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.
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.
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.
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.
“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 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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
Fried 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 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?