We’re back in Antigua with a reliable wireless internet connection, however Cox Communication (our email host) is having a problem sending emails. We are receiving email just fine, but are unable to send any responses. Cox has no estimate on how long this will take, so we’ll just keep posting to the blog and then announce whatever we’ve posted by email when the system is working properly again.
This entry is going to be a valuable lesson in relationship mediation. Ostensibly, it will focus on the Mayan Ruins at Copan. I (Alan) will be discussing the ruins themselves: the amazing carvings, the access to the ruins, and the history of the site [Harriet: blah, blah]. Harriet will be writing about our journey to and from the site, and our stay at the nearby tourist town [Alan: why would you want to relive that?]
The Ruins (Alan)
The Copan ruins are located in Honduras, and so we had to get temporary visas to pass through the border. We stayed a night in the town of Copan Ruinas which is one kilometer away from the archaeological site. That proved to be a very lovely walk with some interesting statues recovered from the site mounted along the way.
The ruins are in a beautiful forested setting. There’s a long walk to reach the entry from the ticket office at the road, and it’s a peaceful walk with a few tables set out for picnics. Once inside the complex, we were greeted by several macaws [H: looked like parrots to us] and other wildlife before entering the ruins themselves. Really peaceful and beautiful.
The Mayans were master stone carvers, and the stelae and alters are intricately carved with images of royalty, gods, plants, animals, and mythical creatures. Most of the ruins date from the 7th and 8th century A.D. and are remarkably well preserved. You walk among (and in some cases on) the structures and get very close to the carved images. Only some thin wire actually keeps tourists off of the statues. We spent a couple of hours walking through the complex, admiring the work and the beautiful views.
It’s definitely better to view the images of the site than rely on my ability to describe them.
The next day, before our bus adventures, we had the chance to visit the Enchanted Wings Butterfly House where between 30 and 35 species of butterfly are being raised. It was a large property under netting that contained a protected ecosystem for the butterflies. We spent a good hour there, stalking the butterflies for video and pictures.
The Road (Harriet)
Crossing the border into Honduras was relatively straight-forward. In the middle of the mountains, at some rickety three-structure setting, 12 of us crawled out of the mini-van, like a bunch of circus clowns emerging from a miniature car, and were immediately surrounded by money-changers — Hoss Cartwright-sized guys in cowboy hats, fanning thick bricks of currency. The only (North) Americans in the group, we were whisked through the immigration process before everyone else. Don’t ask why.
Eventually we pulled into town, directly in front of our hotel, the one that got top billing in the guidebooks for its helpful staff, good restaurant and travel services. Later, after our fabulous tour of the ruins and peaceful stroll through the grounds, we returned to what we soon realized could be the loudest night club in Central America and the only deafening joint in Copan Ruinas to keep cranking the bad music past midnight. It was as if we had booked a room in the lawn section of the SB County Bowl.
The bus that was to pick us up the next day was delayed because a major rock slide had closed the highway. While it was sheer hell for the people stuck on that mini-van (for an extra 3 hours), we least we waited in a shady cafe, sipping cool drinks with interesting company.
Several hours later, after a another border crossing with the Mafia cowboy bankers, some problem the driver had with customs over a few “extra” boxes, and winding around the rockslide that had not been completely cleared, we found ourselves smelling burning brakes. The driver had run out of gas, there was trouble with the hydraulic system and the brakes were going. We pulled over (think San Marcos Pass) and all of the passengers began that instant bonding process that happens when one suspects one might be sleeping with heretofore strangers on the side of the road or find oneself in some bad “Lost” spinoff or “Survivor” episode. We chose the team with the two very funny Swedish brothers, one of whom was fluent in Spanish and had packed some extra snacks.
At some point, the equivalent of the CHP showed up, got us enough gas to get us to a filling station, and gave us a personal escort into Rio Hondo, the town where Alan and I were to leave our new teammates and transfer to another bus. We thought it best not be be on a dark bus on a dark road and decided to spend the night in Rio Hondo — touted as a lovely weekend getaway for Guatemalans who want to cool off in the water parks. That would have been fine, except that we were nowhere near the water parks. We were, however, smack dab in the middle of a huge truck stop. So we spent the night in a concrete cinder block room with 24-wheelers whizzing by or, worse, idling outside our door. It was slightly quieter than our room the previous night.
We were awakened the next morning by a rooster that was — honest to god — roosting on the tree branch 8 inches from our window. Best of all, his time clock was set somewhere over the mid-Atlantic so our personal poultry alarm began around 3 a.m. The good news was, this enabled us to get up and moving in time to catch the early bus to Rio Dulce. The tickets were cheap; the former New Jersey public bus had good brakes; and the on-board entertainment was free. For the first 45 minutes of our 4-hour ride, we listened (or tried not to listen) to a young woman standing in the aisle, preaching the gospel at the top of her holy lungs.
I had plenty of space but Alan was hemmed in by a woman and her mother, two young kids, one toddler and a baby.That mom had likely gotten less sleep than Alan and me combined. And as we wound our way along the mountain highway, we passed similar families, on foot, carrying baskets on their heads and babies on their backs, and we were reminded of how very easy our roads have been.
Once again, Alan is writing this entry, so plan to be adequately informed.
Lake Attitlan is located at the base of 3 volcanos which (geologically and aesthetically) define the valley. There is a series of villages that surrounds the lake, and the biggest of these, Panajachel (known as Pana), has become a vacation spot for Guatemalans as well as the foreign tourists. We spent a couple of days in this sweet little town, which has the feel of many California beachside towns.
We had a very nice hotel room with a view of the lake, and discovered some foods and treats that are easing our disappointment with the cuisine. For instance, in Pana we discovered an Italian chocolatier who makes some truly wonderful chocolate bars and snacks (dark chocolate and cinnamon, dark chocolate and cardamom, and my favorite milk-chocolate and peanut butter).
We took the traditional boat tour of a few villages, and much to our surprise, Harriet never got sea sick. The villages were an interesting mix of indigenousness people and counter culture Westerners. Officially, their names were San Pedro, Santiago Attitlan, and San Antonio Palopo, but I referred to them as Hippieville, Weird-Church Place, and Weaverville respectively (which is a particularly odd term in this context).
In Hippivelle (San Pedro) we had a pleasant walk around the island, including talking to a young woman from Texas who runs a local bookstore and yoga studio. Later, we walk through ZooLa, a little restaurant where you eat at low tables while laying on pillows, and instructions over the door recommend that you sit and really think about what you want to eat before deciding what to order. You get the idea.
In Santiago Atitlan (Weird-Church Place), there was an intersting church with a lot of carved figures and scenes in relief. Harriet wanted to describe a few things we saw here.
Vatican’s Next Top Model
[Harriet: As the fashionista in this couple, I took careful note of the snappy attire donned by the carved saints that lined the walls of the big church. Evidently, these guys get a set of fresh threads every year, courtesy of fashion-forward local women.
Group numero uno was wearing what I would describe as dental hygenists’ cotton candy pink smocks. (Swish and pray.) Groupo dos was wearing auto mechanics’ over-sized blue workshirts sans embroidered name patch. Groupo tres was a definite standout with their 1950s picnic tablecloths in cheery turquoise with borders of enormous pink roses. And everyone, blue collar to blue tablecloth, had a little extra fashion accessory to complete their outfit — Versace(-like) silk scarves tied nattily about their necks and sometimes, wrists. Who would have thought we’d find such bold fashion statements in such a sleepy little town? – H]
Finally, San Antonio Palopo (Weaverville) had several weaving shops lining the road up to the church on a hill. You can watch them weave or embroider fabric, and (of course) buy some items.
Zip It, Zip It Good
The other notable activity for us in Pana was a visit to the local Nature Preserve. We had a lovely walk along the nature trail, visited the Butterfly Preserve, and saw some monkeys as well as the native Caoti (sort of a racoon thing).
But the real adventure was the Zip Line Tour. Both Harriet and Alan (the fellow afraid of heights) took a series of 8 zip lines down the mountain, suspended over the jungle canopy. My elder niece, Amanda, is some sort of rock, mountain, and tree climbing stud who last year was building zip line courses in Costa Rica. So with that inspiration in mind, I tried not to think about the fact that I was just stepping out over a 200 ft (or whatever) drop onto pointy tree death or worse, embarrassment. And you know, we had a great time. By the second line, I remembered to actually look around and appreciate the amazing view. I won’t say it ever got easier stepping off into nothingness, but I found that the rest of the experience made up for that. Quite the rush.
Our last activities in Pana involved shopping. The prices (and bargaining) were even better than Chichi, so Harriet now has a scarf which she hasn’t removed for 4 days. [Note from Harriet: Those scarved saints have inspired me. What can I say? – H]
Next Up: The Road to Ruins
Harriet needed a break from writing (it is her vacation and all) so you’re all stuck with me for a few entries. I promise to try and reduce the “engineer” flavor of my writing.
In the Highland region of Guatemala, Chichicastenango is a village of 49,000 people at an elevation of 6000 feet … oh wait … this would be excessive engineerese. Okay, try again …
We went to Chichi (as Chichicastenango is refered to by the locals) to see the big market. On Thursdays and Sundays, this small town hosts a gigantic, regional market where vendors from all over the area come to sell their wares. Unfortunately, a lot of the vendors sell souvenirs nowadays, the same items you see all through Guatemala. The prices are pretty good, and there is a lot of bargaining involved which are the ingredients to make Harriet a happy traveler.
We arrived on Saturday for the Sunday market.We had an inexpensive room which was HUGE, and in a lovely setting. It came with a fireplace, and on the second night we had a huge fire (it gets cold in the highlands). And, our first meal in town was one of the best we’ve had in Guatemala. It was mainly grilled meats, but they were delicious. I think we are finding that the simpler the foods, the better we do.
The next day, we had a good breakfast and out we went into the crowds and the stuff. As I mentioned, there are a lot of souvenir sellers nowadays, but there were still a lot of vegetable vendors, and folks selling a variety of dry goods. The crowds are pretty intense, and the vendors are trying to get your attention, but the touting is not as in-your-face as we’ve experienced in Asia.
Harriet bought a few things in bulk and for good prices, but I think, in general, we didn’t enjoy the market as much as we’ve enjoyed other, local markets. It’s big, and there are a lot of things, but so much is aimed at tourists that it loses some of the local flavor we we’re interested in seeing. Still, we were both very glad to get out of Antigua and into the highlands of Guatemala.
This was also the national election day and we accidentally walked into a polling place. It was interesting and we would have stuck around, but we’d been warned that elections can be pretty … unsettled – so we left fairly quickly. We did watch the returns that night on TV during dinner. It was all very peaceful. No problems at all.
Next up: Pana-Vision
Dia de los Muertos is a major holiday in most of Latin America and one of the reasons we chose to visit Guatemala this year.
The day prior to la dia grande, we visited San Lazaro cemetery where people were sprucing up the family monuments, white-washing walls and generally cleaning up for company that would arrive the following day. We were the only tourists â€“ Guatemalan or gringo. It was a very clean, quiet, well-respected and well-maintained place.
Guatemalans fly kites to celebrate Dia de los Muertos and carry messages to their dearly departed. However, in Santiago Sacatepequez , the practice has (d)evolved into a massive fiesta and competition. And in contrast to the calm, orderly San Lazaro, the cemetery is far from hallowed ground. Literally thousands of people tromp across dirt mounds (yes, the graves), scattering pine needles, juniper boughs and flower petals, to fly kites and view the launch of los barrilates gigantes. There are guys pushing their ice cream carts everywhere and the marketing geniuses at Knorr sent a few men to schlep big canisters of soup on their backs and give out free samples. (Hmmmâ€¦ 85 degrees, letâ€™s give â€˜em some salty hot soupâ€¦)
By â€œgiganteâ€ we mean GIGANTE. Upon entering the initial staging area, we saw 12â€™ octagonal kites with kaleidoscopic designs. Then we watched as they were launched from atop a huge wall of funereal niches. Some kites flew for a minute; others flew for a only few seconds and then came crashing down into the crowd. With each launch and landing, the crowd cheered and groaned in unison.
Then we discovered the 20â€™ kites. Their teams numbered anywhere from six to 12 men and boys and each group seemed to have their own system for calculating the best time and method to send their creations skyward. There were, evidently, judges roaming around, but the crowd cheered enthusiastically and shared in the disappointment of all the teams equally.
My Derecho or Your Derecho?
Amidst the colorful chaos were several of the truly gigantic kites â€“ weâ€™re talking 50 to 60 feet â€“ that had not yet been raised. These kites were created by cities or organizations and were not meant to fly (unless NASA were to take over the engineering). Similar to their â€œsmallerâ€ cousins, these kites were constructed of regular TISSUE PAPER, layered on top of more plain old tissue paper, wrapped around bamboo frames. The tails were as long as tennis courts and made of old, colorful rags.
We watched as the one and only team made up entirely of women, worked to attach their frame and face. This was a visibly organized group with a clear leader and cooperative members who had, no doubt, spent countless hours processing their issues around hierarchy and coming to a consensus about who would direct the assemblyâ€¦ (sorry, just having a little flashbackâ€¦)
It looked like one of those barn raisings you see in the old westerns or movies about the Amish or reports of Habitat for Humanity â€“ only mucho, mucho more colorful. As each multi-story kite was raised, the crown screamed and swooned. Each one was more elaborate and breathtaking than the last, and each one seemed to have been as thoughtfully designed and carefully executed as any painting we had ever seen.
Note: We were not very discriminating about which photos to put in the attached album and as a result, there are as many images as we saw colors and designs. Just be grateful weâ€™re not holding you hostage to a home slide show with several hundred picturesâ€¦
Next up: Doing the Chichi Cha Cha