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.

A walk in the Jungle.

January 9, 2019 Location: Tikal, Guatemala

Today I hiked up to the North Group of the Tikal temples. I have now seen the major excavated groups of Tikal. I love to meditate while hiking. I love the seashore. I love the forests. But here there is the jungle, and what an ideal place to explore the rainforest jungles. There are maintained trails where I can walk in solitary contemplation among the rainforests and temples, and yet busy enough that in unlikely event that ill fate should befall me, someone would be by to help in a half an hour or less.

Tikal Hiking Trail
Tikal Lost World

Tikal Astronomical Pyramid

The magical site of Tikal.

January 8, Location: Villa Maya, Lago Petenchel, Guatemala

The Villa Maya is a first class resort. I had my own back porch where I could sit privately and look at the lagoon. Yet it was surrounded by the jungle and you could hear the exotic birds in the morning and the howler monkeys at night.

It is ironic that the more upscale a place is the more I am bothered by the things that are not quite right. The slow wifi in the room irritated me. Yet it was only in the last few months that we have in-room wifi in our own hotel. Another first world problem, was that the electrical module for my laptop charger had apparently fallen off in packing at the last hotel. Unable to recharge I had to ration my computer time. Ah, the sacrifices we make for our travels.

I compare this to the hotel I stayed in in my last trip to Tikal. That hotel was a bit more third world. The howler monkeys came to within a few yards of the hotel. The facilities were run down and you could only have electricity for a few hours a day, but from there you could walk to the site rather than have an hour twenty minute bus ride.

Then there was the visit to Tikal itself.  I had been to the site before, but I knew then that those two days were not enough. I needed to come back.  It is the most impressive archaeological site I have ever been to. There are dozens of magnificent pyramids and temples. Some absurdly high. Some fully excavated and restored, some partially restored, and some left to be a tower of rubble covered in moss and jungle plants.

Temple III
Tikal Temple i
Tikal Temple I
Tikal Star Wars Group
Tikal Star Wars Group

A revisit to Yaxhá

January 7, Location: Yaxhá, Guatemala

I was only at Yaxhá briefly earlier this year and was not terribly impressed. Here I got to explore more of the ruins and found them quite fascinating. The pyramid builders here were masters of cubic geometric space. 

Yaxhá pyramid, Guatemala 

And for those of you interested in water supply, it is close to a large freshwater lake and in the upper areas that have a wide causeway with spillways leading to a highland reservoir. 

Yaxhá ancient spillway, Guatemala

Toucans. Toucans. Toucans.

January 6, Location: San Ignacio, Belize 

The breakfast area at the San Ignacio Resort Hotel overlooks the forest canopy. I was just getting to the buffet table when I observed a toucan in the trees. I quickly bolted back to my hotel room to get my camera. As you may know, I am a birder, but do not count a bird on my bird list unless I get a picture of it. The bird was still there, and in fact I saw three toucans of two different species over breakfast. This was my first sighting ever of a toucan. (Unless you count three fake toucans I saw thirty five years ago at the Adventureland tour at Disneyland. I remember the tour guide asking us, “What do you call three toucans?……A six pack.”)

It was a three hour bus ride over the Belize countryside to get to the ruins of Caracol. I am not sure why I was surprised to see an pine forest. This is just something I did not expect to seen in Central America. 

The ruins were extensive and magnificent. Well worth the journey.  In photographing the sites, I come up with the problem of scale. I prefer to shoot the ruins without any people in the shot. (Which sometimes requires a lot of patience. There are apparently some people whose greatest pleasure in life is standing on top of pyramids for vast amounts of time, and only leave after another band of selfie folks comes to take their palace.) 

Without people, our mind uses the trees as a scale, thinking of a North American deciduous tree about thirty feet tall. Well, in the tropical rainforests the tree are over a hundred feet tall. So I am showing you a picture the site with and without people. Let me know if you think the one with the people looks taller. The pyramid looks impressive, until you stop to think, just how tall was the temple James was standing on when he took this picture.

Caracol, Belize
Caracol, Belize

With my new interest in water resources, I was interested in the square reservoir filled with water lilies. I have been told that some of these water lilies are hallucinogenic.  I wonder if the reservoir served an additional purpose?

Caracol Reservoir 

I climbed quite a few of the pyramids. The experience looking up was impressive, and looking down even more so. After so much climbing, I joked about needing a masseuse when I got back. When I arrived at my hotel room, there was a flyer for massage services. OK then. So I asked the front desk if I could have one this evening. To my surprise she said yes. It was a good investment. My masseuse was in her early thirties and said that her sisters had traveled, but that she feared being on airplanes and had never been on one. I quickly did the math and figured that according to my airline segments I had been on planes 58 times in 2018. Many years ago someone once asked me, “You live in a number of places. Where do you consider home?” I answered, “United seat 6A.”