Vacation to the Tierras Calientes

Before beginning to recount the tales from our most recent vacation, I must mention that we came very, very close to not even having the vacation.  “How is this possible?” you might ask.  Or perhaps you would inquire, more specifically, “How could any self-respecting school expect their students and teachers to teach straight through from one semester to the next without any semblance of a rest?!”  

The answer, as you, my faithful readers, have heard enough times by now, is the same: it’s Guatemala!

The public schools went on strike for three weeks late in the first semester in protest of the government’s unconstitutional plan to privatize all the public schools, which would not only take away all the funding from the country’s public schools, but would also kill all of the employees’ government benefits.  

Once the strike ended—without any conclusive decisions on the privatization—the government said it wouldn’t fire the hordes of offending teachers if they went back to school immediately, and if they worked for the rest of the year without vacation.

Somehow, however, the no-vacation rule was generalized to all schools—public and private—even though during the entire strike, our establishment diligently crammed classes down its students’ throats from 7:30 a.m. until 5:20 p.m., as per usual.  

After appealing to Ministry of Education officials in both San Mateo and in Huehue, we eventually convinced them that all of us foreigners had to go renew our papers, and they let us go, advising us an impressive 36 hours before the vacation was originally set to begin.  

I don’t think any of us except Angela (who went to the States) actually ended up renewing our visas, but the official excuse left all of us—American, Argentine, and Guatemalan—with a much needed, week-long, and, in my, Fernando and Jessica’s case, vaguely Caribbean break.

Also, I know this news is extremely late, but the roughly 7-point earthquake that hit Guatemala on Wednesday, 6/13 (I believe) didn’t shake a leaf where we were, way out on the squishy, beachy, easternmost point of Guatemala.  The people in San Mateo felt it, but even here it did little more than rattle the pictures on the wall, since the epicenter was many hours south of San Mateo, off the Pacific coast of Escuintla.  For more information on the shakeup, see:  

While the rest of my compañeros headed east to the natural wonder of Semuc Champé in Alta Verapaz, I began the vacation solo by heading toward Honduras via Huehue, the wasteland of Guatemala City, and the strange, lowland Ladino stronghold of Chiquimula (where, incidentally, 5 people were murdered just days after I left—wonderful place!).

My first destination, which I finally reached early Sunday morning, were the Mayan ruins at Copán—one-upped only by Tikal in Guatemala, so I hear—just 15 or so kilometers from Honduras’s western border.  

After so much traveling, I was too beat to do too much, and there wasn’t really that much to do in the little town of Copán Ruinas.  However, I certainly had the energy to make it out to the ruins and take in the sights.  Led through the ruins by an overpriced Honduran guide who spoke patronizingly slow Spanish, I don’t think I learned all I could have, since it took forever for him to answer my barrage of questions (and sometimes he just avoided answering them), but the experience was still quite impressive.  To see the pictures from Copán (beginning with a few pictures from my pre-vacation trip to Antigua), see here:

[] [Copán]

Truthfully, the ruins were smaller than I had expected them to be (maybe Tikal is that way, too?), but they were certainly still impressive, and the ball court, the monolithic stelæ, the famous Hieroglyphic Staircase, many of the old temples, and several other buildings had been extremely well restored and preserved.  

Another interesting thing that I saw in Copán, and which I had never seen at any other ruins, were unrestored ruins.  Before renovation, the huge temples just look like glorified piles of rubble—stones, moss, dirt, leaves, roots, and the more-than-occasional carving.  

One of the few things my guide did tell me helped to answer my question of why all those disorderly piles were just sitting around the site: according to the guide, at Copán in particular the archaeologists do their best to be 100% sure of a building’s design before restoring it; and if they ever encounter any doubts, they immediately halt construction, return to their libraries and computers, and figure out the mystery before they continue construction.

Another thing that made Copán unique was the fact that the Copán River, whose course changed due to an earthquake hundreds of years ago, had eaten through two or three temples on the eastern edge of the complex, thus exposing the various strata of the ancient city’s existence.  

Several decades ago, the river was diverted by a Washington, D.C. outfit to prevent further damage to the temples, but the resulting cross section of Mayan history, which you can see in the pictures, is quite impressive.

Apparently Mayan cities were rebuilt—directly on top of the previous version—every [Mayan] century, which lasts 52 years.  So effectively, the poor folks from the surrounding mountains were perpetually kept in check because they were constantly building!  

The various strata, one per 52-year century, of the particular temple that was partially consumed by the river can easily be distinguished.  The erosion also made it much easier for archaeologists to study the various stages of Copán, since, at least in that particular location, they didn’t have to dig long, tortuous tunnels to study the previous versions of the city.

One of the most exciting finds the archaeologists at Copán have recently made was the Rosalila Temple, a temple found completely in tact (albeit buried) beneath several of its successors.  It appears that the architects of the temple thought it was so glorious that they couldn’t bring themselves to pour plaster and stone all over it when the time came to build the new century’s city, so they put some sort of protective covering over the temple before they rebuilt.  

Good for today’s archaeologists, certainly, but really, if that particular temple was so great, couldn’t the Mayans just have left that one temple in the open air instead of burying it?!  Curious.

And for those interested in the strange topic of Mayan and Aztec pelota (ball game played with a hard, softball-sized ball that the players could move around the field with everything except their forearms and hands), I think I may have learned a bit more:  

First of all, in Aztec pelota, the players had to shoot the ball through an impossibly small hole in a doughnut-shaped stone.  In Mayan pelota, however, the ball just had to touch one of the six stone creatures near the top of the ball court (see pictures).  Easier?  Perhaps…but I’m not so sure.

Also, as for sacrifices, it appears that the sacrificial traditions varied by the city.  For example, in Copán, the members of the winning team were all sacrificed at the end of the game, so both teams would try as hard as they could to win so as to be freed of their mortal coil, which they (at least the Copán players) had been brought up to think was much grimmer and more unpleasant than the bevy of virgins they would meet in the afterlife.

However, in other Mayan cities, such as Palenque in southern Mexico, the losing team was sacrificed, so the visiting team—regardless of their home tradition—would try to win to bring home the glory instead of losing and dying in shame.  

Good to die sometimes, bad to die sometimes…  It makes me wonder, Was the afterlife of the Palenque people really shameful, whereas the Copán afterlife was really dame-filled?  

Interesting how beliefs could change over such [relatively] short distances.  But then again, here in Guatemala the language seems to change every 50 km, so I suppose it’s not that strange…

And speaking of death and sacrifice, check out the hamburger-shaped sacrificial altar in the pictures.  Nice.

Overall, an excellent and highly educational beginning to my vacation.  

After making some cheap international phone calls, taking in “Trainspotting” at a café, and having some good food, I hit the sack.  The final destination after setting out early the next morning: Lívingston. 

Lívingston, also known as “La Buga,” is situated right where the Río Dulce, which begins at the eastern tip of the huge Lago Izabal, meets the Caribbean.  “La Buga” means “The Mouth” in Garífuna, the local Carib-based language of the Garífuna people, the only black people in virtually all of Central America—and no, they don’t like being called African Central American!

There are many, many interesting things about Lívingston, and many more about the Río Dulce area in general.  First of all, Lívingston is only accessible by boat, either from the sticky coastal town of Puerto Barrios, or from all the way down the Río Dulce from the appropriately named Río Dulce town.  

On my way to Lívingston I chose the river route, which turned out to be absolutely spectacular—I only wish my camera could have adequately captured the glory of the gorge I passed through in the lancha (long motorboat) just before I reached Lívingston!  A truly spectacular sight.

And second, Lívingston is a curious mixture of Garífuna, Ladino, and Q’eqchi Maya, none of whom ever seem to understand what the deal is with the other two groups.  Of course, that leads to political and social tensions, but on the whole, as a result of the beastly hot weather and the copious amounts of marijuana, Lívingston is a pretty tranquil place.

For pictures in and around Lívingston and the Río Dulce area, click here:

[] [Lívingston, Río Dulce]

While I was walking around in the sticky sea air during my first day there, I happened to run into a nice Israeli named Liron.  Although I have to say, it wasn’t that surprising to run into an Israeli, considering that they’re virtually the only tourists who have made it to San Mateo (we’ve seen two of them already, and no Americans!).  

Once he and I tore ourselves away from a loquacious Mexican woman who claimed to make “the best food you’ll eat in your entire life, or whatever,” (she was listed in 11 guidebooks, and told us same at least 11 times) we wandered into the traditional, beachfront, Garífuna area of Lívingston, which is very cleverly separated from the touristy part of town.  And indeed, none of the tourist maps even show a piece of that section of town.

Right after we set foot in the new territory, we were greeted by a Garífuna man by the name of Polo Martínez, who spoke very slowly, walked very slowly, and did everything else very slowly, but spoke perfect English.

Polo is a musician, schoolteacher, and as we would find out later, also a seasoned crack smoker, according to a Spanish woman who owned a kayak rental business down the beach.  However, despite his occasionally curious behavior, which could probably be explained by his addiction, he still had some very interesting things to say about Garífuna culture and their general inability to fit in with anything typically Guatemalan.  

He also said that his perfect English was a result of having been schooled in environmental science and music theory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, free of charge thanks to Jerry García.

My first reaction to that statement was utter disbelief, since I’m used to being fed bald-faced lies constantly (sometimes jokingly, sometimes not) by the people here in San Mateo.  

However, considering the music connection—Polo is a member of an impressive Garífuna Punta rock band, and his 94-year-old grandfather (whom Liron and I saw the following day) is a maker of traditional Garífuna drums—and considering the fact that in our first five minutes of interaction he used the term “modus operandi” correctly, I had a hard time not believing that part of his past.  

That first night, Liron and I just hung out and talked with him at a local Garífuna restaurant (not listed in the guidebooks, of course).  

One of the darker—but not surprising—stories he told involved the Guatemalan-government-funded tourist police, who for the last decade or so have patrolled the streets of Lívingston.

Apparently in the early- to mid-nineties, there had been several attacks on tourists who were walking down the beach toward Siete Altares, a series of picturesque waterfalls and swimming holes that Fernando, Maggie, and I would hit a couple of days later.  In the guidebooks, all they say is that the attacks happened, but now the situation is better.

Not according to Polo.  He admitted that all of the attacks had been perpetrated by Garífunas living along the beach on the way to the falls.  However, he said that the situation had gotten “better” as a result of the aforementioned tourist police coming on the scene and, over the course of a few years, shooting any accused Garífuna locals.   

“They shot Manuel right over there, they shot Juan over there in the cemetery, they shot José down on the beach right over there…I’ve got photo evidence of each incident,” he told us.  

And so the story went.  Not at all surprising considering the Guatemalan government’s horrific record of human rights abuses, but still a grim story, and one that he topped off nicely by mentioning that he had been thrown in jail for three months by the tourist police for picketing during one of the many rounds of killings.  

Again, one must take all of this with several grains of sea salt, considering that the story is completely one-sided and the issues at hand are so sensitive.  But the grains of truth that surely lie within are not particularly appetizing.

Polo also took issue with our guidebooks (which Liron and I admittedly referred to far too much in our discussions), and especially their descriptions of Garífuna roots.  

Liron’s more concise Hebrew guidebook said simply that they came from Africa.  Mine, on the other had, said that the Garífunas trace their origins to the Honduran Bay Islands, where two African slave ships apparently crashed many centuries ago, the African slave-cargo of which interbred with the islands’ indigenous Carib inhabitants.

Polo’s version of the story, however, has nothing to do with Africa.  “We’re not African!” he said over and over.  

His claim was that the Garífunas in Lívingston and on the Honduran coast are directly descended from the Carib people, whose ancestors allegedly came out to the islands from Venezuela.

I, however, find this very hard to believe.  While I agree that the Garífunas aren’t African—just as any nth-generation black American born in the States isn’t African—many Garífuna people look very, very African.  

And while I’m not sure what Carib people look like, if their ancestors actually did come from Venezuela, it would make sense that the ancestors of the Caribs would look at least vaguely similar to the Mayans of San Mateo.  And the Mayans of San Mateo most certainly do not look African!  In fact, many of them look rather Asian…

This issue is as of yet unresolved, although according to Polo I’ll never be able to find the truth anywhere in any library or any Internet source, because various governments are out to pull the wool over my eyes regarding the true origins of the Garífunas.  Hmmm…

On the lighter side of things, away from topics such as police brutality and lack of government support for the tiny, Maya-overshadowed Garífuna community, Polo proffered the answer to a very important question: 

“Do you know why you don’t see any black people in the rest of Guatemala?” he asked.

“Why?” we responded, looking at him over our huge plates of fried fish and green bananas.

“Because all the Indians eat are those God-damned corn tortillas.  Corn tortillas!  We hate that shit!”


After that intense dinner and cultural discussion, I was ready to sack out.  After politely refusing Liron’s kind and slightly incorrect offer to “sit on a beer” with him, I called it a night. 

The following day, Tuesday, Liron and I met up with Polo one more time for a “tour” of the Garífuna section of town, which was even more expansive than I had imagined.  Without a guide, one could very easily get lost in the Garífuna area and not have any prayer of getting back to one’s touristy hotel due to the lack of streets that connect the two neighboring (but virtually completely segregated) areas.

The tour was slow, relaxed, and really just yielded some nice photos, since Polo talked very little during the excursion.  We did, however, see an abandoned, traditional Garífuna temple, and we saw his ancient grandfather, hard at work in his house as we sat outside and snacked on freshly picked coconuts.  

Incidentally, I also saw an incredibly colorful cashew fruit, complete with the uncooked, poisonous nut-growth hanging off the end.  Check out the picture.  Very cool, if I do say so myself.

After the tour was over, Liron and I went back to the center of town to meet up with Fernando and Maggie, who had just arrived via lancha from Puerto Barrios.  After some lunch, some Internet, some hanging out, and some excellent mojitos, we decided to patronize the Mexican woman by whom Liron and I had been talked at for so long the previous day.  Yeah, her food was good, but she’d really shot her self in the foot by saying that it was the best food we’d ever eat in our lives.  Whatever, indeed.

Wednesday involved much kayaking.  After walking about half way to the waterfalls at Siete Altares, we came upon a beachfront, kayak-and-restaurant establishment run by a friendly Spanish woman.  However, before hopping aboard the kayaks we would use to make it the rest of the way to the falls, we saw Polo walk by in a daze.

After seeing me talk to him briefly, the woman gave us all a general warning to be careful of people in and around Lívingston who appear thusly spaced out.  

The reason?  Crack. 

Apparently, around 1994 a small plane landed in Lívingston in need of gas, or so the pilots said.  Except that they never came back for the plane after they supposedly went off in search of same.  So of course, the townspeople eventually looted the plane, found the piles of cocaine, and have been addicted ever since.  

Was it really just a fluke, or did the powerful (virtually police-sanctioned) Guatemalan drug cartels that have gigantic bases in eastern Guatemala purposely leave the plane there to hook thousands of new customers?  Very shady.

After our chat, we boarded our kayaks and paddled through blazing sun and boiling Caribbean water to Siete Altares, where we had an excellent time jumping off rocks, enjoying the shade, and examining courageous river crabs.

Once we’d had our fill of fresh water, we returned, barely making it back through the choppy evening water in our waterlogged kayaks.  After a wonderfully Spanish dinner of tortilla española, bread, and salad, we went back to meet Jessica, who had also just arrived via Puerto Barrios.  Now four strong, we were ready for anything.

And we sure did a whole lot of anything the next day: around nine on Thursday morning, Fernando, Maggie, Jessica, and I boarded a lancha heading up the Río Dulce toward Ak’ Tenamit, a large non-profit organization just 15 minutes from Lívingston.

Ak’ Tenamit was very cool, and extremely advanced for a 15-year-old organization based in the electricity-free river territory of Guatemala’s eastern lowlands.  

The organization sported a middle and high school, the latter of which had two concentrations: cultural development and tourism.  Many of the students choose the tourism track, appropriate for their beautiful and frequently visited area in Guatemala, and end up doing a significant part of their practicum in Lívingston at Buga Mama, a restaurant owned by Ak’ Tenamit and operated by its students.

Just as our Foundation does, Ak’ Tenamit has its problems, as we discovered by talking to one of the few Americans currently volunteering there.  However, the unfortunate realization we came away with was that really, money makes a huge difference.  We have no money.  Ak’ Tenamit has vast quantities of money.

Granted, its location in a tourist-rich part of Guatemala certainly helps, but the vast international network of funding the founder has set up through the years is surely what gives the most thrust to the organization: plenty of money for all the gas they need to fuel their generators; plenty of money for teachers (two per classroom!); plenty of money for up-to-date Internet equipment that can effectively serve all their computers and more; plenty of money for land; plenty of money for books; plenty of money for materials to build beautiful, traditional huts for classrooms…  The list goes on.  We’ve got a way to go here, but it’s good to know that it can be done!

After our visit to Ak’ Tenamit, we headed over to Finca Tatín, a hotel-esque establishment owned by a lovely Argentine family, set in dense jungle on the banks of the Río Tatín, a tributary that feeds the Río Dulce.  

In kayaks once again, we enjoyed the last few daylight hours by paddling up the Río Dulce to a small, sulfurous hot spring.  The spring was indeed hot, and unfortunately the stream of hot water doesn’t mix with the cold water beneath it nearly as much as I would have liked, but it was still quite pleasant, as was the brief “spelunk” we enjoyed in a cave randomly located just above the springs.

After returning to the Finca, we relaxed and dined on a sumptuous meal of shrimp, potato soup, and other excellent fare prepared by one of Ak’ Tenamit’s students who was a senior in the tourism track.  The whole experience was most pleasant, and would have been nearly perfect had it not been for Liam.

Liam, one of our fellow guests during our stay at Finca Tatín is, in fact, Irish.  However, when Fernando politely asked him where he was from, he said, in mediocre Spanish, “Here.”  

I chimed in, trying to be funny, and said, “The jungle?”  

“Yes,” he replied.  

That was all he said during the entire meal, except for the few insults he threw around when the waiter tried to serve him a vegetarian meal (which he had requested), claiming, still in mediocre Spanish (especially mediocre for someone from the jungle), “I eat shrimp, because shrimp isn’t meat!”

The unfortunate interactions with Liam continued until he left the next day, the worst of which occurred in the evening (around 10 p.m.), when he wanted to go to bed, and our talking and two downstairs fluorescent lights were bothering him too much.  

As any polite human being would do, he stomped down the stairs and said very calmly and in perfect English (strangely perfect for someone from the jungle), “Do you see anyone else up?!  Do you?!  I didn’t think so!  So turn off these lights, stop talking, and go to bed!”

The next hour or so made Liam even happier (more furious), when Fernando and Maggie realized they couldn’t find their jungle hut, because none of us had thought to bring a flashlight.  

After a half an hour of searching (lights still on, still talking softly), they gave up.  

During that time Liam had come downstairs twice to ask very politely (rudely) when the hell we’d be turning off the lights.

So I turned off the lights.  

Then I couldn’t find the stairs.

After fumbling around for about ten minutes, I finally asked Fernando to help me find the stairs to the bunk loft where everyone was sleeping.  

This did not make Liam happy, either.

“Are you ever going to go to bed?!” he growled furiously.

“Chill out, chieftain, I’m going to bed right now!” I shot back, sick of dealing with such a vile human being, but eminently glad that I hadn’t fallen into the jungle muck and been consumed whole by wild Guatemalan tarantulas.

After several more expletives on Liam’s part, and a brief fear that I was about to have my face caved in by a wild Irishman, all fell silent.

The next morning, thankful that I had survived the night not only in the presence of Liam, but also in the company man-eating mosquitoes (and no mosquito net—they were all occupied by other guests), I rose with the others, had a good breakfast, and headed back to Lívingston, more or less well rested, and slightly comforted knowing that Liam was, in fact, on steroids, which Maggie had seen on the table next to his things.  

Sure, he was still God-awful, but at least we could blame his rage on the ‘roids, and keep hoping optimistically that we would never meet a real, drug-free person as terrible as Liam.  

Ahh, Liam.

We all spent the afternoon of our last day hanging out at Cocolí beach, a small, sandy crescent about 20 minutes from Lívingston by lancha.  It was quite pleasant—coconuts, clear water, no other company—and aside from the fact that I was stung twice by jellyfish, a good time was had by all.

The following morning, Fernando, Maggie, Jessica, and I hopped on a lancha headed to Puerto Barrios, where we caught the first bus back toward home. 

32 hours later, after spending Saturday night in Huehue, our favorite cabecera, we arrived in San Mateo, thus marking the end of an excellent vacation.     

We were tired.  We were tanned.  But most of all, we were thankful that Liam hadn’t hidden in any of our suitcases.  

1 Comment

Filed under Guatemalan Travels

One response to “Vacation to the Tierras Calientes

  1. Maggie

    Very good post, although I must admit the first thing I did was press ctrl+f and type in “sit on a beer.”

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