A Travellerspoint blog

September 2009

On the Road to Copan and Honduras

Our month of studying was fast coming to an end. Practicabamos y hablabamos mucho en Espanol. We crammed in a lot of Spanish in a very intense way, but now it was time to plan where to go next. On another tip from our daughter, we set off for the barrier island of Utilla, in Honduras, supposedly one of the cheapest and best placing to take a diving course. On the way we planned to stop in Copan. Less visited and spectacular than Tikal, the quality of the stone carvings is unique.


Located just over the border in Honduras, it took about six hours by minibus. We arrived in early afternoon and checked into our hotel, Calle Real, three blocks uphill from the center of town. An okay, if somewhat damp room, quiet and cheap. We rested for a while on one of the rooftop hammocks, and on the way down, ran into Mariann, an American woman of a certain age, who was staying in a room adjoining ours. We got into a somewhat lengthy conversation with her which we continued over lunch. It seems she had been living in Guatemala for a number of years, alone, and for the last five had been trying to create a sustainable agriculture project in a small indigenous village outside of Panajachel. The story she told was involved. and somewhat incredible. She lived with the natives, got them to trust her, and began showing them how to grow organic crops. After years of trying to get her project funded, it seems that some high level government officials offered financial assistance, but that she came to understand that the whole thing was a scam, and their intent was to develop the area for upscale tourism. This would uproot and disenfranchise the very people she was trying to help. She refused the money, and said she was threatened with death several times, if she didn't back off and stop what she was doing. Apparently a lot of big money Europeans were moving into the area, and the government saw this as an opportunity. Complete with peasant skirt and undyed, long gray hair, along with some mysterious auto-immune disease, she was a woman on a mission. Nevertheless, I found myself wondering then and now, how much of her story was exaggerated, and questioned the extent to which she had "gone native," or just gone round the bend.

Later, on our own, we wandered around town, which was quite charming, and went to dinner that night with a different group of people, a young British couple we had met in Antigua, and another couple, in their late 50's, from Australia. It was nice to see other people our age, traveling in a similar style, only they seemed to have obtained bargains that we couldn't come close to matching. For example seeing the Galapagos for under a $1000 US, for both of them. We spent more than twice that. What did they know that we didn't, or was this yet another fantastical story?

The next day we met up again to visit the ruins. Together, we hired one of the local guides to show us around. He was obviously Mayan, and quite proud of what his culture had accomplished at Copan and elsewhere in Central America.

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It was a treat to have him explain the significance and history of the carvings and the hieroglyphic staircase. The pyramids were not as high as Tikal, but there was a lot to see, especially the remarkably well preserved stelae.

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These are 10-15 feet high, intricately carved stone columns, that many of the Mayan kings had commissioned to depict themselves and aspects of their kingdoms. Many had been built by 18 Rabbits, whose reign extended from 695-738 AD.

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Others dated from earlier in the classic period, 250-900 AD.

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There were also elaborate temples and soccer fields, the ball supposedly being a human skull. More than enough to keep us busy the entire day.

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Posted by jonshapiro 15:08 Archived in Honduras Tagged tourist_sites Comments (2)

Semuc Champey

One of the most beautiful places in the world my daughter said, and I had to agree. Accompanied by a 35 year old Brit, seemingly in the process of leaving her husband back home, and a young woman from Germany, both of whom we knew from our school, we arranged for a weekend tour. At the last minute a decidedly unfriendly Israeli, our age, signed on separately. After a long 6 hours, we arrived about 10PM in Coban. Our driver/tour leader had to scurry around looking for a hotel in the crowded town, having failed to make reservations earlier. We ended up in a very basic and noisy place near the market, apparently the only one cheap enough to meet his expectations as the others were full. We had paid an inclusive price of about $80 US, something I would not do again without being very specific.

After an uncomfortable night, we left the next morning on another two hour ride through lush mountain scenery, before descending to the valley of Semuc Champey.

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Now a national park, there are a series of intensely turquoise pools, carved out of the limestone by the Rio Chabon as it cascades down the the narrow valley.

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In places the river flows on top of the stone, but also underneath,around, and through it, creating the beautiful rock formations.

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The vegetation is thick and tropical. We spent most of the day swimming in the pools, sliding or walking from one to the other. In places waterfalls splashed down on us as we sat beneath the cool water. On the day we were there, it was partially overcast, and we had the place to ourselves.

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Later, we drove the few miles to Lanquin, to check out the grutas, (caves). Well worth a visit, they are illuminated with a primitive lighting system that felt as though it might go at any minute, and very slippery underfoot. We spent the night in El Retiro, a place I insisted upon after reading about it in our guidebook. Also inexpensive, it is a small eco-friendly resort of thatched roof and bamboo huts, on a hillside facing the river, a few miles upstream from the park.

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We had a small, but comfortable hut to ourselves, though the bath was a communal one about 50 yards distant. There was an open air restaurant/bar overlooking the river, and we had a great meal while talking to some the other guests, several of whom had been hanging out there for a while. It lends itself to that. Somewhat remote, you can forget about time, and loose yourself in the daily activities of swimming or floating in the river, drinking shots of rum ,eating, and lazing about. Unfortunately we had to leave the next morning for the long drive back to Antigua, stopping for a couple of hours at the Biotopo del Quetzal. A great trip, but too rushed. Better to go on your own and stay a week, but be careful, you might not want to go anywhere else.

Posted by jonshapiro 10:23 Archived in Guatemala Tagged postcards Comments (1)

Excursions Around Antigua

One of our side trips involved hopping the bus for the mile or two up to the next town of Jocotenango. Very different than Antigua, it is a rather nondescript kind of place with few tourists visible on the dusty main street. It was however, home to Fraternidad Naturista. Written up in the Lonely Planet, it sells all kinds of medicinal herbs for ailments ranging from pulmonary to GI problems. More importantly they offer messages for about $8 US. It is not meant for tourists, and the building and surroundings are on the funky side. After we paid, I was directed down the hallway to the inner sanctum and changing area. In another part of the room there were four or five massage tables, though only one person was being worked on during my first visit. Not knowing the protocol, I waited on a bench for the masseur to finish. The place smelled like a gym, and water was dripping on the other side of the room. I began to think it was a mistake to come, especially with no other gringos in sight. Eventually, my turn came and I walked over to the table. As I was being slathered with oil, the masseur asked, in Spanish, how I liked the massage; duro, normalmente, or soave. " Normalmente,"I said, not quite knowing what was in store for me. After an hour of delightful, mostly, pummeling, I forgot about the rigors of studying, and became oblivious to the surroundings. It was one of the best, if strongest, messages that I have ever had. Thank God I didn't say duro to begin with. For some, it might be a little too intense, but a few words to communicate menos duro should suffice. On the way out we were handed a cup of herbal tea, vowing to return. We did come back twice more during the month, once dragging a somewhat reluctant friend who had never had a massage in her life. She loved it.

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Another trip we took was to Santiago de Sacatepequez for the Day of the Dead. The origins of this holiday are somewhat obscure, being a combination of the Spanish, All Saints Day, and earlier Mayan celebrations. Normally a sleepy place, Santiago comes to life with both tourists and locals on November 2nd. People line the streets to watch the annual flying of the kites.

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And the cemeteries.

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The dead are thought to identify their families through the colors and words used on the kites. Some of them are as large as 35-40 feet high, and are constructed of wood and tissue paper.

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The largest are usually stationary, but there were still some big ones that managed to get aloft, even though the day we were there it was almost too windy

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The atmosphere is festive, like a carnival. There is music and even some dancing.

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Families stroll around eating fiambre, a meat, cheese and olive concoction, thought to be a favorite of the dead. Many also sit around the graves of their family members, decorated with flowers, while offering food and drink to their dearly departed, as well as drinking cerveza. Tourists do much of the same, eating and drinking the offerings from the many street vendors, while taking pictures of the locals.

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On a somewhat different note, my favorite trip was a climb of Volcan Pacaya. Below is a picture of the top of the mountain.

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At 2552m or 7000 feet, this is not one of the higher volcanoes near Antigua. It is one of the most active. Just a month earlier. there had been a major eruption and no one had been allowed to climb it until recently. This excursion was organized by our school, although they actually subcontracted it to one of the many tour agencies in town. Cost was about $5 US, and it was exciting. We were picked up by bus around 1PM, and stopped to get a 2nd group from Academia Sevilla, another Spanish school. In all we were about 20. The ride took about 1 & 1/2 hours. It was only about 40 miles or so, but there was a lot of traffic and no direct way of getting there without going through Guate City.

When we arrived, close to 3PM, our guide gave a short talk about the mountain, now a national park, and said that the hike to the summit and back would take about 4 hours. Damn, I should have brought my headlamp, despite being told I wouldn't need it. We were also accompanied by a security guard who carried a gun, as there had been some tourist robberies on the mountain in the past, though none recently we were assured. The hike was fairly easy at first, but as we got higher to areas that were still warm from recent eruptions, the rocks were loose and sharp. Care was necessary to pick through the ash and boulders. The day was overcast and seemed to threaten rain, but intermittently the sun would come out and illuminate the clouds and steam from the fumaroles, which at times were difficult to distinguish from each other. We continued up to a point where the rocks were very hot, and it became hard to breath because of the heavy sulfurous fumes.

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We had to cover our mouths and noses with our shirts in order to continue. As I peered over the edge of the largest caldera, through the clouds of boiling steam, I could make out the molten lava below. I threw a rock in, and with a sudden whoosh it exploded into flame and vaporized. This was about as close as you could be without actually being inside the volcano. What if this thing decides to blow again without any warning, I thought, remembering that this had happened a few months earlier. What indeed! In Guate they are clearly less rule bound and less concerned with lawsuits than in the states. But hey, this enabled me to have an experience that I could never have somewhere else.

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Picking our way

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It is hard to overstate the raw power of seeing the earth transformed, literally before your eyes. I felt it viscerally, and it was intimidating. After an hour or so of poking around at the top, I was not unhappy to be heading down. By then, some of the clouds had dissipated, and it was possible to Volcan Agua and Arcatenango through the setting sun. So much for getting back before dark.

As we continued to hike, everyone was high from the experience. We chatted, shared food, and talked about travel plans and experiences. It was a very international group, though I spent much of my time talking to another norteamericano, whose name happened to be Jonathan. The last hour was almost totally in the dark, and our pace slowly considerably. A few did have headlamps, and tried to assist those of us who didn't, but it was not easy to follow the constantly bobbing lights, without being able to see what was directly on the ground in front of you. At one point I twisted my ankle on rock, luckily not too badly. When we got back go the bus it started to rain,
the clouds having moved back under cover of darkness. Perfect timing. We finally arrived back in Antigua around 10PM. Tired, dirty, but elated.

Posted by jonshapiro 11:17 Archived in Guatemala Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

An Interesting Connection

One of the more interesting social connections we made during our time in Antigua was actually through some friends of ours in the states, both writers/professors. They strongly encouraged us to contact Carolina while we were in country, and so we did. She and her husband drove up from Guatemala City, and met us for dinner in what turned out to be one of the most expensive restaurants in Antigua. When they arrived, they seem to know half the people eating there that night. We exchanged the usual pleasantries over drinks, including how they knew our friends, and then got down to the usual question, at least in the states, of what we all did for a living. As it turned out, Jorge is the owner of one of the largest supermarket/department store chains in all of Guatemala. This was somewhat surprising to us as our friends are left wing and don't usually befriend people with this kind of wealth. We later understood that they barely know him, and had spent far more time with his wife, who is a poet and novelist, and is frequently in the states to visit her children. We spent a few minutes discussing the family business, and Jorge was understandably proud of his father who had started it from scratch. It was however, clearly Jorge's own hard work and competence that enabled it to expand to become such a large corporation.

None the less, it was somewhat disconcerting to be having dinner with people who were obviously among the 20 wealthiest families in the country. My wife, who was chattering away in Spanish to Carolina, revealed my own red diaper roots before this was apparent. The conversation became still more interesting when we began to discuss the current political situation in light of the 35 years of civil war. They felt that the present government was doing the best it could under difficult circumstances. This opinion was in marked contrast to that of our teachers, who felt that it was just as corrupt as the others that preceded it. While saying they were not apologists for the military, Jorge told us how one member of his extended family had been kidnapped and then ransomed by the guerrillas. As a result, he felt that the true story of what happened during the war was not completely one sided.

Jorge went on to tell us that he had just entered into a partnership with a large US multinational. While I understood this from a business perspective, when he defended how progressive this company was in its treatment of its employees, I had to disagree. After I questioned the actions of this corporation, he and Carolina told us how well they had treated their own employees, as well as the other philanthropic things they have done throughout Guatemala. I had no reason to doubt their veracity or sincerity, and they were also lovely people who insisted on treating us for dinner;a good thing since it was out of our budget. They invited us to come down and visit them in the city, and said they would send a car to pick us up and bring us back. They then insisted on walking us back to our room, and it occurred to me that our teachers may have viewed us in the same light that we saw Jorge and Carolina.

A few days later, we took the tourist bus into the City to have lunch with our Guatemalan friend, Alphonso. We had met him the year before in the air airport, after which he was kind enough to drive us to Xela, a trip of about five hours. Alphonso divides his time between Guate and Utah, where he lives with his wife and children. He has a business importing fabric from the states and other countries to Xela, a bit ironic since most of us think of the beautiful Guatemalan fabrics that are imported to the states.

We told Alphonso about our dinner with Carolina and Jorge. He asked if we saw their retinue of body guards. "No, we hadn't." "Well, I'm sure they must have been there," he said. "Two or three at least. With machine guns." We explained that we had entered the restaurant first, but where were the guards when we walked back to the apartment. "Must have been damned good body guards. Kept out of sight until they are needed, but they were there, believe me. People like that can't go anywhere in Guatemala without body guards. Everyone knows who they are and how much they're worth, so they're always targets. They can't walk around the block without guards."

This seemed to put Jorge's story about the kidnapping of his relative in a somewhat different light. It must be very difficult to have to live like that all the time.

Posted by jonshapiro 11:38 Archived in Guatemala Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

Politics and People

The political situation in Guatemala is far more stable now than during the 35+ years of the Dirty War, in which death squads roamed the country and killed thousands. This remains one of the more horrific examples of US foreign policy and covert involvement in the internal affairs of another state.

In 1950 Jacobo Arbenz, an army officer, was elected president and initiated many reforms, especially redistributing land back to the Mayan peasants. In doing so, he had no choice other than to take on the United Fruit Company,which owned a huge percentage of the country and was virtually exempt from its laws. This was, within a few short years, to be his undoing. In 1953 and 54 several hundred thousand acres of uncultivated land near the coast was seized, and although the Company was compensated, it claimed the amount was insufficient. Meetings were held between the Guatemalan and US governments to try and resolve this and other disputes, but the Company was not happy with the direction the country was headed, and began to have its own meetings with US government officials to convince them that Arbenz was a communist, and needed to be eliminated. United Fruit also hired a high powered lawyer, who engaged in a massive public relations effort against Arbenz and his predecessor, much of which involved a campaign of disinformation to the NY Times and other leading newspapers.

By the time the government meetings occurred, many US officials, as well as the American public, was convinced that Arbenz was a threat to national security. The Dulles brothers, John, who was Secretary of State, and Allen, CIA Director, both of whom had direct connections to the United Fruit Company, soon cooked up a plot to overthrow him. Providing money, weapons, and "advisors" to Castillo Armas, another army officer then living in Honduras, Arbenz was forced to resign in June of 1954. Castillo took over, and within a short time compiled a list of more than 70,000 people active in unions and aligned with Arbenz, many of whom were killed or exiled by the army. Ironically,many of the operations of United Fruit in Guatemala were later broken up by the Justice Department as a result of an antitrust suit. The Eisenhower government however, continued its support of Armas and his successors, to the point of providing Green Berets to help defeat a group of rebel officers.

Slowly a guerrilla organization, EGP, started by students and encouraged by Liberation Theology, grew in strength. It attracted Indian support in the highlands, and began to fight against the corrupt military governments and landed oligarchy.

In 1977, following a massive earthquake which killed more than 22,000 people, a large anti-government rally took place in the capital. General Romeo Garcias responded with death squads targeting students, union leaders, priests, and later, massacred highland Indians in town such as Alta Verapaz. Although this initially increased the ranks of the guerrillas, the army crushed them through a strategy of mass murder, forced resettlement into highly controlled villages, reeducation, and forced militia duty. General Rios Montt, an evangelical christian, took over and continued these tactics, aided and abetted by the evangelical churches, who taught the Indians that rebellion was against the will of God, and Liberation Theology was the work of the Devil.

Although the Carter administration initiated an army embargo because of the human rights abuses, this was later overturned by Reagan. By 1985 the army realized that they had essentially won the war, and so elections were held. Cerezo, a Christian Democrat, took over, but not before he agreed to a blanket amnesty for the army. Sporadic violence continued, and Indians who lived in Santiago Atitlan and other towns, who had previously supported the guerrillas, continued to be "disappeared" by the hundreds. A formal peace accord was not signed until 1966, and although calling for accountability on the part of the army, this was slow to be carried out. Amnesty International has reported that criminals, as well as police, military officers, and multinationals, were often in collusion.

Much of this has not changed. We would often talk politics with our Spanish teachers, and they made no secret of their distrust of the government, and the police, who they said were frequently in league with the crooks. Interestingly, despite many years of CIA involvement on the side of the army and its brutal regimes, they seemed to harbor no ill feelings towards the people of the United States. They made a distinction between the people and the government. This was true throughout our travels. Our teachers were also very open about discussing their own lives and circumstances. Despite their meager existence, they did not seem resentful of us, although they did express some anger over how little of the tuition money the school gave to them. Certainly one of the more interesting things about studying Spanish intensively, is that you learn about the culture through these kinds of discussions. I felt a strong personal connection to my teachers during the brief time that I knew them, and this was repeated while I studied in other countries as well.

(Note: Although several sources were used for this material, the following were especially helpful:
Bitter Fruit, Schlesinger,Steven & Kinzer, Stephen; Central America on a Shoestring, Lonely Planet, 2004; Inside Central America, Krauss, Clifford).

Posted by jonshapiro 07:30 Archived in Guatemala Tagged events Comments (0)

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