Nov
24
2008
0

Rio Dulce and Livingston

After Lanquin and Samuc Champey, I traveled to Rio Dulce. This is a town / lake / river that’s meant to be pretty. And it is, when you get away from the town itself. A lot of the rich bigwigs from the city have weekend houses out here – our captain pointed out a few (the owner of Gallo beer has several large boats – and he lives alone..)
There aren’t any decent places to stay in town, they’re all a boat ride away. Which sounds nice, but once you’re there, it means you’re trapped. You can’t even go for a walk, since it’s all marsh beyond the boardwalks connecting the few buildings. You have to take a boat to get anywhere, which costs money and is a pain. As a result, the lodges can soak you for food. I happened to stay at one that was Swiss-owned, so it attracted a lot of Germans. Not that I have anything against the German people, but I do find their language grating.

So I got out of there the next day, along with a few other folks I had traveled with. First, we visited a natural hot spring waterfall. Crazy! There is a large natural pool with a cool river flowing through it. And from above, a very strong, very hot waterfall of sulfuric spring water pouring down. Twas nice.
Trying to come back into town, we waited for a bus for a while before I finally flagged down a passing truck. They graciously peeled back the top cover, and we all climbed aboard the feed bags. Much better than being crammed into a packed bus, and cheaper too. I’d like to travel in the back of trucks much more. You do get pretty dusty, but the view is unparalleled.

After that, it was a long boat ride up the river through the gorge to the town of Livingston, where I am currently holing up. This town is only accessible by boat. Which is pretty incredible when you look around and see all the huge things that could only have come in by boat – roads, walls, water towers, cars, etc.
I was feeling a bit lonely and down (more on that later) when who should I run into walking down the street than Marisol, my dear friend from Spanish school! Oh, that was such a blessing. It really made my week. She was on her way from Belize to El Salvador to go surfing, and had stopped here for the night. We had a nice time catching up and such.

Livingston feels much more Carribean than Guatemalan. Mainly because it’s populated by Garifuna, so they’re black and have a completely different culture and language than the Mayans. The Garifuna have an interesting history – they were slaves that got run from one island to another in the 18th century. But they’ve gone from only 2,000 survivors in 1797 to 50,000 in New York City alone today. There are also strongholds in L.A., New Orleans, even London. Most live on the Carribean coast of Honduras, with a bit in Belize, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. Their language is a unique blend of Arawak, French, Yuroba, Banti, and Swahili, owing to their mixed heritage. Their dugu (religion) is similar to Haitian voodoo, and death is seen as a freeing of the spirit; a celebration involving dancing, drinking and music. Punta is the name of their style of music. It’s very up, fast, and rhythmic. At dinner the other night, a group of musicians suddenly set up and regaled us all with some fierce rhythms. Congas, turtle and conch shells, maraccas, with chanting too. Locals wandering by stopped to dance. Kids taking turns showing off their moves. Here is a bit of it I recorded on the iPhone. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera with me! I would love to see some Punta Rock, but the clubs that supposedly usually present it have been dark.

I can see that it would be a nice relaxing town if the weather were better, but it’s been raining off and on (mostly on) for three straight days now. I’ve been trying to arrange transport to the Bay Islands in Honduras, with little luck. I might have to take a whole series of local buses, which I’m dreading. Plus, the weather is meant to be similar over there, which doesn’t bode well for snorkeling and diving, the main activities on the Bay Islands. If any of you have been to Honduras, I’d love to hear recommendations of where else to go.

Nov
24
2008
0

Holy batcave!

Went on a couple of great tours from El Retiro.
The first was to a cave known for it’s bats. You go in an hour before dusk, and watch them leaving by the thousands to go feed. It’s quite a sight. Literally hundreds of thousands of them whizzing past your head. They’re mostly silent, other than the whoosh of air. Despite waving my arms around, I only got lightly smacked once. Those things have got great echolocation.
The kid guide told us that the cave is 30 km deep, and has only the one entrance. It was the French who first explored it in the 50’s, and they could only go 20km before running out of oxygen! We only went about 500m in, which was good enough. Apparently the guano is 2 to 3 metres thick on the ground deep in the cave.
Amazing formations from the flow of water. Huge chambers, weird shapes.  Our guide dug into a crevice and pulled out an enormous spider for us to see. The only other animals living in there are opposums.
I was surprised how warm it was in the cave – I’d say at least 73 degrees F. It was difficult to get photos of all of this, but hopefully you can tell. The river exiting the cave is a beautiful blue-green from the limestone, apparently.
The cave (which used to be fairly white inside) is now blackened from all the Mayan sacrifices through the years. Today they no longer sacrifice animals, but they do still hold ritual burnings.

Here is a video of the bats flying overhead

The next day I went on a day-long adventure that was a definite highlight of my trip thus far. There was so much in one day.. First, a bouncing in a pickup 10km down the road to Semuc Champey. Then a rope swing into the river, whereupon my sandals came flying off. Struggling to catch them in the current and toss them onto shore then get myself back onto shore, whence I discovered I had been swept 100m downstream!
Only then did the real adventure begin. I wish I had brought my camera, since I do have a nice waterproof case for it.. but we were told to only bring our footwear, bathing suit, and a headlamp if we had it; otherwise we were given candles. [Here is a photo I found on the web, since I don’t have any of my own!]
We spent the next couple of hours obediently following our hot guide through crazy situations – through crevices lit by candlelight, pools of unknown depths and contents, past nesting bats.. many times having to swim for 50 ft or so, the pools were so deep. It’s freaky to be walking along and have the ground drop out from under you, suddenly having to tread water to keep breathing! But I didn’t have time to be scared, we kept moving. Climbing up and down ropes with waterfalls pouring over our heads.. the whole thing was so dangerous and thrilling. In any developed nation, we would have been wearing helmets and signed our lives away.. but not here! I was happy to discover that my headlamp is in fact waterproof, since it definitely took a soaking throughout the day.
I kept thinking how some days it is so annoying to be bipedal. To be so top-heavy when scooting around on unsure footing.

After emerging from the caves and replenishing our hungry bodies, we took a hike up a mountain to overlook the famous emerald pools. Along the way, we were given an opportunity to jump from a 9m bridge into the river. I abstained, but took photos for others. The hike was nice, it was good to get some real excercise. We then had a couple of hours free to swim and play in the pools. Limestone is an amazing thing. In this place, the river splits in half. Half of it chunnels underground for 500m, you can watch it disappear into the earth. Meanwhile, the other half continues above ground and has formed beautiful blue-green natural pools. Some people climbed a tree about 30′ up and jumped into the pools. Not me..
Later, our guide fixed a rope ladder to a rock and we descended (through a waterfall, natch) to see where the bottom half of the river finally exited the dark chasm and rejoined with the rest of itself.

After walking back down, we donned inner tubes and went tubing down the river. I only wish it had been sunny and warmer – we were all a bit cold all day. But I definitely reccommend the trip as a highlight of Guatemala. Here is a blog entry that gives a nice take on the pools, and another with good photos.

WordPress is being dense today with the captions, so I’ll just explain the photos below here:
The first shot is of cacao (that chocolate is made from). I had no idea how large it was. It also doesn’t taste like chocolate.
The next shot is an overview of the pools. The other half of the river is running under all of this.
The third shot is of the river entering the chasm, and the fourth shot is of it exiting. How terrifying would it be to get swept into that. Apparently the Discovery Channel sent cameras down the passage, but gave up after all four of them came out broken.
The fifth shot is of our hot guide.
Finally, the last one is of the rope ladder through the waterfall. We had a similar situation inside the caves, only it was just a rope, no ladder.

Written by in: Guatemala | Tags: , ,
Nov
18
2008
3

Back in the highlands

Just finished my first couple of days of really traveling on my own, and it went well. It was planes, trains, and automobiles, so to speak.
A local bus from Tikal to the nearest town (Santa Elena). Wandered around this crappy industrial town trying to find the bus station. Was given five different directions by five different people. Finally just hopped in a tuk-tuk. Turns out the one bus a day to Cobán was leaving in 15 minutes, but I needed cash. There was an ATM at the station, but it was broken.. because it’s Sunday, or something. No problem, negotiated with another cabbie to run me down to the bank downtown. Got cash, made the bus. I wanted to go to Lanquín, but couldn’t make it in one day. So I made it as far as Cobán, the capital of this region.

The driver and his buddies were doing coke up front, which they didn’t do a very good job of hiding. Lots of locals getting on and off, I was the only gringo. We made the same river crossing as with Alex.
Of course the bus dropped me somewhere out of town, and I was immediately swarmed by touts. Just give me a moment to breathe and get my bearings! I find it difficult to divine between the real information these guys can provide and their own agenda to separate me from my money. Particularly when it’s cold, dark, and raining, as it was on this particular day! Anyway, I got into a wonderfully ancient car (from the 50’s, complete with rusting out floorboards and dozens of wires hanging down from the dash) and had him drop me in the center of town, where gathered myself. Found a cheap local hotel, and all was right with the world.

We´re really up in the cloudforest here. They say it rains 13 months out of the year here. The kids grow up with webbing between their fingers and toes. They call the eternal soft rain “chipi-chipi“.
The architecture in Cobán has hints of Europe, because of the Germans who settled here around the turn of the last century. They owned most of the coffee fincas. Then the U.S. made Guatemala kick them out during WWII, since most of them were Nazi sympathizers. But their legacy lives on.
Although I should be feeling crappy (alone in a foreign industrial small town in the rain), my spirits are high. Perhaps it´s because the weather reminds me of Seattle or London. Maybe it’s the fresh air, or the holiday decorations going up. Perhaps it’s happiness born of pride – i’ve been handling things with the right attitude – no expectations, taking everything in stride, laughing and smiling at the crazy situations. And I’m happy to be on my own.

It’s nice to be back with Mayans. They’re truly beautiful people. I like their clothes, their faces. Although they initially stare, they warm up quickly when you greet them.
I stumbled upon a religious ritual going on outside a church in town, which was neat.
You can smell the cardamom walking down the street. It’s grown mostly for export to the middle east.

After one night in Cobán, I made it to where I really wanted to be, Lanquin. The ride down here was a perfect example of local transportation – at one point, I counted 21 people crammed into this microbus/minivan. 23, if you include the babes on laps.
This area is known for it’s caves and natural river pools, and for the backpacker’s haven of El Retiro, a very chilled out eco-lodge on the river. The cabañas are thatched-roof affairs replete with hammocks. Unfortunately they’re also duplexes with simple bamboo walls between, so I can hear every groan and grunt by my neighbors. I like this place, but it is so stereotypical. Tons of dreadlocks, but not a person of color to be found. Hippy food served at big communal tables. Eco-toilets that don’t use any water – instead, you sprinkle lime ash on your shit. [It actually works!] I’m trying my best to talk to people and not feel old. I think going on some of the tours will help break the ice.

This area has an illustrious past in relation to the 36-year civil war. There were four massacres in 1982 alone in this region. One one occassion, a couple hundred protesters massed in town. The army simply mowed them down with their machine guns. Women, children, innocent farmers. The really appalling thing is that the day before, the army had prepared a mass grave with bulldozers… so it was premeditated genocide. In the past few years, locals have exhumed several of the mass graves that pepper the hillsides and reburied some of the 4,400 victims from the municipality.  It boils the blood to think that most of these perpetrators are living free. Despite 8 years of investigations, only 3 very junior conscripts have been jailed, and the officers who directed the campaign remain free. Not surprisingly, when ex-military dictator Rios Montt attempted to land his helicopter here during the 2003 election campaign, he was forced to retreat back to Guatemala City under a hail of rocks.

Written by in: Guatemala | Tags: , , ,
Nov
18
2008
0

In the jungles of Yaxhá and Tikal

When we last left our intrepid traveler, he was in Belize, mon. Although I could have spent a few more days in that wonderfully relaxed spot hanging with Marisol, I decided to catch a ride back into Guatemala with the couples (Alex & Sarah and James & Jessica). We managed to leave fairly early, got back through the border alright (although on our way we were stopped by another damn roadblock, this time by the military asking if we had any firearms on us. huh??), and made it to Yaxhá just before dark.

Yaxhá is one of the lesser-visited Mayan ruins. [Although not as off-the-beaten path as El Mirador, which requires three days of hard trekking through swampy jungle to reach. Will tried to convince me to do it with him, which I declined.. one intrepid venturer described it as ‘purgatory’.]
It was neat to have the ruins practically to ourselves. We spent the night at the only accomodations for miles around, a rustic jungle lodge. We met a French archeologist who has been living there for 28 years. That sounds like living hell to me. The closest town is 10 miles away, over a very rough dirt track. Electricity is provided by a generator that only runs certain times of the day. There is absolutely nothing to do after you´ve seen the ruins. You can´t even swim in the lake, because of the crocs. A few years back, a tourist lost his foot.
Anyway, she told us about how a few years ago, the TV show ‘Survivor’ was filmed there. We were glad to hear that the contestants really do rough it. No mosquito nets, no help whatsoever from the crew for food, shelter, nada. The crew, on the other hand, lives it up. Those few months were the best thing that happened to the locals in years. The crew spent tons of money on booze, setting up nice trailers, the works.

I´m not usually bothered by mosquitoes, but those little buggers were really bad there. We were eaten alive. And of course i hadn´t planned ahead by taking my anti-malarial meds beginning a week prior like one is supposed to. Nobody else was worried, you only hear about it from the CDC. No one down here talks about it, so I guess it´s not a big problem. All the same, the next day I re-read my medical notes and started getting worried. So I double dosed as instructed, and haven´t experienced any of the dreaded side effects. Turns out my body is pretty strong – I still have yet to have any GI trouble, unlike a lot of other gringos (touch wood).
On the list of other things to worry about, we saw a baby scorpion but were told not to worry, as most are harmless to humans.

The next day, the gang dropped me at the crossroads for Tikal and we said our goodbyes 🙁 They were great to travel with, I´ll miss them. But I´m also looking forward to striking out on my own. It was a lovely spring morning, and I was trying to hitch a ride to Tikal when a tourist bus came ambling by that I flagged down.
Tikal is one of the most popular Mayan ruins. I had been advised to spend the night there, to be able to catch both sunset and sunrise. There are three incredibly overpriced hotels that one has the priviledge of staying in. Still, it was great to witness the sunset over these amazing temples that were built 2,000 years ago. The guards even let me climb much higher than they should have, so I had a fantastic view over the entire jungle canopy. One of them even offered to get me in at night (it was nearly a full moon) but I declined, since I wanted to get up at 5 to catch the dawn chorus.

This included tons of crazy birds and other critters, but it´s the howler monkeys that really take the cake. They look like regular black monkeys, but sound like hell. There was a family of them at Yaxhá going at it to a bunch of spider monkeys – protecting their territory, I suppose. Their sound is unreal – apparently it is the loudest land animal, and their cry can be heard over three miles away. It´s a deep, scary growl that sounds much larger than they look. One of the monkeys was preggo, which was neat.
The oscellated turkeys are cool, too – they look more like peacocks than turkeys. Walking back after dusk, my guide stopped and pointed out a rather large tarantula that I was about to step on! (again, not to worry, as most tarantulas are not poisonous to humans). I briefly saw a toucan, as well. It´s so weird to be in a place where animals that I only know as exotic species kept in a zoo are actually living in their natural habitat.

It’s interesting how long it took these ruins to be (re-)discovered. Mother nature is so crafty in it´s ability to cover up mankind´s creations. Only about half of the ruins have been restored, and looking at the unrestored ones is a lesson in humility. In fact, on our drive we passed a region with very sharp ‘hills’ that are undoubtedly other temples overgrown by trees and shrubs.
It’s powerful to sit where an ancient civilization thrived that we know relatively little about. Tikal peaked in importance around the time Jesus was doing his thing; it was a fairly large city-state, with about 100,000 inhabitants – which made it the largest city in the Americas until the whities came.
A couple of other neat factoids: Due to the clever architecture, the voice of a person at the top of one pyramid speaking at a normal volume can be heard by another person standing at the top of another pyramid an astonishing distance away.
Tikal had no water other than what was collected from rainwater and stored in underground storage facilities. The absence of springs, rivers, and lakes in the immediate vicinity highlights a prodigious feat: building a major city with only supplies of stored seasonal rainfall. It’s theorized that this also led to it’s downfall.. a great drought is one theory put forth to explain the decline of the Mayan empire.

These temples you see in the photos are astonishingly tall (some over 200 feet high, which makes them the tallest structures in North America until the construction of skyscrapers) and much steeper than one realizes. It´s pretty thrilling to climb one of these things. And precious, because surely every tourist’s footstep is wearing them away at an ever-alarming rate. It’s hard to imagine how they built all of this having never invented the wheel.
As you look at the photos, imagine what the structures would have looked like in their heyday – plastered smooth, and painted in bright colors – red, pink, gold, green. Lots of hieroglyphs and writing. All of the trees in between the structures were cleared. Instead, there were huge plazas, pathways, and open areas. A real city, in other words.

I still can’t figure out how to make a slideshow, so for now you just have to click on each photo for the full picture. The first 7 photos are from Yaxhá, and the rest are from Tikal.

Sound clip of a howler monkey

Written by in: Guatemala | Tags: , , ,

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