Archive for the ‘Central America’ Category

Friday Foto Talk: Flow & Travel Photography   6 comments

Rising pre-dawn to climb Tajamulco, highest peak in Central America, a half-asleep state gave way to flow as the sun rose.

Rising pre-dawn to climb Tajamulco, highest peak in Central America, a half-asleep state gave way to flow as the sun rose.

Flow, or “being in the zone” is all the rage these days.  It’s considered to be how creative people create.  While that’s true, flow is not that uncommon.  We’ve all experienced it.  I heard a radio interview the other day and the guest referred to flow as something experienced by people at the highest level.  I think that’s too narrow a way to think about it.  Any time you get 100% engaged in an activity and lose track of time, you’re in flow.  Flow will help you progress toward expertise, but being very good at something isn’t a prerequisite for flow.

This series, which started with the idea and concept of flow, has moved on to how to foster the state in different types of photography.  Today let’s look at travel photography, which consists of shooting a wide variety of subjects in unfamiliar places.  I call the entire western U.S. my home area and by definition travel takes me to countries outside the U.S.  My travel photos lean heavily toward cultural subjects, including people, but includes landscape and wildlife.  While traveling I photograph far more people (and fewer landscapes) than I normally do.

A bit of a cliche, but prayer flags and the Himalaya are just too big a part of the scene in Nepal to pass up.

A bit of a cliche, but prayer flags and the Himalaya are just too big a part of the scene in Nepal to pass up.

When you’re traveling and shooting there is no shortage of distractions.  So flow is not that easy.  Here are a few tips:

  • Observe & Engage.  Just as it is with other kinds of photography, keen observation and then intense engagement with your subjects is a sure route toward experiencing flow.
  •  Filter & Focus.  Traveling can overwhelm the senses.  It’s one of the great things about it.  But in order to do your best photography focusing on the subjects that you want to shoot is necessary.  The kind of concentration required to capture images with strong subjects can help you experience flow while doing it.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t get a few overview shots that establish context and show the place you’re in (you could also do this with video).  But it’s easier to get into flow and capture good images if you zero in on one subject at a time, filtering out the rest.

With huge views of the Nepali Himalayas outside this teahouse, I shifted focus to smaller things.

  • Quality vs. Quantity.  Let’s be honest.  Travel can be hectic at times.  That’s probably inevitable.  But your whole trip doesn’t have to be this way.  If you plan an overly busy itinerary, you shouldn’t expect to experience flow while shooting.  And you should expect more snapshots than quality images.  You simply can’t have both quality and quantity, and this goes especially for traveling.  As you plan your itinerary, choose one or the other and be happy with the consequences of that decision.

 

  • Slow Down.  I prefer to plan a light itinerary and cover less area in more time.  This way I get to relax and spend some time with subjects.  When I take the camera out in some new place, randomly exploring with no real destination in mind, flow comes much easier than when I’m rushing to move on to the next place.  Leaving real time for deep exploration is a key to successful travel photography (and travel in general).  Of course during the trip there will always be those times when you have to hurry to catch a train or to check out.  Just don’t let that pace infect your entire journey.
Angkor Wat's West Gate is an easy subject to like, but it took patience and time to shoot it with pedaling commuters and the sun in the right position.

Angkor Wat’s West Gate is an easy subject to like, but it took patience and time to shoot it with pedaling commuters and the sun in the right position.

  • Make it About the Journey.  While it’s important to get to your destination in order to spend time exploring and shooting, the journey is at least as important.  Sometimes it’s more so.  You’ll encounter some of your best photographic subjects while you’re traveling from one place to another.  So a second key to travel photography is being ready at all times to capture images.  You may prefer your phone for this, or a small point and shoot camera.  It doesn’t matter, just keep observing and shooting things that are interesting along the way.
I was rushing to a waterhole where the game was supposed to be when I stumbled upon this cheetah stalking the grasslands: Etosha, Namibia.

I was rushing to a waterhole where the game was supposed to be when I stumbled upon this cheetah stalking the grasslands: Etosha, Namibia.

  • Be Flexible.  This is good advice anytime you travel, whether shooting seriously or not.  But consider this:  you can take yourself right out of your game if you get uptight about the inevitable changes and screw-ups that occur during any trip.  Being upset about things that are outside your control means you’re not about to enter flow anytime soon.  I won’t claim to be perfect in this regard.  But isn’t it better to look upon an unforeseen left turn in your trip as an opportunity to photograph something unexpected?  Go with the flow so you can experience flow!

I didn’t plan on attending this rough ‘n ready rodeo on Omotepe, Nicaragua. But I let my hosts drag me there and didn’t let their fun with my flag get in the way of a good time.

  • Be Outgoing.  Some of the best travel images are of people, often showing something of their unique culture.  But unless you play at being a paparazzi, you’ll need to break out of your shell and approach strangers in order to get good people shots.  Luckily, most people around the world (not all) are happy to be approached by tourists.  You may be rejected occasionally.  Don’t let that stop you.  All it takes is one great interaction to make your travel day.  Once you’re with an interesting local talking and laughing, all the time shooting great candids, photo flow can’t be far behind!
This Himba boy in northern Namibia was cute in how serious he was about standing tall and noble.

This Himba boy in northern Namibia was cute in how serious he was about standing tall and noble.

By the way, a future post will go into more depth about photographing people in strange (to you) surroundings.  Thanks so much for reading and have a wonderful weekend!

At Tikal, the ancient Mayan city in Guatemala, rainy weather and the late hour made it feel empty and helped me to experience photo flow.

At Tikal, the ancient Mayan city in Guatemala, rainy weather and the late hour made it feel empty and helped me to experience photo flow.

Travel Theme: Sweet   16 comments

Wow, look at me posting one a day – sort of.  Since I normally don’t post on Monday, I thought I’d participate in one of Ailsa’s Travel Themes, this time Sweet.  Check out her blog post on the subject for interpretations from many more folks.

Guatemalan Sweets

These images were taken in a little town up in the Guatemalan Highlands.  Even in today’s modern world, some of these towns really seem to have been frozen in time (at least partly).  Since my little room was just a block away, I strolled the main square at night, coming upon these unusual-looking sweets.  They stuff limes with sweet rice?  Wow!  I love limes, I love sweet rice!

IxilArea-39

Next day I came upon this little sweetie playing with her friends just outside a village I walked to (no road access).   There were no adults in sight.  They were wild and free!  It’s sad that in this country nowadays the kids are kept under supervision all the time, the parents being scared of dangers exaggerated by the media. Why in my day…nevermind.

Cahabon-11

Happy Vernal Equinox   3 comments

Bring on the light!  The first day of spring, or vernal equinox, is a time for celebration in the northern hemisphere.

Bring on the light! The first day of spring, or vernal equinox, is a time for celebration in the northern hemisphere.

This is the day that makes everybody in the northern hemisphere happy.  It is spring (vernal) equinox.  That means the first day of spring, the day when daytime and nighttime are equal in length (thus “equi” and “nox” – night).  It’s been happening in recent years on the 21st in North America, so some think that it always occurs on this day.

The fact is, the 20th is just as likely as the 21st.  After all, the event is not tied to a date.  It happens when the sun lines up with the equator.  Since the earth is tilted as it goes around the sun, there are only two times during the year that this happens:  once in spring and once in fall (the autumnal equinox).

This annular eclipse, though different from an equinox, reminds us of the different movements of Sun, Earth and Moon.

This annular eclipse, though different from an equinox, reminds us of the different movements of Sun, Earth and Moon.

The other astronomically-significant days on the calendar, the solstices, are when the earth is tilted at its maximum angle with respect to the sun, and so represent the longest (winter) and shortest (summer) days of the year.  On solstices, I have had the habit of trying to do something awesome.  As with my birthday, if I’m not working I try to get out and hike, ski or otherwise enjoy the outdoors.  Climbing a mountain is a favorite.

I have never really thought of equinoxes in the same way.  Maybe it’s time to change this.  I thought I would look through my picture catalog over the last few years, searching by date taken, to find out if I had accidentally done something awesome on the vernal equinox.

The sun rises over the Guatemalan highlands, as viewed from the summit of the highest mountain in Central America, Tajamulco.

The sun rises over the Guatemalan highlands, as viewed from the summit of the highest mountain in Central America, Volcan Tajamulco.

It turns out I had, on the 21st of March in 2010.  In western Guatemala, I climbed to the summit of Tajamulco, the highest mountain in Central America.  We had camped not far below the summit the night before, and before sunrise we climbed the final 800 feet or so.  The sunrise was spectacular.  Hope you enjoy the photos.  Remember to click on any you are interested in purchasing.  They are copyrighted and not available for free download, sorry.   Happy Equinox wherever you may be!

Offerings at the summit of Tajamulco, Guatemala.  A lone climber stands in the shadow of the mountain.

Offerings at the summit of Tajamulco, Guatemala. A lone climber stands in the shadow of the mountain.

Nicaragua III: Rio San Juan   Leave a comment

The Rio San Juan at the outlet of Lago Nicaragua. The town of San Carlos is at right.

It felt rather surreal pulling into the small port of San Carlos at the south end of the lake.  I had a few hours before I caught a small boat down the San Juan, so I explored the town a bit.  A lot of trade comes through here, and bananas are no small part of that trade.  I headed to the riverside town of El Castillo.  It’s dominated by a very interesting fort on the hill above town.  It was built by the Spaniards to protect the entrance to Lago Nicaragua (and the rich town of Granada) from marauding pirates.

Unloading bananas from the overnight ferry that travels the length of Lago Nicaragua.

El Castillo is the jumping off point for trips downriver and into the pristine rain forest on the Nicaraguan side (the Costa Rica side of the river has been cleared for ranching and agriculture, sadly).  But the town is a great spot to hang for a day or two.  I found a little family-run place along the river, where I again worked a deal to photograph their rooms and beautiful exterior in exchange for lodging.  You can hear the rapids on the river as you fall asleep, always a good way to beat insomnia.

The Rio San Juan (central America’s longesr river ) winds toward the Atlantic as viewed from the walls of El Castillo

I walked around town rounding up a few backpackers to share the cost of a boat and guide into the rain forest downstream.  Next morning we were on our way.  We hiked a beautiful stretch of jungle, and I saw my first poison dart frogs (see image).  On the way back upriver we stopped at a place called Refugio Bartola.  I decided on a whim to stay, despite having only the clothes on my back, a water bottle and bug repellent ( I had left my luggage with the family in Castillo).  Bartola sits on the river and is backed by wild jungle.  I had a little adventure here…

The so-called blue-jeans frog inhabits the pristine rain forest along the Rio San Juan in Nicaragua.

Although it was getting to be late afternoon, I took off on a hike into the forest, by myself.  I often do this in unfamiliar places, not sure why.  I like the challenge of using only my sense of direction to find my way back.  And I often am rewarded with great sightings.  I was really hoping for a jaguar, but my consolation prize was a spider monkey, my favorite!  I blame this sighting for keeping me going away from the Refugio for too long.  As I worked my way back, I took a wrong turn and ended up against darkness.  I was still running on the rough root-strewn trail when darkness caught me.

A spider monkey sits in the jungle of southern Nicaragua.

In the tropics dark comes quickly, and in the jungle it descends to true blackness.  With no flashlight, I tried to proceed.  But it immediately became obvious that it was impossible to stay on the trail.  I was stuck!  I sat down for awhile in the blackness, but then stinging ants found me and I hopped wildly about, shaking them out of my shorts.  I had to keep pacing to keep the insects off me as the jungle started to come alive.  I had nothing but a near-empty water bottle.  Luckily it wasn’t destined to get cold overnight, so I would probably survive.  But would I still have my sanity in the morning?  I was doubtful.

After a couple hours of this being alone with my thoughts (“I am NEVER hiking without a flashlight again!”), I saw a brief flash of light in the trees.  I was thinking fireflies, but then I heard them: guys speaking Spanish!  I shouted at the top of my lungs: Ayudeme!  I was rescued!  The guide who works at Bartola had had happened to hear from one of the women who works in the kitchen that she had seen me hiking off alone.  He rounded up the two military guys from the nearby post and, armed, they began the search.  They were amazed that I was so distant.  I asked why the guns were necessary, but knew the answer before it came: jaguar.  There apparently was a large male that called this patch of jungle home.  As we walked back to the Refugio, I wondered about my confidence that I could survive the night.

A couple days later I was traveling, again by river, across the border into Costa Rica.  This country is safer I thought, more traveled and more civilized.  Isn’t it?

 

Nicaragua II: Omotepe   Leave a comment

The volcano Concepcion on the island of Omotepe in Lake Nicaragua is often shrouded in clouds.

I continued south through Nicaragua.  I only spent about 2 1/2 weeks in this country but a lot went on during that time.  I took the boat out to the island of Omotepe, in the middle of Lago Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America.  This island is deservedly popular with tourists, but it isn’t a touristy place.  Instead, it’s a world apart, one of those places you occasionally run into that seems to live in its own time frame.  There are quirky characters, some from North America, who’ve settled here alongside longtime farmers.  It is gorgeous and has a great vibe.

The island is shaped like a dumbbell, because of the two large and potentially dangerous volcanoes that make up the island.  I only spent time on the larger, northern bulge of the dumbbell, where the volcano Concepcion dominates many of the views (see image).  I stayed a few nights at a nice family-run place, Charco Verde.  It is right on the lake and not at all expensive.  Small cabins start at around $20.  I worked a deal where my room and all the meals were free if I did some photography for them.  Most of that photography was at a big fiesta I was invited to.  The area is very rural, with a simple lifestyle.  I watched locals coming to the lake to bathe themselves and their animals as the sun set over the beautiful lake.

The peaceful shores of Omotepe Island in Lake Nicaragua basks in the fading light.

The whole family plus their friends participated in the party, which took place in Altagracia, the island’s main town.  Everyone rode their beautiful dancing horses.  Most of these are arabians, so being the owner of two arabians I liked that.  But these are certainly better trained than mine.  They perform a sort of dancing dressage, which is part of the romance of the Nicaraguan cowboy.  If you have a good singing voice and a dancing horse, there is no better way to woo your beloved.

It’s a dance party on Omotepe, and the horses are getting in on the action.

A pretty Nicaraguan girl from the island of Omotepe pauses in front of her horse.

After the parade featuring the requisite religious icon, everyone repaired to the beach and proceeded to get drunk and do some dancing.  All except me; I was on the job.  Another one who did not drink was one of the families daughters, who I fell hopelessly in love with (see image).  The day ended with a raucous rodeo, the wildest and least organized one I’ve ever been to.  They were using an American flag, upside down, as a lure for the enraged bulls (see image).

A truly wild rodeo on the island of Omotepe in Nicaragua.

Omotepe had been truly fun and relaxing.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.  But it was time to go, and I had chosen the more adventurous way to move on from the island.  As the sun set, I boarded the overnight ferry that heads down the lake to its main outlet, where the Rio San Juan heads east along the Costa Rica border on its way to the sea.  This route, Central America’s longest river, was originally proposed for the canal between the oceans, before Panama was ultimately chosen.  The canal would have likely been shorter and easier here, but the number of active volcanoes eventually nixed the idea.

I hung my hammock on deck and soon felt the strong breeze that presages a thunderstorm.  And boy was it a doozie, sweeping with fury across the lake.  Next up is the Rio San Juan and the final installment of my Nicaragua adventures.

Nicaragua I: Highlands and Colonial Architecture   Leave a comment

Continuing southward through Central America, I entered a country I had high expectations for: Nicaragua.  I crossed in from Honduras and soon took a sharp left to the northern highlands, aka coffee heaven.  Day’s end saw me in Matagalpa, which looks and reads like a city in guidebook maps and descriptions, but is really just a large town.  The white-washed church in the town center is quite photogenic (image below).  The town is a busy one, being market central for an enormous swath of the country, and it has a nice mix of culture and modest tourist amenities.   But one needs to keep going north to get into the heart of the highlands.

The colonial church at Matagalpa, Nicaragua

By the way, clicking any of these images takes you to my website, where download rights or prints may be purchased.  The versions on this blog are too small for most anything, but if you are interested in any of them, and you can’t find them on my website, just contact me.  The images are copyrighted.  Thanks so much for your cooperation, and interest!

The beautiful highlands of northern Nicaragua, on the huge coffee finca of Selva Negra.

I headed to Selva Negra, an old coffee estate not too far north of Matagalpa.  The journey up there put me in mind of some of my rides in Asia – taking in the air on top of the bus instead of in the crammed interior.  Selva Negra was originally started by Germans and is still at least part owned by their descendants.  You occasionally see the (lucky) old farts walking around the place.  The countryside here reminded them of the Black Forest at home, thus the name Selva Negra.

The lake at Selva Negra, with its bordering cloud forest, greets guests on their way to an excellent cup of fresh coffee.

They have a sort of rustic resort up there on the shores of a beautiful man-made lake surrounded by cloud forest (image above).  There are rooms, cabins and a dormitory, along with a nice indoor/outdoor restaurant.  The food comes straight from the farm and is delicious.  The coffee, of course, is stellar.  There is a beautiful old stone church.  Nights are cool and days very comfortable up here.

The cloud forest blooms: Selva Negra, Nicaragua

The farm is huge and includes open ranch-type land along with acres of coffee.  There is also a school and an employee village set in idyllic surroundings.  Hiking trails take off into the beautiful cloud forest and horses are also available.  I took part in both of these activities over the three days I was there.  I stayed in one of the dorms only steps from the lake and, as I expected, had it to myself.

It was the type of climate and terrain I dream of living in, riding horses every day and eating fresh organic veggies, eggs and beef direct from the source.  One of the best parts about it was strolling down through the shady lanes leading to the employee village and goofing around with the kids making their way home from school.  What a paradise!

The streets of Leon, Nicaragua, are lined with colorful old colonial buildings.

I went on to Leon, and was yanked back to the often grim reality of traveling in the Isthmus.  The bus rides, though cheap, often have you wishing that death would come quickly.  In Leon, a proper city, there are loads of young people.  It is Nicaragua’s college town, with several universities.  The beautiful young girls walking the streets can drive a man to distraction!  Yet there are other beautiful sights as well.  The cathedrals and other Spanish colonial architecture had me slipping to my travel and street photographer persona.  Later I would visit Granada, Nica’s main town for colonial architecture (images below).  The architecture there smacks you in the face, and it’s impeccably restored.  I prefer to hunt around the narrow streets for treasures, and where it doesn’t feel so much like some sort of set that’s maintained for tourists.  In Granada, that takes getting away from the main square and its tourists; Leon is more of a working (or studying) kind of town.

The church La Recoleccion in Leon Nicaragua catches the late afternoon sun as a passerby casts his shadow on the old walls

The Munincipal Theater in Leon, Nicaragua employs very interesting colonial architecture.

The backstreets of Granada, Nicaragua.

I spent a few days on the gorgeous Lago Apoyo, which is, like most lakes in this area, a volcanic caldera now filled with clear blue water.  The lake is bordered by beautiful forest, and is near to the active volcano Masaya.  This part of the Americas is one of the most active segments of the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire (a line of volcanoes and earthquake faults encircling the Pacific Ocean).  The forest comes right down to the lake, and despite there being only a dirt track accessing the shore, there are several nice places to stay.  I spent $75 for two nights with meals, which is not all that cheap for Nica.  But for a room on that beautiful lake, swimming and relaxing in hammocks?  I’ll take it.

A golden-mantled howler (Alouatta palliata palliata) inhabits the trees near Lake Nicaragua.

Tearing myself away from the perfect swimming, I hiked up through the forest and got remarkably close to a troop of howler monkeys (see image).  You hear them all the time in Central America, but rarely get close enough for a good picture.  Along with a great Swedish couple I met, I visited Volcan Masaya on a taxi tour.  This volcano breathes, and it was a powerful experience being so close to its steaming crater.  There is also a very cool cave to explore, with friendly bats!  The last image is of living Masaya, the sun setting behind it.  Next up: Omotepe, Lake Nicaragua, and the jungles of the Rio San Juan.

Masaya volcano in Nicaragua remains active and is accessible by hiking trail.

Honduras   Leave a comment

On the island of Roatan, off the coast of Honduras, the pace of life slows to a standstill as the sun sinks into the sea.

Honduras, more than any other country in this part of the world, lies at both extremes of the Central American spectrum.  The extremes I’m talking about are not what your average Honduran would think about on a typical day.  They would just find this either hilarious or insulting.  I’m talking about the typical North American’s perceptions of Central America.  Almost anybody who thinks about going to Central America, if they’re honest, will tell you they’ve thought about crime, and usually it’s violent drug crime.  But they’ve also fantasized about walking along a glorious Caribbean beach, scuba diving over colorful reefs, or exploring a misty cloud forest.  Some of us push the worries to the back of our minds, embrace the positive, and plunge right in.

After visiting Copan, the southernmost known major Mayan ruin, I visited Lake Yojoa in central Honduras.  I got my nature fix here, hiking and birdwatching in the beautiful forest bordering the lake.  I actually saw, with the help of a guide, 75 different species of birds in one morning’s walk.  Then I headed north toward the Caribe coast.  Crossing Honduras, one thing becomes clear: this is the emptiest country in Central America.  It is El Salvador’s opposite.  Most people live near the coast, leaving the mountainous interior strangely (for Central America) lacking in people.

A waterfall near Lago Yojoa in central Honduras.

And it was to the coast that I traveled, winding up in the oppressively hot streets of La Ceiba.  I suffered through just one night in a dingy room downtown.  Seeking relief from the heat, I strolled down to the waterfront, looking for something to eat.  After dinner I visited a watering hole.  But once my eyes got used to the dim interior, I began to notice that my fellow patrons were not the type of folks I wanted to have a beer with, not unless I knew them very well that is.  Unsavory is not a strong enough word.  When I began to notice poorly concealed weapons, carried by most of the men, I performed my best quick-quiet exit.  Walking back to  my hotel in the now-empty streets, I put on my “dark” face, striding tall and with purpose, chastising myself the whole way for acting the clueless tourist.

The next morning I caught a taxi to the airport, intending to catch the day’s first flight to Isla Roatan.  On the way, we got stuck in a traffic jam.  The taxi driver somehow got out of the line and onto a frontage road, where we could bypass the stopped cars.  We came up on the cause of the backup, and I just stared.  It was a pickup turned on its side, with at least a dozen big shotgun blasts through its upturned side.  I saw two blanket-covered bodies lying on the shoulder as the police circulated through the scene, but there could have been more dead.  The taxi driver said it was probably a government hit.

Turns out that the Honduran government surreptitiously hires hit squads to take out the local leaders of drug smuggling rings.  It is quite an effective but unorthodox method, hiring criminals to act as judge, jury and executioner, and if it was done too openly the U.S. Congress might cut off the money.  But the average Honduran seems to supports the effort, and truth be told the U.S. undoubtedly knows what’s going on.

So those experiences hint at every would-be Central American tourist’s misgivings about coming here.  That is why most go to the Americanized and relatively beningn Costa Rica.  If they do come to Honduras, they fly directly to Roatan, which was my next destination.  Here you’ll find the other end of the spectrum, the paradise that brings tourists here despite their deeply held fears and biases.  Roatan and the nearby island of Utila are indeed idyllic, surrounded as they are by the warm waters of the Caribbean, and fringed by beautiful coral reefs.  The scuba diving here is quite inexpensive, and backpackers come to get certified on the cheap.  I did one morning and two night dives, wanting to see sharks and octopus (my favorite sea creature).  It was fun, but my standards have become too high with diving.

The beach and warm clear waters of the Caribbean at West End on Roatan, off the coast of Honduras.

And so I mostly just tooled around the island on my rented scooter, walked the beaches, and swam in the sea.  The island is not small, and it is quite hilly.  The pace of life here, as you might expect, is tortoise-slow.  If I had just flown directly from Miami to Roatan, however, the effect of this slow pace would have hit me in a different way.  As it was, after being in the hot, somewhat dangerous city of La Ceiba, the sleepy beaches of Roatan, with its blessed cool breezes, felt like a true Eden.  It felt more like salvation than simply an escape from cold weather.  I have to say that, despite all of the charms, I tend to become bored with places such as this.  I enjoy it for three, maybe five days max.  After I left, on my way to Tegucigalpa, I thought back and wondered why I didn’t stay longer.  I was just getting the rhythm down.  What did I have against relaxation anyway?  With no good answer, I looked out of the bus window at the highlands passing by, signalling the approach of the Nicaraguan border.

Sunset over the Caribbean.

The Land of the Maya IV   Leave a comment

Guatemala

A misty view of some of the major temples at Tikal, the huge ancient Mayan city in Guatemala.

This is the last of my posts on the land of the Maya.  I may continue to post on my swing through Central America, but once you have traveled southward into the highlands straddling the Honduras – Nicaragua border, you’ve left the Maya behind.

A bird of paradise flower blooms in a Central American cloud forest

I visited Tikal in the Peten of northern Guatemala.  This is without a doubt the most impressive Mayan ruins I’ve been to.  I already posted on the birds of Tikal and they are, along with the other wildlife, one of the best things about the ancient city.  Tikal lies in thick jungle, with plenty of room between the temples and pyramids to get lost in nature.

I stayed in El Remate, the nearest village to the ruins.  Many people stay in Flores, a much bigger, busier place that involves a longer drive to Tikal.  In El Remate, you can visit near the end of the day or very early in the morning, thus beating the crowds.  Simply take a taxi or hop in one of the many vans that ply the route to Tikal.  It’s a quiet village sitting on the huge Peten Itza lake, and lacks resorts & nightlife.  But that’s the way I like it.  By the way, there is also a hotel near the gate of Tikal, but then you’re not staying in a village, not soaking up much culture.  And Remate is cheaper.  My humble little room, but with it’s own private bathroom, cost $7/night.  A huge steak dinner one night cost $5.

On my first day, fresh from the Belize border, it was cloudy with showers.  I almost decided to wait until morning but then on a whim caught a ride up to the ruins, arriving less than two hours before they closed.  It was a great move, as I got some nice moody shots of the temples in misty, foggy conditions.  Also the weather had scared off most of the tourists.  Tikal gets plenty of tourist traffic, but the ruins are large and spread out, so you can always get away from people if you need to.  I’m not going to detail much about Tikal, since it is an easy thing to look up.  I’ll just say that this place has some fun (and steep!) temple climbs.

I thought about doing a trek in this area of Guatemala, to the relatively newly discovered ruins of El Mirador, deep in the jungle.  But I didn’t, thinking of all those countries left to explore.  You can trek or ride horses to El Mirador.  Check around Flores for guides.  It’s pretty exciting to think about exploring the remote Peten, which is prime hunting ground for uncovering new Mayan ruins, and as a bonus hosts abundant wildlife.  It’s also a drug-smuggling corridor, but I still want to return some day for an adventure.

So I headed south, stopping on the way at a wonderful farm-stay called Finca Ixobel.  It’s written up in Lonely Planet (of course), and has good, healthy food and truly excellent coffee. It’s situated in lovely partly forested country that just begs to be explored on horseback.  And so I did!  They have some horses and a good guy to take you out.  My mount, Frojo, looked lazy and a bit too small to me, but boy did he ever prove me wrong.  He was a real pistol, wanting to run more than I could handle!  You can also hike at Ixobel; I did the trek up a small mountain covered in beautiful subtropical forest.  I love this part of Guatemala.

A carved stela at the Mayan ruins of Quirigua in Guatemala suggests extra-terrestrial influences.

Tropical flower

A tropical flower blooms in the forest of central Guatemala.

I stopped at a fairly small Mayan site called Quirigua, in the far south of Guatemala just off the main highway.  While the temples are small, it contains some of the nicest carvings I’ve seen.  There are tall stelae (sculpted towers) and squat zoomorphic sculptures (see images).  There are also carved calenders, and together with Copan just across the border, it represents an excellent original source for the Mayan calender.  I don’t believe the Mayans thought the world would end in 2012, but there is so much we don’t know that they might have known.  So who knows?  We’ll find out in December.

I went on to El Salvador, but concentrated on other things (nature, surfing) while I was there.  So I won’t detail it here.  It is certainly a tough country in which to travel, and the most poverty-stricken in Central America.  The surfing set mostly is unaware of the reality there, since they plop down on the coast and don’t travel around.

Looping back into the blessedly cool hill country of western Honduras, I visited Copan.  My last Mayan ruin, I wanted some great pictures.  Unfortunately the light did not cooperate.  But I did get very close to one of the many scarlet macaws roosting in the trees near the entrance.

The little town of Copan Ruinas near the Mayan city of the same name is quite charming, with a nice cool highland climate and attractive architecture.  I met an American guy there who moved there from Texas and bought a coffee finca (farm).  It was interesting talking to him, finding out how he made it work.  His relatively high elevation means he has to find just the right genetic mix to grow coffee that survives, let alone tastes good.

Copan has some very impressive carvings.  There is a ball court flanked with carvings of macaws.  One of the more unique structures is the Hieroglyphic Stairway, which is the longest hieroglyph in the Mayan world.  The story told is still being deciphered.  Much of the artifacts and structures have been damaged or taken away by the Copan River. Copan was occupied for about 2000 years, and for much of that time was subject to flooding.  I always find it funny when some people remark that the new world is very poor in culture and history compared with the old world.  I guess they just don’t know.

A zoomorphic sculpture at Quirigua, a Mayan site in Guatemala. It is about 7 feet tall and 10 feet across.

Mayan Ruins

The highlands around the Mayan ruins of Copan in Honduras are made up of rolling hills and coffee farms.

Copan

The famous Hieroglyphic Stairway at the Mayan ruins of Copan in Honduras represent the longest untold story in ancient Mayan history.

Well that does it for the Maya.  I will always have deep admiration and respect for their stunning achievements, especially in astronomy and mathematics.  But this trip really opened my eyes to the Maya as they exist today.  The Maya who are living a simple agricultural lifestyle in Guatemala are not very different than their ancestors.  The ancient Mayan civilization after all, consisted of a few priests and elite while the bulk of the population were farmers and laborers.

This makes me wonder how many of these simple folk living in poor villages have, lying dormant within them, the ability to conceive of and accomplish great things, just as their ancestors did.  How often is a life lived, however fulfilling it is, where this latent potential is unrealized?  And how could I tell by just meeting them on my travels?  It’s interesting to think about.

A macaw perches near the entrance to Copan, the Mayan ruins in Honduras. Appearing in carvings in the ancient city, they remain to this day, roosting in the trees above the crumbling temples.

Copan

Large carvings of scarlet macaw heads adorn the side of the ball court in the ancient Mayan city of Copan. They would have been painted brightly.

The Maya III   Leave a comment

Dugout canoes are a common sight alonf the Rio Dulce in southeast Guatemala.

A continuation of my journey into the land of the Maya, where I visited every country in Central America.  After the highlands of Guatemala, I traveled through southeastern Guatemala, then into Belize, looping back through Guatemala and down into El Salvador.  I then went on to Honduras, finally leaving the land of the Maya when I continued into Nicaragua.

Guatemala

A boy who would not leave me alone until I befriended him on the western shore of Lago Izabel, Guatemala.

Lake Izabel in Guatemala is not as beautiful as Lake Atitlan, but it doesn’t have the tourist traffic either.  The town of El Estor, on the steamy lakeshore at the west end of the lake, is a haven for wildlife, including dugongs (like manatees).  You can simply ask around down at the lake to find someone who will take you out on their boat.  Just make sure he takes you well up the Rio Polochic.  You will certainly get close to howler monkeys, and you might see spider monkeys (which are probably my favorite monkey) as well.

The Rio Dulce connects Izabel with the Caribbean at Livingston (where you can either head into Belize or Honduras).  Here you are back on the “gringo trail”, which doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful, but make sure you check out Izabel’s western end too.  You take a small tour boat/ferry from the busy town of Rio Dulce to the coast.  There are several jungle lodges to stay in about halfway along, so if you have a couple days I would not go all the way to Livingston in one go.

Instead, enjoy the slow pace of life along these quiet tropical waterways, watching local fishermen in dugout canoes, doing a little hiking & birdwatching, and swimming.  I stayed at Finca Tatin, & my little jungle chalet (complete with outdoor rock shower) was named Tucano.  I can definitely recommend this place.  It’s popular with backpackers, but I don’t hold that against it – too much!

I’ll skip over my diving adventures in Belize.  I love diving in the Caribe, but Belize, along its coast at least, is not my favorite part of Central America.  The wilderness and Mayan ruins of western Belize however, are a different story.  The people are quite friendly in Belize, but I can’t say I’m impressed.  The poor Belizean women, they have to put up with men who don’t do much, just drinking beer most of the day and hanging out.

When leaving Belize the cabbie warned me to be careful in Guatemala.  I told him I’d already spent about a month there and felt safer than on the streets of larger towns in Belize.  It’s true.  At night the drunk guys hanging about are rather unsavory.  Of course Guatemala City & Antigua can present dangers too.

I rented a little motorbike of questionable quality in the town of San Ignacio (also called Cayo), which is the tourist basecamp for western Belize.  Central America, unlike most of Asia, is not a place where one can easily rent scooters & motorbikes.  Too bad, because it is perfect for that.  I had to resort to finding a repair shop and talked them into renting me one of their supposedly finished “projects”.

So I set off on the bike into the stupendous Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve, a huge plateau covered in pine forest, and graced by beautiful waterfalls and caves.  What a day of exploring!  I only saw a few jeeps.  The roads are rough but passable.  The sun was rapidly setting as I was racing back, when the front wheel turned without the handlebars doing so.  Not good!  I wiped out big time, but luckily got only a few scratches and scrapes.  I had to straighten the wheel with brute force, and take it very easy the rest of the way.  Lucky it was so late when I returned it nobody was around.  The bike had a fender hanging off, plus assorted other dings.

Guatemala

Tropical jungle surrounds my cabin at Finca Tatin, along the Rio Dulce in Guatemala.

Belize

My transport while diving on the coast of Belize.

Just before reaching Guatemala, near the town of San Jose Succotz, overlooking a beautiful river (the Mopan), lie the ruins of Xunantunich (pronounce CHEW-nahn-too-neech).  These Mayan ruins are relatively small, especially when compared to massive Tikal just across the border in Guatemala.  But they are beautiful, with a fantastic temple (El Castillo) that you can climb for outstanding views extending into Guatemala.  You have to cross the river on a hand-cranked ferry, then it’s a shortish walk up to the ruins.  I went towards day’s end, & ended up alone at the top of El Castillo as the sun was setting.  What a feeling!

Belize

Thousand Foot Falls in the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve of western Belize is actually 1600 feet high and is the highest waterfall in Central America.

I stayed nearby in a quirky place I sadly forget the name of.  But if you’re there be observant at the east end of San Jose Succotz, you’ll see it up on the hill, or its sign claiming it’s an eco-“resort”.  I don’t care if they exaggerate about their status as a resort, it is an extremely relaxing and low-key place.  Very cheap too.

Belize

El Castillo is a temple at the Mayan ruins of Xunantunich in western Belize.

Well I crossed into Guatemala on my way to Tikal, but this is getting lengthy, so I’ll save that for next time.

Belize

The temple of El Castillo in western Belize basks in lonely late-day light.

 

The Maya I: Yucatan   Leave a comment

The beach and aqua Caribe at Sian Ka’an near Tulum, Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico.

This is the first of a series of themed travel articles, based on recent trips.  Central America is certainly not the easiest region to travel through, especially if like me you fall firmly on the budget side of things.  My trip there a couple years ago was alternately relaxing and chaotic, gorgeous and grimy, fascinating and overlong, steamy hot and refreshing.  Central America is a place of contrasts, and this contrast begins with the Maya: past and present.

I’ve always been interested in the Maya.  On my first trip to the Yucatan years ago I visited a couple of ancient Mayan sites (Chichen Itza & Tulum).  The experience of standing on top of the carved stone temples of Tulum, alone as the sun rose over the Caribbean, was truly amazing.  But the main thing that impressed me on that trip was the fact that the Maya have gone nowhere.  They still live in the area, despite what we all learn – that they disappeared along with their ancient culture hundreds of years ago.

A huge Mayan pyramid at the remote site of Calakmul in the southern Yucatan.

Although they are a shadow of their former selves in terms of power and influence, the Maya remain a people relatively unstained by the worst of modern culture.  I found them to be delightful people, even more so on this recent trip, where I visited the current Maya cultural heartland: the Guatemalan Highlands.

Visiting the Mayan ruins in the Yucatan involves leaving the beach resorts of Cancun & the Riviera Maya behind and striking inland.  There is one exception to this rule: Tulum.  The ruins at Tulum, though nowhere near as big or important as other sites, are by virtue of their seaside location spectacular.  Like some other popular Mayan ruins, Tulum is mobbed by tours which arrive starting in late morning and peaking in the hottest part of the day.

A cool inner chamber near the top of a Mayan temple provides a unique perspective.

The Mayan ruins of Xpuhil in the Yucatan, Mexico.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Arriving when they open is really the only reasonable plan for these popular sites.  With Tulum, you can do as I did and stay at one of the rustic beach “resorts” nearby.  The one in which I stayed in 2003 was the closest to the ruins.  My shack was on the beach (not facing the beach but actually surrounded by sand).  Inside was only a hammock and candle.  It cost me $12, and I was steps from the warm sea.  I don’t know how fancy things have gotten down there, but I imagine it’s suffered to some degree the scourge of “going upscale”.

I woke naturally at dawn, and hiked along the beach toward the ruins.  I clambered over rocks and reached the ruins by skirting around a fence.  The site was not open yet, and I was the only person there for some time, until one other guy, a Mexican, showed up.  He had apparently also walked in along the coast.  We didn’t say much to each other, and didn’t need to.  He just smiled at me in the golden light of sunrise.  We knew how lucky we were to be sharing that moment.  I was thinking about those Mayans who first caught sight of the Spaniards’ ships as they approached the New World.  Then I took a swim at the small sandy cove sitting at the base of Tulum’s walls.

A brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) perches on a branch in Mexico’s Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.

I also visited Chichen Itza on my first trip to the Yucatan, in 2003, and like Tulum, I wanted to beat the crowds.  I stayed in the nearby town of Valladolid.  This is the only real town close to the ruins, though there are (spendy) hotels near the gate.  But Vallodolid is a quaint town with good street food.  I’d much rather sit in the zocalo (town square) and people-watch while eating cheap and tasty ceviche than sit in a big hotel’s restaurant trying not to be late for a scheduled tour.  You can catch a cheap van to the ruins starting in the early morning, and easily arrive when the gates open.  This will get you there with hours to spend before the tour buses from Cancun arrive.

Many other Mayan sites pepper the Yucatan Peninsula, and if you rent a car you can do excellent loops using the fine city of Merida as a base.  You can visit ruins like Uxmal south of Merida, taking in some modern Mayan villages along the way.  Or loop north to the Gulf, passing numerous cenotes, most of them swimmable.

As day ends in Mexico, I naturally gravitate toward the Taco stand.

Cenotes were (and are) sacred to the Maya, representing as they do the only sources of fresh water on the sponge-like limestone landscape of the Yucatan.  They are essentially sinkholes, some open to the sky, some more cave-like, filled with fresh cool water.  The cenotes in this area are aligned along a massive structure that is the remnant of an enormous impact crater.  It was formed when the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs slammed into Earth 65 million years ago.

Swimming in a cenote is practically a requirement for visiting the Yucatan.  If you’re a diver you can take guided scuba trips into some cenotes.  This way you’ll get a strong feeling (maybe too strong for some) of what underwater cave diving is like.  My cenote dive was a true adventure, fascinating, unique, a little scary…a fantastic dive.

This is a fine trip, exploring the more popular Mayan sites in the northern Yucatan Peninsula.  But if you want a bit more adventure, and also the chance to see wildlife, make the southern Yucatan your goal.  I did this on my more recent trip, visiting the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, south of Tulum on the way.  You can stay right on the reserve in gorgeous tented cabins at Centro Ecologico de Sian Ka’an (Cesiak).  There are reasonably priced boat trips into the wetlands, and the beach is long and empty.  It’s not too expensive, but not backpacker-cheap either.  You might be able to swing a deal in Tulum town, and you’ll be able to catch a ride out there with them in their van.

But the mysterious ruins in the Peten were my destination.  Heading inland just before reaching Chetumal near the Belize border, I arrived in the town of Xpuhil.  Public transport is fairly reliable, since this is the route between Chetumal and Campeche.  There are simple lodgings in this small town, and a great Mayan site (Xpuhil) that you can walk to.  I considered this a warmup to the huge ancient Mayan city of Calakmul, south of Xpuhil.

I was forced to do something I sometimes resort to when I arrive in a place that is relatively untouristed, and without much of a plan.  I walked around looking for the few other tourists in town, and finally found a couple who wanted to visit Calakmul as well.  Then we simply asked around and found a guide to take us.  We left early in the morning, and drove down the lonely road through the flat jungle of the Peten.  We passed our first car and stopped.  They had just seen a jaguar on the road, but when we hurried onward it was already gone.

We arrived at Calakmul and were the only visitors.  A couple workers were using homemade brooms to sweep the stone walkways as we walked through the enormous site.  A large herd of wild pigs roamed the trees between the ruins.  Calakmul was one of the Maya world’s more important cities, rivaling Tikal in size.  In fact, Tikal and Palenque, two other famous sites of the Peten, were Calakmul’s fierce rivals.

The pyramids of Calakmul are truly gigantic, standing well up above the jungle.  The surrounding landscape is so flat that on very clear days you can see some of the pyramids at Mayan sites south across the Guatemalan border.  I imagined standing up there during the height of Mayan power, looking across the jungle to a rival city’s pyramids.  Would they be attacking my city soon?  We spent a few hours wandering about, checking out the ruins.  A few other visitors showed up, but we mostly had the place to ourselves.

A fine thing about being in Central America is the ready availability of fresh jugos (what we would call smoothies).

We ended up staying at a little “eco-resort” (really a campsite) on the way back.  There was a canopy platform there, accessible by hiking trail.  This is a tower with stairs you climb to an observation deck situated near the treetops.  This allows you to do some serious birdwatching.  I saw beautiful parrots, toucans and other birds.  While hiking I also came upon a group of Coatis, curious looking creatures that really don’t look much like any other animal.  The Peten is heaven for a naturalist.

A Mexican woman from southern Yucatan relaxes with her knitting on a perfect afternoon.

That evening we visited a cave where thousands and thousands of bats emerge at sunset.  What a trip!  Clouds of them, flying right past my head in a blur.  The image above is of a woman we met along the road, at a stop for drinks.  She was just sitting there knitting, and was very happy to exchange the local gossip with our guide (who she knew of course).  Typical Mexican flavor, so I had my camera out, and she was a very cooperative subject.

The wild jungle of the Peten stretches toward Guatemala from atop a pyramid at Calakmul in Mexico.

I love Mexico, and will be back there soon I hope.  I would love to go on an archaeological expedition into the Peten, either northern Guatemala or southern Mexico.  There are drug smugglers operating in this remote area, and penetrating it means trekking on foot through rough jungles.  But I know that not only is it a rich hunting ground for fresh discoveries of Mayan cities, but it is also home to Central America’s most diverse and abundant wildlife.  But this trip, in which I visited all the countries in Central America, was only just beginning.  I would visit many more Mayan sites, and also experience their culture in western Guatemala.  That’s the subject of the next post in this series.

The sun goes down behind an island in the lagoon at Sian Kaan Reserve on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.

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