Preparing for the second leg of our adventure, we went to Guatemala City to catch an early flight. Ruth was interested in exploring the capital, which Lonely Planet describes as “dirty, dangerous, and fascinating.” True on all counts.
We’re staying in Marianna’s Petit Hotel, which is in a guarded compound near the airport. Inside, it is decked out in Christmas gear, including a trainset and funicular.
Out in the city, we did a walking tour of the historic center. Found cheap souvenirs on the crowded Calle Real, including a 999999-in-1 FunStation Game, which must be the result of integer overflow. The central park was filled with families enjoying the sunshine, and two clowns who were apparently very entertaining. Right off the park, the beautiful National Cathedral is fronted by 12 columns documenting the names of the disappeared. Impressive to see that recognition out in the open, even if it is years too late. Stopped in a bar that was apparently a favorite of Che’s. It serves beer by the goblet, which is a good start. More on him later, as our adventure continues…
In my quest to acquire still more bad-ass but useless skills, I took a course in high altitude diving. Lake Atitlan sits at 5000 feet, which means the air pressure at the surface is 15% lower than sea level. Because dive tables and depth gauges are all calibrated to one atmosphere, this necessitates slightly different protocols. Nothing too fancy, but I got to dust off some of my rusty knowledge of partial pressures and Boyle’s law.
Because the boat we dove off was quite small, we suited up on shore. Nothing felt quite so silly as walking past women in traje while wearing a wetsuit and carrying a tank of air.
There’s actually very little to see in the lake, so the altitude is the interesting part. We saw a drowned but standing tree, some volcanic formations, some warm mud due to underlying activity, and several tire-fish and cans of Gallo. More exciting than my training dives in Lake Mascoma, but only by a little. But now I have an extra PADI certification, and another useless skill under my belt.
We left Antigua early on Saturday and drove along the Pan-American highway north to the lake. It’s a curvy road, but apparently much better than it used to be. Children stand along the edges waving to the turisticos, hoping to be thrown candy.
Ruth’s beaded brachylophosaurus
We had lunch and did more shopping in Panajachel, and Ruth found a beaded dinosaur that I thought was an igaunadon, but she declared definitively was a brachylophosaurus. I trust the amateur paleontologist on this one. All the kids knew was that it cost 175 quetzales.
We left Armando and took a small boat from Pana to Santa Cruz, where we are staying for the weekend. There is a ridiculous view out our bungalow window of one of the volcanoes that ring the lake. Had a lively diner discussion with some of the other people staying at the hotel, and retired early to a game of Hannah Montana Uno.
After a day resting back in Boston, I’m off on another trip, this time for pleasure, not business. Mom and Hannah came down on Wednesday, and we set off for the airport early Thursday morning. We met Ruth in the George Bush Intercontinental Airport, and then flew off to Guatemala.
Landing in the city, we were surprised by the size and efficiency of the new airport. The traffic in the city, not so much. Got a ride to Antigua, where we had an excellent dinner at Hannah’s favorite restaurant, and then slept soundly in Mom’s rented apartment. Walked around the city on Friday, sampling the fresh strong coffee, buying crafty things, and generally relaxing. We met Armando and Theresa for lunch in a garden restaurant, and saw Fernando for dinner. After hearing so many stories about this place, I’m happy to finally see it for myself.
Iglesia San Francisco
Mom with her book
After saying goodbye to Lou, we drove south back to the coast, in a rented Suzuki Sidekick that seemed about to fall to pieces. There was a crack in the windshield that started at two inches long, that spanned the car by the time we were done. I thought I would die at any moment in a hail of glass. Stopped in Dangriga, and had an excellent meal at King Burger. Tried to see the Garifuna museum, to learn more about the unique freed slave culture, but it was closed. Hours here are seemingly at the whim of the proprietor. Spent the night in Hopkins at a place on the beach, and tried to hear local drumming, but it was preempted by a speech by Bush. Everyone at the local bar enjoyed jeering our President, and we surprised them by being reasonable Americans.
Left Hopkins and drove to Placencia on 30 miles of unpaved mud, ruts and potholes. Still, that doesn’t stop the developers from building monstrosities for rich Americans. The town itself is smaller than Caye Caulker, but has a similar feel. Spent three days lounging in our hammocks at Saks Beach House, churning through book after book. Went to the Purple Space Monkey (silly name, decent food) to trade in my trashy scifi for John Le Carré spy novels. Nothing like reading about the Cold War on the beach, sipping Belikin beer.
After Placencia, drove inland again to Jaguar Paw, for one last dose of jungle. Did a cave tubing trip, which was less adventurous than ATM, but still lots of fun. Got to see a wonderful butterfly farm, and learned more about lepidopteran breeding than I ever needed to. Also took a zipline in the canopy, which seemed sort of hokey, but was actually a blast. Not an educational experience persay, but lots of fun to fly through the trees.
After seeing ruins at Caracol and Xunantunich, I thought I was ruined out. How wrong I was… Tikal surpasses both for sheer scale, and the sense of an ancient city lost in the jungle. The site was used as a standin for Yavin 4 in Star Wars: A New Hope. Looking off the top of one temple, you could just imagine spacecraft landing for a rebel award ceremony. Saw Howler and Spider monkeys playing in the trees, and nearly tame coatimundis.
After lunch, bought a hammock. It will be perfect for lounging around in my future Cambridge digs. Got to Flores in the afternoon, and settled into a whole new rythym. Guatemala is much more Central American, not just because of the Spanish, but more hectic, less efficient, and clearly poorer. Catholicism and Spanish colonialism can do that to a country. Despite men with guns on seemingly every street corner, the people are very lively. Saw parades and vibraphone practices, with firecrackers bursting late into the night, with no discernable reason why. Surely it was some Saint’s Day.
At sunset, watched a community basketball game. For small men, they were impressive players, and certainly quick enough to make it a fun game. Had dinner at La Luna, apparently an expat hangout, with a classy bar scene.
Today we explored Actun Tunichil Muknal, the Cave of the Stone Sepulcher, a slightly more adventurous cave than Che Chem Ha.
Actun Tunichil Muknal Entrance
An easy hike in, with several mellow stream crossings. The initial swim was easy, but it was over a mile in to the remains. Swimming and walking through chest deep pools of cool water, it was easy to imagine Maya priests carrying flickering torches, high on hallucinogens, going to meet the gods. Hard enough to get there with a headlamp, helmet and sneakers, let alone 1500 years ago. Saw huge limestone caverns, pottery shards, and the remains of human sacrifice. I was humming the Indiana Jones theme all day. The actual spelunking was not easy, we were wet all day, and often clinging to the side of the river. It might have been easier to just swim, until I hit my leg on a submerged rock, and resolved to be more careful. In one particularly tight spot, Janet tried to stand a little too early, and hit her head on the ceiling hard enough to crack the helmet. Better the plastic than her skull.
Janet in ATM
Returned to the lodge as tired as I’ve ever been, set to wake up at 5 for Tikal. I love vacation.
Our guide, Luis Godoy, is the best I’ve ever seen. With no formal education, but a life spent on archaeological digs, he is a wealth of information and stories, and is able to spin a yarn to make the ancient sites come alive.
William at Cave Entrance
Che Chem Ha is the greatest collection of original Maya pottery in the world, and we toured it with the discoverer, William Pleytez Morales. Actually, his dog should recieve some credit; he found it by chasing a rodent into what appeared to be a solid rock wall. Uncovering the mouth of the cave, he explored it on his own, to the disapproval of his father. However, he did not disturb the offerings of his ancestors, and today pays them tribute by spreading the knowledge of their achievements.
We had an exceptional lunch at the Morales farm, the traditional rice, beans and the tenderest stewed chicken of the trip. Their house overlooks a tall waterfall, towering several hundred feet over the jungle floor. Because their land abuts a nature preserve, there have been jaguar sightings in the area. We asked Luis what would happen if we saw this majestic cat on the trail, and he told us we would “die with honor.”
Later, stopped at Xunantunich for more ruins. Amazing what these people were creating out of stone when Europeans were living in sod huts. Their temples survived the ravages of two millenia, and stand today submerged in the jungle. It’s like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World, only without the dinosaurs.
Edit July 20, 2009:
An article in the New York Times travel section covered the caves of Belize, saying that “Unless you’re an archaeologist, you’re never going to see sites like this.” Glad I saw it before it hit the big time.