I Am Looking Forward to My Next Trip to Latin America
It has been not five months since my return from Guatemala, and already I am looking forward to Yucatán and Belize—which is still more than six months in the future.
(Incidentally, I would never refer to it as “the” Yucatán unless I were wearing a pith helmet and those stupid zip-off pants/shorts worn by travelers who fear to venture more than twenty yards from their hotel room without an escort.)
I have been to Yucatán four times in all, the last time with Martine in November 1992. During my visits between 1975 and 1992, I have visited about a dozen Maya archeological sights. Since then, scores more have been developed, including one of the largest at Calakmul in the State of Campeche. In addition, I hope to visit Cobá in Quintana Roo, Ek Balam and Kinich Kakmó in Yucatán, Edzna and several Rio Bec sites to be decided later in Campeche, and Yaxchilan and Bonampak in Chiapas. In addition, I plan to revisit some of the sites I have already seen such as Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and Palenque.
There is something calming about seeing what remains of an ancient civilization—one that had the ability to adapt itself to changing circumstances and survive in the 21st Century.
Yucatec Maya Girls Today
The Maya population is scattered across five Latin American countries: Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. A large number of Maya have found their way to the United States from Guatemala and Honduras, because of dire conditions in their countries of origin, though Maya from Mexico tend not to migrate to the United States. That is despite the long Caste War against the Ladino (Spanish speaking) population that ended only in the early 1900s and the Zapatista Revolt in Chiapas during the 1990s.
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.
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.
A Protest Around La Unión Hold Up My Trip
As I have written before, the biggest transportation problem on my trip was getting from Copán, Honduras to Rio Dulce, Guatemala. In the end, I was right. There had at one time been shuttle buses that made the trip, but either they had been canceled or occurred only during certain times. In the end, I cut a deal with a Honduran travel agency called Baseline Tours out of the Café ViaVia to hire a car and driver to:
- Drive me to Rio Dulce
- Allow for a one- or two-hour stopover at the Maya ruins of Quiriguá on the way
I wound up paying 1,700 Guatemalan quetzales (about $217) for a car and driver to take me there. I could have taken public transportation for much cheaper, but it would have thrown a monkey wrench into my schedule. I would have had to take a collectívo to the Guatemalan border at El Florido, a Litegua bus to Chiquimula, and an (unspecified) second class bus to Quirigua, where I would have had to spend the night. And then, I would have had to face the chore of a bus from Quiriguá to Morales, and from Morales to Rio Dulce. So I spent the money and adhered to my schedule.
Except there was one little unforeseen difficulty. Midway between El Florido and Chiquimula, the highway was closed in both directions because the residents of La Unión were protesting en masse some government dictate or malfeasance. For an hour and a half, I sat in the car reading my Kindle when—quite suddenly—the local police (shown above) started letting traffic through.
It is not unusual to find whole towns in Latin America shutting down access to and from their towns while they make their point to the government. Bolivia is particularly notorious for this type of action.
In the end, I got to Quiriguá and Rio Dulce with time to spare. It was not an accident that I left early, around 8 AM, to allow for this sort of hindrance.
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.
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.
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.