Central American Photos

I’ll probably never get to finish writing the story of my adventure with Dad in Central America last year during the holidays. Sigh. Too much academic work. But, what I can do is present you with the last remaining photos from Tikal and Antigua, Guatemala, as I promised to do months ago.

Here is the entire set of Central American photos, all of them, including Tikal and Antigua, which I simply never got around to uploading, until now. Enjoy!

A Delicate Dance

Rolling into Flores as late as we did I stressed finding a decent hotel. Not to worry: La Casona de la Isla, a little boutique hotel (a term I use very loosely for Guatemala) came complete with hot showers, an air conditioner, two beds, a pool, wifi (for father’s epic iPhone addiction) and a lovely breakfast balcony view of Lago Peten Itza.

SPK FTW! (For you oldtimers out there, that means “Sean Paul Kelley For The Win!”)

Day-glow canoesOver breakfast, as day-glow dugout canoes with outboard motors slid across the lake and docked just below us, father and I decide to make for Tikal today instead of tomorrow, which in hindsight was an excellent call. Had we gone Saturday we’d have been fucked trying to return our rental car, not to mention that Saturday proved to be a gray, gloomy and overcast day, one not at all conducive to jungle photography, especially at Tikal. Instead, it was a “necessary day” (a day when father and I do our own thing, alone) on which I relaxed and walked around the island and did a little bit of Christmas shopping, but more about that later. Maybe.

We ate our breakfast, mine was a lovely pair of huevos divorciados, one egg covered in green salsa and the other covered in red—both divine—refried beans, fried bananas and as many of those little maize tortillas they make in Guatemala as I could eat. All washed down with carafes of fresh coffee right off the mountains.
Huevos Divorciados a la Gautematelco
The first thirty kilometers of the drive to Tikal was little but rolling and treeless grassy hillsides. I passed through them feeling ill at ease. Whole fields are depressions of black water and cattails, attracting all measure of birds but for some reason no mosquitos. Perhaps it’s the wrong time of year? Or we just got lucky? But I was not bitten by a single mosquito the entire time I was in the Peten.

This mostly treeless landscape—the jungle is not supposed to be open or have a horizon—had been cleared within the last three or four decades by rancheros. For you norteños that means cattle ranches. Here’s how it works: the pristine jungle is torn to shreds, or euphemistically speaking “the land is cleared.” Then cattle graze on it for three or four years until the grasses have sucked all the nutrients out of the soil. The cattle are then sold up north for ground beef to McDonald’s, Burger King and their ilk. We’re not talking about Kobe beef here. Then the rancheros move on to the next twenty miles of jungle they can clear cut and start the whole process over just so we can Super Size It!

The rancheros, all of them, have a bleak, worn out feeling. And though this is a deeply tropical landscape, one I am culturally conditioned to assume to be ever growing, inexhaustible, regenerative and forever waiting to re-devour civilization like some pathetic palimpsest of an Indiana Jones movie, that assumption is wrong. The exhaustion of the land here—although it is still green, and crazy with vines, succulents and other parasitical plants—reminds me of what happened to the exhausted land back home: our hills, once covered by a lush golden carpet of gramma, buffalo and other great grasses are now covered with the invasive Juniper we call Cedar, or other opportunistic species, which leach out what little nourishment remains and every January or February reproduce, causing an orgy of Cedar Fever from San Antonio through Austin clear up to the middle Brazos Country. Just as at home, here too the land has been gang-raped, and left to die. Will the rancheros here have the same good fortune of moving into the cities to build airplanes and cars like they did in mid-twentieth century America? Doubtful. And what of the eroded treeless hillsides, decaying rusted hulks of Toyotas, corrugated iron roofed shacks and plastic bags? Will the land be given another thousand years to regenerate like it was after the Maya collapse?

Ill kept fences, half up, half down line the road.

“To keep what in?” I ask father aloud, breaking the silence.

“To keep what out?” He replies.
Cleared Land
Unbranded cattle wander across roads as freely as chickens and dogs and pigs. Allspice and asphalt mingle in the humid air. The further in the Peten we drive the more lush the vegetation grows. On occasion half a hillside is bereft of any cover except grass. The other half, however, is a thick, deep pile carpet of flora sometimes olive at others a twinkling emerald under a leaden sky. The jungle is overtaking mankind’s scars now. The road is almost covered by trees. Bromeliads bloom, what specific species I know not, but the pinkish flowers add a wistful touch to the drive. The sun is high now and just beginning to burn off the morning gray.

Fewer lands and even fewer people have endured more surreal and hideous scars than what the Mayan’s have endured (and in many places still continue to endure) since the Spanish first arrived. This region of the Mayan world wasn’t completely conquered until 1697, and even then it was held only tenuously until after the great Caste War in the Yucatan during the 1840s. Even so, an independent city-state existed in Quintana Roo until the 1920s. That’s the Mayan model: city-states. Scholars have pointed out that the Mayan were to the Aztecs at Tenochitlan what the Greeks were to the Romans. It makes sense, even to this day, the way the Maya remain fragmented in the high cordillera of Guatemala, speaking several different languages, having endured genocide at the hands of the whites and Mestizos who rule Guatemala even now.

I recall myself as a callow youth (there goeth a man?) during the late Eighties piously reciting anti-communist bromides about dominoes and Castros and Ortegas. Such blasphemies I spoke, utterly oblivious to an unimagined suffering occurring at the very moment: families ripped apart, fathers frog-marched into the jungle to dig shallow graves and then executed, daughters raped, sons killed or those even more unlucky, pressed into the army to commit similar atrocities against “subversivos” in Guatemala.
All Gunned Up
No wonder I am ill at ease: a deep sadness permeates this place. It is a sadness I have not known since I visited Cambodia (I got stinking drunk the night I saw the killing fields. And you would have too, had you seen what I saw). Could it be the depth of historical loss? Profound silences echo across the Peten. One such echo is that of a single conscientious 17th century Spanish friar, Andres de Avendaño, who translated the Mayan glyphs into Spanish and how that single copy of his life’s work disappeared.

But it’s not just history’s loss. The hint of liminal brutality is present even now, for everyone, everywhere has an armed guard and all of them carry sawed-off pump action .12 gauges. Not only is the land exhausted, but so are its people.

Roadside HawkA largish bird in the middle of the road plucks me from my grim reveries. I grab my camera, focus and start shooting. Digital photography is fantastic. I can take as many shots as I wish and delete what I don’t like.

“What is he?” Dad asks.

“Here, hold the wheel,” I reply. “I’m trying to figure it out. He’s a raptor, for sure, but I’ve never seen one with his coloring.”

“And that is?”

“Kinda grayish, with darker stripes underneath, with a touch of reddish, but a kind of dirt red. He’s got yellow feet, yellow beak with a blue tip. Big yellow eyes, too!” I say and put the car in first, better to creep up on it while the camera is shooting. I get closer, snap more shots.
Roadside Hawk
“Strange. He knows I’m here and getting closer but he’s just hanging out. He seems quite comfortable in the middle of the road. He’s eating something but I can’t quite tell what. He’s a beauty,” I tell Dad. “Grab your binoculars, take a look.”

“He is a little on the gray side, but his breast feathers are lined, striped, definitely a hawk. And you’re right he’s got lovely yellow feet, a prominent yellow beak that ends in an almost blue gray curved tip,” says Dad.

The hawk watches me with a wide open gorgeous yellow eye as I get out of the car to snap more photos. I get too close and he flies.

But not too far, only twenty or thirty feet away and then he squawks, clearly irritated that I interrupted his feeding. I smile, knowing I have some nice photos, and my inner-Buddhist thanks the bird for his cooperation.

We drive on (short video of drive through jungle at link).

Several plain Chachalacas fly across the road and around a long curve I see a dozen Oropendola nests hanging like yarn covered tennis-balls from a Ceiba Tree, the tree Mayans believe connects this world with that of the underworld, Xibalba. Then we see a Bat Falcon. Why in the middle of the day, I don’t know, but still, there he was, orange and blue and white atop an empty tree.
Bat Falcon
The area around Flores and the Lago Peten Itza is a shallow limestone depression, the lake the deepest part of it. Peten Itza is an odd shaped lake: long and narrow, running from west to east and then cutting south, then even more narrowly cutting back east. It is in this smaller, southerly aspect of the lake that the Island of Flores sits. But we are now on the far eastern end of the lake, having driven all the way around it, at a small town, actually a village, called El Remate.
Map of Lake Peten Itza
The view along the lake is irresistible so we stop for lunch. We sit in an apsidal thatched-roof Mayan hut where hammocks hang from the piers. We order a simple meal of chicken, jungle vegetables and rice. I ask a local, sitting in a hammock, what kind of hawk it was we saw on the road in. I described it and then showed him a photo on my camera.

“This is what we call a Roadside Hawk,” he says in perfect English. I was disappointed with the name, but it certainly fit.

My surprise at his English registered.

“I lived in Nevada for a few years building houses,” he said. “Saved my money, came back, got married, built this restaurant and now I live in paradise.” He smiles and slides back into the hammock.
Lago Peten Itza
“It is lovely,” I return the smile and then walk towards the lake.

I bend down to see strange vegetal growth apparent in the limpid waters. Tempted to drink it, I know better, and yet I don’t get the sense the lake is overflowing with industrial effluents. If there were any pollution at all it seemed it should be simple runoff from a handful of small towns (more like large villages) along the lake and at worst, the lake serves as the sewer for Flores and Santa Elena. That hunch turns out to be true. The most recent study done in 2011 by the University of San Carlos and a handful of NGOs notes drily that most of the pollution in the lake is within acceptable levels but that the local communities need to be better educated in sanitation practices. Plus, the government in Guatemala City needs to invest in water treatment for the area as a whole to protect one of the country’s most important tourist resources. Good luck with that, I think to myself.

Coincident to my pondering of filth and its disposal a pig begins frolicking and wallowing in the lilly-pads, muck and mud lining the lake. He is as pink as pigs come and I wished, silently, to be around, when he was butchered for fatback. Organic bacon is hard to beat.Wild Bacon!

There were also half a dozen shores birds, sandpipers and plover-types poking, digging, snatching up whatever kind of bug life they could find with their long bills. The pig snorted at me, came within a few feet and probably caught my bacon vibe and trotted off.

I was unable to identify most of the birds for the pigs curiosity scared them off before I could get any decent photos. Regardless, shore birds aren’t my strong suit. One bird, however, was singing behind some growth about ten to fifteen yards out in the lake. He sang a high pitched, accelerating rattle and dumb old me is looking around trying to find out from which direction the noise is emanating.

I’m looking around to see just who is making this sound and then it gets faster, a jik-jik-jik-jik. Then it stops.

Then the whole thing starts again. Then I see him.

“Oh,” I say aloud, “it’s that ugly little brown bird out there in the mud flats,” pointing towards it for the benefit of my father.

Just as the thought clears my synapses and the words pass my lips that plain ugly brown bird jumps five feet straight up into the air, wings spread open.

My jaw hit the ground. The Northern Jacana (jacana spinosa) is, first and foremost a bird with the largest toes I’ve ever seen, each six inches long if not longer. The outside half of his wings are a delicate butterfly yellow—and to the Mayans butterflies are the souls of their dead loved ones—that blend into a thick, chocolate brown. At each main joint in the wing bones there was a gold medallion that made it look as if his eyes were in the middle of his wings. An unsurprising, but lovely, evolutionarily defensive adaptation making the animal appear to have a larger face than it apparently does. From where the breast meets the neck is a darker brown, merging to black all the way to the eyes, above which is a strange formation, like a medieval shield but sideways across the Jacana’s head. This gave him an oddly large yellow brow. When the bird looked directly at me, once he landed from his dance, he was decidedly neanderthalish.
Northern Jacana (jacana spinosa)
While I stood dumbfounded on the lakeshore, begging the bird to dance again so I could get photos this time, melodious blackbirds chanted from a power line behind me, and I fancied they were saying, “go ahead, dance for the stupid human one more time. At least he’s not trying to eat us.”

I was lucky. The moment was forever in his simple dance: rattle, rattle, jump. Wings open, glide, land, wings close.

Repeat.

And then he sprung up twice as high, did a three-sixty, as if to bow, and flew away.

——–

The full sequence of the Northern Jacana’s dance can be seen starting here and moving forward.

The most recent photos can be seen starting here and moving forward.

The full set can be seen here. Enjoy!

Mayan Roads, Mayan Fog, Mayan Whispers

Quirigia StelaeUp at 530. Cold shower. Teeth a-chattering. Clothed. Grab bags. On way to airport. Arrived. Ticketed. Take shoes off. Security. On the jetway.

Then we wait inside the plane—almost a full hour—for clearance to take off from the brand new tarmac of El Salvador’s national airport.

“I’m not impressed with the airline,” said my Dad.

I think silently to myself, “you’re not impressed? What did you expect? Swissair? Singapore Airlines? This is Central America for fuck’s sake, old man.”

I browse through Avianca’s in-flight magazine while my father restlessly clicks and unclicks his seatbelt. I routinely flip to the back pages where they list their fleet. Avianca has a decent sized fleet for an airline that services all of Central America, Columbia and a handful of connections in the US. But not one of its eighty-one aircraft is an American-made passenger plane. There are no Boeings, only Airbus, Fokker and Embraer, a Brazilian-made regional jet. Then I think back to the drive from the border to El Tunco and realized, like Panama, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica before there were no American-made cars on the roads in El Salvador. So, what was once “our hemisphere” is no longer. This is not a political statement. You can take it or leave it, but the future has already been written and it doesn’t include the American dream.

We take off. Little El Salvador passes in a quick green blur. Mountains and volcanoes rise. And then more of both climb on top of the others. I have seen more volcanoes on this one trip than I have seen my entire life. The plane is flying not quite through the mountains, but only just over their tops. Twenty-minutes into the flight we begin our descent, which was much like landing in Kathmandu, turning and turning and turning and turning all the while slowly descending down towards a tiny little strip of concrete awaiting our plane. It was hair raising. The pilot, however, landed perfectly, I could barely discern the difference. Disembarking in shorts and a t-shirt I noticed the 58* morning cool quickly.

It took a while to rent a car but we managed. Now, I have an absolutely exquisite sense of direction—I’m also (pay attention here ladies) not afraid to ask for directions. But I was not about to drive in Guatemala without a GPS. So, in another strange bout of common sense I requested one.

“It’ll be $40 extra,” said the rental-car employee in a languid put out way.

“That’s fine. It’ll be worth every penny.”

And it was.

We hit the road. It took about forty minutes to get out of Guatemala City, which I would never, ever have been able to do without the GPS. Dad bought baby-bananas from a street-side vendor. (Why don’t we get the baby bananas that are almost pinkish inside in America? They taste the best, although they don’t look the best. Nevermind, I just answered my own question.) He paid the vendor with a US ten dollar bill—we’d not had a chance to hit an ATM or change money at the airport.

Best Bananas Ever“No change,” said the vendor.

Dad said, “feliz navidad,” and gave him the ten anyway.

The vendor, sincere in his good-luck-moment, replied, “feliz navidad mis amigos, vaya con dios.”

“Merry Christmas my friends and go with God.” Now, that was a blessing fit for the road we were about to turn onto.

The Atlantic Coast Highway cuts northeast across Guatemala, linking Puerto Barrios, Guatemala’s Caribbean port with Guatemala City, the capital. The first forty miles it’s a new, well paved dual-carriageway road through and down the mountains. Then it turns into two lanes, and often times both lanes are filled with big rigs coming right at you. You slow down. Sometimes you even pull over. They have the right of way by size alone. And when I drove around blind curves I was also extra-careful, ready for that one crazy bus-driver overtaking a slower car blindly. Good thing too because it happened on the way to Flores, more than once.
Driving
Soon we were out of the city, however, and the air was clear and the tension of driving eased a bit. The skies were impossibly blue and the light, white clouds were so close I could pick at them like cotton candy. In the road cuts was a traumatized geology, stories much older than any I could decipher, try as I might. The mostly igneous rock was faulted, cracked, crunched, uplifted and then turned back over on itself and folded once again for good measure. To top it off, literally, hundreds of meters of volcanic ash force the soft volcanic rock further down and compressed it further still. The wind ripped across the faces of the cliffside roads cut out of ash blowing a fine, chalky dust into my teeth. Further down came limestone as white as the cliffs of Dover. After that were several hundred meters of conglomerate, little stones of varied colors, shapes and sizes that had tumbled down ancient mountains, washed down ancient rivers and settled at the bottom of a shallow sea only to find themselves right back at the top of a mountain beginning the process all over again.

We passed into the semi-arid valley of the Rio Motagua. There in the roads I spied a green rock (I’ve covered this story here). I had to pull over, I think to my father’s annoyance. There it was, as I suspected: serpentinite. It all made sense. Gold precipitates into and through rocks like these, settling in the gaps and creating veins, some large, some small, that miners all over the world chase.
Driving
I then recalled a conversation I’d had in Nicaragua when Hernan mentioned a new goldmine opening, which I found odd, as I assumed most of the easy gold had been tapped out of Central America centuries ago. Apparently not. What’s it they say about assumptions?

We motored down the mountain, the phat baseline of Jane’s Addiction pounding in my cranium, followed by the harsh opening chords and Perry Farrell’s raspy voice, “Coming down the mountain/One of many children/Everyone has their own opinion/Everyone has their own opinion/holding it back/hurts so bad.”

I looked at Dad, tried to get him to sing along. He shook his head. Then for good measure, shouted out over the radio, “Jumping jack flash, it’s a gas, gas gas!”

“You’re nuts old man,” I said.

“Who’s driving whom down the mountain in a foreign country he knows nothing about?” he asked.

“Touche.”

———-

DadAfter winding through the semi-arid landscape of the Motagua Valley for a an hour or so I noticed a blue sign with a white symbol resembling Tikal on it, which clearly denoted ruins.

“We’re not going to make Flores by sunset,” I told Dad, “so, why not stop now at this place, stretch, take some pictures and see some Mayan ruins that are definitely off the tourist trail?”

“Sounds like a plan,” he said yawning. I’d waken him from his beauty sleep.

I took a right off the main highway into a what is clearly a modern, industrial and exploitative scene. If you didn’t know what you were looking at you’d probably find a contemporary banana plantation quaint—but under it all lies an ecological and human disaster.
Banana Republic
Banana trees lined the road on both sides. And these were tall, healthy specimens too, not like those I’d seen in Belize. Each of the banana pods (for lack of a more precise term) was bundled up in a blue plastic bag to protect it from insects or probably small mammals. Nothing but agricultural row after row after row of moderately tall green trees. Over it hung thick, luxuriant tropical clouds with enough blue in the sky to know we’d not be doused by water any time soon. We vaulted over a speed bump, slid to a halt at the gate filled with armed men and turned into the site: Quirigua, the place of the stelae.
American Redstart
The moment I got out of the car it was like an all out bird avian faunal assault. Quirigua occupies roughly 3 square kilometers of mostly jungle-lowland forest. The landscape had changed from semi-arid rain shadow of a hundred miles back to Caribbean lowland tropical forests. Amidst miles and miles and miles of banana plantations it’s a small green jewel of jungle such as it was a thousand years ago when the Mayan mysteriously abandoned the site, as they did much of their civilization. Now, with the jungle returned and most of the site preserved for future generations to excavate it’s the perfect migrant trap, a place where migratory birds congregate in a semi-natural environment, as opposed to foraging throughout a plain filled with banana plantation oozing pesticides. (This is a key reason many of our lovely warblers are dying off, it’s not the north American habitat that’s being removed so much as their Central American wintering grounds being destroyed wholesale.) It was with a rueful, sad sense of luck that I noted at least ten American Redstarts, dozens of Yellow Warblers, Hooded Warblers, Painted Buntings, Prothonotary Warblers, Blue-winged Warblers, Ruddy Ground Dove, Clay-colored Thrushes, Kiskadees, Kingbirds, two unidentified woodpeckers and the emperor bird of the day, the Blue-crowned Motmot.

Then there were the ruins. Exceptionally well preserved stelae, about a dozen that I know absolutely nothing about and looked on with a bewildered sense of awe. All of the loss here was unimaginable. As a historian I could sense it. I could smell the carefully decorated Mayan codices and calendars thrown atop fires by the conquering Spaniards. What better way to defeat a people than to take away their history.
Blue-crowned Motmot
“What kind of man burns books?” I thought to myself. “What kind of man steals such knowledge from the future?”

I continued my walk, growing angrier, unaware that the ground was wet from a recent tropical shower, that I could slip at any moment. I began climbing up the steps of the well-preserved main plaza, or acropolis as they call them here, and slipped on the first one. Grateful it happened here, instead of near the top, I took better care to live in the moment and let the anger at long dead Spaniards drift off with the mist of the jungle.Quirigia

The view at the top washed away any lingering sense of dismay. Big, bold magnificent rocks, set without masonry, perfectly aligned. What math such a people must have possessed? (My gut instinct was correct, as the Mayan’s I would subsequently learn, possessed some math more in advance of anything the West produced until the 19th century.) It was like an inverted pyramid going downwards into the ground, but then it’s sides rising up out of the jungle in a square formation. The solid whitish stone contrasting against the jungle green whispered a perfect rhyming couplet to the afternoon.
Quirigia
After wandering around and birding a bit we hit the road, losing daylight fast now. We crossed Lake Izabal, which drains the Motagua into the Caribbean. El Cruce, a small town growing up on the eastern shore of Izabal, was full of gringo tourists, fried chicken stores, bodegas and lavanderias. Adjacent to the mercado we saw a big Anglo-Santa Claus that would make Fox News’ Megyn Kelly proud.

Now our direction was northwest into the Peten. The shadows lengthened behind us and around sunset we passed through a narrow mountain pass, or gap (link to a short video). To our left Guatemala and the Peten. To our right, Belize, which Guatemala still claims sovereignty over, pissed off that they never got a road built from Puerto Barrios to Guatemala City by the British. We went through a police checkpoint and sped on into dusk, darkening and soon night, black tropical night. An hour on down the road and we were famished—having eaten no food that day at all except crap pastries from the airport in San Salvador. Civilized and organized little El Salvador was a world away from where we were now. In a small town we stopped at the Guatemalan equivalent of KFC, “Pollo Campero” or “Pollolandia” for fried chicken.

Best Fried Chicken EverFried chicken never tasted better. Did it matter that the floors were filthy? That the sink had only a trickle of running water? That a pair of dogs watched us while we ate? Was it a product of our hunger? Or was it the real, un-industrial, free-range poultry we were eating? I don’t know. I don’t care. I demolished the chicken, gristle and all.

Dinner promptly inhaled we drove on through the night. The road began twisting and climbing from 18 meters—the GPS told me this—to an altitude of 550 meters at the highest point. A chill was in the air and then a fog rolled in.

Fuck me.

Fuck me again twice for being so stupid.

Fog. Dogs. Chickens. Potholes. Speedbumps, called tumulos in Guatemalan Spanish, that were the size of the Matterhorn. There were Mayan Indians on bicycles and mopeds with shitty or no lights zig-zagging drunkenly along the road, in fog with absolutely no order or traffic lights or nothing. Add in insane Guatemalan bus drivers who will overtake you on a blind turn in the fog with their brights on and you can imagine the seriously white-knuckle drive I was enduring. All I could think of was some little Guatemalan boy darting out of the jungle to fetch a soccer ball and smash, he’s dead and I’ve just killed a kid in a foreign country and fuck me my life is now officially over.

I slowed down to about 20 kilometers an hour. Dad had no problem with my speed. Slowly, agonizingly we climbed back down the mountains into intermittent fog and then no fog but total darkness: there was no sign of people anywhere but at least the road was straight. An hour later and the jungle gave way to light: Santa Helena and the Isla de Flores, last redoubt of the Itza Maya and our home for the next three nights.

Now, would I be able to find a hotel at one in the morning?

Guatemala: A Microcontinent All Of Its Own

Vulcan de AguaGuatemala occupies a strange place on the map of the world. Take a look at it. The best way to understand Guatemala geographically and geologically speaking is this: picture a very fat reversed capital “L.”

Across the bottom, horizontal, line is the Cordillera, a very high mountain range created by the subduction of the Cocos plate under the Caribbean plate, for good measure the North American plate pushes down on Guatemala. Most of the rocks in this range are igneous, usually volcanic but there are some places in Guatemala where one can find mantle rocks. Mantle rocks are rocks created when the plates separate in the deep mid-oceanic ridges and eons later, after moving across the bottom of the ocean, are thrust high up into the skies by continents colliding. This is why you find fossilized seashells in the Dolomitic Alps, which once were a great coral reef. Mantle rocks are found, exclusively in mountains where they have been uplifted, like Cyprus, California and other places. California’s serpentinite is a good example, as seen in two photos attached, one close-up and the other an outcrop near Yosemite National Park.

Like most “highlands,” languages proliferate, such as in the Caucasus and Papua New Guinea, which both have hundreds of languages. In Guatemala there are roughly 20 languages up in the mountains, which is one good reason to return: just to see and experience so many different cultural groups crammed into one small area. I do not know the native dialect the Mayans of the Peten region; I’ve been told it’s Yucatecan, but I’ve also heard of at least two more Mayan languages, both of which I could never pronounce, even if I tried. I will discuss the languages of Guatemala, later, in a separate post.

More dramatically, along the east-west axis of the bottom line of our “L” volcanoes are very common. In fact, I am looking at one right now.

SerpentiniteThe vertical line of our imaginary capital “L” is karstic, limestone, hilly, eroded, uneven and covered in a blanket of deep pile, luxuriant green jungle. The vertical “L” is also mostly one geological unit: the North American plate’s margin, a vast limestone plateau and former seabed of soft, malleable rock. In some places Karst topographies can take wild shapes, like the area around Guilin, China and Ha Long Bay near Hanoi, Vietnam. I’ve also seen some strange karst in Belize, but have no photos. This kind of geological unit is also prone to sink holes and caverns, hence the perpetual fascination with sinkholes that just “appear” in Guatemala. (Side note: sinkholes, or cenotes, also serve as great places for archeology, as the Classical Maya used them as garbage dumps.) Peten Itza, the lake we stayed on in Flores, is a shallow depression in this geological feature that has filled up with water. This limestone is not, as the geologist would say, a competent rock. A product of uneven, unsteady erosion the lake is proof of the incompetent rock.

Now, run a diagonal line at 45* between the vertical line and the horizontal: this northeast to southwest running line roughly corresponds to the Rio Motagua valley, the main river that drains this massive rain shadow valley. The valley is semi-arid, complete with cacti, other succulents and sandy soils that are perfect for growing the tasty cantaloupes and honeydew melons. As I mentioned earlier this valley is smashed between three mighty geological units: the Cocos Plate, the Caribbean Plate and the North American Plate.

I mentioned all of this mostly for your edification, but also for two separate but fascinating reasons.
Serpentinite
First, as we were driving down the valley, literally down, but bearing northeast, I spied what looked to be like green rocks to me. A clear hint of the trauma the rocks in the hills have undergone were the shattered roadcuts, outcroppings and multiple faults visible in the roadside. Imagine what the underlying rock looks like? This little country is the earthquake hotel and its own microcontinent all rolled into one.

Some of the stone was hard igneous, some was sandstone, some metamorphic and other plain limestone. But here and there about halfway down the mountains green rocks proliferated. I simply had to stop and look at the rock. Indeed, it was serpentinite.

“Now,” you ask, “why do I give fig about a green rock?”

Answer: there is a very special element that precipitates through serpentinite. Its abbreviation in the Periodic Table is “Au,” and the Spanish had a sickness for it that destroyed two great empires and countless smaller societies. Over time gold will, indeed, given enough pressure, rain through serpentinite. It’s one of the chief reasons so many people went to California in the 1840s. Further, I have a hunch, although my geological knowledge is only basic, that this serpentinite I was looking at was probably a proto-jadite stone, which would make sense because jade was more valuable to the Mayans and Aztecs and Zapotecs than was gold, or silver.Crustal Collision Zone

The second reason is this photo  (also pictured in the post) I took on the flight from Flores to Guatemala City this morning. Take a look at it. It’s a collision zone, where the soft margins of the North American plate are running into the harder rock of the Caribbean and Cocos. The mountains look like you’ve shoved a carpet against the wall. One narrow valley is even more interesting. I suspect what’s happened to it, the one that looks kind of like a ladder, is that the rock was pushed together and then pulled apart briefly creating stretch marks, and then pushed back. (This feature can be seen in the Appalachians, as well, which are extremely ancient mountains compared to these in Guatemala.)

The next question, which I am unqualified to pretty much even speculate on, is how the geology and geography effects politics. I reckon I’ll be needing to call a buddy of mine in Austin who is a Guatemalteco and ask him.

More soon . . .

First Day Guatemala Photo Dump

We drove from Guatemala City to the Island of Flores deep in the Peten of Northern Guatemala. It was a hair raising drive, crazy mountains and even crazier truck drivers. Hardest driving I, personally, have ever done. And tense.

Quirigia StelaeThen we stopped at Quirigia, a Mayan city dating to the Classic Period around 700 AD. It was once a dependency of Copan nearby across the border in Honduras, but gained independence and the flourished.

About a dozen massive stelae stand at the site, which I will write about more later.

We hopped back into the car, drove through a banana plantation and then crossed the lake in the middle of Guatemala near the Caribbean. It soon turned dark and we climbed into the some hills about 1800 feet in altitude. Here a deep fog rolled in. I confess, it was a bit scary, even for me and I’ve done some crazy shit. Eleven hour drive in total, which doesn’t include the cold shower at 530 AM in El Salvador and the flight to Guatemala City!

But we survived, came down from the hills and hit the straight road through the jungle to Flores. We drove on the causeway out to the island and found a place where I promptly collapsed from exhaustion.

Here are the photos from the day, start here with a short video and then click forward.

As always, the full Central America set can be seen here.

Enjoy!

Mega Thank You!

At The Border of Nicaragua and HondurasYou know who you are.

I just wanted to express my gratitude for the tips via PayPal.

You show me a great honor and for that, I am truly grateful!

And now, I am going to get back to scribbling up the adventure so far and bring us to the present.

Best case scenario, tomorrow we will watch the sun set over Tikal.

On The Road Again

For far too long this blog has been without any kind of real adventure. The last one ended abruptly with a shattered collar-bone in the jungles of Sumatra and a grueling six day return trip to America and surgery.

There were a few excursions here and there: out to West Texas a few times, a magnificent road trip from Tahoe to Yosemite and then Yosemite to San Francisco. But those places have been tame, calm, where one can sip fine wines and sleep on posh beds. It has been a long time since I strung a back pack on, landed in an airport and wondered, “where the hell am I going now and what language are they speaking?”
Descent on Yavin IV
That day has almost arrived.

No one is holding me back any more.

On Tuesday December 10th I will fly into Panama City, Panama and over the next two weeks make my way up the Isthmus to Guatemala City to fly home on the 23rd of December. This is all mostly terra incognita to me. I won’t spend any time in Costa Rica, but I do plan to revisit a day in a canoe in the Lago de Nicaragua and maybe catch a baseball game in Granada. After that: who knows? Maybe an eco-resort in El Salvador, maybe a trip up to Honduras to see family friends. But one thing you can be assured of, I am going to watch the Millennium Falcon land at Tikal during the Winter Solstice, December 21st!

Now, on to a bit of logistics: I’ll be doing some writing for Centro y Sur, a magazine dedicated to Latin American travel. So be sure and subscribe online, as it’s free.

But that hardly pays the bills. Therefore, I will not hesitate to ask (now that I am no longer in sales, but still a former salesman) for you to pitch into the tip jar only if you liked the blog post, or the story as it develops. Grad school is expensive and this travel, while I stay in $5 a night rat and roach infested places and the flight is covered by old accumulated air-miles, still isn’t cheap.

You will also get a daily dose of large amounts of photographs at Flickr. 

And as always, if YOU have suggestions, tell them to me and I will see if I can accommodate you, as you are the reader and an equal partner in this endeavor of ours.

So, y’all, how does it feel to be back on the road with me? It’s been far, far too long, hasn’t it?