Guatemala: Antigua and the Mayan ruins

Published: October 4th 2015
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Greg and Bill with a Blue MacawGreg and Bill with a Blue MacawGreg and Bill with a Blue Macaw

Copan Ruines, Honduras
The thirteenth of August was a relaxed day in Antigua. We had a marvelous condo to use, and were able to catch up on writing and planning. We visited the Museum of Santa Domingo which is an effective public-private partnership of a significant ruin and modern boutique hotel. The Capuchinos is an old partially reconstructed convent with quaint little retreat rooms radiating out from a central courtyard. The main cathedral of Antigua, La Merced, was a spectacular example of Central American baroque in yellow and white. We headed out to the Casa de Ron for drinks and a light meal. Enjoyed gain the wonders of Zacapa: the local rum. Slow walking around town. Quite cold with persistent drizzle.

Left Antigua the next day at about 0800. Went to the Mayan Music Museum and the Coffee Museum on the way out of town. New appreciation for marimba as an instrument because it was developed by the Mayans. Also showed movies of various fiestas across Guatemala. Each one with a different theme, colour and dances. Our next trip needs to consider fiesta time. A pretty long road trip across to the eastern border and into Honduras. Slow traffic across Guatemala City. Better
Chicken bus toutChicken bus toutChicken bus tout

Outskirts of Guatemala City
than many trips we understand. Traveled a long way down into the valley - you forget how high GC is. Lunch at or near Zacapa. Lots of water-efficient horticulture in the valley. Melons and stone fruit. Crossing the border into Honduras was straight forward. Initial impressions were poorer than Guatemala and slower. Tourism obviously key. Didn't spend too much time reading the warnings about travel to the capital city, Tegucigalpa. Some things are best ignored we find. Nice hotel with a pool in Copan Ruines and we took advantage of it.

Copan Ruines: Met with Eduardo over breakfast. Resort-style omelette chef in attendance. We really do like this shoestring level of travel! Drove the two km to the Copan site. Eduardo could not guide here due to demarcation issues. Arrived just after 0800. To the right after the entrance and the flock of tame macaws. Into the Acroplois area. No people. Impressive amphitheater. Heavily degraded carving but still evocative of a great civilisation. Apparently had been flooded on occasion for effect. Then to Patio de Los Jaguares which had been extensively excavated by archeologists. Up to the top of the Temple of the Inscriptions. Then down into the Great Plaza. Stelae and carved altars. Loved the guidebook's contraction of the kings name to 18 Rabbit, apparently reflecting his role as the 13th ruler in the dynasty and his name of waxaklajuun Ub'aah K'awiil, who began his reign in 695AD. Sometimes hard to distinguish figures or natural organisms in the carvings but some more than others. Guides have great imaginations but better with than without. Some reminded me of cubist art or the bulbous fonts of the western graffiti artists. Gradually more tourists arrived but the area was so big that this was no problem. Some stelae had cleared areas around and under them for offerings and sacrifices. We also saw the steam room areas or temazcal. Central Amercans have loved their saunas for hundreds of years.

After the grounds we visited the on-site museum which was outstanding. The temple that had been discovered under the hieroglyph steps, and left there, was completely reproduced in the open air museum. All the colours had been rendered to effect. We learnt that many of the artefacts out in the field were actually replicas and the originals were either in this museum or in a similar one in town. Other things we
Illuminated city hallIlluminated city hallIlluminated city hall

Antigua, Guatemala
learnt: images for Venus and the moon; the Paco Rabanne logo is here and called a proboscis; the Mayans had a sophisticated, reticulated water supply which was appropriately decorated; symbolism of the inter-twining of umbilical cords, serpents, and twisted reeds; lots of ropes linked with power and military conquest; things inside jaguar heads; demons from the underworld; demons coming out of people's stomachs. The museum was more about sculpture than carving. Three dimensionality. The Guatemalan Ron (rum) was doing its thing.

We walked from the ruins, regretting we did not visit the Sepulturas which was more about the everyday lives of the Mayans. Walk back to town was maybe 1 km and very straight forward. Snack of tortillas at the ruins centre. In the early evening we made our way a few km out to the Macaw Mountain. Lots of birds in rehabilitation after car accidents and jungle clearing, as well as free flight cages. While this was initially touristy, we appreciated the opportunity to get close to toucans, macaws and red and gold macaws in particular. Lots of Honduran students in noisy groups following us. The growing and impatient younger generation.

Back in Copan Ruines we enjoyed
Relaxing in the foyerRelaxing in the foyerRelaxing in the foyer

Museum Santa Domingo, Antigua, Guatemala
a few beers at a bar called Twisted which looked over the town square. We floated down and enjoyed the atmosphere of an Hispanic town square on a Friday evening. We ate street food at little stalls just off the square. Barbecued chicken and beef, corn tortillas, bean paste, salsa and picante sauce. A farmer sat with us and explained how it had not rained since June. Cath and Wendell bargained and secured some jade ear-rings. It rained heavily during the night: puddles around the corridors.

Breakfast was diverse and great. Plantain and local chocolate. We headed out of Honduras on Assumption Day (August 15) so there wasn't much going on. Even though the trucks were lined up for a kilometre at the border, we were able to cross with little if any delay. Straight back into Guatemala and the endless political bunting. We had to cross one mountain range and then followed the next most northern one to the coast. The highway was chocked with trucks coming west from one of only two international ports: Puerto Barrios. Beautiful pasture land. Stopped for the sweetest pineapple at a roadside stall.

One of the great privileges of travelling with

Museum Santa Domingo, Antigua, Guatemala
Eduardo as a guide, was that he had worked as an archeologist and anthropologist on a number of digs in Guatemala in the 70s and 80S. As a result he had unique knowledge for the back-story to the discovery and growing understanding of the Mayan peoples. This really came to the fore in Quirigua which is a site in eastern Guatemala which is nestled in remnant rainforest, but surrounded by mega-hectares of commercial horticulture owned by American companies like Dole, Chiquita and other multi-nationals. The site itself was compact but deserted and littered with wonderful stellae and temples. As we headed east and dropped lower, the temperature and humidity soared.

Got to the town of Rio Dulce and boarded a long boat with multiple bench seats - open with a canopy. Nice seabreeze blowing. A few bumps as we crossed the large fresh water lake of El Golfete. Lots of large cruising boats secreted away in forested moorings. Like Chesapeake Bay in that there is less than one foot of tidal variation. Big power boats as well. Presumably moored for their wealthy American owners to arrive. Followed the Rio Dulce out to the Caribbean Sea at Livingstone.

Piratical detailsPiratical detailsPiratical details

Church and Convent of the Capuchins, Antigua, Guatemala
at Agua Caliente which is a hot spring near Las Vinas. Big lunch of tapado a Caribbean dish with fish, lobster and crab in a coconut and coriander soup. Majorro fish on the side. We swam off the boat further down river after confirming there were no bull sharks or crocodiles. Verdant growth along the river. Local dark-skinned people paddled low free-board pirogues. Opened out into a river mouth. No bar. Livingston a quaint little village with a feeling of decline. Derelict boats along the shore. We walked in the humid evening.

We rose early for a village walk. Roosters crowing. It was a Sunday so the pace was slow. Quiet streets with friendly people. At the wharf a couple of big boats were loaded up with passengers as part of the electioneering.

The boat driver met us at 0800 and we retraced our path across flat water and with a little drizzle, back along the stream to meet Eduardo and the long drive to Tikal. Political crowds came by ferry, barge, bus and truck. Looked like a huge crowd gathering. It was likely to be a huge day for these people as the three major parties (red
Crest detailCrest detailCrest detail

Church and Convent of the Capuchins, Antigua, Guatemala
; yellow; and green) were each offering a meal as part of their campaign for the September elections - one for breakfast, one for lunch and the third for dinner. This is likely to be the best nutrition these folks have had for a while. Rio Dulce had also been the site of recent flooding and the parties wanted to be seen to do something. (Update post the trip - Since no presidential candidate received more than 50%!o(MISSING)f the vote, a run-off will happen on 25 October). Those poor people: more electioneering. We drove out of the forested areas and into low rolling hills. Lots of the original forest had obviously been cleared. Total travel today in the order of 250 kms, but still it took many hours. Political rallying was much less obvious further north in the country.

We got to Tikal about 1330 and arrived at the Jungle Lodge in light drizzle. Check in had some complexity but this was sorted over 30 mins. Farewells to Eduardo who would drive back to Rio Dulce, then Guatemala City, drop off the car, and then take a local bus back to San Juan La Laguna. We settled into

Church and Convent of the Capunchins, Antigua, Guatemala
our simple but comfortable room. The power was cutting in and out so the fan was more often off than on. By this time it was after 1400 so we enjoyed a simple lunch of soups and salads. A bit of a rest while catching up on our reading around this magic place, before heading into the Tikal archeological area. We found the maps quite hard to interpret but managed to find our way to Temple IV for the obligatory sunset watch. This was magnificent as you could see two other escalated temples and the mound that covered another temple from the top of Temple IV. The viewing platform itself was about 70 m up by rickety stairs.

After winding our way past the Great Plaza and other temples, we were keen to get out of the darkening park. A confusing maze of roads and paths, and the ever-present threat of 'fer de lance' snakes kept us moving. Ultimately back by 1830 and enjoyed a swim, then a simple meal including a nice glass of Chilean cab sauv. We met with the hotel owner Carlito, over dinner and he offered a dawn walk and viewing that we took up.
Poinciana dominated city squarePoinciana dominated city squarePoinciana dominated city square

Copan Ruines, Honduras
0400 would be the time for the knock.

Tikal. As I am writing this the howler monkeys are making an astounding racket in the trees around the Jungle lodge at Tikal. Wendell got some key photos.

We were woken as planned and gathered our gear by torch light. The power is turned off between 0200 and dawn, "to protect the jungle". We all (about 12) gathered in the dining room and enjoyed a hurried coffee. Collected more water and left the hotel in single, head-torch lit, file. We were following the short cut Carlito had told us about, and we were soon passing through close jungle. Carlito gave really good impressions of howler monkeys by sucking in through his open mouth. The howlers responded accordingly. It was clear our group was just one of many making their way to the dawn viewing. In the bright head lamp light we saw grey foxes playing on the steps in the Great Plaza.

Dawn was a fizzer from a visual sense, but was an auditory treat with howler monkeys, and many birds, including toucans announcing the dawn, and re confirming their territories. Carlito gave long and very-detailed presentation in the
Street food stallsStreet food stallsStreet food stalls

Copan Ruines, Honduras
breaks between site visits. Several lectures about the role of salt in determining the location of Tikal, and the role of women in the Mayan community.

Spoke about the origins of the name Maya. Saw curosaws in the trees. Saw the storage caves for salt, beans and other commodities. Amazingly the visible temples are over-builds of earlier temples. Rain God images under other layers of rock. Carlito discussed the Mayan calendar with cycles of 13, 20, 260, and dating back to one of the appearances of Haley's comet in about 3000BC. Told a story of collapse based on resource depletion and over-population. Saw agoutis and toucancillas. Leaf cutter ants collecting fungus for their nests. Commentary on the ball game of the era that was not based on a rubber ball but one made of wood. No comments about human sacrifices. Smelt the leaves of an Allspice tree. Suggested that stelae were about dates and key events; altars were more about conquests and war-like achievements. One of the temples, which are mighty steep, left half excavated for contrast and clarity. Many more still left intact.

Lazed around the Jungle Lodge during the day because the fans continued to run
Mayan ruinsMayan ruinsMayan ruins

Copan, Honduras
there. We headed out again at about 1600 and headed back towards the Gran Plaza alone, but using the short cuts we had learnt that morning with Carlos. The jungle was cool and tranquil. Once you know the lay-out it all seems so much easier. We got to the Gran Plaza and Bill and Wendell were sitting high up on the North Acropolis. We joined them there and admired the filtered sunlight on the stairs of Temple 1. We watched monkeys flinging themselves from tree to tree and blackbirds competing over high tree space. Soon the gang wanted to find other spaces so they decided to go see Temple 5. This was an excellent suggestion as this particulate temple was steep and remote and very exotic. We noted the rounded and curved edges to each level compared to the squared off edges of other temples. We had the luxury of this place to ourselves as it was 1730. The filtered evening light was magical. We walked around the base trying to find a climbing gantry that Lonely Planet mentioned. Obviously gone though all of the infrastructure and tools for the renovation team were present. After a discussion around interpretation of
The Old Man of CopanThe Old Man of CopanThe Old Man of Copan

Copan, Honduras
the map, we headed down towards Group G'' which was something like an accommodation block. Long corridor of smal rooms and an extensive courtyard. The surrounding spaces gave hints of unexplored territory with closed-off passageways and blind tunnels. Obviously complete excavation and elucidation will take decades more. There was also the first evidence for me at least of human sacrifice, with an early graffiti of a man tied over an altar with a large gash in his chest. Added to the sense that these rooms were used by people of position rather than commoners

We followed the road out of the park hearing the wonderful call of the Auro Pendula, and seeing currasaws as a flock.

Short cuts back into the Jungle Lodge compound. Later that evening there was a Scorpion in B&W's room. Bill was able to disable it with insect repellant, and then secure it inside an upturned glass. Fearsome looking creature, and we were all freaked out that it was scurrying around the floors of our hotel room, unmolested. The Howler monkeys made a raucous chorus during the night.

Additional photos below
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Carving detail

Copan, Honduras

Copan, Honduras

Copan, Honduras
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Step pyramid

Copan, Honduras
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Mayan carving detail

Copan, Honduras
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Mayan symbol for venus

Copan, Honduras

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