Archive for the ‘Tikal’ Tag

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.

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.

Bird Photography Follow-Up: Birds of Tikal   Leave a comment

A large male great curassow (Crax rubra) prowls the jungle floor at the Mayan ruins of Tikal in Guatemala.

A quick follow-up to my previous post on bird watching.  I never posted the picture of a great currasow I got in Guatemala, at Tikal.  That error is rectified above.  Tikal is one of the largest Mayan City you can visit, and certainly one of the most spectacular.  It lies in northern Guatemala, and is very easy to access from Belize.  The Peten is an amazing swath of jungle that lies along the southern Yucatan – Guatemala border.  It is incredibly rich in wildlife, and also has many Mayan ruins.  It is definitely the richest hunting ground for archaeologists searching for undiscovered Mayan cities.  Because of its remoteness, it is also a favorite among drug smugglers, who cross into Mexico here on their way to the U.S.

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

A scarlet macaw likes Mayan ruins.

The dramatic Temple 5 in the Mayan city of Tikal rises steeply out of the jungle.

I visited the Peten, including Tikal, in 2010.  I went to Calakmul, a remote Mayan site in far south Yucatan, and we were alone at thoseruins, with their enormous pyramids standing far above the jungle.  I also visited Palenque in Chiapas, where I most certainly was not alone.  Later in the trip, I crossed from western Belize into Guatemala & headed to Tikal.  When I arrived at the nearest town, Peten Itza, I decided to go right up to the ruins.  It’s very easy to catch a van or taxi to Tikal.  Most of the hotels are in Flores, but I think that’s too far from the ruins.  Clouds and rain showers were hanging about, but this turned out to be a blessing.  Not only were the crowds nonexistent, but the atmosphere added much to my photos from that day.

The first thing you notice about Tikal is its size.  You can walk from temple to temple, but unlike most Mayan sites, these walks are actually superb nature walks.  The jungle that separates the major temple complexes is rich in birds, monkeys and even jaguar.  I saw many beautiful birds, a crocodile, and a spider monkey.  As anyone who has been to Tikal knows, the constant calls of oropendula accompany your tour.  What a beautiful forest.  The next day I had much more time to tour the ruins, but it was a beautiful day, so the photos were not as good.  Still, I saw many birds and another monkey.

Tikal is hands-down my favorite Mayan ruin, and I’ve been to all the major ones.  It combines spectacular temples and massive scale with relative remoteness and beautiful surroundings.  It does receive many visitors, but its size means you can get away from the crowds easily.  Still, I would try to go either early in the morning or late, especially if the weather is unsettled.  You will see more wildlife this way, plus your pictures will likely be better than with the bright sunshine (which tends to wash out the subtle colors).

Go see Tikal, and don’t forget your binoculars!

A basilisk lizard hunts his territory in the jungles of Tikal, Guatemala.

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