Honduras & Guatemala
July 21, 2006 GMT
Copān

This is too good to be true. As I ride up the Nicaragua-Honduras frontera at Los Manos is quiet. I am first at the Nicaragua windows to cancel my moto visa and stamp out my passport. A quick $5.00 changes hands, for what I don't know but I'm on a roll. Now I am first at the windows for entering Honduras. While I do the Border-Cross Boogey, a hired chico washs Katie for a buck. Another young tramitador is helping expedite my paperwork for 2 bucks. Things are going tickety boo until the Honduras aduana officer gets in the money game. That'll be $45 for the forms and processes to get into her country today. What!? That's Bullshit!

Turning her back on my arguments and protests, she closes the door in my face. A poster, stuck to the door, ironically suggests reporting cases of corruption to officials. My tramitador quietly suggests it is Saturday, parts of immigration are closed and if I want into Honduras, I can pay the price and go. The thought of going an hour back to the nearest Nicaraguan town and waiting til Monday is almost as distasteful as this banditry here. In the end I pay the money. It's my Stupid Penalty for not paying attention to which day it is.

The Honduran roads are good, the mountainous scenery sooths my nerves. I am into another country, it is the weekend and I can make Tegucigalpa today. Life is good again. I am one frontera closer to my lovely wife.

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The weekend in the Honduras capital of Tegucigalpa goes quietly but well enough and by Monday I am on the road to the Mayan ruins in Copān. Security is normal latin american, as evidenced by the lads helping out at the service stations. They don't pump gas for you but they will pump lead at you if you try anything criminal. I note my friendly Shell guard has a handgun casually stuck in his jeans and a shotgun so worn the blueing is polished off the receiver.

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The Gringo Trail town of Copān pretty well thrives on tourists making the pilgrimage to the Mayan ruins of Copān. The town is pretty and immaculately clean. No shortage of cobblestone, hotels, pizza, or souvenirs.

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The ruinas are brilliant and well worth the journey. Early in the morning I hire a guide and we walk the ruinas as the sunrise mists slowly lift. The ruinas de Copān mark the southeastern limit of Mayan dominance. The last estela, etched like a tall tombstone with a hieroglyphic history, was carved between 800 and 820 AD. The recorded history only stretches back for five centuries. Seems to me a pretty short time for those energetic little Mayans to build all this, live here, then walk away from it all.

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Although partially restored by the Carnegie Institute in the 1930's, most of the buildings lay unexcavated under jungle trees, roots and soil. Ancient building blocks, some decorated, lie about. Pale green moss, like a 10 day beard, grows on scattered skulls carved of stone.

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Where the temples have been restored, the now-known ceremonies showed respect for serpents, jaguars, toads (symbol of fertility), monkeys and birds. Gold was not valued, in contrast to the Incas, instead the Mayans treasured jade, sea shells, leather and bird feathers of the toucan and macaw. Buildings then were richly painted in many colors.

As found in all other Mayan ruins there is at least one ball court. Played by the best athletes, an 8 pound ball was rolled up either of the two sloping sides, the object of the game being to score by hitting one of the three stone markers. No hands or feet were used. Broken bones were common. Depending on which version you believe, either the captain of the winning or the losing team was sacrificied at the end of the game. "Tiger, we've got some good news for you and some bad. The good news is the men have picked you to be their captain...."

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Archeologists are still tunneling into the temples and pyramids and discovering hidden tombs. Seems when the old king died, his son built more temple on top. Considering it costs over $3 million to do the work these days on one temple, I'd say many more new exciting discoveries are yet to come.

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The most amazing feature is the Hieroglyphic Stairway. Each stair as it climbs the pyramid tells a story. Archeologists, such as the one below, continue to interpret the elaborately detailed history inscribed. There are portraits of the royals with inscriptions telling of great deeds done and their lineage as well as dates of birth, marriage and death.

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After a day of stone history I am ready for cena y cerveza. The daily, almost set-your-watch, thunderstorm inundates the ruins and town of Coban. I am safely in a restaurant when the ducha de Dios arrives.

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Posted by Murray Castle at 11:07 PM GMT
Tikal

The Honduras-Guatemala border crossing goes well. Within an hour I am riding a zigzag course for the Mayan ruinas of Tikal. As I ride the Penėnsula de Yucatān north I reflect on the history read in preparation for this amazing city of 100,000 and 60 square kilometres. The Tikal site was first inhabited around 600 BC but by AD 869, the last ruler, Hasaw Chan K'awill II, was watching the near end of his city state. By the time the conquistadors arrived in the 1500's, the Yucatán jungle had a several-century head start of invasion.

In more modern history, an interesting invasion of another sort took place. Around the turn of the 20th century, companies like the United Fruit Company and the Standard Fruit Company were developing banana plantations and in the process, getting government consessions to build railroads, ports, electricity plants, suppy shops and of course aquire much land. When exports ballooned and American interests grew to the point where 40% of all exports were US controlled, the "banana republics" revolted. That is, the latin american workers revolted. Government crackdowns occurred, happily bankrolled by US bucks and other "help-in-kind". Whether Mayan, Aztec, Sendero Luminoso, Sandinista or Zapatista, there seems no historical shortage of worthy causes to sign up for.

Hey, but then there is another kind of invader. How about two lovely women from Sweden? That can't be bad, can it? I meet Ewa Persson and Lisa Lundgren at the Hotel Tikal Inn. We have a most interesting visit in the evening by the pool. Big stars overhead. Of course we have to celebrate Lisa's birthday with a bottle of wine.

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At 4:30 a.m. I am up and walking in the dark to meet the Tikal guide. By 5:20 a group of us are sitting on the top of Temple IV 120 feet up, waiting for sunrise. It comes, but it is more like fogrise. Nevermind, the sounds of the jungle waking up at that hour make up for lack of actual sun. Howler and spider monkeys, macaws, woodpeckers and tucans all compete for air time.

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Tikal has over 3000 structures. Only 15% have been even partially restored. Our guide takes us on a quick four hour tour around the main structures; nevertheless it seems "downtown" was still a healthy 2.5 square km.

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Tikal's main structures were constructed from AD 550 to AD 900 during the Late Classic Period. For those wanting to refresh their memories, the Old Age was from 1500 BC to AD 200, the whole Classic period was from AD 200 to AD 925. The last date recorded on a Tikal stela is AD 889.

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Most archaeologists now agree the collapse of this great empire was due to warfare with neighbouring states, over population - which resulted in environmental destruction, and drought. Is anyone besides me seeing a parallel with what seems to be happening today? Who was it that said something like, "those who refuse to learn from history are damned to repeat it"?

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After Tikal, Katie and I are on the road south to the island town of Flores, on Lago Petčn Itzā. The ride with jungle trees arching over the road is cool.

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I like little towns like this. So much so that after the daily thunderstorm I go for a walk and take photos of whatever takes my fancy. I am easily amused but there is a lot to be amused by.

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Not even another evening rainstorm can discourage me from breaking out a Nicaraguan cigar, pouring a Ron Botran rum and sitting on the second story terrace of my hotel. Out of the rain of course. From my sheltered little spot I look out over the lake of Petén Itzā. Sky and lake share the same flat, uniform grey. Baby raindrops pockmark the lake's smooth skin. I can't feel the air temperature but the humidity must be 199%. To my right, a rooster crows from under a coconut palm. What in hell is a rooster doing cock-a-doodle-doing at this hour? His shelter, the palm fronds, droop heavy from the weight of all this rain. He needs a rum more than I do.
On the tan-colored gravel below my balcony, Flores' "Marine Drive", tuk-tuks splash through rain puddles. Families of three on 125 cc scooters, with child in front, dad driving, mom on back, putter by. None are wearing helmets.
Out along the shoreline, spanish voices drift from the wharf nearby, their muffled words echoing across the water. The cigar tastes smooth. So does the rum. Just a smooth day all round.

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Posted by Murray Castle at 11:24 PM GMT
July 26, 2006 GMT
Riding to Lago de Atitlān

I get a great suggestion from a fellow biker, a typically friendly Guatemalan who very untypically rides a Honda 600. The road he suggests is seldomed travelled because unruly rivers keep taking out the bridges. He assures me the road is asphalt and the rivers can be crossed.

True to his word, the highway, although not well signed at the junctions, is paved and is a treat. This is real Guatemala, untouched by commercialism or tourism. Tiny villages, fields of ripening crops, and locals herding their bramhas along the roadside.
The first bridge out has a bailey bridge and earthern causeway replacement. Next good rainstorm'll knock out this baby. But what the hell, Katie and I get across, following four cowboys on horseback leading the way. Difference is, these hayburnin' caballos are the main source of transport for vaqueros in these parts.
The next river crossing is even more unique. A barge docks in the most casual way on my shore. Trucks drive onboard with random carelessness. Katie and I jump the line and board just before the ramp is lifted. We squeeze into a neglected corner.

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I am fascinated to watch the ferry's power source: two 75 HP outboards bolted to half barrel-on-a-swivel creations. This is all that gets the barge across the river in this current? Yet Captain Cook does it with an ease that amazes. I give him the thumbs up when we arrive on the other side. He grins.

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Along the highway going south to Cobān, I see more Life in Basic Form. Ladies doing the household wash in a roadside pond by a culvert. They are shy at first but after I show them the images taken on my digital camera, they are all smiles and talking again. I don't understand a word they are speaking. I remember now that many campesinos in the Petčn speak only Mayan, not even Spanish.

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Katie and I have passed through 100's of villages just like this but never seem to stop long enough to take a picture. The hubbub of activity is not captured in this image, but trust me, life is thriving. It may be a simple life but people are mostly smiling.

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When I get to Coban I have to ask directions to the Hotel D' Atuņa. I always enjoy these experiences because I know I will get a friendly response and sometimes even get accurate information. These two guys give me both. They want to trade their Chinese 100 cc bike for mine but when one realizes neither could reach the ground they break out in laughter. I am charmed by their easy humour.

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Ladies in traditional garb carry loads large and small on their heads. They do it so gracefully it seems the cargo is more like a hat. The scene is so commonplace I forget to capture it until now.

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At the most excellent Hotel D' Atuņa I meet fellow adventure traveller Louis Elias. Louis started his RTW (or Round The World, to the uninitated) trip from his Ontario home. Riding a BMW Dakar with more accessories than the Space Ship Columbia, Louis is off on a two year life-changing experience. We celebrate our happy meeting by swapping maps and guide books, then share stories, three bottles of wine and a couple of cigars.

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Although I am heading north, he south, we decide to ride to Lake Atitlān together and spend a couple of days exploring, as Aldous Huxley called it, "the most beautiful lake in the world".

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The day long cruise from Coban to Lago de Atitlān takes us through Cuidad de Guatemala. Luckily for us it is Domingo and the roads are only choked with Sunday traffic, not paralysed with weekday mayhem. Once clear of the city we enjoy the wide open Pan Americana leading to Atitlān.

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The lake is over 5000 feet above sea level, the volcanos surrounding it reach to 11,600 ft. The views are truly magic. Several tiny villages are dotted around the shore, each reachable by a small passenger ferry. Louis and I want to ride the dirt road that circumnavigates the lake but advice from the tourist bureau discourages that thought. Last year at the remote south end of the lake, 15 armed guerrillas robbed some tourists of all they possessed, including clothes.

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We ride the well frequented road to San Antonio Palopó. It takes only a couple of hours but we do enjoy different views of the lake. Aldous might have been right.

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After Panajachel, hippy haven of days of yorn, Louis splits off for Antiqua, I head west towards the Mexican border at Paso Honda. Riding together was fun but now I find, surprisingly, I am happy to be alone again.

Posted by Murray Castle at 10:28 PM GMT
 
 

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