Archive for April, 2009

Utila, Bay Islands

utila beach

The ferry from La Ceiba to the island of Utila takes about an hour and is a rough, bumpy ride.  It took me nearly another hour on dry land just to recover.  The smallest of the Bay Islands, Utila is a beautiful little island off the coast of Honduras in the Caribbean Sea and feels worlds away from the Honduras we came to know over the past 24 hours.  Best known for excellent and inexpensive diving, Utila has a lot to offer us non-divers as well.  Beautiful beaches, crystal-clear waters and excellent swimming, snorkeling and boating opportunities make it a beach-lover’s paradise. 

The Caribbean vibe is not nearly as strong as in Caye Caulker, Belize, and the island not quite as small and friendly, but the travelers scene is thriving and food and accommodation costs, while higher than on the mainland, are still very affordable.  Utila is hot, when we wake up in the morning the thermometer reading on my alarm clock is already approaching 90F and it just continues to climb throughout the day.  Even Carlos and I who tend to favor warmer climates couldn’t imagine living here and dealing with the heat year round, but it’s been great fun these past few days. 

We’ve extended our stay on Utila for a few extra days while we soak up the rays on near private beaches, indulge in some Port Royals and tour the cluster of small cays on the island’s north end.  After which we’re making a quick break for the Nicaraguan border.

no gracias

iglesia gracias

Travelers to Honduras typically visit two key attractions, the Maya ruins at Copán and the Bay Islands.  After departing Copán we decided to detour a few hours south to the small town of Gracias before heading north to the Caribbean coast and Bay Islands.  The trip required a few transfers between local buses and proved to be an interesting experience.  Our bus mates included a guy with blood all over his shirt, tobacco chewing and spitting on the floor guy, several very stinky guys, and one very wild looking man carrying a machete (we’re still not sure if he had any relation to the bloody shirt guy).  Needless to say we were relieved when the bus finally arrived in the empty dirt parking lot that was the Gracias bus terminal.

We quickly discovered that Gracias is nothing more than a dusty little town with a few churches and even fewer tourists, and we quickly ran out of things to see and do.  There are also no ATM machines in the town, which left us in a bit of a predicament given that, beyond bus fare back out of Gracias, we were just about out of cash.  Not to worry, we ate fried chicken and pork skewers on the street corner with the rest of Gracias’ residents and retired back to our room at one of the town’s reliable budget establishments, or so we thought.  After arranging the bed like an island in the middle of the room and spending the next several hours flipping the lights on and off chasing cockroaches we were wishing we were on a real island out in the middle of the Caribbean. 

And so we departed Gracias on the first 5 a.m. bus, likely never to return.  I should also mention that apparently, in Honduras, bus windows double as trash cans and the piles of trash lining the streets is evidence of this fact.  Soda bottles, food wrappers, even used and recollected bus tickets are thrown from the bus as it speeds along.  But the kicker came when one woman got out of her seat, walked to the back of the bus and, in plain view of Carlos and I, proceeded to pee all over herself and the floor before returning to her seat as if nothing had happened.  As it turns out, people pretty much pee just about everywhere here, though not usually on buses.  And we’ve seen a few ‘please do not urinate here’ signs along the highway.     

Finally we arrived in San Pedro Sula, transferred to first class, and had a pleasant, incident free ride the remainder of the way to La Ceiba.  And once we were able to relax and enjoy it, we found that the countryside and farmlands of northern Honduras are actually quite beautiful.  As a result of the hot, tropical climate everything is a rich, vibrant shade of green and fruit trees including palms, bananas, and avocados are plentiful.  Arriving in La Ceiba, too late in the day to catch the ferry to Utila, and with very little energy or patience remaining we splurged for a decent hotel room, ordered a pizza and spent the night watching re-runs of The Office and 30 Rock on cable.

Copán Ruinas

copán

Located just 1 km outside a small town of the same name, Copán Ruinas, a Unesco World Heritage site and once home to one of the most important of all Maya civilizations, was our last and final stop on la ruta Maya.  Known for its remarkable sculptures, for which it is unique in the Maya world, and hieroglyphics, many of which are on display, Copán had a culture so developed it is often labeled the ‘Paris of the Maya world.’ 

It is believed that people lived in Copán since 1200 B.C., possibly earlier, and excavated artifacts show influences from as far away as Mexico.  The vast number of structures discovered indicates that at the peak of Maya civilization the Copán valley had over 20,000 inhabitants (a population not reached again until the 1980s).  As recently as 2005 the ruins have been the site of political demonstrations.  In September of that year, 1500 indigenous Maya – descendents of the original builders of Copán – occupied the ruins and barred visitors for five days in protest of stalled government land reforms.

Lago de Atitlan

lago-de-atitlan-019

The volcano-ringed Lago de Atitlan has been attracting tourists to its shores for decades.  The lake is beautiful, though as it turns out, the real attractions are the several small villages surrounding the lake.  Somehow, despite the influx of tourists in recent years, the traditions of the indigenous communities that surround the lake and stretch across the highlands remain strong.  It’s not uncommon to see people washing clothes, swimming and even bathing along the shores of Lake Atitlan.  Nor is it uncommon to see people in traditional dress carrying impossible loads of firewood and other supplies on their heads.  In fact, for many in these communities, Spanish is a second language and a surprising number of people speak little or no Spanish at all.

Traveling from Quetzaltenango, better known as Xela, we arrived in the village of San Pedro la Laguna.  San Pedro is located across the lake from Panajachel, the largest of the lakeside villages and easiest to reach from both Antigua and  Guatemala City.  San Pedro’s location is slightly more remote and more difficult to access.  Instead of a large tourist population, this small village is home to a colorful group of expats and attracts a steady stream of backpackers and wanderers.  Narrow paved alleyways snake through the center of town connecting the town’s two docks.  San Pedro offers a wide array of basic budget rooms and we had no problem finding a nice room with a shared bath and kitchen access for only 40 Q/night, or about $5. 

Two days turned into three and then four and before we knew it we had been hanging around for almost a week.  And then there’s Maximón…       

lago-de-atitlan-027From San Pedro it’s an easy and inexpensive lancha ride to the other lakeside villages including Santiago Atitlan which is home to Maximón the Maya god of drinking and smoking.  A wooden figure, draped in silk scarves and smoking a cigar, Maximón resides in the home of a member of the town’s cofradia (Maya Catholic brotherhood).  Maximón moves from home to home each year, a custom that local anthropologists believe were established to maintain the local balance of power.  Even so, he’s not too difficult to locate and just about anyone in the town will point you in the right direction. 

We found Maximón in a small home at the top of a hill behind the town’s church.  Surrounded by candles, guarded by locals and worshipped frequently, visiting Maximón requires an offering of a few quetzales (a few extra if you want a photo).  And if you’re so inclined, he also enjoys Payaso cigarettes and Venado rum.  Interestingly, Maximón also makes an appearance alongside the figures of Jesus in Santiago Atitlan’s Semana Santa processions.  It has been suggested that the confrontation between the two on Good Friday symbolizes the battle between Christianity and pagan religions. 

Semana Santa en Antigua

procession

Easter came and went for us this year without pink bunnies, egg hunts or baskets of candy.  Instead, we spent the holiday taking in the stunning Semana Santa, or Holy Week, celebrations in Antigua, Guatemala.  Made up of a series of candle light vigils and processions through the streets of town, Antigua’s celebration of Semana Santa is one of the largest in all of Central America and draws thousands of visitors from all over the world.

incenseBeginning during the weekends leading up to Holy Week, elaborate processions make their way around town led by young boys swinging incense burners as clouds of the thick smoke fill the air.  Groups of as many as 80 or 100 men adorned in purple robes carry platforms with the images of Jesus on their shoulders as they walk over beautiful alfombras that carpet the cobblestone streets.  Women carry slightly smaller platforms with the image of Mary.  Marching bands playing funeral music follow behind.   

The platforms or loads carried by the men can weigh as much as 5000 orcarriers 6000 pounds and the women’s slightly less.  Though they switch groups of carriers every block, you can still see the strained looks on their faces and imagine the challenge of carrying so much weight.  Though for many, if not all, it’s an honor to be part of the processions and even more so to carry the images.  This is especially apparent when you see the parents who take their turn carrying the platforms while holding their young child in the other arm.

The longest and most elaborate day of celebrations takes place on Good Friday.  It’s a long day with the first procession departing La Merced church around 3 a.m. and the final procession coming to an end around 4:30 a.m.alfombra the following morning.  People from outlying towns as well as tourists from neighboring El Salvador, Honduras and many other international locations crowd the streets camping out in the Central Park and sleeping outside churches.  For many it’s a night without sleep as people stay up  creating colorful alfombras from dyed sawdust or simply wandering the streets marveling at the creations of others before the processions come through and the works of art are destroyed.  We were up along with everyone else at 3 a.m. and we made it until about 1 a.m the following morning when we finally decided to call it a night. 

re-enactmentThat same day at noon a re-enactment of the crucifixion is staged in the Parque Central.  Then at 3 p.m. the thousands of people taking part in the processions change from purple to black robes and the processions become even more like funeral processions.  At any given time throughout the day these processions, which typically last for 12 hours, could be seen weaving up and down the narrow streets, strategically navigating corners while crowds of people follow behind carrying flowers and praying.  The festivities come to an end on Easter Sunday when one final procession makes it’s way through the streets accompanied by firecrackers. 

Semana Santa in Antigua definitely makes it to the top of our list of best festivals and events.  It’s a must see! 

roma

And most importantly, everyone has a great time!

La Antigua

antigua guatemala

Framed by three volcanoes, one of which can be seen puffing out clouds of smoke above the colored rooftops, La Antigua Guatemala is a picturesque town located about an hour’s drive from the country’s capital.  With beautiful vistas at every turn, it’s one of the most visited towns in Guatemala as well as one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of Central America.  Like Cuernavaca in Mexico, Antigua is nicknamed the City of Eternal Spring for it’s near perfect climate.  The town is a mix of amazing architecture, ancient ruins, stunning churches, countless language schools and a cosmopolitan array of restaurants, cafés and shops. 

Despite all of  it’s modernity, Antigua, like San Cristóbal de las Casas, is deeply embedded in the world of the modern Maya.  People in colorful traditional dress crowd the streets carrying baskets on the tops of their heads, babies strapped to their backs with pieces of cloth.  Indigenous artisan’s markets can be found next door to high end clothing stores.  Outdoor tortilla stands crowd the streets in front of fancy restaurants and five star hotels.  And repainted schoolbuses commonly referred to as chicken buses belch out thick clouds of black smoke as they bounce up and down the cobblestone streets.  Not surprisingly, they always manage to fit another person in alongside the others already crowded into the aisles, hanging from the doorways and occasionally lounging on the rooftop luggage racks.

It’s been just over six months since we left the U.S. and slightly less since we packed our bags and began traveling.  Here in Antigua we’ve rented a room in a guesthouse with a communal kitchen that doubles as an dining and entertainment space.  Several times throughout the week bus-loads of tourists arrive, the people running the guesthouse prepare meals and mariachi bands show up to provide the entertainment.  We’ve spent several evenings enjoying the music from our room on the second floor while waiting for our turn to use the kitchen.  I’ve taken advantage of the fact that we’re hanging around here for a few weeks leading up to the incredible Semana Santa celebrations and enrolled in language classes at Cooperación Spanish School.  And in addition to becoming more accustomed to the differences in culture and lifestyle, it appears that my Spanish is finally beginning to improve, finally!

guatemala’s electric shower (revised)

showershower 2

 

 

 

 

 

Consisting of nothing more than an electric heating device attached to a cold water shower, Guatemala’s electric shower provides hot water while offering an alternative to the high cost of gas.  The water temperature is controlled by the amount of water released through the shower head.  So far everywhere we’ve stayed in Guatemala has had this type of shower.  For the most part they work well, assuming of course that you don’t mind the smell of something burning while in the shower and that you remember to avoid contact with the shower head or risk an electric shock.

Ironically, just a few days after originally posting this, the electric heating device on our shower stopped working.  We spent the next week waiting for the maintenance guy to show up (he never did) and sneaking into the empty room next door to use the shower there, that is until it caught on fire and we had to resort back to cold showers.  Although, as of this morning the shower in our room has been repaired and we’re hoping to get through the rest of the week without any surprises.  I guess these electric showers don’t work quite as well as we had originally thought…

Revised 4/7 /09