The beauty of traveling solo (and being talkative and speaking the local language) is that you have no choice but to converse with the random souls around you. Sometimes they are local residents, national tourist, or international travelers (thus, all the little tidbits of stories I have heard on this trip). Somewhere along the way, new friendships are struck. Whether it is by choice or serendipity. Travel stories are exchanged. New information are kept for future adventure references. Contacts are exchanged for future visits. Sometimes one is present to just help others in need (in my case: translating for these two brave girls who went on chicken buses across Guatemala to Copan, Honduras and barely speaks any spanish and then giving them a ride as there was no bus on the Honduran side of the border and it was raining). And others came along when when I needed the help and the company. This has been a beautiful trip. Except for missing reservation for the Hedman Alas bus to Ciudad Guatemala and the bus door that just wouldn’t open (thanks for E&I from Brooklyn who took the same bus, I didn’t freak out), the trip was uneventful. Hot shower and one last hot frijoles soup and beef pepian later, I was ready to sleep and catch my 6am flight back to Houston, but I will not forget the sights that I have seen. I am leaving you here with my most memorable moments from the trip.
Throughout the trip, I managed to speak to a few local residents and travelers in the places that I visited. The theme is consistent. Both Guatemala and Honduras are not progressing in the better direction for the people.
In the latter, periodic polling by an internationally accepted agency, shows zero confidence in the progress of the country and the government. In the former, a recent poll shows low confidence in the government, judicial system, police, and economy, among others. And the only strong belief they have is in religion.
I heard Honduras overall (Copan Ruinas where I went is quite safe) has the highest homicide rate in the world (over 80 homicides per 100,000 people). Their population is about 8 million. With the fight against the drug cartels intensifying in Mexico, apparently the drug trade/routes are pushed South into Guatemala and Honduras. With the weak system in both countries, more dangerous and turbulent futures are inevitable for the people. In Honduras especially so. It is a poor country with no substantial revenues to speak off and large areas with no infrastructure and governance. Recently, they did overtake Colombia as coffee exporter (no 3 in the world). They have a small maquiladora industry (Nike, Levi’s , etc). They export fresh Tilapia to USA and farmed prawns. The drug business though, is much larger in value than all these industries combined.
In larger cities of Honduras (Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula) for example, it is getting difficult for business and homeowners. There is always news of taxi drivers and bus drivers being killed – probably for refusing to pay protection money. And this has spread to homeowners and factories as well. There are more gangs, more organized extortions.
As a tourist, one would probably not be exposed to this situation or realized the undercurrents. And if one goes to the very touristy places, like Copan Ruinas or the Bay Islands, one should exercise common sense and one will be fine. I did not go out late at night on my own and I do not go to secluded places alone. I was fine.
I definitely found that walking around in Guatemalan towns was more comfortable than walking around in Copan Ruinas on my own. This is before I knew the above stories. But again, Guatemala is better prepared in resisting the drug trade. Guatemala has relatively more industries to speak of. 60 percent of the population is indigenous Mayan and are in a more closed communities. In my experience (and confirmed and verbalized by a fellow traveler from NY), Guatemalans are kind and much warmer and welcoming (except in the crazy Chichi market!). The Hondurans are nice in a more distant way. Don’t get me wrong though! I did meet a lovely, warm, welcoming lady at Hacienda San Lucas (in addition to the equipo at La Casa de Cafe). Her name is Patty and she made my short visit to Hacienda San Lucas a very memorable one).
A beautiful, slightly secluded property that comes with a Mayan ruin onsite, Los Sapos (frogs are symbols of fertility for the Mayans and this temple may have been dedicated to women). Hacienda San Lucas is the most romantic spot in Copan Ruinas. Charming open kitchen concept and a well known Honduran fusion cuisine (I did not get to try it unfortunately). And lovely team out there who are very warm and welcoming. You are cool, Patty! Love the homegrown midget bananas (la michita). Love the yoga/meditation spot, too…i dream to come back with a yoga mat (and maybe a romeo) in tow….
It felt like home!
Remarkable stay at La Casa de Cafe. Howard and Angela, the proprietors are amazing and warm. They are always willing to help and always anticipate the guests’ needs. The rooms are bright, airy, simple yet colourful and welcoming. Breakfast is always a wonderful event. Straightforward breakfast food that are well done and well served in outdoor garden setting with a great view of the mountain range. Service is amazing! The best service this trip! Well done, girls! And special thanks to Fatima for her strong fingers and hands. What a great way to end my trip and day after a long day at the Copan ruins.
I stayed for two days, but I think I could have stayed a week!!!!
Here I was, admiring the hieroglyphic stairway of Copan (the longest Mayan stairway detailing the stories of the Dynasty that ruled Copan for 400 years through 17 kings) and listening to Julio, my guide, when another guide bringing a group of spanish speaking family arrived and started saying to the group: “mira, y esta chica viene de Singapur. Esta de vacaciones. Ella habla espanol bla, bla, bla, bla.” And I could see the group looking at me and the guide just went on and on and on likecI was not there and I did not understand. I felt like telling ese hombre that I was not part of the attraction and if I were, I better get paid. Granted I am not ancient and beautifully sculpted but I still come from foreign land. I am sure there is value in being exotic. LOL.
What an amazing morning I had at the Copan Ruins. I cannot get enough of how beautiful the sculptures and buildings are. It is said that Copan is the Paris of the Mayans and Tikal is Nueva York. I cannot agree more to that comparison. Tikal is about size and grandeur of the temples. Copan is about finesse, classicism, and renaissance. The sculptures that still can be seen are just amazing. The 13th king, 18 Rabbit catapulted Copan to its highest standard in carving and building. The remains we see now shows that high standard.
In the course of the 400 years, many phases of constructions happened in Copan. They would build temples on existing temples. However, one temple is so sacred that it was covered in stucco completely and have newer temples build on top of it. These days, a portion of this temple can be seen in the Rosalila tunnel. In the tunnel, you would see only the middle level (northern side where there is one head of a snake). The reproduction of the full temple is in the Museum of Sculpture on site). All Mayan constructions (temples, stelae, palaces) were covered in stucco and painted red as in the Rosalila temple reproduction.
I cannot write about my trip and not dedicate a special section on food. Food is an essential part of any culture and I will dedicate a big section on this. I love food. When I travel, I have to try the local food or I feel like I have never been there….Though I have to admit, I am not always partial to what is being served in all the places I visit. I try many Guatemalan and a few Honduran food, but unfortunately apart from the yummy Tortrix and spiced hot chocolate, nothing is really extraordinary to my personal taste and my tongue. The food in general does not have very strong flavor and seasonings, and the tortillas are too fat and the rice tends to be grainy (undercooked). However, I still tried many things that I would love to show you. When you visit Guatemala and Honduras, try these and decide for yourself.
I want to share my favourite new junk food snack…it’s Guatemalan. It’s ten times better than Doritos (I was gonna write a hundred times, but, nah, Doritos is pretty yummy too). And it’s shaped like tacos (one of my fave food world). And it’s bite size!!! I am definitely getting a couple packs for the five hour bus ride tomorrow LOL.
The best eating place in Guatemala is Rincon Tipico in Antigua (one block from Plaza Mayor, near the San Pedro church). I tried chicken pepian and chicken soup there the first time. The second time (I told you it’s the best eatery in Antigua) I had the chicken caldo and horchata drink.
I also tried many other dishes throughout my stay in Guatemala: tamales (different from Mexican tamales, it is softer and blander), chupitos (similar to Mexican tamales minus the strong flavor), pache (similar to Tamales served during Christmas), jocon sauce, some yummy spicy soup at La Casa de Conde in Antigua, and many other stuffs……I admit I have forgotten some stuffs as well (yup, I was that greedy). I also enjoyed the rosa de jamaica drink (hibiscus drink I believe) Enjoy the photos anyhow
In Honduras, I tried their Baleada which is similar to a taco, except the tortilla is made of flour and not maiz. You pick the filings that you like from egg, chicken, cheese, lettuce, black bean, and you also pick the sauce you’d like. You eat it with a pickled onion and chilis and beetroot concoction which is a great contrast in color with the Baleada. It’s the three Bs: Buena (good), Barata (cheap) y Bonita (beautiful). Go to newly opened “Buena Baleada” (pictures below of Buena Baleada to-go) which is patronized by locals 100% and skip the supposedly best Baleada in town at Picame. I tried both and Buena Baleada es mucho mejor at a fraction of the price.
I also got greedy and had a second breakfast on my last day in Copan. I had local fresh cheese and tortilla and their midget homegrown banana at Hacienda San Lucas.
For lunch, I made a quick dash to the very popular (with local and tourists) and highly recommended Comedor y Pupusas Marie. I have to say only the Pupusas caught my interest (the rest of the dishes are meat platter with side dish of rice and blackbean or breakfast dish which is tortilla, egg, and cheese pretty much) – which is a Honduran version of pita bread sandwich. Pupusas come in many different fillings and their combination. I tried two. One was with cheese and a local vegie. The other (which is heavenly) is filled with crispy pork skin and black bean. The pork skin adds to the texture of the pupusas and nothing is yummier than the taste of fried pork fat…..LIFE IS FOOD, LIFE IS GOOD!
Since the beginning of times, there are just some things that never change. Human nature is one. The story of Quirigua ruin is linked to Copan. The former had always been ruled by Copan until one of the supposedly puppet kings of Quirigua decided that Quirigua (Cauac Sky) should be independent of Copan. He captured the 13th king of Copan, 18 Rabbit, and beheaded him. What an ungrateful soul, ain’t he???
Cauac Sky may be condemned for his treachery (and he did kill the most important king of Copan – if 18 Rabbit lived longer, the ruins of Copan may even be more amazing than now. That is a story for another day), but exquisite stelaes and zoomorphs did get created under his rule for our appreciation and amazement now. Some stelaes reach up to 10m high. And my favourite zoomorphs is zoomorphs P. Altar M is also another favorite.
Note – my basic understanding is the following:
Altar is where they put the offerings for the Deities and human/animal sacrifice.
Stela is the tall sculpture, usually depicting the ruler and telling a story, and the glyphs usually starts with time and place and the Whos.
Zoomorphs depicts the entrance to the underworld, where the Mayan believed souls go to after death. Thus, zoomorphs usually depicts animals associated with death: turtles and crocodiles, among other symbols.
But also another day of no mobile signal and limited electricity. That makes it three days in a row! I loved staying closed to Tikal by staying in one of the hotels located inside the park, but the lack of modern amenities are challenging. Today in Finca Tatin – located on Tatin river, a tributary to Tio Dulce, it is even more laidback. First I am the only guest for the night. Second the guy who works here seems to be the hippie kind. I think he is german. This place is so relax, everything is based on honor system. Food, drinks, kayak rental…everything. And no mention of wifi! I am grateful for this forced and well deserved rest, because tomorrow, I will visit one ruin, Quirigua, and have a long car ride to Copan, Honduras. Then the following day, I plan to spend one complete day in Copan ruins.
The way here was amazing as well. We saw many birds. I really enjoyed the breeze and the view. Mangroves, lotus, a spanish old fort at the border of lake Izabal and Rio Dulce (to fight visiting pirates)…just an amazing relaxing day. Similar to Lago Atitlan, I can see nice houses and Sailboats owned by foreigners or the people from Guatemala City, compared to the locals with their humble boats and houses. There is also a dental clinic run by project Ak’Tenamit to aid the local people. The same project also runs a school of the same name to teach local community hospitalty, languages, and other skills.
It is 6pm, I am waiting for dinner, enjoying the latin music and nature sound. My room here is called Mariposa (butterfly) and I have direct lagoon access I sat on my villa balcony on the river bank, then I moved to the main area to try the Mayan style swing chair. It is very comfortable!!! Hammocks are so overrated!
Life can’t get better than this!!!!!
TIKAL….gosh, I do not even know where to begin. I visited Tikal three times today, at sunrise, during the day , and at sunset/early evening. Each visit I went with different objectives in mind and slightly different complexes visited. The main plaza, Gran Plaza is the only one I visited each time and I spent the most time there each trip. I am showing you the photo of Temple I (part of Gran Plaza) at different time of the day. The temple number is the number given by the excavation team. The actual name is Temple of the Great Jaguar.
I feel today is another successful day of pushing myself a little bit further (which is not the purpose of the trip, but I am just gullible to good marketing and i always want to experience something extraordinary). I get a bit antsy in total darkness, especially outdoors (I did not know how I manage to camp twice in the Incan valley on the way to Macchu Pichu and in Torres del Paine national park, Patagonia, Chile). Once abandoned, Tikal ruins have been reclaimed by the jungle and they are keeping it as such. 576 sqkm (isn’t that as big as Singapore?) has been designated as Tikal National Park and has received UNESCO Patrimonio designation culturally and nature-wise. Being in a jungle, the possibility of encountering wild animals, such as jaguar, exists. During the day, I saw a gray fox. Threat also exists of the human kind, though no incident has happened recently inside the park (I read in the US State Department travel warning about Guatemala). However, they do have possibilities of poachers. As a matter of fact, we were escorted by armed guides on the way to Temple IV for the sunrise.
Alas, in the evening, we were (not) so lucky (depends how do you want to look at it – we did do one cool thing as no one else were around). The arm guards left Gran Plaza at 630pm, so Caesar, the guide and I were alone in the Gran Plaza 630pm onwards. I did start to freak out. It was partly the darkness and it was also my imagination run wild. Images from Mel Gibson’s Apocalypse running through my head of people being sacrificed and I was thinking of the number of people who died there up to 1,100 years ago. And plus, they found a tomb under Temple I. The reproduction of the tomb is in a nearby museum. The original items found are in a museum in Guatemala City. Very important: the movie is NOT a representation of Maya culture, by the way. But all in all, it was an evening well spent. We saw the sun sets behind Temple IV (where we saw the sunrise) by sitting at the top temple in North Acropolis (part of Gran Plaza). But the grand prize is watching Temple I under the stars and the Milky Way (never saw that before) from Temple 2. It would have been a romantic experience If taking the beaten path is your cup of tea, Cesar can be found at the Jaguar Inn hotel in the Tikal National Park. (Note to Cesar: thanks for the photos).
The sunrise and day trip were amazing also. Both guides are great and both are working out of Tikal Inn where I stayed. Jairo is new and knows a lot. He took us for the sunrise. And he showed us the Lost World, Temple III, Gran Plaza, and complex of the Seven Temples (the most recently completed excavation project). Mundo Perdido (Lost World) has a platform/temple with influences of Teotihuacan (from Mexico) civilization. The observation platform can be climbed, but the pyramid is off limit. A mexican lady fell and dies a few years ago. We saw an allspice tree. Tikal Inn uses this fruit to make pancake syrup according to Jairo. My ears perked up upon hearing this!! Armed with this information, I ordered pancake for breakfast. Jairo was right and the syrup tastes very unique. He said something interesting also as we are observing the flora and fauna of the national park. He said we were standing in the middle of Mayan pharmacy. The complex of Seven Temples share pyramids with Mundo Perdido which are aligned during the winter/summer solstice and the sep/mar equinoxes. The Mayans were very big on astronomy and this drove the design of their cities and where buildings were located or faced. One guide mentioned that some archeologists speculate that Temple I to VI is (location wise) to shape like the Big Dipper (a constellation?). This complex also features triple ball courts (still covered by soil).
The tour with Edin in the morning/early afternoon blew me away too. I am glad I decided to pay extra for a private guide. Edin met all my requests and brought me to complexes that are not covered by the group tour (do you now see what I mean by always trying to do things a little bit more?). I got to see Temple of Inscriptions (Temple VI) which is out of the way and the Northern complexes (complex H and P – letters designated by excavation team). He showed me all the corners of the Central Acropolis in Gran Plaza. Amazing!!! He explained to me the different stelaes. Gosh, I had such an amazing time and information overload. Unfortunately, much is still unknown about the Mayan cultures and languages (only 15 percent of glyphs deciphered). Many of the complexes are configured similarly and most pyramids have the same design. Thus, they only restore selective buildings. This comes down to funds, as previously discussed and also Tikal’s Patrimonio status whereby nature must also be conserved as much as possible. They estimate 25,000 structures in Tikal of different size and also newer buildings are constructed over an older one. Their target is to restore up to 25 percent of the complex. Edin also gave me a quick Mayan timeline and also a little bit of their calendar system (very complicated). For those of you who can make it, Dec 21, 2012 (day of winter solstice) will be an interesting time to visit Tikal and see how the new era will come about.
Gosh I really can go on and on on Tikal. I will just show you the photos and let them speak for themselves. Enjoy!
TIKAL GRAN PLAZA AT DUSK/NIGHT UNDER THE MILKY WAY
TIKAL AT DAYLIGHT
TIKAL AT SUNRISE (TEMPLE IV) — (THE SUN AND THE FOG APPEARED AND DISAPPEARED MANY TIMES – THE SKY COLOR CHANGED MINUTE BY MINUTE) – FACING TEMPLE I, TEMPLE II, AND TEMPLE III
My day started way too early today. I received a message at 130am from an associate in my home country. He saw on a local TV that Volcan Fuego in Antigua has been much more active. Considering that I did see a lot of smoke spewing out of the volcan earlier that morning, I have to admit that I got a little paranoid. I checked with someone local in the wee hours of the morning just to be sure. I felt bad disturbing her sleep, but I am also in a foreign country alone and I never had to face this situation before. I am not sure I did the right thing by confirming that all was okay. Everyone local is so calm about it. Even after speaking to her and received her assurances, I still could not go back to sleep. I just wished 430am arrived and my shuttle whisked me to Gatemala City to catch my flight to Flores, Peten and get out of Antigua as fast as I could. Everything went smoothly and I really was just being paranoid . Then later that day a friend reported that a small earthquake was recorded in the Northern part of Honduras. When I told the same girl, she seems unfazed and she told me even the volcan and Antigua are fine. Lessons learned: if the locals are cool about these things, maybe I should have been to. It did make me realize though, I do not know how I will react in times of crisis. Is there a good training to ensure you react calmly and coolheadedly in unknown situations?? I suppose I was paranoid because statistically Antigua is due for either an eruption (last one in 2010 Volcan Pacaya) and the last big quake was in 1950s. It is still not an excuse though….