Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Ancient Ones III: Chaco Canyon Sites   2 comments

Penyasco Blanco and the sky, at sunset in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

Chaco Canyon fires the imagination of many, but you might also want to know what there is to do there.  It’s worth learning a bit about the Ancestral Puebloan culture before you arrive.  But don’t get crazy about that.  You want, first and foremost, an open mind.  I’ve noticed there are many people who have definite ideas and interpretations regarding the Ancient Ones.  That’s really not my style.  I’d rather arrive at a place with a fairly blank mind, and let the questions naturally evolve.  That said, here is a brief summary.

The architecture at Chaco Canyon dates from about  800 A.D., but evidence of ancestral peoples here goes back more than 10,000 years, when people were fully nomadic.  You will notice earthen mounds throughout the canyon.  Many of these lie unexcavated, similar to the Mayan sites of Central America.  It’s estimated that up to 99% of the ancient remains here are still hidden beneath the sand.  Also, archaeologists have reburied many sites in order to best protect them from the elements.

The kivas and plazas of Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

Pueblo Bonito is the largest ancient structure yet found in the Four Corners region.  Begun around the year 800, it continued to be expanded according to a master plan, all the way up to the late 1200s.  It’s a large D-shaped structure, originally 5 stories high, and which held perhaps 800 rooms.  Much of its interior space is taken up by a grand plaza, along with no less than 33 kivas.  The way this was built, over many generations, invites comparison to how the great cathedrals in Europe were built.

Let me take this opportunity to plug a book I read years ago, called Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett.  If you haven’t read it, you should.  There is also a miniseries that was based on the book, and that wasn’t too bad either.  The story spans generations of the people involved in the construction of a cathedral that still pierces the sky in rural England.  This long-term commitment to a vision is precisely how Pueblo Bonito, and really the whole Chacoan culture, seems to have been built up.

A pair of ravens welcome the rising sun at Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

Detail of the back curved wall of Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon. Note the ponderosa pine log.

Given the size of Pueblo Bonito, there were not many people who lived here.  This is judging from the general lack of human burial remains.  Possibly it only housed the elite, or the religious leaders.  But it is clear that many thousands came here for gatherings, an ancient version of the rendezvous, if you will.  The plazas, great kivas, the layout of the place, all suggest both ceremony and fun.  If you were young you might have looked for love here, or showed off to peers your athletic prowess.  The purpose of it being so overbuilt may have simply been to wow those arriving from outlying villages.

There are other great houses throughout Chaco Canyon, and there were roads connecting outlying villages and great houses as well.  One of the most distant outliers is Chimney Rock, in SW Colorado some 100 miles away.  The great houses, kivas, reservoirs and other structures indicate these people were  master masons, cutting and shaping the local sandstone very precisely.

They used massive ponderosa pine trees too (e.g. to roof the kivas), which were cut from the nearest forest about 60 miles away.  A lucky thing this was for archaeologists.  In the early 20th century dendrochronology (tree-ring dating), was developed.  It was a boon for southwest archaeology, allowing accurate dating of the Ancient Ones’ remnants.  This is a good time to mention the silliness regarding the “A” word when it comes to southwest archaeology.  A stands for aliens.

Using the example of the trees, the idea is that there is no evidence that the trees were dragged or rolled, thus since they were transported so far, the people must have had extraterrestrial help.  I don’t know about you, but camps of young, strong bucks strung out along the route, between which they shuttled the tree trunks from camp to camp, is an obvious solution.  When I was in my late teens/early twenties, I know I could have helped carry heavy trees over several miles.  Not alone, or over the entire 60 miles, but as an organized team.

As at other ancient sites (e.g. the Nazca Plain in Peru), the alignment of structures and roads, along with irrigation ditches and other features, is interpreted by the faithful in aluminum foil hats as only making sense when seen from the air.  Well, maybe that’s true.  But it sure doesn’t mean they had alien help, or were trying to impress aliens instead of their gods.

I took the tour of Pueblo Bonito, which is led every day by a ranger at 2 p.m.  It is well worthwhile.  I also hiked up the canyon late in the day, ending near sunset at the ruins of Penyasco Blanco.  This is about 3.5 miles one way, and you’ll pass a fascinating pictograph called “supernova”.  You can see why from the image (below).  On the way, I flushed a small herd of elk.  The light was very nice at Penyasco Blanco up on the canyon rim, but it put me back at the van right at dark (as usual).

A ranger was there when I arrived, and he was the wannabe cop, officious type.  The loop road that visits Chaco’s main sites closes at sunset, so I was technically about 15-20 minutes late getting out.  Most rangers would see the fact that I had no flashlight, had been jogging back to the trailhead, did not have pockets bulging with artifacts or fossils, and just let me know they are strict about the sunset thing, and that I shouldn’t do it again.  But this character saw fit to write me a $125 ticket.  I’ll just warn everybody out there.  The N.P.S. is chock full of these A-holes.  You never know when you’ll be dealing with one, so keep clear and don’t be like me and push it.  Of course, that’ll mean you won’t get pictures of the things I get, in the light I get them.  But that’s how the N.P.S. rolls.  I’ll never contribute money to their foundation or advocate increased funding to that agency until they improve in this regard (even as I accept the consequences of trying to bend their rules).

The fascinating supernova pictograph in Chaco Canyon is painted on an inaccessible overhang.

I spent the night in the treeless, rather dusty campground.  On the bright side, it is spacious and cheap ($10).  It also is tucked up against one of the canyon walls, which helps.  In the morning I did some sunrise photography at Pueblo Bonito, and then hiked up to Tsin Kletzin, another great house up on South Mesa.  This hike of just a few miles passes Casa Rinconada, with its enormous kiva.  This is one of the largest kivas ever found, and is a can’t miss sight at Chaco.

A cow elk in the arroyo at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

I had no company on this hike, just like the previous day.  Being alone in Chaco is the only good way to experience the strange power of Chaco Canyon, and it helps to leave the road and hike to accomplish this.  That’s my opinion of course.

As I dropped through the steep South Gap, and walked down the beautiful box canyon (rinconada), I felt the attraction, the Chaco’s power if you will.  A place where your first impression is of drought and dust can become, if you spend some time, a place you might imagine traveling to for gatherings a thousand years ago.  The power of Chaco Canyon is only partially hidden by the sands that cover many of the Ancient Ones’ dwellings here.  It’s worth making the trek out here to see and experience this special magic.

A view from Pueblo Bonito’s grand plaza includes the great kiva’s curved wall. Note the niches, which originally contained precious artifacts, and the stone bench.

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The Ancient Ones II: Chaco Canyon Intro.   2 comments

The ruins of an Ancestral Puebloan Greathouse, Penyasco Blanco sits on the rim of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.

I have finally made it to Chaco Canyon.  This is one of those places I’ve been intrigued with for a long long time.  In fact, as I approached the Ancestral Puebloan (aka Anasazi) site in northwestern New Mexico, on the long and torturous washboard road, I reminded myself not to expect too much.  It is far too easy, I learned a while back in my traveling days, to hype a place up in your mind, and to have inflated expectations as a result.  I did not want to be disappointed because of my own biases.

The Animas River of northern New Mexico flows peacefully through the town of Aztec as the sun goes down.

The approach, however, gives a definite impression of a dry, dusty and rather inhospitable place.  Once you are here, and in the canyon proper, it is a little nicer.  But it is dry, especially now, in the midst of a rainless late summer/fall.  No monsoon moisture has seeped up from the Gulf of Mexico in quite awhile in these parts, and the forecast shows nothing but sun sun sun.  There is an El Nino developing in the Pacific right now, and once that is in place, winter should be somewhat wetter than normal throughout the desert southwest.  If you live here, you pray for that.  But it also requires extreme caution around the arroyos, which can send a flash flood down upon you in…well, a flash.

Chaco Canyon was the center of the Ancestral Puebloans world, and it was a world not much wetter than it is now.  I’ve heard it described as their New York City.  But Chicago might be a better analogy, a Chicago during its glory days as a center for agricultural and livestock trade.  Chaco was where the ancient ones built their grandest structures.   Everything is aligned on N-S and E-W axes, and there are features of the buildings that make it obvious that these people were very much aware of the movements of the sun, stars,  moon and planets.

One thing you’ll notice is that these sights are mutually visible, by line of sight.  In fact, the Chacoans built signaling towers for communication throughout the canyon and beyond.  They used fires (the classic American Indian smoke signal), and also “reflective rock”, which I’m guessing would have been mica.  This enabled them to relay signals for tens of miles at the least, and very likely throughout their territory.

KIVAS

A constant feature of these ancient pueblos is the kiva. Similar to finding a church in even the smallest mountain settlement or ghost town, a kiva is found even in the smallest clan-sized dwelling.  Kivas are round stone structures built mostly below ground and roofed with cribbed wooden beams.  Like churches, mosques and synagogues, kivas were used for religious ceremonies.  

And yet, they were multi-purpose living spaces as well.  At Chaco Canyon, there are few to no fireplace hearths found in the rooms of the great houses, but every kiva had one.  Also, the first archaeologists found pottery, grinding stones, and other artifacts that indicate kivas were very much lived in.  

Today’s Puebloans continue to use them in a similar way as their ancestors, but they are more strictly relegated to ceremonies, not so much living rooms.  The degree of preservation amongst the ancient kivas varies greatly.  Mesa Verde has some nicely preserved examples.  At one site, Spruce Tree House, you can descend into a fully enclosed kiva.  And at Aztec Ruins, north of Chaco, the great kiva is fully restored.  At Chaco, though the kivas are numerous and some very large, you cannot enter any of the well preserved ones.

 I descended into the kiva at Mesa Verde’s Spruce Tree House.  There is a certain feeling you get doing this, sort of creepy and magical at the same time.  If there were American Indians inside chanting, with a fire going, I think my body would literally buzz off the hook with chills.  A possible goal for the future I think, to be invited into a functioning kiva.  It’s really the living, breathing American Indian that I most enjoy on a physical-emotional level.  These ancient sites are interesting on a scientific level, and they are certainly sited in spectacular locales, but the lack of native guides at places like Mesa Verde does take something away from the experience.  At Chaco, you see more native peoples, working as (I guess) seasonal park staff.

The waxing half-moon illuminates the evening sky at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

 

My next post will go into more detail about my visit, and what to see and do at Chaco Canyon.

The Ancient Ones I: Mesa Verde   Leave a comment

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde is the largest such site in the National Park.

You can’t visit the Four Corners region of the southwestern U.S. without your attention being drawn to the area’s American Indian history.  This history goes back over 10,000 years, but possibly the most fascinating chapter took place between about 700 and 1300 A.D.  The people who lived during this time period were farmers and builders, hunters and astronomers, travelers and artists.  They are the ancestors of today’s Hopi, Zuni and a few other small tribes, and so are called Ancestral Puebloans.

The interior of an ancient Puebloan cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

 

Their more common name is Anasazi, which does have a nice ring to it.  But this is a Navajo word loosely translated as ancient foreigner, or enemy.  The Navajo, when they migrated into this area from the north about 1500 A.D., found the abandoned pueblos but did not loot or even much disturb them.  They were cautious about entering the realm of dead spirits.  Also, the modern-day Puebloans and Navajo do not generally get along, it’s sad to say.  So the name Anasazi is inappropriate for both of the above reasons.

The Mesa Verde cliff dwelling Spruce Tree House basks in October sunshine.

I had been seeing the rock art of Fremont people to the north, but my first real archaeological destination on this trip was Mesa Verde.  A national park in southwestern Colorado between the towns of Cortez and Durango,  Mesa Verde is a high, forested plateau cut by rugged sandstone canyons.  It is here where some of the most well-preserved of the ancient ones’ pueblos are found.  The most spectacular sites are the cliff dwellings. but these are not the only sites at Mesa Verde.  They first lived atop the plateau, close to where they grew their crops of corn, beans and squash.  I visited a couple of these sites first, and I’m glad I did.

 

Take the Far View Sites, for example, just off the road near its highest point.  Since people come here to see the cliff dwellings, you will find few other visitors.  Here you’ll be able to closely examine the ancient pueblos at your leisure.  They used stone axes and other (non-metal) tools to precisely shape sandstone blocks.  Then, using a sandy mortar, these skilled masons built multi-room, multi-story houses, cylindrical (watch or signaling) towers, kivas and even a reservoir.  I’ll explain kivas in detail in the next post, but for now just think of them as sacred gathering places, maybe similar to churches.

 

By the 13th century, the people started moving their dwellings into the canyons.  Many are perched along improbable cliff faces.  Definitely visit Balcony House while you’re here.  Like Cliff Palace, it requires taking a ranger-led tour (stop at the visitor center to buy the $3 tickets).  You will certainly gain a respect for their mountain goat-like agility as you climb a 40-foot ladder up to the human aerie that was part home, part community center for these amazing people.

The Ancestral Puebloans’ construction of the easily defended cliff dwellings marked the beginning of the end, at least for their lives in the Four Corners region.  For reasons that are still uncertain, the Ancestral Puebloans migrated south towards the Rio Grande, fragmenting into the several tribes that make up the modern Puebloan people of New Mexico and Arizona.  Some of the dwellings were abandoned on short notice, with pots, tools, even precious works of art, were left strewn about the stone rooms.

One of the bigger factors contributing to their leaving was overuse of resources such as timber, soil and water.  Drought, a changing society, and other unknown pressures were likely causes as well.  But their overuse of environmental resources surely sticks out as a precautionary tale for our supposedly more advanced time.

In the Pacific Northwest, while leading science-oriented educational camps for native kids, I was lucky enough to share campfires with local tribal folks, drumming and singing under the stars.  Very special it certainly was.  But with respect to the dwellings and sacred places of the Ancient Ones in the Four Corners region, I am torn between the desire to respect them (i.e. leave them alone) and to experience them on a more intimate level.  To be in the company of a Hopi or Zuni elder, descending into an ancient but smoking kiva, undergoing purification, learning of these things from the source; that would get me going.  So, although I can’t recommend that you skip these archaeological treasures, I think coming into honest contact with the modern Puebloans, at any level, would beat a conventional trip to Mesa Verde National Park any day.

A forked horn buck mule deer wanders the forest atop MesaVerde in Colorado.

In 2010 my uncle and I visited Canyon de Chelly, traveling through the canyon on horseback and camping for two nights in the canyon.  We were accompanied by a young Navajo guide.  This, of course, was very cool (especially when we galloped after a wild stallion!).  One of the things that has stuck with me since then: I promised the young Navajo that someday I would visit Chaco Canyon (he insisted that I do so in fact).  So my next post will be about keeping that promise.

On Mesa Verde in southwest Colorado, a recent fire has left huge areas of burned trees.

 

 

Dinosaurs of Utah   Leave a comment

Sheep Canyon on the north side of the Uinta Mountains in Utah blazes in fall colors.

I’ve somehow in the past missed this corner of Utah during my travels.  But heading south from the Grand Tetons, I followed the Green River into the land of dinosaurs.  This is the path that John Wesley Powell, one of my heroes, traveled twice in the post-Civil War years.  It seems appropriate that I am retracing his route at this moment.

I am still one-handed, having broke my left hand recently.  Of course, mine will soon heal, while Powell’s would never heal.  He lost much of his right arm in the Civil War, but that certainly didn’t slow him down.  As many of you know, he was leader of the first party to navigate the wild Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

The Uinta Mountains of northeastern Utah are quiet on an autumn afternoon.

I love the photos produced by John K. Hillers during the second Powell expedition.  Take a look at his photos, which include much more than the Green and Colorado River basins.  The party boated down the Green River, through Flaming Gorge (now sadly drowned beneath a reservoir), then into the land of dinosaurs, south towards the confluence with the Colorado.

Life on the road means a healthy dose of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

This area of northeastern Utah, still quite remote, exposes Mesozoic-age sedimentary rocks, including the world-famous Morrison Formation.  It was in the Morrison and similar formations that the so-called “bone wars” erupted in the late 1800s.  Not a real war, but a dinosaur fossil-collecting frenzy, the bone wars was a rivalry between two palaeontologists, both with healthy egos.  Their names were E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh, who each represented a different prestigious eastern museum.  Both men yanked tons of dinosaur bones from rocks of the American west.

Neither of these two discovered, however, the richest trove of fossils in the Morrison.  That was left until 1909, when Earl Douglass of the Carnegie Museum found eight tail bones arching out of the ground.  They belonged to an enormous plant-eating Apatosaur.  Today, this dinosaur quarry is the centerpiece of Dinosaur National Monument, not far from Vernal, Utah.  It’s a beautiful patch of land, watered by the Green River and surrounded by gorgeous canyons.

This is a fantastic place to get off the beaten track in the American west.  Most people visit the dinosaur quarry and a few drive up to the main road’s end at Josie Morris’ cabin.  But there are great sights and short hikes to do along the Harper’s Corner Road as well.  This road actually starts off Hwy. 40 just east of Dinosaur, Colorado.  In the warm months, consider a float trip on the Green River.

I camped inside the monument, alongside the Green.  During the night I was awoken by the sound of raindrops on my van’s roof, the first time in quite awhile I’ve heard that sound.  We’ve been in a long period of dry weather in the west.  In the morning I got a nice (and rare) morning rainbow.

I was interested in Josie Basset Morris.  Her homestead included a small cabin by a spring, backed by box canyons and surrounded with shade trees.  Josie was a character, the kind of independent pioneer woman I admire greatly.  How can any woman today think that women magically became stronger and more independent when they were finally liberated in the late 20th century.  Women have been strong for all human history, and it can be argued that today’s women simply can’t match the grit displayed by women of the past.  Neither can the men.

Josie cavorted with famous western outlaws, who often holed up at her place along Cub Creek.  She also divorced 4 husbands, running one off of her homestead with a frying pan.  She occasionally rustled cattle, made bootleg whiskey, wore pants most of the time, and cut her long red hair short.  She lived the last 50 of her years, alone most of that time, caring for livestock on a remote ranch without plumbing, electricity, or other conveniences.  She died in the 1940s.

Dinosaur National Monument reminds me much of the John Day river country of eastern Oregon.  The canyons are a bit more spectacular here, but otherwise there are many parallels.  For instance, in the John Day country the rocks are laid bare, as at Dinosaur.  But being much younger, the badlands are rich in mammals instead of dinosaurs.  The whole feel of the land, with valleys covered in sagebrush and bunch-grass, badlands and canyons stretching in all directions, and with few people around, made me feel I was back in my old stomping grounds in the Clarno Basin of Oregon.

The most complete skeletons of the meat-eating dinosaur Allosaurus are found in the Jurassic rocks of northeastern Utah. One of these prowls the Quarry Bldg. at Dinosaur National Monument.

The famous dinosaur quarry at Dinosaur National Monument, Utah is known as the Wall of Bones.  Taken with a 15 mm. fisheye lens, this picture takes in the entire wall of fossil dinosaurs.

Hope you enjoyed this little slice of history.  I really encourage anyone with time who is traveling Interstate 80 across southern Wyoming to take a jog south into NE Utah.  The Flaming Gorge, Uinta Mountains, and Dinosaur National Monument make the detour very worthwhile.  Our adventure (Charl and I) continues, as we make our way south through western Colorado, headed for Four Corners and Monument Valley.

The Green River flows through Dinosaur National Monument in Utah.

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.

 

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