Thursday, December 20, 2012

Flaming Pink

Nearly 30,000 flamingos make their home in the shallow, murky waters of the Yucatan Peninsula’s northern coast. Thanks to the salty water of the estuaries and mangrove forests, the water of the area makes a hospitable environment for tiny organisms and algae. It’s a regular flamingo feasting ground, the carotene-rich algae making the flamingos some of the pinkest in the world.

We were lucky enough to visit the Yucatan’s Celestún Biosphere Reserve, the winter habitat of these magnificent, bizarre creatures. Vibrantly-colored, around five feet tall, and all gangly limbs and massive beak, flamingos are some of the strangest, most unique birds on the planet, bar none.

When they stretch to full height, in squawking distress about the nearness of boats or humans, it is easy to see how their shape could lead to their being used as disgruntled croquet mallets in the Queen of Hearts’ court. However, the fear and upset cause to non-fictitious flamingos by human presence has a more immediate danger; in such a delicate ecosystem, any disturbance could cause the flocks to abandon their feeding and nesting grounds, leaving these mostly non-migratory birds to seek asylum elsewhere on the peninsula.

Seeing them by the hundreds, or possibly thousands, is a breathtakingly beautiful experience. They paint the horizon in vibrant magenta patches as they spend their days feeding in the estuary bed, one-legged, necks swiveling this way and that, massive evolutionarily-designed beaks filtering water ceaselessly. There is nothing quite so amazing as seeing magnificent creatures in their natural habitat.

Monday, December 17, 2012


Cañon del Sumidero, in the Mexican state of Chiapas, makes for a lovely day trip. Seen either from above via scenic lookout points, or below on the river snaking along the canyon floor, the canyon is roughly a kilometer deep in places.

Rock walls tower overhead, striped with striations telltale of age, cacti springing forth from any small foothold. Green waters lazily slip through the canyon’s gaping throat making its way downriver, passing from brutal sun to chilling shade. Hawks circle overhead; vultures hobble on rocky shores; ducks float and dive; herons stand tall and erect.

The canyon is reminiscent of the American Southwest, a calling card from home, bringing forth a vague nostalgia. Only nowhere in Colorado or New Mexico do crocodiles lounge on the riverbanks. Nor do monkeys swing in our trees, luxuriously out of reach. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Ruins Among the Ranches

After the manicured lawns, stay-on-the-path attitude, and intrusive presence of handicraft vendors at the ruins of Palenque, not to mention the influx of dreaded, beaded new age hippies from the nearby Rainbow Gathering, Toniná’s ruins were a surprising, but welcome, change.

A hoof-beaten path carried us to the ruins, a high Mexican sun beating down on our shoulders. Perched high atop a hill overlooking ranches and farms, Toniná boasts neither the jungle setting nor the vast throngs of tourists of many neighboring Mayan sites. Had it not been a Sunday, I suspect we would have had the place to ourselves, as the only other tourists present were Mexican. 

Stacked, tier by tier, terrace on top of terrace, the ruins climb up rather than spreading out into multiple buildings and clusters. So upward we went, sometimes on steps jagged, narrow, and uneven. Higher and higher, steep and slow. 

Between the ruins and its museum, a large number of surprisingly intact sculptures and friezes were on display, a great many showing the war-hungry inhabitants decapitating their enemies. It is amazing to see the detail that can remain after so many centuries, stories told in stone, cut and chiseled remnants of an entire culture. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Masquerading Cousins

With monikers including Brazilian aardvarks, tejónes, Panamanian gatosolos, hog-nosed coons, pizotes, coatimundi, crackoons, snookum bears (easily my favorite), and coatis, the raccoon’s Mexican cousin seems to travel with many forms of id.

Out and about day and night, these masked critters spend daylight hours digging for treasure (that is, anything edible), sleeping in trees in the cover of night. Traveling with plenty of snookum bear friends (seriously, it’s a fantastic name), their menu is extensive, their tastes diverse, and their general aura adorable.

With its jaunty striped tail and bizarrely dexterous nose, the coati squeaks, grunts, and burrows its way right into your heart. When it’s not rifling through your garbage.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Stone, Moss, and Vines

Set deep in northern Guatemala’s jungle, Tikal is a gem in the crown that is Central America’s Mayan ruins. With its numerous excavated sites, the complex is a winding affair, worthy of the nine hours we spent roaming and exploring.

Once one of the more important cities of the ancient Mayan world, the now-crumbling walls of Tikal reach back into time, brushing against 400 BCE. It is overwhelming to think about time as being such a vast expanse, to stand next to massive structures, moss-covered tributes to human achievement, and imagine how long they stood silent, waiting to whisper their secrets of another time and place.

Throughout the unearthed complex, many structures still await their exhumation, pyramid-shaped hills that could be nothing but pyramids, temples. Rectangular stones poke through roots and vines here and there, offering but a sample of what the jungle has secreted away.

It is perplexing that creations of such enormity, once abandoned during the Mayan Empire’s decline, could be relegated to relative obscurity. A once-towering city swallowed by fauna, disappearing into the jungle, destined to spend centuries as a thing of myth, of local lore. How do we lose a whole city of such magnitude?

Tikal is at once a feat epitomizing the amazing things of which humans are capable of creating, and an example the incredible force with which nature can swallow those creations whole, bit by bit, until we hardly remember they existed at all.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Just Add Water

Of incredible and awe-inspiring natural beauty, Guatemala has its fair share. The views and mountainscapes are second to none; so much so that at one point in our travels northward, we took five local buses in one day, including four hours bouncing down a dirt road, just to take the scenic route. It is vast and grand and, at times, overwhelming.

On the smaller scale, central Guatemala has some impressive natural formations. Among these are a number of cave and river systems of exhaustive beauty.

Among these natural phenomena, Semuc Champey wears the crown. Pools of varying sizes and shades of turquoise (who knew it had more than one shade?) send river water spilling from tier to tier, as the primary river takes an underground detour.

Another marvel of the shapes nature creates, a nearby cave system sprawls through Guatemala’s mountainous Alta Verapaz region. Serving as sacred sites for past and present Mayans, the caves’ stalactite and stalagmite residents sprout from floor and ceiling.

It is truly amazing the spectrum of creations that arises when Mother Nature has the help of water, minerals, and time.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Old World Ways

Despite years of Spanish influence followed by the rapid changes of modernization, Guatemala’s indigenous population has maintained a strong grip on their traditions. Ever-present in their vibrant choice of clothes, their food, medicine, and religious practices are no less strong. However, when it comes to religion, there is a definite blending of two strong cultures: Catholic and Mayan.

During our stay in the Highland town of Quetzaltenango (commonly known by its Mayan tag, Xela), we were lucky enough to make a day trip to the tiny hillside town of San Andrés Xecul. More fortunate still, we happened to arrive on the day of the town festival, where a marketplace, a fair, and a massive religious buffet swirled together riotously.

It is common in Latin American countries for each city, no matter how small, to have an annual festival, typically lasting a day or two and celebrating the city’s patron saint. San Andrés Xecul is no different on these counts, its patron saint being Saint Andrew the Apostle, whose feast day is November 30th.

San Andrés Xecul is known primarily for its church, a multicolored Mayan-Catholic-Christian affair, covered in vivid depictions of saints, animals, and agricultural motifs on a bright yellow façade. Inside, neon lights and painted Jesus statues abound. In a country (and faith) of silent, stony cathedral faces with their solemn images, this church is as loud and flashy as they come.

Multihued flags waved over the square in front of their yellow church, a crowd gathered to watch traditional masked dancers. Assorted animals mingled with what we can only assume are conquistadors as they prance about to the music pouring over the audience. Without knowing the meaning of the dance, or possessing adequate Spanish skills to ask, the display was perplexing and delightful.

Corn basked in rooftop sun. Thread of red and blue, green and black, swayed in the breeze, drying, waiting to be crafted into blankets and cloth. Meats and baked goods tempted passersby, rich and sweet. Trinkets and toys waited to be won at carnival games. Old women, skin wrinkled from years of sun, displayed big gummy grins full of gaps. Babies, strapped to the backs of their mothers, napped in the midday heat, happy in their personal hammocks.

And we, as lone tourists, tried to take it all in – the colors, the cacophony, the barrage of scents and sights – all the wonders of Mayan culture colliding with the modern and holding its ground, sharing the limelight.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Contrasting Colors

Though teeming with tourists, Antigua is one of Guatemala’s more picturesque towns. Once a grand capital of Spanish colonialism in Central America, today Antigua’s restored glory mostly benefits the tourism sector and the tourists it serves.

That being said, it is a wonderful place to while away a day or two, and hunker down under a blanket or two at night. Ringed with volcanoes, crisscrossed with cobblestone streets, and smattered with churches and cathedrals, Antigua is brimming with photo opportunities and steeped in history.

Massive ruins of once great churches destroyed by earthquakes punctuate Antigua, a glimpse into the Spaniards’ reasoning behind abandoning the city and moving the capital to modern-day Guatemala City. Ruins rest alongside newer cathedrals, past and present hand in hand.

Throughout the city, local indigenous Mayans in native dress, colorful and hand-woven, pedal goods to tourists. Baskets effortlessly balanced atop their heads, they offer everything from fruit to jewelry, stopping here and there in the shade to rest.

And, as in many towns across the world, the real commerce takes place not in stores, shops, or through street vendors, but in the local market. A sweaty, hectic labyrinth, aisles of the market weave and intersect, leading one onward. From shoes, live chickens, and fake flowers to shampoo, produce, or raw meat, all necessities are available at a price. Hawkers call out their wares, voices mingling repetitive calls like so many birds.

The market sits in stark contrast to Antigua’s artesian market, with its wide, clean aisles of stall upon stall of similar goods. The artesian market is a place of tranquility, a sudden silence, shut off from the chaos of the market next door. Souvenirs and trinkets in vibrant hues are pushed at tourists, t-shirts and purses, hammocks and toys.

It is this that strikes me most about Antigua: its contradictory natures coexisting side by side. It is Burger King in a colonial-style building, an ancient church facade in front of a modern structure. The old and the new mingle. The genuine and the artificial mix. In Antigua, the modern dress and the indigenous garb walk down the same streets, harmonizing beautifully. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Chicken Bus

Have you ever wondered what happens to those big yellow school buses once they’re replaced with newer models? I didn’t think so. Neither have I.

Once retired, school buses are (apparently) sent down to Central America, where they live out the rest of their days as local public transportation. After being given a flashy new paint job and covered in various Spanish versions of ‘I heart Jesus’. Obviously.

The old Bluebird buses, nicknamed chicken buses for the sheer multitude and variety of things that fill aisles and overhead racks (I hear that crates of chickens are common, but have only seen chickens transported in squirming, noisy bags), often still have the rules to keep school children in line posted up front. It is a bit strange to look around at the familiar interior of a school bus, such a time lurch, and have it be so out of place in another country. And so full of its citizens.

And I mean full. Seats originally designed to hold two children are packed with three grown adults, and typically a child or two, while others stand in the aisle. Personal space is not a concept that seems to exist here. Children sprawl into your lap, babies drool on your arm, grown men fall asleep on your shoulder, all while the bus careens through mountain passes.

We have come to love the chicken bus. Not only does it cost far less than taking the nicer tourist buses, it also…okay, that might be its main draw. Yep, we love the price.

In fact, we love it so much, we took a chicken bus from Nicaragua to Guatemala.  Three borders, four countries, and seventeen hours. But to be fair, it was supposed to be over 25 hours; they drive their buses a bit differently down here. Even with only two people per seat, that is still a long time on a school bus. Especially when you’re in the back and cargo -- including a wheelchair, a walker, and a bedframe -- fills the aisle to the ceiling.

Despite the lack of comfort and space, there always seems to be a general sense of accommodation, courtesy, and good humor. Even as the only gringos (we have yet to see any other foreigners on a chicken bus), we receive helping hands and big toothy grins all the way to our destination. No matter how many buses it takes us to get there. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

Island for Sale

Just outside of Granada, on the northwest side of Lago Cocibolca, lie hundreds of fun-sized islands. Las Isletas, over 350 of them, are the result of a massive explosion over 10,000 years ago, which gave nearby Volcán Mombocho its rather haggard silhouette.

Touring the isletas the cheap and dirty way, we paid less than half the price of what the tour companies were asking. What we got was a ride in a motorboat from a teenage kid who just pointed out the obvious. And it was a lovely way to pass an hour.

Massive tropical trees sprouted from the diminutive islands, dipping their branches out over the lake. Birds dipped and dived, skimming the surface of the water. Awkward, gangly herons stalked about, trying to look elegant in white. Water lilies stretched their open faces toward the midday sun. Monkeys vaulted through tree branches.

Once one of Nicaragua’s poorest neighborhoods, the millionaires have started to move in, mansions popping up here and there to supplant the patched together houses with weatherworn paint. Hammocks and laundry hung about in the sun, as a number of the islands are inhabited.

And everywhere, islands presented themselves as a real estate option, just waiting for their new resident to boat by and fall in love. Maybe one of these days (years) we’ll have the disposable income to just choose an island, throw up a hammock and some Swiss Family Robinson–style dwelling, and spend our days, drink in hand, on our own private island. One of these days.