Geography Report: Mexico

Note: This is the last of the Caribbean geography reports. As Mexico is such a large country, I have chosen to focus on the part of Mexico we visited, Isla Mujeres and the Yucatán peninsula.


Basic Facts

Capital: Mexico City

People/Customs: Nearly 30 percent of the Mexican population is indigenous (Mayan, Mixtec, Náhuatl, Otomí, Purépecha, Zapotec), 60 percent are mestizos, and the remaining 10 percent are white or other ethnicities. Most of the people practice Catholicism and even the indigenous people have mixed traditional religions with catholic practices. Most holiday celebrations include fireworks, music, and dancing. Day of the Dead (Día de Los Muertos) celebrations commemorate family members who have passed on by decorating tombs and creating elaborate alters at home.

Language: Spanish is the official language, but there are 68 Amerindian languages also spoken.

Climate: The climate zones of Mexico vary from snow-capped mountains and alpine tundra to tropical islands, making Mexico attractive to visitors looking for variety. The main regions include: tropical wet, tropical wet-and-dry, semi-arid, desert, temperate with dry winters, humid subtropical, and Mediterranean. Where we were, in Isla Mujeres, the weather was warm, sunny, and breezy with predominant easterlies, cold fronts with north wind in the winter and spring, and tropical waves and risk of hurricanes in the summer and fall.

Food/Farming: typical Mexican meals consist of corn, beans, rice, tortillas, squash, chilies, avocados, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and a various meats, like turkey, beef, goat, pork, chorizo, and chicken. Mexico is also known for its delicious tacos. Corn has been Mexico’s most important food for thousands of years, and it has a religious significance for the Maya, Huichol and many other indigenous groups. Fruits grown in Mexico include: pineapples, citrus fruits, star fruits, mangoes, papayas, melons, tomatoes, and other tropical fruits. A popular drink is tequila, made from the agave plant.   

Government: The United States of Mexico has a Constitutional Republic, with a President as head of state.

Currency: Mexican Peso, about 18 pesos to the dollar.

Art/Music/Culture: The culture of Mexico is a mixture that comes from its history of Old and New World influences. Cultural influences include traditions from the Maya and other indigenous peoples, Spanish language, music and religion from the conquistadors and settlers, and a mixture of European, African, and Asian cultures that arrived later in Mexico. The Spanish brought Roman Catholicism, which became Mexico’s main religion and slowly mixed with the indigenous religious practices. Mexico has a rich artistic history, with world-famous artists like Frieda Kahlo, as well as arts and crafts like weaving, pottery, leather-working, and wood-carving. Decorated skulls are a common motif. Popular musical styles include mariachi and ranchera, which use the sounds of various guitars as well as violins, trumpets, and accordions.

History of the Yucatán Peninsula

The Yucatán’s oldest traces of humanity date back 11,000 years according to artifacts found in the Loltún caves and Tulum. It is supposed that the first Mayas arrived in the Yucatán around 2500 BC. The Maya had a knowledge of astronomy, math, and architecture, the evidence of which can be found all over Mexico in the form of pyramids, palaces, and other structures. The Maya were also good artists, based on jewelry, carved limestone, and plaster artifacts found at ruins.  

Around 600 AD the Maya civilization was at the height of its Classic period. The Maya lands at this time were not ruled as an Empire, but as a collection of independent city-states. Near the end of the Classic period, the Mayans moved to the Yucatán, with ruins like Chichen Itzá showing us construction very different from earlier Mayan settlements (Tikal in Guatemala, for example). After the Classic period, the collapse of the Maya came very suddenly. One theory is that as the Maya civilization grew, they were not able to grow enough food to feed the people. The Maya then weakened and were taken out when the invaders from central Mexico came.

Mexico was “discovered” by the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes in 1485. The Spanish came to the Yucatán in 1513 when Juan Ponce de León and Antón de Alaminos set out to find land west of Cuba and came across a large peninsula. The first attempt at the conquest of the Yucatán was made in 1527, when the Montejo family and a band of other men were sent from Spain to Cozumel, but they decided to sail around the peninsula and quell the unrest in Tabasco. They decided to establish their base near Campeche and push inland to conquer the Yucatán, but four years later they were forced back to Mexico City. In 1542, after allying with the Xiu, the Montejos defeated the Cocomes, and founded the city of Mérida. In four years’ time they had put most of the Yucatán under Spanish rule. The Mayans then became slaves for Spanish settlers.  

Throughout the colonial period, the native Maya and other indigenous groups continued to resist Spanish rule. The harsh treatment of natives by the Spanish led to many revolts, most of which were unsuccessful. In 1821, after a war with Spain, Mexico succeeded in becoming independent, and the Yucatán became part of the Mexican Federation. Despite the new government, the Maya were still forced to work under horrible conditions which led to the Caste War. In 1847, Mayan chiefs led a revolt against the descendants of Spanish settlers who had political and economic control. This act started an all-out war between the Maya forces and the Yucatecos (Spanish descendants). The war officially ended in 1901 but some of the small settlements and towns refused to acknowledge Mexican control. The war spilled the blood of over 200,000 people.

From 1876 to 1911, when Porfirio Diaz ruled Mexico, he brought the country into the Industrial Age. He passed laws that created an even larger number of landless peasants and concentrated the wealth in the hands of a smaller elite. In the Yucatán, wealth was acquired by making rope and other products from plant fibers. Diaz was removed from power in 1910 when a war broke out, sending the country into chaos for the next decade.   

By the 1970s, huge oil reserves were discovered in the Gulf of Mexico, which brought new investors to the country. With new money coming in, Mexico invested in infrastructure on a large-scale, and installed a central oil processing complex in the Bay of Campeche, which was producing a million barrels of crude oil a day by 1981. The influx of oil money also led to the development of the Quintana Roo and Cancún as tourist destinations. With white sand beaches, crystal-clear turquoise-colored water, and nearby ancient ruins to explore, this area soon became known as the “Riviera Maya” and attracted tourists from all over the world. While oil prices fluctuate, creating booms and busts, the tourism industry remains fairly constant, despite the occasional hurricane causing damage and requiring rebuilding.

Things to do in the Yucatán/Isla Mujeres: on the mainland there are cenotes to explore, Mayan ruins like Chichen Itzá and Tulúm, beaches along Cancun or on Isla Mujeres, snorkeling and scuba diving along the Caribbean coast, visiting the Spanish colonial city of Mérida, horseback riding, and deep-sea fishing. Also, good tacos can be found almost everywhere!

Landforms/Flora and Fauna

Mexico is a large country and has a very diverse landscape. To the north is the U.S.A., to the east, the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea, to the south, Belize and Guatemala, and to the west, the Pacific Ocean. Baja California is located in the northwest, a jagged finger of land with mountains and desert bordered by the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of California. Mexico has the world’s largest volcanic field. Central Mexico has the Sierra Madre mountains and a central plateau. Mexico City is in the south-central part of the country and boasts a population of 21 million people in the greater metropolitan area. The Yucatán Peninsula is flat, with a coral limestone bedrock covered by littoral forest and filled with sink holes, caves and cenotes. Isla Mujeres is a small island to the north of the Yucatán, surrounded by beautiful water and coral reefs. Because of this variation in land forms, the flora and fauna are found in equally diverse habitats—from pine forests to tropical jungle, from cactus-covered deserts to palm-fringed beaches, from treeless volcanic peaks to the fertile Bajío region where produce is grown. Some animals you might see in Mexico are spider monkeys, the rare axolotl (salamander), cacomistle (mammal), Mexican prairie dog, ocelot, cenzontle (bird), zoloitzcuintli (hairless dog), quetzal (bird), endangered vaquita porpoise, coati, and Mexican gray wolf. Near Isla Mujeres, you might go in search of whale sharks or sail fish, or see barracuda, snappers, colorful reef fish, and marine invertebrates while snorkeling and diving.

Bibliography

“11 Awesome Native Animals You Must See in Mexico.” www.theculturetrip.com . Accessed July 2019.

“Mexico.” (Basic Facts) Wickipedia. Accessed June 2019.

“Mexico’s Seven Climate Regions.” www.geo-mexico.com. Accessed July 2019.

Onstott, Jane. National Geographic Travelor: Mexico. 2006: National Geographic Society, Washington D.C.

“Yucatán Peninsula: History.” Lonely Planet. www.lonelyplanet.com . Accessed July 2019.

Completing the Circle

One of the things I love about a traveling life is how things come full circle—sometimes literally. We are one passage (a mere 400 nautical miles as the crow flies) away from crossing our outbound March 2016 track in our circumnavigation of the Caribbean Sea. In another sense, because we keep meeting up with old friends, we complete circles in relationships—sometimes a friend to whom we’ve offered assistance ends up assisting us.

We arrived in Isla Mujeres, Mexico in early May. A year ago, we were on the Western side of Roatan, anchored conveniently near the reef where we were freediving every day in clear water. One day, a youngish guy dinghied over and introduced himself. Originally from Argentina, Joaquin is a traveler, a sailing and SCUBA instructor, a musician—and now, a friend.

Joaquin

After introductions and polite conversation, he asked if he could borrow a SCUBA tank. He was taking a friend diving, and the local dive shops would not rent him gear unless he was going out diving (read “paying to go out diving”) with their outfit. We lent him the tank.

When he returned it, we had another good conversation and parted, as we often do, by saying “until next time.” Next time happened to be about 9 months later in Rio Dulce, Guatemala. The boat Joaquin had been sailing on, owned by his friends, was on the hard at our marina, where he was working on it and getting it ready for sale. He had spent much of the time since we saw him last working on a wooden ship-building project in Costa Rica (a conservation-minded program called CEIBA, find it at www.sailcargo.org). We got to catch up a bit, swap travel stories, and even share some music (he’s a great harmonica player). 

When we headed up to Antigua, Guatemala, at the end of March, we ran into Joaquin again. We invited him over for dinner and shared a lovely evening. He had shown us pictures of his trip up the Acatenango volcano and recommended Walter, the guide we chose for Eli and Aaron’s hike. He even (coincidentally) showed up to play live music at the restaurant where Jay and I were celebrating Jay’s 44th birthday later that week. When he mentioned he’d be heading to Mexico soon, we were pretty sure we would see him again. As it turns out, he was staying in Morelos, a small town near Cancún, and when I asked for advice about a field trip I was planning (to visit cenotes), he made a generous offer to help me plan—and even act as guide for—our outing.

Joaquin, Aaron, Sam at Cenote

We were about a dozen people from three boats coming over on the ferry for the day. Joaquin met us with a van and driver and we drove through Cancún, past all the beach hotels, and out into the wilds of the Yucatán. When Jay and I honeymooned here twenty years ago, this place was all about the beach. Sure, we went to Chichen Itzá and did some horseback riding in the jungle, but cenotes were not even “on the map.” Now, due in part to the hostile takeover of the beach by persistent Sargasso seaweed, people are looking for other ways to stay cool, and swimming in cenotes is big business.

A cenote (derived from the Mayan word for “well”) is basically a place where rainwater has dissolved limestone bedrock to expose groundwater—in Florida we would call it a sinkhole. In Mexico, it is a sacred watering hole that sustained the people and the animals of the Yucatán for thousands of years. The water is cold and clear, purified as it trickles though porous rock or runs through underground channels. Cenotes were believed to be an opening to the underworld, and there is archeological evidence that sacrifices were made in some of them to the Mayan rain God, Chaac. Some of them are “open” so that you can see the wide circular opening and others are “closed,” meaning a cave with water in it, often accessible through a small opening. There are thousands of them in Mexico. Some are still quiet little places in the middle of the jungle, but the ones near Cancun are popular with tourists. The wilderness has a paved road now, with good signage, and entrance fees.

So, given that ours would be a day-trip, we drove about an hour away, down the “Ruta de Los Cenotes” and went for a swim. Joaquin, ever the thoughtful guide, wanted to make sure we got something from—and gave something back to—the experience. As a community of long-term travelers, we are more than tourists with a vacation mentality; we are visitors and observers, aware of our impact on fragile environments and communities. Instead of buying plastic-packaged snacks, for example, we stopped at a local fruit-vendor to buy natural goodies. And conversations throughout the day centered on the history of these sacred places, the pros and cons of development, the economic and cultural impact of tourism, the thoughtless destruction of nature, and what we can do about it during our short lives on earth. Of course, in addition to these more serious thoughts, there was plenty of monkeying around, both figuratively and literally.

Cenote Fun

We arrived early to Cenote Verde Lucero, nearly the only visitors in this quiet place. The spider monkeys were still out and about, and we were warned not to leave snacks where they could be snatched. It was a beautiful place—it was easy to ignore the deck, the stairs, the picnic tables, and other signs of tourism—and see only the mirror of sky in a fresh water pool fringed by trees in the littoral forest. After the initial quiet of observation, the kids made the most of the cool water—shattering the surface of the mirror by jumping in from the top of the steep sides, dropping in from the zipline, and shaking each other off the rope suspended across the cenote.

Sarah Jumping in Cenote

With masks and fins, some of the kids explored the cenote and discovered that the middle was shallower than the sides (evidence of roof-material from a cave-in) and that there were small fish hiding among the rocky ledges and tree roots. I paddled around, taking pictures, laughing at the kids’ antics, and admiring the trees, which were thirstily reaching down the steep sides of the cenote for a drink of water.

Cenote Tree

After swimming, we came up for snacks. We had carefully hidden all our fruit and drinks, but it turns out the monkeys had grown bold with all the tourists, and they weren’t merely reaching into bags—they would come up to the table and snatch whatever they could find, right in front of us. They caught us by surprise while we were snacking, and we lost a bunch of small bananas before we scrambled to hide the rest. Rachel, having had a bad experience with spider monkeys (see “When Monkeys Attack,” December 2017), quickly retreated to a safe distance.

Banana Thief at Cenote

We took a short walk through the littoral forest, remarking how similar the flora looks to that of south Florida, and then turned back toward the cenote. A large group had arrived and was noisily entering the cenote—a couple dozen people in orange life jackets. We beat a hasty retreat.

On the way out, we noted, off to the side, a clearing in the center of which lay a “temazcal”—a Lakota sweat lodge where people can come for purification ceremonies. The spiritual significance of the cenote may have changed in the last five hundred years, but there is still a sense that the place is sacred, and an acknowledgment that fresh water in a hot place is life-giving and precious.    

We went next to a closed cenote, La Noria. It was removed from the main road by a long and bumpy dirt path, a promising sign that things hard-to-get-to are less-frequented. It was nearly noon when we got there, and the sun was directly overhead, perfect timing for the light in the cave. Once again, we were nearly the only people there, and after we arrived, the other small group left and we had the place to ourselves. There were two entrances, one a small tunnel into which descended a spiral staircase, and another bigger opening in the cave roof.

Noria Cenote Swim

Inside, it was beautiful, with its reflections of stalagtites in the water, bats flitting around, and clear, cold water lit only by a column of sunlight from the narrow entrance. It was a stark contrast to the wide, sunlit swim of the morning.

Noria Cenote

Once again, some of the kids donned masks and fins and explored beneath the surface, and several of them jumped into the water through the skylight. I was interested again by the appearance of tree roots—some reaching through twenty-five feet of limestone in search of moisture. Without sun exposure, the water was cold, and we swam until our teeth chattered.

Noria Cenote Opening, Joaquin

Afterwards, we went to Morelos for lunch—Joaquin knew a local place with good food. It always makes me happy to hear my kids ordering confidently in Spanish. We then went for a short walk on the beach—noting the rafts of sargassum that clog the shoreline and rot in the sun. More conversations ensued—what kinds of change we can and cannot control, the growing awareness among young people of a need to take care of the environment, but also our own joy and gratitude in the face of these difficulties. It had been a wonderful day—perfect weather, good friends, cool, clear water, food, and fun. We parted, as always, with the acknowledgment that our lives are transient, and though goodbyes are frequent, so are the serendipitous reunions.

Cenote Group Photo

Bless this Mess

I took some pictures today of what our boat REALLY looks like. Usually we clean up or hide the mess before we take photos to post. But this morning, I took a closer look at our clutter, and before griping about it or demanding the kids tidy up, I took the opportunity to let it tell me something about the stage of life we’re in.

Rachel left some Play-doh out, and her plastic dishes (on which she had made me pancakes and bacon). This reminds me that we are nearing the end of the Play-doh years. Soon, there will be no little bits of blue or pink goo ground into rugs or stuck on the rear-end of my shorts, but also no little girl to clean up after.

Toy Mess

School books, which are supposed to be put away at the end of every weekday, were left out over the weekend. We have two boys nearing graduation, and I am reminded that my work with them as a teacher/academic advisor is nearing completion.

School Mess

The desk/guitar practice area is kept pretty organized by the musicians who play there, but it’s still a lot of stuff in a small area. How quiet it will be when Aaron moves off the boat, taking his beat-up guitar and all the coils of cable and electronic equipment with him.

Music Corner

The kitchen stove is disgusting. We went out for dinner (just grownups!) last night and left the kids in charge of cooking for themselves. The spaghetti explosion is the result. Instead of waking someone up to take care of the mess, I reflected on the fact that I got to go out without kids last night, and that I have capable kids who can cook for themselves.

Cooking Mess

The bar, or catch-all, sports a grocery list, school-work to grade, a computer, an SAT prep-book, camera, sunglasses, a Mexico travel guide, and other detritus from our busy life. A lot goes into organizing school, meals, laundry, boat repairs, and travel for a family of seven. As the kids grow up, I will have a lot more time to keep the boat clean, but I will really miss them and their messes.

Bar Mess

None of this is earth-shattering. Lots of moms have come to the same logical conclusion. If mess=family and family=love, then mess=love. My prayer this morning: Forgive me, Lord, for complaining about that for which I should be grateful. Let me serve this family without grumbling and nagging,and appreciate what I’ve got before it’s gone.

Acatenango

The area around Guatemala City is elevated, mountainous, and volcanically active. One of the most prominent of the volcanoes in this area, Fuego (Spanish for “fire”), has been erupting regularly and has recently produced enough ash to close the airport in Guatemala City about thirty miles away. Right next to Fuego lies Acatenango, a dormant volcano from which hikers can obtain a stunning view of the eruption from less than two miles away. It’s not an easy view to obtain though, because unless you hire a helicopter, you’ll have to hike eleven miles round trip with a pack full of water and cold-weather clothes to the summit, where the eruption can be seen. Even without the added twenty-to-thirty pounds of backpack, climbing up the 5,150-foot elevation change on volcanic gravel trails would be tough.

On a recommendation from some friends, and because we knew we didn’t want to miss such a cool opportunity, we decided to do it during our week-long visit to Antigua in April. After talking over what we knew about the hike, it was apparent that the whole family would not be going on this excursion. We reached the conclusion that only Eli and I would go with Walter, a trusted guide recommended by Joaquin, a friend of ours who had previously done the hike with him. We each packed five liters of water, some snacks, and all the warm clothes we own. We would be hiking about five hours up to base camp, then remaining there until 4:00 AM, when we would be getting up to hike the remaining hour and a half to watch the sunrise from the peak. At an elevation of 13,045 feet, the temperature can drop below freezing and the wind chill can be wicked, though it seldom rains or snows due to lack of moisture.

We met Walter at the Parque Central of Antigua at 7:00 AM, said “adios” to Mom and Dad, and followed Walter to the bus terminal. The first bus took us to a neighboring town outside the old city from which we rode a second bus to a town lying at the foot of Acatenango. There Walter made some last-minute preparations, then we rode in the back of a truck up to the trailhead. We disembarked from the truck, bought hiking sticks for five Quetzales apiece (less than $1), shouldered our packs, and started hiking around 9:30 AM.

Acatenango Hike, Before

The first part was probably the worst, because it took about an hour for us ascend the dusty trail that runs between cultivated fields before we started getting any shade—we were prepared for cold, but not for heat. From there we basically trudged uphill for four more hours until we reached base camp. The scenery was actually quite nice, but when we weren’t resting, all we really cared about was making it as far as possible before we had to stop again.

Rest stop Acatenango Hike

We were by no means the only ones doing this; we saw several other groups going up and several more going down from the previous day. The last part of the hike to base camp was probably the best (that and bumming around base camp just watching the volcano) because it was mostly flat. Base camp consists of several terraces in the mountainside where rows of tents can be set up.

Acatenango Base Camp

We arrived around 2:30 PM and were immediately presented with an amazing view of Fuego. We set down our packs, sat down, and watched for a while as occasional plumes of ash and smoke billowed from Fuego like a chimney. Every once in a while we’d be able to hear it exploding and see chunks of rock go flying. But most of the time there was not much more to see than some cool cloudscapes. We decided that clouds are only interesting from above; from below you only get to see the flat bottoms.

Fuego from Base Camp 1

Up to this point we had been wearing pants and T-shirts and had been rather hot. Now that we had ceased our strenuous exercise, we started packing on the layers. We helped Walter pitch our tent, then we took a little nap until it came close to sundown when we put on more layers and went to watch the sunset from a nearby vantage point. We took pictures of ourselves in front of Fuego, but it refused to erupt dramatically as long as we were holding the camera. It was still a sweet view, pretty high up on the list all the awesome things that I’ve seen. Erupting volcano? Yeah, definitely in the top three.

It got better after dark, because it was possible to see more color than in daylight. When it erupted, we didn’t just see clouds of ash, we also saw the reddish orange of the glowing lava spewing out from the top of the barren rock cone set against the darkening evening sky. It really was that dramatic; I’m not exaggerating. It was just like the cover of a national geographic magazine, with little orange lava particles being ejected with considerable force from Fuego just a few miles away. Unfortunately it was impossible to capture pictures that reveal what it looked like—when we tried to photograph fountains of lava, all we got was black background with orange splotches.

We sat around the fire with some people from a different group, ate dinner with the erupting volcano in the background, and then went into our tent to sleep. Or so we hoped. The hours between 8:00 PM and 4:00 AM ticked by agonizingly slowly. Neither of us could have gotten more than four or five hours of sleep and certainly not uninterrupted. The most probable reasons were the lack of pillows, the cold, and a mental giddiness caused by our location. Once during the night I became sick and spent some time outside the tent, though even now I can’t imagine why, because I felt fine afterwards.

We were awakened in the dark of early morning for the final push to the summit. Eli and I removed most of the contents of our packs to make them lighter, put on all of our extra clothes, and continued the upward journey. Not too long after we started, a little bit of light was visible on the horizon and we ascended past the tree line. There was no longer any vegetation at all, just black pumice for the rest of the way. The last stretch was possibly the most grueling hundred yards that I have ever traversed. Combined with lack of sleep and fatigue from the previous day, the almost 45° incline and the sliding gravel ensured that each step was as tortuous as possible.

Aaron at Acatenango summit, view of Fuego

The first thing I did when I got to the top was lie down and enjoy the view (and also the fact that there were no more uphill slopes in my near future). And the view was indeed worth all the trouble; from an elevation 13,045 feet we were actually looking down on Fuego, which was 700 feet below us at a height of 12,346 feet. We were also considerably higher than the clouds, which created a flat grey plane covering the ground below us. It was quite stunning.

Sunrise Acatenango

And the volcano was even better, because we could still see all of the color, but also much closer and from a different angle. We could see it explode upward then fall and ooze down the side. We were not the only ones to see it; after a while there was actually a bit of a crowd—maybe twenty to thirty people around one of the more prominent viewpoints.

Fuego eruption from summit

It was also really cold. Not just the temperature but also the wind chill had us freezing inside all of our layers within fifteen minutes. Not what you might imagine of tropical Guatemala.  We drank some blessedly hot tea that Walter had brought in a thermos, took some triumphant photos, and just generally enjoyed our sense of accomplishment. The top of the volcano on which we stood looked like the surface of another planet: only black gravel, pale dawn sky, several mounds surrounding a central crater, and a white metal shelter constructed as a memorial in the middle of the crater, looking like a habitation module from Earth. I also felt kind of like an astronaut in all of my layers, standing against the harsh, cold, alien wind.

Volcano Descent

After a little while, Walter suggested that we start down, so we picked up our packs and followed him back down. We took a slightly different path down which made it possible for us to basically run straight down. If I’d had a snowboard or something, I probably would have been able to ride it on the loose material. At any rate it was fast, fun, and not too hard on the ankles. Upon our return to base camp, we changed into lighter clothes for the hike down, ate a quick breakfast, packed up, and started walking. We were the first to start hiking, and only passed one solitary hiker near the trailhead who was the first person coming up for the day. It was all downhill and we ran some of the way, covering the same distance as the day before in less than half the time.

Five minutes from the end though, Eli and I both suffered the only injuries we received on the entire trip. Eli slipped and ripped his jeans, and I, in classic Aaron-fashion, tripped and landed face first, cutting my lower lip. It looked kind of messed-up for almost a week afterward. After quickly self-administered first aid, I rejoined the other two, and we took the truck and bus rides back to Antigua, where we met Mom, Dad, and Sam. We took leave of Walter and finished our trip with celebratory pulled-pork sandwiches at Pappy’s BBQ and went home for much-needed showers and naps.

Acatenango Hike, After

Hiking with Jungle Jerry

Life here in the Rio Dulce has settled into a daily rhythm, and things have begun to move in a sedate and predictable manner. Life is steady, possibly even monotonous. Weekdays, for the most part, follow this general pattern: get up early, do school for five hours in the tropical heat, call it quits and play basketball in the afternoon, go for a swim, take a shower, play video games or watch an episode of Star Trek before dinner, eat, go to bed. Weekends are a little different, but are still predictable. On Saturdays, Aaron and I go volunteer at an orphanage, and work our butts off for most of the day. We are often accompanied by Deon, a friend of ours from South Africa. We work in the dirt until the afternoon, when Jerry (the house father) drives us home. Then we swim and play for the rest of the day. Sundays, we have a pancake breakfast and goof off in the afternoon; sometimes Dad takes us wakeboarding on Lake Izabal.

Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with a repetitive week, but for people who are used to changing locations every few months, it can get a little dull. So we leap at any opportunity to break the trend, get out of the boat (and school) for a day, and do something awesome. Our marina in the Rio Dulce is in the shadow of a national park on a large mountain covered by lush rainforest. Our friend Jerry from the orphanage where we volunteer is often lovingly referred to as “Jungle Jerry” because he leads rainforest hikes on occasion. We asked him to take us into the jungle and he agreed to take a day off and show us a part of Guatemala we might not otherwise experience.

Jungle Jerry and Deon

I didn’t quite know beforehand what it would be like. All I knew was the general area where we would be hiking (in the hills further down the river), how we would get there (in Jerry’s little SUV), and what time I had to wake up (7 a.m.). The early hour was possibly the least pleasant aspect of the outing, but it was well worth it. We packed lunches, snacks, spare articles of clothing, a camera, and water bottles in two backpacks. We put on sturdy shoes and hopped in the dinghy. Dad drove us over to the restaurant where Jerry would be picking us up. On the way, we grabbed Deon. Jerry was waiting for us; Mom, Aaron, Deon and I piled into his vehicle and drove off.

We drove over the bridge and soon left the noise, chaos, and urban squalor of Fronteras behind in favor of the tranquil scenes of pastoral squalor that comprise much of Guatemala. Jerry told us entertaining stories about his childhood in Guatemala and his life in the U.S., including his time in the Marines. Suddenly we turned off the highway and became off-road explorers. Such radical changes in terrain are quite common here. One minute, you can be driving down a well-paved road with flat pasture-land on either side, and the next, through dense hilly rainforest on a muddy track, rattling your teeth out as the road dips and bumps over rocks. Jerry’s vehicle is a hardy off-roader, an Isuzu Amigo, the sort of car you get when you cross a jeep wrangler with a pickup truck and drive it around for a few years on bad roads. It has seats for five, but by Jerry’s count, it can carry up to ten people (an assertion we put to the test on one occasion). It has little in the way of comfort, but she’s got it where it counts.

We drove for almost an hour on prodigiously bad roads, through two shallow rivers, and deep into the hills. The land near Rio Bonito was verdant and cultivated with palm oil plantations which rose up on either side, covering the road with a green arched roof, with the overgrown trunks forming ranks of shaggy green pillars. We stopped and disembarked. Jerry took his vehicle a ways down the road to park, and came back with two local guides and a few scrawny dogs. In single file, we followed the guides (and dogs) off the road.

Palm Oil Plantation, Rio Bonito

At first the path went through the palm plantation, and the ground was muddy and dotted with cow manure. Then the orderly rows of palm trees ended, and we began to ascend. The path became narrower, and the guides up ahead hacked away at the encroaching vegetation with machetes. The dogs ran off into the woods to hunt. Sounds of their chase would echo back to us from time to time. The trees were very thick, and covered with vines and moss. The slowly-rising ground was split by roots and covered with fallen leaves. The air was humid and heavy, but not too hot as the day was mercifully overcast. But the path snaked ever onward and upward, and it wasn’t long before we were perspiring like professionals.

The trail went up and up. It was often very narrow, cutting into the side of the wooded hills. The sound of insects filled the air. Aaron and I traded off the big backpack every now and then; Mom, puffing behind us like the Little Blue Engine, carried her own small pack. After about an hour of trudging upward, enveloped in our own personal banks of fog, we reached the top of the hill. We waited for Mom to catch up, then we trudged down the other side. The other side was lot steeper, and we found ourselves stumbling and sliding as often as walking.

Jungle Hike, Rio Bonito, Guatemala

Before long, we reached a broad, shallow, and fast-moving stream. We took off our shoes and waded across, then continued upstream. I didn’t catch on to the fact that this was a waterfall hike until I could see the waterfall (although the name “Rio Bonito” should have cued me in). And what a waterfall! It rushed out from a wide gap between two great piers of black rock thrust out from the sides of the valley, and tumbled into a series of deep pools, each turquoise pool hidden from the next. We took off all unnecessary clothing items and began the exploration of the falls.

Waterfalls near Rio Bonito 2

The water was frigid and fast-moving. Diving into the turbulent pools, we discovered tunnels that ran under the rock. We scaled the rock faces, swam and climbed up the curved canyon, and found more pools and falls. It was otherworldly—like something from a movie set. Mom followed us up the first canyon, then swam back to relax and eat lunch. One of our Mayan guides hunted snails by the rocky pools, his faithful dogs following him around, leaping from rock to rock over swift-moving water.

Mauricio with his Perros

Climbing up icy waterfalls in your underwear may be fun, but it gets pretty tiring after a while. So we swam over to the small rock island downstream where we had dumped all our stuff. We opened our weighty backpacks and lightened them a little. After a delicious lunch of sandwiches and carrot sticks, we donned our clothes and shoes, and plunged back into the jungle. The way back seemed easier, probably because all that uphill we did at the beginning was now mostly downhill. Now that we weren’t straining to get up the hill, we were free to enjoy the surrounding wilderness in relative comfort. As an added plus, the sun had finally come out, bathing the forest in a pleasant, green, leaf-filtered light and warming us after our brisk swim.

The trail ended, but we continued down the road toward the village where Jerry had parked his vehicle. The palm plantation dissolved abruptly into rolling sun-drenched cow pasture. The walk to the village was long, and we talked while we ambled, with the dogs barking and chasing cows in the background.

Palm Oil Plantation

The village was small and indigenous, something I usually associate with grime and poverty, but this place was immaculately clean. Most of the buildings were elevated on stilts, with hand-cut board walls and palm-thatched roofs. Colorful blankets fluttered from clothes lines. Hammocks hung on porches. Women washed clothes down at the river. It was very National Geographic. Jerry told us that when he first visited the village, the children were afraid of Gringos eating them (a threat parents made to get good behavior). Apparently, they were still afraid, because there were none in sight. Just tiny Mayan eyes peeping out at us from window cracks. We reached the car. The guides produced coconuts and speedily lopped the tops off with machetes, then handed them out as refreshments. We sipped the coconuts, tipped the guides, and drove home.

Village of Rio Bonito

The hike showed us a Guatemala we had not seen before; long ago, the entire country must have been like this, blanketed completely by trees and undergrowth. Now, the landscape is a patchwork of cattle-strewn grassland, dense groves of banana trees, and orderly ranks of rubber-trees or palm-oil plantations, the rainforest held back by machetes and a few feeble strands of barbed wire. But the jungle remains, thick, dark, and lush, lurking just beyond the property lines.

Geography Report: Guatemala

Editor’s Note: After nine months in Guatemala, Take Two is preparing to head north toward Mexico–likely Sam’s last geography report–as we complete our three-year, 5000+ nautical mile circle of the Caribbean this spring.

Basic Facts

Capital: Guatemala City

People/Customs: Guatemala has a population of more than 16.5 million, (as of 2016), made up of many different people groups about 41% Ladino (mestizo), 11% K’iche, 8.3% Q’eqchi, 7.8% Kaqchike and a mixture of other Mayan and indigenous groups. Guatemala’s religious makeup is mostly Evangelical Christian and Roman Catholic, but there is also a Jewish population, as well as small groups of Muslims and Buddhists.

Language: the official Language is Spanish, but several Mayan dialects are also spoken (Q’eqchi for example). English is taught in schools, but not commonly spoken.

Climate: Guatemala is bordered by two oceans (the Pacific and the Atlantic) making it susceptible to hurricanes, volcanos and floods. Temperatures range from near-freezing at the highest altitudes, to a humid 90° on the Caribbean coast. Guatemala has a dry season and a wet season (rain depends on altitude and region) and is in the hurricane zone, though Rio Dulce, which runs inland, is considered safe from hurricanes.

Food/Farming: typical Guatemalan food consists of rice and black beans, some sort of meat (chicken, pork, beef, or fish), salad or cooked vegetables, fried plantains, and corn tortillas. The volcanic soil of Guatemalan highlands helps with the growing of tropical fruits (bananas, mangoes, pineapples, papayas, melons, etc.) and vegetables (lettuce, cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, and beans). Cattle, pigs, and chickens are raised for meat, and freshwater lakes provide fish. Guatemalan coffee of the mountain regions is exported all over the world.

Government: Guatemala is a constitutional democratic republic with a president.

Currency: the Quetzal (1 dollar= about 7.5 Quetzals)

Art/Music/Culture: the music in Guatemala was influenced by the Spanish settlers, the African slaves, and the Mayan natives. Some of the main musical types are nueva cancion, salsa and punta. Mayan musical instruments included drums, horns, and flutes, and a wooden xylophone called a marimba is still popular today. Carvings from wood, stone, and jade are common, and the markets in the mountain regions which sell colorfully-dyed and woven cloth are famous.

History

As in Belize, the Mayan civilization plays a large part in Guatemala’s history. The Mayans were in Guatemala thousands of years before the Spanish conquered their land. It was an advanced civilization with a written language and a complex religion consisting of many different gods and spirits. The Mayans were expert builders and possessed advanced knowledge of mathematics and astronomy. They also believed in an afterlife where humans who were sacrificed continued the battle of good and evil. When the Spanish came to Guatemala in 1519, they tried to convert the Mayans to Christianity, but only succeeded in a limited way. As the Spanish settled in Guatemala, the Mayans were either killed, enslaved, or forced to flee to remote places. Many fought back, and many died of diseases brought from Europe. Since no gold or silver was found in Guatemala, the land and its people—as slave laborers—were exploited for tobacco, chicle, cacao, cotton, indigo, and cattle. Somehow, despite Spain’s three centuries of brutal rule, and continuing conflict with the Guatemalan government, their culture has survived until the present day.

The first capital, Villa de Santiago de Caballeros was founded in 1527 (present-day Antigua). After flooding and earthquakes destroyed it in 1773, it was moved to its present location (Guatemala City). During the colonial period, power was concentrated with Spanish landholders and the Catholic church, and the subjugation and persecution of the Mayan peoples that began in this period continued into this century.

In 1821, several Central American regions, including Guatemala, claimed their independence from Spain and formed a loose federation of states. In 1838, the Honduran and Guatemalan leaders of a liberal party invaded Guatemala, took over the government, and executed the head of state, beginning more than a century of violence and political strife as liberal and conservative factions fought for government control.  After warring with neighbor states, Guatemala declared its independence as a nation in 1847, though border disputes persisted into this century.

Coffee was brought to Guatemala by Jesuit missionaries in the mid-1700’s as a decorative plant but was not grown as an agricultural product until the mid-1800’s when the natural dye companies went out of business due to the invention of synthetic dyes. There are eight distinct coffee growing regions in Guatemala today and its coffee is exported all over the world.

In 1904, the United Fruit Company entered the scene, and eventually bought about 40 percent of Guatemala’s land, cultivating 14,000 acres of land with bananas and other tropical fruit, and building railways, roads, ports, and a fleet of ships. The United Fruit Company had a hand in many other business and political ventures. (The fruit companies still have a lot of economic and political power.)

Jorge Ubico was a general in the Guatemalan army who was elected president in 1931 (in an election with no other candidates) during the Great Depression after José María Reina Andrade, Manuel María Orellana, Baudilio Palma, and Lazaro Chacón had all been deposed for separate reasons in the previous 2 years. Ubico was known by his efficiency and cruelty; he reinforced the police and military greatly and instated forced and slave labor. He was forced to resign 1944 after a series of violent uprisings.

A new constitution was made which allowed all adults the right to vote and limited presidents to serving one term in office. Ubico’s successor lasted only one year. In 1945, Juan José Arévalo was elected and served a six-year term, survived 25 coup attempts, and established a social security system and health reforms. After Arévalo, a military leader, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán was elected and made socialist reforms. Because he was friendly to the communist party and passed agrarian reforms which redistributed land to Mayan peasants, he lost the support of the United Fruit Company and incited the United States to get involved. Guzmán stepped down in 1953 before the CIA could mount an attack to depose him, and what followed was thirty years of economic and political troubles during which the constitution was revoked and the Mayans lost land holdings and civil rights. President Armas, supported by the United States, was shot by his own body guard in 1957.

After much turmoil, General Fuentes took power, but was later overthrown when the U.S., fearing a communist revolution, backed a military coup and a new leader. The next several years saw constant change and conflict—with the military in charge of the government and guerrilla fighters representing the people involved in a bitter, decades-long civil war.

Initially, the two sides were the FAR (Rebel Armed Forces) and PGT (Guatemalan Labor Party) against the MLN (National Liberation Movement), a right-wing organization aligned with the military and blamed for using political assassinations and death squads to silence opposition. Later, as the violence escalated, URNG (Guatemalan National Revolution Unity) and the EGP (the Guatemalan Army of the Poor), whose motto was “Long live the poor, death to the rich,” opposed the ESA (Secret Anti-Communist Army), FNO (National Opposition Front) and the government-sponsored PACs (Civilian Self-Defense Patrols). People were forced to either serve the government or join the guerrillas.

Horror stories and human rights abuses were common during the war. In one case, villagers who came to a town meeting to resolve a land dispute (over a parcel near fruit shipping lanes owned by the president) were met by soldiers who shot over a hundred men, women, and children and buried them in mass graves that the army had dug the day before.

The elections of 1990 were the first peaceful transfer of a civilian democratic government, and peace accords were signed in 1996. The thirty-plus year civil war cost hundreds of thousands of people their lives and land and created over a million refugees. Tens of thousands went “missing” (like school children abducted to serve in the army) and their whereabouts were never discovered. Some of those responsible (like Rios Montt, president in the early 80’s) were later charged for what amounted to genocide and “crimes against humanity.” Political turmoil, government corruption, and economic inequality are still common in Guatemala, where there is a huge gap between rich and poor, and the military protects the government instead of the people. Peace is tenuous, and there is always the threat of impending conflict. Despite that fact, Guatemala is a beautiful country with fruitful land, kind and friendly people, and a rich pre-Colombian history.

Land forms/Flora and Fauna

Guatemala is made up of volcanic mountains, cloud forests, rain forests, coastal plains, wetlands, and mangrove islands. On land you can find many different kinds of wild cat (like jaguars, panthers and mountain lions), tapirs, monkeys, coati, iguanas, snakes (including the infamous fer-de-lance), as well as domesticated animals like cows, horses, goats, pigs and chickens. In the air you can find many different species of macaw and parrot, toucans, oropendolas, hummingbirds, hawks, and vultures, as well as seabirds like pelicans, cormorants, sea gulls, and frigate birds. And In the water you can find several spices of freshwater fish like snook and white-fish, and on the coast, reef fish and sharks. There are pine forests, tropical forests, palm trees (like coconut palms), fruit trees like mango and papaya, ferns, air plants and hundreds of species of orchid.

Things to do

Go zip-lining, kayaking, wake-boarding, hiking, swimming in water-falls and hot-springs near Rio Dulce and Lake Isabal, climb a volcano, visit coffee plantations, or find jade and fabrics in the markets of Antigua, visit the Mayan ruins of Tikal or Yax’ha in the Peten region, or visit the villages along the shores of Lake Atitlan.

Bibliography

“Guatemala.” Wikipedia. January 2019.

“BBC News Timeline: Guatemala.” News.BBC.co.uk. January 2019.

Pavlidis, Stephen J. Cruising Guide to the Northwest Caribbean. “Republica de Guatemala.” 2014. Seaworthy Piublications, Cocoa Beach, FL.

Digging In

We’ve noticed a pattern when we travel to a new place: for the first couple of months, we feel like strangers, after three months things begin to feel familiar, after six we’ve made friends with locals, and after nine we feel at home. Beyond that, it gets hard to leave and the place keeps a little piece of our hearts. Places are like onions—you have to peel back the layers. And a lot of the places we visit have a skin of tourism that puts us off initially, but once peeled away, reveals something fresh and interesting.

Little by little, we have begun to dig beneath the surface here in Guatemala, both literally and figuratively. Through a friend in the Keys who is starting an orphanage on Lake Izabal for abandoned and abused children, we met the Guatemalan guy who will be the house father, who also works for an organization that runs a high school for indigenous villagers with an itinerant teacher, and who helps organize a week-long kids’ camp in January before school starts (the equivalent of a Vacaction Bible School in the U.S.).

After visiting the orphanage in October, I knew there was something special happening there, and that I wanted to be a part of it. Our boys began to go on weekends to do work at the property— building a privacy fence, digging a pit at the edge of the lake that will eventually be a slip for the orphanage’s lancha, moving rocks, and doing anything else boys with lots of energy can do.

Boys digging (Zuber visiting from Maine!)

By the first week of of January (the last week before school starts here), we were excited to help with the Campamento Rio Dulce. If you didn’t grow up in an evangelical church in the United States, you may not know what a Vacation Bible School is: it is a week of camp, organized by a local church, geared toward introducing kids to the Bible in a fun and engaging way. Kids do arts and crafts, play sports and games, sing songs, and learn Bible stories. In Rio Dulce, the camp was started five years ago by a missions team from a church in Texas that wanted to give the local churches an opportunity to reach out to the children in the indigenous villages along the river. These villages originated as Mayan refugee camps during the civil war, and the people are survivors of an attempt at ethnic cleansing. Some of the kids who come to camp from the 17 villages represented speak only Q’eqchi’. The local churches have taken responsibility for the camp (still funded by an organization in the U.S.) and it is an impressive community effort.

On the way home from camp

On the boat to camp

We rode a large lancha every morning full of screaming and singing children, teenage camp counselors, and volunteers to a remote place on the river, up a mangrove creek through the jungle to the campsite. The fast lancha with the cocineras, the cooks, got a head start so the ladies could light the fires and begin cooking lunch for more than 300 people.

The cocineras

This is not a peanut-butter-and-jelly operation. These are ladies who volunteer to chop vegetables, make tortillas, and cook rice, beans, and chicken soup in enormous pots over open fires in a thatch-covered hut, then hand-wash the 300 plates and cups outdoors—every day for a week.

Lunch Production

Lunch Aftermath

Joining me, Eli, and Aaron were three teenage friends from other boats—two girls from Israel and a boy from South Africa. I was helping with arts and crafts, up to my ears in scissors, crayons, glue, and googly eyes. After standing around much of the first day trying to figure out what they could do, the teenagers ended up helping Josue with sports and games. Our kids’ time in Homeschool P.E. in Marathon came in handy, as they knew lots of big-group games. The language barrier was the biggest obstacle, but once that was overcome (with the help of a kind translator who speaks flawless Spanish with a North Carolina accent), there was no stopping them.

Corn-Sack Races

I loved helping with arts and crafts and felt at home in a roomful of little people jabbering in Spanish, as it reminded me of my teaching days in Atlanta, where I taught Kindergarten in a school that was 80% Spanish-speaking immigrants. Even the groups with big kids, who didn’t need help with the crafts, were a joy—they were practicing their limited English with me, and I was attempting to learn to count to 10 in Q’eqchi’.

Arts and Crafts

Some of my favorite memories from the week of camp come from the assembly time at the beginning and end of the day. Aaron brought his electric guitar and wowed the kids with his rock riffs, and I filled dead time (while he set up) teaching a song I knew in both English and Spanish. I met a guy from Rio Frio named Franklin, and he helped me learn the word for “Hallelujah” in Q’eqchi’. On the last day of camp, we sang a two-part song, one part in English, the other in Q’eqchi’. To me, it was a beautiful illustration of how bridging language gaps draws people together and helps us find common ground.

Aaron playing at camp

After a week of camp, I had made friends with a group of young people (the camp counselors), all of whom were interested in learning English. I decided to start a free weekly English class and the pastor of the local church offered us a space. If it goes well, I hope the class will be the first plank in a language bridge between the locals and the English-speaking cruisers who live here for part of the year. As of this posting, I’ve had two great classes, and had other cruisers ask how they can get involved.

Volunteers and Counselors, Last Day of Camp

Photo: The crew of Take Two with camp counselors, Deon from s/v Dreamcatcher (far left), the crew of s/v Rothim (Hagit in the middle with Naomi and Adi to her right, Zoe next to Rachel), and our friends from Maine, Owen and Zuber (back row next to Aaron and far right).

One of my students, a guy we met at camp, plays guitar and drums and made friends with Aaron. They have gotten together already to practice music. Eli went along too and it makes me happy to see our kids using their Spanish to reach out to locals.

As we’ve peeled back the layers, I have begun to view my surroundings with different eyes. What first appeared as only a loud, dirty, and crowded town, Fronteras has become a place where I see familiar faces, occasionally hear my name called, and feel at home browsing in the produce stalls, waiting in line for fresh tortillas, or chatting in Spanish at the Dispensa Familiar. By the end of April, when our visas expire, we will have been here for more than six months. When we move on and approach the completion of our circle of the Caribbean Sea, Rio Dulce will be out of sight, but not out of mind. It is a place we know now, and love, and to which we may return for a future hurricane season.

Mayan Ruins in Guatemala

We had been back in Guatemala for a few weeks after our trip to the United States when we decided the Mayan ruins nearby sounded like an interesting and educational way to pass some time while our boat was hauled out. The house on the Rio we had rented was reserved by another group for three days in the middle of our stay, so we had to find somewhere to go. Why not Tikal? And that is how I found myself climbing into another bus privado with only my backpack and a good book. For a sailing blog, I spend an awful lot of time writing about being on a bus.

We drove for several hours, at last alighting in the town of El Remate. We had rented another Airbnb house, a well-appointed affair that was part of a nearby hotel. We got our tours to Yaxhá (another ruin in the Petén region) and Tikal lined up for the next two days and were just sitting down to a relaxing lunch at the hotel restaurant when disaster struck. Dad had asked a friend to go check on his batteries while we were gone, and he discovered a serious problem. This was very bad news. Dad had to return to the Rio early the next day to work on the battery bank. The good news was that the rest of us would stay to see the ruins.

Our tour to Yaxhá was slated for the afternoon and evening. We filled the intervening time by reading about Mayan history, playing video games, and eating at a nearby restaurant. Then it was time to go. Our driver and tour guide were waiting for us at the hotel reception desk, along with a turismo van. Our guide’s name was Nathaniel, a young guy who used to play soccer (futbol) on the national team. He and Mom talked continuously during the hour-long ride to Yaxhá. The road ran through the Guatemalan countryside: fields, dwellings, roadside produce stands, cow pastures, and jungle.

The city of Yaxhá is located at the end of a loooong dirt road stretching through the hilly wilderness. At the end of the road is a pyramid. It is one of the smaller ones, only about fifty feet high. The stone was weathered, and plants were growing on its stepped sides. That looked like all there was; there was no ruined city in evidence, only thick, hilly jungle. Thick, exceptionally steep hilly, jungle. Wait a minute. Nathaniel informed us that the suspiciously steep hills were the ruins. But they were covered with trees! Our guide explained that the pyramids and temples were extremely overgrown, but there was definitely a city buried under the forest. Over 500 structures’ worth. Excavation and restoration had begun in the 1950s and was still underway. Nathaniel showed us around.

Mayan Pyramid, unexcavated

The path wound through the invisible city, skirting the buried pyramids. Howler and spider monkeys swung in the trees above. It seemed like a typical rainforest hike. Then we would come around a corner, and a cluster of stone buildings would emerge. Nathanial told us they were palaces. The ruins looked like sets from an Indiana Jones movie. The city was built near a large lake that provided transportation to the other nearby cities. There was even a temple on an island in the lake.

The Mayan empire once stretched from the Yucatán peninsula in southern Mexico to northern Honduras and El Salvador, completely encompassing Guatemala. Which is why Guatemala is home to some of the most spectacular Mayan ruins in the world (in addition to quite a large population of Mayans, who are still around despite efforts by the Spanish conquistadors to obliterate them).

Ruins at Yaxha, Guatemala

Some of the buildings we were looking at dated from as early as 600 B.C., the middle of the Mayan Pre-classic period, though structures were often built in layers, pyramids becoming larger with each successive renovation. The Mayan civilization lasted from around 2000 B.C. to well into the sixteenth century, and thrived from around 750 B.C to 900 A.D. Not long after, the civilization went into decline, and collapsed in the following centuries for reasons unknown. The last vestiges of any organized civilization were systematically destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors after their arrival in the 1500s, however, there remains to this day a large number of people of Mayan descent that inhabit Guatemala, Mexico and Belize, and still carry on many of the traditions.

During their multi-millenial dominance of Mesoamerica, the Mayans developed an advanced system of writing, mathematics, and astronomy, in some areas predating and surpassing all other early civilizations. Their mathematical skill was far ahead of contemporary peoples, and their hieroglyphic writing was the most complex of any pre-Columbian civilization. Their polytheistic belief system had much in common with other Mesoamerican peoples, including complicated rituals, sacred basketball games, and human sacrifice. Despite efforts by Spanish settlers to convert the people to Catholicism and destroy the original traditions and practices, Mayans still come to worship and make offerings at sacred places. The ashes of their recent fires can be seen in front of many of the pyramids (like the altars in the main plaza at Tikal).

Mayan Ruins at Yaxha

We wandered around Yaxhá for several hours. Most of the structures were still buried, but we could see what once had been there. The sheer number of pyramids was surprising. You would expect that constructing something so large would be an expensive, laborious, and time-consuming endeavor, but there seemed to have been no shortage of cheap labor in the ancient city, because the ponderous edifices were liberally planted throughout the area. Basically, every hill was made of cut stone blocks under all the dirt and trees. I still have trouble believing it. Many of the excavated structures had wooden stairs running up the side, put in place by the national park system so that people could ascend to the tops, and a brisk climb afforded wonderful views of the surrounding jungle, punctuated with the tops of other pyramids.

The (literal) high point of the tour was when we climbed up a temple that towered 100 feet above the city. It was late evening by then, and the sun was hidden behind a thick layer of clouds. We were joined by several other tour groups, all eagerly awaiting the imminent sunset. It was, after all, a sunset tour. We were not disappointed. The sun sank through the grey clouds, and for a few moments illuminated the jungle, sky, and stone with its ruddy brilliance. Then it slipped behind the mountains, leaving only the lava-colored clouds above to mark its passage.

Sunset, Yaxha, Guatemala

We walked back to the bus in the dusky shade of the forest canopy, listening to the eerie roars of the howler monkeys in the distance. So that was Yaxhá. The Mayan ruins were cool. They were remarkably well-preserved; except for the fact that they were often still half-way inside of a hill. It was hard to believe that they were the oldest man-made things I’ve ever seen.

Tikal, which we toured early the next day, was basically more of the same, only on a grander scale. We were pretty tired from the evening hike the day before, and I had a very pleasant sleep… only to be rudely awakened at the ungodly hour of 5:30 to get ready to go to. The van had arrived by the time we were all packed up and semi-conscious. It was the same van, in fact, and our guide was Nathaniel again. I confess to sleeping on the ride to Tikal, an incredibly difficult feat considering the bumpiness of the road. Tikal is a much larger and more well-known city, much more frequented by tourists. As such, there is more tourist-related infrastructure, like a large parking lot, museum, bathrooms, and trinket-vendors. Fortunately, this was only around the visitor center. Once we started walking into the jungle, all of that disappeared.

Visitor's Center, Tikal

Once the most powerful city in the Petén basin, Tikal was abandoned in the 10th century. At its height in the Late Classic period, the city was home to possibly millions of people, and its suburbs, satellite cities, and fortifications extend miles and miles into the jungle. Only a tiny fraction of Tikal’s hundreds of buildings have been excavated, but even that is impressive. The vast majority of the city is still immersed in the forest. Recent technological advances have allowed archaeologists to discover that the Mayan infrastructure and population in the Petén region was much more extensive than previously thought. Using LIDAR technology (Light Detection And Ranging, basically like radar with lasers), archaeologists have been able to analyze the earth’s surface beneath tree cover, virtually peeling away the jungle to see what lies underneath. Recent LIDAR surveys of the area have revealed thousands of buildings, roadways, pyramids, and terraces, indicating that many of the scattered ruins were actually part of a vast urban sprawl that covered the Guatemalan lowlands.

This is not evident at ground-level. The excavated sites are isolated from each other by the ever-present Guatemalan jungle. Nathaniel led us on a hike to the first cluster of buildings. The buildings in Tikal fall into three basic categories: there are the palaces, which are stone apartment blocks with fantastically tiny recesses for sleeping, and then there are the giant pyramids, with either a temple or platform for making astronomical observations on top, and there are the other buildings serving various, sometimes-undiscernible purposes.

Where the Mayan Sleeps Tonight, Tikal

The most impressive area was the Grand Plaza, the beautifully-restored heart of the city. It was a vast green courtyard with two towering temples facing each other, bordered by the North and Central Acropolis. The entire area was well-maintained and accessible. The two pyramids were unsafe to climb on, but the rest of the nearby ruins were free game. We ran around and explored the two acropolises. I was disappointed to find graffiti etched into the stone walls inside many of the palaces.

Main Plaza, Temple and Palace, Tikal

Nathaniel showed us something cool: when you stand in the center of the plaza and clap your hands, the echo from the pyramid stairsteps sounds exactly like the call of the Quetzal. The Quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala, was considered to be sacred in many indigenous traditions, and the pyramid stairs were constructed intentionally to make that noise. Now how did they figure out how to do that?

Moving on, we saw several more complexes and climbed several more pyramids. It was like a repeat of the day before. Jungle trails. Giant stone buildings emerging from a hillside. Heck, we even recognized a number of tour groups we saw at Yaxhá. Also like at Yaxhá, our tour ended with a pyramid climb and a nice view. This final pyramid, Templo IV, was a little different, though. It is the tallest pyramid in all of Mesoamerica. We made the long climb up a wooden staircase to the top. The vista of the treetops and surrounding city was astounding, but also familiar: it was where George Lucas filmed the scene from Star Wars: Episode IV,  when the Millennium Falcon flies in for a landing on Yavin 4. We spent some time up there, took some pictures, and climbed down. We stopped for a typical Guatemalan lunch (chicken, rice, beans, and tortillas) and went home soon after.

Mayan Ruins of Tikal, Guatemala

Our trip to the Mayan ruins was very interesting, and probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Other people told us that the ruins in Mexico and elsewhere in Guatemala were inferior to Yaxhá  and Tikal, and that those two cities were the most impressive and pristine. Of the two, I think Yaxhá was my favorite, both because of its remoteness, and because of its natural beauty. I like the idea of there being an entire city lost under the creep of nature and time. But of course, being able to see it all, and to imagine what it was like when it was new is also pretty cool.

We returned to El Remate and spent the rest of the day at the house, playing games and eating pizza. We took the bus home the next morning. On the long drive back to the Rio, I wondered just how many of the hills by the side of the road concealed ancient temples, and how many of the people we passed were descended from their builders.

A Day in Rio Dulce

We have been back in Guatemala one month, but not back on Take Two! We returned to supervise the bottom job (a one-week process) and decided to do more work. We rented a beautiful house on the Rio Dulce and have been zooming back and forth each day to work on the boat, socialize, or provision in town. This is a snapshot of our daily routine for the month of November.

Take Two Blue

6:00 am.  Jay and Tanya up early for morning quiet time, coffee, and yoga in the rancho overlooking the water.

7:30 am. Breakfast prep, kids start getting up to do school, Jay goes to the boat to work on projects.

8:30 am. Breakfast, morning devotions, school work.

12:00 pm. Lunch, Jay returns in the dinghy to work from home for the afternoon. Finish school day after lunch.

2:00 pm. Tanya goes with Sam and Rachel to the marina to hang out with other boat families or to town to buy produce and get dinner supplies. Big kids finish school and practice music.

5:00 pm Tanya returns as the sun begins to set over the Rio. If there’s time, Jay and Tanya have a chat over sunset drinks in the rancho.

Sunset, Rio Dulce

6:00 pm. Dinner prep with one of the kids. Free time for everyone else.

8:00 pm. Story time for Rachel while big kids finish dishes/evening chores.

9:00 pm  Jay and Tanya head to bed to read until they pass out. Rachel and Sam to bed. Big kids watch a movie, send emails, or read until their bedtimes.

The boat is supposed to go back in the water at the end of the week, when we’ll begin the process of moving back home, cleaning the boat, and readjusting to the space. I’m hoping to get back to a daily ukulele practice and to find more down time to read or write. Jay is hoping to get the boat back in good condition. The kids are looking forward to sleeping in their own beds again. We’ll all begin thinking and talking about what comes next for Take Two, probably a trip north to Mexico.

 

Take Two Takes to the Road

What follows is a series of what we call “Tanya’s famous out-the-window pictures” from our road trip in August, September, and October. I would like to thank all the wonderful folks who hosted our family, made us feel loved, and made all that driving well worth the effort!

Leaving the Florida Keys

Leaving the Florida Keys, August 12

 

Alligator Alley

Across the Everglades, August 12

 

North Carolina in the Rain

North Carolina in the Rain, September 5

 

New York to New Jersey

New York to New Jersey, September 7

 

Acadia National Park

Acadia National Park, September 27

 

 

Road Trip Self Portrait

Self-Portrait, Maine, October 2

 

Fall Colors, New England

Fall Colors, Leaving Maine, October 2

 

South of the Border

South of the Border, October 3

 

Causeway, Saint Simon's Island

Causeway to St. Simon’s Island, October 3

 

Bridge, Savannah

Leaving Georgia, October 8

 

Sunset, Florida West Coast

Sunset, Florida West Coast, October 15

 

Family Road Trip in the Burb

Family Road Trip in the Burb.                                                                      Total Miles driven: 4,325