Annual Big Bend Country Pilgrimage

Every year for as long as I can remember, and insofar as I was living in the United States, I have made an annual pilgrimage to the Big Bend Country. My expectations earlier this year were to go with the same company I’d been with the last four years. Alas, life doesn’t quite work out as we expect, does it? The Window
So, this year I decided to take my favorite person in the whole world: I am taking my Mom.

It’s her first time. As a matter of fact, it’s the first time her and I have traveled together since we took my little sister to college in Princeton, New Jersey in 1990. The drive up there was tense, as my sister was ready to get away from us. But on the drive back, Mom and I meandered across America and American history, stopping in Monticello, Gettysburg and a couple of other interesting places, the highlight of which was the Blue Ridge Mountains Trace, a road that follows the peaks of the mountains. Just lovely. But that was a long time ago. Pronghorn Antelope

Mom’s a war horse and damn good traveler. She’s got 15-20 different countries under her belt and she’s going to Cuba in January, so she knows the rules of the road. I’m also looking forward to spending some quality time with her and learning more about her side of the family, mostly aristocratic Italians who fled Italy in the 1870s for Mexico. Classy folks, much unlike the heathen, drunken Irish on my father’s side. Santa Elena Canyon

I’m super excited to share my knowledge of West Texas with her: geology, Indian lore, birds, mammals, stories of cattle rustlers, cowboys and old Judge Roy Bean all make so good bullshit. And we all know I have an absolute profusion of that.

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.
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.


Update: 350 Photos Are Now Up

AlejandraI want to bring everyone up to date.

I spent a good part of the day scribbling, in between surfing, of course.

Tomorrow is a travel day so I’ll spent some time in the airport polishing up my notes and hopefully get a blog post up about Nicaragua and the ride from Nicaragua to El Salvador, which obviously was fascinating.

But it might take another day.

In the meantime, the full set of Central America photos is now up to about 350 photos, so click on the link and enjoy the full set.

More soon . . .

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.

Up The Isthmus on a Promise

Woke up yesterday and immediately jumped into an ice cold shower: penance for my lack of vigilance the night before. You see, it’s been, what, four years since I’ve been on the road like this? A long time to lose critical skills like remembering to ask the hotelier (more like a roach motel, but hey) if they have hot water. It was late, it’d been a long haul from the Canal Zone to the border and on into Costa Rica. I was exhausted and I slipped.
The Road Goes on Forever . . .
Honestly, there was a bit of the old frisson as I counted to five and jumped into the ice cold water, quickly sucked in air, and breathed rapidly under the deluge. It’s called earning your stripes. After that I dried off quickly, grabbed my bags and walked into the brightness peridot-like hills, pregnant tropical clouds and blue skies. Just another typical Costa Rican morning.

Got breakfast. Post breakfast negotiated with a driver for passage to Penas Blancas, the border with Nicaragua.

“Look, son, I don’t give a flying two handed monkey fuck how much it costs, but I am not taking the chicken bus today. I am seventy-one years old and have earned a little bit of luxury. Especially after galavanting with you across Central Asia and God knows where else we’ve been together,” Dad said.

So I negotiated hard, finally settled on a price with a young man named Juan Carlos—handsome in that Latin American way—grabbed our bags and off we went down the road, chasing hope, the possibility that we’d sleep in Granada.

And what a road it was!
Jungle Mountains
The first portion of the morning we traveled the Pan-American Highway—IH 35 for you gringos and gringas—that runs from Chicago to the Tierra del Fuego with only one 53 mile break amidst the impenetrable jungles of Darien between Panama and Columbia. Our heading was vaguely northwest towards Nicaragua. Most of the morning we ran parallel the Pacific with the water popping into and out of view. The urge to halt the car, grab a board and abjure all responsibility was strong with me that morning. Were Dad not with me I might have, alas we pressed on.

On my left the endless quicksilver blue of the Pacific. To my right the timeless procession of jungle clad hills, mountains and countless rivers draining the high plateau of water. An infinity of greens. A riot of floral colors and one “soda” (small restaurants in Costa Rica) after another.

My Spanish grew rapidly as the day progressed but father’s grew exponentially.

Me on the BeachA digression: truth be told here, father’s linguistic abilities have always been somewhere between abysmal and non-existent. His ear for Chinese, Turkish, Russian, French, Italian, Farsi and Uzbek totally laughable, much like the yip and yap a coyote drowning in a vat of melted cellophane would make. But this? This was remarkable. And then it all came back to me, as a boy growing up on a farm north of San Antonio—how, as we fed the horse he named them in Spanish, as we grabbed eggs from the chickens he made me say “huevos” and how he’d point at the goats and say, “cabrito” forcing me to roll my “Rs.” Thus he gave me the gift of a passable natural accent. By the end of the day he and Juan Carlos were just talking. My father is my best friend and I fancy I know all about him, but he surprised me. And after forty three years of knowing one’s father that’s a good thing.

On we drove, the minutes rolling over with the miles on the odometer, little change in scenery: always skirting the ocean and hugging the jungle. Aside from pitstops every hour or so the day was uniform, the persistent squeak of the rear shock absorber, droning engine and Father and Juan Carlos speaking in Spanish in the front seat. I listened but mostly did my favorite thing in the whole world, the best life has to offer: I simply watched country roll by.
Yellow-crowned Euphonia
“And where is your family from,” Dad asked Juan Carlos.

“Mi madre in San Jose, mi padre no se,” replied Juan Carlos in a well rehearsed rhyme on the misfortune of being fatherless.

“You don’t know your father?” my father asked, surprised.

“Si,” Juan Carlos replied in that languid, oneiric way.

“Neither did I,” confessed my father by way of reply. The bond between them grows stronger, even though both know they will never see each other again. Two fatherless men, out in the world alone.

Most Costan Rican geology is igneous, dark brown to black basaltic volcanic rock. The beaches too are a dark brown to black sand. Fine and pretty but hot as hell in the sun. We stopped at an unnamed beach somewhere before the Nicoya Peninsula turns the tall Pacific swells into the smooth, harmless agua de bahia. Dad bought some ceviche and for the next two hours the smell of onions, lemon and fish hung in the air. We pulled away from the beach and rolled on.

Most mountain streams, be they rivers (rios) or creeks (quebradas) along the way ran cold, narrow and clear, but one river was muddy and wide. The Rio Tarcoles was also full of crocodiles. Big, nasty looking river gargoyles that would chew your face over without thinking twice. They had ill looking skin anywhere from a sickly tan, fleshy color, better to blend into the muddy waters, to green with black spots and tan nictitating reptilian eyes. I obligingly took photos and walked back to the car. In a tall ‘Brilliant’ (stress on the iant portion of the word) tree a small flock of Yellow-crowned Euphonias sang and ate and flickered about brining the sound of joy to slow lapping sounds of river water.
We motored on. The Pacific turned into the Gulf of Nicoya, a peninsula, which on a map looks like an upside down boot spur. The dirt here had changed from a tropical red to an almost Post Oak Prairie black. A road cut explained why: there lay dun-colored multi-layered beds of limestone with a thick black igneous dyke sliced diagonally through it. Clearly this rock sat for eons on the bottom of a shallow sea, much as the bed rock of the Gulf of Nicoya does now. Just as geology changed so too did the topography. We were now up on a slightly elevated plateau that slopes slowly down towards the bowl containing the Lago de Nicaragua. Here in Costa Rica it is punctuated dramatically by two lumbering volcanoes on the horizon.

Magnificent rancheros circled us. Brahman bulls and cows, like little grey cotton balls on a blanket of green, were covered by a ceiling awash in the finest ceramic blue possible. A volcano smoldered, smoked. Then the wind picked up. Blades of tall grass bent horizontally across the road. Then we passed an 18 wheeler blown off the road. Juan Carlos gave the wind a name, “Alicious,” which comes off the volcanoes cool and furious, pulled down by the languid humidity of the Nicoyan Gulf. Dusts devils blew across the road at 30-40 mile per hour blasts. We stopped the car to feel the full effect. Dust flung about by the winds stung my bare arms and face, rain mixed into my hair creating an intolerable clay-like mess.
We covered our eyes and got back into the car. It was getting late. And when it gets dark in the tropics, the darkness comes on fast. The sun began its nightly rainbow brigade. The scirocco coming off the mountains created a madness of color: from God’s own golden start to the mandarin middle and the crimson finale this sunset whispered a promise: you’ll sleep in Granada tonight.

We drove now into the dark but the closer to the border we got the more tense I grew. The Costa Rican side of this border crossing is easy, but the Nicaraguan side beggars description.

I lectured Dad on safety.

We arrived. We said our goodbyes, then plunged into the fray like it was a mosh pit.

I lectured Dad on safety, again.

Three times more times for good measure, including a string of f-bomb adjectives unfit for a family publication.

We stamped out of Costa Rica and began the kilometer walk in the jungle night to the Nicaraguan side. Countless rigs passed us in a roar we had to scream over to communicate. There were easily a hundred on wait and more coming every minute. This is free trade in the Americas now. Big rigs, diesel smells and insanely crowded border posts.

In a quiet moment father asked, “son, are we in no-man’s land?”

The ring of tension tightened a bit more about my neck. We were, indeed, technically out of Costa Rica but not in Nicaragua.

“Yes, father, we are,” I said somberly.

We reached the first police post.

Then passed through a second.

There was a third, but with the noise total, it was perfunctory. Then the darkness crowded back in upon us, the smell and sense of bodies nearby menacing.

The immigration post was barely discernible amidst the mad darkness. I found it somehow. A hundred migrants waiting for their papers while we breezed through, paid our entry fee, got our stamps and walked towards the fourth and final police checkpoint. In an uncommon bout of good sense I asked the immigration officer what was the most realistic price of a taxi to Granada?

“$60-70,” he said. I thank him and walked away towards the final checkpoint, preparing for the mayhem that would erupt when we walked out into the press and jumble of taxi drivers, bus riders and touts.

A hundred meters before we got there a young man approached me.

“You go to Rivas? San Juan? Granada?”

Apprehensively, worries of taxi kidnappings, left in the middle of nowhere, all our things stolen, disturbed my internal dialogue, but I asked, “how much to Granada?”


“Vamos con tigo,” I said. This turned out to be an excellent choice.

We passed through the final checkpoint without a second glance and were quickly guided into our taxi. A fight threatened to break out over us, so our taxi driver hurried us along.

Digression: once in a town between Samarkand, Uzbekistan and Bukhara a fight broke out between three taxi drivers, slugging it out, bloody noses and all, over me, a lone traveler trying to get to Bukhara. This was a serious moment in Nicaragua and I was happy to see it pass without violence.)

We drove.

All of the sudden Granada felt possible.

Rivas was a blur of light—the baseball stadium lit up the humid jungle night. Rivas versus Chinandega. An American was playing for Rivas, Ty Williams, which is all I understood from the radio blasting out beisbol in Spanish.

The wind farm on the Lago de Nicaragua whirled and whirred in the deep tropical night, providing precious low cost, eternal energy to a very poor country. The moon hung over the lake—the island of Ometepe’s dueling volcanoes crouching with fierce potential power in the shadowy night. We turned off the main highway. East into more darkness. And then even more, as the Mombacho volcano blotted out the moon and stars. I nodded off, sleepy and exhausted.

A bump.

A horse in the road.


A city.

And then the Plaza Colones.

Tonight I would sleep in Granada.

Nota Bene: As always, the most recent photos can be found in the full set, here. The most recent upload start here and moves forward. Enjoy!

(Consider a tip if the mood strikes you.)

Central America Photo Dump

So, here’s a photo dump. You remember those, no?
The full set can be found here. The most recent photos begin here and move forward. Enjoy!

Across The Isthmus At The Speed of Light

The Panamanian accent is a rapid fire Caribbean and if you think that Mexican Spanish is fast—holy shit!—Panamanian Spanish is super fast, quite possibly speed of light rapidity. Words come out of their mouths so fast that five have already passed me by and I’m still trying to untangle the first one. The city, Panama City, that is, clings to a narrow ribbon of cultivable land between the water and the mountains—the Cordillera of hard, black, sharp volcanic rocks. When the tide is out you can see the land just below the water is igneous and the mountains are green and misty.Miraflores Locks

The old town, Casco Antiguo, is tipico Spanish colonial. Looks colonial. Feels colonial. Reminds me of Singapore a bit, except more hills in PC—Panama City. Not many hills in Singapore, a place that will sadly drown, mostly, once the ice caps and Greenland melts. But PC has a touch of the decadent, French Quarter, iron railing, long communal balconies, curved buildings with rounded corners, few hard angles. Easy on the eyes. Whereas new Panama City is just another global agglomeration of rebar, concrete and blue glass.

True to Mann’s “1493” thesis there is a Chinatown in Casco Antiguo. This surprises me more than it should. It’s a confirmation of Mann’s entire “1493” work—especially in the creation of the world’s first truly global trading matrix. The silver was shipped up the South American coast to Panama from Lima. In Panama it either crossed to the Caribbean or was shipped East, bound for the China trade and the China fleet based in the Philippines. Hence, Chinatown in Casco Antiguo.

The people—the people are a mix. They run from white as day Spaniards, hardy from the Estremadura to black Africans from the the Ivory or Gold Coast. The big bulge in a common distribution curve would lean heavily towards African however. It’s the most Africanized place in Central America I’ve yet seen. My guess is the income distribution would be in inverse proportion to skin color, as it pretty much is everywhere, sadly.

Few American cars on the road. This, for all intents and purposes, a former American colony, with no American cars on the road. Let that sink in for a moment.

There are lots of feral cats in the old town. Why do I always notice cats? Trolley tracks from the late nineteenth century or early twentieth run in front of the Ministerio de Gobierno, and they’re building a subway here. Why can’t we get subways in Texas? Panama can do it but America can’t? Christ.

Clearly an enormous amount of money flooded into Panama—the entire country as I would find out later on the drive across it—during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Lots of it from Columbia. Some from America.

I saw the canal. It’s fascinating, but I’ve sailed a container ship from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Chennai, India and ships and ports and canal-type engineering marvels, while fascinating, I don’t find terribly compelling. I’m glad I saw it. I can see why Teddy Roosevelt made such a big whoop-de-doo about it. Big stick, soft voice and all. Too bad he got followed up by Woodrow Wilson, pretty much the first loud mouth American.

Anyhow, strange digression there. Our driver from the canal was an interesting man. A large, powerful man of African descent who had lived in Jersey for many years with the last name of MacKenzie took us to the canal and answered all our questions. He was kind and patient and what is always wonderful in a driver: he didn’t talk too much. Nothing worse than being cooped up in a car with someone and your don’t want to talk, just want to let the road roll by and see country.
Homero y mi Papa en la frontera de Panama y Costa Rica

We got lucky in David, where the bus dropped us too, with Homero, a kind father of two and part time photographer, who drove us to La Frontera: the border with Costa Rica.

The country side was beautiful and moderately prosperous. The golden arches of globalization were everywhere. Mostly new cars on the roads and a seemingly abundant source of energy from the vocal chords of the entire country moving at the speed of light until we hit the border at ten at night and crossed into Costa Rica. Things slowed down very quickly then.

Nota bene: The full set of photos can be found here. Newest photos start here and move forward. 

(Consider a tip if the mood strikes you.)


Panama SunsetMoving around feels good, I confess. Not staying in one place for long, feels good, I confess.

Being out here in the crazy, uncontrollable world where only one thing can ruin my day, my expectations, is the best.

It’s just been too long.

It’s just been too long cooped up, unable to pick up and leave a place simply because I feel like it.

It’s been too long.

Don’t you ever feel that way? Doesn’t everyone? Aren’t we all nomads at heart?

Panama City

Driving in from AirportOn my way to the old town, the old touristy part of Panama City, not the new flashy side where Donal Trump built his phallic-sailing ship monstrosity to post-modernity I saw a Chinatown in Casco Antiguo, which is the original old town of Panama and was reminded of the book “1493” and the Spanish fleet that sailed to the Philippines every year from Panama loaded with silver for the China trade. That is one massive run-on sentence, ain’t it?

You known this whole “China trade” thing has been going on for quite some time. It doesn’t seem to be working out the way most folks think it should. Whatever. I’m tired, hungry and grumpy and don’t really give a fuck about politics right now. Except to note that when you arrive in Panama you are given a certificate that gives you 30 days of free health insurance while you are in Panama. Can you imagine the monkey hoots and howl of jackals in Congress if we were to give furriner, freeloaders free fucking healthcare? They might shut down the government or something. Can’t have that in the best country in the world. Can’t have that in the richest country in the world now, can we? America, fuck yeah!

I’ll have some more thoughts when I get some light on the notes I took. More soon, in the meantime I’ve posted a dozen and a half photos from today. Tomorrow I go see the Canal and begin my pilgrimage north to Tikal.