San Cristobal de las Casas

Location: San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

San Cristobal de las Casas is a hill town in Chiapas. The old city has many historic buildings (but as with many cases when the Spanish settled, the prehistoric ones were destroyed.) It is charming, but it has essentially been turned into a tourist town with lots of restaurants, and tourist shops. Some jaded tourists whine that it is no longer authentic, but I have been to a number of modernized commercial towns, and I appreciate charm when I see it. There are also craft stores and venders with ma lot of interesting stuff to look at. I bought a piece of legitimate amber from a dedicated amber shop, and a piece of dubious authenticity from a sidewalk stall. 

The streets a quite crowded during the day, but are wonderfully empty at dawn.

Art History, Maya Style

Location: Bonampak, Chiapas, Mexico

Bonampak has the greatest surviving painted Maya murals. They are a wonder to behold.  But it is interesting to compare the originals with the reproductions at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. The reproductions are larger and have the colors fully restored. But the originals give one a sense of time and connection with the ancients.

View of the wall paintings at Bonampak
Recreation of Bonampak at the National Museum of Anthropology

Overnighting at a river along an international border seems quite metaphoric to me as I drift on this journey of life, but it is the sounds that bend the space and time within my consciousness.  I still find the sound of the howler monkeys at night to be quite exotic. I know that I am in the Central American jungle. But am I in Belize, Guatemala, Mexico or ???  And for the locals, I presume that they find it quite ordinary, much as I slept through the voices and traffic sounds when I lived in downtown San Francisco. But all these sounds evoke a sense of place and time for me. Now when I hear soft roar of the weed eaters from our grounds crew, it takes me back to sound of lawnmowers in my ancient roots in suburbia. Back in Santa Elena I sleep to the sound of crickets and awake to the sounds of forest birds. I am a photographer. I like to play with the light. But I think that it is the sounds that are playing with me. 

A walk in the jungle.

Location: Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

Today we visit Palenque. Ah, Palenque where to start. The architecture is remarkable and so are the friezes. Most Maya friezes I have seen are quite stylized and offer an abstract concept of a ruler or deity. Here they express personality.

Our tour started at the North Group, because that was the earliest part of the site. The structures have history and charm, but what one would call magnificent. Then we move on to the central plaza. The old time visitors bemoan the fact that you can no longer descend into the interior shaft of the Temple of the Inscriptions, but it is still a magnificent pyramid that dominates the plaza.

The palace fascinated me with its long interior corridors. I had seen nothing like this in the architecture of the Yucatán. Then there is the strange square tower placed in the middle of the palace. This was a later addition, and seems at odds with the palace surrounding it, but it commands a power all of its own.

Palenque Palace & Tower

The plaza of the Cross Group shows that they did not tire of creating magnificent architecture, but the place was popular with people and I was unable to gather many images free of tourists.

Perhaps the most magical part of the site was the path along the Otulum river leading down to the second entrance to the park. It is quite a descent, and I am glad that I am walking down, not up and that there was a bus to pick me up at the end. The trail is a delightful jungle walk on its own. There is no swimming allowed in the stream. I am told that this is because the water is so inviting that people frequently just take off their clothes and plunge right in. The nudity delights some visitors and annoys others, so the park officials sometimes patrol the walk. Such is life. 

Palenque Group II

The sites along the stream have only been partially restored and left to the moss and the jungle trees to reclaim creating a rather primordial experience. I was glad to catch the sunbeams at the end of the trip. I would definitely go back here again.

The wolf then came to the house of bricks. “Let me in, let me in” cried the wolf “Or I’ll huff and I’ll puff till I blow your house in”

Location: Comalcalco, Tabasco, Mexico.

We then visited the Maya site of Comalcalco. They did not use stones either, but they built their temples out of bricks. Hundreds of thousands of bricks. I think they are the only Maya that did this, and they are absolutely fabulous.  Except during construction, the ancients would would not have noticed the bricks, as the walls were covered with plaster. And with the plaster they made wonderful friezes with hints to their politics, religion, and history. I loved photographing this site.

Temple I

We are staying at the Nututun Palenque Hotel. It is an older resort that is showing its age, but then again it has a certain timelessness bout it. It has a vending machine where you can not only buy water, soda, and cookies, but beer and Marlboros. I have not seen anything like that in the USA for over forty years.

It is next to a wonderful stream where the locals come to swim and play in pools and gentle rapids. I followed a trail along the stream and found a place to do sitting and movement meditations with the sound of the brook in the background. I am 69 years old, but when walking here, I felt like a little boy again when I used to explore the creeks of Kentucky. It is a peaceful place to stay. I would come back here.

Far From the Olmecs at Home

Location; Villahermosa, Tabasco, Mexico.

I am off on another excursion with The Archaeological Conservancy. This time to explore the Olmecs of Tabasco and the Maya of Chiapas.  I checked into the Fiesta Inn in Villahermosa. It is in walking distance to La Venta Park and I strolled down to see the sights.  I bought some spicy peanuts and a fresh cut coconut to wash them down. Lovely. The park is a combination zoo and archaeological park. The zoo is one of those sad concrete and chain affairs. It particularly distressed me to see the inclosed coyotes. But when you get past the zoo, something magical happens. Here is a collection of original Olmec heads placed in a Mexican jungle with meandering paths leading up to them.

My words are not adequate in describing the giant Olmec heads. I had seen pictures of them, but this was my first time in seeing the real thing. They are magnificent. They invoke power. They invoke spirituality. They invoke wonder. We humans produced nothing like them before, and have quite frankly not produced anything quite like them since. They are well worth the journey to Villahermosa.

Home again at Santa Elena.

January 15, 2019 Location: Santa Elena, Yucatan, Mexico

Ah, now it is a new day. Getting up at dawn, siping my morning coffee, and looking out my office window, and seeing the familiar birds; the flycatchers, the orioles, the clay robins, the white winged doves, singing and flitting from brach to branch as if to say, “Welcome home. Welcome home.” Life is good.

Parting thoughts.

January 13, 2019 Location: Santa Elena, Yucatan, Mexico

So how would I evaluate this trip? Well first off, Scott Hutson was an excellent archaeologist. His presentations covered the basics for those new to archaeology and offered plenty of details for those familiar with the material. He took all questions seriously, and was at the sites rattling off dates, and kings, and history of excavations, and details of site features all without notes. I admit to wandering off quite a bit, because for me the importance of the sites was in how it photographed and what if felt like rather than who built it and when. Being a certified archaeologist, I ask myself if I could could do something like this. The answer is well, yes I could, but not without a lot more crib sheets in the field. 

Jim Walker was also a good facilitator. He got us into the best hotels available in the region, and all the busses, hotels, boats, and meals were ready for us. I would travel with him again.

Archaeological Conservancy Belize & Tikal Tour 2019, Lamanai, Belize

So let’s go over my trip objectives. Yes, I can offer my personal opinions about more archaeological sites and have experienced more archaeology. One issue though is after seeing hundreds of archaeological features at eight major sites in nine days, they tend to run together. Some people have a photographic memory. I have a memory enhanced by photography. My pictures helped me re-visualize what I saw on the ground. 

This is good, because as an artist my work here shows very mixed results. I feel that my photographs from Altun Ha are rather uninspired, while I have some rather magical images from Tikal. OK, why? Is it the lighting? It it that some sites are more photogenic? Or is it the photographer? I think that it is a bit of all three, but especially the photographer.

At Altun Ha, I was basically just documenting the site. Here are some photos that I can use for reference in my talks and lectures. At Tikal, the images called me. Over here. Over here. Now just back up and frame it with these trees. 

I did get to see some birds that I have never seen before. The toucans are absurd looking creatures that really exist in the wild, and even thought it was in a zoo, seeing a harpy eagle face to face was quite a wonderful experience.

Harpy Eagle

And then there is the sense of wonder.  I have to admit that staying in first class hotels and being surrounded by gringos, is comfortable, (and indeed, luxury has its own flavor of wonder) but it not the best way to become absorbed in a different culture.  I chatted some with the locals, but most of my knowledge here is not very first hand. Then again the archaeological sites and jungles are quite magical. Tikal is still a special place to meander. The trip was time, money, and energy well spent.

A fast boat on a lazy river.

January 12, 2019 Location: Lamanai, Belize

We start the morning with the ubiquitous bus ride, then hop on boats going up the New River. The river is a smooth path through the Belize hardwood forests. We pause at various locations to look at the birds. Seeing new species is always a treat for a birdwatcher.

Northern Jacana, Belize

The site of Lamanai is interesting in the fact that unlike any of the stone city states of the Yucatán it was still going strong at the time of the Spanish Conquest. But after over four hundred years of abandonment, the plaster and paint have washed away and the jungle has reclaimed the stones. But there were some wonderful plaster masks that had been preserved when the ancient built a new taller pyramid structure over an old one. 

Lamanai, Belize

Back again to the boats. With many journeys where you re-trace your steps, the journey going is new and there is some anticipation for the new destinations, but journey back can seem much longer, as you have seen it before and you are just going back to your base. But here they did not stop to look at birds. Instead it was a speed boat race with different boats passing each other and calculating different paths along the islands of the river. A bit of exciting adventure travel. We loved it. Our boat won.

Then back to the hotel for a final gathering. Here we give our farewells, promise to keep in touch, and prepare to depart for home or the next stages of our journeys.

International borders, archaeology, and jaguars.

January 11, 2019 Location: Belize Zoo, Belize

This morning we recrossed the Guatemala-Belize border. We swapped our Guatemalan sanctioned bus, bus driver, and local guides for our Belizean bus, bus driver and guides. The crossing took over an hour and a half, but it was not overly hot and there were no border complications. Our international borders are imaginary lines that can have very real consequences.

We then visited the site of Cahal Pech.

Cahal Pech, Belize

This site was a royal palace compound. I was fascinated by the arched walls and passageways. I do not know if this was done for security reasons, of if it was an artistic fancy of the aristocracy, much like the gardens of the old British estates.

On the bus again and we had lunch at the San Ignacio Hotel where we had stayed before. I use this time to retrieve the missing wall connector for my laptop charger. This is good, but it took them a while to find it, and I am the last one on the bus. In my mind everyone is staring at me for holding them up for the next destination.

And perhaps they should, the next destination was the Belize Zoo. We only have an hour, but it is a fabulous zoo. I have been to zoos where they mimic the jungle. Here the zoo is the jungle. They have merely set up fences and pathways. I got some wonderful animal photos and got to see jaguars and harpy eagles up close. For those opposed to captive animals, be assured that the creatures here are rescue animals.

Jaguar Belize Zoo

The ancient astronomers.

January 10, 2019 Location: Uaxactún, Guatemala

The site at Uaxactún was one of the first major excavations of a Maya city, one of the oldest Maya cities, and the homeland of the famous Maya king, Smoking Frog. Perhaps the most interesting past of the site is a group of three temples in the east facing a temple in the west. When you stand at the top of the of the west temple at the equinoxes, the sun rises over the top of the middle east temple. When you view it at the summer solstice it rises over the first east temple and at the winter solstice it rises over the third temple. During these events hundreds of pilgrims come here to do ceremony. The ruins are nice, but as far as explorations go, I do not think I will need to see it a third time. Unless….unless I come for a ceremony. 

Uaxactún E Group

My favorite part of Uaxactún on my last visit was the small museum where you could handle the ancient artifacts. I am glad that I did not hype this up to my fellow travelers as we curiously did not visit the museum on this part of the journey. If it is now closed, I am glad I saw it when I did.