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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)

Mayan majesty in Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Tikal, Guatemala

Our little group drove from Antiqua to Chichicastenango and then to Guatemala City, spending several days touring, visiting historic sites, and walking. It was cooler in the mountains and the air was more refreshing. In the valleys between the volcanoes, we passed large fields that were bountiful with crops.

Mango, pineapple, cantaloupes, and bananas are grown for export. Sugar and coffee are exported too, in large quantities, to the United States.  We passed sugar fields being burned before the workers go in to chop down the cane with machetes. I would see the workers walking from the villages to the fields with a stick in one hand and a machete in the other.

From December until May, the air is polluted in smog caused by the vast amount of burning fields of sugar cane. Workers refuse to go into the fields until burned for fear of the poisonous snakes that live there.

There are orange groves and cocoa trees with beans for chocolate. There are rubber trees and zarzapawilla trees for medicine.  In the high hills are coffee trees, where coffee is all handpicked and carried down on narrow trails, in big sacks on the back of workers.

The roads are good for traveling and there are a few cafes along the way. We stopped for lunch at a café and bought cheeseburgers. Mine was delicious but so large I had to cut it into quarters. I ate one fourth, I gave one fourth to my driver, George, and I neatly bagged the other half along with some great homemade French fries and a bottle of water. Not much farther along the highway, George stopped and my guide, Rafael, left a snack for a couple of workers.

We reached Guatemala City in the early evening, and at my hotel, we said goodbye to my driver George. Rafael was staying there, and early the next morning, we would meet Edwardo, owner of the Honduras Travel Company, at the airport.

Guatemala City is the second largest city in Central America with a population of 4 million. We didn’t take time to tour the city the next day.

Ever since Moises (my original guide) had gone to court, it had caused a chain reaction. A few days ago, Rafael had driven 13 hours from Honduras to meet me. He now had to leave me, as he had a contract to be a guide for a Chinese group meeting in Belize and touring to Panama. At the airport, Rafael was flying to Belize, and Edwardo had flown from Honduras to Guatemala City to be with me.  We would fly to Flores, where a driver and guide would take us to Tikal, the capital of a Mayan empire in the jungle.

That morning began at 3:30 am with a hurried trip to the airport. There was a pleasant goodbye to Rafael, who was a good, qualified guide. Edwardo and I boarded a small domestic plane to Flores, where our local guide and driver took us to Tikal.

Mayan temples and pyramids rise above the jungle canopy in Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Mayan temples and pyramids rise above the jungle canopy in Tikal, Guatemala. Photo by Madelyn Given.

The vast ruins are only partly excavated, but the temples and pyramids rise above the jungle canopy. There were spider monkeys in the trees and we had the site to ourselves for most of the day.

We walked all day though the jungle, where in 700 AD, thousands of Mayans lived here in great living conditions. Every 20 years, a great central plaza was built upon the older existing dynasty. There was elaborate housing for the royal families, astronomers, and priests, along with temples, plazas, cemeteries, and many villages around the area. We climbed many steps to the top of several pyramids, and all the while, I learned so much about the Mayan people.

Later that day, we returned to Flores and had a light lunch. Edwardo also wanted to stop at a new resort to meet with the owner, as part of his business. We caught a late flight back to Guatemala City, where my new guide was to meet us. He had driven his large van from Honduras to meet us, and for the rest of my trip, Patricio was my guide.

(posted June 20, 2017)