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Madelyn Given on a zipline in Honduras. What fun!

Fun in Honduras

One day while traveling in Honduras, Patricio, my guide, asked me if I would like to go to a bird sanctuary for relocating birds back into the wild. We were staying in Copan and it was a short distance so we took a tut-tut. The way was up a steep hill on a narrow bumpy road. That little three-wheel mini transport hardly made it.

A toucan at a bird sanctuary in Honduras. Photo by Madelyn Given.

A toucan at a bird sanctuary in Honduras. Photo by Madelyn Given.

We were the only visitors and the director stopped his work and took us around, explaining that this was not a zoo and the sole purpose of the sanctuary is to relocate native birds and to educate locals about not keeping native birds as pets, especially the endangered macaws. The sanctuary began the long process of reintroducing a single pair into the wild a few years ago. Now there are 52 pairs in the area. The macaws that have been domesticated as pets unfortunately will not survive in the wilds as they have spent a lifetime depending on humans. Also to get a pair is very difficult because a male and female are alike in coloration and size and only though DNA can a pair be matched. There were owls, ducks, toucans, parakeets, and other native birds.

On the way to the bird sanctuary was a public zip line. I asked Patricio if he was up for some fun. We stopped and made arrangements. Once we were harnessed up with a pair of heavy gloves, we took off in a truck high up on a small mountain. There were 16 long lines going though the passes and down to the valley and over the trees. It was great fun, quiet, peaceful and magnificent scenery. At the end we caught a ride into town with the zip line crew as it was the end of their work day.

We went to a cocoa museum as this is the heart of where it is grown. Chocolate was the drink of Mayan nobles and royalty.  Their chocolate (ate at the end of the word means hot) was made with honey, chili, chocolate, and water. Ekchua was the Mayan god of chocolate.

I had chocolate, good coffee, and good food while traveling. I enjoyed typical dishes of beleada made with fried beans, chicken or beef, fried egg, avocado, cheese, and sour cream inside a folded tortilla. Casado was another typical dish made with fried beans rice and fried bananas with a fresh salad.

Early one morning, Patricio and I hiked on a trail through a rain forest part of a national park. Patricio brought his binoculars and we saw a number of birds. Three red-crested macaws, the national bird of Honduras, heard us coming and warned the forest animals with a loud continuous cry. Other birds were moving about including the blue crowned mommot, the national bird of El Salvador, woodpeckers, black birds, and small songbirds. Butterflies and frogs are colorful attractions when hiking. Monkeys are noisy and sound an alarm before you usually see them. Where ever we walked came across Mayan ruins protruding from the vegetation. The weather was hot and quite dry and there was no one around to disturb the natural setting but nature itself.

After our walk in the rainforest we met up with an archeologist near Les Sepulture, a cemetery for nobility and craftsmen. The site is closed to the public but he offered to show us what was happening there if we took no pictures. Part of the area will be a new museum to be completed in the next five years. It is a major project to find and match pieces for entire buildings, sculptures, benches and carvings. We spent a long time there, even though we had a long drive planned for that day.

After only a few more miles, we made a stop at Welches coffee plantation. The owner, a barrister, made me a cappuccino frio. After a walk in the tropical rain forest, it was a grand treat. I went with the young owner, of many generations, here into the sorting rooms of a big building for processing the coffee beans. Coffee has such humble beginnings: hand picked up in the mountains, carried down in heavy sacks on the back of workers and dried on cement parking lots. The beans are picked red when just right, 15 days later more are picked from the same trees, and this goes on from September through March. Trees produce up to 15 years and then are destroyed and new trees are planted. It takes 15 beans for a cup of coffee. The traditional coffee is dried over three days: each day the beans are laid out of doors on the cement, bagged up each night, and brought in, and the process is repeated for three days. Then the beans are pealed and roasted in big roasting machines. Honey roasted beans are not washed of the little juice or peeled. Much of Welches coffee beans are sold to Starbucks.

Pulhapanzak Waterfall, Honduras. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Pulhapanzak Waterfall, Honduras. Photo by Madelyn Given.

We drove many miles for a short hike to Pulhapanzak, the largest waterfall in Honduras. There were locals here enjoying a natural swimming pool of the stream above the falls and people were enjoying a picnic on the grass beside the falls. It was very hot in this tropical area and walking up the steep path was a bit of an effort. In the town of Taculpan we passed a large fish processing plant. Tilapia is raised on fish farms near the falls.

View at Yojo Largo, Honduras. Photo by Madelyn Given.

View at Yojo Largo, Honduras. Photo by Madelyn Given.

We drove around part of Yojo Largo, the largest lake in Honduras.  Here we decided not to go to a place for native fried fish as we had several stops to make and our long visits at special places and many miles on the road made a late arrival at our sleeping destination.

We drove on dirt roads, country highways, and toll roads. We made a special stop at Comayagua, in the 1500s a Spanish colonial capital, now restored for tourism. For several days Patricio had told me he could hardly wait to take me here to show me the oldest functioning clock in the Western Hemisphere. It was getting dark when we arrived at the central plaza and sat on the steps of a grand old church and listened to the chimes go off at the hour and half hour. It was worth driving the last few hours to this historic site. We walked around several of the old streets. The area was beautifully restored, clean, and safe. The mayor had done a good job with this small city.

(posted Sept 13, 2017)







Horse crossing the street, seen during my 2017 travels in Central America. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Central America 2017: Guatemala and Honduras

At the domestic airport in Guatemala City I met Patricio, my new guide. It was late at night and Edwardo, the owner of the Honduras Travel Company, had been with me to Tikal and back until Patricio could take over for the rest of my trip. I had good vibes about Patricio from the beginning, and the next morning Patricio was there on time, prepared with a cheerful greeting. I knew I would recognize his van; it felt large for only two of us.

Off we went on a long day of driving through mountain passes down to fertile valleys and long delays with miles of road construction. This main interstate was being widened, and in this mountainous region, it was a massive job. In the fertile valleys were large fields of cantaloupe or watermelon or pineapple or squash.

We followed the Rio Dulee and went to the Quirigua Maya ruins, a small but important site. Two inscriptions were found here, accurate to dates of ninety million and four million years ago. Astronomy and mathematics were top priorities at the time of the great civilization. The last monument was erected here on June 26, 810 A.D. Quite interesting—Quirigua and four other major Mayan cities erected their last monument on that day.

In Quirigua’s heyday, the city grew cacao and avocado. The valley was surrounded by fields, until the civilization died out and the forests over ran the fields, walls, and plazas for a thousand years. Much of the ceremonial areas are covered with silt from the Motagua River. The largest stela in the Maya world is here and mounds indicate where great buildings once stood. Upstream, the Rio Motagua links Quirigua to the ancient capital, Copan.

We stopped at a roadside café and had baleada, a homemade tortilla filled with fried beans, ground meat, fried egg, avocado, cheese, and sour cream. Delicious! It was made up in front of us with all local ingredients. When we came to any long stops due to road construction and there were long delays, there were locals who walked between the long line of cars offering to sell sugar cane water, coconut meat, slices of mango, crystallized sugared pineapple, and other items.

An antique musical instrument outside my resort room in Honduras. Photo by Madelyn Given.

An antique musical instrument outside my resort room in Honduras. Photo by Madelyn Given.

We had no trouble at the rural border crossing from Guatemala to Honduras, and we arrived in the town of Copan before dark. I checked in to a lovely resort owned by the Welches, owners of a local coffee plantation. Patricio met me and we walked through the streets of Copan before having a traditional Honduran dinner. I looked forward to hiking days and a walking day in the ruins of Copan.

I also was looking for a post office. When we reached Copan I still had a couple of post cards to mail from Guatemala. In Antiqua, I tried to mail them. The response from the local guide was, “No, we no longer have a post office here.” A couple of days later I asked at the hotel in Chichicastenango and my guide there said, “There is no longer a post office here. “ In Guatemala City, the hotel clerk said not here. No one seemed to know anything about it—only their location was closed—try another town.

On the way to Copan, Patricio said he knew where there was a post office in a small city and we would stop. After leaving the main highway, we were on narrow, busy streets, with locals buying and selling on the streets. Some streets were closed off with venders selling in the streets.

Patricio found where the post office had been, but now was a store. In Copan, Honduras, while walking the streets, we spotted a tiny post office, but it was closed that evening. The next day was Sunday, but before leaving on Monday morning, we walked to the tiniest little closet-sized post office and went in to mail my post cards.

The post office attendant was combing his hair, not expecting anyone. He told us the government of Guatemala closed down their postal service a few months ago, like the El Salvador government had shut down their National Banks and mint now using US currency. Each day was a learning day in these countries.

(posted August 1, 2017)

A Maya stela, altar, and pyramid in Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Tikal and Maya Stelae

While in Central America, I had different local guides and archaeologists who spent time with me at different Maya sites in four countries. While I was at Tikal I had Horia, a direct descendent of the Maya, as my guide. The Tikal site is in one of the largest rainforests and only a small portion of the ancient ruins have been excavated. Several million Maya lived in the area between southern Mexico, the Yucatan, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras during the classical period (1200 B.C. to 800 A.D). The empire spread across this region with trade between four different kingdoms. The capitals were Tikal in Guatemala, Copan in Honduras, Palenque and Calakmul in Mexico. When you walk though the paths in Tikal, you can see and feel the grandeur of these magnificent ruins. You can see the layout of this vast city even though only a few pyramids, palaces, plazas, and stelae remain. Others are covered by the trees and vegetation of this great rainforest.

The temples and pyramids had four decorated sides facing north, east, south, and west. The masses were uneducated and controlled by the rulers, and only priests and astronomers were highly respected and held places of honor. Some pyramids were for meditation, and others had a flat top for astronomers to study the night sky. Without the telescopes and scientific equipment that we have today, they knew about the Milky Way, constellations, and the Moon calendar. In Central America, farmers are still following the moon calendar to plant crops. The Maya calendar was very accurate, using 365 days in 20-year cycles.

A grand stela in Copan, Honduras. Photo by Madelyn Given.

A grand stela in Copan, Honduras. Photo by Madelyn Given.

At Tikal and later at other Maya sites, especially Copan, I learned about stelae. A stela is a free-standing statue or monument carved in the image of a ruler, and it also gives information: date of his birth, years of rule, accomplishments, warfare, marriages (they were polygamists), and death. Each stela was carved from one large block of tuff quarried from one of the nearby hills. The block was rolled on logs to the spot where it was erected. A hole was dug, a base was laid on the ground and the huge stone was raised to a standing position. After the stone was raised, workers placed a temporary roof over it to keep it moist and easier to carve. When it was completed, it was painted red using iron ore or cinnabar pigment.  Each stela has an altar for sacrificial bloodletting. Thorns and stingray spines were used to prick ears, tongues, and other body parts. There was an offertory vault where offerings such as shells, jade beads, and stalactites were found. There are 24 stelae still standing in the Copan Valley in Honduras, and another 39 are in storage. Early on, it was customary to destroy and bury the predecessor’s monuments; only in the later dynasties were monuments kept and new ones built around them.

The stelae were erected for the people to worship their semi-divine ruler, and they were placed on different plazas throughout the kingdom. They symbolize the four corners of the universe: north-xaman, south-nojool, east-lak’in, and west-chik’in. The stelae showed an advanced civilization, like that of the Egyptians and the Ottoman Empire. Most of the rulers portrayed on stelae carry in their arms a double-headed serpent, with the serpents’ mouths opened wide to show emerging heads, representing reentering into the world. There are smaller figures alongside the ruler: ancestors, spirit companions, and spirits from the supernatural world. The carving is very detailed with high relief.

One stela I took time to analyze was of the ruler Fiery Snake- K’ahk’Uti’Chan, who was born in 563 A.D., became king in 578 A.D., and died in 628 A.D. at age 65. On his stela, he honored the founder of his dynesty, K’inich Yax K’ uk’ Mu, whose likeness is also carved there. The ruler is wearing a jaguar pelt skirt, a loincloth over it, a ceremonial belt, jade pendants, and masks hanging from his chest (in public, rulers always wore masks to cover their face). A serpent body is alongside the ruler’s legs. There are water plants and on other stelae there are maize, a symbol of death and rebirth. The spots on the jaguar’s pelt are like the stars in the night sky, and the jaguar is a solar deity. The Maya believed that like the sun, the souls of the deceased rise and fall every day.

I learned so much about the Maya civilization. During my long days there, we would continue soaking up the history, even during lunch breaks on the site. One day I was enjoying sopa, rice, beef, and steamed vegetables and a small plate of tortillas with sauce that was put on the table. I dipped a tiny piece of tortilla in the sauce and to my horror, my tongue and lips began to burn. My mouth was on fire! I tried soup, rice, water, soda, and ice, to no avail. Finally, the sensation went away, and I continued with my lessons on Maya history.

(posted July 18, 2017)