Guatemala '23




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guatemala itinerary


This is the account of when all is still, silent, and placid.     

All is silent and calm.     

Hushed and empty is the womb of the sky.

     ~ from the Popol Vuh, creation story of the K'iche' Maya.


And now, at last, my covid-belated return to the Hispanosphere.  The world of Latin America was warmly imprinted on me during my nine month sojourn in '11- '12.  With the familiar comforts of its look and feel, in all its variety,  and with my tiny but prized toehold in the language, it grew to be my home away from home.  This will be my third venture to Guatemala (18 days in '05, four weeks in '11).  I'll be returning to places I've been before, but will give them a more thorough and wide-ranging treatment, with plenty of elbow room for adjustments.  Here's the outline:  I'll fly into the capital (and out, as in '05 - slipped around it in '11).  Then up into the highlands to sojourn in the "Ixil Triangle", home of the Ixil speaking Maya.  (I stayed in the town of Nebaj in '05).  Thence down to a nature preserve in the cloud forest that I visited in '05.  Thence through the lowland jungle province of Petén, to the lakeshore town of Flores, and to Tikal, the remains of a great city of the classic Maya (as in '11).  But I'll be venturing further this time, to the village of Uaxactún at the end of the road, to see the local ruins and creep about in the jungle.  And so back to the  capital.  I am so poised.....

                                                                                           Minneapolis,  3/12


Monday,  March 13  

May as well start off with some bad fortune.  My flight to Washington D.C. was diverted to Detroit.  (“If there is a doctor or nurse aboard, please press the call button" ).  On the ground for an hour forty-five.  Removing the stricken passenger and topping up the fuel went quickly enough, but they really had to scrounge to find a bottle of oxygen to replace the one they used up to keep the poor man alive.  (I’m sure a regulation was involved).  Then there was the de-icing.  Hope fades for my connection.  In due course, arrive Dulles Airport, Washington.  I hustle to my gate, to confirm that there would be no delay in my favor.  My plane was timely, and taxiing away without me.  Upshot:  United Airlines vouched me a hotel (with convenient shuttle) and two meals, and set me up for tomorrow’s flight.  I email my hotel in Guatemala City, and book a third, meaning a second night.  Well, there goes a whole day.  Clunk!

                                                                Washington D.C.,     3/13


Tuesday, March 14

Long hours at the Westin Hotel and at Dulles International Airport.  A delay made for two more long hours.  We rise into the dusk.  Flying into Guatemala City, I remember how in ‘05 how strikingly dim it was for a large city.  Now it's lit up and it struck me as quite beautiful, the jewelscape following the build out patterns in the bottoms of the ravines like a giant, luminescent, many tentacled sea creature.  Taxi to Hotel Spring.  I’m here, now.

Wednesday, March 15

This day was devoted to soaking up Guatemala City (“Guate” is the term of endearment), as I ran around figuring things out and rehearsing my exit.  The obstacles I faced and my linguistic fumbles and triumphs shall be lost to history.  Guatemala City is a bit spiffed up since my visit in ‘05.  The man-eating open utility maintenance holes in the sidewalks have been prudently covered up, the solvent huffers so evident then have moved on to evangelicalism, the coal-rolling buses are nowhere to be seen, and they’ve pedestrianized the main commercial street, now flowing with peace and civility.  Nevertheless, Guate retains its soul as a grimy, block and concrete, corrugated metal dump of ugly functionality, with its thoughtful touches widely scattered and forlorn.  Hence its charm.  I'll be returning for more after a little tour of the country.


                                                                            Guatemala City,  3/15


Thursday, March 16

I trundle my bag off to the Transmetro, the sleek, modern city bus system that has at least partially displaced the dirty red belchers of yore.  To the stop at the Treból junction, which junction is something of a swirling drainpipe for this whole quadrant of the city.  Figuring out and navigating this pedestrian unfriendly place yesterday was a real to-do.  But I am now prepared, and make my way to where chicken buses to the highlands await.  I inquire my way into one bound for Santa Cruz del Quiche (“Quiche”)  and we are under way in the promised three minutes.  This bus did not pack, in the usual chicken bus tradition, till near the end of the run, when we paused to take on the passengers and cargo of another chicken bus, quite immobile and with its hood up, at the blind bend of a steep mountain curve.  Arrive Quiche bus station for my connection to Nebaj.  This bus was near full when I boarded, and the faces, bundles, language (Ixil), and attire indicated this ride was to be a much more country affair.  I did get a seat in the back, but with nowhere to maneuver my feet, as the floor had been made cargo space for a load of oddly shaped concrete blocks.  With more cargo in the aisle, I was doomed to be hunched, to the detriment of my buttocks.  But who thinks of pain when there is a green, knobby mountainscape to admire.  And many a political sign imploring people to afíliate with this or that party, with their symbols and acronyms, including the eyebrow raising “CABAL”.  Arrive Nebaj bus station.  I suss my way to the plaza, though there are better ways to do this than through a crowded, tarp-covered market with a bag on my back.  I sit in the plaza to plan my hotel round, settling at length at the Hotel Turansa.  Out to reconnoiter, occupy the plaza further, and dine.  We had a real cloudburst, which surprised me, this still being dry season.

Friday, March 17

A wander about town day.  My errands included looking for the well regarded trail guide and map that would inform my ambulations.  But it was not to be found, so I’ll proceed with what I know and can figure out.  And I sought out a different hotel for after this night.  The annoyances of the Hotel Turansa were within bounds, except for the classic on demand shower head widget, which would promisingly dim the lights, but not do much for heating the water.  Nebaj is on the cusp of big town/small city.  There is a lot of roar and fume.  The women are in traditional dress, most of them entirely, some trickling off toward the western.  Aside from school girls in their uniforms, there are few females without some traditional element in their attire.  The men and boys are pretty much clothed in world casual.  In the market, I was pleased to have my memory confirmed of the one Ixil word I learned in '05 (orásh - goodbye), when I heard it pass between two old ladies.  I recycled it to two little girls amid the vegetables who were staring in astonishment at the most gigantic human they’d ever seen.  I softened them up with an hola and nailed them with an orásh, which they returned with giggles.  Events in the plaza:  A woman sings an amplified gospel tune in Spanish, accompanied by a kid on the electric piano.  She followed with an imploring but stern sermon in Ixil.  I later accepted her tract and promised I’d study it.  A kid in a Domino’s Pizza shirt approaches me with a view toward interesting me in a pizza.  I let him know that I knew Domino’s well, but that I was not hungry.  We parted on good terms.  Then young Ricardo sidled up, and we had a conversation of sorts, within my severe limitations.  But I learned that, in Nebaj, a kid of fourteen may have only a little Ixil (so he declared - I do wonder about the linguistic proportions in this town) and that Nebaj has a great history.  When I added that it was also a sad history (tambien triste), he gravely assented.  (I refer to the displacements and massacres in the eighties.)  One wonders a lot of things about that, including how it’s presented to the young.  Out to dine, where my linguistic triumphs of the day were humbled in a little cena place without a printed menu and no detectable system to hang on to.  But the señorita was muy paciente with my español.

Saturday, March 18

As I make my morning turn about the plaza, an affable old fellow accosts me with an “íshbop”.  I catch his meaning, and he refines my pronunciation as I get it written down on my palm.  So now I have hello and goodbye in Ixil.  We continue in Spanish, he gets my geographical info in detail, and we part with a mucho gusto/orásh.  I step into the church, where up front women are murmuring as they shuffle on their knees toward the altar.  I stay in back, and let my eyes wander over the names of the murdered in the civil war, written on little crosses.  If one can call it a war when the forces arrayed and the body count were so lopsided. I linger over breakfast in a humble little family operation, aiming for the right time for a hotel switch.  Pack up at the old, three blocks to the new, where the hot water is more than notional, and with a balcony hanging over an intersection.  Not exactly quiet, but nowhere in the center of this town would be.  Today’s agenda is to visit the nearby town of Cotzal, to secure a hotel for Tuesday and Wednesday, and have a look at the town on its market day.  To the stop for local microbuses (big vans).  Soon underway for the forty minutes to Cotzal.  When we disembark, I am instantly marked and accosted by a grimy fellow, at the low tide of his blotto cycle, but still pretty addled, who was in need of brotherhood and money.  My diminutive Spanish withered to “no speaka Spanish”, and so shook him off (for the moment).  I plotz down in the plaza, just as the church bell lets out twelve gongs, marking a fine travel moment.  I sense right off that I’m in a smaller place than Nebaj.  We’ve dropped a thousand feet, and the world has greened accordingly.  I sit a good long spell, and go off to have a look at the market (in full swing), and to find my first hotel prospect, supposedly in one of the market streets, with the dubious aid of a printed off google map.  But it was not to be found.  So I returned to the plaza to resume plotzing.  I was feeling pretty good, and so dreamily let the nutmonger rip me off.  (Well, maybe I'm being unfair, and though twenty quetzales seems high, he can’t sell them for nothing, and they were macadamias).  I refused the services of the shoeshine boy, but he sat with me a while as I fed him macadamias and satisfied his curiosity as well as I could.  He went off in search of paying customers, but my peace was soon broken by the return of the grimy/blotto fellow, who was not to leave this gringo unpestered.  I figured the best thing to do was to walk him off, so I left the plaza, leaving the rest of the macadamias with the shoeshine boy, and headed into a market street, with this fellow seriously on my heels.  By now he’s getting my little Spanish lexicon, and at last I resort to my practiced get-lost phrases (déjeme en paz, and váyase!), delivered sternly, paused, and to his face.  This did the trick, much to the amused satisfaction of the venders and shoppers.  Anyway, this fun little annoyance bonded me with a couple of gents sitting in their shop, of whom I asked the whereabouts of the elusive Hotel Maguey.  And so I got escorted around the block, to where it should have been, and actually was.  Easy to miss, as the entrance was through the associated comedor, and the sign obscured by market tarps.  A very nice señora showed me a room, and though I have nothing against dungeons, I thought I’d keep looking.  My next prospect was a ways off, and this time google maps pinpointed the police station, with no hotel within a block.  So I inquired of the cop, sitting at his desk in the little street side office, and he pointed me way down the hill several blocks away.  I had to make further inquiries, however, as the hotel’s sign was busted out and it was built over a big, open parking garage.  I followed the arrows up to an actual reception, and so secured my domestic bliss for Tuesday and Wednesday nights.  Errand done, I wander to the other edge of town, ascending at length one of the hummocks in which the town is nestled, through domestic spaces.  A light rain starts up, and stops as I come back through the market streets, the goods and produce and infrastructure now all packed up, leaving only vegetable waste and litter.  But that will be picked up too, as these people never stop working.  I had a look inside the church, a simple affair, colonial era, though I didn’t get a date.  The evangelicals get an early start on the sabbath in this town.  I passed by three of their houses of worship, from where they were sending electrified songs of praise heavenward, amped up like they mean business.  Microbus back to Nebaj, through a cloudburst, which lets up before we are dropped off at the plaza.  Lovely post-rain cloudscape lying in the folds of the knobby mountains.  To my balcony with a cold Gallo.  Out to dine, and back through more rain, aiming for overhangs over the narrow sidewalks.  I pass a family of five with cardboard boxes over their heads.

                                                                                                        Nebaj,  3/18

Ixil Triangle

Sunday, March 19

A morning stroll to my breakfast lady, who sets down eggs, beans, rice, plantains, coffee, and a giant stack of tortillas for Q20/$2.60.  Today’s agenda is a repeat of a hike I did in ‘05, through the village of Cocop.  I set out for the edge of town, drop down to the little river, and cross the bridge.  There’s a few little businesses strung along the road, but the land is now given over to pasture and patches of crops.  This area was an internment camp during the war.  The road starts its steep, relentless ascent, winding up through the folds of the mountains.  The forest is thick, with big pines.  A cloudy day, the air wet and heavy.  A few workers, walkers, very little traffic.  My upward push is complete when the village shows itself below me, a small array of tin roofs and garden patches.  I stroll through, and the children emerge from their crevasses for the event of the day.  We furiously exchange greetings in three languages.  [ Where I’m at:  Cocop, where 77 people were massacred and the village destroyed by the army on April 17, ‘81.  There’s a government plaque here acknowledging the event, as in ‘96 there was a peace accord, if not justice.  200,000 down for the whole decades long operation, most of them Maya earth-scratchers.  I have a good feeling about these people, and when I think the horrors inflicted on them, the death squads, the murders and displacements, the sides they were forced to take, how that would have ripped up their relationships, it’s sickening.  Not to be forgotten by the tourist, especially a tourist from the land of the CIA and the US Army’s School of the Americas, where thousands of Guatemalan officers were trained ].  The road now makes a gradual descent through a lovely valley, the pastures luscious and green for the very contented looking animals.  At length, the town of Rio Azul comes into view across the valley.  Climbing up into it took some figuring out, with missteps into people’s domestic enclosures.  I got up to the main thoroughfare, right at the microbus stop, I am so blessed.  A few minutes wait, and it’s back to Nebaj.  The action on the plaza is subdued, as we now had a light drippy rain.  I picked up dinner from a lady with a steaming pot on the street.  So what’s actually in these beautifully tied up corn husks?  Chopped up chicken parts in stiff, steamy corn dough.  A cold Gallo follows, my feet sticking out on my narrow balcony, with rumbling, roaring, screaming, belching traffic for entertainment.  This racket ultimately does let up, opening the aural space for insomniac roosters.

Monday, March 20

Today’s agenda, a visit to Chagul, the most traditional of the three main towns of the Ixil triangle.    Forty minutes away by microbus.  I emplace myself in the plaza.  This was to be a day of fog and mist, and at the moment, light rain.  So I take refuge in the church, my first stop anyway.  I stayed in the back, so as to not profane this sacred place with my loathsome tourism while devotions were taking place.  Several women were up at the altar, creeping about on their knees and chanting.  A woman in the front pew was prayerfully weeping.  They broke off at length, and I figured out that the church was locking up (just for an hour, I was told).  So out to take a few turns around the town.  A worry began to emerge from my inner depths, and I questioned whether scarfing that big loaf of sweet cornbread last night and this morning was a good idea, or guzzling all that water this morning (purified, but still, water).  I bend my course for the market streets back below the church, hoping for, and at last finding an open sanitario.  I hand the sanitario lady the best two quetzales I ever spent.  These places are always kind of a hoot, but I have to say it was so dark in there that I couldn’t assess the conditions and direct operations.   This fumbling around in the dark places this episode in the top ten of similar stories in my travel life, with which I could heartily regale you.  But all went well, and I emerged feeling great.  Now to get back on track with something eat.  I step into comedor, with its long plastic tables, hanging light bulbs, religious art, and a small lunch crowd.  The girl was a little scared of my linguistic ineptitudes, so mama emerged, and laid out three choices.  This went half over my head, but since it’s almost impossible for me to be dissatisfied, I just went for el primero, the first.  When I stuck my head through the hole in the wall to offer my thanks, praise, and twenty quetzales, I was vouchsafed a scene of the most primordial cookery.  Lurid chicken butchery,  vegetable butchery, great piles of scraps, ancient tubs and utensils and working surfaces, pots bubbling on grates over smoldering wood fires, darkness and smoke, soot everywhere.  Somehow this evoked the Creation.  Well, I walked out of there with “provecho” on my lips.  Out to explore the blocks out from the center where things really get rustic.  Houses of adobe with smoke seeping out the tile roofs.  Columns of carved wood holding up the porches.  Everything looks like it’s been there and in use forever.  Beans and squash planted in odd patches.  Chickens, ducks, pigs, all those guys all over the place.  Women at their looms.  (You also see women weaving as they tend the little shops downtown).  The kids own the streets away from the traffic zone, and will swarm a guy in numbers large enough to be counted, and they do love to be counted.  I filched a few photos, but of course photography and politeness are at odds, and the most telling (i.e., populated) images must be left to the memory or imagination.  (Nor must one be seen indulging this disgusting practice).  I circle back down to the church, where the knee shuffling and chanting was in full swing.  I participated in my remote way, and eventually had the place to myself.  At length, back to Nebaj.   Civility in the plaza muted in the light rain.

Tuesday, March 21

After puttering around Nebaj in the morning, I pack up to relocate to Cotzal for two nights.  To the microbus stop and into the microbus, this one already packed when I added myself, just inside the sliding door.  With my feet confined to the narrow door well and so pointing forward Egyptian style, body twisted and forced to eighty degrees of vertical, head crinked against the ceiling, left hand on a seat back, right on the ceiling bar, I was in for a crucifixion of the elbows, shoulders, and arm muscles.  This was pretty bad when the driver hit those tight rightward curves at top speed, but I endured, and never toppled into the laps of the seat people and so crush the baby.  Arrive Cotzal, forty minutes.  I check into the hotel I’d reconnoitered and commence a day of puttering around town.  I explored the outer reaches, hung out in church and plaza, sampled the street food, and admired the operations of the concrete crew who were adding a fifth floor to my hotel.  From my hotel window, I keep an eye on the family working the machines in their sewing shop across the street.  And from down the street, songs of praise from the evangelical church.

Wednesday, March 22

Eggs, beans, and tortillas at another classic Guatemalan comedor.  It’s market day today in Cotzal, so of course I made a few rounds.  (Towns choose two days a week as their market days).  Today is a day for a long walk.  I set out on the road that links Cotzal and Chajul.  This road would be a mere local affair, as both towns are at dead ends from the west.  With my first effort, I got out in the country, but comically routed myself around to what slowly dawned on me as the lower outskirts of Cotzal.  An hour’s worth of up and down, but hey, life’s a journey.  Nothing to do but traipse through the plaza to my hotel and regroup.  With less idiocy and an extra hint from bing maps (nevermind google maps), I set out again and got it right.  Pretty steep going, with its ups and downs and windings, through abrupt, knobby mountains.  Big pines in the forest, with the understory lush and tropical and deep green.  A few little farms here and there.  Some traffic, not a lot, including tuk tuks, which surprised me, as did the fact that the road was paved, if roughly.  Waves, honks, or greetings always exchanged.  I had no intention when setting out that I’d walk all the way to Chagul, but rather that I’d turn around at the apt turnaround time.  But I began to think I’d gone more than halfway, confirmed by a fellow who stopped to offer me a ride on his motorcycle.  (I declined, but thanked him much for the info).  So of course I completed the journey, with public transportation to get me back.  At length, the outskirts thicken, and I climb steeply up into the town that yesterday I had, frankly, kissed goodbye for this life.  Only two hours twenty minute walking time, a real surprise, especially as it was strenuous.  To the church to reflect on all this.  A woman with a crystal voice sings in Ixil and fills the space with resonant devotion as she advances up the aisle on her knees.  At length, back to Nebaj for the connection back to Cotzal.  A shower of rebirth, and out to dine at what seemed to be the only place in town calling itself a restaurant, a rather nice three table operation connected to the family’s home.  The señoras served me a delicious little fowl.  With rice, beans, and tortillas.  I had the feeling I was the first guest they’d had in a while.  (By the way, gringo count in Chagul and Cotzal was one each, including myself.  Nebaj maybe twenty-five, half of them a missionary group sitting in a restaurant).

Thursday, March 23

A morning pilgrimage to Comedor Molina for an eggs, beans, and tortillas infusion.  Pack up, and return to Nebaj, where I check back into Hotel La Paz for another night.  Thursday is a market day in Nebaj, so I stroll through its incredible display of work and care and hope.  Today, a walk to the neighboring village of Acul.  I head out of town to the west, and the dirt track begins its steep ascent through forest.  In about an hour (plus picnic time), the road mostly levels off and traverses a lovely stretch of pasture. (Somewhere in here I was taught wisdom by the man of the mountain in ‘05  -  ask me about it).  Acul comes into view below, and I begin a knee stressing, foot plopping descent.  Two fellows are expanding a cornfield with machetes.  Total traffic on my walk was one mule driver with a load of firewood, one motorcycle, and one ATV.  Acul has an orderly, newish look to it.  Unsurprising, as it was obliterated and then rebuilt in ’83 as a “model village”, where the army could herd people they hadn’t killed and keep an eye on them.  (Men in non-destroyed towns and villages were coerced into “civil patrols”, which made them targets of the guerrillas).  I have a look, play a bit with the school kids on recess through a chain link fence, and take the micro back to Nebaj.  Strolling about the streets and plaza in the late afternoon, I have ample cause to reflect, as I have before, that there is no woman more beautiful than a beautiful Maya woman.  However, as I won’t be wooing one, I’ll be taking leave of the highlands early in the morning.  I’ve switched the order of cloud forest-jungle to jungle-cloud forest.  So I’m heading for Flores.  I’ll most likely lay up tomorrow night in Cobán, though if my connections go briskly, and I’m feeling frisky, I may just gun it for Sayaxché.

                                                                        Nebaj,  3/23

Another Island Paradise

Friday, March 24  

Microbus to the Cunén junction, another to Uspantán, then what I’ll call a minibus for Cobán.  This was crazy packed as it went through an unpaved section renowned for its mudslides.  I’d renown the whole trip for its tremendous mountain climbs and plunges.  Arrive Cobán, at some dusty bus compound somewhere.  I’d gone back and forth on gunning it for Sayaxché, but was now all gung ho.  (Preferring a morning in Sayaxché and early arrival in Flores to an afternoon and evening in Cobán, and later arrival in Flores).  But figuring things out with my balky communications, false assumptions, red herrings (and initiated by a screwing) brought my friskiness to a standstill.  After three ( ! ) short cab rides trying to get to where I might confidently pick up a micro to Sayaxché (second and third blameless, the first, not.  See below), my sense of urgency was depleted.  So then, I thought, hey, stop, relax, get out of the sun.  I took a fourth cab to centro, to plotz in the plaza, always the locus of fresh starts.  I engage a hotel right across the street from the long side of the cathedral, which was irreverently parked up with motorcycles.  Out to get acquainted.  Cobán:  Though Maya speech and attire are present, the broader gene pool is evident in people’s faces.  Everything is a little more citified here.  In addition to the motorcycles, the cathedral is further profaned by a misstep in public art.  The view from the plaza of the broad face of this baroque edifice is blocked by a two level concrete sculpture thingy evoking a birdcage or alien spaceship or, actually, evoking nothing at all. Just something for drunks to piss on.  Tear it down!  Great little cafeteria on the plaza though, in which to break my day long travel fast. In the eve, sitting in the courtyard of my hotel, brass and drums resound from the cathedral.  I step out to attend the pre-holy week procession.  A doleful Christ bears his cross, himself borne by his sympathetic followers, wobbling under their load.  Candles light up the scene.

Saturday, March 25

My morning cab driver was a friendly fellow who spent a little time on his cell phone as he took the turns to my connection for Sayaxché.  I had to ask him what language he was speaking, and got a five syllable word, of which not one syllable could I begin to reproduce.  He expertly dropped me off at….. the same station I had first arrived at yesterday.  The light dawns.  (In addition to the gringo tax, the gallant first cab man had taken my money to deposit me off at a distant bus stop where micros for Sayaxché would pass, rather than inform me that here is where they originate.  My travels have made me confident that the world is full of beautiful people.  This guy’s assholery is unrivaled in my experience.  But hey, my fault, traveler beware.  Second opinions are easily come by).  The first micro packed pretty bad soon into the route.  We had a switch later into a never packed mini.  [The hawking of bagged or somehow otherwise beautifully presented foodstuffs of all kinds at the stations or hand-off points is incredible.  Each sex and all ages are represented among the hawkers.  There is no holding back in their musical cadences.  As soon as the sliding door opens, or before through the windows, the comestibles are thrust in and the pitch begins.  If no one is interested, simply remaining impassive will, after a few reasonable moments, send the hawker on, with a new hawker stepping in.]  Four and half hours, arrive Sayaxché, right at the ferry.  I hop aboard a two vehicle barge and get across the river to a waiting micro.  An hour and a half to Flores, though deforested ranch land, flat, and grazed by heat-loving Asia style cows.    [ Where I’m at:   Flores, the gentrified little island paradise in Lago Petén de la Itza, connected by a causeway and bridge to Santa Elena and San Benito, which are not at all gentrified and hold the vast bulk of the population.  All three towns are often lumped as Flores.  Flores proper is not large.  Twenty minutes will take around the perimeter, and in another forty you could cover all the cobbled streets and alleys up to the hilltop plaza, with the basketball court and the church.  There are comforts and wealth here, as it is one of the three places in Guatemala that is part of worldwide industrial tourism.  (For its own sake, and as the jumping off place for Tikal.  The other two are colonial Antigua and awesome Lago Atitlán).  Plenty of gringos of all nationalities, middle class Guatemalans, and a prosperous looking staff/population. I spent several days here and at Tikal on my long trip, over Christmas, ‘11 .  Also, FYI, it was the capital of the last independent Maya kingdom, which the Spanish thoroughly destroyed in 1697.  Whatever is left is under the cobbles.  Nice guys.  Flores is still under assault:  The lake level is rising, and has deluged and shut down various shoreline establishments. ]  Tuk tuk from the bus station in Santa Elena to Flores proper.  I schlepped my bag around on an amiable hotel hunt and settled well enough, in a dark, humble place with a second floor walkway/balcony.  I dine under the thatch in a place with the worldwide, warm climate, “laid back” vibe.  The only thing missing was the Bob Marley soundtrack.

Sunday, March 26

Quiet and closed up on a Sunday morning in Flores, but I found a artful little place to be served breakfast and be tended to like a sahib.  Much of this day was given over to figuring out how to figure out the logistics of getting a ticket for Tikal National Park, transport thereto, paying for a campsite, all of which has to be somehow prearranged, with the guidebooks outdated and conflicting, and pointing me in the direction of red herrings.  But at length it all washed out with the aide of an English speaking tour agent who set me up with transport in the morning.  Tuk tuk to the Santa Elena bus station, just to reconnoiter for the future, and to sit down at a street side comedor, to be attended to not at all like a sahib.  Plastic tables under an awning, chicken sizzling on the grill, with a useful kid fanning off the flies.  I walk back the main drag of scruffy Santa Elena and pause for awhile down a side street while the kids took turns going after a dinosaur piñata.  The kids were given a timed chance in order of size.  After a few cycles from the big kids back down to the smallest, the drama was starting to wear.  That piñata was pretty tough.  After the birthday girl, a very little girl, was given a last chance, the biggest kid was called upon to get this thing over, with relief and joy all around.  Over the causeway, the waves rippling the lake, lovers of evening civility were at large.  I occupy the hilltop plaza from which the island of Flores radiates, to take in the breeze off the lake, the saintly moaning from the church, the thumps of the basketballs, and the screams of the birds.  When I realized the birds were shitting on me, in discreet quantities, but still, I thought I’d call it a day.  Further evening breezes after a hot sunny day on the alley-side, outside walkway of my hotel, with a cold Gallo.

                                                                 Flores,    3/26

The Roars of the Howlers

Monday, March 27

Alright, this breakfast setting is compelling, and deserves a mention:  Cool Beans, Flores, under thatch and an arboreal canopy, sloping down to the rippling lakeshore, from which breathes a most refreshing zephyr.  Screeching birds in the branches place your breakfast in life affirming danger.  Eggs, beans, plantains, and tortillas. At ten, I’m added to a van of tourists, for the two hours to Tikal National Park.  I got my uncertainties about the campground sorted out with Noe, the caretaker.  Bag under lock and key, water obtained and stowed, park facilities checked out, necessaries on back, I set out at 1:30 for Temple VI, on a peripheral path, waiting to save the crowded core of the park for later.  But my time was not to be used athletically, as I got seriously, foot draggingly pooped.  I’ve been sick since Nebaj.  At first, with watery snot, I thought it an allergy, which I’ve certainly had in the tropics before.  But the snot is now thickened, and my lungs are heavy.  I had no appetite, even for water, and though I know better, l was dehydrated.  So I paused a good hour and a half at a bit of Maya rubble in view of Temple VI (back side of which is heavily inscribed, though it’s hard to make anything out).  I took my time infusing water, till I finally produced a little amber, and at last ran clear.  No humans came along, though the howler monkeys passed through from time to time, roaring, as well as the swinging spider monkeys. (The howler monkeys are seriously misnamed.  They don’t howl, they roar, stupendously, with aid of their throat bag resonator).  Semi-recovered , I swung through the Grand Plaza, downtown Tikal, where the architecture is grandest and the crowds grand in proportion. Temples I and II face each other here.  Temple I was built as the tomb of the great king Hasaw Chan K’awil.  Those interested in the loves of the royals should know that Temple II was built on his orders for his beloved wife Lady Twelve Macaw. Back to the campground, where Noe had set me up with a hammock and bug net under one of the thatch shelters.  Cold shower under the pipe, a little walk for southern stars and creatures sounds, and the sleep of recovery.

Tuesday, March 28

Eggs, beans, and tortillas at one of the comedors, among a gaggle of languages.  Now for a more thorough survey of tourist accessible Tikal.  I covered the northern periphery, with its scattered Maya structures.  Part of this path follows a causeway, part of a huge network the Maya built to better live in a swampy environment.  The platforms and edifices lie in sublime repose in this less spectacular section of the park.  No humans, but plenty of howler monkeys, a whole passel of spider monkey moms in motion with their babies on their backs, a few of the colorful turkeys, and a menaced/menacing snake rattling his tail and erecting his vertical head and back of the neck expansion feature.  Also, an enormous work crew of ants, leaf bearers crossing the path to the left, and unburdened ants going back to the right for more.  Rather like how all these human architectural marvels were erected.  Wildlife gives way to human life as I wind my way into the more charismatic core of the park.  A visit to the great Temple IV, which I climbed in ‘11, and climbed again.  I pretty much covered all the trails, and of course revisited the Grand Plaza on my way out.  For further  information on the achievements of the classical era Tikal Maya, consult the Wikipedia article.  Back to pick up my bag from Noe.  I then learned to my surprise that I had missed my “4:30” bus to Uaxactún.  The communications difficulties that led to this catastrophe were more cultural than linguistic.  I’ll take the blame, because I can’t not do that, but I’ll grant a large assist to my greatest helper.  But it transpired that, while 4:30 means something earlier that 3:45, one daily connection to Uaxactún actually means two, so I was saved from a real plan wreckage.  (There’s a giant essay behind all this, which I spare you, and me).  I got to Uaxactún after dark, in a micro with a few seńoras with kids, a lot of cargo, and a pause while the driver went after a treefall across the road with a machete.  The driver parks the micro next to the comedor for the night and gestures me yonder to Posada el Chiclero.  I was groping, there was no sign of course, but after two more inquiries, I’m through a gate to meet amiable Antonio, who acquaints me with his lodging.  A quick walk out and back to a tienda to lay in some water.  I found a tub among the clutter in the compound to get the laundry done and dripping.  Cold water shower by flashlight.  Rroqui the dog noses into my affairs.

Wednesday, March 29

Through the gate first thing in the morning for a quick look in the daylight at where I’ve landed, accompanied by Rroqui.  [ Where I’m at:  Uaxactún, a village of 400, at the end of the road.  It was built around an airstrip that supplied the early twentieth century archeologists who commenced digging up the ancient Maya city of the same name.  When the road was built from Flores, people arrived to exploit forest products, particularly chicle, to supply the world chewing gum market.  The  airstrip now given over to horses, pigs, and soccer balls.  I suspect that Uaxactún thus has the largest public square of any town of its size on the planet. ]  Back through the gate with Rroqui.  [ Where I’m staying:  Posada el Chiclero.  A block of three concrete pens, under a common thatched roof.  My pen has two old, creaky, feel-the-springs beds.  A similar block of seven is in a state of demolition.  A block of cold water baños, sinks outside.  A kitchen building with a dining space.  Furnished, so to speak, with Spartan rigor.  All this to my liking, and they surely should charge me a few more bucks than six and a half.]  Antonio makes me feel at home in his dining area, as elderly mama rustles me up a fine desayuno tipico.  I make an excursion through the fringes of the village to the west of the airstrip, up to a group of impressive ruins, including a multi-chambered palace, and a ball court.  (Parallel sloping sides for the bounce.  Hips and elbows allowed.  The target rings at each end long gone.  Losers beware:  a priest will be coming for your heart with a flint knife.)  Later, I survey the exposed and curated ruins to the east of the village, including a platform with worn but fearsome jaguar faces.  From the summit of this platform, one faces three structures lined up with the sunrise point for each solstice and the equinoxes.  I made efforts to find various of the other groups of structures on the map, but I think they had not been particularly exposed or curated.  But this whole area was once a large city, indeed a rival of Tikal, though Tikal gobbled them up early in its expansion.  There are plenty of steep, symmetrical hillocks about, with obvious Maya structures beneath the thousand year loam, and trees growing out of them.  People’s yards adjoin them, and their chickens peck about quite indifferent to their cultural significance.  Off to recon the several forest tracks leading out of town on the map, and confirmed by slight creases in the canopy on Google Earth.  The prospect of walking up jungle paths was part of what drew me here.  This did not quite pan out the way I thought it might, as I made my probes throughout the day, but that’s fine.  My ambitions are willingly moderated.  My energy is still subdued, and the ruins and tranquillity of this very friendly little outpost at the end of the road is suiting me fine.  Appetite also at a low ebb, this is the third day in a row of a big breakfast as the sole sustenance of the day.  But I have at last found a non-evangelical tienda that provided me with a beer.  About these evangelicals:  every day is the sabbath with them.  As I’ve noticed elsewhere in the country, they’re meeting all the time, for sermon, song, and fellowship.  Tonight, as I sit out under the thatch at the Chiclero with that beer, they are really raising the corrugated metal roof a few doors down.  At length, they retire and give way to several more distant sources of pop music from elsewhere in the village.  At last the humans are in bed, and the howler monkeys assert themselves off in the distance.  I take a walk in the dark up to the temple to the east to confirm with the low slung North Star that everything is indeed lined up.  The howlers came in close in tonight.

Thursday, March 30

Mama not present, Antonio at work in his compound, we agreed that I’d have breakfast at the comedor.  This was a day of mere puttering around town and it’s peripheries.  Rroqui would find me and bound in to join me from time to time.  I revisited the ruins, and made a few efforts again to find the elusive ones.  (No visitors besides me today.  Yesterday just a group of students with a guide.)  For some hours I threaded through motorcycle tracks in the jungle keeping an eye and ear out for spider monkeys, and encountered a few.  (No traffic today, but yesterday men were rolling by with bundles of some stiff leaf, which I believe are exported to the Dutch, who value them for floral arrangements.)  I dined in the eve in the comedor, which I perceive to be something of a den of vice, at least in contrast to the heavenly thunder shed next door, as the men were drinking beer, and their outbursts of spirit were directed at each other, not unto the Lord.  Early in the night, I walk up to the westward set of ruins, hoping to close the gap with some loquacious howlers.  I set off some village dogs, fair enough, through whose domains I was interloping, but these fanatical canines would not claim success, and kept each other yapping long after I was long gone.  Rather than disturb the whole town again, I aimed for the alternative way back down.  This got me thoroughly turned around up there in the trees and open spaces and ruins and moonbeams.  At last I see the “sendero” sign I was looking for, and made my way down into town.   A little lost, a little found, like so many times before.  I set off only a few vigilant but reasonable dogs on my way back to my lodging.  Howlers in the wee hours.

Friday, March 31

Neria, Antonio’s wife, was now present, and kindly offered me a cup of allspice and lemon as a curative for my cough.  She also also advised against drinking anything cold.  I packed up, showered my thanks, stepped through the gate, stepped through the fowls whose hangout is the grounds of the evangelical meeting house, and stepped into the 7:00 micro.  Through Tikal.  Arrive Santa Elena. Tuk tuk to Flores.  A very lingering breakfast at Cool Beans, awaiting a decent hour to approach a promising hotel.  It was indeed an improvement.  It’s well lit, I have a private balcony with a comfortable chair, and access to the rooftop terrace and tremendous views.  The rest of this day devoted to puttering around Flores, the plaza, the alleyways, with naps, etc in my hotel.  The nightspots down on the lakeshore really got thumping in the later evening.  The music is ugly and stupid, but hey, it’s the way of the world.

Saturday, April 1

Nothing but elbow room today.  I swirl around touristic, undemanding, weirdly genteel Flores, and slouch on my balcony.  My only expedition was an afternoon voyage to San Miguel, a sleepy little stretch of a lakeshore town across a bit of water from Flores.  Ten quetzals for the boat ride, just like a tuk tuk.  There’s a lookout point atop the hill here, which is to say, atop the Maya ruins atop the hill.  There was a huge array of inscrutable excavations in progress, roped off and under tarps.  And a nice view to the northeast over the largest stretch of Lago Petén Itza.   Iguanas scuttle up the trees like squirrels.  In due course, I am motored in the longboat back over to Flores.  Dined on the fish for my splash-out dinner of the trip, sitting at a counter overlooking the flooded shoreline promenade of Flores at the lights of San Miguel over the ripples.  In motion in the morn.

                                                                                     Flores,   4/1

The Elusive Quetzal

Sunday, April 2

Follow the links:  Tuk tuk over the causeway to the bus station in Santa Elena.  Minibus to the ferry crossing at Sayaxché.  Longboat across the Rio de la Pasión.  Micro for Cobán, with a handoff to another micro somewhere along the way, this second one packing into a real torture chamber.  I keep an eye and ear peeled at the Cobán bus station for a micro to Salamá, thinking this would be the best way to get dropped off at my on-the-highway hotel.  But when I saw directos for Purulhá, the light dawned, and with the friendly touts intervening, I engaged them for advice.  So I took their minibus to the end of the line at Purulhá, and was dropped off where tuk tuks would pass to complete the three miles to my out-of-town hotel.  Arrive Ranchitos del Quetzal, where my travel fast is broken as I am regaled with some remarkable quesadillas.  [ Where I’m at:  A little lodging consisting of four double rooms and a more expensive glass walled nature hut off in its own grove.  They have a nice open air restaurant and maintain their own lengthy nature trail and a menagerie of orchids.   There have been improvements.  When I was here in ‘05, it was a couple of very moldy shacks with an erratic power supply.  But the meal that had emerged out of the sooty little kitchen cave was one to remember.  This lodging is within sight of the entrance to the Biotopo del Quetzal, a cloud forest preserve devoted to the quetzal, and nature generally]. 

Monday, April 3

First steps of the day were  up the lodging’s nature trail to get a taste of the forest.  Back for breakfast, then a few stone throws down the highway to the Biotopo for a day on its trails.  They’re not very lengthy, only three and a half miles, but very steep, and I meant to take my time at it.  I covered the outer loop a second time in reverse.  The forest is mature, with some enormous trees, and, even to my untutored eye, a great variety of plants.  Plants growing on trees, which is a cloud forest thing.  Sunny day, though the long vistas were bemisted with the cloud that never really lifts in these environs.  Quite a few Guatemalans out on family outings.  I kept an ear out for the downward slurring note of the quetzal (which I’ve heard in Panama), but I hardly expected to see one. In my travels I have witnessed incredible feats by skilled wildlife spotters.  I am not a skilled wildlife spotter.  But I’m always up for a walk in the woods.  [About that quetzal:  truly the national bird.  Its image is everywhere.  There’s all sorts of lore surrounding it.  It’s lent its name to the currency and to the nation’s second city, Quetzaltenango.  It’s on the flag, and it’s resplendent plumage has adorned the kings and deities of yore.].  Back to my lodging to dine, and have a turn up the other end of their forest trail.  Three dimensions of lavish greenery.

Tuesday, April 4

A quetzal has been spotted.  One of my fellow guests had seen one right in the parking lot.  And there she was, captured on his phone.  So it can happen.  (A female, alas, whose resplendence is all internal).  After eggs, beans, and tortillas, I schlep my bag out on the highway for the bus stop.  I am irked to see that someone had parked a big truck right next to it.  So rather than waiting in the shade of a shelter for what may come along at some indefinite time, I’d have to stand out in the road in the sun so that I could see and be seen by buses rounding the bend.  But Lady Luck is nothing if not even handed.  I don’t think I waited more than ten minutes before a “Monja Blanca” appeared.  (Monja Blanca has a distinctive, recognizable face, run minis and full sized pullmans, and run hourlies on this route.  I intended to decline any random hungry micros and wait for a Monja Blanca, having reason to think I’d end up at the big, well connected bus terminal in the the north of Guatemala City, rather at the far flung ghetto offices of the some smaller micro company).  And so I am swept up, by a mini, not a pullman as I had fondly hoped.  This mini was packed in perfect sardine order, with no standers or twisters.  I was obliged for a stretch to share the young ayudante’s space, standing in the open side doorway and looming over these poor people like a vulture.  But at length, the ayudante wedged me in among the other passengers.  The elevation sinks, the forest thins, and the heat rises. Arrive Guatemala City, not at the big bus station of the north, but, it transpired, Monja Blanca’s own lair.  But this was not far from the center, as I surmised.  I took a taxi to the plaza, always my point of orientation, and walked to my hotel to drop my bag and refresh.  Back to the plaza, whose broad expanse is now built up with cooking shelters for the week’s festivities.  I have a look inside the cathedral, and nod to the national palace, upon whose steps many a hopeful coup was launched.  To the comedores of the very cool Mercado for a hearty lunch of caldo de pata (my later research confirms that that was indeed a chunk of a pig’s foot in the broth, as well as other waste-not parts).  Holy Week is underway in Guate.  Men are sporting the purple gowns and head coverings that will be part of the evening processions.  People are on their knees in the streets working the colored sawdust art.  (This is done all over Latin America.  I’m not sure if it’s done in Spain).  In the eve, I attended a procession in a neighborhood north of the plaza.  Banner bearers lead, and kids swinging censers, and functionaries with long tridents to lift the utility lines out of the way of what it’s to follow.   Then come the men, bearing the float, if you can call it that, with the sacred image of Christ bearing his cross.  The women followed, packed tight, dressed in white, shuffling forward with their eyes closed, bearing a forlorn Virgin and a number of saints on their shoulders.  (The crutch-like pole they tap along with with their free hand doubles as a rest prop when they pause the float.). Brass and percussion follow up.  This is all very solemn , of course, but not at the expense of a festive atmosphere, with all sorts of street food and confections and whatnot.

Wednesday, April 5

A day of being in Guatemala City.  A breakfast of eggs, beans and tortillas in the bowels of the mercado.  Further adventures in sustenance for the rest of the day.  Back and forth to a laundry.  A visit to the sweetly kitschy giant relief map/model of the nation in a neighborhood to the north, with viewing platforms set up for a bird’s eye view of the spiky terrain.  Quite a bit of sitting in the shade in Parque San Sebastián.  I also did some “shopping” in the Mercado, with its many of millions of discreet objects for sale.  The idea that shopping would ever result in a purchase is foreign to my soul, but this time I slipped, and came away with a bit of textile for which I have a purpose in mind.  The people of Guatemala City are seriously wound up for Holy Week.  The sawdust artists are on their knees, with their stencils and straightedges.  Bleachers have been assembled around the plaza.  At dusk they are packed, and the streets around the plaza thronged.  The sacred images advance, to the blast of the brass and the beat of the drum.  There’s not a lot actually filling the time in a procession, which makes this mass engagement so refreshing.  And apart from the procession, Avenida Sexta is similarly festive and lively.  Everybody’s out and about.

Thursday, April 6

And so to the airport in the morn.  This country is pretty cool, and I leave for the third time with a sense of vicarious patriotism.  I’m up for a grueling night in Atlanta’s airport, and arrival back in Podunk Good Friday morning.  Hasta Luego, Guatemala.

                                     La Aurora International Airport, Guatemala City,   - 4/6


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