This log covers February 3 through February 13, 2004 where we head on an inland trip into Guatemala and Honduras. It tuns out to be a wonderful trip.
February 3rd, 2004, Tuesday - All packed and heading for Antigua, Guatemala.We depart from Barillas Marina, El Salvador with our great friends and buddy-boaters Michael, Ginny, Vienna and Rhiannon (the "Atalantans" after their sailboat) in a rental van at 9 am, loaded with luggage and snacks. Long day in the car as we encounter all sorts of road blocks.
|Cattle drive to clear to make some miles.|
We are headed for Antigua, Guatemala as we pass this bus on the highway....this is one full bus.
|Passengers literally hanging off the back of the full bus.|
We eventually cross the border from El Salvador into Guatemala and in the late afternoon, we find a hotel and an Italian restaurant for dinner in Antigua.
The bridge from El Salvador to Guatemala!
February 4th, 2004, Wednesday - Antigua, Guatemala - Volcano FuegoAntigua is a charming city that used to be the Guatemalan capital until it was badly damaged in a massive earthquake in 1773 and subsequently transferred to Guatemala city in 1776. The town was slowly rebuilt and the traditional character of architecture and cobblestone streets was retained. In 1944 the city was declared a national monument and in 1979, UNESCO, declared it a World Heritage Site. The city is surrounded by three huge volcanoes, one of which is active. The active volcano, Volcán Fuego, can be seen spewing smoke on a regular basis and at night it occasionally glows red at the cone. The tourists in Guatemala are mostly from Europe and it is very interesting to meet people from Norway, France, Holland, Germany and occasionally from Italy, Spain or Great Britain.
|Antigua streets and Volcano Fuego|
On our first day in Antigua, we head out to find a cultural complex housing 3 museums - a museum of indigenous music, a museum of contemporary Mayan culture, and a coffee museum. These are all housed on the property of a working coffee plantation. As we walk up the drive, we see the workers, mostly Mayan women and children, picking the ripe red coffee beans. This property has been a working coffee plantation since the late 1800's. In the coffee museum, the interesting displays educate us about the clear superiority of the variety of coffee grown here and the processing method used.
February 4th, 2004, Wednesday - Antigua, Guatemala - Coffee Plantation
Little coffee bean picker.
February 5th, 2004, Thursday - Guatemalan busesThe buses seen throughout Guatemala need to have a special mention. Old ubiquitous yellow school buses from Canada or the US are purchased by a driver, who takes a lot of pride in his future bread and butter. Each bus is brightly painted to individual taste and is fitted with a great sound system having two volume settings - full and off. The transmissions in these buses rival any semi, with multi-coloured hydraulic hoses that run down the length of the stick shift. These are often covered with fancy leather that can have the driver's name engraved in it. The interior of the bus usually has religious decorations and a tinted windshield, with images of either a heart or a beautiful woman cut out of the tint material. Each bus has a driver/owner and an assistant/conductor. The assistant's main roll is to get passengers and collect fares - the more customers they get on the bus, the more profit for them. Try to imagine them filled to capacity and then double or triple it. Typically, there are three people to a two person seat, so it is six people across, plus a pile of people standing.
|Colorful buses, Guatamala style.|
February 5th, 2004, Thursday - Panajachel, Guatemala - Mueller's Guest HouseLeaving Antigua, we spend the afternoon driving to the nearby town of Panajachel, on the shore of Lake Atitlan. Thanks to the Lonely Planet guide, we had a hotel picked out. As we enter town, a man on a bicycle rides alongside and offers to guide us there. But our target hotel is full, so our guide starts recommending other places to us. The second is too expensive, but our insistent guide says he can find a nice hotel in our price range. He leads us to Mueller's Guest House, and it turns out to be our favorite hotel of the entire trip. There are only 3 rooms, and although a few other people stayed in the third room for a night or two, we never really see them. The very friendly manager makes tea on request for the adults in the late afternoon every day while the kids run and play on the grass of the fenced in property and we play Hearts.
|Playing Hearts at Mueller's Guest House|
|Our lovely accommodation by day.|
February 6th, 2004, Friday - Solola, Guatemala - Market dayOne of our main objectives in coming to Panajachel was to go to the Friday market in the neighboring town of Solola, so right after breakfast we are on one of the colorful Guatemalan buses heading UP the steep hill. The market is amazing.
|Just off the bus to the market|
Stalls crowd the square in front of the church and spread down the surrounding streets for blocks.
|Mayan market day at Solola|
Produce, household goods, clothes, chickens (living and dead), fish, shrimp and anything else you can think of are for sale somewhere here.
|Even Cola for sale.|
This is not a market catering to the tourists! In fact, we are about the only tourists here. Most of the Mayan people are quite short, so we really feel conspicuous! Almost all the people are wearing traditional Mayan clothes: woven skirts and embroidered blouses for the women and girls, colorful embroidered shirts and trousers for the men. While it is so colorful, it is also crowded and smelly, and after meandering through the market, pushed by the crowds (and one unsuccessful pick-pocket on Michael), we finally take refuge to the side and enjoy people-watching but not before Michael and Chris buy a traditional Mayan shirt.
|This picture shows how short the Mayans really are.|
February 7th, 2004, Saturday - Lake Atitlan, GuatemalaToday, we hire a panga-driver to take us to some of the other villages around this huge lake, besides Panajachel. When we awake, the winds are howling and we are concerned about the condition of the lake in a panga. We are assured it will be fine so off we set. It is a wet and wild ride as we pound downwind across the lake to the town of Santiago Atitlan. Squeezed between two impressive volcanoes, Santiago is known for keeping to the traditional lifestyle of the Tzutuhil Maya... and for Maximon.
|Wet ride across Lake Atitlan.|
Upon arrival in Santiago Atitlan, we hire a local guide to take us to see Maximon, a cigarette-smoking, booze-swilling local deity whose wooden effigy is passed from house to house each year for safe keeping and worship. When we arrive, a number of local Mayans are leaving and we get to enter through the curtained door. We are told by our guide that really Maximon is mostly for the tourists these days, but someone else tells us that the people go to church during the day, but at night they come to ask favors of Maximon. We duck inside and there he is, a 3 foot high, wooden figure known as Maximon, complete with a wooden cigarette in his mouth. He is in the center of the room, draped with scarves, surrounded by candles and flanked by 2 men of the cofradia, the religious council. The man of the household is the head of the religious council during that year. He doesn't work. His job is to sit with Maximon and receive offerings and tuck them into Maximon's shirt.
|Maximon, a cigarette-smoking, booze-swilling local deity|
Next, we continue on to the Catholic church, which we find out is quite tolerant of traditional Mayan religion and the majority of the Mayan population embraces both religions. This church as been witness to some pretty harsh events.
|Civil war affects everyone.|
The church is filled with the normal beautifully carved pulpits and paintings, but at the back of the church is a very powerful memorial to the numerous local people who were killed or disappeared during the very recent civil war. Apparently a large group of unarmed farmers were shot down when they approached the local army headquarters to protest mistreatment of the local women by the soldiers, the pastor of the church was murdered here in the rectory, and the people would sleep in the church every night to try to find some sense of safety. A peace accord was finally signed on December 29th, 1996.
|Memorial to the murdered local people|
Back in the panga, it's a very wet, upwind ride to the town of Santa Catarina. This town is listed in our guide book as a small, off the tourist path, observe village life type of place, but no more! We are immediately besieged by girls trying to sell us things all with the same sing-song, almost Italian sounding, sales pitch. "Compra algo, buen precio, fue primero" (Buy something, good price, I was first). Michael and Chris have some fun saying they are color blind and Sheila and Ginny each buy woven table runners from the girl in this picture named Nicolasa. She is 13 years old, goes to school in the mornings and weaves in the afternoons. And that is all for a very, very busy day. Back to Mueller's Guest House for tea.
|Nicolasa, a skilled Mayan weaver.|
February 8th, 2002, Sunday - Fertile Guatemalan ValleyToday, we are out and about exploring and find ourselves in Zunil, a town with a central produce delivery location and market for farmers. We have never seen such good looking vegetables and enjoy our time getting a few and talking with the locals. Note that Gerrit at 7, is taller than this 1000-year old Mayan women!
|Little carrot lady|
February 10, 2004, Tuesday - Chichicastenango, GuatemalaChichicastenango is almost world famous for its market, but we arrive mid-week and all is quiet on the tourist front, yet active for the Mayans. With an offer of help from a local guide, we are invited to head up a large ridge to see the shrine of Pascual-Abaj. Abaj is the general name for all the Mayan gods, and Mayans have been worshiping at this shrine for thousands of years. The day we are here, there are several ceremonies going one. One ceremony is to dispel the evil spirits plaguing a businessman and his wife and bring them better luck in their business. The Mayan shaman chants in a low voice the entire time. The man and woman stand in front of a small fire adorning it with flowers, candles and liqueur. The doctor swings a container with burning incense, swats the man and woman up and down their backs with a pine branch, rolls limes and eggs up and down their backs, arms and legs, and then places the eggs around the edge of the fire (if the eggs crack, it is a sign that the ceremony is a success, and that the evil spirits have been dispelled - they eventually crack!).
|Shaman sacrifices a chicken.|
Then they move over to the main altar and produce a chicken from out of a basket. An assistant holds the chicken upside down by the legs and the Mayan doctor draws a blade and performs a sacrifice. Blood is let to drip on the fire at the main altar while the slaughtered chicken rests at its base. Amid the smoke, incense, and sounds, we make our exit. What an intense and vivid experience!
|The ancient alter of Pascual-Abaj.|
After lunch, we meet our guides again for a trip to the near-by ruins of K'umarcaaj. K'umarcaaj was built around 1400 by the king Gucumatz as the capital city of the Quiche (KEE-chay) Maya. They conquered many neighboring cities, and eventually controlled a large area extending from present day southern Mexico to the city of Coban, now just over the border in Honduras. They were defeated at the hands of the Spanish conquistadors in 1524. As you can see, practically nothing has been excavated and it is still an active site of worship. Under the main temple building (smoke seen rising) are a series of caves and tunnels which are used for prayers and sacrifices, as they have been for a thousand years. We are glad to have our guides because we certainly wouldn't venture down there on our own!
|Utatlan (K'umarcaaj) ruins.|
At the entrance to the tunnel, many candles burn in alcoves chipped out of the rock, and a dead chicken is stuffed in a crack. We venture down the tunnel, following the lights of the candles (and our flashlights). The walls are covered with the soot of innumerable candles burned over the ages. Our guide points out the various niches used to pray for children, luck, money, and for love. Off to one side is a special altar for women praying to conceive a child, another for luck on a journey, and yet another altar to ask the earth permission before building a house. Each type of prayer has a designated color of candle. At the end of the main tunnel is a larger altar space, directly under the altar of the ancient ruined temple building (smoke seen rising) above.
|Into the tunnel.|
February 11, 2004 - Drive through the Guatemalan HighlandsAfter ChiChi, we set off on what is supposed to be a 4 hour drive to Coban, a city en route to Honduras and the Mayan ruins at Copan. The route so blithely shown on our map is actually still under construction. So for 50 miles, we crawl up and down the steep valley sides on a one lane (or less!) gravel road.
|This is the highway??|
But the countryside is spectacular! We stop once to ask for directions from a man working in his field. He speaks only a Mayan dialect, but one of the kids runs off to get another man who speaks Spanish. Soon kids are running in from all directions to see the strangers. Chris has a pocketful of candy from dinner the previous evening, which he passes out. He teaches the kids to say "Good-bye" in English and we set off again, to a rousing chorus of good-byes. In the mid-afternoon, we stop in the town of Cunen, where we run into a young Peace Corps worker from Texas. "Jeez-Louise! What are you-all doing here?" He is so surprised to see 4 kids piling out of the van. He has been here for 1 1/2 years and rarely sees tourists come through, let alone tourists with kids. As we get closer to Coban, we begin driving through coffee growing country. Sacks of beans are piled up at the edge of the road, and loaded pick-up trucks ply their way slowly up and down the hills.
After 9 hours of driving through very rural areas it is getting dangerously close to dark and we don't want to be out much longer. Finally, the first street lights begin to appear and we arrive at Coban. We are awed by the gleaming facade of a new church building approaching. But, it turns out to be a brand new upscale shopping mall, a temple to consumerism…and next to it, a towering set of Golden Arches. We find a hotel for the night after a long, very full day.
|Our hotel garden by daylight...very nice.|
After another half day of driving we arrive at the Copan ruins in Honduras.
February 13th, 2004, Friday - Copan Ruins, Honduras
The ruin site is breath-taking. It is a large, park-like area covered with grass and huge trees. Some of the trees are growing out of piles of rubble that clearly had been buildings. The whole site is well maintained, and there is active archeological work being done there, mainly in tunnels going in through the bases of the larger structures. In the recently completed museum is a full color replica of an intact temple that had been found in this way.
It was previously thought (this gets long so skip it if you want ;-)) that Maya society was a theocracy built around a priestly class. The building complexes were considered to be ceremonial centers, filled with temples and accessed only by priests. The persons depicted in the art were thought to be representations of the gods, and the hieroglyphic writing was thought to be prophecies based on the astrological observations of the priests. With the recent successful decipherment of Maya hieroglyphic writing, we now know that the texts refer to the history of actual rulers, who are themselves depicted in the carved statues. This is more in keeping with what is known about other ancient societies, such as that of Egypt, where the majority of the art was dedicated to the aggrandizement of the pharaohs and their families. Copan is known for its numerous altars and stelae, large rectangular stone monuments with a carving of a ruler on one side and hieroglyphic inscriptions on the remaining sides. Copan is also home to the longest hieroglyphic inscription of the Maya world.
|Restored monuments within Copan|
The area around Copan was settled gradually. K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo' was the first king to unite and rule over the entire area, and his dynasty ruled Copan for the next 400 years. The kings had interesting names such as Mat Head, Smoke Monkey, Smoke Jaguar, and 18 Rabbit, based on early interpretations of their name glyphs. The 13th ruler, 18 Rabbit, was a great builder, and commissioned the majority of the stelae and altars that are now present in the Great Plaza. Unfortunately, he was captured and sacrificed by the neighboring kingdom of Quirigua, formerly a subject of Copan.
|One of many Stelae in Copan|
The 14th ruler, Smoke Monkey, was a relatively weak ruler, ruling during what was probably a very turbulent period due to the dramatic fall of his predecessor, a clear sign that the gods were no longer favoring Copan. However, his son, the 15th ruler Smoke Shell (or Smoke Squirrel, in some interpretations), was responsible for the imposing Hieroglyphic Stairway, which is an historical narrative highlighting the feats of his ancestors. Presumably the decapitation of 18 Rabbit is not mentioned.
One of the most impressive monuments is known as Altar Q. It is a large rectangular block of stone, about 4' long on each side, with 16 seated figures carved around the sides. The top is covered with hieroglyphic squares. Originally thought to represent a conference of astronomers, advances in the understanding of Maya hieroglyphs have shown this to be an historical record celebrating the ascension of the 16th ruler, Yax Pasah. The front of the altar shows a seated Yax Pasah receiving the scepter of the kings from the first king K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo'. Seated around the sides are the intervening 14 kings, shown in order, each seated under their name glyphs carved on the top face of the stone.
During the reign of Yax Pasah (AD 763 - sometime before AD 820), the population of the Copan area grew dramatically. This required significant intensification of the agricultural system, which in turn led to increasing environmental degradation. There were significant environmental changes as well, with both droughts and floods. Studies of skeletal remains have shown marked evidence of malnutrition, infectious diseases, and decreased life spans. The 400 year dynasty came to a close with the 17th king U Cit Tok', a pretender to the throne who was unable even to finish the carving of a monument proclaiming his reign. Over the following 200 years, the ecologically devastated valley was gradually abandoned. Not until the 1980's did the population of the greater Copan valley return to those levels.
|Views out onto Copan Valley|
After spending a couple hours wandering among the ruins, we had a picnic lunch and then spent the remainder of our time at the museum. Many of the most elaborately carved stones have been moved inside, and replicas have been made to sit outside in the original spot.
|Full size replica found buried beneath a larger temple.|
In addition to the stelae, there were also many examples of facade sculptures. There was a fascinating fully 3 dimensional carving of the head of a demonic looking water bird with a fish clamped in its toothed beak. Quite a sight.
|3 dimensional carving|
February 14th, 2004, Saturday - Bound for TiogaToday, we drive back to El Salvador. It's a long day of driving. We cross the border back to El Salvador, stop at a big grocery store in San Salvador to load up for the next stage of our trip, and finally arrive home, exhausted, about 6 PM. A great trip, slightly longer than we had planned and a long time for two families to spend in one van. But we are all still friends and have many great memories to share.
|A nice parrot. Time to end this trip.|
This has been a long log. Congratulations if you have read it in its entirety! It has been tough to capture the essence of this truly amazing inland road trip. Special thanks to Ginny for a lot of the text and research.
|Interior map of our travels.|
Join us in Log 20 where we head to Costa Rica and on to the Panama Canal.