Tikal At Long Last!

The Great Plaza at Tikal

Ever since I started reading about and visiting the Maya back in 1975, I had wanted to go to Tikal. There was a slight problem: Guatemala was in the middle of a Civil War between the Maya and the military that was to last until 1996. During that time, Guatemala was red-flagged by the U.S. Department of State as being dangerous for Americans to visit.

Finally, in January of this year, I spent two days visiting the ruins at Tikal. After all this time, I expected that the Petén region was a tropical hellhole and that I would be assailed by mosquitoes, high humidity, and torrid temperatures—none of which I actually had to face. The rainy season had ended in December, and my visit coincided with below-average temperatures and humidity. In fact, Tikal was downright pleasant.

Temple II at Tikal

When I was visiting Mexico in the 1970s and 1980s, I had climbed all the major pyramids at Uxmal, Chichen Itza, El Tajin near Papantla, and Teotihuacan. In fact, I had lost my fear of heights by climbing pyramids. There was something about the structures at Tikal that was particularly forbidding: They rose quickly to precipitous heights. After losing a few tourists who pitched headfirst down the steep pyramid stairs, however, Guatemala and Mexico decided to close a number of the structures to climbing. The temple above can be climbed using a steel staircase with guard rails at the back. Compare that with Temple I, just a few hundred feet away.

Temple I: Closed to Climbers

Because Tikal was at the tail end of a particularly exhausting vacation, I did not climb any of the pyramids. My feet were aching, so I contented myself with taking pictures from the ground level.

 

Tianguis

The Labyrinthine Markets of Mexico and Central America

There is nothing quite like visiting the weekly markets of Mexico and Central America. Although supermarkets and department stores do exist, the average indigenous Mexican or Guatemalan would prefer dealing with vendors at a market. The experience, for one thing, is personal. One can bargain and—if one does not have the wherewithal—get something that’s not quite so good, but will do in a pinch.

The above photo was taken at the market by the second class bus station of Antigua. Below is a scene from the Thursday market at Chichicastenango, where the women shown prepared a great breakfast of beans, eggs, fried plantains, and atole (a hot corn beverage) for just a few quetzales.

These Women Prepared a Great Breakfast for Me in Chichicastenango

Many of these markets are great places to have a meal. I remember having venado (venison) with rice and fresh corn tortillas at the main market in Mérida, Yucatán years ago. The food is usually good and inexpensive, probably your best best for cheap food anywhere in Latin America. Of course, not all markets are good; but I have fond memories of many simple, tasty meals. There is never any pretense: It is quite simply the food of he people.

At Chichicastenango, I also bought a beautiful straw hat for the latter part of my trip in the jungle. I expected heat and sun, but I found that I had created something of a bugbear about visiting the jungle. Although I didn’t need the hat, it sits right next to my computer as I write this. I always admire the multicolor woven hatband that came with it.

 

Speed Bumps

A Poor Man’s Speed Bump: Just Stretch a Thick Rope Across the Road

It’s not unusual to find speed bumps or humps on suburban residential streets in the U.S., but Mexico and other Latin American countries put their speed bumps on major roads that cut through populated areas. In Mexico they were called topes; in, Guatemala, tumulos. It was in Honduras that I first encountered speed bumps that were thick ropes stretched across the highway. In the above photo, the rope is on the main street through Rio Dulce (a.k.a. Fronteras).

On the route I took from Copán, Honduras, to Rio Dulce, it seems that we went over a hundred or more speed bumps. Every community seemed to have them on the main highway from Zacapa to Puerto Barrios and the Petén.

 

 

Jungle Bus

Bathroom Break at Poptún

There I was in Rio Dulce. I spent one day on a boat ride to and from Livingston, and another day trying to get information on how to get to Flores in the Petén. One of my guidebooks named two travel agencies that were on a street just north of Bruno’s, where I was staying. I spent hours going up and down streets and not finding anything that looked like a travel agency, let alone a shuttle bus service. Besides, I had the feeling that the type of people who hung out in Rio Dulce weren’t all that interested in visiting Tikal.

Finally, I decided to take a public bus to Flores. Litegua didn’t go there. I saw no office for Dorado. Fortunately, the Fuente del Norte (FDN) office was very helpful. There was a 9:30 AM bus for Flores for only 65 quetzales ($8.30 in dollars). The bus started in Guatemala City around midnight and wound up, some fifteen hours later in Flores. Technically, it was a first class bus; but I had been warned that Fuente del Norte was less than cream of the crop.

The next morning, I showed up at the FDN office just as it was opening around 9 AM. I sat down in the waiting room. Fortunately, the bus arrived just after 9:30. Being a de paso bus (i.e., filled with passengers from earlier points on the route). Sometimes, a de paso bus arrives filled to capacity with passengers; this one had space for all the passengers who were waiting at the Rio Dulce office. Among the passengers who a British and a German couple. Other than myself, the rest of the passengers were Maya.

I had been prepared for a grueling ride, and it was that. I was wearing an adult diaper in case the ride lasted long without any restroom breaks. (Fortunately, there was a bathroom break in Poptún, midway along the route.) The ride was fiercely uncomfortable because all the bus seats appeared to be broken in different ways. And, as the bus barreled down the highway at high speed, I felt I was being shaken, not stirred.

At least the bus got me there in one piece.

 

 

The Flip Side

Lago de Atitlán at Night

My type of vacation is not all beer and skittles. Sometimes it’s downright anxiety provoking, especially when it comes to transportation issues. I wanted very much to see the market at Chichicastenango, but the ATITrans shuttle from Panajachel left only at 8:00 AM on Thursdays and Sundays. But I was staying at Santiago Atitlán, which is connected to Pana pretty much only via boat. (There is a road, but it is susceptible to hijacking.) I got sweats in the middle of the night worrying about whether I could make the connection.

So I arranged at the Posada de Santiago for a launch to pick me up at the hotel’s private dock at 6:00 AM, which gave me two hours to get to the ATITrans office via fast launch and tuk-tuk. The hotel assured me that the deal was done, for a mere 250 quetzales (roughly $32.00). At 5:15 AM, without my breakfast (the restaurant opened at 7:00 AM), I wended my way in the dark down the trail to the dock, which was fortunately well lit. At six sharp, I heard the launch and saw the headlights growing larger.

The ATITrans Office in Panajachel with List of Shuttle Destinations

They were right on time. We headed out before sunrise at high speed. It seemed we spent as much time in the air as on the surface of the lake. It was my bad luck that all four launch rides on the lake were on windy days with many whitecaps in evidence. But we made it to the public dock in Pana in three quarters of an hour. Fortunately, the tuk-tuks were already up and about, so I got to ATITrans with an hour to spare.

Fortunately, there was a fresh orange juice vendor setting up right across Calle Santander from me, so I had something of a breakfast after all. And in the end, I got to Chichicastenango in good time.

 

Garifuna Guatemala

Wait a Minute. Are We in Jamaica?

There are odd little corners of Guatemala where the normal culture does not prevail. I am thinking specifically of Livingston, Guatemala, where the majority population is still Maya, but where there is a significant black population.

After the British won the Seven Years’ War and took control of the Lesser Antilles. They sorted through the population of the island of St .Vincent: The inhabitants who were darker were banished by the victors to Roatán off the coast of Honduras. The inhabitants who were more Indian or Carib in appearance were allowed to stay. Over time, the banished blacks spread throughout the Caribbean coasts of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Currently, no roads lead to Livingston: Access is only by boat or shank’s mare.

The so-called Garifuna spoke an Arawakan language with elements of French, English, and Spanish.

Philip Flores, a Local Garifuna Guide

From Rio Dulce, I took an ASOCOLMORAN launch toward the river mouth and through the area known as El Golfete to the Caribbean port of Livingston. There I met with Philip Flores, a guide and local leader of the Garifuna population, and had an interesting conversation with him—in English. Philip had been to the U.S. and Europe and was well-versed not only in the ways of his community, but of the world at large.

We started out by sparring over how much each of us knew. Most tourists don’t know much about the places they visit. On the other hand, I usually read a pile of books about my chosen destinations, so I am not the usual tabula rasa. In the end, I found that much of what he had to say was interesting, so I had no problem in just listening. In the end, I gave him some money to be used for his work with local children.

If you should find yourself in Livingston, I suspect that Philip will be there to meet your boat.

 

 

Visiting the Maya Gods

Maximón Flanked by Members of His Cofradía in Santiago Atitlán

I have some heterodox beliefs regarding God and the gods. I believe that God exists but wears many masks, appearing as Jesus, Allah, the gods of the Hindu pantheon, depending on the different types peoples around the Earth. I visited two Maya idols during my trip: Maximón in Santiago Atitlan and Pascual Abaj in Chichicastenango. I have written earlier about my intent to visit Maximón, in whose person are incorporated such figures as Judas Iscariot and the evil conquistador Pedro de Alvarado.

He is a Tzu’utujil Maya god of good and evil. During the day, a cigarette or cigar is kept burning between the idol’s lips, and he frequently imbibes rum or aguardiente (very high octane firewater). There is a brotherhood (cofradía) dedicated to taking care of the image of Maximón. Each year he occupies a different house belonging to one of the brotherhood.

I made an offering to the god, which was accepted by the cofradía and attached under the knot of his necktie as shown in the above picture. I asked him to aid me in the remainder of my trip to Guatemala and Honduras.

The Glass Coffin of Santa Cruz

Next to Maximón was a glass coffin containing an idol to Santa Cruz, who is in some unspecified way associated with Maximón.

From Santiago Atitlán, I traveled to Chichicastenango in the mountains. There, with he help of a guide, I climbed a hill to the shrine of Pascual Ab’aj. What remains after members of Catholic Action damaged the idol in the 1950s is a dark featureless rock, probably of volcanic origin. I had a difficult time climbing the trail, which contains over twenty switchbacks. Fortunately, my Quiché Maya guide Juan took a knife and made a staff for me.

What Remains of the Idol of Pascual Ab’aj with Offerings

There were numerous cement bases where copal incense had been burned. At the time Juan and I visited the shrine, there were no celebrants or members of the cofradía in evidence.