Our January/February 2014 holiday
COSTA RICA NICARAGUA EL SALVADOR HONDURAS GUATEMALA CONCLUSION
"From clear, turquoise seas to magnificent Maya ruins, lush cloud forests, bustling markets and coffee farms, Central America can be as chilled out or as thrilling as you wish."
The Lonely Planet guide to Central America
In our life-long quest to see as much of the world as possible, our latest holiday was in Central America, having already visited North America many times (most recently in 2013) and South America (in 2001). As this is a region with which we were totally unfamiliar, before setting off we struggled to recall which countries we were to see and especially in what order we would experience them, so Roger came up with a suitable mnemonic: Can Nick Explain His Guns = Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.After breaking away from Spanish control, all five countries used to be members of the United Provinces of Central America (1821-1841) before becoming fully independent states. All five nations have very similar flags - each with twin blue strips, the first four with thin horizontal stripes and the last (Guatemala) with broader vertical stripes. All except one have coastlines on both the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, the exception being El Salvador which only has a Pacific coast. Today this is a region always known for its amazing bio-diversity and volcanoes plus earthquakes and hurricanes, previously ravaged by civil wars, and now scarred by poverty, corruption, street gangs and drug running. As usual for trips outside Europe, we were going on an organised tour and once again we were using Voyages Jules Verne [click here] as our travel agent. The tour was escorted by local guides from VJV agents: Costa Rican Trails [click here] based in Costa Rica and Expedicion Panamundo [click here] based in Guatemala. For almost two months (December and January) before the holiday, Britain had been hit by ferocious gales, lashing rain and extensive floods, so we were looking forward to some sunshine as we were visiting Central America in the dry season which runs from November to April.
Costa Rica means 'rich coast' in Spanish and it obtained this name from Christopher Columbus who visited the area in 1502 on his fourth and final voyage to the New World. A Spanish colony for many centuries, Costa Rica became fully independent in 1838.Costa Rica avoided the civil wars that wracked the region in the 1970s and 1980s, although it was pressured by the freedom-loving Ronald Reagan into providing facilities on the northern border for the Right-wing Contras fighting the Sandinistas in next door Nicaragua. Eventually President Oscar Arias managed to facilitate a negotiated settlement in Nicaragua which won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987. The population is 6.5 million (of which 1 million are economic migrants from Nicaragua) and the capital is San José (which is only 10 degrees above the equator). Its citizens (Ticos and Ticas) are known for their laid back style, characterised by the notion of 'Tico time' (even slower than Mediterranean time) and the expressions 'poco a poco' ('little by little') and 'pura vida' ('pure life'). Once dubbed "the Switzerland of Central America", Costa Rica is one of the region's most affluent and stable countries and it has no standing army. It has the most developed welfare system in the region and its citizens enjoy one of the highest life expectancy levels in the Western Hemisphere. The main industry is now tourism and 35% of the land area is protected. Following a landslide victory, in May 2010 the country obtained its first female president Laura Chincilla of the Centre-Left National Liberation Party. The Sunday after our time in the country, Costa Rica had its four-yearly presidential and congressional elections but, since the president can only serve one term, Chincilla could not restand. In the presidential election, Luis Guillermo Solís Rivera of the Citizens' Action Party and Johnny Araya Monge of Chincilla'a party came first and second respectively, with neither candidate reaching the required 40% of the poll to win outright, so there will be a second round of voting in early April, Costa Rica was the only country on this holiday which one of us had visited before. In December 1991, Roger spent a few days in San José where he made a presentation at a conference on telecommunications before staying on to do some sightseeing. Following that visit, he wrote in his diary: "I cannot imagine being able to return." He was wrong.
Link: BBC country profile click here
San José, Poas Volcano & coffee plantation
On yet another cold and wet morning (appropriately enough a Monday) in this miserable British winter, Roger and Vee set the alarm for 6 am to commence their Central American tour. It took two American Airlines flights to reach the starting point in Costa Rica: one of nine and half hours from London to Dallas/Fort Worth in the USA on a Boeing 777-300 and another of three and a half hours from Dallas/Fort Worth to San José on a Boeing 757-200. At the airport in San José, we were greeted by a sign proclaiming: "Welcome to the happiest country in the world".We reached our first accommodation - Tryp Hotel Sabana [click here]- at 9.30 pm which was 3.30 am London time since Costa Rica is six hours behind UK time. So door to door, the journey out had taken us nearly 21 hours. Almost immediately we hit the sack ... zzzzzzzzzz At 8 am on Tuesday morning, we met our guide and our group. The guide was Edward (Edwardo) Sanchez whose pet name - apparently all Costa Ricans have one - is Plumas (Feathers) since he has a strong interest in birds. He was very knowledgeable and helpful. There were 11 others in the group making a total of 13, all our sort of age (although one fit guy was 82). Our coach was basic but adequate with enough room for us to spread around. The weather was one of blue skies and warm sunshine and, as the day progressed, the temperature rose to around 30C/86F (oh, joy). Before leaving San José, we drove around the city a little, so that we could have a taste for the place, and Roger recognised a number of locations from his visit in 1991. The capital San José - or Chepe, as it is affectionately known - has a population of 1.2 million, one in five of whom live below the poverty line. Like American cities, the centre is built on a grid pattern of avenues (east-west) and streets (north-south) with numbers rather than names. It is not known as a pretty city, being characterised by unremarkable concrete buildings, fast food outlets, clogged pavements and homicidal drivers. But, as Roger discovered 22 years ago, the city has real vibrancy and the location - in a valley overlooked by low hills - is splendid. Leaving the city, we headed north-west to the town of Alejuela (which Roger visited in 1991) and then north to see our first volcano of the tour. The route to the volcano is by a single lane road ... up ... winding ... bumpy ... up ... winding ... bumpy ... At 9.45 am, we reached the active Volcán Poas which is named after a local plant. Situated at a height of 2,530 metres (8,300 feet), the volcano has a crater 1.3 km (1,420 yards) wide and 300 metres (330 yards) deep. Almost daily, a veil of cloud envelopes the mountain, but we were lucky because visibility for us was perfect. It was incredibly atmospheric: cold at that height but very bright, pungent with the smell of hydrogen sulphide, and so variegated in colour: blue-green water in the actual crater, steam rising from vent holes, yellow sulphur around the water's edge, red in the iron rock, and black, white and grey ash and sand, all surrounded by lush green hills and topped by azure blue sky.
After an hour and a half at the site of the volcano, we returned the way we came back descending the steep hill .. down ... winding ... bumpy ... down ... winding ... bumpy ... We made a scheduled stop and an unscheduled halt for photo opportunities. The first was a terrific panoramic view of the whole of the Central Valley with San José in the centre of the basin. The second was an opportune chance to see a two-fingered sloth edging its way across a telephone cable strung over our road - very slow, very furry, very cute.
Our next destination was a coffee plantation called the Dokas estate which is owned by the Vargas family. First we had a hot buffet lunch - our introduction to the Costa Rican staples of rice and beans (but, in this case, supplemented by beef or fish and plantains and salad). They say that in this country, when one tires of rice and beans, one can have a change of beans and rice. On this first meal of the trip, Roger & Vee befriended Brian & Cally who proved to be such congenial travelling companions for the remainder of the holiday. Next we viewed the butterfly garden. This houses an extensive variety of variably coloured butterflies and it seemed that the more attractive the butterfly the harder it was to photograph (the blue ones would never settle). Finally we were given a conducted tour of parts of the plantation, illustrating the long and careful processes of growing the beans, harvesting them from the plantation, washing and grading and drying the beans, storing them for export, and roasting them for local consumption. In Costa Rica, the beans are always picked by hand, not by machine, but only 10% of the pickers are from Costa Rica itself: 80% are from Nicaragua and 10% from Panama. One of the dangers is a fungus which sounded like it was called Roger but, upon further inquiry, turned out to be named "roya".
We left the plantation at 2.40 pm and set off north-west for our accommodation for the next two nights by the side of another volcano. It was a long journey of three and a half hours - although we did have a coffee and comfort break - so it was 6.10 pm and dark when we rolled up to the Arenal Paraiso Resort [click here] by Volcán Arenal. Here we were allocated lodges with basic but adequate facilities. The evening meal was in the resort's restaurant accompanied by external animal sounds including bull toads.
Arenal Volcano and a thrilling zip wire ride
On Wednesday, the group was asked to congregate in the hotel car park at 8.30 am, but we did not leave immediately because someone spotted a sloth in a nearby tree in the hotel grounds. You might think that, see one sloth and you've seen them all, but this was different from that of yesterday. It was much larger and less hairy and adept at climbing to the very top of the tree but s-l-o-w-l-y.The Arenal Paraiso hotel is located on the east side of the volcano and we drove round to the west side for a better view. On 29 July 1968, Volcán Arenal - the name means sand - erupted after a period of quiescence of almost 400 years and killed 85 people and buried a number of local villages. Eruptions and lava flows remained a regular occurrence until suddenly everything went quiet again in 2010, but there are still hot springs and the site remains a popular tourist attraction. We took a long trail through low forest and then climbed some very uneven volcanic rocks to reach a vantage point at the foot of the volcano. White streaks of ash marked the higher slopes and cloud crowned the top. It is forbidden to approach any nearer to the volcano since it is still active and could erupt at any time. Behind us, there was a huge artificial lake which is used for recreational purposes. The whole area is a large national park and our guide Eduardo took pleasure in pointing out different trees and plants and spotting different birds including the white-throated magpie-jay, the crested caracara, and the grey hawk (we were all becoming twitchers).
After two hours or so at the volcano, we drove into the village of La Fortuna which nestles on the east side of the feature. Roger & Vee joined Brian & Cally in having some lunch of burgers and beer at a cafe called "Soda La Parada". Back at the hotel towards 2 pm, the group had the afternoon free, but various paid options were offered: bathing in hot springs, a trip to a local waterfall, walkways over treetop canopies, or a zip wire tour of the rain forest. Only four of the group chose to go for any of these options - so who were they and what did they select? You guessed it, Vee & Roger decided to go for the zip wire experience [click here] and they were joined by Brian & Cally (both in their 70s). None of us had done this before. First we paid our $45 (£ 27) a head for the privilege of being scared witless. Then we signed forms absolving the hotel of any liability in spite of a written warning that consequences could include "disease, injury or death". Next we were fitted up with our harnesses and helmets. Finally we had our instructions: how to sit in the harness with ankles crossed and how to use a leather glove to avoid spinning and slow us down. There were 11 of us altogether: the four from Britain, four from France, and three from Mexico. There were 12 towers and 11 zip lines which together measured 2,200 metres (7,200 feet or 1.4 miles). Vee - the woman who did hang gliding in Brazil and the highest bungee jump in the world in South Africa - was totally calm about it all and handled everything very smoothly, only once stopping short of a platform and having to pull herself forward.
Roger found it much more difficult. It was not just a matter of having courage; the whole thing required some judgement and skill. It was not a case of doing one or two lines and then it was much easier; each line was of a different height or length and required more or less courage and a different braking technique. On one line, Roger stopped too short and had to grapple himself up to the platform. On a particularly fast line, his leather-gloved gripping hand bounced free, his wrist suffered a friction burn from the zip wire, and he had to get his grip back before he spun around. He finished up with an extremely painful rust red diagonal streak across his right wrist as a souvenir of an amazing and thrilling experience. Throughout the remainder of the trip, the injury slowly healed but was still very pronounced.
Cally found the whole thing particularly terrifying and was accompanied on two lines by a member of staff. One of the French guys braked too soon and finished up suspended in space because he panicked and had no strength to pull himself along the line. A member of staff slid down the line to pull him up to the platform. For all of us, it was one and a half hours of pure adrenaline. At Eduardo's suggestion, we all went back into La Fortuna for dinner, visiting a typical local place called "Rancho Perla" where Vee enjoyed sea bass and Roger made sure he had one of the only three desserts on offer (coconut tart & ice cream).
Rincon de la Vieja Volcano
During the night of Wednesday/Thursday, it crashed with rain so that, in the morning, effectively the Arenal volcano had disappeared inside a low cloud base. Clearly we had been very fortunate with the weather yesterday. At 8 am, we left the Arenal Paraiso Hotel after two nights stay to head further north-west, starting by skirting round the northern side of the lake we had seen yesterday. Lago Arenal is the largest lake in the country and provides a significant amount of hydro-electric power as well as recreational opportunities.As we left the micro-climate of Arenal at 8 am, the weather soon returned to bright sunshine which meant that, as the coach twisted and turned around the lakeside, we could from time to time spot various wildlife and sometimes stop for a closer look. Among our sightings were black mandibled toucans with bright yellow upper beaks and a family of howler monkeys (totally black except for dark grey faces and white testicles). Towards 11 am, we joined the Pan American Highway which would be our main route for the remainder of our time in Costa Rica, leading us all the way to Nicaragua. This highway is far from as impressive as it sounds; throughout the country it is merely one lane in each direction and in many parts it is poorly maintained. We were now in the province of Guanacaste which is the driest in the country and we stopped for a hour at the town of Liberia which is the capital of the province. This was an opportunity to visit a local supermarket called "Jumbo Liberia" where we were able to buy food and drink for our picnic lunch and meanwhile have a coffee. After this stop, we left the Pan America Highway to take a minor road north east heading for the national park in which is located another of Costa Rica's active volcanoes. At a certain point, the public road which was pretty basic became a private road which was in a poor state and presented a very bumpy ride to the national park which we reached around 1.30 pm. This is the site of Volcán Rincon de la Vieja - the name means the corner of the old woman and apparently is a reference to olden times when certain local women practised dark arts. Located at a height of 1,895 metres (6,200 feet), this is still an active volcano and indeed a series of eruptions in 2012 has put the actual crater off limits for the time being. The national park is home to around 250 bird species, plus monkeys, morpho butterflies, tapirs, and even pumas, and the location of the highest density of the country's national flower, a rare purple orchid called locally "guaria morada". The weather was glorious as we sat at benches outside and consumed our supermarket purchases. Suitably refreshed, the hard work began as Eduardo led us on a rather demanding hike. The floor of the forest was almost totally covered in either twisting tree roots or large uneven rocks, so great care was needed. At times, it was really steep going down or (on the return) going back up. On three occasions, we had to cross the local Colorado River (not that wide but fast flowing), either on a bouncing suspension bridge or on a tree trunk with a support wire stung above it. It was really warm but the trees were so thick that the sun only penetrated so far and a strong breeze shook the upper parts of the tall trees to create quite an eerie atmosphere. The main purpose of the walk - correction, trek - was to visit some of the smoking fumaroles of this active volcano. We saw three, each larger and smokier and more bubbly than the previous one. A sign explained that the temperature of the mud was between 75C-106C (192F-248F). The smell of hydrogen sulphide was pungent and we were regularly engulfed by the steam showers. However, as well as the fumaroles, Eduardo pointed out various flora and fauna plus birds and monkeys. Indeed we spent quite a while studying a group of white-faced capuchin monkeys who performed wonderful feats of jumping from one high tree branch to another.
We spent over two and a half hours on this hike and felt that we had acquitted ourselves well, coping with the terrain and seeing some unusual sights. Back at the coach, we retraced our route but did not go all the way back to Liberia because we were spending the night at a place called Canon de la Vieja Lodge [click here] - another case of accommodation in individual chalets with fairly basic facilities. Since we were some way from civilisation, the evening meal was a buffet dinner at the hotel. At this point in the tour, we were joined by five other travellers (all three of the men named Robert) who had been to Panama and Costa Rica, so now - at least for a while - we were 18.
In 1522, the Spanish explorer Gil Gonzalez de Avila named Nicaragua after a local indian chief called Nicarao. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the British had influence over the Caribbean coast and Nicaragua became fully independent in 1838 (when it became the first country to leave the United Provinces of Central America).The Somoza family dynasty ruled the country between 1937 and the Sandinista revolution in 1979. Roger Spottiswoode’s 1983 film "Under Fire" gave a portrayal this revolution. When the Sandinistas took power, they were opposed militarily by the US-backed Contras, but in 1990 the Sandinistas were defeated in elections held as part of a peace agreement. The population is 6 million - known as Nicas - and the capital is Managua. Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti. Hurricane Mitch in 1998 left 20% of the population homeless. However, it is known as one of the safest countries in Latin America. Former Marxist guerrilla leader Daniel Ortega served as president from 1985-1990, made a come back as president in 2006, and was re-elected in a landslide victory in 2011. He has aligned Nicaragua with Russia and the anti-US bloc in Latin America.
Link: BBC country profile click here
Today (Friday), we were leaving Costa Rica and entering our second country of the tour Nicaragua, so essentially it was a travelling day.We left the hotel towards 8 am, took the Pan American Highway north, and reached the Costa Rican border an hour later. Crossing any Central American border can be problematic, even for Central Americans themselves. There is a $7 a head charge to leave Costa Rica and a $13 a head charge to enter Nicaragua, although additionally bribes can be necessary to smooth the wheels of bureaucracy and slowness. Fortunately we had an easy time and completed all formalities in one and a half hours. Entering Nicaragua about 10.30 am, we were still on the Pan American Highway but now lorries, buses and cars were accompanied by oxen carts, bicycles and even pedestrians (not at all like a British motorway!). We skirted the southern shore of the largest lake in the country, the absolutely huge Lago de Nicaragua, and made a stop to take our first photographs of the largest island in the lake called Isla de Ometepe with its two dominant volcanoes - a magical view.
We made a brief comfort stop in the town of Rivas and then turned off to head for the shore of the lake at a village called San Jorge. We were in very good time for the ferry to the island, so we had a bit of lunch at a cafe by the ferry terminal called "El Navegante" where Roger was delighted to find that he could access WiFi ( password was "Leningrado", so perhaps the owners were Sandinista supporters) and post another chapter on this narrative. A little walk on the beach (it was so hot) and a refreshing beer (it was so cold) and we were ready to embark. It took us an hour a half on the ferry to reach Moyogalpa on the Isla de Ometepe - the name means two mountains - in the middle of the huge Lago de Nicaragua (8,634 square metres or 10,300 square yards). The island is almost two islands - each created by a volcano - joined by a narrow isthmus. On the north west is Volcán Concepción, the higher standing at 1,610 metres (5,300 feet), and on the south-east is Volcán Maderas, the lower but still 1,304 metres (4,300 feet). While Maderas is dormant, Concepción is still active - the last eruption was in 1986 - and usually topped by clouds. The population of the island is around 40,000 and a popular form of travel is by horse. It was 4.30 pm when our coach - which had accompanied us on the ferry - pulled up to our accommodation on the island after a journey of eight and a half hours (although we had a long stop at San Jorge). For the third consecutive night, we were staying in a place with individual chalets, but the Charco Verde Hotel [click here] was special in being located by the lake. This is about as remote as it gets: 5,000 miles away from home, in a country nobody we know has ever visited, in the middle of a hugh lake we had never previously heard of, in the middle of an island with two volcanoes. The facilities of the hotel were the most basic yet: Vee & Roger had no problem managing without a television but they would have been bothered by the absence of a kettle and beverages had they not brought along their own travelling kettle and tea & coffee. As last night, there was effectively no choice but to eat at the hotel but we had a choice of three options.
Today (Saturday) we began and ended the programme on or around islands on Lago de Nicaragua.Overnight on Isla de Ometepe, Vee & Roger had shared their chalet with two tiny gekos and two large spiders which added some local flavour and then, in the morning, none of the chalets had hot water so it was an invigorating shower. Like all countries, Nicaragua has a past and will have a future and this morning - setting off at 7.30 am - we touched on both. Our connection with the past came with a visit to a part of the island called Finca El Porvenir where we spent an hour and a quarter being shown various large petroglyphs. These are carvings on igneous volcanic rocks which are between 1200-1400 years old, representing a culture which existed long before the Spanish arrived in this part of the world. On the island as a whole, over 1700 petroglyphs have been discovered, but we only viewed half a dozen, The largest and most impressive represented a Mayan calendar which archaeologists are still unable to interpret.
Our vision of the future came when Eduardo told us a little about the plans to builds a Nicaragua Canal to rival the more southerly Panama Canal. The proposed route will traverse the Lago de Nicaragua which will bring economic prosperity but environmental challenges to this part of the country. Last year, a 50 year concession to build and operate the new canal was awarded to a joint venture between Nicaragua and Hong Kong companies. From Finca El Porvenir, we drove round to a location called Oyo de Agua. There is a waterfall here but it is not really accessible, so most visitors either use the open air swimming pool and/or the refreshment facilities. Roger & Vee bought coffees for the guide Eduardo and the driver Felix and chatted about our experiences. Our final destination on the island was of course, Moyogulpa to catch the ferry back to the mainland. We reached the village early so that there was time for a quick lunch and Roger & Vee and Brian & Cally enjoyed salads & beers at a place called "Pizzeria Bon Appetito". The group and our coach were on the 12.30 pm ferry and an hour and a quarter later we were back at San Jorge where we soon accessed again the Pan American Highway continuing north-west. Vee spotted a dead pony by the roadside being devoured by around 20 vultures.
Granada & Pueblo Blancos
After an hour and a quarter, we reached the city of Granada which is located by Lago de Nicaragua and headed straight for a small quay where boat trips to the surrounding islands commence. The group filled a long boat with single seats along both sides to maximise vision and a local guide operated the motor while Edwardo helped us to spot local water birds.
This area of Lago de Nicaragua is known as Las Isletas which is a collection of around 300 small islands formed by the volcanic activity of nearby Volcan Mombacho (1345 metres). Many of the islands are privately owned and serve as holiday homes for the rich (one which was pointed out to us cost $1.5 million). One of the tiny islands is called monkey island because it is home to three spider monkeys and one white-faced monkey. Sadly they are overweight because tourists keep feeding them with sweet foods. The main attraction of the area for many tourists is the opportunity to spot various types of bird and we saw lots of ospreys, egrets, cormorants, and weaver birds. Some members of our group were very, very adept at spotting these birds among the trees and bushes on the islands and some of the group were very, very excited to do so. At 5.20 pm - after being out for almost 10 hours - we checked into our hotel in Granada: the "El Almirante" - our fourth hotel in four consecutive nights. The evening was the best of our holiday so far because we teamed up with Brian & Cally to go out for dinner at a Mexican restaurant called "Tequila Vallarta" behind the cathedral. The food was fine but, when Roger asked to see the dessert menu, he was advised that the restaurant had no desserts even though the menu suggested four options. His face was clearly crest-fallen because they then offered to go to the next door restaurant and find him a dessert, as a result of which he finished the meal with a delicious Neapolitan ice cream. Meanwhile all around, downtown Granada was buzzing. Vendors tried to sell us all sorts of things; musicians tried to entertain us; a group of break dancers performed amazing feats of acrobatic dance; and there were two groups of performers dressed like giant puppets who swirled round as a cacophony of drums beat out (the tall mannekin is called La Gigantona). It had the elements of a carnival atmosphere and we loved it. It was Sunday but for us it was no day of rest as we spent all day in and around the city of Grenada accompanied by a local guide called Gustavo. Granada - nicknamed the Great Sultan after its Moorish counterpart in Spain - is the oldest colonial city in Nicaragua, having been founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernandez. It was burnt down in 1856, but latterly has been the subject of major restoration. These days it is a town of 123,000, noted for the charm of its cobbled streets and polychromatic colonial homes. We set off from the hotel at 8.30 am in a different form of transport from our coach: carriages carrying five passengers and a driver drawn by two blinkered horses. It was a relaxed way to view the city sights and streets and we made six stops for Gustavo to explain some of the history of the city: the old train station which is now a railway museum, the first hospital which is now a shell awaiting reconstruction, the Gunpowder Fortress which is now a museum, the cemetery where the Picasso family has a large grave, the baroque La Merced Church where we climbed up to the top of the bell tower for wonderful views of the city, and the former Church of San Francisco which is now an archaeological museum.
It was proving to be another really hot day: around 35C/95F. At this point in the tour, we were picked up by our coach and driven outside the city to the nearby area known as Pueblos Blancos (White Villages). This is a region named after the pale white stucco homes that once dominated the area. Today it is dotted with five pretty villages famed for their craftsmen. We visited the village of San Juan de Oriente which is the most important centre of artisanal pottery in Nicaragua. Here we went to a small workshop where local people demonstrated their craft in making their famous pottery from red clay using the unique techniques of the indigenous people. Roger befriended a mother, her children and the children's friends and had the youngest on his knee being tickled and 'dropped' to much laughter.
Next we went on to the gorgeous village of Catarina which is known for its mirador that presents fabulous views of Laguna de Apojo with Lago de Nicaragua on the horizon and Volcan Mombacho to the side. We stopped here for lunch at the "Restorante Carolina".
After a good meal, we drove on to the town of Masaya where we were given an hour to wander round the covered market Mercado Artesanias. To be honest, the wares and gifts were rather tacky, so Roger & Vee used the time to enjoy an ice cream (banana split in the former case).From the town of Masaya, we drove to the national park of Masaya. First, we looked round an interesting museum which explained the nature of volcanoes and the locations of those in Nicaragua. Then we drove up a deep road to have an awe-inspiring view down into the heavily smoking and sulphur smelling Nindiri crater. Another short drive and a steep walk took us to the overgrown crater of Volcán Masaya which had a huge explosion in 1772 and is still active today (a new eruption is expected at any time). We moved on to a suitable vantage point to see the sunset - a moving setting but not particularly colourful this night.
Finally about half of the group - including Vee & Roger - donned helmets and took torches to climb down a steep descent and enter one of the 17 lava tunnels in the area. Inside the large tree roots and the uneven volcanic rocks made the continued descent quite challenging. Then we all switched off our torches and in the pitch blackness listened to the beating of the wings of some of the 40,000 bats in the area. When we switched our torches back on, we could observe the numerous little bats darting swiftly from one position to another. We were back at our hotel at 7.10 pm after another long day of over ten and a half hours. Since we had all had a large lunch, nobody wanted a heavy dinner. So Roger & Vee, together with Brian & Cally, returned to the same part of the city as last night but to a different restaurant ("Nectar") and for a lighter meal. Roger & Vee each had a Greek salad and Roger & Brian each had a delicious local dessert called chocolate Aztec lava cake.
San Jacinto & León
On Monday morning at 8.30 am, we left Granada and said farewell to three of the five who had joined us a few days earlier (so now we were 15). It was a short drive north west to the outskirts of the city of Managua.Historically Managua remained a village until 1852 when it was chosen as the new capital of the country, following a civil war between liberal León and conservative Granada instigated by the American brigand William Walker. Geographically it is located between the other two. It was devastated by earthquakes in 1931, again in 1936, and most recently in 1972 and today it is a sprawling, shambolic and chaotic but modern city of over two million people. Leaving Managua, we rejoined the Pan American Highway and continued to skirt the southern shore of the large Lago Managua and eventually stopped for a wonderful scenic view of two volcanoes at the north east of the lake: Momotomba and (smaller) Momotombito. We reached León at noon which was a little early, so Eduardo took the opportunity to take us round the main covered market. Unlike yesterday's market, this one is for the locals: fresh fish, meat, vegetables and fruit, in displays as colourful as they were mountainous, plus all the other products necessary for normal domestic life, all in a bustling and noisy environment. However, we could have done without the live iguanas with their feet tied. Once we were united with our local guide Miguel, we drove out of the city to visit a small village called San Jacinto where we were able to observe bubbling and spluttering and splashing hot springs, the result of the nearby Volcan Telica. The ground was as hot as the air so we had to keep moving before we fried. Several of us were accompanied by local children - Roger's guide was a seven year old girl called Solangel and Vee had a boy with the typically Nicaraguan name of Kenneth tagging along - who attempted to tell us what to observe. It would be lovely to think this was all about friendship towards older people but, before we re-boarded the bus, the ubiquitous $1 had to be sacrificed.
We returned to León. The city was originally founded In 1524 by Francisco Hernandez but, after a series of natural disasters, moved in 1610 to its present location. It served as the nation's capital for most of the colonial period of almost 200 years. Politically it has traditionally been the most liberal city in the country and today remains a Sandinista stronghold. It has a population of almost 200,000 and it is the intellectual heart of the country.
Back in the city, we started with lunch at an attractive restaurant called "Al Carbon". It was an especially good meal: a small salad, a meat soup, pork with sweet & sour sauce, and cheesecake. A full stomach and humid heat made a walking tour of the city with Miguel a doubtful attraction, but we did not walk far and the two places we visited were interesting in very different ways. First we went to see the cathedral in La Plaza de la Liberación which is officially known as the Basilica de la Asunción and is the largest in Central America. This is the fifth version of this establishment since the creation of the city and the current building was constructed between 1747-1860 in the baroque style by indigenous labourers. It is in the process of a major programme of renovation with the inside and the roof completed. Some of us went up to the roof for views of the city and the row of volcanoes beyond it. The climb up was not particularly easy and the walk across the top of a small curved dome would be a challenge for anyone with vertigo. The other place we visited was a unique venue called the Museum of Myths and Legends. This was founded by a woman called Señora Carmen Toruna to remind an information technology obsessed citizenry of the traditional stories of Nicaraguan folklore. It is housed on the location of a former political prison and at the entrance is the tank that helped to liberate the Sandinista prisoners, in the courtyard is a figure of a rebel throwing a homemade bomb, and on whitewashed walls there are black drawings of prisoners being subjected to various gruesome tortures. The rest of the museum consists of papier mâché models of historic and legendary figures, including some obviously intended to scare naughty children into behaving better. Museum collections hardly come more eclectic than this.
Our afternoon in León was probably the hottest time of our three-week tour: at least 35C/95F. The two hour walking tour finished at 5.15 pm at our accommodation for the night: Las Mercedes Hotel [click here]. We had left our hotel in Granada almost nine hours ago, so it was another full but fascinating day. Early in the evening, we said farewell to our guide Eduardo and driver Felix for the Costa Rica-Nicaragua portion of our trip. As yesterday evening, since we had had such a large lunch, we only needed a light dinner. So the famous four - Roger & Vee and Brian & Cally - ate almost next door at "El Sesteo". Roger was keen to have his dessert but the waiter claimed that none of the desserts were available. When pressed, the cafe decided that it would be possible to serve a banana split but all the ice cream would have to be the same flavour and he could have any flavour he wanted as long as it was chocolate. He could live with that.
The country's name means 'the saviour' which is a reference to Jesus Christ. A Spanish colony from 1540, El Salvador became fully independent in 1840. It is known as the land of the volcanoes.In the 1980s, the country was ravaged by a civil war which left around 70,000 people dead and caused damage of around $2 billion. Oliver Stone's 1986 film "Salvador" portrayed the early years of the conflict. The civil war ended in 1992 but then the country was hit by Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and earthquakes in 2001. El Salvador is the smallest by far of the five countries we were visiting, but it still has a population of over 6 million, making it the most densely populated state on the mainland of the Americas. The capital is San Salvador. It is one of the most crime-ridden countries in the Americas with street gangs called "maras" and it has one of the highest murder rates in the world: 70 per 100,000 per year, compared to one in 100,000 for the UK and five in 100,000 in the USA. All this is blamed largely on the fights between two rival gangs: Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18. The two gangs entered into a truce in 2011, but the number of murders has recently been going up again and some analysts fear it may not hold much longer. Once the civil war ended in 1992, the conservative Arena Party won won every election until, in March 2009, Mauricio Funes of the Left-wing FMLN (Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberación Nacional), founded by the former Marxist guerrillas, was elected president. Two days before our arrival in the country, there were fresh elections in which former rebel and current Vice President Salvador Sanchez Ceren of FMLN had a convincing 10-percentage-point lead in the presidential ballot, but a run off election is now necessary in early March.
Link: BBC country profile click here
Golfo de Fonseca & Zacatillo Island
Another day, another guide, another county. On Tuesday morning, we met our guide for the remainder of the trip, a loud, hyper and ever so cheerful Guatemalan called Sandra Molina who would regularly shout "OK, chicos!". We were leaving Nicaragua for El Salvador and today was all about travelling between the two countries. As Brian put it: "If you're going to Salvador, don't Dalí."We started at 8.30 am, travelling in two mini buses and heading from León north east up a peninsula which encloses the southern portion of a large lagoon between Nicaragua and El Salvador. We had a comfort break at a town called Chinandega and then turned off the main road to take a dusty and bumpy dirt road for the last three quarters of an hour. At the end of the peninsula was a tiny town called Potosi where a navy facility provided immigration control. At this point (12.30 pm), we and our luggage boarded separate motor boats for the trip across the gulf which brings together Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador: Golfo de Fonseca. The problem was that there was no jetty and the boats drew too much water to reach the beach, so staff had to carry our bags to a small boat while we waded in bare feet in water up to our knees in order to board our only slightly larger boat. The wearing of life belts on board was "mandatory". The weather was excellent and the water was placid. Around half way across the gulf, we entered Salvadoran waters and we were approached and stopped by a Salvadoran navy vessel with armed personnel who wanted to check that we were not smuggling drugs. Obviously the Salvadoran navy is not overly busy because we were very soon approached by a second navy vessel and this time all our passports were studied. Our initial destination - reached at 2 pm - was an island called Zacatillo. This is one of 12 Salvadoran islands but one of only three that is populated. We waded ashore for lunch - choice of either fish or shrimps, all caught and cooked locally. It was a pleasant example of what Sandra called "community tourism". If we thought Isla de Ometepe was isolated, then Zacintillo is even more remote and we felt as if we were in another world, eating fresh fish while watching the water lapping the beach below a near cloudless blue sky.
from Nicaragua to El Salvador
island of Zacatillo
After an hour on the island, we had our last wading session and the the boat proceeded across the gulf to take us to the mainland of El Salvador. We disembarked at a sleepy place called La Union where for the next hour Sandra sorted out the immigration procedures. We now had another coach which was smaller and less comfortable than the one we had in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Most of our bags went on the roof but some had to come inside on seats.As in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, we used service stations as stops for comfort and refreshment, but we soon discovered that something was different in El Salvador. In one corner of the service station was an ATM machine and standing alongside it was a private security guard in uniform wearing a pistol and a shot gun.
El Mozote and the civil war
We turned off the main road to take a minor road north to a part of the country that is particularly deprived and suffered badly in the civil war. It was well past sunset and very dark when we reached the small town of Perquín and our accommodation for another single night: the Perkin Lenca Hotel [click here] was another collection of chalets, this time on the slope of a steep hill. It was 7.20 pm when we arrived - a journey door to door from our hotel in Nicaragua to our hotel in El Salvador of almost 11 hours. Before we all crashed, we went to the hotel restaurant for a light dinner. On the return to our room - sorry, chalet - we observed a brilliant canopy of multitudinous stars in a cloudless sky. Very, very different from London where the ambient light means that we see only a handful of stars. We were now about half way through our grand tour of Central America. At Perquín, Wednesday morning's breakfast was eggs as you like them and brown beans puréed. Beans and/or rice seem to come with every meal in this part of the world which is fine but puréed brown beans have an appearance more suited to a toilet than a restaurant. We spent all morning around and in Perquin which is in the Morazán province in the far north of El Salvador near the border with Honduras that was involved in a lot of fighting during the civil war. In effect, Perquin was the guerrilla capital. Outside Perquin, we took an unmade road to a village called El Mozote which became infamous on 11 December 1981. On that day, in an operation called "Anvil And Hammer" [for more details click here], army troops persuaded people from the surrounding communities to come to the centre of this village where the men, woman and children were separated before around 800 of them were massacred. One of the few survivors, a woman called Rufina Amaya Marquez, was determined that everyone should learn about the atrocity and campaigned for it to be known nationally and internationally. Today the village has constructed a memorial with silhouetted metal figures of a man, a woman, a boy and a girl holding hands. Behind these figures is a wall with plaques commemorating the names of many of the victims. We were told the story by a young woman called Estrella who was six at the time of the massacre. The pain was still evident in her voice and eyes and our guide Sandra chose not to translate the full descriptions of some of the macabre horrors that unfolded. It was a very moving account, but one of our group - a particularly pompous and portly man who will remain nameless - was chatting as Estrella spoke and Vee publicly and loudly rebuked him.
We returned to Perquin to view a museum on the civil war together with a mock up of a rebel camp. We were accompanied by a former member of the FMLN called Rafael who, since the peace agreements, has worked as a guide. He served with the insurgents for a decade (1982-1992) and was wounded by bullets hitting his fingers and left foot. He was remarkably lacking in bitterness towards his former enemy which he put down to a need to forgive and his evangelical faith.The Museum of the Salvadoran Revolution consists of three rooms of photographs, posters and weaponry illustrating the conduct of the civil war (all the descriptions are in Spanish so it is good that we had local guides). The reproduction of an FMSN camp includes a short stretch of underground tunnel and a suspension bridge with open slats and naturally Vee & Roger experienced both. Finally Rafael donned combat gear and brandished an M-16 rifle for some photographs.
It had been an emotional morning. The suffering of the Salvadoran people during the civil war was terrible with over 90% of the deaths caused by Government armed forces supported - and in some cases trained - by the. US military. People - like members of our group - who have comfortable lives in peaceful and developed countries cannot imagine the horror and brutality of a civil war.
We returned to our hotel briefly for some lunch and then at 1 pm set off south for the capital. We had a brief comfort stop at a supermarket close to yet another active volcano called Volcán Chaparrastique (2130 metres/7,000 feet). We had a briefer comfort stop at a service station opposite a Korean textile factory. By now, we were becoming used to seeing armed guards but this place actually had two machine gun-toting guards. It was 6 pm, after a drive of five hours, when we arrived at our hotel in the capital city of San Salvador.The Hotel Mirador Plaza [click here] was our best hotel so far by far - huge rooms and all the facilities one would expect. The famous four went out for dinner, walking a couple of blocks in minimal lighting to the local World Trade Center which houses a variety of restaurants. We chose a place called "Bennigan's" which billed itself as "American food. Irish hospitality". The former was fine; the latter involved the staff wearing a variety of green hats. It was hard to imagine we were in the capital city of one of the most murderous nations on earth. However, one of our group wandered off alone in a different direction, found armed police on street corners, and felt distinctly uncomfortable. Thursday started in San Salvador as we set off at the usual time of 8.30 am for what was billed as a city tour but was really just a visit to a cathedral and a model of the country. We were joined for the morning by a local guide called Alfredo whose grandparents lived two blocks from the main square downtown so that as a child he witnessed the tragic aftermaths of a number of demonstrations. San Salvador was founded in 1525 by the Spanish explorer Pedro de Alvarado. It became the capital of the United Provinces of Central America from 1834 to 1839. Historically natural disasters have beleaguered the city including tremors in 1854 and 1873, a volcanic eruption in 1917, floods in 1934, and earthquakes in 1986 and 2001. Today it has a population of over 2 million. It is known as 'the city with two sides of the coin' because of the vast economic inequality but apparently violence is limited to a few neighbourhoods in the east of the city. We drove downtown where modern department stores and offices share space with hundreds of non-legal street vendors whose stalls cover all the pavements and a good deal of the roads. We stopped in the main square of Plaza Barrios where plenty of armed police were in evidence. The Catedral Metropolitana is far from the most impressive in the world - or even Central America - but it is noted as the site of the tomb of Archbishop Óscar Romero [click here] who was assassinated on 24 March 1980. The day after he made his latest speech on the need for human rights, he was shot dead while celebrating mass at a local hospital. To this day, nobody has been prosecuted for his murder and there is no absolute certainly over who ordered the killing, but Alfredo told us that it is "a well-known secret" that the assassination was ordered by the former mayor Roberto D'Aubuisson. We saw Romero's ornate tomb in the crypt of the cathedral and it was clear that he is held in great reverence both nationally and internationally. Indeed moves are already in progress by the Catholic church to make him a saint. Officially two miracles are required.
From the cathedral, we drove to a place that used to be a military barracks guarding the presidential palace (or leading the latest military coup) but is now a military museum with a huge outdoor relief model of El Salvador in which all the altitudes are magnified double which emphasises the number of volcanoes in the nation (26).North-west of the capital is the important archaeological site of Joya de Cerén [click here] known as the Pompeii of America because a small Maya settlement of perhaps 5,000 was covered by a volcanic eruption around 1400 years ago. The devastation was caused by Volcán Loma Caldera. Discovered in 1976, it is only a small site but its significance is that it is the only example of a Maya rural community accessible to archaeologists which is why it has been recognised by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site. There is an excellent small museum containing some of the artefacts discovered and then a walkway around the 10 structures that have been uncovered. Meanwhile the ubiquitous armed guard was wandering around.
We dropped Alfredo on the Central American Highway (not literally) and proceeded a little further north-east to the town of Santa Ana where we were deposited at a modern shopping centre to find some lunch.
On his fourth and final voyage, Christopher Columbus landed in the country in 1502 and its name - literally "depths" in Spanish - is said to come from the explorer having written "Thank God we have come out of those depths". Honduras became fully independent in 1840.Honduras is the original and archetypal banana republic: a small, poor, fertile country controlled by wealthy families with transnational business interests such as Chiquita, formerly the United Fruit Company. Even today, the nation is dominated by ten oligarch families. The population is 8 million (half of whom are under the age of 19) and the capital is tongue-twisting Tegucigalpa, although San Pedro Sula is the business centre of the country (as well as allegedly the world's most dangerous city). Like other countries in the region, Honduras was devastated by Hurricane Mitch in 1998 when at least 5,000 were killed and there was damage estimated at $3 billion. Currently the heavily militarised Bajo Aguan region in the north east is the centre of a conflict between palm oil companies such as the Dinant Corporation, owned by Miguel Facusse (one of the country's most powerful men), and a farmers' revolt led by the United Peasant Movement (Muca). The country as a whole is the main transit route for cocaine to the United States. The nation has been described as "the most violent state outside a war zone" ("Guardian", 31/12/13). It has a murder rate of around 90 per 100,000 people, compared to one in 100,000 for the UK and five in 100,000 in the USA. The main cause of such a high murder rate is turf wars between street gangs - known as "maras" - such as M-18 and Mara Salvatrucha. Allegedly the gangs and drug smugglers have no interest in tourists. For the past century, two political parties have taken turns to form the government, except for period of military rule: the Right-wing National Party and the Centre-Right Liberal Party. In the last few years, however, a new Left-leaning party has emerged: the Freedom and Refoundation Party, a democratic socialist party, known by its Spanish acronym as Libre, founded by Manuel Zelaya and his wife Xiomara. In the presidential election of November 2013, Xiomara obtained second place, with an 8% margin below the Right-wing National Party, whose leader Juan Orlando Hernandez won the presidency for a four-year term.
Link: BBC country profile click here
The Maya ruins of Copán
We then headed north for the border between El Salvador and Guatemala where we had an easy crossing in just 20 minutes. The road in Guatemala was the worst of our trip and, since Roger & Vee were on the back seat, it was especially bone-rattling and bum-bruising. We were only using this road to reach the part of the border with Honduras that we wanted. We had to pay $2 a head to leave Guatemala and $3 a head to enter Honduras but the whole process only took 30 minutes. This meant that we had been in three countries in three hours.Our destination in Honduras was Copán Ruinas which is only just over the border so were at our accommodation at 6.15 pm. It had been a journey of 300 kms (186 miles) - much of it on a really rough road - but our hotel, the Marina Copán [click here], welcomed us with a refreshing cocktail of rum, cucumber, honey and mint. It was our fifth hotel in five days - a new record for Roger & Vee and not one we will expect or hope to exceed. In fact, it was the most delightful hotel of our trip: spacious and well-provisioned rooms around a courtyard housing an open air swimming pool. After such a lot of travelling, Roger & Vee and Brian & Cally opted to have dinner at the hotel and it was as good as any restaurant. It had rained in the night but Friday morning was another bright day - perfect for our visit to the Maya location that is a World Heritage Site. Oddly the town is called Copán Ruinas while the site itself is simply known as Copán [click here]. We left the hotel at 8.30 am and returned at 1.10 pm and virtually the whole of this time was spent at the ruins because they are only a 10 minute ride from the town centre, Our local guide was Marvin Diaz who was of part Maya descent. He was absolutely passionate about the pre-Columbian civilisation and both informative and amusing in his explanations of each section of the site. He had a long thin stick with coloured feathers attached to one end which he used as a pointer. The approach to the site is along a nature trail with various plants, trees and birds which were explained to us. We were blown away by the number and beauty and proximity of around a dozen macaws - resplendent in red, yellow and blue and flying free and wild.
Like all lengthy civilisations, the Maya civilisation is divided by historians into periods and all the sites we were visiting on this tour are from the classical period which ran from approximately 200-900 AD with 426-822 AD said to be the height of the civilisation. The Maya civilisation was over by the time of Columbus and seems to have been wiped out by drought - an early example of the consequences of climate change. The Copán site embraces 20 structures and a number of plazas. The official estimate is that it housed a community of around 25,000 but Marvin believes that the site had 10 times that many inhabitants. Life expectancy for the Maya was about 30-40 years. We were fascinated by Marvin's explanation of the Maya numbering system which was based on the number 20 - because we have 20 fingers and toes - and is made up symbols for zero, one and five [click here]. He illustrated the system by tracing out each number with his stick in the soft soil and then showed us actual usage on some of the monuments.
Looking at various stelae and structures, we were told about different kings who ruled the community. Successful in military conquests and the greatest patron of the Maya arts was the wonderful named Uaxaclajuun Ub'aah K'awiil, known by the delightful appellation 18 Rabbit, who ruled from 695-738. The most famous monument on the site is the Hieroglyphic Stairway (which is covered for protection). The 63 surviving steps contain no less than 2,200 inscriptions - of which around 85% have been deciphered - setting out information on important historical events.
the original Hieroglyphic Stairway
Hieroglyphic Stairway today
The Ball Plaza was the site of a Maya game using a ball of 3-4 kg which could not be touched with hands or feet but had to be kept in the air with any other part of the body such as elbows, knees, hips and backside. After walking round the site, Marvin took us to the Museum of Sculpture which is entered through a winding tunnel representing the body of a serpent. This excellent museum contains artefacts from the site that are better protected under cover. It is a modern and airy structure which includes a full-scale, full-colour reproduction of the Rosalila Temple which is not accessible to tourists on the actual site. Alongside the museum there is also a souvenir shop where Roger & Vee supported the local economy with some purchases of gifts.
For only the second time on the trip, we had a free afternoon and this time there were no real options. Since this was Day 12 of an intensive 19-day tour, we were all pleased to have a well-timed and very welcome pause in the programme. Vee & Roger chilled: eating, sleeping, reading, writing. Refreshed, we then went for a wander around the cobbled streets of Copán Ruinas and in no time met two colourful middle-aged characters. A Canadian from Ottawa wearing a red Stetson said he was a songwriter called the Happy Cowboy and gave us some hug tokens. An American from Florida, speaking in a pronounced Southern drawl, said that, an hour after leaving the aircraft, he met the Honduran woman who is now his wife and we met her and their two delightful children. We returned to the hotel for dinner with our new best friends Cally & Brian. At the weekend, the staff wear an especially coloured outfit which was a cue for yet another photograph.
The country's name comes from the Nahuatl language and translates as 'place of many trees'. A Spanish colony from 1524, Guatemala became fully independent in 1834.From 1960-1996, the country was ravaged by a 36-year long civil war which pitted four groups of Leftist, mainly Mayan, insurgents - who came together as Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) - against the US-backed army. More than 200,000 people - most of them civilians - were killed or disappeared. In terms of both size and population, Guatemala is easily the largest of the five countries on our tour of Central America. The population is 15 million (over a third indigenous Maya) and the capital is Guatemala City. Life expectancy remains among the lowest in the region and the country is plagued by organised crime and violent street gangs. The current president - elected in November 2011 - is Otto Perez Molina of the Right-wing Patriotic Party who served as an army general at the time of the dictatorship of Efrain Rios Montt (currently charged with genocide) in a region of the country which experienced the worst human rights abuses and massacres. He has put thousands of troops on the streets in the areas of most serious crime. In fact some of the worst criminal excesses are committed by the security forces.
Link: BBC country profile click here
Maya stelae at Quiriguá
After the 'luxury' of two consecutive nights in the same hotel in Honduras, on Saturday things became more 'spartan' with us reduced to an overnight bag for our next hotel somewhere up a river in Guatemala. Meanwhile our luggage went who knows where.It was a short journey back into Guatemala where the whole of the remainder of our holiday was to take place. It took no time to cross the border where we headed north and then turned north-east to make our way to Quiriguá. The climate here was different: cooler, more humid, and - for a short time - drizzly. The little-visited Mayan ruins of Quiriguá [click here], now a World Heritage Site, have some of the finest carvings in the country and the site is particularly famed for its intricately-carved large stelae. Quiriguá was a dependency of Copán for much of the classic period but, in 738, the local leader, who had the catchy name of K'ak Tilaw Chan Yo'at (known to historians more colourfully as Stormy Sky), kidnapped King 18 Rabbit, had him executed and made Quiriguá independent, leading to the flowering of the work of the stonecutters. The site has a small museum with all the descriptions in Spanish (Sandra explained it all). As well as other structures, there are eight major stelae located where they were found and covered for protection. Stella E is the largest Maya stela known: it is 8 metres (26 feet) above ground, almost 3 metres (10 feet) below ground, and weighs an incredible near 60 tons.
We were at Quiriguá for almost two hours before setting off again. We were now in a corner of Guatemala called Izabal sandwiched between Belize to the north and Honduras to the south. It is here that Guatemala has a short stretch of coast on the Caribbean Sea (in the south of the country, Guatemala has a lengthy coastline on the Pacific).
Rio Dulce and the wettest journey of our lives
We journeyed to a town called Fronteras where the Lago de Izabal joins the Rio Dolce and here we stopped for a light lunch at a place called "Ristorante Hacienda Tijax". Then we boarded a fibre-glass motor boat for our trip up the Rio Dulce [click here]. It is called a river but really it feels more like a lake because of its width and islands. This is humid tropical rain forest territory, so very atmospheric. It was now overcast and, as soon as the boat picked up speed, rather windy and splashy, so Vee & Roger were pleased that they had brought along their kagools. From time to time, the motor was stopped and we glided by islands observing local water birds : more ospreys, more egrets, more cormorants, and this time pelicans. When we stopped to observe birds at one of the inhabited islands, young girls paddled up to us in small canoes and tried to sell us trinkets.
It took us two hours to reach our destination of Livingston on the Caribbean coast. The town is named after the American jurist and politician Edward Livingston, whose codes were ordered to be used in Guatemala instead of the former colonial power laws. Livingston is known locally as Buga which means 'mouth' in the local Garifuna language. There are some special characteristics of Livingston. First, it cannot be accessed by road so life is based on boats. Second, it is noted for its unusual mix of Garifuna, Afro-Caribbean, Maya and Ladino people and culture.Our accommodation for the night was Hotel Villa Caribe [click here]- an upmarket version of the chalet-type living with which we had become so familiar. Outside the sliding glass doors making up one wall of our room, we stepped out on a veranda overlooking a large swimming pool, palm trees and then the Caribbean - sheer magic. At Livingston, we all chose to have dinner at the hotel where we found ourselves entertained by a group of eight musicians and dancers who were as black as any West Indian, sang in the local Garifuna language, and shook their derrières vigorously. In the night, it crashed with rain for hours. Sunday and already time to leave Livingston. At least with only an overnight bag, packing was no problem. Now there is only one way to leave Livingston - and that's the same way as you entered it: down the Rio Dulce. Our boat was scheduled to depart at 8.30 am, but the heavens had opened and our captain decided to give it half an hour and see if the weather improved. Miraculously the rained stopped but, minutes after we embarked, it started again - first spitting, then very soon the heavy stuff. The grey mist descended to meet the grey water and it was sometimes difficult to discern an horizon, especially when your eyes are smarting with driving wind and sharp rain. When one is powering and bouncing forwards through a wide river, the effect of the rain is intense, so we were issued with heavy black plastic covers to pull over our legs. Combined with the orange and yellow life belts and the various coloured kagools, we we did not exactly represent a picture of sartorial elegance. Any such concerns rapidly gave way to a desperate, and ultimately futile, attempt to stay dry at least somewhere. You would be surprised at how cutting on the face rain can be at such speed and how penetrating down through every layer of your clothes water can be, when you are storming through a downpour. The din of the motor, the splashing of the spray, and the flapping of clothes and covers added to the sense of us being at the mercy of the elements, as we huddled forwards to minimise our body profile. But, heh, the river trip back only lasted one and a half hours since we did not stop to look at birds and gave up any idea of visiting the fort at Fronteras. All of us had experienced the wettest journey of our lives. One of the group called it "horrendous"; Vee confessed that she didn't enjoy it at all; Roger found it strangely exhilarating. But no chance of any photographs ... We left the boat at the little town of Puente Rio Dulce on the opposite side of the river to Fronteras and had a welcome coffee at a ramshackle place called "Backpackers Hotel". Sandra was keen to get us to this evening's hotel so that we could be reunited with our luggage and change into dry clothes. So at 11.25 am we headed north and, except for a quarter of an hour comfort stop, we did not halt until we arrived at our hotel four hours later. Some of us had to sit in our wet clothes and it rained much of the way, so it was not the most enjoyable of journeys.
Imposing Maya temples at Tikal
Guatemala consists of two huge chunks of territory: an oblong section in the south, comprising about two-thirds of the territory where almost everyone lives, and a square section in the north, constituting about a third of the land mass where perhaps a a mere seventh of the population lives. This northern province is called Petén and the provincial capital is the town of Flores which is right in the middle.Flores - a place of only 30,000 - is noted as the stopping off point for the mother of all Maya ruins, Tikal. It is spectacularly located on an island in the Lago de Peten Itza but connected to the nearby mainland by a 500 metre (550 yard) causeway linking to the twin town of Santa Elena. Our accommodation - the Hotel Peten Esplendido [click here] - was in Santa Elena. For Roger & Vee, dinner was at the usual time (7.30 pm) with the usual friends (Brian & Cally) but not at the hotel this time. Instead we took a couple of tuk-tuks across the causeway into Flores and had excellent fillet mignon at a place called "El Jardin Maya". We walked back and felt safe. If yesterday was something of a washout (literally), then today (Monday) was a spectacular contrast because the weather was great (for most of the time anyway) and we were visiting the Maya masterpiece that is Tikal. We left our hotel in Santa Elena at the usual start time of 8.30 am in a locally-supplied coach, drove along the south of Lago Peten Itza, and then up north to the national park enclosing Tikal [click here] - a journey of around a hour and a quarter. Set on a low hill and first settled in about 700 BC, a complex of buildings was in place by around 200 BC and the civilisation was at its height from 250-900 AD with a heyday in the 7th century when the population was an estimated 50,000-100,000 people. The territory was ruled over by a succession of kings with exotic names, including ones called by archaeologists Lord Water and Lord Chocolate. This most resplendent of all Mayan cities was believed to be mysteriously abandoned around 900 AD. Tikal was properly rediscovered in 1848 and became a World Heritage Site in 1979. Today it is Guatemala's most famous and impressive Mayan ruin and what makes It different from other great Maya sites is that it is located in the jungle. The weather was very warm, yet not too hot, but humid because we were in a tropical rain forest. Walking along the trails underneath the tall tree canopies, we inevitably spotted animals, including the guan bird, the trojan bird, the spider monkey, brightly coloured oscellated turkeys, and (a rare sighting) an ant eater. But, of course, we were here to see the monuments. Tikal is a huge site covering 222 square miles and containing over 4,000 structures, so we could only view a small portion of the place. We started by studying a large-scale model of the main site so that we had a sense of the scale and layout. Then we visited the small Ceramics Museum which contains the burial goods of Jasaw Chan K'awiil I (K'awiil that clears the sky). The Grand Plaza is flanked on either side by tall temples. You used to be able to climb Temple I but this was stopped after a couple of people fell to their deaths. At the rear of Temple II is a wooden staircase enabling visitors to obtain a safe, panoramic view of the whole plaza and surrounding buildings. Next we walked through the Acropolis area, a maze of courtyards, little rooms and small temples, and around the location of Temple III (55 metres/180 feet) which is still totally covered in vegetation.
The highest structure in Tikal is Temple IV, standing at 64 metres (210 feet). It was competed about 741 in the reign of Jasaw Chan K'awiil I's son, Yik'in Chan K'awiil (K'awiil that darkens the sky). A series of steep wooden steps and ladders provide access to a very high but not very wide stone ledge with no fencing or protective rails but a jaw-dropping view. At this height, you are above the jungle canopy and can see for miles and miles. A little to the right, the top of Temple III protrudes above the canopy and straight ahead but further away are the tops of Temples II and I respectively. Roger made the climb but Vee stayed on terra firma. "Star Wars" enthusiasts will want to know that the view is used briefly in the 1983 movie "Return Of The Jedi".
After four and a half hours looking round the site, there was time for some lunch before our coach took us back, not to the hotel but to Flores airport since, for the final leg of our time in Guatemala, we were taking an internal flight to the south of the country. At the airport, we had to pay $3 a person to use the airport but, once through security, there were absolutely no facilities - not a single cafe or shop or machine. So Roger managed to negotiate a return to the public area of the airport where, at the only facility in the establishment, he bought 10 coffees and four muffins for the group.On the road trip to the airport, there had been some heavy rain and, while we waited for our flight, there was a downpour of monsoon proportions, but our aircraft still left on time. It was a small turbo-prop plane called the SAAB 340A and took just three quarters of an hour to reach the capital Guatemala City.
The colonial city of Antigua
Here we were met by the same coach and driver who had left us at Santa Elena before driving down to Guatemala City and we were driven to Antigua where we arrived at 9 pm - twelve and a half hours after we left our last hotel - to receive a pleasant surprise. Throughout this holiday, we had been staying in what is classed in Central America as three-star hotels but, because of lack of accommodation in the hotel intended for us in Antigua, we found that we had been allocated to a five-star hotel: Camino Real [click here].The advantage was, of course, that the facilities were wonderful: huge rooms around courtyards and everything you could want in the rooms. The restaurant had the best selection of desserts that we had encountered in Central America and Roger had a delicious desert called Banana Heaven (banana, rum, almonds, berries, whipped cream, and ice cream). The disadvantage of this hotel was that they charged a fortune for everything, so WiFi - which had been free almost everywhere else - was $10 for Roger's iPad and a further $5 for Vee's iPad mini for only 24 hours. On Tuesday, we had a late start of 9.30 am (oh, joy) for a tour of Antigua or, to use its full name, La Antigua Guatemala. Our guide Sandra lives here so, she was on home territory. This was Spain's capital for all of the middle Americas until an epic earthquake of 1773 led to an official decision to abandon the city and create a new capital at Guatemala City. It is one of the oldest and loveliest cities in the Americas, characterised by cobbled stone streets, arched colonnades, and so many pretty doorways, windows, arches and courtyards that the place is a photographer's dream. Vee & Roger fell in live with this colonial city. Sandra took us first to the Merced Church which is built in a style of architecture called "seismic Baroque". The adjoining convent has a large fountain surrounded by cloisters and an upper floor which provides fabulous views of this picturesque city overlooked by Volcan Agua. In the church itself, a recording of sacred music was playing quietly which made it very atmospheric.
Then we strolled round to 5 Avenida which is a million miles away culturally and architecturally from New York's Fifth Avenue. It is a narrow cobbled street with shops and cafés all along and Maya street vendors selling small quantities of fruits, vegetables or craftwork. At one point, a white arch joins the two sides of the street.
Next we went round to the old cathedral, virtually obliterated by earthquakes but preserved for visitors. In the grounds, we saw a newly-wed couple about to be photographed there and were excited to find that the photographer was an American called Marie whom Roger had befriended on the aircraft from Flores to Guatemala City. Finally we were taken round to see a jade factory and showroom. Vee fancied a lilac jade necklace but changed her mind when she found that it cost £ 240. About 12.15 pm, Sandra left us to spend a couple of hours on our own, looking around and having lunch. Roger & Vee returned to 5 Avenida and found a wonderful Mexican cafe cum restaurant called "Fridas". It was themed around the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo with pictures of or by her on the menu and all the walls and even in the toilets. The food was good too.
Lake Atitlán & three villages
All too soon, it was time to leave Antigua to drive to our next hotel. So at 2.40 pm, we headed west and climbed up to the highlands with their terraced farming, stopping for a break at Tecpan, driving through boisterous Solalá, and finally arriving at our destination at 6 pm. Our arrival point was the town of Panajachel (named after a local fruit called ajachel) on the north-east shore of Lago de Atitlán. Here we stayed at the Regis Hotel [click here], another example of chalet-type accommodation. For the second time on this holiday, we were staying in a fifth different hotel in five consecutive nights. In fact, Roger & Vee ate at the hotel with delightful members of our group, Christine & Charmian.This is such a varied holiday and today (Wednesday) we spent our time on or around a lake, leaving the hotel at 8 am and returning at 3.30 pm. Located about 1,500 metres (5,000 feet) above sea level, Lago de Atitlán - the name means 'by the water' - was formed in a caldera or collapsed volcano and is overlooked by three Fuji-like volcanoes (all dormant): San Pedro, Toliman and Atitlán. It is a large stretch of water measuring around 18 kms (11 miles) across and encompassing some 130 sq kms (50 sq miles). All around the lake are villages inhabited largely by people of Maya descent dubbed the living Maya. They are mostly dressed in traditional Maya garb which, especially in the case of the women, is gloriously colourful. For the last couple of decades, the most popular colour has been a deep blue set off with other blues and purples. The group filled a glass fibre motor boat and set off from Panajachel in calm waters and sunny weather to visit three of the lake-side villages.
The first was San Antonio Palopo, which is on the east shore, and we spent an hour there. As we docked, a Maya woman was on her knees at the quayside hand-washing clothes in the lake. Behind her, steep hills were dotted with little homes. We walked up to the the local church and then descended to have coffee in a caf#233 overlooking the lake.
The second village was on the opposite side of the lake: San Juan La Laguna on the west shore. We spent an hour an a quarter there. There are coloured and hand-painted murals on many of the side walls of buildings depicting scenes of the lake or illustrations of legends. We called in on the Tejedoras Mayas Weaving Cooperative which brings together 22 women weavers who all work independently from home and return finished goods to the store to be sold. Vee & Roger spent $60 on gifts, mainly for children in the family. We made briefer visits to an association of medicinal plants and a small covered market.
The third and last village on our day trip was Santiago Atitlán which is located on a spur projecting from the south west of the main lake. This is the largest (population 20,000) and most visited village around the lake and absolutely bustling with people in traditional dress, endless lines of stalls, and noisy tuk-tuks. Here we saw two phenomena which illustrate how local people have integrated Catholicism into the pre-Columbian beliefs and iconography. The strange character known as San Simón to the Spanish, Maximón to those of mixed indigenous and European race, and Rilaj Mam to the Tzutuhil from Santiago Atitlán is an effigy revered throughout the Guatemalan highlands. The effigy is usually housed on an annual basis by a cofradia or Maya religious brotherhood and worshippers are invited to visit him and pay respects and some money (Roger had to pay to photograph him). This year, it is the turn of the St John the Baptist brotherhood to host the effigy and we visited the home - no more than a poorly-lit room - where he is housed. He is an odd-looking man: a wooden seated figure with a macabre face, wearing a wide-rimmed hat, and draped with bright coloured silks including a striped tie. He smokes a cigarette which is constantly attended to by one of the brotherhood members on either side of him. Flowers, candles and incense add to the atmosphere. This is an odd god who appreciates particularly gifts of cigarettes and liquor.
The other religious place we visited was the church called Iglesia Parroquial Santiago Apostol. Although this is a Catholic Church, it has many features reflecting local Maya beliefs and customs, including figures of corn (from which humans were formed according to Maya religion) and God the Father (whom we rarely 'see' in traditional churches) plus wooden figures of saints draped in clothes of bizarre colours such as chequered patterns or garish pink. This fusion of old and new religions is a notable feature of the region.
We had some lunch at a place called "El Pescador" to complete two and a quarter hours at the village, before returning across a much choppier lake than the morning now that the wind was up.
We had some time in the afternoon to chill and then, in the evening, six of us went out for dinner together: Roger & Vee, Brian & Cally, and Christine & Charmian. We ate at a restaurant called "Casablanca" where the food and wine were really good, but the production of the bills left a lot to be desired. The waiter allocated dishes to the wrong couple and made a series of basic arithmetical errors, so it took a while to sort out who should pay what and find the necessary mixture of local currency and dollars.
The market at Chichicastenango
It was our last day in Central America (Thursday), but there was still one more adventure to be experienced: a visit to a major market. Leaving Panajachel at 8.30 am, we climbed our way out of the caldera, stopping briefly at a mirador to look back at Lago de Atitlan and its volcanoes, and headed north for the wonderfully-named town of Chichicastenango.On the journey, Sandra gave us a gift from the Guatemalan tourist authorities: a tiny version of a worry doll. According to Guatemalan legend, when you have a problem, you tell it to the worry doll. Then you put it under the pillow. Next morning, the problem has gone. As the leaflet puts it: "Life smiles again". Chichicastenango - known locally as simply Chichi - means 'surrounded by poison ivy' and it is located at a height of 1,965 metres (6,450 feet). It has a population of around 70,000 and is known for its inhabitants' pre-Christian religious beliefs and ceremonies. The town's narrow cobbled streets and red-tiled roofs make this a magical place at any time. Maya traders come from outlying villages for the twice-weekly market held on Thursdays and Sundays and, of course, today was Thursday. We reached Chichi towards 10 am and, at this elevation, the temperature was much cooler. Our 'headquarters' for our time in the town was the Hotel Santo Tomas, named after the local patron Saint Thomas the Doubter. Sandra took us on a short walking tour which included the church, the covered fruit & vegetable market, and the extensive main market in the streets. The place was heaving with people but, since the locals are particularly short even by Guatemalan standards, we were able to make our way. The number of hawkers here was the most we had experienced on our tour, but they could be shaken off by pretending you did not notice them. The overwhelming sense was the riot of colour. Whether selling or simply buying, the women especially wore brightly-coloured tops and skirts. Most of the women carried purchased goods or babies on their back in a kind of cloth called locally 'tzute' and one mother carried her baby in her 'tzute' breastfeeding as she walked. Some of the hawkers balanced coloured cloths, shawls and even jewellery on their heads.
Then there were the stalls themselves that lined both sides of narrow street after narrow street, the spaces in between thronging with locals and tourists. These stalls sold everything you could imagine, but cloth and handicraft predominated and both represented every hue in nature.
Sandra left us to explore the market on our own and purchase last-minute gifts (Roger & Vee bought nothing) before we returned to the hotel to have some lunch. After four hours at Chichicastenango, we left about 2 pm to travel to Guatemala City from where we would catch our flights home. Travelling south and then east, we made a comfort stop at Chichoy and reached Guatemala City at 6.40 pm. We were staying at the Holiday Inn [click here] which was our 14th hotel of the tour. Guatemala City - universally known as Guat - is a sprawling metropolitan area set in a vast valley. It has a population of 3 million and a reputation as dirty and dangerous, but it serves as the capital of the country with many of its best museums (although we saw none of this). The Guatemalan six - Roger & Vee, Brian & Cally, Christine & Charmian - stayed at the hotel for the final meal of the trip. Our return home on Friday started with the alam going at 5 am in our hotel room in Guatemala City. As with our outward journey, both flights were with American Airways. The first leg - the flight to Dallas/Fort Worth in a Boeing 737-800 - went smoothly with a flight of just over three hours. The second leg was not as straightforward because our aircraft for London - a Boeing 777-200 - had "a mechanical fault" and then we were stacked above Heathrow, so we arrived two hours late after a flight of eight and half hours.
The basic facts of our grand tour of of the isthmus of Central America are that, in three weeks, we visited five countries and, in the process, took five flights and stayed in no less than 14 hotels (a record for us, exceeding even last year's round the world trip). According to our second guide Sandra, our whole trip had taken us across some 3,000 kms (or almost 2,000 miles).This tour takes Roger's total of countries visited to 65 - one for each year of his life. How long can he keep this up (as the actress said to the bishop)? In fact, our group was full of exceedingly seasoned travellers and two had been to around 120 countries. Central America is still very much a developing region so our accommodation was often fairly basic and toilet paper had to be deposited in a bin rather than the toilet bowl. The food was good but somewhat repetitious and desserts were in short supply. Service was always very friendly and always very slow. Little use of credit cards or local currency was necessary because we were able to use American dollars everywhere. This was immensely convenient, but it meant that - especially at the beginning of the trip - we were carrying lots of cash. In spite of the reputation of the region, none of us had any problems of security and we always felt safe but, of course, we were on an organised tour and we were only in tourist locations. If these countries can improve their image, then there is a lot of scope for much more tourism. The one problem that many of us did have was an upset stomach from time to time which is more or less inevitable when travelling in developing countries. Roger was one of the victims (Imodium was a quick relief) but, as usual, Vee's cast iron constitution spared her any such experience. It was a wonderfully varied holiday with colourful birds and indigenous peoples, dramatic volcanoes and lakes, old colonial cities and even older Maya ruins. Not to mention, beans and rice, rice and beans. So it is difficult to pick out highlights of such an exciting holiday, but major candidates would be the zip wire experience in Costa Rica, the island of Ometepe in Nicaragua, the civil war museum in El Salvador, the Maya ruins of Copán in Honduras, and the Maya temples of Tikal and the delightful town of Antigua in Guatemala. Yet each day was so different that it was almost an assault on the senses and sensibilities. We have lots of wonderful memories and almost 700 photographs to give them colour. We were very fortunate with the weather which was generally glorious. By dramatic contrast, the rainfall in January across southern England - where we live - was unprecedented in records stretching back to 1766. So, as well as having a terrific holiday, we missed a miserable deluge at home.