ROUTE OF THE MAYA, 2008

OAT

This trip is being taken, in part, to use and not lose, a $500+ credit from this year's trip with OAT. Otherwise, after some of the problems on the Africa trip, I wouldn't take this. Although I was hesitant about this one, as it turns out, it's a nice trip.

Day -4, Sunday, October 26 Surprise Phone Call
I was surprised today to receive a long distance call from the Tour Leader, Judith, in Guatemala asking if I had any questions, and passing along some extra information. It was very nice of her to call. No special information - just reassurance that the rainy season is over but is cool, and also we would have included easy access to bottled water to drink, etc.

Day 1, Thursday, October 30 Depart U.S. - Arrive San Salvador, El Salvador
Catch the "Super Shuttle" at 11:20 (pickup is right on time) to the airport for a (1-stop) flight to San Salvador. Nice - it's NOT a pre-dawn departure on the shuttle. Also it's a pair of short flights. According to their web site, TACA is a miles partner with LateHansa, but they lied. The TACA agents doing the check-in at the airport have two speeds: slow and V-e-r-y slow. There will be a one hour time change (turn back - no Daylight Time) on the flight. The flight is only about 2/3 full to Belize, but totally full on to San Salvador.

Short layover for us in Belize City, but no changing planes so there's no problem.

1TACA TA411Houston - Belize City3:30PM - 4:40PM2:100:20
2TACA TA411Belize City - San Salvador5:00 PM - 5:55 PM0:553:25

Arrive - in very blustery weather with the plane bouncing around a bunch but one of the smoothest landings I can remember - today in San Salvador, Central America's second largest city and the capital of El Salvador. ($10 Tourist Card Tax at the airport) It's a quick and easy trip through Immigration on arrival. Our trip leader, Judith Bautista (from Antigua, Guatemala), meets the flight and sends us to the hotel (45 minute drive) with our driver, Eduardo (from San Salvador, El Salvador). The hotel is located in the pleasant Zona Rosa residential area. She also has an excellent set of handouts for us. There is very heavy security since there is a meeting of all the Presidents and Leaders of Central & South American countries going on. Since I had lunch at the Houston airport and a nice snack meal on the first flight, I can skip buying dinner. There are 15 people on the tour; none signed up for either the pre- or post-trip option. Hotel: San Salvador Presidente


Day 2, Friday, October 31 Tour Joya de Cerén Archaeological Site - Overland to Copán, Honduras
Breakfast at 6; bags out at 7; group meeting at 7:30; depart at 8:30. At breakfast, we were supposed to have the chance to sample pupusas, a typical dish of El Salvador (beans, beef, and cheese stuffed into a corn tortilla and topped with salsa). Unfortunately this Sheraton Hotel doesn't live up to Sheraton standards. They have a more limited than usual choices at breakfast.

Then set off on a panoramic city tour of San Salvador, passing the National Palace, the U.S. Embassy (second largest in the world) - which we can't get to because of the extreme security during the big conference of National leaders- and the Catedral Metropolitana in the city center. At least we have a nice mini-bus this time with (just) enough seats. The luggage has to be tied on top, however and will get banged a few times by low tree branches.

Next, drive to the Joya de Cerén (Jewel of Cerén) archaeological area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located about 30 minutes from San Salvador, Joya de Cerén is aptly nicknamed the "Pompeii of the Americas." This a unique site that features dwellings once buried under 20 feet of volcanic ash. Dating from about AD 600, the ruins here were the homes of ordinary people - not, as at most other sites, the monumental temples of royalty. Here are the adobe houses, communal baths, and public buildings of a Mayan farming village. This site was discovered in 1976 and is still being excavated. Evidence suggests that the inhabitants were able to evacuate as the eruption destroyed their village, but they left utensils, textiles, and furniture behind that provide revealing glimpses of Mayan life. It's a very nice place to visit.

After an included lunch lakeside (Lake Coate Peque) in the caldera of an inactive volcano (beautiful setting), continue on to Copán, crossing the border first into Guatemala, before looping back into Honduras. (USD$3 entry fee into Honduras) Instead of having us pay all these fees as we cross the various borders, Judith takes up $15 from each of us to pay the three $3 fees ($9) and various bribes to the Customs/Immigration authorities to get them to process our documents "quickly." We also have relays of a security escort (arranged by Judith) for the Guatemala loop. They've had recent heavy rains in the area and there are several mud/land slides blocking parts of the road. In one case, the entire road slid away, and the repairs are just enough that one vehicle can get through at a time. We also see places where recent seismic activity (there are many geologic faults and several active volcanoes in Guatemala) have torn up the road leaving some fairly wide cracks which are difficult to get past. We eventually arrive (6:15 - full dark) in time for dinner, but not for an orientation walk (which we never get), at our really neat hotel in Santa Rosa de Copan - a charming, colonial-style hacienda property just steps away from the Central Plaza and a short ride from the ruins. The only problem is a very noisy cobblestone street right outside my window. Nice dinner tonight and it was an excellent lunch at the lakeside stop. Hotel: Hotel Marina Copán Hacienda (2 nights) (BLD)


A Better map of the trip - Thanks to Chuck Brackett

Day 3, Saturday, November 1 Visit Copán Ruins
Mini-breakfast at 6:30, off at 8. In AD 250 the Maya-Mesoamerica's (and the Western Hemisphere's) most advanced culture - began constructing elaborate cities. Several of these, including Copán, flourished until about the year 900 in what is now called the Classic Period of Mayan civilization. This morning, after breakfast, set out to explore the ruins of Copán, which the Maya called Xukpi. It's a gloomy, overcast day, but nice and cool and low humidity. We're lucky! Now if it weren't for all those steps!.

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980, Copán is Honduras' most significant pre-Columbian site and the most elaborate of all Mayan cities. Enjoy a half day here to explore its sprawling ball court, adorned with markers resembling macaw heads, and the Great Plaza, scattered with altars and carved stone columns called stellae. These represent powerful Mayan rulers and date from AD 711 to 736. Among the ruins here that have helped to unveil Mayan history is Altar Q (its in the Museum here), a rectangular stone altar with carved portraits of all of Copán's rulers from the founder, Yax Kuk Mo, to the last ruler, Yax Pac. Much here was built by one of the last rulers, 18 Rabbit (yes, that was the name). The most impressive remnant is the Hieroglyphic Stairway - 63 steps with 2,500 glyphs, or symbols, carved into the stone, transforming the pyramid's ascension into the Mayans' longest historical record. The ancient Mayan belief system gave extraordinary importance to precisely measuring and recording the dates of events such as the reigns of rulers, and many of Copán's monuments, and those of other Mayan centers, are elaborate sacred calendars. We have an excellent local guide, Julio who speaks superb English and is very knowledgeable.

During the visit, keep an eye out for the fascinating birds (many Macaws) that inhabit the surrounding jungle. There are also several "Mayan Chickens," actually Agouti, a relative of the Paca, sometimes called the "Queen's Rat" since she once ate one, running around. We return to the hotel for lunch about 2PM, then there's time to explore the sleepy town of Copán Ruinas, with its cobblestone streets and quaint colonial charm (though its not Colonial) and several interesting places to see. We have to buy our own dinner this evening or, since I had a good breakfast and a very late lunch, eat munchies as I chose to do. (BL)

Optional Tours: Hacienda San Lucas horseback riding tour. 4 PM departure: view the Copan Valley from a different perspective at the conclusion of this day. Upon return to our hotel, we set out for the Hacienda San Lucas, a private family-owned retreat set high above the Mayan ruins. ... Dinner included. ($65) No thanks - not with my back problems - even taking a Tuk-Tuk would be too 'bouncy.'. My back is hurting. The people who signed up for this option aren't getting to see much. It's getting dark early and still very overcast. They're definitely not getting the promised beautiful sunset. I'm glad I skipped this option.

Day 4, Sunday, November 2 Overland to Guatemala City, Guatemala
The usual: Breakfast at 6:30, bags out at 7, off at 8:30. It's still overcast. After breakfast, we have a stop at the local Cemetery to see the decorations - it's the holiday "Day of the Dead" - Nov. 2, then take Tuk-Tuks to the local museum. Afterwards, depart for Guatemala City, passing patchwork landscapes of vegetable plantations along the way. (USD$3 entry fee into Guatemala) Judith already has our money to cover this fee. We have a security escort again today. Along the way we see where a large 18-wheeler has tipped over. Fortunately it fell over off the side of the road rather than blocking some of the driving lanes. The scenery gets more interesting as we get into the higher elevations. We have a nice lunch stop at an Italian restaurant along the way. It also gets much cooler and is quite cool as we arrive in Guatemala City.

Guatemala City is one of the largest urban areas of Central America. Founded in early 1776, the colonial settlers believed they had picked a strategic location within the surrounding mountains that would prevent the shock of earthquakes. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Several massive earthquakes in recent history, most notably in 1917 and 1918, destroyed most of the lovely colonial architecture that once graced the city. When we arrive, we have some free time to explore this Central American capital and make stops to go into the Cathedral and see the Palace. There's a huge number of people in the Plaza, both celebrating the day, and also just gathering and doing some shopping.

Just before we get into Guatemala City, we stop by an area that used to be a Mayan obsidian "mine" and walk around picking up several pieces of black obsidian. Our hotel is located in the fashionable Zona Viva, or lively zone, brimming with shops, restaurants, and nightclubs, which we discover on an orientation walk. We again have to buy our own dinner this evening or eat munchies. Hotel: Hotel Stofella (B)

For more information on Guatemala, see the end of this file.

Day 5, Monday, November 3 Local School Visit - Home-Hosted Lunch
Breakfast at 6:30, bags out at 7:30, off at 8:30 with our security escort. This morning, begin the overland journey to Antigua, passing flatlands dotted with coffee plantations and dairy farms. We also get our first views of some active volcanoes (and stop for pictures). In a farming village outside of Antigua, we meet with young Guatemalans during a visit to a local elementary school where they put on a very nice presentation for us and get us involved in some of their activities. Each of us has a student as a personal "guide." Our cultural exchange continues at a Home-Hosted Lunch (5 of us to each of 3 homes), where we may enjoy regional specialties such as soups, corn tortillas, and local fare. Carolina, our hostess and her family, offer us a soup made of chicken, rice, and squash which is very good. The school teacher joins us for lunch. Highlight visit.

This takes most of the day and other than a brief photo stop at a Mayan Cemetery (decorated), and finally a stop at the shop of a master (wood) carver. Great work - I buy a couple of pieces.

We stop at a bank to change money and Antigua gets a new name: "Count Your Change" since the teller takes an unofficial "Propina" out of my money - and it won't be the only time since the hotel Cashier will do the same when I pay my bill to check out in a couple of days. Is this part of the Guatemalan culture. Remember that Judith is paying bribes to the border officials to get us through the borders "quickly."

That's it for the day except for dinner. Dinner (fair) is included tonight at a local restaurant. The hotel is super nice, except that my room has absolutely NO view, and again, as it is a corner room, there is a noisy, busy street on the other side of both of the walls Hotel: Porta Hotel Antigua (3 nights) (BLD)

Day 6, Tuesday, November 4 Maya Village Visit - Visit to Craft Workshop - Jade Factory Visit
After not much (if any) sleep overnight due to the noise, the hotel has an excellent breakfast buffet at 7, then we're off at 9. This morning, enjoy an excursion around "Count Your Change", a city encircled by three towering volcanoes. This is one of the Americas' oldest and loveliest cities, full of Spanish colonial architecture, very narrow cobblestone streets, and graceful stucco homes, for which it is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Founded in 1543, "La Antigua" served as the seat of Spain's colonial government, whose influence extended beyond Guatemala to Chiapas (in southern Mexico), Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, and parts of Costa Rica. Prone to earthquakes, floods, and volcanic eruptions, the city soon proved to be a less than ideal choice, and after a particularly devastating earthquake in 1773, the government withdrew to firmer ground, establishing a new capital in what is now Guatemala City. In the aftermath of the Spanish exodus, the few remaining Antigueńos left the rubble of ruins and collapsed churches as is; it's only been in recent years that they have begun preserving and restoring the historic city.

We start out driving half way up the side of one of the volcanoes to Santa Maria de Jesus, a purely Mayan town outside of "Count Your Change". On the way up the mountain, we stop to "give a lift" to a local woman carrying firewood she has chopped, about 50 pounds or more, up the mountainside to her home. She has to make the trip which is about 12km, twice a day every day. We visit the church and walk through the market. In all the markets we see throughout the trip, there are large piles of used clothing for sale, with the local inhabitants picking through them to find what they want. This is called Paca clothing (sometimes "Pakistan"). The custom was started a long time back by various aid groups, mostly churches, who sent used clothing from the US or Europe. Later merchants picked up on the idea and now it's a big business. The clothing is almost always used, seldom new (unless an overstock or unsold merchandise). Most of the young males, and some men are now wearing it instead of the traditional clothing; some young females are also doing so, but few adult females who prefer to stay with the traditional wear.

Back in town, we stop at the Textiles Museum to see the variety of clothing, etc., and also to shop for locally hand made souvenirs. We finally get back to the hotel for lunch (not included; $11 for a cheeseburger and lemonade) about 1:30, then visit a local factory to discover the enduring significance of jade in Mayan culture. This precious stone, excavated at many of the ruins we visit, has long been coveted by Maya rulers and nobility as a symbol of fertility, luck, and power. After the tour concludes, enjoy the balance of the day (1 hour) making our own discoveries in "Count Your Change" (or resting). We have to buy our own dinner this evening or take the optional tour (which all of us do). Hotel: Porta Hotel Antigua (B,OD)

Optional Tours: Back to the Past in "Count Your Change" ($60) Tonight join in for a horse-drawn "carriage ride from Hell" (which should be deleted - can't see anything and the ride is miserable) tour of "Count Your Change"'s Old Colonial Capital. We move slowly (very) roughly back in time and get a sense of the capital at a magical (miserable) pace as we travel (bounce, shake and rattle - our carriage has iron, not rubber tires/wheels) through the cobble-stoned streets. Then its a nice dinner and a excellent and very enjoyable Maya-style folk dance demonstration in a colonial house that dates back to 1568. (I take this option since we have only one meal today and to see the folk dance.) Many of us are going to strongly recommend to Overly Awful Travel to delete the (censored) "carriage ride from Hell"; just do the dinner and folklore show.

Day 7, Wednesday, November 5 Optional "Count Your Change" Museums Tour
Today we can spend a day at leisure in "Count Your Change" (ho-hum), exploring this colonial city on our own, or join an optional tour, with lunch, of some "Count Your Change" museums. If we don't take the optional tour, from the volcanoes to the architectural detail, "Count Your Change" is interesting. We're stuck with the tab for lunch and dinner today - unless we take the expensive (and for me, minimal interest) option which includes lunch ($5 for the tour, $35 for lunch???). Not much of a day - just a wasted day. That "carriage ride from Hell" ruined this day, and parts of the next days as well. My back still hurts from that (censored) carriage ride so I spend most of the day on the bed, and I lost the election. We never did get that walking tour of the city that was promised. (B)

Actually I think that Overly Awful Travel is padding the trip with an extra day so they can charge us more - or maybe the local labor unions say that the tour leader and driver have to have a couple of days off - like we have weekends at home.

Optional Tours: "Count Your Change" Museums Tour ($40) Join an optional tour (10AM - 1PM), with lunch, of some "Count Your Change" museums. The cost of this tour includes an expensive lunch, and is of minimal interest for me, so I "pass."

Day 8, Thursday, November 6 Visit Coffee Plantation and Cultural Center La Azotea - Transfer to Lake Atitlán
"Count Your Change" produces some of the finest coffee in Guatemala, and today we visit a local coffee farm to learn how it's grown, harvested, or roasted, depending on the season. This is at the Centro Cultural La Azotea.

We learn about a special kind of coffee: Civet Cat Processed Coffee: The Civet is a cat-like animal of the mongoose family, native to Central Africa. It likes to feed on ripe coffee beans. The beans, processed in the animals' stomach, are collected from the droppings, washed and sold as a rarity for as much as $100 per pound.

Adjacent is the Mayan Music Museum to learn about their musical instruments and how they were used. We depart "Count Your Change" late in the morning. Most of the route is on the supposed Pan American "Highway" which seems to be mostly a collection of partially graded gravel, dirt and dust (lots of dust). The ride is almost as bad as that (censored) carriage ride. Traffic: except for the vicinity of Guatemala City, we don't have a problem with trucks. It's the "Chicken Busses" which are resurrected US school busses, gaudily painted, and with the "governor" removed and now used as Guatemalan passenger busses. They take the roads at a much higher speed than anything else on the road, and pass anything they catch up with, whether they can see the road ahead or not.

After stopping at a typical roadside restaurant for lunch (the best meal of the trip, at least so far), we arrive at our lodge in Panajachel, located near the shores of Lake Atitlán in the western highlands of Central America. One town where we were supposed to stop and visit, we skip because the residents are currently angry with the government and there's much unrest. It's also reported that they have most of the more talented pick-pockets in the country. We take a brief bus tour of the town before a barely fair dinner at a local restaurant. The hotel, same chain as the one for the last three nights, is much more modern in architecture so not as interesting. The view from the balcony is nice, but inside, they seem to have a major aversion to lights; a hibernating bear would feel right at home as in his dark den. When we get back from dinner, about 9, I'm ready for bed and sleep. Very unfortunately there are pools and party areas down below and the noise and "music" goes on for hours. This is definitely my least favorite hotel so far. Miserable. It's also much warmer than the last 4 days so that doesn't help. Hotel: Porta Hotel del Lago (BLD)

Day 9, Friday, November 7 Boat Ride on Lake Atitlán - Optional Hanging Bridges & Canopy Tour
Breakfast is at 7. We were "promised" nice views and pictures of the lake and volcanoes early this morning, but although it's not cloudy yet, the haze is so thick that the volcanoes are almost invisible. After breakfast, at 8 some join the optional Canopy & Hanging Bridges tour at Atitlán Nature Reserve. On return from that, at 10:30 we all take the boat ride on Lake Atitlán. Over 85,000 years ago a gigantic volcanic explosion formed this lake. The results of this period are quite nice. The lake is located over 5,000 feet above sea level, with three imposing volcanoes gracing its southern edge: San Pedro, Toliman, and Atitlán. It's 18km long and 13km wide. (At one point we are at 7,000 feet here.) Because of this location and pretty scenery, this lake has been called "the closest thing to Eden on earth" by somebody. With a depth of more than 1,000 feet, it is the deepest lake in the Western Hemisphere.

The original Maya Indians settled here centuries ago, making this is the heart of the Mayan world. Their ancient traditions, beliefs, and crafts are preserved in the many colorful Maya textiles, with their distinctive geometric patterns, that are created here before being sold throughout the country. The boat ride starts out with a 45 minute high speed run to the town of Santiago. There we first take Tuk-Tuks to the top of the mountain to learn about the traveling statue of Maximon - a Mayan deity still remembered here - and even have a chance to visit him. Then a short walk to the local church and finally back to the boat. We stop along the way to visit a local family and I buy a small textile woven by a 10-year-old girl, Anna. It's particularly nice - a highlight visit - my favorite of the trip. Another 40 minutes brings us to the town of San Lucas where we have a nice lunch at a restaurant set overlooking the lake. Then a brief 20 minutes to the town of San Antonio. There we visit a local textile weaver' Don Thomas, and leave him a donation of food-stuffs, etc. I donate about 100 Quetzal for the gift. It's a 30 minute bus ride back to Panajachel, where we see a documentary on the Maya at the hotel, and say "good-bye" to Eduardo who leaves us when we fly from Guatemala City to Flores tomorrow. I skip dinner since lunch was included. (BL)

Optional: Hanging Bridges & Canopy Tour ($45) Located on the shores of Lake Atitlán, the 247-acre reserve is also a bird sanctuary. The tour starts with a hike of approximately 50 yards. We then climb for approximately 40 minutes, passing through hanging bridges while admiring the landscape's volcanoes, coffee plantations, orchids, trees, waterfalls and many various bird species. When we reach the top of the valley, we start our decent by zip-line (6 in total) that brings us back to solid ground. I really would like to have done this, but no thanks due to back problems from that (censored) "carriage ride from Hell".

Day 10, Saturday, November 8 Fly to Flores
This turns out to be just a travel day. Off at 8:30, make a brief stop for photos of a waterfall, then drive on to Guatemala City. No lunch stop. We wait for a while at the same hotel we stayed at earlier, then on to the airport. The flight is full, and more or less on time.

3TACA TA7978Guatamala City - Flores5:30PM - 6:17 PM0:47

At the airport for early evening flight to Flores. (USD$3 airport usage fee) we get in when it is full dark. This is the third fee which Judith has our money to pay for us. On arrival in Flores we get a new driver, Sammy (from Flores - good driver but he's NOT Eduardo), and transfer to our hotel. We again have to buy our own dinner this evening. We're back to lowlands where it's much warmer than in Antigua and Atitlán. Judith switched the days for the included dinner to (late) tonight to take away a reason not to take the optional trip tomorrow. Also when we visit the sites tomorrow, we have to be cautious of mosquitoes.Villa Maya Lodge Limited lights in the room and limited menu. (2 nights) (BD)

Day 11, Sunday, November 9 Explore Tikal Ruins - Visit Tikal Museum - Optional Sunset at Lake Peten Itza excursion
This morning after a limited set menu breakfast, we leave at 7 for a visit to Tikal for a tour of the fabled temple complex. The idea for the early departure is to finish the tour early so as to avoid the heat. Immersed in the Petén jungle in Tikal National Park, this grand Mayan city reached its height during the Classic Period from about AD 300 to 900. At its peak, Tikal was home to an estimated 100,000 Maya, and it was one of the most important urban centers of its time. The grounds are expansive and inspiring, and it's difficult to determine which is more impressive - the accomplishments of man or those of nature. The towering structures rise above the leafy canopy and vie for our attention with the assortment of animals and exotic birds. Within the park, it's possible to spot howler and spider monkeys gliding through the treetops; raucous macaws and colorful toucans perching on branches; and wild turkeys wandering the forest floor.

The Tikal site comprises about six square miles with about 3,000 structures, including temples, pyramids, tombs, palaces, ball courts, and terraces. The Maya had a complex cultural caste system that relied heavily on deity worship. Often perceived as a violent sect, they sacrificed to their gods both in their temples and on the playing fields of their ball courts. Oftentimes the entire losing team was sacrificed in the name of sport.

Our trip starts out at 7 with a long 1 hour+ drive to the park area. There we load into the back of a truck (with benches) and are driven to the fartherest part of the visit area, Temple 4. This truck ride saves about 30-40 minutes of walking. Here we climb to the top (almost) of the temple (197 steps) for a high level view of the jungle and Temples 1, 2, and 3. Then we start walking back towards the entrance, passing Temple 3 on the way. A bit further along we get to the Grand Plaza with the other temples, Temple 2 and the 144 foot tall "House of the Big Kitty Kat", aka the "Temple of the Grand Jaguar". This is the tomb and memorial of Mayan ruler Moon Double Comb, who was buried with many treasures including 180 magnificent carved jade pieces. We also see the Plaza of the Seven Temples, dating from the Late Classic period and an unusual triple ball court. This is also known as the North Acropolis. And we see El Mundo Perdido, the Lost World, where 38 structures surround a central pyramid in yet another "neighborhood" within the vastness of Tikal. The local truck picks us up here and takes us back to the entrance (saving about 20-30 minutes of walking). Since we came early while it was still cool, and left before noon (11:30), we avoided the heat of the day which made for a very nice visit. If we had had to do all the extra walking, well over an hour, it would NOT have been nice. Thanks, Judith for arranging the truck transport.

As archeologists slowly unravel the many mysteries of Tikal's history, the ruins here stand as testaments to the achievements of Mayan engineering and culture.

On our way back to the hotel, we stop for a visit at a local shop where we see traditional woodcarvings and learn how the Mayans used Brosimium Allicastrum, or Breadnut Tree, as an alternative to maize. We have lunch back at a local restaurant near the lodge, then after a brief bus tour of Flores Island (the last Mayan site to be conquered and now becoming a tourist location) the rest of the afternoon (2 hours) is free unless we want to take the optional trip which nobody does. Judith shows another DVD documentary and tells us about possible problems at the Belize border tomorrow and what to do if .... That's it for the day. (BL,OD)

Optional: Sunset in Lake Peten Itza ($65) Join in the late afternoon for an optional visit to Lake Peten Itza. Board a boat for a panoramic tour of the lake. Along the way, we visit several lakeside villages and watch for unique birds overhead before soaking in the sunset from on board our boat. We then enjoy a relaxing dinner typical of this part of the Guatemalan lowlands.(Nobody takes this since we all stocked up on munchies in Flores last night on the way to the hotel.)

Day 12, Monday, November 10 Explore Yaxha - Travel to Belize City, Belize
We have a security escort again today. Following breakfast, we take a rugged road trip from Flores to San Ignacio, Belize. This transfer involves traveling over some very rough roads and making an international border crossing.

We start out about 8, make an hour drive until a "banos" stop where we also place our orders for what we want for lunch, then a bit more driving where we visit another local family (and leave more food stuffs; again I donate some Quetzal for the food, and the last of my paper Quetzal in cash). It's a very interesting and worthwhile stop - another highlight visit. The home is extremely basic - the house is vertical poles/sticks loosely tied together and with a thatch roof. There are only 2 structures: kitchen and bedroom. In the bedroom, the beds are hammocks or basic frames with mosquito netting, but they also have to hang everything up to keep out various "critters" since there are no doors. They also have to sleep with a machete handy since anything might come in during the night.

From there, it's only a short drive on to Yaxha, believed to be the third-largest Mayan site in Guatemala. Similar to Caracol, Yaxha is an active site in various stages of discovery. Yaxha was a bustling Mayan trade and ceremonial hub located about 20 miles from Tikal, one of the greatest centers of Mayan culture. It is now within the largest protected area in Guatemala, the "Maya Biosphere," which includes Tikal National Park and a series of smaller national parks and protected areas. More than 1,500 years ago, Mayan priest-kings built scores of pyramids just tall enough to poke above the jungle here and reach the cooling breezes of the lake. They also carved stone monuments, constructed handball courts, and laid out the streets of their city in a grid pattern. It's a super nice place to visit, and there aren't many tourists which makes it even nicer. We can see the tallest temple, the Temple of the Red Hand, from the road going in, and climb almost to the top when we're there (only 148 steps this time.) Since we were there later in the day than at Tikal, and it's at a lower altitude, it's really hot and humid but Sammy has cold, wet towels for us to cool and clean ourselves. Thanks, Sammy

We drive back to enjoy an excellent lunch at a local roadside, open air (roof but no walls) restaurant near the archaeological site, then continue our travel and cross the border between Guatemala and Belize.

Following Judith's instructions, we put a folded 10 Quetzal note in our passports to speed our exit from Guatemala. When we get to the Belize side of the border, we have to unload all our luggage, take it and ourselves individually through Customs and Immigration, then load everything back on the bus. At least they didn't search our bags (no, no contraband) or hold up the bus. A few days before, they wouldn't let a Guatemalan tour bus through, wanting the passengers to change busses and rent a Belizian bus and local driver and guide. (They are also restricting Mexican busses coming into the country and really searching them as they come in.) Judith had been afraid that would happen to us, but other than the inconvenience of unloading and reloading the luggage, we had no problems. We did have to "tip" the locals who helped unload and reload the luggage - and that might have been the reason we were required to do it anyway. At the Belize border, the bus has to travel through a disinfectant spray - much like a car wash.

We arrive very late (7:15) into Belize City. Belize City is much like New Orleans - it's below sea level so is naturally very hot and humid all year. It's the only English speaking country in Central America due to its heritage: formerly British Honduras. Dinner tonight is at a local restaurant. A very pretty white cat makes the rounds of the tables begging for a handout, or at least, some petting. Hotel: Belize Biltmore Plaza Hotel It's a nice "Best Western" motel, with air conditioning, but not a "real" Biltmore. We've only used a/c on the first night in San Salvador, but didn't need it elsewhere. We will certainly use it tonight and tomorrow. It's NOT in a good location however - far north of the city and no way to get to the ocean due to swamps. (2 nights) (BLD)

Day 13, Tuesday, November 11 Explore Lamanai Ruins - Belize City tour
After a very nice breakfast at 6:30, we start at 7 to make a quick 30 minute tour of Belize City and catch a brief glimpse of the Caribbean (inside the reef), then it's off to visit the ruins of Lamanai (a Maya word which translates to "submerged crocodile"), named for the abundance of crocodiles who make the adjacent New River Lagoon their home.

Nestled amid thick jungle vegetation alive with exotic birds and howler monkeys, Lamanai boasts the second-largest Pre-Classic structure in the Maya world - its magnificent High Temple. The site also features the 13-foot Mask Temple, a stone temple mask of a Maya king.

The Maya lived at Lamanai for more than 3,000 years, and the ruins here are some of the oldest in Belize, dating back to 700 B.C. Excavation of the site began in the 1970s and to this day less than 5 per cent of the structures here have been unearthed. Excavation of the ruins continues to this day. The on-site museum hosts an extensive collection of artifacts representing Maya gods, worship and daily life.

The trip is north 50 miles in our mini-bus (1:20), then 25 miles south by fast boat with several stops along the way to see birds, plants, etc. Some of the exotic plants included Snake Cactus and Banana Orchids. We also see several different birds. We also pass a Mennonite community along the way. Finally after about 1:30, we arrive at Lamanai.

The first stop is at another "House to a Large Kitty Kat" with a large carving of his head in full 3D. Next is the Courtyard, then the Stella Temple - which was built solely in order to display ONE stellae. After that is the High Temple (which we could see a bit of from the river), and finally the Mask Temple. It was only a short walk back to the landing area where we had our picnic lunch which was quite nice.

After our exploration of Lamanai, we head back to the city making a high speed boat run - only 50 minutes to get back to the dock. After another 1:15 drive, we're back to the hotel by 3:30. Tonight, toast the completion of La Ruta Maya over a farewell dinner at our lodge. Overly Awful Travel has one last strike-out: the web and all documentation says that the optional trip I took was $55, but the bill I had to pay was for $60. Hotel: Belize Biltmore Plaza Hotel (BLD)

Day 14, Wednesday, November 12 Belize - Return to U.S.
After an early breakfast, transfer at 8:30 to the airport in Belize City for the flight home. (USD$36 Belize Departure Tax) (B)

4TACA TA410 Belize City - Houston10:15AM - 12:40 PM2:25

Very easy passage through Immigration and Customs, and my bag is one of the first off the plane. However there's a 35 minute wait for the shuttle, and I'm the seventh (and last) to be dropped off at my destination. Finally arrive home at 2:50.

This was a very nice trip - much better than I had expected after the Africa mess. I really enjoyed the local visits (the highlights of the trip) and meeting the people. Our tour leader did a super job. Our first driver, Eduardo, could fairly easily qualify as a tour leader as well. He was great. We had very good weather throughout except for the heat and humidity in Belize. It's too bad that this trip was after the Africa one which totally turned me off to OAT/GCT so that I won't take another trip with them.


Selected pictures
Click to enlarge




Extra Taxes - Fees:
$10 tourist card tax on entry into El Salvador
$3 entry fee into Honduras
$3 entry fee into Guatemala
$3 Airport usage fees in Guatemala
$2 Guatemala border fee (propina)
$1 Belize border fee (propina)
$3 Belize departure tax


Hotels:
Day 1 San Salvador, El Salvador - Holiday Inn San Salvador (poor Sheraton)
Day 2-3 Copan, Honduras - Hotel Marina Copán (very nice)
Day 4 Guatemala City, Guatemala - Hotel Stofella (ok)
Day 5-7 Antigua - Porta Hotel Antigua (super nice, but ...)
Day 8-9 Panajachel - Porta Hotel del Lago
Day 10-11 Tikal - Villa Maya Lodge
Day 12-13 Belize City, Belize - Belize Biltmore Plaza Hotel

AIRLINES:
1TACA TA411Houston - Belize3:30 PM - 4:40 PM2:250:20
2TACA TA411Belize - San Salvador5:00 PM - 5:55 PM PM0:553:25
3TACA TA7978Guatamala City - Flores5:30 PM - 6:17 PM0:47--
4TACA TA410Belize - Houston10:15 AM - 12:40 PM2:252:25


TRAVEL INFO: GUATEMALA


Historical Overview Today, the lands once occupied by the ancient Mayan civilization fall within the boundaries of Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. Guatemala, a country of over 14 million that officially recognizes several Mayan-derived Indian languages along with Spanish, has many direct descendants of the ancient Mayans among its people.

The ancient Mayan culture is believed to have taken shape between 1500 B.C. and A.D. 100 in the Pacific highlands of Guatemala and El Salvador. Beginning around A.D. 250, Mayan civilization entered what is now called its Classic Period, when the great city-states whose ruins define La Ruta Maya began to be built. The Classic period lasted until about A.D. 900, after which many Mayan cities were abandoned. Some cities, however, particularly on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, survived centuries longer, in a post-Classical period that extended as late as the 16th century. For example, Tulum in Mexico was still a living Mayan city when the first Spanish explorers and colonists arrived in Central America.

At the beginning of the Classical Period, Tikal (now in Guatemala) was already well established. Early in the third century A.D., a king named Yax Moch Xoc ruled Tikal and began a dynasty that lasted for the next 400 years. Yax Moch Xoc and his successors expanded their city-state by conquering surrounding kingdoms until Tikal had a population estimated at 100,000 by the middle of the sixth century. Then Tikal itself was conquered by Caracol (now in Belize), which ruled the area for over one hundred years. A ruler named Moon Double Comb brought renewed greatness to Tikal early in the eighth century, building most of the great temples that still stand around the Great Plaza today. Tikal declined around A.D. 900, at the end of the Classic Period, with its population slowly dispersing and its buildings overgrown by the luxuriant tropical vegetation.

The Mayan site at Joya de Ceren, El Salvador, dates from around A.D. 600 in the middle of the Classic Period. Unlike the pyramids and great temples elsewhere, the structures here were the homes of ordinary people, preserved by an eruption of volcanic ash rather than by their monumental size. At the same time during the middle of the Classic Period, the city-state of Copán (now in Honduras) was a major Mayan center. A ruler named Smoke Imix came to power in the late seventh century as the 12th king of Copán and began the period of construction that produced the spectacular temples that still stand. The last known ruler of Copán was U Cit Tok', who ascended the throne in A.D. 822.

The city-state of Caracol, which at its height in the late seventh century held sway over Tikal as mentioned above, endured into the post-Classical period until about A.D. 1150. At this time, the jungle was already reclaiming the largely abandoned ruins of Tikal and Copán. Most of the final stages of ancient Mayan civilization took place on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, where the Toltecs influenced and eventually supplanted the Mayans, with late Mayan sites such as Chichén Itzá and Tulum showing a blend of both these ancient cultures.

Though elements of Mayan culture have always survived among the region's native people, and a few Spanish officials glimpsed some of the ruins during colonial times, the great ancient cities remained largely unknown to Western civilization for centuries. The period of modern awareness of the achievements of the ancient Mayans began after Frederick Catherwood and John L. Stephens visited Copán in 1839, and Stephens published the book Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan in 1841. Archaeological research in the decades since then has decoded many of the ancient inscriptions, and continues to reveal more about these ancient people as excavation and study continue.

Guatemala Today Though most of Guatemala's population is rural, urbanization is accelerating. Guatemala City (approx. 3 million residents) is expanding at a rapid rate, and Quetzaltenango, the second largest city (approx. 250 thousand residents), is growing as well. Rural to urban migration is fueled by a combination of government neglect of the countryside, low farm gate prices, oppressive labor conditions on rural plantations, the high concentration of arable land in the hands of a few wealthy families, and the (often unrealistic) perception of higher wages in the city. Generally impoverished farmers move to the outskirts of the city in precarious dwellings on the slopes of ravines. In addition, since 2001 the US has been deporting at a high rate. Many Guatemalans return from Southern California after joining youth gangs. Crime is epidemic in Guatemala City and is a growing concern in Quetzaltenango and other smaller cities.

The predominant religion is Roman Catholicism, into which many indigenous Guatemalans have incorporated traditional forms of worship. Protestantism and traditional Mayan religions are practiced by an estimated 33% and 1% of the population, respectively.

Area: 67,661 sq miles Capital: Guatemala City Languages: Spanish 60%, Amerindian languages 40% (23 officially recognized Amerindian languages, including Quiche, Cakchiquel, Kekchi, Mam, Garifuna, and Xinca) Population (2006 estimate): 12,293,545 Religions: Roman Catholic, Protestant, indigenous Mayan beliefs Time zone: Guatemala is 6 hours behind GMT. There is no daylight savings time in Guatamela, so it is either one or two hours behind New York time depending on the time of the year.