A Mayan adventure… Guatemala, Honduras & Belize
Mike and Chris Simm explore Guatemala, Honduras and Belize – here they recount their journey as told via email to friends and family back home.
Day 1 - Arriving in Antigua, Guatemala
…And so we met Rambo.
OK, sorry, better back up a bit.
We arrived in Guatemala City on the back of two hours sleep in the previous 39.
Stumbling out of the airport, we were met by our guide and set off for our first stop, the ancient capital of Antigua. En route, as we exchanged biographical information, we learnt about his background; most pertinently the fact that while he had been tour-guiding for more than 20 years, he had previously served in the Guatemalan army (and their special forces) during the time of the civil war, and had also represented his country at tae kwon do – putting all this together we made an early policy decision not to upset him! He also told us that he was known to all and sundry as Rambo, and it became apparent as we travelled with him that all and sundry did indeed know him, our progress being frequently interrupted by pauses for handshakes, back-slappings and cheery shouted greetings.
We arrived in Antigua just after nightfall and were greeted by a fiery belch from the local volcano (apparently a signal honour, since it can’t normally be bothered to emit anything more than a puff of smoke), and having had a quick freshen up in our hotel, set off in search of food and drink. Lo and behold, within 10 yards we came across a bar called Kafka and within a further couple of minutes were introduced to the local beer, called Gallo.
In my reasonably extensive experience, beers named after animals tend towards the butch and / or dangerous (Lion, Tiger, Tusker, Rogue (Elephant), Cobra – although Kingfisher slightly lets the side down), whereas Gallo is merely an unimpressive rooster – it was however distinctly palatable. You may wonder, as I did, why the bar was named after a Czech-born German language author – according to the owner they had wanted to call it Machiavelli, but were advised by their landlady that if they did they could do it elsewhere: they picked Kafka as a neutral but memorable word, and indeed one which could enable them to distinguish the required level of social repartee, distinguishing between those who knew who Kafka was and those who wondered which football team he played for. Having met both our requirements, we retired for some well-deserved slumber…
Day 2 - City tour of Antigua, Guatemala
By 9am we were touring – Antigua is a pretty little town (and indeed a Unesco world heritage site, situated in the highlands and surrounded by volcanoes), with no building more than two storeys high, painted in white, blue, terracotta and yellow, with cobbled streets and a population happily going about its business, and paying little heed to the odd tourist. We visited a couple of churches – the country is mainly Catholic, but influenced by a Mayan heritage – so that what could appear to be a European church (such as La Merced) has carvings of Mayan symbols on the façade, and the statuary within shows similar inclinations.
We visited the church of San Francisco; it is a pilgrimage site as it has the shrine of Peter of Saint Joseph Betancour, a 17th-century Spanish saint and missionary, and it also contains a museum with artefacts relating to his life. I noted the existence of his undergarments, the lower of which can best be described as a cross between a very large pair of bloomers and a rough string vest – you’d require the patience of a saint to wear it, though it may of course have been some form of penance…
Once freed from the official tour we spent the afternoon at the Santo Domingo complex, which combines a hotel, ancient ruins, a crypt, and museums of ceramics, glass, ancient artefacts, and locally-manufactured items – quite a lot for the equivalent of £3.50 each.
Day 3 - Chichicastenango and Lake Atitlan
The following day we set off for the snappily-named town of Chichicastenango to visit its market – this proved to be a riot of primary colours, with the local population bustling about attempting to earn an honest crust and the tourists standing about gawping and getting in the way, and included the occasional assault on the olfactory senses from the ‘fresh’ food area. I also discovered a way of stopping Chris from investing in tourist tat – overwhelm her with choice so that she gives up in despair! At the end of the market lies the church of Santo Tomas, on the site of a former Mayan temple and on whose steps priests burn incense. The interior is again a blend of Catholic and Mayan and we saw many local people doing penance and praying for assistance – the clear belief and level of devotion was quite touching.
From here we retraced our steps towards Lake Atitlan: on the way in, Rambo advised us that there were more than 50 sleeping policemen – it was therefore with a degree of pleasure that I was able to contribute to Anglo-Guatemalan relations and the cause of factual accuracy by informing him that there were only 34 (look, it’s a good way of staying awake after lunch in a hot climate!). The lake was scenically stunning, particularly viewed on the descent from the hills to the shoreline, and surrounded by dormant volcanoes – the lake is in fact situated in a caldera of a volcano that went off about 84,000 years ago.
Day 4 - Lake Atitlan and Santiago
After a good rest, a stroll around our hotel’s botanical garden and the refuelling of the inner man, we set off the next morning for a day on the lake, starting with the village of San Juan La Laguna, which seemed to me to be a ‘model’ tourist village, with local artists and artisans’ workshops and murals depicting Mayan history and legend – it was however a very pretty village and we enjoyed our stroll (and indeed acquired our by now obligatory local painting), before moving on to Santiago – much more bustling and full of stalls and shops selling the same sort of stuff as the previous market – Chris had got her mojo back and chose a number of small and decorative items before leaving me to negotiate – a combination of northern stubbornness and ‘dumb tourist’ got me the lot for about a fiver!
It was here that we encountered the cult of Maximón: a splendid chap who, legend has it, slept with the wives of all the male villagers one day while the men were at work in the fields. They were, not unnaturally, slightly vexed by this and cut off his arms and legs in retaliation – for reasons which remain unclear he is now venerated and devotees bring gifts of money, cigarettes / cigars and alcohol (the latter two being physically given to him). It would probably be fair to say that he is regarded as somewhat of a bully, unlike most other deities, and is often the recipient of pleas for revenge or success at the expense of others.
Day 5 - Coffee farm and return to Antigua
We then returned to Antigua for a night’s rest before heading off for the first stage of the serious historical / cultural part of the tour. During the journey we visited a coffee farm – having a cup of coffee has now taken on a whole new significance – and a museum of traditional music. I can only compare the latter to the sort of cacophony that would be produced if a collection of hyperactive two-year-olds were placed in a room with a selection of items to bang and blow. It was at this point that my subconscious decided that I was not deploying the skills that I spent so much time honing to perfection in Brazil: in brief I had to pop into our hotel from the bar next door in search of the local equivalent of £1.25, having just encountered the most expensive pair of drinks thus far. In the low light I failed to notice the existence of a step up, which I had already crossed several times over, and consequently set off forwards and downwards at a rate of knots until my progress was arrested by a collision between my cheekbone and a decorative ironwork grille over a nearby window. I returned to the bar in search of gin and sympathy, which were both forthcoming (I can recommend gin-soaked ice cubes as a way of preventing swelling!)
Days 6 & 7 - Ruins of Copan, Honduras
We then changed countries and arrived in Honduras to visit the ruins at Copan, an impressive site comprising several plazas, an acropolis, a collection of stelae featuring one ruler in a number of different guises, and a hieroglyphic staircase – sadly in the case of the latter it was reassembled from the originally discovered parts before the glyphs were properly understood, and is therefore in the wrong order for telling the story.
It also has a ball court, which is basically two stone platforms facing each other, each backed by three carved stone macaw heads. Teams of three stood on each platform and attempted to hit a ball against the stone heads of the opposition, using only shoulders, elbows and knees – given that the ball weighed 8lbs, you can see why heading wasn’t an option! They also had an interesting incentive scheme for big games: the losers didn’t receive runners-up medals, but instead were executed.
We spent a few happy hours clambering about the place and inspecting the site, before visiting the archaeological museum, which contained a full-size, full colour reconstruction of a temple, along with many statues, carvings and reliefs from the period in question. We were left with a clear impression of a well-organised, structured and sophisticated society, although it probably loses a couple of points as a result of its fondness for human sacrifice. The ruler who had the stelae carved was the splendidly named Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil, known to his mates as 18 Rabbit – honest, it’s on Wikipedia!
After the tour we were fed lunch at a nearby hacienda situated on a hillside – it was only now that we discovered that Central Americans can cook really tasty food. Up to this point our experience had supported the view that there are good reasons for the lack of Guatemalan / Honduran restaurants in this country – there’s only so much guacamole and refried beans, and so many tortillas that one can eat in a lifetime!
It was also while in Copan that I realised an additional benefit of private journeys: not only do you get one-to-one access to your guide, and thus learn far more about the country and its people, but it also gives you far more freedom to interact with other travellers. In this particular instance a chance remark overheard outside a local restaurant led half an hour later to a discussion with a Canadian of roughly my own age, which ranged across Country Joe and the Fish, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Doctor Hook and the Medicine Show (and what’s not to like about a group whose back catalogue contains such masterpieces as Penicillin Penny, Gertrude the Groupie, Freakers’ Ball and the classic tear-jerker that is Sylvia’s Mother?). Incidentally, for the benefit of those of you with rather more elevated cultural frames of reference or who are bewildered on age grounds, these are American bands of the late 60s and early 70s, ie the time when I was in the process of attempting to grow up and turn into a useful adult.
Days 8 & 9 - Guatemala via Quirigia, and Rio Dulce boat trip
We then returned to Guatemala and, via a collection of amazing and well-preserved stelae at Quirigia (the carvings were, almost without exception, still recognisable and many seemed practically unweathered). We then found ourselves on the banks of the Rio Dulce and in the charge of the Happy Fish tour company: they took us for a ride on the river that enabled us to view many wild birds, particularly pelicans, cormorants, herons and various egrets.
We also called in on an indigenous community development project where we discovered, following consultation with Mayan documents on the meaning of our birth dates, that Chris is a crocodile and I am, even less flatteringly, a monkey – and I do not propose to speculate on the possible etymological links between my surname and the adjective ‘simian’!
As we emerged from the spectacular, high-sided, tree-lined river gorge and into the ocean we found ourselves transported to the Caribbean in the town of Livingston – totally unlike anywhere else we had seen – and many of the inhabitants were quite clearly of a different ethnic derivation – particularly Garifuna and Afro-Caribbean. We were recommended to try a local dish for lunch, called tapado, which is basically a seafood soup with added green plantains. As I have got older I have become used to meals where the hard deconstruction work has already been done. Not so in this case – the fish and crab were still in their original form (apart from being dead, obviously) and the whole meal became extremely messy – but delicious.
Day 10 - Tikal
For our final cultural stop we moved on to the major Mayan site at Tikal. It is enormous, with about 38 temples and could take days to do in its entirety. We did the short version, but still saw the biggies, although the largest of all (Temple IV) was viewed from afar on the grounds that it was a long hike to get there and at our age the prospects of then being able to climb it were remote. We did however, manage to scale the main temple in the Grand Plaza since some thoughtful soul had built a proper staircase on the rear elevation to enable even the elderly and infirm to get up top and admire the view, which was indeed impressive.
We also learnt more about the Mayans, in particular the reasons for positioning temples at the four cardinal points of the compass (all to do with birth and death, heaven and hell), and the importance of various numbers that to us would seem insignificant. As a side benefit, its site in the rainforest brought more wildlife sightings: of spider and howler monkeys, coatimundis, wild turkeys, and to Chris’s delight, a tarantula…
Days 11 to 15 - Ambergris Caye, Belize
After all this travelling around, our final destination, reached after a visit to a minor Mayan site at Xunantunich, was on a beach in Belize – the Victoria House Hotel, Ambergris Caye. It was mainly populated by Americans, with a few odd Brits thrown in, and many of the former were Texans as for them it’s only a two-hour flight. They were good company.
We flew to and from the Caye in a flying sardine can – never a prospect that I can greet with equanimity – and to unnerve me even more on the flight back they put Chris in the co-pilot’s seat, though it was fortunately too early in the day for her to start fiddling with things. Having arrived in Belize City, I was relieved to think that small planes were at an end, only to discover that the 90-minute flight to Cancun was in an identical aircraft… but I survived!
For a similar Cox & Kings tour, see holidays to Guatemala here.
Please see the below slideshow for a selection of photographs, all taken by Chris Simm.