A Travellerspoint blog

Hippies, Toads and Bats

Or how we found ourselves dangling upside-down over the Copan Valley

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One of our last forays in Guatemala was to the gringo hippie enclave of San Pedro La Laguna, mostly out of sheer curiosity. Almost on cue, we were met at the dock by a guy who offered to play the bongos for us. Um, no. And then the local women and girls arrived en masse offering sweet rolls, banana bread and chocolate cake for sale. Interesting. Actually, the cake was pretty good, but we received several other offers which would have required the assistance of the U.S. State Department if we had accepted them.

After a brief return visit to Antigua, we moved on to Copan, Honduras to see the famous Maya ruins. First though, we saw some amazing birds at the nearby Macaw Mountain Bird Park and Nature Reserve. All of the birds are either unwanted pets or were found injured and now live in sizeable enclosures in a really pretty 10-acre setting. The park has 28 scarlet macaws, including 7 born in captivity through its breeding program, as well as an abundance of toucans, owls, hawks, parrots and other tropical beauties. Life for the inhabitants isn´t completely idyllic, as a boa constrictor once got into one cage and wolfed down a toucan, and opossums have been known to munch on the smaller birds from time to time, requiring the workers to set out traps. Still, the birds seem very well cared for and we got to hold several of the tamer ones in a cool interactive section of the park. And yesterday, when it was 100 degrees in the shade, we returned to have lunch and swim in the park´s great natural pool.

We also visited Hacienda San Lucas, a historic old farmhouse in the hills above town that´s now an inn and restaurant. We hiked to a small and strange Maya ruin on the property called Los Sapos, or The Toads, where some experts believe Maya women may have gone to give birth. Watching the sunset, drinking rum and lemonade, and eating a candelight dinner made in the hacienda´s original wood stove kitchen weren´t too shabby either.

And although we nearly melted in the sun, the ruins at Copan were really incredible, especially the detailed carvings and intricate heiroglyphic stairway. It´s amazing how archaeologists have been able to decipher the gyphs and understand a considerable amount about the ancient city, which seemed to have reached its peak in the 8th Century AD and may have supported up to 28,000 people within it and the surrounding valley. There´s a great museum right at the site, and a smaller but just as fascinating one in town.

Nearly as awesome was the Copan County Fair, or something suspiciously like a fair in New Jersey or Minnesota, complete with creaky rides (including a hand-turned Ferris wheel and a Tilt-a-Whirl that looked like it was a few loose bolts away from whirling through the fields), good greasy fried chicken and fireworks. A bit more irritating, though, has been the preferred way of drumming up visitors: a particularly loud burst of fireworks at 4 a.m. followed by a meandering van fitted with a loudspeaker.

Finally, we received a birds-eye view of the Copan Valley earlier today with a ridiculously fun but slightly terrifying canopy tour that involved 14 cables. Our young but professional guides seemed rather amused at our wide-eyed responses to their innocent suggestions, like telling us it might be a good idea to brake a bit early on the 1 km-long cable dangling over a particularly steep ravine, or encouraging us to dangle upsidedown during our slide down another cable and letting them brake for us (which we did and survived to our astonishment), or goading us into flying like Superman down the final cable while they held our legs from behind.

Yes, we did that too, and then laughed in relief like five-year-olds. As an added bonus, I now have a particularly good blackmail photo of Geoff hanging upsidedown. Coincidentally, the ancient symbol of Copan is also a bat.

Posted by brynster 17:06 Archived in Honduras Comments (1)


And other eruptions of hot air

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First, a word of thanks to President Bush: due to his arrival in Guatemala, the country´s principal highway has been completely shut down, stranding us for an extra day by a stunning crater lake surrounded by three spectacular volcanoes.

Which isn´t to say that Bush is necessarily receiving a warm welcome by the people here. A guest at our hotel told us he attended a big demonstration in the capital where protestors were spraypainting slogans on nearly everything that wasn´t moving (including buses caught in traffic). The worker at another hotel today swatted the television with a newspaper when Bush appeared live. Mayan priests are planning to re-purify some ruins after the president´s visit. And the press has had a field day, especially after the recent detention of illegal Guatemalan workers in Massachusetts, during which no one at INS seemed to remember that the children might need to be looked after during their parents´detention. Oops.

A political cartoonist for the Prensa Libre captured it all with a panel showing unhappy demonstrators greeting Bush with various slogans like "Go away" while a young girl holds another sign saying, "I want my Mommy."

On our last day of Spanish class in Antigua (a fairly successful venture), two American fighter jets zoomed overhead as part of the Bush preparations, emptying the classrooms as teachers and students laughed nervously about what is an exceedingly rare sight - and sound - in the city. Our host mother, Dilia, told us later she thought it was a nearby volcano erupting.

Here's a view of another one, called Volcan de Agua, which we saw every morning on our way to school.


Besides the impromptu air show, we were treated to some wonderful home cooking and awesome views of the volcanoes and ruins. The most interesting tour, though, was when we visited the museum where our host mother's youngest daughter works: El Museo Vigua de Arte Precolumbino y Vidrio Moderno (but the Web site doesn't really do it justice).

Like the huge Casa Santo Domingo hotel around it, the museum incorporates the ruins of a colonial church and convent. Our sister for the week is not only the curator but also an artistic director and restorer of many of the old ceramic and stone pieces, some of which date back more than 2,000 years. Amazingly, many of them have been found by workers on the museum owner's fincas, or plantations. Even better, our sis had great stories about ghostly presences at the site, including the time she was restoring an unusual Mayan burial jar with skulls on its lid and it kept moving around on her. Another time, her boss was examining a jade hatchet and wondering about its function when a ghostly voice said, "para matar," or "to kill." And finally, she swears that a photo of her with another restored jar depicts a mysterious light, and in the foreground, the image of a friar bowed in prayer. Spooky.

On to Lago Atitlan, where we're watching live coverage of Bush's visit and waiting out the first downpour of the trip at a hippy enclave called San Pedro La Laguna. We arrived Saturday and stayed two nights at a ridiculously amazing hotel called La Casa del Mundo that's perched on the hillside above the deep crater lake. From our room, we had unbelievable views of two more volcanoes across the lake. Like this one:

And this one:


In a fitting end to our first night at the hotel, we soaked with other guests from around the world in a wood stove-heated hot tub overlooking the lake, told ghost stories and marvelled at the brilliant stars overhead.

Posted by brynster 14:07 Archived in Guatemala Comments (2)

Out of the Mouths of Tourists

Spanglish, anyone?

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We´ve just ended our third day of Spanish classes in Antigua and our brains are full to the point of bursting. I´ve been conjugating verbs in my sleep and I still feel like I´m talking like a five-year-old.

The town seems to be full of tourists in a similar boat, though, and both Geoff and I are definitely improving and able to converse with our respective teachers, Jose and Ninette, and with our wonderful host family.

Our mother for the week is Dilia, who is a great cook and loves to chat - a perfect fit for us. Her youngest daughter works in a glass museum and is a budding artist in her own right. We´re hoping to visit her at work later in the week, but for the time being there are plenty of things to gawk at just wandering around the city. Three large volcanoes surround Antigua and one called Fuego is still active - hopefully not too active. In the mornings when we walk to school, the view is stunning, especially past one of the many amazing ruins that dot the city (a picture of this coming soon!).

We´ve been taking some side trips too, on Monday to a fascinating museum called Casa Popenoe, a colonial mansion that had collapsed during the earthquake of 1773 and was rebuilt by an American avocado exporter who worked for the United Fruit Company in the 1920s. Perhaps the best part is its top-floor aviary which has dozens of built-in birdhouses for doves once charged with sending messages from town to town - the first Internet, according to our surprisingly understandable guide (who spoke very slowly and with perfect diction).

Today we visited another small town called San Antonio where the women basically use a belt to strap themselves to a loom and weave colorful textiles with intricate patterns on both sides. Very distinctive and very beautiful.

So far, the people we´ve spoken with have talked only indirectly about the country´s decades of turbulence in the not-so-distant past. But everyone seems to agree that corruption among politicians is still rampant, that the capital city is particularly dangerous and that so many foreigners have moved to Antigua that the houses are now priced well beyond the range of nearly all Guatemalans. One apparently sold recently for $9 million.

Posted by brynster 01:19 Archived in Guatemala Comments (3)

Some Photo Highlights

A bus, a church and a pagan saint

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As promised here are some of the highlights so far (we've included thumbnails for easier loading - you can click on them for full-size images). Back to Antigua today, this time on a better bus, we hope.


This was the first of four buses to Xela.


The really cool church in San Andres Xecul. Note the jaguars at the top.


San Simon presiding over some offerings - and taking a cigarette break.

Posted by brynster 13:16 Archived in Guatemala Comments (2)

To Xela by Way of California

Getting There Is Half the Fun

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A good rule for travelers is to know exactly where your bus is going. Count us among those who have learned that lesson. We are in Quetzaltenango (or Xela), which is a fascinating town in the western highlands of Guatemala, but getting here was almost as interesting.

A supposedly direct shuttle from Antigua began heading in the exact opposite direction, back to the airport, but we realized the scam almost immediately and got out ($26 poorer). For the rest of the afternoon, we hopped from one school bus turned chicken bus to another. The first was called California and decked out with chrome fenders and brightly colored decals for days (we promise pictures soon, just need to figure that out).

We quickly realized that no school would ever send its students where these buses went. Fear is being in a bus racing another up a fog and dust covered mountain, and you are clearly in the wrong lane. But the final cost after 5 hours was much easier on our wallets. $3.25 each.

First night in Xela was rather trying as our bathroom had a flimsy screen window that looked right into the hotel kitchen and Geoff demonstrated the security issues when he picked the lock in 2 seconds flat. We survived.

Now in a much better hotel and have been to largest and highest market in Guatemala in a town called San Francisco El Alto, where vendors were selling everything from brightly colored cloth to World Wrestling Federation T shirts. Both seemed equally popular. At the very top of the hill was the live animal market, with pigs, chickens, cows, sheet and barely controlled chaos. Incredible.

San Andres Xecul, a nearby town, has a flaming yellow church with a wild facade, including pot bellied cherubs, vines and jaguars. But the most interesting sight was the home of San Simon (or Maximon), a kind of evil saint that seems to be one part Catholic tradition and two parts Maya folklore. You can visit him, actually a gussied up mannequin with sunglasses and a cowboy hat, and make wishes with colored candles if you want. Black candles if you want to wish ill on someone. He loves cigarettes and liquor and goes to bed promptly at 6 p.m. every night. The affable owner, Rafael, diverted us momentarily so he could light San Simons cigarette to complete the effect.

Last night, we inadvertently happened upon a rally by a socialist student movement. A bizarre parade with cloaked and hooded students, some wearing skull masks, kind of like a repurposed Semana Santa procession, complete with incense and fireworks. Impassioned speeches followed. Then everyone danced and sold keychains.

Today, we visited a glass cooperative, where they make an amazing variety of products from recycled glass (green comes from 7 UP bottles and brown from Gallo beer bottles). In a town called Zunil, we soaked in wonderful volcanic hot springs high in the hills, visited another version of San Simon and visited another cathedral. The cathedral has a beautiful white facade and inside, we saw portable altars with endearingly tacky icons of Mary and Jesus (complete with Cher hair) awaiting Semana Santa processions.

Quite the cultural introduction to Guatemala.

Posted by brynster 16:25 Archived in Guatemala Comments (1)

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