morning I am at last qualified for admission to the Merida Airport VIP lounge. I get to sit in a comfy seat and have a morning cerveza. All set for my new adventures.
Generally there is not much to see outside the window, but on this trip, there are some interesting clouds this morning and a view of a volcano sending out smoke in Guatemala. Whenever I see an active volcano, it is always a reminder to me as to how volatile is this seemingly stable planet we call Earth.
When landing at Guatemala one can not help but notice that the local Maya dress differently and have different facial features than the Maya of the Yucatán. Welcome to a new country. (I believe Guatemala is my country #41 for those of you who are keeping score.) I meet up with the rest of the eight members of our tour group from the Institute of Maya Studies. On our first day in Guatemala City we visit the archaeology museum. There are some excellent pieces here and there is a scale model of Tikal that gives a wonderful overview. Our hotel is in the swanky part of town with green marble sidewalks and American chain restaurants. I go for local food and have some turkey soup.
These is a place in the Yucatán called the River of Crocodiles, or Rio Lagartos in Spanish. We decided to visit some of the local wildlife. We start by introducing ourselves to the local reptiles at the neighborhood crocodile farm. Here we are shown an enclosed pond with five male and thirty breeding female crocodiles. The caretaker reassures us that they are well fed and unlikely to attack us. He then opens the gate and invites us to get up close and personal. My first reaction is, “Are you fricking kidding me?” But my curiosity wins out. I must get a closer view of those wonderful scraggly teeth.
The youngsters are in a different pen and are a quite a bit smaller, but they make up for this with their enthusiasm. The mere tossing of a few chicken parts brings a dozen or more snapping little jaws into play.
We then approach the harbor of Rio Lagartos where the boats seem to be manned by pelican crews.
They look as if they have just staged a mutiny and are getting ready to sail off on their own.
We hop into a pelican-free boat and are off to see the birds and animals. As we travel among the mangrove trees, every little bend in the estuary seems to offer a different species. It almost looks as if they were posing for us. I can imagine the bird director saying, “Okay, Great Blue,
here comes the boat. Now I want you to pose for a minute then take off in flight to show them what your wings can do.
You there, Snowy Egret, get ready to pose in the next bend.
Black Hawk, profile please, show us your best side.
Hey, Parakeet, can you hold still for a few seconds.”
And yes, there were free range crocodiles, but climax of the trip was the viewing of the flamingos.
Just seeing them was amazing, but watching them take off in flight was a magnificent spectacle, well worth the journey.