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OAT Route of the Maya Trip Report

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THE ROUTE OF THE MAYA
Overseas Adventure Travel
December 19, 2007-January 1, 2008

This is a continuation of an Overseas Adventure Travel trip which began with a pre-trip to Panama. For the body of the trip, however, we visited El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize.

The Mayans are not a dead civilization that built its great empires centuries ago. Instead, it is also a thriving culture that exists today. The Route of the Maya was a visit to the past and present. Guatemala is filled with cities and villages of indigenous tribes where people still practice their ancient customs, wear their ancient costumes and at times, practice their ancient religions.

December 19
We flew to San Salvador, met our guide, Josue and arrived at the Hotel Sheraton Presidente, where we had dinner.

December 20
Today was "Three Country Day." We had breakfast at the hotel and met the rest of our travel companions. Our city guide, Lidia taught us about El Salvador. The country is doing well and tourism is up. The days of people disappearing in the streets are over and the people are enjoying their newly acquired peace and freedom.
We spent the morning in San Salvador, and visited an art gallery which featured the bright and colorful work of Fernando Llort. His art focuses on cultural, ancestral and wartime concerns of his native land. We purchased a beautiful tray and some picture frames for our family. It was now time to visit our first archeological site, Joya de Ceren. Dating back to 1500 AD, the residential village was covered by a volcanic eruption so that it remained extremely well preserved. The ruins were discovered in l976 and excavation began in 1989.

We rode the bus followed by our security guards and began our education about Mayan civilization. There are over 2000 Mayan sites in Mesoamerica, some of them dating back to 1000 BC. The major concentration of these sites is in Northern Guatemala, which has approximately 1200. Some of the cities, such as Tikal, may have had as many as 100,000 residents. Between 700-900 AD, the Golden Age, there were 15 million Mayans. 85% of them were members of the lower class, but the major sites we visited contain temples where the upper classes lived and palaces for the kings. Some of the structures reached several hundred feet in height and were magnificently carved with images of the kings, Maiz, the corn god, jaguars and a system of hieroglyphics. The Mayans developed an astrological calendar and positioned the stelae to match the stars in the sky. They were able to accurately predict the summer and winter solstices, so the people knew when to plant and harvest. They believed that the corn god created the world and that the sun god descended every night to fight the god of the underworld and re-emerged each morning.

We had lunch at Rancho Alegre, located on a lovely lake and tasted Salvadoran food. We drove through a small portion of Guatemala and on to Honduras We arrived at the Marina Copan in Copan Ruinas and had dinner of freshly made popusas on the patio of the dining room.

December 21
The town of Copan Ruinas dates to 1890. It has a lovely square and a small but colorful central market. The first archeologists arrived here in 1893. There are 4500 mounds in the valley. Copan is 6 square miles. It is famous for its beautiful large plazas with many stelae, or vertical tablets which were once brightly painted. They tell the stories of the rulers and are usuallly filled with hieroglyphics giving their histories. The Mayan's hieroglyphics were the first form of writing in the Western Hemisphere. This city dates back to 2000 BC but human remains have been found dating backas far as 15,000 BC. This area was in a great position for commerce and was a thriving metropolis. It contained temples, palaces and ball fields where they played a game called pok-a-tok with 8 pound stone balls. Copan also contains a 64 foot long rock alongside a temple staircase with the longest hieroglyph in the world. Another important carved rock is Altar Q, which tells the geneology of l6 Mayan kings.

Unfortunately, the Mayans did not manage their cities well. An agricultural society, they needed land and water. They took the best land and built their cities on it. They deforested the land and used the wood for building, cooking and making whitewash for plaster. Having no vegetation created a heat pocket, therefore there was not enough rain. This resulted in famine. There was a lack of protein, the water became polluted from poor sanitary conditions and diseases developed. From a study of skeletons, it can be seen that, within l00 years, the life span went from over 60 to 30, and that the average height dropped a foot. Eventually the Mayans were forced to abandon the cities and move inland. The cities eventually became covered by jungle growth. Copan existed from 675 AD until about 822.

We had dinner at Carnitas Nia Lola and enjoyed their whole fish. After dinner,
we were privileged to hear a talk by David Sedat, an archeologist from the University of Pennsylvania. He made the excitement of discovery come alive for us with a fascinating recount of the search for the crypt of a Mayan king.

December 22
Today we drove 6 1/2 hours to the World Heritage town of Antigua. On the way, we visited a family living in a little hut along the road. We learned about the plight of the tobacco farmers who were told by British American Tobacco that they were growing an inferior leaf and were never paid commensurate to their work. We then visited a museum in Estanzuela Zacapa, which contained some local artifacts and skeletons. We had lunch in Sarita, a casual restaurant, drove through Guatemala City and had dinner in Antorchas, a pretty restaurant before we arrived at the lovely Porta Antigua hotel.

December 23
We took a chicken bus (yes, you heard it - chickens ride to market as well as humans), to Santa Maria de Jesus. Once there, we wandered around the colorful market, admired their l7th century church and visited a restaurant where the women were making tamales. From there, we experienced one of the highlights of our trip -- a visit to the school at San Luis Pueblo Nuevo. Although school was closed for holiday vacation, the fourth and fifth graders prepared a presentation for us. They pledged allegiance, sang the National Anthem, and danced for and with us. Our fellow travelers, Priscilla and Mike, are clowns and they entertained the delighted children. The money from Grand Circle Foundation is helping to expand and improve the school and the lives of this little town. We then went home with a child for a home-hosted lunch. Our hostess, Violeta, made a local specialty, pepian - a stew of chicken, beef, chocolate, pepper, sesame seeds, avocado, potato, rice, salt, pepper and cilantro. Delicious. After lunch, we visited San Antonio Aguas Calientes where they specialize in sewing beautiful blouses, then on to the Jade Factory. We had dinner in Fonda del Calle Real with the "Panama 7". This restaurant was filled with pictures of Bill Clinton, who ate here.

December 24
What a treat! We went to the Casa de Artes bought a retablo (folding painted box) by Filipino Simon, and I was lucky enough to be the one chosen to be dressed in a beautiful indigenous costume! We then shopped, bought a great many souvenirs, and visited Centro Cultural La Azotea Farm where we learned about the coffee industry. One bush produces one pound of coffee, and it takes three years to mature! We also saw the Antigua Museum which includes a Music Museum and enjoyed a video of a Mayan festival and admired the lovely exhibits.

Surrounded by Antigua's three volcanoes, Fire (an active one which spurts white smoke against the bright blue sky), Water and Twin Sisters, we walked around the town and down many of its picturesque streets. We visited the Baroque La Merced Church, the Convent Capuchina, the Santa Catalina Marti arch. We shopped at markets where women sat on the ground in front of church ruins, and at indoor bazaars. At every turn, the dazzling colors of the merchandise tantalize you to buy something new.
Very few restaurants were open on Christmas Eve, but we found an accommodating staff at El Fuente. They literally opened the kitchen for us.

December 25
Our destination today was Panajachel on Lake Atitlan, the most beautiful lake in Guatemala. On the way, we stopped in Solela, where the men wear skirts, and ate lunch at the Cabana de Don Roberto in Chimaltenango. This restaurant is landscaped beautifully, and we took many photos of the surrounding flowers. We arrived at Hotel Porto del Lago with a lovely view of the lake, and walked around the town and down to the lake to watch the sunset. Families were packing up their wares, buying food from street vendors and dining al fresco on the beach. The smells of barbecued chicken, pork and beef wrapped with chilis and cheese inside enchiladas and tortillas beckoned us, but our delicious dinner was to be at Casablanca Restaurant.

December 26
We took a boat ride on Lake Atitlan, then rode a tuk tuk to the village of Santiago. We visited its church where the fusion of Christianity and Mayan religion can be seen in the saints dressed in colorful ethnic costumes. We also visited a small chapel where Mashimo/Rashman, the god of the underworld, is worshipped. The god is usually depicted smoking a cigar. Its head mask is hollow so that it appears to be able to drink. The god wears bright scarves and a fedora. We also visited a little chapel devoted to Francis Apla's, an American who fought for the Mayans. Inside, there is a chair which is carved with Maiz, the corn god, and a lectern which shows Jesus, Maiz and a quetzal on its back and jaguar paws for legs. We took a chicken bus to the town of San Lucas Toliman, Josue handed us 30 quetzals and we went on a very entertaining shopping excursion for fresh produce. We bargained with the natives, but weren't successful enough to make our money last for our assignment of a chicken, salt and sugar. Our gifts would be presented to a family of weavers later in the day. Lunch was at the Toliman Restaurant with a view of the lake. We had a delicious soup made of carrots, spinach and chayote (green pear). Next, a boat ride to San Antonio Palapol. Here we visited the family of weavers, presented them with their groceries and watched the ladies weaving fabric. We all purchased beautiful shirts for the gentlemen. Back to the hotel for a walk around the lake, and more shopping. The prices are so reasonable, and the street vendors are ubiquitous. The children who approach you are so sweet and endearing, and they have learned some very effective pitches which they deliver with puppy dog eyes. No harrassment - just gentle pressure to buy.

Panajachel is a major tourist attraction in Guatemala. Many people are investing here in vacation homes. The scenery is lovely, the weather stable and warm, and the land is reasonable.

We had dinner at the hotel.

December 27
On route to Guatemala City, we had lunch at Restaurant Katok. We arrived at the Best Western Stofella, settled in and had dinner in Applebee's, which is located across the street.

December 28
We toured Guatemala City today. Its main avenue is designed to resemble the Champs Elysees and even has its own "Eiffel Tower". The beautiful red church, Yurita, or Our Lady of Sorrows, was damaged by earthquakes in l927, 1919 and 1976. These earthquakes left over l00,000 dead and 1,000,000 homeless. The civic center contains several buildings decorated by the artist, Goyri. The art portrays past and contemporary Guatemalan history. In the main square is a fountain with hands that represent the union of two cultures. We toured the National Palace, constructed between l937-l939 and done in green limestone (the favorite color of the President's wife). It contains many beautiful murals, stained glass windows, chandeliers and cost 8 million quetzals to build. We visited the cathedral on the square, and then had lunch in Casa Chapina.

In the afternoon, we visited the museum with artifacts from Tikal and other ruins, dioramas, miniatures of cities, and magnificently painted pottery. After a flight to Flores we visited Josue's home in San Benito. His lovely girlfriend and her daughter made us a dinner of banana leaf tamales with chicken and corn, and an irresistable dessert of plaintains and refried beans. We toasted Sheila's birthday, Sue and Bruce's anniversary, and Josue's hospitality. We arrived at our hotel, the Villa Maya, in the middle of the jungle.

December 29
What a road! We tried not to think about the (lack of) paving while we learned more about Tikal. Several people had gotten up early to see the sunrise, but we arrived several hours later to see the temples still shrouded in the morning mist. We saw Temple 4, 216 feet high, with 175 steps. The buildings here were erected between 600-800 AD, but were discovered in l848. The site was discovered when our guide's grandfather was looking for chicle in the chewing gum trees. His name is Everil, but everyone calls him King Tut. There were 33 rulers in Tikal, which deteriorated after 980 AD. We visited the Palace of the Windows, ball courts, Temple 3 which was cracked by lightning in 2005, a palace which still has some green paint on it, the Acropolis Central, where the elite lived, the holy Grand Plaza, Temple 1 (a mortuary) and the huge Plaza of the Seven Temples. Tikal has over 4000 structures, of which 10-20% have been excavated.

December 31
We boarded our bus, picked up our two armed guards, and drove past Lake SacNab (white water lily). Many ethnic groups have fought over the land around this lake. We approached the Peten area of the lake. This was controlled by a very violent tribe. They would decapitate you and put your head on a pole in the woods as a warning not to trespass. The Spanish understandably left this area alone, and there are few churches here.

Next, we visited Yaxha, he third largest ruin in Guatemala. Germany donated 3 million marks to study this ruin, which contains over 500 buildings. Excavation began here 20 years ago. Yaxha was built 200 years before Tikal. It has many residential neighborhoods, but also contains similar formations to the other cities. For example, they all contain E Groups, which are symmetrically designed to mark the movement of the sun. We climbed Temple 216 for a wonderful view of Lake Yaxha.

We crossed the border to Belize. Guatemala and Belize do not have the best relationship, because Belize once belonged to Guatemala, then to England (British Honduras). When it got its independence in 1981, Guatemala hoped to regain it, so there is resentment.

Belize has a stable economy and almost everyone speaks English. Their currency is the Belizian dollar, which is worth 2 American dollars. Their main resources are tourism, oranges and sugar cane. It also boasts the second largest barrier reef in the world.

On the way to our final hotel, we stopped off at the new home of Priscilla and Mike's son, Bob and his wife, Marge. More bumpy roads, and we arrived at the Five Sisters Lodge, named for the waterfall on the property which is approached by a tram or many steps. Our cabin, surrounded by the jungle, was built on stilts, had a thatched roof and was surrounded by tropical trees and flowers. Elusive toucans whistled but stubbornly never came out to say hello to my waiting camera.

December 31
After a 35 mile adventure which took 1 1/2 hours and nearly destroyed the tires of our bus, we visited Caracol, our last ruin. This is one of the largest Mayan sites in the world. We spoke of the Mayan calendar which begins its 3rd cycle in 2012. We saw the causeways which were built for transporation, and the living quarters of the lower, middle and high classes. We saw reservoirs and cemeteries. (Much of the jade buried with the corpses here has been looted.) We saw a service plaza (similar to an agora) with wonderful acoustics. We saw warehouses of magnificently carved stelae being studied by the University of Pennsylvania. The last stela here dates to 859 AD. Caracol was not abandoned as were the other sites, but many people remained here. We visited B Plaza. The main house here contained l00 rooms. We saw Cecropia Trees which reach from "heaven to the underworld" and trumpet trees whose limbs serve as blow guns. We saw cuba trees with spikes which protect them from animals. We learned of natural herbs. We saw strangler figs and perfectly preserved structures under a gorgeous blue sky.

Our Farewell Dinner was also a New Year's Eve celebration. As we toasted the arrival of 2008, we were grateful for good times, new friendships, and the joy of learning and travel.

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