Time on the road

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

September 22: Antigua, Copan and Stuck in Tela, Honduras

I’ve been through some re-orgs in my life but this one takes the cake. This is how it went down: The President of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, had some issues with his party and some of the voters when he tried to extend his term limits, among other misdeeds.
A few months ago, his Vice-President Bain Michellette and the military decided to enact a coup, or a golpe de estado, and ushered him onto a plane and out of the country in his pajamas. He was in exile in Nicaragua, making a lot of noise, with one attempt to re-enter the country, when his plane was blocked from landing at Tegucigalpa (the capital of Honduras) Airport. There were protests along the border with Nicaragua, and some unrest in the cities. Some Hondurans were angry at the way things went down, that in a democratic country processes were not followed. The country eventually calmed down. Here’s where we come in. We had planned to avoid Honduras, but were told that the situation was over, and that all was good. We crossed over from Guatemala about 5 days ago (more on this later) and went to the ruins of Copan.

We then headed to the port city of La Ceiba, and are now in the small beach town of Tela. The day before yesterday when we left La Ceiba (where we had no television), we had a 5-hour ride, checked into the hotel here and wanted to go into the center of town. We were told that the stores were closing; the country was enacting a curfew/martial law for everyone to be off of the streets by 6pm. Turns out that some supporters had smuggled Zelaya into the country at dawn yesterday and he was taking refuge in the Brazilian Embassy, with the support of the Brazilian President. Protests, tear gas, injuries in the capital city prompted the government to enact a 24-hour curfew yesterday. The airports were also closed, and all flights suspended indefinitely. The U.S. Embassy has also closed but is posting updates online. So…as much as we want to get out of here, we just have to sit and wait until we can get on the road. Interestingly, the Honduran government has been periodically taking over all channels with speeches by the current President, suspending other newscasts, so people can’t even find out what is going on or get a balanced view. Talking with people here, feelings are mixed; the former President seems to be closely aligned with Hugo Chavez, which makes anyone nervous…however, some feel he is a ‘man of the people’. Others feel strongly that he has stolen from the country, is promoting socialism, and should just back off, stop inciting violence, and let the new government proceed. This is a first, and we are just trying to lay low and see what happens.

We hadn’t even planned to come to Honduras, but to go from Guatemala right to El Salvador. We, however, met a group of bikers- 20 in all- from the U.K. while in Antigua, and they invited us to ride with them across the border to visit the ruins of Copan. We thought it would be fun riding with that many other BMW riders, so we left Guatemala and headed in. Once at Copan, we spoke with some locals who assured us that the country was quiet, so decided to explore a little…and here we are.

Honduras is a big change from Guatemala. You don’t see the indigenous people in their brightly colored clothing; the locals wear large white cowboy hats and western clothing. It’s all about bananas here…..they serve them with everything. Little wonder Chiquita has their headquarters here, in San Pedro Sula…banana plantations abound. The country seems a little worn around the edges with litter everywhere, and dark, intimidating city squares. A definite change.

Guatemala was great. While in Antigua, we drank amazing coffee, visited one of the local coffee plantations by mountain bike and learned a lot about the process. Did you know that coffee is grown 2 ways: in direct sun or in shade? The direct sun process is used in Brazil and other countries and is much more inexpensive. The process of growing in the shade is done by planting large trees throughout the coffee plantation, or “finca” and this process produces a richer, mellower coffee. The coffee grown is called “Arabica”. Also, the coffee, at least in Guatemala, is picked by hand…bean by bean…mostly by indigenous people, whole families that work together in the fields. For every 100 pounds of beans they pick they are paid the equivalent of $5.00 U.S. Wow.

We also did a hike to the active volcano called Pacaya. Now THAT was an experience. We signed up with a tour company that offered a staggeringly good price. Hello! Danger!

They picked us up in a rickety van with 4 other people, and the guy driving was definitely under 20 years old. He had a small boy with him of about 6, along with an older lady who may have been his mom. We drove around Antigua for a bit, and when we started wondering what was happening, he told us that he was having problems with his alternator, but not to worry. By then it was about 3pm. We headed up the mountain and it began to rain, and as he careened around corners on bald tires while talking on the phone and gesturing to the young boy we kept wondering how exactly he was controlling the steering wheel. This was on Sept 14, the day before Guatemala’s Independence Day, and the roads were full of people doing the traditional things related to this day: Groups of young people with lit torches running, blowing whistles and waving Guatemalan flags. On the roads were busloads of people cheering, chanting, and throwing water balloons and buckets of water at nearby cars. Traffic was crazy and it took us over an hour to get to Pacaya. By then it was 4pm. We met up with our guide, Rodolfo, and began the long, steep hike up to the area with hot lava and amazing scenery. At 6,500 feet we were gasping for breath as we climbed the shifting black sand to get higher and higher.

There were young boys with horses, yelling “Taxi, Taxi” and some older tourists finally gave in and mounted the horses. By halfway up those horses were looking pretty good; but we resisted. Finally we reached the area near the top, and realized the climb was worth it. Big chunks of volcanic rock, glowing fiery red, breaking off and rolling down the mountain with loud sizzles, greeted us.

Chris had brought some marshmallows, and we used sticks that we had broken off to roast marshmallows in this hot volcano; a real first. A German woman near us exclaimed loudly, and we looked over and realized that her designer sneakers had melted soles. The heat was intense, but the views amazing. As it started to get dark Rodolfo tried to hurry us, but with the group taking pictures progress was slow.

He was concerned, as security left the mountain at 6 and there were lots of robberies there in the dark. We began to make our way down the steep, rocky hill in the dark, guided by our small flashlights. When we finally got to the bottom our maniac driver was waiting for us. When we boarded the van he told us that his alternator was almost gone. This meant that we had to descend the twisting, turning roads crammed with holiday traffic….in the dark. It also meant that we were totally exposed to the gangs of people hurling dirty water, because he couldn’t get the electric windows up. So, for 3 hours we inched down, stuck in traffic, inhaling diesel fumes, with our raincoats over us to protect us from the incoming water. What a night.

The next day Chris and I decided to visit a local curiosity, a church in a small village about an hour from central Antigua, where they worship San Simeon, who they also call “Maximon”.

This is another of those formerly-catholic-converted by the indigenous people to their own religion and belief-system churches, and boy was it interesting. People light candles, perform rituals, but it all centers around a statue on the altar of this “saint.” Offerings are made to him…not incense, but cigars, liquor, food and treats. Conveniently, there is a cantina adjacent to the church where you can buy aguardiente to offer Maximon. We stood and watched some of the offerings, and it was an amazing sight. I met a woman who was a local ‘shaman’ and she offered to give me a ‘limpieza’ or a cleaning of negative energy for a small fee. I couldn’t resist. So, I was up there with Maximon, getting hit over the head with some leaves filled with aguardiente, followed by throwing some of the potent liquor over the statue in an offering. How’s that for a travel experience?

Well, if we can get out of here, I will (as scheduled) board a plane on Thursday for home for a short catch-up trip, while Chris gets the heck out of Honduras. If the airport stays closed we will get on the bike and head for Nicaragua. This means we will have to skip going to El Salvador, which makes us sad but means that we won’t have to enter Honduras again to get to the next country.

The adventures continue!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sept. 13: Tikal to Lanquin and Antigua

Tikal was amazing. We toured the ruins, climbing to the top of Temple IV to re-create the famous shot from Star Wars. We saw a group of nuns from Guatemala City ascend steep steps to a temple in full habits, in the 100-plus degree heat of the rainforest. It was such a sight to see these temples and monuments jutting out from the top of the jungle.
From Tikal we headed south, en route to a town called Lanquin, where we wanted to see the famous Grutas de Lanquin, a series of caves that we were told were interesting to walk through. It was a long day, riding 7 hours, with an interesting pit stop in the town of Sayaxche.
 There is no bridge to cross the Rio de la Pasion, so the only choice is the local ferry, a flat barge-type of boat with palapas hanging off of the sides and a bilge pump fashioned out a 4-horsepower engine that seemed to come from a lawn mower. Trucks, cars, people, crowded onto this strange structure, and we paid 5 quetzales per vehicle (about 60 cents) to cross the river.
The road into the Lanquin was a rutted gravel single-lane road down some pretty steep hills and curves, which went for about 6 miles. At one point we were behind a tour bus. The bus stopped short to let another bus by---he began backing up and we knew he didn’t see us. Chris started honking the little Barbie-horn on the motorcycle which did absolutely no good. Finally I managed to jump off of the bike and run up to the bus, waving my hands to avoid disaster.

We arrived in Lanquin late in the day, and as we came into the town and began to search for a hotel, we met Edgar, a local tour guide. He was friendly and full of energy…we told him that we wanted to see the caves, and also go to Semuc Champey, a beautiful series of natural pools and waterfalls the next day, and he agreed to pick us up at 8:30am. The next morning he showed up at our hotel, the rustic El Recreo, in a pickup with the back bed full of 8 other tourists, a great group from Israel, the U.S. and Britain.
We climbed in the back with them and bounced along for about 10 miles, passing the entrance to the Grutas de Lanquin. We finally stopped, got out of the truck and began to climb a hill. I asked Edgar where we were going and why we didn’t stop. He gave me a cryptic smile and said “Oh, amiga, those caves are too touristy; you just walk through them. We are going for a real adventure to the Caves of Camba.”
With that, he brought us to a little hut, and told us to leave everything there that could not get wet. We had to hike up to the caves in just our bathing suits and our Tevas. He then proceeded to hand each one of us a candle. He had a small miners light strapped to his head and stuck a bunch of candles around the strap. When he lit them he looked like a giant birthday cake.
We entered the caves in the pitch dark, a long processional of bathing-suit clad, frightened people with just candles to light the way. Edgar, who we now realized was completely off the wall, was leading the way with the candles burning perilously close to his hair, singing at the top of his lungs the theme from Madagascar. Even now if I hear “I like to move it, move it” shivers of fear run up and down my spine.
We thought we were going to just walk through the caves. No. a river actually runs through the caves, so there were times where we had to jump down from a ledge, our heads going under, not able to touch bottom, times where if we did not hold our candle high enough, the guiding flame was snuffed out.
Then we had to climb down slippery rocks, holding on to stalactites or stalagmites for dear life. I just remember Edgar saying “You take the rock. Now, slowly, slowly.” We got to a point where we had to climb a sheer rock face inside the cave by holding onto a rope under a cascade of water and hoisting ourselves up. The best was when we got to a small hole which led to a deep pool below.
Edgar crammed us all into the small space approaching the hole and told us to wedge our foot on the top and just slide through. All told, it was an amazing experience which I will never, never forget.
It didn’t end there. We came out of the caves exhilarated and tired. We hiked back to the hut and there were some black tire inner tubes stacked up.
Edgar told us we were then going to go tubing down the Rio Cahabon. We descended the riverbank and got caught up in the soft current of the river, floating down, soaking up the sun and trying to get rid of the goosebumps from the freezing cold water in the caves. When we got to the end we picked up our tubes and hiked back to the hut, still in our bathing suits and Tevas. We were then on our way to lunch. On the way, Edgar invited us to jump off of the bridge we were walking across into the river below (8 meters high). Chris of course was game, as were the rest of the guys. I had had enough adrenaline for awhile.
At that point we walked over to a little roadside stand where 2 local ladies were cooking. We had a great lunch of frijoles, mashed avocado and beef which they cooked on a hot metal grill over some rocks. Then it was onto the next adventure!
We then began a serious hike up to the see the waterfalls and the pools of Semuc Champey. What a place. Semuc Champey has a natural limestone bridge, 300 meters long, as well as a stepped series of natural pools with clear turquoise water. The water comes from the same Rio Cahabon where we had gone tubing.
It was a beautiful place, and we swam, hiked and enjoyed the natural beauty. We started to hike down to the waterfall which rose 40 feet high above some pools below. Edgar announced that we were going to jump off of the waterfall and then climb a rope back up. The guys jumped right on it.
The women almost had a revolt. NO way. We watched as Chris and his compatriots jumped into a narrow space, having to avoid the rocks 40 feet below. Crazy.
As we continued to hike down, the skies opened and it began pouring, torrential rain. This was followed by loud claps of thunder and lightning which was getting closer and closer. There was nowhere to go, so we continued to hike down to the truck. Now it gets interesting. With lightening overhead, soaking wet, Edgar herded everyone into back of the truck, everyone holding onto metal poles like human lightning-rods. The guys had cut some banana leaves and were using them as umbrellas. What an experience.
We left Lanquin the next morning, destination Antigua.
 We hit a major rainstorm, with muddy, flooded roads, and saw a car that had just overturned on narrow stretch of road. We misjudged a bit and ended up passing through Guatemala City at rush hour on a Friday. This took over 3 hours, in bumper-to-bumper traffic, stuck behind buses and trucks spewing diesel fumes into our helmets. There was nowhere to go and no way to avoid inhaling the stuff. Arriving in Antigua made it all worthwhile. What a beautiful city. Ringed by volcanoes, it couldn’t get more picturesque. The city is buzzing with parades and celebrations getting ready for Guatemala’s Independence Day, September 15. Whew, time for some chardonnay!

Sept. 7: San Cristobal de Las Casas, Mexico to Northern Guatemala

We crossed the border from Mexico to Guatemala in the northern part of the country, at a checkpoint called Ceibo. We had to exit Mexican customs, drive a few feet and then enter a small hut which was the border/customs for Guatemala. We parked the motorcycle and entered the hut, feeling the usual bit of nervousness at driving into a new country. What an experience!
The 2 guys from customs were super-friendly, and when we entered, a Mexican was playing his guitar and singing inside the customs hut. There were men milling about asking us if we wanted to change money, flashing large wads of quetzals, the local currency. The mood was festive and it was infectious. Turns out the guy singing didn’t have the 16 quetzales to cross the border into Guatemala, so he was entertaining the border officials in exchange for entry. What a great welcome. We passed many small villages on our way to Tikal, home of the amazing ruins. The poverty we saw was striking, so different than Mexico.
We arrived at Tikal, and drove into the actual park, where we checked into some small ‘jungle cabins’. There is no electricity here after 9pm…the generator shuts off there is no power until morning at 9am.

We had spent the previous 2 nights at Palenque, Mayan ruins in the State of Chiapas, Mexico. We found (thanks to some friends) a place called El Jaguar, cabins in the jungle with block walls and mosquito net windows. Chris was happy as we could park the motorcycle right outside of our cabin. About 4am we discovered that our cabin was adjacent to the local chicken coop, with a rambunctious rooster who wouldn’t stop until we finally got up. He also had his apprentice with him, a baby rooster who would try to crow but who had a Backstreet Boys break in his voice every time. We couldn’t help but laugh. Across the street from El Jaguar was a place called Don Mucho, a large palapa which serves as the local restaurant and nightclub. The place was full of backpackers, archaeologist-types, hippies, and a mix of tourists and locals. What a blast. At night, lit by candles, with groups playing guitars, bongos, beat boxes, everyone tired from climbing up the ruins but ready to mix and socialize…we loved it.

Our stop prior to Palenque was at San Cristobal de las Casas, one of my new favorite cities in Mexico. San Cristobal is a colonial city with a heavy influence and feel of the indigenous people. What is so great about it is that you can feel the history and the tradition, yet there is a very happening, current vibe that goes through the city….which in turn all relates back to the past. The indigenous people subsist on a mostly vegetarian diet, so there are great natural food and vegetarian restaurants there. They believe in natural healing, plants, energy, and the like, and there are many yoga, mayan massage, natural healing and holistic places to go. Near our small ‘posada’ I found a place called Alterna Dance Studio, where I went to do an exercise class…thought it was Zumba but it was hip-hop…in Spanish…very interesting!

We visited the village of San Juan Chomula, which belongs to the Tzotzil people. We wanted to go with a guide, so connected with Raul and Cesar—you just meet them at 9:30 in the morning in front of the big cross at the city square. Raul takes you in his 1980 VW Bus to the village, which is governed by the people of this group, in a very protected and insular way. Tradition is sacred, from local dress to government to religion. The women wear rough wool skirts, satin blouses, braided hair and shawls folded on their heads. The men, depending on their rank, wear rough woolen tunics, pants, and the guys with real rank wear Mayan sandals. We visited the church, Templo de San Juan, and that is where it all became clear. The Spaniards built the church, but the Tzotzil people have made the church and Catholicism their own (the church is no longer recognized by the Vatican.) When you walk into the church you are overwhelmed by the amount of candles burning. The Tzotzils took out all of the pews, put mirrors on all of the chests of the saints (they reflect the soul) and they worship in small groups, lighting groups of candles on the floor, performing rituals with chickens, plants, eggs, and beverages of different color. It was an incredible, surreal, experience. Too bad no photography was allowed, as I would have loved to share this. A few more interesting things there: if you break the law, you have to do community service, which is to become a police officer for one year with no pay. Police have no weapons save for a big wooden bat. Jails (second offense) are open on to the street so all of the townspeople can look in through the bars at your disgrace. 3rd offense you get thrown out of the village, never to return.

When we got back from the village, there was a concert going on in the central square. It turns out that there is a problem with graffiti in the village, with young people defacing the beautiful colonial houses and buildings with graffiti. When the town tried to fine them, there was a hue and cry that their rights of free expression were being violated. There was a conundrum as to what to do, how to address this without conflict. The city of San Cristobal did a very smart thing….when one of the kids is caught, he/she is responsible for re-painting the entire house. They also gave voice to the group that represents them, JULE (Jovenes Unidos por la Libre Expresion) and allowed them to have a concert. They also installed white boards in the square where the youth could do their so-called ‘art’. When we arrived at the concert, it was funny to see the mix of people….young indigenous teens in their traditional dress rocking out to a heavy-metal alternative band. The world is really getting smaller.

A final word---we have been traveling by motorcycle in Mexico for almost 8 weeks now. The experience has been phenomenal. The colors, the people, the flavors, the topography and the warmth of Mexico has been exceptional. There is a lot of bad press in the U.S. and in other places regarding this wonderful country. My advice…travel with caution, like anywhere, but travel to Mexico. You will be missing out if you don’t.