Sunday, March 29, 2009


On our way down from the Caribbean coast of Guatemala, we crossed just over the border into Honduras to visit another Mayan archaeological site at Copán. The site is famed for its immaculately-preserved stelae - Mayan stone carvings depicting rulers and significant calendar events such as solar eclipses. The site flourished during the Classic Mayan era, and most of the artifacts date from around 700 AD.

The stelae are often paired with ceremonial altars, used for animal and human sacrifice and ritual blood-letting.

The site itself is very well excavated and the most comprehensively studied site in the entire Mayan region.

The most well-known structure is the hieroglyphic steps. These present a history of the city in Mayan glyphs. The first fifteen steps were, apparently, discovered first and were reasonably well-ordered considering the damage caused to the site by earthquakes that occurred between the sites abandonment and rediscovery. A later (well-meaning) reconstruction of the steps badly jumbled the rest, with the result that they'll probably never be deciphered.

At the foot of the stairs is a lower jaw. Originally, an upper jaw completed a huge mouth at the top of the stairs. Many of the figures in the carvings are emerging from mouths; the Maya believed caves to be the mouth of the earth, from where creation came.

Another prized artifact is Altar Q, which depicts the succession of rulers of Copán. The carving around the side, showing the various kings as figures, and the glyphs on the top surface are amazingly well preserved. The rock they had available is volcanic and extremely hard. They often had to carve around or incorporate peices of volcanic glass that they encountered (credit to our friend Ricardo Ataide for that interesting fact!).

The most sacred of all animals for the Maya was the Jaguar. There are lots of depictions around the site; here I am looking like one.


Adventures of the spade #9

We made a flying visit 10km over the border to Honduras just in time to catch the Honduras V Trinidad and Tobago World Cup Qualifying match. The spade got into the spirit of things, joining all the locals in sporting the Honduran shirt. Although Honduras looked like the stronger team throughout and held a 1-0 lead until the last couple of minutes, Trinidad and Tobago scored a clumsy goal and Honduras only got one point. We'll keep our fingers crossed they make it to the finals but we won't expect too much!

Rachel x

Rio Dulce

The Rio Dulce in Eastern Guatemala is a beautiful sparkling river that winds its way up to the Caribbean coast. After getting eaten alive by hundreds of insects in the steamy swamps near Rio Dulce town, we took a boat trip up river to Livingston, the only Caribbean community in Guatemala.

Unfortunately we were pretty disappointed with Livingston; it had a really seedy atmosphere and we were so uninspired that we didn't even take one photo! However, the journey was lovely, especially one spot where, all year round, hundreds of water lilies flower in front of thatched huts. The local children were splashing around in the river and waving; it seemed pretty close to paradise... if it wasn't for the twice daily tourist boats zooming past!

Because of its strategic location near the Caribbean, the Rio Dulce was once a major thoroughfare for pirates so this fort was built to defend the area from plundering.

The real highlight in the area for me was a day trip to Finca El Paraiso where there is a hot waterfall! Water as hot as a REALLY hot shower cascades over smooth green rocks, where it mixes with the cool stream below. We had the place pretty much to ourselves for a few hours (I don't know why; it really should be on every traveler's must-see list!) and lounging in the delicious water was total bliss. If you click on the picture to enlarge it, you can just about make me out in the pool beneath the falls.

Rachel x

Adventures of the spade #8

It's been a while since we last saw the spade. That's because, as you can see, he's been busy excavating Mayan ruins, searching for artifacts. Sadly, it looks like the looters got here first.


Saturday, March 21, 2009

El Mirador

With our thirst for ancient Mayan sites whetted by Tikal and on the recommendation of our friend Lilia, we decided last week to do the El Mirador trek. This was no small undertaking, and we deliberated for a few days whether we could manage it. The site is 60km away from even the northernmost remote village in Peten, Carmelita, which is itself a 3 hour trip away from Flores by dirt road. Here the 5-day, 120km (75 mile) round-trip starts on foot to what was the largest city the Maya ever built.

While Tikal is the jewel in the crown of Guatemala's Mayan tourist attractions today, El Mirador was in its day the jewel in the crown of the Maya civilisation itself. The scale is incredible. While Tikal's Grand Plaza, itself impressive in scale, measures around 100m along its length from Temple I to Temple II, El Mirador's two biggest structures - El Tigre and the gargantuan La Danta - are a full 2km apart. What a Grand Plaza that must have been! El Mirador flourished long before Tikal's heyday, and was certainly the dominant centre of power in the Peten area.

We started out from Carmelita with a group of mules, who we were pleased to see were healthy-looking and clearly well looked after. As there's no water source along the way or at El Mirador itself, we had to take around 50 gallons of water with us. Obviously there's no way we could carry that!

Carmelita is in the northern Peten area, south of what's known as the "agricultural frontier". A lot of the Peten jungle is now fully protected, including some primary rainforest areas, but as recently as 1960 the jungle extended down to Flores, about 50km to the south of the current agricultural frontier. As we drove north towards the start of the trek, it was sad to see so much deforestation. The cause, as usual, is cattle farming. Since 1960, 25% of Central America's rainforest has been destroyed for cattle grazing.

Above, our group: Rachel and me on the far left; Nancy and Ben (Canada); Jose and Kim (United States); Tibo (France); Liz (Australia) and Ricardo (Portugal). Quite an international group! Below is our guide Raul, the most fantastic guide we could've hoped for. He really made the trip.

So we set out on the trail, unexpectedly marked with this start line-like gateway. The first day was 6 hours, with a break for lunch.

The jungle is, of course, full of interesting flora and fauna. The trail is pretty good going in the dry season, and starts off along the "Chiclero's Corridor". This trail was cut by the Chicleros, the collectors of gum from the Chico Zapote tree used to make chewing gum. They are still in use today and running into a Chiclero is one of the luckiest things that can happen to you; they'll gladly provide you with food and a mule to ride in return for conversation!

This is a Chico Zapote tree. You can see the old cuts made to collect the gum. The fruit is pretty good, too.

This is another jungle gem: a strangler fig. It grows up from the ground around other trees and gradually wraps around them. Eventually it completely strangles the tree and all you can see is the fig.

The jungle is full of beautiful orchids. Our guide, Raul, is a big fan. When we realised his bag had been left behind in Carmelita, he assured us that he, like an orchid, only needs moisture to survive!

We were pretty pleased to reach the first camp, at another Mayan ruin, El Tintal. We were there in plenty of time to climb one of the pyramids and watch the sunset. It really was incredible to look out over the jungle canopy to the horizon. There isn't a hint of civilisation.

Day 2 was a longer walk, but we got to El Mirador after 10 hours. We were obviously elated to reach the final goal after covering 60km of jungle.

The view from the top of the El Tigre pyramid was even more breathtaking than anything we'd seen before. The 2000-year-old structure reaches 70m and is the second-tallest building ever built in the Mayan world. Only the partner pyramid, La Danta, which faces from 2km away, is taller.

The next day we explored the El Mirador site with our guide. Archaeologists are working there now, excavating and partially reconstructing the site. We were extremely lucky to be able to get a glimpse of a relief that's only recently been discovered on an ancient aqueduct, and to sneek a peek inside one of the temples where an incredible mask has also been found. None of this is generally open to the public yet, or published in journals. We were really priveledged to see it.

The fourth day we returned back the way we'd come to El Tintal, where we'd spent the first night. In the last hour, we got caught in a torrential downpour that soaked us all.

This did nothing to dampen our spirits though; we were so pleased to reach the camp and enjoy Raul's cooking! We did our best to dry the shoes and socks around the two fires that Jose and Raul got going. Perfect time to break out the Jonny Walker I'd been saving until we really needed it...

A truly unforgettable experience, and possibly the best thing we've done so far.



We've been looking forward to Tikal since before we arrived in Central America; it's such a famous Mayan site and we always hoped it would live up to its hype. I'm glad to say that I was even more impressed with Tikal than I expected to be. It's an awesome place and definitely one of the most memorable experiences of our trip so far.

According to historians, the first occupants arrived in Tikal around 900 BC, with the first evidence of buildings from 500 BC. At its height, Tikal was the most powerful city in the Peten area and was inhabited by between 50,000 and 100,000 people. It was finally abandoned around 900 AD, at the same time as the unexplained collapse of the Mayan civilisation.

We had heard that, if you enter the park after 4pm, your ticket is good for the next day too, so we decided that an over-night stay in the park would provide a different perspective, allowing us to see Tikal in the evening and early morning. So we rented a couple of hammocks slung under thatched huts right near the entrance (unfortunately the incomparable location meant we paid more than we usually do for a double room with private bathroom!) and headed in for sunset.

We climbed up Temple IV, the highest temple in the city (64m) for an amazing view across the jungle. Tikal retains its original setting buried in thick forest and you can see trees stretching all the way to the horizon.

Do any Star Wars fans recognise this view? George Lucas and team came to Tikal to film a short scene from episode IV, A New Hope. It provided the setting for the rebel base on Yavin 4 and, apparently, it also appeared in the James Bond movie, Moonraker.

And, of course, the sunset was amazingly beautiful.

It was incredible to see the ancient structures in the twilight. We were amongst the very last to leave the park and as we walked through the darkness back to the campsite we could hear the jungle coming to life as all the nocturnal creatures were waking up.

As soon as the park opened at 6am, we headed straight for the Grand Plaza before the tour buses arrived. Tikal is the number one tourist attraction in Guatemala but, that morning as we ate breakfast at the foot of a 1300 year old temple in the dawn mist, it felt as if we had discovered it. There were only 8 people in the whole plaza and it felt truly powerful and magical.

We spent the rest of the day exploring the park with our Kiwi friend, Kandace. Here I am with her climbing one of the small temples. As you can see, she enjoyed herself a lot too!

Because it's in the middle of the jungle, the wildlife is abundant in Tikal. We saw countless monkeys swinging from the trees and clambering over the ruins, seemingly oblivious both to the people photographing them or the significance of the structures they were playing on! Hundreds of colourful birds were flying above us, coatimundis (furry creatures like racoons) foraged in the undergrowth and the shimmering Peten turkeys strutted around the plaza. For me, though, by far the best spot was not just one but two types of toucans; Aracari (black beak with white stripes) and the famous Keel-billed (the one from the Guinness ads!).

A truly atmospheric place soaked in history and an unforgettable experience.

Rachel x

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Semuc Champey

We spent a totally relaxing few days at the wonderful El Retiro lodge in Lanquin, lounging in the sunshine, floating on tubes down the beautiful river and eating fantastic buffet dinners in the evenings. Bliss.
We also did a day trip to the nearby Semuc Champey. It's a series of calm pools on a natural limestone bridge over a a river.

We did a short hike up a mirador, where you can look down on the water from high up.

Here we are at the top and with Lilia, a lovely German girl we met at El Retiro. The view was certainly worth the climb!

At the top of the pools you can see where the Rio Cahabon plunges down beneath the bridge. Sitting in the peaceful water above, you'd have no idea that this powerful river was flowing underneath.

But by far the highlight of the trip was just swimming in the incredibly clear turquoise water and enjoying the sunshine. Here's me and Lilia sitting on one of the many little waterfalls that join the pools.

Guatemala just keeps surprising us with its amazing natural beauty.

Rachel x